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And the winner is …

And the Winner of the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction 2015 is …

Ali Smith: How to be Both

Many congratulations to Ali Smith and all writers on this list.

Here is the shortlist for the Bailey Prize.

  • Rachel Cusk: Outline
  • Laline Paull: The Bees
  • Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
  • Ali Smith: How to be Both
  • Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread
  • Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

These books were on the longlist:

  • Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart
  • Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?
  • Xiaolu Guo: I Am China
  • Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief
  • Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing
  • Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven
  • Grace McCleen: The Offering
  • Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star
  • Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night
  • Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights
  • Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home
  • Sara Taylor: The Shore
  • Jemma Wayne: After Before
  • PP Wong: The Life of a Banana


Congratulations to the winner. But we’re all winners really: lots of lovely reading!


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The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

This is an unusual book – in its subject matter and in its structure. In her introduction to the Vintage edition, AS Byatt reports that she had read it several times, and not always with appreciation. But for a discriminating reader she suggests ‘that it is one of those books that grow in the mind, in time’.

103 House in P coverThe story is told in three parts, framed in a single day. Part One is set in ‘the present’ (ie 1930s) in the house in Paris, where two children have been brought together because Henrietta (11) is on her way from London to stay with her Grandmother in France and is being cared for by Miss Fisher. Coincidentally, Leopold (9) has arrived on the same day from Italy and is anticipating meeting his mother, Karen, whom he has never known. She fails to turn up.

The second part recounts the story, in the past, about ten years before, of Karen and her affair with Leopold’s father. This part of the story takes us to Cork, London and the towns of the English Channel. We find how Miss Fisher and her irascible mother are involved.

Finally in Part Three we return to the house in Paris, later in the same day, and Mme Fisher’s revelations about Leopold’s past and follow what happens to the two children as they prepare leave the house. Mysteries are revealed and the actions of the adults explored so that by the end of the novel both children are able to move on to the subsequent phases of their lives, although little has actually happened.

53 EBI found Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the two children especially successful. These two are affected by their expectations of the adults, but at a level that the adults do not always see. The relationship between the children is revealed with all the awkwardnesses, probing, sympathies, quarrels of two children thrown together. They are both innocent of much about the adult world, especially sexual behaviour, but both sense it, especially Henrietta and are trying to understand the consequences of adults’ behaviour. Here is the description of Leopold adjusting to his mother’s refusal to meet him.

His eyes darkened, their pupils expanding. Yes, his mother refused to come; she would not lend herself to him. He had cast her, but she refused her part. She was not, then, the creature of thought. Her will, her act, her thought spoke in the telegram. Her refusal became her, became her coming in suddenly, breaking down, by this one act of being herself only, his imagination in which he had bound her up. So she lived outside himself; she was alive truly. She set up that opposition that is love. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I shall see her some other day.’ (p201-2)

The three-part structure seems designed to get the reader to re-examine her understanding of the previous sections. Karen, in the middle part, is the key character and we follow her through the expectation of marriage, a short visit to an uncle and aunt, and then her relationship with Max. We find that she was a close friend of Miss Fisher. Coming to this second section after the tensions of Leopold’s vivid beliefs about his mother and subsequent disappointment means a reassessment of the characters in the first part. Elizabeth Bowen seems to be saying, look again, now you have this knowledge. It’s an interesting device for a novel, and Elizabeth Bowen uses it with great assurance.

The complexity of her prose, noted in my reviews of The Heat of the Day, The Last September and The Hotel, also makes you read carefully, and takes you into the psychology of her characters.

There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.

… Henrietta turned down her eyes, smoothed her dress on her knees and remarked with the utmost primness: ‘You must be very glad: no wonder you are excited. I am excited, going to Mentone.’ Then swinging her feet to the ground, she left the sofa and walked to the radiator, above which she spread her hands. Glancing aloofly to see if her nails were clean, she seemed to become unconscious of Leopold. Then she strolled across to examine a vase of crepe paper roses on the consol table behind Charles’s chair. Peering behind the roses, she found that they were tied on with wire to sprigs of box. She glanced across at the clock, smothered a yawn politely and said aloud to herself: ‘Only twenty-five past ten.’ Her sex provided these gestures, showing how bored she got with someone else’s insistence on his own personality. Her dread of Leopold gave way to annoyance. Already she never met anyone without immediately wanting to rivet their thought on herself, and with this end in view looked forward to being grown up. (p18-9)

I found the relationship between Karen and Miss Fisher the least convincing aspect of the book. Well, not their friendship, but its survival of Karen’s affair, the role of the interfering Mme Fisher and the death of Max.

