One of the last books I bought in a bookshop before the March 2020 lock down was a book by Rolf Dobelli called Stop Reading the News. I didn’t read the book because I was so busy glued to the news. What with government announcements, infection rates, death rates and then changes in what we could or could not do, Partygate, the Ukraine war, the implosion of the Conservative party, the tanking of the economy etc…

But then the other day, when my partner was out, for reasons that escape me, I listened to all the local radio interviews that Liz Truss gave. There was about an hour of them and shortly after that I saw the book on the shelf and thought, well, he’s probably got a point. So, brainwashed by Liz I took decisive action (a phrase she used in every one of those interviews) and read it.

48581422. sy475

First, I should confess to the extent of my news habit. Wake up in the morning to Radio 4’s Today programme. Listen to it while doom scrolling BBC news website and the Guardian on my phone. Buy the Guardian paper. Check phone repeatedly through the day. Listen to the World at One with Sarah Montague, Radio 4 and PM at 5 also Radio 4 then top it off with some Channel 4 news at 7 to see if Krishnan (currently on leave for swearing at Steve Baker) is wearing his pink tie with the cherubs – used to be Jon Snow and his socks. On Saturdays buy The Times and the Guardian. On Sunday buy the Observer and sometimes the Sunday Times. Listen to Broadcasting House with Paddy O’Connell on Sunday morning, Radio 4 again. Read The Bookseller and Private Eye weekly. That’s about the extent of it.

How did it come to this?

Back in the day I just used to buy the Times in order to read Simon Barnes, the sport’s writer much loved by Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and then give the rest of it a cursory once over. I was also a big fan of The Independent in its broadsheet days.

Dobelli’s thesis is that with the advent of the internet in the 90s “news is every bit as dangerous as alcohol” and “it is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easily digestible and extremely damaging.” He says we should assess our news habit as follows:

  • Do you understand the world better?
  • Do you make better decisions?

His answer to those two questions was no. He went news free in 2010 and says that as a result he has:

  • improved quality of life
  • clearer thinking
  • vastly more time and more valuable insights

He advises you to go cold turkey but if that’s too extreme then buy something like the Economist or the Week and then wean yourself off more gradually.

The news he says gets risk assessment all wrong, rewires our brain so that our attention spans are shorter, makes us more passive, gives the illusion of empathy while destroying our peace of mind. If you want to be well informed news is not the place to go but long form essays or books written by experts in their field also text books.

On the subject of risk assessment, he says that our central nervous systems react disproportionately strongly to visible, rapidly changing, colourful stimuli, the shocking, the loud and the personal and disproportionately weakly to the abstract, the subtle, slow developing, and ambivalent. News editors exploit this distortion in our perspective driven by the needs for advertising.  Consuming the news day by day skews our sense of what’s important. An example he gives is that of a banking collapse being overplayed whereas government debt is underplayed. Mind you, not the case currently in the UK.

99 percent of all world events are outside our control. The daily litany of things we can’t change  wears us down and turns us into pessimists. We assume the role of victim. We become passive. We descend into learned helplessness and this doesn’t just make us passive about world events. We become passive in areas where we do have room for manoeuvre. It bleeds into every other area of our lives. It’s much more sensible to focus your energies on things you can control.

It all makes sense. In fact it’s horrifying. I did cut back a bit during the summer when Sunak and Truss were fighting it out because I just couldn’t stand it but when I think of really cutting back on my news intake I worry about the lettuce. If I had been news free, I would have missed the Daily Star’s live lettuce cam. I would have missed what Larry the cat had to say about things. I loved the lettuce and I loved all those puns: How long will she romaine etc. It really cheered me up but clearly I can’t pretend that it will lead to me making better decisions not even in my lettuce purchasing. Does it help me understand the world better? Perhaps how far a good joke will travel. But surely I knew that anyway? Incidentally, the idea of the lettuce came about because one of the Daily Star’s journalists was reading the Economist and a writer had pondered whether Liz Truss’s premiership would outlast the life of a lettuce. I think Dobelli would appreciate that.

I do wonder if since the pandemic he might alter his thesis a bit. Yes, news is bad for us but what about public health messages which are a form of news and aimed to keep us safe. Maybe he would place that type of information in a different category altogether. There is also the question of culture/arts coverage – film reviews, book reviews, exhibitions, sport and then the sudoku, code word, crossword etc. All of which I enjoy.

