I was awoken in the early hours, just as dawn was breaking, by my husband – trying to punch me in the face! No, I’m not a battered wife: he’s just a very vivid dreamer. On occasions, he has dreamt that he’s a wolf, or is being pursued through the streets with a crowd following him. This time, apparently, he was trying to ward off a street seller who was persuading him forcibly to buy a fizzy drink. I take heart that my strictures about junk food have found root in his subconscious!
It’s surprising that we get any sleep at all at this time of year, what with the dog demanding to be let out at all hours so that he can eat grass or bark at hedgehogs and the cat, who is small but fierce, keening like a banshee below the bedroom window to defend his territory from the large and thuggish tom-cat next door. This morning, as my husband and I lay awake in the dawn listening to these various noises, we heard the (temporarily) local cuckoo.
“There’s the cuckoo,” he said, “unless it’s Fred again.”
I was trying to get back to sleep, but my ears pricked up.
“What do you mean, unless it’s Fred again?”
“Didn’t I tell you? Fred impersonates birds really well. He has a whole range in his repertoire. He does a really good cuckoo. He said that a cuckoo came right up to his house the other day, before it realised that it was only a human and flew off again.”
I considered. I’ve been writing enthusiastically about hearing the cuckoos for weeks now. Since Fred has seen at least one of them, and it’s unlikely that in fact it was he out there before 5 a.m. today, it can’t always have been his impersonations that I’ve heard. Nevertheless, if you should happen to look over my recent cuckoo posts again, I feel duty bound to warn you that all the cuckoo noises I’ve recorded may not have emanated from cuckoos. Instead, a burly Yorkshireman named Fred may have been responsible.
Nothing else in my day today matched its surreal beginning! Perhaps I’m going cuckoo!
I tend not to write down dates of birthdays, wedding anniversaries etc., but I think I’m quite good at remembering them – although I have just had to ask one of my friends the date on which her daughter was born. One date that I never forget each year, however, is a fictional one: Bloomsday. As all James Joyce aficionados will know, it is today, June 16th. It was on this date in 1904 that Leopold Bloom made his day-long perambulations around Dublin and, by describing it in Ulysses, first published in Paris in 1922, Joyce captured the history, customs, beliefs and prejudices, not only of his own country, but of the whole of European culture. His masterstroke was to present it from the viewpoint of the perennial outsider, a modern version of the Wandering Jew. A life in the day, indeed! There was a personal irony in the choice of date, too, as it was on this day that Joyce’s liaison with Nora Barnacle, who was to become his long-suffering common law wife and eventually his legal wife, began.
Picking up my tattered Penguin edition of the book, I resolve to read it again very soon. Because of the range and depth of the literary styles that it covers, and Joyce’s wonderful manipulation of language, it is a complete writer’s handbook in itself. It needs no gloss or laboriously explained sets of rules – although the book can be read at many levels and is amazingly erudite. I don’t usually write in books, but I see that against one passage my younger and more studious self has written ‘Traherne: Centuries of Meditation. 3rd Century’. It’s impossible for anyone else to write like Joyce, but admiring and appreciating his work certainly makes you think about how to use language.
It was Joyce who first taught me the magic of lists. The ones that he creates appear to be off-the-cuff, but I’m sure their sparkling apparent spontaneity cost him many hours of effort. Take this one, for example, which is only a third of one in a series that appears towards the end of the book to sum up Bloom’s condition: Mendicancy: that of the fraudulent bankrupt with negligible assets paying 1s 4d in the £, sandwichman, distributor of throwaways, nocturnal vagrant, insinuating sycophant, maimed sailor, blind stripling, superannuated bailiff’s man, marfeast, lickplate, spoilsport, pickthank, eccentric public laughing stock seated on bench of public park under discarded perforated umbrella. It was through Joyce’s work also that I came to realise the importance of evoking all of the senses, not just the visual: his description of Leopold Bloom’s lunchtime cheese sandwich is a classic still to be surpassed, in my experience. Then there is his satirical juxtaposition of the sacrosanct (and, he indicates, probably humbug) with the absurd: And they beheld Him, even Him, ben Bloom Elijah, amid clouds of angels ascend to the glory of the brightness at an angle of fortyfive degrees over Donohoe’s in Little Green Street like a shot off a shovel. Like avid readers both before and after him, Joyce read everything: cereal packets, handbills, magazines and potboilers as well as more European literature than almost anyone else could cram into a lifetime. Unlike other learned writers, however, he didn’t make judgments about the ‘quality’ of what he read. The Nausicaa episode (Chapter 13 of Ulysses) is not only a brilliant pastiche of the style of writing of women’s magazines of the time, but also reveals Joyce’s sneaking admiration for a genre that could get away with so much hyperbole. Gerty MacDowell, its naïve and rather tragic heroine, is a fine portrait of a dreamy young woman whose head is filled with romantic notions of how she can shape her life. Although she is portrayed only once, in a tiny snapshot of time, Joyce conveys to the reader through this medium of ‘magazinese’ that her life will be much bleaker than she supposes. Today’s ‘filmstar for a day’ brides are her modern equivalents.