103 EBTwo things about the subject matter made an impression on me. The first is the easy way in which people of Karen, Henrietta and Leopold’s class moved about Europe during the inter-war years. Transposed to the present day, perhaps involving the Eurotunnel, this story would not seem surprising. Maybe I am just influenced by the current anti-Europe political rhetoric, but it is worth remembering that ties with the continent have been strong for some time strong, and this is reflected in much literature of the time: in much of Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example.

And the second thing is Elizabeth Bowen’s frank exploration of sexual mores at the time. Some of it is highly wrought. Here’s the moment when we understand that Karen and Max (both engaged to other people) will mean more to each other.

‘We’ll bring the tray in when we go.’

But they both sat back, her hand lying near his. Max put his hand on Karen’s, pressing it into the grass. Their unexploring, consenting touch lasted; they did not look at each other or at their hands. When their hands had drawn slowly apart, they both watched the flattened grass beginning to spring up again, blade by blade. (p119-20)

The House in Paris is a feast for a discerning reader, of the novelist’s art, of the insights into the behaviour of young people and of children.

Here are some links to Blog reviews:

There is an excellent and thoughtful review by Booksnob.

And another by EmilyBooks, who calls it a tour de force.

And yet another by Girl with her Head in a Book.

GHave you read The House in Paris? Have you anything to add?


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Dear Jade

To Jade Amoli-Jackson, author of Moving a Country.

Dear Jade,

Congratulations on the publication of your collection of poems called Moving a Country. I want to encourage lots of people to buy it (click on the link to go to Amazon!)

51 Moving Country

Your poetry (and your involvement in your play Souvenirs) demonstrate the power of words. The power of words to help heal and the power of words to tell other people about other lives. I looked at video clips of you and other members of the Freedom from Torture Write to Life group here speaking about the value of writing – ‘I would have run mad,’ you say, without the writing.

No one leaves her home unless she is running away from something or someone has driven her away. I am telling you. I have first hand experience of that. (pxi)

With these words you begin your introduction, My Painful Journey, to your collection, Moving a Country. You write about your childhood, family and life in Uganda. Your good life, with your husband and three children changed with a new government in 1985. First he was taken and killed, then your father and twin sister both died, your children were abducted and finally you too were taken.

It is wise to be good to people even if they are not related to you; that’s why I am still alive. (pxiii)

Your were helped to escape and came to London, were given leave to remain and have since become a UK citizen. You were assisted by the Medical Foundation, and now in turn you volunteer at the Refugee Council.

In the first section in Moving a Country you look back affectionately to lives connected to your past in Uganda. The second section looks at your flight and troubled times in Uganda. I found this section very dark, hard to read. I can’t imagine the pain associated with the poem Gone within a Second, a cry in darkness for your missing children. Others refer to the everyday losses: food, drink, clothes, transport, language. The title poem is eloquent about the loss that you experienced on moving country and about the memories that persist. The first verse is …

Moving a Country

Move the evergreen trees
Meandering rivers
Lakes and seas
Wild and domestic animals
Birds of all sizes
Pack them all up
Place in the suitcase of my brain

In this poem I like the way you present some of the things that go to make a country, the impossibility of transporting them, and then you shift suddenly to tell us you have them in your head. The following verses become more powerful and more moving as they refer to your life and people you loved in your country. In the remaining sections your poems reveal how fragile a person’s survival can be and how torture undermines self-respect as well as inflicting physical damage. Yet you are generous, even when you had so little, and readily acknowledge the assistance you received from organisations and individuals, such as your writing mentor and editor Lucy Popescu.