However, the book has really made me think, especially about how I take in news on my phone. The automaticity with which I reach for it, the automaticity with which I turn on the radio. I am going to try and cut down. And following his advice on reading in depth about questions that concern you, I am going to take decisive action (sorry, but I did listen to her for an hour) and get hold of a book by Isabel Hardiman titled Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. If the last six weeks or so of UK politics has made me want to read about any one issue in depth, it’s probably that one.

What is your news habit? Have you ever thought of cutting down or even stopping completely?


The starting book this week for Six Degrees of Separation is Are You there God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. If you want to find out about how to join in here’s the link at Books are my Favourite and Best. It’s not a book I’d heard of before but I gather that in it a young girl talks to God about her problems.

The opposite of God is Satan so my next book is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis in this book Screwtape is an elderly devil high up in the Infernal Civil Service who is giving advice to a younger one, his nephew Wormwood, as to how to lead human beings into sin.

The Screwtape Letters (Annotated) by [C.S.  Lewis]

Anthony Hopkins played C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands. The film was about Lewis’ love affair with the american Joy Davidman and her subsequent death. Hopkins also played the butler, Stevens,  in the film The Remains of the Day which was based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Another famous fictional butler is of course Jeeves of the P.G. Wodehouse comic novels so my next choice is Thank you, Jeeves.

A bit of a blurry cover but at least you can see the banjo. In that book Jeeves quits because of Bertie’s terrible banjo playing. A famous banjo playing scene occurs in Deliverance a book by James Dickey turned into a film with Burt Reynolds. In that book four friends decide to go on a canoe trip in the north west Georgian wilderness and all kinds of terrible things happen to them.

Another book set in a boat is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. In that book a young boy is shipwrecked in a boat with a Bengal tiger who he has to persuade not to eat him.

And finally another book with a tiger in it is R.K. Narayan’s A Tiger for Malgudi in which an ageing tiger encounters a guru and learns about non-violence. It’s written from the point of view of the tiger.

So there we have it from God to Tigers in six degrees or should I say tiggerish bounds? Have you read any of these and if so what did you think of them?

Next month (January 2nd, 2021) the start book is Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Why don’t you join in?


I’ve been away from the blog for a while (ahem, five months) and thought I’d dip my toe back in with some book recommendations etc. Those of you who read a certain newspaper will recognise the questions. Also I want to see if I can get to grips with the new wordpress editor which is, let’s be honest, highly unlikely. So off we go with some questions I am asking myself and my apologies if <code;’*&^%$£”> happens.

Q.The book I am currently reading:

The Ashes of London: The first book in the brilliant historical crime mystery series from the No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author (James Marwood & Cat Lovett, Book 1) by [Andrew Taylor]


Andrew Taylor’s THE ASHES OF LONDON. Historical fiction about the fire of London. He’s very readable. This starts when the fire has already been raging for a few days which is interesting. I was expecting a more disaster movie framework but it works well and I’m enjoying it.

Q. The book that changed your life.

Bit of a grandiose question. Probably ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson. Daring, funny, original – and she was so young when she wrote it.

Q. The book I wish I’d written.


Little: A Times and Sunday Times Book of the Year

LITTLE by Edward Carey, writer and illustrator. It’s about Madame Tussaud but so much more than that. It’s brilliant – a story of magnificent, triumphant, survival which given what we are all living through seems timely. Since Covid-19 struck, Edward has been doing a drawing a day on twitter. Well, worth checking out. @EdwardCarey70. His next book is THE SWALLOWED MAN out in November.

The Swallowed Man by [Edward Carey]

Q. A book you’ve read recently that you think is underrated.

Ash before Oak

ASH BEFORE OAK by Jeremy Cooper is described as fiction. Part nature diary and part chronicle of mental health crisis. Beautiful writing about the natural world. I loved it.

Q. Book I’m ashamed not to have read.

Well, probably everything by George Eliot.

Q. What book do you give as a gift?

LITTLE recently but to be honest I tend to ask people what they want.

