Sunday, 30 January 2011

Writers and Politics

Having lived and worked in the Middle East for almost ten years, I have a great interest in what happens there. As I write this, the best-selling Egyptian author Ahdhaf Soueif is on the streets of Cairo demonstrating for democracy in her country. She's not alone in being politically active.  Not long ago it was Swedish author Henning Mankell on TV, arrested on board an aid convoy bound for Gaza. Indian author Arundhati Roy put her literary career on hold after winning the Booker Prize in order to use her profile to expose human rights issues on the Indian sub-continent.
“I had this light shining on me at the time, and I knew that I had the stage to say something about what was happening in my country. What is exciting about what I have done since is that writing has become a weapon, some kind of ammunition.”

Roy has been widely criticised for using her public platform as a writer to promote her political views. But she was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize in 2004 for her work.

Being a writer gives you a kind of privilege - you have a voice and an audience - a ready made soapbox to express opinions. There are many who feel that being a published writer puts you under an obligation to use your position to expose injustices, but there are also those who feel strongly that your work and politics are best kept separate. What is certain is that having a public platform is a responsibility - and readers of novels don’t like too much obvious polemic. Gide wrote in 1927 that one should ‘never present ideas except in terms of temperaments and characters’.

Arundhati Roy has opted for non-fiction to express her point of view (Listening to Grasshoppers); but Henning Mankell’s thrillers are an ideal vehicle to expose corruption in public life under the veil of fiction.

I’m a great admirer of Ahdhaf Soueif’s short stories, particularly the volume called ‘I think of You’. The politics of the Middle East are there in the narrative, in the voices of the characters and the circumstances of their lives. In ‘Melody’ the narrator is peering out of the window at the swimming pool in the garden of the compound she lives in. ‘We’re not allowed to use the pool; us women I mean. It’s only for the kids - and the men of course. They can use anything. And they do. Use anything I mean.’ Not all the stories have a feminist point of view, but all expose the difficulties of living inside a system that denies freedom of expression and what we would consider basic human rights to all but a select few.

As writers we can't help but reflect the world we live in.  I hope against hope for the democratisation of Egypt, but I fear that the need for Europe and America to have stability (for its oil supplies and as a bulwark against Islamic extremism) will stifle the infant, and currently unfocussed, pro-democracy movement, as the West has done in other countries in the past. And I fear more than anything, that that will allow the extremists to prevail and create greater chaos in the long term.

I would like Arundhati Roy’s creed to be mine, but it’s a lot to live up to:

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.”

Arundhati Roy’s Listening to Grasshoppers: Field Notes on Democracy, is well worth reading, as is anything by Ahdaf Soueif. You might also like to check out Fadia Faqir, who lectures at Durham University and is a brilliant writer, whose novels focus on the dilemmas of the middle east.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Flogging the Forests

I’ve just been for a walk up the river, through the woods, to see what changes have been made by the recent flooding. The high water scours the ground, fells weakened trees and washes away the riverbank in new places, depositing drifts of sand and gravel on the low-lying meadows, gradually altering the landscape. I found the wire fences which a few weeks ago were beautiful ice-sculptures, now intricately woven barriers of leaf and grass.

There was a strong east wind blowing through the woods, creating the effect I love most - the sound of an ocean roaring over your head. One of my favourite poems since I was a child, has been those lines of Robert Frost I learned by heart at school.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep .......

Robert Frost never explains why the ‘I’ of the poem is ‘stopping by woods on a snowy evening’, but the mysterious poem somehow encapsulates our fascination with those remnants of the primeval forest that still survive. Things have changed a lot in a thousand years. Once we fenced ourselves in to protect Us from the Wild Wood; now we fence off the woods to protect them from Us.

In Britain, the government are proposing, as part of the sell-off of the family silver to pay the debts accrued by our banks (£1400 for every man, woman and child on the planet!!) to sell our publicly owned forests into private hands. It isn’t going to raise a great deal of money, given the scale of the debt, but it’s an easy way of raising short-term cash. In the long term it will be a great loss. Our forests are among the very few wild spaces available to us, especially in the crowded south of the country.

The government says that it’s going to oblige the new private owners to keep them open for public access but this is, frankly, a joke. Here in the north, one of our most treasured bits of ancient woodland has recently been sold to a private owner. Now the gates are padlocked, barbed wire stretched across the top to deter climbers, notices erected saying ‘Private Land’ and tree-trunks rolled across the footpaths as obstacles to deter the intrepid. Yes, we have legal right of entry, but physically it’s almost impossible to exercise. In Cumbria we stand to lose another 39 of our most beautiful forests to this criminal privatisation plan.

