Monthly Archives: October 2016

Chasing Perfection as I edit my First Draft

I’m still revising my novel, moving from a first draft to something I could get an opinion on from another writer. Writing is a solitary activity for so many of us. Perhaps that is why we like to hear and read about the travails of other writers. Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the wise words of two writers.

The first is Clive James, chronically ill, but still writing in the Guardian Weekend Magazine in a series called Reports of My Death. The second is Neil Gaiman who is passionate about the value of the written word to people’s development and wellbeing, and especially for the young. He has been trenchant in his criticism of library closures, for example in his lecture for The Reading Agency in 2012. It’s worth reading.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Pencils from tree trunks.

Clive James’s Misprint

In April this year, Clive James’s column caught my eye because we were about to look at his poems in my reading group. He described the arrival of the finished copies of his Collected Poems after weeks checking proofs ‘until I was finally sure that it was free of misprints throughout its hefty length’.

Delighted with the way the book looked I sat down to read it. There was a misprint, and it was plausible enough to derail the meaning of an entire poem. … It made me feel that I was contemplating the ruins of 60 years of work.

Was this an over-reaction?

By nightfall I was ready to face the sad but consoling truth. If the upside of being old and tired is that a little thing like a finch’s call sounds like heaven, the inevitable downside is that a little thing like a misprint looks like death. Getting things out of proportion is an occupational hazard for anyone whose occupation is over. [Guardian Weekend 23.4.16]

153 tick

Those of us who pour over manuscripts, looking for that last mistake can understand Clive James’s reaction. We want our work to go out into the world on the wings of perfection.

Neil Gaiman’s wise words

What an impossible dream! I do not know the source of my next quotation, although it is included in the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction (February 2010). Neil Gaiman’s words leapt out at me from a handout I was given at the Festival of Writing, seizing my attention much as Clive James’s dismay had.

Fix it. Remember that sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

Brilliant image! Chasing the horizon. Out on Dartmoor on a beautiful October Sunday, I found myself chasing the horizon up beyond Trowelsworthy Tor. Our landmark, the cairn on Hen Tor, had disappeared as we approached. We had descended into a dip before climbing again. The horizon is a changeable phenomenon, always further away. Its defining feature is its unattainableness.

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Trowelsworthy Tor, October 2016

Chasing the horizon on Dartmoor is a lot more fun and more beautiful than chasing perfection in writing. Neil Gaiman is right. You need to keep moving.

Knowing when to move on

To write is to try to approximate what we have in our head with some words and punctuation on the page/screen. Before we commit to marking the page, we have an idea to be captured. But as I spool out those words, what I write communicates less and less accurately the image, the story, the ideas in my head. I rewrite, review, revise and rewrite in order to get it closer to perfection. But, like the horizon I cannot reach it. I can get closer, but I never arrive.

294-crashed-typewriter

This is not a justification for avoiding revision. Not at all. Just an acknowledgement that I need to take account of the possible delusion that this novel of mine could ever be perfect. It will always only be an approximation of what is in my head. That’s how writing is. Writers need to judge the moment when it’s right to stop, when it’s time to move on, to write the next thing.

Related posts

This is the 9th in a series on revising my novel, following an on-line course back in 2015. Previous posts

My purposes for the on-line course #1 January 2015

Progress On-line course: my learning #2 January 2015

Progress On-line course: post course plans #3 February 2015

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot March 2015

On-Line Writing Course #5 Deadlines August 2015

What I write about when I am not writing fiction #6 April 2016

Revising the novel again (and again) #7 July 2016

Festival of Writing #8 September 2016

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under Learning, My novel, Writing

Man Booker Prize 2016

The Man Booker Prize brings volumes and volumes of excellent fiction to our attention every year. Here’s the 2016 winner, shortlist and longlist. Happy reading.

‘Writing has given me a life’

And this year’s Man Booker Prize winner is …

Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)

  293-sellout-cover

I warmed to this writer who was somewhat overcome as he gave his acceptance speech, and when he got going he said,

I can’t tell you guys how long a journey this has been. I don’t want to be overdramatic and say that writing saved my life, or anything like that. Writing has given me a life.