It’s difficult to say what I like best about Ulysses, but, if pushed, I’d say that it’s the portrait of Molly Bloom. Hers is a timeless portrait of almost everything that it has meant to be a woman through the ages: she is a sensuous earth mother, fascinating femme fatale, sexy but not a whore, capable of great sympathy but also self-centred, perceptive, ‘genteel’ and coarse. She belongs to a long tradition of female characters that stretches back in time, even beyond Cleopatra, to Homer’s sorceress Scylla. Molly lives through her senses; the one attribute that she doesn’t possess is intelligence of the formal, schooled kind. In this, she is the antithesis of Leopold, who thinks about everything, applies his knowledge to everything, and therefore, like Hamlet, is unable to act. Apparently she was modelled at least in part on Nora Barnacle. Some feminist readers have found her portrayal insulting to women and, mixing life with fiction again for a moment, it’s true that Joyce held some curious views about the female sex. But Molly is above all the great force for the positive in the novel. It is she who has the very last word. It is, simply, Yes.
The book’s title is pronounced YouLISSease, by the way, not YOUlissease. I was taught this by an Irish professor, who said that I could mispronounce it if I liked, but, if so, I’d never get to grips with Finnegans Wake, which is all about pronunciation. I’ve found this to be true. Although still a difficult work, ‘the Wake’ becomes comprehensible if you read it aloud in a Dublin accent.
Joyce eventually stretched language to the point at which all but his most determined supporters find his work too much of an effort to read. He may perhaps have been a genius on the verge of madness. Nevertheless, what he managed to wrest from language changed the course of fiction writing forever. A much more insignificant James salutes the author – and you all – on Bloomsday 2013!
Today is the official publication date of Almost Love. It is almost midsummer and the sun is shining; the cuckoos are still here, though they’ve changed to cuk-cuk mode now (it’s been a particularly good year for cuckoos in Yorkshire this year). It’s a complete contrast to the day on which In the Family was published, when the leaves had fallen, the shooting season was in full swing and we were heading for the winter solstice. November seemed a good time to publish then, because it was still far enough away from Christmas for the book to feature (as I know it did, and am grateful) on some Christmas wish-lists. June also seems a good time, as I’m hoping that at least a few people might want to take Almost Love on holiday with them.
Some authors talk about their books as if they’re babies. This particular baby, although it’s been born today, is still in the incubator. The books were delivered to Salt and its distributor yesterday, but have yet to be despatched to the shops; this will happen on Monday. Yet I’m not impatient or disappointed that I don’t yet have a copy in my hand; on the contrary, I’m profoundly grateful to both Chris and Jen at Salt and to TJ International Printers of Padstow for pulling out the stops so quickly after MPG Printers went into receivership just as Almost Love was going through the press. Thanks to their Herculean efforts, the delay has been minimal – much slighter than we’d feared. And yesterday’s blog-post attracted so much interest that I feel that it acted as a ‘virtual’ launch. Thank you very much to everyone who read it, spread it or contributed comments.
Thinking again about The English Bookshop and Jan’s explanation of why he chose Almost Love brought home to me the crucial role of Advance Information (AI) sheets in helping authors and publishers to sell their books. AIs have improved tremendously over the years. They started out as Gestetnered sheets. (Does anyone remember Gestetners? They took ages to set up and usually suffered a paper-jam within five minutes; you got ink all over your hands and, if you were unlucky, your clothes. The only good thing about them was the pink correction fluid, which could give you a temporary high if you applied it when standing in a confined space.) These were sometimes almost illegible and contained little except the ISBN, a two-sentence blurb and the publication date. There was no picture of the jacket. However, by no means all publishers used to produce AIs. Those who didn’t often sent out spares of the actual jacket with the date of publication stamped inside. Booksellers therefore never received a complete set of information: you either got an insubstantial blurb with no jacket, or the jacket and not much else.
By contrast, today’s AIs – at least the ones that Salt produces – are works of art. Author and publisher work closely together in order to wrest benefit from every centimetre of the space on a single A4 sheet. They include a fine picture of the jacket and all the information that the bookseller needs, yet can be read in less than a minute. Sometimes several hours are spent on developing an AI.
