The writers’ workshop that my husband and I jointly led on Friday 18th October was part of the thirteenth Wolds Words Festival. It is a flourishing event that takes place annually in and around the pretty market town of Louth. The workshop was scheduled in the library, an impressively busy place in which the considerable bookstock was displayed most invitingly. The library staff were all great: extremely helpful, both to those attending the workshop and to their regular library users. It’s one of the most successful small libraries I’ve ever visited and clearly the librarians work hard to achieve this.
We said that we would work with up to twelve participants and the workshop quickly sold out (though not everyone actually made it on the day). We were asked to focus on two aspects of writing: crime and using local history in fiction. We heard that a workshop on plot construction that had taken place on the previous day had also been very successful.
As a warming-up exercise, I gave the group some of my own tips on how to get published. As I’ve already offered some of these in this blog and shall be writing about others in more detail in future posts, I’m not covering them again here. Similarly, I’m not including my tips on how to incorporate local history into fiction here, saving them for a separate post.
We moved on to discussing why the participants had chosen the workshop and what they hoped to get out of it. Their answers were, perhaps not too surprisingly, very similar, and boiled down to a single joint ambition with three further ‘sub-wishes’. The over-arching goal of everyone present was to see their work published. One of the writers had already had poems published in anthologies; one had published a factual account of the sea some twenty years before and one had contributed short stories to an online magazine. None of the others had had work published. Two had written novels, but neither had been successful in finding a publisher.
The ‘sub-wishes’ were perhaps even more interesting: they each concerned confidence, or the lack of it. They included the expressed desire to write something that was worth reading ‘at all’; the fear that a certain flaw – in one case, an inability to write convincing dialogue – was an insurmountable stumbling-block; and the suspicion that the author’s take on life was too left-field ever to find a publisher. To these doubts, I replied that almost everyone can write something worth reading if they work at it hard enough; that ‘flaws’ can be overcome or minimised, again with hard work; and that many readers prefer a more unusual viewpoint to something more conventional, though I agreed that this may make it more difficult to attract a traditional publisher.
Next we read and explored four short passages from very different novels, each demonstrating some particular aspect of writing. We looked at the ‘fog’ passage from Bleak House as an example of creating atmosphere; Virginia Woolf’s description of the Ramsays’ holiday house in To the Lighthouse to establish a sense of place; a passage from Where the Devil Can’t Go, a novel by Anya Lipska, a talented new crime writer whom I’ve written about previously in the blog, that depicts her heroine’s character; and finally a piece of dialogue from my own novel, In the Family. We each took forty minutes to write a short passage following on from one of these, or alternatively any short fictional piece of our own choosing. The writings were shuffled and passed around until we had each read all of the passages; no-one knew who had written which. Each of us then told the others what we liked about the piece that we had in front of us at the end. We all found plenty to praise, which I think confirmed resoundingly that there is a writer in almost everyone. I should very much like to thank all the writers for their really enthusiastic and participative response to the occasion.
Copies of my books were sold at the event by the local bookshop in Louth, which I also visited afterwards. One of its distinguishing features is that its sign hangs upside down! There is a story behind this: The shop used to be a general grocery store of the kind that I remember as a child, but which has completely disappeared now. Its owner, a man called Bill Platt, who ran it for many years from 1913 until he was in his seventies, was famed for his knowledge of local history as well as for the quality of his shop in Little Eastgate. He had business acumen, too. When the sign over his shop doorway blew down in a storm, it was affixed by accident the wrong way up; Bill recognised that it quickly became a talking point and therefore a good advert and simply left it like that. A local businessman, Mick Wright, who, with his wife Carol, turned the store into a newsagent’s and bookshop, has continued the tradition!
I had a long and pleasant conversation with Mick and his joint owner son Dean, and was extremely impressed by their can-do attitude towards running a bookshop in modern times. Their strategy is to diversify without abandoning the bookshop’s essential character and to provide exemplary service; they specialise in books about Lincolnshire. I purchased several by local authors, and was extremely grateful to be given a discount!
