I spent the weekend reading a novel (no, not the one above, which I’ll mention later) that described a series of events with which I am personally familiar, although they happened more than ten years ago and my role at the time was very much that of bystander – I didn’t know most of the facts until some years later. I emphasise the word ‘facts’ – I’m not talking about a lookalike situation here. I didn’t know there would be any kind of personal connection when I bought the book. It is by an author whose work I have read before – mainly in the form of journalism – and I was curious to know how she had shaped up as a novelist.
As I embarked on the novel and the narrative unfolded, I was stunned to realise that this was an undisguised account of those very events. The only subterfuge the author had used was to give the main characters different names – though names very much in keeping with the originals. She didn’t, for example, rename a Charles ‘Sidney’ or a Joanna ‘Edith’.
The novel tells the story of a love triangle. The three protagonists are a married couple and the man’s colleague, with whom he embarks upon an affair. Nothing special about that – it’s one of the oldest plots in the world. Think Jacob, Leah and Rachel or Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot. Think The English Patient. This novel’s uniqueness lies in the detail: the venue and circumstances of the lovers’ first tryst, the man’s family situation, the place to which he takes his by-now mistress for a holiday, his death by suicide. Yes, indeed – the man commits suicide, unable to extricate himself from the mess which he has made of his life. And my point is: none of this is fiction.
Let me wind back to my own very tangential participation in this tale. I have never met the author, who is the mistress in the triangle. I have also never met the wife. As far as I know, neither is aware of my existence. I knew the husband as a professional acquaintance during the last months of his life – although of course neither he nor I knew that they were. I had just set up a new freelance business and I was working on a project with him. Out of the blue, his PA called me and told me he had “died suddenly”. I didn’t know it was suicide until some years later, when I worked on another project with another of his former colleagues, who had by now moved to a different company. We talked about his death and she described to me more of the details that led up to it.
As a result, and belatedly, I am much more clued up now about the course of events than I was immediately after they took place; and what strikes me very forcefully is that most of what I have just read in this ‘novel’ is not fiction at all. Except for the passages that conjecture what the main actors were feeling (including the wife, who, unsurprisingly, is not portrayed with much sympathy until the end), it is a blow-by-blow, more or less verbatim account of what actually happened. It may very well have been cathartic – and even lucrative – for the author, but what about the emotions it will have triggered in the other players in the story, particularly the wife? How could she have felt when she realised the hugely distressing events that had changed her life forever had been dragged into service as ‘fiction’? What about the two sons, now young men, who were teenagers at the time?
I have asked these questions rhetorically, but I am genuinely interested to know what others think. I am aware that authors have sometimes been taken to court for writing about characters who bear too close a resemblance – or even the same name – as someone who exists. For example, the first printing of Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (great novel if you don’t know it) was recalled after an acquaintance of his objected to his use of her name and he had to change the name. Conversely, I know some authors make fictional use of their own experiences but relate them to characters who are quite different from the originals. None of my own characters is recognisable as an individual who truly exists, though I have observed and written about unusual characteristics in people I know to make my characters more interesting.
When does something billed as fiction actually become ‘faction’ – and how much should an author be allowed to get away with, not just legally, but also morally speaking?
I have chosen not to name the title of the novel I’ve been discussing here or identify its author. I do not want to add more oxygen to the publicity it has already received. I don’t wish to sound sanctimonious, but reading this book has made me feel very uncomfortable indeed.
It is National Libraries Week (see Libraries Week). This is a great occasion for public libraries in the UK to showcase all their brilliant initiatives and demonstrate how much they do to support their local communities. Each year, National Libraries Week adopts a theme; this year’s is ‘Taking Action, Saving Lives’.
Given the unprecedented events of the last (almost) two years, it could hardly be more apposite. Like almost every kind of institution, public libraries here closed down for a few weeks during the first lockdown – and, like millions of people, I immediately noticed this left a big draughty gap in my life. Some people felt the loss much more acutely – both practically and emotionally, they really had lost a lifeline.
We were fortunate that most libraries continued to be resourceful, even in lockdown – my former school friend, Jane Barber, who works at Stamford Library, told me how she had quickly mastered how to run story-telling events and competitions online. Staff at the British Library searched their world-class collections to dazzle and entertain members with a stream of online displays and exhibitions and, as a result, I have discovered more about maps, newspapers, oriental art, Anthony Gormley, ‘killer bunnies’ and many other topics that I would otherwise never have explored. Wonderful as all these things were and are, it was with great joy that I received the notification on 17th August that the British Library Reading Rooms were open again – with no need to book. Long may that last!
