I’m delighted to announce that my new novel, Lost Daughter, will be published by Bookouture in May 2019.
It’s an emotional family drama about Rachel, whose life has unravelled since her husband has been given custody of their young daughter Becca after a messy break-up.
There’ll be another book from me out from Bookouture in September 2019.
I think my younger, book-loving self (pictured here reading in bed, big fan of Enid Blyton and Bunty) would have been thrilled if she could have time-travelled to pick up the news…
Here’s what my brilliant editor, Bookouture associate publisher Kathryn Taussig, had to say about Lost Daughter and my writing (OK so this is the part when I get ready to blush):
‘It’s such a rare thing to find an author who can write family drama well, and for this reason I’m over the moon to be publishing Ali Mercer. Her writing is beautiful, thoughtful and moving. Her characters are believably flawed and yet endlessly relatable and her stories are engrossing. Lost Daughter is a perfect fit for Bookouture and I know it will delight readers of Jodi Picoult, Diane Chamberlain and Kerry Fisher.’
Bookouture are brilliant – they’re forward-looking and fast-moving but they take their time looking after their authors and getting their books just right, and they really know how to develop author’s brands and build the relationship between readers and writers. And Kathryn is a star. We’re both up for a bit of strong emotion, twisty drama and suspense, and we’re both fascinated by what makes families tick and what goes on behind closed doors. There’s no secret like a family secret, and no secret is quite as explosive as one that has been suppressed but comes out in the end…
Before I got started on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books I thought they might be too cosy and cream bun-ish for me. But then enough people sang their praises to prompt me to try them, and they turned out to be much sharper and darker than I’d anticipated.
Yes, there are dresses and dinners, but also: sex, sexuality, secrets, infidelity, betrayal, loyalty, unrequited love, requited love, grief, unwanted pregnancies, children who long for lost or absent parents, marriages of all kinds, the tension between duty and desire, and the long friendships of cousins. All that plus a portrait of an extended family as a microcosm of social change before, during and after the Second World War.
So now I have just one Cazalet book left, All Change. It’s always rather melancholy to approach the end of a series. After the first four Cazalet books I read Slipstream, EJH’s autobiography, and that’s what I wanted to blog about. Any writer’s autobiography is of potential interest to anyone who writes or is interested in writing, and this one offered up numerous insights that caught my eye.
Comfort reading… but not
Slipstream is comfort reading, of a kind – up to a point. It’s the story of a woman who survived acute maternal guilt and numerous difficult though interesting lovers to become what she wanted to be – a writer. There are lots of other writers in its pages, too, in various roles and relationships, including Kingsley Amis (to whom EJH was married for many years) and Martin Amis, her stepson – she gave him Pride and Prejudice and declined to tell him how it ended, so he had to read it for himself; he encouraged her to follow through on her idea for the Cazalet books. Here’s some of what Slipstream has to say about intuition, art, war, love, learning, the work and rewards of writing, age and truth.
On intuition, art, the war years and learning
‘Premonitions bring with them a sense of powerlessness and guilt – what can be the point of even half knowing something about which one seems able to do nothing?’
‘To sit for a painter was even better than being asked to turn pages of music for a pianist: it was being a kind of associate member of the arts, and I could think of nothing more desirable than that.’
‘The war hung over our heads, but we hardly referred to it. Glass fell reluctantly from the roof of the school studio, and was kicked aside by earnest, sandalled feet… We were selfish, preoccupied and, I think now, we simply didn’t understand what was going on, as we never considered it long enough to find out. Behind it all was the feeling that we’d be dragged into it eventually so we had a kind of greedy desperation to get every drop out of every second of the time we had left to pursue our own ends.’
‘Walking home, it was clear how very little I knew and how little I understood of anything I’d thought I knew. Even learning to type wouldn’t help me with his feelings, which meant that either education, as I’d thought of it, wasn’t education at all, or it was merely a preliminary, at its best, for something that was going to last for the rest of my life.’
On the preoccupation with love and wanting to write
‘Another reason that my novel took so long was my preoccupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions. As far as sexual love was concerned, I was older but not much wiser. But every other aspect of love – intimacy, affection, being first in each other’s lives – I wanted, as much as I wanted to write. The problem of how to combine them was far in the future. I thought that if I could get love right, everything else would follow naturally. I don’t write this to imply I was unusual; most women feel the same in varying degrees, I think.’
