Thursday, 30 December 2010

Porto Venere and the Madonna Bianca

Just north of Peralta is a beautiful coastal area called the Cinque Terre - literally the Five Earths - a series of small ports in mountainous terrain. They could, until recently, only be reached by sea or on foot. In more ancient times they were the fortified hideouts of pirates and maritime marauders.

I’ve visited several of the ports, but Porto Venere - the gateway to the area, never. You drive in from its bigger, more industrial neighbour la Spezia, through Lerici, which has connections with DH Lawrence and Byron, along a narrow road carved from the rocks along the edge of the sea. The town is heavily fortified. Narrow coloured houses rise like giant walls around the bay and the quay-side is lined with small restaurants serving plates of fish just delivered by the boats tied up outside.  

Perched dramatically on a rocky promontory at the entrance to the bay there’s a small Romanesque church, built on the site of an ancient Temple of Venus.  It was damaged by wars between neighbouring Italian states and parts of it rebuilt in the 12th century.  It has beautiful, crumbling bronze doors and vaulted terracotta ceilings.  Below it is Byron's grotto, where the poet plunged into the sea to swim across to visit his friend Shelley.

San Pietro

bronze doors

romanesque interior

In San Sebastian, the 12th century main church in the centre of the town, there’s an image known as the Madonna Bianca. Legend has it that this small icon, which has early middle eastern influences, was apparently found by a fisherman with other relics in a floating ‘casket’ made from cedar wood whose origins are mysterious but probably flotsam from a shipwreck.

In Europe it would be in a museum under glass but in Italy it is, of course, too modern to merit any special attention. The church is open, anyone can wander in to look at it, photograph it and there’s no fuss.
The sun was setting as we left, lighting up the ochre coloured buildings and turning the sea pink.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Xmas in Italy

The tree in Pietrasanta Piazza
Xmas in Italy usually begins with a family meal on Xmas Eve.  Just being the two of us, we went out to a restaurant in Pietra Santa where we bumped into two friends and made a foursome over antipasto, primo, secondo and - being Xmas eve - a dolce as well!  They do wonderful chestnut cakes here, as well as hazelnut and chocolate tarts to die for.

The Piazza is decorated for Xmas, but no brightly coloured Santas and not a reindeer in sight - it's all very tasteful.

Pietrasanta Piazza at midnight
 Around ten o'clock, even in the pouring rain, the Piazza begins to fill up for the Grande Festa - every bar is serving hot punch, which is bright pink, smells like paraffin and has enough alcohol in it to fell a mule.

Ready for High Mass

Some people go to High Mass at 11.30pm, but not many.  I look in out of curiosity and a sense of tradition, but  - like many Italians - I don't stay.   The rituals and the music remind me of my childhood, even though I can't believe any more.

Having a quick cigarette before mass

On Xmas morning it's still raining and now blowing a gale too.  We have a quiet coffee beside the stove and then take the dogs down to the beach, where the Mediterranean is giving a good impression of the North Sea.

Frankie and Ellie

Then back to Peralta to huddle beside the stove again with a rather nice local wine - Vermentino from the Lunigiana (a small area just to the north of Tuscany).  Later I cook some Italian lamb with rosemary, garlic and red wine.  We ring the children in various parts of the world and then fall asleep in front of the TV, in the great English Xmas tradition.

Hope you all had a good Xmas too - comfortable, peaceful and neither flooded nor frozen!

Friday, 24 December 2010

Buone Feste!

Buone Feste to everyone, whatever your beliefs or cultural context!   

I was brought up with the traditional Christmas story and I really like this humorous update.  For those who can't imagine Joseph and Mary on Facebook, or the Three Kings on Ryan Air, just click below!

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Made It!

Stansted Airport - note glass of wine
So, at last, after four days of travelling and waiting around, I finally got to see a departure board!  Admittedly there were fewer flights than usual on it, most of them delayed, but at least mine was one of them.

I arrived  at Pisa in the early hours of the morning, to the accompaniment of thunderstorms, but no earthquakes here.   Odd that I missed the Cumbrian quake, after going all the way to New Zealand for the experience!

This morning I woke to a rainy, windy Peralta, but at least it's warm and the sun is peering round a cloud as I write, glinting off the rain dripping from the olive trees. 

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Tuesday Poem: by Catherine Fitchett

Kitchen Sonnets

“Cream the butter and sugar”, as if by beating
hard enough we could reverse time,
return it to what it once was.
“Add the eggs”. Medieval painters
would grind their pigments for hours,
bind them with egg yolk, mix it with water.
It was Irina who told me this. How
the holy icons, the flowing robes, the shine
on the faces of the saints were built up
with layer on layer of thin transparent glaze.
I am thinking of her as I crack the shells
on the side of the bowl, let the yolks fall
like heavy haloes, one, two, three,
giving themselves up for the cake.

When we arrived for the summer,
the bees were there before us
– the hum in the roof above our heads
as loud as the city traffic we had left behind.
The local bee-keeper turned down the offer
of the swarm. Wild bees, he said,
too aggressive, too inaccessible.
The children couldn’t sleep, for fear of
the bee heliport above them. We called
the exterminator. Returned from a day on the lake
to a carpet of dead bees. For weeks
we kept finding them, in the cupboards,
behind the stove, and on hot days honey
dripped from the ceiling, sweet poison.

