ON MY DESK: TIGER AND MORNING GLORY

tiger and morning gloryWhat 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 It has now been replaced by an Italian shoe shop.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.

geraniums and tigerI 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.

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ON MY DESK: BEARS

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.

bears

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.

ON MY DESK: MY MOTHER’S WATCH

A weekly post in which I describe one of the items on my writing desk.

sekonda

My Mother’s Watch

Why are the watches of the people we love so hard to get rid of? This one doesn’t even work anymore. It’s an old Sekonda – 17 Jewels.  On the back of it is the following sequence of numbers: 658832. On either side of the number 6 you can just see the letters USSR. My mother bought it one year at an airport – I’ve forgotten which one and where she was flying to. She’d left the one she usually wore at home. She used to wear watches that were quite delicate but this one isn’t. It’s a man’s watch. I suppose she bought it because she was in a hurry and it was cheap. But she took to it and she was wearing it around the time that she died.

It’s a wind up. She didn’t like battery driven watches and neither do I. I wore it for a long time after she died and each day when I wound it up I would think of her. It had a tendency to lose 5 minutes within any 24 hour period. I liked that as well. As if there was something mischievous about it, something not altogether reliable. My mother sending me messages from the after life.

Then I went on a boat trip to Grassholm, an island off the Pembrokeshire coast, to look at gannets and guillemots. On the way back a storm blew up and I got soaked to the skin. The watch stopped. I took it to a repairer who lost it. When he found it again he said that the mechanism had rusted and nothing could be done. He’d lost it for such a long time I’m not surprised it had rusted. But I also wondered if he just couldn’t be bothered.

Occasionally, I fantasize about finding a wonderful watch repairer who will be able to get it working again. It’s not worth anything but my mother wore it on her wrist for many years. Then I wore it on mine. I’d like to be able to wear it again. Maybe that will never happen but in the meantime I have the pleasure of its generous open face.

There is a particular poignancy to the things that the people we have loved have worn close to their skin.

I don’t think I will ever be able to throw it away.

So here it sits, on my desk.

SUNSHINE BLOGGER AWARD

Hello, darlings! I have been nominated for the sunshine blogger award by Clara at Scribblings. Thank you so much. I first met Clara on the first day of the Historical Novel Society Conference in Oxford last year. I was feeling rather nervous since I didn’t know anyone and we walked into the conference together. She told me that she was going to pitch her book to two agents in the course of the conference. Clara is Italian. Since the idea of doing that in my own language would scare the living daylights out of me I decided that my nerves were misplaced and she had nerves of steel. Check out her blog here:

https://claragiuliani.com/

and you’ll find she writes better English than I do. So now I must answer her questions, nominate my own sunshine bloggers and set my own questions.

A little ray of sunshine. That is me and my blog!

Q. What is it you really can’t resist?

With the election about to happen here in the UK – Andrew Rawnsley’s political column in The Observer. Always interesting, thought provoking, well-written and entertaining. A good combination of historical context and insider info/gossip. I hate it when he goes on holiday. There is also William Keegan, also in The Observer, who writes about economics in a way that even I can understand which makes him a genius!

Q. Time machine – when, what, who, where, why?

I’m currently doing some research into the English Civil War. So it would be extremely convenient to be transported into the Blue Boar Inn in St Aldates, Oxford around the middle of January 1642. I’ve just been writing a scene there and I’d like a good look at the landlady and find out who is sleeping in ‘the Green Chamber’ of her inn.

Q. When might you be tempted to murder?

Other than Hitler before he came to power the couple who had the drunken argument on the pavement outside my flat a couple of nights ago. Oh, how people love to argue on corners and how incredibly boring they are when they’re drunk. And how wide awake I was by the time they fell into a cab.

Q. Who or what did you play at as a child?

OK, this is a bit odd. My earliest recollection involves a sort of Viking hat and a set of banisters. Then there was a nifty cowboy outfit I had, the trousers were made of thick orange corduroy and had plastic white tassels that stood out horizontally from the trousers. I thought I was the bees knees. There were toy guns that fired caps. They made quite an enjoyably loud bang. There were also some very beautiful boots that I never wore because they hurt my feet.

Q.The concert of my life?

It would have to be KD Lang and the Reclines at the Town and Country 2 in Kentish Town, London in the late eighties or early 90s. I think it was 1992. How those rhinestones dazzled. It was a small venue before she hit it big with Ingenue. I’ve still got the T-shirt although if I hold it up to the light I can see right through it. I absolutely refuse to turn it into dusters!