I have written many times on this blog about how libraries have supported me and my books by inviting me to take part in readings and other events and, most importantly, by also finding great audiences to attend them. The last event I took part in – ‘The Body in the Library’ – was at Stamford in late January 2020.
Shortly after that, Stamford and every other library in the country had to cancel events and shut their doors. As I’ve said, the libraries didn’t stay completely closed for long – they operated click-and-collect facilities, allowed patrons to enter in limited numbers and developed other ingenious stratagems to provide essential services. Events, however, remained untenable. First to disappear from the library schedule, they have also (of course with good reason) been last to be reinstated.
I was therefore delighted last week to receive an invitation from Sharman Morriss, librarian at Spalding Library, to kick off its celebrations for National Crime Month by taking part in an event at the library on 4th November. Sharman and I had a call about it earlier today, during which she gave me total carte blanche over what form the event should take. So far, we have just agreed that it will start at 14.00 on 4th November and last perhaps for one-and-a-half or two hours. My editor and I will come up with a programme for it shortly and, after Sharman and her colleagues have approved, I’ll post more details about it on the blog. If you’re in the Spalding neighbourhood on that day, I do hope you will find time to come! More than anything else since the lockdown regulations were relaxed in July, Sharman’s invitation has persuaded me that we’re back on the road to normality.
In the meantime, I shall scrutinise the National Libraries Week website avidly each day and celebrate the huge variety of events that librarians are sharing to celebrate it. Sharman said that earlier today she and her colleagues had welcomed guide dogs to Spalding Library. Other libraries are posting details about initiatives that support the housebound, prisons and mental well-being. There will be more as the week progresses.
I know I’ve said this before, so I hope you’ll forgive the repetition: Librarians and booksellers are the (largely) unsung but nevertheless peerless civilisers of modern existence. They deserve our support; we’d be lost without theirs.
I must confess I am not a connoisseur of ‘Young Adult’ (YA) novels. I was a student when everyone was reading Tolkien and Mervyn Peake, so they didn’t appeal, but at the time there was in any case no question of their being aimed at teenagers. They were books for adults – hip, trendy adults, the same ones who liked Monty Python. YA as a genre had yet to be invented. It still lay in the future when my son was born a decade later. And, although eventually I read to him ‘The Hobbit’ and the Narnia novels, they were not billed as belonging to the YA genre. As a bookseller, I was responsible for cataloguing fiction and the genre in which we placed them was firmly labelled ‘fantasy’. Fantasy was science fiction without the science. C.S. Lewis was considered ‘a good thing’ by the librarians who were my main customers because his novels were allegories of the Christian condition, but they bought the Narnia books for the under-twelves, not for adolescents. I’ve read Steinbeck, of course (but long before some of his works were hi-jacked from mainstream adult and appropriated as YA), and I’ve read and enjoyed some of Philip Pullman’s and Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but there my acquaintance with YA ends.
Or, ‘had ended’. This summer, I read a book called ‘Love is the answer’ which took my breath away. Its publisher, QuoScript, classifies it as YA and, although I would agree that this is the primary genre to which it belongs, I’d also say it is a ‘crossover’ book, i.e., one that holds appeal for all readers from the age of twelve onwards.
‘Love is the answer’ is the debut novel of Ben Craib. It’s about loss, grieving, going off the rails and, above all, the value of love in all its true forms – love of parents, love of friends, legitimate love of self. It distinguishes between these ‘pure’ forms of love and the false and destructive love that springs from self-doubt, spiting former partners by shacking up with a ‘rebound’ lover and using an unsatisfactory relationship to bolster self-esteem. This makes the novel sound sombre and moralistic, but in fact it is the opposite – vibrant with some of the best dialogue I have ever read, extremely funny in a sitcom kind of way and lyrical without being precious.
‘Love is the answer’ tells the story of Scarlett, whose mother has died of cancer by the time the novel begins, though she appears in some flashbacks. Scarlett, who has clearly now arrived at the angry part of the grieving process, is reluctantly (and badly) keeping house for her father, who is himself floundering in grief. Although he clearly loves Scarlett, he shows it in all the wrong ways, coming across sometimes as heavily dictatorial as a Victorian papa, sometimes ridiculously over-indulgent (because he doesn’t want to lose his daughter) and always as out of his depth emotionally as Scarlett herself.