3 In memoriam Margaret Miller 1925 – 1977

Sometimes I feel ten years old, watching you
in the kitchen. You are mixing mash for the hens.
I will feed them, gather the eggs, carry them
carefully into the house. Did you ever wonder
how eggs in the nest bear the warm weight
of the hen and do not break? Here I am now,
older than you ever were. I don’t feel wise,
but astonished to have arrived in this body.
Every year there is more I do not know.
There is so much I would still ask you, but
you would not know the answers, even if you could speak.
I am the child who has run ahead on the path.
I glance over my shoulder, you are no longer there.
I am as strong as eggshells, and ready to break open.

Catherine Fitchett
From ‘Flap’, Chook book 2.

This week we’re having a kind of ‘secret santa’ Tuesday Poem - posting poems by each other - so I’m posting one of Catherine’s poems and she’s posting one of mine. Catherine’s poems are contained in both The Chook Book and Flap: The Chook Book 2, and it was quite difficult to choose one because there were so many that I liked, but I finally pared it down to this group.

I’m always impressed by someone who can write sonnets and make them completely contemporary. Writing in strict form is so hard to do. And to do three linked sonnets. Catherine apparently set out to write a series about kitchen ingredients.

I like the connection in the first sonnet between the eggs and history - certain things are timeless - a woman beating a cake, a painter mixing pigment. I particularly liked the image of the egg yolks as haloes.

I loved the second sonnet, (apparently based on a real incident) with its collision of human need and the natural world. We can’t co-exist with it - ‘Wild bees, he said,/too aggressive, too inaccessible.’ But the children can’t sleep, so the exterminator has to be called in. Dead bees can be swept out of sight, but the honey remains, dripping from the ceiling, a reminder of the massacre - ‘sweet poison’. The poem is deliberately non-judgmental, but all the more powerful for that.

Again in the third sonnet there’s a sense of timelessness - mixing up chicken feed, collecting eggs. And I related to the lines

‘Here I am now,
older than you ever were. I don’t feel wise,
but astonished to have arrived in this body.’

When Catherine wrote the line ‘the child who has run ahead on the path’ she was thinking of her mother who died at the age of fifty two. It must be a strange feeling to suddenly be older than your mother.

Catherine Fitchett studied chemistry and worked as a forensic scientist before leaving to raise a family of five children. She now works in accounts and lives in Christchurch in a house that's still standing after the earthquake, near the Heathcote River, where she writes poetry while serenaded by frogs and ducks. Other interests include genealogy and quilting. Catherine says: ‘ I'm quite convinced that if I study my family history long enough I'll find a connection to everyone in Scotland.’ Catherine’s poems appear in two collections; The Chook Book, and Flap (The Chook Book2).

For more poems by the Tuesday Poem Collective please go to

Going Nowhere

It's official.  I was woken in the middle of the night by British Airways cancelling my flight.  :(  I'm just grateful I didn't have to struggle to the airport to join the thousands who've been sleeping on the floor since Friday.  They've refunded my money and now all I have to do is find a new way to get to Italy that isn't hampered by snow and ice.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, 18 December 2010


Just about to set off to Italy to spend Christmas with Neil when yet another blizzard turns the UK into a film set for Ice Age 3.   Having chosen, just for once, to fly British Airways from Heathrow instead of Ryan Air from Stansted,  I watched in horror as both Heathrow and Gatwick closed!  British Airways flights all cancelled, even if passengers could reach the airports.  Unlikely, since nearly half the trains in the UK are either cancelled or delayed and the roads are impassable.   Apparently it could take 48 hours to get back to normal.

 Will there be any trains tomorrow?  Will there be any planes?  Watch this space.  I will probably be doing the same!

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Making a Sales Pitch

Just back, exhausted, from the trip to London to 'present' the book to the publisher's sales team.

This is all part of the changing face of the book trade. The days are gone when all an author had to do was deliver their manuscript to the publishers and then sit back and think up another.  Now, authors are expected to be pro-active about publicising their work.  Sometimes you're asked to come and talk to the sales reps - these are the most important people for a writer.  They are the ones who are going to go into the book shops and persuade the management to stock your book.  So this is not like an ordinary presentation - you have to think of an unusual angle on your book - something that's going to catch the jaded eye of the bookseller - and then you have to somehow enthuse a whole bunch of rather tired reps so that they actually want to promote your book out of the (literally) dozens in their book bags.

They were a very nice group of people, from all over europe and I was invited to xmas dinner afterwards in a rather plush gentleman's  club in Whitehall - the kind of place women were never allowed to go in until recently!  But there's nothing nicer than eating good food and drinking wine among a group of fellow book enthusiasts and I do hope they're going to like mine and persuade somebody to buy it.

London was strange - police everywhere for the student protests, and a Santa Claus convention in Trafalgar Square - or was it just students again?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

It looks like Fairyland .... Feels like Siberia!

View from bedroom window early
Went for a brief walk today, dressed up like an arctic explorer and barely able to move for the layers of padding and fleece.  After almost two weeks of sub-zero temperatures everything is frozen solid.  Last night was -18  though by  mid-day it was a balmy -9.
kitchen window

Despite the central heating and the double glazing there was ice on the inside of some of the windows. 

But the view outside was spectacular - an ice fantasy.

Everything is clothed in ice crystals   - trees have morphed into coral reefs against the blue sky - every twig disguised in white.

Even the fences have become ice sculptures.

It is utterly beautiful - but as cold as Siberia and anyone who stops long enough to look risks hypothermia.  I took photographs until my camera froze.

I met a very cold horse

Getting in and out of the front door has become hazardous - the mill has waterfalls of icicles - some nearly six feet long.

