Saturday, 29 December 2012

Ghosts of Christmas

My sister came over to see me this Christmas and we got to reminiscing about what Christmases were like when we were small.  My sister wore my mother's swan ear rings as a way of holding her close on Christmas Day because our mother has been dead for twelve years.I always wonder,  given that we have money and warmth and time and other people, why we fiind Christmas so hard to enjoy and I think of all of us standing in queues in the supermarkets, determinedly cheerful - or in some cases not, as they fight over the last turkey in M&S and the overworked staff are obliged to hold back their frustrations.
Amongst the tinsel and the decorations we carry our memories and our unreal expectations of how perfect it could be.
Among the food and drink we hurry away to shed a few tears in private or find our best wine glasses shattered on the floor as though it were a slight cracking of some heart over all that we have lost, all that we wish Christmas to be. I think of the last Christmas I spent with my husband and I am always aware that I  cover it in glory and perfection and although it was wonderful in many ways one of our cats ran away on Christmas night and never came back and I can remember standing outside under the stars and crying over it.
The Christmas after my husband died I took my seven year old daughter to the pantomime as we did every year and had booked immediately after the one before.  I managed to go to the pantomime again this year with my favourite three year old but it was hard. I sat clenched throughout the whole first half and didn't understand the panic at first. How strange - they say that the mind forgets but the body never does.
One Christmas my daughter and I went to stay in a hotel in Pitlochry. There we were surrounded by a saga Christmas get away, old people with white hair and zimmer frames.  Then there was the one in Edinburgh where somebody set off the fire alarms smoking pot in their bedroom and we all ended up standing outside in Charlotte Square while the fire engines arrived, halfway through what should have been a lovely dinner.  Katy is a vegetarian and discovered that Scotland was not a good place for her to have Christmas. One waiter tried to confuse her by telling her that cock a leekie soup was full of vegetables, which it is of course and she was offered various pasties featuring cheese and broccoli
Then there was the year we went to York and she slept the day through and I spent an hour in the nearest Spar shop buying milk.
Once Christmas day is over, the ghost of Christmas present and his tawdry gifts is gone with a sigh of relief from many people and the ghost of Christmas to come slides in by the back door, hiding amidst the by now dusty cards, the discarded wrapping paper and the empty chocolate boxes and then beware because we have all indulged so we punish ourselves during January by dieting and not drinking and taking various awful forms of exercise so that we as well as the weather are miserable. We feel bad about the wine and the cake we hid behind while we endured yet another English Christmas.
I think of Dickens at Christmas and how he tried to rid himself of the poverty of his childhood, the betrayal of his parents, the weakness of his father, his spendthrift son and his many children who had to be supported under the horrors of his creaking marriage, writing and writing so that his life like our Christmases could be bettered by money and brandy butter.
Inside us all I think there is a Scrooge thinking, 'oh hell, not again', the sting of our empty bank balances staying with us as we bread and water our way into the rest of the winter. So spare a thought for us all, how hard we try, how brave we are. We are not really greedy and drunken and self seeking, we stumble through as best we can, blaming the awful television, the queues in Sainsburys and one another for the plain horror of the season. And somewhere inside we hold on to the idea that sooner or later we will be back to those perfect Christmases such as my sister and I had when we were small children, when the Salvation Army came on Christmas morning and played carols outside the door, we danced in the snow and my dad fixed lights all around the huge picture window in the lounge. We would run to the bottom of the garden and tell him each year that they were the best and always of course they were.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Private, Personal or Pushy?