Other important characters include Elliot and Bad Ben, Scarlett’s two college friends, whom she all but abandons when she meets Hayden, her first proper boyfriend, and Jennifer, Scarlett’s father’s new girlfriend, a slim, elegant ballet teacher who seems to hold all the cards when Scarlett herself holds none. Scarlett resents Jennifer and rejects her genuine concern. She does not recognise the deep affection in which she is held by Elliot and Bad Ben. She fights against her father’s protectiveness and instead throws in her lot with Hayden, believing that she has not only found her soul-mate, but, through nurturing their relationship, the solution to all her predicaments.
That’s certainly enough of the plot, though I’ll just highlight a few of the other riches within this poised and light-of-touch but very accomplished novel. First of all, the characters: all the leading ones are complex and self-contradictory – at times, noble and brave; at times, absurd and cowardly. Ben Craib is a master of characterisation, a gift which he extends to the minor characters, too. My favourites among these are Cenk, the thuggish Cockney/Turkish owner of Scarlett’s local convenience store, and Mikey Miles, the ageing, pathetic – but extremely wealthy – pop star whom Scarlett and the other residents of Hayden’s squat treat as a sort of demi-god. And the sub-plots are fascinating: Ben Craib wears his knowledge lightly, but he is clearly expert on contemporary music and – more originally – superheroes, the comics in which they feature and the strange fantasy world which their fans inhabit. Ironies abound, some so subtle that it takes two or three readings to recognise the nuances in the masterfully constructed narrative. As I’ve said, Craib also has a natural ear for dialogue. I won’t elaborate further – I’ve said my piece. I do encourage you to read this book, whether you identify as a YA reader or one of more mature years, especially if, like me, you have always thought the YA genre is divided between ‘Frozen’-style fantasies and gritty, if hackneyed, works about modern teenage angst. ‘Love is the answer’ has so much more to offer than this, to readers of any age. It is the novel that has persuaded me never to pass by the YA sections in my local bookshop in future. There may well be other masterpieces hiding there! And I look forward with impatience to reading Ben Craib’s next book.
It is my privilege to have received an advance copy of The Physics of Grief, by Mickey J. Corrigan. Mickey is an author whose work I have long admired, someone who brings wisdom, humour and gracious writing to both the mundane and humdrum grind of daily life and to the truly horrific events that occasionally engulf human beings. This book is published today, April 22nd 2021, by QuoScript.
The Physics of Grief is classic Mickey. The protagonist of the book, Seymour Allan, is initially only a semi-likeable character to whom the reader is drawn – if at all – by sympathy for his situation. He is living in a retirement complex because poverty, rather than old age and infirmity, has made this a necessity. He is broke; he is lonely; he is full of self-loathing; and he lives alone, save for a stray cat he has adopted. (Note from a cat lover: few characters in novels who love cats are entirely bad.)
Seymour’s luck changes when he is accosted in a café by the mysterious and enigmatic Raymond C. Dasher. For me, Dasher is the most intriguing character in the whole novel. Is he even a real human being? There clings about him something of the supernatural, reminiscent perhaps of Hermes Diaktoros, the “fat man” of Anne Zouroudi’s crime novels set in Greece (surely intended as an earthly manifestation of Zeus?), who comes and goes like the Cheshire Cat, or of the shade of the grim reaper who lurks in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, having a voice but never a physical presence.
But Raymond C. Dasher is both corporeal and articulate. He’s not particularly likeable, either: he has a dangerous sense of humour that verges on the cruel and he treats his employees – or perhaps I should say employee, because Seymour never meets any of his colleagues, another puzzle – with casual if paternalistic contempt. Nevertheless, the poverty-stricken Seymour does agree to become an employee of Dasher, as a professional griever (apparently this is genuinely a way of making a living in several countries today – not entirely surprising, as paid mourners, or ‘mutes’, were a definitive part of the grief landscape in Victorian Britain, too).
Corrigan has great fun while portraying Seymour at work, as he uncovers the back-story behind each of the deceased who, without being able to muster a respectable number of personal mourners, has left cash to pay to plug the gap at the funeral with “extras”. And whose funerals are they? You’ll be enmeshed!
However – and with a few hiccoughs at the start – Seymour begins to take it all in his stride… with what effect on himself? And how is he personally affected? What lies in his back-story? Corrigan’s skill plays delicately with the reader’s reactions to this man.
