Friday, 28 August 2015

'Bye


It is never easy to write a good-bye letter even when you know when you are expected to leave. When you don’t, it becomes almost impossible. I would compare this to letters between spouses written during the war: the desire to be upbeat and so present a cheerful front while on the other a hand a need to share the terror.

At least there is one question I can ignore: that I shall survive: answer – no. But that leaves when and how painful.

My incredible doctor popped in yesterday; he will never know how much that meant to me. During the course of the conversation, he asked me if I was feeling fearful and I was forced to say ‘no’. It would have been dishonest but I am grieving for all the friends to whom I shall be saying good-bye in the coming weeks, if only I knew how long that is going to be. Yes, I am surprised at how quickly things have deteriorated.

So is this? Probably unless thing change for the better. So, let us treat it as one. Thanks for your support and please keep it coming.

Much love to you all, thanks for all the fish and farewell.


Friday, 21 August 2015

A River Trip

On the basis that most of you will never have seen the River Dart, Roger and I thought it would e rather fun to take you on a boat trip down to the mouth of the river and then back as far as the Higher Ferry.


We are now in the mouth of the river looking back towards Castle and St Petrox Church.


This might not be particularly photogenic but is of extreme importance to the seamen who use the river after dark. A series of leading lights, of which this is the first, guide them safely into the harbour itself.


A glimpse up Warfleet Creek at the head of which is the old Dartmouth Pottery now converted into luxury accommodation.


As we move inland we see some of Dartmouth's most prestigious properties hanging on the steep hillside.


Low tide reveals narrow beaches.



Somewhere in this picture you will find Evie's Merchant House and, crouching on the foreshore, her boathouse.


We are now opposite the North Embankment. The yellow coloured building is the old station cafe on the end of the Boat Float.


Roger, very sensibly, gave the lower ferries a wide berth. The ferryman are superb but these ferries are extraordinarily difficult to control.



Last year a fully refurbished and gleaming paddle-steamer, The Kingswear Castle, returned to the river after an absence of many years.


A general view of the town of the town looking over to the North Embankment with the Britannia Royal Naval College on the skyline.


All aboard for Paignton.


The Higher Ferry.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Writer's Block

Under normal circumstances I know what I am going to write about for the Friday blog by Thursday evening at the latest. Indeed, in many cases The blog itself is written on the Thursday.

Then we have the exceptions: the days when I just have to hope that something will come to me early on Friday. The fact remains that for the last four years or so, I have found something to talk about in time – but not this week. This week I am suffering from writer’s block – that terrifying time when no matter what you do your brain remains a stubborn blank.


I am often asked how to cope with writer’s block (although I really don’t know why people think I know the answer. I always say that I am a firm believer in ‘hitting the keys’. It doesn’t matter what you write so long as you hit the keys and the odds are that, sooner or later, you will find that what you are writing is beginning to generate the ideas you so desperately seek. Then you can delete everything that doesn’t matter and away you go. Anyway, that’s what I am doing now.


I would like to be able to report that as a result of hitting the keys I have come up with something really fascinating to talk about but that simply isn’t true today so I will just tell you what little news there is.

Marcia’s copies of the books arrived from Transworld the day before yesterday and so the sitting room has, once again, been turned into a temporary warehouse. Marcia gives one each to her son and her sisters but if you give books away locally you are undermining the book shops who are finding survival at the moment pretty difficult. When the books are a few years old, we give any that still have to one of hospices who have charity shops.


Meanwhile everyone is busy working out the logistics for the signings this year. It all happens bang smack in the middle of the holiday season when the roads in the south west are bursting with visitors and, more to the point, so are the car parks. Then matters are complicated because Marcia doesn’t want me left alone for any longer than I must be. However, the fact remains that if you want to be able to guarantee a parking lot in Tavistock on a summer’s Saturday morning, you will be there before 9.45 – even though the signing does not begin until 11 – and there is no point in arriving only to find there is just no where to leave the car. The trouble is that you then have to take a decision: join the queue at one the large car parks and hope that you will find a spot in time or trawl around the smaller ones hoping that you will be lucky and someone will pull out at the right moment. This is not the sort of stress Marcia wants just before a signing!



Before I wind up this miserable blog, may I say a big thank you to all of you who leave comments in the blog or who send in emails. Your support has been tremendous and I am very lucky to have it. Please don’t stop just yet.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Novelists at literary festivals

Marcia once gave a talk at the Porlock Literary Festival and a reader who lives on Exmoor emailed me earlier this week telling me, amongst other things, that she had attended that festival.