I thought that you might be interested to see the AI that was used to sell Almost Love into the shops, so I’ve included it here. I hope that you will like it.
A lovely Friday conversation with Jan Smedh, joint proprietor of The English Bookshop in Uppsala, a thriving independent business…
I’m delighted and very proud to discover that Almost Love has been chosen as the British Crime novel of the month by The English Bookshop in Uppsala. I asked Jan Smedh, who, with his business partner Christer, is joint proprietor of the shop, if I could call him. He kindly agreed to talk to me today, although he was busy making final preparations for his absence: he and his wife and three sons are about to leave for a holiday in Greece.
Jan told me that every month he chooses books for his reading groups and his book club. There are three reading groups: one for the Book of the Month, one for classics and (in Stockholm – he and Christer have just opened another shop there) one for children’s books. The book club operates as a subscription service. It has between fifty and sixty members scattered throughout Sweden. They choose the category to which they wish to subscribe and are each month sent a book in that category that Jan has chosen. They do not know in advance what the title will be.
He chooses titles from six categories altogether: the Book of the Month, which is always a literary novel; British Crime, ‘Tough’ Crime, Paranormal, Fantasy and Science Fiction. He tries to introduce a spread of themes and to get a balance between male and female authors and authors from different countries; for example, he has featured Asian authors who write in English. His choices are pretty unerring: his customers always seem to like them.
Jan said that when he read the description of Almost Love, he ‘loved it at once’. (I’m blushing as I write!) He tries to pick books by authors from small publishers that aren’t necessarily well-known, rather than blockbusters. The subject of Almost Love seems to be exactly what his readers are looking for: it has a bit of history, a bit of archaeology, some local background, a good plot and a strong psychological element. He says that his favourite customer is ‘someone who leaves the shop with a book that they didn’t know that they wanted.’ His copies of Almost Love have yet to arrive (there has been a slight delay in the printing, caused by MPG’s having gone into receivership two weeks ago), but they should reach the shop next Monday, so he didn’t know until I told him that there is also a Scandinavian element to the plot. He was delighted about this.
Jan learned about Almost Love from a Scottish publishers’ rep who carries titles from several independent publishers. His name is Stuart Siddall. I had not heard of him before, but I shall certainly get in touch with him now and I should like to take this opportunity to thank him.
I asked Jan about the inspiration for The English Bookshop. He said that he and Christer came up with the idea for it in 1995. They received no financial backing; they raised all the money themselves. Christer was already working in the bookselling industry (largely in the academic sector), so he had the contacts with UK publishing companies, who were therefore prepared to set up accounts for the new venture. It would not have been possible without their support. Jan’s own background is in communications and the business has benefited a great deal from this. It is he who designs the graphics for the website. He is prolific on the social networks and the shop has very active Facebook and Twitter accounts. He says that the key thing with social networking is to be consistent. He has worked hard to build up a loyal customer following and he knows he must maintain their interest by continually being there for them. His own love of books goes back to his childhood. He also speaks impeccable English: he explained that he has lived in Cork and has also visited the UK (he would like to see much more of it) and the USA.
95% of The English Bookshop’s customers are Swedish, though there is an ex-pat community in Uppsala, which is a university town (Jan describes it as ‘the Oxbridge of Sweden’). Most Swedes read English, and Jan’s customers are getting younger: some twelve-year-olds now buy books in English. Uppsala is also Sweden’s religious centre and the city in which the Monarch is crowned. It is Sweden’s fourth largest city and not huge, but it has the weight of history behind it and is home to many very well-educated people. Jan and Christer made the conscious decision to stay away from university course texts: they wanted their bookshop to provide leisure reading. By this, he doesn’t mean that all the books he sells are ‘light’: his readers like books about many subjects, as well as fiction. British history, books about war and books about psychology are all popular. Sales of non-fiction titles are growing; also crime fiction and children’s titles. The Swedish government has now set up English language schools, which means that parents are looking for books in English for their children. The English Bookshop tries hard to keep abreast of the continually changing interests of the local community and its unique stockholding reflects this. Jan says that ‘other bookshops aren’t doing this any more; there’s often a drab uniformity about what’s available from the big chains.’ Smaller publishers often complain that it’s difficult to get a proper presence in them. This view would certainly resonate with Salt, whose many distinguished authors often struggle to get adequate shelf-space in chain bookshops. It would also be endorsed by the UK’s many excellent independent booksellers, some of whom Jan knows. He has met Jane Streeter, a former President of the Booksellers Association, and is himself a member of the BA, for which he has a high regard.
