Friday, 26 November 2010

First snow in Durham

I love writing about winter and since we have so much of it here perhaps it's just as well. We had our first snow of this winter overnight. I like writing best in winter too, sitting over the fire while the day becomes dark outside and lately it has been dark here at three.  This is the statue of Lord Londonderry in the Market Place. It's just been moved a few feet and repaired and the market square and surrounding streets revamped. It cost 5.2 million. Some people think it's wonderful, other people think it's an abortion. This was the man who liked the idea of women and children working in mines. He does look much better with a seagull on his head though, don't you think?
These are our very own  monks, carrying Cuthbert's body. They're in Millenium Square right outside the library. There again, perhaps Palace Green would have been more appropriate, they're not even going the right way!  Very useful though for beer bottles on a Saturday night.
And the river from Framwellgate Bridge. I use this bridge very often in my stories, I have people standing disconsolate in the middle of it or crying their eyes out over lost loves. In Silver Street, my story about a nurse in the second world war Iris finds the love of her life standing here on a very wet day when everybody else has gone home.
  In the Road to Berry Edge Rob and Harry come from visiting prostitutes ( I take no responsibility for what people do in Silver Street in the stories ) and Rob remembers as they stand there how his brother drowned and he became his father's last hope. All in vain, of course. South Street, just above the north side of the bridge is where the prostitute lives that Rob falls in love with. He came from Consett, the old steel town where his father owned the works.
My characters people the small city which is probably why I love it so much or maybe it's the other way round and especially on a day like this when it is at its best.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wife, Mother and Writer

It is no wonder that so many women have taken up writing over the centuries. It is the perfect form of work for them, you can write anywhere, at home surrounded by your hopefully increasingly dusty house, in cafes and even watching television with your children. You don't even have to write as such, you can just sit there and think about your work everywhere you go.
Heathwaite, where Elizabeth came to live with her aunt when she was a year old

I was in Knutsford at the weekend. One of the gems of Chesire and immortalised by television as being the original model for Cranford though of course the filming was elsewhere. Parts of  Knutsford have changed since Mrs Gaskell wrote about it but the two main streets, King Street and above it Princess Street remain much the same, I think and many of the buildings which she knew are still intact.
She was born Elizabeth Cleghorn Stevenson in 1810 in Chelsea but her mother died shortly afterwards and she went to live with her aunt, Hannah Lumb in Heathwaite, the lovely house which overlooks the heath. It may seem cruel to us now that her father sent her off to live in Chesire when she was a year old. He married again and had other children and it could be several years before Elizabeth saw him.
Dr Holland's house

She went to school in Warwickshire but it was in Chesire that she met William Gaskell who was junior minister of Cross Street Chapel in Manchester. They were married at the parish church in Knutsford and after their marriage they lived in Manchester but Elizabeth was often at Knutsford, she was very fond of her aunt and referred to her as 'my more than mother'.

Elizabeth was a Unitarian and she and her husband taught in Manchester. Her family did great charity work during the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War. Unitarianism, the religion of Elizabeth's family, was way ahead of its time, teaching tolerance towards all people no matter what their religion.  Her husband, who had his own literary career, taught the poor and held welfare committees, and many of their friends were social reformers and religious dissenters.
They had several children but Elizabeth only started to write, encouraged by her husband, after the death of her baby son.
She wrote Mary Barton which was about the poor and disadvantaged in Manchester. It was regarded as subversive by many because people assumed that the hardships the poor endured were their own fault due to their thriftlessness and vice, a view which some people still believe today. ( Ecclesiastes: There is nothing new under the sun. )
Worse was to follow.  Elizabeth wrote Ruth, a novel about an unmarried mother. I think what I like most about Gaskell's work is that she takes on subjects which other people were afraid to write of. It was said that even some of William's congregation burned the book. She was indeed a very brave woman.
The building on Princess Street supposed to have been used as Miss Matty's house in the stories.

Brook Street chapel in Knutsford where Elizabeth, her husband, William and two of their daughters are buried.

Typical Knutsford, beautiful old houses

Her best known work of course is Cranford but I prefer North and South where Margaret Hale comes north with her family and discovers what the world is like which centres around a cotton mill.
 Women are so important in her novels. Interestingly too she was fond of using dialect. If you can make dialect comprehensible to people from other places I think it can stamp your stories as products of where they came from but enable everyone to enjoy them.
Mrs Gaskell is also known for the biography which she wrote of Charlotte Bronte. Apparently she visited the house in Manchester three times and once hid behind the living room curtains because she was shy with visitors.  Mrs Gaskell wrote ghost stories. Charles Dickens helped her with these and published her work in his magazine, Household Words.
I was pleased too to note that Elizabeth Gaskell spent time in Newcastle upon Tyne with Rev. William Turner's family and in Edinburgh. Born in London she may have been but I like to claim her as a real northern writer and true northern woman.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Silver Slug

The Tyne, the Tyne, the coaly Tyne,
Queen of all the rivers.

