A WORLD OF WOMEN WRITERS

Mugs

Mugs from the Silver Moon Bookshop showing a world of women writers

In the nineties I worked at the Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop on the Charing Cross Road in London. It was the largest women’s bookshop in Europe and one of the items we sold was mugs, listing the names of women writers. I came across a couple of these the other day in the back of the cupboard and looked at them with a curious and critical eye. The decision about who to list must have been made close to when the shop first opened in 1984 and I thought it might be interesting for the purposes of this blog to draw up my own list of 33 (that’s the number of names listed) and see who I’d keep from the original list, who I was horrified not to see on the list and and who in current times would definitely have to be on it. Please join me in twisting your fork into this highly subjective plate of literary spaghetti.

First a list of the original names:

MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, ANGELA CARTER, WILLA CATHER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, MARGARET DRABBLE, MARGUERITE DURAS, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, JANET FRAME, MARILYN FRENCH, NANCY FRIDAY, MARTHA GELLHORN, SUE GRAFTON, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, JUNE JORDAN, DORIS LESSING, AUDRE LORDE, TERRY MCMILLAN, TONI MORRISON, IRIS MURDOCH, ANAIS NIN. SYLVIA PLATH, MARGE PIERCY, SARA PARETSKY, RUTH RENDELL, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, SARAH SCHULMAN, GERTRUDE STEIN, ANNE TYLER, ALICE WALKER, E. H. YOUNG.

The ones I would definitely keep from the original list I’ve marked in red. It’s eleven of them, a third of the total.

I then began to consider what writers you would simply have to have in there who are not there at the moment and these are the ones I thought of: BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, ELENA FERRANTE, HILARY MANTEL, J.K. ROWLING, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON.

So that brings the number up to 20.

Thirteen more to go.

But then I had a startling realization – no JANE AUSTEN, no CHARLOTTE, EMILY, ANNE, BRONTE,  no VIRGINIA WOOLF, no HARPER LEE. What were they thinking of! E. H. Young but no Virginia! I should admit at this point, by the way, that I am ashamed to say the only Woolf book I have ever completed is To the Lighthouse and that is because I had to read it at A’Level and I never got over the death of Mrs Ramsay. I love Woolf’s letters, although it made me realize that going to tea with her would be about as enjoyable as swimming with sharks. But she has to be on there, doesn’t she?

So, if I add in Jane Austen, one of the Brontes (sweat beads brow – oh God which one!) and Virginia Woolf then I have a list of 23.

So I have ten to play with.

At this point the breakdown is:13 British, 6 American, 1 Australian, 1 Canadian, 1 South African, 1 Italian,  and my world is looking a bit narrow and a bit white. So what did I do next?

Here is my final highly subjective choice which includes two more from the original 33: My aim was to create a list of excellent women writers and cover a range of eras, sexualities, ethnic origins and nationalities.

MAYA ANGELOU, MARGARET ATWOOD, JANE AUSTEN, BERYL BAINBRIDGE, PAT BARKER, SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR, ALISON BECHDEL, CHARLOTTE BRONTE,  RENI EDDO-LODGE, NAWAL EL SAADAWI, GEORGE ELIOT, BUCHI EMECHETA, ELENA FERRANTE, ROXANE GAY, GERMAINE GREER, RADCLYFFE HALL, HAN KANG, HARPER LEE, DORIS LESSING, HILARY MANTEL, TONI MORRISON, HERTA MULLER, CHIMOMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE, SYLVIA PLATH, MARILYN ROBINSON, J.K. ROWLING, ARUNDHATI ROY, ALI SMITH, ZADIE SMITH, GERTRUDE STEIN, ALICE WALKER, SARAH WATERS, JEANETTE WINTERSON

THE FINAL BREAKDOWN:

NATIONALITIES: British – 14, American – 9, Italian – 1, South Korean – 1, Roumanian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, French – 1, Australian – 1, Indian – 1, Canadian – 1, South African – 1

ETHNICITY: White – 22, African American – 4 BAME –  3, Indian – 1, Egyptian – 1, Nigerian – 1, South Korean – 1

ALIVE OR DEAD?: Alive – 23, Dead – 10.

GAY/STRAIGHT: Gay (as far as I’m aware!) – 7, Straight – 26

What do you think of my choices? Too British, too white, too straight, too dead? Or perhaps too alive! And would you buy my (hypothetical) mug? Have I got a good balance? Tell me all in the comments below. But here’s the thing, if you suggest someone who should be on there, you have to take someone off. Those are the rules. Have fun. And before you start in, I know I’m lacking a crime writer and a science fiction writer, although Atwood could be called a science fiction writer at a pinch. I thought of getting rid of Doris in exchange for Agatha or Val but Doris won the Nobel Prize, so even if I don’t find reading her a pleasure, she has to stay in, doesn’t she?

And to help you out or perhaps derange you, here is a pool of writers I thought about but did not in the end include. These do not include the ones on the original mug that I didn’t retain, who you can of course argue the case for, and anyone else if it comes to that:

NAOMI ALDERMAN, KATE ATKINSON, MARY BEARD, MALORIE BLACKMAN, EMILY BRONTE, A.S.BYATT, JULIA CAMERON, AGATHA CHRISTIE, HELEN DUNMORE, BERNADINE EVARISTO, P.D. JAMES, OLIVIA LAING, URSULA LE GUIN, ANDREA LEVY, HELEN MCDONALD, VAL MCDERMID, EDNA O’BRIEN, SUSIE ORBACH, ALICE OSWALD, ANNIE PROULX,  BARBARA PYM, CLAUDIA RANKINE, MARY RENAULT, JEAN RHYS, JANE SMILEY, MEERA SYAL, MURIEL SPARK, KATE TEMPEST, ROSE TREMAIN, ALISON WEIR, EUDORA WELTY, JAQUELINE WILSON. 

The best comment will win one of these mugs. They are not exactly in peak condition but have a few more years of life left in them yet. I’m afraid this only applies to the UK. I’ll leave the comments open for two weeks and announce the winner then. Have fun!

P.S. Just realized I left out Carol Ann Duffy. She has to be in doesn’t she? Gertrude might have to go!

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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?

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?

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/

TOP TEN OF VENICE INSPIRED BOOKS 2017

top ten

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

 

Here is the link:

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

 

WHEN LIGHT FALLS DIFFERENTLY

 

 

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.

bindweed and tiger

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.

 

JOHN LE CARRÉ – still an angry young man

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.

le carre

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.

A Legacy of Spies by [Carré, John le]

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:

http://www.msf.org.uk/lecarre

  • They were!