Q. The last book that made you laugh?

A Rising Man: Sam Wyndham Book 1

Abir Mukherjee’s A RISING MAN. Historical crime set in 1920s India. I can’t recommend this series highly enough. This is the first in a series, the fourth, DEATH IN THE EAST, has recently paperbacked. Abir does everything effortlessly – character, dialogue, plot. He’s the real deal. Read him and enjoy.

Q. What’s your earliest reading memory?

9781840246131: Janet and John: Here we Go (Janet and John Books)


That would be Janet and John. There was also the Ladybird Book of Trees and Sam Pig by Alison Uttley.

Q. So what happened with the blogging?

Oh, you know, life … but I’m glad to be back. And could someone tell me how to caption photos now? And could someone tell wordpress to stop telling me I can’t edit my own b****y blog, thanks.


BOOK REVIEW: The Story of #LittleWomen by @AnneBoydRioux

This is a fantastic book. Perfect to read if you’ve been to see the recent film and want to find out more about the author and her famous work. The full title (a bit cumbersome for a blog post title!) is Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and why it still matters. Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor in English at the University of New Orleans, is a great writer, informative and entertaining and with an enjoyably light touch. The book is packed with fascinating details about Louisa May Alcott and her famous book.

Here are some to amuse you:

  • Readers as varied as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Patti Smith, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, JK Rowling and Caitlin Moran have all been inspired by it.
  • In My Brilliant Friend  by Elena Ferrante, Lila and Lenú meet every day for months to read chapters of Little Women together.
  • Ironically given the readership of her book, Alcott wrote in her diary that she, “never liked girls or knew many except my sisters.”
  • Her first title for the book was My Pathetic Family, a name she used for her own family!
  • Her father, Bronson, was, depending on your point of view – a philosopher with his head in the air, a religious fanatic or a manic depressive. He seems to have felt under no obligation to financially support his wife and four children. He was friends with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson. On the plus side he was a transcendentalist who thought that genius was innate in each child, male or female. On her 14th birthday he gave Louisa a journal into which he had copied her own original poetry, showing he took her writing seriously. He built her a desk. He told her: “You have the genius to write a book that would reach the wider circle of readers.”
  • Bronson did not go away and fight in the American Civil War. Louisa was the one who went away to nurse wounded soldiers in Washington. It was she who came down with typhoid fever, which was treated with mercury, which badly affected her health and contributed towards her death.
  • Marriage? She did not marry and she did not want  Jo to marry but was pressurized by her publisher: “They insist on having people married off in a wholesale way which much afflicts me.”
  • She wrote the book when she was 35. It was published in 1868 and sold 2000 copies in 2 weeks.
  • By the mid 1870s the book had been translated into Russian, Swedish, Danish, Greek and Japanese. The Dutch title was Under Mother’s Wings, the French title, The Four Daughters of Dr Marsch [sic]. The father was turned into a doctor for the French version because being a catholic country it was thought that his profession as a pseudo-minister would not go down well. The Japanese title was A Story of Young Grass – young grass representing adolescence.
  • She did not like being famous: “This sight seeing fiend is a new torment to us.”
  • She died in 1888 of a stroke, two days after her father. They both shared the same birthday, November 29th.
  • The first sound film to be made of the book was directed by George Cukor in 1933 and had Katherine Hepburn playing Jo. When the film opened it broke box office records. 3000 people turned up at the theatre with 1000 gathered outside. 30 mounted policemen were called to manage the crowd. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
  • The book has been turned into a play, radio plays, films, TV series, a musical and opera [1998 Mark Adamo] and it’s been translated into a huge number of different languages.

Finally, a question to entice you to the book:

1.What connects actors William Shatner [of Star Trek fame] and Gabriel Byrne [The Usual Suspects/ In Treatment] in the context of Little Women.

Read the book to find out!

Here are the links:




The Question Every Writer Hates…

There comes a point in every published writer’s life when they receive a questionnaire from their publisher’s publicity/sales department. And on there is a question that no sane writer greets with any degree of enthusiasm: What writer are you like? Whereas your editor and agent may have charmed you by suggesting that they love your book because of its stunning originality, all the bloody sales department wants to do is put you in a box marked ‘Like this (hopefully a bestseller),’ and put ‘Girl’ in the title. This is the point where you realise that your book is a commodity like any other and shops need to know what shelf to put it on. Eggs go on the egg shelf. Beans go on the bean shelf.

It is dispiriting.