I'm a very private person. Yes, right, we all think,  if she's so private what the hell is she doing here, putting herself in the forefront, needing publicity to sell her books. There isn't anything very private about being constantly available, about facebook, twitter and all the other social networks which I'm advised I should get in amongst if I want to sell books and of course I do want to be read. You don't write for yourself. Dylan Thomas used to say that if you do then nobody will want to intrude on such a private party. But part of me wants to run away, to my caravan in the dale and be gloriously unavailable. Alas, it won't do. I went to the library and got out a book which is called  Facebook and Twitter for Seniors for Dummies by Marsha Collier.
The librarian was most apologetic. But no, the poor lad could see that technologically I am good with wheelbarrows.  My writing friends have offered to help and I will try hard to fit in with today's world but it doesn't come naturally. Perhaps that's why I write historicals, I don't really want to be here.Am I hiding from the present and scared of the future?
The funny thing about it is that I am a natural show off, I love to get up in front of a huge audience and talk about my work and make people laugh but the thing I like best is the writing. All the rest is decoration. So in order to keep on doing the writing I must be publicity conscious and do the social networking which comes as naturally to me as things like ice skating and skiing, swimming and just about anything which needs physical co ordination. I don't seem to have mental co ordination either somehow for all this stuff which other people find easy and exciting.
There is a song which Bruce Springsteen wrote and sings, called Cover Me. It's my favourite song. It's the Marlon Brando idea that we are all selling something and the guy in the song just wants to run home and be warm and safe.
My safe place is a little garden room at the back of my house where I retreat in the evenings and go into the past that I have created. I call on my memories and my experiences and the things that I have learned, both painful and otherwise. I dredge them up and haul them into the limelight. I want people to read them, to enjoy them, to gain pleasure from them and to be able to take them with confidence into that safe place which we all need. Now I need to haul myself into the limelight too.
The contradiction is that writing has no safe place. That's what makes it so hard and that's why I do it. I surround myself with safety and then I write and the illusion spills away.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

A Helluva Do!

The Romantic Novelists Association threw its annual winter party last night. I don't belong to the RNA any more. I did for a long while.  People come and go but good organisations go on without them. The RNA gave me so much - fun, friends, contacts, a place to be me as a writer, a haven from the stresses of my job and when I'm an old lady, as I hope to be in time, I will sit at home on winter nights and remember the lunches and the dinners and the people and the committees and how damned generous people within my industry can be.

(left to right, Elizabeth Gill, Trisha Ashley, Leah Fleming)

The party was held at the Mechanics Institute on Birdcage Walk. It's been at various places over the years, we disagree about which was the best. I liked Westminster College where the students used to cater for us and fill us full of gorgeous concoctions involving sweet pastry, strawberries and cream and I liked the ones at the New Cavendish Club especially the year where the weather was so bad that we couldn't go outside on to the rooftop. I can't remember now why it was so good, just that it was the best and we were all together.
June Tate and Lizzie Lamb

We used to have award ceremonies at the Cafe Royale and then at the Savoy. There is nothing like pulling up in a taxi at the Savoy for making you feel as if you're really having a good day.
London is always business for me. I wouldn't dream of going there for pleasure but that's just because every time I go there for work I have such a good time, I couldn't imagine how it might be better. For the last eighteen years I've been going up and down to King's Cross in good weather and bad. I hadn't been for some time before I went this week and it was no different. It's so reassuring to know that always there are such good organisations waiting for us and the Romantic Novelists Association is as it always has been, one of the best.

Catherine King and Norma CurtisMary de Laszlo with Leah
Diane Allen on the right has just had her first novel published. It's with Macmillan and it's called For the Sake of Her Family.

Norma's lovely shoes!!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Diane Allen - A Woman for All Time

Diane Allen comes from the Yorkshire Dales. Her family has lived and farmed there for generations. She is proud of her heritage and can trace her lineage back beyond Cromwellian times.
When I first met her, it must be fifteen years ago, she was working at Magna Books in Long Preston. She then took over, with her associate, Helen Bibby, the running of the company.
Magna is like no other publisher and it is because of Diane and Helen and their warmth, generosity and integrity that you would go a long way before you would find anyone who has not basked in the experience of the Magna fun. If you go anywhere within hitting distance of Long Preston you are immediately invited to coffee, to lunch, to dinner and to a walk around the works there. It smells of paper and its atmosphere is like sinking into a duvet.