Marcia at the Porlock Literary Festival.
Ways With Words is the annual literary festival held here at Dartington and they have only just packed up and disappeared for another year. Anyway, thinking about that email and the WWW festival made me ponder on the value of such festivals. It’s fine for people who are in the public eye – or want to be – but they are rarely professional novelists who write for a living. Indeed I am tempted to say that they sell books because of who they are rather than because of what the books are. Which is great, I have no problem with that.

Ways With Words. This tent is where Waterstones have speakers' bok available for signing.
The entrance to the Great Hall is to the right.
From the creative novelist’s point of view, attending a festival is rather like being a hermit crab pulled out of its shell: the feeling of exposure is immense. All the creative novelists I have met are people who work alone and who put a huge amount of themselves in their books. Having done that they see no point in talking about themselves – they would far rather that the books did that on their behalf. In any event, such novelists have only one story to tell: how they became novelists. This means that there is no point in them attending any festival more than once: the same people come year after year.

Time for a litle somethng.
They can’t really talk about the books they have written as can a politician or an historian. It may seem odd but once a book is done and dusted it is almost forgotten and to try to talk about them is almost impossible. I remember Marcia and I were in Rumour in Totnes some years ago when a slight acquaintance came up.

‘I have wanted to ask this for a long time,’ she said. ‘What happened to Claudia in the end?’

‘Who?’ asked Marcia.

‘You know, Claudia Maynard.’

‘Sorry, I don’t know anyone called Claudia Maynard.’

At which point, mercifully, said acquaintance's friend, who had been paying their bill, bustled up and whisked a very puzzled reader away.

It is said that one person can know no more than a hundred and twenty other people properly. For this reason most military organisations break their forces down into units of that size – in my day an infantry company would have somewhere about that figure – and in some big commercial operations they too arrange to divide the workforce into groups of about that number under a manager. I am not quite sure how many characters Marcia has created but there are a lot more than that: probably about eight hundred. It is hardly surprising that she forgets some of them with a decent prompt. Now, if that reader had asked, ‘I’ve often wondered about Claudia Maynard in The Dipper. What happened to her in the end?’ it would have made the right connection for Marcia – although I very much doubt whether she would know just what did happen to Claudia. It could be, of course, that Claudia will suddenly appear at Marcia’s shoulder and tell her.

I know we have dropped the weekly blog dog but there are times when I receive a few dog pictures I feel really should be shared so here are three. These guys belong to Denise Connolly. She lovingly calls them "the three hooligans".


This is Dakota. He will be five years old the end of October. We adopted him when he was 3 months old. He was rescued from a high kill shelter in Tennessee and brought with 34 other puppies to our local shelter, a NO KILL shelter, that I support with a few large checks every year and I do fund raising for them also. Dakota is a border/aussie/great pyrenees mix. A BIG baby!


This is Teddy. He's about 3 years old. We adopted him when he was 6-7 months old. He was in a high kill shelter in Kentucky and rescued by the Danbury Connecticut Animal Welfare Society. He's a aussie/spaniel mix.
Super smart boy!


And our third dog, adopted this past May, is Scotty. He was also from Kentucky and on the KILL list for that week when our local shelter manager grabbed him and a few older dogs and 29 puppies. Our vet says Scotty is about 2 years old. He thinks he is my body guard. We fell in love with each other instantly! This is the first small breed dog I ever had. He has the heart of a lion! He's some kind of terrier mix. So playful, can dance across the room on his hind legs and loves his squeaky toys.

PUBLICATION EVENTS

Thursday 27th August at 11 am: Book signing in the Totnes Bookshop.

Friday 28th August at 11 am: Book signing in the Harbour Bookshop, Kingsbridge,

Tuesday September 8th from 5.30 to 6.30 in the Flavel Hall, Dartmouth. . This is an opportunity to come and meet Marcia Willett. Organised by Dartmouth Community Bookshop and Dartmouth Library.





Friday, 31 July 2015

The Cloud of unknowing.

You jolly nearly didn’t have a blog this week.


I am extremely cross with myself, but the other morning, Wednesday, on my way to the bathroom for the first time that day, I completely lost balance. In trying to regain it I managed to crash into one door frame with my left hip, then into another with with my right arm before ending up on the floor. Apart from the fact that I am now so stiff I can hardly walk it is yet another reminder that as we get older a fall can have terrible consequences. This time I was lucky and I shall now try to take more care. I am pretty certain that these sudden losses of balance are as a result of the cocktail of drugs I am presently swallowing.