It is where you and your precious creation hit the market place and it’s broken egos all round and not even a tasty omelette as recompense.

But don’t despair. Here is what you will now reply:

‘As it happens my book is unique and may I refer you to page 160 of Pen in Hand by Tim Parks and what he has to say on the intensification of conformity. However if you would like to know what Pen in Hand is like I would refer you to the section of the bookshop marked: “Writers who write books about writing which make other writers laugh when they are feeling depressed in late August.” Oh, actually these books should be shelved in the “Gods and Goddesses” section and there should perhaps be a shrine in front of that for small offerings.  Thank you.’

Pen in Hand: Reading, Rereading and other Mysteries

The book’s full title is Pen in Hand: Reading, re-reading and other mysteries. Here are some of the chapter titles to tempt you:

  • why read new books?
  • the pleasures of pessimism
  • the books we don’t understand
  • how best to read auto fiction
  • in search of authenticity
  • raise your hand if you’ve read Knausguaard
  • the books we talk about (and those we don’t)

Do I have to go on? Buy it now. That is all. You don’t have to be a depressed writer to enjoy it but if you are it will certainly cheer you up.

This last bit from the ‘authenticity’ chapter made me laugh:

“The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”

To which I would reply: Speak for yourself you sex-crazed loon.

But to which Tim Parks replies:

“This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.”

Well, at least I’m not trying to do that.

P.S. When I first replied to that question, I was writing crime and as I remember it I said I was like Sara Paretsky, a writer I greatly admired. But to be frank the only thing I had in common with Sara Paretsky was that my main character was a female private investigator. And there was one really significant difference between her books and mine. Mine weren’t nearly as good.




The reading and judging for the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown for Fiction 2019 is pretty much over now. I have read this many books in roughly three months. Here they are. I can’t tell you anything about them yet so here is a picture of them with their backs turned to give you an idea of bulk.

HWA Prize

Roughly 96 works of historical fiction.

And I will shortly be resuming business as usual. Although I have to say I seem to have forgotten what that is. Then this fell out of a newspaper and it reminded me that it’s Pride month. I love Pride month and I was reminded of this:

first pride

Oh yes…

In my day you just rocked up to Embankment, attached yourself to a group of fearsome drag queens and crossed your fingers. Now you have to have a ticket. Is that better or worse? Certainly inconvenient if you decide you want to go at the last minute. Anyway, I thought I’d do a bit of queer reading. There aren’t many queer characters in historical fiction and I feel a bit of a yearning for community. But I’m also a bit fictioned-out so Queer non-fiction here I come. These look a bit tasty don’t you think?

Pride month books

Book list for Pride Month

It’s a bit Gertrude Stein heavy admittedly, which may not bode well. Here’s a message from her at the beginning of her Selected Writings:

“I always wanted to be historical, from almost a baby on, I felt that way about it …”

I wonder how she’d have felt after reading 96 historical fiction novels? Historical? Or like me, simply hysterical.

I should be going back to work on my current novel but after all that reading I have no idea how to relate to it. Who was the person who wrote these 99,000 words? Would my book make a long list? Short list? Neither? Oh God, why bother. I think I’ll go and buy myself some geraniums instead and take some of these books (25 since you ask) to the charity shop.

My apologies to those of you whose blogs I usually follow and comment on. I hope to be functioning a bit better on that front in the coming weeks. Well, on all fronts actually. Maybe Gertrude will sort me out. If you’ve read any good LGBTQI non-fiction (or fiction) recently let me know and I’ll add it to my list.


I was going to begin this post with the line: Emerson seems to have finally deserted me. But then just before sitting down to write it, I came to the end of a short book I’ve been reading called EXPOSURE by Olivia Sudjic. I had reached the second to last page, in fact, and there he was. Sudjic is writing here about the experience of fictionalising experiences that overlap in her own life:

This state reminds me, once I came back to earth, of Emerson’s transparent eye-ball. (“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, – no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair … all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all”.)



I found this book fascinating. It’s extended essay length and, among other things, is about Sudjic’s experience when her first novel Sympathy was published. She writes about the crushing levels of anxiety she felt. So much so that her agent advised her to take beta blockers. She did take them but didn’t like the concomitant feelings of numbness and disassociation she felt when she was on them.