In the last six years the turnover of The English Bookshop in Uppsala has doubled, enabling it to open the second shop in Stockholm. Jan says that this ‘goes against the grain’ of Swedish bookselling generally, so he feels that he and Christer ‘must be doing something right.’ I’d say they were doing a great deal right! The business is now eighteen years old.
It was delightful to have the opportunity to talk to Jan, and I am very grateful to him for giving me so much of his time and as well, of course, for choosing Almost Love. I now have an open invitation to visit The English Bookshop, which I am determined to take up. I’d like to visit the one in Stockholm, too! I wish Jan and his family a very happy holiday indeed in Greece. If any of his customers should read this, I’d also like offer you a big thank you and to say that I very much hope that you will enjoy Almost Love. Perhaps we may meet in the bookshop one day.
I was recently asked how much I revise when I’m working on a novel, and when I do it. The answer is: always several times; sometimes many times. If I’m not too tired, I look over the day’s effort again immediately I’ve finished writing. Whether I do this or not, I always scrutinise it the following day before I start writing again and make minor changes. Books usually fall into natural sections, and I’ll devote a day or two to working through a whole section in one go once I’ve finished it, to make sure that it hangs together and that I’ve been consistent. Finally, I revise the whole MS before I send it to my editor, sometimes more than once.
I’ve been asked for my ten top revision tips, so here goes!
- Make sure you get both the tense and the mood of verbs correct. This may sound easy, and it may even make me look stupid for saying it, but it’s surprising how often I read novels that have been marred by this mistake. And yes, I catch myself out sometimes.
- Scrutinise the word order in each sentence that you write. I don’t just mean taking care with words like ‘only’ which have different meanings depending on where they appear in the sentence – I believe that achieving the optimum word order is essential to good writing. If you look at the sentence structure and word order used by a writer whom you really admire, you’ll see what I mean.
- Be descriptive, but sparingly. It’s true what people say about purple passages!
- Try really hard to make the dialogue sound natural. Think your way into how the character who is speaking phrases his or her speech and listen to the voice. At the same time, be aware that making it sound natural doesn’t mean copying nature! I’ve just been reading a novel in which two of the main characters engage in the kind of desultory breakfast conversation that I often have with my husband. Not only does it not go anywhere, it unfocuses the reader’s attention and dissipates the tension that the author has built up in the preceding chapters.
- If you create an interior monologue for one or more of your main characters, ensure that you give it enough depth. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making it too brittle or superficial. It’s quite a hard technique to work with and so, if you’re not sure whether you’ve succeeded, abandon it!
- Apply my last point to all of your work, quite ruthlessly. Be your own fiercest critic. If you’re not completely happy with something, or think that it might not be working, it probably isn’t.
- Check that you have used the same names for your characters throughout and haven’t introduced some subtle changes along the way. This may sound an unlikely mistake, but it’s certainly one that I’ve made – for example, in the first complete draft of In the Family, Ronald Atkins was also called Roland and Rodney on some occasions – and, having talked to other authors about it, I’ve discovered that it’s quite a common fault. Readers are bound to be irritated by it!
- If you write a fairly detailed outline of the plot – as I usually do – you don’t have to stick to this slavishly if you’re inspired by some better ideas once you’ve started writing. However, be certain that these work within the context of the whole and don’t present you with a lot of inconsistencies that require making many changes, or force you to offer outlandish explanations that stretch credibility.
- Also on the subject of plot construction, try to write the chapters in chronological sequence, even if you plan to present them in a different order in the final version. If you don’t, you are almost bound to introduce anachronisms that will need ironing out afterwards. This is perhaps my own greatest fault. I’m trying really hard to practise what I preach, now that I’ve started my third DI Yates novel!
- Turn off the spell-checker, which has a nasty habit of introducing US spellings or unexpected quirks!
I refer to [Judith] Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders, which is an invaluable resource for ensuring consistency and proper presentation of material for publication.
Finally, may I add that I take very seriously the comments of readers about my writing. When I weigh them up, I find that they tend to have objectivity and honesty and I value their constructive and helpful insights.
Yesterday, I was in London again for the day job. I had four meetings, all of which went according to plan, and topped off the day by attending the Author Publisher Dialogues, sponsored by the All Party Publishing Group and the All Party Writers Group, which took place at Portcullis House in the early evening. I have attended author events in the House of Commons before, but I hadn’t previously visited Portcullis House. It is an ultra-modern construction of steel and glass that faces the House, apparently used as a kind of overflow building.
