Seal of approval!
At Easter, I took a short break on the east coast of North Yorkshire and have been meaning to write about it ever since! It’s a region that we know well as a family: my husband spent many holidays in Filey as a child and, when we were first married, some friends owned a house at Robin Hood’s Bay, at which we spent several wonderful long weekends. Built in the seventeenth century, this was the house that stands nearest the sea, adjacent to the ‘quarterdeck’, or man-made apron for viewing the bay, and, on stormy nights, the waves broke right over it and the whole building shook. (It’s next door to what was the Leeds University/Sheffield University Marine Laboratory from 1912 to 1982 and now, rebuilt, a National Trust visitor centre.) The house is still there, though no longer owned by our friends. During its time, it has been several times hired by authors wanting a quiet place in which to write without disturbance (though when I visited the house its plumbing system was so eccentric that a great deal of time had to be deployed in pumping out sewage and clearing the drains!). Robin Hood’s Bay itself is the setting of the Bramblewick novels, by Leo Walmsley.
No visit to the East coast is complete without a visit to this mediaeval fishing village. However, this year, my husband and I headed a little further north, to Port Mulgrave, a hamlet near Staithes. Bleaker and more desolate than ‘the Bay’, this place really could have been at the end of the world.
One of the most magnificent things about this stretch of Yorkshire coast is that visiting it is like stepping back into the past, but in an unpretentious way (quite unlike, for example, the self-conscious ‘olde-worlde’ well-preserved streets of towns such as Harrogate). The house in which we stayed was a massive building that dated from the period when ironstone was mined there during the nineteenth century. I’m not sure what the purpose of this building was originally: it may simply have been a dwelling for the ironstone workers, or it may have been part dwelling, part factory. Today it has been divided into several cottages, one of which was our holiday house. Intriguingly, the end cottage was burned down some time ago, without any damage having been caused to the rest of the building. Its owner still visits regularly to tend the garden and the empty space where the cottage once stood.
I hadn’t heard of Port Mulgrave before. When I came to look it up, I discovered that the Mulgrave Estate covers a massive area at the centre of which lies Whitby. By chance, on this holiday, we also happened to pass the estate office in Sandsend.
Although it was Easter, we managed to avoid the crowds, apart from an ill-advised foray into Whitby – another favourite haunt – on Good Friday. On Easter Saturday, we walked from Robin Hood’s Bay
to Ravenscar and climbed the cliff that leads to the golf links and the Raven Hall Hotel, where we bought a sandwich lunch and sat outside to soak up the sunshine.
We stumbled upon several plump seal pups at the boulder-strewn end of the beach, just before the start of the climb up the cliff. One of them growled menacingly at our dog, clearly more than a match for him (He’s a very mild-mannered dog, and certainly wouldn’t have hurt it; he stood timidly several feet away and looked in wonderment at it!). Almost full-grown, they were evidently awaiting the return of the parent seals with more food.
I’d never been as close as this to seals before and had no idea how beautiful they are. Glistening and glossy, each was a different colour. Some were dappled like horses.
I admit it, I wrote this post largely as an excuse to share with my readers their beauty and that of this magnificent coastline! Also, some Twitter friends have wondered about my promotion of Yorkshire seafood, especially crab. Now you know! I love this place and everything it has to offer.
[Text and photographs © Christina James 2014]
This best-laid plan of Mister Gove… awry!
I have been following with interest and more than a degree of indignation Michael Gove’s latest attack on teachers. This time it has been directed at their choice of the fiction to be studied by GCSE English Literature students. Mr Gove seems to be determined to outstrip UKIP by including non-British (albeit anglophone) novels as part of the current general political witch-hunt to root out anything or anyone that does not originate in these islands and to take one of his regular side-swipes at the teaching profession in the process.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about Of Mice and Men, of course. But I would question whether Mr Gove has a right to thrust his own idiosyncratic dislikes and preferences on to those whose daily occupation it is to teach or to set examination syllabi. It seems to me that he should respect the judgment of the teaching profession, which has a collective understanding not only of the needs and capabilities of students in modern, multi-cultural schools, but also a profound appreciation of what makes those students ‘tick’. It is all too common for people to think that they are experts in teaching, just because they have themselves been to school, though I’ve always been surprised by the arrogance of this assumption. It’s easy to look back on one’s own school-days with (possibly spurious) rose-tinted spectacles, as Mr Gove apparently frequently does, but this hindsight is about as relevant to what is going on now as asserting that a woman’s place is in the home or that shops should not open on Sundays.
