Friday, 26 September 2014

Let the signings begin

There had been some rain overnight.

With my gardening hat on, this was a very good thing. For weeks now we have been lugging watering cans around. My habit of keeping the garden as colourful as possible by using pots which are moved about in rotation doesn't help.

With my husband-of-a-novelist hat on, it was not quite so jolly. Today is day one of the signings (yesterday having been publication day) and it would have been more cheerful if the sun had been shining when we woke up. The plan was that at 9.30, Chris (the Random House rep for the South West) would arrive to take her off to Kingsbridge (Harbour Book Shop) and then bring her back to Totnes for this afternoon's session. These two are our most local bookshops and so this is the easiest day.

Down for breakfast. Marcia is just serving up the porridge.

'Have you written the blog?' she asked. There was a long silence.


'Are you telling me that you forgot all about it?'


'So what are you going to write about?'

'No idea.'

And, if I am honest I still have no idea. It has been 'one of those weeks' with a number of things colliding and so making sensible and cohesive thought rather difficult.

Marcia picked the last of the sweet peas. Back at the Hermitage the last was in October but not here this year. What I don't know is whether this is because we have had such a long and sunny summer with no rain (although I have kept watering them) or because we are about five hundred feet lower which means generally warmer. For the record, I sowed the first of the seeds for next year's plants a few days ago.
Marcia is in full flood with her new characters and is desperate to find out where they meet and so on. On Tuesday she disappeared to drive off on her own and then, on Wednesday, she wanted me to go with her on another trip during which we found the location of the main house in the story and then discovered that one of the places we had visited before and Marcia felt would be important probably isn't. However, late on we had another couple of ideas but it was too late to investigate them properly so yesterday she set off again – only to draw a blank in both cases.

Found this guy on the car the other morning. He (or she, of course, as the case may be) is rather splendid. Haven't had time to identify him (so all ideas welcome).
'Isn't it odd,' she remarked. 'You just can't make characters go to places you want them to unless they want to as well. It's silly really. Why can't I just tell them what I want them to do?'

I think the answer to that question is that she creates such full and rounded characters that they do have very strong personalities of their own and then cannot be persuaded to do anything that is out of character.

Marcia and I walked around the gardens here at Dartington Hall the other day. All very autumnal now.
Meanwhile, I have been finishing off what was intended to be an ebook – only to find that it just doesn't work the way I wanted it to. The technology for including lots of photographs, illustrations and so on in ebooks is very new. Sadly the results are really not that clever. Anyway, come Thursday and I was convinced that we had to return to 'plan A' – a printed version rather than an electronic one. The result was that I spent yesterday tweaking the book so as to prepare it for the printers (a job I finished late in the evening) and, as a result, I completely forgot to even think about the blog.

The schedule now is straightforward. As soon as I have finished this I shall print off a copy and over the next couple of days that will be proof-read. With any luck I shall be in the printers on Tuesday and then we shall have a better idea of when it will be ready.

If I am honest, I am quite pleased. It may be possible to republish it as an ebook at some future date but really I feel this is better as a 'proper book'.

Barney may look a bit fierce but he's just a real softy.
We had an intense love-in after I had taken his photograph.

Friday, 19 September 2014

A Storm Tossed Coast

This week we decided to drive down to the coast. Two reasons: Marcia has been making a few tiny changes to the book in production (that is the one that will be published in 2015) and wanted to check to make sure that these were right and I needed a couple of photographs for this seemingly never ending saga on books about Marcia's books. It seemed logical to combine these two requirements and so we set off for Dartmouth and across to Torcross in order to meet the first part of the job and then on to Lannacombe just the other side of Start Point so that I could do my bit.

Even now, after all these years, I am astonished at how thorough Marcia is: in the past I have said that if she records that such-and-such a flower is out on such-and-such a day at such-and-such it is because she has been there and seen it with her own eyes. Well, here she was being thorough once again – not that she needed to bother as her memory had proved to be absolutely spot on.

In so far as any of Marcia's books are set in a given time (and most of them are although there is no direct reference to exact dates), this book is set in the autumn of 2013 – and finishes just before Christmas. Then, in the following February, storms hit the south coast and caused a great deal of damage not only to property but to many businesses in the area.

