I had a lovely time answering questions from The Fussy Librarian. If you want to know why I might need ten years of therapy click below!
In the nineties I worked at the Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road in London. It was the largest women’s bookshop in Europe and one of the items we sold was mugs, listing the names of women writers. I came across a couple of these the other day in the back of the cupboard and looked at them with a curious and critical eye. The decision about who to list must have been made close to when the shop first opened in 1984 and I thought it might be interesting for the purposes of this blog to draw up my own list of 33 (that’s the number of names listed) and see who I’d keep from the original list, who I was horrified not to see on the list and and who in current times would definitely have to be on it. Please join me in twisting your fork into this highly subjective plate of literary spaghetti.
First a list of the original names:
MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, ANGELA CARTER, WILLA CATHER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, MARGARET DRABBLE, MARGUERITE DURAS, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, JANET FRAME, MARILYN FRENCH, NANCY FRIDAY, MARTHA GELLHORN, SUE GRAFTON, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, JUNE JORDAN, DORIS LESSING, AUDRE LORDE, TERRY MCMILLAN, TONI MORRISON, IRIS MURDOCH, ANAIS NIN. SYLVIA PLATH, MARGE PIERCY, SARA PARETSKY, RUTH RENDELL, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, SARAH SCHULMAN, GERTRUDE STEIN, ANNE TYLER, ALICE WALKER, E. H. YOUNG.
The ones I would definitely keep from the original list I’ve marked in red. It’s eleven of them, a third of the total.
I then began to consider what writers you would simply have to have in there who are not there at the moment and these are the ones I thought of: BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, ELENA FERRANTE, HILARY MANTEL, J.K. ROWLING, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON.
So that brings the number up to 20.
Thirteen more to go.
But then I had a startling realization – no JANE AUSTEN, no CHARLOTTE, EMILY, ANNE, BRONTE, no VIRGINIA WOOLF, no HARPER LEE. What were they thinking of! E. H. Young but no Virginia! I should admit at this point, by the way, that I am ashamed to say the only Woolf book I have ever completed is To the Lighthouse and that is because I had to read it at A’Level and I never got over the death of Mrs Ramsay. I love Woolf’s letters, although it made me realize that going to tea with her would be about as enjoyable as swimming with sharks. But she has to be on there, doesn’t she?
So, if I add in Jane Austen, one of the Brontes (sweat beads brow – oh God which one!) and Virginia Woolf then I have a list of 23.
So I have ten to play with.
At this point the breakdown is:13 British, 6 American, 1 Australian, 1 Canadian, 1 South African, 1 Italian, and my world is looking a bit narrow and a bit white. So what did I do next?
Here is my final highly subjective choice which includes two more from the original 33: My aim was to create a list of excellent women writers and cover a range of eras, sexualities, ethnic origins and nationalities.
MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, JANE AUSTEN, BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, ALISON BECHDEL, CHARLOTTE BRONTE, RENI EDDO-LODGE, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, ELENA FERRANTE, ROXANE GAY, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, HAN KANG, HARPER LEE, DORIS LESSING, HILARY MANTEL, TONI MORRISON, HERTA MULLER, CHIMOMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, SYLVIA PLATH, MARILYN ROBINSON, J.K. ROWLING, ARUNDHATI ROY, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, GERTRUDE STEIN, ALICE WALKER, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON
THE FINAL BREAKDOWN:
NATIONALITIES: British – 14, American – 9, Italian – 1, South Korean – 1, Roumanian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, French – 1, Australian – 1, Indian – 1, Canadian – 1, South African – 1
ETHNICITY: White – 22, African American – 4 BAME – 3, Indian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, South Korean – 1
ALIVE OR DEAD?: Alive – 23, Dead – 10.
GAY/STRAIGHT: Gay (as far as I’m aware!) – 7, Straight – 26
What do you think of my choices? Too British, too white, too straight, too dead? Or perhaps too alive! And would you buy my (hypothetical) mug? Have I got a good balance? Tell me all in the comments below. But here’s the thing, if you suggest someone who should be on there, you have to take someone off. Those are the rules. Have fun. And before you start in, I know I’m lacking a crime writer and a science fiction writer, although Atwood could be called a science fiction writer at a pinch. I thought of getting rid of Doris in exchange for Agatha or Val but Doris won the Nobel Prize, so even if I don’t find reading her a pleasure, she has to stay in, doesn’t she?
