WHEN LIGHT FALLS DIFFERENTLY

 

 

For the last five days the night time noises I’m used to have been replaced with different ones. Instead of police sirens, the steady rumble of the tube and couples arguing drunkenly on the corner, there has been the call of the muezzin, ferocious cat fights and the crow of an exuberant cockerel that didn’t bother waiting for dawn to let us know he was there.

 

Light fell differently here, brighter, whiter, and my thoughts began to fall at different angles as well. I did a little bit of writing to keep my hand in. If I let it go too long it feels very far away when I come back to it. So I pat its head and put down a bowl of milk. I don’t want it to be sulking or eating me alive when I pick up my pen again. I was trying to write scenes set in Oxford in January in 1643 in a bitterly cold winter when the temperature around me was rising to 40 degrees. And it was fine. The imagination finds something to trigger it and I found myself using the sound of the pumps in the swimming pool to conjure a scene by the river and a man remembering the first time he was kissed one hot summer day under the fronds of a willow tree.

 

Now I am back and during my absence my morning glory/bindweed has developed buds. I feared it would flower while I was away but it has waited. Perhaps it liked its holiday from me. All that intense staring and wondering if and when. I’ve also liked my holiday from me. Jumped somewhere else for a while where the light falls differently and dates are not something you pick up in the supermarket but things that hang in yellow abundance above your head and pelt you while you are swimming. And the hours of the day are marked by the call of the muezzin. Prayer woven into everyday life as naturally as breathing.

bindweed and tiger

And the images that lodge in my mind? A woman wearing a burka riding a bike along a desert motorway towards the oncoming traffic. Large coloured stones in the middle of a roundabout, like things a giant child might have fashioned out of plasticine and then abandoned. A delicate piece of glowing purple neon attached to a broken down building on the side of a hot, dusty road, hinting at a more glamorous past.

 

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THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN IN #HEFFERS

ROC Heffers

Oh, what a lovely sight! Delighted to receive this photo of The Return of the Courtesan in Heffers the famous Cambridge bookshop. Thank you to Susan Grossey who sent it to me! If you haven’t read her historical financial crime novels figuring Constable Sam Plank and set in Regency London then you are definitely missing out. So, many thanks to Susan and also to Heffers!

http://www.susangrossey.wordpress.com

 

 

JOHN LE CARRÉ – still an angry young man

Off last night to see an evening with John le Carré who has a new book out, A Legacy of Spies, which signals the return of George Smiley, the spymaster who has appeared in many of his novels. Part of the purpose of the evening was to raise funds for Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), a medical charity which works in war zones, and an organization that le Carré is devoted to. A short film told us that MSF had treated 504,500 men women and children in the crisis in Yemen.

le carre

The evening involved several short films in which actors, directors, and screenwriters who have worked on adaptations of le Carré’s books talked about their experiences. The people included Michael Jayston, (Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on TV), Simon Russell Beale who played Smiley in the Radio 4 adaptations of le Carré’s books and Tim Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, who had played characters in TV adaptation of The Night Manager.

Of Smiley, Simon R-B, who has played him most, albeit on radio, described his intense melancholia. Hiddleston commented on Smiley’s quiet heroism. When asked what he might ask Smiley if he came face to face with him Simon R-B said he’d run away from him. He wouldn’t ask him anything because he was so intimidatingly clever.

First le Carré gave an hour long lecture then after an interval he was interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 news and there was a Q&A.

LE CARRÉ ON SMILEY AND A LEGACY OF SPIES

The origins of Smiley was a character called John Bingham who le Carré worked with in section F4 of MI5. This was before he went and worked for MI6, convivially known by MI5 as ‘those shits across the park.’ Bingham had run double agents during the Second World War and posed as a German officer. He was also a thriller writer. From Bingham came some aspects of the physical Smiley – the nakedness of his face when he took off his glasses and the habit he had of polishing his glasses with the end of his tie. Bingham was an aristocrat, an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, and le Carré said that he couldn’t make Smiley an aristocrat, that wouldn’t have done at all, so he made his wife Lady Anne one instead. He said that Bingham was a proxy father figure and mentor to the younger spies in his section.

He went on to discuss the various actors who had played Smiley on film and TV: Rupert Davies, James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. Mason actually played a character called Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (based on the book Call for the Dead) because the Americans did not like the name Smiley. He said that the filming of the character involved a certain personal loss for him of the Smiley of his imagination because the character was made physical but that of course the upside was that his work reached a much wider audience.

