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?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

More watery places... and birds.

This time, in Brussels and Flanders over the last few days...

This was one massive bird!

Enjoying the sun at Het Vinne, Belgium's largest natural lake.

Black-headed gulls

Extraordinary mandarin duck - such colours! At Rouge Cloitre, in the Foret de Soignes.

A pile of goslings...

...and their mum (or possibly dad: an Egyptian goose

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Bookless in Norfolk 2: the Dr Ruth Galloway mysteries, by Elly Griffiths

At a place called Cley on the coast of Norfolk the Norfolk Wildlife Trust has a visitor centre. I didn't take a picture of it, and I can't find a good one, so you'll have to take my word for it that the centre looks rather like a beached ship, and fits very beautifully into the landscape. The front wall is mostly windows, and it looks out over the marshes, first freshwater and then salt, which lead to the edge of the land and the sea. There's a lot of sky above you, and a lot of space in front of you. Even if you're not an accomplished birdwatcher; you can't miss the birds.

A little white egret
The marshes

Like any visitor centre worth its salt (!), Cley has a shop. I homed in on the books, and found a mystery series set in Norfolk and written by Elly Griffiths. I bought the first one, which is called The Crossing Places, and it turned out to be an absolute treat.

It features a forensic archaeologist (someone who specialises in bones), called Ruth Galloway. Ruth lives on the edge of the marshes in a lonely little cottage, and she loves it. She is called in by the local police - in the form of one Harry Nelson - when they find the bones of a child near the site of a prehistoric wooden henge which Ruth played a part in uncovering some years before. Nelson hopes they are the bones of a child who went missing ten years before - he is desperate to give closure to her parents, and haunted by a series of anonymous letters taunting him about his inability to solve the case. However, the bones turn out to be considerably older than that.

Then another child goes missing. Ruth helps Nelson to investigate the case - and finds that she herself is drawn into danger.

The story is good and it's very well told. But it's the characters that are the real draw. There's Ruth, who is fortyish, overweight, clever, independent and funny. There's Nelson, who is tall, handsome, does a good line in dark scowls, and is fiercely loyal to his team and protective of his family, the beautiful Michelle and their two daughters. There's Cathbad the druid, who really does seem to have semi-magical powers, and has a way of being exactly where and when he is needed. There's Cloughie, the detective sergeant, who eats all the time but never puts on weight, and Judy, also a detective sergeant, who's tough but also good at empathy, and vies with Clough for Nelson's approval. There's beautiful Shona, Ruth's friend, feckless and faithless, and there's loathsome Phil, Ruth's ambitious, attention-seeking boss.

All of these and more reappear in all the books - I think there are nine to date. Their intertwining stories are ongoing, and to appreciate and enjoy them properly it really is best to read the books in order. Each book is set at least partly in a different bit of Norfolk, and the plots don't repeat each other, although some elements do. The characters aren't predictable. Their lives become messy, but just in the way that real lives do. The landscape is described beautifully, and its long history is often integral to the stories.

I've read them all now, except for the last one, which I'm trying to save, like the last bit of chocolate. I meant to stop after a couple and make them last - but it's so fatally easy with a Kindle; your finger hovers over the screen, as you think, 'Well maybe just one more - one more won't really make a difference, will it...? Because I really do need to know whether it's going to work out between X and X, and whether Y is going to happen...'

I really do recommend this series. Elly Griffiths is a seriously good writer, albeit one with a great sense of humour and the ability to observe human nature with forensic accuracy, but also with kindness and understanding.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Bookless in Norfolk - well, almost. City of Shadows, by Michael Russell

I’m on holiday at the moment, in North Norfolk. I’ve never been here before; it’s a green, rolling landscape, with unspoilt villages whose houses are faced with flint pebbles or made of russet brick; clear streams, daffodils and hellebores, ponderous pheasants, swooping owls at dusk  – and a clean, breezy coastline edged with marshes teeming with lapwings, terns and little white egrets.

A watery bit of Norfolk.