This book is very smart and quite complicated to sum up but I loved it. For an anxious writer like myself, it was reassuring, dreadful and very funny in just about equal measure. I particularly loved this bit:

So why do it? Why continue to write for a living if writing is so solitary and publication is so masochistic, like throwing the contents of your own life out onto the street for passersby to salvage.

My first instinct is to stop. Though the horse has already bolted, I could shut the gate behind it and withdraw in an attempt to protect myself and I suppose recover some feeling of control, assuage some of the identity-loss that accompanies book-births.

My second is to steel myself and carry on like Macbeth midway across a river of blood because … this is what I’ve chosen to do and I hate changing plans. I would then be faced with the anxious dilemma of what to do instead.

My third is to acknowledge the anxiety writing generates as an inextricable element of who I am and that the triggers that exist there are to be found everywhere. Anxiety will fill whatever receptacle I give it …

How I love that line about Macbeth and the river of blood. Recently I’ve been weighing the cost of writing because books do cost the writer. What that cost is will vary of course from person to person. Often this isn’t talked about or writers are chary of talking about it. They realize that they are perceived to be very lucky and as having got away with something. Writers, after all, drag themselves from bed to computer (no commuting to work), they sit about in cafes, they indulge themselves by making things up and then they expect to be read and lauded. What is not talked about is the wrestling with demons and also wrestling with various aspects of the commercial side of getting a book out there: agent, publisher, the set backs, the rejections, the utter bollocks of it all (if you’ll pardon the expression). That side of it is rarely written about with any degree of honesty because writers are not fools, they want to be published and slagging off their publishers or agents is not going to help that at all. We are supposed to be ever so grateful but the reality can be far, far removed from anything that could reasonably be expected to generate gratitude.

As a writer of eight books my experience of publication hasn’t really varied much.  It is both something I am very proud of because I’ve worked incredibly hard and yet at the same time, emotionally, it can feel like a car crash. I do feel very, very exposed. Publication thus becomes something that has to be got over rather than celebrated. And this can be confusing and rather irritating  for the people close to me to fully understand. Well, don’t write a book I hear you say. But I am a writer, I reply.

Sudjic is also very good on the different ways men and women fiction writers are judged.

Female experience tells you that the personal is political while the world tells you there is something wrong with you personally and the system is fine. When (white, cis-gendered) men write even about their personal experience, they write about the human condition and, … their perspective is deemed universal. Books written by women about women are not. That’s Women’s Fiction for which category there is no male equivalent.

For my part I hope Sudjic doesn’t stop writing. She’s very good. But having read this book I could understand if she did. As for me, the jury is out. I highly recommend this book; it’s excellent and extremely thought provoking.



I work in a charity second hand bookshop once a week. This was my day. The man who is always outside the council buildings when I walk past and is a shouter, shouts at me as I make my way to the bookshop. That’s OK. It wasn’t the first time he did it, but now I’m used to him and don’t take it personally. It amused me when he used to shout ‘COFFEE F*****G COFFEE,’ at me because I was holding a Caffé Nero take-away cup. Well, yes, mate.

Everything proceeds as normal for the first couple of hours. I throw away old travel guides, I groan at the sight of any Bill Bryson book. It has nothing to do with the contents, it’s just we get so many of them. I clean donated books with baby wipes and pat them dry before putting them out in the shop. Then just when I am looking with pride at the large space I have created, a woman comes in with about twenty large orange Sainsburys bags of hardback and coffee table books. Oh, my knees! We lug them all in and this coincides with another delivery which I can’t help with because I’m doing this one. I then carry all the Sainsburys bags to the back where I have made the large space which is now instantly filled. I have a bleak Sisyphean moment. Now I’ve become so hot my shoes have started to squeak. Each time I put a foot down it sounds as if I’m squeezing the life out of a mouse. ‘Eeep, eeep,’ my feet go. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. The only way to stop it, is to sort of creep about like Mrs Overall or cool off my feet. I take my shoes off, open the back door and stand there waving my feet about watched by a load of council employees, who are on a smoking break. They alternate between looking at their phones, smoking and sneaking glances at me. I imagine that I look like a sweaty elephant doing barre exercises since I am doing weird swinging, pointy things with my feet to air them. Did they do that in Fantasia, I wonder?

