Sunday 30 November 2014

November Competition

To win one of five copies of Kate Saunders' Five Children on the Western Front, leave an answer to this question in the Comments below:

"Which children's classic would you most like to see a sequel to and who would you like to write it?"

Please also email your answer to me at: so that I can have a contact address for you. Some people lose out on prizes through not doing this.

Oops! I was so concerned about the contact addresses that I forgot to add a closing day! You can have an extra week - till 14th December - because of my oversight!

And our competitions are open only to UK residents - sorry.

Saturday 29 November 2014

The Mother of us all: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Fresh from her short-listing for the Children's section of the Costa Award, our special guest for November is Kate Saunders.

Photo by Hannah Love
Kate Saunders is a full-time author and journalist and has written numerous books for adults and children. Her books for children have won awards and received rave reviews, and include future classics such as Beswitched and The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop. Her adult books include The Crooked Castle and The Marrying Game. Kate lives in London.

In this month of Remembrance in the Centenary of the outbreak of World War One, it seems especially appropriate to feature a book that begins in 1914 and takes some well-loved characters into danger in France. E. Nesbit's Five Children and It has become a classic for children; it was published in 1902 and it's not a great stretch of the imagination to see that the older children in the story would have been caught up in the "Great" War.

Cyril (Squirrel) is off to the Front, soon to be followed by Robert (Bobs). Anthea (Panther) becomes a VAD, while Jane (Pussy), much to her mother's horror,  wants to train as a doctor. The Lamb (never known as Hilary, except to his mother) is a schoolboy and the five "children" have been joined by a sixth, Edie.

Three VAD nurses 1916 Source: Europeana 1914-1918
There are familiar characters like the Professor and Old Nurse and new ones like Ernie, Lilian and the Lamb's best friend at school, Arthur Winterbottom, known universally as Winterbum, And of course the grumpy wish-granting sand fairy, the Psammead.

I started by asking Kate if the Nesbit books had always been a favourite with her.

Kate Saunders: 'Five Children and It' was a great favourite when I was a child. I also loved the two sequels - especially 'The Phoenix and the Carpet' because we lived near Kentish Town Road, where the carpet was purchased.

Mary Hoffman: At the end of Five Children and It, the children agree that Psammead will not give them any more wishes. Did this give you a massive problem? (As it must have done for Nesbit with the two sequels)

KS: The wishes were supposed to stop at the end of 'Five Children', but Nesbit decided to overlook this and so did I; the sand fairy is known to be capricious.
Frontispiece to Five Children and It
MH:  When I re-read the books to my own children, I was made a bit uncomfortable by the attitude towards servants and in the first book the portrayal of Gypsies and “Red Indians.” I did bowdlerise a bit when reading out loud. Any thoughts on that? 

KS: One thing I definitely did not want in my book was the children's snobbish  asides about servants and the servant class in general. In these moments we hear Nesbit herself and not her characters. She does it in 'The Treasure Seekers' too, when she puts a remark about the servant not brushing the stairs into the unlikely mouth of Oswald Bastable. It's looks like a pretty poor show for a devoted socialist like Nesbit - until you consider the intense social anxiety of the time. Nesbit's rootless, wandering childhood left her with a fear of losing caste that it is difficult to understand today; she once rejected an illustration with the complaint that the children didn't look "like the children of gentlefolk".
MH:  You manage to maintain E. Nesbit’s tone in the dialogue among the children very well, with all the slang of the time. Did that come easily?

KS: I did not consciously imitate E Nesbit's 'tone' - I only have one tone, and couldn't change it if I tried. But many writers for children imitate her unconsciously. She is the mother of us all.
MH: Was it you who changed the Psammead into a desert god or was that Nesbit in the two sequels?

KS:The original Psammead was not a desert god; I invented his background for the purposes of the story. But Nesbit left his background beautifully vague.
MH: Setting your book in this centenary year of the outbreak of WW1, were you conscious of introducing the subject to young readers?

KS: I was highly aware of introducing young readers to the First World War, and giving them the broadest possible picture; thanks to the Psammead, I could take the children right to the front line, besides showing how lives were affected at home.

Life in the trenches by "Simon Q" Creative Commons
MH: You give Amanda Craig an acknowledgment for “saving someone’s life.” No spoilers but I think I can guess who that was. Were you going to be more ruthless initially?

KS: My fellow-scribbler Amanda Craig saved the life of one of my characters - I won't say which. In the beginning my plot was less merciful than the final version.
MH: You have known great personal loss, through the death of your son at nineteen. Did that inform what you wrote and was it in any way cathartic to write it?