You have written that story-telling helps heal and rebuild lives. For readers, your writing helps us understand a life that has been very different to our own. I have been moved by your poems. And amused by some. I laughed out loud at the poem English Ladies, and the one you read in the Tate – Marriage proposal with a shaky start.

I said in my last post that I don’t blog about poetry and then in the very next posting the subject is poetry. But it is important that people write poetry. And important that they read and know the things of which you write, to understand that people are being treated in despicable ways. And this knowing brings an obligation to do something. In my case, I support Freedom from Torture and I write about your writing to encourage others to read it. Your voice should be heard.

Whenever I have met you, Jade, you have greeted me with friendliness and warmth and I have seen you laughing and smiling with your friends. This post is a tribute to your spirit and is written with very best wishes for your future in writing, and in your life.


This post is about a collection called Moving a Country by Jade Amoli-Jackson. She is a member of Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life Group and performed in the group’s play, Souvenirs. Catriona Troth blogged about the launch in June of Moving a Country here.

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On not blogging about poetry

Your blog covers everything – except poetry, my sister told me when I was reviewing bookword earlier this year. I find it hard to believe but this is my 50th post and this is my half-century response to her implied challenge.

The death of Seamus Heaney last week was an occasion for considerable public acclaim of his work, and a reminder that the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to him in 1995. Paul Muldoon, fellow Irish poet, gave a moving tribute on In Tune on BBC Radio3. Heaney had a gift, he said, to connect the reader with the writer, and to give back the world of things and the things of the world, seeing them as if for the first time. He allowed in people who were not ordinarily interested in poetry.

50 anthol

I love reading poetry. I am very fond of anthologies. As a (former) Londoner I always enjoyed the serendipity of Poems on the Underground. I often dip into the two volumes of Poem for the Day. Again the randomness of the day’s poem is part of its delight. To read The Nation’s Favourite Poems (of which Rudyard Kipling’s If was the ‘clear and unassailable winner’ in the poll conducted in 1995) is to revisit poetry lessons at school. I have good memories of mutual pleasure in poems with my American penfriend, chosen from Palgrave’s Treasury. My sister also likes anthologies (suggested them for her Desert Island Books) and sent this photo.

50 H's poetry

And I have had great pleasure, too, in reading what poets write about poetry. These books have made good travelling companions. Roger Housden’s 10 poems to change your life introduced me to two poems I often reread: Mary Oliver’s The Journey and Derek Walcott’s Love after Love. I got a great deal out of Ruth Padel’s two books: 52 ways of looking at a poem and The Poem and the Journey and sixty poems to read along the way. In fact I think I will dip into both of them again.

50 on poetry

Recently I have read Glyn Maxwell On Poetry. In his review Adam Newey in the Guardian said it was the best book about poetry he’s ever read. I enjoyed the humour, the creativity and the technical details with which it explores form, rhyme patterns, line breaks and so on. It’s all a far cry from the kind of solemn incantation that school poetry encouraged.

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
(From Casablanca by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, 1826)

According to Glyn Maxwell poetry, although a human activity, has been ‘unnecessary for almost all of creation’ (p10). Just pause a moment and notice the work of that word ‘almost’. When was the time that poetry was necessary? Is it now? Let’s hope it’s now, in our time. Maxwell takes the reader through some of his reflections on poetry, on poems, on the writing and reading of poems, a meander that is sometimes playful, sometimes teasing, passionate, fervent and unsettling.

He approaches poetry as both sensual and intellectual, an intellectual journey to enhance the senses, a sensual journey to be spiced with intellectual appreciation. The TLS reviewer seemed to think it fell short of being a decent course on writing poetry, but I did not read it as a how to write book. And that’s partly because I don’t write poetry.

I don’t write poetry. I try not to say I can’t write poetry, but I don’t seem to make any progress when I try to learn to write the stuff. I am still dissuaded by the criticism I received when I was 17, from a published poet. He didn’t agree that my poems were prize winners, and suggested I had written ‘chopped up prose’. After nearly half a century I am still bruised.

50 poets

I can’t memorise poems. But I have lots that mean something to me: Philip Larkin The Years; Mary Oliver, Wild Geese; Yeats, The Dancer and the Dance; Alice Oswald Dart … I revisit these with pleasure and anticipate many yet unknown.

