THE MOUSTACHES HAVE LANDED

murder on orient

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

It has probably not escaped your notice (unless you are living in Antarctica with penguins) that there is a new film out of Agatha Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. It hasn’t escaped my notice because there are ads for it on the side of London buses and when the 22 stops in traffic outside my flat (which it has been doing a lot recently due to heavy plant activity – not triffids),  I have a very nice view of the cast. Kenneth Branagh, sporting luxuriant moustaches, is playing Poirot and directing it. In preparation for this wildly exciting event I read the book and here is my imagined dialogue between Agatha and an unnamed modern day literary agent after the agent has read it.

 

 


A DIFFICULT CONVERSATION

Agent: Is this a first draft?

Agatha: Oh dear, well no I didn’t see it as such.

Agent: (sighs) But where are the descriptions? As it stands it might just as well be MURDER ON THE 7.15 CROYDON TRAM. You say the train is stuck in a snowdrift but where is the snow? There is no indication of the snow anywhere. Does it melt immediately? Does no one look out of a window and see it? Does no one scrunch a snowball or throw it?

Agatha: Oh dear you obviously don’t like it at all.

Agent: It’s not that I don’t like it but  there are no descriptions. I want to be able to see it. I want snow, I want lush interiors. I mean frankly you wouldn’t really know it was taking place on a train. What do the cabins look like? And if it comes to that what do the people look like.

Agatha: I do describe the people I think.

Agent: You describe Poirot a little bit – huge moustaches …egg-shaped head …ridiculous-looking but as for what’s her name … What is her name? The Countess …

Agatha: The Countess Andrenyi?

Agent: No.

Agatha: No?

Agent: She’s a drag queen or something.

Agatha: Oh you mean the Princess Dragomiroff.

Agent: Oh yes, that’s right – well simply telling us she’s ugly doesn’t tell us much. What kind of ugly?

Agatha: But there’s the yellow toad-like features and the toque.

Agent: The what?

Agatha: The toque, the toque, I describe her as wearing a toque.

Agent: What is that – some sort of otter?

Agatha: It’s a hat.

Agent: Oh. And there’s another thing. Poirot …

Agatha: Yes?

Agent: Well, can’t he fall in love with one of the suspects.

Agatha: No, that wouldn’t do at all he is a sexless individual with a large brain.

Agent: Whatever made you think that would be a good idea, darling?

Agatha: Well, my sales. So far Poirot has appeared in seven novels one play and one  short stories and he has always been the same. I can’t change him now. My fans wouldn’t like it.

Agent: Oh, you have fans do you? Hmm…

A long silence ensues …

Agatha: Are you still there?

Agent: Yes, I’m thinking.

Time passes …

Agatha (tentatively): What did you think of the plot?

Agent: The plot is OK as far as it goes although it sort of falls off the end of a cliff doesn’t it? Couldn’t we have a scene when they are all saying goodbye to each other on the platform, something to round it off. Now let  me see how can we salvage this … could we have longing perhaps … yes, that’s it, longing …

Agatha: For what?

Agent: For pretty much anything darling. Yes, that’s it longing… Now then I can’t hang on here sorting this out for you but basically it’s plot B+ and all the rest C-. Have another go at it and bung it back to me in a month.

Agatha looks down at the notebook in which she’s been making notes of the conversation and sees the following words: Lush Snow, Lush Interiors, Toque, Longing … Otter????? She picks up her pen and begins:

Poirot scrunched the lush snow into a ball and filled with longing threw it playfully at the Princess. It struck her toque and she laughed gaily galloping through the snow towards him. She might have been the ugliest woman in the world but to him her yellow toad-like features were the epitome of beauty … Suddenly, out of nowhere an otter appeared scything through the lush snow. It threw itself at his face. It latched onto his lush moustaches. Poirot screamed as it dawned on him too late – the otter had done it!

Agatha threw down her pen and went and poured herself a large gin …


So here’s the question. Are you a fan of Agatha, Poirot, the books the films? And what kind of Poirot do you think Ken will be. I can’t imagine him playing him as a sexless brain can you? After all, Ken is always the hero – so what’s going to happen? My guess is a bit of longing and some manly striding. Anyway, I’m off to see it tomorrow and I can’t wait. Apparently there is an outrageous piece of product placement which produces this piece of dialogue from Poirot: ‘Ah, lerve theeese leeetle cecks’. The cecks incidentally are of the Great British Bake Off variety. And so that you can excercise yeur leetle greh cells which I know you long to do, answer this. What was the title of the German version of the book?

 

 

 

 

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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!

 

MY DESERT ISLAND BOOKS

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!

http://www.historiamag.com/desert-island-books-victoria-blake/

 

COINCIDENCE IN LIFE AND ART

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.

Image result for pictures of the foyles cafe

The lovely cafe at Foyles

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.

Image result for pictures of stationery department in waterstones piccadilly

Brightly coloured stationery failed me

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.

cover

The book that was not there

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?

IMG_3270 (1)

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…

 

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.

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.

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?

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?

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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.

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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.

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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!