‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,’ wrote Jorge Luis Borges. Me, too. When I used to work in Cambridge University Library I used to have a fantasy about hiding until everyone had gone home and the library was closed and spending the night there. It seemed to me that all the place lacked was a bed. If I’d only had that, I could have stayed there for weeks, never needing to leave. So when I was researching an article about independent libraries and came across Gladstone’s Library (formerly St. Deinol’s) and discovered that you could actually stay there, I decided I had to visit. It has taken me a while, and I’ve only been for lunch, but yesterday I finally made it.
I drove over to leave some Crime Writers’ Association papers for our archive, which is being housed and catalogued by the library, and to have a very enjoyable lunch with the Director of Collections, Louisa Yates, and Martin Edwards, the CWA’s archivist. The library didn’t disappoint: it is a wonderful Victorian Gothic extravaganza. The collection is mainly related to Theology and Victorian Studies but anyone can go and stay. It makes a great writers’ retreat and it has a very active programme of events, including a book festival, Gladfest, in September. There’s a lovely garden and the bedrooms look great. Now that I’ve managed to get there, I am sure I’ll go again – and next time I’ll take my toothbrush.
Find out more here: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/
Every Friday in June I am blogging on the Crime Readers’ Association web-site. Today I’m writing about whether I base my characters on real people. To find out, go to http://www.thecra.co.uk/christine-poulson-the-pig-and-the-sausage/
The CRA website was set up by the Crime Writers Association. It’s free to subscribe and is full of information about crime writers, new novels, and there are often giveaways, too. I’m delighted that I’ve been asked to be the featured author for June. This involves writing four blog posts and the first one – on the subject of where authors get their ideas – is on the web-site today. Do go over and take a look: http://www.thecra.co.uk/a-good-occupation/.
‘One evening in 1969, [Ted Heath] the Leader of the Opposition invited five of Britain’s leading trade unionists, among them Vic Feather and Jack Jones, to dinner at his Albany flat . . . to his guests’ delight Heath was persuaded to show off his new piano, and even played a couple of short pieces. “Then Vic Feather called out, ‘Play “The Red Flag” for Jack,’ Jones recalled, ‘and the leader of the Tory party played Labour’s national anthem. It put the seal on a jolly evening.”‘
I love this story from Dominic Sandbrook’s State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974. It shows Ted Heath in a very unexpected and rather sympathetic light. I came of age in the 1970s and it is fascinating to read a social and political history of a period that one has lived through when young. 1970-1974 spanned the Heath government, one of almost unmitigated disaster: terrorist atrocities, the miner’s strike, power cuts, the three-day week. One of the more memorable episodes was the Poulson scandal: absolutely no relation, but the newspaper headlines caused mirth among my friends.
A huge amount of ground is covered in this immensely readable book: Mary Whitehouse, football hooliganism, Britain’s entry to the Common Market, glam rock, the first edition of Cosmopolitan, the publication of The Joy of Sex, decimalisation . . . At times nostalgia threatened to overwhelm me. It ends on Heath’s unexpected defeat in the election of 1974, which made very interesting reading in the run-up to the next week’s election. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.
Well, not quite that, but I will be travelling for the next two weeks and won’t be blogging. At least, now that I have an e-reader, I don’t have to ponder about which books to take. I can take ALL OF THEM. Au revoir, dear readers.
My writing life – in fact, my life generally – would be so much poorer without my friend and fellow-writer, Sue Hepworth. Since we first met around fifteen years ago, we have each read and commented on everything the other has written and been each other’s staunch supporters in the vicissitudes of the writing life. It is lovely to have her as my guest on the blog today. I began by asking her:
What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?
Theme and characters arrive together, and the characters bring along snippets of dialogue with them. I’m in the habit of collecting interesting bits of conversation that I overhear. I write them in my journal word for word, and then when I start a new book, I look at these notes and decide who is going to say what. It helps me to develop my characters. Take as an example this comment my husband made when I was getting over the flu – “Well, you look a tad less corpse-like this morning. You look as if you might be climbing out of the pit of illness, not cavorting in the bottom.”
The plot comes after theme and characters. It’s less interesting to me but I know it’s vital: it’s plot which grips people from the outset and keeps them turning the pages.
What’s your writing routine?
My best writing days are when I start writing in bed, any time after 6 a.m., as soon as I’ve had my first mug of Yorkshire tea. Then after a couple of hours, I have a quick breakfast and get up and go to my study. I like to write until one o’clock. Then my brain is fried and I need fresh air, practical activity or company.
BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU is about a long term marriage where the husband has Asperger syndrome. What drew you to that subject?
My husband and grandson have Asperger syndrome (now simply termed autism) and although there are currently a lot of fictional characters in popular culture with it, there is a lot of caricature which is unhelpful to a true understanding of the syndrome. It is a spectrum disorder, which means that whilst there are basic characteristics which all people with autism share, there is huge variation in specifics and in degree. On first meeting my husband or grandson you would have no idea they were autistic. They are both charming, polite, articulate, and friendly, with a firm handshake and able to look you in the eye. They also have a great sense of humour. Only after spending a day with them would you begin to see their different way of looking at what we take for granted, and also begin to appreciate and understand some of the stresses they experience just by being in the social and sensual world.
I am making the ebook of BUT I TOLD YOU LAST YEAR THAT I LOVED YOU free this weekend (27th-30th March) to support World Autism Awareness Week.
A favourite bookshop?