Tomorrow I'm off on my travels again.  Down to London for a meeting with publishers and the sales team.  Authors are sometimes asked to meet the sales reps and 'pitch' the book to them.   The reps are the people who are going to sell your book to the book shops and you need them on your side.  So I will be working very hard to persuade them that it's a wonderful book - however nervous I feel about it! 

Monday, 6 December 2010

Tuesday Poem - Winter Light

The season is wintering in.

Horizontal light
laid in long bars
across the russeting slope

the contours of the land
the fierce geography of rock
the patterning of sheep through bracken

lipped water-marks on sand

The mountain’s shadow
bruises the lake.

The cold is like loss:
a cramping hold on bone
muscle, thought,
spilling in from the east.

The air tastes metallic
like snow dissolving on the tongue.

This is the death month
December's Druid alphabet
that signified

the rebirth of the spirit.

An ash tree clumsy with unshed seeds,
a deer’s teeth grooved on the bark
a snowdrop spiking up through a dead leaf

And then the falling sun herds
the rocks into the long shadow
of winter night.

Feeling very wintry here in the north of England with temperatures diving below -15 at night and lots of snow and ice.   The poem is only a series of observations really - I need to do more work on it.  The photograph is of ice crystals on glass with the sun behind - taken this morning outside my office.

For more Tuesday Poems go to

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Allan Russell and 'Publish or Perish'

I’ve been following Allan Russell’s blog ‘Publish or Perish’ from the beginning, fascinated by his marathon journey from manuscript to publication and all the angst in between. His account of that journey is a classic for many authors today, caught up in the dramatic changes happening within the mainstream publishing industry; changes that mean really good authors, who should be being taken on and nurtured into future Dan Browns and Catherine Cooksons, are being rejected unless they turn up on the doorstep with a surefire winner first time round. Catherine Cookson had written ten books, none of which had made it into paperback, before she wrote the one that took off. What would Random House have done if some short-sighted editor had rejected the previous ten?

Allan’s book ‘Veiled in Shadows’ was published in November and I read it with much more enthusiasm that I’d anticipated. I’d had a notion it was about WWII and I’m not a fan of Boys’ Own adventures. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It wasn’t like that at all – a compelling bit of story-telling, from a natural story-teller. So I asked Al to tell me some more about himself. These are the answers.

1. When did you begin writing and what started you off?

The first thing I can remember writing was a sequel to the Hobbit. I was probably about seven and hadn’t heard of LOTR at that stage. Writing has always been an escape for me, a flight from the day-to-day into another world

2. Did you read a lot as a child? What sort of books did you like then?
I have always been an avid reader. My Mum instilled that in me from the beginning. I loved reading anyway, but when my little brother wasn’t reading well enough to suit Mum she banished our TV. Reading became the main form of entertainment in our household from that point. A little later we moved up the bush to a place without power so reading remained our primary entertainment. In fact not only did we read ourselves but most nights we took turns to read aloud. So many of the classics and books like LOTR were shared family experiences.
My absolute favourite authors as a child were AA Milne, Rosemary Sutcliffe and John Wyndham. Sutcliffe’s Eagle of the Ninth is the first “chapter book” I can remember reading so naturally I still have a soft spot for it.

3. What kind of books do you like now?
A bit of everything really. For the last few years I have mostly read history of some form, much of it quite specialised and technical. The main focus of this has been military and social history of the 20th century as research for Veiled in Shadows and the books that are following on from it. I read some biography (mostly with a military bent in recent years). I also love non-fiction natural sciences, archaeology and history generally. As for fiction a wide selection, recently Ian McEwen, Jodi Picoult, Geraldine Brooks, Ian Harris. I have to say I also have a taste for trashy thrillers but I often cringe at the standard of writing.

4. Did you ever think of writing as a career?
I have always dreamt of writing as my day job, but I am pretty realistic about how unlikely that is. I am aware of how few authors ‘make it’. Also my father has had half a dozen natural history books published and has essentially never made a cent.

5. Did you carry on writing, or did you let it slide? And if so, what made you take it up again?
Writing has been an intermittent feature in my life. In fact even Veiled was a stop start affair. My first draft was written back in the early 90s. I put a copy away on a floppy disk and didn’t look at it again for years.
Then a couple of years ago I had a bit of spare time (and if I am honest a need for escaping my daily routine at the time). To cut a long story short I thought I would like to ‘write a book’.
Then of course I remembered that I had in fact already ‘written one’ and hunted down that lost floppy. I was quite excited at the prospect of looking at it again, but I was bitterly disappointed. It was awful! The writing was really poor (embarrassingly so), the characters were cardboard 2D cut-outs, in short it was almost fit for nothing. But, I liked the central story. I thought the themes could be developed into something meaningful and the characters could grow into credible beings. I began re-drafting from there. Most of Veiled has been redrafted three times since then with a few sections probably changing eight or ten times.

6. Had you written other things before Veiled in Shadows?
I tried my hand at novels a couple of times in my teens but gave up in disgust at my own ineptness. Other than that the only things I have completed were an academic thesis and numerous pieces for work (reports, policies, press releases and the like). Oddly I think the effort I put into my thesis was the most formative in terms of my writing. Academic writing is so unlike fiction, yet writing thousands of words (even in a very constrained way) still lets you experiment with language.

7. How did you get the idea for the book?
That is a hard question to answer, where do such ideas come from? I have had a fascination with history and a horror of war all my life. I guess I have also been fascinated by the capacity of individuals to be both gentle and inhuman.
My central character Katharina was where I started, I had a vision of her running through the forest and coming across a young hunter. I am not sure why but at that moment it came to me that she should be half German and he SS. In my experience when I have the start of an idea the rough plot outline simply cascades into my consciousness. A mysterious muse, or the subconscious mind who knows. When I am in that state it simply flows. I have to come back later and see what is worth keeping and what needs to be trimmed. Then comes the work of fleshing it out.

