Check Out My Tabs Above

Check Out My Tabs Above - All about books and about people with a passion for reading and writing books in all their forms - old and new. Books as love affairs, memories, surprises, identification and physical entities are part of the passion.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Irish Magic: Somerville & Ross

One of my reading treats on my recent stay in the West of Ireland  - apart from reading about pirates and white slavery there in then18th Century - was to catch up with some books about and by Edith Somerville and Violet Martin Ross whose families had been on Ireland for hundreds of years... 

The way down to the harbour
from the Customs House.
Early 20th C

Significantly the old family homes of the Somervilles were located in the exquisite cul-de-sac that is Castletownshend the village where we rented a house for our stay. The house still owned by a Somerville had once been rented to the British Government for the Customs House for nearby Skibbereen – a significant building on that coast, which once the pirates stopped calling was rife with smugglers. It was certainly haunted, but that’s another story.

It is a very small village with an alleged population of one hundred and fifty but has at least half a dozen great, well appointed houses with prime views of the harbour and the sea. Most of these houses were built or serially occupied for more than a century by four intertwined families who in the latter nineteenth and earliest twentieth century lived an almost self contained life involving a round of hunting, sailing, tennis parties, playing cards, writing and performing plays and theatrical events.

For a while in earlier centuries such ascendancy families had lived like potentates building and furnishing houses on British government support, on sea trade and rents paid by Irish farmers. By the time of Edith and Violet things had changed. The Land Acts of the late nineteenth century had reduced the wealth of some families to the point that they had to work away from home as painters, actors, writers and photography to keep the roofs over their heads from falling in, Violet’s brother closed up crumbling Castle Ross and became a kind of professional Irishman in London society, preferring that to the struggle to keep up the now unrewarding role of the Irish Landlord.
Both Edith and Violet separately and then together wrote stories, articles and tales for fees with the intentions of helped to keep their family afloat. Then they got together in a famously close relationship mimicking a marriage but – despite later post Freudian retrospective analysis – neither necessarily nor provably homosexual. (Not, as we say these days, that that matters).

Out of this relationship – to the rescue of the Somerville home Drishane[1] - came a stream of stories, articles and books. Most important of these is probably The Real Charlotte which according a critic quoted by to academic biographer John Cronin is a splendid piece of realistic fiction, a definitive exploration of ‘the Indian Summer of the Anglo Irish Ascendancy.’ He compares it with Jane Austen’s work in its tautness and resilience.

 Charlotte Mullen, at the centre of the novel a dark and destructive a figure of evil- is entirely convince, This novel has been called the finest Irish novel of the 19th Century.
They then went on to the subsequently more famous Some Experiences of an Irish RM which was phenomenally successful.

I am famously serious in my approach to life but there beside the roaring peat fire in the ex- Customs House in Castletownshend I laughed out loud at these tales which were based in this very village but could apply universally to small communities everywhere.

Edith and Violet at a typical  Castletowneshend
Tenniss Party
This pair of writers make their complementary sense of humour and ear for verbal anarchic usage shine from the page. The graphic nature of the writing is such that we see tumbles from horses, worthy characters covered in mud, encounters on the road to Skibbereen, the pompous incomers exposed, sly characters rewarded on the one hand and outed on the other. We meet rich complex characters which remind me of those in Dickens’ novels or working class Victorian Britain.  The dark nature of death and injustice it touched upon in a place where death is an everyday experience, be it the bird, animal or person.

Their letters show that these two were obsessed with the language patterns and idioms of their native countryside which as Canadian reviewer Susan Smith observes’ ...contains a curious mixture of the poetic and the absurd with the vitality of Elizabethan English. One letter recounts the story of  a widow who was  … left with one child and the invoice for another  ...since they recorded the language of the common people …their writing has a depth and range missing in other Anglos Irish writers…’ For this reason, Smith says, we should not associate Somerville and Ross with those associated with the Celtic Revival, such as Lady Gregory and WB Yeats.  A very enlightening thought for me.