Q. My favourite weather – the one that makes my spirits soar?

First crisp day of autumn the one that gets me rummaging for my jumpers and discovering which have been saved from the moths.

Q. The ending of a book, film, play that you’ll never make peace with.

Now, Voyager – Oh Bette!!!!! you deserved the moon I’m sorry the stars were NOT enough and nor was that measly cigarette, not after you’d plucked your eyebrows so beautifully. I can’t watch it without crying.

Q. Ever got that ‘Oh, I’m inside a book feeling?’

Well, actually most days and usually it’s my work in progress, current title Fire and Brimstone, set during the English Civil War. At the moment I’m trying to generate female characters with a bit of agency without stretching historical credibility until it snaps and pings me in the eye.

Q. Let’s go with Proust – if you weren’t yourself who would you want to be?

Canadian director and actor Robert Lepage. I’ve just been to see 887 his one man show. It’s the perfect blend of the personal and the political. He’s so easy in his own skin on stage. He produces funny, original, arresting theatre. What can I say – I love him and  I could do with some of that performative ease sometimes, that playfulness. Well,  most days actually …

Q. One thing I have never done and would love to do?

Visit the Italian lakes. Como would be good.

Q. The moment when I would have stopped time.

The moment just before my partner got hit by a motorbike about a month ago. It would have saved us both a great deal of trouble. She’s fine now thanks.

Image result for sunshine blogger award logo

Now to my own nominees – Clara did four so I’m doing err, five:

https://colinbisset.com  – writer, traveller, broadcaster, fantastic writing on architecture, author of lovely book Loving Le Corbusier about Yvonne Gallis, the architect, Le Corbusier’s , wife …

https://silverpaintedriver.com – beautiful writing on colour by painter Francesca Howard author of the wonderful Colour Potential …

https://harvestinghecate.wordpress.com – gorgeous writing on nature, creative process – simply beautiful writing …

https://tarasparlingwrites.com  on the bonkers business of books – she’s very funny and informative on pretty much everything …

https://ourlifewithprops.wordpress.com – Keir and Louise Lusby and their life making everything you might ever have seen on TV or film including the Aztec medallion from the first Pirates of the Caribbean film …

And here are my eleven questions:

  1. Favourite building in the world?
  2. Have you ever walked out of a film/play/thrown a book down on the floor in a rage? If so which one?
  3. You’ve got a morning free in the town you live in/ nearest to where you live – what do you do?
  4. The subject at school that made you look out of the window and kick your heels and dream of freedom?
  5. You’re held hostage in solitary confinement – what film do you know well enough to roll through your mind while mouthing all the lines?
  6. What were you expected to be when you grew up? What happened?
  7. Asterix or Tintin? If neither what’s the first children’s book you loved?
  8. You can have a date with one of Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo OR Cary Grant or George Clooney which do you choose?
  9. If you had to save one film out of Casablanca, The Third Man and Notorious from the flames which would you choose?
  10. The place you have the strongest romantic associations with excluding your own home.
  11. Smell that is most redolent of childhood for you.

So there we are. Incidentally my ‘I am a hostage film’ has this line: ‘My name’s Dorothy – D-O-R-O-T-H-Y. Dorothy. Now Alan’s always Alan and John’s always John …’ Anyone who can tell me where that’s from will win a bonus point and my everlasting regard. And if anyone fancies answering any of the questions other than my nominees please pick and choose – be my guest.

PEONIES AND THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

mwbs and peonies

The man with the blue sleeve being outdone by lush peonies. It could happen to any of us and also a nice quote from the Historical Novel Society about TITIAN’S BOATMAN:

“This book is a wonderful collection of chapters, all of them exquisitely crafted, most of them small – some very small, like the golden tesserae on the ceiling of St Mark’s cathedral in Venice, an image drawn from the book.”

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY

REVIEW: WORDS THAT TOUCH by NICK POLE

WORDS THAT TOUCH by Nick Pole is about Clean language and is aimed at mind/body therapists. How do you write about what happens between therapist and client? Well, I’m not sure but this book does a pretty good job of it. However you don’t necessarily have to be a therapist to enjoy it. There is a great deal here to engage the general reader. If you’re someone who is interested in the power of words, in the ways the mind and the body communicate with each other, and also neuroscience you’ll find a lot to delight in. As a writer I was fascinated by the chapters on metaphor and how the use of metaphor helps the mind communicate with the body and heal trauma.