KS:My own darling son died in 2012, and my grief definitely shaped this book. The writing of it probably held me together.
MH: You have very thoroughly made it impossible for there to be a further book about the Psammead, at least not by you. What is your next project likely to be?

KS: I have no idea what my next children's book will be - I'm deep in a story for adults at the moment.
MH: Did you go and see the poppies installation at the Tower?

KS I missed seeing the poppies in the flesh, but loved the pictures - a beautiful work of art and the strongest possible statement of remembrance.

Thank you, Kate, for  generously giving us your time in this busy month and good luck for the Costa!

You can read my review of Five Children on the Western Front here.

Friday 28 November 2014

Lest We Forget... by Clare Mulley

There has been much in the press this month about Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the impressive art installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies, each representing one British military casualty during the First world War, that flooded the Tower of London moat earlier this month. For many this was a beautiful and powerful statement of the size of Britain's sacrifice, for others, a mawkish display of nationalism. The wonderful Ring of Remembrance Notre Dame de Lorette, an elliptical structure engraved with the names of the dead of all nationalities in northern France, is another powerful but controversial war memorial. The who, what, how and why may be contentious, but what is generally agreed upon is the importance of remembering.

A while ago I was due to give a talk on the female special agents of the Second World War at Maddingley Hall, near Cambridge. En route I stopped to admire the beautiful stonework outside and bumped into a man doing the same thing. It transpired that he was Harry Gray, the stonemason, now artist, who had carved some of the pieces during restoration works several years ago. We soon discovered a shared interest in the two world wars, and fascination with the very different ways that the dead are remembered and, on occasion, honoured. A few weeks later Harry invited me, and my husband Ian, who is a sculptor, over to his studio for lunch.

Harry explaining that the foliage on Corinthian columns
are acanthus leaves, with leaf from his garden.

It turned out that Harry has worked on a number of war monuments and memorials, among other public art commissions. His first was the much admired frieze for the Animals at War memorial in Park Lane, but my favourite is the stunning Battle of Britain monument at the White Cliffs of Dover.

Approached from the ground, the Battle of Britain monument shows a young pilot, sitting, looking to the skies, calmly waiting for his call to action. Seen from above, however, from a pilot’s perspective, the figure is sitting at the centre of a propeller hewn from the white chalk of the ground. It is a beautiful and thought-provoking design that literally works on several levels, calling into question not just who these men were and what they were fighting for, but how their courage, skill and sacrifice has left a permanent mark on our country.

Pilot from the Battle of Britain monument

Battle of Britain monument from the air

Harry had only heard about the proposal for a Battle of Britain monument when he was commissioned to produce the stone base for the winning piece. Having rather cheekily asked if he could submit his own design, he was delighted to get through to the short list. Lord Tebbit, himself a former RAF pilot, was on the judging panel, and when he saw that Harry’s pilot figure was to be hewn from Forest of Dean sandstone his only comment was that it would weather badly. Harry protested that London pavements are made from sandstone, and ultimately it was Tebbit who backed his design. The Queen Mother unveiled the monument in July 1993. Earlier that day Harry had been checking everything was as it should be when he was surprised to see a woman let through the security cordons to join him at the monument statue. “At last,” she told him, “You’ve made my brother’s grave”. Her brother had fought in one of the Polish squadrons in the Battle of Britain, and had been lost over the channel.

Harry has since won many public commissions, and you can visit his website here. The current piece that speaks most loudly to me is his project for a public artwork to celebrate William ‘Bill’ Tutte’s code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Coded signals intercepted by Bletchey Park were printed as perforated tape, or ‘Baudot’ code. Reflecting this, Harry is producing a sculpture comprising of five steel sheets each of which are perforated like Baudot code.

Baudot code 

Harry's 'coded' metal sheets

When seen from a key viewpoint marked in the paving, the perforations reveal an image of Bill Tutte through the metal sheets. In this way the portrait image itself is encoded, with Baudot in place of DNA, showing people the essence of the man in face and form.

Bill Tutte, reduced to dots as a guide

Three of the six sample sheets for the memorial

I live in Saffron Walden, within walking distance of beautiful Audley End House which was used during the Second World War as a training base by the Cichociemni, the ‘Silent and Unseen’ Polish special forces. It has always amused me that my last biography was of one of the very few Polish-born special agents, Krystyna Skarbek, aka Christine Granville, who never set foot in Audley End because she was trained and employed directly by the British. Nevertheless I am honoured that over the last few years I have been invited to lay a wreath for both Krystyna and the Cichociemni at our local war memorial on Remembrance Sunday. 

