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 us the word nominate/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. I nominate 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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…

 

ON MY DESK: LIFE AND DEATH STONE

I picked this up on St Columba’s bay on Iona in 1995. Iona is a tiny island off the coast of Mull, one of the largest islands in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. It’s an extraordinary place and this particular beach is where St Columba is supposed to have landed from Ireland. It’s the point from which Christianity spread throughout Britain. It’s renowned for its green stones and I have a few of those about the place as well.

I can’t remember now which side up it was lying when I first saw it. I think it was this side which made me think of a skull …

death

I picked it up and turned it round and then I saw this which I interpreted as a lopsided  smiling face…

smile

At the time I had come to the island to make some decisions. I wanted to take time out to write but I was very frightened about taking that step. My mother had died at the beginning of the year and I had been reading all these books on grief that stated you shouldn’t make any major decisions in the immediate aftermath of a death but at the same time I felt this reckless energy to tear up my life and move on. Her death had come as a shock. She was only 69 and, in the way death can, it acted as a wake up call. But along with the reckless energy there was colossal fear. I felt as if I was in a pressure cooker.

Holding this stone in my hand on that beach released some of that pressure and made me smile – one side is so sweet and one side is so sinister. By July of that year I had handed in my notice at work and moved into a housing association house in Finsbury Park. I was living with an actor, a musician, a Tai Chi teacher, and someone who was training as a Cranio-sacral therapist: a fluid group of people who needed cheap rent to pursue their creative dreams. And I began pursuing mine by writing my first novel. God, it was hard and I struggled! But it was a start and finally I was taking myself and my ambition seriously.

Maybe one day I’ll travel back to Iona and return the stone to the beach where I found it. After all it’s a long way from home. Maybe I’ll make that journey one day but for the moment it’s on my desk and I hold it in my hand and turn it back and forth, between the skull and the smile, most days.

ON MY DESK: TIGER AND MORNING GLORY

tiger and morning gloryWhat can I say? Every desk should have a tiger. He isn’t strictly on my desk. He hovers over it in a benign sort of way. I bought him from a wonderful shop, sadly no longer in existence, that was called Neal Street East, in Covent Garden. Oh, how I loved it! It has now been replaced by an Italian shoe shop. I like the way the tiger moves around in the breeze. I like the way he watches over my writing. He has a small sticker on his back that says he was made in Thailand. I have him there to remind me to have courage. I mean a tiger isn’t frightened of anything much, is it? I particularly like the fact he has articulated paws and jaw. When I’m feeling particularly stressed I open his jaws wide. Andy Murray used to do that during his matches and I presume it reduces tension.

I’m not quite sure how this morning glory thing is going to pan out though. I should have started these seeds off much earlier. I found an old packet and was feeling a little stuck and threw them in a pot and thought nothing would happen. But then it did!  They all germinated which was exciting but they like to climb and we have no outside space so I thought I’d see if they’ll climb up my tiger. I’m not sure how he feels about it though. When I was a very small child my mother grew morning glories one summer and each morning there’d be a competition between me and my sisters to guess the number of flowers that had bloomed. The winner got a sixpence. It was very hard to guess accurately.

geraniums and tigerI work by a window which looks out onto the street. When I want to concentrate I have the blind down but when I don’t I have it up and then I look out onto geraniums, motorbikes, cars and I get to listen to people’s conversations – neighbours bumping into each other, a man explaining how he goes all the way to Kingston for his shopping because it has an Aldi, the number bus he gets, the fact that he had fallen down and everyone had rushed to pick him up. People are very kind, he says. In a city like London where there are so many people and they are often under a great deal of pressure, it is good to hear things like that. We all want to hear that if we fall down we will be picked up.

Basically, it’s all about growth and courage, isn’t it? I’ll let you know how the morning glories pan out.