As it happens, something good has come from Mr Gove’s latest outrage, in my own household, at least: until this week, I was not familiar with Of Mice and Men, though we have a copy of it in the house; I have read other novels by Steinbeck, including The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, but somehow Of Mice and Men had passed me by. I mentioned this to my husband, who offered to read it aloud to me in the evenings. He completed it in three sessions.
My husband is an inspired reader-aloud as well as being a very fine teacher. I realise that it’s in no small measure owing to this that he held me spellbound throughout, but I was also entranced because of the quality of the book itself. As readers of this blog may have deduced, I have several English degrees and, even more to the point, am a lifelong avid reader (though I don’t think this has made me blasé in any way – I’m always looking forward to the next book), but I still found this novel exceptional. I know that it will stay with me. It is deceptively simple (not clunky or clumsy, as Mr Gove avers). It belongs to the ancient tradition of the fable. Because I had the privilege of listening to it, the characters appeared to me in more heightened relief than if I had been reading it myself. I saw them as clearly delineated as if they had been woodcuts in an early printed book.
Like all classic fables, Of Mice and Men explores fundamental issues of right and wrong, masculine and feminine (in the widest sense – for example, some of the ‘archetypal’ feminine characteristics are displayed by George, one of the two protagonists) and the nature of the damage that humans inflict on each other – through mental and physical oppression or unthinking prejudice. That Curley’s wife has no name is intentional. Characterised as a ‘tart’ by the bunk-house ‘swamper’ Candy and even by the normally perceptive George, she is in fact as lost and lonely as the drifting ranch-workers, the disabled Candy and the despised ‘nigger’ Crooks, who is not allowed in the bunk-house. The troubled existence of the mentally-retarded Lennie, a man cast loose upon an uncaring world with no-one to protect him except George once his tough but sympathetic Aunt Clara has died, points up the flaws of a society in which people lead such a brutalised, hand-to-mouth existence that there is little room for true humanity. Only a few exceptional individuals, such as George and the hieratic and god-like Slim, are able to show compassion. Yet it is also a funny novel, even if in a bittersweet way. Steinbeck achieves this in part through George’s oft-quoted vision of the ‘little place’ (‘An’ rabbits, George!’) that he and Lennie are going to buy – which turns out to be every casual ranch-worker’s shared dream – and in part through the everyday ironies and minor triumphs and disappointments that make up the lives of these untutored folk. The character of Aunt Clara is a touch of genius: although she never appears ‘on stage’, she acts as a forceful presence throughout, chiding, chivvying and cherishing Lennie to the end.
After my husband had finished reading this novel to me, we had an impassioned conversation about the purpose of teaching literature and what this means in a comprehensive school where the students’ abilities range from very gifted to what can be expected from those who come from deprived homes where reading is not encouraged at all. He said that part of the magic of Of Mice and Men is that the book appeals to students across the whole ability spectrum. The brightest ones can pick up all the nuances and ironies in which the book abounds – almost every word has significance in this, one of the most sparingly written works I’ve ever come across – and even those who struggle with basic literacy can derive a real sense of achievement from empathising with its characters. This is why teachers choose it: not because it represents a ‘soft’ option, but because, at different levels, it holds magic for everyone.
Its magic certainly worked on me. I feel the richer for those three evenings during which my husband read it to me (He ‘does’ American superbly, by the way!). I hope that this will be the start of a new tradition in our household, in which we read to each other on a daily basis. But more than anything, I hope that our teachers of English, embattled and increasingly circumscribed by rules and random strictures as they are, will somehow be able to discover another novel that holds such universal appeal now that Of Mice and Men will be no longer available to them. My message to Mr Gove is to make no mistake: this will not be as easy as it sounds. Today’s students do not want to share in his childhood nostalgia. They have lives of their own to lead and sensibilities that can certainly be touched by literature, but not necessarily through the books which he endorses. He doesn’t understand how young people now can be intellectually stimulated: why would he? But he doesn’t need to: this country has an admirable army of more than 600,000 teachers, all of whom know better than he. Listen to them, Mr Gove. Just listen. And perhaps ask someone to read to you Of Mice and Men aloud.