8. What were the most difficult aspects of writing it?
The first draft was easy, but I wasn’t really thinking about my writing in those days!
My first draft was in the form of an omniscient narrator. Later I really struggled with the voice. I began the re-write in first person from Katharina’s point of view. But there is a significant plot problem with that given what happens in the prologue. Then I thought of writing from Ebi’s perspective. But he couldn’t possibly ‘know’ much of the story. I went back to a detached narrator but really wasn’t happy with it. Then in a Eureka moment I realised I could weave the story around Ebi and Katharina by using multiple points of view. A real bonus of this was that it really drove me to develop far more depth for many of the minor characters.

9. Were there ever times when you felt like giving up? What kept you going?
Never during the writing, editing and redrafting phases. All of that is a pleasure.
No I take that back - I hate copy editing, my hippie childhood gave me an opportunity to skip boring classes like learning times tables and basic grammar. I still have only a hazy idea of where to put a comma.
Where I struggled was once it came to submitting to agents. I am rather a novice at self promotion and every rejection felt painfully personal.

10. What influenced your decision to self-publish rather than wait for a mainstream publisher to recognise your work?
I guess there were a few factors. Not insignificant was the pain of rejections, I know they shouldn’t be taken as personal, but…
Also, there was the fact that with the publishing industry the way it is at the moment I wasn’t likely to get a decent advance and the support out there for first time authors seems pretty dismal anyway. Finally, there really is a sense that this is mine. Apart from minimal editorial advice and a couple of copy edits everything in the book is mine. The story, formatting, cover, the whole works. That gives me a real sense of pride.

11. What has been the most tricky part of the self-publishing process?
As I said above, I am atrocious at basic grammar. The very routine editing and checking is a real struggle. Apart from that most of it has been surprisingly easy. Many of the stages were quite time consuming, especially because I had to fit it all in around being a husband, a dad and working full time.
The other issue was I had to make all the decisions with very little feedback or support. I guess I had to rely on my own judgement which can be scary, even for an arrogant bugger like me!

12. Would you do it again?
Absolutely. I guess if someone waltzed up and offered me a huge advance for the follow-up books in the series I might be tempted. But otherwise, when I get to them I suspect I will not be submitting them to the traditional agent/publisher meat grinder. Of course the pessimist in me wonders if something might happen to sour the experience.

13. How do you think the blogosphere has helped? - encouragement? publicity? validation?
I can’t over emphasise how important the blogosphere has been so far. In terms of things like asking for feedback on my cover and various blurbs it has been very useful and affirming. Also I have people who want to read and review my book because they know me, that is a jump start in what is a very challenging field.
I’ve always been a loner in terms of my writing largely because most of the communities I have lived in have been very small. I live in a large city now, but a community that comes into my study is wonderful. And what I really like about this community is its diversity, people from every possible background, with different world views and from all over the planet coming together in an essentially supportive way.
I am a publicity novice, it is very much make it up as I go along. The blogosphere is a huge opportunity for promotion, at the same time I don’t want this experience to simply become a marketing opportunity. I enjoy participating in this community too much to want to make it feel a chore.

14. What's the best time of day for you to write and how do you fit it into your busy life?
I am a morning person by inclination. I am usually at my best when I manage to wake up before the household is stirring on a weekend.
The sad fact is that at the moment my writing is languishing. What little time I have had has been taken up with getting Veiled in Shadows ready for publication. However, now I am commuting by train so as soon as I can organise myself a new laptop I am planning to claim nearly two hours a day back for writing. I have been using computers since the early 1980s and I can’t conceive of any other way of writing.

15. You obviously love history. Who is your favourite character? Your most villainous villain?
To say I love history is an understatement. Yet, I always go blank when asked this kind of question. I’ll answer by being a little flippant to start with. My favourite fictional character is Winnie-the-Pooh, I think the wisdom of the bear of very little brain is very profound. My most villainous villain would be O’Brien from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. His capacity to be almost intimate with Winston Smith while destroying him is chilling.
As to figures from history. For favourite characters there are too many to pick just one; Samuel Pepys, Themistocles of Athens, Hypatia of Alexandria, Einstein, Charles Darwin, The Black Prince and Wellington to name but a few.
I guess my most Villainous Villain of history would be Albert Speer, he serves as a stark reminder of how absolutely power corrupts. He is a warning of how debased someone who starts out as decent can become. Yet at the same time as Gita Sereny said in her study of him, in the end he tried to find his morality again.

Many thanks Al - now time to get back to the next one!

What did I think of the book?  You'll have to read my book blog to find out!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

More and more snow

The mill through a blizzard

So here I am again in the cybersphere, courtesy of a new router, several yards of cable, and the help of a very kind young man in India who talked me through a foreign language of pinging, subnet masks and internet protocols,  being very patient with someone who doesn't know her DHCP configuration from her static IPS!  The benefits of globalisation!

Rafts of ice on the river
 At least, if I can't go anywhere today, I can get on the internet.   For the first time since the snow began, I've felt it prudent to stay at home.  It's been snowing for days and the temperatures haven't managed to get above freezing since last week.   Big, fast running rivers aren't supposed to freeze over, but that's what's happening at the moment.

We don't have temperatures as low as Scotland or Wales (-20 last night) and we don't have as much snow as Northumberland a few miles further east (more than 5 feet and still falling), but there's enough to cause havoc.    This is what the main road looks like and it's very slippery.

