Friday, 28 December 2012

The Last Friday

On this, the last Friday in the year, Marcia and I have been back to Tavistock to meet up with some of our friends in that area. There are two ways of making the journey – by main road or across the moor. Most ‛sensible’ people would take the first option: A38 down towards Plymouth and straight out on the A386 to Tavistock: distance about 28 miles and time in the order of fifty minutes. We, however, habitually take the road over the moor. This is about the same distance but will take you ten minutes longer and there are, for us, huge plus factors.

Even on a day such as today when for most of the journey we were in low lying cloud with very poor visibility it is a magical place and, to us, as beautiful as it is in brilliant sunshine. In some ways it is even more magical and, as often happens when we cross the moor, we started talking about the books: today it was about the way in which Marcia gets inspiration. Often these discussions are centred around places but today we talked about people. It is an absolute fact that not one fictional character in any of her books is based on anyone she knows. I put it like that because in some books she will mention a real person in a specific context. A good example is Patsy in the Post Office in South Brent as recorded in The Courtyard. Patsy, long since retired, was, of course, based on the real Patsy and she still lives in South Brent.

Marcia started the ball rolling by saying she thought she had received more inspiration from books she had read than from people she had met – did I agree? Well, no, I didn’t think I did. I have watched Marcia watching people for over thirty years and I know when she is just being very polite but has allowed her brain to slip into neutral and when all the antennae are waving about and notes are being taken in some dark recess in her mind.

It is body language that she studies when she is at a distance from the people in focus. ‛That man is telling lies,’ she may say. I will watch him attentively but be completely unable to see what it is that she sees – the tilt of a shoulder, perhaps, or the movement of a hand – but, at the same time, I do see that she is absolutely right.

When her ‛prey’ is close to and talking to her, I watch the story that is being told wash over her knowing that she is not the least bit interested in what model her companion’s grandson made during the last art class but fascinated to observe what the person is feeling, what is making them tick. Then the following conversation can be quite unsettling. ‛She is terribly unhappy,’ Marcia will say. ‛How can you tell?’ I ask. ‛You can see it in her eyes, poor darling. She is worried about something, very worried.’ I have to be content with that.

What makes her characters so real to us all? There is no doubt that readers who send us emails and so on all feel that these characters have become personal friends. I don’t really know (and could, I suspect, make a lot of money if I did know) but it is a fact of life that when she is writing she lives in the world she has created and it is ‛real life’ that ceases to be our ‛reality’.

Talking about emails: a huge thank you to all of you who send us emails. They really are terribly important to both of us (needy creatures that we are). We now get so many that some, I fear, do go unanswered. Please forgive us when that happens: it really is because there are too many to cope with and not because they have been ignored.

May I wish you all a peaceful and healthy New Year. Believe me, 2013 will be a glass half full: not one half empty.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Christmas Books by Marcia

A few days ago a guest on BBC Three’s morning programme said that it had become a lifelong habit to read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens at this time of the year to get him into the Christmas mood. The opening few sentences of the book were read – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with.’ – and immediately, in my mind’s eye, I saw my own childhood copy of the book, almost A4 in size with rubbed, faded red boards and, inside, the wonderful full-size illustrations by Emil Weiss (two of these below). As I listened I remembered how I, too, used to read the book each year as a pre-Christmas treat, saving it for this special time. I rather liked the two Ghosts, Past and Present, who seemed very jolly, sympathetic fellows, but the Phantom of the Fourth Stave frightened me and the scene described as ‘a den of infamous report, with a low-browed beetling shop’ is still vivid in my mind – as are its owner, the laundress, the charwoman and the undertaker’s man.

When this was first read to me I was too young to grasp the deeper meanings of this passage – perhaps my mother edited out some of the gloomier parts – but I instinctively recoiled from it. Yet the idea of redemption shone through; that life-affirming opportunity to step free from the the limitations that keep us small and mean, as Scrooge does in Stave Five: ‘No fog, no mist . . . Golden sunlight; heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells . . . Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness.’

I have the book beside me now as I write and, whilst I was looking for it, I found another book I used to read in the same spirit. This is Christmas at Nettleford by Malcolm Saville. The first chapter is titled ‘Home Again’ and thirteen year-old Elizabeth Ann Langton wakes up in her dormitory bed on the last day of the Christmas term thinking of going home to a ‘large vicarage in a small country town.’ Such a satisfying read, with the Wise Owl bookshop – well, there would have to be a bookshop, wouldn’t there? – its two gangs, the Owlers and the Red Handers (who become friends at the end), the discovery of a valuable antique, which disappears and then turns up again offered as a present at the crib by Elizabeth’s well-meaning small brother during the nativity play – and snow in all the right places! I loved it.

Looking along the shelves I discovered other books my clever, intuitive mother had found for me to read all those years ago: wonderfully strange books, apart from the usual classics. I wonder who can remember Hilda Van Stockum’s Pegeen, Mary Maple Dodge’s Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. Kate Seredy’s The Good Master. Winifred Letts’ Naughty Sophia. John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk.

This last I first heard serialised on the BBC’s Children’s Hour. It’s theme music was taken from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and even now each time I hear it I am back in the past, crouched by the big radiogram waiting to hear more about Kay Harker and his friends, Nibbins the cat and Bitem the fox, and the scary witch Mrs Pouncer with her sneaky familiars, Greymalkin and Blackmalkin.

