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

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Dorothy M. hits THE ROAD

Dorothy, a valued and very informed member of our Iconic Book Group  lives in Littletown near Durham City.  Now retired she worked for Durham County Library Service for over 40 years and lists books and reading as one of her great passions.  She reviews books for the website - do give this a try if you don’t know it – it is a very original way of suggesting books for readers.  

Here's Dorothy: 

 'The Road is a brilliant novel and a great work of literature – but first and foremost it is an amazing experience.  I was totally immersed in this grim world and in the story of a man (who is dying slowly and painfully) and a boy journeying through a country destroyed by some cataclysmic event.  The book portrays a bleak, cold, grey world which is without hope but where to despair is to die.  Yet even in it’s darkest moments this is a book lit up by a story of incandescent love – the love between a father and son.

As father and son plod slowly south on their way to a hopefully slightly better climate we learn that the father has promised to kill his son at the time of his own death for he cannot bear to leave him alone in such a hostile world.
From the very first words of the book -  When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.-  
you are plunged into a harrowing tale of survival  - a story which is both sad and uplifting.  The story is told in language which is beautiful in its starkness and poetic in its rhythms and every word packs an emotional punch.  The use of repetition is particularly effective.  The dialogue between father and son is heartbreaking and never has the word ‘okay’ been used to such devastating effect.

Magnificent descriptions of the desolation of the blasted countryside and the ruined cities they pass through are contrasted with the unspeakable horrors of human degradation as the few survivors abandon all morality and fight for their lives.

This seems to me to be one of the best novels of our generation.  In fact the book reminds me more and more of “Pilgrim’s Progress” every time I read it – partly because of the journey and partly because of the language.  If you haven’t read it yet – drop everything and read it now!'

Dorothy M.

I like the look of - Good for readers who want to spread their wings. Wendy


Friday, 11 May 2012

Exquisite Library; the mac in the chair is mine

Wonderful library; the mac on the chair is mine...
Yesterday I went by train with my  friend Gillian to the exquisite Carnegie reference library in Middlebrough, which on May 2nd celebrated the centenary of its original building in 1912.

There is a good deal to celebrate: this building is the epitome of respect for the world of books and learning.. With it's fine architectuer, its wonderful wooodwork,  and its sweeping marble staircase it is a work of art in itself, open to all.

Part of the celebrations will be a Literary Festival taking place in June and July. I will be giving a one day workshop on the 16th June which will develop creative writing inspired by  the area's history.

Of course Middlesbrough has a lot of history - it was at the core of the 19th Century Industrial Revolution with its steelworking and ship building  and its emergence as a modern city full of the energetic  and inventive working and middle classes  with its view outwards to the wide world as an international  port.

So here we can find a glut of inspiration for the creative writer who will be encouraged to take an entriely personal interpretation of all  this .information.

Wonderful radiators
The object of our visit yesterday was to research materials which might inspire the writers in my workshop, It was only a start but we went away with:
  • An 18th Century Map of Middlebrough
  • River Tees 1938, River Tees 1906
  • Architectural plan of the transporter bridge,
  • History of passenger transport and othe aspects of Middlebrough
  • Extracts from two women's diaries from 1944 and 1886
  • Views of streets and markets between1870 and 1960)
  • 19th century streets and the people who live, loved and died there: - ironworker, mariner, blacksmith, joiner, driller, draper, craneman upholsterer, painter, drayman, rivetter, cartman, inkeeper, solicitor, beer retailer galvaniser soliciter, architent, timekeeper, ship steward, boilersmith, tea, merchant, tailor....
Next I will look for portraits and images of Middlebrough people of all types, classes, and modes of life.

So much story there for all of us

I am looking forward to the workshop which will focus on catching stories and narratives which will emerge when the writers add their contemporary life -experience to the history of this place.
It should be fun.