What it doesn’t have – well, our particular little bit of it anyway – is internet or phone service. This is because, a few days ago, a farmer drove his tractor into a telegraph pole and took out all the cables – and this apparently will take at least a week to fix.  It’s quite interesting really; it’s as if we’ve gone back in time, or as if we're cut off from the outside world. The village shop can’t take cards or ring in orders. A van driver wanders in looking bemused; his sat nav has suddenly stopped working, and he can’t find the house he’s looking for.

And I’ve run out of reading matter. I hunt through the books in the cottage we’re staying in, certain I’ll find something there. I try three. The first is painfully badly written. The second – I can’t even remember the second. The third is a Ruth Rendell, and I have high hopes, but in this particular novel, she seems to be grappling very uneasily with notions of political correctness and with characters with whose background and way of life she is palpably ill at ease. The result is uncomfortable and rather dull.

So I hunt through my Kindle. I can’t download anything new, because there is no wifi. I go back, in search of something I haven’t yet read. And I find this: The City of Shadows, by Michael Russell. I don't remember it. I probably downloaded it before I was going away somewhere, in a sudden panic that I might run out of things to read – an Amazon recommendation, perhaps. It’s a detective story, and it’s set partly in Ireland and partly in Poland. Three reasons for me to be interested, so I start to read.

Set in the early 1930s, it begins with an evocative description of night-time Dublin, with the moon shining on the River Liffey. ‘Yet sometimes, when the moon was low and heavy over the city, the Liffey seemed to remember the light of the moon and the stars in the mountains, and the nights when its cascading streams were the only sound.’ Peaceful yet brooding, this sentence alone is enough reason to read on. But the peace doesn’t last; a few pages in, a young gay man is brutally murdered. It’s clear that the Church, and a high-ranking priest, are involved.

Cut to two years later, and Detective Sergeant Stefan Gillespie is trying to catch an illegal abortionist. A young woman goes into his house, and Stefan – who is himself half German - and his constable, Dessie, assume that she is seeking an abortion at the hands of the German doctor. But things are not as they seem. The woman, Hannah Rosen, who is Jewish, is not there on her own account: she’s searching for a missing friend. And Dr Keller turns out to have powerful protectors who warn Stefan off.

Stefan, a widower with a young son who lives with Stefan’s parents on a farm outside the city, agrees to help Hannah. But things become increasingly murky; and Stefan has his own problems with a fanatical priest who wants to take his son away from him, because he believes Stefan is not giving him a properly Catholic upbringing.

Stefan’s desire to help Hannah, and to uncover the truth behind Keller’s involvement and subsequent smoothly effected escape, takes him to Gdansk. The plot deepens in complexity, and Russell helped me to understand a great deal more than I did before about both the position of the Church in Ireland, and about the history of Gdansk – which was a few years later, of course, the place where Hitler’s troops invaded, lighting the touch paper for war.

But it’s also beautifully written, and the characters are subtle, complex and very believable. (I hate to think there could really be fanatics such as the village priest, but I fear the evidence is all too strong that there were - and are - people who are so blinded by a perverted vision of faith that they are capable of appalling cruelty.) It’s a very good book.

Next time – another fruit of being bookless in Norfolk!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain

I'm a big fan of Rose Tremain. I don't often re-read books, but I've read the The Way Home, about an economic migrant to Britain from Eastern Europe, several times: it's touching and funny and sad and warm, with complex, richly realised characters. Music and Silence - which I've also re-read and, thinking about it, may read again is set in the 17th century Danish court - very different, and quite mesmerising.

The Gustav Sonata is quite a short novel. It's divided into three parts, and after finishing it occurred to me - musical ignoramus that I am - that this might mimic the structure of a sonata, and sure enough, it does:

Sonata: a type of composition in three sections (exposition, development, and recapitulation) in which two themes or subjects are explored according to set key relationships. It forms the basis for much classical music, including the sonata, symphony, and concerto. (Google)

The two subjects are two boys, Anton and Gustav, with Gustav being the point-of-view character. They live in a Swiss town where nothing much happens. Gustav's circumstances are materially and also emotionally poor; his mother seems bitter and cold, and unable to really love him. His life is enriched when he makes friends with a new boy, a musical prodigy, whose parents are loving and warm and take Gustav into their hearts.

