Friday 26 February 2021

TOUR D'HORIZON by Adèle Geras

The phrase 'tour d'horizon' is one I heard on  the 4th February, when I was on my walk, listening to one of my favourite podcasts. It's called The Rest is History and every episode is a conversation between Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland, both of them wonderful talkers and excellent historians and writers of accessible and fascinating books.  For this episode, on China, they had Michael Wood as their guest and the hour -long discussion of China's history was described as only touching the surface....glancing across the whole horizon...of an enormous subject.


So I decided to call my post by the same name because that's what it is: a glance across the last six months of the Pandemic, which has changed our lives in all kinds of ways and done very strange things to the ordinary unrolling of each day. In many ways, I'm leading exactly the same life I always do: in my house, by myself, getting on with my stuff.  There was a time, as recently as September 16th, which is when the photograph above was taken, when it was possible for me to get on a bus and go and meet my friend Caroline Wilson in the garden of Emmanuel College. She showed me this magnificent tree, the oldest in Cambridge and we sat there on a bench in the sunshine having coffee from a flask and wondering what the autumn would bring. I'd just read a book by Richard Powers called  The Overstory and so trees were on my mind and this one  had a history of many hundreds of years. 

Trees again....all through this time, in hard lockdowns and easier times too,  I've been walking in my own neighbourhood. I always have an eye out for the trees and this shot taken in late October shows them at their best.  I do an hour a day and sometimes I go through a suburb which has grown up from scratch about five minutes from my front door. When we came to Cambridge in 2010, there was nothing but fields between our house and Addenbrooke's Hospital. Now there's a whole suburb there, called Great Kneighton, complete with school, Medical Centre, and lots of imaginatively designed (for the most part) houses and flats. There's Hobson's Park  in the middle  of Great Kneighton and that has a lovely bird reserve. You can look over the bird reserve and see the blue curve of Royal Papworth Hospital in the distance. You'll see a photograph of this towards the end of this post. One of the things I most admire about the design of Great Kneighton is the imaginative planting of many different varieties of trees and shrubs which is still going on. Only yesterday gardeners were busy putting in lots of saplings. 

One of the joys of being in Tier 2 in November was still being able to meet a friend in the park for a walk. Judith Lennox and I walked a lot on Jesus Green in Cambridge and ended our walk sitting outside at a pavement cafe back in the day when this was still allowed. The weather was cold but it was such an enjoyable thing to do. 

The date on the photo above is New Year's Eve. Helen Craig (of Angelina Ballerina fame) and I went walking in Great Shelford Recreation Ground. I went there once about nine years ago to watch my grandson playing football but here it had been raining.  There's a lot of Great Shelford history attached to Helen. Her daughter-in-law is the writer Sally Christie who still lives in the village.   Sally is the daughter of Philippa Pearce, who is arguably the most famous person to have lived here. Philippa's children's books,  especially Tom's Midnight Garden, are classics and several (like Minnow on the Say) are set along this stretch of river. There's now a memorial arch to Philippa a few yards away from the river, at the entrance to the children's playground. 


On another walk, on January 6th, I came across the little star labelled HOPE. I regarded this as an omen for my new book, which is being published on March 4th under my pseudonym HOPE ADAMS. It's a novel called Dangerous Women, and my publishers, Michael Joseph in the UK and Berkley in the USA (where it came out ten days ago) have done wonders online to publicise it and ensure that the world  is aware of it. Still, it's odd  not being able to visit bookshops and I'm looking forward to the world of books returning to normal by the time the paperback appears.

What the little star did turn out to be an omen for was the Vaccine. I had my first jab at my local Medical Centre and was able to walk there and back. This lovely young woman was my vaccinator and the whole process took minutes. All most efficiently and kindly done and it's the vaccines which give me the expectation that one day this pandemic will end and we will be able to see everyone again, just as we did in those long ago days before Corona virus hit us. It goes without saying that I'm full of admiration and praise for everyone in the NHS who has worked hard to deal with everything that's been thrown at them. But I'm also grateful to shop workers, delivery drivers, bus drivers, teachers, home schoolers and everyone else who's worked their socks off to make things bearable. Most of all, though, I'd like to thank every scientist who's worked on ways of vaccinating us, finding drugs to  help us if we get sick and every single person who's had to deal with this strange situation in the best possible way. 

