Friday, 27 June 2014


This week my blog is written by Marcia.


On Wednesday I drove across the moor to meet friends in Tavistock. 

It was a quiet, grey west-country day: drifting mist obscuring the distant tors, ponies grazing with their foals, the rhododendrons at Venford Reservoir a dim, fading pink. As I reached North Hessary Tor the cloud thinned and a watery sun gleamed through and, by the time I arrived at The Bedford Hotel, the sky was clear and blue and it was promising to be another hot morning.

For more than forty years I’ve been meeting friends in the Bedford Hotel. When Charles was at Mount House School I’d take him there for exeats - when it was too far to drive back to whichever naval port we might be stationed at - and always with our golden retriever, Cassie, who was made very welcome at the Bedford. All our dogs have loved going to the Bedford; hurrying up the front steps in the expectation of seeing an old friend, settling under the table in the corner by the window, pricking ears or giving an appreciative thump of the tail when one of the staff appeared with a bowl of cold water.

This morning I was meeting Jean for coffee. Some people say that it’s not possible to make close friends when you’re old. It’s not true. I’ve known Jean for six or seven years; she came to help muck us out at The Hermitage but after a very short while she became a very close and special friend. What is that rare dynamic, that odd, instant recognition, that makes someone a ‘kindred spirit’? She’s much younger than I am, our life experiences have been quite different, but it isn’t relevant: we are on that same wavelength that surmounts those barriers.

We shared our news, we laughed a lot, we enjoyed the coffee – then we parted and I went to meet Carrye at ‘Café Liaison’ on Church Path.

I’ve known Carrye for forty-two years; we were young naval wives together. At Carrye’s wedding (our husbands were on the same submarine but I’d known her for only a few short months) Charles, who was then two and half, disappeared during the reception. When I found him he was sitting amongst a pile of her half-opened wedding presents thinking, no doubt, that Christmas had come again. Carrye was amazingly gracious about it! I am godmother to her daughter. We have a shared past embracing married quarters, Summer Balls, loneliness, silly in-jokes, divorce, bereavement . . . Lunch lasted for over two hours.

The journey home was through a very different landscape: a brilliant sky, the high rocks clear and sharp. I stopped below Cox Tor, reluctant to leave one of my favourite places and an inspiration for so many of the books, and bought an ice-cream. In the far distance I could see the gleam of the Tamar and, beyond that, the sea. How often I’d walked here with Charles and Cassie all those years ago.

I finished my ice-cream and as I glanced again towards the west I though I saw a small boy playing with a golden retriever, chasing a ball and running in the sunshine, but the sun was dazzling in my eyes and, when I looked again, they’d gone.

My best to you all and thank you for being such loyal readers.


Last week I had to pop into our local garden machinery place and one of the chap's there has with him a young puppy. Neither of us could resist him so here he is chewing Marcia's scarf.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Devon? Cornwall?

At this time of the year – well, usually a bit earlier than this but we are running a bit late after the move and everything else – Marcia starts to think about where the next book will be set. I feel reasonably confident in predicting that it will be somewhere in Devon or Cornwall but beyond that it would be dangerous to go.

The way it works is something like this. Somewhere in the back of her mind Marcia has one or two characters beginning (her words) to reveal themselves. She is on record as saying that the characters bring their landscapes with them and this is because of what we call a “Clare’s wedding moment”. Like all family catchphrases that is a code that cannot be broken – you have to know what it means. Clare is one of Marcia’s nieces and she, obviously, was getting married and we, as you would expect, had been invited. Getting there was a bit complicated as we had to fetch our son from school in the way. Somehow and for some reason neither of us could quite see ourselves at the church. There was no rational explanation for these feelings – which we both had – but they were quite strong.

The garden is full of young birds pestering their parents to feed them - and parents doing their best to move them on. Here is a young blackbird who, when he grows up will be like the smart guy below.

To cut a long story short, we had problems with the car and so we just made the reception. Ever since, a situation that looks perfectly reasonable but in which one or the other of us simply does not believe is a “Clare’s wedding moment”.