Diane has a family, children and grandchildren and a husband who supports not only Blackpool but Darlington football teams, which says a lot about his generosity too.
Of late she has found a new outlet for her talents and this week is publishing her first novel. I always thought she would do so, every time you talk to  her she has wonderful tales to tell. She writes about her passions, the people and the land she loves.
Last weekend she launched her first book at a place called Taitlands, Stainforth which is just outside Settle. It's a Georgian mansion with another building which upstairs has a huge tea room and it was there at 3p.m. on Saturday that her friends and family gathered, to eat scones with cream and jam, drink huge pots of tea and listen to the music of the Moonbeams, a Yorkshire folk group.
Diane spoke about her book, signed copies at the back of the room and dispensed her own lovely brand of joy.
Diane, second left with Leah Fleming on the left, Julia Stagg next to Diane and Elizabeth Gill on the right. Leah Fleming is the author of The Captain's Daughter and her next book coming out on January 17th is The Girl Under the Olive Tree. Julia Stagg's latest book is The Parisian's Return. She is working on the next which is called  The French Postmistress. Elizabeth Gill's book, Miss Appleby's Academy is published on Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Next Big Thing

My writing friend Leah Fleming encouraged me to do this, to take part in a blog chain which authors pass on to one another to flag up their latest work. Her wonderful book, The Captain's Daughter was published this year to great acclaim. Her next book is The Girl Under the Olive Tree. 

What is the working title of your book?
It's finished and is coming out in February. Miss Appleby's Academy, published by Quercus Books.

Where did the idea come from?
Partly from Leah Fleming when I went to stay and she suggested that since I had been at school in New England many years ago I might write something about America and the North East of England .

What genre does your book fall under?
It's a saga, a historical novel set partly in New England and mostly here in the North.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I think Gywnneth Paltrow would make a lovely Miss Appleby, she's just about the right age!

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
It's about a woman of forty who runs away when her family tries to marry her off to an older man, comes to a pit village in the North East and sets up a dame school.

Will your book be self published or represented by an agency?
My agent is Judith Murdoch.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I don't do first drafts, I just go round and round and round like a dog trying to make a bed and somehow from the mess I get a book.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I don't know. It's different.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My love of the village where I was brought up, my interest in education and my firm feminist beliefs.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
I like dealing with big issues like failing relationships, how medicine has improved people's lives, addiction, obsession and class.

Next week  my friends, Sylvia Broady  who writes for Hale  and Janet Warburton, whose latest novel is Joanna  will be writing in the new slot on Tuesday. Look out for these.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Library visits

The joy of writing comes for me when I meet people and see that they read, not just my books but all kinds of books and when I do talks at libraries and other places it makes me feel so good. I did a talk at Hartlepool library last week. It's a wonderful building, open to the second storey ceiling and the librarians had put aside a lovely big room, decorated the tables with flowers, made tea and coffee and offered lemon or chocolate muffins. I love lemon muffins.
The first person to come in started chatting and she didn't realize I was the author and she said,
'I'm only here for the muffins.'  I didn't let her get away with it and referred to this in my talk which made her laugh.
The people who were there came and kissed me at the end and even the librarians did. I don't think I have such a lovely kissed afternoon. It meant everything to me.
My daughter was at home that morning and she said, wasn't I going to prepare and though I don't write anything down I sort of scoop up the day, the library, the people as they come in and the feeling that the librarians give me during the half hour or so before the talk. I went into the library while people gathered and just waffled about. All those books and the people sitting in little groups, that's what makes it.
I try to tell funny stories because it's important to me to make people laugh. My grandma used to do it with style, my sister can and so can my daughter. Making people feel good is just great.
I told them that one of my earliest memories was of a pony ride on the beach at Seaton Carew. The pony was called Twinkle.  I hadn't thought about this for years but somehow as I drove to Hartlepool it came back to me. I tell them I am their author, I belong to them. My stories are of them and of me and of the North East which I hold so dearly.
Writer Freda Lightfoot tells a story about how a Yorkshire man asked her ( I think this is how it goes ) about her parents and she said her mother was from Yorkshire and her father was from Lancashire and he looked at her pityingly and said, 'Eh, that were a shame.'
It's a nice story and illustrates how I feel about people who aren't born in the north-east. I suppose I should feel ashamed of it in a way but it categorizes me nicely because I think writers have to feel like that about the places they love. Peter Robinson in Richmond and the dales, Rankin in Edinburgh, Donna Leon in Venice, we love and nurture the places we call home. My books are about people coming home and in  my new book Miss  Emma Appleby comes back to the place where she was born, up on the moors where the wind howls freely and the snow falls sometimes even in July.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Kitchen - Cafe Theatre

Theatre has evolved in this country, perhaps more interestingly, if that's a word, than any other genre. Travelling players such as the Jolly Boys who come to Durham Castle and perform outdoor Shakespeare in the summer and Heartbreak productions - I saw them at Dunham Massey a couple of years ago performing An Ideal Husband. These things are picnics with plays.