The Cichociemni are commemorated with a stone urn in the grounds of Audley End house, but I have often thought that it would be wonderful to have a more permanent memorial to Krystyna somewhere in Britain. I wonder now if it should be made from Polish soil, or how else to best capture the spirit of this passionate patriot and fighter for freedom. But then, perhaps writing biographies has its similarities with Harry's kind of art, in seeking to capture and present a picture of their subject that is more than skin deep?

I was appalled to hear this month that cuts to the Imperial War Museum budget mean that access to the library and archives, which were hugely important during my research for Krystyna's biography, is now going to be severely restricted if not closed, and the school education packages may be stopped. I find it incredible that, at this time of remembrance in particular, we can even consider risking losing one of the most important repositories of these stories. If you feel the same, please take a moment to sign the petition against these cuts, so that we can continue to remember, honour and consider, in an informed way.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Lissa Evans, author of Crooked Heart, interviewed by by Louisa Young

The concept of genres annoys me. People say ‘what kind of book do you write?” and irrational fury rises in my normally placid bosom. As Duke Ellington said of music, there’s only two types, good and bad, and I like ’em both. 

Genres are for publishers and booksellers who want to know what shelf to put us on, and fair enough. But I’m not sure we have any business putting ourselves on shelves. It’s a bit too close to putting ourselves in pigeon holes. So I’ve never been big on the term historical fiction. There’s just novels set in different times. 

But there is one slight thing: books set in different times aren't often comic*. It's as if being historical is enough - you can't be funny too. Like in the old days when a woman couldn't be both pretty and clever. 


In that pile of the frequently unreadable sent by the possibly desperate to the bewildered and unwitting, ie proofs from PRs, I turned up a book of great glory. It's called Crooked Heart, it's set in the north London suburbs during WW2, and it stars an array of anti-heroic survivors who flick from well-dodgy to irresistable in the beat of a heart. The author is one Lissa Evans. When I found that Lissa Evans had been also been a doctor, and a producer of Father Ted on the telly, I was somehow not surprised. You may know her from such previous novels as Their Finest Hour and a Half; she was new to me. Anyway - I liked her genre-busting book so much that I tracked her down, interviewed her, had lunch with her, and am now insisting on sharing her brilliance.

Crooked Heart is very funny, very touching, and actually heartbreaking. Funny + touching + dangerous is full of pitfalls, both technical and emotional, but you pull it off beautifully - as I once heard Louis de Bernieres cry to Elizabeth Jane Howard, 'how do you do that?'

It sounds disingenuous to say ‘I don’t know’, because that makes it sound as if the words cascade effortlessly from my lap-top  and land in perfect formation on the page.  In fact, I write incredibly slowly and I re-write ruthlessly as I go along – honing, polishing, moving, cutting, changing –  stripping back the sentiment, trying to nail the humour and crisp up the dialogue, aiming above all for clarity;  I don’t do a ‘first draft’ as such – by the time I get to the end of a book it’s usually about 90% there.   I suppose that the actual answer to this question is that I’m always trying to write the kind of book that I like reading, one that contains humour and humanity, bound together in a plot that is believable but unpredictable. 

 Tell us about Noel, your heartbreaking little boy.

Noel is ten years old.  It’s an age that I particularly like writing about, because I have a mental snap-shot of myself at 10 – we moved house and I had to adjust to a new school, a new town, and a new region of the country, and my memories of that age are very clear. Noel is the product of a singular education; he’s been brought up by his godmother, Mattie, a former suffragette and possessor of a formidable intellect.  Noel goes to school, but most of his learning occurs at home, and he has absorbed Mattie’s prejudices and outlook as well as her knowledge, making him utterly out of step with other children of his age.  When he loses Mattie, he loses his bearings and his joy in life.   Emotionally frozen, he’s evacuated from London and ends up being taken in by Vee. 

And a bit about Vee, your thoroughly flawed and equally heartbreaking heroine.