It has, or course, slowed up work on the companion. I have now finished all the Country pages bar one (Indian Summer) and I had rather hoped to see that finished this week so that I can get on with the next section: the characters. Whether or not these will be in the form of family trees or not I have yet to decided but I do know that it gets very difficult keeping track of them all. I am hoping that there will be a bit of very clever technology that will enable me to do what I want.


It is nearly seven o'clock on Thursday evening and I am lying on the bed in my dressing room looking over a blue sky, framed on the left by the huge oak tree in our garden and at the bottom by a fir tree and a flowering fruit tree (I think not a cherry) the other side of our neighbours' cottage and of that all I can see is the chimney with some new cowls fitted recently. It hasn't taken long for both crows and gulls to use these little domes as an excellent look-out. I use this as a day bed when I can't get around as I feel the change of view - and atmosphere - is good for me.

The window faces due south so the sun is shining brilliantly on the cumulus clouds that are constantly forming and reforming (while some are just dissolving until nothing is left) as they move gently from right to left pushed by a fairly gentle westerly wind. According to the Cloud Appreciation Society, the average life span of a cloud is no more than eleven minutes. I am sure they are right but there is one near the horizon that has been entrancing me for over twenty minutes. I know, I know - eleven is an average. This fellow had been subtly changing his shape and the valleys and hills are being wonderfully lit by the sun now dropping to the horizon. What a way to end the day.


I wonder how many people have heard of this society? The first time I came across then they had decided that they had discovered a new type of cloud and the were trying to have this acknowledged by the authorities. In this they succeeded but more to the point they produced one of those documentary films that combine great charm, are visually stunning (in this case the actors were the clouds) and leave you feeling that the world isn’t such as bad place after all. You are also left feeling that the actors were the clouds) and leave you feeling that the world isn’t such as bad place after all. You are also left feeling that those who run the society are nutters – very nice nutters, but nutters all the same.


I started with the title, 'The Cloud of Unknowing' because I knew I would want to come back to it. It was first written in the middle ages (the writing rather suggests the late 1400's) but as to who wrote it, we shall never know. It was the first known guide to contemplative prayer. There are many books offering various translations and takes on the subject but it is one of those that will go on attracting people to add to that group of somewhat esoteric Christian thought.

I have found God in many places and very rarely in a church but there are some among us who who do make a connection using the sort of contemplative prayer outlined in The Cloud of Unknowing. 



Friday, 24 July 2015

More ramblings from Rodney

I continue to brood on Mili’s question. After a while you realise that there is no precise centre in any society for any activity.

Trees this week - just some rather nice trees.
If I have usedd these before, I apologise.
A simple answer when thinking about politics would be ‘Westminster’ or ‘Downing Street’ or even ‘The Houses of Parliament’ but that is not true. Up and down the country there are councils charged with the mundane day-to-day provision of services. Oddly this is an extremely difficult task or, to be more precise, delivering all the services to the satisfaction of all the people is extremely difficult. Without all these other centres our society would fall apart. Actually you can divide people into two (this being rather simplistic): those who when thinking politics do think 'London' and those who think about what is happening at either county or district level. It all depends on what effects you most.



When it comes to sport, I suspect that each sport has a precise centre. Not being a great follower of sport I can’t talk outside the few I know anything about. 


Tennis: Wimbledon without a doubt – it was the birthplace of tennis and should be the precise centre for the world let alone the UK. 


Rugby: here you have a problem because rugby is divided into national teams (even when playing in the world cup) but for England that it Twickenham. Scotland looks to Murrayfield in Edinburgh while the Welsh have the most modern ground in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.


And so it goes on, no matter what context you choose the high probability is that there are going to be a number of candidates for ‘precise centre’. After brooding on this off and on for the last fortnight, the only one I could come up with was Wimbledon so perhaps that should stand for the UK as a whole.


It is, I suppose, inevitable that one looks back over life when you are somewhere near the end and find yourself pondering on the things you did that you are still glad you did and those you really, really wish you had not.


The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”


When you think about it old Omar hit the nail on the head. One thing pleases me enormously: I know nobody who I really hate and the ones that come close to that are politicians who have done things that I consider to have been morally unacceptable. Top of that list would be Tony Blair for his support in two wars I feel we should not have fought: Iraq and Afghanistan. Even then I don’t really hate the man even though I do hate some of the things he did.


Meanwhile I have met many people who have proved to be delightful and who have given me great pleasure: I hope that I reciprocated and they got something from me. Some seem to find that most of the people they meet are generally unkind and unfriendly. I find that hard to believe: ask yourself this, ‘how many really nasty people do I know?’ Quite: the vast majority of people are fine – the problem is that the headlines and airwaves tend to be cluttered with stories about the few that have gone off the rails and this distorts the way we see the world.