I love walking in the woods along the edge of the river here - a treasured public footpath. Whatever the problem I set out with, I’m almost certain to think of a solution before I return. The river is edged with alders, but the slopes are covered by larch and beech and the whole has a secret, watchful quality as if wolves and bears still lurked in the shadows. Now only deer, badgers and rabbits leave their footprints on the paths, as well as otters and wading birds.  Overhead there are occasional glimpses of red squirrels.

How can you sell the earth? How can you own something that existed before human beings had even evolved? When the first men and women began to walk upright and shed their fur coats, there weren’t any estate agents with clipboards and measuring tapes waiting to sell them a chunk of rain-forest. We went in for land-grabbing. When the nomads began to settle down, they protected valuable feeding and hunting grounds for their family groups - they took possession and defended the territory with their muscle power. Nothing’s changed. Pieces of earth are still owned by those with the most muscle, or money.

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are in the end only custodians and that if we don’t take care of the planet, it won’t take care of us.

This is the link to 38 degrees - an organisation helping to co-ordinate opposition to the sell-off.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Tuesday Poem: Robert Burns

Tuesday night is Burns Night - beloved of Scots all over the globe.  I'm not a scotswoman, but my grandmother (on my mother's side) was half scottish and 'Gordon' is the family's middle name and we are, apparently entitled to wear the tartan.  I live in the north of England, just across the Solway Firth from where Robert Burns was born and brought up.  He started out as a farm labourer, self-educated, and he never had much money, so he has always been regarded as 'a people's poet'.   He was a passionate man (condemned  for his promiscuity by the Kirk)  who loved women and there were quite a few Burns babies - though few of them survived into adulthood.  He died too early, at the age of 37.    I love this poem, which was probably the last poem he wrote, as he lay on his deathbed.  He wrote it for the young woman who was looking after him.  If you'd like to hear it read in a beautiful Ayrshire accent, this is the link to follow.

O, wert thou in the cauld blast
On yonder lea, on yonder lea,
My plaidie to the angry airt,
I'd shelter thee, I'd shelter thee,
Or did Misfortune's bitter storms
Around thee blaw, around thee blaw,
Thy bield should be my bosom,
To share it a', to share it a'.

Or were I in the wildest waste,
Sae black and bare, sae black and bare,
The desert were a Paradise,
If thou wert there, if thou wert there.
Or were I monarch of the globe,
Wi' thee to reign, wi' thee to reign,
The brightest jewel in my crown
Wad be my queen, wad be my queen.

[bield - shelter]

If you would like to read more Tuesday Poems please follow this link to

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Lots of People Came

The book
Despite all my worries - lots of people turned up to the book launch at Foyles.  Friends, friends of friends, family, publishers, agents, members of the Katherine Mansfield Society, and a few people I didn't know at all!   My friend, novelist Wendy Robertson, came all the way from Newcastle for the party, but somehow managed to avoid the photographer - she is somewhere in the group below.

I hadn't been well beforehand and wondered whether I would have the energy for the evening, but after spending the morning in bed, I managed to stay awake. Several cancellations due to flu and didn't know whether my agent, Isobel, would be able to come until the last moment.

Isobel Dixon, Neil and a very stressed Kathleen
 My publisher, Jackie Jones of Edinburgh University Press came all the way from Edinburgh.

Jackie Jones (right)
Family and friends rallied round and the catering was in capable hands.

Ian, Jean, Peta and Phil
  The bar staff were a little on the young side ......

The music was great - beautiful modern jazz played by John Horler (piano) and Art Themen (sax).

Best-selling author Jacqueline Wilson came and was mobbed by fans.

Relatives of the cast of characters in the biography also came - nephews, neices and grandchildren.

Oliver Trowell and Janine Renshaw-Beauchamp (far right) with members of the KMS
 Also one or two unexpected celebrities.   Diana Dors' son Jason Lake gave an impromptu performance on the piano.

We had a creche in the corner and afterwards the babies went to sleep in the coat cupboard!

Later, exhausted and hungry, a few of us went out for a pizza.

Many, many thanks to everyone who came and made the evening special!