ON MY DESK: BEARS

The first book I ever wrote was titled FLYING BEARS. This was a Ronseal-title. There were bears in it and they flew. Not only bears were in the book, there were also twins and magical circuses. I imagined it as the love child of the John Irving book, The World According to Garp,  and the Jeanette Winterson book, The Passion. It was never published you won’t be surprised to hear but I loved it because it was the first book I ever completed and as such it had taught me that I could write 100,000 words with a beginning a middle and an end. And then when I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher it taught me about rejection which is useful in its own way albeit bloody horrible. Since then I’ve had eight books published.

I have always loved bears. It has something to do with the fact they spend a great deal of each year sleeping and then when they wake up they (well, some of them) stand in streams while salmon jump into their mouths. Not being much of a cook that way of feeding myself has always struck me as having a great deal to recommend it.

So over the years the people close to me have given me bears of various kinds. Currently on my desk I have the five below.

bears

The two furry ones in the middle I have had since I was a very small child. I’ve no idea where they came from or who gave them to me. They may not even be mine. Perhaps I hoovered them up when my parents moved and when we sold my father’s house.

The brown one on the right is one given to me by my partner a couple of years ago and has a distinctly Germanic look to it. I feel it should be holding something between its paws but have not yet found what that thing might be. My mother had one a bit like this, but smaller, which held a thimble.

The one on the left is the glitziest. It’s really a Christmas decoration but I loved him so much I kept him out of the decorations box which is a bit daft. So here he is on my desk and whenever I pick him up and admire him I transfer glitter to the end of my nose which improves my appearance no end. Sometimes I hang him from the money plant for good luck.

Finally, the little fellow in the middle is on a green stone. I bought him from Watkins, a mind, body, spirit bookshop in Cecil Court in London many years ago. If I’m feeling anxious about doing something I’ll slip it into my pocket. Oh, did I mention I’m superstitious?

Incidentally, bears have staying power. They appeared in my most recent book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN (aka TITIAN’S BOATMAN). In fact I think one of the  main reasons I decided that my Shakespearean actor, Terry, is acting in The Winter’s Tale was so I could have a lovely time with bears. ‘Exit pursued by a bear,’ being one of the most famous of all stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. There’s another bear in the book, a small silver one, which is one I own, but have now lost, temporarily. Maybe once it had muscled its way into a published book, it decided to fly away.

The moral of this particular tale is that you can’t keep bears out of anything. Or at any rate it seems you certainly can’t keep them out of my imagination or off my desk.

ON MY DESK: MY MOTHER’S WATCH

A weekly post in which I describe one of the items on my writing desk.

sekonda

My Mother’s Watch

Why are the watches of the people we love so hard to get rid of? This one doesn’t even work anymore. It’s an old Sekonda – 17 Jewels.  On the back of it is the following sequence of numbers: 658832. On either side of the number 6 you can just see the letters USSR. My mother bought it one year at an airport – I’ve forgotten which one and where she was flying to. She’d left the one she usually wore at home. She used to wear watches that were quite delicate but this one isn’t. It’s a man’s watch. I suppose she bought it because she was in a hurry and it was cheap. But she took to it and she was wearing it around the time that she died.

It’s a wind up. She didn’t like battery driven watches and neither do I. I wore it for a long time after she died and each day when I wound it up I would think of her. It had a tendency to lose 5 minutes within any 24 hour period. I liked that as well. As if there was something mischievous about it, something not altogether reliable. My mother sending me messages from the after life.

Then I went on a boat trip to Grassholm, an island off the Pembrokeshire coast, to look at gannets and guillemots. On the way back a storm blew up and I got soaked to the skin. The watch stopped. I took it to a repairer who lost it. When he found it again he said that the mechanism had rusted and nothing could be done. He’d lost it for such a long time I’m not surprised it had rusted. But I also wondered if he just couldn’t be bothered.

Occasionally, I fantasize about finding a wonderful watch repairer who will be able to get it working again. It’s not worth anything but my mother wore it on her wrist for many years. Then I wore it on mine. I’d like to be able to wear it again. Maybe that will never happen but in the meantime I have the pleasure of its generous open face.

