Apr 2011

Greek Cottage Madness 2: Elementary Greek

When I bought my house—wearing my gold (or obsidian) tinted glasses—I had a smattering of Greek.

It was the smallest smattering possible, while still remaining language; possibly there is a term for this quantity in physics.

The following was my entire vocabulary:
oréa and kalá.

With a broad inclination towards trying to please, these two words had served me well for years.
oréa – beautiful (views, houses, meals, new babies, hats, boats) and kalá – fine, good. Kalá Pascha – happy Easter. I could say please – parakaló – and thank you – efaristó – and yiásou or yiá sas – hello.

WINDOW PAXOS
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New Beginnings (1)

The start of a new book is an odd time: exhilarating, unreal and, as yet, minus external pressure from publishers and banks. It’s how you dream writing might be. The first novel I wrote was fairly spontaneous - when I was supposed to be writing something else. (It’s surprising how fruitful the projects I’m not committed to writing about can be).

Of course this meant I had no idea if it would ever see light. My agent’s face fell when I told her I was trying fiction. ‘I do wish my non-fiction authors would stay with what they know,’ she muttered. ‘They so often write such dreadful novels.’

But now, as I embark on a third novel, and my seventh book, I’m in the slightly bizarre situation where my first novel, The Return of Captain John Emmett, is just out in paperback and is Orange new writers book of the month, my second, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, comes out next week and I’m doing various talks about that, and yet it is the ideas and characters for the third that are shouting for attention.... Read More...
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Greek Cottage Madness, 1: Trashed

I’ve always been something of an impulsive shopper, my urges only tempered by an ability to create online fantasy shopping lists on days when the writing’s going badly.

Six years ago I excelled myself in impulse. I bought a tiny cottage in Paxos, one of the islands of the Ionian archipelago. I was offered it out of the blue, it was very, very cheap (for some unexplained reason the rather edgy owner needed to leave the island in a hurry) and the sun was shining. The 100 year old house sat in an olive grove; it was midsummer and the only sound on the hillside was of cicadas and goat bells. A huge lemon tree grew by the door. Geraniums flourished in olive oil tins. The ceilings were coffered wood, the shutters original.

I’d been coming to Paxos since I was a child, so surely the savings on future holidays almost made it a bargain.

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The poetics of death

Seeing these military cemeteries, I thought of Charles Causeley’s strange and evocative poem At the British War Cemetery Bayeux:

I walked where in their talking graves
And shirts of earth five thousand lay,
When history with ten feasts of fire
Had eaten the red earth away.

‘I am Christ’s boy’, I cried, ‘I bear
In iron hands the bread, the fishes.
I hang with honey and with rose
This tidy wreck of all your wishes.

‘On your geometry of sleep
The chestnut and the fir-tree fly,
And lavender and marguerite
Forge with their flowers an English sky.

‘Turn now toward the belling town
Your jigsaws of impossible bone,
And rising, read your rank of snow
Accurate as death upon the stone.’

About your easy heads my prayers
I said with syllables of clay,
‘What gift,’ I asked, ‘shall I bring now
Before I weep and walk away?’

Take, they replied, the oak and laurel,
Take our fortune of tears and live
Like a spendthrift lover. All we ask
Is the one gift you cannot give
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A mark of honour

You can just see the row of pebbles on the top of Lance-Corporal Harris’s gravestone at Tyne Cot. This is an ancient Jewish custom; instead of flowers, visitors leave a stone on the grave, in memory of the original cairns and as a record that someone came to pay their respects to the dead. And if more than one visited, as they turned away they would offer each other the traditional Jewish funeral valediction: “Long life.”

Jewish war grave
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Research: travelling to the Somme

I had been to Ypres and the Somme as a teenager but it was clearly time to return and with expert guides. I travelled with the excellent Holts Battlefield tours and they provided the mass of information and expertise which allowed me to understand how military strategy adapted itself to the terrain - and how misunderstandings of topography or of the fast technological development of weaponry, led to a scale of human catastrophe, that it is hard to absorb even now.

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My next novel

My memoir, Sunlight on the Garden, ends on the battlefields of the Somme, in my search to find a lost great-uncle.

My novel
The Return of Captain John Emmett, although set in 1921, has a plot which looks back to events of the Great War; its sequel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, is only located six years after the armistice.

Now I am beginning to write my third novel,
The First of July, which will be centred on four lives crossing on a single day in 1916 — the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.

On that day alone, the British sustained nearly 60,000 casualties. It was the worst-ever day for military losses, and a turning point not only in the lives of tens of thousands of people but in the way war would be seen, as the horror of modern warfare stood revealed.

The First of July was the day glory died forever. But courage lived on.


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