You have to dress like Scott of the Antarctic just to go to the Coop for a pint of milk, and  - yes, it does take some time!  But the snow is also beautiful and my inner child keeps eyeing the sledge under the stairs and thinking .......

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Big Freeze!

If I've been very quiet here it's because I have no internet access. Probably because of the weather, my router, my broadband filter and my broadband connection have all been trashed!    I'm posting this quickly at work in a gap left by a student cancellation.   We have a lot of snow here, though not as much as east of the Pennines, and there have been electric storms with thunder and lightning mixed in too.  I made it to Wendy's book launch (lovely party!)  but then woke up to six inches of snow and eveything frozen solid.  It took two hours to dig the car out because we live down a lane at the bottom of a steep hill which doesn't get used by anyone else.  Since then I've left the car on the main road.
On Saturday I managed to get to a literature festival event where I was booked to do a talk on Katherine Mansfield, but had to abandon the car at one point and walk the last three quarters of a mile on streets like ice-slides.  Driving back (very carefully) the temperature plummeted to -11 degrees.  It's rather like living in Scandinavia, though at the moment it's a bit warmer over there.   Hot water bottles, furry slippers, scarves, gloves, thermal underwear - you name it, I'm using it!  Even the cat is curled up on a cushion next to the radiator with his nose under his tail.  If I look at him he opens one eye as if to say 'If you think I'm moving, you must be mad!'
Hope to have the internet up and running again tomorrow when I've solved the mysteries of network connections and ISP addresses.  

Thursday, 25 November 2010

The First Snow of Winter

Woke up to a dusting of snow and more crumbling out of the sky like pieces of bread.   Outside it's bone-achingly cold;  well below freezing.  I took a photograph of the snow on the tree trunk that was delivered to the river-bank by last week's floods.   It makes an interesting addition to the garden seat!

The days are very short now - I took this photograph about 1.30pm but the sun is already below the tree-tops and only about 2 hours away from setting.  In another 3 weeks it won't get above the tree line at all and the days will be very short and dark.  This is one of the drawbacks of living so far north.

Meanwhile - a fifteen hundred miles or more further south, Neil is knocking olives out of the trees in sunshine and showers and temperatures of 16 degrees.  Just as I was doing this time last year.   So, feeling a bit sad.  Sad too for the families of the lost miners in New Zealand.  Greymouth is such a beautiful place and such a small, close-knit commmunity.  It's had more than its fair share of disasters, including an earthquake in 1968 which did a lot of damage.   I do wonder whether the seismic shifting that's been going on underground due to the 2010 Canterbury quake (not that far away) had anything to do with the catastrophic gas leak in the mine.

Tonight I'm off  over the Pennines, weather permitting, for the book launch of The Romancer by my good friend Wendy Roberston.  If the snow gates are open I'll be driving across Stainmore Pass - a name that strikes fear into the hearts of winter travellers, but there's no other way and I'm nothing if not intrepid!  Even so, I'll be taking a shovel, some mountain gear and a flask of hot coffee.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Do we need a Monarchy?

You may not have noticed but there was a wedding announcement in Britain this week. Two extremely rich and privileged young people have decided to get married and the news upstaged a political summit, an economic crisis and a flood disaster. The announcement was only eclipsed by the father of the groom shocking the public by telling an American journalist that his wife (a divorcee!!) will probably one day be Queen.

Yes, I’m talking about the Royals - an increasingly endangered species living in a luxurious, media infested, cage. Kate Middleton, the future HRH Princess William of Wales has just said goodbye to freedom and all the things we ordinary mortals take for granted - she can no longer pop out to the Co-op for a loaf of bread, drop into Harvey Nicks for a latte and she will have to drive around with an armed member of the secret service in the passenger seat of her car. Kate will also have to put up with tabloid newspapers criticising her hair, her choice of clothes, her relatives and the amount of money she and her husband spend.  Even her wedding isn't really her own to plan.  And the image of the groom's mother, Princess Diana, who died in a car crash while being pursued by photographers, will cast a big shadow over what should be a very happy, personal event.

Personally I think the caged Royals should be released into the wild. They have personal fortunes large enough to ensure their survival and they could lead normal celebrity lives, have normal opinions and make normal mistakes without the general public getting on their tabloid horses and complaining that the Royals should live on some unrealistically high moral planet because they are paying for it.

There is no logical place in a modern democracy for any kind of hereditary power. Make no mistake - the Queen still possesses a lot of constitutional powers - the fact that she doesn’t make much use of them is not the point. A lot of her powers are exercised by the government of the day without reference to parliament in a very undemocratic way. When I hear that legislation has been passed ‘By Order in Council’ (the Queen’s privy council) it sends a chill down my spine.  The Queen has wisely chosen not to meddle personally in politics, but her successor might make a different decision and there is nothing in the constitution to stop them. The consequences could be disastrous.  Look at it this way, with a President you can vote a new one in every few years - with a monarch you might have to wait 50.

When I was in New Zealand, the Prime Minister stated that when the Queen died, NZ would become a republic. He thought the Queen was quite a nice person, but didn’t like ‘the rude old Duke’ or the prospect of Prince Charles, who was always making gaffes . Australia has also indicated it wants to go the same way.

One of the main arguments for monarchy in this country is that it brings in loads of money for tourism, but not having a royal family hasn’t stopped countries such as Russia or France making a mint out of their empty palaces and royal art collections. Wouldn’t people pay more to see around Buck House if they could see all of it?

