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!
Darlings, I know you’re longing to nominate me for The Guardian’s NOT THE BOOKER PRIZE. The idea of the prize is to uncover hidden gems. If I win I will receive a lovely Guardian mug and lots of publicity. If I get shortlisted I will also get some lovely PUBLICITY for my lovely book. HURRAH! How can you resist? If you do I will take my hat off to you or I might even post a picture of myself wearing this hat in a burst of sunny gratitude.
My friend Maggi has brought this to my attention and already nominated me. Thank you darling Maggi. So join Maggi in propelling THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN into the public eye.
To nominate me you have to use the word nomination and name my book in the comments of the link below and also name the publisher. Because my book has changed title it would probably be good to say something like this. Nomination: The Return of the Courtesan by Victoria Blake first published as Titian’s Boatman (Jan 2017) by Black and White Publishing. The deadline is 30th July so that gives you nine lovely days.
Sending you kisses in advance…
As readers haven’t we all at some point felt that a writer has stretched our credibility to breaking point. That, ‘Oh come off it!’ moment when, however much we’ve enjoyed the book up to then, we draw back and think ‘Well that would never have happened.’ Speaking for myself (with my writing hat on) this is usually because I’ve got myself into a corner and am now doing something ridiculous to get myself out of trouble while hoping the reader won’t notice. It’s akin to a cat which has climbed a high tree and is now howling for the fire brigade. However, weird coincidences do happen. Here’s one example from my life – a strange day earlier this year in London, a city of 9 million people.
I’d arranged to meet an old school friend in the café in Foyles in central London. It had been lovely to see her but after we parted I started thinking rather negatively about how I am with maintaining friendships – rather bad – and why that was. Then, walking back to the bus stop with diminishing feelings of regard for myself, I made the mistake of going into Waterstones, Piccadilly to see if I could find my book. This is generally not a good idea because if I can’t find it I feel despondent. In this case it was nowhere to be seen but I noted that the book of someone I know only very slightly, from a party we both go to at Christmas, was there and I felt, shall we say, a little more despondent. That is, despondent with a neon green tinge, I’m sure you understand. I then went and gazed at the stationery.
For some reason staring at and indeed buying brightly coloured stationery usually cheers me up. It didn’t in this case and so I went and got myself some coffee and a cake in the café which looks down onto the stationery department.
I tried to do a bit of writing but then decided to give up any pretence of writing that day and got out my paper and read it from cover to cover. My reading was interspersed with eating what can safely be described as the oldest almond croissant to have ever existed in London, (make that the universe), at any time. It was so dry that when I gave it a speculative prod it shattered and hurled an atomic cloud of icing sugar and flakes of pastry all over me, the table and the floor. This did not improve my temper.
When I stood up to go, it required a prolonged period of brushing flakes of pastry off me. As I turned round to leave there was the man whose book I had seen earlier in the shop. He at least had his lap top out and so was doing better than me that day. ‘Is it Christmas?’ he said and we both laughed. I felt awkward because I knew he had seen that I had been doing no writing. It is one thing for a writer not to be writing but it is quite another thing to be seen by another writer who is writing not writing. And it is indeed quite another thing to have been seen having an altercation with a one hundred year old almond croissant while not writing by a man whose book is prominently displayed in a shop which does not contain mine.
We chatted and then he said the fatal words ‘How is the book going?’ And because I was discombobulated with not writing and being covered in shards of pastry and icing sugar and not being a good friend, I did not say THE RIGHT THING. The correct answer would have been, ‘Yeah, fine thanks – what about yours?’ Writers are highly strung beasts and when they get into each other’s company they can spiral into a sort of collective neurosis. Stratagems are required for such encounters and these may include – bluster, lying, weedling, ironic detachment and charming self-deprecation. Or when that gets too exhausting you can ditch all that and just get drunk and lie in the gutter hugging each other whilst crying. Also the truth about how one’s book is going is a tricky one to answer although obviously not if you are Lee Child, J.K. Rowling, Wilbur Smith etc. One third of the time you don’t really know, one third of the time you do not have the courage to find out and one third of the time you have been told and you’re trying very hard to forget what you’ve been told or you’re not telling anyone (other than the cat that is now not up a tree).
But what with the not writing and the not finding my book and being attacked by a violent, exploding, almond croissant which had been nosed and rejected by an Archaeopteryx dinosaur at the end of the Jurassic era and thinking I was a hopeless friend I did not manage this encounter very well. ‘Oh,’ he said, looking rather startled ‘What’s the title? I’ll look it up.’ Please don’t bother…’ I said shortly after telling him the title and making sure he had typed it into Google correctly. Then, as several flakes of pastry fell from my eyebrows onto his laptop, I said, ‘I should let you get on with your work.’ ‘Well, see you next Christmas,’ he said which was approximately 10 and a half months away. And that was that and I went a stood at the bus stop and festered.
There are 9 million people living in London so tell me exactly how did that sequence of events happen? Oh, and by the way my book is about to nudge Lee Child off the top of the bestsellers list. Thank you for asking. Isn’t that amaaaaaaazing? Oh God, where’s that gutter, Oscar?
Incidentally, the book that was not there in February has now morphed into this in paperback and it will definitely be there from the 27th July… definitely… it’ll be everywhere…absolutely everywhere…
I picked this up on St Columba’s bay on Iona in 1995. Iona is a tiny island off the coast of Mull, one of the largest islands in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. It’s an extraordinary place and this particular beach is where St Columba is supposed to have landed from Ireland. It’s the point from which Christianity spread throughout Britain. It’s renowned for its green stones and I have a few of those about the place as well.