The second section goes back in time to explore the story of Gustav's parents (his father died during the war - in which, of course, Switzerland did not take part - when he was very small). Then the third section moves forward in time, to explain what becomes of Anton and Gustav in middle age.

As in all Rose Tremain's books, no matter how diverse their settings, the characters in all their complexity are the focus. And not just the main ones: Lotte, beautiful in her youth, still hungry for life, passion and fashion in her old age, is a wonderful creation. Even bit-part players, like Lunardi the chef, is completely three-dimensional; though he says little, he's very real. She explores and highlights relationships: weakness, selfishness, the accommodations that people make, the deceptions they learn to live with - but also the strength of love, the kindness and generosity to be found in unexpected places.

I knew nothing about life in Switzerland during the war, and it was interesting to discover how, despite being neutral, it was still affected. But really, what grips is the story of these two lives, and how they touch and are touched by those of others. It's a satisfying, thought-provoking and moving novel, and you really couldn't ask for much more, could you?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Might and right - Thomas Becket

Geoffrey Chaucer - a kindly face from Canterbury.

A few weeks ago, we went to Canterbury. I always compare other cathedrals to Wells, my 'local', and Wells always wins - it is so very beautiful. But what Canterbury does have is an incredibly powerful story which is soaked into its very stones. It's the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 to 1170: specifically, it's the story of his murder. He died because he resisted his King; because he believed that what he thought was right aced his duty to his liege lord. Perhaps there's a message here for the people who surround our present leaders.

Becket came from a moderately well-to-do Norman family. As he was beginning to make his way in the world, his father suffered some kind of financial setback, and Thomas had to take a position as a clerk to pay his way. However, he did well: working to start off with for a relative, but later moving to the household of Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury - then, as now, the archbishopric of Canterbury was the foremost one in the English church. Becket did well, and in 1154 he became Archdeacon of Canterbury, as well as being given various other posts in the church.

In fact, he did so well that Theobald recommended him to the King, Henry 11 for the post of Lord Chancellor - a position of considerable power and renown. Henry was engaged in a struggle with the church, because he felt it had too much power - power which too closely rivalled his own: for instance, a priest could only be tried in a church court, not in a civil court, no matter how heinous his crime. He believed that Becket was on his side - that he was ideally placed, with one foot in the church camp and one in the secular camp, to help him to shift the balance of power in favour of the crown.

At first, all went as planned. Becket helped Henry to extract money both from the church and from secular landowners; the two men got on well, with Henry even sending his son to live in Becket's household.

Then Theobald died, and Henry had a brilliant idea: he would make his friend archbishop, and then power over the church - with all its possessions and immense riches - and state would reside firmly in Henry's hands.

But it didn't work out like that. Thomas took his new position and responsibilities extremely seriously. He saw it as his duty not to do what Henry wanted, but to defend the church - if necessary, to the death. Henry was astonished. How dare this man, whom he had raised up - his friend - defy him? Wounded and furious at this perceived betrayal (is this reminding you of anyone?), he exiled him. The Pope eventually brokered a kind of peace, and Becket returned: but still he defied the King. Eventually, in what might possibly be called a tantrum, Henry turned on his courtiers and demanded to know why none of them would sort Becket out for him. (The exact words are not known, but he is commonly said to have railed at them: 'Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?') And four knights took him at his word.

This is where Thomas was killed. The two swords, and their shadows, represent the four knights who killed him.

They went to Canterbury, and inside the church, in a small space where one staircase led to the crypt, another up to the altar, and a door led to the cloisters, they brutally attacked him. As he died, his blood soaked into the stones.

Did Henry really mean this to happen? Did the knights misunderstand? Afterwards, he came to the cathedral and did humble and apparently sincere penance. But the four knights, though they eventually had to go into exile, were not arrested and their lands were not confiscated.

Very quickly, Becket's tomb inside the cathedral became a place of sanctity and pilgrimage - a place to come and be healed. Becket was soon declared a saint. Fifty years later, his remains were moved upstairs to the new eastern part of the cathedral, beyond the altar, into a tomb richly decorated with gold and jewels. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus, the famous Dutch humanist, priest and theologian, saw the tomb and was astonished by it; he said that the gold was the least of its riches, compared to the wealth of precious stones which had been given by kings and nobles in homage to the martyr.

