Monthly Archives: March 2013

Introducing my Inner Critic

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice who was featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]


I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started it in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually active in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?


Filed under Writing

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

I chose this novel for the blog’s first reading group for two reasons: first because I think Elizabeth Taylor is a great writer; and second, because the main character is an older woman and this is unusual. Can you think of others? How does this wonderful novelist deal with an older woman?

mrspalfrey green

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, published in 1971. She died in 1975 aged 63 having produced 12 novels as well as five short story collections. 2012 was the centenary of her birth, celebrated with reissues in the Virago Modern Classic series. David Baddiel talked about this novel on 5th July 2012 for Radio 4’s Bookclub, and there have been a couple of films adaptations of the novels Angel and Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. Despite this attention Elizabeth Taylor remains relatively unknown, relative to the quality of her writing that is. Perhaps one reason for that can be discerned from the title of her biography by Nicola Beauman The Other Elizabeth Taylor, published by the champion of neglected C20th writers, Persephone. And it may also be that because of her Home Counties life and classic good looks she has the undeserved reputation of writing about and for middle class women.

E.Taylor 1

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man, and sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked like some famous general in drag.

Not a conventional heroine then. Mrs Palfrey is a genteel widow, needing to live somewhere, not invited and not minded to share a home with her daughter in Scotland. She moves into the Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road in London, joining a small group of elderly residents. Upon this group Mrs Palfrey practices a deceit. Having fallen in the street, she is rescued by Ludo, a young writer. Her grandson Desmond has failed to visit her at the Claremont. Ludo, who is lonely himself and attracted by the adventure of play-acting agrees to stand in as Mrs Palfrey’s grandson. It also allows him an opportunity for some research. Mrs Palfrey achieves a grandson and a visitor and establishes her status among the residents. One of the charms of the novel is how Mrs Palfrey and Ludo cope with the risks and difficulties that this deception gives rise to, including a visit by le vrai Desmond.

In Mrs Palfrey Elizabeth Taylor explores the behaviour of older men and women forced to live in institutions. ‘As they aged, the women seemed to become more like old men, and Mr Osmond became more like an old woman.’ They experience loneliness, neglect, boredom and financial problems. At the Claremont they are concerned to keep up appearances. As Elizabeth Taylor deftly shows, such a life infantalises them through the routines of mealtimes. The similarity to boarding school is explicit. They are ageing and it is inconvenient and embarrassing. Mrs Arbuthnot’s incontinence, for example, is the cause of her slipping further into dependence, moving to a shared room in a nursing home for the elderly. She tries to pass it off as a welcome move to a quieter place.

Elizabeth Taylor’s economic style and close observance of the individual characters and their relationships with each other brings automatic comparison with Jane Austen. But as Philip Hensher suggests here

Any woman novelist who writes grammatically, it sometimes seems, will sooner or later be compared to Jane Austen, but in Taylor’s case, the comparison is peculiarly inappropriate; … What she loved best, I think, were outbreaks of vulgarity, embarrassingly improper behaviour, people saying or doing exactly the wrong thing.

On the blogs I sampled, the reviews frequently suggested that Elizabeth Taylor has placed eccentric residents at the Claremont. I don’t think it is so much eccentricity that she is describing. Rather, she has a penetrating ability to pinpoint a mannerism or gesture or foible, an ability to present characters with their warts. I think she is much admired by writers as well as readers because she is so economical, her details telling us so much about a character. Neither comic nor patronising, she has an awareness of the ludicrousness of people’s behaviours and attempts to hide the truth.

Mr Osmond is a sour bore, because he is lonely. He is also afraid that the world is changing and writes letters of protest to the newspapers about being treated by foreign doctors. He hates the accents of the weather forecasters. He is taken with Mrs Palfrey and suggests marriage. The scene of his botched proposal has comic aspects because he handles it so badly. But it is also an authentic conversation resulting from his lack of perception and insight into another person.

Lady Swayne has an ‘irritating mannerism – all of her most bigoted or self-congratulatory statements, she prefaced with “I’m afraid”. I’m afraid I don’t smoke. I’m afraid I’m just common or garden Church of England. … I’m afraid I think the fox revels in it. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s awfully funny.’

These are ordinary people, observed without whimsy or exaggeration. Take this little scene where Mrs Arbuthnot, who has ears ‘sharpened by malice’, has asked Mrs Palfrey to change her library book.

It was like being back at school again and asked to run an errand for the head girl. She was just going out for one of her aimless walks, to break up the afternoon, and was delighted to be given an object for it.