And to help you out or perhaps derange you, here is a pool of writers I thought about but did not in the end include. These do not include the ones on the original mug that I didn’t retain, who you can of course argue the case for, and anyone else if it comes to that:
NAOMI ALDERMAN, KATE ATKINSON, MARY BEARD, MALORIE BLACKMAN, EMILY BRONTE, A.S.BYATT, JULIA CAMERON, AGATHA CHRISTIE, HELEN DUNMORE, BERNADINE EVARISTO, P.D. JAMES, OLIVIA LAING, URSULA LE GUIN, ANDREA LEVY, HELEN MCDONALD, VAL MCDERMID, EDNA O’BRIEN, SUSIE ORBACH, ALICE OSWALD, ANNIE PROULX, BARBARA PYM, CLAUDIA RANKINE, MARY RENAULT, JEAN RHYS, JANE SMILEY, MEERA SYAL, MURIEL SPARK, KATE TEMPEST, ROSE TREMAIN, ALISON WEIR, EUDORA WELTY, JAQUELINE WILSON.
The best comment will win one of these mugs. They are not exactly in peak condition but have a few more years of life left in them yet. I’m afraid this only applies to the UK. I’ll leave the comments open for two weeks and announce the winner then. Have fun!
P.S. Just realized I left out Carol Ann Duffy. She has to be in doesn’t she? Gertrude might have to go!
Love letters straight from the past …
Just reading a couple makes me feel odd; the sentiments expressed here, written ten years before I was born, are the reason I exist.
My Darling Robert …
And so I say to a friend, ‘Here’s the thing. Someone is interested in writing a biography of my father and I found these love letters before my parents were married, nothing salacious just rather sweet. Should I …?’
She cuts me short, ‘Oh yes, I found some of those between my parents and I spoke to my brother about it. He said they’ve got nothing to do with us, so I threw them away.’
[My hands come to my cheeks, my mouth opens; too late I realize that, right in front of her, I am enacting Munch’s scream.]
On one, my mother has sketched her wedding dress
My father’s to her are wrapped in blue ribbon
A month or so later, in other company, I say, ‘Here’s the thing …’ and then another friend leans forward and bellows, ‘Of course you should.’ He’s practically shouting at me, ‘… because you want the biographer to know the TRUTH …’ and then, as if speaking to a child, he spells the word out: ‘T-R-U-T-H.’
Oh, that, I think, that slippery old eel.
I want to smother you with kisses.
Is that really you?
What makes a classic children’s book? Perhaps the most obvious sign is that a book you had read to you as a child becomes a book that as an adult you can’t wait to read to the children in your life. For that to be the case there has to be something about the book that feels as modern and relevant now as when it was first written, a universality that transcends generational change.
THE STORY OF FERDINAND written in 1936 by Munro Leaf is just such a book. Illustrated by Robert Lawson, it is the story of a young Spanish bull, who instead of running and jumping and butting heads, likes to sit quietly under a cork tree and smell the flowers. When five men come to pick “the biggest, fastest, roughest bull” to fight in the bull fights in Madrid, Ferdinand is mistakenly taken. This is because during their visit he is stung by a bee and shocked by the pain he has a violent response and his kicks and snorts are mistaken for aggression.
However, once he enters the ring all he wants to do is sit down in the arena and smell the flowers which are in the beautiful women’s hair. He will not fight and nothing that the banderilleros or picadores or the matador do will make him. Eventually, they give up trying to make him fight and take him home where he goes back to sitting under his tree and ” is very happy”.
The book can be viewed in a number of different ways.
- as a story against bull fighting,
- a story of the importance of being true to oneself, and
- politically as a story demonstrating the power of pacifism.
At a time when toxic masculinity is under the spotlight with the #MeToo movement and revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Ferdinand provides a welcome male role model. He is a full grown bull, that symbol of masculinity, strength and power, and yet he behaves with gentleness and sensitivity. He will not fight because that is not who he is, it is not his true nature, and in sitting down and smelling the flowers, he is being true to his essential, peaceful self.