‘Furthermore I was lazy with my writing; I’d not yet learned the kind of discipline necessary for serious work.’
‘There is a great difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, and this isn’t always obvious in the salad days of a writer’s creative life, and sometimes never.’
‘I knew by now that a number of people regarded me as beautiful. But much in the way that rich people don’t want to be loved simply because they are rich, I didn’t want to be loved simply for my appearance…. I simply felt I was making a hash of it, and underlying that foggy conclusion lay the dread that I wasn’t anything else. I still had the desire to write, but depression leaks energy – like pain – and all that summer I couldn’t write.’
On the strange feeling of finishing a book and the knowledge of love
‘The feeling after completing a novel is for me like no other. It’s as though with the last sentence, I have released a great weight that falls away, leaving me so empty and light that I can float out of myself and look down at the pattern of the work I’ve made. I can see all at once what I have been pursuing in fragments for so long. It’s a timeless moment, a kind of ecstasy – a state of unconditional love – that has nothing whatever to do with merit or criticism. Of course it goes, dissolves into melancholy and a sense of loss. Parting with people one has been living with for so long and know so intimately is poignant; they are more lost to you than anyone you meet in life. They remain crystallized exactly where you left them. Altogether, it’s an occasion that makes one feel very strange for some time afterwards.’
‘I began to understand that love is neither a conditional business nor an ever-fixed mark by arrangement. People always know somewhere inside themselves if they are not loved. No gestures, talk, conciliation, pronouncements can prevail over that deep instinctual knowledge.’
‘This trip was a farcical failure… I was supposed to give a reading at Brentano’s bookshop at seven pm. When I arrived there was no audience.’
(of Doris Lessing) ‘We went shopping together, and I wanted a rather expensive jacket, and she said, “Go on. You’ve just finished your book, you can have a treat.”‘
On age, happiness and truth
‘…it’s often difficult to feel your age. Apart from the fact I wasn’t sure what this entailed, in many ways I didn’t feel my age. Like one’s appearance or handwriting, one retains an earlier impression of oneself and takes it for granted, no longer sees what one is.’
‘Nearly everyone I’d known who’d had cancer had died of it in the end. It was extraordinary how all my values shifted – as though I’d shaken a kaleidoscope and all the little segments, though still there, had made an unrecognisable pattern. Unhappy, lonely or a failure I might have been, but even those ingredients of my life now seemed precious – even desirable.’
‘On the ninth morning, I had to go into town to buy food, and suddenly – walking down the street to my house – I lightened completely as though, without warning, I’d emerged from a heavy fog into clear sunlight. I felt extraordinarily, irrationally happy.’
‘Liars destroy the currency of all words: there was no single fragment of truth I could hang on to.’
‘I’ve slowly learned some significant things – perhaps most of all the virtue, the extreme importance of truth, which, it seems to me now, should be continually searched for and treasured when any piece of it is found.’
At a time of ongoing political uncertainty and division, it was good to spend an hour sitting in a crowded lecture theatre in Abingdon hearing about people who are aiming for the stars – or rather, aiming to recreate and harness the energy of the stars. It’s a quest of mythic proportions, with a prize at the end that could change all our lives if only someone can win it: a source of fuel that is clean, safe and abundant. Nuclear fusion is potentially the solution to mankind’s energy needs. And it’s eminently possible that the moment at which it becomes viable will happen just down the road here in Oxfordshire… though as with all quests, there are plenty of obstacles to be overcome first.
Nuclear fusion is the energy of the stars – it’s the process by which the sun generates the light and heat that makes life on earth possible. It’s also how all the heavier elements in the universe were made. There are several projects around the world that are exploring ways of managing and controlling this process, and Oxfordshire is a hotspot for research in this area. When I saw that ATOM, the annual Festival of Science & Technology based in Abingdon, was to include a talk about the subject, I decided to go along and find out more.
The lecture was held at Our Lady’s school, and it was packed. Alan Costley, who has been working in the nuclear fusion field for 45 years, explained how nuclear fusion works: two atoms are brought together to make a bigger atom – plus energy. However, very specific conditions are required to make this possible, in particular astonishingly high temperatures – ‘fusion temperatures’ of 100 million degrees, hotter than the centre of the sun. Unsurprisingly, this has been challenging to achieve. It was first done around 1965, and successive attempts have got ever closer to the line where the experiments will achieve ‘positive energy’ – where they generate more energy than is put in. At that point, you have a potential fuel source. Apparently, for decades, this positive energy moment was said to be 30 years away. It’s now thought to be five years away.