This was the first time we had come down to the coast since those storms (to Dartmouth, yes, but not along the coast) and there is still ample evidence of those 'extreme weather events' as our politically correct weather forecasters insist on describing them – a very bad habit that has been taken up by the media generally. A gale is a gale, a storm is a storm, the tail end of a hurricane is the tail end of a hurricane and heavy rain is, well, heavy rain. Still . . .

We stopped briefly in the car park in Torcross line where we, too, enjoyed ice creams. It is interesting to remember that when I started driving the road was slightly to the seaward side of this car park and had to be realigned inland after heavy storms in 2001 undermined the road's foundations. Well, the same thing happened again but this time, fortunately, it was only the car park that suffered. Last year the cars nearest the sea would have been parked facing the beach. Now the authorities have had to lay temporary wooden barriers to keep vehicles away from the edge, parking parallel to it. This problem is not going to go away and we can expect further damage to this shingle bank (for that is what it is) until, one day, it allows the sea to break through into the Ley behind it. This is not a question of “if” but of “when” and the best estimates are all placed in this century.

Then we passed The Boathouse. You may remember that I mentioned this place in my last blog of 2013 and showed you some pictures of it and the people who work in there.

Well, this is how it looks today. Having been battered by the waves – all the windows were broken and the seas surged into the building – a week or so later there was a devastating fire which left the property a total wreck. As you can see, it remains shrouded in scaffolding and canvas. It is hoped that they will be able to open in time for the 2015 season.

Much the same happened back in the 1970's when almost all the properties facing the sea in Torcross had to be rebuilt and a new sea wall was constructed which, or so it was thought at the time, would make sure the same thing never happened again.

And so to Lannacombe which has also changed completely. This was the cove that inspired “the cove” in Second Time Around. Here we have Marcia standing by the stream that runs down over the beach – a stream in which she played as a small child. So far so good.

Here we see that tons of large boulders have been piled at the top of the beach in the hope that they will take most of the power out of the waves. If this fails the house and, of course, the business operated from it which includes bed & breakfast and a camp site, will have to be relocated.

Meanwhile this photograph shows where the sea ripped away part of the cliff – where you can see the unweathered red sandstone. The South Coast Footpath runs just above it and it would not take more than another small cliff fall for that to become unsafe. Clearly the path could be rerouted but it would be a very expensive operation. My guess is that if there is further damage, the path between here and Start Point will be closed and people will have to walk inland which will be a long and rather boring detour.

However, despite all we had a very happy time revisiting these old haunts: haunts much alive with a number of Marcia's characters. Perhaps one day she will revisit the cove and find out what happened to the people living down there during the storms of February 2014.

Meet Martha – sometimes called Martha Tydfil – who also answers to the name of Monkey (that best describing her character).  

Friday, 12 September 2014

Morris Dancing in Dartmouth

May I start for apologising for the fact that I just did not find the time to reply to you comments last week. Must try and do better!

Many years ago, I found myself working alongside a chap called Ken Hudson. His spare time seemed to be divided by two very different activities. He refereed football matches (and there are few sports more popular than soccer in this country) and he was a member of the Dartington Morris Men – a Morris Side that is (as the name suggests) based in Dartington – (and there can be few activities less popular than Morris dancing in this country).

My friend Ken Hudson, left, with Robin Springett with the Royal Castle in the background.
After a while we both moved on as people do and we lost touch. That was about twenty-five years ago. Then, a week or so back we received a lovely surprise: a letter from him. Ken is still a member of the Dartington side but I have yet to ask whether he still referees the odd soccer match. I will next time I see him.

Adam Garland
Nobody really knows when Morris dancing as it is now practised started but there are written records dating back to the 1400's which mention them and then there is this from the mouth of another member of the Dartington side, Christopher Farr.

'According to hear-say in the Cotswold village where I was brought up (Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire) Morris Dancing first came to England in 1367 when the dance was brought back by troops in John of Gaunt's army after the battle of Najera, which is in Northern Spain.'.