As you can see, I’ve included a few pictures of the event, the library and the bookshop. I’d never been to Louth before: it is quite a distance from Spalding. It is a lovely old market town; having now discovered it, I certainly plan to return. If you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit – and don’t forget to take in the library and the bookshop while you’re there!
The last of my Kraków posts is the one that recalls for me the most special time of my visit. I should explain that I went to Kraków in order to facilitate the meetings of an international librarian advisory panel. We were very privileged to have as our host Marek Krośniak, the Serials Acquisitions Librarian at the Jagiellonian University Library in Kraków. Marek not only allowed us to hold our meetings at the library, but also arranged for us to take a tour of some of its priceless treasures.
The Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364, is one of the oldest academic foundations in Europe. Its collection of manuscripts, incunabulae and other rare printed books dates from every period of its existence and is incomparable. It includes an extensive collection of handwritten scores by famous composers. Also amazing is the knowledge of the librarians who curate this collection. No less than four specialist librarians explained the rarest treasures to us. (Understandably, security was tight: the door to the room holding these volumes was locked behind us and each of the books was stored in a locked glass case. There were also security guards in attendance.)
I have a fairly large collection of photographs taken during the tour (all without using flash, as requested). It was difficult to make the choice, but I have selected four that I hope will illustrate the distinction and diversity of the whole collection. First is the original manuscript of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, in which he presents his theory of the heliocentric system of the universe. This autographed manuscript never left his possession in his lifetime and the first printed edition of the work was from a copy made by his pupil, Georg Joachim Rheticus. Famous throughout the world, it was acquired by the Jagiellonian in 1956 and is possibly the library’s pièce de résistance, though there are many other contenders for this crown. Second is the first missal with an illuminated flower border to have been produced in Kraków. It belongs to the high mediaeval period (and is reminiscent of some of the early books that I saw in the University of Barcelona library and wrote about earlier this year).
Third is the earliest known book to have been printed in Cyrillic characters. Fascinatingly, it is also one of the earliest extant proof copies: in the photograph, you can see the printer’s corrections on the pages.
Finally, there is one of Mozart’s handwritten scores, this a one-act Singspiel, or comic opera, called Bastien and Bastienne, written when he was a boy and performed in the open air in 1768. The library’s large collection of original scores includes works by Berlioz, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn Bartholdy and other famous musicians, but Mozart had a special relationship with Kraków (and is possibly the world’s favourite composer), so that’s why I have chosen to feature his work here.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to convey how exciting it was to be allowed to see these beautiful books and to learn their history from experts. I hope that I have managed to share a little of the excitement with you. And I’d like to thank Marek Krośniak and his colleagues very much indeed for providing all of our party with this wonderful opportunity.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
This is the second of my Polish pieces. I’m sorry that it follows on from the first after quite a gap – I’ve been hi-jacked by a nasty cold this week. I’ll try to be a bit more punctual from now on.
Cold notwithstanding, I should have preferred to get this post out earlier, because its main purpose is to share with you some photographs of our visit to the famous Wieliczka salt mine some seventeen kilometres outside Kraków. The chambers and carvings in the mine are spectacular – as you can see. Discovering them was an opportunity that we almost passed up, because we’re pretty averse to joining any kind of organised tour, and the salt mine is obviously not a place where tourists can be allowed to wander around on their own; indeed, so many tunnels are there, it would be very easy to get lost. We were persuaded to make the visit only the evening before, by some Danish people dining in the same restaurant. I suppose that making holiday plans on the advice of complete strangers about whom you know nothing and whom you’re never likely to see again is as good a way as any! In any case, I’m published by Salt and it therefore seems an appropriate kind of tribute to Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery.
Determined not to be an entire pushover to the tourist industry, we travelled to the mine on an ordinary service bus instead of one of the special tour buses. For me, one of the highlights of the day was encountering people from the suburbs as they travelled on this bus, though I was much less enthusiastic about the return journey in the afternoon, when the driver was clearly behind schedule and rattled along at such a speed that I had to face the back of my seat and hang onto it in order not to be thrown into the aisle. I was grateful that I hadn’t had lunch! I was also fascinated to note that, beyond the suburbs, Kraków has quite an industrial hinterland.
