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!
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?
It has probably not escaped your notice (unless you are living in Antarctica with penguins) that there is a new film out of Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It hasn’t escaped my notice because there are ads for it on the side of London buses and when the 22 stops in traffic outside my flat (which it has been doing a lot recently due to heavy plant activity – not triffids), I have a very nice view of the cast. Kenneth Branagh, sporting luxuriant moustaches, is playing Poirot and directing it. In preparation for this wildly exciting event I read the book and here is my imagined dialogue between Agatha and an unnamed modern day literary agent after the agent has read it.
A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION
Agent: Is this a first draft?
Agatha: Oh dear, well no I didn’t see it as such.
Agent: (sighs) But where are the descriptions? As it stands it might just as well be MURDER ON THE 7.15 CROYDON TRAM. You say the train is stuck in a snowdrift but where is the snow? There is no indication of the snow anywhere. Does it melt immediately? Does no one look out of a window and see it? Does no one scrunch a snowball or throw it?
Agatha: Oh dear you obviously don’t like it at all.
Agent: It’s not that I don’t like it but there are no descriptions. I want to be able to see it. I want snow, I want lush interiors. I mean frankly you wouldn’t really know it was taking place on a train. What do the cabins look like? And if it comes to that what do the people look like.
Agatha: I do describe the people I think.
Agent: You describe Poirot a little bit – huge moustaches …egg-shaped head …ridiculous-looking but as for what’s her name … What is her name? The Countess …
Agatha: The Countess Andrenyi?
Agent: She’s a drag queen or something.
Agatha: Oh you mean the Princess Dragomiroff.
Agent: Oh yes, that’s right – well simply telling us she’s ugly doesn’t tell us much. What kind of ugly?
Agatha: But there’s the yellow toad-like features and the toque.
Agent: The what?
Agatha: The toque, the toque, I describe her as wearing a toque.
Agent: What is that – some sort of otter?
Agatha: It’s a hat.
Agent: Oh. And there’s another thing. Poirot …
Agent: Well, can’t he fall in love with one of the suspects.
Agatha: No, that wouldn’t do at all he is a sexless individual with a large brain.
Agent: Whatever made you think that would be a good idea, darling?
Agatha: Well, my sales. So far Poirot has appeared in seven novels one play and one short stories and he has always been the same. I can’t change him now. My fans wouldn’t like it.
Agent: Oh, you have fans do you? Hmm…
A long silence ensues …
Agatha: Are you still there?
Agent: Yes, I’m thinking.
Time passes …
Agatha (tentatively): What did you think of the plot?
Agent: The plot is OK as far as it goes although it sort of falls off the end of a cliff doesn’t it? Couldn’t we have a scene when they are all saying goodbye to each other on the platform, something to round it off. Now let me see how can we salvage this … could we have longing perhaps … yes, that’s it, longing …
Agatha: For what?
Agent: For pretty much anything darling. Yes, that’s it longing… Now then I can’t hang on here sorting this out for you but basically it’s plot B+ and all the rest C-. Have another go at it and bung it back to me in a month.
Agatha looks down at the notebook in which she’s been making notes of the conversation and sees the following words: Lush Snow, Lush Interiors, Toque, Longing … Otter????? She picks up her pen and begins:
Poirot scrunched the lush snow into a ball and filled with longing threw it playfully at the Princess. It struck her toque and she laughed gaily galloping through the snow towards him. She might have been the ugliest woman in the world but to him her yellow toad-like features were the epitome of beauty … Suddenly, out of nowhere an otter appeared scything through the lush snow. It threw itself at his face. It latched onto his lush moustaches. Poirot screamed as it dawned on him too late – the otter had done it!
Agatha threw down her pen and went and poured herself a large gin …
So here’s the question. Are you a fan of Agatha, Poirot, the books the films? And what kind of Poirot do you think Ken will be. I can’t imagine him playing him as a sexless brain can you? After all, Ken is always the hero – so what’s going to happen? My guess is a bit of longing and some manly striding. Anyway, I’m off to see it tomorrow and I can’t wait. Apparently there is an outrageous piece of product placement which produces this piece of dialogue from Poirot: ‘Ah, lerve theeese leeetle cecks’. The cecks incidentally are of the Great British Bake Off variety. And so that you can excercise yeur leetle greh cells which I know you long to do, answer this. What was the title of the German version of the book?
For the last five days the night time noises I’m used to have been replaced with different ones. Instead of police sirens, the steady rumble of the tube and couples arguing drunkenly on the corner, there has been the call of the muezzin, ferocious cat fights and the crow of an exuberant cockerel that didn’t bother waiting for dawn to let us know he was there.