Vee is thirty-six and perpetually broke; she spends her time attempting to support her invalid mother and son through a variety of dodgy schemes which she’s too impulsive and desperate to see through to completion. .  She exudes a sort of semi-feral fecklessness  – at various points in the book, Noel sees her as resembling a pigeon  (…, drab and directionless, pecking at anything that looked as if it might be edible.  ) and a magpie (…She had sharp, worried features and she kept moving her head around, keeping a watch on everything, like a magpie hanging round a picnic).  She’s aware that her life is unfairly hard, but sees no way of changing it;  meeting Noel turns out to be the biggest opportunity of her life…

You've had some phenomenal admiration, from writers as various as India Knight, who says you're going on the shelf between the Dud Avocado and I Capture the Castle, and Juliet Gardiner, who says she doesn't like war novels but loves this. How does that feel? 

Praise from someone whose work you respect feels like having some kind of fabulous spa treatment, from which you emerge feeling twice the woman you were…

 Your online admirers are just as keen, except for one who thinks your characters are morally shaky, and one who seems to think it's a children's book. OF COURSE a novelist must NEVER respond to reviewers or tell them what they think, but hey - here's your chance! 

Ha!  Morally shaky’s fair enough, but I read the ‘children’s book’ review with some puzzlement; the reasoning seemed to be that because one of the central characters is ten years old, it must have been written for children. Funnily enough, it made me think about the time when I was hovering on the edge of  adolescence, wondering what to read next (this was  before the era of Young Adult novels);  my way into adult literature turned out to be  through  books with child protagonists – The Go-Between, I’m the King of the Castle, Father and Son, Frost in May….  I’d be more than happy for ‘Crooked Heart’ to be added to that list!

Cliched but actually very interesting question coming up: how do you go about your research? 

The first research I ever did was for my previous novel,  ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, which was published in 2009.  It’s about the making of a British feature film during the Second World War – a plot which linked a desire to write about what goes on behind the camera (prompted by my own TV experiences) with my intense and abiding interest in the home front, which sprang from reading (and re-reading) Norman Longmate’s book ‘How we Lived Then’ as a teenager. My method of research couldn’t really be dignified with the word ‘method’ – I explored in all directions: I read novels and memoirs of the era, dipped into reference books, trade papers, newspapers and leaflets (British Film Institute Library), watched countless long and short films (Imperial War Museum archive) talked to veterans (had to hunt them down), looked at and photocopied original scripts (particularly thrilling to discover hand-written annotations) and  kept a constantly-updated file of ‘language’  (phrases/words/references used during the period I was writing about).  I researched until I began to feel that I was comfortable in the era.  Most enjoyably, and usefully, I delved into specific archives held by specialist libraries and found there to be nothing more thrilling  than sifting through  ephemera :  memos, letters, notes, cards, cuttings – most of them untouched for more than fifty years…After finishing ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’, I still felt completely steeped in the nineteen forties, and decided to write another book set in the  era.   ‘Crooked Heart’, however, presented me with an unexpected research problem:  the characters I was writing about  - petty crooks, debtors, marginalised people living on their wits -  aren’t the type who keep diaries or write memoirs or find themselves interviewed in later years; they’re invisible, living in the cracks, and I had to find a way to peer in.   My route was through the pages of  local newspapers.  The ‘Herts Advertiser and St Albans Times’ (now defunct) was my bible – a patchwork of stories that reflected all aspects of wartime provincial life, where bomb news and black-out  advice  nudged shoulders with  accounts of Masonic Social Nights and lists of people being prosecuted for defaulting on the rates.  Here are a few random transcribed snippets: 

'It has been brought to the notice of the Lady of the Manor that certain people who have the privilege of scrubbing are sawing the underwood.  This is not allowed…’

Residents in the Barnet Rural area who are entitled to have an Anderson air-raid shelter either have no faith in them or are apathetic about them, for of the large proportion of shelters already delivered, probably ninety per cent are still unassembled and lying just where they were put when delivered. ..’

Daring robbery at St Albans Jeweller’s Shop
‘Another daring smash-and-grab raid took place in St Albans on Wednesday, when 2 men, operating in a saloon car which had been stolen from a local butcher, were concerned in smashing the window of The Clock House, Victoria Street (with a spanner) and grabbing 2 trays containing between 60 and 70 rings…’

When my writing flagged, or I struggled with the plot, I’d always return to this source, and it never failed to inspire me. 


If I was your writing teacher, I would love to set you the task of rewriting it as a full on tragedy - what do you think? Would it work?

Yes, I think it would, though I imagine I’d  get rather depressed trying to do it.   I’d prefer to commission Bernard McLaverty or Rohinton Mistry to write it for me.  I remember finishing ‘Lamb’ and feeling like a wrung-out wash-cloth.  

How does - or indeed does - your TV comedy background affect your writing? Because I can't help observing that Father Ted is also very high on the funny/touching-o-meter.