Looking for the landscapes brought by Marcia’s characters usually results in many miles of travel and many such moments until, usually unexpectedly, it all feels right to her and we have found what she has been looking for. Sometimes this is definitely not where she would like the book to be set but you can’t have everything you want, can you?

Probably the most uncanny example was finding where Maudie Todhunter was living. This was before Marcia started writing A Week in Winter – before simple because she could not get going until she could see Maudie in the right environment. You may already know the story: if you do, skip to the last two paragraphs.

Here a baby blue tit is learning to feed himself. Most young tits have a yellow tinge to their feathers unlike the adults.

It started because I trod on my spectacles and broke one of the lenses. At that time we were living in Avonwick an optician (Vision Express) in Newton Abbot (Totnes is about half way between the two). I rang up and explained the situation. They had a laboratory on site and said that I could have an eye test (one was due anyway) at noon and the specs would be ready a couple of hours later (which, when you think about it, was incredible service). So off we went with Marcia driving. The obvious thing to do was to have lunch in Newton, which we did, and then a bit of shopping that we needed and then, having collected the new glasses, back home (with me driving this time).

Great Spotted Woodpeckers - dad on the left and son on the right. As soon as the boy loses his red cap his father will attack him and drive him away to find a territory of his own.

It did not go according to plan. As we drove out of the car park, I was indicating right that being the way home, Marcia suddenly spoke.

Quick, turn left. I’ve just seen Maudie. We must follow her.”
Causing some little confusion to other motorists, I did just that and, following Marcia’s instructions, drove through the town and out on the road towards Bovey Tracey. Even then it was not straightforward. Having said that she was sure Maudie lived in Bovey, as we approached the roundabout where I was expecting to turn right, she changed her mind and so on we went. About a mile further on she directed us left, down a narrow lane, left at another junction and then, having crossed the bridge over the River Bovey she told me to stop. There, on the left, was a gate behind which was scrub (small trees, lots of brambles and so on).

There, that’s it. Good, we can go home now.”

And we did and Marcia started writing later that afternoon and wrote one of her most poignant stories.

Not everyone, of course, can believe this is what happens. At one of the festivals at which she was asked a question about this business of finding the landscape. She finished her answer with the words, “So, you see it really is nothing to do with me. The characters tell me where they live.”

How lucky that none of them want to live in central Birmingham,” came a dry comment from one of the men in the audience. Clearly he was not a believer.

And so here we are again, setting out on a journey of discovery. It was easier in the days when we did so in our old camper van, taking with us all we needed in the way of refreshment and providing a base from which to wander about and “listen to the characters chatting amongst themselves”. For both Indian Summer and the book which still awaits and agreed title, this base has been provided by cafés and other such places. It was in The Dandelion (a café which is part of the Moorland Hotel below Haytor on Dartmoor) that Marcia sat and brooded – and which features in the book itself. The Brioche in Totnes was also important – and again was to feature in the book. For Untitled it was the shop/café associated with Stokeley Barton Farm Shop on the road from Torcross to Kingsbridge and The Boat House in Torcross itself. Again both feature in the book. If you want to know more about these places, follow the links.

Meanwhile here is Marcia with Anton, one of the people who look after us when we pop into the Cott Inn in Dartington for lunch.

This time? Well, as I have said, I have no real idea but as I write this Marcia is in Totnes and she has just sent me a text. She is having coffee in The Green Café just down the road from The Brioche. I wonder – just wonder. If it proves to be important then we can rule out Cornwall this time around but I doubt it will be that easy. I’ll keep you informed.

This week's blog dog is, very appropriately, called Canuke. He really is a splendid fellow and I just hope that he does not feel homesick.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Farewell number twenty-five. Welcome number twenty-six.

This week Marcia finished work on the editorial notes and so the manuscript for book number twenty-five (I am ignoring the four she wrote as Willa Marsh in this count) was sent off to her editor at Transworld which explains the headline. Naturally she has had no time to brood about number twenty-six as yet so I cannot tell you anything about it. From my point of view it means coming to terms with a whole new set of characters so that I can make sense of our conversations for the next few months. This is always great fun but demands huge concentration and a good deal of brain-searching.