There are quite a few unpleasant and nasty people in Marcia’s stories but by the end of each book all such characters have also demonstrated that they really could not help themselves (Tristan in Postcards from the Past) or that they wanted to do everything they could to mend their ways and atone for what they had done (Gillian in The Courtyard).


As to the few sins of commission I can remember committing, I did what I could to atone for them but nothing can ‘wash out a Word of it’.


What does bug me is the sin of omission: things I could have done but for one reason or another didn’t and now, of course, it is far too late. It was too late when I walked away in the first place.


One in particular: a friend of mine was going on a short cruise from Chichester (where he kept his boat) over to France and then west to the Channel Islands before returning home. Would I care to join him with two others? At the time I had just started rehearsals with the choir I then conducted (we were to perform The Crucifixion by Stainer) and this would have delayed matters for a fortnight. So I refused. What I should have done was to get the organist to stand in for me (she would have been quite able) but . . .


The Companion is going well and I am beginning to think that I shall have time to finish it. Certainly until it is done I shall fight this tumour with everything that I have got. It is my tribute to Marcia and so very dear to me.

Back next week.




Friday, 17 July 2015

It all depends on what you mean . . .

A few days ago I received an email from one of Marcia’s earliest readers who ran an on-line chat room about her books: Mili Arroya. In it she included the following paragraph.

Since you enjoy (as I do) challenging questions, or at least those that even though easy could carry ambivalence, here is one for you, and if it is (which I have no clue) interesting enough feel free to share with others. Which is the precise centre of the United Kingdom?

Be patient, I shall return to that question although I suspect that the answer will be rather disappointing.

So, let us wind the clock back to the late 1940’s and 1950’s and for an hour each week we shall see a very thin and very inquisitive young boy glued to a radio programme called ‘The Brains Trust’ (although in those days we called a radio a wireless).

The format was extremely simple: a chairman would read out a question to the three experts (and they really were experts) sitting in the studio and each in turn would answer from his or hers expertise and then they had a general chat. None of this was scripted or rehearsed, nobody knew what the question was going to be until the chairman took the next card out of its envelope and read it out but it worked, it really did. Much of it went over my head but trying to keep up because you want to is the best way to learn.

So who were these experts? The three that spring to mind with no real thought are Julian Huxley the great biologist, C E M Joad (Cyril) the philosopher and psychologist and Jacob Bronowski the mathematician and biologist who later hit the small screen with that fantastic series ‘The Ascent of Man’. There were many others but that will give you a feel as to the quality of these panels. The first progamme was broadcast in 1941 but as to when I started to listen, I really don’t know. Clearly I heard enough episodes for the way these people thought to make an impact on my thought processes which I try to keep as logical as possible. I should add that these people seemed to be having great fun and at times they were so funny that I would laugh until I cried.

There was an attempt to relaunch it in the late 1990’s under the chairmanship of Joan Bakewell with panels including A S Byatt and Richard Dawkins. The revival was short lived. THere was also an attempt to create the idea in the US but that was also short lived. There the panel were given the questions before the programme started and this seemed to kill the required spontaneity.

All of which is so that you will know that I stole one of Professor Joad’s catch phrases and have used it ever since. No matter whether the panel was dealing with a simple question such as, ‘how do flies land on the ceiling?’ to more weighty matters like, ‘Is abortion ever justified?’ at some point he would say, ‘It all depends on what you mean by . . .’. So. Mili at the moment the best I can say is, ‘It all depends on what you mean by “The exact centre”.’

Clearly there is nothing in this week's blog calling for photographs but now that we have left behind my thoughts on The Brains Trust and with an eye to the fact the Summer on the River is due to be published next month and is set in Dartmouth, I would show you a few more pictures of the town. Some, I suspect, some of you will have seen before or elsewhere. Sorry about that, I fear I failed to keep a record so have to rely on a pretty useless memory.
Anyway, I though I would start with a family connection. In those days this was a Congregational Church in which my paternal grandparents worshipped, my father and one of his sisters taught in the Sunday school and my parents were married. It became a United Reformed Church and now it seems they call themselves quite simply a 'Christian Church'. I think I like that.
I realise that this was really what you are getting at Mili: there are many ways your question could be interpreted but for the moment I am going to duck it – to do it justice it would require a great deal of thought and brooding. Should I come up with anything remotely sensible, I will share it with you. Keep watching.