If you're in travelling distance of Middlebrough on 16th June you could join me in this advemture. Email  to check details.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

We had a fabulous response to Sunday's Writing Game Programme where Sylvia Hurst, aged 90, tells us how she arrived here on the
Kindertransport from Germany - on one of the trains which rescued threatened children from Nazi Europe.To listen again click HERE
Hope you  like it

Monday, 23 April 2012

John McGahern, Writing Retreats & Changing Lives

I first wrote this View of Writer John McGahern’s novel  -  Amongst Women  as a guest writer for Kathleen Jones’ very special blog. We had read it in our Iconic Writing Group alongside Willian Trevor's Reading Turgenev (reviewed here last month)  and I thought the piece would fit very nicely here 

I have participated in several writers retreats and now have run a few. Something significant always happens at writer’s retreats: they can be life changing events. I am just in the last stages of completing a novel set around a fictional writer’s retreat in France. So John is on my mind.

I met the late, great John McGahern at my first writer’s retreat at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire – a great place on the side of a hill with a scattering of garden huts furnished with a chair, a bench, and a great view of the countryside. I had been suffering from overwork and a loss of confidence.

At that time I’d had three children’s books published and was hungry – not to write  a better book as I knew writing for children can be the highest part of our calling – but I felt the need for  bigger scope and scale: the opportunity to fly higher, dig deeper. So I saved my hard earned pennies and went to Lumb Bank, exhausted, clutching half a novel and shot through with that down feeling you get in the middle of a novel. ‘What have I done? Is this any good? Is this no good? This is no good.’

John McGahern was one of the two tutors on that retreat. I’d read The Dark – a masterpiece of a book – but knew little about the writer. A good tutor, he read my half-book and I shared my misgivings, my lack of confidence about it, and my sense of foolishness. He chuckled. ‘You’re surely joking, Wendy. Sure, I see you’re a great writer!’ And he went on to tell me why. He gave me the confidence to surge on and write many more adult novels. He treated me as an equal, a fellow artisan.

One morning we talk about an extract from my manuscript where a girl is walking with a basket up a bank.  She lifts up her skirt to show her friend where her brothers have kicked her, leaving boot marks on her thigh. John then talks with some intensity about how much one can render in fiction the dark things that have really happened to you.  And he tells me something so terrible it could not make its way onto even his pages which – always beautifully written – are undercut with the complex interplay of cruelty and control, love and loyalty inside the crucible of family life. 

His work is cut through with the chillingly honest view of his own difficult childhood which is a strong strand of most of his fiction, often dominated by the figure of the strong, cruel, seductive father. His fiction - emerging as it does out of his territory of rural Ireland - consistently reflects on the politics of family life where power, and even love, is wielded in subtle and brutal ways. He allows the reader access to these excesses by rendering the highly subjective experiences of his characters in a pared- back, detached style allowing the reader to infer the terrors for themselves. As well as this he allows us some rest for our emotions - with his great prose, his acute observation and lyrical rendering of time and season in rural Ireland.

Amongst Women, his 1990 prize-winning[1] novel, has at its centre just such a cruel controlling seductive father and husband. Michael Moran, an ex hero and a leader in the historical war against the British, wields total power over his family of three girls and a boy. Michael prefers family to friends and dominates his family using rituals of meals, domestic tasks and prayers as the syntax and grammar of his domination. (Brainwashing comes to mind…) There are physical aspects to his domination that have sexual undertones but the writing is too subtle for that to declare itself as incest.

Michael is handsome and has charm and is prepared to use it – as when he courts his second wife, Rose, so he can add her as caretaker and fellow-hero-worshipper to his brood of women. McGahern, though, shows Rose as the only one who, though loving Michael, holds out against his domination. This is logical. She has not been brainwashed by him since birth.

It is significant that the daughters, whom he bullies, manipulates and dominates, adore him and make excuses for him to each other and to Rose and other outsiders. And the final irony – and the brilliance of the perception in the writing – is that these women do notbreak down. At his death, around which the whole of this novel is tuned, they become their father. He has created them. He is in their hearts, in their skin, in their soul.
I have many other stories emerging from this particular writing retreat but this is the most important. 