A few years later, Henry VIII ransacked the tomb and stole the gold and the jewels. It wasn't just about the money: it was about the story as well. Henry, the power-crazed despot, had to do everything he could to obliterate the cult of Thomas Becket; because, even more so than Henry II, he couldn't bear the thought that a commoner should defy the king; that a man's conscience should be more important to him than his allegiance to the crown.

But it didn't work; the story, and the cult, survived. Thomas, and what he stood far - a determination to act according to his conscience - was not forgotten, despite the best efforts first of one king, then of another, far more brutal one.

I'm not a believer, but I think that's quite an encouraging message from the stones of Canterbury Cathedral. Especially at the moment. Those who are close to political leaders, take note: your allegiance to what is right takes precedence over your allegiance to your boss. That's the message that resounds down the centuries from Thomas Becket.

Monday, 27 February 2017

News from the hill

There have been dramatic happenings up on the hill over the last couple of weeks. Yellow plastic signs appeare warning of forestry operations, and these were followed by enormous tractors with shovels and suchlike on the front. Every few years, men and machines come and clear away the brambles and bracken which constantly seek to smother the whole hill - but in thirty years I've never seen them do as thorough a job as they have done this time. They've pretty much rearranged the landscape. In the picture above, the golden-brown areas are where just one small area of scrub has been destroyed.

It was all a bit worrying - where were they going to stop? How much was going to be destroyed? Well, a good deal. But I think it was necessary. They've opened up new clearings and vistas and created shapely little copses. I guess it's like gardening, only on a much bigger scale; you prune a bush, and it feels like a massacre, but then it goes back better and healthier. It's not natural, but then very little of the British landscape is - it's all managed, and has been for thousands for years.

I have just two quibbles. There was a lovely little clearing with limestone outcrops which were perfect to sit on and gaze across the valley towards Nyland and Glastonbury. It's on quite a steep slope, and I think the tractor must have got stuck so that the wheels spun round and gouged out great clods of earth and stone - it's a mess. I don't know what it was doing there; there was nothing that needed clearing and the path was nowhere near wide or level enough for any kind of vehicle. Every time I walk through there up with Ness, I spend a bit of time tidying it up, making it better, clod by clod, stone by stone - I feel like Tom Bombadil, only without the songs.

The other worry is an area on the edge of a copse where there used to be a very large and very old badger sett. That's flattened now. But the other day when I went past, I spotted two holes that I hadn't noticed since the work was done - and so I'm hoping that the badgers survived and are reclaiming their home. We'll see.

This curved remnant of stone is all that's left of the Roundhouse, which is also what local people call the hill, whose official name is, I think, the Perch. An old-timer once told me that in his younger days he used to be a beater for the local hunt, and the Roundhouse was where the hunters used to gather to have their picnic. They chose a good spot - there are marvellous views across the valley from here. Now, it's another good place to sit and contemplate the rather sorry state of the world, or its beauty, depending how you're feeling. Its crannies host lots of small ferns, mosses and other plants. The brambles were creeping closer and closer to the Roundhouse - I'm glad they've been cut back.

The gorse is out and bright at the moment. Another old-timer, long gone now, once told me there was a saying: "When gorse is out of season, kissing's out of fashion."

Once before when they cleared the brambles and bracken, a few months later a gorgeous patch of pale blue harebells appeared. They grow freely on most hills - in the Peak District, in North Wales - but you rarely see them on the Mendips round here: I don't know why. They only appeared the once. So I'm hoping that will be another bonus from the clearance.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Reading the detectives 4: Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker

I'm astonished to see that it's over two years since I wrote about a detective series. It's not that I haven't read any since then - I have. But it's true that for a while now, I haven't felt like reading about murder and mayhem. Perhaps there's been too much mayhem going on in real life.

But just recently I came across this series, written by Martin Walker and set in the Dordogne. And actually, these books are just the thing for a bit of mid-winter escapism, despite the crime.

