LOVE LETTERS

love letters

 

Love letters straight from the past …

Just reading a couple makes me feel odd; the sentiments expressed here, written ten years before I was born, are the reason I exist.

My Darling Robert …

And so I say to a friend, ‘Here’s the thing. Someone is interested in writing a biography of my father and I found these love letters before my parents were married, nothing salacious just rather sweet. Should I …?’

She cuts me short, ‘Oh yes, I found some of those between my parents and I spoke to my brother about it. He said they’ve got nothing to do with us, so I threw them away.’

[My hands come to my cheeks, my mouth opens; too late I realize that, right in front of her, I am enacting Munch’s scream.]

On one, my mother has sketched her wedding dress

My father’s to her are wrapped in blue ribbon

A month or so later, in other company, I say, ‘Here’s the thing …’ and then another friend leans forward and bellows, ‘Of course you should.’ He’s practically shouting at me, ‘… because you want the biographer to know the TRUTH …’ and then, as if speaking to a child, he spells the word out: ‘T-R-U-T-H.’

Oh, that, I think, that slippery old eel.

I want to smother you with kisses.

Dad?

Is that really you?

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THE STORY OF FERDINAND

ferdinandWhat makes a classic children’s book? Perhaps the most obvious sign is that a book you had read to you as a child becomes a book that as an adult you can’t wait to read to the children in your life. For that to be the case there has to be something about the book that feels as modern and relevant now as when it was first written, a universality that transcends generational change.

THE STORY OF FERDINAND written in 1936 by Munro Leaf is just such a book. Illustrated by Robert Lawson, it is the story of a young Spanish bull, who instead of running and jumping and butting heads, likes to sit quietly under a cork tree and smell the flowers. When five men come to pick “the biggest, fastest, roughest bull” to fight in the bull fights in Madrid, Ferdinand is mistakenly taken. This is because during their visit he is stung by a bee and shocked by the pain he has a violent response and his kicks and snorts are mistaken for aggression.

However, once he enters the ring all he wants to do is sit down in the arena and smell the flowers which are in the beautiful women’s hair. He will not fight and nothing that the banderilleros or picadores or the matador do will make him. Eventually, they give up trying to make him fight and take him home where he goes back to sitting under his tree and ” is very happy”.

The book can be viewed in a number of different ways.

  • as a story against bull fighting,
  • a story of the importance of being true to oneself, and
  • politically as a story demonstrating the power of pacifism.

At a time when toxic masculinity is under the spotlight with the #MeToo movement and revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Ferdinand provides a welcome male role model. He is a full grown bull, that symbol of masculinity, strength and power, and yet he behaves with gentleness and sensitivity. He will not fight because that is not who he is, it is not his true nature, and in sitting down and smelling the flowers, he is being true to his essential, peaceful self.

The book’s first run by Viking Press in 1936 sold 14,000 copies. The following year saw sales increase to 68,000 and by 1938, the book was selling at 3,000 per week and became the number one bestseller in the United States.

The historical context is particularly poignant here. The  book came out nine  months before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. That brutal and bloody conflict raged from 1936 -1939. At the end the nationalists led by General Franco had won and he retained power until his death in 1975 at which point Spain began the long journey towards a democratic, pluralistic society. THE STORY OF FERDINAND was banned during Franco’s life time.

As it happened two thousand five hundred Americans did not take the advice of Ferdinand or indeed of their own government which was pursuing a policy of non-intervention in Spain during the Civil War. Those were the people who enlisted in the American Abraham Lincoln Brigade and came over to Spain to help the Republicans fight Franco. It was the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis and it suffered a very high rate of casualties.

At the end of the Second World War 30,000 copies of THE STORY OF FERDINAND were printed and given out free to German children. So far the book has been translated into 60 languages including Latin and has never been out of print. In 1938 it was turned into a cartoon by Walt Disney which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons).

To end a rather dreadful clip of the Lennon Sisters  singing a song based on the book. Have you ever read the book? What did you think?