The book’s first run by Viking Press in 1936 sold 14,000 copies. The following year saw sales increase to 68,000 and by 1938, the book was selling at 3,000 per week and became the number one bestseller in the United States.
The historical context is particularly poignant here. The book came out nine months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. That brutal and bloody conflict raged from 1936 -1939. At the end the nationalists led by General Franco had won and he retained power until his death in 1975 at which point Spain began the long journey towards a democratic, pluralistic society. THE STORY OF FERDINAND was banned during Franco’s life time.
As it happened two thousand five hundred Americans did not take the advice of Ferdinand or indeed of their own government which was pursuing a policy of non-intervention in Spain during the Civil War. Those were the people who enlisted in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade and came over to Spain to help the Republicans fight Franco. It was the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis and it suffered a very high rate of casualties.
At the end of the Second World War 30,000 copies of THE STORY OF FERDINAND were printed and given out free to German children. So far the book has been translated into 60 languages including Latin and has never been out of print. In 1938 it was turned into a cartoon by Walt Disney which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons).
To end a rather dreadful clip of the Lennon Sisters singing a song based on the book. Have you ever read the book? What did you think?
I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my mother when I was a child and recently due to a need to sort through some family papers I discovered them again. My mother had some very specific criteria for the puzzles she would do. They should be of works of art and they should have interesting shaped pieces. Not for her the kitsch of the country cottage or any lurid flowers or cute puppies. And she had absolutely no interest in swathes of sky. Waddington Fine Art Puzzles fitted this criteria perfectly. And so over the years she bought a lot of them, some of which I kept. This one below is by Johannes Vermeer and is called A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (1670-72) and it’s in room 16 of The National Gallery in London.
The main thing I remember about doing them was the companionable silence broken periodically by a murmur of satisfaction as an elusive piece was slotted into place.
Recently, I’ve been feeling anxious and my concentration has not been good and finding the puzzles gave me a craving to do them again, so I have been interspersing my writing with a bit of jigsaw-ing. I’ve been finding it soothing and according to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles there’s a reason for this.
“An activity that can help us experience some of the many benefits of mindfulness is focusing on completing jigsaw puzzles. In a similar fashion to popular adult colouring books, jigsaw puzzles allow the brain to relax while keeping the hands busy. They provide a calming distraction from hours spent staring at screens, whether that’s a computer, TV or even a phone. An easy way to channel the imagination, a jigsaw puzzle gives you a creative outlet whilst keeping your mind focused. This activity allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation as well as leveraging the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of the brain.
Some studies, such as the MacArthur Study, have even concluded that people who solve jigsaw puzzles in addition to other activities that provide a mental workout, can actually lead to longer life expectancy, better quality of life and reduced chances of developing certain types of mental illnesses (e.g. memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) by up to a third.
Because of their calming qualities, completing a hard or challenging jigsaw puzzle can have serious effects on your mood. We all know the satisfaction of finally finding where that last piece goes, but this actually encourages the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain which helps keep us happy and healthy. These mood enhancing effects help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to release stress and tension. These benefits make jigsaws extra beneficial for those who suffer from stress or anxiety.
Completing a jigsaw puzzle can even put our brains into the same meditative state that we experience while dreaming! So why not take some time out away from work and your phone to complete a jigsaw and see how it can help focus your brain and relax.”
My novels have always come in fits and starts. Rarely have I seen how they fit together until very close to the end. I do not plot them all out. I do not know what will happen. This creates anxiety which I recognize as part of my creative process but sometimes it can feel like a curse. A jigsaw however can be physically completed; I can create a whole picture.
I’m approaching the end of this one now and what I’m left with are the dull brown pieces. There’s an expression bird watchers use to describe the multitude of birds which are barely distinguishable from each other: LBJs or little brown jobs. Doing this puzzle, I completed the blue of the dress first and then the orange of the string instrument on the left. The colours stand out and are easy to separate. The LBJs may not be flashy and colourful but without them the picture is not complete. They hold the fancier bits together. As I’ve got older I have grown to appreciate more the non-flashy bits of writing, the craft that finishes a paragraph well or sets the scene vividly but with economy. These bits can be hard to write but they make the whole story run smoothly. Anyone can write a fight scene or a funeral.