Unsurprisingly, security was tight. There was an airport-style scanner, through which my bags and jacket had to be passed, and several security officials were on duty. (I wonder what they made of the contents of my laptop bag, which by that stage in the day contained not only the computer, but also three books acquired from the wonderful help-yourself stash that sits permanently in the basement of one of the publishers I visit, an assortment of toiletries from Boots, some greetings cards from a nice shop that I know and two packets of apple and cinnamon hot cross buns from the Marks and Spencers in Chancery Lane.) Belongings retrieved, I was asked to wear a lanyard with a time-stamped badge proclaiming that I had been checked. Now labelled with this cross between kitemark and sell-by date, I was directed upstairs to a sort of glass-enclosed gallery, the walls of which were decorated with portraits of eminent politicians. I recognised Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Shirley Williams, all painted to look remarkably like each other, if that doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
The event took place in the Macmillan Room, named presumably after Harold Macmillan, who was both publisher and politician (I met him once, but that’s a different story!). It was chaired by Tristram Hunt MP, who is Chair of the APPG; he’s also a journalist and broadcaster. One of the speakers, Kwasi Kwarteng, is also an MP as well as being a published author: his most recent book is entitled Ghosts of Empire. (The two other author speakers were Professor Peter Atkins and Susan Standring, who has been responsible for several of the most recent editions of Gray’s Anatomy.) Hunt is a Labour politician and Kwarteng a Tory, but they seemed to be fairly united in their views on how much government should contribute to publishing. They were careful to say that the publishing industry is so successful that it needs no financial help from government, but they also indicated that they are staunch supporters of copyright law. As both are published writers, this was to be expected, but also what the audience wanted to hear. One of the reasons why publishers have stepped up their presence at such events in recent years is that there are certain factions in government which would like to pass legislation distinctly threatening to copyright as we know it. I shall write about this in a separate post and I’ll also report on the event itself at a later date, too. This is meant to be a light-hearted account!
As in the House of Commons itself, each room in Portcullis House is fitted with a television screen that tells the occupants which MP is speaking and on what subject. A shrill bell rings for several minutes when it is time for them to vote. Our two MPs rushed off when this happened, leaving the other speakers to hold the fort. Stoically, they kept on speaking throughout the din and, although it was impossible to hear what they said, their Dunkirk spirit filled me with pride. Theirs was such a very British approach.
The end of the event coincided with a mass exodus of MPs. When I emerged from the Macmillan Room, there was a long crocodile of them walking two-by-two down the glass corridor at funereal pace, feet turned outwards, murmuring inaudibly to each other. Young or old, each was exhibiting this same distinctive behaviour. It reminded me of the sequences in Jurassic Park of the dinosaur herbivores moving peacefully and slowly through the undergrowth. I wondered if MPs need training to walk in this way or whether it comes naturally when you are Running the Country.
It was unsettling on my way out to encounter, standing at the exit, a policeman who was carrying what looked like a small Kalashnikov (sorry, I’m not well up on guns). That policemen in European countries are routinely armed seems unexceptional – it helps that sometimes their guns look like toys – but I’ve always found it disquieting to see officials on UK soil bearing arms. I remember the sense of shock I felt when I bumped into a group of paratroopers in Northern Ireland once, their weapons at the ready. This policeman was friendly, though. When I said, ‘Don’t shoot!’, he replied, ‘No, I won’t, I’m not in the mood tonight!’
The government has been claiming that the recession is ending for so long now that its statistics have lost every shred of credibility as far as I’m concerned. However, I do have my own very scientific way of taking the temperature of the economic climate. It involves London taxi drivers. For at least the past two years, hailing a taxi in London has been easier than falling off a log. You’ve only needed to step out into the road and six have appeared, their yellow ‘cab free’ lights twinkling. The successful cabbie has then regaled me for the entire journey with his views on the direness of the economy and his considered opinion that Armageddon has arrived. It may have been partly because I was in the, for me, more chi-chi than normal environs of Westminster that a good two dozen cabs passed me in the space of fifteen minutes, all with their lights switched firmly off. I nevertheless conclude that taxi firms are booming once again – and therefore also the businesses that they serve.
Panicking that I would miss my train, I was forced to double back to the underground. The tube train I boarded chugged along imperturbably, with extra delays at Victoria and Green Park. Eventually I reached King’s Cross with three minutes to spare and sprinted across the concourse before collapsing in my reserved seat in a most unladylike fashion. I was so much revived by a steward bearing tea (and, eventually, a gin-and-tonic) that I was even able to attempt a bit of writing on the two-hour journey home.
It was quite an exhilarating day. At its conclusion, the animals lay in wait, each reacting in his own way to my absence: the dog greeted me ecstatically; the cat turned his back to punish me for my desertion.