So beside an Irish fireside I learned a lot not just about these two remarkable women and their writing but about the subtleties of Irish-English identity (I learned not to think about them and Anglo-Irish. They were definitely Irish first.) I learned about the poignant nature of these families and their affairs in the twilight and unloosening of their visceral connection with England.

I also got to re-acquaint myself with a pair of excellent writers from whom I can learn a lot about telling a good story in good style.

It also occurs to me that this extraordinary world could be the setting for a good novel or a great film © Wendy Robertson 2012
Should take more holidays perhaps.

Some Books Read:
The Real Charlotte: Somerville & Ross
Some Experiences of an Irish RM: Somerville & Ross

Selected Letters of Somerville & Ross; Edited By Gifford Lewis
                    - With an excellent forward by Molly Keane

Somerville & Ross: The World of the Irish RM
-          A gorgeous picture book with informative text. As you see from this page images are very much part of the story.

Somerville & Ross:  John Cronin 
This is more like an academic thesis considering letters and books in analytical detail. Very enlightening

Saturday 9 June 2012

Fiction and Truth Reading as a Reader, Reading as a Writer

I would point out that in the Iconic reading group teased me that I read these books as a writer, not purely as a reader.  This is evident here, I think... I did protest to them that this was what I was: a writer!

Fiction and Truth

Suite Francaise  - really a suite of two novels which might have grown been three -  was famously written by Irene Nemirovsky during the German occupation of France  before her removal in 1942 to Auschwitz and ultimate death. The rediscovery and  publication  of the work sixty five years later is a story in itself.

Irene - already a well known writer - embarked on the novel in the rural  village of Issy-l'Eveque where she and her husband and two small daughters lived, having fled occupied Paris.

I have just finished writing my latest novel - to be called The Art of Retreating - partly set in Occupied France and partly in the present day, so had read dozens of scholarly histories,  factual anecdotal memoirs and factual personal stories to get inside the particular experience of one of the six  main characters -  the aged writer Francine Costington.

I  kept Suite Francaise - at the far side of my table -  to read after I had finished writing my own novel.  This was because,  being fiction, this novel is essentially a secondary source; secondary sources are normally weak and can lead to thin storytelling and unconscious imitation..

It turns out though that t Suite Francaise relates intensely ... Read on.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Mythic style:Tove Jannson's Summer Book

Reading for Myself ...
When I read a new novel I make a habit of not reading any commentaries, reviews or introductions as I don't like to be told what Ishould think or feel about  a new book. I like to come to it afresh.  I may read such commentaries afterwards but my own first close reading is my reference for what the book means to me.

But you can't close your ears and Tove Jannson 's Summer Book came to the Iconic reading group laden with insightful praise from my reading guru Gillian. She certainly made me want to read it.

As I read it  I admired its beautifully written spare, poetic tone. I found it  hard to sort out whether this was down to the elegant translation or the original writing by a writer, whose reputation is built on writing for children. Of course the best children's writers know in their hearts about diamond bright use of language  to convey precise, often deep meaning,. Tove Jannson certainly does this in this story about a small girl who spends the summer on an island on the gulf of Finland with her Grandmother, who is a marginally eccentric artist and has no problems rowing in the water around the island.   (MORE...)

Sunday 3 June 2012

Sad Loss of the Exceptional Mary Davies

I have just heard from Jan Atkins of the death (aged 93) on the Isle of  Arran of my old  friend Mary Davies, a gifted painter, writer and healer.  My novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings was inspired by tales told to me by this wonderful  and somewhat  mystical writer and artist who  lived  in retirement on the Isle of Arran and who  also, in her time, drew buildings for a living. She was - remarkably -  a note taker and reporter for architectural historian Niklaus Pevsner and in her time helped to save important buildings from demolition.

Drawing from Mary's stories, experience and documentation the novel takes place in Poland in 1981 and Britain in 2006 . What’s it about? It’s about  the consuming nature of art, the shadowy place between now and the hereafter; it’s about passionate encounters arising from a confluence of cultures and the long journey of a mother and son to mutual understanding.   (more...)

