May 2011

I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside...

Like many authors I lead a socially and sartorially polarised existence. Daily life consists of erratic hours - in my case dawn starts - and uninhibitedly comfortable clothes – too many or too few according to season with annoying bits of hair pulled into a unflattering unicorn forehead bunch or with a pencil holding it all up (so incredibly chic on French models so, basically, sci-fi on the cheap, on me). Stella Duffy and I did an event together at the recent du Maurier Festival and she pointed out that one of the reasons women actors don’t like the word ‘actresses’ is because it still carries overtones of 18th century prostitution. In a similar way in an English village ‘writer’ is virtually synonymous with eccentric, recluse: ‘Nice lady, keeps herself to herself,’ (first suspect if local atrocity occurs).

But every two or three years an author emerges from the world of drawstring sweats, moth-eaten jumpers, mummy wrappings of scarves and cartoon slippers, biro notes to self on hand, to face the book-buying world. So it was that I headed for the du Maurier festival at Fowey this week.


Travelling through the south west past tors and estuaries, ports, chestnut woods and tiny villages, there, suddenly, was the sea. Fowey is the archetypical Cornish village where one can only suspect the locals of having some malign intent towards the tourist (I did find out they call them ‘emmets’ –ants). The siren call of cream fudge, or cream teas with scones, or simply cream, is followed by the virtually vertical ascent up narrow lanes between tiny cottages lived in by the part-time fisher-folk of north London. Not a defibrillator in sight.

But Fowey has the sort of bookshop writers like and hope they write for – Bookends – one part hand-picked new books and another part old leather, dust and foxing, dealing in the irresistible randomness of the second hand: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, Pilgrim’s Progress, a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, a dog-eared Peyton Place and The Shell Guide to Essex. The owner, Ann, made her own contribution to literature when she discovered an elusive short story, (very creepy) The Doll, by Daphne du Maurier, finally published in collection by Virago this year.

It was the best sort of festival - combining real local flavour with smooth-running administration, a wonderful location at the extraordinary Fowey Hall Hotel - the ornate cliff-top house that was the inspiration for Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows and, of course authors: I heard Linda Grant speak on the continuing resonations of the Baby Boom and their astonishing trajectories from patchouli oil, and finding profundity in the Desiderata (“Go quietly amid the noise and haste…”) to advertising and central London property ownership. Then Stella Duffy on her novel Theodora - based on the true account of an ancient life both glittering and sordid, which raised a girl from a life as a circus performer to an empress. I missed Jenny Éclair’s event but my god she’s funny over dinner. Most of the time she and Stella seemed to be swimming. In Cornwall, in May. Forget talent - it’s talent plus sheer grit (folly) that gets these women ahead. I’m relieved to live in a landlocked county where expectations of any kind of watery spectacle are so low. I’m the supine, Elinor Glyn sort of a writer myself.

But the festival has lost much of its funding. It needs support. Books, fudge, nesting ravens, shrieking gulls (try sleeping in Fowey to understand exactly where du Maurier got her inspiration from) friendly and engaged audiences, fresh crab, and, tucked down a side street, a gallery of bird photographs by Ian McCarthy, as dramatic and beautiful as any I have seen. Gulls in sleet, a blue tit landing on a lichened branch in a tremor of feathers, an albatross. For all these reasons – books, small passions and the British seaside - I hope they can keep the festival and its unique spirit aloft.

New beginnings (2)

Dr Johnson, it’s said, was once come upon unexpectedly by the mistress of the house while kissing the maidservant.

“Why, Dr Johnson,” she said, “I am surprised at you!”

“No, Madam,” he said; “I am surprised. You are astounded.”

Well; I am a little of each. I wrote about my next novel, The First of July, here and a little about a research trip to the Somme (where the book is set) here. That was a little over a month ago. Obviously I’ve been thinking, in that loose free-floating way you do at the beginning of a project, for much longer. But I was . . . surprised? astonished? . . . to find that the opening scene, with two brand-new (to me) characters, came almost fully-formed into my mind a couple of days ago.

Actually, that’s not quite true. They came fully-formed onto the page: an odd experience but one which most writers are familiar, although it usually doesn’t happen until further into a story.

I’m rather pleased with it (though that may not last). So much so that I’ve not only put up a paragraph about the odd ways beginnings get begun here, but the whole sequence here. Do look and see what you think.

Blood, Books and Birthdays

May 5th was a busy day. It was my first day back at university as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, it was my younger daughter’s birthday and it was publication day for my second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton - a tale of loss, choice, secrets, old churches, garden mazes and early hydro-electricity.


It is set in 1924 in a fictional Wiltshire village between the standing stones of Avebury and the ancient Savernake forest—and, by contrast, in Wembley at the extraordinary British Empire Exhibition... Read More...

Sex: It's the Detail that Counts

I have personal reasons to regret the premature death of Professor Richard Holmes, who died on April 30 aged 65.

Richard Holmes

When I wrote
The Return of Captain John Emmett, partly set in WWI, I was well aware that a woman with no experience of military service might have committed several strategic blunders.

Through a mutual friend, Richard Holmes agreed to check my manuscript in return for ‘a good bottle of claret’.

It was extraordinarily generous of him, and his list of comments was long and rigorous. No, my hero couldn’t drop his rifle: it was on a lanyard. What did I mean by ‘guns’? To soldiers the word meant
big guns, and if I meant pistols or rifles, then I should say so.

I turned his pages, cringing at my naïvete and careless ways with military equipment and terminology. But finally he said my account of men waiting to go into action was psychologically spot on, and I felt reprieved.

But he was also a warm and humorous man who, having revealed my novelist’s ineptitude in matters of fighting, sent me a brilliantly funny spoof sex scene from the sort of novel a military historian, oblivious to any other narrative considerations in his desire to get the details right, might write...