Writing retreats, as I say, can change your life. 

And that's what my new novel The Art Of Retreating is all about ...

Friday, 20 April 2012


I spent some time in the eighties visiting friends in Vienna and working at The International School. I became interested in the role of this city  in fiction. I recently gave a talk on this. I thought you might like to see my list of recommended books.  

(Somewhere in the back of my mind was – and is - an idea for a novel – not about the sewers but about this idealistic young teacher who visits Vienna and has her innocent pre-conceptions smashed...) 

Here’s  my list:

Phil Andrews: Goodnight Vienna - Well written football thriller which ends up in the sewers of Vienna. A bit of a cross between a police procedural  and ‘They Think Its All Over’.   The Times says ‘A pinch of Chandler, a dash of Nick Hornby… a pacy, vigourous read ’ so it can’t be bad… The writer is an award winning sports journalist.

Barea Ilse: Vienna -  A panoramic book that considers the landscape, the  historic and political identity of the city. It addresses and sometimes confirms, sometimes refutes, the  gilded image and exotic myth of faintly decadent glamour of this city. Rather wide in scope but worth persisting with, Viennese born, this writer and scholar was a leading activist of her generation, a political refugee in Czechoslovakia, and later in England  in the 30s,  she also fought in the Spanish Civil war on the Republican side. Her own life reads like a novel…

Frank Buranelli: The Wizard From Vienna - Franz Anton Mesmer and the origins of hypnotism. Chosen here as just one example of the huge range of intellectual, eccentric and original people – some geniuses - emerging from or working in  this city. The list would include Mozart, Freud, Mahler, Hofmannstal, Klimt,  Kokoschka, Schnitzler, Kraus and Wittkenstein  to name but a few.

Richard  Bassett :   The Austrians -  Strange Tales from the Vienna Woods.
Easy to read, well written contemporary perspective on the city by the  (in 1987 ) Times Central and East Europe correspondent. Breaks down some myths and introduces us to modern Vienna. Recommended.

Hans Bizanz: Vienna 1900 - Visual images as a code for time and place.  Reflects on the bright and dark side of creativity. Recommended.

Georg Clare:  Last Waltz in Vienna -The Destruction of a family 1842-1942
An absolutely sensitive and savagely touching memoir of Clare which encompasses the saga of his whole family and allows us to understand, with more than brute comprehension, the human side of  the dawning days of what we now label somewhat automatically as the holocaust. Here one can see the degradation and decline of Vienna as something of a metaphor for this process.  Beautifully told, human story. The writer became a naturalised British citizen and a member of the British Army. Recommended.

 Sarah Gainham: The Hapsburg Twilight Eight dense and well written vignettes of life in Vienna in the dying years of the 19th Century by an English  writer who lived and worked there from 1947. My favourite story is that of  Anna Sacher  doyenne of the famous Hotel Sacher who reminds me of the ‘Duchess of Duke Street’ with her respectable front and her tolerance of indiscretions.  This same Hotel Sacher features as a somewhat  seedy hotel in post war Vienna in  Graham  Greene’s The Third Man, mentioned below. In Greene’s  novel the mysterious Harry Lime has his friend Rollo Martins accommodated in The Sacher Hotel which, in the post war occupation, is only open to approved military and civilian personnel of the occupying forces. No Austrians.