I suspect that stillness is needed to enjoy poems. I don’t have much in my life. Don’t expect many blogs on poetry but I can’t help asking myself: would I be a better reader of poetry if I wrote more? Would I be a better writer of poetry if I read more?

What would you say to persuade me to try writing poetry? Would you take the trouble? What poetry do you like?


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She’s leaving home …

Indulge me! After 28 years I’m leaving Stoke Newington (North London). My house has been sold, the papers signed, keys ready to hand over and I’m off – tomorrow! What follows are my reflections on my literary time here.

44 Sold

Stoke Newington has always attracted dissenters. The non-conformists of the 1790s lived around Newington Green. I think of them every time I catch the 73 bus (no tubes in Hackney). Focused on the Unitarian chapel, which is still here, a group of radical thinkers met and talked and wrote their views on the repression instituted by the government following the French Revolution. They included Tom Paine, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. She lived and taught here. There is a wall painting of her on the side of the Unitarian chapel.

44 M Wolst

I made a special study of Mary Wollstonecraft as part of my undergraduate degree, studying with another dissenter, EP Thompson, at Warwick University. Unaffiliated and pursued for a definition of his ideas, he famously announced in one lecture that he was a Marxist Muggletonian.

On Stoke Newington Church Street one of the houses is called Defoe House. Here lived the first novelist, Daniel Defoe. Perhaps he spent the plague years here, for Stoke Newington was a village outside London in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The young Samuel Pepys was sent here as a child, for his health. Defoe was sentenced to the pillory for his writing, but, according to legend and Wikipedia ‘the publication of his poem Hymn to the Pillory caused his audience at the pillory to throw flowers instead of the customary harmful and noxious objects and to drink to his health’. My kind of dissenter, one who turns the tables.

When I came here in the early 1980s houses were cheap (in London terms) and attracted public sector workers, especially teachers and social workers. We were mostly in our 30s. The women of this tribe were called drabbies. Mary Wollstonecraft was the original drabby perhaps. Nowadays it’s renown as a good place to bring up children, and is choked by those up-cycling chops and three wheel drive buggies. Where are the drabbies and dissenters of yesteryear?

They reassemble at the Stoke Newington literary festival, established a few years ago. Unlike other literary festivals, it does not rely on Radio 4-type audiences hanging on the words of (mainly male) news presenters, politicians including members of the House of Lords and tv gardeners turned novelists. Rather the buzz comes from radicals and outspoken thinkers in fiction, poetry, journalism, humour and other cultural areas. Lindsey Hilsum talking about her experiences in Libya, for example. Jacky Kay reading from her short stories. And lots of other original women and men.

And there have been other delights to feed the literary soul: there has been an independent bookshop here for as long as I have walked up the High Street. Independent bookshops are treasures. Stoke Newington Bookshop seems to be thriving. And the library – no praise is too much for the service from London libraries, the on-line ordering service, the ability to reserve books from anywhere in Greater London, the pleasure of seeing the library used day in and day out by Hackney residents. And I have had access to a very wide range of writing classes: two at the Faber Academy in Bloomsbury and several at City Lit. Spread the Word run great workshops and other events.

Moving house is making me nostalgic in another way. Packing up and decluttering my stuff means discovering items from 28 and more years ago. I have come across a collection of juvenilia. But here is my earliest extant writing:

44 diarey



Name: Caroline


Yesterday I went to the fair. I liked the swing-Boats. Mummy could not come. She had to fech granny. I liked it very muech.

Six days later, the second entry shows more grasp of narrative.


Yesterday I had an apple. When I was counting how many bettle holes, on the last one a bettle came out. I went and told mummy. Fuzz [my aunt] came to get it, but when we got there it was gone.

A flurry of misspelling occurred on 25th September:

Yesterday I went to the ceinama. I liked it verey much. I saw a buffaloa. I[t] was lovley.

The first entry was illustrated with a swing-boat and the second with an apple and a bettle making off. It is clear why I stuck with writing (despite my spelling) rather than developing my drawing skills.

