Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

Advertisements

How to drive your audience crazy

Screenshot Art

Exhibit A: exquisite torment (the programme, not the play).

I am not a great user of Facebook.  If I post something and it gets a handful of likes and the odd comment, I’m doing well. So I was all the more surprised recently when something I put up sparked a whole host of likes, comments and discussion from a wide range of people, for whom I’d clearly touched a nerve.

What can it have been been – political?  No no, stay clear of all such, say I. The dreaded B word? As if. Enough misery about that as it is.

 

damien-petit-529866-unsplash

Stygian gloom of modern restaurants (Photo by Damien Petit on Unsplash

No. All I did was upload an example of a blight that has been seeping gradually into the printed world for the past few years, until now it affects every play, opera, concert and musical programme, magazine, brochure, exhibition text, restaurant menu and just about everything printed you can think of. Even websites aren’t immune. It is a kind of exquisite torment dreamt up by designers to tempt you with what looks like an interesting, important piece of writing – only to make it impossible for you to read it. Pale grey text on off-white paper. Small chunks of green writing set by themselves – presumably to highlight their meaning – in yellow background boxes. Items on menus printed in such tiny point sizes, diners need a pocket magnifying glass if they aren’t to go hungry (not helped by the fashion for restaurants to plunge their customers in Stygian gloom so no one can see the menu anyway). As a way to drive your audience crazy, it can’t be beaten.

 

ART

Art by Yasmina Reza at the Oxford Playhouse

Look, I know my Great Age is part of the problem. The majority of designers and editors, presumably under 40, are blithely unaware that lavender type on mauve paper is illegible for Oldies Like Me. But a heck of a lot of Oldies Like Me go to the theatre, restaurants and art exhibitions, and I can’t help feeling that if the directors of these have gone to all the trouble to commission articles from distinguished writers and experts, why wouldn’t they want a large proportion – who knows, perhaps even the majority – of their clientele to read them? What, for goodness sake, is wrong with black and white?

So back to exhibit A, above. I had never seen Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly witty, poignant play about the balance of power in longterm friendships, until it came to Oxford Playhouse last month. Intrigued, I badly wanted to read the interview with the playwright in the programme and was faced with not only pale type on pale paper but, ye gods, splashes of paint daubed across the text (a, you know, clever reference to the play’s title, Art). OK, so I managed eventually, the next day, with the aid of bright sunshine, but it was a slow process. Whereas if it had been black on white, like the article I’m writing here, I’d have skipped through it like a young fawn.

 

adorable animal animal photography animal portrait

Skipping through black and white print like…er… one of these.    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Perhaps I should start a Campaign for Printing in Black and White, snappily known as CAMPBAW.

I could be on to something, you know.

 

 

 

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)

How to Show your Power and Wealth

Gainsborough's Family AlbumTowards the end of 2018, my attention was caught by the title of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Gainsborough’s Family Album. His family, eh? Here was this skillful 18th century painter, famous for his ability to paint flattering likenesses of wealthy aristocrats; how would this translate to his own nearest and dearest?

Intrigued, I went last month… and was bowled over. Portrait after portrait of Mary and Margaret, Gainsborough’s daughters, captured together at various stages of their lives, exude a tenderness, emotional depth and freshness you won’t find in any of his more traditional commissions. The artist’s love and fatherly protectiveness burst out of these paintings, making them some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking portraits ever created.

1600_Mary_Margaret Gainsborough

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough

 

Not that you’d know that from the exhibition’s curators. Reading Waldemar Januszczak’s perceptive review in the Sunday Times, I felt, with him, a familiar weariness at the snide, superficial tone that has spread like a canker throughout the museum and gallery world in the last few years. Art is no longer to be judged on its own merits; all that counts is the money the paintings represent. According to the curators, writes Januszczak, ‘at every step of his progress, Gainsborough used his family as cheap models to advertise his talents and try out different approaches …The pictures hung opposite each other in his grand new house, where their job was to impress visitors with first-hand examples.’

IMG_7083

Gainsborough’s cousin, the Reverend Henry Burroughs, painted perhaps to show the artist’s ‘skills to potential patrons in his cousin’s circle.’ Or not. 