Photographs by Neil Ferber, Caroline Forbes and an Italian waiter.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Off to London for the Book Launch

So this is it - the gut wrenching moment when I have to stand up and wave the English version of my baby off into the London world of savage reviews and harsh critics.   We've planned a party at Foyles with lots of wine and Marks and Spencers nibbles and jazz musicians and hope lots of friends and book-loving folk will turn up.  No speeches, no boring bits, just fun and the hope that someone (or two) will buy a book.  Neil is organising the music and the bar and two of my daughters and a friend are doing the food, so it's a family affair.  I get incredibly nervous about these things - will anyone come?  will there be enough wine?  will they all enjoy themselves?  All the usual worries of the party-giver.
But I'm determined to celebrate - this book took me ten years from the proposal to the finished product and five solid years of writing and research.  It's taken a big chunk of my life.  So I will be cracking open the bubbly and saying a big thank you to all those who helped me along the way!
I'll be putting some photos up here at the weekend, once I'm safely back in Appleby.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Tuesday Poem: David Malouf

My thoughts dwelling quite a lot on Queensland, by coincidence I’ve been reading an author born and bred in Brisbane - Australian novelist, poet and short story writer David Malouf. I’ve been reading his slim novel ‘Ransom’ which is a re-telling of one of the most poignant incidents in Homer’s Iliad. It’s the story of how Priam, King of Troy, cast off his kingly regalia and rode out in a mule cart, loaded with golden treasure, attended only by the carter, to penetrate the Greek lines and ask Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, slain by Achilles in battle, in exchange for the gold. The character who comes out of this story most strongly is the carter, Somax, whose ordinary life is the complete invention of the novelist and who has more substance than the characters reconstructed from the mythic history. The story is told in what is somewhere between prose poetry and poetic prose. This is the section where Priam has the moment of waking dream that shows him what he must do.
"Priam’s mind is as clear now as if he had slept for the whole of these eleven days and nights and woken entirely restored, his spirits quickened and lightly expanding in him.
He sits very still, his shoulders in the spare frame a little sunken; and the picture that forms before him is of himself seated just as he is here, but in full sunlight on the crossbench of a cart. A plain wooden cart, of the kind that workmen use for carrying firewood or hay, and drawn by two coal-black mules.
He himself is dressed in a plain white robe without ornament. No jewelled amulet at his breast. No golden armbands or any other form of royal insignia.
On the bench beside him the driver of the cart is a man, not so old as himself but not young either. A bull-shouldered fellow he has never seen before, in an ungirdled robe of homespun. A bearded, shaggy-headed fellow, rough but not fearsome.
Behind them, the bed of the wagon is covered with a wicker canopy, and something there is shining out from under a plain white cover. Gold or bronze it must be. It is pouring out light.
But he knows what it is - no need to lift a corner of the cloth and look beneath.

Quickly he rises, and passing the servant, who this time does not stir, swings open the door to his chamber and begins down the corridor. His blood is racing. ...

Outside, the corridor is dark, save for braziers set at easy arm’s reach along the wall and extending at intervals to the distant portal. The effect is of a black flood that has risen above head height, thick, solemn, lapping at the flickering redness of the upper walls, so that stepping out into it, what he feels is an unaccustomed lack of ease - he for whose convenience everything here is arranged by the conscientious forethought of stewards and the labour of a hundred slaves.
Here and there, as he passes, the faces of servants who sit backs to the wall, at this or that chamber entrance, loom up in the dark. Startled to see him at this hour and unattended, they stir and mutter the usual courtesies, but he is gone before they can stumble to their feet.
Yes, yes, he thinks, all this I know is unprecedented.
But so is his plan. This plunging at near dawn down a deserted corridor is just the beginning. He will get used to the unaccustomed. It is what he is after.
He feels bold now, defiant. Sure of his decision"

David Malouf: ‘Ransom’, Vintage, 2010.

Quite a lot of David’s poetry is on the internet - this is a link to my favourite one - a powerful elegy called ‘Absences’ about his relationship with his mother.

For more Tuesday Poems please go to 

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Flood Saturday

There are floods everywhere, courtesy of La Nina - the bad girl of world weather systems. On TV the tragedies of Brazil, Australia and Sri Lanka fill the screen. Here in Cumbria we too have once again been inundated by a huge storm coming in off the Atlantic. Weather warnings went out on Friday night and then became more particular on Saturday morning, with Appleby being the lead feed on news as well as on Sky and the BBC. Flood gates were closed to protect the town and the low-lying road alongside the river was also closed and sandbagged.