At Lord’s, with open access, but not for the cricket…
Monday May 19th was a sweltering hot day and I was in St John’s Wood. I’d travelled there to visit Lord’s Cricket Ground, where a seminar on Open Access, sponsored by the publisher Taylor & Francis, was taking place. It’s the nearest that I’m likely to get to a cricket pitch while I’m able to exercise free will, as cricket is a game that has always mystified and bored me in equal measures of profundity. I had been a guest at a Lord’s hospitality suite once before, in the late 1990s, when I worked at Waterstones. Unusually for me, I can’t remember the exact purpose of this earlier meeting. I therefore conclude that it was probably about something quite unpleasant – such as redundancies, budgetary shortfall or the like – and that, accordingly, I’ve edited it from memory.
However, on this particular Monday, the sun was shining, which always puts me in a good mood. I was also pleased to have arrived in London early enough to explore a bit of St. John’s Wood en route. It’s not an area of London with which I’m familiar, but as lovers of late Victorian and Edwardian fiction will know, it was created to serve the semi-honourable purposes of aristocratic males who ‘played away’ by installing longstanding mistresses in bijou, affordable little houses not too far distant from the male clubs and the West End. St. John’s Wood thus became safe and ‘respectable’, at least on the surface, but was at the same time too humble and modest to attract dangerous interest from aristocratic wives and their friends. I’ve therefore always imagined that it would be smart and slightly exotic, with a hint of raffishness… and so it might have been a hundred years ago. Today, it has a slightly run-down air. Nevertheless, the pretty little houses are now obviously occupied by people with some means, as the expensive boutiques and upmarket coffee shops that throng the main street bear witness. I amused myself by sitting outside one of the latter, sipping a cappuccino and listening to a very young Yummy Mummy, with a designer baby on her hip, recounting the rigours of her day to two adoring older women. It was with reluctance that I tore myself away from eavesdropping on their conversation and pressed on to the cricket ground itself.
By mid-day, the conference was going well. The air conditioning was very efficient, which meant that spending the lunchtime break inside would have been a good soft option. But I knew I could not miss this rare opportunity to explore Lord’s, considered by ‘foreigners’ to be as much a national treasure as Madame Tussaud’s or the Tower of London. I therefore made the valiant effort to venture into the heat of the noonday sun (not quite a mad dog nor, clearly, an Englishman) to try to capture some of its venerated atmosphere.
I soon discovered that those who have renovated and re-designed the cricket ground in recent years have cunningly made it almost impossible for non-patrons to sneak in and spectate illicitly. Given my total failure to appreciate the charms of cricket, this didn’t worry me in the slightest, though it did mean that the only photographs I could take were extremely long shots of the pitch. I quickly also found that, although the day was perfect for snoozing in the stands, the match in progress had attracted somewhere between fifty and a hundred spectators – certainly no more. Tier upon tier of seats were standing empty.
From this (rightly or wrongly!), I deduce that the great majority of the population feels roughly the same about cricket as I do and I suppose that the winter’s utter humiliation of the national side down under hasn’t helped to put bums on seats. How, then, does the game manage to perpetuate itself? I looked around me. Not only are there several hospitality suites at Lord’s, in the grandest of which my conference was taking place, but there are also some very chic bars and cafés, a shop selling ‘artisan’ ice-creams and another selling Lord’s souvenirs. It’s clearly one of those places you go to in order to be seen and say that you’ve been, and incidentally spend a significant amount of money in the process. This must be how the fine old institution of Lord’s not only survives but thrives, financially speaking. The cricket itself to me seems incidental, a charmingly eccentric pastime engaged in by a few aficionados and the equally stalwart cognoscenti who constitute their fans.
And so the quintessential Britishness of the Lord’s experience is preserved for posterity. It’s a kind of double standard, not unlike the double standard operated by those not-quite-caddish gentlemen who ‘protected’ their mistresses in St. John’s Wood whilst ensuring that they caused their wives no distress or embarrassment by letting them loose in Kensington or Belgravia. (A less generous approach, if you’ll forgive me, wouldn’t have been ‘cricket’.) How fitting that this suburb’s now old-fashioned charms should still be home to a national game that does not quite seem to have kept pace with the times.
Thank you, Annika, for choosing this for me…
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
I know I am the latest in a very long line of people to say this, or something like it, but here goes: The Book Thief is a monumental yet delicate and extraordinarily beautiful novel. It is the sort of novel that stays with your forever once you’ve read it; the sort of novel that you know you’ll want to read again. (For me, very few novels make it into this category.)
Why is it so amazing? The publisher’s blurb gives almost nothing away: Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall. This sounds intriguing, but conventional. Yet another tale about the Second World War, you might think, made slightly unusual (but not unique) by being told from the point of view of a German child.