 However, here in Durham we have gone a step further than that and a very clever and wonderful step it is. We have a catering company who have their premises at The Kitchen on Alnwick Road and last night I went with my friends Joan and Malcolm to a murder mystery night, complete with three courses and coffee for twenty pounds. What a bargain. There are only half a dozen tables and I don't suppose that anybody is making a fortune but what lovely people. The actors, the staff and the meal were all great, brie parcels, steak pie and some wonderful dessert concoction which I do not know the name of.

They supplied us ( mostly me, to be fair) with lots of red wine and in between courses we were set to solve the murder that they acted out for us. Inbetween courses also they came and talked to us in character and I was able to harangue the nasty man in the play for being mean to his wife. He denied it all.
Malcolm and Joan went to see Brief Encounter last month and said it was superb.
To put on a play in a small cafe such as that is like pavement art, so close and so good.

I do love the way things move forward in such a positive way. Everybody was there because they wanted to be and the intimacy made the whole thing so immediate.

They do other things as well, they have bistro nights, special occasions for children and a gorgeous Christmas menu.  They also have paintings for sale on the walls so I think I might walk up there this morning and take another look at the one of Staithes which I liked so much last night when I was full of food and wine.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Here's to you, Peter Robinson

I ran out of Rebus novels a few weeks ago. Oh, the pain. I know that Ian Rankin has another coming out and I ate up his two new novels with his new guy who doesn't drink and smoke and is the opposite of rebus except that he is very clever but there is nobody like Rebus. I picture him asleep in his chair, having drunk the whisky I hesitate to spell here. He makes me feel better about my faults, Rebus is sexy and dark and drinks at the Oxford Bar. I want to go to the Oxford bar. I could bore on about Rebus forever and I am very excited that Ian Rankin and P.D. James are speaking in the cathedral at our literary festival next week.

And then I found Peter Robinson.  The joy.  Banks is sexy and clever. He has moved on from whisky to red wine and therefore we have lots in common.

 Banks lives in Richmond. Peter Robinson doesn't call it Richmond. Banks lives in a village outside the town of course, at least he  may have moved on. I am reading the books all back to front as I can find them, and don't really mind. Amongst all the streams and ducks and stone cottages the place is full of crime and there are lots of murders in graveyards and on the lovely moors. He drinks at lunchtime, he's like something from a better dark age when people didn't care that they might live to be old and pissing their knickers in a nursing home at ninety because they didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't have Brie and didn't eat scones and walked three or four miles a day.
In Banks the local coppers go to the pub at lunchtime. The other thing is that the weather is awful. I love bad weather. I'm such a happy bunny when it rains and snows and hails and all the other things it does regardless of what the calendar suggests.

I came home yesterday with All The Colours of Darkness. It's like hiding a radio under the bedclothes when you were a kid except that my parents would never have minded.  I have lots of pillows and read and revel. I have just finished Innocent Graves. A murder trial. Yes!
I have also just finished The Litigators by John Grisham which is a totally different level, rather funny and quirky. I love anything about the law, how it works, how it doesn't work and am a big fan of Helena Kennedy who wrote a wonderful book called  Eve Was Framed. The only thing is it makes me seethe for how the law has treated and still treats women.
In the meanwhile I have Banks looking after North Yorkshire and it's a very comforting thought. And I still have about twelve books to go.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The World's best cathedral?