Light fell differently here, brighter, whiter, and my thoughts began to fall at different angles as well. I did a little bit of writing to keep my hand in. If I let it go too long it feels very far away when I come back to it. So I pat its head and put down a bowl of milk. I don’t want it to be sulking or eating me alive when I pick up my pen again. I was trying to write scenes set in Oxford in January in 1643 in a bitterly cold winter when the temperature around me was rising to 40 degrees. And it was fine. The imagination finds something to trigger it and I found myself using the sound of the pumps in the swimming pool to conjure a scene by the river and a man remembering the first time he was kissed one hot summer day under the fronds of a willow tree.
Now I am back and during my absence my morning glory/bindweed has developed buds. I feared it would flower while I was away but it has waited. Perhaps it liked its holiday from me. All that intense staring and wondering if and when. I’ve also liked my holiday from me. Jumped somewhere else for a while where the light falls differently and dates are not something you pick up in the supermarket but things that hang in yellow abundance above your head and pelt you while you are swimming. And the hours of the day are marked by the call of the muezzin. Prayer woven into everyday life as naturally as breathing.
And the images that lodge in my mind? A woman wearing a burka riding a bike along a desert motorway towards the oncoming traffic. Large coloured stones in the middle of a roundabout, like things a giant child might have fashioned out of plasticine and then abandoned. A delicate piece of glowing purple neon attached to a broken down building on the side of a hot, dusty road, hinting at a more glamorous past.
Off last night to see an evening with John le Carré who has a new book out, A Legacy of Spies, which signals the return of George Smiley, the spymaster who has appeared in many of his novels. Part of the purpose of the evening was to raise funds for Médecin Sans Frontières (MSF – Doctors without Borders), a medical charity which works in war zones, and an organization that le Carré is devoted to. A short film told us that MSF had treated 504,500 men women and children in the crisis in Yemen.
The evening involved several short films in which actors, directors, and screenwriters who have worked on adaptations of le Carré’s books talked about their experiences. The people included Michael Jayston, (Peter Guillam in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on TV), Simon Russell Beale who played Smiley in the Radio 4 adaptations of le Carré’s books and Tim Hiddleston and Olivia Colman, who had played characters in TV adaptation of The Night Manager.
Of Smiley, Simon R-B, who has played him most, albeit on radio, described his intense melancholia. Hiddleston commented on Smiley’s quiet heroism. When asked what he might ask Smiley if he came face to face with him Simon R-B said he’d run away from him. He wouldn’t ask him anything because he was so intimidatingly clever.
First le Carré gave an hour long lecture then after an interval he was interviewed by Jon Snow of Channel 4 news and there was a Q&A.
LE CARRÉ ON SMILEY AND A LEGACY OF SPIES
The origins of Smiley was a character called John Bingham who le Carré worked with in section F4 of MI5. This was before he went and worked for MI6, convivially known by MI5 as ‘those shits across the park.’ Bingham had run double agents during the Second World War and posed as a German officer. He was also a thriller writer. From Bingham came some aspects of the physical Smiley – the nakedness of his face when he took off his glasses and the habit he had of polishing his glasses with the end of his tie. Bingham was an aristocrat, an Irish peer, the 7th Baron Clanmorris, and le Carré said that he couldn’t make Smiley an aristocrat, that wouldn’t have done at all, so he made his wife Lady Anne one instead. He said that Bingham was a proxy father figure and mentor to the younger spies in his section.
He went on to discuss the various actors who had played Smiley on film and TV: Rupert Davies, James Mason, Denholm Elliott, Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman. Mason actually played a character called Dobbs in The Deadly Affair (based on the book Call for the Dead) because the Americans did not like the name Smiley. He said that the filming of the character involved a certain personal loss for him of the Smiley of his imagination because the character was made physical but that of course the upside was that his work reached a much wider audience.
One of the things he loved about Guinness’s performance was that the enigma of Smiley was kept in tact for le Carré as well. He told a very funny story about doing a cover shoot for a Sunday magazine cover with Denholm Elliott on the set of A Murder of Quality, which they they were filming in a school. They were standing opposite each other with their noses only a few inches apart while they were being photographed. Elliott repeated range of obscene barrack room jokes throughout the shoot which le Carré ignored. Later Elliott asked him what he was doing on the set and le Carré said, ‘Well, I’m the writer.’ ‘The writer?’ ‘Yes, the writer of the book’, and Elliott said ‘Oh, I thought you were the headmaster.’
At one point they considered Arthur Lowe of Dad’s Army for the part of Smiley and he did a screen test. Le Carré said Lowe did it beautifully but the trouble was that because of the associations they all had with Captain Mainwaring they could not stop laughing when they saw it. He said that Gary Oldman (in the film of TTSS) brought a heterosexual passion to the part. He compared him to Guinness describing the scene where Guinness embraces Lady Anne and saying he could not watch it without shuddering and thinking, ‘Oh, don’t do that Alec.’