Friday 1 June 2012

STOP PRESS for Readers, Writers & Gardeners

Don’t forget to join me this Sunday at Noon on the 3rd June to The Writing Game  on Bishop FM where Gillian, Avril and I dig into the inspiration of the garden.
This month on The Writing Game we are making the connection between the creative processes of gardening and writing. Many gardeners are writers and many writers are gardeners. Both activities require a combination of inspiration, hard work, creativity and patience. The only way to become accomplished at both writing and gardening is  actually to do it – not think about it or theorise about it but to actually practice the art. Some people would say that in both cases you have to be willing to get your hands dirty!
On this month’s programme we visit the garden in Low Etherley of Mary Smith who is both a great gardener and a member of Wear Valley Writers. ..  – read more  at

Saturday 26 May 2012

The Charm of the Twentieth Century for The Historical Novlelist.

Recently while reviewing my novels for my Kindling project I have been reminded  me of a talk I gave once at the Historical Novel Society called Twentieth Century Blues. What follows is in part, the essence of that talk with some more recent considerations.

I've been thinking again about the problem of what counts an ‘historical novel’. The recent popularity of the scholarly Hilary Mantel and her Thomas Cromwell novels illustrates the continuing interest in novels so historical (and in this case so beautifully written) that they will save you the bother of reading any history. 

It occurs to me again that  perhaps the further you go back in history, the more grandees in your cast of characters, the more authentically ‘historical’ your novel is rated.

This issue is in the front of my mind because I have just finished a novel about writers which is partly set in France in World War 2 and partly in the present day. Is this an historical novel? I ask myself. 

We love to label books, to put them in pockets from which they can's escape. In a probably vain attempt to escape this stereotyping in the   list of novels I created for this blog, I divided my novels into categories - Psychological,  Social Dramas, Sagas, Historical and Children's.  They are all set in and around the twentieth century and up to the present day. But looking again at the list I remember they all involved deep and prolonged  historical research as a basis for the fictional truth of my narratives. In this they are all historical novels. It is perhaps  more difficult to achieve because lives of ordinary individuals are not documented as are the lives of the grandees of historical note.

My writer's task has been to excavate and transform into story the depth and complexity of the lives of ordinary working and middle class people who lived extraordinary and dramatic lives. In that they are a reflection of the lives of the broad swathe of readers and citizens at this pert of the twenty first century. 

However you define  these lives I  rather  think a lot of energy is wasted in discussing whether ‘history’ ended  in the 1920s, 1930s, 50s, 80s. (My novel Cruelty Games is set in the 1960s and 1980s and written in the 1990s...)

 It all depends on how one sees it. Here, of course,  I am being a Twenty First Century relativist. For good or ill, certainties of the past have been replaced by relative values. The individual, rather than the family, tribe or group has emerged as the signifier of the  Twentieth Century. And the ordinary individual in her or his social and political context makes for  great characterisation in fiction.

Now and then I am in the troubling company of people who think that  fiction set in the broad reaches of the Twentieth Century is somehow inferior to the more distant delights of The Middle Ages, The Age of Enlightenment, The Sea Under Sail, or the essentially male romance of the battlefield before the ungallant evolution of tank warfare.

As a writer I delight in delving into Twentieth Century history for inspiration for my novels. The Twentieth Century has witnessed not one, but a series of vivid, exciting, revolutionary changes in industrial and military technology, as well as in political, social and personal attitudes and values. Arguably, each decade following from 1895 has in itself rendered as much change in these matters as have the previous two or three centuries.

