Writing update

Counting down to next February 2020 when my book One Scheme of Happiness is due to be published… Only four months and not so long ago it was 18 months and felt so far in the future it would almost never happen. Like a small child waiting for Christmas, the days and weeks stretched ahead over an impossibly long time.

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The Dutch House – a review

The Dutch House

Certainly the best novel I’ve read this year. Profound, moving and thought-provoking, this is Ann Patchett’s masterpiece.

The Dutch House is an exploration of family that raises important questions about how far anyone can ever come to terms with early trauma. In a cast of vividly memorable characters it is also the descriptions of the house itself that stayed with me. There are echoes of Scott Fitzgerald in the achingly sad image of a brother and sister constantly returning to sit in a car so they can look through the gates of what used to be their family home.

Highly recommended.

The Song of Peterloo – review

The song of peterlooYou may not have heard of the Peterloo massacre but it’s a piece of political and social history that deserves to be remembered. 2019 marks 200 years since unarmed mill workers in Manchester, protesting against poor and dangerous working conditions and demanding representation in parliament, were killed and injured by an unstable and ill-led militia, fresh from the Napoleonic wars. Following the Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated it became known as the Peterloo massacre, and, although the government of the day was more than satisfied that order had been re-established, it was the start of a movement against political corruption and led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian.

Carolyn O’Brien’s dramatic and engaging historical novel takes the events that led up to the 16th August, 1819 but keeps her focus on one young mill worker, Nancy Kay. Deserted by her drunk husband, she works in the mill and looks after an ailing mother as well as bringing up her ‘delicate’ son, Walter. When a child is maimed in a factory accident, the reader is drawn into a world of cruelty, inequality and the sheer will to survive. The story is told from a variety of points of view: Nancy’s friend, Mary who always looks out for Nancy and her family; the reforming mill owner, Samson, recently released from the army who sets up a school for child-workers and Joseph, who falls for Nancy but is morally unscrupulous. Nancy herself is a feisty, strong heroine gradually becoming more radicalised as working conditions deteriorate and food is scarce. She wants to protect her family and the only way she can do this is by joining others who want reform.

It’s clear from the beginning that in spite of the workers’ determination to be peaceful events will end in tragedy, but strong, imaginative writing with voices and dialects across the social classes keeps the reader intrigued and engaged. We want to know what will happen to Nancy and her hopes for change.

I particularly admire Carolyn O’Brien’s choice to give us an unconventional character in Nancy’s son, Walter. In spite of his unusual behaviour he is always loved and protected by his family, and Nancy demonstrates ways of keeping him calm and happy in impossibly difficult situations where they are threatened with increasing poverty and starvation. Nowadays he would be described as being on the autistic spectrum.

The tragedy of Peterloo still reverberates today when our political freedoms are once again under threat. I haven’t seen Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo, but this compelling novel has made me want to know more about an almost forgotten chapter in history that should be part of the school curriculum. The courage of ordinary workers like Nancy should be remembered. The Song of Peterloo resonates long after you finish reading it.



Writing update

This editing malarkey is a fascinating process. My lovely publisher has given me an editorial report so I know what needs to go, what needs to be improved and what (gulp!) extra chapters need to be written… But it’s not the straightforward process I was imagining (call me naive or what). Really it’s more: add a bit of this, tone down that and start that bit from the beginning. Kind of organic- the way most British towns have grown, rather than planned from the beginning. On the positive I guess I won’t end up with Milton Keynes.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton: a review

The Confessions of Franny LangtonThey say I must be put to death for what happened to Madame, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?’
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

Sara Collins includes Jane Eyre, Frankenstein and Beloved amongst the novels that most influenced her as a writer; and in this stunning debut you’ll find Toni Morrison’s intensity of vision, Charlotte Bronte’s downtrodden but determined heroine and Mary Shelley’s tragic monster. You might think the market is saturated in gothic fiction but The Confessions of Franny Langton is an entirely new take on the genre. Frannie is a heroine for our Me Too and Black Lives Matter times – feisty, brilliantly clever, black and a woman. In Georgian England being a woman is already a disadvantage (you get married or you go into service) but being black, an ex-slave and yet highly-educated means a constant struggle against privation and lack of self-determination.

In the coach house on her master’s estate in the Caribbean, Frannie has been forced to take an active role in gruesome, racial experiments on other black people, first on corpses then on living people. She’s tallied the vertebrae in the warehouse of a man’s back… pulled a heart out of its cage, thick and slippery. She’s also been taught to read and write (Moll Flanders is a favourite) so has to scribe Langton’s ‘research’ into Crania, the work he intends to publish. But after a move to London Frannie is shocked to learn that instead of being free, she has only been educated as a wager and now as a gift to Benham has to work for him and his wife, Madame as a servant.

Sara Collins consistently uses domestic imagery to paint Frannie’s narrow world of cleaning, preparing food and sewing, brilliantly evoking a sense of powerlessness and claustrophobia: the pinch of memory is sharp as salt; her cold words knocked me like a beaten rug and London is crumbling like a stale loaf. Frannie’s overriding emotion is a barely controlled fury at what has been done to her. When she falls in love with the cross-dressing, laudanum-addicted Madame, it’s with a ferocious erotic intensity; when even that is threatened, her anger is all-consuming.