At this point my forehead hits the palm of my hand.

Because I recognise this mean perspective. Visiting the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, I found the same narrative hammered home in every room. Bess of Hardwick had the lavish staircase built ‘to impress visitors with her power and wealth.’ Each piece of furniture had this function, as did all the paintings in the long gallery. It’s now a family joke with us that ‘Going to See Some Power and Wealth’ has become shorthand for visiting stately homes. Yes, rich people have always liked to show off; but no one buys an armchair just to Show Their Power and Wealth. Needing somewhere to sit might have something to do with it. Equally, many wealthy aristocrats were genuinely interested in art, fostering young painters and building up important collections for which we are all the richer. The founding collections of The National Galleries of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland came from rich art enthusiasts who bought these paintings not because they were expensive, but because they considered them beautiful.

IMG_6696

Roof garden, Cardiff Castle

We don’t have to read this tosh, I know. But I find it sad that visitors, including schoolchildren, are being shortchanged and patronised in this way. The opportunity is there to spark interest – even a little – in the art around them; instead, they are encouraged to sneer at the art’s being there at all. On a recent visit to Cardiff Castle – one of the most glorious examples of Gothic Revival architecture – the young guide told us next to nothing about the designers, painters, gilders, sculptors, wood carvers and others responsible for its exquisite craftsmanship, preferring instead to stress – repeatedly – the fabulous wealth of the 3rd Earl of Bute, how he and his family ‘had a pretty nice life, no worries at all.

IMG_6683

A Gothic Revival dream: the great hall at Cardiff Castle

Now that kind of statement should ring alarm bells. It is in tune with the general Money = All That Matters narrative in current museum curation and cannot be the whole story. Sure enough, talking to some of the older – and clearly more personally committed  – guides gave a poignant picture of a loving husband and father creating a haven of beauty and warmth to ensure his family had the opposite of his own loveless childhood. Suffering from Bright’s disease all his life, in 1900 the earl died, aged only 58, of kidney failure. Fifteen years later, his son Ninian, 32, was killed at the Battle of Loos.

No worries at all? I think the Bute family had a few.

The solution? Keep visiting these beautiful places. Just take what the guides and curators tell you with a hefty pinch of salt, or ignore it all together. A shame, but there it is.

And if you missed Gainsborough’s Family Album at the National Portrait Gallery, don’t despair; you’ll find the cream of the exhibition – those lovely portraits of his daughters – at the National Gallery nearby.

 

Sicily: a Paradise of Beauty… and Squalor

Some chapters on in The Leopard (I know, I know, I’m a slow reader but it’s been a crazy summer), a paragraph brought me up short. Not for its quality of writing (which goes without saying) but because the aspect of 19th century Sicily it describes chimes uncannily with what will strike any traveler there today:

DSC05266 copy

Bella Sicilia

the contrast between the wild, extraordinary beauty of the landscape and the heaps of refuse spread along roads, fields, streets, lapping the foundations of baroque churches and palaces and spilling over into mediaeval squares.

Litter is of course a problem all over the world but Sicily takes it to a whole new level, appalling not just the tourists who flock there for its wealth of classical architecture, but visitors from other parts of Italy too.

Gattopardo 2Now, according to Lampedusa, this is nothing new. When he wrote The Leopard in 1957, plastics, aluminium and other non-biodegradable items made up a much smaller proportion of rubbish than they do today; yet the attitude that would allow them to become such a problem in Sicily in particular goes back hundreds of years. Set against the backdrop of Italian Unification in 1861, the novel depicts officials arriving from the northern province of Piedmont being aghast by what they see:

In front of every house the refuse of squalid meals accumulated along leprous walls, trembling dogs were rooting about…

In Lampedusa’s view, filth and beauty existing cheek by jowl is rooted deep in the Sicilian mindset, itself created by the sheer difficulty of survival in such a harsh landscape and climate. The hero, Don Fabrizio, recalls the reaction of some visiting foreign naval officers (British, as it happens):

They were ecstatic about the view, the vehemence of the light; they confessed, though, that they had been horrified at the squalor, decay, filth of the streets around. I didn’t explain to them that one thing was derived from the other.