So who are the players in the nuclear fusion race? There is a huge project backed with multinational state funding, ITER, near Aix-en-Provence in France, where it occupies a 1.5km site. Pictures of the project under development reminded me of the days of early computing – the scale of the machinery, the complex assembly of components. The history of such largescale science projects is, unsurprisingly, marked by delays and overspends. Engineer Rob Manning, who lead the project to land a spacecraft on Mars in the 90s and noughties, was quoted as saying ‘The more money that is invested, the less risk people want to take.’ The result is that projects take longer as caution is built into the designs so as to avoid the danger of costly failure and the waste of public funds. To put it another way, big projects can be slow because they are too big to fail.
What about the nippy new kids on the block? There are several smaller nuclear fusion projects around the world that are supported by private investors, including ARC (Affordable, Robust and Compact) at MIT in the US, and, also in the US, Tri Alpha, and LCP Fusion, which was crowdfunded. There are also two projects in Oxfordshire: First Light Fusion and Tokamak Energy, at Milton Park.
What’s a tokamak? It’s a Russian word (this area of technology, though now the subject of international cooperation, emerged out of the Cold War) and it is a machine in which nuclear fusion takes place – it’s like the engine component of nuclear fusion. OK, here’s the science bit. You thought there were three states of matter, right? Solid, liquid and gas. But at very high temperatures, there is a fourth state: plasma. A tokamak traps plasma in a doughnut-shaped vessel with magnetic coils, and keeps it hot enough for long enough for fusion to occur.
When you’re on a seemingly impossible quest, you need game-changers. At Tokamak Energy, the game-changer is superconductors – materials that have no electrical resistance to currents, so you can keep a current flowing through them for a long time without them overheating. The scientists at Tokamak Energy are also working on making tomamaks that are a slightly different shape. The aim is to create slightly smaller, cheaper machines and to speed up progress towards that positive energy moment when nuclear fusion power becomes a reality.
It is the hallmark of good science communication that everything makes sense at the time – this lecture was definitely an example of that. I hope I’ve done it justice. You can find out more from Tokamak Energy and at @TokamakEnergy. The ATOM Festival of Science & Technology 2017 took place in Abingdon at the end of March, and included lectures on everything from the search to extraterrestrial life to stem cell medicine, self-driving cars and the forthcoming solar eclipse (21 August 2017). Find out more from @ATOMSciFest.
Yesterday I went to the Fair Funding for All Schools meeting at Larkmead School in Abingdon, and came away shocked by the cuts to funding per pupil that are on the way over the next four years. It’s a double whammy caused by the new funding formula and cuts to real term funding per pupil (which breaks a manifesto promise). There is a lot at stake: funding cuts are likely to affect numbers of teachers and teaching assistants, and the range of subjects offered, particularly music, visual and performing arts, design and technology and languages. Support for vulnerable students is also at risk and small schools in rural areas are likely to be hit particularly hard. It’s a cross-party issue – the meeting was chaired by the Conservative leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Ian Hudspeth. (Funding per pupil is set at a national level.)
However, there is plenty we can do about this. The Fair Funding For All Schools website has lots of info plus a template letter you can send to your MP. Also, we have county council elections coming up in May, so it’s a good issue to mention on the doorstep if anyone comes round canvassing for support. Here’s the School Cuts website with details about how much individual schools across the country are set to lose and the Fair Funding For All Schools FB page – there’s also an Oxfordshire FB page.
Yesterday night was the first meeting of the Oxfordshire Fair Funding for All Schools campaign – the first meeting was in Haringey and the second in Wokingham, where I grew up. The Oxford Mail reported on how Nicola Blackwood MP has joined calls for a review of the funding formula, while the chairman of governors of Larkmead School has left the Conservative Party over the school funding issue.
Some people don’t have to be in your life for long to make an impression. I spent perhaps half an hour, 45 minutes max, in the company of the Mexican guy, but I still think of him every now and then, especially now, when I’m reading so much more about the US than usual. I met him the one and only time I visited the US, 21 years ago, and I’ve wondered about him since: was he a person of faith? Or just a kind person? The motivation for a good deed is more mysterious than the reasons for all the usual venial wrongdoing. I guess he’d be in his mid to late forties now, a bit older than me. Anyway, if he ever needs help, I hope someone looks out for him the way he did for us.
