Monday, 26 June 2017

Au revoir...

For the time being, I'm going to take a break from this blog. I've enjoyed doing it, and I'd like to thank those who've read, followed and commented - but at the moment I think I need to concentrate more on writing books.

I shall continue to blog with The History Girls, a group of historical fiction writers, on the 16th of each month, and I've just started to blog again with An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, which is a group of children's writers. I'll be posting there on the 25th of each month, and it would be lovely to see you in either of those places. And of course you're very welcome to visit my website for news - it has a contact form too, in case you want to get in touch.

Like Arnie, I may be back. But for now, I'll leave you with some pictures of the lovely hill - and do feel free to roam about among the reviews!

Looking from Roundhouse across Cheddar Reservoir.

Spring cowslips

A fiddled-with view!

And off into the sunset...

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Desperately Seeking Hamlet!

This time last week, during a holiday in Copenhagen, we decided to head north to Helsingør. It was only a short train-ride, and there was someone we were eager to meet - someone who has intrigued me (and a few zillion others) for many, many years. Yes: Helsingør's English name is Elsinore, and the enigmatic hero we were searching for was - Hamlet!

The station's palatial entrance hall set the scene. Clearly, we were on the right track. Outside, sea birds circled overhead, calling plaintively. We crossed the road into the town, alert for any glimpse of a slender, black-clad figure. Was that a swirl of his cloak, just disappearing at the end of this narrow cobbled street?

Was he one of the characters in this painting? Was this perhaps the ship in which his stepfather sent him off to England with his perfidious friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?

We reached the water's edge again - you are never far from it in Elsinore. Now here was a curious structure, made entirely of brightly coloured plastic cast-offs. Perhaps he was behind that...?

No. He wasn't. It probably struck the wrong mood - too cheerful, too silly. Then I spotted something promising - this dark figure, striding purposefully away. But no - too, too solid.

And then, across the water, almost looking as if it was floating, we saw it - the castle. Now it's known as Kronborg: Shakespeare just called it Elsinore. It stands guard over a narrow sound which divides Denmark from Sweden, and through which ships had to pass in order to access the Baltic: for centuries, the kings of Denmark built up their wealth by exacting tolls - the sound dues - from every passing ship. Elsinore then was prosperous and powerful, a famous royal court. At last - we were on the right track! We hastened towards the castle. Storm clouds gathered overhead: the wind pushed back at us and sudden heavy raindrops pelted us - but on we went.

Soon we were in the royal apartments. We passed through a sitting room, the chancellery, the king's rooms - no sign. Then - we arrived at the queen's apartments. We couldn't help but notice the arras to the right of the fireplace, and hoped Polonius wasn't so foolish as to be hiding there.

Suddenly, we heard shouts and the sound of clashing swords along a passageway. Hearts in mouths, we hurried along - and in a huge banqueting hall, there at last he was: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark! But had his sea of troubles finally overwhelmed him? Had he taken up arms to end them? Happily, no - it was just a practice bout with Horatio. Phew.

Our final glimpse of him was as he shared a tender moment with Ophelia - it would, we thought, be unkind to disturb them. I do hope that this time, it all works out for this charming young couple...

NB It's an interesting experience to encounter characters and scenes from the play as you walk through the castle. We saw a group of small children, wide-eyed with excitement as they exchanged a few words with 'Claudius', clad in blue and silver and smiling genially. But as well as these performances, Kronborg hosts a Shakespeare Festival each August, and many famous actors have appeared here over the years, including Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Michael Caine (as Horatio), Kenneth Branagh, Jude Law and many more.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

Apologies - it's been a while since I've posted a review. This is partly because I've been busy doing other things - but mostly because I haven't read anything lately that's really blown me away. So if you have, do please tell me in the comments.

That's not to say I haven't read some good books. The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, is a very good book. But somehow, it didn't quite seize my imagination. It's probably just me; maybe I haven't read it at the right time - because there's no doubt that it's absolutely beautifully written, and it's won some seriously impressive prizes. Perhaps it's a book you should read in the winter, in an isolated house, by a cosy fire, with the mist curling round outside and just the occasional lonely cry of a seabird.