pasta dish

A Paradise of Pasta

Reading this brought me straight back to a holiday my husband and I took in Sicily with some friends a couple of years ago. What we didn’t realise was that these friends were great Montalbano fans (as in the TV series). For them, Sicily was a paradise of home-made pasta served in simple trattorie; of streets winding through honey-coloured villages to empty, squeaky-clean squares; of enchanting fishermen’s cottages looking out on to wide stretches of golden and spotless beaches. Their distress at the Day-Glo plastic, empty cans and rotting food disfiguring every beautiful scene was acute.

rubbish

No thanks

The mess bothered me too but not as much because I didn’t have that perfect television picture in my head of what it should be like. It’s not that the cameras had lied, exactly; more that they’d been positioned to cut out all the ugly bits. And each location had clearly been given a good clean-up before every shot.

The funny thing is, our friends knew deep down that filming creates its own reality. Part of the joy of watching a series like Montalbano is the beautiful setting; why would a film director want to spoil it?

o1MONTALBANO

Montalbano: a dream of Sicily

Yet we buy the dream all the same without realising it, which means that visiting the location of a favourite film or TV programme sets us up for disappointment. I rarely watch the hugely popular Inspector Morse series but when I do am amused to find, for instance, the detective knocking on the door of a house in Jericho with the Sheldonian Theatre in view just behind it, making an aesthetically pleasing but geographically impossible picture.

Sheldonian-Theatre-oxford

The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford: aesthetically pleasing, just not in Jericho.

Not quite the same as trails of litter everywhere (though we have our fair share of that in Oxford too); but something that could still disconcert an ardent Morse fan trying, literally, to follow in their hero’s footsteps.

None of which solves Sicily’s rubbish problems. If Lampedusa was right, only a massive shift in the Sicilians’ own outlook will do that.

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)

 

Lampedusa, The Leopard, Gelato and Me

The LeopardRight, I’m finally getting round to it. A book I should have read long ago. It’s one of the world’s great classics and I’m slightly embarrassed not to have tackled it before, especially as so many people have told me how brilliant it is.

Set in Sicily in1861, The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is a powerful account of the Italian Risorgimento through the eyes of Prince Fabrizio Salina, whose coat of arms provides the book’s title. But rather than a blood and thunder depiction of Garibaldi’s arrival with his 1000 Redshirts, followed by the collapse of the Bourbon royal forces under his swift onslaught, the narrative concentrates on the effects such huge social and political upheaval had on the Sicilian class system, still largely unchanged since feudal times.

Henry VIII Workshop_of_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_-_Google_Art_Project

Henry VIII: no slouch when it came to autocracy

Accustomed to a power over household, lands and the local populace that Henry VIII – no slouch himself when it came to autocracy – might have envied, Prince Fabrizio finds himself forced to bow to expediency, voting for the Unification of Italy against the interests of his own class, and dealing with the unsavoury, corrupt, fabulously wealthy-through-illicit-means Don Calegero, several rungs beneath him on the social ladder.  Why does the prince do these things? To survive. ‘Everything must change in order for everything to remain the same,’ is the most famous quotation from this book.

 

To my surprise, The Leopard is a terrific read, more than deserving its place among the greatest literary works of all time.

So why the surprise?  Well, when I said I’d never tackled it before, that wasn’t quite true. A long time ago, in my gap year, I spent a couple of months in Florence learning Italian (mainly by way of articulating gelato flavours and trying not to be accosted in the street). Somewhat ambitiously, I borrowed a copy of Il Gattopardo from the library but got no further than the first few pages.

dessert ice cream summer sweet

What Really Matters in Italy

Not just because the language was difficult; if the story had grabbed me I’d have persisted, or at least switched to an English translation. No, it was the character of the prince himself that disgusted me, in particular the cruel, disdainful way he treated all the women around him. A hero who behaved like this was one I wanted nothing more to do with. And this was decades before #metoo.

Now, taking The Leopard up again, I was prepared to find my rudimentary Italian of the time at fault. Surely Salina couldn’t have been as bad as all that.