Funny, sad, ambiguous, profoundly philosophical yet grounded in the reality of the everyday, extremely erudite about the customs of death (but wearing its erudition lightly), The Physics of Grief is a hauntingly beautiful novel about people and why they do what they do – until they die. And Corrigan also manages to suggest without any hint of religiousness, that even then – perhaps – death is not the end. This is a crime novel with a labyrinth of twists, its originality breath-taking. If you are looking for a mesmerising book to read this spring, you can hardly do better than to invest in The Physics of Grief.
De Vries, my latest novel, is published today. It makes a more tentative entry into the world than my other books, emerging cautiously, like us, as the lockdown restrictions are gradually relaxed… and I must say I can’t wait to visit some bookshops next week! Not being able to go to bookshops and talk to booksellers has been one of the greatest privations of this latest lockdown – for thousands of others, I know, as well as for me. Unlike all my other books, therefore, De Vries cannot be launched in a bookshop. However, Carla Green and Alison Swainson at BBC Radio Lincolnshire have kindly offered De Vries a virtual book launch on the Carla Green programme today. If you are able to, please tune in at 15.10, with your glasses charged! There are some library and bookshop events planned for later in the year and I’ll keep everyone posted.
De Vries has already been blessed by several kind and perspicacious reviewers who read it ahead of publication date. I include some of their reviews in this post. I’d like to thank you, Stacey, Mickey and Jane, for taking the time and the trouble to write such brilliant reviews. I appreciate them hugely.
I also include some photos of the Sakura (cherry) blossom, sent to me by my friend and colleague Katsunori Iino, who lives in Shiga, Japan. The ancient Japanese Hanami ritual celebrates the fleeting beauty of this blossom of a species of ornamental cherry. The ancient Japanese sages compared the precious short-lived splendour of these flowers with life itself and believed both should be enjoyed to the full before they slip away. I hope they’ll bring the readers of this blog some calm and joy as we all begin to embrace life to the full once more – and we shall, I’m sure, still find plenty of time to read!
Reviews of De Vries
From Stacey Haber:
I loved this book. A quick read and intriguing from start to finish.
It’s not your typical murder mystery in that it doesn’t open with a dead body and the central character sleuth. It opens with a mystery, just not the one we’re expecting. If you’ve not read its predecessor Sausage Hall, then you’re greeted with a man who knows he’s at risk and in a place he shouldn’t be. You are immediately propelled to the edge of your seat and the tension of a good mystery stays with you from page one. If you have read Sausage Hall, then the mysteries of ‘why’ and ‘why now’ are all the more present and shocking.
The web of characters in this story resonates with purpose. The introduction of the many characters takes the time deserved and the unfolding of the story is like a film camera slowing pulling back to reveal that web. It’s a glorious reveal in slow motion with rich detail and intrigue.
When the protagonist and side kick DI Tim Yates and DS Juliet Armstrong finally appear, it’s a relief; a relief that things will all become clear soon and that the characters that we care about have a chance of a resolution, even if not a happy ending. Yates and Armstrong are wonderfully pragmatic and determined. Armstrong in particular has a mind that is a joy to follow and an instinct for detail that would be lost on anyone else.
Can’t wait for the next instalment in the DI Yates series.
From Mickey Corrigan:
Hijinks at Sausage Hall: De Vries by Christina James
When Kevan de Vries returns to the family home in Sutterton, South Lincolnshire, he knows he is taking a huge risk. He’s wanted by the local police for questioning in the disappearance of his former employee, a man accused of running of a child trafficking ring. De Vries’ attorney, the manipulative Ms Jean Rook, has power of attorney in more ways than the usual. And there are some ghosts he must confront. His dead wife, for one. The missing trafficker. Not to mention some hundred-year-old skeletons the police dug up in the cellar.
There’s much at stake, but de Vries is bored living on the lam in St. Lucia, idling his time while avoiding extradition and waiting for his son Archie’s school recess. Thus, his return to ‘Laurieston House’ (which the locals call ‘Sausage Hall’, in reference to the butcher who went bankrupt building it) and the dangers it represents, the demons he must face. He’s also on a quest. Not to clear his name, but to discover its secrets. His birth certificate lists his father as “unknown” and de Vries is determined to fill in the blanks.
Agnes Price is worried about one of her young students from the seasonal workers’ camp. Mirela Sala is underfed, underdressed, and bears other signs of abuse when Agnes takes her under her wing. But Mirela’s scary “uncle” takes offense, which leads to violence and threats of more. Already stressed from a previous run-in with a stalker, Agnes struggles to maintain her composure while distracting herself with a project for the local Archeological Society. That’s where de Vries meets her – and rather quickly falls for her.