There is a particular poignancy to the things that the people we have loved have worn close to their skin.

I don’t think I will ever be able to throw it away.

So here it sits, on my desk.

SUNSHINE BLOGGER AWARD

Hello, darlings! I have been nominated for the sunshine blogger award by Clara at Scribblings. Thank you so much. I first met Clara on the first day of the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford last year. I was feeling rather nervous since I didn’t know anyone and we walked into the conference together. She told me that she was going to pitch her book to two agents in the course of the conference. Clara is Italian. Since the idea of doing that in my own language would scare the living daylights out of me I decided that my nerves were misplaced and she had nerves of steel. Check out her blog here:

https://claragiuliani.com/

and you’ll find she writes better English than I do. So now I must answer her questions, nominate my own sunshine bloggers and set my own questions.

A little ray of sunshine. That is me and my blog!

Q. What is it you really can’t resist?

With the election about to happen here in the UK – Andrew Rawnsley’s political column in The Observer. Always interesting, thought provoking, well-written and entertaining. A good combination of historical context and insider info/gossip. I hate it when he goes on holiday. There is also William Keegan, also in The Observer, who writes about economics in a way that even I can understand which makes him a genius!

Q. Time machine – when, what, who, where, why?

I’m currently doing some research into the English Civil War. So it would be extremely convenient to be transported into the Blue Boar Inn in St Aldates, Oxford around the middle of January 1642. I’ve just been writing a scene there and I’d like a good look at the landlady and find out who is sleeping in ‘the Green Chamber’ of her inn.

Q. When might you be tempted to murder?

Other than Hitler before he came to power the couple who had the drunken argument on the pavement outside my flat a couple of nights ago. Oh, how people love to argue on corners and how incredibly boring they are when they’re drunk. And how wide awake I was by the time they fell into a cab.

Q. Who or what did you play at as a child?

OK, this is a bit odd. My earliest recollection involves a sort of Viking hat and a set of banisters. Then there was a nifty cowboy outfit I had, the trousers were made of thick orange corduroy and had plastic white tassels that stood out horizontally from the trousers. I thought I was the bees knees. There were toy guns that fired caps. They made quite an enjoyably loud bang. There were also some very beautiful boots that I never wore because they hurt my feet.

Q.The concert of my life?

It would have to be KD Lang and the Reclines at the Town and Country 2 in Kentish Town, London in the late eighties or early 90s. I think it was 1992. How those rhinestones dazzled. It was a small venue before she hit it big with Ingenue. I’ve still got the T-shirt although if I hold it up to the light I can see right through it. I absolutely refuse to turn it into dusters!

Q. My favourite weather – the one that makes my spirits soar?

First crisp day of autumn the one that gets me rummaging for my jumpers and discovering which have been saved from the moths.

Q. The ending of a book, film, play that you’ll never make peace with.

Now, Voyager – Oh Bette!!!!! you deserved the moon I’m sorry the stars were NOT enough and nor was that measly cigarette, not after you’d plucked your eyebrows so beautifully. I can’t watch it without crying.

Q. Ever got that ‘Oh, I’m inside a book feeling?’

Well, actually most days and usually it’s my work in progress, current title Fire and Brimstone, set during the English Civil War. At the moment I’m trying to generate female characters with a bit of agency without stretching historical credibility until it snaps and pings me in the eye.

Q. Let’s go with Proust – if you weren’t yourself who would you want to be?

Canadian director and actor Robert Lepage. I’ve just been to see 887 his one man show. It’s the perfect blend of the personal and the political. He’s so easy in his own skin on stage. He produces funny, original, arresting theatre. What can I say – I love him and  I could do with some of that performative ease sometimes, that playfulness. Well,  most days actually …

Q. One thing I have never done and would love to do?

Visit the Italian lakes. Como would be good.

