Friday, 30 March 2012


Many years ago, Marcia was speaking at one or other of the literary festivals and she shared a platform with a man who had just seen his first book published. It really does not matter where it was or who he was – in fact it is best if neither are named.

This chap (very likeable, by the way) spoke first and explained how, having decided that he would be a writer, he had discovered his ‛voice’.

His first job, he explained, was to research the market in order to determine which genre was flourishing at that time. Next on the ‛to do’ list was to read authors writing in that genre, comparing the ‛voices’ of the most successful with those of the least. Then, and only then, did he decide on the style that he would employ and the ‛voice’ he would develop.

To my ears it all sounded rather cold and clinical but that first book was a great success and the next while ‟not as good as his last one, dear″ sold fairly well. After that he seemed to sink without trace.

Hacks like me don’t have a ‛voice’. Nearly everything that I have written has been commissioned (and usually pretty dull stuff such as company reports, instruction manuals, copy for sales literature and the like) or simple journalism. Each of these requirements means using a different 'style' (not really a ‛voice’) although I suspect that over time I have developed a set of mannerisms and a vocabulary which might mean that my writing has a recognisable hallmark but that, I would suggest, is something very different.

Marcia, having never actually decided that she would be writer, did nothing to find a voice. Jane Austen spoke of her writer's canvas as a "small, square, two inches of ivory." There are various ways of interpreting this but the most likely is that she meant that she wrote about only the life she knew: the narrow life of the country gentry in Georgian times. When Marcia finally agreed to try to write a novel, she decided that she too would stick to what she knew and that her "two square inches of ivory" was the world inhabited by the wives of officers in the Royal Navy and especially in those who served as submariners.

Like Austen, the ivory may have been quite small but the world Marcia created in that first novel (Those Who Serve) covered as wide a range of human emotions and conditions as any Austen novel but did she have a ‛voice’ at that time? In any event, what is a writer’s ‛voice’?

Neither of us thought about it for some time and then when the stories poured out of Marcia as if a dam had been breached (with one appearing in the book shops every six months) she realised that there was no point in writing another book until the publishing process caught her up. I suggested that she write some short stories just for a bit of fun and one of them grabbed her. Soon she developed it into a full length novel: Amy Wingate’s Journal. This was a story about a neurotic woman in her sixties who had been advised to try to write her problems out in a journal. In modern parlance, ‛it contains scenes that some might find distressing’.

Don’t misunderstand, there was no great description of violence or sexual activity but there was the air that both could – had? – become out of control at some time during Amy’s life.

Whatever else you could say about this book, the 'voice' was a very different to the one behind the Marcia Willett books. Marcia’s agent thought so too. She was determined to have the books published but she knew that this could not be under Marcia’s name.

Thus was Willa Marsh conceived. To our great delight, this book was reviewed in The Times and the quote from that – ‛A voice for our times.’ – appeared on the other three Willa Marsh books.

The Marcia Willett voice is a caring, compassionate and spiritual voice where all the major characters are so fully developed and multi-dimensional that many readers have a hard time remembering that they really are fictional. The Willa Marsh voice is almost the opposite: spiky, naughty and with little regard for people’s feelings, this is black humour at its most subtle. Incidentally, it is interesting that the French no longer publish Marcia Willett (they stopped when Marcia wrote a scene in which one of her dogs ‛thought’ in words: ‛we cannot cope with talking dogs.’) but one of their more literary publishing houses, Autrement, has bought all four WM books and has published three already. A French film company has bought the first two options on a film version of Sisters Under the Skin and all the indications are that this will be produced in the not too distant future.

So Marcia ended up with two voices and we know that not all Marcia Willett readers like the Willa Marsh books. After a talk at a festival, one woman raised her hand during question time and said, ‛I have just read one of the books you wrote under the name Willa Marsh,’ a pause. ‛And I thought you were such a nice person!’

These two voices began to merge. There are traces of Willa in Forgotten Laughter and more than traces in The Children’s Hour. Now I think it is true to say that the voices have more or less come together: we see the wonderfully developed characters of Marcia Willett treated with great fondness and understanding living in a world which tends to be turned almost upside down as Willa Marsh creates a slightly surreal plot line. Nevertheless, one thing never seems to change: at the end of each novel there is a feeling of hope and the real possibility that it really could all end happily ever after but with the proviso that it is much more likely that there are more storms ahead.

Would Marcia’s voice have been different is she had decided to become a writer and researched for her niche before starting out? Would she have continued to be as popular as she is twenty-eight books later if she had? We shall never know the answer to either question.


