Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Good news for stories and writers

(This elevation is by DK Architects of Bath)

Two bits of good news for all who love to read and write books for children. Firstly, after four years' hard work, The Story Museum has found a permanent home in Oxford. Appropriately enough a "fairy godmother" came forward with a gift of £2.5m, with which they have been able to buy a building in Pembroke Street.

Rochester House is near Christ Church and another £11m will be needed to transform it into the vision of director, Kim Pickin, who has worked tirelessly towards this end.I can't wait to see it all come to fruition.

The second piece of good news is that Nicola Morgan, a continuing source of good, sensible advice on her blog "Help, I need a Publisher," about how to write publishable books for children and young adults, has started a new service. is worth a visit for anyone who feels they have written something that is almost there for a young audience.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

"I am the Guardian of our Children's Morals"

It has taken me 24 hours to find out who wrote the biopic Enid, which I saw on BBC4 last night. It was Lindsay Shapero - not that you'd know it from Radio Times or a slew of newspaper articles I read online. (I discovered she also wrote When Boris met Dave, which I enjoyed a few weeks ago).

Anyway, it said at the beginning that some bits of dialogue had been made up and I was dying to know which. The one in my title? Or "Childhood is a magical time" "My father was twice the man you'll ever be!' (to her first husband), "Last year I made more money than the Chancellor of the Exchequer" "Hugh is having a fandango with a floozy" (I do hope she said that!) "New beginnings are always marvellous!"

It was terrifically watchable, with a blinder of a performance by Helena Bonham Carter as Blyton, who deserves a BAFTA. (Lucky EB - we should all be so fortunate as to have posthumous biopics made with classically beautiful and talented actors playing us). Actually, she reminded me of my late Auntie Johnnie (real name Nora) who modelled her style on Wallis Simpson. All those high shoulders and tipsy little sideways hats and red, red lipstick - gorgeous!

The play took the view of the younger rather than the older of Enid's daughters - that she was a monster as a mother, wife and friend, not to mention daughter and sister. And it was chock full of symbols - the empty wardrobe, with the clothesless hangers clattering together on the rail after her father left home when Enid was thirteen, the fact that her womb stopped developing at exactly that time, her insistence on writing jolly anecdotes about the family dog while her husband was burying him in the garden ...

She was ruthless, competitive, ambitious and a ferociously hard worker. 6,000 words a day hunted and pecked on the typewriter first husband Hugh gave her as a wedding present, 750 books published, millions made in her lifetime and eight million a year now, over forty years after her death. I hope if Gillian and Imogen were even a hundredth as neglected and coldly treated as the play showed, that they got some joy out of their inheritance.

But it's still incomprehensible to me that she was and is such a success, even though I think I probably read every word she wrote when I was a child. Not one character, incident, idea or line of dialogue remains to me from that deluge of prose; she went through me like a dose of salts. The idea of reissuing her books now, or cleaning them up to be PC or having someone write sequels is anathema: there are so many better writers working in the field of children's books now - let's just bury Enid.

A footnote: I met Mr Waters, Enid's second husband, but never knew he was Kenneth. We weren't on first name terms. At least, not in that direction. He took my appendix out when I was not yet seven. I was very ill - "on the danger list for a fortnight" as family lore has it and my cousin Doreen got me red roses in January because I asked for them and everyone thought I might die (except me, I suppose).

Mr Waters offered me Enid Blyton's autograph and I said the 50s equivalent of "yah-hah!" but added "how can you get it?" "Very easily," he said, not looking a bit like Wedge Antilles with a hearing aid, "She's my wife."

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Death in Venice

I heard an item on the Today programme ?yesterday about how the native population of Venice is shrinking because of tourism. I had already made this point in my review of two Venice books in the Guardian here:

John Humphries said that people came to Venice for the cultural experience. Donna Leon said crisply that they came to Venice to shop! (and that most of what they bought was made in China). What she and other Venice residents wanted was not to have to walk further all the time to buy food.

Francesco (Venice is like a woooman) da Mosto made an incomprehensible point about Venice needing to get a divorce from the land.

I remember when we rented a wonderful flat in Caneregio that there was a lovely deli, a bit like this, in the nearby market. I hope it's still there.

There have been so many books set in Venice. My own City of Masks, Michelle Lovric's The Undrowned Child, Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord .. If you want to see a full list, use Jeff Cotton's wonderful site:

I've read only one Donna Leon and didn't care for it but I liked the way she came across on Today. She has lived there for 20 years and should be able to buy her cheese locally.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Remembrance of Things Past

It has been a week for memories. Monday 9th was the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I remember that day. Husband and I went into town for some forgotten purpose and, coming up the stairs at Oxford Circus tube station, we met the vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street, coming down. Father Hutt was as full of smiles as we were and I think all we said was, "Isn't it wonderful?' The following Sunday he mentioned this encounter in his sermon - how he and the two members of his congregation hasn't needed to say what was wonderful; we just knew.

So we all know when it came down but before this week did you remember when it was built? I found out when researching an adult novel set in 1980, that the Wall went up in 1961, when I was a dreamy teenager, faling in love in Spain with an English boy I never saw again.