I think it’s the other way round – I ended up working in comedy, and writing the way I write, because I’ve always loved books that make me laugh.   I remember when I was 7 or 8, literally weeping with laughter over Molesworth,  doubled up, stomach hurting  –  and I remember my joy in discovering other authors who had a similar effect on me, (Gerald Durrell, Michael Green, Betty McDonald) and whose work I absorbed so that, decades later, whole paragraphs are still embedded in my brain.  This love didn’t emerge in my own writing for a while – I still have my English books from school, and they’re full of self-conscious literary efforts, but I  wrote a pantomime when I was 18 and when I re-read it recently, I was struck by how tightly-structured it is; it’s not wildly funny, but it’s written with precision – I was using running gags before I even knew what the term meant! At university I wrote and performed in a stand-up group, and when I gave up medicine, the only employment (it seemed to me) that I was in any way qualified for was to work, in some capacity, in comedy.  I was lucky enough to get a job as a producer in light entertainment radio, which was where I learned to be a ruthless editor.  Later on, in television, I read a script of ‘Father Ted’ and fell in love; it was comedy writing of the highest order – wildly original and yet utterly precise, a master-class in timing and brevity.     The two series that I produced were the highlight of my comedy career, and after that I thought it was time I started writing for myself .

What are you working on now? 

I’m currently working on another children’s book, but I’ve also started researching for the sequel of ‘Crooked Heart’, which will be set about three years after the first.  I spent last week in the  Imperial War Museum, reading the war diary of a West Hampstead woman called Gwladys Cox.  There is nothing, nothing, like handling original material for sucking you back into an era; when I looked up, I expected to see barrage balloons floating above the roof-tops…

Why did you leave medicine?

 Over the decades I’ve thought long and hard about this question.  The bottom line is that I was terrified for almost every single second of my time as a doctor  (I gave up four years after qualifying).  Despite having completed a  five year course, I felt as if I knew almost nothing, and although I had a cheery and reassuring bedside manner, what my patients didn’t realise is that they’d have been much better off with a mumbling introvert who actually knew what they were doing.     My happiest day (or, possibly, only happy day) as a house officer was a sunny bank holiday during which there were no admissions and I sat on the grass outside the medical ward reading ‘The Longest Journey’ by E M Forster. What’s strange is that although it’s now nearly 26 years since I handed back my bleep for the last time, the intensity of the experience was so great that my memories haven’t faded in the slightest – I saw and heard things that I’ll never forget, and those four years have infused everything I’ve written.   

 Do you listen to music while you write? If so what?

I usually prefer silence, but  there are a few pieces  -  repetitive, low key, usually wordless –  that  I play over and over again, filling in the background rather than obtruding.  Track 4 of the Baka Beyond World Music Compilation is my muse…. 

What (if anything) do you read while you're writing? 

For the three years that I was researching and then writing  ‘Their Finest Hour and a Half’,   I limited myself to fiction published between 1938 and 1941 (at The London Library, the date of publication is printed on a book’s spine, so it’s very easy to browse).  I know this sounds completely fanatical, but what it brought me was an absolute confidence in my knowledge of the vocabulary, the parameters and the preoccupations of the era. I’ve eased off a bit since then… Currently reading a Stephen King! 

CROOKED HEART by Lissa Evans is published by Random House

Lissa Evans 

 photo by Alys Tomlinson

PS: NB *I am aware this is a contentious statement. Please correct me if I'm wrong about history and comedy, and direct me to a marvellous stream of vastly amusing literature of which I am unaware . . . .

Ooh! I thought of one. Frenchman's Creek is VERY funny. 

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Catalonia looking forward, by Carol Drinkwater

This month, on 9th November, six weeks after Scotland voted to remain a part of Great Britain, ‘a self-determination referendum’ was held in Catalonia. The citizen participation process on Catalonia's political future was originally the 'Catalan Independence Referendum' but was rebranded as a 'popular consolation' after the original was suspended by the Constitutional Court of Spain.
The Catalonians who voted, expressed by a whopping eighty/twenty percent majority their preference to be self-determining.
This result did not surprise me one bit. Last year, I was caught up in a demonstration in Barcelona and no one could deny the massive turnout and the fervour.