‘Something by Lord Snow, perhaps,’ Mrs Arbuthnot said. ‘I cannot stand trash.’

’But if you’ve already read it …’ Mrs Palfrey began nervously.

‘One can always read a good book twice,’ Mrs Arbuthnot snapped. ‘In fact one always should read a good book twice.’

Mrs Palfrey took the rebuke quite steadily. After all, Mrs Arbuthnot was the one who was doing the favour. (p23-4)

A small pleasure is the mention of books read by the characters. Mrs Arbuthnot ‘got Elizabeth Bowen muddled with Marjorie Bowen, and could never remember that there were two Mannings and two Durrells and a couple of Flemings.’

Elizabeth Taylor frequently explores the theme of loneliness in her fiction. She is quoted on this subject on the blog Dovegrey reader scribbles in a review of The Soul of Kindness:

I think loneliness is a theme running through many of my novels and short stories, the different ways in which individuals can be isolated from others – by poverty, old age, eccentricity, living in another country – even by having committed murder…

Another comment on the blog reviews was how the readers had found the topic of ageing and death difficult, and referred to their own grandparents or parents. But we need more books that explore this difficult area. There are other very good older characters in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such as Aunt Sylvie in The Marriage Group, who rewrites the labels indicating who will inherit what, despite having forgotten that some of the recipients had themselves died. She blamed them for neglecting her.

I haven’t seen the film of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, starring Joan Plowright. There will undoubtedly be more films dealing with later life, as there’s money to be made from us older folk. It’s my experience that films rarely offer as much as the original text, and older people get played for laughs: forgetfulness, incontinence, men pursuing young women and vice versa. Have you seen Quartet or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?

What’s your view of Mrs Palfrey? Perhaps, as Eileen noted here, not a book for the Desert Island, but I would strongly recommend it, and others by Elizabeth Taylor.

And to finish here are links to the walking book group, including a radio programme in which Clare Balding joined a group discussing our novel.

Link to Clare Balding’s walk with Emily Books.

Emily Books walking book club.



Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Older women in fiction, Reviews

Four reasons to save our libraries

Our public libraries are under threat, easy targets for council cuts. The main reason to save our libraries is of course their contents: the books. ‘Because everything changes when we read’ is the strap line of The Reading Agency. Look at the sterling work they are doing to support our libraries, including publish The Library Book, edited by Rebecca Grey.


Here are four more specific reasons to save our public libraries.

ONE: because they are much more than sources of books and information services.

A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. (Caitlin Moran, The Library Book p92)

The books and the buildings, the services and resources offer all this and more to everyone, whatever age, erudition, wealth, class, colour, status, no matter what. Come in.

Library shelvesDSC00248

TWO: libraries nourished authors and readers. They are ‘places of incredible glamour, possibility, power, excitement and pleasure,’ according to Stephen Fry. Annie Dillard, writing in An American Childhood, describes her experience in Pittsburgh.

The Homewood Library had graven across its enormous stone façade: FREE TO THE PEOPLE. In the evenings, neighbourhood people – the men and women of Homewood – browsed in the library, and brought their children. (p81)

Here she found The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, and learned that other people in the city, despite the lack of ponds and streams, also borrowed this book. This is part of the mystery and wonder of libraries, the anonymous intimacy with other people who read the same books.

This was the most private and obscure part of life, this Homewood Library: a vaulted marble edifice in a mostly decent Negro neighbourhood, the silent stacks of which I plundered in deep concentration for many years. … I would never meet those Homewood people who were borrowing The Field Book of Ponds and Streams; the people who read my favourite books were invisible, or in hiding, underground. (p83)

Annie Dillard went on to write magical, close observations of life in ponds and streams, retelling the details of cycles and creatures around her home so that I felt I was peering over her shoulder at lacewings, muskrat, goldfinch and water currents when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Val McDermid had a similar experience of devouring a library when she was growing up right across the road from Kirkcaldy Central Library. ’I would not be a writer,’ she claims in The Library Book, ‘if it were not for the public library system.’ See the comments on the popular Dovegrey Reader Scribbles blog from readers who would say, ‘if it were not for the public library system I would not be a reader.’

So save our libraries for the future authors now hunkering down among the shelves, and for the ones who will come after them and for the readers.

THREE: Libraries connect people. Here are two examples from fiction. The new British Library is the location for a short story by Toby Litt, and concerns a love affair conducted through the titles on the request slips for books. It’s called Rare Books and Manuscripts and can be found in an anthology of London writing: Diaspora City.