I had a problem over the weekend. I saw a cathedral I liked as much as Durham. Very worrying. If you can't be prejudiced about such things as the one in your own city what can you do?
My lovely daughter took me to Milan for my birthday. Oh, the shops. I didn't know until then that Milan is the shopping city.
I think I would feel very poor if I lived there and very badly dressed since I cannot afford to pay five hundred quid for a handbag. I'm not convinced I would ever spend such money. It seems obscene. There is the argument of course that the designer tries to reach the heights, be it a Ferrari or a handbag. And they must of course.
We did however go to Gucci for coffee. The waiter didn't speak to us. I realized after a while that it was not a communication problem, it was a city problem. Nobody talks to you or smiles at you and people push past, all intent on their own business.
Milan is covered is beautiful buildings and graffiti. You get used to the look after a while and you concentrate on the food and wine and Italy has to be the best.
Designer dogs are all over the place and I like that in other countries than ours dogs and children are not taboo. The first night we ate at a place recommended by my daughter's American friend, Kate, who has been everywhere and is a real foodie. There were children, even at ten at night, eating and enjoying themselves. Nobody crying. It was a Friday of course and there weren't many English people around. The second night we went to Lucca's. Oh my God, the world's best steak, cooked over sizzling herbs.
We had gelati and the kind of coffee you cannot get in England.
Also, I hesitate to say this because of how everybody slags off Ryanair but they were lovely, apart from the two dragons in Milan who made my kid squash her Furla bag into her tiny suitcase. It did recover, you will be happy to hear and no, it did not cost five hundred pounds but it is melon pink, round and shiny.
The flight there was early, the flight back was early. We hadn't paid for priority booking. My advice is don't, it isn't necessary, and yes, we didn't sit together on the way back but I was just in front.  The staff were lovely. The wine and crisps gorgeous and the pilot was very reassuring Good old Ryanair, eight five quid return from Manchester to Milan. Cheaper than the trainfare to Edinburgh which was the other place we had thought of going.
Our lovely hotel was half an hour's joyful shopbound walk from the cathedral, the room was spotless, the staff kind and very competent, the breakfasts -  so many croissants, parma ham being bacon, - new one on me and one I may adapt.
The sun shone in Milan and the cathedral is free. How many cathedrals in Britain are free? Ours is of course. I hope it always will be.
So if you do happen to go to Milan, comparisons are odious but the cathedral is awesome. We had lunch the second day on the roof top of a department store. We sat outside, right next to the cathedral and watched people up at the top taking pictures.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Gordon Ramsay, inspired

I've never liked Gordon Ramsay. He isn't prissy enough for me. I like my chefs polite and middle class. I like Nigel Slater and I loved Elizabeth David. I can't stick Gordon's Ramsay's programmes as he swears and tells people what to do. He reminds me of a little street kid, spitting on the way to school because he wishes he could stay at home and play.
The stupid thing is that until I sat down, word blind yesterday from working too hard and happened upon Gordon Ramsay cooking, I couldn't see his appeal. It should be obvious that he didn't get to the top of his profession unless he could cook but strangely I'd never seen the guy cook before and he wasn't trying to turn tricks or given any personality impression. He really is a chef. It was less Gordon Ramsay and more the food he cares about and his enthusiasm and expertise made me want to get up and make something to eat which should be the whole point of cookery programmes. Nowadays I think it's just food porn.
I stopped cooking many years ago, being left with a small child who refused to eat anything that had been within several feet of an animal. I was queen of the casseroles and I hated vegetarian food. For years we lived on garlic bread and blue cheese and I used to go to the supermarket and come home with nothing other than red wine and salad.  Sometimes even now I walk round and round, wondering what the hell I'm doing there.
Yesterday afternoon I went into W.H.Smith's and looked for Gordon Ramsay's books and there he was, looking like the school bully, when in fact he's one of the swots and can turn into a magician, before your very eyes and show you how to make the kind of food you really want to eat and you believe him and trot off to the kitchen in search of better dining.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Room at the Top