When I’m cooler I go back into the shop and a man approaches. There is something about him akin to clinging ivy. ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson,’ he murmurs. ‘Have you heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say which is true but any follow up question is going to be tricky. ‘Where should I look?’ Off the top of my head I say, ‘ Essays, or philosophy or even classics.’ God knows how I even know that. I look. He looks. No luck. He comes up to me, ‘You have heard of him?’ ‘Yes,’ I say rather more snappily than I intend. ‘But he doesn’t come in often.’ His eyes widen, ‘He comes in?’ ‘No, no his books don’t come in. He’s dead,’ I say startling another customer. ‘Dead,’ I reiterate. That much I do know.

book haul

I roam through the shop considering what I might buy. After the earlier delivery I’m feeling rather Ice Cold in Alex-ish so Death in the Bar by Ngaio Marsh catches my eye, along with Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. I love the title although I have to say it sums up my idea of absolute hell. I am hardly Ms Flexibility. I contemplate my ideal novel title. It would be something like. Absolutely Nothing Changes  Ever and  the subtitle would be Ha, Ha You’re So Wrong, I’m not Bored. Maybe I should write that one.  It might be a surprise bestseller. An antidote to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. My response to that book was always, ‘No thanks, I’ll pass.’ Then I see The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Excellent because I am currently reading the Iliad and have just finished Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. The Guardian review on the back describes it as ‘An exciting, sexy, violent Superman version of The Iliad.’ That will do. Then there is The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith with her own highly idiosyncratic illustrations and Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta, a lesbian love story from Nigeria with a lovely Gay’s the Word book mark.

I find an American copy of my father’s book on Disraeli in the biography section and take it out. I have to force myself not to buy it. I’ve got about three different copies already although not a St Martin’s Press one. Dear old Dad, I think, patting it and putting it back on the shelf.

A man comes in who wants to donate books to us. He is downsizing and says he no longer wants to have piles of books on the floor. ‘Oh!’ I say. He lives three floors up, it’s all too much. ‘Getting rid of the books,’ he says and then he pauses and puts his hand on his heart and says, ‘The pain.’  I stand next to him nodding my head. I want to hug him and tell him everything will be alright but that would be highly inappropriate and you know what, sometimes everything isn’t alright and maybe this is one of those moments.

Then home. The bus is chaotic. Two baby buggies, too many people. It’s like a lunatic asylum and I’m one of the inmates.  Frail people get on at the hospital bus stop and the whole of the bus has to re-order itself, so that people who must sit down can do so and that babies and mothers are OK. I like this chaotic human shift and shuffle because more so than on the tube the frail and vulnerable are noticed and accommodated. Back home I look up Ralph Waldo Emerson. Oh, I think, that’s who you are. Then I look up elephants doing ballet and discover they are actually hippos. I watch a clip of Fantasia for longer than is strictly advisable. At least I wasn’t wearing a tutu. I continue to fret about not buying Dad’s book. It was in good condition, nice jacket. Oh well,  it’ll probably be there next week along with the shouting man, the creeping ivy and of course the piles of books.


A book, a film, a play and an exhibition.

First off a book…

silence of the girls

Barker is one of my all time favourite writers and she has a new book out called THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS. It is new territory for her, that of classical history and is the story of Briseis a Trojan Queen who is given as a sex slave to Achilles. She appears in the early chapters of The Iliad, the story of the Trojan war, by Homer. I’ve read all of Pat Barker’s books and I love her more than any other contemporary writer. I’m amazed that this wasn’t nominated for the Booker and doubt there’s a better book on that list. Doubt there’s a better opening than this:

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

All I can say is read it and you won’t be disappointed. An off-shoot of reading it is that I’m re-reading The Iliad. Heavy, I hear you say. Well, it’s a book I’ve always struggled with in the past but am now scything through with relative ease since Barker’s book has left a vivid template in my mind to read it against. So instead of constantly thinking, Who is Trojan? Who is Greek? Whose side is that god on etc all that was more or less sorted out in my mind before I started. It also got me thinking of Alice Oswald’s poem, Memorial, a book she described as ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere’. That atmosphere is a very bloody one. I’ve been re-reading her wonderful poem, Dart, because I’ve been looking for ‘watery’ writing recently due to my current work in progress.