A librarian’s monologue in The Library of Unrequited Love, by the French novelist Sophie Divry, also concerns love among the stacks, but exploring in its rambling course the visitors, the purposes of a library, hierarchies among the staff, her work in charge of the geography section and so on. It’s charming, quirky and sad, and a very enjoyable gift from my kind sister.

Libraries provide connections with people who might be different in ways we recognise in ourselves, as Stephen Fry discovered growing up gay in Norfolk. And libraries provide connections to our past through memorials. My previous post was about an inaccessible library as memorial (Judenplatz in Vienna). This photo is of the war memorial in my local library in Stoke Newington, North London. It is a very long list of names.

Memorial in lib

FOUR: They embody communitarian and democratic values. Libraries affirm something important about relationships in the community without reference to economics. You want to read this book? Take it and bring it back in a few weeks. No charge. No deposit. And in that money-free transaction social value is affirmed not just between the library and the borrower, but between the library and its community.

And after the libraries are gone they’ll come for the other books, and then for the people who write them. Julian Barnes in The Library Book has a sobering story about a great event, the eponymous Defence of the Book, set in the future but echoing Niemoller’s famous lines First they came for

Who doesn’t love a library? People who cut council budgets, people who see libraries as ‘valuable retail outlets’, and people who abhor imagination, discovery and wonder. They don’t love a library. There are 4,200 public libraries in the UK. We must not lose them. Do you have another reason why?


And a couple of blog notes:

  1. The next post on this blog will be a review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, first choice for the blog reading group. Any recommendations for the next choice?
  2. My novel is out of its drawer and my short story sobered up. More on these soon, perhaps.


Filed under Books, Reading

Judenplatz, Vienna

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.


A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn.


They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

concrete bks

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

holocaust mem

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book.

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries.  It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.


Filed under Books, Travel with Books

A literary Salon with Peirene Press

I was a literary salon virgin until Saturday night when I attended a Peirene Press salon. I’m not sure from where my ideas of a salon derived. Possibly from eighteenth century French history and literature when the salon is remarkable for being the domain of a woman, but populated by men. It’s an island sanctuary to support the artist in a cruel world – cruel to women as well as to the inevitably impoverished artist. In the salon the writer’s true worth is appreciated, applauded, celebrated and even paraded. At times fierce battles play out between the authors – harsh criticisms, rivalries, denunciations. The membership changes. Madame la Salonniere continues to preside, ensuring the right degree of frisson, admiration, support and critique.


Twenty-first century reality is every bit as crowded (see the picture) but utterly unlike other aspects of the Eighteenth century French salons. On Saturday the central event was much like any present day literary event: a reading by the author, an interview followed by Q&A with the audience. But the occasion was wrapped in a party.

We were welcomed at the door by young people with charm, enthusiasm and wine. I really enjoyed my choice of the sparkling Portuguese. (Wine I mean; I don’t think the other kind of sparkling Portuguese was available.) It was crowded with 50 guests, but the people there were very friendly and interesting. It was busy. It was fun.

The Salon was to celebrate Peirene’s publication of Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast (reviewed on this blog in January). Birgit Vanderbeke was amusing at times, but with serious intent. Meeting with your translator, she told us, is a bit like meeting your doctor. He knows so much more about you than is comfortable. Later she described the novella as a cupcake, claiming it as her form.

Translation was a theme of the evening, and she and Jamie Bullock talked about those hidden aspects of translation. The grammatical issues (such as the use of full-stops), culturally specific items referred to in the original text, stylistic issues (such as repetition which is a feature of The Mussel Feast) and how the author must let go in order for the translation to work in its new language. Translation is necessarily an act of violence, of violation.

The author also told us about the writing, the process of creating the text, done in three weeks. She knew that it was her moment to write. This was during the specific and uncertain time just before the Iron Curtain collapsed. Readers bought it and borrowed it from libraries. But reviewers hated it and attacked her rather than the text, something we have heard a great deal about recently: women personally attacked as a response to publicly speaking the truth.

An addition and appreciated feature of the Salon was the explicit respect shown to the reader: in the publisher’s welcome and provision of excellent wine, cheese and company. Meike’s pride in publishing this book, her commitment to publishing European literature in beautifully designed books, and the graciousness of her staff, all this indicated respect for the reader.

I felt a little like Le Grand Meaulnes when he stumbled on a magical party. Like the party Meaulnes came across, this literary world was one I had happily entered. But let’s not take this French connection much further. I am not on the edge of adulthood and this salon will not change my life. But I will happily discuss books, drink sparkling wine and meet people interested in European literature again.


Filed under Books, Uncategorized