JIGSAW PUZZLES AND WRITING

I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my mother when I was a child and recently due to a need to sort through some family papers I discovered them again. My mother had some very specific criteria for the puzzles she would do. They should be of works of art and they should have interesting shaped pieces. Not for her the kitsch of the country cottage or any lurid flowers or cute puppies. And she had absolutely no interest in swathes of sky. Waddington Fine Art Puzzles fitted this criteria perfectly. And so over the years she bought a lot of them, some of which I kept. This one below is by Johannes Vermeer and is called A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (1670-72) and it’s in room 16 of The National Gallery in London.

jigsaw2

The main thing I remember about doing them was the companionable silence broken periodically by a murmur of satisfaction as an elusive piece was slotted into  place.

Recently, I’ve been feeling anxious and my concentration has not been good and finding the puzzles gave me a craving to do them again, so I have been interspersing my writing with a bit of jigsaw-ing. I’ve been finding it soothing and according to Wentworth Wooden Puzzles there’s a reason for this.

“An activity that can help us experience some of the many benefits of mindfulness is focusing on completing jigsaw puzzles. In a similar fashion to popular adult colouring books, jigsaw puzzles allow the brain to relax while keeping the hands busy. They provide a calming distraction from hours spent staring at screens, whether that’s a computer, TV or even a phone. An easy way to channel the imagination, a jigsaw puzzle gives you a creative outlet whilst keeping your mind focused. This activity allows us to achieve a state of creative meditation as well as leveraging the left (logical) and right (creative) sides of the brain.

Some studies, such as the MacArthur Study, have even concluded that people who solve jigsaw puzzles in addition to other activities that provide a mental workout, can actually lead to longer life expectancy, better quality of life and reduced chances of developing certain types of mental illnesses (e.g. memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease) by up to a third.

Because of their calming qualities, completing a hard or challenging jigsaw puzzle can have serious effects on your mood. We all know the satisfaction of finally finding where that last piece goes, but this actually encourages the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain which helps keep us happy and healthy. These mood enhancing effects help to lower our heart rate and blood pressure, allowing us to release stress and tension. These benefits make jigsaws extra beneficial for those who suffer from stress or anxiety.

Completing a jigsaw puzzle can even put our brains into the same meditative state that we experience while dreaming!  So why not take some time out away from work and your phone to complete a jigsaw and see how it can help focus your brain and relax.”

My novels have always come in fits and starts. Rarely have I seen how they fit together until very close to the end. I do not plot them all out. I do not know what will happen. This creates anxiety which I recognize as  part of my creative process but sometimes it can feel like a curse. A jigsaw however can be physically completed; I can create a whole picture.

I’m approaching the end of this one now and what I’m left with are the dull brown pieces. There’s an expression bird watchers use to describe the multitude of birds which are barely distinguishable from each other: LBJs or little brown jobs. Doing this puzzle, I completed the blue of the dress first and then the orange of the string instrument on the left. The colours stand out and are easy to separate. The LBJs may not be flashy and colourful but without them the picture is not complete. They hold the fancier bits together. As I’ve got older I have grown to appreciate more the non-flashy bits of writing, the craft that finishes a paragraph well or sets the scene vividly but with economy. These bits can be hard to write but they make the whole story run smoothly. Anyone can write a fight scene or a funeral.

Towards the end, progress stalls because putting all those brown bits together is more difficult. And that definitely corresponds to my writing experience. The first 30,000 words can feel easy, fun and filled with hope. And they take probably half the time of the last 30,000. Why do I always forget that?

jigsaw4

Doing a jigsaw puzzle of a famous painting has another advantage. It puts you up close and personal with it in an intriguing way. You have literally pieced it together, so you know it intimately. I remember the shock and delight of seeing Winter Scene by A.B. Avercamp for the first time. It was much smaller than I expected but there was the turquoise jewel like roof of the main house, there were the birds sitting on the branches I had struggled to put together and there was the red shirt of the boy on the left. I was stunned. I was taken back to being a child, sprawled out on the floor next to my mother, filling in the pieces.

So, if anyone’s got a nice Waddington Fine Art Jigsaw Puzzle of between 500-1000 pieces – no sky, no pets, no cute cottages, no rushing trains – you might just have yourself a buyer. And if you’re interested in the very beautiful wooden puzzles produced by Wentworth Wooden Puzzles take a look at the link below. I’m very tempted by The Art of Painting and who is it by? Oh, that man Vermeer of course!