                                                                    Catalonian Flag

Four weeks ago I was in Sitges with my husband as participants at a Mediterranean documentary film festival. We attend MEDIMED every year and make an outing of it, driving along the coast from our Olive Farm outside Cannes, crossing the border into Catalonia, through Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, and landing up for five days in the port city of Sitges. I have a very soft spot for this city with its beautiful Baroque cathedral where I attended the sung Saturday evening mass celebrated in the local Catalan tongue, which is a romance language and quite similar to our own Provençal. In Sitges, indeed all over Catalan, menus, road signs, notices are all written in Catalan and I have great fun trying to see how much I can decipher or link back to the Langue d’Oc.

                                                 Iglesia de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla

The seventeenth-century cathedral Iglesia de Sant Bartomeu i Santa Tecla is perched on the Baluard headland and overlooks both the Mediterranean, the town, its esplanades and beaches. So identifiable is it, both from land and sea, that the locals refer to it as ‘La Punta’, the point. Even if attending a service is not of interest to you, the interior of the church has some splendid artwork and an organ dated 1699, movingly played on the night I attended mass.

Steps from the church stands the Palau Maricel where the doc film festival was held annually until last year. Since which time the building with its elegant white façade has been closed for renovations. The palace started life as the hospital Saint Joan Baptista in the fourteenth century. It was rebuilt in 1911 and newly designed by the engineer and artist Miguel Utrillo who transformed it into a private mansion for the American art collector and philanthropist, Charles Deering, who owned works by amongst others El Greco and Murillo. Today, the building is owned by the Barcelona Council and operates as a museum and the Historical Archive of Sitges. While the museum has a vast collection of art from medieval to modern, the neighbouring palace is separate and is used for cultural events. In this sumptuous building, four years ago I stood in the Blue Room, one of its ornate salons, almost Arabesque in decor, and pitched the films of The Olive Route to a very hard-crusted professional audience!

For those of you who might want to look further into the magnificent and very diverse artwork of Sitges and Catalonia, I have discovered a magazine La Xermada. One of its issues is dedicated to the influence of certain dates within Sitges history:1914, for example, (when the Palau Maricel was almost completed). It also talks of the birth of the movement, Noucentisme, which sprung up in Catalonia during the first two decades of the twentieth century as a counter movement to “the excesses” of Modernism. I confess that Noucentisme is new to me and I am only now, since our most recent visit a few weeks ago, learning about it. (If anyone reading this can teach me a little about it, I would be very grateful to hear it.)

The Catalonian coast was an artist’s haven at this period with notables such as Miro and Dali living and working here. Gaudi, too, who refused to speak Spanish and would only communicate in Catalan.

Set back from Plaça Baluard lies the old town, a treasure chest of stunning architecture and dazzling plantlife growing up and around the buildings. During the eighteenth century, many residents of Sitges took the ‘American Route’, which is to say they sailed to Cuba to make their fortunes on the island’s many plantations. When they returned they invested their money in the construction of mansions. One of these families was the Bacardi clan. The town is a dazzling collection of Art Nouveau and Modernista homes, many of which are now hotels. Take a stroll along the esplanade, Passeig de la Ribera, and you cannot miss the fine and colourful display.

I first visited this city in 1962. In 1962, Spain was still living under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco who ruled Spain as a totalitarian state from the end of the Spanish Civil War until his death in 1975. It was a long bleak road for the nation and by the time my parents and I arrived by car from England a fair proportion of the population was close to starving. Tourism was a very new business. The country had been cut off from international aid and exchange for many years. So desperate were some of the farmers and rural peoples, that they sold off their coastal farmlands for next to nothing to foreigners who began building beachside villas and resorts. It is from this decade that the Costa Next to Nothing mentality was seeded.

The Spanish Civil War and the ensuing decades of Francoism is a huge subject and not one to attempt to address in a page such as this. Many great writers have written on the subject, including the obvious and essential early war tomes: Laurie Lee’s As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning, the works of Federico Garcia Lorca who was murdered beneath an olive tree by the nationalists outside the small and rather haunting town of Viznar, ten kilometres from Granada. His body was left at the roadside, perhaps thrown into a mass grave but, as far as we know, never found or retrieved... I have written at length about the impact of the Spanish Civil War followed by the decades of Francoist rule on Spain’s olive oil culture in The Olive Tree.

From pre-Rome to the present day, Spain has been a major supplier of olive oil. Today, the Spanish are the world’s leading producers of olive oil, much to the chagrin of the Italians!.

But I digress. Sitges, Catalonia. 1962. I was an adolescent and quite possibly had never heard of Franco and most certainly knew nothing of this city’s, this region’s ceaseless and very brave fight against the nationalists. In fact, in the 60s, this beach town became famous for ts counterculture, the artists who resided there or visited during the summer months. But we were just visitors looking for sun.