Tours at the mine are extremely regimented and quite expensive – entry costs about as much as a visit to the Tower of London, which is extortionate by Polish standards. The experience was also shot through with a slightly bizarre streak: for example, our tour was called a ‘non-tour tour’ (we worked out that this meant that we were not part of a pre-booked group). Endearing rather than annoying was how the enterprise running the mine tried to make money out of absolutely everything, from coffees and ice-creams to printed guides, knick-knacks made of rock salt and ‘genuine miners’ soup’, but in a slightly amateurish way. It is noticeable in Poland that everyone is desperate to make money, but in a friendly, almost apologetic, manner. The same thought struck me when I was watching the drivers of the horse-drawn carriages in the main square in Kraków trying to cajole tourists into taking rides.
The non-tour tour guide was a young woman immaculately dressed in uniform. She was extremely professional and her English near perfect. She was obviously highly educated and very knowledgeable about the history of the mine, which has existed since mediaeval times. Rock salt was quarried there for seven hundred years, until 2002, after which the mine was devoted entirely to tourism. Engagingly, the guide explained that this was because more money could be made out of tourists than digging for salt. There is another commercial salt mine elsewhere in Poland, with much lower extraction costs, and that provides the supply.
I was almost as interested in my fellow tourists as the mine itself. We were a jovial bunch from many countries; the only thing we had in common was that we had chosen an English-speaking guide, rather than one who spoke the other languages on offer: Polish, German, Dutch, French or Italian. Our group therefore included people from India, Japan, China and the USA, as well as several other Brits. I particularly admired the Indian couple, who gamely negotiated with two quite small children the up-and-down kilometres that we had to walk within the mine.
The initial descent, down many short flights of wooden stairs within a vertical shaft, was neither frightening nor particularly taxing, if dizzily repetitive. Walking back up all of those stairs would have been a challenge, and might have caused a few heart attacks. Nevertheless, I didn’t enjoy the return to the surface, which had to be made in a small miners’ cage, crammed in with seven others. I was delighted to reach the exit and emerge into the warm autumn sunshine again.
I’ve already written more than I intended, so I’ll leave the pictures to speak for themselves now, just adding that all the sculptures and carvings – and indeed all the floors – in the mine have been fashioned from rock salt and that (although it is probably self-evident) Polish salt miners were very devout, some of the chambers having been turned into chapels, the most impressive being the Chapel of St. Kinga, which, with its altarpieces, wall-friezes and statuary, as well as carved floor, all in rock salt, is like a cathedral. The caverns are astonishing in scale (the Staszic Chamber has a ceiling thirty-six metres high), in some cases with self-supporting ceiling, in others prevented from collapse by elaborate wooden prop systems or by much more modern metal rods, inserted into drilled holes and therefore much less obtrusive to the eye.
I hope that you’ve got the taste of the salt from all this, if not a taste for a salt mine visit; you can lick the walls of the tunnels if you like (visitors are encouraged to do so)! Alternatively, you can read a Salt book…
When I consulted the BBC online weather forecast in advance of our trip to Kraków, I learnt that the night-time temperatures there the previous week had been zero and, during the day, had barely climbed to ten degrees Celsius. On arrival early in the evening on the Friday before last, I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that, although there was a nip in the air, it was nowhere near as cold as I’d expected. The atmosphere was extremely festive: well wrapped up in colourful winter clothes, people were parading the streets, arms linked, talking and laughing, much as they promenade in Spanish towns and cities before dinner; and, unlike in some other eastern European cities I have visited, dinner was served at the restaurants until a reasonably late hour.
The festive mood continued on the following day.
Kraków is a beautiful place. The Stare Miasto, or ‘Old Town’, is entirely circumscribed by a park (or rather a series of them, divided by the radial roads) called Planty, which runs around the line of the old city walls. Sometimes, this is just a narrow strip of land dividing the pavement from the road, but often it broadens into large tree-scattered areas of grass containing children’s playgrounds, statues and benches. Always there is a wide path to walk along, so there is no hazard to pedestrians from motor vehicles (though the cyclists are pretty manic and don’t seem to have discovered either bells or horns!). There are some distinguished museums and other significant tourist attractions in Kraków, but many residents and visitors to the city seemed to me to spend a great deal of time just walking around Planty.