This is the first time the prize has been won by an American. The reviews and comments report on a book with much humour but also irreverence and satire. Sounds like a good one to read. And these three novels from the shortlist have been recommended by friends and I may read and review them at a later date.

293-eileen-cover

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy [to be reviewed here in November],

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, and

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.

Man Booker Prize is worth £50,000. A total of 155 novels were submitted, judged by a panel of five judges: Amanda Foreman (Chair); Jon Day; Abdulrazak Gurnah; David Harsent and Olivia Williams.

The 2016 shortlist of six novels:

Paul Beatty (US) The Sellout (Oneworld)

Deborah Levy (UK) Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)

Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) His Bloody Project (Contraband)

Ottessa Moshfegh (US) Eileen (Jonathan Cape)

David Szalay (Canada-UK) All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)

Madeleine Thien (Canada) Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

The Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist (Man Booker Dozen)

293-mb-longlist

293-do-not-say-cover

Happy Reading!

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Writer’s Treats

Treats for writers? What can they be and why do writers need treats? The answer is quite simple really. Writers spend so much time on their own, involved in their own worlds and preoccupations that they need to replenish their energies with enjoyment from time to time. When I am in need my solution is a writer’s treat. Let me explain.

292-artists-way

You have heard of Morning Pages, I am sure. Morning Pages were popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way. Many writers and other artists use Morning Pages to begin their day. It’s a form of free writing and is known to help people get the splurging over with, generate ideas, think through problems, record ideas and passing thoughts, and, for writers, it oils the pen for the day.

Less well known is the companion activity of the Artist Date. My version of this is the Writer’s Treat.

The Artist Date (aka Writer’s Treat)

Like Morning Pages the Artist Date is a ‘basic tool,’ of creativity, according to Julia Cameron – although she warns that you might think it is a nontool or a diversion, a distraction from the artistic endeavour. So what is it, this artist date?

An artist date is a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist. In its most primary form, the artist date is an excursion, a play date that you preplan and defend against all interlopers. You do not take anyone on this artist date but you, and your inner artist aka your creative child. That means no lovers, friends, spouses, children, – no taggers-on of any stripe. (18)

And the purpose and form of the date?

Your artist needs to be taken out, pampered, and listened to. … A visit to a great junk store, a solo trip to the beach, an old movie, seen alone together, a visit to an aquarium or art gallery. (19)

More examples: a long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunrise or sunset, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighbourhood to taste foreign sights and sounds.

Writing and the Artist Date

Like many people I have read The Artist’s Way, and continue with a form of Morning Pages. I have also adopted the Artist Date, but over the years I have left behind the rules and I call it Writer’s Treats.

The rules for Julia Cameron were

  • Set aside time
  • Set aside time every week
  • Plan
  • Keep it to yourself: no lovers etc.
  • Commit to the date

I don’t have any rules for my writer’s treats. I just do them.

I do them when I feel like it, and especially when my writing is getting a little cramped, rusty, wayward.

292-walk-signpost

I don’t always plan my treat. If something is bothering me I’ll change my shoes and set out on my favourite short walk, up through the woods on the local common, and out to a bench, where I can sit and look at Dartmoor and the weather. Sometimes I take my notebook. Sometimes my camera. Sometimes I just sits and thinks and …

Some treats I do plan, especially as I no longer live in easy reach of museums and art galleries. In London I could more easily go to a concert or the opera, or drop in on an exhibition, and just look at one picture or object. For example, I am always moved by the display in the British Museum of two people’s diet of tablets throughout their lives (see photo).

British Museum, tablet display

British Museum, tablet display

I am usually alone. Since my teenage years I have gone to the cinema, concerts, theatre, travelling abroad on my own. Not always, but often. A creative focus can do without social distractions, but I also enjoy social interactions like any one else.

Examples of Writer’s Treats

Treats can be small, like a coffee in a local café, with my notebook out and ears open. A short walk by the sea. They can be large, like a trip to Amsterdam, spending a whole day in the Rijksmuseum. Here’s a model that inspired a short story.

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Rijksmuseum, March 2014

Nowadays they are often associated with visits to London, like the weekend during which I went to the Freedom From Torture Write to Life Group’s production of Lost and Found at the Roundhouse. I spent a morning at Cornelia Parker’s Found exhibition at The Foundling Museum. I used to sing in a community choir at the Foundling Museum, so I also enjoyed some nostalgia amongst the Hogarth paintings. And Georgia O’Keeffe’s show at the Tate Modern. And as I was away from home and on my own I was reading, reading, reading.