One of the things he loved about Guinness’s performance was that the enigma of Smiley was kept in tact for le Carré as well. He told a very funny story about doing a cover shoot for a Sunday magazine cover with Denholm Elliott on the set of A Murder of Quality, which they they were filming in a school. They were standing opposite each other with their noses only a few inches apart while they were being photographed. Elliott repeated range of obscene barrack room jokes throughout the shoot which le Carré ignored. Later Elliott asked him what he was doing on the set and le Carré said, ‘Well, I’m the writer.’ ‘The writer?’ ‘Yes, the writer of the book’, and Elliott said ‘Oh, I thought you were the headmaster.’

At one point they considered Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army for the part of Smiley and he did a screen test. Le Carré said Lowe did it beautifully but the trouble was that because of the associations they all had with Captain Mainwaring they could not stop laughing when they saw it. He said that Gary Oldman (in the film of TTSS) brought a heterosexual passion to the part. He compared him to Guinness describing the scene where Guinness embraces Lady Anne and saying he could not watch it without shuddering and thinking, ‘Oh, don’t do that Alec.’

At the end he read out an imaginary letter from a Daily Telegraph reader complaining that he couldn’t bring Smiley back because if one stayed true to the books Smiley would be 104 (or thereabouts). He countered this by saying that it was poetic license. Smiley was alive in his imagination and he was alive so why not? Of course his millions of fans will feel exactly the same.

A Legacy of Spies by [Carré, John le]

Q&A WITH JON SNOW

Jon Snow began by asking him about his father. Le Carré had discovered that his father, who was a con-man and a crook, had a Stasi (East German secret service) file and it appeared to indicate that he was an illegal arms dealer. He said that the Stasi had gone to the trouble of sending spies to his father’s office in Jermyn Street and marking where the safe was and also where the telex machine was.

Q. Would you recommend the secret service as a career?

He said if you were good at maths they’d send you to Cheltenham. If you were a seducer, befriender and liar you’d be good for MI6, although in the present climate you should think about the second half of your career/life because you might not have one.

Q. Do you think the US has lost its senses?

He said that what was happening in America was ‘truly, seriously bad’, that the stages Trump was going through – the fake news, and the assaults on the justice system were the same as those during the rise of fascism in the thirties in Japan, Spain and Germany. That kind of behaviour was infectious and toxic and he cited the use of the expression ‘fake news’ by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in dismissing the reporting on the assaults on the Rohingya muslims who are fleeing into Bangladesh.

Q. Which of your own characters do you most relate to?

He said that was Peter Guillam who works for Smiley and reappears in A Legacy of Spies. JS said I thought so.

Q. Was Graham Greene an influence?

Yes, his early works were. He had read them in his adolescence and that Greene gave a very generous quote for his book The Spy who came in from the Cold. However he said that the big difference between Greene and himself was that Greene had God in his books and there was no God in his own books. He also said that Greene had a dotty political streak and flirted with communism but he said he was hypnotic to meet. Maurice Oldfield head of MI6  said that Greene was a bad spy because he embellished his reports.

Q. On his writing methods.

He talked about the importance of making notes as soon as possible, even when he was drunk. As an example he said on your first day in Moscow what you notice is the smell of Russian petrol by the second day you’ve got used to it and you  won’t register it anymore. He writes long hand. He said this produces a lot of paper and that when the Bodleian Library  (to whom he was giving his paper) came and saw how many there were they had a fit. He starts with very little plot but always has the final frame in his mind and an idea of what he wants the audience to feel at that point. His wife reads what he writes and he is influenced by her response especially if there is a deafening silence. He talked about a mutual understanding between them about his work. He writes every day.

He was asked by Jon Snow about his relationship to MSF and le Carré said that he had been struck by their courage and devotion and Jon Snow said that they were the most trustworthy organization for journalists reporting from war zones.

There was a very poignant moment when le Carré asked Snow how he endured the human suffering he comes across in his reporting. He himself had been very effected by the research he does for his books, especially by seeing the effect of Big Pharma in Kenya and Sudan, the basis of his book The Constant Gardener.