On the Saturday of our visit the park was particularly lovely. Because of the cold spell the week before, the trees had all changed colour and were presenting a glorious display of gold, russet and tawny brown. Most striking, however, was the rapidity with which the leaves were falling: a gentle burnished leafstorm was constantly swirling to the ground and people were catching the colours as they walked along.
Although we never discovered its exact nature, there exists some special relationship between the citizens of Kraków and the falling of the leaves. This may have something to do with the rapidity of the ‘fall’, which we were very fortunate to experience. At our hotel, the staff had placed richly-coloured fallen leaves on the tables and in alcoves on the stairs. In the streets, whole families were collecting the leaves in sheaves and walking along holding them as if they were bouquets of flowers. At the open market in the main square several stalls were selling autumn posies made up of leaves, berries and nuts and, although these were priced between 12 and 20 zlotys (quite a lot in that part of the world for a perishable decoration), they were selling well and being carried around like Elizabethan nosegays.
The fantasia of falling leaves continued for the next three days. On Tuesday we awoke to heavy rain. There had been a storm in the night, and the trees had now been laid almost bare, the rich carpet of leaves on the ground sodden and trampled underfoot. In Kraków, it is autumn’s lease that hath all too short a date. The golden leaves have almost all gone now. It will be a whole year before they make their brief appearance once more.
Discovering Rose Tremain
I remember exactly when I first discovered Rose Tremain. I had very recently joined Dillons (destined to merge with Waterstones within a year, though none of us knew that then) and had been invited to attend a party at Hatchard’s (a fine old bookselling business that had been acquired by Dillons some years previously) to celebrate its 200th birthday. Along with many colleagues, I accepted. As Dillons HQ was in Solihull, Teresa, one of our administrative assistants, was asked to find hotel accommodation in London overnight for those of us who requested it. Teresa had been supplied with a directory of hotels ‘approved’ by the company for use by its staff and, as I was to discover, had an unerring knack for picking out those that were most dismal and unwelcoming. Most of my colleagues made alternative arrangements. New to the company, I put my trust in Teresa’s mercy.
The party was the most glittering book trade bash I’ve ever attended. Princess Margaret was there, resplendent in elbow-length gloves and drinking something from a tall glass wrapped around with a linen napkin. Salman Rushdie had dared to attend, even though it was only a year or so after the fatwa against him had been issued. The other guests included dozens of well-known writers and publishers. As you can imagine, security was very tight.
The evening was ‘elegant’. I use the term in a way that was new to me then, but in which I’ve had other occasion to use it since. As I’ve previously mentioned, the first bookselling company that I worked for was in Yorkshire and the second in Scotland. Both hosted many literary events and all of these shared a single prominent common feature: we ensured that our guests were served a plentiful repast of excellent food. We believed in feeding the body just as much as the mind. In Yorkshire, we favoured sides of salmon, roast hams, salads, pizzas and quiches and generally included a selection of gooey puddings; in Scotland the food was usually hot and hearty: soups, pies, lasagnes, stews and curries. But always food, ‘proper’ food, and plenty of it. And drinks, too, of course, though the food was paramount.
At the party at Hatchard’s, on the other hand, the wine flowed but the food was sparse. Exquisite, but sparse. It consisted of tiny canapés that were delivered individually at long intervals by uniformed waiters and waitresses who bore them aloft on circular trays. There were miniature salmon rolls, morsels of pastry stuffed with even smaller slivers of meat and cheese, the babiest of baby sausages skewered with eighths of tomato and Lilliputian biscuits bearing deftly-placed dots of pâté, each one garnished with a parsley feather. The waiting staff weren’t particularly keen to distribute these fairy victuals, either: sometimes it was impossible to snatch one before it continued on its airborne journey through the crowd.
