Friday, 31 October 2014

On Libraries and Words

Last week I mentioned that Marcia would be cutting a birthday cake. Well, this is the cake . . .

. . . and here is Marcia cutting it.

The event was to celebrate the fortieth birthday of the new (as it then was) Kingsridge Library and Marcia had been asked to attend, to chat to some of her readers and, as you have seen, to cut the cake.

Just inside the door was a display of Marcia's books.
Before wielding the knife she spoke of her commitment to libraries because (and this is so strange) her family rarely read books. Her exposure to books was, therefore, limited. Then she was taken into the Children’s Section of the Bristol Central Library. ‘It was like going to heaven,’ she said. ‘All these books, shelves and shelves of books. And then, to make matters even better, I found that through another door there were even more books – books for adults to read.’

She spent the next few years working her way along those shelves – trying all sorts of authors and genres – and reading all the time. From that moment onwards whenever she was asked what she wanted for a present the answer was always the same: a book.

Everyone was greeted and offered a cup of tea Maria Johnson,
the Library Manager.
She was still reading when she and I met about twenty-five years after that momentous moment (is that tautology?) in the Bristol Central Library and she continued to read until, eventually, I nagged hard enough to make her start writing. Indeed, and I say this knowing she will deny it, she is the best read person I have ever met. The list of authors or both prose and poetry from whom she can quote seems endless and her vocabulary is incredible.

Which leads me on to think about what we mean by that word ‘vocabulary’. We each of us have different vocabularies when you stop to think about it. There is the one we use when we are listening or reading – you could call this the ‘passive’ vocabulary and consists of all the words we understand. Most native English speakers will have a passive vocabulary of between 20,000 and 35,000 words. Then there are two ‘active’ vocabularies: one we use when we speak and one when we write (although with some people these two are the same).

This is a large and spacious library with a wide range of facilities.
The big difference between speaking and writing is that the first is ephemeral and the second permanent. That means we are more likely to be adventurous and use words whose meanings we are not entirely sure we understand in speech than we are when writing. It seems that most of us use somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 when we are talking but few use more than 8,000 when they are writing.

Those facilities include this hi-tech corner.
This is fine in every day use but people who write for a living have to do everything they can to be sure that they do not bore their readers by becoming repetitive and so we see that many professional writers have ‘active’ vocabularies that almost equal their ‘passive’ vocabulary and that this is often at the upper range of what is considered normal. This is not all that surprising: many of us use thesauri to find a word we want and that inevitably increases our vocabulary. Words matter more to us than to most: they are, after all, the tools of our trade. Thus a quick dip into a dictionary to check on a definition can result in a couple of hours of valuable work time ‘lost’ as the quick dip turns into a long browse. “It’s all on account of how one thing leads on to another” (to quote – or possibly misquote – from The Specialist by that great American actor, vaudevillian and writer, Charles Sale).

Having said all that, it seems that the average person for whom English is a first language has an ‘active’ vocabulary of about only seven thousand words. Please don;t ask me how people come to these statistics because I really don’t know. If you are interested in the size of your ‘passive’ vocabulary take a trip to

Before I leave you, will you please all join me in wishing Keith Giles (whose wife, Jeanne, often leaves comments here) many happy returns of the day. Marcia and I both hope you have a wonderful time, Keith and that you will be able to enjoy many more in the years to come.

Here we have a retired racing greyhound who enjoys the name of Golem. In Jewish folklore, this is the name given to some animated being magically created out of inanimate materials. Statuettes of a Golem (usually made out of clay but sometimes carved from stone) are somewhat ill-formed but bvaguely human figures. When he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein named one of his characters after this anthropomorphic being but changed it slightly to Gollum.

Finally: Marcia Willett's Dartmouth was published yesterday. For details of how you can buy it (assuming you want to, of course) please click here.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Game Plan

Life for an author is never easy. The game plan was that as soon as the signings were over and done with, Marcia would get her head down and start writing. We have spent a lot of time over the last few months (admittedly squeezed in between other things that had to be done) visiting various places and sitting in coffee bars, tea rooms and so on while trying to find out which ones are visited by the new cast of characters that have been slowly coming to life.

Last week I said I would show you some of the photographs taken at The Hermitage. This was taken in February. As you can see spring is on its way but it was one of those bitterly cold days and we were visited by a flock of starlings. The blackbird on the table looks rather affronted but the blue tit feeding on the nuts is completely indifferent to the invaders.
It is surprising how important it is to locate where characters hang out – or not, of course, and some don’t. I suppose in part this is because if a person chooses such-and-such a place over one on the other side of the road, this says something positive about them. I suspect there is more to it than that: I suspect that Marcia finds places where these guys speak to her and it then follows that these are places they use.