Although dealing with a complex subject Nick Pole writes in a highly accessible way. In clear, elegant chapters he lays out what Clean language is, how it works and the neuroscience behind it. The aim of Clean language is to ‘make the client more involved in if not actually leading a collaborative process’. Case studies by a variety of mind/body therapists explain how they use Clean language in their own practice. I know this is a book that I will find myself coming back to again and again. There is too much wisdom in here to be taken in the first time around. My favourite quote: ‘Distance always contains the hint of a relationship’. Like many things in WORDS THAT TOUCH that made me stop and think for a good long time. I highly recommend this book.

Here’s the Amazon link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Words-that-Touch-Nick-Pole/dp/184819336X/

And here is the link to Nick’s website: http://www.nickpole.com

WALKING WITH THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE

wisteria and mwbs

An afternoon walk with THE MAN WITH THE BLUE SLEEVE is always enjoyable. Here he is worried that he might be outdone by some very beautiful wisteria … Of course nothing can be more beautiful than him …

handkerchief treeAnd here he is in contemplation of the handkerchief tree or if you’re that way inclined Davidia Involucrata, a deciduous tree from SW China that happens to be in my local park. Family Nyssaceae (don’t ever get me to spell that again).

If you want to visit him he will welcome your attendance in Room 2 of The National Gallery in London. He always has a lot to say for himself unless he’s on loan which is wearisome.

TIPS ON WRITING SEX SCENES

back cover TB

The back of Titian’s Boatman’s jacket

1. Don’t – you fool! Are you insane? People have sex but it doesn’t mean you have to write about it. Don’t, don’t, don’t …

2. However if one of your main characters is a Venetian courtesan (as in my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN …) do not think you can skip them. Sex, after all, was the currency of the courtesan and if you avoid them everyone will rightly think you are a coward.

3. If you feel you have to, make sure you mother and father are six foot under. Whatever it takes – literally is best but metaphorically will do. Dead, dead, dead … ashes to ashes … because you simply cannot imagine them reading … oh dear God … (puts fingers in ears and closes eyes and sings la, la, la…) and you can’t afford the twenty years of Freudian therapy to call them by their first names let alone . . . No, sorry, dead parents is the only answer.

4. Now convince yourself that no one you know will ever read them. Your book will not be published. No one will ever read them other than you.

5. If you are writing Renaissance sex scenes read Renaissance pornography. Pietro Aretino’s Ragionamenti are bawdy, funny, satirical and you will pick up some useful descriptions and metaphors … ‘Rubbing his rod and olives’ was one I particularly liked and would never, ever have dreamed up. Also you will never view nuns and monks in the same light.

6. If your book is going to be published do not read through the sex scenes obsessively at the editing stage and fret about those elderly aunts who are approaching 90 who might read them. Do not do that whatever you do, especially if they disapproved of one of your earlier books in which someone swore once or twice (OK it was the ‘c’ word) … and in which your main character had sex once or … Oh good lord, she was tied to the banisters in the first scene, wasn’t she? Excuse me while I . . . delete . . . delete . . . dump memory . . . dump memory . . .

7. Now where was I? In fact who am I? It is probably best not to say to your agent or your editor when in a state of high anxiety, ‘Are the sex scenes alright?’ because it will only embarrass them and you and really what are the poor dears going to say to you? If the answer is ‘no’ where do you go from there?

8. Once the book is published if at all possible obliterate said sex scenes from your mind completely, so that when your partner after a phone conversation with a mutual friend looks at you quizzically and says ‘She’s enjoying the sex scenes…’ you can immediately respond, ‘What sex scenes are those?’ in an entirely natural tone of voice.

9. If you end up in the Bad Sex Awards blame your agent and editor and comfort yourself with the thought that at least one person has read your book and all publicity is good publicity… and then make a secret vow that you will never write another as long as you live. Never, never, never … to quote King Lear. Oh, dear and look what happened to him …

10. If you bump into your neighbour and he looks at you in a curious way and says, ‘Oh, I’m half way through and I’m … (very, very long pause here broken by his mobile going off) … excited … err, sorry I have to take this call.’ Do not overanalyse any aspect of what he has said. Just don’t. And it’s probably best to delete the whole scene from your brain immediately along with the sex scenes.

11. Make a vow that you will never write another one as long as you live.

What do you think about sex scenes in novels? Like? Loathe? Laughable? Oh, go on – do tell. I’m absolutely not looking for comments on mine because I didn’t write any, did I?