What it normally looks like

yesterday, beginning to flood

The mill is outside the town and can’t be protected. We just have to sit and watch the river creep towards the building and make sure that everything that might float away is tied down. The speed and menace of the water is horrifying; even knee deep you can feel it tugging at your legs to pull you down. I took photographs at around 4.30pm as it was getting dark, but high water didn’t happen until about 2am, so it was a long night. Fortunately, although we had 160mm of rain in only a few hours, the way it fell meant that we avoided catastrophic water levels.

The disappearing landscape

The biggest flood we’ve ever had, in 2005, had the river almost 20 feet (6.2 metres) above it’s normal height. Last night was probably only 2 and a half metres. So it penetrated into the lowest part of the ground floor and drowned the garden but didn’t threaten the structure. We had the windows securely boarded up to protect them from floating debris. This is obviously going to be the winter for extreme weather.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Ageism in the Media

This week 53 year old TV presenter Miriam O’Reilly won a tribunal victory against the BBC for sacking her from the Countryfile programme because they had decided the programme needed a younger face. Yet John Craven, about ten years older, was allowed to continue. The BBC was found guilty of age discrimination and had to apologise. Miriam’s lawyers - both eminent women of a certain age - stated that the decision was a landmark for women working in the media.

It’s high time that this issue of age versus ability was tackled - just because someone is on the other side of 50 doesn’t mean that they are going to become suddenly incompetent. On the contrary - they have acquired knowledge and experience that simply can’t be matched by younger competitors. A recent study showed that IQ also improves as you get older. We just don’t look as pretty. And that’s where the catch is for women.

The tribunal decided that the BBC had discriminated on the grounds of age but not of sex. Which is highly debatable. The fact that John Craven wasn’t asked to leave tells us a great deal. As a woman you spend your whole life knowing that you have to be attractive to get ahead. Brains just aren’t enough. It was the middle aged woman, not the man, who had to endure comments from producers about whether her wrinkles would show up on HD television, and had she ever considered Botox?

Miriam O’Reilly’s case was only one of many. The BBC came unstuck big-time in another, less publicised way. The sacking of Moira Stewart, one of Britain’s favourite news readers (and one of the most attractive) sparked off such an outcry in 2007 that the BBC immediately set out to deliberately recruit women over 50 to read the news on News 24 in order to redress the balance. Too late for Moira. Her dismissal was blatantly sexist, given the percentage of elderly, wrinkled, news-reading men on TV - men like Jon Snow, Alaister Stewart, Trevor McDonald. Men, it seems acquire gravitas as they age, whereas women simply become ugly. Unfortunately the BBC’s response was also blatantly sexist, although I gather it’s called ‘positive discrimination’.   Like many others, I suspect, I don't want any kind of discrimination, I want to see the media represent people from all sectors of the human race - every age, colour and type. I want to see a reflection of the human race as we are rather than some glitzy representation of what media barons think we should be.

Ageism also exists in publishing. During the current economic crisis it’s older authors who are being dumped. One agent told me that publishers are looking for authors with enough time ahead of them to build a career and repay their investment. Have they forgotten Catherine Cookson? She published her first novel at 50 and didn’t have a best-seller for another decade. And what about Mary Wesley? Well on the far side of 70 at first publication and still making her publishers wealthy. And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith and the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency? And Philip Pullman?

The media - broadcast or published - had better beware. The women who came of age in the sixties and seventies - women who fuelled the feminist cause - are now reaching retirement age. And they’re still feisty, still up for a fight, still looking for a cause. Take them on at your peril!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Making a Kindle Book - but Beware the E-Book Pirates!

I noticed two people with E-readers on the plane back to England, and another couple on the tube across London.   These little electronic gadgets are definitely on the rise.  I was also interested to see, at a recent publishers' sales conference, that E-book sales now make a significant spike on the graph.   Time for authors to be aware.
I don't have an E-reader, being a lover of The Book as a physical object, but I can see the advantages. I've never downloaded novel, but I've downloaded E-books onto my computer occasionally for research purposes and find it very useful as well as cheap.  No waiting weeks for a US book to arrive at my local library (at enormous cost) and no expensive treks to the British Library in London.  I use the Gutenberg Project a lot.  It provides out-of-copyright, historic, and classic texts free of charge.   One of my favourite downloads was a facsimile of the Voyages of William Dampier - the memoirs of  a 17th century adventurer, pirate and explorer, who went round the world three times and discovered Australia in 1688, long before James Cook. 