Oh yes, he could. I hadn’t grasped the half of it. In the first 20 pages, he terrifies his grown-up children into quaking submission, while a timid gesture of affection from his wife prompts him to call publicly for his carriage late at night in order to visit a brothel, leaving the hysterical Princess alone and pleading from the bedroom window. At the brothel, Marianina, blank-eyed and worn out by over use, duly obliges, poverty and social inferiority giving her no other choice. Both her miserable situation and his sad, neglected wife’s give the prince a brief twinge of conscience, but not much. I very nearly threw the book on one side all over again.

But I didn’t. And reading on, I realised what Lampedusa was doing. He allows his hero to behave this way not because he finds it admirable, but the opposite. Significantly, Salina never again shows such concentrated brutality as in these first pages; rather, he develops as an intelligent, reasonable, even kind landlord who doesn’t hound his tenant farmers for their rents and tries to persuade them to give the new regime their mandate, knowing it will be the worse for them if they don’t. By creating such a rounded portrait, Lampedusa shows how even the most decent, humane, magnanimous spirit is corrupted by power; the prince is a tyrant to his wife, family and underlings because he can be. Il GattopardoI expected The Leopard to be a lament for a golden, paternalistic age; instead, while Lampedusa portrays the new nationalist government as hypocritical and corrupt from the word go, he is equally clear-eyed about the flaws of the system it is replacing. The nobility, as represented by Salina, is an outdated, no longer fit for purpose ruling class, whose rigid hierarchical structure becomes the cause of its own demise. The prince scorns his own children, whose apathy and weakness he compares unfavourably with his nephew Tancredi Falconeri’s brave and sparky personality. The fact that Tancredi’s fatherlessness has allowed his spirit to grow free and his ambition to soar escapes the Prince, who has successfully crushed all individuality and purpose in his own sons and daughters. Planning a brilliant political career for Tancredi, the prince dismisses his smitten daughter Concetta as a possible bride because her timid, submissive nature would always make her a ‘leaden weight at her husband’s feet.’ Yet who has forced this ‘submissive nature’ on the girl but the prince himse
Oh, and there’s also that small matter of Tancredi having to marry money – a lot of it – since before dying, his father managed to gamble away the entire Falconeri family’s wealth. Really, the nobility – a class to which the author himself belongs – doesn’t come out of the story very well.

Middlemarch

Sorry, Middlemarch

While I wish I hadn’t left it quite so long, I’m glad I didn’t force my 18 year-old self to continue reading The Leopard (bad enough having to do that with Middlemarch, a book I’ve never learnt to love). I’m not sure I’d’ve got the subtleties at that age, and fear I might have fallen for the easy, boyish, swashbuckling charm of Tancredi, just as his uncle does.

And I’m only half way through. Tancredi may yet develop into something more than a handsome figurehead for the old aristocracy, surviving by allying itself to a voracious, politically aware, ruthless nouveau riche in the form of the beautiful Angelica Calagero.

I’m not holding my breath.

 

Garibaldi

Giuseppe Garibaldi, redshirted hero of the Italian Risorgimento

 

 

Never mind the story, what’s the theme?

Sometimes when submitting my work, I get a question that stumps me:

What’s the theme of your story?

It’s a story, I want to reply, it doesn’t have a theme. Which isn’t strictly true, but to expect a writer to sum up the complex interweaving of character, purpose and plot that makes up a novel in one word feels to me like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down and decide to write a book about human relationships, or loneliness, or the abuse of power, bullying, courage in the face of danger, overcoming difficulties or redemption. A story forms itself in my mind which will have all these elements and more, but it won’t be about any single one of these.

 It will be about an unconfident, friendless 12 year-old girl who finds herself on a journey to the bottom of Hell (Ante’s Inferno), or a geeky 13 year-old boy, driven by desperation to make a pact with a demon (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst).
Or an angry 11 year-old sent away from home to a school where the only person who will speak to her is a weird, excitable 9 year-old boy that all the other girls pretend isn’t there (The Fall of a Sparrow, current wip). Other elements are woven into the story – Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno and WW1 in Ante’s Inferno, Elizabethan magic and the Faustus legend in Henry Fowst – but no single one of these becomes THE story’s theme and nor should it be. If you really want to boil my books down to a single theme, it’s about a young person who finds life and making friends difficult, who through a series of challenges and dangers gains experience, self-knowledge and a better relationship with the world around them.