Second a film …

FACES, PLACES with Agnes Varda and JR. She’s a 90 year old film maker and he’s a street artist. It’s a wonderful film, completely life affirming and celebratory. They are so completely sweet together and it was a joy. Put simply, Agnes Varda and JR travel round France with JR’s photo booth which produces huge black and white photos of the people they meet which are then pasted up in all kinds of different places. The film is playful, compassionate and has great humanity. So go and see it immediately. Now. Here’s the trailer.

Third a play …

ALLELUJHA  by Alan Bennett.

Under no circumstances ever, ever go and see this play. Unless your idea of fun is seeing a load of ‘old dears’ singing sentimental songs in a geriatric ward. It’s abysmal. I’m now going to put out a pointless *Spoiler Alert* because taking my advice you are never going to see it anyway, are you? If it’s supposed to be a paeon to the NHS please explain why at the end the first act Bennett turns a nurse, who has up to this point seemed perfectly OK, albeit somewhat dour, into a morphine-filled-syringe-wielding killer. Why? The only reason I can think of is that it was so tonally weird he thought it might make the audience stay for the second half to discover who she kills next. It was simply dreadful. Mind you, I think it’s no longer on and frankly only a lunatic would ever revive it so you’re probably safe.

Sitting through that got me thinking about how much I love theatre but how bad theatre is a particularly agony. I haven’t been going much recently because of a few ghastly experiences both involving very long plays. First off The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth. How I hated that. The critics showered it with universal 5* praise but I have never felt so out of sorts with an audience. I actually felt embarrassed to be English because the play was filled with every kind of cliche about the Irish that ever existed and the predominantly English audience lapped it up. I know Jez Butterworth has Irish grandparents but that just means he should have known better. All I can say is never, ever go and see a play in which there’s a character called Granny Faraway. I mean, how could you? Agnes Varda would have put him straight on that. It was a long time before I read anything that equated with my feelings about the play and then Sean O’Hagan wrote this…

Excuse this digression/rant but before The Ferryman there was a play by Tony Kushner called the Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism … Also very long and also staggeringly bad. I actually walked out of that at the second interval without a qualm and generally speaking I’m not a walker out of anything much. That play involved a lot of discordant shouting by vile characters to no good effect with a bit of Marx thrown in. The worst play I ever saw was The Illustrious Corpse, by Tariq Ali (yes him) at the Soho Theatre in London. By the end of that I felt like a thoroughly Disaffected Corpse myself. That was so bad I’ve never been back to that particular theatre and that was in 2003. Which I suppose shows my ability to hold a grudge. My thinking was if they consider that’s a play, as opposed to a political diatribe, (no plot, no character, absolutely no bloody point) what fresh hell might I be exposed to in the future?

Finally, an exhibition – Oceania, at the Royal Academy.  Beautiful. Go.  All the cultural sensitivities have been complied with but even so I was left wondering if we should be looking at the items on display. There’s a brooding black basalt monument, a god, that sits in the middle of it all. The fiction writer in me wonders what he thinks about it all. What he might stir up… But oh, I felt sad at the end and I’m not quite sure why – something to do with lost gods, lost cultures, perhaps. And on the subject of the gods –  they are behaving really badly in The Iliad, absolute rotters every one. Incidentally if you are a New Zealand and Pacific Island passport holder you get into the exhibition for free.

One of the things that infuriated me about Bennett’s play and also The Ferryman was the depiction of older women – patronizing and cliched. One of the delights of Faces, Places was Agnes Varda – vital, creative, opinionated, engaged with the world. Of course! More of that please.

Tell me what you’re reading, watching, visiting in the comments below.

Q&A with Joy Rhoades @JoyRhoades1 author of #WoolgrowersCompanion

The Woolgrower’s Companion is a wonderful book written by Joy Rhoades, set in 1945 on a sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia. At a time when all the local able bodied men have enlisted, two Italian prisoners of war, Luca and Vittorio, are drafted in to help. It traces the fortunes of a young woman, Kate Dowd, as she struggles to keep her family farm going in the course of a dry desperate year.


“The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.”

The book combines beautiful descriptions of the Australian landscape with compelling characters and has a wonderful page-turning quality. It has been shortlisted for two prizes this year, The Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize and The Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown. I loved it and was delighted to ask Joy some questions.