I remember my father asking our waiter about the meat we were being served and the shock he expressed when the waiter replied ‘Ee-aw, Ee-aw’.
‘Donkey!’ spluttered my father in disgust and immediately took to his bed.
No doubt the people of Sitges back then, would have been grateful for a plate with a juicy steak on it. No doubt our waiter’s family must have fallen to their knees in gratitude for their young son’s modest pay packet. The first days of tourism. I also remember going to mass with my mother at Sant Bartomeu and how surprised we were to find that a christening service was under way. Not one child was being baptized but dozens, queues and queues of infants swathed in white being carried along the aisle. Only later did I learn that the people were so poor, families couldn’t afford to pay the priest to baptise their child so they waited until there was a group of newly born and then together they booked the padre’s services.

Sitges today is famous for being one of the gay capitals of the world. It is another expression of the region’s tolerance and acceptance and a strike against right-wing Catholicism. We stay at the Hotel Romantic, a three-star establishment in the old city, but a very unusual one. The hotel has been in the family for generations, houses a vast collection of paintings and ceramics and is an opportunity for gleaning first-hand history. The present proprietor’s father fought against the Republicans and was sent to prison but freed, unharmed, when the nationalists marched into Barcelona and took Catalonia. The Catalan president, Lluis Companys, fled but was arrested in France by Gestapo agents, returned to the nationalists and executed. This was the beginning of Catalan as a forbidden, an underground language. The region's culture and tongue were outlawed.
Senor Sobrer i Barea, the son of the Hotel Romantic’s proprietor at that time, wrote this:

‘ “Our war” as the older folks called it bled Spain. Barcelona crawled dustily in time ... The Church triumphant paraded its gold and silver crucifixes and Host holders in medieval splendour through our city’s streets. Catalanists spoke softly and fed their spirits with the spite of jokes about Franco and the crumbs of hope for an invasion from France or the Soviet Union or Outer Space or Utopia. Poble Nou felt even greyer. Winter nights were longer than ever in history as consumption of electricity was restricted to a few hours a day…’

Pablo Casals, or more accurately Pau Casals, the eminent cellist and conductor, fled his beloved Catalonia when the nationalists took control. He swore then he would never return to his village, nor to Spain, until Franco had been deposed and democracy reinstated. He took refuge across the border to France, to Prades. Later he settled in Puerto Rico where he died at the grand age of ninety-six. His tragedy, and the same for Pablo Picasso from Malaga who had taken the same oath, was that he died before Franco. A mere two years earlier. He never set eyes on his homeland again after 1939.

                                                     Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

When I was beginning my travels for The Olive Tree, making my way south through Spain towards Morocco, I visited the Phocaen-Greek ruins of Empuries on the Costa Brava coast north of Barcelona. There I found what was then a modest white hotel set in the Bay of Empuries, feet in the water. I stepped in for lunch. The menu was, of course, in Catalan, nothing in Spanish. The owner who I talked to briefly was a distinguished-looking local gentleman, all his staff were also locals. They spoke Catalan between them. The menu proposed only local dishes. I was trying to trace some of the words back to the Phoenician tongue. For a short while, Empuries was an entrepot for the Phoenicians and they set up fish-salting factories close by. I was scribbling, working, enjoying a glass of cava, which is a Catalan not Spanish bubbly wine although it is also produced today in other parts of Spain. As I lifted my head from my notebook, I tuned into the music playing on the DVD player. Pablo Casals. It was no coincidence. I understood then that I had not yet reached Spain. I was in Catalonia.

Tuesday 25 November 2014


At a recent book festival, a panel of illustrious 'literary' writers won their spurs as diplomats. The event was being filmed, and the camera swung round to reveal a beaming young woman, barely more than a child, her arm thrust into the air, desperate to ask a question.
An adult alongside, presumably her parent, was even more aglow with pride. And the question was?
You’ve guessed it:
“I am an aspiring writer (pause for exchange of smug smiles with parent). Where do you get your ideas from?”
Of course, the only honest answer would be: “Listen, honey, if you have to ask that, there’s not much chance that you’re suited to this writing game.” But I’m glad to say that none of the literary titans on the stage yielded to the temptation to deflate a youthful ego in public. No one said, “Did your Mummy tell you to ask that?” Nor did anyone challenge the girl about whether she wanted 'to be A Writer’ or to write - the former being a far more common ambition these days.
One or two of the panel blethered on as best they could to fill the time until it was decent to call on another questioner. But there was no mistaking the looks of bored exasperation that passed between the others as they dodged the ball.