That's what we like to think here in the north east. Of course I'm particularly keen on the Wear  because I live in Durham and I love the Tees too because I have friends there. I could go on, I'm hung up on rivers.
Last Saturday I ventured up to Newcastle to the Sage at Gateshead, to attend a session of BBC Radio 3's Free Thinking Festival. It was a perfect day, rather like today in fact, we don't get many, we have to make the best of them and I walked through the city to the riverside.
This is my second favourite building in the whole world, after the cathedral. It sits there on the Gateshead bank of the river and has such attitude. It's so up itself you can't help but admire and inside it has concert halls and meeting rooms and cafes and bars and one of the best views, looking out over the river to Newcastle. It was thronging with people at the various goings on, there were people from Durham Photographic Society ( to which I belong, but don't tell anybody, my photographs are obviously not so hot but we go to the pub afterwards which is incentive enough for me ), a trio of women singing like a barbershop quartet, just because they wanted to in front of the cafe on the ground floor and other people just there for fun or presumably as part of the many classes and and happenings which makes the Sage such a wonderuflly vibrant place.
This of course is the famous blinking eye bridge which won many awards when it was built. It's best seen at night when it changes colour every few seconds. I timed my getting there perfectly because it was the time for tilting.
A navy training vessel going underneath. I waved at the all the cadets and they waved back.
The old Baltic flour mill beside the Sage, now an art gallery and such. The best thing about it is the building itself and the cafe of course and the cake and coffee and the lift and the views.

And this of course is the Tyne Bridge. I was born in Newcastle and I'm so stuck on the area I couldn't go and live anywhere else. Some people might say it's sad to be so tied to one area but in order to write about a place you  have to love it fiercely. In fact to write about anything you have to feel so passionately about your subject that you can't not write and that's the point really, through all this. The writing is the thing and everything else follows as long as you are faithful to your loves.
Afterwards I went with friends to La Tasca across the river and had calamari and salad and then chocolate profiteroles and lots of red wine and coffee.  Perfect!!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Writing about your Passions

My agent always tells me that I have far too many tea parties in my books. Actually I think she means that I spend huge amounts of time telling about chocolate cake and what sort of wine people are drinking and describing three course meals instead of getting on with the story. Up to a point this is true but I enjoy good food and wine and enjoy writing about them and am happy to edit some of it out if I get carried away.  Recently I have taken to reading the wonderful stories of Donna Leon and her Venetian detective and the stories are well written and well plotted but the best thing of all about them is that food and wine is described at length and is one of the most important things both about the books and about Venice.
I've been to Venice twice and if I had to live somewhere other than Durham I would choose Venice. Italians have just the right attitude to food, they eat late at night and drink good wine and are the best cooks in the world.
I have Elizabeth David's Italian Food, I bought it many years ago and it's one of the best cookery books I have ever read. I can spend a whole evening reading cookery books even though I rarely cook.
I'm the same with gardening. I read the books which Christopher Lloyd who is the Elizabeth David of the gardening world wrote and Gertrude Jeykll for the way that she turns colour into brilliance. I don't garden very much, Howard does the difficult bits and I make tea and talk about plants and it's really more of a social thing than anything else. Living on your own is okay most of the time but it's very nice to have lots of conversations on subjects you care about. I prefer other people's splendid gardens and to go to Howard and Sharon's walled garden and nursery at Whitworth Hall and see how these things are really done, like I love to go to good restaurants.
A week after my birthday - I had five weeks to celebrate being sixty and somebody suggested to me last week that when I'm seventy I should spent a whole year celebrating which sounds fine to me - they took me to the Black Bull at Frosterley in my beloved Weardale. It was cold and dark outside but in this restaurant and pub the open fires were burning.
The wine list was short and the merlot we chose was so thick it was like drinking fruit. The food was what used to be called nouvelle cuisine except that the portions were big. Decorative and wonderful to taste. Perfect. The Black Bull is run by Diane and Duncan Davis and their three children. The food is sourced locally, the beer comes from breweries at Allendale and Durham. The chef, I am told, is Mr Davis himself, a genius with food and his wife runs front of house. She's lovely. She let me go back and take photographs the day after I'd  been there for dinner.
Above the bar the pub's own peal of bells.  The floors have pieces of Frosterley marble laid in among the flags. I spend my summers in the dale and will be making many more trips the short distance to this wonderful restaurant.
Also for my birthday I went to the Fat Buddha in Durham, one of my favourite places - very often during the week I go drinking red wine in there and the food is excellent. A friend took me, last weekend, to a place called The Dudley Arms in a tiny Yorkshire village called Ingleby Greenhow. The pub is next to the butcher's shop and I call that a match made in heaven because the butcher owns the pub. The restaurant is like a huge barn and has its own gallery where people can eat. I had one of the best steaks I have ever eaten and a friend to drive me home. What more can anybody ask of a birthday?