The novel takes the premise that Frannie is writing her ‘confessions’ to her lawyer to support her defence. It’s meticulous on court procedures (as you’d expect from a writer who worked as a lawyer for seventeen years), and on the minutiae of a servant’s life in the early 19th century. But what must have been extensive historical research is so well enmeshed in the story that it is utterly convincing. Through Frannie’s contact with abolitionists and scientists, Sara Collins brings the terrible legacy of slavery bang into our own century; two hundred years later the odds are still stacked against women achieving success and particularly against black women no matter how well educated.

Although Frannie is a tragic monster like Mary Shelley’s ‘creature’, she always has our empathy; and if she really is guilty of killing her master and mistress we can understand why. But this compelling and brilliant novel won’t let you know until the final pages.

Slow reading & reading aloud

Our Mutual Friend

In the crazy rush to do everything I said to myself: Let’s slow down and enjoy this experience of reading. Really enjoy it like I used to when I was a child. For the third year in a row I’ve done a Dickens December and read one of his novels. This Christmas (2018) on a Twitter-friend’s recommendation I went for Our Mutual Friend. I had a vague recollection from 1970s TV of a very ‘rivery’ novel but that was about it. At first I thought I was drowning – it was totally confusing with each chapter introducing new characters, and I was also struggling with an old hardback copy with minute print. Enter the Kindle – Dickens is free to read as are many other classics and with that we were off. Suddenly I loved it. But what really made it amazing was reading aloud – I’m no actor but only had myself to please, and not the whole book, only when it felt right…so what if my Cockney accent is diabolical I had fun.

I’ve never seen Les Mis the musical and hardly knew the story, but after watching the BBC’s adaptation of Les Miserables I decided to read it.  In French. I have a very rusty degree in French (and Psychology) and thought at first I was attempting the impossible. But on a Kindle with a French dictionary downloaded it’s as easy as falling off a log, albeit a very, very long one (1,232 pages). And when the fancy takes me I’m reading it aloud in my very average French accent.

Will I finish in time for next December’s Dickens? And will I succumb to pressure and go to watch the musical … or is that a step too far?

les miserables

DOGGERLAND: a review

Doggerlandby Ben Smith,
published April 2019

All around, to every horizon, the blades of the wind farm turned.

Far from land, out in the North Sea a boy (Jem) and an old man (Greil) live and work on a vast wind farm. They maintain and service the 6,000 turbines of which 850 are broken and more are malfunctioning – ‘dark blooms and scabs of rust… seepages of oil and grease … slumped down at an angle, their foundations crumbling like silt.’ This is an elemental world coloured grey – mineral and metallic – where everything is constantly changing and being eroded by the sea; even the old man’s cheeks are ‘flushed purplish grey, like metal discoloured by a flame.’ The sea itself is polluted and sterile, with nothing moving in it apart from human rubbish and plastic. In an evocative description we see:

swathes of shining fluid that coated the surface of the water… shoals of plastic bags and bottles… the brittle shells of electrical appliances.

In this bleak environment set in the not too distant future, the two main characters are so rarely named they could be any of us, or represent each end of one life: youth and old age; innocence and experience. Their only contact is with the captain of the quarterly supply boat who brings the processed meals they live on and occasionally trades with them. To ease the boredom and acute isolation the man and boy play tricks and try to outmanoeuvre each other like an elaborate game of chess. The old man salvages artefacts from the seabed, evidence of the Stone Age civilisation who lived there when it was ‘Doggerland’ before sea levels rose and it was submerged. The boy’s main obsession is to find out what happened to his father who worked on the farm before him and who mysteriously disappeared. When he finds a shoe at the beginning of the novel he thinks it could be his father’s.

This inventive novel, written with a pared-down style that still admits genuinely beautiful poetry, has echoes of Waiting for Godot and The Truman Show. A very impressive debut from Ben Smith about isolation, selflessness and the indefatigable human urge to create and explore.

Background information about Doggerland:
Named after the Dogger Bank (familiar to listeners of BBC Radio’s shipping forecast) which in turn was named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called doggers, the prehistoric existence of a now submerged area of land linking Britain to mainland Europe was established in the late 19th century. It featured in a short story by H G Wells. In the 1990s interest was revived by archaeologist and academic, Bryony Coles, who named the area “Doggerland”

doggerland mapMap of how Doggerland might have looked.

Around 6,000 years ago, the nomadic Mesolithic people were forced out of Doggerland by rising water that engulfed their low-lying settlements. Modern fishermen often find ancient bones and tools that date to about 9,000 years ago.

skull of wooly mamothNorth sea 1999,DoggerlandThe skull of a woolly mammoth, discovered in the North Sea in 1999, in the area then known as Doggerland. Image: OGMIOS/CREATIVE COMMONS

Now (2018 onwards) archaeologists working for Swedish energy firm Vattenfall are examining a set of ‘cores’ recently extracted from the seabed as part of the developer’s surveys for its Norfolk Boreas offshore windfarm. The core samples provide an almost unbroken record of pre-historic environmental change from the end of the last Ice Age through to the flooding of Doggerland. The research will shed light on how quickly our ancestors would have needed to adapt to the changing coastline, as rising sea levels flooded the North Sea through the English Channel and cut off the British Isles from the European mainland. Climate scientists say a similar situation could affect the billions of people who live within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of a shoreline today, if polar ice caps continue to melt at an accelerated pace.