Talking about blue tits: here we see a group of five youngsters on a nut feeder. It is now July and these are no longer reliant on their parents but they still have the yellow plumage that sets them apart from the adults.
This nut feeder is in a cage to stop the grey squirrels taking all the nuts. 
I’ve been thinking about the coffee bars, tea shops and suchlike that Marcia has drawn in her books. A number of them no longer exist – or have changed out of all recognition – which brings me to the thought (and I know we've been here before) that novelists writing in their own time create extraordinarily accurate snapshots of that place and time. Future generations can learn far more about life within that place and time than they can from any history written by someone trying recreate the past from artefacts and records. 

Here we have a common chaffinch - not a bird most people even think about but one I think is rather splendid.
The down side is in that phrase ‘the place’. It represents a tiny droplet in the ocean of humanity that exists: life in the relatively well-heeled society living in the more rural parts of the West Country is totally different from life in cities – be they in those parts that are seriously deprived, amongst the super-rich or anywhere else. Marcia believes in writing only about what she knows and often quotes Jane Austen who once described the ‘canvas’ on which she wrote as being a ‘small, square, two inches of ivory’.

Equally charming if less colourful is Mrs Chaffinch.

However, like all game plans, this one was destined to fail. First up was an email from Kingsbridge Library: could Marcia come to an event they are planning and would she cut the cake, please? If she could manage it, three in the afternoon would be wonderful. Yes, of course she could. Marcia always does everything she can to support libraries and loves talking to groups of readers. Later today we shall be in Kingsbridge.

Michael Chequer of Radio Devon
Then there was Radio Devon. Just before she went on holiday, Marcia’s publicist emailed to ask whether Marcia was happy to be interviewed on Radio Devon. Another ‘of course’ – of course. Marcia naturally assumed that this would be as it has been in the past: popping in to chat to Judi Spiers on her morning programme (long term readers of this blog may remember that I once put up a photograph I had taken of them in the studio). Not so – but we were not to know this until Sarah returned from holiday  it seems that they want Marcia be one of the guests on the ‘Good Morning, Devon’ programme in the 9 to 10 slot on Saturday, November 1. Let’s hope she has as much fun with Michael Chequer as she has always had with Judi.

When the publication date is so late in the year, it (and the associated events) coincide with the time when Marcia usually drifts out of our world and into her own, a world that is infinitely more real to her. It all started with The Christmas Angel (Christmas in Cornwall in the US) which the publishers felt (quite reasonably) could not be brought out during the summer.

The next book, which is set in Dartmouth, starts just before regatta – The Port of Dartmouth Royal Regatta to be precise – at the end of August. Anyway, Marcia is hoping that Transworld will bring next year’s book out before then. It has no firm title as yet although it is in production and I expect to receive the copy editor’s comments quite soon. If they do, all the events that follow publication will be well and truly over before she starts writing in earnest next autumn.

We shall see what happens.

How do you define a great novelist? We have been trying to decide and have come to no very firm conclusions so it would be good if some of you could enter into that debate.

Does a novelist have to create characters? That’s not a silly question. Think of books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel where the writer takes real people out of history and tries to bring then to life for the reader.

Do we have to be able to empathise or identify with the characters created by a great novelist? One great novel was Animal Farm by George Orwell and nobody could possibly believe in any of his characters.

What do you think?

I'm not sure which of them is enjoying this encounter most!

Friday, 17 October 2014

Of Mice and Men

Mice have featured more than usual in our lives this week. Mice in the wrong place, that is: house mice (Mus musculus) in one of the cupboards in the kitchen in which we keep food to be specific. I have a very soft spot for mice but I am not entirely sure they would have been very welcome even if they had been field or wood mice (Apodemus sylvaticus to remove any confusion) which I find much more attractive.

Years ago, when we lived about a thousand foot above sea level on the cliffs to the south of Boscastle (on the North Cornish coast) we were having a new five bar gate put in. The holes for the posts had been dug by a chap from the village – the usual three foot deep and about six inches in diameter but he did this by hand using only a crowbar and a spade with a very narrow blade shaped a bit like a hand trowel. Nowadays the usual tool is a power auger on the back of a tractor.

These holes were covered with bits of slate held down with stones to keep small animals out but the next morning we found two dead dormice in the bottom of one of them. The problem with these little creatures is that they have to eat a great deal to keep going as the smaller you are the more body heat you lose and so the more calories you have to take on board to keep going. It is probable that these two died of hypothermia.

Anyway, since I hate killing things unless there is a very good reason, I use live traps and then let the little critters go some place away from houses.