I have no doubt that all these books, along with many, many others, have influenced my writing, and I thank all those writers who brought such magic to my childhood. Much more than that, the books became my friends; there for me when times were sad or bad or happy.

I’d like to thank you, too, for reading the books that I write, for sending such generous, heart-warming emails to me and for the beautiful Christmas cards. May I wish you all a blessed, peaceful Christmas and say – along with Tiny Tim – and Uncle Theo – ‘God bless us, every one’.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A winter journey

The other day, we had to drive across Dartmoor to attend a meeting. It was one of those brilliant but cold days and you could see for miles. I'm afraid that it would have needed a better photographer than I am to justice to the sheer majesty of the moor on such days. As we drove up onto Holne Moor, the sun suddenly lit up hills beyond Buckland-in-the-Moor.

I love the contrast between the evergreen gorse in the foreground with the golden glow of the dying bracken on the further hills and the slash of buff yellow where the winter grasses are catching the sun. 

As we drove up from the River Dart at Hexworthy, I spotted this old (and very nearly dead) hawthorn growing in the wall. It may be on its last legs but it is home to some wonderful lichens.

As we turned the next corner, there was an even more spectacular display. This tree remains healthy - you can see the red berries which will, no doubt, provide a decent meal for a passing blackbird.

We weren't the only ones enjoying the sunshine. These people will spend the winter up on the open moorland, their thick coats protecting them from the cold and the wind. As you can see from the frost which still remains on the grass up here, it was not the warmest of days.

These cattle are really beautiful, aren't they?

On the way home again, we stopped off for a warming cup of tea at Two Bridges Hotel where, to my surprise, the hotel geese were on parade in the car park. I say to my surprise since I have never seen them here before: they are usually down by the river.

The temperature began to drop quite rapidly, as you can see, and we were very glad to be on the way home.

As we headed south, the mist began to form in the valleys below but from the colour of the sky it seemed likely that the next day would be just as fine. And it was.

Friday, 7 December 2012

More sun and less rain, please.

Today for the first time the rising sun was too low to shine through the roof light into the kitchen (you will recall that we now live in an ‛upside-down’ house). Sun is so important to both of us and the other kitchen window faces north. Hmmm. Still, we must remember that it is but a fortnight to the shortest day and so we will be ‛without kitchen sun’ for about a month. When we moved here in the middle of the summer, we had a number of pointless discussions as to how long this period would be and it is actually far shorter than either of us expected.

We sometimes wonder how people living within the Arctic Circle manage without seeing the sun at all for days on end. There was a time when we considered moving to the far north of Scotland. It’s a long story with which I will not bore you but one of the reasons we decided against was the long winter evenings. As a friend of our living near Ullapool said, “When I was young we would all gather together in the evenings for a cĂ©ilidh but now everyone sits at home watching television and drinking far too much whisky.”
Actually, when we gave this project serious consideration we both realised that we would hate to leave this part of England.

In recent days our local evening news on the television has shown film of the Dorset coast (the Jurassic Coast as some call it) falling into the sea. It seems that the attack is coming from two directions: the sea (of course) and from the heavy rain saturating the fairly soft sandstone from which these cliffs are made. Some poor folk have been watching their gardens fall away and are obviously very worried since, sooner or later, their houses will also disappear. They are in a dreadful place for there is nothing they can do: nobody will be prepared to buy a property about to become a part of the sea bed.
Even quite small streams are carrying huge quantities of silt.
Even the far tougher rocks on the coasts of the western part of Devon and Cornwall are not immune from erosion. Hallsands, a village on the eastern flank of Start Point, was engulfed by the waves on 26 January 1917. Why did that happen? Well, the probable answer is that the removal of many tons of sand and gravel from the sea bed in order to provide material for the breakwater at Plymouth caused the beach which had protected the village to subside. There was the usual public inquiry before this work started and the inspector determined that the dredging would not cause any problems. However, further investigations at the turn of the century queried this and the licence to dredge was revoked in 1902 since when the beach has returned to its former level but too late to save the sea wall and the village – the remains of which can be seen from a viewing platform built above it by the local authority.
The River Erme at Ivybridge doing all it can to take Devon and dump it out at sea.
My mind has been brooding along these lines because when we crossed the moor last Friday there was a good deal of flood water pouring down the lanes, tumbling out of banks and swelling the streams and rivers already in spate. Often we were forced to slow right down as we crossed through fords where water was running over bridges rather than under them. And all of it was a dark brown: all of it was carrying little bits of Devon away and taking it grain by grain down to the sea. And what is left behind is often all the more beautiful as a result – until the day comes when the last vestige of topsoil is lost and all that remains is a rocky desert. And there is nothing we can do about any of it. It may not be a comfortable thought but in the end nature is a lot more powerful than we are.
The last signing was in Waterstones of Exeter.
Marcia has now finished her round of signings for this year and is getting stuck in to the next book which is coming along nicely. This is the exciting bit: then comes the desert (the middle bit which seems to go nowhere and take for ever to get there) before we get towards the end and then, as the light at the end of the tunnel burns every more brightly, there is the romp to the finishing post. Most of that will be in the New Year: now we are both having fun as more is revealed about the group of people who, in the fullness of time, you will all come to know. Despite this Marcia has promised that between now and Christmas she will either write a special blog for you or talk to you on a video clip.