The hero - and what a hero he is - is Bruno Courreges. (And I'm sorry that doesn't have the appropriate accents; I don't know how to do them in Blogger, and if anyone does, please tell me!) Bruno is the Chief of Police in a small town in the Perigord (near all those painted caves) called St Denis. He works closely with the Mayor to ensure the well-being of all the town's inhabitants, and he's so devoted to his job and his town that he turns down frequent invitations to be promoted to a job in Paris working for the rather shadowy Brigadier, who works for a mysterious intelligence agency and has links to the highest levels of government. Moving to Paris would also mean that he could be with Isabelle, probably the truest of his several loves, who also works for the Brigadier - but he simply can't tear himself away from St Denis.

The first book in the series.

And who could blame him? It's the most enchanting place, peopled with an array of colourful characters who all adore him - unsurprisingly, as he rescues them from dire fates on a regular basis, teaches their children tennis and rugby, dresses up as Father Christmas, and cooks them delicious feasts. He doesn't earn very much money, but this doesn't bother him: with the help of his friends he has built a charming house; he has an adorable dog with which he goes hunting for game, all of which he eats (this is the Perigord, after all: no country for vegetarians); he grows salad, vegetables and fruit in his garden; and he gets everything else - wine, cheese, cream, croissants - from friends.

He's caring, tender and intelligent, and he has a strong set of values. Unlike many literary detectives, he doesn't become ground down by the evil he encounters, and there is never any danger that he will cross the line; his moral compass is firmly set.

It's escapism, but into a world which apparently does actually exist: the author, Martin Walker, has a house in the Dordogne himself, and many of the characters are inspired by people he knows. And, as with Montalbano and Sicily, or Commissario Brunetti and Venice, or Dr Siri and Laos, you learn a great deal about the country in which the detective operates: how its legal system works, its recent history, the problems it faces. So in the Bruno novels I've read recently, there's been an exploration of the legacy of the French involvement in Vietnam, an overview of the wine trade, a look at the conflict between traditional hunters and their opponents, and an examination as to how the history of resistance and occupation is remembered - or sometimes stifled.

And beside all that, there's the food. Oh, the food...

'Bruno's summer soup was quickly made. He chopped two green peppers, peeled and sliced a cucumber and put them all into the blender with two cloves of garlic, two glasses of wine and half a glass of olive oil. He pored boiling water over four tomatoes to loosen their skins, peeled them and squeezed oyt the pips and added the tomato flesh to the blender...' And he's already got some delicious home-made bread on the go - and this isn't even in his own house!

What a guy. And of course he's also exceedingly good at solving crimes. Usually several at a time.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exposure: Helen Dunmore

Although I'm a big fan of Helen Dunmore, I almost didn't want to read this after the first few pages, intriguing as it was - because it re-creates so convincingly the world of post-war Britain. This was the world of my childhood. Unlike Lily, the main character in this book, I lived not in London but in the industrial midlands, and not in a private house but a council house - so there are differences. But what is instantly familiar is the sense of only just managing; the sense that, although there's enough to eat and enough money to buy what you need, there's only ever just enough: that there's only a thin curtain between everything being all right and everything being very much not all right. The war was over before I was born, but it still loomed large; there were shortages, and the war was part of everyday conversation among the grown-ups - not in a deep and meaningful way, but just part of everybody's frame of reference.

But the state kept an eye on you - particularly if you were a child. You got orange juice and cod liver oil from the clinic and small bottles of milk - as Dunmore describes - at playtime at school. Clothes were passed on or made by your mum; jumpers were hand-knitted. There was no such thing as jeans.

I'm rambling - but that's because this book takes you with such certainty and accuracy into that world. But it also takes you into another world - one which I only became aware of much later, through films and books and newspaper articles: the world of cold war spies. The two worlds co-existed - not in the Midlands industrial town where I was brought up, but certainly in the suburbs of London. Dunmore's heroine is Lily Callington: Lily who was originally Lili, a German Jew whose mother brought her over to England before the war. Lily speaks perfect English, and has done her best to forget she ever knew German. But she remembers. She remembers the first time she realised that even home wasn't safe; when she got in the lift to go up to their apartment  and a lady called her 'Dirty little Jew'. A 'nice lady in a summer dress with yellow and purple pansies on it'. Evil does not always come in the most obvious of guises.