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Gari Melchers Woman Reading by a Window 1895

Concerts are always a treat, and this year the Dartington Summer School in August featured some talks as well: Jo Shapcott reading her poems, Alfred Brendel talking about Beethoven’s last three sonatas. I noted at the time that I was entranced by the combination of his accent, his intellectualism and how he used words to unpick music.

In September I had a treat with my grandson, a trip out of Plymouth Royal William Dock in a boat to demonstrate marine biology hydrophonic equipment on a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

I have heard people call this feeding the soul, and they’ve got a point. It also, I reflect as I write, looks like the most enormous self-indulgence. Perhaps it is both. But it is about not getting rusty, enjoying the creativity of others, being exposed to new things. As a result of my treats I often see things in new ways, see and hear things I haven’t experienced before. I can react without worrying about my companions, or any task, such as writing a review. It rests my mind from struggles with writing.

The Artist’s Way: a spiritual path to higher creativity by Julia Cameron, published in the UK by Pan books: first published in 1993.

Related posts

I wrote about Morning Pages on this blog in April 2013 in a post called Do writers really need a routine?

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Learning, My novel, Writing

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

It’s great to find that a book blog can have influence. Dean Street Press have collaborated with Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow blog to republish lesser known British women novelists and memoirists of the Twentieth Century. Dean Street Press says

The Years 1910 – 1960 were an unprecedented and prolific era for female authors, documenting – eloquently, humorously, poignantly (or frequently all of the above) – the social change, upheaval and evolving gender roles of a volatile era.

291-footman-for-the-peacock

I have been sent two of the series to review by the publisher. Here are my thoughts on A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson.

The author

Rachel Ferguson (1892-1957) was a suffragette and after the First World War published 12 novels among other works. Furrowed Middlebrow is republishing three: Evenfield (1942) and A Harp in Lowndes Square (1936) and A Footman for the Peacock (1940). She wrote for Punch magazine.

291-fergusonGiven it is published under the middlebrow banner one should not expect great literary experiences from this novel. One might expect, indeed, that given the time of its publication, this novel would be intended as a diversion from the significant national events. But what you get is not that either. The author reveals the attitudes of the fading landed classes and their circumstances in the 1930s. Barely recovered from the Great War they appear to be sleep walking into the next. Of course, readers today have the benefit of hindsight, not least into the social upheavals accelerated by the conflict. These upheavals included the demise of the large country house such as Delaye, the centre of this story.

The story

At one level, it is a mystery or even a ghost story concerning the footman and the peacock. This aspect of the novel rather takes over towards the final pages as the local vicar and the youngest daughter of Delaye inquire into past events. This mystery rather distracts from the reactions to war that has just been declared.

The Roundelay family is a large one and they live in a very large house, Delaye, but they and the house have all seen better times. The house is in a poor state of repair and the gardens neglected. The peacock is the only survivor of a more glamorous past. The family has very little money, no car for example. Yet they maintain the superior attitudes of their class. For example, they have to make complicated arrangements with tradesmen so that orders can be delivered, passing from bike to bus to cart to van. They are energetic in resisting the consequences of the declaration of war. The bother of attending to the blackout of their many windows is superseded by the threat of evacuees billeted upon them.

The characters

For a short book there are rather a lot of characters. The family include Edmund, his wife Evelyn and their three children: Angela who is frequently sent to live with relatives, Margaret down to earth and running the guides and their brother Stacey who studies land maintenance. In addition three of Edmund’s five sisters and a cousin are also resident. In such a household the servants are worked hard since members of the family cannot even make themselves a cup of tea: cook, housemaid and the dependable Musgrave the butler. The ancient family nurse no longer has all her marbles and still occupies an uneasy place between family and servants.

The characters provide plenty of entertainment. Nursie throws her dinner tray out of the window, angry that she has not been served enough meat. She unwittingly protects the family from the billeting officer. Two of the sisters do not talk to each other. They enact a pantomime of ignoring each other every evening as they descend to dinner.