At the end he read out an imaginary letter from a Daily Telegraph reader complaining that he couldn’t bring Smiley back because if one stayed true to the books Smiley would be 104 (or thereabouts). He countered this by saying that it was poetic license. Smiley was alive in his imagination and he was alive so why not? Of course his millions of fans will feel exactly the same.
Q&A WITH JON SNOW
Jon Snow began by asking him about his father. Le Carré had discovered that his father, who was a con-man and a crook, had a Stasi (East German secret service) file and it appeared to indicate that he was an illegal arms dealer. He said that the Stasi had gone to the trouble of sending spies to his father’s office in Jermyn Street and marking where the safe was and also where the telex machine was.
Q. Would you recommend the secret service as a career?
He said if you were good at maths they’d send you to Cheltenham. If you were a seducer, befriender and liar you’d be good for MI6, although in the present climate you should think about the second half of your career/life because you might not have one.
Q. Do you think the US has lost its senses?
He said that what was happening in America was ‘truly, seriously bad’, that the stages Trump was going through – the fake news, and the assaults on the justice system were the same as those during the rise of fascism in the thirties in Japan, Spain and Germany. That kind of behaviour was infectious and toxic and he cited the use of the expression ‘fake news’ by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar in dismissing the reporting on the assaults on the Rohingya muslims who are fleeing into Bangladesh.
Q. Which of your own characters do you most relate to?
He said that was Peter Guillam who works for Smiley and reappears in A Legacy of Spies. JS said I thought so.
Q. Was Graham Greene an influence?
Yes, his early works were. He had read them in his adolescence and that Greene gave a very generous quote for his book The Spy who came in from the Cold. However he said that the big difference between Greene and himself was that Greene had God in his books and there was no God in his own books. He also said that Greene had a dotty political streak and flirted with communism but he said he was hypnotic to meet. Maurice Oldfield head of MI6 said that Greene was a bad spy because he embellished his reports.
Q. On his writing methods.
He talked about the importance of making notes as soon as possible, even when he was drunk. As an example he said on your first day in Moscow what you notice is the smell of Russian petrol by the second day you’ve got used to it and you won’t register it anymore. He writes long hand. He said this produces a lot of paper and that when the Bodleian Library (to whom he was giving his paper) came and saw how many there were they had a fit. He starts with very little plot but always has the final frame in his mind and an idea of what he wants the audience to feel at that point. His wife reads what he writes and he is influenced by her response especially if there is a deafening silence. He talked about a mutual understanding between them about his work. He writes every day.
He was asked by Jon Snow about his relationship to MSF and le Carré said that he had been struck by their courage and devotion and Jon Snow said that they were the most trustworthy organization for journalists reporting from war zones.
There was a very poignant moment when le Carré asked Snow how he endured the human suffering he comes across in his reporting. He himself had been very effected by the research he does for his books, especially by seeing the effect of Big Pharma in Kenya and Sudan, the basis of his book The Constant Gardener.
I came away from the event thinking that le Carré is a man who cares passionately about the world. Olivia Colman described him as being, ‘Everything you would hope he would be.’ A beautiful description that rang absolutely true. Peter Straughan who wrote the screenplay for the film of TTSS said le Carré was ‘still an angry young man … like Orwell always in opposition’. Angry certainly but also erudite, charming, witty and with a passionate sense of injustice. He’s certainly not going gentle into that good night. What more could you ask for from a novelist? We are lucky to have him.
I’m off to buy A Legacy of Spies. There are signed first editions in Foyles on the Charing Cross Road but they’ll probably be gone by the time I get there.*
If you want to take a look at the work that MSF do and donate here’s the link:
- They were!
Some of you will remember that a while back I wrote about the morning glory growing on my desk, or at any rate in a pot on my desk. At that time it looked like this…
It was all very manageable. But then time passed and this happened …
And further up it looks like this …
It has nipped its way up all the hanging doodahs (technical expression that) in my window and a rather hungry looking tendril is now hanging speculatively about a foot over my head. I feel like Charles Dance in Alien 3. I’m not going to put the You Tube link in here because it completely terrified me watching it just now but if you want that pleasure type in Alien 3 and Dr Clemens/Charles Dance dies/killed and you’ll get the general idea. However all you really need to know is that it doesn’t end well for him.
And there is not a flower in sight. Not a single one.
The only good part of this is that instead of my partner walking into the room I work in and being aghast at the number of books and general mayhem there is now a completely new cause of aghast-ness. And our conversation goes something like this: ‘What are you going to do when it reaches your head?’ Me, à la Violet Elizabeth Bott (she had a lisp) : ‘I’ll thcream and thcream ’till I’m thick.’