This could well be the case (and some say the name derives from 'Moorish dancing' – Spain had been occupied by the Moors from about 700 ad until the mid-1700's and their influence is evident to this day both in architecture and culture. However it started, it is a tradition with a history of over five hundred years.

The Dartington Morris Men follow the Cotswold tradition (there are other slightly different traditions who practice different but similar dances) and so are member of The Morris Ring which is an association of the sides that follow the Cotswold way. The boss man in Morris Dancing is known as the 'Squire' and so it is that the top man in the Morris Ring carries that title. The Squire of the Ring serves for two years and then hands over to someone else over two events. The first is a feast during which the old Squire gives his successor the Chain of Office and the Badge. The second is a ritual during which the outgoing Squire dances himself out, the incoming Squire dances himself in and then receives the Staff from his predecessor.
On the left a retired rocket scientist (Jim Gailer) with a retired tree surgeon (Peter Metcalf). And what do they have in common?
They are both members of the Wessex Morris Men
Now it happens that Ken is the Squire of the Dartington side and another member of that side, Robin Springett, was the Squire of the Ring and his two year term was up last week-end. The Morris Ring members descended on Dartmouth for the week end: the feast was held on the Saturday evening and the second part of the ritual – the hand over to Adam Garland from the East Suffiolk Morris Men – took place on Sunday in the Royal Avenue Gardens.

Marcia and I toddled off down to Dartmouth to watch the proceedings and to enable me to take some video. Click here if you want to see that video.

Most countries have some form of traditional culture and most treasure it – but in England it is far from treasured. During one of the lulls, Marcia was chatting to Anthony Frost, a cabinet maker from Sherborne who belongs to the Wessex Morris Men, and they were wondering why that should be the case. In Ireland, Scotland and Wales the old traditions are being kept very firmly alive and it would be nice to think it was the same in England: perhaps it will become so once again.

Marcia with Anthony Frost
Final thought: everything comes out in a book sooner or later. I will leave you to brood on that.

Two dogs for the price of one this week. Please note: these are not just any old blog dogs - they are Morris Men Blog Dogs.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Requiem to a tree

We all know that when the wind speeds get up above about fifty miles per hour that we can expect damage – and especially to trees.

It is rather unfair to dig up the past, but those of us who watched the weather forecast on 15 July 1987 will remember a comment from Michael Fish who was presenting the programme.  'Earlier on today,' he said, 'a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way. Well, if you're watching, don't worry, there isn't'. Later that evening we were hit by a violent storm with gusts in excess of a hundred and twenty miles per hour tearing down power lines – and toppling trees many of which caused serious structural damage to buildings as the fell.

This is the earliest photograph of the tree that I have in my collection. It was taken by my sister-in-law in March 2004.
One odd outcome that followed that storm was that, over the next few weeks, the emergency services were sometimes overwhelmed by the accidents to people who, either because a tree was causing them problems or they decided there were opportunities to make a fast buck, bought themselves chainsaws to saw up the timber but, lacking experience, injured themselves – often quite badly.

Early April, 2014.
All of which brings me to the fact that what one does not expect is for a tree to fall when there hardly a breath of wind nor a cloud in the sky. It has happened twice to my knowledge although I did not witness the actually fall in either case.

The last photograph I was to take of the tree, June 2014.
The first time was when we lived in Avonwick and a beech tree growing in the bank beside the lane than ran down the side of the house split in half, one half remaining upright and the other falling across the lane, blocking it but causing no injuries. We had had a period of dry weather and one of the local farmers told us that the rooks had deserted that tree a couple of years before. 'When rooks desert a tree,' he said, 'you know it's in trouble and the best thing to do is to have it down quick as you can.'

Then, the other day, the same thing happened to a pine here in Dartington. Again nobody was hurt. Anyway, the pictures tell the story and, as you can see, the tree is being sawn up. The smaller branches have been chipped and the chips used to create a soft bank over the steps leading to the rough area below down which the larger parts of the tree will be rolled by hand to where heavy lifting equipment can be brought.

Meanwhile I have news of another literary festival. This is on a completely different scale to Ways With Words or any of the other literary festivals. For a start you can attend the literary events (which take place during the day) free of charge although it will cost you five pounds to go along to the village hall and take in a couple of hours of musical entertainment in the evening.