The collection also includes several school exercise books of novels – the start of three or four novels, with my favoured nom de plume. There is a playscript or two and copies of the school magazine to which I contributed.

In this house I have written all my published books (on education and on retiring), drafted my novel, edited my short stories, written my assignments, dissertation and thesis for my higher degrees.

The bulk of my books are here, despite considerable de-cluttering. Every morning I sit at my writing table and look out of the window at the cherry tree, the apple tree (both planted since I arrived) and the people in the windows of the houses next door. (I’ll miss you, naked man, getting up every morning at 6.50!) I’m writing my Morning Pages.

I’m giving all this up – Mary Wollstonecraft, the library, my peaceful writing room, but not my books, volumes of morning pages, juvenilia or writing amibitions.

I’m going to a village in Devon – a cottage in a village in Devon. I’ll have a writing room with a view of Dartmoor. It’s a new adventure for an ageing drabby. Normal blogging will resume shortly.

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What I did on my holidays …

Just as the weather improved and summer arrived all at once I spent three days on the Northumbrian coast, near Lindisfarne, with my dear friend Jane. We enjoyed together walks along the beaches and cliffs, visits to the monuments and sights, the fresh air and sun, and having nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.

Book- and word-related events of our three days included …Imagining that the high tide flooding of the causeway to Holy Island as an ideal plot device. Twice a day the village is cut off. Dire warnings are posted about checking the tide. It comes in quickly. One could imagine a chase, the pursued just escaping with wet feet or in a 4X4 with slightly larger wheels than their follower’s. In that story there would be not only a chase, but a ‘locked room’ mystery, for this story must hinge on the isolation of the island community, cut off from the mainland twice daily.


In St Abbs we visited the converted primary school, now a café with great homemade soup and stotties. There were shelves of books for sale to raise money for the St Abbs community, which runs its own harbour. I found a copy of The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen, which I bought for £1 and gave to Jane. Recycling books. Great.


Overlooking St Abbs Harbour there is a very moving bronze monument by Jill Watson: ‘Commissioned by the people of Berwickshire to commemorate the women and children left by the East Coast Fishing Disaster of 1881.’ The figures, about four inches high, look out to sea. There is a story here. On 14th October 1881 a great storm hit the east coast and 189 fishermen were lost.


The Ramparts Walk at Berwick-upon-Tweed is a perfect setting for a lovers’ tryst in a historical romance, a Montagu/Capulet affair, with allegiances both north and south of the border …

Reading in bed, while the blackbird shouts at the cat in the B&B garden; The Heart Broke In by James Meek from the Fiction Uncovered 2013 list.

This would be an ideal place for a writing retreat. Wide skies, the sea, friendly hospitable people but not very many of them, good walks, interesting sites to visit (for your Artist’s Date), perfect weather.


Lots of really good talk with a very good friend.


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What are they telling us? Reading the signs

Many years ago, in 1986, we were camping in Zimbabwe with my brother. (I’ve always wanted to start a piece like that! It sounds so exotic. And it was.) When we arrived at Lake Kyle at an official but deserted campsite it was already dusk, (getting mimpsy they say in Devon, I believe). We pitched our tent, lit a fire and cooked our supper ready to enjoy our evening. In the dark my brother tipped the stew into the fire as we were serving it up and after a very late replacement meal I managed to mistake the instant potato mash for washing up powder.

There were many mishaps on that trip, but also wonderful experiences. When we woke beside Lake Kyle in the morning we found ourselves in a magical place, surrounded by msasa tress and not far from the water. A sign  cautioned against swimming in the lake. Dangers of all sizes lurked in the water.


A note for those who are not familiar with the parasites of Africa, bilharzia (medical name schistosomiasis) is a nasty infection caused by a parasite 7-20mm long that lives in fresh water and buries itself in human skin before moving into the organs, causing skin rash, raised temperature and muscle ache to begin with …

Despite the medical note, this entry is a light-hearted look at some notices or signs that have amused, confused or perplexed me. It seems that simple signs often fail to get across their message without ambiguity or confusion. Sometimes you see read signs that are just odd, and other times it seems that a joker has been at work. Here’s my favourite joker sign.