Last week I mentioned that tadpoles eat dead fish. I did not expect to be able to test that but I have.

About this time each year I have to weed the ponds. It is amazing how quickly these plants grow and form a dense mass. Nature abhors a vacuum – and a pond. Ponds start by being just water. Then water weeds begin to grow. Generally some of them are brought in but we have quite a few species that have just arrived. Whether this is thanks to wind blown seeds or because they have cadged a lift in on a bird I have no idea but come they do. As these weeds grow, they attract other plant species which are semi-aquatic, such as reeds and sedges which can form quite dense masses floating on the surface. Meanwhile, all of these plants die down and the rotting vegetation falls to the bottom of the pond so, in a surprisingly short space of time, the pond become a bog or marsh and then, when trees and shrubs gain a foothold, terra firma.

It is to avoid this that I remove weed each year and put it on the compost heap where it rots down and is used to feed our runner beans, etc. a couple of years later. These heaps of weeds spend a few days piled at the pond edge so that all the newts, beetles, larva and other invertebrates can crawl back into the water. Anyway, there in amongst all this weed was a dead fish – a carp no more than an inch and a half long. The obvious thing to do was to put it in the tadpolarium. Within a minute at the most, it was being attacked by the tadpoles and all signs had gone within three days.

Meanwhile I carried out another feeding test. Jossie has four ‛Frolics’ for breakfast and for supper. These are made from a combination of cereals, other vegetable extracts and various meat extracts. They are easy to handle so I thought I would try them out. I now know that frog tadpoles really enjoy Frolics but I am not so sure about the toad tadpoles. They have some tuna they have been eating and they are, of course, a week younger than their froggy cousins but so far they have shown no interest in the half-Frolic I gave them yesterday.

Time will tell.

Friday, 23 March 2012

To go or not to go? That is the question.

As many of you will already know, I have been having fun and games with my eyes so that for two years and a bit I was not able to drive. Happily I am now back in the driving seat but . . .

When you live as remotely as we do this sort of thing makes you think about what would have happened if, at the same time, Marcia had not been able to drive: through sickness (‛flu perhaps) or an accident (a broken wrist may be). The result is that we have days when we find ourselves seriously considering that we should move nearer to civilisation. Yesterday was such a day, the successor, I should add, of many such days.

It was a gloomy, overcast day with occasional spits of rain and a bitingly cold south easterly wind. The sun remained behind this boring veil of cloud, sulking to itself, throughout: the worst possible day in a house like this which needs the sun to be warm and cheerful. So we decided the time had come to move. The question then becomes: where?

Since we are talking about creating a lifestyle which would work well should neither of us be able to drive, clearly that means in the middle of a town but which one?

The obvious choice is Tavistock. We know it very well (I used to have an office in Tavistock) and know quite a lot people there. One of our closest friends is nearby and everything you could possibly want is contained in quite a small flat area. Tavistock has the best taxi service that I know of outside London, and Dartmoor is just up the road. Yes, Tavistock should be on the list.

Then, of course, there is Totnes. This is our old stamping ground and we have a host of friends living there or thereabouts. The main drag – High Street and Fore Street – is quite steep. This poses a problem: unless you live at the bottom of the hill. Still, Totnes is a contender.

In both cases it is extremely difficult to find houses that are in the right place for walking to and from the shops and yet allow the sun to pour in on good days. This is essential to Marcia; as is somewhere private outside where she can sit with a mug of tea or coffee and brood.

Of course we could consider going back to Dartmouth. Again the shopping area is on the level even if the houses mount the hills behind. Father lived in a first floor flat on the Embankment after my mother died and he had a wonderful view over the river to Kingswear on the opposite bank. There was always something to look at and that is another factor we are considering. What do people do all day? The thought of day time television brings both of us out in a cold sweat but with no garden (and therefore no contact procession of birds as we have here), no ponds (and no frogs, toads, tadpoles or newts – and no fish and herons) and all the work these entail, what would we do all day? Yes, we need a view, a busy view. It could be people or boats but it has to be something. As far as Dartmouth is concerned that means down near the water, and the prices there are indeed eye watering.

Of course, on the assumption we move while at least one of us is still driving we need somewhere to keep a car. Tricky in Tavistock, difficult in Totnes and almost impossible in Dartmouth.

Then we have to consider when we should move. Do we go now and spend the next twenty years wondering why we went too soon or wait until we are pushed so that we have to jump to whatever is available at the time.

Life is just so difficult at times.