“Albert? Albert? Do I know anyone called Albert?”

“He’s Jossie’s mother. Do keep up.”

These names were not pulled out of a hat. We have a lamp stand called Albert (please don’t ask why, the reason is lost in the mists of time) and our last dog was, of course, Jossie.

Meanwhile over on the other side of the Atlantic things have been buzzing. As most of you will already know, Marcia is published in the US by St Martin’s Press who are domiciled in the famous Flat Iron Building in New York. Soon they will be publishing The Sea Garden and Marcia has a new publicity team at SMP so it was decided that it would be good if everybody got to know each. This was achieved by a conference telephone call. It was held at 11 am in New York (4 pm here) and it was attended – if that is the right word – by Marcia, Marcia’s London agent (Dinah Wiener), her US agent (Kathy Anderson) and the team from SMP.

The cover of the SMP edition of The Sea Garden
As a result of that meeting, plans for the proposed marketing and publicity campaigns in the US were discussed and it has been agreed that all the US titles will be in the “book shop” on Marcia’s web site (which means work for me).

This year St. Martin’s Press is re-issuing a series of six memoirs, beginning with All Creatures Great and Small, by James Alfred Wight better known by his pen name: James Herriot. He was, of course, a vet whose practice was based in Thirsk in Yorkshire, but which covered large parts of the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire Moors.  

St. Martin’s Press has asked Marcia to say something about the late author and his work to be shared on the James Herriot Facebook page – see link below. This is what she has had to say.

"It is always a treat for me to re-visit the world of James Herriot. Begining with "It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet" I reacquaint myself with the many delightful characters: young James starting out on his new job at Darrowby; the two Wagnerian brothers, Siegfried and Tristan; Mrs Pumphrey and her pampered pekinese, Tricki Woo; the Dalesmen farmers and their families, their livestock and their traditions.

Herriot's entertaining stories of his triumphs and disasters, and his evocations of the magnificent Yorkshire countryside – magical in spring, bleak in winter – never fail to delight."

Should you want to have a look at that page (which will not yet have Marcia’s comment on it) click here

Meanwhile, I have been having fun and games with animals down here in Devon. Apart from the squirrels (who continue to find ways of winning regardless of what I try) we now have problems with rabbits. 

Well, to be honest, one rabbit. The garden here is generally rather wild (which we like) but we decided that a bit of colour on the lawn (if that is the right word for a mixture of plantains, dock, dandelion, daisy mixed in with the odd blade of grass) outside our sitting room would not go amiss. So, I filled one of our wooden tubs with pansies and and a ceramic pot with nemesia.

You will be as delighted as I was to discover that bunnies LOVE pansies: flowers, leaves, stalks and even roots.

Why is this cat here?  There is no good answer to that question but he (or, as it may well be, she) was sitting on the wall of a garden up the road and I thought some of you might like a rest from dogs. But not for long.
Meanwhile, Marcia and I went for a walk around the grounds here in Dartington Hall yesterday and I took a few photographs. These are on the other blog: if you want to have a look click here

You will remember that I was out on the River Dart with my friend Roger a while back. As we came out of Old Mill Creek, there was a work boat bringing a catamaran up to put her on a mooring. Not terribly unexpectedly, the guy in the boat was another of Roger’s chums and with him was his dog, Roy.  

Friday, 6 June 2014

Book Proofs and Blackbirds

Book Proofs

Reading the proofs of Indian Summer is now a thing of the past. There was one silly mistake I found which was in the manuscript that we sent to Transworld following incorporating all the bits and pieces which came to light thanks to the copy editing (carried out once more by Yvonne Holland who is absolutely first class). This time Transworld have decided to submit an electronic version to the printers rather than to have the book typeset in the traditional way so the only mistakes should be the ones we made in the first place – and so it turned out to be.

Odd to remember that the inspiration for the setting of this book was near St Neats in Cornwall. We had stopped to let Jossie (below) out of the car for a moment and we were standing on this bridge looking down at the little river below and through the trees to the building with its barn when something clicked in Marcia's mind. Mind you, all of this was in the wrong place so the whole lot was (mentally) moved to the edge of Dartmoor behind Ashburton.

The advent of modern technology into the art of writing is both exciting and worrying. Speaking as a simple hack, I find being able to write on a machine that gives me the option of makes changes as and when I want to is wonderful. I remember one book that I wrote where I had considerable problems with one chapter. In the end I retyped that chapter thirteen times and that is something you never forget. It's a bit like proof reading. On the one hand you are bored silly – on the other you have to retain a high level of concentration. But, and there is always a but, it means changes which almost certainly have a bad effect on some people – but, of course, a good effect on others. The obvious example is internet book selling which has hammered the high street bookshop (which we all love in theory but generally do not support in practice). On the other hand, you have a far wider choice on Amazon and they do employ a lot of people even if in an environment that, from all that I have read, I would find intolerable.

The little river and (below) the house with its barn.

As to passing on text files from author to printer and cutting out the typesetter, well it is obviously not good for typesetters. However, if it keeps the prices of books down and so makes them more accessible, that must be good. Incidentally, having done spells of typesetting (as happens sometimes when you edit things in a very small publishing house) I know from personal experience that that is another example of something that is both boring and demanding high levels of concentration.


The garden is now full of baby birds being fed by careworn and rather scruffy looking adults. It was a peaceful afternoon a few days ago. Marcia had just finished a stint of writing and was relaxing in the garden. I was in the kitchen. Suddenly there was an almighty crack and a baby blackbird crashed into the kitchen door (which is mainly glass). It seems that a springer spaniel (probably the maddest breed there is) suddenly roared up from the lane, rushed around our lawn and then took off again. The people with whom the dog was walking took no notice but not so the birds. They, of course, scattered – and one, a baby blackbird, had come to grief.

It is always difficult to know what to do when a bird is injured. This one was lying on its side, beak open, tongue lolling but still breathing. I picked it up and checked wings and legs: nothing broken as far as I could see.

Years ago I was told that shock can be a killer in these circumstances and the injured bird or animal should be kept warm if possible. Whether or not this is correct I really don't know but I held it for some time until its breathing became more regular and then I put it down on the grass.

It was then, as you can see, sitting upright – or nearly so – which made us a bit more hopeful.

I'm not sure when Marcia realised that the big problem was that the bird couldn't see. Obviously the probable reason was that the blow had been severe enough to detach the retinas in which case there was no hope for it. Also very worrying was the fact that the adult blackbirds, while continuing to feed the other baby, were steadfastly ignoring the one that had been damaged. I have seen this sort of thing before. It is as if the adult knows that there is no point in wasting time and energy on a hopeless case. It was all very depressing.

Anyway, we decided that the best thing we could do was to make him (why did we decide it was a he?) as comfortable as we could and then to keep a watching brief in case he was attacked (crows and cats being the likely threats).

The hours dragged by and nothing happened other than he started to walk. Not being able to see, he was stumbling into things and ended up in a corner underneath a hose reel. Not a good place. I decided to catch him again and put him somewhere safer. He gave off the usual strident “help, I'm in trouble” call of the immature blackbird – and I was immediately challenged by the adult male flying straight at me and letting forward the well known blackbird challenge call.

Even so, with the baby back on the lawn, the adults continued to ignore him.

Then, quite suddenly and without warning, he took off and flew up into a bush. Did that mean he could now see again? It seemed so.

He (or she, as the case may be) reunited with his (her?) brother (or, quite possibly, sister) just outside the kitchen door.
Finally, and to our delight, the adults started to feed him again and he seems to be making good progress although one wing still droops quite badly. Luckily there is no need for these birds to fly very much or for very far.

It is nice to be able to report a success story – nearly every injured bird that I have tried to save has eventually died. Sometimes I have steeled myself and put one out of its misery. Sometimes I have let nature take its course. In both cases I end up feeling rather guilty – it is, indeed, a no-win situation.

Meet Ben.
Not a very good photograph I fear but you can't get them all right.