I’m not always in agreement with received opinion that what happens in publishing in the USA happens here eighteen months to two years later. However, properly-gathered statistics are always fascinating and it would be foolhardy for a book market watcher such as myself to ignore the results of the latest US consumer survey that’s been carried out by Nielsen BookData. Called the ‘US Entertainment Report’, it publishes information about games, films and music as well as books, but I shall confine myself here to the findings on books. If you’re interested in the other categories, you can find a summary here.
The survey finds that e-book buyers are 21% more likely to be female. The age-groups buying the most e-books are those aged 35-44 and those aged 55-64. (I’m not sure why there’s a dip in the 45 – 54 age group: perhaps they’re so broke paying for their children to go to university that they can’t afford to buy an e-reader!) What’s amazing is that the 18-24 age group buys least e-books, even fewer than the 65+ group. Perhaps the reasons for this are also financial. Or, since the academic e-book market is now well-developed in the USA, it may be that young Americans associate e-books with study and print with relaxation. An amusing thought, but of course based purely on speculation on my part!
What is undoubtedly of significance is that print book buyers are more likely to be female, too: 18% more likely, in fact (highest sales are again to the 55-64 age group, followed by the 65+ group). This is not a surprise, because print book consumer surveys have consistently shown women to be heavier book buyers than men for at least the last thirty years. Received wisdom has always been that women buy more books because they’re buying for the whole family. However, unless e-book sales models change, we may have to revise our opinion about who is actually reading the books, as well as who’s buying them, since at present it is not possible to share an e-book unless you also share your e-reader with someone else (not a very practical arrangement). There is considerable pressure among consumer groups, especially in the USA, to introduce models that allow sharing of the same e-book among a limited group of people, on the principle that print books have always been shared among family members. In the meantime, as writers, we have a golden opportunity to consider what these female-biased statistics mean.
All my life, I’ve disapproved of the so-called ‘woman’s read’; as a bookseller, I’d give publishers short shrift if they tried to promote a book by saying that it appealed to the ‘women’s market’. How piquant it would be to discover that they were barking up the wrong tree and that the real niche market belonged to men! And how well it pinpoints the absurdity of gender-based promotion: clearly women have been reading war stories, thrillers and science fiction all along and I wouldn’t mind betting that, at the same time, more than a few men have been reading romances and bodice rippers. In fact, one of the earliest e-book surveys undertaken, way back in 2001, suggested that there was a big market for romances among long distance truckers!
As a writer, therefore, whom should you regard as your ‘key’ customer? I’d say everyone! In the last analysis, it’s the quality of the writing that counts. But you might like to think a little more about formats: the more flexibility there, the more copies you are likely to sell.
I bought this book because it has had some excellent reviews and also because I’ve met Anya Lipska on social networks, where she always speaks with great courtesy and perspicacity. I knew, therefore, that buying it would involve little risk!
The front of the jacket carries a quote from Emlyn Rees: ‘RIP Nordic crime. Here come the Poles’. That in itself is interesting, because I’ve read several novels this year that, like this one, are set partly in the UK and partly in Poland, the protagonists of which are either Polish ex-pats or the children of Polish ex-pats. I went overboard on the first of them, because the subject seemed to me to be so unusual and appealing. However, after I’d read two or three, I realised that they all focus on Poland’s recent troubled political past, especially the Soviet occupation. This actually gives them a much more limited appeal than that of Nordic crime, which deals with the many facets of modern society in the Nordic countries, not just one aspect of it. That first one, especially, was, upon a second reading, disappointing in terms of both technique and its author’s command of language.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is in a different league. It’s true that it touches on the Soviet occupation and dwells at length on Solidarity and its aftermath, but in a very sophisticated way. This is not a tub-thumping work. Anya Lipska demonstrates an impressive knowledge of Poland’s post-war political history and its residual effects, yet she does not parade her knowledge or make sweeping comments about a martyred state. Instead, she offers a wise, balanced and yet hard-hitting narrative. If I may say so in all humility, this is a very accomplished book indeed. It contains sinners, but no saints… and even the sinners are complicated characters. Lipska holds no truck with two-dimensional villains.
The hero, Janusz Kiszka, is decidedly flawed. He works as a builder, not always on the right side of the law. He has a very uncertain temper and is prone to bouts of despair. In some ways, he is the stereotypical Polish incomer – so much so that, given the quality of her writing, I suspect that at the beginning of the book Lipska is gently mocking her readers, leading them to the slightly smug but erroneous belief that they’ve come across this type before – perhaps in real life – and have got him taped. But Kiszka is full of surprises – and not contrived ones, either. Gradually, he is revealed as a complex, tragic and even noble character, who, although he is sometimes forced by circumstance to engage in James Bond-like escapades, possesses qualities to which Bond is a stranger: fear, remorse, reflectiveness and sensitivity. He is also an intellectual manqué. Yet he remains a bit of a rogue.