Of course we could think about this as the time to do something totally different, to branch out and become part of a scene that is new to us. Neither of us have spent any appreciable time living in a city. Perhaps we should try. Marcia went to school in Bristol and I was a student there. Actually we were there at the same time although it was to be another twenty years before we met. Could we have had another twenty years of happiness or would the younger Marcia have found me too much to take?

Anyway, we decided to have a look at some of the houses for sale in Old Clifton (the only part in which Marcia would wish to live that could be within our means).

Then we had the mad idea of living on a narrow boat and gently exploring the canals and river. There is one for sale on a newish marina on the River Avon to the east of Bristol and not far from the Ariel Rowing Club to which I belonged when I was a student. This is not that one but is pretty typical of these boats.

This morning, however, the wind has dropped, the sun is out, the kitchen doors are open and we are drinking our after breakfast coffee to the sound of sparrows, great tits, one of the warblers (not sure which) and the occasional black bird. Oh, and just then the croaking of a pair of crows flying up the valley and a ewe calling to her lamb.

Perhaps we will postpone the move for a wee while longer after all.


The good news is that the toad eggs have hatched. There are only a few and they will be kept separated from the frogs as I want to see what differences there are.

The bad news is that I now start on that balancing act is so crucial to this whole thing: feeding tadpoles. If you put in too much food, or food that they reject, you soon contaminate the water and that causes all sorts of problems. If you don’t give them enough food, they will eat what is at hand and that is, of course, smaller tadpoles.

We talk about the loss of tadpoles thanks to predators such as herons, blackbirds, back-swimmers and dragonfly larva but probably the biggest losses are caused by cannibalism. It is estimated that a thousand frog eggs will produce no more than seven adults and sometimes less.

Since I see no point in trying to increase numbers just for them to eat each other, I tend to over feed and to compensate for this by changing the water every other day or so. Tap water should stand for about a week to ensure all traces of chlorine and other chemicals that the water authorities have added have gone. I have two sources: from the top pond which is connected to the house roof drains and the water tubs which stand beside the potting shed. In both cases this is rain water and, because we are so far to the west, it is almost pollution free.

In the wild, tadpoles live on dead fish and invertebrates – and each other. At the moment, I am trying Cumberland sausage and cat food (tuna in jelly). As far as I can make out sausage is far more popular than the tuna. Whether the fact that it is Cumberland or not I have yet to discover.

Friday, 16 March 2012

A lot of hot air!

I have just finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Another extraordinary book from an extraordinary writer. It is the title that has been reverberating in my mind: Cloud Atlas.

When you think about it, there can be no such thing. Clouds are so ephemeral, changing every second: forming, dividing, coalescing, dispersing, dissolving. These will o’ the wisps could never be captured in an atlas. Or could they?

Clouds have been, and remain, one of my passions. The result is that I have taken a fair few photographs of clouds over the years. Would such a collection be worthy of the being called a Cloud Atlas?

Properly to appreciate clouds you need two things: huge skies and lots of weather. Here, in the south western peninsula, we have both.

It seems to me that you are extremely unlikely to be able to appreciate the clouds above you if you live in a city. Obviously city dwellers can tell the difference between a sunny day and one where the sky is overcast or the sun is dodging behind clouds which are passing overhead but can they revel in the ever changing skyscape above them when their views must be limited by the buildings that surround them? I can’t answer that question as I have never lived in such an environment (well, only as a student to be more accurate and, then as now, students have things other than clouds on their minds). If you do, I would welcome your comment.

We get lots of weather here: by that I mean that it changes all the time and, regardless of the weather forecasts that have become far more accurate during my lifetime, these changes are very hard to predict. There are many parts of the world where the weather is a constant. The amount of media attention to weather forecasting is a good indicator. Here, in the United Kingdom, we are obsessed with forecasting and that says it all.

As I write, the sky is overcast. This, as far as Marcia and I are concerned, is the worst possible weather. Dull, depressing and boring. This is because we are sitting in an area of high pressure which is pretty unusual. Often high pressure brings clear blue skies but not at this time of the year when is seems to sit on the cloud and hold it in place.

It won’t be for long. Soon the depressions lining up in the Atlantic will move in and we shall see wind, rain and, of course, clouds.

Did you know that there is a Cloud Appreciation Society? They have over forty thousand members and a web site which, if you like clouds, you should look at it: click here. I am not a member as I see no need to belong to a society in order to appreciate one of nature’s great gifts.


Two matters to report this week.