The key to this festival (this is its fifth year) is that it ends up in a village hall. Quote from the website: 'The Charmouth Literary Festival is very much a village affair and we want you to enjoy a day of words and music in a relaxed easy manner, having the added advantage of being located in a beautiful place by the sea. Bring a picnic lunch if you wish, come with a friend or come alone and enjoy a literary day with a little night music.' Anyway, since I rather like the idea of small festivals of this sort, I thought I would tell you about it.

This wire-haired dachshund (a breed both of us love and one we are tempted to try out even though we have said 'no more dogs') answers to the name of Brian - unless, of course, he has other thoughts in his mind in which case . . . 

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Week in Pictures

This has been an odd week. Falling down the stairs was not a very clever thing to do and i am afraid it took a few days before I was back to normal (if my usual state can be described as such).

First thing in the morning on Saturday the light between the trees in the garden and over the fields was rather spectacular. Most of the day was spent doing very little and feeling quite miserable (but rather bucked by the nice comments under last week's blog) so when Marcia suggested she drive us up onto Holne Moor, I jumped on the idea. It was lovely to just sit there and let her take the strain.

By the time we were up on the tops near Combestone Tor (Forgotten Laughter country, of course) the evening sun was creating those lovely long shadows that bring the countryside to life. I love this part of the moor where there are little fields bounded by stone walls - built thousands of years ago using nothing but muscle power - in stark contrast to the open moor that surrounds them.

We went as far as the bridge over the Dart at Hexworthy where we stopped for a cup of coffee. As you can see, the river was running very low but that should not have been a surprise as we have had so little rain. 

Since I had started the day with a photograph of the morning sun shining through trees, it seemed only right and proper that I also took one of the woods by the bridge lit now by the evening sun.

The heather is beginning to come into flower on the moor. This is the brighter and rather larger Bell Heather which often grows in amongst the gorse (we also have the smaller and more muted Ling). When the sun is shining the gorse's brilliant yellow sets off the gorgeous deep red of the heather. We were a bit too late so this photograph is rather muted. Still nice, though.

The dry summer has resulted in the reservoir at Vennford being lower than I have seen it for many years.

Driving down off the moor, the last of the sun's rays caught the tower at Buckfast Abbey.

Tuesday and we had to pop into Totnes to stock up on some food. Clearly someone else had the same idea - a young gull (probably a young herring gull) eating out of a dish with "CAT" on the side. Was he (or she, of course) stealing some offering intended for a moggie or is some kind hearted (if misguided) person deliberately put out food for him/her?

Also in Totnes on Tuesday was the man who sells a production of his own called The Bag Issue. For seventeen years he sold The Big Issue - a weekly which is produced by a group of that name which helps the homeless. Sellers of The Big Issue receive half the price for every issue they sell and are encouraged to use this experience as a stepping stone to finding more permanent employment and a home of their own. Why the gentleman in the top hat no longer sells that one and has created his own paper is a long story. Suffice to say that you do get a bag as well as the latest issue when you buy a copy from him.

When Marcia did the laundry over the week-end she was a touch over zealous: not only did she load the washing machine with our dirty clothes, she included my mobile phone. Now, there is no question but that after many years of faithful service this piece of (once modern) technology was in great need of cleansing. Sadly, however, it was unable to survive the event although we were able to rescue the SIM card. Thus it was that on that Tuesday, I found myself in our local mobile phone shop where Matthew helped my choose another model. It is quite simple but it has two features I really like: it closes (which means no more accidental calls thanks to the interaction of keys and mobile in my pocket) and it has a big screen which I find easier to read. Thank you Matthew.

While we were sitting outside The Brioche drinking a post-shopping cup of coffee, a car pulled up alongside us and this little person was left inside - agitation in every pore. The photos were taken through the glass so are not very good but I hope you will agree that three pictures are worth three thousand words.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Pride Goes Before a Fall

Every now and then we have to make important decisions. For both Marcia and me these are moments we tend to dread – we both have enough imagination to see all the things that can go wrong with whatever route is under consideration. In the end, of course, this leads to inertia: the 'do nothing' option becomes increasingly attractive. At these times we start talking about 'sins of omission and sins of commission'. Would one rather be found guilty of the former or the latter?

