JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

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.

jigsaw2

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?

jigsaw4

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.

https://www.wentworthpuzzles.com/

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“THE BLOSSOMEST BLOSSOM”

Blossom

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.

 

IN PRAISE OF BOOK CLUBS

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.

Titian Cake

Diana’s spectacular cake!

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:

Book Club 12.04

The Thursday Book Club

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?

ON MY DESK: EAGLE WING

From the age of six I was brought up in Queen’s College, Oxford with this building at the end of our garden.

library summer storm

The Queen’s college library with a summer storm coming in

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.

the lodgings

Top right was my bedroom window

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.

eagle wing

Eagle wing

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?

 

I’m sick of sitting round here trying to write this book*

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 …

Oxford books

Lots of them, aren’t there?

Here are my notebooks and here is my favourite slightly bonkers cup.

notebooks and 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.

sparkly notebook

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.

Q&A with author Jennifer Alderson

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!

http://jennifersalderson.com/2018/01/16/spotlight-on-historical-fiction-and-mystery-author-victoria-blake/

BEACHCOMBING

I was away staying here …Image result for the shingle house

It was in Dungeness where Derek Jarman lived. Here is his house …

derek jarmans house

While I was there I went for a walk and picked up these…

shells

And I was reminded of this poem by e.e.cummings…

maggie and milly and molly and may

went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang

so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles, and

milly befriended a stranded star

whose rays five languid fingers were;

and maggie was chased by a horrible thing

which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone

as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.

And then I came home and passing Fortnum’s I remembered it was Christmas …

elephant fortnums

So Happy Christmas, darlings, and many thanks to everyone who has read the blog, commented on the blog and supported my book Titian’s Boatman/The Return of the Courtesan this year.  And my tip for surviving Christmas? If things get too bad take yourself off and watch The Feud on the BBC iPlayer about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and the filming of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). It’s wonderful and very, very funny and will make your own family seem well-balanced and rational. This is going to be my holiday reading. Happy Christmas! And here’s hoping no one serves you rat!

bette joan

REVIEW: MAYBE A FOX

I’ve been ill. Nothing serious just the usual winter nonsense that makes sleeping difficult. As a consequence, I’ve been up in the middle of the night trying to calm down my bronchioli with steam and thyme and honey (since you ask). So last night at the witching hour of three o’clock, as I was waiting for the nest of burning baby spiders to stop running up and down my upper respiratory tract, I had the thought – it’s the perfect time for foxes and lo and behold there was a fox running up the middle of the road towards the block that I live in. It approached the main road, crossed it and then continued along the alley that skirts the elevated tube line. Over the next fifteen minutes I might as well have been on the fox M25. I don’t know if it was the same one but I saw a fox about six different times.  How I love them! – their fantastic colour, their white chests, the way they hold their white tipped tails just above the surface of the pavement. They always seems so purposeful.

And I was reminded of a book I read earlier in the year, MAYBE A FOX, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. Ostensibly this is a children’s book but it can be read with just as much pleasure by adults. The theme of the book is death, grief and what happens to us after we die, it is also about the love between siblings. Here’s a bit of the blurb.

“Jules adores her older sister. Then, into thin air, Sylvie goes missing. As Jules stumbles into grief, a fox cub is born: a shadow fox, spirit and animal in one.”

The authors write beautifully about the natural world about mysticism about love. The book resonated long after I had finished it and it is a perfect winter book being set in a very snowy Vermont.

Here is the beautiful poem by Patricia Fargnoli that starts the book:

SHOULD THE FOX COME AGAIN TO MY CABIN IN THE SNOW

Then the winter will have fallen all in white

and the hill will be rising to the north,

the night also rising and leaving,

dawn light just coming in, the fire out.

 

Down the hill running will come that flame

among the dancing skeletons of the ash trees.

I will leave the door open for him.

The book dares to have quite a tough, sad ending and I liked that about it as well. And then I was reminded of the book below. A book I loved as a child. It is the story of how the Tomten, a swedish elf, keeps the chickens safe from the fox. Basically, it’s enchanting, has the most beautiful illustrations and everyone should buy it.

Do you have a favourite children’s book you associate with winter or with Christmas?

TOP TEN OF VENICE INSPIRED BOOKS 2017

top ten

My book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN has been listed in the top ten of Venice inspired books for 2017 by The Venice Insider website. I am needless to say honoured and delighted! Check out the link for other fantastic books and all kinds of fascinating information on Venice. I will be celebrating later and clinking goblets with The Man with the Blue Sleeve.

