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Packing Up a Life

My husband, the architectural historian and critic, Peter Blundell Jones, died in August 2016. It all happened very fast. I didn’t think to ask him where he wanted his archive to go and he didn’t leave any instructions in his will. It is an important body of material. In the course of his career Peter had interviewed leading architects all over Europe, taken millions of photographs, and kept all the research material for the books he had written. After a lot of thought and consultation with the children, I decided it should go to the University of Sheffield. The School of Architecture had been his academic home for the last twenty-two years of his life and it was where he had consolidated his reputation. He was happy there and was loved and respected. I felt confident that this was the right place.

It was, however, just the beginning of my job as Peter’s literary executor. Over the last year I have been preparing his archive for transfer to the university and that has been no small task. It wasn’t just that there was a huge amount of material – Peter kept EVERYTHING – but it was completely unfiltered. His correspondence was particularly problematic as it was ordered simply in chronological order, the personal mingling with the professional. Peter kept almost every scrap of correspondence, however trivial. One of the first letters in a box that I opened at random was from my lovely late mother-in-law thanking us for cooking Christmas dinner. I had to go through everything, picking out letters too personal to go into the archive, right back to the 1960s, years and years before I met him. I have had through my hands virtually every letter that Peter ever received. He often kept copies of letters that he sent, so sometimes I saw the other side of the correspondence, too. I began to feel like someone in a story by Borges, living someone’s life by proxy, going further and further into the past, almost overwhelmed by the deluge of information.

I have finished now. Forty-eight boxes are waiting to go to the university when lockdown ends. It has been poignant – heart-breakingly so at times – but it has also been wonderful to relive our years together. I have a sense of the whole of Peter’s life and can see how rich and rewarding it was. As for me, my task has been a labour of love, and also a way of grieving.

Apple blossom

Earlier this month the apple tree that we planted in memory of my husband, Peter, was in bloom. The warm days were followed by cold and windy weather that brought to my mind one of Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets. The power of art to console remains undimmed in these difficult days. Indeed, we need it more than ever.

So here it is, Sonnet XVIII.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

A wonderful thing

BEFORE: Peter’s journals stretching out of sight to the front door

Over the fifty years since Peter had first been a student at the Architectural Association he had amassed hundreds and hundreds of architectural journals and magazines. In many cases there were more than one copy, because he had been a contributor to so many over the course of his career. He had written over 500 articles and was Architectural Journalist of the Year in 1992, the year that I met him. After he died in August 2016, it did weigh on my mind that one day most of them would probably have to be thrown out. Schools of Architecture would already have runs of them and I couldn’t think what could be done with them.

But now I am thrilled to say that they have found a home. In September I had an email from Steve Parnell, now at Newcastle School of Architecture, whose Ph.d on architectural journalism Peter had supervised. Steve was planning a project by and for students called the MagSpace, and would be very happy Peter’s journals. What, all of them? I asked. Yes, all of them.

One week-end it took me a day and a half – with assistance – to assemble journals and magazines from various corners of our house. On the Monday morning Steve briefed a small group of students: they had until 4 o’clock on Friday to design the lay-out of the MagSpace, plan the shelving, make it in the workshop, assemble it and arrange the journals. On Monday afternoon Steve drove down from Sheffield in a van, we loaded up the journals, and he took them back to Newcastle.

It is wonderful to think that they will be used and enjoyed instead of gathering dust in the attic. It is poignant to think of Peter buying the earliest ones as a student – at a time when he was very hard-up – little knowing that one day he would be such an eminent critic and historian and that the magazines would be consulted by other young people at the start of their careers. I am glad that the baton should be passed on in this way. And he would so much have approved of the students participation in planning and making the space. It is perfect in every way and I want to thank everyone involved.

AFTER: the Magspace with the students who made it and Steve (second from the left).

Found between the pages of a book

Unknown-5There are a lot of books in our house. I have no idea how many, but thousands, certainly. That is what happens when two academics marry and when they read a lot outside their subject. Our books are a kind of biography, marking different points in our lives when we bought them and when we read them. Peter tended not to use book marks, but instead would use whatever was to hand: a train ticket, maybe, a flyer for some event. So sometimes I am ambushed when I open a book and find evidence of when or where Peter read it.

