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A perfect summer read…but where is the best reading place?

‘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.

Me having found the perfect place to read

Me having found the perfect place to 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.

Let’s hear it for Local Bookshops

My Local Book Shop - The Open Book

My Local Book Shop - The Open Book

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

New Zealand Women

Photography by Bev Short part of her All Woman exhibition

Photography by Bev Short part of her All Woman exhibition

In 1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to give women the vote. After two decades of campaigning by women such as the Liverpool-born Kate Sheppard, who was also a temperance campaigner, politicians believed that empowering all women in this way might have a positive effect on morality in politics or even controlling men’s drinking habits. It was another twenty five years before Britain gave its female population – and then only those over 30 – the right to vote.

So, no surprise then that the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington has just opened a striking exhibition of photographs called All Woman * by another British immigrant, Bev Short, a Plymouth-born mother of two daughters, who came here ten years ago and says her aim is to create a debate about what it means to be a real woman today.

Her exhibition was opened by Melissa Clark Reynolds, once an impoverished, teenage single mother who struggled to finish her education, became a millionaire aged 35, and now works as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and climate awareness evangelist. It features women as disparate as a tattoo artist, sheep shearer, violinist, lance corporal in the NZ infantry, fire fighter, electrician, orthopaedic surgeon and a former Miss Zealand, mostly in unexpected poses not necessarily related to their work.

According to an introduction from Helen Clark, New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister who served from 1999 to 1980 and is currently administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, the UN’s third highest position:  “The show is a celebration of Kiwi women in the 21st century, some of whom … are redefining our idea of family and society, while others are making New Zealand proud on the international stage.” In 2006 Forbes Magazine ranked Clark 20th most powerful woman in the world yet few people outside New Zealand have heard of her.

Bev Short said the most shocking thing she discovered while working on the exhibition was the high incidence of domestic violence – against women and children. “I think that says something about the men in this society and it’s not just lower socio-economic groups or non-whites.”

Among the most powerful images is former international equestrian Catriona Williams, who represented New Zealand until she fell from her horse aged 30 in 2001 leaving her a tetraplegic. Yet instead of picturing her in a wheelchair, Short has her fully made up, with jewellery, wearing a magnificent red ball gown lying on a white sheet, her beautiful face radiating courage to her audience. “My ambition is to be able to dance with my husband once more,” she says. On the adjacent wall is Barbara Kendall, a retired windsurfing gold medallist now a motivational speaker, posed with curlers in her hair,  a phone in one hand, iron in the other, laptop open and child’s dress on the ironing board… a portrayal of multi-tasking with universal resonance for women.

*****

New Zealand is also famous for having relatively more book buyers per capita than any other country and this week The Forrests, the eagerly awaited novel by prize winning New Zealand author, Emily Perkins, was published and immediately needed to reprint.  The Forrests  has already been tipped as a likely winner of the Man Booker prize – at least by the Hay Festival where she is coming to speak in June. The last New Zealander to win the then Booker prize was another woman, Keri Hulme,  in 1985 with The Bone People .Perkins, who after living for eleven  years in London now teaches creative writing at Auckland University, is following in a powerful tradition of female New Zealand writers from Katherine Mansfield,  who  believed that power, freedom and independence were more exciting than love, to Janet Frame  (Angel at my Table)  and my own favourite, Margaret Mahy, whose brilliantly imaginative Lion in the Meadow I read night after night to my children .

Birthplace of Katherine Mansfield

Birthplace of Katherine Mansfield

Apparently this is precisely what Rudyard Kipling predicted when he came to New Zealand on a brief visit in 1891, according to his biographer, the New Zealand-based writer Harry Ricketts. Ricketts discovered a short story Kipling then wrote for the New Zealand Herald in which his narrator says, thinking of the future of Colonial literature, “Hark to the women now. They tell the old story well.”

*****

I am here to give a series of lectures about American women who shocked the British establishment including Wallis Simpson, Jennie Churchill and the so called Dollar Princesses, women who married into the British aristocracy trading money for titles. These women did not have careers and were often at the mercy of their parents who used them for their own social advantage. Katherine  Mansfield, born in 1888, certainly shocked the establishment. She wrote to friends of how she loathed the idea of  marriage as “The idea of sitting and waiting for a husband is absolutely revolting and it really is the attitude of a great many girls…” Perkins told me that although Mansfield and Frame were a major influence on her writing, “I see New Zealand’s female literature in the 21st century as a constellation rather than a linear tradition. It has opened up dramatically in the last twenty years.”

Anne Sebba is the author of That Woman A Life of Wallis Simpson (Phoenix £7.99)

Florida Diary

Anne standing on the steps of the house which belonged to the lawyer for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

'Anne standing on the steps of the house which belonged to the lawyer for Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Sitting in Orlando airport along with half of America’s school children (it is their ‘spring break’) I’m reminded of William Boyd’s observation that if you can’t see a six hour delay at an airport as an opportunity, don’t call yourself a writer.