I came away from the event thinking that le Carré is a man who cares passionately about the world. Olivia Colman described him as being, ‘Everything you would hope he would be.’ A beautiful description that rang absolutely true. Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay for the film of TTSS said le Carré was ‘still an angry young man … like Orwell always in opposition’. Angry certainly but also erudite, charming, witty and with a passionate sense of injustice. He’s certainly not going gentle into that good night. What more could you ask for from a novelist? We are lucky to have him.

I’m off to buy A Legacy of Spies. There are signed first editions in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road but they’ll probably be gone by the time I get there.*

If you want to take a look at the work that MSF do and donate here’s the link:

http://www.msf.org.uk/lecarre

  • They were!

 

ON MY DESK – or, why growing a Morning Glory on your desk is not a good idea…

Some of you will remember that a while back I wrote about the morning glory growing on my desk, or at any rate in a pot on my desk. At that time it looked like this…

tiger and morning glory

A tiger with the odd elegant leaf hanging from his paws.

 

It was all very manageable. But then time passed and this happened …

morning glory three

A tiger in the jungle

And further up it looks like this …

morning glory four

Up and up it goes …

It has nipped its way up all the hanging doodahs (technical expression that) in my window and a rather hungry looking tendril is now hanging speculatively about a foot over my head. I feel like Charles Dance in Alien 3. I’m not going to put the You Tube link in here because it completely terrified me watching it just now but if you want that pleasure type in Alien 3 and Dr Clemens/Charles Dance dies/killed and you’ll get the general idea. However all you really need to know is that it doesn’t end well for him.

And there is not a flower in sight. Not a single one.

The only good part of this is that instead of my partner walking into the room I work in and being aghast at the number of books and general mayhem there is now a completely new cause of aghast-ness. And our conversation goes something like this: ‘What are you going to do when it reaches your head?’ Me, à la Violet Elizabeth Bott (she had a lisp) : ‘I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick.’

If you don’t hear from me again you’ll know that Sigourney didn’t hear my thcreams either.

Tell me your bad growing experiences. All of them. In technicolour. It’ll make me feel so much better about things. And if you have any tips about how to get my morning glory to flower tell me that as well.

The Return of the Courtesan: a guest post by Victoria Blake

Source: The Return of the Courtesan: a guest post by Victoria Blake

I’m very honoured to be a guest of Andrea Stephenson on the wonderful Harvesting Hecate blog (click on the link above). Here I am writing about Veronica Franco, the woman who was the basis for my character Tullia Buffo, in my book The Return of the Courtesan. Please also take the time to have a look around Andrea’s blog. She writes on creativity, writing, the natural world and the seasons with a clarity and beauty which is quite outstanding.

SHAKESPEARE’S LAST WORD

Shakespeare’s last play is generally considered to be THE TEMPEST, first performed in 1611, and if that’s the case his last word is the last word of that play. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican in London a few weeks ago. The production stood out for two reasons: First, the extraordinary special effects, including an amazing hologram of drowning men, during the storm scene that kicks everything off. Secondly, for the remarkable performance of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Simon Russell Beale is a man who speaks Shakespearean verse as if it’s his first language which makes him very easy to understand.

20521thetempeste1

Simon Russell Beale as Prospero

If you want to read a quick precis of the play before going any further you’ll find it here. Incidentally the children in the video are incredibly sweet.

https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-tempest/the-plot

Now back to that last word. At the end of the play Prospero has a speech which he delivers directly to the audience. Parallels have been drawn between Shakespeare and Prospero. Prospero’s mastery of the island has been seen as a mirroring of Shakespeare’s dominance of the English stage. So when Prospero steps away from the other actors at the end of the play and speaks directly to the audience this is what Prospero/Shakespeare says to us:

 

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

And what strength I have’s my own;

Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,

I must be here confined by you, 

Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

Since I have my dukedom got

And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell

In this bare island by your spell;

But release me from my bands

With the help of your good hands.

Gentle breath of yours my sails

Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want*

Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;

And my ending is despair,

Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,

Which pierces so that it assaults

Mercy itself and frees all faults.

As you from crime would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.”