Whose story is it? Is it Lily's? Or is it her husband, Simon's? Simon works for the civil service. He got the job through an older man, Giles, with whom he had an affair while he was at Cambridge. Giles loved Simon then, and still loves him, but Giles is a spy, and when an accident leaves him vulnerable to discovery, he decides to sacrifice Simon - Simon is a small player; he can take the blame. It's Giles' story too. And then there's Julian: the smooth, ruthless spy master. He's prepared to sacrifice anybody who might endanger him - but he reckons without Lily.

The book really has the feel and atmosphere of the fifties; of sitting in a living room close to the fire because there's no central heating, listening to the wireless - and on a bigger scale, of the political picture: the divided loyalties, suspicions and betrayals of the Cold War. But it's not all gloom and doom. There's love and courage, and ultimately, redemption. And, as ever with Helen Dunmore, beautiful writing.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

That Burning Summer, by Lydia Syson - just published in the US by Sky Pony Press

Set during the Battle of Britain, this book deals not with the undoubted heroism of the Few - the pilots and crew of the RAF - but with those who, for one reason or another, came to to the decision that they could not take an active part in fighting the war.

Sixteen year old Peggy's father, a conscientious objector, is one of these. He has been interned, and Peggy, her younger brother Ernest and her mother have come to live with Aunt Myra in an isolated farmhouse in Romney Marsh.

Ernest, a serious, thoughtful boy, is desperately anxious about what will happen if the Germans invade. Peggy is determinedly keeping her spirits up, in the face of the obvious disapproval of people in the village of her father's principled but unpopular stance, and despite Ernest's constant anxiety and need for reassurance.

Then a plane crashes into the marsh. Its pilot is Henryk, a young Polish airman who has joined the RAF after fleeing Poland after the German invasion in order to continue to fight. (Many Polish aircrew escaped, first to France and then to England. They were noted for their daring and bravery - but at the end of the war, Poland was shamefully betrayed, and the Polish aircrew were not acknowledged in the victory celebrations for fear of antagonising Stalin.) Henryk has been through a harrowing time: traumatised, he decides he can no longer continue to fight, and he goes into hiding. One day he approaches the farm for food - and runs into Peggy. She finds herself helping him, and she becomes more and more drawn to him. But should she be aiding a deserter? And should she be pressuring Ernest to do the same? There are difficult decisions to be made, with no easy answers.

The novel explores unusual territory for a book about the Second World War. Pilots who could no longer cope with what they were required to do could be accused of LMF - lack of moral fibre -and ignominiously treated - or if they deserted, they would be court-martialled. And yet they were under almost unbearable pressure; that summer, they pretty much alone stood between Britain and defeat. (A few years later, my uncle, a boy of 19 and a rear gunner in the RAF, agreed to do a sortie for a friend - he had done his required number of flights and should have been on leave. He confided to my mother the night he left home to go back to base that he was afraid; he didn't want to go, he had a bad feeling about this trip. He went, and was killed - lost over Germany. One, of course, of many.)

And there's Ernest, who is so anxious, so afraid that there might be an invasion. From this end of the war, we know the outcome - we know that Hitler never did invade. It's so easy to forget that at the time, invasion was a real and terrifying threat.

But as well as all this, That Burning Summer is a tender coming of age and love story. It's beautifully written and a sensitive exploration of a relatively unexplored area of the second world war - do read it!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Lara, by Anna Pasternak

I must have been about fourteen when I first saw David Lean’s hauntingly beautiful film of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago. Set in and after the time of the Russian Revolution, it starred Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor; and Julie Christie as Lara, the woman with whom he falls deeply in love. Geraldine Chaplin was Tonya, his wife – whom he also loves, but in a much quieter way. Rod Steiger was the brutal realist and seducer of the young Lara, and Tom Courtenay was the young revolutionary whom she marries. But the backdrop was a huge part of the magic too: the vast forest and steppes of Russia; slender birches with leaves stirred by a restless wind; the snowy streets of St Petersburg, splashed with the blood of the poor.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif as Lara and Yuri

The story matched the sweep of the landscape, and Omar Sharif – dark, sensitive, tender – and Julie Christie – passionate, vulnerable, and so beautiful – were the perfect vehicles to drive it. I, along with at least a generation, was bewitched by it – and so when I saw this book, called Lara and with a picture of Julie Christie on the front (though, rather oddly, the picture is not from the film), I immediately reached for it.