As the tadpoles hatch they are moved from the ‛hatchery’ to the ‛nursery’. After two or three days of no more eggs hatching out, I assume that what remains is sterile. It is, however, jammed full of protein which should not be wasted so, albeit with some reluctance, the hatchery is emptied into the top pond. If any of the eggs are viable and hatch out, the tadpole is in its natural environment which is fine: if not it they (together with the jelly that surrounds them) will become food for some of the many carnivorous creatures that inhabit the pond. How many young tadpoles do we have in the nursery now? I really have no idea and they are far too small to be counted. Probably about the same as last year but we shall know when they get bigger.

A week or so old and they are still breathing through gills on either side of their bodies – one of the pair is visible on the right of the tadpole. If you look carefully, you can see the first signs of eyes appearing.

The second event was the result of pure luck. At this young age, tadpoles live on the algae that is found on the water plants. This year the plants from the bigger bottom pond seem to be carrying more algae than those from top pond so I hooked out some to add to the nursery. To my delight, I found it had strands of toad spawn wrapped around it. This has gone into a mini-hatchery and I hope to be able to help the toad population which is not thriving as it should.

Friday, 9 March 2012

March madness

It is not the hare alone that suffers from madness in March. It is at this time of the year that Marcia begins to come towards the end of the book she is writing. She will be somewhere between sixty and seventy thousand words when this particular form of madness kicks in. It is, I suppose, a neurosis if one becomes extremely neurotic. It is all to do with the book, as you would expect.

The problems are threefold and can be summarised thus:-

Marcia is terrified that she will forget all that she is carrying in her head: all the little loose ends that need to be tied up before the book reaches its natural conclusion. The fact that she has a note book in which reminders are written when thoughts occur is not enough to quell these fears. As she rightly explains, if the notes were fully developed you would end up writing each book twice. There is no point in my reminding her that she has happily finished twenty-six books already so her fears are unjustified. She is, as she points out, a year older than last time and therefore must be approaching unqualified senility.

The second problem is technical. We have both had enough computers die to know that this is a real possibility and she has never forgotten the time, five books back now, when she dropped her laptop on the slate floor of our kitchen. That was that. The work she had done that morning was lost (we copy the book each evening but not during the day) and she remains convinced that what she lost was far better than what was eventually written. I say eventually because the model of laptop she had been using was no longer available so we had to buy something different. Poor Marcia, it could not have happened at a worse time. She was already in the neurotic zone and trying to finish that book with a new bit of kit proved extremely stressful.

Then there are the fears associated with fire and burglary. I used to carry a copy on a memory stick when we were out but that opened up other terrors. Suppose I lost it? Suppose someone got hold of it and stole the plots and the characters? So I stopped doing that. Before we leave the house, Marcia hides her laptop (sorry, not going to tell you where) and the book is copied onto my PC and at least one – usually two – memory sticks which are held in separate locations. Of course, if someone where to break in, steal my PC and then set light to the house . . . The answer to that came from Marcia's agent, Dinah Wiener: leave a memory stick in the fridge where it stands a good chance of surviving a fire. So we do.

Fortunately this period of March madness is usually very short lived. The first fear drives Marcia so once she is in this danger zone she works incredibly hard – it is not unknown for her to write five thousand words in one day. So, after a week or ten days the final words are written and life returns to normal. Normal, that is, for a household in which lives a novelist and a man who writes blogs and articles on the political scene in the UK.

* * * * *

Long-tailed tits are amongst our prettiest visitors. They live in flocks of anything from four to fifty. They live on insects and each flock seems to have a feeding route that they will work around twice or even three times every day. We are very lucky to be on one flock's feeding route which includes the small wood that adjoins our garden and takes them along the hedges of two fields before coming back to us. Being one of our smallest birds, they are terribly susceptible to the cold and it is thought that over 80% can die in a really bad winter.

According to most authorities they are strictly insectivorous and so cannot benefit from the food that is put out in bird feeders and on bird tables. That is not our experience. Twice a day they pop in and eat from both the peanut feeders and the fat balls. Incidentally, you can buy fat balls in green plastic nets which is a pity as not infrequently birds get their feet tangled in these nets when there is little food left inside. That is usually the end as they are either taken by a predator or die of a combination of hunger and cold. As you can see, you can buy feeders that take fat balls which are not in nets. The same problem can happen if you hang up nets containing peanuts.
Two long-tailed tits on a fat ball tower