The self-absorption of the Roundelay family, their efforts to maintain their past social position and their ignoble response to the worsening situation in Europe and to the outbreak of war are robustly held up to criticism here.

One can’t help wondering how typical their reactions were, however. Few people would have welcomed evacuees, despite the fears of bombardment. People do leave necessary arrangements to the last minute, causing shortages of blackout material, and this seems to be human nature. People are unrealistic and draw on their experience, I this case of the previous hostilities, when the Home Front was spared the horror of the trenches.

The dreadful fate of the running footman, (a servant who ran in front of the coach to clear its way of obstacles and people) sits awkwardly beside all this realism. He died in 1792 and is reincarnated in the peacock. A rather arcane and sinister running song has been learned by Evelyn, the lady of Delaye, who appears not to notice that the quarry is not animal, but human.

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

Male Peacock by Alex Pronove (alexcooper1) via Wikicommons

The character of the bird is rather unpleasant and malign. He has a dreadful shriek. He is not afraid to peck and wound people who do things he doesn’t like. And Angela observes him in the moonlight, perhaps in communication with the enemy.

Round the corner from the shrubbery the peacock swept, taking the stage as she watched: Slowly, deliberately – or were peacocks always leisured in the process? – he displayed himself and paraded the lawn, sometimes pausing to look at up at the sky.

Waiting? Listening? The exact word elided her until it came with an impact of incredulity and a dismay that was not lessened by her own self-ridicule.

Guiding. No. Signalling. (139)

The peacock’s only friend is the servant girl, one of a long line from the same village family.

Her writing

I experienced Rachel Ferguson’s writing much as I might have been struck by a 6th former, bright, clever, sparkling wit, but not yet polished. This novel has so many irrelevant byways that I was irritated at times because they blunted the criticism of the unpatriotic attitudes. We get the BBC, the tabloid press, a mysterious village called Rohan, the history of the Roudelay family, people’s reactions to the last war. It’s all very merry, but also tiresome.

Yet there is charm and the novel captures that time when uncertainty descended upon the rural population. War was an unknown quantity and social mores could be expected to change, but no one knew in what way.

291-brontesDespite my reservations about this novel it’s a grand project to reissue women’s writing from the past. We note that both Persephone Books and Virago Modern Classics have republished Rachel Ferguson’s novels.

 

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson; first published in 1940 and reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books in 2016. 206pp

Related Posts

Furrowed Middlebrow is the blog of Scott in California, who reviewed this book back in September 2013, when the new imprint was just a distant ambition. Here is that review.

Alas Poor Lady has been reissued by Persephone Press, and is described on their website here.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes

At its best fiction takes us to places we might never go, introduces us to people we may never meet, and to situations we would avoid in the normal course of our lives. I have never been to The Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, but through the medium of these eight short stories I have a better understanding of the place and its effects.

290-breach-cover

The writers were commissioned to give voice to the refugees through these stories, having listened to people who associated with The Jungle.

I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can bridge that gap. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press.

This is the second post in my challenge series, to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

Everyone has a story

The stories are told from different points of view, and mostly in present tense. Some narrators are refugees, others include a wannabe smuggler, a volunteer, a foster parent in the Calais area, an asylum seeker in Bradford learning English from a volunteer teacher.

Everyone is touched, and for most people the experiences are not enriching. Refugees trying to get across the Channel to the UK respond to the impossible circumstances with skills they have learned along the way: lying, dissembling, stealing, exploiting. The circumstances can bring out generosity, support, connectedness, even shared humour but everyone involved wants something from the Jungle.

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

There are the young men, looking for a truck they can climb into; the police whose job it is to prevent them; the smugglers who earn money by facilitating transport; the volunteers who get to feel good; the young women who desperately need money and respond in the way women have throughout the ages; the groups who support each other for a while, but get splintered when one of them gives up or achieves a crossing; there are the truck drivers, the volunteers

From Counting Down, the opening story:

GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.

The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.

‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’

I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. Normally I wait for him to speak. (9)

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

From Oranges in the River:

This shabby truck will be stopped for sure. Jan has been on several like it. They’re easy to open and easy to hide in, so the police and the border guards always stop them. But Jan must take every opportunity. His parents sold their property for him to get this far, their insurance for old age is gone, so he can’t flag, he can’t fear, he can’t fail – he must push on. Plus, of course, he must stay on the safe side of the smuggler who drove him here and who wouldn’t take kindly to his refusing. And after all, he reminds himself, Walat made it. (135)

Breach reminds us that each migrant has their own story, and that many others are invested in her/his passage across Europe; that many countries are implicated; that the journey before crossing to the UK is fraught with difficulties, danger and is expensive. Life after arrival is frequently very difficult as well.

The bigger picture

The stories cumulatively ask questions about the effects of migration, which are broadly raw and undesirable. And we come to see that those who make the decisions and take the actions that result in the collection of migrants in a place like The Jungle, are far, far away from the consequences of their decisions.

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

These stories are imaginatively written, and do not duck the issues, nor romanticise or demonise. We are shown what people do when they are forced into seeking refuge. We see the way lives, relationships, everything is interrupted while basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing occupy so much time. The lives of the migrants are focussed on the next stage of their journey: Jan, the character who hides in the truck in Oranges in the River quoted above says,

All these nights waiting for trucks or waiting in trucks or running away from trucks. (138)

And even when he has arrived in the UK, in Bolton, Algahli reflects:

Here they are nameless; it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, they disappear and dissolve. Here it is muteness. It doesn’t have a name. (143)

Never Really home, he texts his friend still in Calais.

And those that would rather the refugees went away, where are they?

Complexity has crept up on us. And answers are not being proposed. The human suffering continues, Even if President Hollande succeeds in his proposal to close the Jungle and disperse the residents, people will still want to get to the UK, the people who have got this far will still be in Europe.

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of Breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

254 FFTlogo

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the second post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach a third of my target by making a donation.

October walk

The ridge north of Pewsey

The ridge north of Pewsey

The second walk was in the Vale of Pewsey, about 15km (9 miles). I was pleased to walk with my friend Sarah, meeting at the railway station and walking north across the valley to a ridge, along the ridge in a horseshoe and the descending to cross the valley to meet the Kennet and Avon Canal and return to the station. It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

Peirene Press, from whom Beach can be ordered.

The third post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-November

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Freedom from Torture Challenge, short stories

The Squire by Enid Bagnold (a second visit)

The Squire deserves to be widely read, for although dated in its setting, the theme of the competent woman is relevant still. The main character is about to become a mother for the fifth time at the start of the novel, but maternity is set in the context of other responsibilities. Although sensually involved in her confinement motherhood is not her destiny.

A version of this post appeared on Bookword in July 2014. The Squire was first published just before the Second World War in 1938, and republished by Virago in 1987 and Persephone Books in 2013.

289-virago-squire

The Main Character

The Squire is a curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, and a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the day’s precedings; during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

A plot of contrasts

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband on an extended business trip to Bombay. The Squire manages all with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two is one of the strongest of the novel.

The principles of the midwife are a contrast to ideas current in the late 1930s. The Midwife and the Squire are in tune about how birth should be organised. The midwife would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son will be integrated into the teeming household.

110 Squire cover

A New Woman writes

Enid Bagnold was ‘an authentic New Woman of dash and speed,’ according to Margaret Drabble. In The Squire she presents maternity as a great satisfaction in her life, but challenges the idea that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death.

Such explicitness about childbirth and maternity was rare and waiting to be challenged as this book does. According to Anna Sebba, in the introduction to the Persephone edition, Enid Bagnold once said that

If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it. (xv)

289-enid-bagnold

The writing is ‘intense and passionate’ with ‘sensuous descriptions’ (Margaret Drabble again). A particular charm of this book is the portraits of the children, two in particular. First, little oddball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.

‘Nothing.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’

‘Nothing.’

They smiled at each other. (168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely and pioneering book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world. It is not sentimental, but robustly romantic (Anna Sebba).

The Squire by Enid Bagnold, published by Persephone in 2013, with an introduction by Anna Sebba. The glorious endpapers for The Squire are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

110 endpaper

Related links

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

Margaret Drabble’s assessment can be found here, written in 2008 on the occasion of the revival of her play The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Squire was reviewed enthusiastically by Heavenali in April. You can link to her review here.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Feminism, Reviews

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman

With such a name, how could you go wrong? Marvellous Ways is an 89-year old woman, living in a caravan in an isolated creek in Cornwall in 1947. The author, Sarah Winman, did very well with When God was a Rabbit, so we are in the region of popular fiction. How do older women appear in popular fiction? The clue is in the title!