I am in Florida, grandly billed as the English Speaking Union (ESU) 2012 Evelyn Wrench speaker, talking to a handful of American branches of the ESU. It’s all too easy to think of Florida simply as the sunshine state where elderly Britons go for winter warmth. Woken by mocking birds, fed breakfast of freshly picked and squeezed grapefruit and oranges while looking out on the tranquil St Johns River, I can see the charm of such a life. But, finding myself billeted at the House on Cherry Street, once the home of the lawyer advising Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author who achieved worldwide fame with her Pulitzer Prize-Winning novel, The Yearling, I realise there is also a lively literary and artistic tradition. I had loved The Yearling, a powerful right-of-passage book about Jody, a boy who grows up with a pet fawn in the harsh North Florida backwoods, fighting off bears and alligators in order to survive. The book was translated into thirteen languages and turned into a 1946 film starring Gregory Peck.  But Rawlings faced a devastating lawsuit over her subsequent book, the autobiographical Cross Creek, so she was often in this house.

Cross Creek, published in 1942, was also an enormous success and chosen for Book of the Month club. But Rawlings had taken a real character, Zelma Cason, a close friend, and written of her as having ‘violent characteristics of both man and mother,’ a woman not afraid to curse when angry. Zelma, furious at her portrayal, sued for invasion of her “right of privacy,” even though the work was autobiography. The State of Florida had not recognised the existence of such a right so this was test case in a variety of ways, not the least important of which was that the attorney for Zelma was Kate Walton, one of the first women to practise law in Florida at a time when women could not even serve on a jury. Rawlins felt deeply that she had to fight for the right of all writers to write truthfully about their own lives. Although she won the local court case, she lost on appeal at the state supreme court – with damages of one dollar. After five and a half years of tortuous legal proceedings, Rawlings was destroyed, never wrote another successful book and died in 1953.

*****

At lunch I hear about Jacksonville’s links to the musician Frederick Delius, who in 1887 wrote the Florida Suite, a highly impressionistic piece of music which drew upon the sights and sounds he had experienced during the almost two years he spent living in the shadow of the St Johns river, listening to negro spirituals sung by the dockhands as they worked, a sound not used in European music previously. It was his first major work and heavily influenced by Afro-American music. Delius, born in Bradford in 1862, had been sent to Florida by his prosperous wool merchant father hoping to turn his son into a businessman rather than a musician. The family owned orange groves and Delius lived on a plantation at Solano Grove where he fell in love with a black plantation worker and allegedly fathered a child with her. Delius returned to Britain, confirmed in his desire to be a musician, and soon married the artist, Jelka, an unconventional and largely unhappy marriage. His final composition in 1931 was Songs of Farewell, a magnificent choral and orchestral work based on the poetry of Walt Whitman. Delius died in 1934 but Jacksonville holds an annual Delius Festival dedicated to his memory.

*****

The ESU is also involved in perpetuating memories, not just of Sir Evelyn Wrench, a man who devoted his life to furthering international understanding, but by sponsoring a Shakespeare competition among schoolchildren and by honouring Winston Churchill. After Jacksonville I go to Naples, one of 72 American branches of the ESU, a beautiful town that has grown up from a fishing village on the west coast of the Gulf where I am speaking at the annual Churchill Dinner. My final stop is Miami. “Oh my dear, that’s the west coast. You won’t like that nearly as much,” the folk from Naples tell me. These nuances are important here. But in fact I love Coral Gables, a Miami suburb which grew in the 1920’s around the magnificent Biltmore Hotel. The hotel has finally been refurbished after a spell as a hospital during World War Two and various owners and is now a favourite destination for Bill Clinton among others. In the late 1930’s Wallis and Edward loved to stay at the Biltmore with its championship golf course and legendary dinner dances teeming with celebrities. And I love Palm Beach, where everyone has a “Dook and Duchess” story they are desperate to tell me – what she ate (or didn’t), what she said and what she wore. At one of the many Palm Beach beauty salons I meet the man who often styled Wallis’s hair when she dropped in to the eight-storey Elizabeth Arden salon on New York’s 5th Avenue. He tells me how staff there were instructed to address her always as ‘Your Highness’ and how the salon had a special robe for her with HRH – initials she did not own – embroidered on the pocket. After her treatments she would walk out without paying, dressed to the nines in an elegant Chanel suit, to continue shopping.

Anne Sebba is the author of THAT WOMAN  A Life of Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor (Phoenix £7.99)

The two week window

The two week window

Ask any author, researching is lonely, writing is tortuous, the publicity round exhausting. So why do it?

Because I love it, perhaps?  Not always, but this, the final two weeks before publication, is the best moment. This is the window when my book is still my own, inside me, before the world has had a chance to read it – or judge it.

But it’s a strange time too. Nothing I can change now … however often I wake in the night wishing I could add this or say that better. And in this case it’s not just a book but a Channel 4 film based on my quest to find Wallis. And the film even more than the book is totally out of my hands and into those of the director and producers … I have done the interviews but don’t yet know the title or the transmission date. Watch this space. As soon as I know,  you’ll  know.

Talking of judging… just as I thought I had time to read all those novels piling up on the floor by the side of my bed the biographies start arriving: serious reading this as I am a judge for the HW Fisher Best First Biography prize. What a treat, and what a responsibility! But please won’t someone ask me to judge a fiction prize?  Historians read novels too – Hey, some of us even write them!