BBC4 has recreated Joe Lampton and all the characters thought up so brilliantly by John Braine. I remember reading all John Braine's books and Room at the Top evokes the 1950s so well in all its greyness. The era when young men ogled young women, every one of them in Joe Lampton's case. It was the time after the second world war when rationing was just ending and nobody had any money. You forget how far back it was and when I watched the tv production I discovered it wasn't something I wanted to go back to however temporarily, this idea of the working class lad and the posh girl and striving to get somewhere and how awful the meals were. Mind you, Maxine Peake was amazing, as she always is.
A l ot of writers however, think the best book Braine wrote was Writing a Novel. I reread it so many times I can still remember whole passages from it and this was Braine's legacy to other writers.
It isn't easy, writing a book of advice for other writers and making it less pedestrian than what to do with grammar, how you try to get an agent and all the other things which are actually of no help at all. I taught creative writing for two years so I do how hard it is to get the messages across.
There are four books I can think of which cover the subject with style. The first is John Braine's book, the second is Stephen King's  On Writing, which I've read three times, the third is James N.Frey's How to Write a Damned Good Novel.  I will never forget him saying that you will know when you are finished because every time you look at the book you want to throw up!
But the person who taught me and many other writers how to write as well as they were able was the creative writing teacher and novelist Natalie Goldberg. I can't even think of her name without becoming all Americanized because I used to have her Writing Down the Bones on tape in my car. I listened to it endlessly.  She has written a couple of novels but her greatest talent is teaching others to write and my God she is good at it.  She likened writing to meditation, clearing the mind, one of the hardest things of all.  She wrote several books on writing, My friend Leah Fleming used to holiday in America and would bring them back and present them to me for Christmas. 
In the publishing world, as in John Braine's book, there is always room at the top. I can't remember who said that for writers ( and presumably in almost every job ) it's ten per cent inspiration and ninety per cent perspiration.  Getting to the top is hard, be it the best seller list or K2 and almost impossible in the fickle world of publishing. Maybe that's why we love to attempt it because the view, like from Everest, is the better the further up you climb and you have the incredible feeling of achievement as you go, in spite of all those teachers who told you as one of mine did,
'Yes, Elizabeth, but when are you going to get a proper job?'
I'm sure my parents felt the same. I never did get a proper job. It's just after six in the morning here and all sensible people who don't have to get up and go to work are still in bed but here I am, drinking early morning tea and thinking about my book.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Booker Prize - who would you nominate?

Next month the Booker Prize will be won by some lucky person -  depending on how you look at it. Having won such a prize who would ever write again or need to or even dare to if you were an inexperienced writer?  Having won the top prize in publishing would you be happy as a writer to spend the majority of your year going to literary festivals, putting up with journalists and sycophants or worse still people who are envious and tell you you're rubbish. Would you be ready for the sour grapes, the talks, the television shows, the way that nobody thinks you need paying because you're obviously already making so much money, the way that people intrude so rudely into your life. You don't  have your privacy any more, everybody wants a piece of you.
The saying 'be careful what you wish for, the gods  may grant it' comes somewhere fairly close to all forms of celebrity. When I was twenty five I was convinced I was Jane Austen. I did go through a phase where I wanted to be rich. It was short lived.  I once had a friend who said, 'you can tell what God thinks of money by the people he gives it to'. Not perfectly true of course but you can only eat so much, drink so much, drive one car at once, sleep in one bed. What else is there? I remember Bianca Jagger saying that one of the most difficult things about being married to Mick was keeping up the houses they owned.  Can you imagine?  All that hassle, all that stress?
I have a house, a car and my caravan. I can pay my bills.  What else would I want?
I would like to be able to do what Catherine Cookson did if I ever did make any real money. She gave most of it to the Newcastle hospitals and a great many people, including me, have been bloody glad she did. That's what money's really for, not to spend a hundred million on a yacht as I heard one guy had. It had three heliports. Presumably for the windmills in his head.
But what really bothers me about the Booker Prize is that it is elitist and the very word makes me want to throw up.  Who says what makes a good novel? 

So, if you could nominate writers for the booker prize you would choose?

I would choose Ian Rankin becaue his plots are brilliant, his characters are memorable and he takes on big issues each time he writes.
I would nominate PD James, not because I think she's the most wonderful woman in the world and doesn't believe in bullshit but because her prose is almost poetry.
I would nominate C.J.Sansom, who is every bit as a good a writer as Hilary Mantel.

