a writer's life Book Launch Fiction Guernsey Literature Novels Reviews Richard Fleming

Barking Mad! By Jane Mosse

418CImAzKeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Barking Mad! by Jane Mosse published by Blue Ormer

What with one thing and another, I have found it hard to read lately. It’s as if a smoke alarm keeps going off in the house. Yesterday, having a hateful ear infection, I opted for a sofa day. When I wasn’t dripping antibiotics into my ear and moaning peevishly, I was completely taken by the highly-diverting Barking Mad! by my Guernsey based pal Jane Mosse. Her last project mentioned on this blog was Guernsey Legends — but this is a very different book, being a fictionalised account of several years of pet sitting with her husband Richard Fleming.  All they have to do is live in stranger’s houses, and befriend their pets. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Luckily for the reader, things are rarely straightforward.

Travel, plus animals, plus nosing about in other people’s houses? It’s a perfect formula for an enjoyably escapist read. You can imagine yourself anywhere from arriving in Alderney in a tiny aircraft on a rabbit sitting mission, to the ballroom of a grand estate in Northumbria with a Shetland pony that lets itself into the house from time to time, freezing in Prague as the boiler goes kaput before Christmas, or in a lock keeper’s cottage deep in a northern industrial wasteland.  There is a panoply of loveable pooches and pampered cats — not to mention the cast of eccentrics who hand them into our heroes’ care. Our pet-sitting wanderers also encounter all manner of other critters on their travels, from water snakes to deer, mosquitoes to rabbits, piglets to a lugubrious bathtub carp. Many of these creatures harbour ideas of their own so they certainly give their temporary minders plenty deal with.  

Part of the fun of course, is getting an real insight into their host’s lives. So if your sanity could benefit from imagining yourself basking in Tuscan sunlight under lemon trees as cats haunt the shadows, or gazing out on snowy, deer-filled parkland just before Christmas… Then you’d be mad not to simply get yourself a copy of  Barking Mad!  

a writer's life Novels Poetry Prose Theatre

Stick or bust?

Skelton Yawngrave, by Margaret Hamlin

When is it sensible to give up? Persistence we are told is a characteristic of success. Against this idea, I always think about sunk costs. An agency pal once explained to me there’s no sense pouring money into a project because you’ve already poured lots of money into it. Likewise, there comes a moment to cut your losses on an artistic project, and not pour any more time into it.

I have been writing a novel aimed at a 10-12 year old readership for almost ten years. Having set it aside for four years, I recently had a moment of clarity about how I could fix the problems that had previously stumped me. While I have felt that this story contains my best writing, it also didn’t all hang together. But at the beginning of the year, I bought myself some time and have decided to try again. Because I believe in the project, there can only be one answer – once more unto the breach it is then.

Grace Brown, by Margaret Hamlin

This time, at least, I’ve a new weapon: the writing software Scrivener. My friend Catherine Pope told me about its ages ago, and I finally got around to buying it. It has been a revelation.  And thanks to Scrivener, moving blocks of text, reordering chapters, keeping tabs on the story flow, characters and so on, in a 60k text is all far, far easier. Something that would have taken me hours to sort out, can now be done in seconds. And the new (eighth) draft of the novel (now called The second kind of darkness) is becoming streamlined into something that seems to me to be much improved.

When I first started working on this, almost ten years ago now, I asked my mother Margaret Hamlin to quickly visualise some of the characters I’d created. One of them, Skelton Yawngrave, is above, and the girl is Grace Brown, the story’s heroine, is the smaller image. It’s nice to be back in their company.

* * *

Since attending the T.S.Eliot awards I sent off for several shortlisted books. The first one I received was Rachael Boast’s Void Studies and I have enjoyed dipping into her delicate, dreamlike work. Often the poem’s meanings are tantalisingly out of reach, but like dreams, convey a strange significance.  Coincidentally, while reading landscape-1448893172-trumpsleep Void Studies I’ve been going through one of those phases where I remember my dreams on waking. I’ve noticed again how dreams touch on things I’ve tried to sweep under the carpet. Reading Void Studies during the unfolding catastrophe of Donald Trump’s presidency, makes me think about Donald Trump’s dreamlife. Is all that gold compensating for slate grey dreams? What monsters must live there.

What is the relevance of a book like Void Studies in Trump world? None. But that is the exactly the point. A subtle and delicate work like Void Studies is an example of a culture that must be protected from the jackboot of ignorance that figures like Trump represent.

* * *

And while I’m on the subconscious, having decided to relentlessly focus on prose I found myself writing a series of 13 short poems this week. On Thursday morning I wrote eight eight-line poems in an hour. I have never written eight poems in a week before, let alone eight in an hour. It seems there’s nothing like deciding that under no circumstances will you think about something to make the opposite happen.