Our paths crossed because I had flown out to see my friend who was staying in LA, and we had been sightseeing Downtown – I remember Marilyn Monroe’s tiny footprints, like the marks of high heels made for a child. Next we were meant to catch a bus across town to a ball game – the quintessential American experience. It got dark. We got lost. The place emptied out, but not quite. There were no commuters, no shoppers. This wasn’t Oxford Street. There were next to no women. My friend looked anxious, and it dawned on me as well that maybe this was not a safe place to be. Somewhere a fire flared; an old guy in a wheelchair was trying, without much hope, to sell a piece of string and a roll-on deodorant in a shoebox. There was desperation in the air, and not much is more frightening than desperation.
Enter the Mexican guy. We were at the wrong bus stop, trying to figure out where to go next. He approached us and asked us where we were going. We told him. He said he would show us. He said to follow him, and we did. We traipsed after him to another bus stop – it wasn’t far but I don’t know if we ever would have found it on our own – and then he got on the bus with us and it started moving through the darkness to where we were supposed to be. We didn’t make conversation. The Mexican guy looked out of the window as if this kind of thing happened all the time, and my friend and I sat quietly and absorbed the idea that this was most likely going to turn out fine. We both knew we had just got lucky, and just like bad luck, good luck can be hard to believe in.
In the crowds outside the ball game we met my friend’s boyfriend, who was waiting for us and angry because we were late and he’d been worried. (None of us had mobile phones back then.) We explained what had happened. ‘We met this guy who said he would help us,’ we told him. ‘He came with us all the way…’ We turned to the Mexican guy to introduce him, but he had melted away into the darkness and disappeared. He had gone out of his way to help us – a couple of strangers in a place we obviously didn’t know – without expecting anything in return. We never got to thank him properly, much less to say goodbye.
I saw so many other things on that trip that I remember. On my first afternoon in my friend’s place in Venice – not as gentrified then as I believe it is now – while I was showering off my jetlag, I heard someone shouting out ‘Everybody get down!’ and an armed policeman bowled through the house to arrest someone in the backyard. Outside OJ’s trial, you could buy watches with cars on the hour and minute hands, chasing each other round and round. On the street somewhere, I watched the mute resignation with which a small huddle of middle-aged Latino men stared at the ground as the LAPD took away what they had been drinking – bottles of spirits in brown paper bags – and poured it away in front of them.
And I remember, too, the Greyhound bus I caught across Virginia, and how it went on and on forever, stopping every now and then at a low, one-storey, frontiersy-looking town, with the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains always in the distance. I could have crossed most of the UK in the time it took me to get across a bit of that one state. In one town we had a rest stop and as I was sitting outside a young white guy in a plaid shirt came over to me and pointed out his pick-up truck and asked if I’d like a lift. He said, ‘Do you party?’ I had no idea what he meant. I replied politely, Britishly, that I did indeed like to socialise, and then got back on the bus.
This is what I’ve been reading so far this year… The 60s novels are research for the book I’m writing at the moment – The Millstone (about single motherhood – the queues in doctor’s waiting rooms haven’t changed…) and Girls in their Married Bliss (woman friends, dodgy/awful men, funny and heartbreaking) – my first time reading Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien, appetite whetters both.
I’d already read the Vadim and Robert Evans autobiographies, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda and The Kid Stays in the Picture; they’re in there for 60s research too. And for the Bob Evans line, ‘fool me once – more fool me, fool me twice – more fool you’, which I love but which is weirdly, tongue-twisterishly hard to get right. And for the scene in Vadim’s memoir where his three ex-wives, Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda, plus his ex-lover Catherine Deneuve, all end up by coincidence gathered round looking down at him on set in Paris when he’s floored by a broken shoulder.
Back in February I chaired an event with Jem Lester (Shtum) and Monica Wood (One in a Million Boy) at Dulwich Books – the proof copies of their novels are in the pile. Shtum is a gutsy, gutty, honest and tender portrayal of a single dad’s relationship with his non-verbal autistic son. The red spine is Monica Wood’s heartwarming and quirky One in a Million Boy, about a deadbeat(ish) dad, a superb old lady and a lost boy.