 

Here is the link:

https://www.theveniceinsider.com/2017-top-10-venice-books/

 

FILM: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Branagh MurderFirst there are the moustaches. They flow out of Brangh’s nose, sweep across his cheeks and end up about an inch from the lobes of his ears. They are described by Agatha Christie as ridiculous and these ones certainly are. There’s a rather worrying moment when we see the contraption that Poirot wears at night to keep his moustaches safe. It makes him look a bit like Hannibal Lecter. Close your eyes at that point.

This being Branagh. Poirot is Branagh-ed, Branagh is certainly not Poirot-ed. Branagh is incapable of playing him as ‘a ridiculous little man’ so there is longing in the gazing at a photo of Katherine and there is manly striding and Poirot does clever things with his stick. The beginning sequence is extremely bizarre. Poirot solving the Middle East crisis while measuring the height of his oeufs. I’m sorry if that line is obscure but you’ll just have to go and watch it to see what I mean. I suppose the purpose behind it is to inform us that Poirot is clever and odd and it certainly does that!

The plot is changed somewhat from the book, which is a relief because if it hadn’t been there would have been endless scenes of Poirot interviewing suspects and going. ‘Làlàprécisémentmon cher and eh bien mon ami…’  and  nothing much else. Fortunately, we have introduced here a stabbing, a shooting and a chase and this livens things up no end in comparison to the book. In one scene Poirot strides across the top of the snow-covered train and he keeps his footing. Phew!

The settings are all very beautiful. We have a lovely train, we have thrusting pistons, we have steam and we have snow-filled valleys, snow drifts and snow falls. Yes, there’s lots of lovely snow and the scene when the train steams out of Istanbul is particularly gorgeous. I love all that.

Now to the rest of the cast. I could have done with a great deal more of Olivia Colman, a woman who can do no wrong in my eyes. Here she gets to order the fish, play some cards with Judi Dench and utter a few lines in German. I could have done with more of Judi Dench as well, if it comes to that, although she does look very splendid in velvet and toque. Derek Jacobi gets to say more and is as always eminently watchable.  Johnny Depp plays a rotter perfectly well and can do this kind of thing standing on his head so can Willem Dafoe and Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer. The ones who stand out are not the starry ones but more Josh Gad as Hector McQueen, Phil Dunster as Col. John Armstrong and Leslie Odom as Dr Arbuthnot.

I was looking forward to the product placement episode that I had been warned about in a review. If you have not heard of GODIVA CAKES you will certainly know about them at the end of this film. And Poirot does utter the immortal lines ‘I lerve theese leetle cecks.’ It is a startlingly stand-alone line. It’s not even as if he says, ‘The knife is hidden in these leetle cecks.’ or ‘Theese leetle cecks are filled with arsenic.’ No, it is apropos of nothing that he lerves them. I wonder how much money Godiva paid for the privilege of having Poirot utter this line. And I wonder if the  cecks will follow Poirot to the Nile. I worry the chocolate might melt in all that heat. Mind you, I worry that Branagh’s moustache might get a bit bedraggled as well. At the end of the film Poirot is summoned to Egypt so we know that’s where he’s heading next. I think Ken will look very nice in the linen suit and the panama which he is probably being measured for as I type.

Would I recommend it?  Well, I think your enjoyment will depend on two things. First your view of Kenneth Branagh, who is in my opinion a bit of a marmite actor. If you don’t mind lots of close ups of his big, angsty blue eyes, you’ll be fine, if not, it’ll be a long couple of hours. Second, if you’re someone who knows Agatha Christie’s writing very well and wants a film that reflects that, the depiction of Poirot may well infuriate you. Probably best to give this a miss and seeks out the DVD of David Suchet’s version or Albert Finney’s, both of whom are much closer to the original.

MoustachesFinally, if you would also like to experiment with your own moustaches here is a lovely box of moustaches I spied in Paperchase. You can get to choose between six moustache styles: traditional gent, cowboy, rusty brush, Italian plumber, oil baron and Abra-Kadabra! (I know, I know but I’m only writing down what’s on the packet). Poirot’s incidentally is closest to traditional gent. This being my own product placement. Paperchase, darling, if you happen to be reading, I’m a writer so how about notebooks for life. Oh, and pens I could do with some pens as well, especially those fancy ones you lock in the glass cabinets. Waiting to hear from you. Thanking  you ever so, as Marilyn might once have said.

Have you seen the film? What did you think of it and Branagh as Poirot?