WRITING ABOUT VENICE AND OXFORD.

How do you write about beautiful cities like Venice and Oxford? Impossible cities! How do you do them justice? How do you get under their skin. How do you write about a place without sounding like a tourist guide or like everyone who has ever written about them before? I’d wrestled a bit with the question of beautiful cities in the Sam Falconer crime series that I wrote, which was set partly in Oxford, my home town.

For many years I could not write about the city at all. It felt like an implacable, indigestible lump of compacted experience and my attempts were either grossly sentimental or unpleasantly savage. The way that I dealt with Oxford in the end was to have my protagonist, Sam Falconer, be severely at odds with the environment she was brought up in. Conflict of course creates drama. There is no drama in a person having a happy childhood and loving their home town. None whatsoever. It’s the grit in the oyster after all, which creates the pearl. Here is Sam returning home after quite a long absence:

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The Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

“The Radcliffe Camera sat squat and golden in the autumn sunshine. However malignant Sam felt towards Oxford, she could never view the Camera with anything other than wonder and affection … Memories crowded in on her. Every step she took brought forth another and another. Overwhelming and insistent, they poured into her until she felt she would burst. Like a crowd waving placards  they announced themselves one by one: Look at me! No, me! They pushed and elbowed and the sickness in the pit of Sam’s stomach grew.”

BLOODLESS SHADOW

By JUMPING THE CRACKS the last in the series, Sam has an office in the Cowley Road and has ‘come home.’ It only took me four books to get her there!

One way of dealing with beautiful cities is to mine the area between their beauty and the reality of how someone may be feeling. Because most of us have probably had the experience of being in a beautiful place and feeling we ought to be happy when in fact we have, for whatever reason, felt as miserable as sin. “Look at me,” a beautiful city announces. “Aren’t I beautiful? What  – you’re not happy? Well, if you can’t be happy here there must be something the matter with you because there certainly isn’t anything the matter with me?” If you’re in the wrong mood it can be a bit like engaging with someone with a narcissistic personality disorder. No fun at all. The simple and obvious fact is that beautiful places do not necessarily make people happy. The gap between the beauty of a place and how we are actually feeling can make us feel worse.

So now to Venice. A startling place – a place beyond imagining even. In TITIAN’S BOATMAN there are two Venices, that of the 16th century and that of the 21st. How do you get under the skin of 16th century Venice? Well, my way in was through the people living there – the painters, the boatmen, the courtesans, the poets, the nuns and the patricians. In the 21st century part of my book, Terry, an actor, is not at all happy when his boyfriend Ludovico suggests they visit Venice. Here he is talking through his anxieties:

‘Don’t Look Now,’ Terry said.

‘At what?’

‘No, the film Don’t Look Now, when they go to Venice it doesn’t end well.’

Ludovico burst out laughing. ‘I promise you it won’t be anything like that.’

‘And then there’s Death in Venice of course,’ Terry said. ‘It might be tempting fate … and I’ll have to get myself some clothes.’

‘Your clothes are fine.’

‘But it’s Italy, the country of the bella figura. It’s Venice one of the most beautiful cities on earth. I’m too fat and not well dressed enough. You know how they stare at you.’

TITIAN’S BOATMAN

In the end, of course, despite his sartorial insecurities Terry does go to Venice  with Ludovico but that first visit does not go entirely to plan.

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Don’t Look Now is a famous film directed by Nick Roeg starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland and is one of the most unsettling films you could ever chance to see. It is on my list of “very good but so disturbing that under no circumstances am I ever watching it again as long as I live” films. It was based on a Daphne du Maurier short story. Death in Venice is the Thomas Mann novella and also a famous film with Dirk Bogarde as von Aschenbach, a composer (in the book he’s a writer) who travels to Venice and has his world turned upside down when he sees a beautiful boy, Tadzio. The film is excellent albeit extremely melancholic. In his autobiography Bogarde said that he kept wanting to talk to Visconti about the role and each time he tried Visconti answered, ‘Have you read the book?’ When he replied that he had Visconti just replied, ‘Well, read it again.’

Now over to you. In terms of Oxford and Venice what books/films have you read or seen that you’d recommend. And while you’re about it tell me about your experiences in beautiful cities – the good, the bad and the ugly.

BODLEIAN SHOP – OXFORD (with photos!)

I spent the day in Oxford a while ago doing a short interview at Radio Oxford about my book TITIAN’S BOATMAN. It went very well in the sense that I did not make a complete idiot of myself and kept talking. Nick Piercey was lovely but even so the levels of adrenaline these things bring out in me are akin to the time I jumped out of a plane with a parachute on my back. So the relief of it being over meant that I then ran amok in the Bodleian shop in the Broad. A shameful example of behaving like a tourist in the town of my birth.