*lack

THE TEMPEST: EPILOGUE

So if you’ve got this far there we have it  – the last word is free. It’s an unbearably  sad speech, I think, although it’s often spoken with a light touch. When I heard Russell Beale deliver it I thought I understood it but reading through it now I stop and puzzle over it more. What is meant by a ‘prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself …’? Does that simply mean a prayer so loud that God hears it? But I can’t imagine that Shakespeare thought a loud prayer would be more likely to be heard than a quiet one, can you? And what exactly is a prayer that pierces, let alone assaults? Or am I over complicating matters? This is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare – you can think you’ve got a hold of him and then he slides out of your understanding, like a feather on a breeze. But follow the feather and a whole new world opens up. Prayer. Pierce. Assault. Mercy. Contemplate those four words for a while and they may lead to some interesting places. And don’t forget that to Prospero this prayer matters because otherwise, ‘my ending is despair.’

A final word on the use of special effects in Shakespeare. THE TEMPEST, because the main character is a powerful magician and there is a strong supernatural element, lends itself to this kind of production. The storm and also the depiction of Ariel trapped in a tree by Sycorax the witch will stay with me for a very long time. But you need exceptionally good actors to act with avatars and holograms otherwise the special effects overwhelm the verse. Fortunately there aren’t any special effects that I can imagine overwhelming Russell Beale, so this production is a triumph! It’s on until the 18th August and I highly recommend it.

HATS OFF TO YOU!

Hats off – or in this case I think actually my great uncle Norman’s top hat off, to all those of you who nominated my book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN  for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. It is on a glorious long list of 150! Not only hats off but hats off with sunflowers. Thank you all so very much!

hat and sunflowers

THANK YOU, DARLINGS …

In order to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN  onto the SHORT LIST of six you now have to vote for two books (on the long list) published by two different publishers. So in my case don’t pick another Black and White title. Give a 100 word review of one of them and put the word ‘vote’ in your comment. If you click on the link below you’ll see all the details of what you have to do. Incidentally, I quite understand if at this point you think, ‘Forget it, dearie, I’ve got better things to do with my August and this is simply too much trouble.’

But wouldn’t it be ABSOLUTELY THRILLING to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN onto the SHORT LIST? And if you do, apart from loving you for ever, I will post a picture of myself in my great uncle’s pith helmet. You think I jest? Well, here it is patiently awaiting its elevation to my head! It longs to be placed there, it really does and only you can make it happen.

pith helmet

AWAITING ELEVATION …

Oh, and VERY IMPORTANTLY I should add that the deadline for this part of the competition is 23.59 BST on Monday 7th August 2017 so get voting darlings or the pith helmet will stay where it is, sadly gathering dust, forlorn, forgotten and pithed off … 

 

http://theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jul/31/not-the-booker-prize-2017-please-vote-on-the-long-long-longlist

MY DESERT ISLAND BOOKS

Here’s a piece I did for the Historical Writers Association (HWA) on what my five desert island books would be. Tricky deciding but I went a bit for laughs on the assumption that I’d need them. Don’t worry, you won’t find The Brothers Karamazov here, but maybe some books you might enjoy. They contain the following: rats, playwrights, an actor having a nervous breakdown, a woman with webbed feet, a war hero and the magnificent city of London. Sorry about the dolphins by the way – don’t know what came over me!

http://www.historiamag.com/desert-island-books-victoria-blake/

 

A SHAMELESS PLEA!

Darlings, I know you’re longing to nominate me for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. The idea of the prize is to uncover hidden gems. If I win  I will receive a lovely Guardian mug and lots of publicity. If I get shortlisted  I will also get some lovely PUBLICITY for my lovely book. HURRAH! How can you resist? If you do I will take my hat off to you or I might even post a picture of myself wearing this hat in a burst of sunny gratitude.

hat and book

Hat and book

My friend Maggi has brought this to my attention and already nominated me. Thank you darling Maggi. So join Maggi in propelling THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN into the public eye.

To nominate me you have to use the word nomination and name my book in the comments of the link below and also name the publisher. Because my book has changed title it would probably be good to say something like this. Nomination: The Return of the Courtesan by Victoria Blake first published as Titian’s Boatman (Jan 2017) by Black and White Publishing. The deadline is 30th July so that gives you nine lovely days.

Sending you kisses in advance…

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jul/17/not-the-booker-prize-2017-needs-your-nominations-now

COINCIDENCE IN LIFE AND ART

As readers haven’t we all at some point felt that a writer has stretched our credibility to breaking point. That, ‘Oh come off it!’ moment when, however much we’ve enjoyed the book up to then, we draw back and think ‘Well that would never have happened.’ Speaking for myself (with my writing hat on) this is usually because I’ve got myself into a corner and am now doing something ridiculous to get myself out of trouble while hoping the reader won’t notice. It’s akin to a cat which has climbed a high tree and is now howling for the fire brigade. However, weird coincidences do happen. Here’s one example from my life – a strange day earlier this year in London, a city of 9 million people.