DI Yates and DS Armstrong, the likeable cops involved in the child trafficking bust, are back on the job. (If you are a Christina James fan, you will recognize these characters from the DI Yates series.) Drawn in by the possibility that de Vries is hiding out at Sausage Hall, they launch another one of their intuition based investigations, only to get sidetracked when a townswoman goes missing.
Will de Vries solve his paternity mystery before the law finds him? Will he be able to explain his legal troubles to Agnes? Is the child trafficker dead—or still in business? What will the Archeological Society dig up? And where did those old skeletons at Sausage Hall come from? Are there more?
Enquiring minds must find out, which is why I couldn’t stop reading. I greatly admire a writer who can lure me in with an addictive plot and make me fall in love with a motley group of well-drawn characters as she fits all the puzzle pieces together. I won’t say more as I don’t want to spoil your read. It’s a fun one by a master storyteller.
From Jane Barber:
Kevan De Vries has spent seven years living in St Lucia and has decided to return to his home in Sutterton. The police are still interested in questioning him about his business manager’s disappearance and involvement in criminal activity. Kevan would prefer not to answer their questions so decides to travel incognito.
He needs to spend time at his old family home of ‘Sausage Hall’ to try and find out any information about his father. His mother and grandfather never would answer his questions.
Sausage Hall has a lot of secrets – is it about to divulge some more? And what connection is there with the crimes that DI Yates and his team are investigating?
I had wondered what had happened to Kevan De Vries – this time he is the one looking for answers and finding himself attracting unwanted attention. I liked the different narratives of de Vries and the police and found myself hoping he escaped safely back to St Lucia.
The local Lincolnshire settings are so well described and enhance the story so well. I can visualise all the places mentioned.
An excellent read.
Thank you once again, Stacey, Mickey and Jane, for such perceptive and tantalising reviews. I very much appreciate them.
May I wish everyone a rapid escape from the restrictions that the pandemic continues to impose and enduring good health and happiness thereafter.
This is the third in the series of posts about De Vries. It explores the role of ‘Sausage Hall’ in the novel, particularly whether the house itself can have influenced the course of events that take place.
Buildings fascinate because they are so much part of the era in which they were built – which means that, to a greater or lesser extent, almost everyone lives within some construct of the past. Buildings are also the backdrop to the events that take place within them. Can they remember these events, perhaps even absorb some quintessential miasma from them? It hardly seems fanciful to think so – such a belief is sometimes even embraced by officialdom. Thus, Gloucestershire Council in 1996, shortly after the conviction of Fred and Rosemary West, razed to the ground 25 Cromwell Street, scene of many horrific murders, ostensibly to stop souvenir hunters but also because its continued existence gave local people ‘the creeps’; and the council house where Myra Hindley lived with her grandmother and Ian Brady, where they murdered Edward Evans, was also demolished, though, curiously, only twenty-two years after Hindley and Brady were imprisoned. Manchester Council eventually found it impossible to let the house because successive tenants complained of a ‘dreadful sense of brooding’ there. Imagination or fact?
As a child, I visited Hardwick Hall – built by Bess of Hardwick, the ancestress of the Dukes of Devonshire – before it was taken over by the National Trust. Despite the famous adage ‘Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall’, the house at that time was dark and chilly and neither very clean nor in a good state of repair. There weren’t many visitors on that day – I think it was in early spring, probably just after the house had been opened up after the winter – and I was dawdling behind my parents. They had disappeared beyond the top of the shallow-stepped stone staircase that led to the first floor by the time I began to climb it myself. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that I was quite alone. I carried on up the steps – I was looking to my right at a large faded tapestry on the wall, apparently woven in greys and browns – when something brushed against my shoulder and my leg. It was soft, a fabric of some kind. In less than a second it had passed me. When I looked back at the foot of the staircase again, I caught a glimpse of a woman in a long, dark dress smartly walking away. Although subsequently no-one believed me, I was convinced that I had seen Bess herself. Had some essence of her survived, fostered perhaps by the sheer force of her personality? Had her spirit been left free to roam when her descendants decamped to the even grander house they built at Chatsworth? Since the National Trust took over the property, I have visited the house several more times, but never again felt any inkling of an uncanny presence there. Is that because in the process of undertaking much necessary restoration work, the National Trust has ‘sanitised’ it? (Like every other NT house, it now has a tea-room, a gift shop, cordons to keep you off the furniture and attendants everywhere.) Or is it because children really can see and feel almost imperceptible elemental forces that adults can no longer detect? I still don’t believe I imagined the whole thing.