19 Ped Xing IMG_0116

And perhaps the humour of this next sign was also intentional, posted on a toilet door in Tate Britain.

19 Inconvenience

And, for goodness sake, what’s the point of this sign, seen on a walk in Essex, near Audley End House.

19 Weak BridgeDSC00212

So what should I do? Tread lightly, run across or offer encouragement and sympathy?

Some signs are plain confusing. Here is a station sign that says it’s not Saffron Walden, although it is the town’s nearest station. And as it happens it is not in Audley End either. It’s in Wendens Ambo. Really.

19 Audley EndDSC00213

The theme of railways signs is a rich one. Adlestrop, which you remember from a poem by Edward Thomas, is no longer an active railway station, but the sign has been preserved, in the local bus shelter.

And on the subject of railways signs, when my daughter was learning to read she sounded out the letters to find out the name of the station we had stopped at: L-A-D-I-  ….

As I passed through Reading one time (and I pass through Reading very frequently) I overheard another young girl practise her literacy skills on the platform signs. Then she asked her father – do they have a lot of books here? I think it was her first joke.

Later on that Zimbabwe trip we travelled up to the hills that border Mozambique, our destination was a house near the wonderfully named town of Chimanimani. Our road passed through the grounds of a hotel golf course where the sign warned of the simultaneous danger of low flying golf balls and bullets. (My brother claims that the sign did not mention the bullets. Fanciful he calls it. Well, he’s not writing this blog.)

Bullets or Bilharzia? – luckily we never had to choose between them.


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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.


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At the Queen’s Gallery …


At the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace I meet again the companions of O level History – the Tudors and Stuarts and some of their European contemporaries. There’s Erasmus, and Durer’s Rhinoceros, Henry VIII, some of his wives and courtiers, Martin Luther, and some fabulous silverware, chalices mostly. They feel like family friends, and I’m calling in on them to catch up, finding them reassuringly unchanged. (The Northern Renaissance, Durer to Holbein – until 14th April 2013.)

After that thought comes the idea of late evening in the gallery. The Queen in her pink fluffy dressing gown and soft slippers is padding down to her Gallery with a mug of cocoa. Behind her is a footman with an upholstered chair (red velvet, of course), which he places in front of her favourite picture of the moment. A second flunky discretely positions a footstool. A corgi flops down to wait, its chin on its paws, at ease with this routine. Tonight she contemplates Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, a rather mean-faced man dressed in ermine and holding a pool cue (actually the gold baton of Earl Marshal). He has become familiar to readers through Hilary Mantel’s novels: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Strangely, in the Gallery he is not being played by a well-known English stage actor, but takes his embellishment from his costume and his staffs of office.

The Queen can visit her gallery at any time, have an insider’s view into its quiet night-time secrets, then glide back to her cosy bed. Perhaps librarians can do the same? They can indulge in putting the newspapers back in order, shaking them so that the front page is neatly ready for recycling. They can alphabeticize the encyclopaedias, in reverse for once. They can find that secret volume they slipped behind the ranks, page marked with a slip RETURN THIS BOOK BEFORE THE DATE STAMPED BELOW OR RISK A FINE. PEOPLE OVER 60 AND UNDER 16 PAY NO FINES. Or replace the books in the stacks ready for readers in the morning. Or read in the special quiet of a room full of books.

But what of writers? Did Jane Austen sip her tisane nightcap while considering what gothic horrors she would avoid inflicting upon that silly Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) the footsteps on the stairs, the disturbances in the attic, the scraping at the window and the voice on the wind calling ‘Cathy, Cathy’?

Writers visit their books, their stories, their characters before they sleep. They mull over who will tell this story. Ishiguro says he interviews each character to arrive at his decision. They consider the next scene, its pulse, its tension, its connection with the previous scenes and the next. They search for the image to catch the reader’s attention, to show their characters’ reactions. They change the sex of their protagonist, their marital status, their occupation, date of birth, location. Sitting at the computer or the notebook, the glass of whiskey close by, the darkness looming beyond the pool of their desk lamp, writers exercise their dominion over their subjects.


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