The trouble for me was that because her book won the Booker - I'm talking about Wolf Hall which won a couple of years ago - I was prejudiced against it and that really is the problem. A lot of people think that the shortlist is books which are indecipherable to most people so many folk who might enjoy them don't because either they think they aren't clever enough to understand or that the Booker like some Oxford College is there for certain very clever people and that isn't most of us.
Hilary Mantel writes simply, with authority, clarity and near genius. They say you can make a moderately good writer into a good writer but you can't make a good writer into a great writer and really that's why MAs in Creative Writing are almost always a waste of time. You could go out and do almost anything else and gain more from it. Who on earth would want to spend her youth sitting in a little room pouring out stories about god knows what because she hasn't got any experience? It's bad enough sitting in a little room writing all day when it's what you do for a living when you get older. It's anti social and it makes other people think you're bloody bananas. And in some ways you have to be. Neighbours at my last house thought I was a nurse and always on night duty since I wore my  pyjamas during the day. I've been working at home for thirty years, all alone, of course I'm bloody bonkers.  And yes, I write for money but believe me there are not many rich writers around and when was the last time you told your bank manager you'd never heard of him and how come he wasn't one of the top bank managers in the country?
I sat on my balcony this summer in Santorini and read Hilary Mantel's book, Bring up the Bodies. It is superb.  I left a whole load of things at home so that I could take the hardback with me, I loved it so much.
But - and it's a big but - it amazes me that she was not awarded the Booker for her best novel which is Beyond Black, the only novel I have read in years which had new ideas. They say there is no such thing. Well, I don't believe that. Hilary Mantel has new ideas.
I haven't read the other nominated books so I shouldn't say I hope she wins, except that I hope she wins, because a  it would be the first time it had happened twice to a woman and b because it would be the first time it had happened to a woman.
I went to my hairdresser before I went off to Santorini and there in a glossy women's magazine I discovered that the editor was going to read the same book as I was on holiday and that really is the point. Hilary Mantel is not writing for some stupid literary elite, she writes for everybody, she is accessible to everybody and so are all the great writers, Austen, Dickens, Fitzgerald and dozens more.
My lovely balcony. I could have stayed for a month
Me in Santorini. I wrote every day, read every day. Bliss
It would be a great thing if the Booker Prize was an event. It isn't really, not for millions of people the way that Strictly Come Dancing is.  But it could be.  It just needs sensible people to take the opportunity of short listing top writers and the writing world needs to stop placing writers into categories. A novel is a novel is a novel and somebody somewhere has grabbed up a copy of this wonderful book, stuffed it into her suitcase and is sitting on her balcony on a Greek island being grateful that Hilary Mantel spent hours, days and weeks and months so that we could enjoy her work. That is what reading is about. If the novelist doesn't entertain there are plenty of other jobs that she could do.  I'm very glad that Hilary Mantel chose to be a writer. She made my summer brighter.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

God, gods and godless

I had two Jehovah's witnesses at my door last week. This was most unusual. I can' think why it should be, I live on a busy street in a small city or perhaps they just call when I'm out. I get all kinds of people at my door. They can park and look at their maps when they are lost or they see me mucking about in my front garden and waffle over because they can't  find the cathedral / the way into town / the way out of town/ the fire station/ the police station or the hospital. I'm not sure whether it is comforting to have the hospital, the fire station and the police station so near. It reminds me of the Naked City when I was little, all those sirens. When something has gone badly wrong they all dash past at once. I can hear them from my bed in the middle of the night. New York has nothing on Durham.
I always try to be kind to people. I blame my mother, I'm so polite even when I'm clearly not interested and it is intrusive - people always bang on the door or ring on the phone when I'm working. It's very frustrating and of course working at home is never thought of as working, you are there to be interrupted.
I smiled at them and thought of how when I finished school, I won an award for religious studies, I'm not kidding you, I used to invite them into the back garden, give them tea and talk about the bible.  My mother in law had the easiest answer, she used to smile, say,
'We're Catholics,' which we were of course but I think my husband had the right idea.
When we lived in Ramshaw not far from Barnard Castle we built a house in the dip down by the river and we were hard at work, he was moving and facing stone and I was busy with the cement  mixer and this chap appeared around the side of the house. I saw the bible and knew what he was but Richard had much more idea.
'Hello, Fred,' he offered and the guy recognised him and smiled and started on about God and Richard said,
'Wonderful, and while you're here just give me a hand with these stones, will you?'
And the bloke did.  I thought it was the perfect answer.
I don't have anything half as good to offer these days except that when the woman said,
'Do you think God can save the world?'
I said,
'I just wish he'd get a move on,' and then I went back to work.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