Tuesday 10th was the exact 800th anniversary of the death of a hero of mine, Raimon-Roger Trencavel. He was the young viscount of Béziers, Carcassonne, Albi and Razés and I wrote about him in my novel Troubadour. Trencavel got the Jews out of Béziers before the massacre perpetrated by the Albigensian Crusade and he believed the Cathars would be safe there - as they should have been but for a freak incident. He rode on to Carcassonne and fortified it against the invaders but after a long siege came out to parley under a safe-conduct. Treacherously the French leaders seized him and imprisoned him in his own dungeon.

His titles were given to Simon de Montfort (Snr. - not the one the university is named after) while he still lived but on 10th November 1209, it was announced that Raimon-Roger had "died of dysentery." He was 24.

Wednesday, 11th was a day of memories for everyone, made even more poignant by the absence of any WW1 survivor at the Cenotaph. I observed the silence, wearing a red and a white poppy, in a coffee bar in Cambridge, with a friend. We had got the waitress to turn off the loud pop music but could not switch off the man lecturing his companion on LinkedIn.

I was having lunch at Newnham, my old college, which I hadn't re-visited for ten years and not much before that. I often dream about it though, its long corridors, the dining hall, where this week I was having a pleasant meal with a group of senior staff, the grounds and climbing in.

One of the guests was my old Director of Studies, whose retirement party was the reason I went back in 1999. She spent almost her entire working life there and must have admitted at least ten women for 35-40 years and yet she remembered several people and incidents from my cohort extremely vividly. We had a fascinating talk.

On one day this week Germaine Greer, who was also a Newnham alumna (she was doing a postgraduate course there when I went up) wrote an extremely stupid piece in the Guardian about how it wasn't worth reading Proust. I remember Greer as a tall, terrifyingly articulate and beautiful woman with a mass of dark chestnut-coloured hair. I wouldn't have dared to contradict a literary opinion of hers in those days but I do now.

I bet she never even finished A la Recherche, let alone read it several times, as I have done. No-one has ever written better on the subject of memory, not even my beloved Giorgio Bassani. And now that I have so many years to remember, I frequently relive Marcel's sensations in the last volume when he sees his friends at a party and believes them to be in fancy dress - so many of them are wearing white wigs, or walking with a cane, or are padded out to look fat, or have lines drawn on their faces!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Mistress of her craft

I have been resisting the urge to write about celebrity novelists but can hold back no longer. Literary agent Charlie Campbell wrote a brilliant guest post recently on Scott Pack's Meandmybigmouth blog, here:

He describes the publication of Martine McCutcheon's novel The Mistress as perhaps "the final straw, that wonderful Ratner moment, where the public feels they've had enough of this particular brand of patronising rubbish."

I love that "Ratner moment" and I wish I could believe Charlie Campbell was right. I heard Ms McCutcheon talking about her book on Woman's Hour not long ago and felt quite sorry for her. She is clearly a nice but dim sort of celebrity, who at least did write her own book, unlike so many, but she is also clearly not a reader.

Now, The Mistress is not aimed at readers like me, so why should I worry that the extract she read out was so painfully cliché-ridden? Again, I can't put it better than Charlie Campbell: 'Agents and editors are supposed to act as gatekeepers, to stop writing like this from ever being published.'

I think it matters more to me now that I hear of good writers having contracts cancelled and advances more than halved. There has always been rubbish but now it seems as if it's published at the expense of the good stuff.

I also heard Tracy Chevalier and someone else talking about the same phenomenon on the Today programme and good old Tracy said she was tired of hearing the argument that the sales of celebrity books financed the publication of better books with smaller markets. She said something like, 'they just finance the advances for more celebrity books' and I think she's right.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat - the eccentricity of the children's writer

In the most recent edition of The Author, Terence Blacker says in his Endpaper column, "There is something not quite right about those who write for children."

It gets worse: he continues, "Most of them, surely we can agree, have a small but significant psychological flaw which draws them back to childhood ...You have to be slightly odd."

Terence writes for children himself of course, among others, and much of his column concerned the continuing series about Ms Wiz, which has just reached number eighteen. I found it interesting because I am returning to Grace, a character I created twenty years ago for Amazing Grace,in order to write a fourth picture book about her.

But will it help me if I am "a little odd"? I'm not denying that I may be - though surely no-one ever regards themselves as odd? It's the other folk who are all a bit strange, isn't it? Especially if they don't invent dialogue in their heads, have conversations with imaginary people and suddenly glaze over in the middle of talking to other, real, people.

It got me thinking about the children's writers I know and they are many. Are they odd? They seem the height of sanity to me but one has a pet lobster, several use cats as mufflers and many write in garden sheds which range in sophistication from buildings named "Tuscany" to "The Story Shack" and some are clearly shoe-fetishists. One has a rich fantasy life on Facebook involving his beard, which too many of us friends encourage.

But is any of this MORE eccentric than the habits of writers for adults? And does it help? I think Terence is mistaking "rich inner life" for "eccentricity" which is easily done.I think the number of writers, for whatever age group, who are REAL eccentrics, as opposed to being posers with green carnations or whatever (I love you Oscar but don't think you were odd at all) must be very few. Answers in the comments please.

Maybe John Clare (though he ended up in an asylum, poor man) or W H Auden, who could never get warm enough and piled carpets on the beds of other people's houses where he was staying (once even a wardrobe apparently!). For that and his appalling personal hygiene I shouldn't like to have had Auden as a house guest.

But I DID invite him to my wedding party and I didn't know him - was that just a trifle odd?

Ho hum.