First up this lovely bar of chocolate. I actually prefer dark, dark chocolate preferably 85% but I couldn’t resist this one for obvious reasons. Next time anyone asks me about WRITER’S BLOCK I will say, ‘Oh, it’s delicious. It’s luxurious … I wish it was darker but I eat it whenever I can …’

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Is there any chocolate left in it do you think?

I like writing related consumables and have come across WRITER’S TEARS (not sold in the Bodleian shop) which is a whiskey. The packaging makes the tear look rather cheerful. It would be nice if there was only one and it was this lovely orange colour. Interesting how anything writing related seems to be about the downsides rather than the upsides. I wonder why that is?

writers-tears

Fancy some writer’s tears. No neither do I!

Second up from the shop this postcard of the oath you have to swear when joining the Bodleian. I must have sworn this myself a long time ago but have absolutely no recollection of doing so. I particularly like the bit about not setting fires and it’s interesting to see the word ‘kindle’ in there.

bodleian

I swore this a while ago. I like the presence of the word ‘kindle’ here.

 

Third, a selection of beautiful bookmarks and also a turquoise leather notebook. Along with having a bad 85% chocolate habit I also have a very bad stationery habit. I couldn’t resist this one. Nostalgia, the memories of childhood home – the usual sentimental guff I’m afraid. When will I realise that a beautiful notebook is not going to make it all any easier. Probably when I’m laid out in my coffin.

turquoise-notebook

 

Finally books. I’ve been doing a bit of research on the early days of the Bodleian and both these were perfect.

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So there we are. The website says, “Take a treasure home today!” Well, I did didn’t I? A sack load of the stuff!

DANGEROUS RABBITS AND HOW TO OUTWIT THEM

Occasionally my writing turns into a dangerous rabbit a bit like this one …

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When this happens running and hiding seems the only sensible thing to do …

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But there is only so long one can hide in a tree with those damnable, smiling rabbits waiting at the bottom. Eventually, of course, I come to realize how silly my fears are and come down …

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And that’s when they strike …

The illustrations come from The Romance of Alexander, by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise, 1338-1344 and are from The Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s interesting to speculate about Jehan de Grise. Did he go out for lunch, down a few too many ales and then pick up quill and ink and think to himself. ‘What am I going to do with this lower margin? Oh, I know, The Revenge of the Rabbits. Apparently this kind of thing is known as a monde renversé.

A postcard of it fell out of a book I was pricing in the second hand bookshop I work in. On it was written:

Here I am at 6 a.m. hurtling out of Oxford towards the Belfast festival and skimming too hastily through the things I had meant to do at leisure, and in pleasure. Before Christmas I shall let you know better how good and true I found your book. Love, Seamus

What a lovely postcard to receive especially when it came from Seamus Heaney.

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As for me, if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because those damn rabbits have got the upper hand.

THE ODYSSEY – HOMECOMING

The Provost's Lodgings, Queen's College, Oxford

The Provost’s Lodgings, The Queen’s College, Oxford

What does the word ‘home’ mean to you? The place where you live now? The flesh and blood people you live with – your community of friends, husband, wife or partner? The place you raised or are raising your children? The bricks and mortar of the house or flat? The surrounding city? The country? Your childhood home? The people you were raised by? Mother, father, grandparents, brothers and sisters? Over this festive season lots of people will have been travelling home with all sorts of expectations and with varied outcomes. Coming home is the central theme of The Odyssey and if you think a bit about what home means to you and how complex that is and how the meaning changes over time, you’ll see why the dramatic possibilities of the ‘homecoming’ have been so popular with film makers, playwrights and novelists ever since.

The University Church, St Mary's and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

The University Church of St Mary’s and the Radcliffe Camera, Oxford

Recently, I went back to the city that was my home for the first twenty-one years of my life, Oxford. The last time I was there was for a literary festival in my old college. Before that it was for my father’s memorial service. I don’t go back very often. I walked around on a sunny, bitterly cold, winter morning. I sat in a restaurant, eating on the exact same spot I had come to with my father to set up my first bank account. I listened to the bell of Tom Tower ringing 101 times at 21.05 pm. I had breakfast in The Grand Café which is, I think, on the site of the old Co-Op shop, where I was sent to get milk by my mother. Today this café has golden plaster, Jean Cocteau arms, reaching out of the walls, holding candlesticks, and a sign on the wall saying it was the earliest coffee-house in England. I was not chased up and down by a fat woman in a nylon coat, crackling with static electricity, who thought I was going to steal her sweets.