I’ve nothing against the Royals at all - I just want them to be happy and I think they’d be a lot happier let loose in Celebrity Land. The queen could spend time with her horses - the real love of her life - the Duke could be rude to whoever he wanted to without causing a political storm - Charles could spout his mouth off about architecture and eco systems and no one would make any kind of fuss. They could all spend millions on booze and betting (as the Queen Mother apparently did) and it wouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

And, best of all, two young people could get married just as they want to and have a life of their own without us peering at them through the cage bars.  Does anyone out there agree with me?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Tuesday Poem: Emily Dickinson

One need not be a Chamber - to be Haunted -
One need not be a House -
The Brain has Corridors - surpassing
Material Place -

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting -
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop
The Stones a'chase -
Than Unarmed one's self encounter -
In lonesome Place -

Ourself behind ourself, concealed -
Should startle most -
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body - borrows a Revolver -
He bolts the Door -
O'erlooking a superior spectre -
Or More -

Emily Dickinson, 1863

Having just read 'Lives like Loaded Guns:  Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds', by Lyndall Gordon,  it just had to be Emily Dickinson this week.  This is one of my favourite poems and one of her most profound.   Reading the biography has sent me back to the poetry, reading it with new eyes now that I know what was going on in the context of her life - her brother's adulterous relationship and her own ill health.  What comes over most strongly in the biography was how little control women (particularly middle class women)  had over their lives in those days, being financially dependent on men and forced to conform to the strict public standards demanded of them by society.   Working class women were expected to work all their lives and less was expected of them morally.   Emily Dickinson's servants were, in a way, freer than she was.

For more poetry visit the Tuesday Poem blog

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Galaxy National Book Awards

Book awards are increasingly seen as part of the necessary publicity launch-platform for authors.  Winning one can transform you from a mid-list hopeful to an international sensation over-night -  that is providing your publisher can afford the fees to get you onto the list.  Some of the big prizes require back-up funding that runs into thousands and is beyond the reach of all but the biggest publishers who are unlikely to splurge on new or less well known authors.
Books for the Galaxy awards are apparently nominated by 'around 50 carefully-selected individuals from the Galaxy National Book Awards Academy, who are drawn from retailer chain buyers, independent booksellers, wholesalers and trade press columnists'.   The exact process is rather vague, but the impression is one of democracy and you feel that it should produce a varied list that allows the small fry to swim with the big fish.
So why did I feel so depressed after I'd watched the awards?  Why did I feel that I'd seen it all before?  There didn't seem to be anything fresh or original at all.  (Martin Amis, Stephen Fry, Jonathon Frantzen, Terry Pratchett ...........) And hardly any women at all - though there were loads on the shortlists.  But awards were only given to Hilary Mantel,  and children's writer Julia Donaldson who shared her award with co-author Alex Scheffler.
I thought the biography short list was particularly apalling - celebrity memoirs and diaries by Alan Sugar, Tony Blair, the Duchess of Devonshire, Stephen Fry, and Chris Mullin MP - the one biography on it, Justine Picardie's account of the life of Coco Chanel didn't get anywhere.

One interesting new writer who made it to the shortlist is Katherine Webb, who wrote 7 unpublished novels before The Legacy came to the notice of Orion through the on-line writing site ''.   It's a peer criticism site where the top ten voted authors are read by an agent or publisher.  Orion are currently giving The Legacy the full treatment and I feel very glad for Katherine who deserves her success for persevering as well as the quality of her writing!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Thinking about Peace on Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day in Britain, when those who were killed in our many wars are publicly remembered.  As  a pacifist, one who believes that most wars are unnecessary, I spent the day remembering all those who have suffered - civilian and military - in our most recent conflicts.   Particularly Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia - and of course the Middle East.  
I always feel guilty that, apart from joining the occasional Amnesty International demonstration,  or signing petitions, I do very little personally that is constructive for the cause of world peace.   Someone who  does much more is the Israeli Jazz musician Gilad Atzmon.  He raises the question of peace, particularly in the middle east, in almost every concert that he gives - most recently at the London Jazz Festival.  His band, the Orient House Ensemble, features Palestinian and european musicians  - Christians, Jews and Muslims - playing side by side, and he campaigns relentlessly for a resolution of the Palestinian question.    This high-profile opposition to the official Israeli political position has made him a target - something he often jokes about.  Jazz of course, is the devil's own music, and is traditionally subversive!  His latest anti-war performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall can be viewed on this link.

And this is a profile of Gilad.


Monday, 8 November 2010

Tuesday Poem: How to Pour Madness into a Teacup

How to Pour Madness into a Teacup

She hangs her tears at the front of the house
cuts the rain in half and puts time
in the hot black kettle. She sits in the kitchen
reading the teacup full of small dark tears;

it’s foretold the man in the wood
hovers in the dark rain above the winding path.
The man is talking to her in moons,
she is laughing to hide her tears

and with little time, she secretly
plants the moons in the dark brown bed.
She shivers, thinks the man is watching
as the jokes of the child dance

on the roof of the house. Tidying,
she carefully puts hot rain in the teacup,
sings as she hangs her tears on a string
and watching the dance, thinks herself mad.