I couldn’t help wondering whether there is a literary equivalent of the song “Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington.” Do let me know.

Just for fun, here are some suggestions for how Miss Worthington might find ideas for her first novel - to show her how they can come from anywhere, and why you don’t need to agonise about seeking them out [as any normal child would say: 'well, derrr’].
Indeed they can come from the least promising places, as I found when I went to take photos to illustrate a post I wrote here a couple of months ago.
I came across this ugly memorial, oddly positioned on what used to be part of the Napier University campus and is soon to become an over-developed modern dormitory for the very rich.

It’s not a great work of art, I think you’ll agree, and the wording shows every sign of having been agreed by a committee. But what a plethora of novels might come out of it. Let’s work our way down from top to bottom.

The bare facts of WK Burton’s life give you a timeframe, and plenty to look up on the Internet. Why is this memorial 'Dedicated with Deep Gratitude’? Even if you don’t stick to the actual facts of WK’s career, that's a good start to the search for a story, if ever I saw one.

You might want to build your plot around how and why, despite his obvious personal accomplishments, a man might still be seen - long after his and his parents’ deaths - primarily as their son. What scope that provides for creating a character who feels he can never live up to the triumphs of his family, or perhaps was motivated to do great things himself to fulfil his parents' aspirations for him. WK's own history might suggest that he deliberately carved out a life independently, playing to his personal enthusiasms and strengths in defiance of their hopes and expectations (indeed you might want to reflect on that from your own perspective, as you get older, Miss Worthington).

John Hill Burton - WK's Father
If you look into the actual details of his parents’ lives you will open up myriad possibilities for characters and settings. Following his father’s career as a biographer will take you into the world of the 18th century and the Scottish Enlightenment, opening up the life and works of the great philosopher, David Hume.

Hume's statue in Edinburgh on Referendum day
But why is WK's mother also named on the obelisk? Look her up and you’ll find that she grew up in high-flown legal circles, studied sculpture, promoted the education of women, and went as a nurse to the Crimea. She and her husband were friends of Conan Doyle. If you can’t find ideas there, Miss Worthington, you really should give up. And that’s before you find out that WK’s sister was a well-known artist, studying and exhibiting all over Europe.

We move down the memorial, and suddenly we're in Japan and down the sewers.

 It’s not just because the sewers of London feature so heavily in my Montmorency books that I see massive potential here.

Then look at this. The memorial really is the gift that keeps on giving.

That skyscraper - all 225 feet of it, was home to shops, an art gallery and a concert hall. What a wonderful setting for a novel. Add to that the closure of it’s revolutionary elevators ‘for safety reasons’ and the damage done to it in the great earthquake of 1894, and it would be amazing if you were still scrabbling around for plot ideas.

And there’s more.

 Some of his most famous pictures date from the 1891 earthquake. Here’s just one.

If you can’t build a story around that, Miss Worthington, you are in real trouble.

But also a respecter of Japanese heritage...
There are plenty of Japanese websites that can help you out here - each of them laced with small details that might spark off a completely unrelated tale.

Even this dull inscription at the very bottom of the stone could inspire you to write something lively. The clumsy reference to the committee might set your mind racing.  How about starting a story with the meeting of a memorial committee - even using the structure of the arguments at their meetings to shape whatever you choose to write? It looks as if hours were spent coming up with the leaden wording on the memorial - and yet apparently no one foresaw that rainwater running down the metal portrait would discolour the stone below. Ha ha.

Beyond all that, you could look ahead. The land around this memorial is soon to be a building site. The obelisk might be moved, accidentally or deliberately lost, or be scraped daily by the Chelsea tractors of the new residents, taking little darlings like you off to school. It could become the focal point of a story set in a world far removed from engineering, photography, Edinburgh, Japan, or anything to do with WK Burton and this particular lump of stone.

All I have been doing, Miss Worthington, is showing how anything, be it a memorial, a shop sign, a scribbled note, a soft toy, a photograph or a fish pie might set your novelistic juices running. An idea is only a starting point. Writing fiction is about letting your imagination run. Some of us enjoy rooting our books in fact, and restricting our flights of fancy to things that could plausibly have happened in a particular era or society, but you don't have to do that.
I could have said much, much more. I might have told you what I would write about having seen this apparently dreary monument —but, Dear Miss Worthington, you are going to have to wait to read that in print.  And you might be waiting a very long time, because I have plenty of other ideas.