The Queen's College library, Oxford

The Queen’s College Library, Oxford

This time I enjoyed my visit and I marveled at the beauty of the city. Was I really brought up here, I wondered, and what effect did that have on me? My memories were no longer tinged with grief. It’s only taken thirty years! Oxford, I have come to the conclusion, is not an easy city to leave. When I was twenty-one, I was naive enough to think it was as simple as getting on the bus to London.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

The second half of the Odyssey is given up to what happens to Odysseus once he returns to Ithaca nineteen years after he set off to the Trojan War. One of the first things is a spectacularly flirtatious scene with Athene ‘of the flashing eyes’, who first appears to Odysseus as a beautiful, young male shepherd. Odysseus immediately lies to her. He can’t help himself. It’s his nimble wits. Does she mind? No, she does not. Instead she is highly appreciative. She caresses him, turns back into a beautiful woman and says

‘What a cunning knave it would take to beat you at your tricks! Even a god would be hard put to it.’ 

Later she adds

‘How like you to be so wary! And that is why I cannot desert you in your misfortune: you are so civilized, so intelligent, so self-possessed.’

Magdalen College tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Magdalen College Tower from Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

You see? Very, very flirtatious. Athene – get a grip, girl! Fortunately, she does just that by turning him into a withered old man. It’s a disguise to protect him but I have the feeling she’s also reasserting her power over him just a little.

One of the most touching scenes in the whole book occurs shortly afterwards when Odysseus is reunited with his son, Telemachus, who was a babe in arms when he went off to war. I think this is one of the most beautiful passages in the whole book

 

‘… Telemachus softened at last, flung his arms round his noble father’s neck and burst into tears. And now they both broke down and sobbed aloud without a pause like birds bereaved, like the sea-eagle or the taloned vulture when villagers have robbed the nest of their unfledged young. So did these two let the piteous tears run streaming from their eyes.’ 

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

This is also an example of something else that I love in the book. Men are allowed to express powerful emotions by crying and this is not viewed in any way as unmanly. Odysseus cries a great deal. Given what he goes through this is not at all surprising. He is also a mighty warrior, ‘a sacker of cities’ but there is no suggestion that his masculinity is compromised by his tears. The Greeks, it seems to me, were obviously a lot better adjusted around manly tears than we are!

Do you have a favourite homecoming scene in film, theatre or books?

 

CRIME NOVELS

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bloodless-Shadow-Blood-Victoria-Blake/dp/0752863967

Samantha Falconer has always been pretty good at taking care of herself. Four times world judo champion, she now runs the Gentle Way detective agency in London. But when her brother Mark asks her to return to Oxford to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Sam finds herself confronting a past she’d hoped she’d left behind.

‘Blake’s Sam Falconer joins the rank of strong but flawed female characters who have taken crime fiction by the throat and shaken it until its teeth rattle.’ STEPHEN BOOTH

‘Blake’s skill at depicting the dark and light side of her character, the smoothly interwoven plot lines and authentic settings makes this a strong first.’ PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

‘…a taut competent novel.’ SHERLOCK MAGAZINE

This striking debut introduces a rather distinctive investigator … gripping.’ LIBRARY JOURNAL

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cutting-Blades-Victoria-Blake/dp/0752876961

London is frozen in a January blizzard and everywhere she goes Sam has the creeping sensation of being watched. When Harry a talented young rower from Oxford University goes missing she hopes the case will take her mind off her increasing paranoia.

‘A pacy whodunnit… Gutsy female detectives are nothing new, but Blake’s heroine is an attractive addition to what seems a growing series. Some nicely deadpan humour and crisply detailed descriptions of place offset the obligatory punch-ups.’  THE TIMES

skin and blister

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Skin-Blister-Victoria-Blake/dp/0752881817

Oxford, May Morning. While the city rejoices life takes a sinister turn at St Barnabas College. Disturbing gifts have been sent, threatening letters posted and now events have taken a deadly turn. A student has been found dead in his rooms.

‘Move over Morse, PI Sam Falconer’s in town…Gripping…’ DAILY EXPRESS

‘… entertaining and enjoyable …’ LAW SOCIETY GAZETTE

‘Blake’s got something that keeps you turning the pages.’ REVIEWING THE EVIDENCE

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Jumping-Cracks-Victoria-Blake/dp/0752874624

Oxford holds a lot of memories for Sam; few of them happy. When she’s asked to guard a collection of strange museum pieces, ranging from shrunken heads to bottled witches, she quickly realises that being back in Oxford means confronting her own demons, as well as those behind the glass cases.

‘Forgery and murder drive a fast-paced plot.’  FINANCIAL TIMES

‘Sam is an engaging and complex protagonist; her friends and family are convincing and well drawn … the city of Oxford is the really dominant character… this is an entertaining and well written book.’  THE GUARDIAN