Abegail Morley
in collection How to Pour Madness into a Teacup, 2009 Cinnamon Press

This is surreal – like madness. I like the image of putting ‘time in the hot black kettle’, of reading tears in a teacup like tea-leaves. I like the fact that I don’t know, entirely, what the poem means. There’s the curious juxtaposition of tears, dark and rain, the man and the child and the moons. It reminds me of that quote from Anne Sexton – ‘the walk from breakfast to madness’ which so perfectly illustrates the invisible line between domestic normality and a state of unreality.  Perhaps madness is simply a different, extraordinary, way of looking at the ordinary.  The poem is actually part of a sequence and you probably have to read the whole of it. You can read the rest at

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Good News

Katherine Mansfield
So it’s all agreed. Edinburgh University Press are going to publish The Story-teller. They are moving very fast and hope to have the book available before Christmas. It appears to be (fingers crossed!) the happy ending of a long and complicated story. But it’s also a tale of serendipity. I was invited to do a small book signing at an event at New Zealand House; the editor came up to talk to me about the biography and that’s when it all began. I gave her a book to take away and three days later she came back with an offer.
Now I’m busy with all the copy edits and other alternations I want to make before it goes to the printer next week. However hard you try, there are always errors and in this case, a number of typos which slipped through the proof reading process of the 1st edition, including a photograph with the wrong person’s name underneath. And people keep approaching me with new information, which is very exciting, but has, somehow to be accommodated. I’m hoping that the EUP version will be as accurate as it’s possible to make it.

I can’t believe how things can change so rapidly in the space of a week. And on Monday Neil is coming home for a few days, so I will have my best mate back :-) No wonder I’m smiling!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Women in the Middle East

The twin cases of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and Rashanah Chowdury have been occupying my mind for the last few days; one condemned to death for supposedly committing adultery, the other radicalised to the extent of attempting to murder an MP.
I lived in the middle east during the nineteen seventies - working for some of the time in English broadcasting - programmes for the Qatar Broadcasting Corporation as well as freelance pieces for the BBC UK and world service. I worked alongside educated, relatively liberated Palestinian and Kuwaiti women.
In the middle east as a whole I witnessed a horrific lack of human rights - particularly for women. I sat next to heavily pregnant 11 year old girls in the maternity clinic - and was once invited to attend the wedding of one of the Sheikh’s 10 year old daughters. I talked to women doctors working in the hospitals about the terrible consequences of female circumcision - still widely practised. Over the border in Saudi Arabia women a number of women were executed for infidelity either by stoning or beheading.

For myself I was generally treated with courtesy and friendliness, but towards the end of my stay became aware of a shift in attitude and an increasing radicalisation. One day, driving into town with my two young children in the back of the vehicle I was chased by a group of youths in a car who were obviously offended by the sight of a woman at the wheel . They repeatedly rammed me from behind in an attempt to drive me off the road and eventually succeeded. As they approached the car - one with a rock in his hand, presumably to smash the windscreen - I was rescued by a Qatari lorry driver who stopped beside the car. The attack left me shaken and wary.

I visited Iran during my time in the Middle East and was blown over by the beauty of the country, their long history of culture and the friendliness of the people. I was equally appalled by the extremes of poverty and wealth that confronted me. At one end of the scale were people so poor they could barely exist, and at the other people so rich they could afford to shop in Paris, take winter holidays in Val D’Aosta and Florida.
From what I could see there was no middle class as we would recognise it in Europe and no social or educational system for people in the lower classes to rise up the scale and better themselves.
The educated women I met were feisty, articulate and ambitious and occupied prominent positions. Women in the poorer classes walked behind their husbands and remained silent. They barely owned a couple of lengths of cloth to cover themselves with, a few cooking pots and bedding.

In Tehran I visited the display of crown jewels under the National Bank. There in glass cases was an obscene Aladdin’s cave of wealth - dozens of trays of loose diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires, as well as heaps of uncut stones more than a foot high.  Jewel encrusted furniture. In other cases crowns and coronets set with gems the size of hens’ eggs, bejewelled and ermined court costumes, cloaks and trains - all of which made our own crown jewels look like something from Woolworths. It reminded me of Russian Tsarist excesses.  Outside people begged in the street and students demonstrated. It was obvious that the Shah’s regime couldn’t last much longer - a few months after my visit he left.

The medieval attitudes to women (which are comparable to our own in the middle ages) can’t entirely be separated from middle eastern politics generally. While Europe and the West are seen as The Enemy, western attitudes to women and western values are never going to be adopted. And there can be no resolution or modernisation in the Middle East until the Palestinian question is resolved. It is the catalyst for radicalisation and recruitment among young men in the middle east and, evidently, young women too.

But despite the restrictions, women feminists are making their voices heard. Iran has a growing number of female film directors. One in particular, Samira Makhmalbaf, has made some fascinating films - ‘Blackboards’ is about the trials of two itinerant teachers who travel the tribal areas with blackboards on their backs to give remote villages some experience of education. In ‘At Five in the Afternoon’ she follows the experience of two young women living under the Taliban in Afghanistan. And there are several more women film makers managing to find a way through the restrictions in order to show us their view of the society they live in.  If they come your way (they're on DVD with Artificial Eye films) please watch.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Tuesday Poem: Afraid of the Dark

Best not to walk
these woods
in darkness.

The mind projects
its own horrors
on the blank screen
of the night.

A rapist crouches
fingering his garotte
or kitchen knife
promising the fate
worse than death

and monsters with yellow
eyes that burn -
the worm
who flies by night
and sucks your soul

out of your skull
and leaves the husk
to wander
as a mindless zombie.

Watch your back
as the dusk
begins to smudge the trees,
drifting across
the river bank like smoke.

I've always been afraid of the dark, since I was a small child living in a house without electricity and with too much imagination! We took candles to bed and the shapes and images the flickering flames made and the shadowy corners of the rooms were always peopled with terrors. I'm still afraid of the dark, though logically I know I'm safe, particularly in the country where there are only the wild animals in the fields and woods.