Some of the narrative is indeed presented from Liesel’s weltanschauung; the remainder, from the viewpoint of an altogether more shadowy and amorphous character, Death himself (or herself – Zusak is not sexist about this, so we don’t actually find out whether Death has a gender). Strangely, given Liesel’s tragic background (she watches her little brother die during a train journey and shortly afterwards is brutally separated from her mother, her father having already ‘disappeared’) and Death’s status, one of the most striking things about this novel is that every sentence is written with love. Death itself loves his or her victims and reflects ruefully on the absurdities that have put them in his / her way. The far-from-perfect characters are all drawn with love, so that the reader is made to appreciate the best in them: Rosa Hubermann, Liesel’s fat, irascible and scatological foster-mother; Frau Holtzapfel, the niggardly neighbour who pays Liesel with increasingly scarce groceries to read to her; Max Vandenburg, the rather cowardly Jewish refugee taken in by the Hubermanns at great personal risk to themselves and the mayor’s wife who owns a large library and whose mind has been permanently impaired by the loss of her son during the First World War – all are drawn by the author with love. The greatest of this authorial love is lavished on Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s playmate and would-be childish boyfriend, and Hans Hubermann, her stepfather. But even Hitler is portrayed with sidelong glints of love.
The author himself seems to be as much a painter as a poet. He writes more emotively about colour than any other writer I’ve encountered. Not only does he assign unexpected colours to things both animate and inanimate, but he seems to attach values to them. Hans Hubermann’s repeatedly described silver eyes are full of sterling worth; black is the colour of incomprehension and confusion; the rights of white to be considered a colour are tenaciously asserted. Colours are even turned into verbs: “The sky was beginning to charcoal.”
Of the many paradoxes that make up The Book Thief, the greatest is that it is an overtly moral tale that neither preaches nor follows an accepted moral code. It achieves this both despite and because of the small moralising paragraphs, always presented in bold, that on one level resemble parodies of the ‘lessons’ in Victorian morality tales, on another set in shorthand the tone of the next scene: “A Portrait of Pfiffikus. He was a delicate frame. He was white hair. He was a black raincoat, brown pants, decomposing shoes, and a mouth – and what a mouth it was.”
The contradictoriness of morality that the book captures throughout is displayed in the title. Liesel is herself the eponymous Book Thief, yet the reader never believes that her theft of eight selected books one by one at longish intervals during her childhood is immoral. In some ways each theft is life-affirming, though ironically the first is of a gravedigger’s manual, stolen for comfort before Liesel is able to read and therefore understand its contents. Hans subsequently teaches her to read by ploughing through this book with her during the long nights when her nightmares drive away sleep, because he refuses to leave her to suffer them on her own: so the act of reading, celebrated throughout the novel as the great life-affirming skill that is also often Liesel’s saviour, grows out of a damp tome of death and a young girl’s horrific sense of loss. Each book that she steals teaches Liesel more about life – not always because of its contents: sometimes it is because of the circumstances in which the book is acquired – so that each theft marks a milestone in the process of her growing-up, her loss of innocence. Finally, she receives as a birthday present a book that has been written especially for her, a hymn to her goodness concealed within an ironical yet harrowing account of the rise and rise of ‘the Fuehrer’.
At the macro level, The Book Thief symbolises the story of a nation trying to make sense of what happened to it and therefore understand how it managed to lose its way. It is a story of the riches that may be found in poverty, the generosity towards others that may yet be found within the hearts of those in extreme danger, the puzzle that is life itself. It also affirms, strongly yet subtly, pervasively yet unobtrusively, that there is nothing, was nothing and never has been anything inherently ‘bad’ in the German race. Germans, then as now, came in all the myriad colours of morality, just like the members of every other race on the earth.
I’d like to offer my very great thanks to Annika for choosing The Book Thief for me.
For those who love wood: Ursula Von Rydingsvard says it in cedar
Last weekend, I visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. We often take our dog for walks there, but last Saturday, although the dog came too, I was on a mission: to visit its latest exhibition, a stunning major show of more than fifty pieces by the American sculptor Ursula Von Rydingsvard.
As her name suggests, she wasn’t born in the USA, but in Germany, to a Polish mother and Ukrainian father, in 1942. After a tough time in various refugee camps, she and her family emigrated to America in 1952. Admirers of her work say that they see the suffering of her childhood rooted in it. She herself says that it may be there, but that no single piece of her work conveys a single message, because that would bore her, and probably bore others, too.
