I have got one of those annoying colds that just goes on and on with days when I think I am getting better followed by relapses when I don’t want to do anything but loll around and read something undemanding. So what did I read? This Xmas my brother gave me one of his own books that I have long coveted: the Black Box edition of Fredric Brown thrillers containing Night of the Jabberwock, The Screaming Mimi, Knock Three-One-Two, and The Fabulous Clipjoint. No new book could have pleased me more. I was thrilled when I unwrapped it, and promptly reread them all.
More sickbed reading included a writer new to me: Lissa Evans’s Their Finest Hour and a Half, a novel set in WWII and organised around the making of a feature film about the evacuation from Dunkirk. I loved this – learned a lot about film-making, too. I especially enjoyed this: when Arthur proposes to thirty-six year old Edith on their first date, she immediately says yes, much to the surprise of both of them: her reply had ‘been preceded on her part by a series of very rapid and rational thoughts – he has just proposed, he seems sincere, he is not hideous, he has a good job in civilian life, he owns a house, he is very likely the only person who will ever ask for my hand in marriage . . . oh, and won’t it just knock Verna [her cousin] for six – and it had been the last and most most venial of these had triggered her answer.’ After this I was longing to know how their marriage would turn out. A lovely novel: funny, touching, full of fascinating period detail: perfect reading when feeling under the weather. One tiny reservation: in 1940 would someone have talked about ‘letting their charlady go?’ Wouldn’t they just give them the sack? It is so hard to get absolutely everything right. I enjoyed this hugely and thanks to Moira at ClothesinBooks.com for recommending it.
I’ll end, dear friends and fellow bloggers, by wishing you a happy New Year with lots of rewarding reading.
The British Library are on a roll. They’ve followed up an excellent exhibition on book illustration with an equally good one on the Gothic. I absolutely loved it. The range is wide, taking in its origins in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Strawberrry Hill and going right up to the Whitby Goth Weekend, photographed by Martin Parr. It includes ghost stories, Victorian horror (Spring-heeled Jack, Sweeney Todd, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Vampires, werewolves, zombies, doppelgängers: they are all here. I was particularly taken by a case containing a vampire-slaying kit, complete with mallet, stakes, and moulds for silver bullets.
A particular strength is that they have included extracts from films. There is Bride of Frankenstein; you can hear Elsa Lanchester screaming half way round the exhibition and whoever thought up that fabulous lightning bolt hair-do was a genius. There is The Wicker Man, Night of the Living Dead and many, many more, including one of my favourites, Night of the Demon, and a wonderful Spankmeyer short that I didn’t know about. There are recorded interviews with the likes of Neil Gaiman and Sarah Waters.
In truth, I am not a great horror fan, though I can enjoy almost anything if it is well done and I love a good ghost story. But there was so much of interest here that even a couple of hours wasn’t quite enough. Here is a link to the BL page which features a video and lots more: http://bit.ly/ZR3MQ6.
I first came across Mat Coward in a CWA anthology. He is a first-rate short story writer, but he also writes across a wide range of other genre: sci-fi, crime, children’s books (including Dr Who adventures), as well as being a gardening columnist for the Morning Star and a researcher on QI.
I began by asking him ‘What’s your writing routine?’
God, I wish I knew! If I’d ever worked that out, I might have ended up a lot more productive than I am. I stumble into my office in the garage after breakfast, stagger out again around teatime, and just hope that whatever happens in-between is sufficient to keep me in tobacco and cat biscuits.
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters – even a genre?
You’re supposed to say “character,” aren’t you? Personally, as a reader, what I’m looking for above all is a story – I think the obsession with character and theme is what makes most contemporary “non-genre” fiction unreadable and pointless. As a writer, however, I start with whatever works. As often as not, I write down a bit of funny dialogue and just keep going from there. I find plot very hard work, so frankly I tend to put that off until last.
You write across an unusually wide range. What was your first love? How did you come to start writing fiction?
I don’t know that I have such a wide range so much as that I am an old-fashioned freelance writer: I write whatever comes up – whatever I’m asked to do next, or whatever I’ve got an idea for – and that includes fiction. I don’t think I could ever have made a living specialising in one type of writing, and even if I had, I’d have died of boredom. When I started out, I mainly wanted to write radio comedy, but, disappointingly, I was never very good at that.
You don’t sell your books on Amazon? Would you like to tell us more about that? I don’t buy from Amazon, ever, and I try not to sell through them as far as I’m able; I don’t pretend I can control that process 100%. Around the world, Amazon is notorious for vicious union-busting; Google “Amazon union busting,” and your jaw will drop. There’s no need to buy from Amazon – it’s pure laziness, there are plenty of alternatives – and to put it bluntly, I despise anyone who is that lazy.
I think you’re right about Amazon. I have been returning to bookshops recently. Speaking of which, do you have a favourite bookshop? I’m a book reviewer – I spend more time getting rid of books than I do buying them! But where I live there’s an independent bookshop in the high street, and I generally put in a big Xmas order there. The books arrive the next day, incidentally, which is quicker than mail order.