When Kevan de Vries leaves Sutterton in a hurry at the end of Sausage Hall, he has come to detest the house, the location of some of the unhappiest events in his life. Even more sinisterly, he has discovered that it was the scene of much evil-doing in the past. Yet when he returns to it incognito seven years later, as well as his quest to discover his father’s identity it is the house itself that draws him. His fascination is in part empirical: he knows there is a large number of papers and artefacts stored within the house that are likely to yield clues about his paternity. But there is more to it than that: at some level, he feels that the house, scene of his childhood, youth and married years, carries a part of himself, however much he may have tried to deny it during his exile in St Lucia.
Perhaps that is the great collective secret shared by all buildings once they have been inhabited: like light years, they don’t just exist in the present, but within a continuum reaching right back to their foundation. They face both forwards and backwards: they absorb and are shaped by the loves, fears and hatreds of those who have occupied them. They have characters, sometimes charming, sometimes terrible. As they grow older, their personality changes: they possess their own powerful kind of DNA, incremental rather than fixed. They become companions, not just enclosures of living space. Kevan de Vries is the central human character in De Vries; but in every step he takes he is shadowed, perhaps even influenced, by Sausage Hall.
I thought my readers would be interested in the post below. It tells the story of how Heather Anderson, whom I worked with during my ‘day job’ trip to Australia in 2019, was marooned in Fiji after the country was locked down because of COVID and had to stay there for almost nine months. I think it is an extraordinary story of resilience and creative thinking. Heather’s achievement while exiled from her family was immense – and, as she says herself, the experience will have changed her forever. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am!
No one will forget last year, the ‘COVID year’. Most people worked – are in fact still working – from home, and many have found ingenious workarounds to enable them to carry on almost as normal. Few, however, can claim to have experienced new adventures in 2020, the year when monochrome surroundings and hugely reduced personal interaction became the norm.
Heather Anderson, Cambridge Academic’s Sales Support Consultant in Australia and New Zealand, has an entirely different story to tell. Heather planned a five-day visit to Fiji in March… and ended up staying for more than eight months, trapped by the country’s lockdown as the pandemic reached Australia and the Pacific region.
Shortly after Heather arrived in Fiji, COVID infections in the region began to escalate, but Fiji itself was still clear of the disease. Its government therefore made a swift decision to close its borders, largely because the village lifestyle of the Fijian people would make social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining impossible. This decision was not taken lightly: inevitably there was a huge economic price to pay, as the country depends solely on tourism. However, the initiative worked: Fiji continued to be COVID-free for nearly the entire time Heather was there. Just a few cases arrived from overseas during June, an outbreak that was contained by quarantining those infected.
The Australian government organised one repatriation flight, in April, but Heather did not hear of it until it was fully booked. Every month for almost nine months, she booked herself on a scheduled flight home that eventually was cancelled. She finally reached home – she lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland – on 6th December 2020, following a repatriation flight to Brisbane and quarantine.
Heather continued to do her job for the whole time she was away. Because the visit she had planned was so short, initially she had not intended to take her laptop and other working tools with her, but changed her mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of the outward flight. Once she realised she would be marooned in Fiji, she managed to purchase a WiFi modem and set up her ‘office’ in a village on Viti Levu, the ‘Coral Coast’.
She explained her situation to some of her librarian customers and some already knew, from discussions with her colleagues. She is grateful to them for the support she received: she says they were very empathetic; most of them checked on her each week, sending funny jokes, video snips or just supportive notes.
Michael Cowley, the Sales Director of Cambridge Academic in Australia, contacted Heather regularly to check on her wellbeing and she continued to join weekly video calls with the Cambridge HE/Library team: “My direct academic team in Australia were wonderfully supportive and showed so much care and compassion, which was really great. That got me through the working weeks.”
Despite all the remote support she was able to channel, Heather found it extremely difficult to adjust to the knowledge that she would be detained in Fiji indefinitely, even though she was also very aware that others in the world were suffering more because of the pandemic. At first, time dragged when she wasn’t working, but then she realised she could be of huge practical help to the islanders, who had lost their jobs. Heather takes up the story.