I agree wholeheartedly with this, and was certainly not thinking about her past when I walked, awe-struck, past the pieces in the gardens at YSP and then on to the indoor part of the exhibition which is housed in the spectacular underground studio there. Von Rydingsvard is particularly fascinated by cedar and many of the pieces consist of huge planks of cedar wood that she has sculpted to bring out its innate qualities in more stylised form. Her monumental bronze and synthetic material sculptures also convey the textures of their cedar moulds. One of these, Bronze Bowl with Lace, has a fine, billowing filigree band at the top, based on a real piece of lace; it is astonishing to see how delicate this is. She first talked of achieving this as long ago as 2002 and it is undoubtedly her most ambitious piece so far. It is internally lit with an ember glow and has external base lighting, too, so it transforms itself over a twenty-four hour period.
It was, however, the pieces actually made out of cedar that I liked best. Some of these are huge figures or monuments that tower over the visitor. Others, though still relatively large, are representations of more homely objects, such as spoons and other household utensils. [“I did not play games nearly as much as other children did. When I did play them, they were in a style I recall as being serious. I often played with sticks, wooden balls and other knife-carved wooden objects made with a child’s will and awkward technical skills. I also played with crude domestic objects in bombed-out brick buildings, the ruins of which were layered in ways that for me felt exciting.”] There are also some textiles pieces. There are identifiable ‘periods’ to Von Rydingsvard’s work, but she has remained faithful to cedar, in many different incarnations, for the whole of her career.
Right at the end of the indoor exhibition was a small seating area where visitors could linger to watch a video of Von Rydingsvard describing her work. I was at first surprised at how halting, nervous and at times almost incoherent she seemed in this production. Then I realised how arrogant it was of me to make this observation. Sculpture is her medium, not words, and she has indicated in many interviews that she is uncomfortable with trying to analyse her sculpture too closely or on too simple a level. It’s impossible as well as invidious to try to compare different art forms and I’d challenge any writer to try to convey his or her work in sculpture. Why, therefore, should we expect a sculptor to wish to convey hers in words?
The Ursula Von Rydingsvard exhibition will remain at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park until next spring. If you are interested in sculpture, it is a must-see. If you haven’t visited the YSP before, that in itself is a rare treat!
A perspective of Priory LSST Academy, Lincoln: Supporting creative writing talent!
I was extremely privileged last Wednesday to have been invited to join the first literary festival to be launched at the Priory LSST Academy in Lincoln. It was actually a festival within a festival, arranged by Mrs. Sarah Oliver, the energetic and enthusiastic writer-in-residence at the Academy, with the help of the very talented Sara Bullimore, who is one of the organisers of Lincoln Inspired, the city’s arts and literature festival. My contribution was to offer creative writing students feedback on the work they had submitted for a crime-writing competition, organise and take part in two writing workshops for younger students
and deliver the festival keynote talk later in the afternoon. Members of the public were admitted to the latter.
Before I go on to describe the day in more detail, I’d just like to pause to say what an amazing place the Priory Academy is. One of the first academies to have been set up after the government announced its support for them, it is situated on a sprawling site with several buildings and many beautifully laid-out gardens, distinguished particularly by their modern sculptures and water features. Students move from one building to another via a series of covered walkways. The academy also has a planetarium, an Olympic-standard running track, an incredibly well-equipped gym and a swimming pool. Although it is a state school, it takes sixth-form boarders (they are usually either students from overseas or from armed services families). Those who attend it are greatly privileged and keenly aware of this. All of the students I met were impeccably polite; several of them told me how passionate they were about the Academy itself.
The sixth-form creative writing course was set up by Sarah Oliver at the beginning of the current academic year; it is voluntary and after school. Many more students wished to take the course than she could accommodate. Eventually fourteen were selected, of whom twelve entered the creative writing competition. They were asked to write the opening chapter of a crime novel (with a 500-word limit) and a synopsis of the whole novel (with a 300-word limit). This in itself was a pretty tall order, but they succeeded admirably. It is no exaggeration to say that I believe that every one of those students could go on to be a successful writer. The prize was for the student who wrote the winning entry to have his or her chapter published in the Lincolnshire Echo and the two runners-up to have theirs published in the online version of the same newspaper.
Choosing the winner was a daunting task. I asked my husband, who also acts as my copy-editor, to help. We decided to evaluate each entry on the following seven attributes: the opening sentence; consistency (did the chapter match the synopsis?); how compelling we found the writing; the quality of the plot; characterisation; the accuracy of the writing; the quality of the writing. It’s of course impossible for me to describe all of the entries in detail here, but to give my readers some idea of the quality of the entries, I’ve listed below a few of the opening sentences from the students’ submissions:
Bryant’s breath condensed in the plastic of his gas mask before fading away, only to be replaced every time he exhaled. It was stifling.