But it’s not, of course, the story of Lara – that was Dr Zhivago itself. This is the story of Olga Ivinskaya, the woman who inspired much of the character of Lara. Not all: the inciting incident, Lara’s seduction by Komarovsky, is based on something that happened to Pasternak’s second wife, Zinaida, whom he had wooed away from her first husband (who happened to be one of his best friends). In order to be with her, he left his first wife and child. But they turned out to be very different people; she had little interest in his career as a highly successful poet and was fearful that his determination to speak out freely would cause trouble with the authorities. (She was quite right: it did.) It seems typical of Pasternak's devotion to his art that he would take whatever he needed from the lives of both his wife and his mistress to create his heroine.

Boris met Olga in 1946, when he was 56 and she was 34, twelve years after his marriage to Zinaida. They met in the offices of a literary magazine where she worked. She was blonde and very pretty, and she was a passionate fan. Her romantic life, like his, had been eventful: her first husband killed himself when he discovered that she was having an affair with the man who later became her second husband - who in turn died young, from lung disease.

Boris courted Olga, and they were soon lovers. They had a great deal in common. As Anna Pasternak writes: Both were melodramatic romantics given to extraordinary flights of fantasy. ‘And now there he was at my desk by the window,’ she (Olga) later wrote, ‘the most unstinting man in the world, to whom it had been given to speak in the name of the clouds, the stars and the wind…’ Epic romantics indeed. They were together until Pasternak’s death; their lives were closely intertwined. She supported and encouraged his writing, he relied on her utterly, he had a close relationship with her daughter Irina – but he never left Zinaida for her, even though, had he done so, his name would probably have protected her from a great deal of suffering - including two stints in the Gulag.

Interestingly, Anna Pasternak is Boris’s great-niece, so she has access to sources which would have been less easily available to another author. She tells us that 'both Olga and her daughter, Irina, have received a bad rap from my family. The Pasternaks have always been keen to play down the role of Olga in Boris’s life and literary achievements…for him to have had two wives… and a public mistress was indigestible to their staunch moral code.' Anna clearly sees things differently. She writes towards the end of the book: 'When I began Lara, I was secretly concerned that I would discover that Boris used Olga…' but as she went on, she concluded that this was not the case, and she was surprised to develop a more tolerant affection for Boris.

Olga as a young woman

Olga inspired the character of Lara, but she assisted at the birth of the novel in another way too. When, in 1957, after twenty years in the writing, it was finally ready for publication, the Russian authorities were outraged by its critical portrayal of the Revolution. They refused to allow publication unless Boris would agree to water it down considerably. Unlike Zinaida, Olga supported his refusal to do this, and worked with him and with an Italian publisher to enable it to be published, first in Italy, later all over the world. Pasternak was held in high regard in Russia, and had been for many years – even Stalin had been an admirer. He was shielded from the fallout – but Olga was not. She was sent to Siberia twice because of her association with Boris and the book.

The story of Olga and Boris has almost the romantic, epic sweep as that of Lara and Yuri – and it gives us a sobering glimpse into how life was in an autocratic society which lacked the freedoms which we take for granted. It’s a fascinating read - and it really makes me want to see that film again...

A version of this review appeared early last week on Writers Review.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Happy New Year!

Well, it's over a week late, but HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

I have to admit, I'm usually a bit of a Scrooge about Christmas, and am generally delighted when the year turns and I can have a good old clear-out and start looking forward to the spring.

This year, all the family, including three grandsons, were here, and it was marvellous. (And now, it's oh so quiet!) So all the more reason to look for signs of spring.

There are some brave bulbs pushing green shoots up above the ground, and I've even seen snowdrops out in other gardens - but not in ours. But there is this rather splendid clump of hellebores, or Christmas roses, as my mother used to call them. She was a much better gardener than I am. Several times she gave me a clump of Christmas roses - which she loved - but without fail, they disappeared. So I'm very pleased that, for the first time, I have a thriving plant.

So I give you Christmas roses, beautiful and sturdy, as a sign of things to come. I hope.