Elizabeth Taylor is a writer I admire greatly. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (1971) is one of her late novels and it is about an elderly lady (and lady is the right word) who arrives at the Claremont, a residential hotel in Kensington, hoping to make a life for herself there after the death of her husband. Taylor went and stayed in such a hotel in order to get the details right and how wonderfully she depicts the routine and the little pleasures its residents cling to, their petty slights and alliances, their hopes and fears. Are there such hotels, populated by lonely old people, these days? I somehow doubt it.
Mrs Palfrey is a redoubtable woman who, after a strenuous life in the colonies with her husband, is neglected by an unsympathetic daughter in Scotland and a grandson in London who fails to visit. When chance brings the handsome young Ludo into her life, she finds herself pretending that he is her grandson to increase her prestige in the hotel. A well-off old lady and an attractive young man: in the hands of a lesser writer, we can guess how this would go. What does happen is far more interesting than that.
Soon after my own husband died last year, I remembered a passage in this novel and went to look for it. Mrs Palfrey is out for a walk on a bleak winter’s afternoon. ‘Arthur and I, she suddenly thought, would come back from our walk as it was getting dark, and he would carefully put little bits of coal on the fire, building up what he called “a good toast fire.” She could picture his hand with the tongs – a strong, authoritative hand with hair growing on it. If I had known at the time how happy I was, she decided now, it would only have spoiled it. I took it for granted. That was much better. I don’t regret that.’
In another passage Mrs Palfrey in bed ‘lay and listened to the murmur of a married couple in the next room. It was unrhythmical and intermittent, an exchange grown casual and homely over the years. She knew – looking back – how precious it could be, though not valued at the time . . . The two were setting in for the night, peaceably and at their accustomed pace; and Mrs Palfrey, hearing them, felt lulled and comforted.’
I hope I have whetted your appetite for this excellent writer, if you don’t already know her work.
I haven’t been sleeping well these last six months or so – and I won’t need to tell readers of my blog why that is. I don’t usually have a problem getting to sleep, but I often find myself awake at four or five am. That is when audiobooks are such a godsend. I prefer books that I already know – doesn’t much matter then if I drop off and miss a bit – and I prefer them unabridged. And of course it is of paramount importance that the voice is right for that particular novel.
I’ve been enjoying the work of four wonderful actors. It goes without saying that David Suchet is perfect for Murder on the Orient Express, but Hugh Fraser is pretty damn good as a reader of other Christie novels, such as The Hollow and Nemesis. Ian Carmichael couldn’t be better in the dramatisations of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Wimsey books, reprising the role he played so well on TV. But the absolute queen of the audiobook is for me Prunella Scales, first with Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, and then with Wives and Daughters. This last in particular has just been sheer bliss and toward the end I was listening to it even when I didn’t have insomnia. Her characterisation is so perfect, her understanding of the nuances of the novel so complete – and what a marvellous novel it is, full of insight into human weakness, but full of compassion too. I could listen to her forever.
If there are other listeners to audiobooks out there, I would really welcome suggestions for other good readers – particularly of the classics or of golden age crime fiction. Please let me know your favourites.
Kind friends and readers have asked me when Deep Water would be available in the States and I am happy to say that US publication was on 27 January. I was lucky enough to have an American publisher for my first two novels, but not since, so I’m delighted to published in the US again.
A writer’s life is full of ups and down – it can be like a literary game of snakes and ladders. My good friend, Martin Edwards invited me to write about this for his splendid blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name?, You can read my post here: http://doyouwriteunderyourownname.blogspot.co.uk/2016/10/the-ups-and-downs-of-crime-writers-life.html
In Muriel Spark’s splendid novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, finds herself at a dinner-party sitting next to a retired Brigadier General. She gives him advice on how to get down to writing his memoirs. Get a cat. She explains: ‘Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp . . . and the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind the self-command it has lost.’
The advice bears fruit. Three years later the Brigadier sends her a copy of his war memoirs. ‘On the cover was a picture of the Brigadier at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it “To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.” The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that the cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.’
Here is my own writer’s companion, sitting among the reference works.
. . . but I can’t resist posting a picture of the new additions to the family. They arrived three weeks ago. The little one is nearly four months old and she is called Holly. The big one is nearly seven months and he is Freddie. They’re not related, but became friends at the rescue centre so we decided to take them both. They are sweet little cats and it’s a bonus that they are so chic in their matching black and white.
The last day of 2016 and what a terribly strange and sad year it has been for me and my family in ways we could not have anticipated this time last year.
