Monday, June 30, 2014

Chagrin in Lichfield

Last week-end I was at a course at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It's always nostalgic being back in Birmingham. I went there at the age of twenty-two to do an MA on Pre-Raphaelite illustration of Shakespeare's plays and spent the rest of my twenties there. My mother moved there around the same time and stayed for thirteeen years, so I always think of her there. Birmingham's a fine city, and it is also a good place for day trips to Oxford, Stratford, and other places well worth a visit.
One trip that sticks in my mind was a day out in Lichfield. It was May 1980 (I explain how I know this later on) and the Birmingham branch of the Victorian Society had arranged to see some Victorian silver plate - I think - belonging to the cathedral. I was in two minds whether to go as I wasn't feeling very well, but in the end I decided that the day out would do me good. I caught the bus into town and then the train out to Lichfield.
I was the only person to show up. Actually that is not quite true. After perhaps quarter of an hour someone else turned up, but not before I had sensed the discomfiture of the poor man who had given up his afternoon for this event and suffered agonies of embarrassment myself. Some years later I worked for the Victorian Society and events were well organised and attended by then. But the intensity of my embarrassment that day burned it into my memory.
And how do I know it was May 1980? At some point I browsed the second-hand bookshops and was delighted to find a copy of Time Was, the reminiscences (as it says on the title-page) of W. Graham Robertson for £1.75. It was a real find. Robertson was a late Victorian man about town, the friend of many artists, writers and actors. It's a charming memoir full of anecdotes and was an essential source for the Ph.D that I'd then begun. In it I wrote my name and 'May 1980 Lichfield.' It's open on the desk beside me as I write.
Incidentally you don't have to be a Quaker to stay at the Study Centre - or be studying either - as it offers great value B & B to anyone and is a lovely place set in ten acres of garden and woodland. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Crime Fiction Round-up

I've decided to have an occasional round-up of crime fiction that I've enjoyed and I'm featuring three novels today.
I came across a review of The Mangle Street Murders by M. R. C. Kasasian on one of my favourite blogs - - and thought it sounded worth a look. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is set in the late nineteenth century. Sidney Grice, a 'personal detective' as he styles himself, is a kind of anti-Sherlock Holmes. Whereas I imagine Holmes to be rather attractive in a saturnine way, Grice has a glass eye which he keeps taking out and a repellently supercilious manner. However March Middleton, the young woman who goes to live with him as his ward and becomes his assistant, is more than a match for him and the play of wits between the two is great fun. The story moves along at a cracking pace. There are plenty of jokes (Conan Doyle makes an appearance at one point) and although I guessed some of the solution to the mystery, it really didn't matter.
My second novel is Asa Larrson's The Second Deadly Sin. She is maybe my favourite Scandanavian writer and I wasn't disappointed. She is so good at really gripping openings. A bear attacks a dog outside a farm house and is shot and wounded by the farmer. The bear is hunted down and killed: in its stomach is a human hand. Meanwhile in a nearby town a woman is murdered and District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson and Police Officer Anna-Maria Meller get to work on the case. They are both attractive characters. The story is a complex one with its roots in the past and if there was a weakness it was in the flashbacks to a hundred years before. I wasn't quite convinced by them and found myself wanting to get back to the main story. But still, a very good read leading to a tense climax.
Kate Ellis in The Cadaver Game (great title!) also makes use of connections between the present and the past, and does so very skilfully, using journal entries from a couple of centries earlier. This too has an arresting opening. Two young people run naked through woods at night, paid to take part in a game which turns out to be anything but. It is some time before their bodies are found and meanwhile the police, alerted by an anonymous phone call, find the body of a woman in a cottage. This is the sixteenth outing in a very successful series featuring DI Wesley Peterson. A complex plot is well handled, the ending was clever, and I loved the enticing Devon setting.
So three novels I can happily recommend if you are looking for some holiday reading. Kate's new novel, The Shroud Maker, is just out in paperback and I have asked her to be my guest on the blog soon, so something to look forward to.
Incidentally I'd love suggestions for my own holiday reading. Something with a French flavour would be particularly welcome.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Goodbye, Kurt

They saved the best until last. Last night's Wallander was a worthy end to the series. The story was an improvement on some of the previous ones in the series. It had real pace - and a climax that gripped. I won't give too much away about the plot as not everyone will have caught up with it yet. However it's no secret that this was Wallander's last bow: how much long could Wallander conceal the progress of his dementia? This strand was just as tense as the unravelling of the crime and I thought it was handled very well. It was a perfectly judged performance from Krister Hendriksson - what a wonderful actor he is - supported by a terrific cast, especially Charlotta Jonsson as Linda. The end was touching, undeniably bleak and yet not without its consolations.
Next week it's back to Sicily and Montalbano. Lovely . . .