The blue building is Royal Papworth Hospital, part of the Cambridge University Hospitals, which with Addenbrooke's just behind it, employs thousands of people and contributes to the welfare of the area and the nation in so many ways.  I'm not about to write any fiction about the Pandemic, but it will be interesting to see the novels and dramas that emerge in future, reminding us of what went on, all over the world. This is a particular moment in history and I've had a ringside seat for it, in front of my television. We take television for granted but it's been a real life saver. I've also read reams and reams about the situation in newspapers and  I'm grateful to all journalists, film makers and broadcasters. They showed us the world and explained it at a very strange time.

Friday 19 February 2021

Belfast 1921 by Sheena Wilkinson

 A photo can tell you so much. 

When I was writing Hope against Hope, set in Belfast and along the new Irish border in 1921, I spent a lot of time walking round East Belfast and trying to see it as it would have been one hundred years ago when I placed my fictional girls' hostel there.  I also pored over old photos. Some streets and buildings – terraced houses, churches and mission halls and shops – haven’t changed too much, but there are new housing estates where once were factories; new motorway links and huge junctions have replaced back allies and tramlines.


Belfast in 1921 was on fire – often literally. Northern Ireland, which commemorates its centenary this year, was born from compromise and conflict, an expedient solution to an age-old problem. It was not really designed or expected to succeed; many would argue that it has not. But this is not a political post. This is about two little girls who had their photo taken in East Belfast in the early 1920s – it might not have been 1921, but I like to imagine it was because of the novel. 

Their names are Frances and Annie Duff. Frances is about thirteen and Annie nine or ten. They are my grandmother and my great aunt. They smile out, both with the expressions I remember so well from their later lives as elderly women. (They both lived into their nineties.)  They are well dressed, with the extravagant hair bows I remember from early school story illustrations. Both wear pearls and Annie has a wristwatch. This is clearly An Occasion. 

I like to think that it is June 1921 and that they are all dressed up to go and see the King and Queen open the first Northern Irish parliament at City Hall, as thousands of other unionists did. But possibly not. Gran, an inveterate teller of Stories of the Olden Days,  never mentioned such an outing. But then I knew nothing of this visit myself until I did the research for 
Hope against Hope, so perhaps I just didn’t ask the right questions. When I look closer at their frocks – all their lives they would call dresses frocks -- I see that they are fashionably short, but with huge hems –  made to last. They contrast with the lace edgings of their best frocks in the photo taken some years before – and I think this is not just a change in fashion, but a change in family fortunes. Their mother, Fanny, made their clothes, and took in sewing after their father died – which I believe was in between the two photos. As was the death of their big sister Sadie. 


Unlike the first photo, which was definitely taken in a photographic studio, I fancy this one was taken at home in Beechfield Street. I imagine that I remember that very vase, that little table with its barley-twist legs, but both would have been commonplace in 1921, so they may well have been in a studio.  Wherever they are, I do know that outside was a troubled city, disturbed by rioting and burnings. I know their local Catholic church was attacked in 1920, and that same year, thousands of Catholic workers were run out of the shipyard where Frances and Annie’s father and brothers worked. Nothing of that shows in the photo, but then neither does the tragedy even closer to home – except that Frances, now unexpectedly the Big Sister instead of the middle one, leans rather protectively into Annie – perhaps she is thinking of how fragile a sister’s hold on life can be. Or perhaps she is just doing what the photographer asked: all her life she was a gentle and compliant woman, unlike her granddaughter.