Q. The moment when I would have stopped time.

The moment just before my partner got hit by a motorbike about a month ago. It would have saved us both a great deal of trouble. She’s fine now thanks.

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Now to my own nominees – Clara did four so I’m doing err, five:

https://colinbisset.com  – writer, traveller, broadcaster, fantastic writing on architecture, author of lovely book Loving Le Corbusier about Yvonne Gallis, the architect, Le Corbusier’s , wife …

https://silverpaintedriver.com – beautiful writing on colour by painter Francesca Howard author of the wonderful Colour Potential …

https://harvestinghecate.wordpress.com – gorgeous writing on nature, creative process – simply beautiful writing …

https://tarasparlingwrites.com  on the bonkers business of books – she’s very funny and informative on pretty much everything …

https://ourlifewithprops.wordpress.com – Keir and Louise Lusby and their life making everything you might ever have seen on TV or film including the Aztec medallion from the first Pirates of the Caribbean film …

And here are my eleven questions:

  1. Favourite building in the world?
  2. Have you ever walked out of a film/play/thrown a book down on the floor in a rage? If so which one?
  3. You’ve got a morning free in the town you live in/ nearest to where you live – what do you do?
  4. The subject at school that made you look out of the window and kick your heels and dream of freedom?
  5. You’re held hostage in solitary confinement – what film do you know well enough to roll through your mind while mouthing all the lines?
  6. What were you expected to be when you grew up? What happened?
  7. Asterix or Tintin? If neither what’s the first children’s book you loved?
  8. You can have a date with one of Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo OR Cary Grant or George Clooney which do you choose?
  9. If you had to save one film out of Casablanca, The Third Man and Notorious from the flames which would you choose?
  10. The place you have the strongest romantic associations with excluding your own home.
  11. Smell that is most redolent of childhood for you.

So there we are. Incidentally my ‘I am a hostage film’ has this line: ‘My name’s Dorothy – D-O-R-O-T-H-Y. Dorothy. Now Alan’s always Alan and John’s always John …’ Anyone who can tell me where that’s from will win a bonus point and my everlasting regard. And if anyone fancies answering any of the questions other than my nominees please pick and choose – be my guest.

PEONIES AND THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

mwbs and peonies

The man with the blue sleeve being outdone by lush peonies. It could happen to any of us and also a nice quote from the Historical Novel Society about TITIAN’S BOATMAN:

“This book is a wonderful collection of chapters, all of them exquisitely crafted, most of them small – some very small, like the golden tesserae on the ceiling of St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, an image drawn from the book.”

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY

REVIEW: WORDS THAT TOUCH by NICK POLE

WORDS THAT TOUCH by Nick Pole is about Clean language and is aimed at mind/body therapists. How do you write about what happens between therapist and client? Well, I’m not sure but this book does a pretty good job of it. However you don’t necessarily have to be a therapist to enjoy it. There is a great deal here to engage the general reader. If you’re someone who is interested in the power of words, in the ways the mind and the body communicate with each other, and also neuroscience you’ll find a lot to delight in. As a writer I was fascinated by the chapters on metaphor and how the use of metaphor helps the mind communicate with the body and heal trauma.

Although dealing with a complex subject Nick Pole writes in a highly accessible way. In clear, elegant chapters he lays out what Clean language is, how it works and the neuroscience behind it. The aim of Clean language is to ‘make the client more involved in if not actually leading a collaborative process’. Case studies by a variety of mind/body therapists explain how they use Clean language in their own practice. I know this is a book that I will find myself coming back to again and again. There is too much wisdom in here to be taken in the first time around. My favourite quote: ‘Distance always contains the hint of a relationship’. Like many things in WORDS THAT TOUCH that made me stop and think for a good long time. I highly recommend this book.

Here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Words-that-Touch-Nick-Pole/dp/184819336X/

And here is the link to Nick’s website: http://www.nickpole.com