The other day I was gazing absentmindedly at a shelf of books, when I realised I was looking at a copy of Antarctic Adventure by Sir Vivian Fuchs. I was surprised because I was nearing the end of the second draft of my new novel set in Antarctica and I had no idea that I had a source so close to hand. Peter must have forgotten all about it. Inside it was a gift tag: To Peter Wishing You a Happy Christmas from Auntie Maisie and Uncle George.’  Both of them are long dead. The book was published in 1959 and I imagine it would have been given to Peter not long afterwards. I felt a pang at the thought of Peter opening it on that long ago Christmas Day – and all these years later I was opening it and thinking of him. It is strange the way our books survive us.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been ambushed. I picked Empire and Local Worlds, by Mingming Wang off the shelf. It’s a work of Chinese anthropology. In it I found an invitation to a concert in memory of our friend, David Mellor, the designer and silversmith  in London in 2009. Peter must have been reading it on the train in preparation for his own book, Architecture and Ritual.

No doubt there will be more reminders. The stories of our lives in books . . . in both senses of the word.

Thanks to all my kind friends and good wishes for 2017

Posted on Dec 31, 2016 in Peter Blundell Jones | 8 Comments

peter-out-walkingThe 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.

Sentimental Journey

lead-imgOn 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,
Distinctly yet

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
Never again.

The photograph is of the Old Fire Engine House restaurant with the magnificent cathedral in the background.

One day teacher, whole life father

pbj-studentsOn 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

Mixed emotions

vis-deep-waterToday my new novel is out. I am delighted with the great job that my publishers have done and it was a thrill to get my advance copy. What a terrific cover! I couldn’t be more pleased with it.

I turned to the acknowledgements and there at the end was this: ‘and last but not least, my husband, Peter Blundell Jones.’ Those were the last words in my book, written, of course, months ago, before we knew that Peter was ill. How fitting they are. That is all I really want to say for today. But if you’d like more, I’ve been interviewed over on Sue Hepworth’s blog, and you can read the post at www.suehepworth.com

The only Arts and Crafts fridge in Britain

Or anywhere else, possibly.

In Footfall, the third of my Cassandra James novels, Cassandra’s husband opens the fridge and one of the plastic racks on the inside of the door comes away. A bottle of milk, a jar half full of olives, and a glass containing sticks of celery crash to the tiled floor.

In the way that writers do, I plundered my own life for this episode, which happened precisely as I described it, except that it was me who opened the door. Our old fridge was in a sorry state, no doubt about it, and anyone else might have decided to buy a new one. But Peter hated built-in obsolescence and the shoddiness of much modern design. Instead he repaired the fridge with fibreglass and made three wooden racks to replace the disintegrating metal and plastic ones.

That was years ago. The fridge doesn’t defrost itself any more and dealing with the jammed up ice box is a bit of a palaver. But it works, the shelves are still sturdy, and I won’t be buying a new fridge any time soon.

Something sensational to read in the train.

dsc02426‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’ In that respect and in that only I am like Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest.

I first began to write a journal when I wrote my first novel. I am now onto notebook 25. I don’t write in it every day – far from it – but still it has become an essential part of my life. At first it was a matter of jotting down ideas or snatches of conversation overheard in café or an account of something that had happened that might one day be incorporated into a novel or story. Or I might sketch out the draft of a short story or write a piece of dialogue or a descriptive paragraph or two if they came to me while I was away from home. For, like Gwendolen, I always have my journal with me.

Over the years I began to record more personal stuff – such as how I felt about major events in my life, like the death of my mother. Above all I started to keep an account of our family holidays, in particular our many trips to Northern France over the last eight years. And now I am so glad that I did. Reading about them is a comfort and a way of visiting the life that I shared with Peter. Often, too, what I have written triggers other precious memories of things that I didn’t record.

I would encourage anyone, not just writers, to keep a journal. So much disappears as one moves forward in time, and is lost forever. But some can be saved: it need not all quite vanish.

The photograph is of me and Peter on the ramparts at Montreuil in Pas-de-Calais.