What are you working on at the moment? I’m about to start a four-month contract researching for the TV show, QI. This’ll be my 11th series. I write a column on modern myths for Fortean Times magazine, and the QI bosses saw that and thought I might be useful to them. In freelancing, small jobs can lead to big ones, sometimes years later. QI has been very handy; it’s extremely rare for a freelance to get regular work on proper wages, over a long period. As soon as that’s finished, I hope to get on with a non-fiction, history book, that I’ve been trying to start for several years. I couldn’t figure out a format for it until just a few weeks ago. After that, I hope someone will ask me to write another Doctor Who audio play (but they never do), or another children’s book (but they never do). So instead I’ll get on with some short stories (crime and sf), because I’ve hardly written any over the last few years. But my fantasy year would consist of all reading, and no writing …
Thank you! To find out more about Mat and to buy his books, go to http://www.matcoward.com
This book by Greg King and Susan Woolmans is subtitled: ‘Sarajevo 1914 and the Murder that Changed the World.’ It was recommended by Elaine at http://randomjottings.typepad.com. I decided that it was something I didn’t know enough about. It did after all set in train a sequence of events that led to the deaths of millions, including my great uncle.
King and Woolmans tell the story with great verve. It is tremendously readable and only occasionally was I pulled up short by a statement such as ‘Princip fingered the revolver in his pocket.’ How could one possibly know? That is the pedantic historian in me.
The account of the morganatic marriage between Franz Ferdinand and Sophie is told in touching detail. Even though she was a princess, she did not come from the tiny group of aristocrats regarded as suitable for a future emperor and suffered many humiliations at court. The archduke comes across as a devoted husband and father. He was less successful in the political realm.
The sequence of events that made the assassination possible beggar belief, particularly the incompetence of Potiorek. the provincial governor. Again and again there were opportunities for things to happen differently and I longed to intervene and at least to rescue Sophie so that their three children would not be left parentless.
The Austrian-Hungarian empire must have seemed as though it would last forever, its rigid protocols and bureaucracies set in stone. And yet it all fell apart so quickly. The seeds of modernity were already sown in turn of the century Vienna: the home of Freud, and Klimt and Schiele and Mahler.
So: a throughly good read, and I understand a lot more about the causes of WWI than I did before I read it.
Information was not easy to come by at my Girls’ Grammar School. Biology lessons focused mainly how rabbits reproduced and raised more questions than they answered. At one point there was a book in a plain brown wrapper (yes, really!), called something like Married Love, though I don’t think it can have been exactly that. It was in illicit circulation, and I certainly saw it, but I can’t remember anything about its contents. And then there was Lady Chatterley’s Lover – this was the end of the sixties – which also circulated surreptitiously.
But looking back it seems to me that I learnt a lot from The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1918. My copy was the 1939 edition, chosen and edited by Sir Arthur-Quiller Couch. It had been my mother’s school prize and had the stamp of Staveley Grammar School on the cover. Did they know what was inside it? It was full of wonderful love poetry. ‘Western wind, when will thou blow / The small rain down can rain / Christ, if my love were in my arms / And I in my bed again!’ It was all there: Wyatt, Donne, Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress,’ the Cavalier Poets, Browning, Tennyson and what amazingly sexy stuff some of it was. And there was quite a bit of information, too, if you knew where to look. Today’s youth just don’t know what they are missing.
Stepping outside our house the other evening, I saw the moon riding high among turbulent clouds and I spoke out loud the line from Alfred Noyes’s ‘The Highwayman’: ‘The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.’
I’ve just looked up the poem and what a poem it is, with a terrific driving rhythm. Strange really that it has been regarded as suitable for children: it is full of violence and eroticism. But really what it got me thinking about was the way it came so readily to my mind, and the way that our minds are furnished by what we read as children and young people.
There is not much learning poetry by rote in school these days, and there wasn’t a great deal more when I was a child, but I did learn some poems by heart , because I loved them. I can still recite Wordsworth ‘Daffodils.’ At one point I knew most if not all of Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ too (never dreaming that I’d one day write about it in an academic book). Later as an undergraduate I learned Herbert’s ‘Vertue,’ because I wanted to have it with me wherever I went. There are a lot more poems that I remember in snatches or maybe just a line or two.
Nowadays everything is accessible through Google and one can always be connected to the internet, so there is no need to remember anything. But, still, there is great pleasure in suddenly being reminded – as I was the other night – of a piece of poetry and knowing that you are in contact with the mind of another person – one that perhaps lived centuries ago.
. . . even though I did History of Art and taught it at degree level. Giovanni Battista Moroni was a sixteenth century Italian artist, a contemporary of Titian. There is an exhibition of his work at the RA until 25th January. I was entranced by it. It is mostly portraits with a few altarpieces and it reveals him to be one of the really great portrait painters of any era. What struck me most about them was their modernity. Portraits of this period – indeed, most periods – are about displays of power and wealth. These are too, of course, but take away the trappings and just look at the faces, and these could be people you might see walking walked Piccadilly. It is something about their expressions: a certain guardedness, an inwardness, that I hadn’t expected to see. I felt a real connection with them as individuals. A marvellous exhibition, quite small, and all the better for that in my view. It’s possible to see everything and really take it in. And Moira at ClothesinBooks.com if you are reading this, there are some fabulous clothes in there!