The minor characters are equally well-drawn. I particularly like the old priest, Father Pietruski, who, if not a rogue himself (a point that is never dwelt on too much) certainly understands rogues and can separate the ‘good’ ones from those with black hearts. He’s not averse to drinking with the former. Kasia, Janusz’s girlfriend, is also well-drawn. Married to a worthless man, she refuses to leave him because she takes her marriage vows seriously. She works as a stripper and her greatest aspiration is to own a nail bar. It is a tribute to Lipska’s talent that she is able to generate great sympathy for this woman and her drab, sleazy life. The novel also gets my vote because of the way in which it vividly and accurately captures local topographies: I can’t speak for the Polish scenes, but the London ones, with which I am familiar, are completely convincing.
Where the Devil Can’t Go is shot through with politics, but its core subject is something deeper: it is about the human condition itself. In this respect, as in many others, it resembles the work of the best of the Nordic writers; Henning Mankell springs to mind. Yet the authorial voice is Lipska’s own, unique and original.
I’m impressed by the young female detective, Natalie Kershaw, but it is Kiszka who steals the show; I’m not sure if this novel is the first of a series, and therefore whether more are planned, but I do hope so. I should very much like to encounter Janusz Kiszka again.
A physics professor from the University of Cambridge has objected to a sexually-explicit passage from Ovid’s Amores that was set as part of this year’s Cambridge OCR Board AS-level paper (the candidates sitting the exam will therefore mostly have been 16 or 17). Apparently, he thinks that the piece was unsuitable for students of this age, because the examination rubric states that ‘candidates should be able to … produce personal responses to Latin literature, showing an understanding of the Latin text’.
As an aside, I’d be prepared to hazard a guess that at least some of the examinees were not as innocent as the professor supposes. However, I do not need to speculate on how knowledgeable they may have been on the subject of the piece – an adulterous liaison between the poet and a married woman – because that is not the issue. If it were, then examinations would also have to exclude literary works that refer to all crimes, including murder, and all works set either in the past or in foreign countries unknown to the candidates. That would rule out the whole of Shakespeare, the whole of Jane Austen and most modern masterpieces. Surely the point of great literature is that it has the power to evoke an imaginative response in the reader that transcends his or her actual experiences. It achieves a fusion between art and life that yet maintains intact the distinction between the two. As Orhan Pamuk puts it so eloquently in The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, “We dream assuming dreams to be real; such is the definition of dreams. And so we read novels assuming them to be real – but somewhere in our mind we also know very well that our assumption is false.”
What is depressing about the good professor’s comments, however, is not their patent absurdity (he is a professor of Physics, after all, not of Literature), but the fact that they signal a deadening retrogressive trend that is in danger of spreading beyond the confines of the classroom. I was a schoolgirl during the tail end of a period when some school texts still in circulation were described as ‘abridged’ or even ‘expurgated’: for example, my rather old-fashioned grammar school still had many sets of the Warwick Shakespeares. They had been relieved of all scenes of a sexual nature and any words that could be construed as ‘blasphemous’. However, by then, these texts were still in use for reasons of economy, rather than to preserve the pupils’ innocence. When we came to the examinations, we were expected to have read the full-fat versions. Teachers advised us to refer to these in the Collected Works, or sometimes reproduced the excised passages on separate cyclostyled sheets of paper.
To my knowledge, the Latin texts that we studied had never been subjected to the same cleansing process: my Latin ‘A’ Level syllabus included the original works by Juvenal and Catullus – much racier than Ovid – as well as Ovid himself. I cannot remember having had any difficulty in understanding them or of their having caused offence or difficulty in the classroom. What I do recall is how fresh and original they still seemed, two millennia after they were first published, and the brilliance of the teacher who helped us to appreciate them.
I’m delighted that Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge, has robustly defended the choice of excerpt in the Latin exam paper, because I’d hate us to slide backwards into a kind of dark age of political correctness in literature. Today we are scornful of Nahum Tate’s version of King Lear, in which Cordelia marries Edgar and all the ‘good’ characters live happily ever after. We are positively amused by the efforts of Thomas Bowdler, who not only supervised the production of a ‘family edition’ of Shakespeare, but also considered that Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was too risqué for polite society, and ‘improved’ it accordingly. More recently, my generation was exasperated by Mary Whitehouse’s well-meaning but narrow-minded attempts to clean up television.