“I got involved in raising funds for the youth in the area I was staying. Their parents had all lost their jobs, because they worked in tourism and they were really struggling to feed the children and get them back to school. The picture of me below, in the Fijian jumba (it is red), was taken at the main fundraising event. Altogether we raised $25,000FJD for the young people, which was an enormous help in taking pressure off their parents.”
Enforced exile and collapse of the local economy was not all Heather and the islanders had to contend with:
“During April we were hit by a Category 5 Cyclone, which wiped out all the plantations these families were relying on for food and money – they had hoped to sell their produce at the markets – so the fund-raiser really helped raise hopes and gave immediate relief.”
Heather is an inveterate animal lover – she particularly likes penguins! – and spent the rest of her spare time on animal welfare:
“I fed all the dogs in the village every day for over eight months. In partnership with Animals Fiji, I also ran an
animal de-sexing clinic to help the many stray and starving dogs on the island. I also ran mini-education sessions for the kids and adults in the village, to give them basic tips on how to care for their animals and how to carry on feeding them after I left. I am now sending monthly payments to those families to purchase extra food for the animals they own and pay for basic medicine to cope with fleas, ticks and worms.”
Heather says that one of her main ‘positives’ was that she lost weight rapidly while she was in Fiji – almost sixteen kilos altogether. She thinks it was mainly the result of eating ‘clean’, simple foods and walking on rough terrain, especially sand dunes. Taking up fishing also entailed a lot of walking.
“The Government imposed military curfews for the entire time I was there, which was unnerving at first but seemed to work well. Most people obeyed them. For several months, the curfew lasted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, then the restrictions were gradually eased, so it was running from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. by the time I left.
“I really tried to keep positive and busy, but deep down I was struggling every day. I knew my husband, at home in Australia, was unwell. Each month my hopes were raised that I would be able to fly home and every time the flight was cancelled. I felt very fragile when I was told that I might not be able to leave Fiji until mid-March 2021.
“Just after I received this shattering news, my cousin sent me a list of repatriation flights which I hadn’t been told about, even though I had registered for absolutely every aid I possibly could. I shall be forever grateful to my cousin for giving me the heads up! I phoned immediately, to learn that there were only twenty seats available on a flight arranged for November 22nd and all had been taken. I explained how long I had been away and begged to be allowed on the flight. I boarded it as passenger twenty-one! I had two days to put everything straight and get to the airport.
“When I was finally on the plane, mask on and no one either side of me, I cried and cried: more tears than I thought possible. Finally, after months of trying and failing to go home, I was on my way.
“As soon as I the plane landed in Australia everyone on the flight was sent to a quarantine centre, so I had made it home only to find myself in ‘prison’ for fourteen long days. It wasn’t a major setback in the scheme of things, but I found those fourteen days the hardest of all. “2020 has taught me so much. I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for and I appreciate all the little things in life. I know now that kindness and open hearts will get you through almost anything. Material things truly are overrated. I was in a place where people barely had enough to eat, but the love and support of the families I knew and the smiles on the beautiful kids’ faces were riches of a much more worthwhile kind.”
[I wrote this post for the Cambridge University Press blog and it is with permission from CUP that I am also publishing it here.]
I’m sure that you will, at one time or another, have come across and been amused by Hannah Hillam’s ‘Are you going to sleep?’ cartoon meme, with the brain acquiring its own separate existence, floating above the bed and saying or asking something that wakes the girl up to eye-saucer-wide alertness. Such astute insights remind me that many of us experience sleeplessness and devise ways of overcoming it.
Often, when I can’t sleep, I play word games by making up a set of rules and then searching in my mind for words which adhere to them. Sometimes my hit rate is spectacular; on other occasions, I simply fall asleep – which is the object of the exercise, unless the game grows so interesting that I willingly become wider and wider awake. (Occasionally, I draft in my husband, who is usually initially annoyed at being disturbed, but then enters into the spirit of the current game with gusto, adding – to my annoyance, his own rules. 😉)
The following day, I usually remember the rules of the game, but the words themselves have floated away into the ether. Today, I have made a special effort to remember the words from a game I’ve been playing over the past several nights, substituting new ones when the originals, despite much brain-racking, have been lost.
I’ve turned my set of words into a very short story, just for fun. I thought my readers might like to share with me a spot of hilarity as we approach the happy season of what has been the most sombre year, I guess, that any of us can remember.
Can you spot the word rule that I used? And what leeway I gave myself?