The Tattered Cover in Denver, which I go to when I visit my son in Colorado. It has a wonderful selection of adults and children’s books, friendly knowledgeable staff, and plenty of comfortable places to sit. I once read a huge chunk of Graham Swift’s Light of Day in there when it was too hot to be outside and I had some time to spare. Yes – I did buy the book!
What single thing would make your writing life easier?
Constant rain – day in day out – would help. I am an outdoorsy kind of person, and if it’s a warm, sunny day I have to fight the urge to go out and garden, or more likely, go for a ride on my bike.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am adapting But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You for television – four one hour episodes. It’s been challenging as well as huge fun to learn a new way of telling a story. I’ve enjoyed it so much, I may go straight to a screenplay for my next project and bypass the novel stage entirely.
There are times when I just don’t have the energy to tackle something new, and a return to old favourites is exactly what I need. Michael Gilbert is fitting the bill at the moment. To read his novels is to take a masterclass in crime fiction. He wrote a lot: over 400 short stories and around three dozen novels, as well as radio and TV plays. He wrote almost every type of crime novel: police procedurals, classic whodunits, thrillers. To all of them he brought a superb sense of pace, tight plotting and a dry sense of humour. What’s more he had a day job as a lawyer and wrote as he commuted into London. He was a founder member of the CWA. Rather wonderfully, he was Raymond Chandler’s UK lawyer. Rather less wonderfully he went to the same school as my husband, some considerable time before.
If he specialised in anything it might have been the one-honest-man-brings-down-corrupt-organisation plot. In The Crack in the Teacup, a small-town solicitor comes up against local government corruption. In The Long Journey Home it is an engineer who crosses swords with a corrupt international company in league with the Mafia. Of this sub genre I particularly like The Final Throw: corrupt financial empire brought down by – well, I’d better not disclose by whom in case you haven’t read it. Of the classic whodunits, The Black Seraphim, set in a cathedral close (a setting I plan to use myself one day) and the splendid Smallbone Deceased (set in a lawyers’ office in which a body is found in a deed box) are particular favourites.
Gilbert had a long career and died in 2006 aged 93. I bet he was great company and I am sorry I never met him.
I’ve very much enjoyed Virginia Nicholson’s Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War. It is the kind of gossipy, anecdotal history that is very easy to read. Nicholson has done an enormous amount of research. The pages throng with remarkable women who managed to find meaning in life without a husband or children: women like Gertrude Caton-Thompson who trained as an archaeologist in her thirties, travelled extensively on digs, and ended up teaching at Newnham College: Mary Grieve who was editor of Woman magazine for 30 years; many writers, including Elizabeth Jenkins and Elizabeth Goudge. Women lawyers, teachers, stockbrokers, and engineers all seized their chance. But if one thing comes over strongly, it is that while middle class and upper class women could often find worthwhile and financially rewarding employment, for working class women it was the tough life of a shop girl or factory worker. For them, marriage must surely have been preferable, even if as Nicholson points out, it was rarely a bed of roses.
For many women in all classes the absence of children was a sadness. Many played roles as aunts and godmothers, but few in those day dared have an illegitimate child to raise alone. It’s a pity that so few felt able to follow in the footsteps of Rosamund Essex, editor of the Church Times, who as a single woman adopted a little boy, a touching success story
Nicholson writes in the introduction that at thirty she was still unmarried and expected to remain so, but two years later found herself planning her wedding. For me it all came even later and I thought as I read this book about what it must have been like to have no choice about marriage or children because there just weren’t enough men to go round. I wonder too how many of the (mostly) single women teachers at my girls’ grammar school in the sixties had lost the men they might have married in WWII – or whether they simply preferred a career – or other women (not a thought that occurred to me in those days!)
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.
Today Moira at ClothesinBooks.com and I are posting our list of books that have made us laugh. Mine are, in no particular order:
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome. A classic. I particularly love the part where they try to open a tin of pineapple without a tin-opener, and Uncle Podger hanging a picture, and then there’s . . . but read it yourself, if you haven’t already.
The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford. I was twenty-five when I first read this, and have lost time of how many times I have read it. Romantic and touching as well as funny.
The Harpole Report, which I blogged about a couple of posts ago.
P. G. Wodehouse, Summer Lightning. Difficult to chose just one, but many years ago when I was living alone in a bedsit in Birmingham this was read by Ian Carmichael as a Book at Bedtime. Sheer bliss.
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals. A teenage favourite that has endured.
Joyce Dennys, Henrietta Sees It Through. Again, mentioned before as a favourite on the blog. I wish it was twice as long. There is another volume, but it’s not enough.
Michael Simkins, What’s My Motivation? Michael Simkins is one of those decent, jobbing actors who often plays the main character’s boss, as in he does in Foyle’s War, but he is also a wonderful comic writer, writing frankly about the up and downs (mostly downs) of the actor’s life.
Kate Dunn, Exit Through the Fireplace: The Great Days of Rep. Another theatrical offering drawing on actors’ memories of door handles jamming on flimsy sets and fluffed lines (‘It’s Marple, Miss Murder!’). I nearly fell out of bed laughing.
Sue Hepworth, But I Told You Last Year That I Love You. One of the funniest writers that I know – and a great friend, maybe because we make each other laugh.
Bill Bryson, The Thunderbolt Kid. Not only very funny, but contains some startling insights into the America of the fifties and sixties.
Another day it might be another choice, though most of these didn’t really need thinking about, they are such old favourites. I’m longing to see what Moira has chosen.
Ps. I have now, and it is fascinating. Hardly any overlap, so lots more for my reading list.