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Friday, June 20, 2014

On Not Teaching

Yesterday I went to see the exhibition, Cézanne and the Modern, at the Ashmolean. It's a tedious journey on the train from Chesterfield to Oxford, involving changing trains at Birmingham (a contender for the dreariest station in the country), but it was worth it. Only three rooms, but some amazing Cézannes, and anyway I like small exhibitions as you can really feel that you have seen everything. I don't have a favourite artist - how could I choose just one? - but Cézanne would have to be on my list of desert island artists and I wanted to take several of them home. There were great works by Degas, Manet and Van Gogh, too, but it was the Cézannes that bowled me over and I felt all over again the wonder of standing in front a work that had come from the artist's hand and the power and directness of that communication. Reproductions can never do that. It is the difference between live and recorded music.
For a number of years I taught a course on European Art 1880-1940 and going to exhibitions like this was part of my job. In those days I would have been thinking about how I could incorporate what I was seeing into my teaching, or even planning to take a group of students. I would have enjoyed doing that. But yesterday, I was glad that I didn't have to. I didn't need to think about how I would explain these pictures or how I would fit them into their artistic and historical context. I could just stand there and drink them in.
If you want to see the exhibition, you'll have to hurry as it finishes on Sunday. I'd be going again if it wasn't over six hours there and back. For a good review and some lovely pictures, including a Cézanne watercolour of some pears on a plate (I want it!) go to

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Matisse Cut-Outs

This blog is mainly about books, but art means very nearly as much to me. I couldn't miss the exhibition of Matisse cut-outs at Tate Modern and I got down to see it last week. He is an artist that I love and admire. He said that he wanted his art to be like an armchair for a tired businessman (I sometimes think of that when I am writing - it's not an ignoble aim for fiction either). Certainly for me looking at his work is pure pleasure, the closest I can get to the south of France without going there, but actually I think it is more than that in its celebration of colour and light and form. It is such a celebration of the material world, so full of joie de vivre.
There is something particularly life-affirming about the cut-outs. From the early 1940s Matisse was such poor health that he could no longer paint, but this didn't stop him from working. With the cut-outs he moved into a entirely new phase  of his work and continued until he died aged 85 in 1954. This got me thinking about artists and longevity. Other artists that I admire - Titian, Goya, Picasso - continued working into old age with no decline in their creative powers, despite painting being such a physical activity. It seems to me that it is not quite the same for writers, something I might explore in another post.
Meanwhile I recommend the Matisse exhibition. It's glorious.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

It Goes With the Territory

Some years ago I came across a poem by Elaine Feinstein, 'Getting Older,' that I very much liked. When more recently I read a review of her memoir, I thought it was a book I'd enjoy. And I did. Feinstein is a distinguished poet, novelist, biographer, and translator of Russian women poets. She got married early to Arnold Feinstein, a gifted but troubled molecular biologist, and had three sons.
It was the story of this marriage and her struggle to reconcile her role as a wife and mother with her writing that for me was the most interesting part of the book. In the prelude she writes that her sons did not come out of it too badly, but she was not so sure about her marriage. 'My desire to to make poems and stories was as intense as any adultery and the demand to put that ambition first is not easily forgiven in a woman.' She is of the generation before mine and I wonder how far women still feel this.
The reference to adultery is apposite. In 'Growing Older' she writes of the things that didn't happen to her:  'I didn't die young, for instance. Or lose / my only love.' It was a close-run thing. At one time she found her husband in bed with the au pair, at another he lived for some months with a woman who had had his baby. She writes as if he is almost justified: 'if Arnold began to feel at the periphery of my emotional life as poetry began to occupy so much of the centre I could not blame him.'
      The book ends with a coda. Feinstein is invited by the British Council to give a talk in Jerusalem and it was attended by a man to whom she was once engaged, now married to someone else. He asks her, 'Didn't they all have unhappy lives, those Russian women poets that you admire so much?' She understands that he wants to remind her of the joys of an ordinary life. 'So I nodded. "It goes with the territory," I said.'
      I do so hope that's not true.