Revolutionary and somewhat farinaceous Lady Louise, succumbing to a year-long compulsion of god-daughterliness, met the ambidextrous quantity surveyor bivouacked beside a zinziberaceous crematorium for equatorial hippopotamuses. He was voyeuristically observing the trouble-making kindergarten nurse, full of maliciousness, separating out xiphopaguses by the washing-house as she, importunate, planned a pre-accusation, much to his unexpectation – and later nauseation, although supported by documentation – that he had stolen her oleaginous juice-extractor.
Today is Bloomsday, June 16th, the date that James Joyce renders unforgettable in Ulysses. Ulysses was finally published in 1922, but the novel celebrates the day in 1904
that Joyce first met his long-term (and eventually ‘legal’) common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, who was then working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Dublin. Since I first read the novel in the 1970s, I’ve always quietly celebrated Bloomsday when it has come round each year and still enjoy dipping into Joyce’s account of the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on this day. I’ve written about it before, too, but today I have a new dimension to add, something I’d forgotten about for decades.
One of my Covid-19 lockdown projects has been to ‘bottom’ my study and sort through all the books and papers living there. I’ve almost completed this task. Sometimes it has been stressful: I knew I’d have to be ruthless and select some items for recycling or other forms of disposal and I’ve done so, discarding items that logic dictates I will never truly want to use or look at again, despite the happy memories they inspire and the tug of my hoarding instinct..
Many things remain sacrosanct, however, including some discoveries that have surprised and delighted me. Among these is a privately printed guide to the Martello tower that Buck Mulligan, the first character to appear in Ulysses, lives in in the novel.
A foolscap-sized pamphlet printed on hand-made paper, it is entitled James Joyce’s Tower, Sandycove, Co Dublin and was written by Joyce’s most famous biographer, Richard Ellman, and published in 1969.
I acquired it in the very hot summer of 1976, when it was sent to me by William ‘Monk’ Gibbon, an Irish poet and man of letters – in fact, long before then he was known as the Grand Old Man of Irish letters – whom I had contacted when I was carrying out research on George Moore, an Irish author who lurked on the periphery of the Gaelic Revival. As a young man, Gibbon knew W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory and George Moore, as well as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the real-life inspiration for Buck Mulligan. When I wrote to him, he was one of the last living links with these writers. He had also kept in touch with ‘George’ Yeats, Yeats’s wife, until her death a few years previously. He told me fascinating anecdotes about all of them and sent me several gifts, including the book about the Martello tower and a hand-written poem of his own, inscribed on a sheet of the same type of hand-made paper as the book. He had written out eighty copies of this, of which the one I have is numbered the fifteenth.
I’m posting a copy of the poem, but, in case some of the words are difficult to read, I’ve also transcribed it.
An Alphabet of Mortality
A’s for Arrival on the arena’s sand
B is our distant Birthright, long forgot.
C are the Cards, dealt deftly, to each man.
D is the Desperation of his lot.
E is for Eagerness, which conquers sloth.
F is our Folly, immense, which drags us down.
G are the hallowed, haloed, laurelled Great,
who scorned Happiness, that tinselled crown.
I the insatiable, insistent self.
J all its Jealousy and petty spite.
K is the coloured Kaleidoscope of our views
and L our longing for more stable sight.
M is the makeshift Madness of most lives.
N is Lear’s ‘Never’ to the fifth degree.
O’s the Occasion, haste or hesitate.
And P? Pride, Prejudice and Pedantry.
Q is the ultimate Query all must ask.
R the much-varied Responses from the dark.
S the great Silence, which puts speech to shame
and T the triumph when men leave this mark.
U is the infinite Universe, where there’s zoom,
when all the lies are dead, for Veritude.
W’s recovered Wholeness, which may yet
give X in the equation exactitude.
Y is for Yearning.
So, having overlooked
The many-lettered joys which, too, have been,
I, at the stake, do now recant and say
The Zephyr of my hopes was sweet and clean.
On the reverse side it is inscribed to me, with the message “to she …who knows that whatever the rest of it may say the last letter of my alphabet is the truest.”
It is dated December 15th 1976, the date of his 82nd birthday; he must have written the poem to celebrate it. He lived until 1987.
As I re-read it, it struck me that this poem contains sentiments that are very relevant for our present times (also his use of the word ‘zoom’ made me smile – he had, of course, no idea that in 2020 it would achieve fame as a brand name for a virtual communication product).
Happy Bloomsday, everyone!
This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.
A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’. The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine. All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.
The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin. Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.
What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.
There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed). Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.
Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330