This is Paradise by Will Eaves (who is also a poet) is a finely observed study of a family falling apart and coming (more or less) together. I love a teen boarding-school story, and Friendly Fire is Patrick Gale’s, illustrated by his husband Aidan Hicks (fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English and Antonia White’s Frost in May – enjoy). Ali Shaw’s The Trees is a magical account of a quest through a world changed overnight; Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault is an unnerving tale of literary obsession which grips like a thriller and convinces like the truth.
My proof of Maggie O’Farrell’s time-and-space-hopping love story This Must Be The Place, which features a film star heroine turned recluse, would be in the picture, but I lent it to a friend so it’s represented by the invitation to the launch do on top of the pile. Many memorable scenes, including an agonising one with a father and son waiting out a crisis in a dermatology clinic that I will forever think of in association with eczema. Also: brilliant 90s wedding.
Right now, I’m reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes. It’s a big, brilliant, sometimes devastating and ultimately uplifting social history of autism. Much of it is shocking – here’s a glimpse of the chapter on ‘The Invention of Toxic Parenting’ (the theory that autism was caused by bad parents).
It’s making me very grateful to be the parent of an autistic child here and now… I defy anyone to come to the end of the chapter on ‘What Sister Viktorine knew’ without a lump in the throat.
This is a partisan, personal list, and we may disagree on some or all of it – but politely, as if over cups of tea and slightly limp cucumber sandwiches at a summer fete in the country.
When I was little I lived overseas for a couple of years, and one of my first and most vivid memories of coming back to the UK was of the TV being turned on in the living-room and stuttering into life. Yogi Bear! In English! It was such a treat to see telly in my own language. That’s when I really knew I was home.
And British telly *is* pretty good, no? Special mention here to the BBC – when’s Poldark coming back?
2. It’s home.
Back in the UK, a six-year-old girl at the beginning of the long summer holidays, I was a little lonely perhaps, but happy: on the swing in the garden, washing and pegging out all my dolls’ clothes, walking along with one foot on the pavement and the other on the road.
I’d like to travel rather more than I have (I haven’t used my passport since 2004, ahem), but I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. Actually, I’d be quite happy to spend the rest of my life in Abingdon. Bury me in a corner of an English field, or rather scatter my ashes, (not yet awhile though please), to paraphrase Rupert Brooke:
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam…
3. Language, literature, books, the sound of spoken English.
English is a malleable, stretchy, melting-pot language, a glorious mishmash of traces, inventions, leftovers and borrowings, like a falling-down town with ancient stuff buried underneath its foundations and skyscrapers snaking their way up to the light.
Though the greats always look back as well as forwards. Auden’s The Wanderer opens with a homage to Middle English: ‘Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.’
See George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn for some brilliant stuff about ‘something distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation’, ‘a culture as individual of that of Spain’: ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’. OK, so that’s about Englishness in particular and this is not, but he puts the kind of thing I mean a million times better than I could. ‘The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.’
4. Humour and irony.
The Goon Show, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Blackadder, The Office, The Mighty Boosh, The Day Today, Stewart Lee… take your pick.
Here’s the end of Stevie Smith’s The Hostage:
Well I don’t you know, said the lady, then aware of something comical
Shot him a look that made him feel uncomfortable
Until he remembered she came from the British Isles,
Oh, he said, I’ve heard that’s a place where nobody smiles.
But they do, said the lady, who loved her country, they laugh lke anything
There is no one on earth who laughs so much about everything.
Well I see, said the Father, the case is complicated.
I will pray for you, Daughter, as I pray for all created
Meanwhile, since you want to die and have to, you may go on feeling elated.
5. Tea and a slap-up fry-up
Ironically (see 4) one of the best slap-up fry-ups I ever had was in New Zealand, and boy, did it remind me of home (see 2.)
6. Gentleness (especially towards children and animals)
Not for nothing did Dickens, who knew how to work a heart-string, have Oliver Twist ask for more, and Bill Sikes mistreat his rather horrible cur.