My favourite scene in Hope against Hope is a garden party, where the girls of the hostel at the centre of the story invite neighbouring families for tea, sports and entertainment. Of course I know that’s not where Frances and Annie are going, a treat after the family deaths, a distraction from the troubled city outside their front door. Because I made it up.

But without Gran’s stories, and photos like this, I couldn’t have. 







Friday 12 February 2021

Revisiting Mary Kingsley - Joan Lennon

[I've been thinking about travel, in these times without, and would like to repost something I did back in 2013 about the intrepid, fiercely intelligent, witty Mary Kingsley.] 

Mary Kingsley was a model Victorian female. She was a good little girl who lived with her parents, helped her mother with the house and her father with his hobbies and interests. She was a good young woman who nursed her parents in their final illnesses. And, at the age of 30, she was all set to become a good old maid, when something amazing happened. She fell in love ...

... with Africa. West Africa, 'the white man's grave'. The Africa of mangrove swamps and malaria, cannibals and crocodiles, 'Fetish' and undiscovered species of fish. It is impossible to do the next seven years of her life any kind of justice in the space of a blog post - this is a woman who collected insects and fish for the British Museum, continued her father's studies in 'pagan' religions, journeyed down rivers and through swamps and up mountains, encountered - and had clear ideas of the differences between - dozens of tribes, and by the end of the her life was advising the British government on their African policies - and doing it all in a long skirt and several layers of petticoats.* She held some views that were very much of the time, and some that were very much her own.**  And she wrote about it all with a turn of phrase as elegant as a lady's ankle.

Take crocodiles, for example:

Now a crocodile drifting down in deep water, or lying asleep with its jaws open on a sand-bank in the sun, is a picturesque adornment to the landscape when you are on the deck of a steamer, and you can write home about it and frighten your relations on your behalf; but when you are away among the swamps in a small dug-out canoe, and that crocodile and his relations are awake - a thing he makes a point of being at flood tide because of fish coming along - and when he has got his foot upon his native heath - that is to say, his tail within holding reach of his native mud - he is highly interesting, and you may not be able to write home about him ...

Or, this discussion of a traveller's options, who finds him, or as it might be, herself tide-trapped in a mangrove swamp:

Of course if you really want a truly safe investment in Fame, and really care about Posterity, and Posterity's Science, you will jump over into the black batter-like, stinking slime, cheered by the thought of the terrific sensation you will produce 20,000 years hence, and the care you will be taken of then by your fellow-creatures, in a museum. But if you are a mere ordinary person of a retiring nature, like me, you stop in your lagoon until the tide rises again ...

Or, the description of a chance meeting with a leopard in a storm:

His forepaws were spread out in front of him and he lashed the ground with his tail, and I grieve to say, in face of that awful danger - I don't mean me, but the tornado - that depraved creature swore, softly, but repeatedly and profoundly ...

Commemorative stamp, May 1969, Great Britain

And this is what she says about this love that took over her life:

The charm of West Africa is a painful one: it gives you pleasure when you are out there, but when you are back here it gives you pain by calling you ... you hear, nearer to you than the voices of the people round, nearer than the roar of the city traffic, the sound of the surf that is breaking on the shore down there, and the sound of the wind talking on the hard palm leaves and the thump of the natives' tom-toms; or the cry of the parrots passing over the mangrove swamps in the evening time; or the sweet, long, mellow whistle of the plantain warblers calling up the dawn; and everything that is round you grows poor and thin ... and you want to go back ...

Mary Kingsley (1890s)

The Victorian era produced many fine, strong, distinctive voices, and hers was certainly one of them - as personal and engaging as if she were in the same room. I wish she were!

Mary H. Kingsley (1862-1900)
Travels in West Africa (1897)

* Plenty of petticoats prove an excellent defence when attacked by village geese, or when falling into a fifteen-foot deep game pit studded with 12-inch spikes. It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick skirt.

** She defended, for example, the practice of polygamy - it was clear to her that women were far better off being able to share the work and the child care. She also felt strongly that some of the tribes had intellectual strengths greater than the capacity of their language. And she valued the work of the trader over the contributions of the missionary.