MY NON-CRINGING BIBLIOGRAPHIES …

cover

BOOK CONTAINING A NON-CRINGING BIBLIOGRAPHY

There’s been a bit of a debate recently about whether historical fiction writers should add bibliographies to their books or not. Hilary Mantel, a woman who likes to put cats among pigeons, commented in an interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch on her “cringing” contemporaries in historical fiction who “try and burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography.”

She goes on to say this: “You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy. Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complimentary.”

My immediate response was a highly sophisticated one. ‘Fuck right off dearie.’  I mean – what got into her? A case of getting out of bed the wrong side? Too much steak for breakfast?

A few things come into play here for me:

  1. My father was a historian and I spent a great deal of my childhood listening to him grumbling about inaccurate historical detail in TV dramas. At the time I remember wishing he’d shut up so I could follow the story
  2. I studied history at Oxford not particularly happily
  3. My last two books – FAR AWAY and TITIAN’S BOATMAN have been historical fiction and I’ve attached bibliographies to both of them.

The reason why I do it is not particularly to “burnish my credentials”. I mean what the hell does that mean anyway?  It’s because I think the reader might be interested to read some of the books that have fired my imagination. As a reader I like bibliographies and often track down books from them. I appreciate the fact the writer has taken the trouble to do it. It is work to put together a bibliography. It would be much easier not to do it.

I do not in any way feel cringing.

There is of course another element in play here. In creating a bibliography you are giving away your sources. I like that because there’s a part of me that likes to demystify the process of writing. I want you as my reader to know that fiction writing is not a mystery carried out by magicians. You too could read these books and you might write this sort of book. It sort of democratizes it in some way. Sometimes it does occur to me that a reader might read the books in my bibliography and go, ‘Well, you got that wrong didn’t you?’ Or even, ‘So that’s where you pinched that from,’ but so what?  Bring it on!

far-away

… AND ANOTHER ONE.

As a reader of historical fiction I give the writer a fair amount of latitude. After all it’s fiction. I did a history degree and I know the difference; fiction is much more enjoyable! When I read it I do not assume every little thing is accurate. I expect the main big things to be right i.e. the date of a battle or the date of some one’s death but sometimes things can be disputed. For example no one knows exactly when Titian was born so as a writer you take your pick within a certain range and stick to it.

However I very much like the idea of someone who has read my book then reading the things I have enjoyed in researching the book: Pietro Aretino’s letters are great fun – he’s fantastic and I’d like as many people as possible to have the pleasure of reading him. And aren’t you curious to read the letters and poems of a Renaissance courtesan, Veronica Franco? Those closest to me have had me banging on about them for years so why not spread the love? Don’t we all take pleasure in word of mouth recommendations? Why not make that easy for the reader? Books I have read and not enjoyed like Paul Morand’s Venices, an unbearably portentous book, I didn’t include.

One of the characteristics of a cult leader is that it all comes from them personally. It is their genius as opposed to the fact that they might have cobbled together a bit of CBT, a bit of EST and a bit of mindfulness and mixed it with a bit of charisma and bobs your uncle. Never trust an individual who doesn’t acknowledge their teachers, who doesn’t acknowledge their sources, who makes it all about their genius. I don’t want you to think it’s all me. I don’t want you to think it’s all my talent as a writer because that’s not what I believe.

I like the idea of you following your nose into my research material and may be thinking, ‘Oh, look at this juicy element. Why didn’t she use that?’  I’d quite like that. I’d like to know what your story might be. I  don’t want it to be mysterious because it isn’t. I remember when I was in my twenties and all I knew was that I wanted to write but I had no idea what to do or how to do it. I did courses, I had teachers, I read books on writing, I joined writing groups.  I still have teachers. All those elements contributed to me becoming and staying a published writer.

So what do you think about bibliographies? Apologetic cringing or an act of generosity to the reader? Do you think I have been burnishing my credentials? I’d be very interested to know and when I say interested that’s in a slightly Tony Soprano/horse head in the bed sort of a way. Only joking. I just want you to realize this is an entirely cringe-free zone from a non-cap doffing person. Excuse me, dear reader, while I walk backwards away from you in a suitably groveling, servile manner while begging you for comments … Oh God, what happened there?  Maybe Hilary was right all along. PS You should all read her books – every one of them. Every single one. She’s a genius, she really is. She’s just completely wrong on the subject of bibliographies.