Anyway, a few days ago one long-tailed tit started to behave in a way I have never seen before. It would swoop at the kitchen windows time after time. For a while we thought this one had 'lost' the flock but he (she?) would carry on swooping even when the flock called for a quick snack so it can't have been that. Was he (she?) seeing a reflection and assuming it to be either a potential mate or a rival? Has this bird discovered a new way of feeding? It does look remarkably like the way the pied wagtail behaves when feeding. We shall probably never know.
Every now and then he (she?) would take a short rest.
*     *     *     *     *
Time to reveal the truth behind the mystery photograph. No one got it quite right although some of you were close. All of you opted for food but actually it was a bucket of mineral and vitamin lick such as the one shown below. The green circle in the middle was where the bucket had been standing. Almost every farm animal was suggested: pigs, cattle and sheep as well as one donkey and some chicken. It was, in fact, the feet of sheep that had caused the muddy ring. It rarely looks as bad as this but over the six days they were in that field it absolutely poured down and so it soon became a quagmire. It has dried out now but it will be a while before the grass starts growing again. 


Not a great deal to report. Most of the eggs have now hatched and turned into tiny tadpoles. Most of them are still spending the day resting on the bottom but some are beginning to feed. At this stage they seem to be quite happy browsing on the algae on the leaves of water plants so I make sure that they have some fresh vegetation (I so nearly said vegetables) every day.

On Sunday they will have to be moved into fresh water – taken from the pond with some weed. Last year was the first time I realised the importance of constantly changing the water and I think this is probably the main reason why it worked so well then.
We are growing, nearly a quarter of an inch long now.

Friday, 2 March 2012

The five senses and other matters

Wednesday was probably the best day we have had this year: definitely the first day of spring. The house is south facing (well, south with a little bit of east in it) and gets the sun all day long with the result that it was wonderfully warm even with the heating turned off. We were remarkably lucky to keep a hole in the clouds all day. Places a few miles to the west of us had a miserable time.

It was warm enough for us to have lunch on the terrace - and for Marcia to decide to do some work outside.

She wasn't the only one at work, a small tortoiseshell butterfly was out collecting food nearby.

That evening I walked Jossie around the field just as the sun was setting. At this time of the year before the leaves appear on the trees they look wonderful silhouetted against the sky.

Now for something really silly. The picture below was taken in the middle of the field and the question is, what is going on here? To give you any idea of scale, the mud circle is about six or seven feet in diameter. A sheet of eight signed book plates is the prize for the first person to come up with the right answer (either by a comment below or by email).

*     *     *     *
Those of you who read last week’s blog will remember that I included a short piece which explored the five senses written by young Inigo, Marcia’s great nephew.

It was seven o'clock this morning when I took Jossie out for her early walk. As you can see it was another magical moment as the sun peeked out of a fairly cloudy sky. Sight.

So what of the other senses? There was a great tit up in a tree letting us all know he was in possession. His repeated call ‛teecha, teecha’ is surprisingly loud.

So too was a fascinating song I could not identify but must have been by a member of the warbler family whilst a pair of crows sailed up the valley croaking away to each other like an old and contented married couple. Hearing.

There was a faint whiff of pig in what was otherwise a clear and fresh morning but that was soon destroyed as young Pete drove past in his van leaving diesel fumes hanging in the air behind him. Living in the country has its down side. Smell.

It was a chilly morning and I slipped into my old Barbour waistcoat. In the pocket, and completely forgotten, I found a couple of ‛seeds’ that must be at least two years old: a hazel nut and an acorn. Inevitably I was rolling them between my fingers and comparing the smoothness of the hazel nut with the wrinkled acorn which has, I assume, shrunk as it has dried out. Are they still fertile? No idea and there is only one way to find out. I shall pop them into a pot and see what happens. Touch.

The real advantage of taking Jossie out so early is that Marcia will have a hot cup of coffee waiting for me when I return. Ahh! Taste.


On Sunday we saw the first toads of the season. They like being in the bottom pond under a fir tree and in amongst the various plants that grow in that corner. It’s all very untidy and would be the despair of any true gardener but we consider the ‛pond garden’ to be more of a nature reserve than anything else.

Tuesday and a shock. There, in amongst the frog spawn, was a dragon fly larva. These guys are lethal – probably the most voracious under water predator (other than some fish and there are none in this pond) that any tadpole could meet. True to form, this one was enjoying a quick egg-of-frog snack when I saw him and moments later he (or, of course, she) was in my tadpole net which, in its earlier life, was a kitchen sieve. No, he (she?) did not die despite such policide tendencies but was returned in rude health to the top pond (see photo below) where, no doubt, he will find other spawn on which to dine.

Wednesday – one week old. As you can see the eggs have begun to change shape.

Today the first of the tadpoles have ‛hatched’ and been moved to the nursery. At this stage they are a bit camera shy but I will try to find one prepared to pose for you before next Friday.