And if anyone ever sneers and asks you what the point of doing a jigsaw puzzle is, tell them you’re leveraging the left and right hand side of your brain. That should stun them into silence long enough for you to fill in at least a couple of  LBJs.

https://www.wentworthpuzzles.com/

“THE BLOSSOMEST BLOSSOM”

Blossom

So Spring arrived finally and wasn’t that a relief! And obviously I went out into the sun and stood under cherry trees and so forth and the phrase ‘the blossomest blossom’ kept going round in my mind and I could not remember where it came from. And then I did remember watching an interview of the writer Dennis Potter by Melvyn Bragg. It took place in March 1994. Potter was dying of cancer of the pancreas – he died three months later – and it’s a remarkable interview by any standards. I remember watching his plays as a child on television. Pennies from Heaven and the Singing Detective in particular; extraordinary televison with incredible performances by Bob Hoskins and Michael Gambon respectively.

So here’s the link to the interview. It’s fifty minutes but well worth watching all the way through. There’s a real affection and respect between the two men and there is of course ‘the blossomest blossom.’ An interview to treasure. A celebration of spring and of life in the face of death.

 

IN PRAISE OF BOOK CLUBS

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Diana Rendeki who belongs to the Thursday Book Club based in Ashford. She had picked my book The Return of the Courtesan for their next meeting and I was thrilled. I sent her an adapted version of a talk I gave recently at The Alderney Literary Festival about some of the real life characters that appear in my book: Titian, Pietro Aretino and Veronica Franco. It also gave some information about Venice in the sixteenth century, the setting for the historical part of the book. I also sent the group post cards of The Man with the Blue Sleeve and some pictures of Aretino and Veronica Franco. It was fun for me to be involved in this way. After all where would writers be without their readers?

The evening before they met Diana sent me this wonderful photo of a cake she had made.

Titian Cake

Diana’s spectacular cake!

I was so thrilled! There is the lovely Man with the Blue Sleeve sitting in a very beautiful black and gold gondola and floating above the delicate blue and gold bodice of the courtesan. I don’t think any book I have written has ever inspired a cake before. And since I am a devotee of cake I felt envious of their meeting…

They then also sent me this photo of the group on the night and gave me written feedback about the book:

Book Club 12.04

The Thursday Book Club

Diána: “I loved every single page of this beautiful novel. I am glad that I recommended it to the Book Club Members; it was lovely to hear from them that they enjoyed it and treasured it as much as I did.”
Rachel C.: “Fabulous book, off to Venice in June.”
Steph: “A fantastic read, I liked the combination of the old and the present day, as I read I kept thinking about how the different stories would link together. Made me want to visit Venice sooner rather than later! “
Barbara: “I enjoyed it but always struggle when there are so many “time zones” in a book.”
Alison: “I was swept up in the beautiful setting, history and story lines. I was sad when it ended – great book.”
Clair: “This book was so refreshingly different, it was so rich it was like drinking fine wine, full of colour, culture and heart warming characters that you really rooted for!”
Maddy: “I really enjoyed this book! It was a beautifully written look at humanity and all that binds us together. Loved it!xx”
Lindsey:  “I thought the writing was so evocative of the time and place – I was lucky enough to visit Venice last summer and that really helped me to picture some of the scenes. A thoroughly absorbing read. “

It was altogether a lovely experience for me to be involved with them. So hurrah for book clubs, the Thursday Book Club in particular and a big thank you to Diana for getting in touch with me in the first place.

Are you in a book club?

ON MY DESK: EAGLE WING

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

library summer storm

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

The library is an exquisite Queen Anne edifice with an imposing stone eagle on the top. The eagle’s presence is explained by the college’s coat of arms, which is a shield with three red eagles on it. This is the coat of arms of the founder of the college Robert de Eglesfield (1341) and I assume the eagles were a pun on his name.