For more Tuesday poems go to

Friday, 29 October 2010

A writer's life is sometimes strange

Very strange indeed.  At the same moment that I was deliberating over printer's quotes for a small Independent edition of The Story-teller, and had just put my self-publishing quandary up on the blog, I was approached by one of the British university presses about a publishing deal.   Not only did they want to publish the book, but they wanted to bring it out quickly, before Christmas, to take advantage of all the Penguin publicity.  They were also keen to use Neil's cover design.   The only drawback was that they couldn't offer much money, but from my point of view the fact that I'm not going to be paying the printer's bill is  a big bonus.  All I have to do is to convince my agent that a) a very enthusiastic, well-regarded university publisher is better than no publisher at all, and b) that a good hardback edition and some good reviews might just lead to a mainstream publisher offering for the paperback rights.    Wish me luck on that one! 

Meanwhile, we're going ahead with the re-issue of A Passionate Sisterhood.  The cover proofs arrived today and Alas!!! instead of a lovely, rich blue, they are a deep and depressing shade of purple attractive only to mourning Victorians.    We are beginning to realise the problems of transmitting colour files - it is apparently very difficult to get the same colour calibrated into a printer.  A lot of tweaking is going to be necessary.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A New Fiction Site for Authors and Readers

I've just discovered this new Arts Council site - Fiction Uncovered - which seems to be dedicated to promoting lesser known authors.  You can find it at

Will it make a difference?   I hope so, but I'm feeling a bit cynical today!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Tuesday Poem: The Reluctant Moon

The Reluctant Moon

The old moon is careful
        peering over the dark rim of the hill
edging out of cover
       into the open sky
the pale, cratered disc exposed
       to the prurient eye of the telescope.

I too have secrets -
       damage I would not display
for close inspection.

A life blown across my face
       by solar wind
scored, to the bedrock.

I am past the full now
        thinning to the last quarter
Earth’s pull
        is relentless
dragging us through
       all our phases

solitary - naked as the moon
hallucinating in its aura of vapour.

Kathleen Jones

For more poetry please go to the Tuesday Poem blog by clicking on the link.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Author's Dilemma: to Self-publish or Not

The Book Mill logo
 For the past year I’ve had a problem. A casualty of the economic shut down, my Virago biography of the sisters, wives and daughters of the lake poets - A Passionate Sisterhood - was allowed to go out of print by the publishers. It was still selling, still in demand, but not in sufficient numbers to justify Virago keeping it on their back-list. Print-on-demand and making older titles available as E-books simply hasn’t made an impact on an industry whose feet are still set in the concrete blocks of the gentleman’s club era of publishing.

So I began to consider the idea of printing a new edition myself and marketing it over the internet and through local bookshops and Wordsworth related tourist outlets in the Lake District.

I also had another problem - much more complicated and worrying. My UK publisher, for the new Katherine Mansfield biography I’d just spent 5 years writing, had been bought out by another publishing company whose policy didn’t include literary biography. They didn’t want the book. Penguin New Zealand were still more than happy to publish The Story-teller, but Penguin UK couldn’t take on the English edition because one of their top authors, Claire Tomalin, had also written a Mansfield biography, albeit twenty five years ago. So there was a conflict of interest.

My agent assured me that she had tried every publisher in London, but none of them were willing to risk money on a big, serious biography of a big, serious literary figure, at a time of financial crisis. If I’d been writing about a soap star, or a footballer (or been one myself!) ....... These are frightening times. Two publishers in London - one of them Harper Collins - declared that they weren’t even going to look at submissions of biographies until 2011. Lists were slashed everywhere.

Meanwhile, I had a book almost everyone loved, which I believed to be commercial, but no-one other than Penguin NZ was willing to publish. And it’s a quirk of the publishing world that territory is so jealously guarded that they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it anywhere else. People wrote to me from all over the world asking when this new book on Mansfield was going to be available; reviewers from several of the heavyweight newspapers and magazines wrote offering to review it; book festivals wrote to enquire whether I’d be available to promote it. I just didn’t have a book to promote.

So, the idea has been growing - why not create a private imprint of our own and print 500 copies of the hardback of The Story-teller for distribution in Britain? And why not put A Passionate Sisterhood back into print at the same time? Neil registered himself as a small publisher and began to design covers.  The Book Mill has been born.  He is also very good at the IT side of things and was able to convert my text files into PDF files to send to printers.
Neil's cover design

We began to get quotes from printers - choosing to go with proper trade printers rather than choose ready made self-publishing companies like LULU. I just didn’t feel that publication by one of these sources would give me the kind of credibility I needed. There is, sadly, still a great deal of prejudice against ‘self-publishing’. In the states they call it Independent Publishing and I think that is the right name - after all many of the greatest writers in the world published their own work - publishers as we know them are a modern invention. Originally many books were also published by the book-sellers themselves - as Amazon are beginning to do now. Perhaps it’s time to go back and dismantle the huge publishing houses who control authors lives and act more for their share-holders than for readers or writers. Perhaps it’s time to take control of our own work?

I have just sent A Passionate Sisterhood to the printers, having obtained an ISBN allocation online. For this book we’ve chosen to have it printed digitally - which is cheaper than litho printing and for a paperback there is, apparently, no discernible loss of quality. We’ve chosen to put most of the money into the printing of the cover. It’s all cheaper than we’d imagined. A standard 300 page paperback without illustrations would come out under £1000. Mine is rather more because I’ve got photographic plates and a colour cover. They have promised the books in three weeks. Fingers crossed. Am I mad? Still exploring the options for the Story-teller and I’ll keep you posted on progress.