This is the 23rd post in the series looking at older women in fiction on this blog. You can find previous posts by clicking on the category: older women in fiction.

288-yr-of-mw-coverThe Story

This is the story of Francis Drake, a soldier deeply damaged by his experiences of the Second World War. That he did not prevent a rape by fellow soldiers is haunting him. He returns to London in 1947 to search for his childhood friend, Missy. He finds her and falls in love and thinks his future can be with her. But she disappears into the River Thames before his eyes.

Drake has a letter for a doctor from his son, who did not survive the war. In search of the doctor, he comes to the creek in Cornwall where Marvellous Ways lives. Marvellous has been waiting for him, she tells him. She cherishes him and restores him to health, both physical and mental. Into their lives comes Peace Rundle, who has been taught how to bake bread by Wilfred Gently. She too is restored by the relationships in the creek, and finds contentment and love living nearby. These characters are all oddities, seeking a life out of the mainstream, different, regarded by others as best with a bit of distance.

It turns out … well everyone is connected to everyone else in this story. And they all need to be a and a little more forgiving and a little kinder to themselves and to each other.

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

Gillian Creek by Jonathan Billinger, March 2007 via WikiCommons

The Old Woman

Marvellous lives up to her name. She is just what everyone’s granny should be, the ideal older woman: a little eccentric, very wise and all-seeing. And she is patient, waiting on her mooring stone, for what? For a man of course. As she waited for the return of Paper Jack, the love of her life, so she waits for Francis Drake.

Well, this is whimsical, magical, a bit of a fairy story, and Marvellous Ways owes quite a bit to the popular image of the little old, odd, cronky woman. She is, however, independent, experienced, a raconteur, skilled in the arts of healing, and capable of reflection on her past life and her present. She is more like a white witch than a grumpy old sod. Mostly she manages her ageing but as she nears her death she reflects on her life.

And it simply didn’t make sense. Who she was then and who she was now. Just. Didn’t. Make. Sense. (250)

Marvellous is 89, and very wise. She has loved (two men and a woman) and learned the craft of midwifery, and to live alone in her caravan beside the creek. She believes she is the daughter of a mermaid, a black woman brought by her father to Cornwall. She has the gift of foresight, knowing when important people will come, their troubles and how to cure them. It is an unrealistic but strong version of an older woman.

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

Upper reaches of Gillian Creek by Rod Aliday, July 2008 via WikiCommons

The writing

Rich in imagery, this is a feel-good book to curl up with. It owes something to magical realism. Here are the opening paragraphs of A Year of Marvellous Ways.

So here she was, old now, standing by the roadside waiting.

Ever since she had entered her ninetieth year Marvellous Ways spent a good part of her day waiting, and not for death as you might assume, given her age. She wasn’t sure what she was waiting for because the image was incomplete. It was a sense, that’s all, something that had come to her on the tail feather of a dream – one of Jack Paper’s dreams, God rest his soul – and it had flown over the landscape of sleep just before light and she hadn’t been able to grasp that tail feather and pull it back before it disappeared over the horizon and disintegrated in the heat of a rising sun. But she had known its message: Wait, for it is coming. (3)

There are many stories in this novel. Every character has an interesting name and a back-story and, like a spider graph, they are all somehow linked to Marvellous Ways. It turns out … how many times does the reader find that it turns out?

A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press in 2015. 314pp

Related posts

A review on Girl with her Head in a Book blog has some pertinent observations, including this: ‘the question of how one recovers from past trauma hovers over the novel but never quite takes root’.

A more enthusiastic review comes from Savidge Reads. He enjoyed When God was a Rabbit as well.

A Year of Marvellous Ways was chosen for Richard and Judy’s WH Smith Book Club in 2016.

The previous post in the older women in fiction series was The Door by Magda Szabo, translated by Len Rix.

