As a schoolgirl I discovered Dewey and my love of libraries began there. Let’s celebrate him now as part of the National Libraries Day campaign, read my blog post here.
Travelling to work takes on new meaning when you have to make a day long journey for just an hour of work, the length of a lecture.
Last week I left home before dawn to get down to Cornwall but hit trouble as early as Reading station. Standing in the freezing, snowy cold, trains were constantly cancelled, changed or delayed because of the floods that had hit the West Country the week before. The force of the water had dislodged several lines that ran close to rivers and so, although the tracks remained, the ballast underneath them had been washed away in many places. New landslips were being reported as I stood there. The poor beleaguered train staff did their best and in the end advised anyone to take whatever train was on offer if it was going approximately in the right direction. I did and with a coach ride, plus diverted train, plus car arrived eventually at Fowey by about 5 pm. I quickly changed, gave my lecture on behalf of the Fowey Harbour Heritage Society and went to bed. I left at dawn the next day, happy I’d done what I’d been asked but sad I didn’t have longer to enjoy this beautiful part of the world.
This week I went in the other direction, to Saltaire, the model village just outside Bradford built by mill owner and philanthropist Titus Salt in the early 19th century to improve the lives of his workers. Saltaire is now a Unesco World Heritage Site and the vast Salt’s Mills alongside the River Aire are home to a spectacular collection of paintings by David Hockney, the almost local boy who studied at Bradford School of Art before going to London and the Royal College of Art. Read More
I have just read a beautiful novel about a real person. In The Girl in White, the English poet Sue Hubbard has written an imagined life of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker; it’s an art form with the unattractively scientific sounding handle ‘biofiction’. I already knew a little bit about Paula’s work, but from a historical perspective: after her premature death in 1907 her work was denounced by the Nazis as degenerate. What I did not know was how she was in fact just beginning to find her confidence as an artist after an intense inner struggle to balance her many roles as daughter, mother, wife – and, above all, painter. In trying to live independently and survive on her earnings in an intensely male dominated world, she was ahead of her time. This was little more than a century ago but in some ways the difficulties she faced appear medieval, in others merely variations on the same struggle many women still face today.
Does Paula’s life feel more real by telling it as fiction, with invented dialogue and use of other novelistic devices, or does it make some readers question: ‘is this what really happened?’ This is, of course, an apples and pears argument. There is room for both. A Girl in White is constructed in alternate chapters, using Paula’s story followed by that of Mathilde, Modersohn-Becker’s real life daughter apparently returning on a journey in 1933 to discover her mother. This gives Hubbard the freedom not only to comment about what it means to be an artist – ‘Sometimes I wonder if marriage is a state that’s possible between creative people” - but also shows convincingly how the important sense of place, which inspired many of the artists she was writing about, later created a fertile ground for Nazi ideals to flourish.
Yet although I, as a biographer who deals in facts, cannot (or at least choose not to) invent dialogue, I can reveal the feelings of my subject either by quoting from diaries and letters or else by explaining that what my protagonist is doing indicates she must be feeling a particular emotion. There are myriad other ways of playing around with facts, starting with the selection of material in order to produce a volume of readable size. Non-fiction writers, just as much as novelists, need a strong narrative line, they need to find a pattern or shape in what might seem like random facts of a life or the work is in danger of becoming un-readable. At the same time I find the discipline of dates and fact checking oddly comforting, reassuring almost.
Most biographers struggle with the creative tension between a novelistic urge to tell a good story and scholarly drive to assemble facts and sources and stick to the chronology. The scholar and the storyteller are in permanent creative tension. It’s what Virginia Woolf famously called the granite and the rainbow. At one level it might appear that a novelist who can jettison the facts at will has the easier task. Nothing can block his powers or invention. Henry James may have burned his papers but that has not stopped Colm Toibin (The Master) and David Lodge (Author, Author,) brilliantly re-imagining James’s life in different ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, John Updike dismissed biographies as novels with an index.
And then there is the argument of the greater truth. The idea that even if an event didn’t happen, well it ought to have done. Is our view of Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning and even Dr Arnold of Rugby, who ‘perhaps’ had short legs, indelibly inked on our brains thanks to Lytton Strachey’s subtle interpretations in Eminent Victorians?
In trying to understand why biography has been so popular in England for the last century one reason, I believe, is in the satisfaction it offers. At its best it enables readers to grasp something of the complications not merely of interpreting facts but the frailty of the human condition. Part of the pleasure readers derive from the best biographies is that they have imaginatively entered another time, another place, another life. This is satisfying. After I finished Hubbard’s novel I looked again at the paintings of Modersohn-Becker and, of course, saw them differently. They too were her children, but brought into the world at what cost. I could imagine myself there, in her bare Paris studio, as, starving, she fought for survival with nothing to eat for three days but a heel of stale baguette and a lump of old gruyere. In truth, she may have had more than this to eat but so what. As I said, it’s apples and pears. Here’s a fact: with her sudden death in 1907 the world lost a great talent. She was 31.
‘I’m saving it up to take away on holiday,’ is a familiar refrain to many authors. You smile gratefully when told this is the fate of the book you have recently written but wish they had said instead: “I couldn’t wait to read your new book and put everything else aside to finish it the week it came out.”
However, I must plead guilty to saying the same dread words to author friends. After all, the luxury of being able to read a whole book, start to finish in a day or two, is an exquisite holiday treat. The mind has been emptied, concentration improved but… where is the perfect place to read in summer?
Childhood memories of trying to get comfortable – and stay warm – on a British beach have left me with a permanent dislike of sitting on a sandy beach. Sand gets everywhere, in feet, clothes and books, or else dogs and children come and drip water on you until, shivering with cold, you retreat indoors. A hot Mediterranean beach is little better as the search for shade means you are constantly moving, tilting, juggling sunglasses on top of reading glasses and pulling hats down, up and around. The new breed of deck chairs, with a pillow attached at the top, looks pretty for an English country garden and is an improvement on any upright garden chair nonetheless, not the perfect position for an all-day read.
But here in Crete, strung between the shade of two sturdy carob trees, I have found the perfect answer… a stripy, linen hammock which gently swings in the breeze. No one who tries it can stay awake for more than 20 minutes, but the sleep doesn’t last much longer than that either because the wind shakes a carob or three in your lap or a herd of goats with cowbells will do the same and you continue, refreshed. Reading a book in a hammock is one of life’s great luxuries.
I have just removed some buttons from my website. They were yellow banners and they said: “Press here to buy my book on AMAZON.” The colour was a garish yellow and, if anyone ever used them, I never knew about it since I never received any payment.
I was part of a scheme called Amazon Associates, which offers its users a percentage of any books sold through their own website. But all I ever received was a monthly email telling me: “This Associates account did not earn any referral fees”.
But actually the reason for removing them is not because they didn’t pay but because I want to encourage anyone who might be contemplating buying one of my books to do so from their local high street bookshop. This is Independent Booksellers’ Week – although shouldn’t every week be Independent Booksellers’ Week? – and although I have nothing against Amazon (there are occasions when, like everyone, I have found their services invaluable) this week I want to tell you about my local bookshop, called The Open Book. My local bookshop helps me find books I wouldn’t otherwise know about, tells me of a similar book if the one I first thought of isn’t available, provides me with signed copies and recommends books they have read and enjoyed. Not only that, when I go into my local book shop I come out with a smile as well as a book. Try it and see what I mean.
In order to Find Your Local Bookshop button go to www.societyofauthors.org