* * *

All being well, my play A Glass of Nothing will be having a five-night run in the Surgeons Hall during the Edinburgh Festival, in August. More about that later in the year.

Guernsey Guernsey Literature Novels Uncategorized

Occupying Love by Marilyn Chapman

Marilyn Chapman‘s new story Occupying Love is a popular novel set on Guernsey during the occupation. It blurs the barrier between romantic and historical fiction and begins with the bombing raid by the Luftwaffe on St Peter Port and becomes a pacy (and not saccharine) romance about a young woman called Lydia Le Page who, having returned to Guernsey just before the German invasion of the island in 1940, commences star-crossed relationships with two men against a backdrop of the Nazi occupation.


I can’t resist comparing Occupying Love with  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer (completed by Annie Barrows) which was set in wartime London and in Guernsey. I felt decidedly curmudgeonly about The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because it demonstrated little or no knowledge of the island of Guernsey, its people, ways of speaking and so on. Of course a popular novel doesn’t have to groan under the weight of its research to be enjoyable, but a convincing dash of local colour can only add interest to the work.

It greatly benefits this book that Marilyn Chapman was actually born in Guernsey and Occupying Love demonstrates her thorough knowledge of the island, and its years of occupation. Although she has done lots of research, it was enriched by having heard lots about the occupation from her own grandparents.

Probably more important to the reader, however, is that Occupying Love has pace and an involving plot as well as an intriguing backdrop. So read Occupying Love if you like romantic fiction with a gritty undercurrent, read it too as historical fiction or if you are interested in the Channel Islands. This is a labour of love, and it shows.

Guernsey Guernsey Literature Novels

Victor Hugo and Guernsey

A windblown Victor Hugo in Candie Gardens, Guernsey
A windblown Victor Hugo in Candie Gardens, Guernsey

Having fallen down a flight of stairs two days ago, I have spent a good deal of time on my back applying icepacks to a torn thigh muscle. While trying to write in a horizontal position, I realise that I am feeling homesick for Guernsey.

I’ve been glancing at a translation of Victor Hugo poems by Harry Guest called (fittingly enough) The distance, The Shadows I bought in a second-hand book store recently.  Victor Hugo (1802-85) was exiled on Guernsey between October 1855 and 1870. There is little or nothing explicitly about the island in the Harry Guest translation, but it has made me think about the novel  The Toilers on the Sea (Les Travailleurs de la mer pub. 1866 and set in Guernsey). It is very gothic tale, features a titanic struggle with a giant octopus, stormy seas, and has the temerity to suggesting that Guernsey is a rather spooky place.

Gilliat lived in Saint Sampson, where he was far from popular. For this there was a reason. In the first place, he lived in a ‘haunted house’. In the country parts of Jersey and Guernsey – sometimes in the towns—you find a house the entrance to which is quite blocked up. Holly-bushes choke the door, whilst ugly planks are nailed across the windows. The glass in the window-frames of the upper storeys has been broken, and the frames look gaunt and hideous. In the back yard, the grass has sprouted up between the stones, and the wall is broken down in many places. If there be a garden, it is overgrown with nettles, and thornbushes; whilst insects of strange appearances about in it. The chimneys are ready to fall, and in palces the roof has given way. The rooms through the shattered casements show a scene of ruin and desolation; the woodwork is worm eaten, and the stone decayed. The paper hangs fromt he wall in strips, one overlapping the other, and disclosing the various periods at which they have been affixed. Long cobwebs, choked with innumerable flies, show the undisturbed empire of generations of spiders. Fragments of broken crockery can be noticed on the shelves. It is not unreasonable to suppose such houses to be haunted; and it is believed that the Prince of Darkness pays them nocturnal visits.

Houses resemble those who dwell in them, and can, as it were, die. The breath of superstition is the destruction of the dwelling; then it has a terrible aspect. These weird-looking abodes are not rare in the Channel Islands; all agricultural and seafaring classes have strong faith in the active agency of Satan.

Victor Hugo’s octopus with his ‘VH’ initials in its tentacles.