Now, I know this point is debatable (like all these points, like any point), especially as, historically, the English in particular had an awful reputation on the Continent for cane-crazed schoolmasters. Our laws on corporal punishment were pretty shonky right up until the 90s, when they were shaken up by the distressing case of an eight-year-old boy who had been beaten by his mother’s partner with a three-foot garden cane. Under UK law this was judged to be ‘reasonable chastisement’. The case went to the good old European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1998 that it wasn’t reasonable after all, and forced a review of UK law. (Here’s the European Convention on Human Rights – a fine list of fundamental freedoms, in my view – including the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.) There was a predictable hoo-ha in the newspapers, which turned the consultation on how best to amend UK law to protect children into a fuss about how the Labour nanny state wanted to criminalise parents for smacking their kids (it didn’t – but never let the facts get in the way of a good story).
I remember this case because I was working for Nursery World at the time and reported on it. There was a potential impact for childminders, in terms of whether they would be allowed to smack children they were looking after (this was finally banned in 2003).
Gentleness. It’s a fine quality. I bet Robin Hood’s sidekick Little John (who of course was not little) was gentle. With animals and children, when not sorting out baddies with his quarterstave.
Primarily, but not exclusively, of the popular sort.
I do not think we (we=the residents of the UK, in all our various glory) are instinctively an especially deferential bunch. Perhaps it is the luxury of long-ago Habeas Corpus that gives us the freedom to be relatively unafraid, and to nurture a certain scepticism about the competence of those in positions of authority. Especially when enjoying the freedom to speak our minds, in or out of the privacy of our own homes.
The UK is a big place in a small space. Soft rain on Welsh hills, Cornish palm trees, the vistas of Oxfordshire, the spine of the railway line that rattles you up to Scotland: and London, home to the Mother of all Parliaments.
Here’s the end of Rosemary Tonks’ poem Farewell to Kurdistan:
… Life is large, large!
… I shall lie off your loaf of shadows, London;
I admit it, at the last.
I love to be on the top deck of a London bus/in a taxi going through London at night/on the South Bank/in a London pub/oh, I could go on and on…
10. The weather.
In particular, the skies. It’s a good land for clouds.
PS. Not that it’s directly relevant – given that it’s not a referendum about whether you love your country or not – but I’ll be voting for the UK to stay in the European Union. I know a fair few who won’t, though. Fair play. Am not going to get steamed up about it. Most of us want the same things, the world over: peace, decent houses, schools, roads, healthcare and working conditions, and a safety net. As Jo Cox said, more unites us than divides us. We just sometimes disagree about how to get there. Hopefully we’ll muddle through whatever happens, and if not, well, see you in the workhouse, where no doubt we’ll be assembling gismos for multinational corporations.
Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to writing a blog post about why I love Europe. Because I do, even if I haven’t left the UK since 2004. (Just as well I’m happy here.)
PPS. Probably if you go back far enough almost all of us have a few refugee ancestors. Mine include some French Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields, I believe. It’s all a bit hazy, though.
PPPS. The European Convention on Human Rights took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt played a huge part in getting drafted and agreed and which Pope John Paul II called ‘one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time’. Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy also includes one of my favourite quotes, which is commonly attributed to her: ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.’
This beautiful volume is an anthology of tributes and personal responses to the work of Alan Garner, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, with contributions from writers, artists, historians, scientists and storytellers including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, to name but a few. It’s full of illuminating things – read on for quotes that got me turning over page corners – and is exactly the right kind of book to dip into when you can’t sleep, or need taking out of yourself.
I got my copy of First Light at an event at Oxford Literary Festival (it was super-Oxfordy – held in the beautiful Divinity Hall). The event was chaired by Erica Wagner, who compiled and edited the book, in conversation with two of the contributors, Richard Ovenden and Neel Mukherjee. Alan Garner was sitting in the front row next to Rowan Williams – no pressure!
Find out more about The Blackden Trust – the educational charity set up by Alan and Griselda Garner that First Light will help fund
Margaret Atwood on the perils of the Full Moon Mall
‘“You have been trying on our skins,’ growled the raccoon, ‘and turn about is fair play. So now I will try on yours.”’
Bob Cywinski on the parallel between science and fiction
‘Both author and physicist seek to create an internally consistent model universe that can be poked and prodded with questions of “what if?”, and if our literary and scientific model universes respond in a way that is externally consistent with our observations of the real universe, we claim success.’
[I once gave a presentation on how to write a novel to a couple of software developers who made a similar point: it was, as a process, not all that different to what they did.]