As you may guess from this, it's set mostly on the Essex coast - a particularly liminal area, because it's not only at the boundary of land and sea, but there's also that shifting middle ground of marshland (as there was in Elly Griffith's very different books, the Ruth Galloway mysteries). It's the perfect setting for a story with an uncertainty at its heart - is the Essex serpent, a mysterious and possibly lethal sea creature, real, or merely a product of over-active imaginations? No-one is quite sure. The heroine, Cora Seaborne, certainly wants it to be real; she wants it to be an undiscovered species which she will identify so that she can then take her place alongside Mary Anning, the fossil-hunter, as an eminent woman of science.

Set in Victorian times, it has the flavour of a gothic romance. But the characters have a contemporary liveliness and individuality - they won't be pigeonholed. So Cora, though clearly a strong and independent woman has, after the death of her husband, emerged from an abusive relationship. She has an uncomfortable relationship with her son, Francis, who seems to be on the autistic spectrum; her friend, Martha, is socially and politically active and believes marriage to be a patriarchal straitjacket. (You'll see that though the setting is Victorian, the concerns are modern.)

After her husband's funeral, Cora goes to Essex to hunt for fossils. There she meets a vicar, William Ransome, and his lovely but fragile wife, Stella. She has a friend, Luke Garrett, who's in love with her, and he has a friend, Spencer, who - well, you'll just have to read it. The story of the serpent undulates through it, but it's not really the main point: the heart of the novel is the collection of strong, distinctive personalities: the way they interract with each other, and their strivings to find a way to live which is meaningful, which makes sense of their lives. There are no simple answers for any of them, no pat solutions - and I like that.

So why would I give it 4.5 instead of 5? Maybe it's just because, like Cora, I would have liked the serpent to be real. Which is silly, because it's not that kind of book.

Monday, 15 May 2017

The picture I didn't take.

A couple of days ago, I did my usual walk with Nessie up on the hill - up through the wood, then along a tunnel-like little path and out into the open, with a panoramic view stretching round from Glastonbury in the east to the reservoir and the distant coast in the west.

But for some reason this time, I glanced up to the right as I came out onto the hill - and there were two roe deer, a stag and a hind, not that far away. Nessie didn't notice - she was too busy watching the ball in my hand, willing me to throw it. They saw me too; the stag raised its head and watched me calmly. Neither of them seemed disturbed, and I stood still and gazed.

If I'd had my camera or phone with me, as I usually do, I would have tried to take a picture. I would have been concentrating on raising it very slowly, adjusting the zoom, keeping as steady as I could. I would have been watching the deer, but on the viewing panel, not for real. Probably, despite all my efforts, I would have disturbed the deer and they would have taken off.

As it was, we stood and stared at each other for several minutes. The hind moved about, feeding; the stag seemed relaxed, but watchful. In the end, I was the one who decided it was time to go.

If I'd got a good picture, I would have been pleased. But actually I'm glad I didn't have my camera, because I saw far more without one - and more than that, there was a sense of just being three creatures in a landscape - a fine thread of shared awareness.

As I went on, I thought about why it is I have this compulsion to capture a fleeting image. I thought of Louis MacNeice's poem, Sunlight on the Garden:

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold.

But I still keep doing just that - seeking to cage that minute. As you see.

My favourite tree on the hill. The deer were just up to the right, outside the frame of this picture.

You can just see Nessie, manic ball chaser, with the reservoir in the distance.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Born To Run, by Bruce Springsteen

So, this afternoon I was listening to Bruce Springsteen (Devils And Dust), as I have been doing since round about 1975 - and I remembered that I hadn't written about his autobiography, which I read a few months ago. He's amazing, Bruce. Even when he's singing about sad things, as he often is, he never fails to lift the heart and set the feet tapping.

As I said, it's a while since I read it, so I can't go into a lot of detail. But it's a fascinating book. Bruce - may I call you Bruce? I feel as if I may - Bruce tells it all. Well, obviously not all, but certainly a great deal. He starts by writing about his family and the small town he came from - a setting which is clearly the bedrock for most of his songs. At first, you can imagine that the teenaged Bruce and his pals, determined somehow to get into music, with no money, no knowledge of the industry will surely sink without trace as so many other would-be young musicians do. But of course he doesn't. And though he doesn't brag - far from it - you see why: he is utterly determined, he works incredibly hard, and he is a poet. He's someone who just never stops creating. He describes here how it feels when he and his band finally get a record deal:

We'd climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods, who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts! It was on. It was all on. After years of waiting, of struggling toward that something I thought might never happen, it had happened.