Graham Greene: The Third Man The Third Man was never written to be read, but only to be seen.’  (Graham Greene)  It was the ‘story’ that Greene wrote  at the request of Sir Alexander Korda so that he (Greene) and Sir Carol Reed  could discuss, negotiate and develop a film about the four power occupation of post war Vienna.    Without the story to establish the atmosphere, h e thought a certain measure  of character and atmosphere would be lost to the ‘dull shorthand of a script.’  The story was his declaration of primacy in the creative process of making this film.  What emerges  is a novella, almost a fragment, a peculiar hybrid tale which is told by Calloway (the detective), on the assumed experiences of Rollo Martins, the ‘innocent’ at the centre of this tangle, and his relationship with, and pursuit of the enigmatic Harry Lime. The shadowy divided image of the city is evoked; the disillusionment of Martins is engendered; we encounter the rank horror of  black market profiteering in penicillin – effectively in life and death;  we see a portrait of an entirely corrupt human being. That Harry Lime ends up being pursued in the sewers resonates with Greene’s  haunted religious metaphors of hell.  The book contains it all. Except, except – that final chase in the sewers is beyond words: film is the medium to express this claustrophobic, enclosed environment which is not just physical but psychological. (I did visit the sewers of Vienna, once…) 

Brigitte Haman: Hitler’s Vienna -  A dictator’s apprenticeship.
Scholarly , heavy duty but satisfying read for those interested in Hitler’s very significant relationship with this city.  The paradox of Hitler as a miserable, flawed but  human character. On account has him, in poverty, wearing a long garment, half frock coat, half kaftan. (The suggestion is it was a Jewish type garment.) One colleague talked politics to him while the other ties the tails beneath the bench. ‘All of them then (would start to…) contradict him, a thing he could never stand. He’d leap to his feet, drag the bench after him with a great rumble… When Hitler got excited he couldn’t restrain himself. He screamed and fidgeted with his hands.’   I found this chilling, even now.  For those with a bit of time and a lot of interest, this would be a satisfying read.

Eva Ibbotson:  A Gloveshop in Vienna & Other Stories -  Traditional well written  stories with an authentic, if exotic mid-European charm.  The title story has a distinctive feel for Vienna in the early years of this century.  The writer -  originally a fiction writer for magazines such as Good Housekeeping  -  was born in Vienna  in 1933 but by 1984 was living in Newcastle upon Tyne. 

Naomi Mitcheson:  Naomi Micheson’s  Vienna Diary  A real find, published in 1934. A fascinating diary by a prominent 20th Century novelist and lifelong feminist and socialist who was active in anti-fascist activities in the 1930s. Her day by day observations of life in 1930’s Vienna is engrossing and illuminating. Further novels and autobiographical writings  of interest to anyone interested in British social and cultural history.

Betty Neels : Magic In Vienna - Easy to read love story to read with a box of chocolates. Vienna lite.

Laurence Payne: Vienna Blood - Straightforward thriller with Vienna as a very atmospheric background. For those who like their Vienna dripping with sprinkling of blood.  Competently written.

Arthur Schnitzler: Dream Story -  Very erotic novella of confession and self revelation, and fantastic – in the true sense - exploration of the layer of violence and the potential for depravity amid the bourgeois comfort of fin-de-siecle Vienna. The fact that the protagonist, like the writer, was a doctor is very relevent to this tale.  Adapted into a film recently called Eyes Wide Shut  by Stanley Cubrick. Not very successful because, in my view, the Americans don’t do eroticism very well. Too  clean and tidy and insistant on explicit, which is the opposite of erotic. The written story is much better.

Larry Wolff: Post Cards from the End of the World This book explores the state of turn of the century Vienna through the prism of three sensational cases of child battering and murder.  A scholarly, fascinating, original book – must-read for anyone truly interested in Vienna. The writer is an historian teaching at Boston College, Massachusetts.

© Wendy Robertson  

Friday, 13 April 2012

From Hamburg to Tantobie via Kindertransport.

Sylvia in her house in Tantobie
Last week, with my friends Gillian and Glynn Wales of The Writing Game I went to the small North Durham  village of Tantobie to visit Sylvia Hurst nee Fleischer in her small,elegant book- and picture-filled house. just down the street from the Hotel which she ran for more than a decade.

Before that Sylvia  lectured in fashion and design in a London, then a  Manchester college; before that for many years she ran a very successful couture dressmaking business -  which o supplied Harrods, among other companies, with fine blouses and skirts -  employing many people in this business; before that she worked for the American Red Cross at the end of the war, before that she injured her knees scrubbing floors for a relative; . before that she arrived in England from Hamburg on one of the last trains full of children - the Kindertransport - which rescued unaccompanied children under seventeen from Nazi Europe.