If you don’t hear from me again you’ll know that Sigourney didn’t hear my thcreams either.
Tell me your bad growing experiences. All of them. In technicolour. It’ll make me feel so much better about things. And if you have any tips about how to get my morning glory to flower tell me that as well.
I’m very honoured to be a guest of Andrea Stephenson on the wonderful Harvesting Hecate blog (click on the link above). Here I am writing about Veronica Franco, the woman who was the basis for my character Tullia Buffo, in my book The Return of the Courtesan. Please also take the time to have a look around Andrea’s blog. She writes on creativity, writing, the natural world and the seasons with a clarity and beauty which is quite outstanding.
Shakespeare’s last play is generally considered to be THE TEMPEST, first performed in 1611, and if that’s the case his last word is the last word of that play. I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production at the Barbican in London a few weeks ago. The production stood out for two reasons: First, the extraordinary special effects, including an amazing hologram of drowning men, during the storm scene that kicks everything off. Secondly, for the remarkable performance of Simon Russell Beale as Prospero. Simon Russell Beale is a man who speaks Shakespearean verse as if it’s his first language which makes him very easy to understand.
If you want to read a quick precis of the play before going any further you’ll find it here. Incidentally the children in the video are incredibly sweet.
Now back to that last word. At the end of the play Prospero has a speech which he delivers directly to the audience. Parallels have been drawn between Shakespeare and Prospero. Prospero’s mastery of the island has been seen as a mirroring of Shakespeare’s dominance of the English stage. So when Prospero steps away from the other actors at the end of the play and speaks directly to the audience this is what Prospero/Shakespeare says to us:
“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s my own;
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want*
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev’d by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crime would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.”
THE TEMPEST: EPILOGUE
So if you’ve got this far there we have it – the last word is free. It’s an unbearably sad speech, I think, although it’s often spoken with a light touch. When I heard Russell Beale deliver it I thought I understood it but reading through it now I stop and puzzle over it more. What is meant by a ‘prayer which pierces so that it assaults Mercy itself …’? Does that simply mean a prayer so loud that God hears it? But I can’t imagine that Shakespeare thought a loud prayer would be more likely to be heard than a quiet one, can you? And what exactly is a prayer that pierces, let alone assaults? Or am I over complicating matters? This is the wonderful thing about Shakespeare – you can think you’ve got a hold of him and then he slides out of your understanding, like a feather on a breeze. But follow the feather and a whole new world opens up. Prayer. Pierce. Assault. Mercy. Contemplate those four words for a while and they may lead to some interesting places. And don’t forget that to Prospero this prayer matters because otherwise, ‘my ending is despair.’
A final word on the use of special effects in Shakespeare. THE TEMPEST, because the main character is a powerful magician and there is a strong supernatural element, lends itself to this kind of production. The storm and also the depiction of Ariel trapped in a tree by Sycorax the witch will stay with me for a very long time. But you need exceptionally good actors to act with avatars and holograms otherwise the special effects overwhelm the verse. Fortunately there aren’t any special effects that I can imagine overwhelming Russell Beale, so this production is a triumph! It’s on until the 18th August and I highly recommend it.
Hats off – or in this case I think actually my great uncle Norman’s top hat off, to all those of you who nominated my book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. It is on a glorious long list of 150! Not only hats off but hats off with sunflowers. Thank you all so very much!
In order to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN onto the SHORT LIST of six you now have to vote for two books (on the long list) published by two different publishers. So in my case don’t pick another Black and White title. Give a 100 word review of one of them and put the word ‘vote’ in your comment. If you click on the link below you’ll see all the details of what you have to do. Incidentally, I quite understand if at this point you think, ‘Forget it, dearie, I’ve got better things to do with my August and this is simply too much trouble.’
But wouldn’t it be ABSOLUTELY THRILLING to get THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN onto the SHORT LIST? And if you do, apart from loving you for ever, I will post a picture of myself in my great uncle’s pith helmet. You think I jest? Well, here it is patiently awaiting its elevation to my head! It longs to be placed there, it really does and only you can make it happen.
Oh, and VERY IMPORTANTLY I should add that the deadline for this part of the competition is 23.59 BST on Monday 7th August 2017 so get voting darlings or the pith helmet will stay where it is, sadly gathering dust, forlorn, forgotten and pithed off …
Here’s a piece I did for the Historical Writers Association (HWA) on what my five desert island books would be. Tricky deciding but I went a bit for laughs on the assumption that I’d need them. Don’t worry, you won’t find The Brothers Karamazov here, but maybe some books you might enjoy. They contain the following: rats, playwrights, an actor having a nervous breakdown, a woman with webbed feet, a war hero and the magnificent city of London. Sorry about the dolphins by the way – don’t know what came over me!