Helen Dunmore on The Owl Service
‘Long before the phrase “post-traumatic stress” was common currency, Alan Garner explored in The Owl Service the way that intense, tragic events affect generations because they go on recurring in flashback, unresolved and invincible… The past must become truly the past, and it can only do so if there is a redemptive alteration of destructive patterns.’
[A true and also practical point, this. I remember being told that every cell in the human body regenerates every seven years or so. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an encouraging thought. Exposure to certain toxins can indelibly rewrite your genetic code, but – as far as I understand it – even that is a revision of potential and predisposition: it isn’t fate.]
Stephen Fry on being trusted
‘I believe that the first feeling that overwhelmed me was one of being trusted. At no stage did the writer of this story explain to me what I was supposed to feel, or what was the meaning of the story I was reading.’
Neil Gaiman on books that change you
‘There are moments without which we literally would not exist, we would not be ourselves: we would be other people, who would look the same, but with a different inner landscape, with different dreams and hopes and, most importantly, different ways of looking at the world… Reading Elidor was one of those moments for me.’
‘The freight of fantasy is the freight of the unrevealed. When it is at its most powerful, it shows us the world we know through another’s eyes, in a way that we can never unsee.’
Elizabeth Garner on being born alongside a book
‘The first evidence of my existence is not the usual photograph of mother and baby, cocooned in a hospital bed. Instead it is a series of numbers in the margins of a manuscript. My mother’s contraction times, set beside the emerging words of my father’s novel The Stone Book. I was on the page before I was in the world. But that’s just the start of the story.’
Joseph Garner on Othering
‘The internal conflict of Othering comes from the fear of being severed from our roots. Thus to come through the experience of Othering with a new sense of self, we have to go back to our roots and find a way to make peace, and to reconnect our new selves.’
Andrew Hodges on Alan Garner and Alan Turing
‘The meeting of the two Alans arose in 1951, simply as fellow amateur runners, rare in those days, spotting each other on the road… they found a meeting point in equal distances and speed over the Cheshire lanes.’
Bel Mooney on contradiction
‘He knows that Death is the electric current that animates all things.’
Neel Mukherjee on roots, anchoring and land
‘Here is something that I would come to recognise retrospectively as one of the great lessons of writing: there is nothing more universal than the particular, that the local is the world.’
Philip Pullman on Alan Garner on craftsmanship
‘There are traditions in every craft, by which the knowledge gained by our forebears is passed on – knowledge not just of how to hold a plane or sharpen a saw, but of how to evaluate the work and give it the attention it deserves. Garner’s grandfather, for example, a whitesmith, passed on that kind of wisdom to the young Alan.
He uttered two precepts. They are absolutes. The first was: “Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be here when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying, ‘What fool made this codge?’”
The second was worse: “If the other feller can do it, let him.” That is: seek until you find that within you that is your unique quality, and, having found it, pursue it to the exclusion of all else and without thought of cost.¹’
[¹Alan Garner, ‘Aback of Beyond’, in The Voice That Thunders. Daunting and rigorous, yes, but as good and fundamental advice for a writer as any you’ll find.]
Ali Smith on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Alderley Edge
‘The edge of things is the natural habitat of the story.’
I’ll be hard at work on my new novel over the next few months, so I won’t be posting on this blog for a while. I’ll be back in the spring, by which time the grapevine will look like this.
I love blogging – it’s great to have the freedom to write about whatever catches your fancy – and I look forward to getting back to it in due course. Thank you all so much for reading and so long for now. xx
2015 was my year of reading Patrick Gale. I read a few more of his novels as prep for interviewing him at North Cornwall Book Festival (lucky me): Little Bits of Baby, Rough Music and A Perfectly Good Man. I also looked back over his 2015 bestseller A Place Called Winter and was knocked out by it a second time, having first read a proof copy last year (yup – lucky me again).
This was also the year I caught Ferrante fever – I read the first of the Neapolitan novels and know I’m in for a treat with the rest. Like Ferrante’s legions of other fans, I was drawn in and hooked fast by her brilliant depiction of the novel’s central female friendship, in all its ambiguous tenderness and competitiveness.
It’s been a year for going along to literary events and coming back with books. I stocked up at North Cornwall Book Festival, which has dominated my reading in recent months – the tent may be down, the sand long since shaken out of our suitcases, but NCBF lives on… It was great to see Jenny Balfour Paul, Patricia Duncker and M J Carter speaking about their books, and an even more lasting pleasure to read them (Deeper than Indigo, Sophie and the Sibyl and The Strangler Vine, which I’m reading at the moment. All brilliant.)