Gillian and Glynn and I were there to record an interview with Sylvia for May's Writing Game Programme. Glynn came along because,  although he is so well read in the Twentieth Century history and politics of Germany and Britain and has lectured and taught it at school and university level, he has never spoken to someone such as Sylvia who is is the living embodiment of this history.

Sylvia - now aged ninety - was the perfect hostess. There were cream scones and coffee and an Easter egg for Gillian and myself. Sylvia apologised more than once that she had not made the scones herself.

We know a lot about Sylvia because in 2006 she published her memoir  LAUGH OR CRY and she gave a talk at Bishop Auckland Town Hall and Arts Centre when Gillian was manager. And -  as I wrote on my blog at  that time - I chaired a session Sylvia held in Spennymoor Library where she talked to a large group of adults and children. The children loved her. She  had combed her curly silver hair out as she thought the children might to see her as a princess.

She mentioned her hair on this visit too, saying that she had had to plait it as it was so thick it came up like a cloud.

Sylvia's Story: The Young Sylvia
As well as charm, Sylvia has perfect recall - remembering times and details from the whole of her life in phenomenal detail. Her extended family were internationally successful as business people and entrepreneurs with distant relatives with names like Guggenheim and Rothschild.

 Her father was a world-famous maker of corsets of special design. This involvement in textiles and paper  was spread throughout the family in Europe and America and Sylvia's father fulfilled the family business expectations although his heart's desire was to be a doctor. In maturity he trained and studied  to be a homeopathic doctor for which he was known to have a true gift. As the Nazi grip tightened ,of course this had to be done in secret.

His medical gifts came in very useful in the prison at Dachau, where he tended injured prisoners and helped them to face their ordeal. He was taken to Dachau twice - first on the first big round-up but then he was allowed home on payment of an enormous fine and made to sign away his assets. Sadly, there was no getting out  the second time as he was taken again, this time with his wife and son Richard. Richard - who was not allowed on the Kindertransport because his father thought he was too young andit would be too dangerous - actually died and lived out a very long lofe in America. The Spennymoor children where releivec about that.

Sylvia's book is dedicated:

To my parents and Grandmother Hedwig Victims of the Holocaust and to the children of Germany, victims of Brainwashing.

In her forward Sylvia says:

 'In this book I am telling the story, right from the beginning, from my earliest memories. How it wa that Nazism could take hold in Germany, How ordinary good and honest people were gradually seduced into this criminal madness and the German nation made to great, superios, euphoric.
This book is not a holocaust memoir.
It is the story of our Jewish Community, and particularlty my family, which had paid  and omportant part in the development of the Town as well as the Country. It is a very personalstory of Jewish and Christian Children growing up together in Germany from 1925 t0 1939. The history (of this community)  dates back to  1771 when twenty (Jewish) families  came under the protection of the local Baron, the Lord of the Village.
Unfortunately everything is true.'  
Sylvia Hurst.

There is so many more aspects to this unique story, so much more to say, not least about the fact that in her seventies Sylvia  wrote with great insight and (to Glynn's surprise) relatively little  bitterness about this  significant experience.

Sylvia has always learned new things. He present study is the historiography of the Holy Grail.  (She has not time for Dan Brown...)  She gave Gillian a very useful reference !

Fortunately now  the whole long conversation was recorded on my magic machine and will be broadcast on Bishop FM at 12 Noon on May 6th. If you want to hear Sylvia talk of all this and much more  you can tune in then or listen afterwards on the Bisho FM Podcast or it will be available as well on iTunes.

I will flag it up on here and on Life Twice Tasted nearer  the time, to remind you.

Personal Note: Some people nowadays say why bother with books? Books such as this self published, very important memoir are just some of the reasons. WX

NOTE: For Glynn'a essay 

on the historical background 

to Sylvia's experiences click here