Q. I loved the character of Daisy, the Aboriginal girl, and was fascinated by the part of the book that dealt with the Stolen Generations. Could you tell me a little about the research you did and also about the other Aboriginal women  who you acknowledge in the book?

A. It was essential, and very important to me personally, that I approach the Aboriginal characters and cultural aspects of The Woolgrower’s Companion with sensitivity and respect. While it would never occur to me to write a book from the perspective of an Aboriginal character, it would also never occur to me not to include the Aboriginal characters who would have been found in this time and this place: remote New South Wales in 1948. To exclude these characters would be disrespectful and dishonest.

I feel it one of the great blessings of my life to have come to know my Aboriginal cultural guide, activist and poet, Kerry Reed-Gilbert. Kerry, as well as a number of other extraordinary matriarchs in Aboriginal communities in Australia. They guided me on the manuscript. Kerry vetted drafts for me too to ensure I was dealing with cultural aspects appropriately. They have taught me so much and I continue to learn.  It’s a lifelong process and I see it as my duty, as a white Australian, and as a writer.

Q. You teach – can you let people know how they can be taught by you?

A. I love teaching creative writing. To spend time, helping writers and would-be writers hone their skills? Best thing in the world. Mostly the classes are at libraries around London but I’ve also just begun a new account on Instagram, putting in one place writing exercises, posts on writing craft books, and of course, news of my next writing class. Follow at: I plan to go live on Twitter and Facebook as well very soon, and post podcast interviews on writing craft as well.

Q. Was there always going to be a sequel? When can we expect it?

A. As I was writing The Woolgrower’s Companion, I didn’t consciously plan for there to be a sequel. But when I finished the book, there was still so much I wanted to explore with these characters. So almost immediately, I started work on the outline for what would become the sequel. Penguin (publisher of The Woolgrower’s Companion) has bought the rights and it will be out in 2019.

Q. One of the things you do wonderfully well is produce beautiful evocative descriptions of landscape. Does this come easily to you?

A. I’m laughing here because I’m thinking, does any writing ever come easily? Certainly, my desire to get down on paper the strong feeling I have for Australian bush, that’s always there. Readers tend to say two things: what happens next? And I felt like I was there. That makes me happy. I want my reader to be transported, wrapped in this world.


Joy Rhoades author of The Woolgrower’s Companion

Q. I loved the quotes you use at the top of each chapter from ‘The Woolgrower’s Companion, 1906’ and in fact I only just realized it’s fictional and not an actual manual for sheep farmers from that time! Tell me a little about how you made the decision to do that and why?

A. I’m so glad you thought it was real! It came about because I love Victorian literature: that convoluted sentence structure and the formality of the vocabulary. And I’m also a big fan of The Shipping News, that wonderful novel by Annie Proulx. Annie prefaces each chapter with a quote from the (real) Book of Knots and the knot chosen illuminates what follows. So my chapter epigraphs in The Woolgrower’s Companion are a mishmash of homages to both these loves: Victorian literature and The Shipping News.  I set about writing a faux guide for Australian sheep growers, as if it had been written in 1906. I was able in that guide to talk about breeding and race and weakness of lines and all manner of things to help show the thinking of the time, and so show how much we’ve moved on. I picked 1906 just because it’s the year of the birth of my grandmother, Gladys Chateau. The Woolgrower’s Companion is very loosely based on stories from her life and her family.

Q. You live in London now. How do you cope with the lack of open vistas!

A. London is flat! But that flatness of landscape is something I grew up with in western Queensland. In Roma, (the town where Joy was brought up) a hill, being so rare, gets a name: Orange Hill. Hospital Hill. But in Roma, once you get out of town, and absent a dust storm or a real storm (both rare) you can see for miles in any direction. I miss that very much and am still, even after the years I’ve lived in London, taken aback when I find myself at the top of a rise, and I can see. I love London, though. I miss Australia, absolutely. But the life and diversity and music and books and history of London: it’s intoxicating. I’m living in Charles Dickens’ city. And I’m not yet tired of life.

Thank you very much Joy! I should also add that the book has recipes (scones, cakes, biscuits …) and also an excellent series of Book Club questions.

To buy the book Amazon has an offer on Kindle for just £2.99:
And if you’d like to connect with Joy here are her social media links: