Friday, 29 November 2013

Past and Present

This blog is mainly about what I have been doing because I have had a really interesting week whilst Marcia's, by way of some contrast, has been mainly hard work (something to do with a book she's supposed to be writing) although she has spent a bit of time with her friend Susie and her sister Bridget.

This is a sketch map I drew when the idea was first mooted.
At that time it was going to be little more than a leaflet. Hmmm.
Meanwhile I have been playing with photographs. This is all to do with the book that I am supposed to be writing: Marcia Willett's West Country - Dartmouth and Start Bay. This will include Hattie's Mill Revisited but the decision to expand it means there is no possibility of it being available until next year. Anyway, the new format has four parts:

  1. Dartmouth Past and Present.
  2. Hattie's Mill Revisited.
  3. Start Bay Past and Present.
  4. Second Time Around revisited.

In theory this is the first of five small books: the others covering Totnes, Tavistock and Dartmoor, Exmoor and, lastly, Cornwall.

The idea was that the "past" would be covered by words and the present by photographs thus giving people who have never visited this part of the world a feel for it. However, although the idea of covering the present using photographs remains in place I decided we needed some old images as well. Trawling through some of the old pictures in my "family archive" helped but they were pretty much centred on life in the shipyard (where my mother, her father and other members of her family worked). I wanted some more and then stumbled across "The Francis Frith Collection".

Definitely from the past: this is the long gone Royal Sands Hotel that once stood on Torcross Line and is one of the ones from The Francis Frith Collection (who retain the copyright) that I shall be using in the book. 
Mr Frith was a photographer (born 1822 and died 1898 so a very early photographer). Having travelled abroad for some years, he opened one of the first photographic businesses in the world and decided he wanted to create a record of every town and village in the UK – an incredible ambition. Although he recruited a number of willing helpers, he took many of the pictures himself. Anyway, he more or less succeeded and his family continued to run the business until 1970. When it closed there was a great risk that this incredible collection would be lost but that didn't happen and you are free to browse through some 133,000 images of 32,647 towns and villages (not to mention maps, books and shared memories).

Not having room in this book for 132,967 pictures, I have bought the right to publish only four of them but I am sure I shall want others for the other books.

If you are having trouble finding a present for anyone (including yourself) I would be amazed of you could not find something suitable on their web site:

Now for the present: here we see a monument erected by the Americans to remember the people in the surrounding parishes who had to leave their homes (with very little notice) when this became a training ground for the American army in WWII. It is situated close to where the Royal Sands Hotel, which was destroyed during these training exercises, once stood.
Then, yesterday, my friend and long time sailing partner Roger Whitewood and I took to the water of the River Dart while Marcia spent the day with her sister. I haven’t had time to even download all the material from yesterday so I will tell you all about that trip next week.

Meanwhile, last week there were a couple of comments from Ronald who lives in Holland which you might have seen. Now, I'm very good with dogs and quite good with cattle. The big black person with the long horns was only about six feet from me when I took that photograph. What I am not good with is horses – I'm sure they sense that I'm rather afraid of them. I do my best to hide it but they know, they know. True, I do all the right things: approach from the front quietly, offer the back of my hand for the animal to sniff and so on. It doesn't work – they see through me straight away. Perhaps that is why I was always such a rotten rider even though I was passable at lunging and long reining.

Two for the price of one: Charlotte and Emily.
Both far more interested in looking (adoringly, I would suggest)
at their mistress than a mere photographer.
Ah well, it's good to know one's place.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Cows' Week - no, NOT Cowes Week - Cow's Week

I am married to a very odd girl. Generally speaking, she likes “small”. If we are eating out she will always ask for a small portion and if - in a moment of misguided generosity - she is given a plate filled with food her appetite immediately evaporates. She likes small corners, too - usually writes in a small corner and did so even when she had a splendid study. One of her “small” things is a beautiful cut-glass wine glass which belonged to her mother. It holds less than half a normal wine glass but she is quite happy with that and uses it whenever we have lunch at home. Now, after all these years, it has developed a crack and so next time we find ourselves in Totnes on market day, I shall be on the lookout for a replacement. Fingers crossed.

However, there are some things that she likes which are far from small: the obvious example is her love of Newfoundland dogs. There is another big animal that has been a part of our lives for many years: highland cattle. When I say "part of our lives" please do not get the idea that we have ever owned one of these magnificent beasts or anything like that. No, our involvement has been passive: simply watching and enjoying them. Back in the day the only place I remember seeing them was in the fields then farmed by the prisoners at H M Prison at Princetown on Dartmoor.

The prison farm was started about two hundred years ago and covered about one thousand six hundred acres and provided work for about sixty prisoners. It was a stock farm with something in the order of eight hundred ewes and four hundred head of cattle of which about a quarter was a milking herd. This herd supplied the prison and the factory at Lifton where Ambrosia creamed rice is produced which took over two hundred gallons of milk every day. There were also Blue Greys, Galloways and (for milking) Friesians.

Then, to my dismay, I learned that this activity was to cease and all the highland cattle would be sold off. That was nearly ten years ago but I need not have worried. Now, instead of being confined in fields these Highlanders are free to roam the moors and, as you would expect, they are supremely suited to that environment. Since their release (if that is the right word), I have taken a couple of hundred photographs of them and I thought it was time to share seven of them: one for every day of cows’ week! 

Oh, I also have nearly as many of the gorgeous Belted Galloways as well but they will have to wait for another day.

You keep watch down the hill while I ...  

Friday, 15 November 2013

Poems and publications

Quite a few people in recent days have been asking Marcia about the poem from which she quoted in Forgotten Laughter. They want to know where they can read it. Well, the answer is here. The poem was written by Marcia's sister, Bridget, and has not been published. Very few people who write the occasional poem can get their work into print. Of course it is possible to make these available in this electronic age and so I decided to explore and see whether or not there are any web sites devoted to just that. I Googled "web site for poets" and came up with a few that looked quite interesting. However, you do need to know how the internet works to make this work for you and not all poets do (Bridget is one of these).  Anyway, enough: here is the poem.


I sat there in the window
Looking down below
At the cobbles in the courtyard
Dusted white with snow.
The scene was very peaceful
The air was very cold.
The lights from the windows opposite
In the darkness stood out bold.
I sat there in the window
In the evening without light.
I wished I were a grown-up
And could go out in the night.

I stood there in the courtyard
The cobbles wet with snow
The windows all around me
Had a welcome glow.
I stood there in the darkness
Wondering which way to go.
People hurried past me
Keeping their gazes low.
The night was very silent
The air so very cold.
I wish I were a child again
And had a hand to hold.

Thinking of snow, this last week we had the first frost of the winter. The lanes up on the moor were quite icy and so the time has come to bring into shelter some of the pots out in the garden so that what is growing in them has a better chance of surviving and a good start in the spring. It really is amazing how quickly time flies by for it seems as if it was only the other day that Marcia and I set off to start looking for the setting of the book she is now writing. That was one of those brilliant late spring days and so was months ago. Where have they gone?

Marcia with some of the readers after her talk at the Taunton Literary Festival.

We received an email from Chris Smale (Transworld's representative in this part of the world) yesterday with some pictures of Marcia at the talk she gave for the Taunton Literary Festival which is hosted by Brendon Books. This was, as you know, the last function in what is now last year's writing year (simply because the last function after publication day marks the year end) and so we now start all over again - except, of course, that Marcia has been working on another book since that day in spring.

Taken last spring from the corner of a field behind Torcross where
we spent many hours while Marcia connected with her new characters
Publication day is, in one sense, a double event: the arrival of a brand new book in hardback plus the paperback edition of the book first published last year. Readers who turn up at signings and talks have the perfectly reasonable expectation that Marcia will be able to talk quite intelligently about these two books without realising that this is quite difficult. Putting The Sea Garden to one side for a moment, since finishing Postcards from the Past she has written and finalised next year's book (to be called Indian Summer) which will come out in 2014 and is hard at work on the next one (it has a working title but that might be changed so it will remain a secret for now) which should be on the book shelves in 2015. Each book deals with a completely new bunch of characters - although we know that we often come across old friends as well. So, when Marcia looks blank when someone asks, "Will Oliver be able to work from the Tamar?" please understand that for a long, long and, for her, embarrassing moment she has no idea what the questioner is talking about. Really, no idea: she has moved on - which is how it should be.

This week we have Spike, a miniature poodle from the other
side of the Atlantic.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

And now for the next book

On Wednesday evening Marcia fulfilled the last of the events associated with this year’s publication which, as I am sure you all know, was for the hardback of Postcards in the Past and the paperback of The Sea Garden. So it is time . . . I nearly found myself writing “to get back to normal” . . . to get back to living in a world that presently encompasses a group of people living on the south coast of Devon. Some are in the town of Dartmouth.

The last event was to speak at the Taunton Literary Festival. The talk was held in Brendon Books – one of the remaining independent bookshops in this area – and the place was, as expected, full. Then there was, of course, time for questions.

Marcia and her agent, Dinah, at the Times Oxford Literary Festival
Talking about a group of people and literary festivals brings to mind the time when Marcia was speaking at the Times Oxford Literary Festival in, I think, 2008. She shared the platform with Meg Roscoff – writer of delightful children’s books, American and a trained psychologist. Come question time and a gentlemen raised his hand. ‘You describe the family in your book, Ms Willett, as “dysfunctional”. How would you define dysfunctional?'

‘How would you define it?’ asked Marcia.

‘I asked the question.’

‘I can tell you exactly what she means by dysfunctional,’ interjected Meg and she then proceeded to explain in details exactly what the word meant to a psychologist. When she had finished she turned to the questioner and asked him, ‘ And what do you do for a living?’

‘I compile dictionaries,’ came the reply.

Only in Oxford!

It may have been May (I think - possibly April) but it snowed.
An Oxford quad, brilliants sunshine, blue sly - and snow.

Back to this group on Devon’s south coast. Yes, they are a group but not a family – when you think about it Marcia very rarely does ‘families’ in the sense of a married couple with two point four children or whatever the average may be. Her ‘families’ are people who life has brought together in unusual groupings, usually through events outside their control or just because they meet and like each other. As far as I can gather there is a bit of both in this book but I am hopelessly lost, really. We have been in the “real” world for the last two or three weeks and I have lost the threads but no doubt I shall catch up soon. Then, of course, I shall not be able to say anything: the last thing I want to do is to diminish your pleasure when the book is finally published at the end of 2015.

From my point of view the setting of the book could not be better. I mentioned Hattie’s Mill Revisited a while back but things have moved on and I have (again) changed the format. At last – after years of getting it wrong – I think I am getting it right. The idea is twofold and bringing the ideas together into one publication (is it a book or a booklet?) has proved to be an enormous challenge. On the one hand I wanted to talk about the places that inspired the settings for the book and on the other to talk about the way Marcia creates her worlds.
Talking about the places, trying to give something to people who have never visited the area was, in the first place, going to be a minor part but I have realised that in some ways it is the more important. So the present idea is that there will be five publications (assuming I can keep going long enough) which will be centred on places: Dartmouth and Start Bay; Totnes; Tavistock and Dartmoor; Exmoor. Bodmin Moor and North Cornwall.

The first, then, is Marcia Willett’s West Country – Dartmouth and Start Bay. The two novels that are firmly set in this area are Hattie’s Mill and Second Time Around. Characters in a number of other books pop in and out of the town – Cass and Kate going to the Britannia Royal Naval College balls; Fliss and Miles live in Dartmouth for a while; Angus moves here in The Prodigal Wife and so on.
Thus there is a section ‘Dartmouth – Past and Present’ to be followed by ‘Hattie’s Mill revisited’ then ‘Start Bay – Past and Present’ and ‘Second Time Around revisited’.

The sweep of Start Bay from Start Point to the mouth of the Dart

The past is basically in words although I have found a few old photos but the present is essentially pictorial and one of the pictures I wanted was of Start Bay taken from Start Point showing the sweep of the coast all the way around to the mouth of the Dart with the Mew Stone (a lump of rock – you could hardly call it an island) that guards the entrance to the river. To get this picture needed the right weather and a crystal clear sky. It rained very hard on Sunday washing all the dust out of the atmosphere and Monday was set to be a sunny day so off we went and, yes, I got what I wanted.

Once again, I regret to say, I ended up chatting to the owner and then forgot to ask for the name of the dog. I love the notice in the background. This delightful spaniel is, like most spaniels, worried. In this case worried because his mistress has gone off AND LEFT HIM!!!