My bedroom was in the roof of the Provost’s Lodging’s and looked straight out at the eagle. It was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep each night.

the lodgings

Top right was my bedroom window

Not long after we moved into the Lodgings, the eagle was struck by lightning in the middle of a spectacular thunderstorm. I was looking out of the window when it happened. It shattered and crashed down into our garden. It was odd that it was struck because we were surrounded by much higher spires: St Mary’s, the University church was not far away and that is the highest spire in the city centre and then there were the turrets of All Souls college and indeed the Queen’s chapel. But it was the eagle that attracted the lightning.

Perhaps it saw the opportunity to take flight and seized it.

What is it like to live in this city of birds and shadows? It is like being the offspring of a ghost and a hooligan

PHILIP PULLMAN ON OXFORD

It is an event from my childhood that is fixed firmly in my memory because I was upset and frightened by it. The following day I remember looking at all the pieces of it smashed on the paving stones and trying to hide the fact that I was crying.  Some of it disappeared into my mother’s rockery, other bits were swept away.

In time another eagle was carved and hoisted aloft, this time with the precaution of a lightning conductor running down its back. I remember how big the new one seemed, almost as tall as me, and I remember touching it before it was hoisted aloft. I thought no one was going to touch it for a long time once it was up there.

However, I never felt quite the same way about the new one.

On my desk I have part of the stone eagle that I saw being struck by lightning; a hand-sized piece of its wing that my mother kept. It reminds me of her and my father and of that old eagle that shattered.

eagle wing

Eagle wing

Sometimes I imagine the old eagle is out there, surfing the currents above the Oxford spires, sometimes I imagine he might land on my window sill one night to reclaim this from me.

I have it here to remind me to retain a little bit of that magic from my childhood in my writing. After all, what are our imaginations for, if not for taking flight from time to time?

Do you have an object or touchstone that has a particular significance for you? What is it?

 

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

It’s a quote from Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen but not being a great geek when it comes to lyrics I’d never heard the line in the song, despite having blasted it out numerous times over the years. But yesterday I heard it and I thought, Yes, Bruce, that’s why I love you, I know that feeling well.

I’ve been researching. Here are some of the books I’ve been reading …

Oxford books

Lots of them, aren’t there?

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

notebooks and cup

Sometimes, however, it can take a while for research to filter through into the writing. It can sit there like a very solid lump refusing all attempts at merger. It’s a back turned, folded arm thing and however much I suggest the two meet, preferably in my sub-conscious at night. Nothing.  There are of course other things that can be done. Things like buying sparkly notebooks and listening to Bruce Springsteen. This notebook is a particular favourite because you can stroke it and create patterns with the sequins. It’s strangely soothing.

sparkly notebook

I’ve been reading Bruce’s autobiography and there’s a great bit where he talks about writing Dancing in the Dark. It came late to the album, Born in the USA. Jon Landau manager and music producer tells him he needs a song in the album which ‘throws gasoline on the fire’ so he wrote the song that evening about ‘his own alienation, fatigue, and desire to get out from inside the studio, my room, my record, my head and just live.’  It was the song which took him furthest into the pop mainstream. I’ve seen him twice in concert, once in Wembley in the eighties and then a few years ago in Hyde Park. They were both extraordinary. Time for me to dance in the dark, I think. Here he is in that video…

*Dancing in the Dark, Born in the USA, Bruce Springsteen.

Q&A with author Jennifer Alderson

I had a lovely time answering questions set by the author Jennifer Alderson. If you want to know who I chose to sit next to on a long flight (got in  a bit of a panic half way through that one and had to call in Lily Tomlin) and what the question was I wished she’d asked me, read on!

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

REVIEW: MAYBE A FOX

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

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

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

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

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

SHOULD THE FOX COME AGAIN TO MY CABIN IN THE SNOW

Then the winter will have fallen all in white

and the hill will be rising to the north,

the night also rising and leaving,

dawn light just coming in, the fire out.

 

Down the hill running will come that flame

among the dancing skeletons of the ash trees.

I will leave the door open for him.

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

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

THE MOUSTACHES HAVE LANDED

murder on orient

Couldn’t we at least have a train on the cover?

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: No.

Agatha: No?

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 …

Agatha: Yes?

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?