It’s the screech of the tyres that haunts, and the sickening crunch of metal splintering on bone.
Peer pressure. It was always peer pressure to blame when we got caught.
A myriad of birds shot out of the trees as loud sirens blazed past and a blur of blue lights blinded the night sky.
Sally heard the breathing in the darkness. The short gasps of air slowly faded into the inky night as she crouched, frozen, behind a wild hedge.
My job as judge was made more difficult because the opening chapter and synopses that we both considered to be the best ones were not written by the same person. Furthermore, there was a third entrant who, while she wrote neither the best chapter nor the best synopsis, had the best stab at both put together.
The rules of the competition organised by Sarah Oliver in conjunction with the Lincolnshire Echo were clear-cut. The best chapter was undoubtedly written by James, so we awarded the prize to him. Fatmira and Katie therefore became the runners-up.
The constraints of the competition were, however, considerable, and I knew that I wanted to see more of these students’ work. By great good fortune, Jean Roberts, Business Development Director at PrintOnDemandWorldWide, had very generously said that, if the winner wanted to complete his or her novel within a year of entering the competition, she would print ten copies of it free of charge and also put it into legal deposit, PODWW’s distributor channels and its own new online bookselling venture, The Great British Bookshop. I decided that James, Fatmira and Katie all deserved to be eligible for this new prize, so I have now set up a further contest for the three of them. If they can get their completed novels to me by the end of this year, I’ll choose the best of them and send it on to Jean. PrintOnDemandWorldWide also very generously gave all the students a Great British Bookshop notebook, pen and box of Union Jack sweets. Both the students and all those who attended the afternoon keynote also received PODWW’s pamphlet giving advice and writing tips to would-be authors.
I shall write more on this blog at intervals about James, Fatmira and Katie and the progress that they are making. I hope that you will join me in following their journey, perhaps also offering your own support and encouragement along the way. In the meantime, I’d like to celebrate the achievement of all the student writers at the Priory Academy. I’m certain that we shall be hearing more of at least some of them in years to come.
Christina James, happily hopping from one blog to another… #Mondayblogs
I have Jenny Lloyd to thank for nominating me for The Writing Process ‘blog hop’. (Why do I dislike this term? I’ve never liked the ugly sound of ‘blog’ and ‘hop’ has unfortunate ‘bunny’ associations – as if I’ve been given fluffy ears and a scut to bounce around in – hah!) Jenny is renowned as the author of Leap the Wild Water, a widely-acclaimed historical novel focusing upon the sufferings of women and the harsh conflicts and unbearable tensions between self and society in rural Wales two hundred years ago; she’s getting close to releasing a sequel to it, The Calling of the Raven, and is already working on the third book. Thanks, Jenny, for this opportunity to join The Writing Process and best wishes for The Raven! (Do visit her blog at http://jennylloydwriter.wordpress.com/, which for me has wonderfully sensitive insights into her homeland, its people and its history… wiv pitchers!)
So, here I go, with a bounce:
What am I working on?
I’m just writing the concluding chapters to Sausage Hall, the third DI Yates novel. Like the first two novels in the Yates series, it is set mostly in Lincolnshire, though some of the action also takes place in Norfolk. Sausage Hall is the name that the locals give the house that is called Laurieston in the novel. It is situated in the village of Sutterton and based on an actual house, which really was nicknamed Sausage Hall, because it had been built by a butcher who’d gone bankrupt in the 1850s. My grandmother, having worked in domestic service all of her life, moved when she was sixty to Sutterton, which is about ten miles from Spalding and seven miles from Boston, to become companion to a very old lady who lived there. The old lady had been the wife of a gentleman farmer who was twenty years her senior, so he must have been born in the mid-nineteenth century. The house was frozen in a time warp. It was packed with quaint furnishings, but the most astounding thing about it (though as a child I just accepted it as normal) was that the walls were decorated with many sepia photographs of the old lady’s husband when he’d been on safari in Africa as a young man. These photographs must have been taken in the 1870s or 1880s and in many of them he was accompanied by several black women wearing very little except strings of beads. It has long been my intention to write about what I think might have happened in this house. When I began researching the period and the district, my plot was given a considerable boost when I discovered that someone very famous had lived nearby in the late nineteenth century. That person appears in the novel, too. The book is set in the present, but the characters and their actions are considerably influenced by what went on at Sausage Hall more than a century ago.