Ahh, there she is! Come on, hurry up and don't get run over as you cross the road!

For those of you who know Totnes, this dog is in front of the new shop selling all sorts of gear for walkers and so on which is in the premises that once housed Woolworths, opposite the Rumour Wine Bar.

Friday, 1 November 2013

On All Saints' Day

Well, the signings are over for another twelve months and so this is the time when Marcia tries to reconnect with the characters in the book she is writing. They disappear when the real world intrudes – which is probably very sensible of them. The poor things have enough problems of their own without adding to them with the dramas we watch unfolding on our television screens or read about in our newspapers.

Marcia at the last signing in Waterstones, Exeter
with one of her loyal readers, Claire Rudkin.
This year, however, it is not quite as simple as that. Next Wednesday evening (at 7.30 if it matters) Marcia will be giving a talk in Brendon Books of Taunton. The bookshop organises The Taunton Literary Festival: click here if you want to learn more. Anyway, that will mean another interruption in this business of connecting with characters but that is all part and parcel of a novelist’s life.

It does mean, of course, that we have done almost nothing since the last signing as Marcia reads herself back into the book. So, this week I will say something about what I have been up to – or more accurately what I have not been up to.

In London there is a news agency that sells video clips to news outlets around the world. These are shot by all sorts of freelance people of which I am one. You may have heard that a very severe storm was to cross the UK last week. These are unusual: most storms start way out in the Atlantic if not close to North America, wind themselves up over the ocean and hit us long after they have begun to calm down. This one, however, was predicted to start quite close to the UK and we were all prepared for winds in excess of 100 miles per hour and lots of rain. Newsflare contacted me and asked me to provide bvideo of this storm.

It may have been calmer than I expected but Dartmouth
looked pretty gloomy when I went down there.
This would not have been a problem but for one small thing: in this area it never really happened. There were two reasons, as far as I can make out. The first was that the storm started even closer to the UK than was forecast and not built up to be much of a problem until it was well to the east of South Devon (actually it was not until it hit Denmark that the wind speeds peaked). The second was that the effect down here seemed to be very local: worse on the north coast than the south. Anyway, the upshot was that there was nothing worth filming so I didn’t.

What was really irritating was that there was a tree down on the railway line a few miles away and well within my patch. This happened in the early hours of the morning and a train (passenger but empty) did run into it but there was no damage and I didn’t hear about this until everything had been cleared up so there was nothing for me to see.

It’s a bit like that when you want pictures of birds and so on. There they are, sitting comfortably, until you have the camera in hand and switched on. Some sixth sense tells them that their privacy is about to be invaded and they are away before you have time to hit the shutter. Plants are so much easier.

Ready to be picked: the crab apples.
Which leads me on to say that the crab apples have been picked by a good friend who will be turning them into crab apple jelly and, I have no doubt, letting us have a couple of jars in due course.

This week we have four Labrador dogs instead of one. Why not?

The top two photographs come from a reader in Canada. Here is the story. 

"The attached of Kyle (l) and Walker (r) is for your Dog(s) of the Week blog dog. 

Sadly, both have gone now and Wylie is now on scene.  Wylie's name comes from a combination of what else.....Kyle and Walker. He is now 9 1/2 months old and is recovering from surgery from elbow dysplasia.  (not sure of the spelling on that).  He is doing well but the prescribed 6 weeks of "bed rest" is nigh impossible.  We (he lives and is officially owned by my daughter and her husband) are trying though.

By the way, Walker was a working guide dog for Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind.  He guided in BC for almost 10 years.  Since we had puppy walked him he came back to us to enjoy his retirement.  Kyle was also a Canadian Guide Dog and we puppy walked him too.  Alas, he showed signs of knee dysplasia and he too was operated on.  He was a wonderful pet for 10 years but was never accepted into the guide dog programme due to his occasional lameness.

And the 3rd pic (I hope 3 photos is not too many) is of our friend's miniature poodle named Spike."

Where is that picture of Spike? In the folder for next week. Meanwhile, the bottom photograph is of a dog that belongs to an old friend of ours (old as in years of friendship, you understand, not as in age) called Teazel and it is taken in one of the fields near here with Ugborough Beacon on the southern slopes of Dartmoor in the distance.