Once again - there are no photographs that belong in this blog so . . .
On Tuesdays there is a flower seller in Totnes market. It is one of two sisters who grow all the flowers themselves in a wonderful old walled garden. Marcia loves bunches of cut flowers and far prefers the simple ones in season to the exotic. Here she is treating herself to just such a bunch.
Before tackling that subject properly bear with me as I wander down a small by-way. Have you ever thought how odd it is that there is only one 'm' in omission but 2 in commission? It seems that omission comes through late Middle English from the Latin 'omissio'. Commission meanwhile comes to us via Middle Enrlish and Old French from the Latin 'commissio'. This is an entirely unsatisfactory answer but it does have one advantage: you can't blame the English – it was clearly the fault of the Romans.

Not very much to say about this one except it was taken in La Fourchette.
Back to the decisions we have taken not that long ago. As you may know I have been working on some books which deal with 'Marcia Willett's West Country'. The first of these, Marcia Willett's Dartmouth' is essentially finished but how to publish it has been up in the air for some time. Obviously the initial intention was to publish them as 'coffee-table' books with lots of pretty photographs and so on. The problem with that route is that the books would then be extremely expensive and neither of us felt over happy with that. So we decided to explore the ebook option. In part this has been driven by the number of people who we know now read ebooks – most of them on a Kindle. Having costed this out and come to the realisation that it would then be available at about the same price as a standard paperback, we decided to go for it with one important proviso: that I could master the required software and publishing requirements of a book which will still have quite a lot of pictures and a few maps.

At least once a year we have lunch at Turtley Corn Mill where there are a number of free range birds who add a certain something to the occasion. We have been here before, you and I, but I don't think I have put up a photograph of one of their peacocks. Why once a year? Well, we have a friend who lives nearby and we have got into the habit of lunching together in order to celebrate our various birthdays.
This is a major step up from publishing simple text books (books containing nothing than text – not textbooks which are something quite different) which art I have already mastered using a format known as epub..

Illustrated books of this sort are new in the ebook world and rely on a new format called epub3. The software arrived about a fortnight ago and I have been on an extremely steep and very muddy learning curve – the sort where sliding backwards is far easier than scrambling up with finger nails dragging in the ooze. Probably my fault, really. The very best software comes with a full range of support from the suppliers – come down the price range to something that is really just as good in technical terms and you soon find out why this is far cheaper. There is no meaningful technical support at all – you are on your own playing with this and that until it all falls into place and you finally hit that EUREKA moment.

You may remember that there were a lot of problems with the weather damage to the front wall of the medieval building in Totnes' High Street in which the shoe shop 'Conkers' is housed. I put up a picture of it shrouded in scaffolding and tarpaulins. The work is now finished and the result is very satisfactory. Note the gargoyles on the key stones over the windows - one of which appears below..
Thus it is with great pride that I can announce that I think I have cracked it (but won't be sure until the first book is finished, uploaded to Amazon and then downloaded again – keep all fingers crossed). Doesn't mean the book will be available tomorrow as it has to be properly formatted and so on but we are talking weeks and not months.

And then, on Wednesday, I fell down the stairs. No bones broken and nothing sprained but plenty of bruises and I was pretty groggy throughout Thursday. So there you have it – pride goes before a fall.

Meet Guinness. For those of you who do not live in the UK I should explain that Guinness is a drink which started life in Ireland (and the Irish are good at this sort of thing) and migrated to the UK. I have no idea whether it has arrived in the US or south of the equator and so I apologise if I am telling my grandmother how to suck eggs. Anyway, the thing is that Guinness is a very dark stout which has a very white head when poured. Thus the black and white theme runs through many Guinness advertising campaigns and this ten-year-old Tibetan Terrier when a puppy was pure black and white. Time, however, has brought some grey into the equation (as many of us know it does). He remains, however, a delightful character.