Peter’s memorial event at the university was recorded and can now be seen on Youtube. You can find it here: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/architecture/people/pbj My own contribution is about an hour and five minutes in.
The photograph shows Peter walking in the woods near our house last winter and was taken – I think – by our younger daughter. It seems a very fitting image with which to end the year.
To all my friends and readers (so often one and the same) all my warm good wishes for 2017. Your support has meant so much to me over the last few months.
On Thursday I took part in a splendid event at Heffer’s bookshop in Cambridge. On my way there I took the opportunity of stopping off in Ely where my new series of novels is set to pick up a bit more local colour. I walked around the marina and went into the cathedral. Peter and I lived in nearby Cambridge and I remembered when we used to go to the Old Fire Engine House restaurant in the early days before we were married.
I went to see if it was still there and it is. Looking through the window I felt I could almost see our younger selves sitting there twenty years ago, with everything in front of us. Words from a poem by Hardy came into my mind. He so well understood the power of places to embody memories of those we love. He is one of my favourite poets. This is ‘At Castle Boterel.’
As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.
What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, ―
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.
It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story ? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.
Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order ;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is—that we two passed.
And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain
The photograph is of the Old Fire Engine House restaurant with the magnificent cathedral in the background.
On 16th November the Sheffield School of Architecture held an event to celebrate Peter’s life and work. It was an amazing evening, attended by around 200 people. Peter’s ex-students, some of them professors themselves now, came from places as far afield as Korea and Taiwan. It was intensely moving to hear what an influence he had had – and still has -not just as a writer, but as a teacher and thesis supervisor.
Among the speeches was one by Peter’s last Ph.D student, Xiang Ren, who ended by saying, ‘For me as a student, also as an international outsider, the time I spent with Peter is much less than most of the attendees here today. But he was really that person who influenced me so much – I would say, whole life – there is an old saying in traditional China – ‘one day teacher, whole life father’. Peter was such a person to me. He was also ‘the father of the house’ for the arts tower/SSoA, and I believe the flame will go on, for so many generations of younger students, scholars and practitioners not only coming from Sheffield, but also from all over the world.’
The photo is of Peter and me and Peter’s colleague, Jan Woudstra, with a group of Ph.D students and visiting scholars plus partners and children at our house in June 2013. I have taken it from a collection of photographs and tributes compiled by Peter’s South-east Asian students and which you can read here: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/architecture/latest/pbj-phd-students-1.645114
I am finding it hard to find time to blog at the moment, but here is an article, ‘All in a Day’s Work,’ that I have just written for Barry Forshaw’s splendid website: crimetime.co.uk: http://www.crimetime.co.uk/mag/index.php/showarticle/4741
It’s about how I found out about the science in my new novel, Deep Water, and the benefits of getting out of the study and into the lab.
Frances Faviell wrote A Chelsea Concerto some years after living through the Blitz. She was a privileged young woman, earning a living as an artist, and sufficiently well off to have a housekeeper, the splendid Mrs Freeth. Simply as a social document of a slightly Bohemian, but respectable middle-class way of life it would be fascinating, but the background of the Blitz makes it as gripping and as poignant as any novel. She played her part in the war effort, joining the V.A.D as a nurse, helping to look after Belgian refugees, being on Fire Duty. One of her jobs is piecing together bodies blown apart in air raids. What makes this an exceptional account is her absolute frankness. She holds nothing back in her description of the terrible things she witnessed and her own reactions (not always admirable). One November night as she walks home from visiting a desperately sick friend, she comes across a group of people gathered round a bomb crater. At the bottom here is a man crushed, but still conscious and in agony. They need someone slim enough to be lowered down and inject the man with morphine and they seize on Frances:
“‘Take off your coat,’ said the doctor. I took it off. ‘And your dress,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous – the folds may catch in the debris and bring the whole thing down . . . . It’ll have to be head first. Can you grip the torch with your teeth?’ Two wardens gripped me by the thighs and lowered me down over the hole.” The reader is spared no detail of what she finds as she goes down, not once, but twice and finally manages to administer merciful chloroform.
Of course we know that she herself survives the war, but when she marries and becomes pregnant, we fear for those she loves – her husband, her unborn baby, her friends and neighbours. And indeed something unspeakably horrible does happen . . .
I have never read anything quite like this book, and I could not put it down. I have made it sound grim, and some of it is, but it’s also a story of everyday heroism and the triumph of the human spirit. I loved it.