How does my work differ from others in this genre?
As is well-known (especially by those who organise creative writing courses!), the genre of crime fiction is usually divided into several sub-genres. I’m only interested in a few of these: primarily the psychological crime novel, with a slighter nod to the ‘woman at risk’ variant. Except tangentially – for I do try to get the facts right about policing, the law and the justice system – I’m not what is known as a ‘procedural’ crime writer. I don’t plod through all of the police action step by step, leaving no ‘i’ undotted or ‘t’ uncrossed. Nor do I seek to hold my readers’ attention or shock them with descriptions of excessive violence or bloody massacres. I don’t write action thrillers or spy novels. Conversely, I’m not a creator of what has been called ‘cosy’ crime: the type of novel that those of a nervous disposition can happily read in bed at night when in the house on their own. I like to think that, through careful characterisation and as much psychological insight as I can command, my novels explore some pretty gritty truths and moral dilemmas. I also try to flip the crime-writing conventions on their head in various ways: for example, I tend not to tie up all the loose ends (life’s just not like that) and, flying in the face of the notion of catharsis, I don’t always make it absolutely clear who the perpetrator is. I’ve been told by several reviewers that I’ve broken new ground in the crime genre, but I try not to stretch this too far. For example, I don’t think it works to try to mix genres and combine crime with Science Fiction or Fantasy – a few authors might be able to pull it off, but they’d have to be very skilful indeed. More prosaically, although my novels are set in the present, the town of Spalding in which most of the action in the Yates series occurs is the Spalding of my childhood, not the town as it is today. This gives me the advantage of being able to write about a finite, unchanging place that only I have access to, because it is locked in my memory (with all that that implies).
Why do I write what I do?
I’m not wedded always to being exclusively a crime writer. I’ve written novels and short stories which would certainly be pigeon-holed in the ‘literary fiction’ bracket by most publishers. However, although the quality of my writing was praised when I tried to publish some of these (others have not been and never will be shown to anyone!), I repeatedly received feedback that I needed to tighten up on the plot and make my work more accessible generally. I therefore decided to try writing crime fiction, because it requires a tight and carefully-constructed plot and the action itself keeps the novel moving on nicely. The constraints of the genre provide an excellent way of creating and maintaining self-discipline in the writing. I have to weed out the ‘purple passages’ when revising if I realise that they don’t contribute to the plot. Once I have a sound plot, I’m also less likely to get stuck or suffer from ‘writer’s block’ than when writing literary fiction. However, although I’m very happy writing crime fiction and shall continue to do so, I do have other plans in the pipeline as well.
How does my writing process work?
Following on from what I’ve said in the paragraph above, plot is very important in crime fiction. Once I have an idea for a novel, I work painstakingly on the plot, often during my long annual holiday in France, until I am satisfied that I can make it work. I will usually also draft a half-page outline for each chapter. I don’t always stick exactly to my original plot afterwards, but, if I change it, I make sure that the changes don’t create inconsistencies elsewhere in the novel. I don’t start out by conducting the research. Although I do research the background to my books thoroughly, I tend to do this as I go along. This works better for me than conducting the research at the outset, because, like most writers, I am easily seduced by reading. It’s very easy to spend several days on what you might like virtuously to term ‘research’ when what you’re actually doing is enjoying yourself by feeding a curiosity that far exceeds the requirements of the novel! I’m a firm believer in writing every day if possible, though I don’t set myself huge word targets. I’m satisfied with 1,000 words a day or a little more. I revise constantly – the first revision usually takes place on the same day as the original writing, and I’ll often revise it the next day before I start writing again. Thereafter, I revise in groups of chapters – every time I’ve completed, say, the next eight or ten chapters, I’ll revise this group as a single ‘chunk’ of writing. Often I do this on long train journeys. Finally, I revise the whole book all the way through, sometimes more than once, keeping a sharp look-out for inconsistencies and other solecisms and sharpening up the text. Then I hand the MS over to my husband for checking. He is an even fiercer critic of my work than I am and, as well as weeding out inconsistencies, will scrutinise the grammar, punctuation and syntax. Although I don’t always agree with his suggested revisions, his contribution is invaluable.