Towards the end, progress stalls because putting all those brown bits together is more difficult. And that definitely corresponds to my writing experience. The first 30,000 words can feel easy, fun and filled with hope. And they take probably half the time of the last 30,000. Why do I always forget that?
Doing a jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting has another advantage. It puts you up close and personal with it in an intriguing way. You have literally pieced it together, so you know it intimately. I remember the shock and delight of seeing Winter Scene by A.B. Avercamp for the first time. It was much smaller than I expected but there was the turquoise jewel like roof of the main house, there were the birds sitting on the branches I had struggled to put together and there was the red shirt of the boy on the left. I was stunned. I was taken back to being a child, sprawled out on the floor next to my mother, filling in the pieces.
So, if anyone’s got a nice Waddington Fine Art Jigsaw Puzzle of between 500-1000 pieces – no sky, no pets, no cute cottages, no rushing trains – you might just have yourself a buyer. And if you’re interested in the very beautiful wooden puzzles produced by Wentworth Wooden Puzzles take a look at the link below. I’m very tempted by The Art of Painting and who is it by? Oh, that man Vermeer of course!
And if anyone ever sneers and asks you what the point of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, tell them you’re leveraging the left and right hand side of your brain. That should stun them into silence long enough for you to fill in at least a couple of LBJs.
So Spring arrived finally and wasn’t that a relief! And obviously I went out into the sun and stood under cherry trees and so forth and the phrase ‘the blossomest blossom’ kept going round in my mind and I could not remember where it came from. And then I did remember watching an interview of the writer Dennis Potter by Melvyn Bragg. It took place in March 1994. Potter was dying of cancer of the pancreas – he died three months later – and it’s a remarkable interview by any standards. I remember watching his plays as a child on television. Pennies from Heaven and the Singing Detective in particular; extraordinary televison with incredible performances by Bob Hoskins and Michael Gambon respectively.
So here’s the link to the interview. It’s fifty minutes but well worth watching all the way through. There’s a real affection and respect between the two men and there is of course ‘the blossomest blossom.’ An interview to treasure. A celebration of spring and of life in the face of death.
I was contacted a few weeks ago by Diana Rendeki who belongs to the Thursday Book Club based in Ashford. She had picked my book The Return of the Courtesan for their next meeting and I was thrilled. I sent her an adapted version of a talk I gave recently at The Alderney Literary Festival about some of the real life characters that appear in my book: Titian, Pietro Aretino and Veronica Franco. It also gave some information about Venice in the sixteenth century, the setting for the historical part of the book. I also sent the group post cards of The Man with the Blue Sleeve and some pictures of Aretino and Veronica Franco. It was fun for me to be involved in this way. After all where would writers be without their readers?
The evening before they met Diana sent me this wonderful photo of a cake she had made.
I was so thrilled! There is the lovely Man with the Blue Sleeve sitting in a very beautiful black and gold gondola and floating above the delicate blue and gold bodice of the courtesan. I don’t think any book I have written has ever inspired a cake before. And since I am a devotee of cake I felt envious of their meeting…
They then also sent me this photo of the group on the night and gave me written feedback about the book:
Diána: “I loved every single page of this beautiful novel. I am glad that I recommended it to the Book Club Members; it was lovely to hear from them that they enjoyed it and treasured it as much as I did.”Rachel C.: “Fabulous book, off to Venice in June.”Steph: “A fantastic read, I liked the combination of the old and the present day, as I read I kept thinking about how the different stories would link together. Made me want to visit Venice sooner rather than later! “Barbara: “I enjoyed it but always struggle when there are so many “time zones” in a book.”Alison: “I was swept up in the beautiful setting, history and story lines. I was sad when it ended – great book.”Clair: “This book was so refreshingly different, it was so rich it was like drinking fine wine, full of colour, culture and heart warming characters that you really rooted for!”Maddy: “I really enjoyed this book! It was a beautifully written look at humanity and all that binds us together. Loved it!xx”Lindsey: “I thought the writing was so evocative of the time and place – I was lucky enough to visit Venice last summer and that really helped me to picture some of the scenes. A thoroughly absorbing read. “
It was altogether a lovely experience for me to be involved with them. So hurrah for book clubs, the Thursday Book Club in particular and a big thank you to Diana for getting in touch with me in the first place.