Jane EyreNot a great sales pitch, is it? I mean, you could summarise just about any book that’s ever been written this way – Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Three Little Pigs, for heavens sake -and give no flavour of what they are really about.

Do we demand this of all works of literature, that each be identified by a single theme? How about:

Macbeth: the battle between Good and Evil.

The Lord of the Rings: the battle between Good and Evil (with hobbits).

Harry Potter: the battle between Good and Evil (with wizards).

The Narnia Chronicles: the battle between Good and Evil (with multiple mythological creatures).The Last Battle

His Dark Materials; the battle between Good and Evil (with daemons).

Um…

I realise I may be missing something here. Worse, that if I can’t summon up an original way to label my stories, then maybe they are just not strong enough to stand out. I hope not. But I also suspect a covert laziness on the part of the person demanding a theme, to find an easy way to sell my book to their colleagues or (more likely) reject it out of hand. Your hero has trouble making friends, do they? Ah, so that’s the Bullying Theme. We have enough of those on our list already, sorry.

This is my problem with themes. If you write children’s books, your main character is a child. They will have enemies or there would be no story. The enemies are not nice to them. This is called bullying. It is exactly what happens in books for adults, only there it’s called threatening, menacing, violent behavior etc, and the people who do it are Bad Guys, Villains, Psychos. Yet no publisher would dismiss a gripping, page-turning thriller just because yet again, it’s about Bad People Being Nasty to Good (or at least not so bad) People.

Bullying appears in my stories but they are not ‘about’ bullying. The behavior arises from clashes between the characters, conflicting goals, problems in their own lives, troubled back stories and secret fears. All the ingredients, in short, needed to build characters strong enough to drive an exciting, complex, satisfying story where the reader really cares what happens.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

 

 

Bucking the trend in children’s books at the Buckingham Literary Festival

St John & St James, Chackmore 1

Happy festivalling! With Year 6 teacher Mr Davidson

Two days ago I drove to Stowe for a school visit. No, not that school, the famous one set in the fabulous 18th century neoclassical Stowe House; rather, the delightful St James & St John Church of England Primary School at Chackmore, a small village nestling on land that slopes up to the glorious Stowe Landscape Gardens (owned by the National Trust). Now in its third year, the Buckingham Literary Festival is going from strength to strength and I was thrilled to be invited to be part of its schools outreach programme, enthusing young people with the joys of reading and writing.

St John & James 5

Presenting the original Doctor Faustus, or Joannes Faustus

If I have a bee in my bonnet, it’s about how often children are underestimated in the pleasure they can derive from complex ideas in books. I write stories inspired by great classical and historical themes, subjects often deemed ‘too difficult’ for children. But in my experience, as long as the story is clearly written, fast-paced and gripping, and the characters sympathetic and well-rounded, young readers can easily absorb ideas from the adult literary world and often grasp them more instinctively than people many years older.

Year 6 at St James & St John knew nothing about Elizabethan magic or the legend of Doctor Faustus but they listened attentively as I told them about my book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, and had no trouble understanding the dangers of a Faustian pact. Which will hopefully serve them well in their future lives, if ever they feel under pressure – like poor Henry – to enter into the Wrong Sort of Agreement….

St John & St James, Chackmore 4

And now for the book signing!

They were a super audience, enthusiastically taking part in my 7 Ingredients Every Story Needs workshop and coming up with some really interesting questions at the end. The one that struck me most was from a girl who asked, ‘Why did you choose writing?’ Almost the same question as the more usual, ‘What made you become a writer?’ except that the answer leapt out in a way that surprised even me.

St John & St James, Chackmore 2Because you don’t choose writing, do you? It chooses you.

Thank you, St James and St John and Buckingham Literary Festival, for inviting me and for your splendid organisation.  The festival proper begins TONIGHT with a fun Quiz, followed by 3 days of events featuring top authors, Friday 15th – Sunday 17th June.