While my personal experience of several spooky things on the island, means I will happily suspend my disbelief and enjoy such passages, this sort of thing is played down on the island. Typical is David Shayer in Victor Hugo in Guernsey (Guernsey Historical Monograph No 21. Published by the Toucan Press, Guernsey, C.I. 1987), objects from a Guernsey perspective:

Hugo’s depiction of the islanders generally has not been all that enthusiastically endorsed by their descendants. One wonders how close he came to ordinary life. Certainly he amassed a wealth of detail concerning island customs and sea matters by talking to knowledgeable individuals, but this was of the nature of research rather than of first-hand experience. Some of the Guernsey surnames are correct—Tostevin, Mauger, Brouard – but the islanders tend to appear as French Frenchmen rather than as Guernsey Frenchmen, and the unusual combination of French ancestry and English loyalty seems to have baffled him somewhat…. While it can be said with certainty that there was no small degree of superstition in Guernsey at the beginning of the 19th century, it is unfortunate that Hugo gives the impression in his opening chapters that the island was universally riddled with it to the exclusion of every other attitude.

It is the opening chapters that I most like, however, and make me feel most homesick. David Shayer was right in that Hugo’s characters are definitely Frenchmen in Guernsey jumpers.

If you happen to find yourself in Guernsey, Hauteville House, where Hugo lived, is a fascinating place to visit.

Criticism Novels Writing

Visiting the Brontës

On this table Wuthering Heights and Jayne Eyre were written.

The importance of the author’s intentions in reading a novel or poem has been a hotly-argued subject. What became known as ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ (after a essay by Monroe Beardsley and W.K. Wimsatt) suggested that the author’s thinking about their own work was irrelevant. Instead a novel, for example, should stand on its own two feet and be judged without reference to what the author thought the work was all about. Pro-Intentionalists argue that we should include everything we know about the author’s intentions for their novel as well as try to understand the historical context in which the work arose.

I always thought they were both right. That, naturally, a work should be able to stand on its own and it is interesting to interpret a work free from prescriptive ideas about that the book is ‘about’. While cocking a snook at information about the writer’s intentions, and the context they wrote in, seems plain silly.

Visiting the Brontë parsonage at Hawarth on a sunny February afternoon, dredged up these old debates in my head, and I found my feeling for the sisters’ work transformed. I am the first to admit that I am not a Brontë scholar, having only read Emily’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, but was impressed by both but now I want to read them again, and more.

The parsonage is at the top of a hill and surrounded by a graveyard and (as you’d expect) looks across at the Church. The gravestones are oddly table-like plinths. A fact which the 1850 report into public health suggested prevented plants from growing on the gravestones, which was thought to slow the decomposition of the corpses. This same report found that the average lifespan in Haworth was 25.8 years – the health there was wretched, with problems caused by sewage problems. The Brontë family’s comparative longevity has been ascribed to the fact that they lived at the top of the hill, while the sewage, and whatever ghastly stuff seeps into the water table from diseased corpses drained downwards.

Behind the Parsonage is wild and open moorland. Walking around the museum and locality it was easy to picture three fiercely intelligent young women and their brother, brought up as devout Christians, living on the edge of empty wildness in a small place where early death was commonplace. This is the practical context of the sisters’ imagination, and understanding just a little bit more about it has inspired me to return to their books.

Graves at Haworth.
Behind the Parsonage.
On the moors.
Novels Reading

What I read in 2014: novels

Those lists of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century are maddening and fun. I usually score between 70-80.  So, to better this, I read some titles that regularly crop up. As many of the lists are American the books are too. This year I filled in a few of the gaps.