A recurring problem is that, for some people, the twentieth century is not an ‘other time than ours’, rather it is some fuzzy taken-for-granted ‘present’ which, it is assumed, we all unquestioningly share. For such people the grasp of their own century as history is shaky and they find it  much more comfortable – and pleasurable -  to get to grips with a ring-fenced period like the Restoration or the Celtic Dawn.
A more subtle point emerges that in  the matrix of snobbery, respect and contempt in the field of historical fiction, we find that it's OK if you are a ‘literary’ novelist to take the Twentieth Century as your ground. But if you use this century as your inspiration and you are a 'popular', widely-read novelist writing about , say - an ‘ordinary’ family in Manchester in the 1930s, your work may be dismissed as  a saga or ‘trivial’ 

People who have never penetrated your novel deeper than the cover, ejaculate words like ‘nostalgic’, ‘sentimental’, ‘romantic’ , and ‘trivial’ in a flush of non sequiturs which bring down any intelligent protest to their own trivial level. One's  many readers are relegated, to mindless consumers who gain little insight and no knowledge from their enjoyment of your work.

Here the ground settles around a tacit understanding that the novels set in the Twentieth Century, focusing on the complex, varied lives of working people, are less historically significant than some novel about a detective priest in Rome or a foot soldier in early Nineteenth Century Spain.

And, of course there are  people who also like their history picked clean of Twentieth-Century perceptions and nuance, muttering furiously about ‘revisionism’ and ‘anachronism’. I would argue that it is impossible to write novels in this arid fashion and conjure up a living, vibrant world for your readers to share.  A modern writer cannot avoid bringing modern sensibilities and sensitivities to the interpretation and expression of this truth through her or his fiction.

Perhaps one problem with taking the Twentieth Century as one’s period – and refusing to assume its fuzzy general reality - is just how much we now know of the subtlety and the complex individual human reaction to the great events in this time. To this end, it is absorbing to research the acres of letters, diaries, public accounts, political treatises, contemporary press, fugitive literature, film, video, the art, even the fiction and illicit literature of a particular decade of the twentieth century. 

In writing about the ordinary person in the Twentieth Century, we enjoy phenomenally more resources than those for any previous century. But then, from this massive resource it is inevitable that we conjure some fresh human insights which are not there at all in the source documents. In this way we make a new accessible truth which is not a lifeless, nostalgic re-enactment.  And – as with the best of fiction set in other centuries - this new truth is predicated on the modern perspective we bring to it.

To get to the point where you can ‘hear’ these earlier Twentieth-Century voices, and can walk in the footsteps of the speakers, needs a particular approach. The public histories, facts and information and technical resouces are easy to access. Using the British Library, the Internet and one’s local library, one soon comes on the research cycle where the salient facts begin to repeat themselves. 

Then is the time for more specific enquiry. Novelis Freda Lightfoot says'I walk around the place I intend to write about, take photographs, do sketch maps, note such things as what is in bloom if it is the Lakes, or the remnants of old buildings and rows of back-to-back houses if I'm in Manchester.  Most fun of all, I talk to a great many old people.  They always say there's 'nowt much they can tell me' and then talk.'

They look to personal experience and the words of the non-literary. Liz Gill says, 'I go for books written by local people about their lives.  Old maps and newspapers, local photo books, small print memoirs, old houses, essays written about industries on Tyneside, my own knowledge of family and industry, my family's history.'

I don’t quite know where I am on this spectrum. I relish the large-scale historical literature and scholarly document search as well as fugitive regional sources and images. And while I do have the historian’s caution about the absolute validity of such personal accounts as evidence  I have a respect for the voice of witnesses.

I enjoy the fact that as this history is so ‘near’ we do have the privilege of listening to the echo of actual voices. In Coventry Archive I listened to many hours of tape-recordings of reminiscence of individuals who had experienced the Coventry Blitz for Land of Your Possession

For The Long Journey Home (about the fall of Singapore in 1942), I talked at lucid, fascinating length with a lady of 98. As a young woman, she escaped the island on one of the last boats not to be shot out of the water. We drank tea made by her sixty-year-old daughter who had shared her experience as a toddler.

 I also read eighty letters written by a naval commander to his wife, as Singapore crumbled in the face of the Japanese invasion. These were lent to me by the elderly man who, as a boy, was the subject of the letters. His father who died in the waters off Singapore the day after surrender, was one of the quiet heroes of that tragedy.