The upshot of this was that, when eventually I arrived by taxi at my hotel, which belatedly I had discovered was situated in the further reaches of Camden, at around 10 p.m., slightly tipsy and completely famished, I found that not only did the establishment serve no food (it would not even be providing breakfast on the following day), but that there was no restaurant or even a takeaway within a radius of at least a mile. I took one look at the dark and dingy street beyond its none-too-hospitable doors, and decided that I would be foolish to risk venturing forth in quest of sustenance now. I therefore toiled up the three flights of stairs to my room (it wasn’t the sort of hotel that offered to help with luggage) where I found a narrow single bed in a cheerless room with no bedside lamp and an ‘en suite’ shower behind a plastic curtain in an alcove. The lavatory was outside, shared with the occupants of the other rooms on the same floor.
Mercifully, my room did contain a kettle and some sachets of coffee and tea (the brand-names of both were unfamiliar) and two or three of those little bucket-shaped plastic containers of UHT milk. Too cold and hungry to go straight to bed, I made myself a cup of indifferent but scalding coffee, groped in my bag in the hope that I hadn’t absent-mindedly eaten the cereal bar that I’d placed there some weeks before (I hadn’t) and fished in it again for the book that I’d snatched from a stash at Dillons HQ for staff to help themselves to before I’d caught the train to London many hours earlier. It was Restoration, by Rose Tremain. Immediately, I was enthralled. I drank my coffee, ate my cereal bar and read. And read. I went to bed some hours later, my hunger forgotten, and slept soundly until the following morning, when I rose early in order to find breakfast and get another quick fix of Restoration before the day’s work started. I had become a Rose Tremain addict.
I had intended this post to be a review of Merivel: a man of his time, by Rose Tremain, which I have just completed, but I’ve probably written as much as you want to read for now, so will save that for another day.
I asked for a riposte to Christina’s cider-pressing post, but that was not to be! However, by way of recompense, she has allowed me space to comment on what must be one of the greatest crimes inflicted by man upon man. While she has been busy with what she calls ‘the day job’, which has been, on this occasion, a publisher-librarian conference held in Krakow (for the pedantic, this is pronounced by Poles as KrakOUF, with the stress on the second syllable), I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau, one hour and forty minutes away by bus.
On the face of humanity, a carbuncle, perhaps now healing slowly, but sensitive to the touch and destined to leave a permanent scar. Yet the body politic suffers still and continues to break out in boils symptomatic of the same underlying disease. Mankind, disfigured, cannot find a cure and treats, always too late, the symptoms alone. These gross and scabbing reminders of our failure as a race to reach the root of our ills do not make comfortable our self-examination in the mirror of consciousness, but I found, on this, my second visit after some years, that the experience was already becoming, for the latest visitors, too organised, desensitising.
Brick, concrete, iron, steel, stone and dust, all strung about with the twisted barbarous wires; original timbers are gradually disintegrating or have gone. All about, the millions of October leaves are falling, falling. Summer’s beauty choked by approaching winter cold, they are gathered up in heaps, loaded into barrows and trucks and taken away for burning or to rot down. Colour and life turned to ashes. Shorn of their tresses, the trunks and branches are emaciated, twiggy fragile limbs starkly outlined against the sky.
Irony in the bus loads of tour groups disgorging their cargoes and delivering them into the hands of the camp guides. Selection by language. An industry in itself. The cameras click; the iPads embrace the scenes as each former terror is re-hashed for public consumption. Work makes free. Tourism makes realism – ‘No photographs here’ signs ignored as every shred of individual dignity is wrenched from the heaps of human history and saved for later: ‘I was there; it was awful; look at my pictures.’ I have to step away, unable to stem emotion. My leaves fall like tears, like lives.
Symbolism of railway lines, stretching through the gate to infinity. The sleepers are relinquishing their hold upon the rails, wasting from within. Will those be replaced, like wooden huts, to show what it was like? The other sleepers are softly breathing their message to us, the words falling as gently as leaves, and we strain to hear against the sound of the narrative of the guide. Their language is universal. The guide says that we are now walking the same way as the doomed, but we are not. Once more I break away, this time for good, and let imagination tell the story. And then, on the cracked steps to those underground chambers, now guarded by a staunch metal grid, a delicate beauty opens wings amongst the many fallen leaves and flies into the air. The loveliness of lost lives is captured for me in a butterfly.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
I first mentioned One Summer: America 1927, by Bill Bryson, a couple of weeks ago. It was one of the best trophies in the phenomenally generous goody-bag supplied to delegates at the BA Conference and I promised to review it when I’d read it. I completed it yesterday.