My daughter got married on the island of Santorini last month. It was not quite what I expected. What's wrong with the cathedral, I said or the chapel in St Andrews?  When she was at university there I had visions of a misty autumn day and the long wide beaches. Santorini is famous for its black sand and volcanic rock, its hot summers and its superb sunsets.
There's nothing wrong with the sunsets in Stanhope, I said, where I have my caravan. Only a couple of weeks ago we had a bright red mackerel sky. You could have been married at the Abbey in Blanchland for less than three hundred pounds.
She didn't take any notice.  So twenty of us ended up on the Greek Island of Santorini. It'll be as hot as hell, I said, there'll be mosquitoes and I'm bound to be ill. It is almost a joke among my friends that every time I leave the country I' m ill but of course I had missed the most essential point, that this was not about me. We do tend to put ourselves in the centre of everything. I suppose it's natural. No wonder some people go abroad and then ring their mothers to say they are married, much easier than having the old girl along, being grumpy and embarrassing.
I don't believe in marriage, I think it's for people who are religious, I certainly don't like all that white dress and flowers and so on stuff. The feminist in me thinks that for centuries women have married because they couldn't manage by themselves. This is certainly not true of my daughter's generation, so I fail to see the point any more.
And so, what was it like?  It was the prettiest wedding I have ever been to and the bride and groom gazed into one another's eyes in a way that would have made Mills and Boon readers reach for the hankies.
My daughter says her husband understands her. When she feels ill he brings her camomile tea in bed. He takes her to the theatre though I'm not convinced that he adores Shakespeare. He also has the same idea as Oscar Wilde did when he said you should never give a woman anything she can't wear in the evening and on her wedding day my child wore the diamond on a chain he gave her three weeks after they met and a diamond solitaire on her finger which he bought her. He proposed to her in the kitchen of their tiny house. He went down on one knee and offered her a diamond. You can't beat it for style. And on their wedding day they gazed into one another's eyes as though no one had ever made a better choice. It was the perfect day. I still think the cathedral would have been nice but I fell in love that week, with one of the most beautiful islands in the world and we all had a fantastic time

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Miss Appleby's Academy

Once upon a time there was a school in a tiny pit village up on the Durham moors. I didn't know there was,  all I knew was that when I went to stay with my writing friend, Leah Fleming, a couple of years back she said to me why didn't I write something about an American woman coming to England.

When I was seventeen I went to school in New York State for a year.  I decided that I would turn the idea over and have her come here and begin a school.  In the middle of the writing I went to a history exhibition, in Tow Law, the pit village I come from and the history society there were having an exhibition in the church hall. Some of them knew me when I was a child, they're all lovely people and have helped me with my work before and I started to tell them about the story that I was writing, that I had placed my book in Tow Law in 1900 and Ron Storey looked at me and he said that there was a school at that time in Tow Law and it was called Miss Appleby's Academy.

Writing is never easy but sometimes things are there waiting for you.

Miss Appleby's Academy is coming out in paperback in February and is being published by Quercus Books.

Earlier this summer I went to London to meet my new editor and I was a little early and the people in the restaurant found me a table by the window and when I looked outside there was all alone and the middle of the city my favourite tree. A not very big himalayan birch, white and slender and beautiful.( I got Howard, my lovely gardener, to plant two of these at the back of my garden last year, one of them has a pink clematis weaving around it, covered in flowers this August ) and I thought how lucky I was to have something so good happening to me.

Often life can be a nightmare but sometimes you get a fairytale all to yourself and Miss Appleby's Academy is mine.