It is like a game of ‘touch’. I touched the son’s hand and he touched his father and mother’s hands. There is a line of communication here that is more than scholarship.

In my  novel, Honesty’s Daughter, Benbow Hall (based on Whitworth Hall in County Durham, the home of Bobbt Shafto)  has a walled garden which is central to my novel. In researching this novel, as well as reading everything about the history and evolution of the walled garden and learning how to propagate roses, I talked at length to the man who has gardened that same enclosed space for 27 years. These close-in conversations helped me access the magic of that particular garden.  

As well as all this, I researched the history of the Hall itself, the development of armaments in the North at the turn of the century, the British in Colorado Springs in 1908, and conditions on the Somme   in 1918. But it was talking to the gardener that was the key to the reality in this novel.

You might say that all this is no different to the great Bernard Cornwell spending a day with the resident longbowman at Warwick Castle, and I would agree with you. Perhaps it is neither so romantic nor so overtly colourful, but it is essentially the same literary detective work: how to walk in the shoes, and therefore create true characters, of people who lived in other times and then say something fresh about their lives which might connect it to ours.

But it happens that the people I create are nearer to me as human beings than is Bernard’s longbowmen. They are the contemporaries of my mother and my grandmother and I feel that I have a genuine psychological connection with them. Here we have the procedure of reaching back, hand to hand, that game of ‘touch’ again. In the end it is not too difficult to hear the echoes of their voices.

This, you might say, should make the writing of a novel easy. But in some ways it makes it harder. Without a rigorous apprehension of the broader historical scene, and the placing the fugitive evidence alongside the more objective verifiable public evidence, one could slide away from this newly-minted truth into sloppy stereotype, from tight storytelling into mundane repetitive saga. This I avoid like the plague.

So we have it: in this as in all other parts of the wider fields of  ‘literary’, historical and other fiction, it is necessary to mark out the   fine from the dross, the true from the ersatz, the fresh from the wearily repetitive. 

And it is important to feel unapologetic about the fact that one is not embarking on a series of novels about the Celtic Dawn.

Thursday 24 May 2012

The Rise and Rise of a Pitman Painter now on Kindle

The Rise and Rise of a Pitman Painter
The widespread international success of the Pitman Painter drama reminds me that my novel, originally called WHERE HOPE LIVES, now retitled GABRIEL PAINTING was written before that play was produced. It focuses on the same extraordinary phenomenon of working men being inspired to be painters. Like the Pitman Painters story, my story springs out of true events in the history of mining art.

I thought you might enjoy it:

In 1963 eminent painter Gabriel Marchant recalls his beginnings as a painter in the dark days of the 1930s and pays tribute the man – the Magician – who made it possible.

In 1935, haunted by a dream he once had underground, 19 year old Gabriel, an unemployed miner, finds help and support for his lifelong desire to the local Settlement. Visiting German artist Rosel von Stielenberg nurtures the extraordinary talent of this young man whose experience in the mine has left him obsessed to express in paint darkness and light and the power of colour,.

Gabriel is persuaded by the charismatic director Archie Todhunter to help with a Settlement play which will be performed before the Prince of Wales. In the play Gabriel plays opposite clever, plain, schoolgirl Greta who sees him as her doorway to maturity. 

But Gabriel is obsessed with painting and he finds the dark face of his dream in Marguerite Molloy, who is the model for the controversial painting which will make his national reputation and disturb the community in which he lives.

As the day of the performance looms, the lives of these women and the choices Gabriel makes are played out against the long shadow of the First World War with, if they knew it, the clarion calls of the Second World War echoing in their ears. 

Note: Although my characters here are invented, in the 1930s and 40s the Spennymoor Settlement, under its charismatic leader, did indeed nurture the talents of young men who gained national respect for their art, including painters
Tom McGuinness and Norman Cornish, and writer Sid Chaplin. WR