[Mary Kingsley died at age 37 from typhoid contracted while nursing Boer prisoners of war in a South African hospital.]

Joan Lennon Instagram

Friday 5 February 2021

Writing and Researching During a Pandemic - by Anna Mazzola

How do you write creatively when you’re living through a global crisis? For much of the first lockdown it seemed that – for me at least – the answer was ‘you can’t’. Trying to fit my law work around home-schooling two young children meant I had no time and no headspace for writing. It wasn’t just that either: it was a feeling that, in the midst of all this suffering and chaos, what on earth would be the point? 

However, an imminent deadline meant I had to pull myself together. At the beginning, it seemed impossible and overwhelming. I had too much work, I had two children shouting downstairs, I couldn’t possibly do it. Except that I had to do it. I took a few afternoons off work. I turned the internet off to stop myself looking at breaking news and social media and constant messages. I went out running to clear my head. Every evening I continued working until late, keeping going on tea and adrenaline.    

I’m so glad that I did. I had forgotten that I need to write – that it takes me out of the day-to-day and puts me in different place. It’s my way of thinking clearly, and keeping sane. I’m not alone in this. Writer Rowan Coleman says writing is, ‘the only thing I can do right now that feels normal, so I find even the tricky bits very relaxing.’ 

I love the historical research too - it reminds me that our current woes are a mere jot in centuries of human suffering. My fourth novel is set in Mussolini's Rome as the world hurtles towards war. Whatever difficulties we may be experiencing now, they are probably not as catastrophic as the trials of the Second World War.

For many people, however, writing is very difficult or even impossible at the moment. They’re constantly caring for others or working around the clock. And, as Will Dean says, ‘The low-level, constant underlying anxiety (with no reliable end date to give comfort) is not conducive to creativity.’  

From my own experience and speaking to other writers, the key tips to writing during lockdown seem to be as follows: 

1. Set a routine, and carve out some time away from your other demands. For some, that means getting up at the crack of dawn. For others, it means writing at evenings or weekends or at set times of day.

2. Shut off the internet. Or at least find an app like Self Control or Freedom that blocks certain sites. Abir Mukerjee says, ‘Set aside a few hours when you can keep distractions to a minimum. Switch off the phone and the internet and the Zoom, lock the kids in the basement and just write.’ I've left Twitter for the time being as just don't have time to do it all.

3. Don your ear defenders. I invested in a decent pair a while ago and they were worth every penny, allowing me to cancel out the sound of the children shouting downstairs and the the workmen drilling next door. Others prefer to listen to music or even white noise to put them in the writing zone. 

4. Find diversions for the kids to keep them out of the room. The sign I stuck to my door begging my children to leave me alone had pretty much no effect. Canadian writer Elle Wild says, ‘I carve out a set time at end of school day and assign my kid a task, like painting, practicing music, or walking pup while I write. It’s tough. Just do what you can.’

5. Work in short bursts. Many use the Pomodoro technique, writing in twenty-minute bursts. Victoria Scott says, ‘I have young kids, so I'd snatch 20 minutes while they were eating, or playing outside, or watching TV. Setting a timer for 20 mins seems to help, too.’  

6. Find ways to motivate yourself. Angela Clarke breaks her calendar days into four-hour blocks, and shades in what she’s done. ‘2 hours worth and I’m happy. 4 and I’m thrilled.’ 

7. Lower your expectations and give yourself a break. These are very tough times. Laura Wilson says, ‘Manage your expectations - if you can only do half, or even a quarter, of your normal word count, so be it.’ 

8. Go outside, walk, run, jump, dance. I go running (not very fast) four or five times a week. Other writers go walking, cycling, or just spend time outside. I think it’s probably essential for mental well-being in general but it makes a big difference to my writing.  

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. But if you have any top tips, I’d love to hear them. 

Featured imaged - Leonid Pasternak - The Passion of Creation.