The Flavel Arts Centre, situated behind Flavel Church and obviously modern. is doing its best to be the cultural centre in this part of the world.
It is more than an arts centre: all sorts of other activities share this space including Dartmouth Town Library which was in sore need of a new home.

Meanwhile, I have been busy adding a couple of features to the Marcia Willett Companion web site. These are to enable you to have your say on all sorts of matters: I want to know what you think about the site and especially if there are things you would like to see there that are missing. I want you to be able to have an inter-active chat about the books. So what I have done is this.

The tones in this photograph make it seem older than it really is. Castle with the roof of St Petrox church to the right taken in the 1950's.
On the home page where the news is posted it is now possible to leave comments. This is the right place for comments about the site generally and matters you want to draw to my attention. Then, as a sub-page to each book, there is, as an example, HM Chat. This is where I am hoping you will start discussions about the books – in this case Hattie’s Mill. You can start a new thread by putting up a comment using the panel headed Leave a Reply or answer an earlier comment by using the Reply button under that comment. There is also the possibility of sharing these pages using the WordPress, Twitter, Facebook and Google buttons or simply ‘liking’ the page.

Very modern now. I took this last summer. In the background Kingswear.
The Lower Ferry uses floats which are controlled by tugs (built in the town when there was still a shipyard). They are extremely cumbersome and it is an education to just sit and watch the skill the boatmen use as they approach and leave the ferry slips. Here, it being summer time, there are two floats in operation and they have to work as a team so they may carry the maximum number of vehicles over the river in the minimum time. Even so, at peak times, long queues are not uncommon.
So, to leave a comment, go to marciawillett.wordpress.com and then either leave a comment on the home page or go for the book about which you wish to comment. Finding the link to leave a comment on the home page is not easy: it is on the end of the ‘tags’ and looks like this |Leave a comment|.

The Cherub is now a pub but in former days was built by one of the town's merchants, It is generally accepted that this is oldest building in the town.
To leave a comment about a book is a bit easier. ‘Point’ to the book title (on a PC you will get a little hand with the first finger extended – on a tablet you use your own finger as I am sure you know), drop down to the one labelled XX Chat and click or tap on that.

Fairfax Place is one of those areas which remain true to their medieval past.  See below for the detail of the house the other side of the red car.
However, please remember that this is work in progress. The nine later novels from The Way We Were have yet to have either Country or Chat pages. I am working on that and they will go up as soon as possible.

There are some fine examples of decorated plaster-work in the town. This is one of my favourites.
Some of you already know that I made a serious mistake earlier as regards the site address. There is really no excuse: I was using the site Title rather than its address and how someone with as much experience as I have could make such a silly blunder is hard to understand. Personally I put it down to the little men who live in the hollows under the hills of Dartmoor and who are very cross with me because I refuse to tell people about them.

Accidents happen and some of the buildings on the opposite side of the road were badly damaged in a fire in June 2010. My friend and one time colleague, Sarah Perring, was there to record this scene.
The photograph was of the top end of my favourite walking stick. These are made from blackthorn by a chap up on Exmoor. There are a number of blackthorn bushes, near his cottage, which are in a little dell where the wind rarely touches them. This is important: the branches he will use need to grow straight. He selects a main branch and bends it down so that it is at about forty-five degrees to the ground; holding it there with a couple of pieces of rope pegged into the ground. He removes all shoots on that branch except those pointing up and even some of them if they are too close together: all of these are potential walking sticks. For the next few years he watches as these grow and any that deviate from being upright and straight are removed, as are most of the buds that grow on the ‘sticks’ and then, when they are the right size, he cuts them out of the main branch and carefully carves the head which is, of course, made from main branch wood. Finally he varnishes the whole stick and produces something rich and gorgeous. I have no idea how many ‘sticks’ he would be nurturing at any one time.

Back to decoration. The roof of the bandstand is supported by pillars cast in Victorian times. Recently they have been painted and are looking very good indeed. We have lost the art of decoration: perhaps it is considered too expensive to be worthwhile. Possibly but I think it's a pity.
The results are beautiful sticks which are much more comfortable to use than conventional hooked walking sticks. The only downside is that you can’t hook them on a spare arm if required.

In Summer on the River, Marcia talks about the quite tiny lifts that people have installed to take them down to the houses on the waterfront.
This is one such lift.
It’s a business requiring a great deal of patience and I have no idea how many sticks he sells but he seems happy enough. He sells them - or perhaps I should say sold them as I bought mine at least twenty years ago from a tobaconnist in Barnstaple that I am sure no longer exists. Later I heard his story from a man I met in Simonsbath.