So, when Amazon suggested that I sell my recently back-into-print A Passionate Sisterhood as an E-book I thought it might be a good idea.  Unfortunately, though I have a really good pdf file supplied by the printer, converting the book into Kindle format proved very complicated.  Neil wrestled with the idiosyncracies of Mobi-pockets for days  - made extra challenging because the book has illustrations. 
But we finally made it and now just waiting for Amazon to list the title.  Whether we get any sales is another matter.  I also intend to make it available as a straight pdf download from my own site for people who don't want to Kindle.
Looking around for other sites offering downloads as a comparison, I was horrified to find that a site calling itself The World of Books,  (though the url cleverly has 'worid') which offers free downloads of supposedly 'public domain books', was offering the US edition of my own A Passionate Sisterhood in pdf form.  Obviously pirated, but from where?  Did someone sit up all weekend with a scanner?  As the book is still in copyright all over the world (and will be until at least 50 years after I die) this is a serious breach.  Some of Margaret Atwood's work was up there too, and one or two other still living and breathing authors.
So much easier to pirate an E-book than the physical object.  We authors are going to have to be very vigilant on the Net if we want to protect our own meagre sources of income.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Goodbye Italy

It’s back to England tomorrow so just time for a last walk in the high Alpi Apuane. Everywhere you go here is dominated by the towering, 6,000 feet high, snow-dusted peak of Santa Croce.

We began our walk after a good lunch in the fortified hill-top village of Pruno, which is already at around 3,000 feet.

Then up into the alps using the ancient tracks made of carefully laid stone which have been used possibly since Etruscan times, to reach the summer pastures high above the villages. This is where, until the middle of the 20th century, the villagers drove their cattle, sheep, and goats to take advantage of the cooler, grass-covered slopes during the hot Tuscan summer months.

The alpine ‘caselle’ (little houses) are mostly ruined now, but some have been rebuilt as Rifugios.

These are open during the summer (from around the 1st of May) and on holiday weekends to provide food and drink for anyone prepared to trek up here for the view. Supplies are winched up from the nearest car parking point using a pulley system.

I didn’t make it above the Rifugio - just lay on the alpine slope trying to absorb as much of the warm sunlight as I could before I have to return to cold, damp England.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Happy New Year Everyone!

Fireworks over Pietrasanta
We celebrated in true Italian style with lots of socialising and millions of fireworks! The animals we are dog-sitting were left at home suitably tranquillised.

I know that New Year’s Day is only a date on the calendar and that logically there’s no difference between one day and the next. But psychologically there’s always a feeling that you’re going through a gateway - glancing over your shoulder at the landscape behind you and then looking forwards again into the fog of the future just over the doorstep.
2010 has been a strange year for me - lots of travelling, living like a nomad, more airports, hotels and train stations than I can count, and saying goodbye to people I didn’t want to part with. England, Italy, Belgium, France, Cuba, Singapore, New Zealand - my life reduced to a travelogue.
The most memorable things?
The birth of baby Isabella in February.

An earthquake in Christchurch while staying with my daughter and grandchildren.

My first Whale in Kaikoura

The publication of the book in New Zealand; seeing children in far-flung places; lots of new friends; a new job.  The coldest winter for more than 50 years.

And then the other side, all the things you don’t blog about; family anxieties, personal disappointments, periods of depression and feelings of isolation. No human life can be without them I think, and writers (probably all creative artists) are particularly vulnerable - there’s a pendulum of insecurity inside you that swings from self-belief to unbelief and back again. And every now and then we have to peer over what Gerard Manley Hopkins called ‘cliffs of fall, no-man fathomed’.

The year ahead is going to be hard. Neil and I want to be together, but I earn my living in England and he earns his in Italy - a life in borrowed holiday apartments lent by kind friends isn’t good for either of us. We tried to sell the mill and relocate, without success in this economic climate and now feel rather trapped. So the main task of 2011 is to solve the problem of living in one place at the same time.
Meanwhile, one last very memorable and wonderful end of year present - finding the UK edition of my book at the top of DoveGreyReader’s* Xmas reading list. Yes!!!!!

*(Queen of the Book Bloggers)