Are you in a book club?
From the age of six I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford with this building at the end of our garden.
The library is an exquisite Queen Anne edifice with an imposing stone eagle on the top. The eagle’s presence is explained by the college’s coat of arms, which is a shield with three red eagles on it. This is the coat of arms of the founder of the college Robert de Eglesfield (1341) and I assume the eagles were a pun on his name.
My bedroom was in the roof of the Provost’s Lodging’s and looked straight out at the eagle. It was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep each night.
Not long after we moved into the Lodgings, the eagle was struck by lightning in the middle of a spectacular thunderstorm. I was looking out of the window when it happened. It shattered and crashed down into our garden. It was odd that it was struck because we were surrounded by much higher spires: St Mary’s, the University church was not far away and that is the highest spire in the city centre and then there were the turrets of All Souls college and indeed the Queen’s chapel. But it was the eagle that attracted the lightning.
Perhaps it saw the opportunity to take flight and seized it.
What is it like to live in this city of birds and shadows? It is like being the offspring of a ghost and a hooligan
PHILIP PULLMAN ON OXFORD
It is an event from my childhood that is fixed firmly in my memory because I was upset and frightened by it. The following day I remember looking at all the pieces of it smashed on the paving stones and trying to hide the fact that I was crying. Some of it disappeared into my mother’s rockery, other bits were swept away.
In time another eagle was carved and hoisted aloft, this time with the precaution of a lightning conductor running down its back. I remember how big the new one seemed, almost as tall as me, and I remember touching it before it was hoisted aloft. I thought no one was going to touch it for a long time once it was up there.
However, I never felt quite the same way about the new one.
On my desk I have part of the stone eagle that I saw being struck by lightning; a hand-sized piece of its wing that my mother kept. It reminds me of her and my father and of that old eagle that shattered.
Sometimes I imagine the old eagle is out there, surfing the currents above the Oxford spires, sometimes I imagine he might land on my window sill one night to reclaim this from me.
I have it here to remind me to retain a little bit of that magic from my childhood in my writing. After all, what are our imaginations for, if not for taking flight from time to time?
Do you have an object or touchstone that has a particular significance for you? What is it?
It’s a quote from Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen but not being a great geek when it comes to lyrics I’d never heard the line in the song, despite having blasted it out numerous times over the years. But yesterday I heard it and I thought, Yes, Bruce, that’s why I love you, I know that feeling well.
I’ve been researching. Here are some of the books I’ve been reading …
Lots of them, aren’t there?
Here are my notebooks and here is my favourite slightly bonkers cup.
Sometimes, however, it can take a while for research to filter through into the writing. It can sit there like a very solid lump refusing all attempts at merger. It’s a back turned, folded arm thing and however much I suggest the two meet, preferably in my sub-conscious at night. Nothing. There are of course other things that can be done. Things like buying sparkly notebooks and listening to Bruce Springsteen. This notebook is a particular favourite because you can stroke it and create patterns with the sequins. It’s strangely soothing.
I’ve been reading Bruce’s autobiography and there’s a great bit where he talks about writing Dancing in the Dark. It came late to the album, Born in the USA. Jon Landau manager and music producer tells him he needs a song in the album which ‘throws gasoline on the fire’ so he wrote the song that evening about ‘his own alienation, fatigue, and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head and just live.’ It was the song which took him furthest into the pop mainstream. I’ve seen him twice in concert, once in Wembley in the eighties and then a few years ago in Hyde Park. They were both extraordinary. Time for me to dance in the dark, I think. Here he is in that video…
*Dancing in the Dark, Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen.
I had a lovely time answering questions set by the author Jennifer Alderson. If you want to know who I chose to sit next to on a long flight (got in a bit of a panic half way through that one and had to call in Lily Tomlin) and what the question was I wished she’d asked me, read on!