He tells the story behind each record, explains what he was trying to do, what the concept was. This I found fascinating: I'm not knowledgeable musically, I just like to listen to the songs. But when you see how much thought and energy went into the records, you get a glimpse of why they work so well.

You get the sense of a person who is driven, but who is also kind; who knows that he wants to be the leader of a band, not just another member, yet is not arrogant. He writes about his demons - and with an intense creative drive such as he has, it's not surprising that he has them - with honesty and pain. I think he set out to tell the truth about himself, as much as that's possible, and he makes a really good job of it.

Favourite song? The Queen of the Supermarket, from the album Working On A Dream. It's a beautiful song. A perfect little story of love that will probably never be requited, sad and pure - and it all takes place in the unromantic setting of a supermarket.

And while we're on the subject - why do they never use any of his songs on Strictly Come Dancing? Perhaps he won't let them. I can see it's not very rock'n'roll. But my goodness, with their emotional punch and powerful lyricism, they would inspire some stunning routines.

Monday, 24 April 2017

The Tobacconist, by Robert Seethaler

Robert Seethaler is an Austrian living in Berlin. His previous, very successful book, A Whole Life, is the story of a simple man who lived in the mountains, only leaving them to go to war. You might expect the main part of the book to be about his experience of war, because surely that's the obvious, the most dramatic bit to choose to write about; but no. As the title suggests, it's about the whole of his life - which isn't packed with incident (though there is one tragic occurrence): it's essentially a quiet life.

This strikes a chord with me. I've often been told that my own books are too quiet - and I can see that there's some justice in this. Bernard Cornwell and I have both written books about Alfred the Great and his daughter Aethelflaed. He's written a whole series, which have sold in squillions and been made into a successful TV series. I've written one book, originally intended for teenagers (Warrior King, since you ask) and a short story in an anthology, which didn't sell in squillions. The Last Kingdom, Cornwell's book, has bucketsful of gore, lots of drama, and a gorgeous hero. Mine has some jolly nice people, one cracking villain, a silver-eyed magic lady, a sensitive hero troubled by doubt, and rather less gore. It's pretty easy to draw a lesson from this - yet I'm still drawn to subtle stories about quiet people. I suppose the trick is to write them so well that the drama is just as powerful, despite the lack of Sturm und Drang - sorry, just showing off that I did German at school - it means 'storm and stress'. And it does link back to Seethaler - rather neatly, though I says it as shouldn't - because Seethaler writes compellingly about ordinary people - quiet people - and the moments which affect and change them.

In An Ordinary Life, he writes beautifully about how his protagonist falls in love - but this is only a part of his life, though it is a very significant one. The things that happen in the wider world have an effect on his life, of course - but they are merely a backdrop to it. In The Tobacconist, what is happening in the wider world is much more intense - because the book begins in 1937 and most of the action takes place in Vienna. The hero, 17 year-old Franz, at the beginning is living a comfortable, rather spoilt life in a village by a lake with his mother. But then his mother's 'protector' dies in an accident and money is suddenly short. So Franz is sent off to be an apprentice to an old friend of his mother's, a tobacconist in Vienna. Franz, a simple and open character, copes surprisingly well with life in the city. He enjoys his work, gets on well with his rather crusty employer, makes friends with one of the customers, a certain Professor Freud, and falls in love with an unsuitable girl.

But Jews are welcome customers at the shop, and the Gestapo come calling. When the tobacconist is arrested, Franz feels he must protest.

Like An Ordinary Life, The Tobacconist is a short book. It doesn't have a complicated structure, it doesn't have a huge cast of characters, there is no big secret to be revealed, not much by way of twists or turns, no horrifying accounts of torture or interrogation. Yet it works - the story grips. Ordinary lives have their own drama; we all have a story to tell. Only we aren't all good at telling it. Seethaler is.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Hotel Florida - Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civi War: by Amanda Vaill

Probably most of us know something about the Spanish Civil War: that it took place in the 1930s; that it was fought between the Republicans and General Franco's forces, and that Franco won; that lots of idealistic young people from other countries went to Spain to fight for the Republic; perhaps we know also that some of the atrocities that took place remained hidden for decades, and are still now only just coming to light.