‘Ere, Valerie, your turn! Have some fluffy ears and a white fluffy tail and go hopping! I nominate Val Poore @vallypee for this excitement. She’s both a teacher of English for business and academic purposes and a historic bargee… sorry, she owns a historic live-aboard barge in Rotterdam and has turned her rich experiences in England, South Africa and The Netherlands into both funny and serious stories, both autobiographical and fictional. One, The Skipper’s Child, recently won the Wishing Shelf Silver Award. Respek! You’ll find her faring along the European canal system or simply soaking up the atmosphere of Oude Haven, here: http://wateryways.blogspot.co.uk/
Oh, as for blog-hopping, I don’t know quite how it happened, but Jenny’s nomination for today coincided with Bodicia’s very kind guest blog opportunity here. I had to use a bit of the same material for this post on my site, so I hope you will forgive me for that.
Fascination with the aristocracy? Read this…
I first encountered Catherine Bailey’s work when I read Black Diamonds, a book to which I was drawn by an article in The Sunday Times about Wentworth Woodhouse, a massive stately home not far away from where I live and of which I had previously been barely aware.
By chance, The Secret Rooms is also about a stately home situated in an area with which I am very familiar, Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. It isn’t too far away from Spalding and is a place which I visited several times in my childhood, once on a primary school trip and at least twice more when my mother was hooked on Sunday afternoon visits to the grand houses that had begun to open their doors to the public in order to make ends meet (admission charges were half a crown for adults, children half-price).
Although I’m sure that the guides I encountered and the guide-book that my mother would have religiously bought told me something about the Manners family who lived there, I have long since forgotten the details. I do, however, remember the name ‘Manners’ and I knew that Lady Diana Manners, the sister of the ninth Duke of Rutland, was a renowned beauty who eventually became the witty society hostess Lady Diana Cooper, wife of the journalist Duff Cooper. She and he were both writers and still writing when I got my first job in the book industry.
Like Black Diamonds, The Secret Rooms gradually uncovers the secrets of an aristocratic family that tried its best to conceal them. The chief concealer in this instance is the ninth Duke. He occupies the central role in this story (I won’t call him a ‘hero’, as he doesn’t quite match up to the term). His full name was John Brinsley Henry Manners. A World War One veteran (of sorts), he died of a chest infection when only in his fifties, a death certainly hastened and possibly caused by shutting himself up in the dank basement servants’ quarters at Belvoir for days on end with the family papers, from which he excised many details relating to himself. He particularly wanted to expunge all trace of three distinct periods in his life. Catherine Bailey manages to get to the bottom of his secrets in two of these; the third remains a mystery.
If John is not a hero, neither is he quite an anti-hero, but Bailey provides a fine portrait of an anti-heroine: Violet, Duchess of Rutland, John’s mother. Partisan (even when distributing her favours among her own children), snobbish and scheming, she sweeps through the book, an anachronism even in her own time, the epitome of ruthless privilege, an arch-representative of a social class that was finally annihilated by the Second World War. Bailey tries to suggest that Violet was responsible for all or most of John’s shortcomings. In this, she does not quite succeed. From her account, John may have been more melancholy than his mother and, warped by her rejection of him during childhood, undoubtedly less socially confident, but she can hardly be held to account for the shabby way in which he treated his much younger wife, or indeed the way in which he exploited women generally. The reader sympathises, however, with the fact that John’s talents as a historian – he became a distinguished self-taught mediaevalist – are scorned by the family, who simply see his accomplishments as further evidence of his ‘oddness’. Only his uncle, Charles Lindsay, shows any real empathy with him or insight into his character. It may be significant that ‘Charlie’ is a closet homosexual. The author hints that some of John’s behaviour might be attributed to his own suppressed sexual proclivities.
Black Diamonds is a very successful book. The Secret Rooms has already won many plaudits and is well on its way to being as stellar, if not more so, than its predecessor. Bailey has grown more assured as a writer in the latter book, which is generally of benefit to the reader, and both books are equally well-researched. Her control of the narrative is admirable, although it occasionally results in a certain amount of artifice which can jar a little. For example, her account of John’s movements during the First World War does not follow the chronological order of events, unlike the rest of the book; we are ambushed with the details, first, of his broken engagement and secondly, of his marriage, with no prior warning of the existence of either of the women concerned. Granted, this makes the book read more like a thriller (if that’s want the reader wants); it may also indicate that these episodes were written with one eye on turning it into a film or television documentary. But I’m being too churlish, now, about a book that absorbed me for four evenings in a row during a recent short break on the East coast, when I was also recuperating from a nasty cold. If you like well-written English social history, have a fascination with the aristocracy, or just enjoy immersing yourself in a true-life mystery, you will not be disappointed in this book.