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews

26 Steps: Walking and Writing (2)

Writing and walking are closely connected for some writers. I explored some connections in a blogpost in August: Steps to Improve Your Writing. In this post I explore a project in which I participated which explicitly links writing and walking. It was an homage to John Buchan and his novel The 39 steps.

287-buchan

26 Steps in 62 words

In March I agreed to contribute to a project called 26 steps, part of an on-going collective writing programme, hosted on the 26 steps website. Writers undertook a walk, wrote about it, drew a sketch map and added a B&W photo. The walks were linked by the letters of the alphabet: the first walk was from a place beginning with A to another beginning with B, then the 2nd writer walked from a place beginning with B to another starting with C and so on. My route was Stoke Fleming to Torcross: S-T. The distance was about six miles and followed a section of the South West Coastal Path. I usually plan circular walks, so this required organising a taxi from Torcross to Stoke Fleming so that I could rejoin my car at the end of the walk. My plans were not helped by storm damage to the sea wall at Torcross just before the scheduled walk in March, and by several stormy days.

Version 2

Walking and writing are not things you can do simultaneously. But I always carry my notebook. And my camera. And my map. I finally chose a day when the clouds were high, there was a chance of sun and I was a couple of weeks into a fitness programme.

St F to Torcross

Slapton Sands

The route took me along Slapton Sands. It is impossible to live in the South West and not know that something happened at Slapton Sands, an event that was rarely spoken about immediately after it happened, and only exposed by the campaigning a local resident, Ken Small. He finally obtained permission to dig up an M4 Sherman tank that had been buried in the sand and it was placed in Torcross car park in 1984, a memorial to the men who died on Slapton Sands.

287-tank

The story begins in the 1940s when the US joined the war effort, and plans were made for the invasion of the Normandy coast. Elaborate plans to persuade Hitler and his generals that the invasion would happen nearer the Straits of Dover were successful. There were decoys to distract attention from the huge number of troops and equipment being moved to the South West coast, ready to cross to the beaches of Normandy.

Slapton Sands were selected for rehearsals because its coastal bar resembled ‘Utah’ Beach. The local inhabitants moved out. On Slapton Sands there is a granite stone, put up by the United States Army Authorities. It has a long inscription thanking the people of the villages in the area who moved out of their homes and farms to make way for the troops in order that rehearsals could take place.

Version 2

A tragedy

On 27th April 1944 a rehearsal went very badly wrong, resulting in the deaths of 946 American servicemen by ‘friendly’ fire. Signals had not been coordinated to the same frequency. Some ships were delayed and the information was not received by some participants. Men, large numbers of men were killed by their own allies.

Among the missing were ten BIGOTs, officers who knew the details of the invasion plans. Until all these were accounted for it was impossible to be confident that the plans hadn’t fallen into German hands. Until all ten were accounted for, the Normandy Landings were at risk.

Aftermath

The armed forces do not celebrate their mistakes, and after 1944 other events captured people’s attention, such as the end of the war in Europe and the final stages of the war in Japan. For these reasons, it seems, the whole incident was ‘conveniently forgotten’ in the words of Ken Small.

It is impossible to walk along the Sands without this knowledge, of the war, the preparations, the Normandy Landings and the cover-ups. Not much of it reflects well on humans. The story is present even while people enjoy the beach, watch the wild fowl on the freshwater lake that lies behind the Sands, fish, bathe and go naked on the naturists’ beach.

I tried to capture all this in my 62-word description of the walk. This is what I wrote:

Stoke Fleming to Torcross

Sea is constant, caressing the sand, careless of leaping dogs, naturists, anglers, the granite monument of gratitude from US forces, walkers, sea wall, and Operation Tiger in 1944, when almost a thousand men were rehearsing and killed by friendly fire, jeopardising the D-Day landings. The Allies went to Normandy and I walk along the sands in sun, liberty and knowledge of this.

Related website

You can find all the contributions – A-Z – to the 26 steps project on the website here together with other projects undertaken by the group.

There have been several fictionalised accounts of the events. Among them are:

The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips by Michael Morpurgo, adapted as the play 946.

The Night of the Fox by Jack Higgins

An episode of Foyle’s War called All Clear (2008) also drew on these events.

 

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

1 Comment

Filed under Books and Walking, Writing, Writing and Walking