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Monday, June 09, 2014

Comics Unmasked

Last week I went to see a fascinating exhibition at the British Library: Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK. It covered a lot of ground from Punch in the 1840s up to the present and filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge. It set me thinking about the part comics have played in my own life and why I don't read more graphic novels.
Bunty was the first comic I read on a regular basis - I think my mother ordered it every week, along with - was it The Eagle? - for my brother. Of Bunty I remember scarcely anything, except a character called Lettuce Leaf. But my brother's comic had a thrilling serial called, I think, 'The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb,' and we were desperate every week to read the next instalment.
Later there was Jackie, which my friend Pauline and I used to read and reread. How innocent it all seems now, the advice on boys and make-up and the stories in which good girls always triumphed. But we also loved Superman and Batman: Pauline had a great collection of those. I guess we were about fifteen when we stopped reading both Jackie and Superman comics, and I've never gone back, though as a young art historian I did love Victorian book illustration and that was nearly the subject of my Ph.D. However, perhaps because stories told completely in pictures are so much associated with childhood and adolescence I have never got into graphic novels. A few years ago, I did read an excellent one, Exit Wounds, by Rutu Modan, a book group choice, so time to rethink, perhaps? I've begun by ordering her new book, The Property.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Crime-writer Linda Stratmann is my guest

Linda Stratmann is my guest on the blog today. I got to know Linda when we were both on the CWA committee. It's not the first time she has featured on my blog. Some time ago I reviewed her fascinating book, Chloroform. She's also written a lot about true crime. But today she's talking about her fiction. I began by asking her about her new novel. Over to Linda:
An Appetite For Murder is the fourth book in the Frances Doughty Mysteries featuring a Victorian lady detective, and explores the worlds of dieting, health food and vegetarianism. Frances finds that two apparently innocuous cases are not only connected, but involve several murders.

How do you carve out time to write? What's your writing routine?

I am a pensioner so don’t have to meet the requirements of either a day job or a young family. Writing is effectively my full-time job. I love it and spend all my available time on it. (I am writing this at 8 am on a Sunday morning) One day I will scare myself by adding up my weekly hours!

What comes first for you: a theme, plot, characters?

It could be any of the three. A book idea starts as a concept like a tiny crystal, which just grows in my mind. An Appetite for Murder started from two separate ideas I wanted to include and then weave together.

How did Frances Doughty come into being and does she have an historical counterpart?

It annoys me that so many fictional heroines are described as beautiful and a lot of the plot revolves about them being able to get their own way by fluttering their eyelashes at a man. I decided from the outset that I wanted my heroine to be a woman who gets what she wants with brains and determination. She is young because I want her to learn and develop over the years. Sarah her trusty sidekick is essential not only as a support for Frances also to ground her.

Lady detectives do appear in fiction from the 1860s and the concept of the female detective is sometimes referred to in the Victorian press. I wouldn’t be surprised if detective agencies employed women in roles for which they were thought especially suitable.

Who are your writing heroes? Whose books do you like to read, and why?

Ruth Rendell and PD James are my great heroines of crime writing and Agatha Christie’s ability to misdirect the reader is second to none. I read very widely; I always have several books on the go at once, both fiction and non-fiction.  When I read for relaxation I go for something that is a complete contrast to what I write myself, usually in a contemporary setting.

A favourite bookshop?

Waterstones in Walthamstow is a big friendly store, and wonderfully supportive to local authors. The staff go to considerable trouble to ensure that writers’ events are well organised.

What are you writing now?

Two books at once!  I am writing the fifth Frances Doughty Mystery entitled The Children of Silence, which concerns the Victorian attitude to people with hearing disabilities. I am also engaged on a history of nineteenth century poison murder. Next year will see the start of a new detective series set in Brighton, and we will be in the world of Victorian spirit mediums.

An Appetite for Murder is out now as an ebook and a paperback.  To find out more about Linda and her books go to

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Watching Wallender

I'd been looking forward to watching the Swedish version of Wallander on Saturday evening on BBC 4 and there was a lot to enjoy. I love the setting: the rolling landscape, the coastline and the old parts of Ystaad. It's beautifully filmed. The acting is excellent. Krister Henriksson is a fine actor and though he wasn't orginally my idea of Wallander - Rolf Lassgard's much closer in my view - I have come accept him in the role. There were lots of nice moments in last Saturday's episode - I like the way Wallender slipped into English for a 'not in front of the children' moment with his daughter and granddaughter. And the ending when we realise the extent of his illness is poignant. And yet and yet . . . as the story reached its climax and Linda, Wallander's daughter, is menaced, I found that I was actually a little bit bored. And that was the problem: the stories in these last three episodes haven't really been up to scratch. They all unfolded pretty much as one would expect and didn't surprise or grip me. Is it there is so much crime fiction on the TV these days that it is hard for writers to come up with something original? Or am I a jaded viewer? It might be so. I think only the first episode, 'A Troubled Man,' is actually based on a Henning Mankell novel, so maybe the answer lies there.
However I'll still be watching the last three, not least to see how they handle Wallander's memory loss and how they wind up the series.

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