Another star of the festival was Neel Mukherjee, whose novel The Lives of Others I read last year, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Here’s what I read in 2014.)
Back in June, I spent a gloriously sunny evening in the courtyard garden of Mostly Books in Abingdon, listening to Laura Barnett talk about her twisty-turny, three-layered what-if narrative The Versions of Us. I also went along to see honorary Abingdon author Rebecca Wait (The Followers – a vivid and terrifying account of life as a teen inside a cult) at a panel event at Blackwell’s Oxford discussing whether novels can teach empathy.
In April, I went to Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where I missed out on Lee Child’s event but spotted him looking conspicuously tall and charismatic outside Jaffe and Neale. I saw Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive – advice and insights on recovering from depression) in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love – a memoir about her brother, who was left in a permanent vegetative state after a car accident, and the impact this had on the family: an unsparingly honest book that is as warm and tender as it is painful). I also saw Hannah Beckerman, Clare Mackintosh and Rowan Coleman speaking about mothers in fiction – and Richard and Judy!
This was the year I discovered Molesworth, which I have been dipping into from time to time over the festive season. Whether you’re looking for eternal verities or merely hunting for something to cheer you up before you go back to work, you may find what you seek in the comprehensively misspelled collected works of this 1950s schoolboy… Turn to Gerald Scarfe’s illustrations of types of teacher and parent, or the sketch of a manager, and you’ll see what I mean.
Also, if you’re in need of amusement and haven’t yet discovered Nina Stibbe, it’s time to get your hands on Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. (You will never see turkey mince in the same way again.) I am very much looking forward to seeing Love, Nina on the telly (Nick Hornby has adapted it – Helena Bonham-Carter is in it). I’ll also be looking out for Patrick Gale’s two-part TV drama, Man in an Orange Shirt in 2016. (And when is Poldark back on? Really really soon I hope. January is loooooong.)
I’ve read proof copies of two novels that are due out in 2016 (lucky me again): Sarah Duguid’s debut Look At Me, a sharp and suspenseful tale of sibling rivalry, and Monica Wood’s big-hearted One in a Million Boy. This is about an elderly woman trying to survive her way into the record books, a jobbing musician trying to compensate for his failings as a father, and the charming and unusual boy of the title, whose sudden disappearance draws together those he has left behind. Two to look out for!
So what will I be reading in 2016? Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is waiting, along with Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity and Friendly Fire, and I’d like to read more Penelope Fitzgerald – this year I read Offshore and as I’m working my way through in chronological order it’ll be Human Voices next.
Also, I’ve lined up the autobiographies of Bob Evans and Roger Vadim (research – I’ve read both before), along with Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. Also on my wishlist: Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault.
I expect (and hope) I’ll discover many more new books and new authors. There are always surprises in the book store…
A big thank you to all the readers of this blog – here’s to happy reading and good times in 2016!
What I read in 2015… the list
So here’s that rather long list of what I read in 2015, in approximately reverse order.
One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood
Deeper than Indigo by Jenny Balfour Paul
Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker
Look at Me by Sarah Duguid
Rough Music, A Perfectly Good Man, Little Bits of Baby by Patrick Gale
The Kindness by Polly Samson
The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (‘I know I’m damaged. As I’ve walked through fire, bits of me have burnt off – but I accept that.’)
Diana by R F Delderfield (not for the first time!)
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. (‘Lila no. To go out with her on Sunday became a permanent point of tension. If someone looked at her she returned the look’)
Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. (‘All those brave people who seem to do things solo actually have people in the background who love them or at least like them’)
The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett
The Followers by Rebecca Wait
How to be Both by Ali Smith
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (along with er 478,884 others, or thereabouts)
H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Runaway Wife by Rowan Coleman
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Eloise by Judy Finnigan
Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley
The Story of You by Katy Regan
Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore
The Butterfly Box by Santa Montefiore
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Her by Harriet Lane (a wonderfully effective and chilling conjuring up of pure malice)
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (warmly discussed at my work book club – my daughter was also a fan)
The Love of My Life by Louise Douglas
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
Daughter by Jane Shemilt
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking
Kramer vs Kramer by Avery Corman
And also in 2015…
I taught my first creative writing workshop (at North Cornwall Book Festival).