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.

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 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

More Betty Miller (3) : The lovely Sharon Griffiths on Farewell Leicester Square

After reading earlier posts here about the intriguing writer  Betty Miller, my learned friend Sharon Griffiths - Columnist, Journalist, Novelist, - read Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square and was buzzing with opinions -  

Here's Sharon :

'Can a book be  too honest for its own good? Or, more importantly, for the greater good?  Sometimes, just sometimes, it might be better not to publish.

In 1935 Victor Gollancz, a publisher both Jewish and English,   refused to publish Betty Miller’s Farewell Leicester Square.   She was  utterly convinced of the novel’s worth. Told a friend it would be ‘one of the best novels Gollancz has ever published.’  Only Gollancz didn’t publish.

At first that seems surprising.  Though still only twenty five years old, Betty Miller already had three successful novels by Gollancz.  Her writing is fluid, intelligent, entertaining. The book was eventually published six years later by Robert Hale.

Farewell Leicester Square has much to recommend it.  It tells the story of Alexander Berman, a young Jewish boy who rebels against life in his father’s tobacco shop and yearns to work in the booming film industry.  As a young man he is helped by a famous English director who lives in a very English middle class house and has two very English middle class children , Basil and Catherine– seen,  briefly by Alec on their way to a riding lesson, dressed in jodphurs, casually swinging riding crops.  Alec falls in love, not only with 14 year  old Catherine but everything she represents.

Alec becomes a successful director.  Yet is always aware of the Jewishness that sets him apart.  Betty Miller’s  descriptions of him are physically unappealing.  Alec’s own observations of his Jewish friends are not flattering.  The book notes the subtle anti-semitism of the English middle classes, but above all, it observes the anti-semitism of its own Jewish hero.
He marries Catherine.  They have a son.  Yet Alec seems  frightened of becoming an involved father and when his son is teased at school for being Jewish, it seems that he allows Catherine and the boy to leave him  and does little to protect them or keep the family together.  Instead, he retreats to the his own  birth family and  the Jewishness that he’d rejected years before.
But it is not  a positive choice, more an easy way out that will justify his failed marriage, in the way that we all go home when there is nowhere else to go.

Alec Berman is in many ways a successful and sympathetic man, yet he seems to pin all his problems  on the fact of being Jewish.  This is not only not entirely true, it also becomes unpleasant and, ironically the worst sort of racism – the sort that would be mocked years later by Ali G and his ‘Is it because I is black?’ refrain.

The novel emphasises the difference of Jewishness,   makes Jewish characteristics seem repellent  and suggests that a Jew can never be properly English.  It might be honest, but it’s not attractive.  At the moment that doesn’t matter that much.  In 1935 it did.

At a distance of more than seventy years  Betty Miller’s  frank depiction of the attitudes of its time make it even more fascinating to read now.  But that’s also  exactly why it wasn’t  the sort of book to publish in the 1930s.  Gollancz was right.'

Shows why some novels are important in and out of their time. Makes you want to read it even more ...w