Image result for pictures of the foyles cafe

The lovely cafe at Foyles

I’d arranged to meet an old school friend in the café in Foyles in central London. It had been lovely to see her but after we parted I started thinking rather negatively about how I am with maintaining friendships – rather bad – and why that was. Then, walking back to the bus stop with diminishing feelings of regard for myself, I made the mistake of going into Waterstones, Piccadilly to see if I could find my book. This is generally not a good idea because if I can’t find it I feel despondent. In this case it was nowhere to be seen but I noted that the book of someone I know only very slightly, from a party we both go to at Christmas, was there and I felt, shall we say, a little more despondent. That is, despondent with a neon green tinge, I’m sure you understand. I then went and gazed at the stationery.

Image result for pictures of stationery department in waterstones piccadilly

Brightly coloured stationery failed me

For some reason staring at and indeed buying brightly coloured stationery usually cheers me up. It didn’t in this case and so I went and got myself some coffee and a cake in the café which looks down onto the stationery department.

I tried to do a bit of writing but then decided to give up any pretence of writing that day and got out my paper and read it from cover to cover. My reading was interspersed with eating what can safely be described as the oldest almond croissant to have ever existed in London, (make that the universe), at any time. It was so dry that when I gave it a speculative prod it shattered and hurled an atomic cloud of icing sugar and flakes of pastry all over me, the table and the floor. This did not improve my temper.

When I stood up to go, it required a prolonged period of brushing flakes of pastry off me. As I turned round to leave there was the man whose book I had seen earlier in the shop. He at least had his lap top out and so was doing better than me that day. ‘Is it Christmas?’ he said and we both laughed. I felt awkward because I knew he had seen that I had been doing no writing. It is one thing for a writer not to be writing but it is quite another thing to be seen by another writer who is writing not writing.  And it is indeed quite another thing to have been seen having an altercation with a one hundred year old almond croissant while not writing by a man whose book is prominently displayed in a shop which does not contain mine.

cover

The book that was not there

We chatted and then he said the fatal words ‘How is the book going?’ And because I was discombobulated with not writing and being covered in shards of pastry and icing sugar and not being a good friend, I did not say THE RIGHT THING. The correct answer would have been, ‘Yeah, fine thanks – what about yours?’ Writers are highly strung beasts and when they get into each other’s company they can spiral into a sort of collective neurosis. Stratagems are required for such encounters and these may include – bluster, lying, weedling, ironic detachment and charming self-deprecation. Or when that gets too exhausting you can ditch all that and just get drunk and lie in the  gutter hugging each other whilst crying. Also the truth about how one’s book is going is a tricky one to answer although obviously not if you are Lee Child, J.K. Rowling, Wilbur Smith etc. One third of the time you don’t really know, one third of the time you do not have the courage to find out and one third of the time  you have been told and you’re trying very hard to forget what you’ve been told or you’re not telling anyone (other than the cat that is now not up a tree).

But what with the not writing and the not finding my book and being attacked by a violent, exploding, almond croissant which had been nosed and rejected by an Archaeopteryx dinosaur at the end of the Jurassic era and thinking I was a hopeless friend I did not manage this encounter very well.  ‘Oh,’ he said, looking rather startled ‘What’s the title? I’ll look it up.’ Please don’t bother…’ I said shortly after telling him the title and making sure he had typed it into Google correctly. Then, as several flakes of pastry fell from my eyebrows onto his laptop, I said, ‘I should let you get on with your work.’ ‘Well, see you next Christmas,’ he said which was approximately 10 and a half months away. And that was that and I went a stood at the bus stop and festered.

There are 9 million people living in London so tell me exactly how did that sequence of events happen?  Oh, and by the way my book is about to nudge Lee Child off the top of the bestsellers list. Thank you for asking. Isn’t that amaaaaaaazing? Oh God, where’s that gutter, Oscar?

IMG_3270 (1)

Incidentally, the book that was not there in February has now morphed into this in paperback and it will definitely be there from the 27th July… definitely… it’ll be everywhere…absolutely everywhere…