But probably even these things we only know in a hazy sort of way. The conflict, after all, was contained in a country which only borders two others, Portugal and France; it's on the edge of Europe, almost surrounded by sea. All hell could be - and was - let loose there, and the rest of Europe could stick its fingers in its ears and turn the other way.

Some countries - Britain and France, for instance - did just that. Others used the conflict as a sort of practice ground for the much greater one to come. So the Germans trialled carpet bombing when they destroyed a small country town called Guernica with the Condor Squadron which they had put at the service of Franco; the Russians supported the Republicans - and spirited the huge Spanish gold reserves out of the country, promising to keep them very, very safe - and ruthlessly suppressed rival left wing factions. The cynicism of Russia and Germany as they pulled the strings of this war, despite all we already know of their actions in the conflagration to follow, are truly shocking.

The history is complicated, ugly and difficult to grasp. This book gives an excellent overview of the conflict by focusing on the lives of three couples - who all at one point meet up at Madrid's Hotel Florida. It's not a novel: the author tells us in her introduction that it's a reconstruction, firmly based on evidence.

Probably the most famous of the six individuals is Ernest Hemingway. I've never managed to get on with Hemingway's writing. I can read a page or two and admire the prose style - but there's something about the personality behind it which has never appealed to me. After reading this book, I can see why. In the mid thirties, he is a very successful writer - a celebrity. He has a wealthy wife, Pauline, and uses her money to enjoy a very privileged lifestyle. He's a hunter, a fan of bull-fighting, a drinker, a man's man. He's macho, arrogant and very ready to use his fists.

But his writing has gone stale, and he sees Spain as a worthy, pure cause. (Despite his lifestyle, he sees himself as a communist.) So he gets himself accredited as a war correspondent and heads for Madrid - with an ambitious, well-connected young journalist called Martha Gellhorn at his side. She has blonde hair and long legs; she's also determined and fearless. Like many others, she hero-worships Hemingway.

The second couple are Arturo Barea, the only Spaniard of the six, and Ilse Kulcsar. As the civil war begins, Arturo, caught between a wife and a mistress (neither of whom he loves) also sees the Republican cause as something pure, something to which he can devote himself, becomes a censor working with the foreign correspondents who have flocked to Madrid, trying to ensure they write a truth which will help the cause. Ilse is Austrian and began her political life as a youthful communist, which has got her into trouble with the government. Together with her husband, she starts a resistance cell which also includes Hugh Gaitskell, later to become a prominent Labour politician in Britain, the poet Stephen Spender - and a certain Kim Philby. She becomes disillusioned with the Party, and with her husband, and like many others, sees the Spanish Republican cause as one worth fighting for. In Madrid, she works alongside Arturo, and they fall in love.

But perhaps the most attractive and likeable couple are Robert Capa and Gerda Taro (above - the picture is from the book). Both names are pseudonyms. She was born Polish, he Hungarian; both are Jewish, both are very young, both are determined to become war photographers and both are wildly, quixotically brave.

Amanda Vaill takes her time, moving between the three couples, letting us get to know them. As we follow their progress, we learn about the progress of the war. We read about the horrors which each side inflicts on the other - and which sometimes, one side inflicts on its own followers. We feel the surge of hope when the International Brigades are formed, and the shock as it becomes clear that the Republican forces - the forces of the elected government - are facing defeat. And finally we are told the fate of the six.

It's a fascinating book: readable, moving, clear and informative. After reading it, I felt I had a much clearer idea of what happened - though I shall need to find a different book to explain to me what led up to it.

PS Yesterday I downloaded a book by Alan Furst, who writes about some of the murkier corners of the Second World War. It's called Midnight In Europe, and it's hero is a Spaniard living in Paris. A few pages in, there is a description of the Hotel Florida, where a character is staying. Don't you just love it when connections like that happen, apparently by accident?