It’s a fascinating book, combining a great deal of research with Bryson’s trademark humorous and throwaway delivery. It explores the events of a six-monthish period during 1927 which, Bryson avers, changed the course not only of American history, but also of that of the world.
He focuses on a relatively small but rich cast of characters: the aviator Charles Lindbergh and ace baseball player Babe Ruth probably get the most words devoted to them, but Bryson also manages to include, among other things, accounts of the activities of two (extraordinarily bad) presidents, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and, of especial interest to me, two convictions for murder, both of them causes célèbres of their day, that of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, for killing Snyder’s husband (they were almost certainly guilty of the alleged crime) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco, for acts of terrorism leading to several deaths (they almost certainly weren’t). All four were sentenced to death and died by the relatively new method of controlled electrocution.
Many lesser tales are told along the way: how the presidential sculptures at Mount Rushmore came to be conceived of and commissioned; the rise of the ‘flapper’; the early years of talking pictures and their effect both on the entertainers and those they were entertaining; how Prohibition began and its appalling effects on the economy and morality and, more surprisingly, the numbers of people drinking (they increased) and the numbers of deaths caused by ‘denaturised’ (read ‘contaminated’) alcohol. Wayne B. Wheeler, the fanatical teetotaller who inspired Prohibition, dictated that some of the alcohol captured by the state should be denatured – i.e., rendered undrinkable – by the addition of poison instead of some more harmless spoiler, such as soap, and scores if not hundreds perished from his efforts. Effectively, the state had legalised murder.
This is one of the topics on which Bryson abandons his customary tongue-in-cheek stance and writes in deadly earnest. Another state-inspired action that elicits his wholehearted contempt is the mass sterilisation that took place of women who were considered to be too intellectually inferior to bear children. It is estimated that up to 11,000 women suffered this fate. Although Bryson does not belabour the point, implicitly he draws some analogies between what happened in America in the 1920s and the appalling experiments carried out by the Nazi Dr Mengele in Germany in the following decades. In fact, he says that to all the epithets that have been applied to the America of the 1920s, he’d like to add one of his own: the Age of Loathing. “There may never have been another time in the nation’s history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason. Bigotry was casual, reflexive and well nigh universal.” In fact, he probably doesn’t need to beat up his own nation quite as much as he does: I’ve also been reading about British and Dutch colonialism recently and there could hardly have been greater bigotry than arose in the colonies of those countries, particularly the ones that were created in Africa in the second half of the nineteenth century. As we all know, some of those African nations have only very recently been released from colonial oppression; and bigotry is still alive and well in almost all ‘civilised’ countries.
I mustn’t dwell on this aspect of the book too much, though, because if I do I shall fail to convey the wonderful balance that Bryson manages to achieve in his narrative. One of its most endearing qualities is the way in which it conveys how different America was then and yet how recognisably the country that it has become today. America in 1927 was a country devoted to popular culture – the crowds that Lindbergh attracted have never been equalled since; it was a country that idolised film stars before the rest of the world embraced this kind of hero-worship; it was the country that had just invented hire purchase, thus starting an ‘American dream’ that increasingly depended on each household’s ability to acquire as many consumer items as possible; above all, it was a country that suddenly emerged from being behind Europe in terms of technological achievement to audaciously taking the lead in cutting-edge sciences such as aeronautical engineering, a lead which it has never since relinquished.
All of this happened (just) within living memory. Piquantly for me, 1927 was the year in which my mother was born; and one or two of my friends still have living parents who were born in this year or even before it. Bryson brings home to readers how much the world has changed since their youth – and actually teaches later generations why they should be forgiven for some of their prejudices and foibles. Above all, he shows us that, while we may laugh at the excesses and stupidities of a thrusting if less well-educated age, future generations will probably find the behaviour of our present age just as risible and bizarre.