Friday, 15 August 2014

To Marcia

This week's blog is really not so much about Marcia as to Marcia.

The time for frolic is over – you have a book to write.

Ways With Words was great fun and I am so very glad that you enjoyed listening to so many of your fellow authors and doing so through the eyes of a writer. Apart from anything else, we had great fun when you came home afterwards and we talked through what you had heard, the questions that had been asked and the answers that had been given.

Since there are no suitable photographs to go with this week's blog, I am asking you to indulge me. I know that bugs are not your favourites but here is a fly sitting on the table in the garden in front of my Sony Handicam.

These chats confirm me in what I felt all those years ago when I acted as an usher for this festival: many authors when they appear in public get between their readers and their books. I am convinced that your decision to eschew festivals was the right one. Better by far to let the books speak for themselves – it's what they are good at.

And here he (she?) is again in close up. My, and what big eyes you have!

There are no such things as universal truths when it comes to talking about writers and especially novelists. Within the world of fiction there are so many different genres and even that is a simplification: some novelists are supreme story tellers (Mary Stewart is one example) and some story tellers can make the characters jump off the page while others succeed because the story is so fascinating that the characters are almost secondary – true of “who dunnits” (which is not to say that writers working in that category people their books with cardboard cut outs).

Gardeners will, I am sure, sympathise - green fly on the roses. Grrr.

Some novelists are superb at tackling issues (Joanna Trollope being such a one) and, of course, there are those who set their books in the past and enable us to feel that we really are there living in that place at that time (Helen Dunmore and Hilary Mantel spring to mind).

Whilst talking about historical fiction I would like to mention two authors who stand head and shoulders above all others in my particular favourite area: the Royal Navy in the late 1700's and early 1800's. They are C S Forester and Patrick O'Brien. Now I feel terribly guilty because I have left out some who run them a close second (such as Alexander Kent – the pen name of Douglas Reeman who, under his real name writes about the second world war, as does C S Forester) but it would be tedious to mention the names of all the writers whose works I have read and enjoyed.

Wer were looking for the location of the next book when we came upong this stick up on a bank beside the road. It is about  four foot long. Did it come from the model village at Babbacombe? Probably. Why is it stuck out in the middle of nowhere? No idea.

Some create a magical and fantastical world (as does David Mitchell) and then there are genres that in general terms I do not read and know little about such as sci-fi.

Then there are a few who tackle writing differently: they enter into the minds and souls of their characters, into their joy and pain, their hope and despair. The story ceases to matter – what matters is how the people (they are no longer characters for they have become friends) cope with whatever it is that life throws at them. Such novelists are rare – yours is the name I would put in brackets when thinking about them.

The Dartington Summer School was a different matter and I know that you found some of the concerts you attended extremely moving. Listening to music has has changed so much during my lifetime. Now we have the very greatest artists available to all of us on CD's or on various bits of technology such as iPlayers that listening to second-rate live performances is not always an entirely rewarding experience (and that is true no matter what music we are talking about). But, and this is a huge but, as I know from my own experience, making music with others is a profoundly satisfying experience and most of the people at the festival were not just “audience” as they were at Ways With Words but performers as well: music makers listening to other people making music and making music for other music makers. I am sure that is why you found some of the performances so emotionally charged.

Another passion of mine, corrugated iron. What a wonderful example this is!

You are quite right: the “feel” at Dartington was very different during these two annual events. It would be difficult to know which one I preferred. There was always a great buzz during Ways With Words but it was very much driven by the audience – the “performers” gave their talk, listened to the questions, answered the questions, signed the books they sold after their talk – and then left. During the Summer School there was a different buzz: the performers generally speaking were around for most of if not all of the festival, the average age was far younger (although some were far from young) and many people were walking around carrying their instruments.

So, at risk of repeating myself, the time for frolic is over – you have a book to write. I will stick my neck out and make a prediction: it will be your best to date.

I have a thing about collies. They are probably the most intelligent of all the breeds that I have had (although my cairn terrier ran my collie cross a close second and they were, probably as it happens rather than anything else, very good friends). This chap, patiently looking at his master while the silly man in front of him keeps clicking away with his camera, is known as Nahuel.