  1. The ShiningStephen King. My first Stephen King novel. I was surprised at its readability and quality to be honest. I liked its depiction of a family dynamic warped by alcoholism and general spookiness, including a spooky kid.
  2. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles. Having failed to read this twice before, this year I completed its harrowing journey into alcohol, fracturing relationships, sickness, death and personal identity eroding (in the face of all these pesky foreigners) into madness. I read it with schadenfreude hating all the tiresomely neurotic characters – but in no way sorry that I had persisted.
  3. Cannery Row, John Steinbeck Fun enough, with its ramshackle characters in a community of marginalised drunks and mavericks. Heard it being discussed on BBC Radio 4’s A good read. Did little for me, finding it less funny than other people seem to have found it.
  4. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck Short. A perfect little tragedy, clearly wonderfully crafted, but for some reason not my kind of thing as I found it a bit dull.
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’Toole Lots to like here, and it made me laugh out loud once or twice. It was episodic, theatrical set pieces made it all seem rather artificial. But one of my favourites of the year and in Ignatius Jacques Reilly an unforgettably repulsive antihero.
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee I loved this book, and wondered how I had never read it before. Deceptively simple, traces of Bradbury style magic, morality, race relations, standing up for what is right in the face of adversity. A jewel of a novel, and probably my favourite read of the year.
  7. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner.  I was barely able to finish this novel regularly cited as one of the best of the twentieth century. Innovative stream of consciousness techniques enabling us to see events and a family in wildly different ways. Again (maybe this is something going on with me as a reader this year) I felt indifferent to the fate of the characters, partly because how it was written seemed to dwarf what it was saying. And how it was written irritated the bejaysus out of me. But nevertheless a sense of achievement to have completed it.
  8. The Remains of the Day, Kasuo Ishiguro After the Faulkner, I felt the need to get off the American locomotive. This deft, understated book was a perfect antidote. Really enjoyed the portrayal of a emotionally buttoned up English butler. This is only the second Ishiguro I’ve read, and I love the space he leaves for suggested meaning – an writerly ability that perfectly matched his subject matter. I am a fan.
  9. The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes One of those books I read with enjoyment, but having finished it even a few months later, I have to fight to remember anything about it. A group of ambitious boys, who have to deal later in life with the fact one of them committed suicide.
  10. The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion Not a great work of literature, but a perfect holiday read, which is what it was. I enjoyed it. Read it in a day. It made me laugh.
  11. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust A guilty read, after speed reading about 50% of it when at university. Maddeningly slow at times, but also quite beautiful. Makes me want to read the other six volumes of the series. The bits I did read when I was at University, concerning involuntary memory, still stay with me as some of the profoundest writing I have read. The opening, Combray, section I find amazing even if it is about a spoiled little milksop crying for his mother. I saw parallels to how I feel about Guernsey.
  12. The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis Still not sure how I feel about this book, dealing with the lives of people running a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. I may have to read it again. It certainly brings to life the idea of the banality of evil. Left me feeling uneasy and with a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s surely the point.
  13. The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide Bought me as a gift as I like Japan and cats. The story was understated, using the domestic to stand for bigger things. Helps that I have visited Japan twice so find it easy to imagine the scenes described.
  14. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami A birthday present from my wife. I’ve read the majority of Murakami’s books and like millions around the world have fallen under his spell. While I sometimes get the sense that the novels are one vast and continuous work, I consumed this new book in a couple of days and loved it. There is a directness about his style, despite the weird and wonderful subject matter, that hooks me every time.
  15. The Outsider, Albert Camus The sort of thing takes me back to being a philosophy undergraduate. I was expecting it to be a let down, but found it surprisingly easy to read and the new penguin translation, by Sandra Smith seems very well done. The central character of this book is living a life in bad faith, unable to make any decisions and as a consequence he exists in a limbo state, unable to connect emotionally to anything around him to the point that he can shoot someone dead without understanding why. Exit puffing on Gitanes.
  16. Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton depicts west London and Brighton in the 1930s, and given that I used to live in West London and now live in Brighton I found it interesting for this reason alone. But as a depiction of functioning alcoholics, frittering their time and money away with people they despise it is unrivalled. Seedy and pathetic, their pathetic lives are mercilessly depicted. A great book.
  17. The Fall, Albert Camus Back to existentialism. The monologues of a lonely drinker in an Amsterdam cafe harping on about how terrible life is and what a terrible man he is. In the end it turns out his mutterings have been addressed to himself, or at least to his double. Weird and strangely great.

It occurs to me, looking at this list (something I’ve never done before) that as a reader you are constantly in flux. I wonder if I would have felt differently about each book if I had read them in another order so that what was going on in my life as I read a book was different.

So that was the novels. Next post, non-fiction and autobiography.

Below Harper Lee.


Fiction Guernsey Guernsey Literature Novels

Choking on potato peel

Just finished The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (and completed by Annie Barrows) and I am trying to work out why it makes me grind my teeth.

I can see why the book has done so well. As an epistolary novel, it is easy to read, and there is no sense of the heart-sinking and foreboding that some people get with long, dense chapters. Also making it partly about an occupation book group (which feels like an anachronism to me) was a great wheeze, in terms of raising its profile in today’s book groups.

It’s an undemanding read, skating unconvincingly over the surface of the occupation, romance, and even the horrors of Nazi labour camps.

But there is no sense of real Guernsey people or their turns of phrase or ways of speaking. The material is clearly the product of laborious if sometimes inaccurate research. Such as when, for example, people are surrounded by Luger sporting Germans soldiers. (What, they were all officers then?)

I did not care what happened to any of the two-dimensional characters. Surely the point of setting it somewhere – anywhere – is to give it a distinct flavour? But again, following what seems to be a long tradition going back to Geoffrey of Monmouth, when the action moves to Guernsey, it appears as a blank backdrop.

What I do like about it, is that it is raising the profile of Guernsey, and getting people curious about the island. But if you want to read a novel set in Guernsey which is worth reading, read The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards, which is incomparably better. While Tim Binding’s book Island Madness is vastly better written book about the occupation.