We flatter ourselves that we live in a more sophisticated age than Tate or Bowdler. Many of their contemporaries, in fact, looked askance at what they were trying to achieve, just as my generation ridiculed Mary Whitehouse. Yet fashions in morality and what is ‘acceptable’ often don’t progress in linear fashion, making the next more discerning than its predecessor. In the nineteenth century, English literature was propelled at first slowly, then ever more rapidly, from the exceptionally daring creativity of the Regency era to a decades-long period that celebrated anodyne writings in which sexuality had to be conveyed in the strange telegraphese of young girls’ blushes and young gentlemen riding hard to hounds to quell their natural yearnings. Alternatively, these characters just faded away, blissful in the knowledge that their virtue had not been compromised. Woe betide the ‘fallen woman’, whose plight was not recognised until the end of the century, when Thomas Hardy wrote Tess of the d’Ubervilles.
When I was at school, it was a commonly-held belief that Physics was a finite subject: that mankind had ‘cracked’ it and had discovered all that there was to it. I know very little indeed about science, but I have read that today Physics is an incredibly exciting as well as very complex subject, one which attracts the finest minds as scientists push back the boundaries of knowledge all the time. I both respect and am in awe of them. I would suggest that they have at least one thing in common with those who choose to make literature their life’s work: they build on the creativity of the generations that preceded them. As far as I know, there is no expurgated version of Newton or Einstein: the only limitations placed on their students concern the latters’ capacity for understanding. The same restriction, and this restriction only, should apply to those who study Shakespeare, Catullus, Juvenal – and Ovid.
Valerie Poore’s Watery Ways is a book of three love affairs. Each has its highs and lows, pleasures and pains. The human one seems to be the least anguished and captures well a true meeting of minds and hearts; the others are much more fraught with complete cargoes of crises, one being the development of the author’s passion for life on the water, with its close-knit harbour community, and the other her embarkation upon an emotional journey to her own live-aboard barge.
Having enjoyed narrow-boating on canals and rivers in the UK and sailed around the Western Isles of Scotland, I knew that this book would have much to interest me. I came upon Val and her books during my own voyages of discovery into social networking. She is active on Twitter and Facebook and I quickly realised that, in addition to being a generous supporter of other authors and an astute literary commentator, she has the ability to write captivatingly of her wide-ranging experiences and many practical skills.
Watery Ways charts her experiences as a new member of the nautical family of Oude Haven, the oldest harbour in Rotterdam and home now to a collection of vintage boats, lovingly restored by their owners to standards established by a commission of experts set up by the harbour’s special Foundation. As a tenant aboard one of these barges, Val found her personal background of self-sufficiency and expertise in the restoration of wooden artefacts well-suited to the task of refurbishing and maintaining her ‘new’ accommodation.
Using a present tense narrative and both factual and imaginative description, Val enables the reader to enjoy the immediacy of the moment and presents a graphic picture of places, people and events. The atmosphere of the harbour and the characters of its quirky inhabitants are evoked in unfussy but very personal prose. The technical detail, essential for an autobiographical account such as this, is explained in terms that present no problems to the lay reader: Val’s style is precise and lucid. Though there is sentiment, her matter-of-fact manner never allows it to become cloying; we are able to empathise easily with her feelings. Her capacity to interest a non-boating audience is considerable, not least because of her self-depreciating sense of humour and her willingness to share her many discomforts and mistakes, and the occasional success. For me, she doesn’t create an over-romanticised idyll that might seduce the reader into wanting to buy a boat, but does provide insight into the delights of ‘faring’ along urban, industrial and completely rural canals. She succeeds in transmitting the strange time-warp sensation that voyagers on such waterways experience as they move along at a pace of life that belongs to ages gone by, taking days to cover distances that modern road and rail transport completes in hours. There is a magic here, for the relationship of bargee to barge is very real and just as much of an affair as one between human lover and human lover. The boats themselves seem to have individual temperaments and eccentricities.
Watery Ways provides a very reassuring and positive image of human nature, a contrast to the violence of international events such as the 9/11 atrocity, which took place during Val’s first long boat trip with her partner Koos to Lille and to which she refers with great sensitivity.
I very much enjoyed reading this book. I know that Val is working on a sequel, telling of the next instalment of her life afloat and of the complete renovation of her own pakschuit (local delivery barge), the Vereeniging. The present book concludes by describing how she acquired this vesseI and I am very much looking forward to her account of her work to make it habitable and to meet Oude Haven’s rigorous historic criteria.
Watery Ways is published by Boathooks Books, ISBN 978-1-907984-12-9