I can’t remember now which side up it was lying when I first saw it. I think it was this side which made me think of a skull …
I picked it up and turned it round and then I saw this which I interpreted as a lopsided smiling face…
At the time I had come to the island to make some decisions. I wanted to take time out to write but I was very frightened about taking that step. My mother had died at the beginning of the year and I had been reading all these books on grief that stated you shouldn’t make any major decisions in the immediate aftermath of a death but at the same time I felt this reckless energy to tear up my life and move on. Her death had come as a shock. She was only 69 and, in the way death can, it acted as a wake up call. But along with the reckless energy there was colossal fear. I felt as if I was in a pressure cooker.
Holding this stone in my hand on that beach released some of that pressure and made me smile – one side is so sweet and one side is so sinister. By July of that year I had handed in my notice at work and moved into a housing association house in Finsbury Park. I was living with an actor, a musician, a Tai Chi teacher, and someone who was training as a Cranio-sacral therapist: a fluid group of people who needed cheap rent to pursue their creative dreams. And I began pursuing mine by writing my first novel. God, it was hard and I struggled! But it was a start and finally I was taking myself and my ambition seriously.
Maybe one day I’ll travel back to Iona and return the stone to the beach where I found it. After all it’s a long way from home. Maybe I’ll make that journey one day but for the moment it’s on my desk and I hold it in my hand and turn it back and forth, between the skull and the smile, most days.
What can I say? Every desk should have a tiger. He isn’t strictly on my desk. He hovers over it in a benign sort of way. I bought him from a wonderful shop, sadly no longer in existence, that was called Neal Street East, in Covent Garden. Oh, how I loved it! It has now been replaced by an Italian shoe shop. I like the way the tiger moves around in the breeze. I like the way he watches over my writing. He has a small sticker on his back that says he was made in Thailand. I have him there to remind me to have courage. I mean a tiger isn’t frightened of anything much, is it? I particularly like the fact he has articulated paws and jaw. When I’m feeling particularly stressed I open his jaws wide. Andy Murray used to do that during his matches and I presume it reduces tension.
I’m not quite sure how this morning glory thing is going to pan out though. I should have started these seeds off much earlier. I found an old packet and was feeling a little stuck and threw them in a pot and thought nothing would happen. But then it did! They all germinated which was exciting but they like to climb and we have no outside space so I thought I’d see if they’ll climb up my tiger. I’m not sure how he feels about it though. When I was a very small child my mother grew morning glories one summer and each morning there’d be a competition between me and my sisters to guess the number of flowers that had bloomed. The winner got a sixpence. It was very hard to guess accurately.
I work by a window which looks out onto the street. When I want to concentrate I have the blind down but when I don’t I have it up and then I look out onto geraniums, motorbikes, cars and I get to listen to people’s conversations – neighbours bumping into each other, a man explaining how he goes all the way to Kingston for his shopping because it has an Aldi, the number bus he gets, the fact that he had fallen down and everyone had rushed to pick him up. People are very kind, he says. In a city like London where there are so many people and they are often under a great deal of pressure, it is good to hear things like that. We all want to hear that if we fall down we will be picked up.
Basically, it’s all about growth and courage, isn’t it? I’ll let you know how the morning glories pan out.
TITIAN’S BOATMAN has had a re-title and a new cover in preparation for its paperback release at the end of July. It has now become THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN and here she is. If you’re a member it’s available on NetGalley. How could you resist the allure of the great Tullia Buffo?
The first book I ever wrote was titled FLYING BEARS. This was a Ronseal-title. There were bears in it and they flew. Not only bears were in the book, there were also twins and magical circuses. I imagined it as the love child of the John Irving book, The World According to Garp, and the Jeanette Winterson book, The Passion. It was never published you won’t be surprised to hear but I loved it because it was the first book I ever completed and as such it had taught me that I could write 100,000 words with a beginning a middle and an end. And then when I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher it taught me about rejection which is useful in its own way albeit bloody horrible. Since then I’ve had eight books published.
I have always loved bears. It has something to do with the fact they spend a great deal of each year sleeping and then when they wake up they (well, some of them) stand in streams while salmon jump into their mouths. Not being much of a cook that way of feeding myself has always struck me as having a great deal to recommend it.
So over the years the people close to me have given me bears of various kinds. Currently on my desk I have the five below.
The two furry ones in the middle I have had since I was a very small child. I’ve no idea where they came from or who gave them to me. They may not even be mine. Perhaps I hoovered them up when my parents moved and when we sold my father’s house.
The brown one on the right is one given to me by my partner a couple of years ago and has a distinctly Germanic look to it. I feel it should be holding something between its paws but have not yet found what that thing might be. My mother had one a bit like this, but smaller, which held a thimble.
The one on the left is the glitziest. It’s really a Christmas decoration but I loved him so much I kept him out of the decorations box which is a bit daft. So here he is on my desk and whenever I pick him up and admire him I transfer glitter to the end of my nose which improves my appearance no end. Sometimes I hang him from the money plant for good luck.
Finally, the little fellow in the middle is on a green stone. I bought him from Watkins, a mind, body, spirit bookshop in Cecil Court in London many years ago. If I’m feeling anxious about doing something I’ll slip it into my pocket. Oh, did I mention I’m superstitious?
Incidentally, bears have staying power. They appeared in my most recent book THE RETURN OF THE COURTESAN (aka TITIAN’S BOATMAN). In fact I think one of the main reasons I decided that my Shakespearean actor, Terry, is acting in The Winter’s Tale was so I could have a lovely time with bears. ‘Exit pursued by a bear,’ being one of the most famous of all stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays. There’s another bear in the book, a small silver one, which is one I own, but have now lost, temporarily. Maybe once it had muscled its way into a published book, it decided to fly away.
The moral of this particular tale is that you can’t keep bears out of anything. Or at any rate it seems you certainly can’t keep them out of my imagination or off my desk.