This is the live trap I use. There were two mice in it and I am about to let them out on our way from Dartington to Dartmouth where Marcia was to sign books in the community bookshop (more on this below). Also below is a short video I took this morning showing the one we caught last night eventually trotting odff into the blue yonder.

Just before we left I received an email from Naomi Bates who lives in Australia. Attached to that was this picture of a lizard - a blue-tongued lizard or Tiliqua scincoides scincoides to be precise. 

Then, to our great surprise, as we walked from the car park in Dartmouth there, on the path, was a slow worm, Anguis fragilis, which is also a lizard even though it looks like a snake. We have one in the garden at Dartington but I don't see it very often and have never been able to take a photograph.

Years ago - and many more than I care to think about, we lived quite near to Christopher Robin Milne, the son of A A Milne and the muse for the books that featured Pooh, Piglest and the other inhabitants of the forest. At that time he owned the Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth. In due course he sold the shop to Rowland Abram and one of his assistants was Andrea Saunders. 

Then, as happens, the bookshop closed down and Dartmouth became yet another town in which there was no place to go and browse the shelves and chat to the staff about books.

Andrea Saunders with Marcia in the Dartmouth Community Bookshop'
Not for long. It was decided that the answer was to create a bookshop that was run by the community on a not-for-profit basis and that the right person to run it was none other than Andrea with over twenty-five years of experience of the reading habits of locals and tourists alike. I am delighted to say that this project is a great success - in part due to the fact that there are so many people willing to work there on a voluntary basis. What is especially encouraging is that, while other bookshops are closing, this one is planning to expand into a small courtyard at the rear of the shop.

This is a wonderful model - and you can read all about it on their website - and I do hope that other communities take note and see whether or not they can create something similar.

Obviously this chap has a nautical owner. Two leads: a red one to attach him to port (as above) and a green one to starboard.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A Tale of two Claires

Titles are difficult - finding a title of a book and then writing the blurb that goes with it seem to be almost as difficult as writing the book in the first place but this title came to me and now you can see why.

The Claire in the top picture has been working at the book shop at Roman Gate in Exeter for as long as Marcia has been writing and so they have known each other for a very long time. In those early days the shop belonged to Dillons (a book store-cum-chain with an interesting history - next week, perhaps?) but it is now one of the Waterstone outlets.
The other Claire, who works in Exeter, is already known to some of you: she takes photographs of moths which she sends to me in the hope that I shall know what sort it happens to be and which I put up om this blog.
What I wrote last week about neonies was misleading although I didn't realise that at the time.

This matter of the use of insecticides is never as simple as it sounds and it could well be that the EU has this one wrong and the UK was right to vote against the ban on neonicotinoids. Th EU argument is that this insecticide damages the pollinating insects that we need – this decision was based on laboratory tests that exposed bees and other pollinators to far higher levels of neonies than they would experience in the field and at those levels it was, not unsurprisingly, lethal.
Marcia with our old friend Peter Kingsman - to whom Indian Summer is dedicated - having a moment in the Bedford Hotel in Tavistock.
The main need is for something that deals with insects such as the flea beetles that can and do destroy the very plants that produce the pollen on which the bees live – crops such as rape – and, crucially, flea beetles have become resistant to pyrethroids (the insecticide that was to be replaced by neonicotinoid) with the result that over half the crop here in the UK failed before coming into flower. This resulted in less food for the bees: many colonies have raised fewer progeny and are in serious danger of being unable to make it through the winter. Thus the ban on neonies has effectively halved the bee population in areas where they rely on farmers to provide them with their food. Isn't life complicated?

My Friday blog is not the place to explore this subject in detail but I thought I ought to put the record right. As I remarked above, this subject (like fracking and a few others) is never simple but there is one common denominator: the debates about them tend to create a lot more heat than light,

As a result, I have been thinking about pollination quite a lot since last week and especially about the way in which plants spend so much energy in producing flowers designed to attract insects. Nature, in this case, is truly profligate as the following photographs demostrate.

There seems to be a parallel here between nature putting huge energy into producing a display that has a fairly short life and writing. It takes Marcia about a year to write a book – and then there is the work carried out by her editors, the copy editor, the production team, distribution network and the booksellers. How long does it take to read one of her novels? Certainly less than a week. The argument gets rather muddled because there are, of course, many thousands of readers and many of those readers read each novel quite a few times.

It has taken about five years to finish Marcia's Willett's West County which is utterly ridiculous when you consider that we are talking about a very slim volume (just over a hundred pages) where about 25% is taken up with photographs. I just hope some of you will enjoy reading it when it comes out. All the files have been delivered to the printer and publication day will be 30 October. This last week has passed in a bit of a whirl as I was determined to finish everything before I went to bed last night. Very pleased to say that I managed to achieve that but everything else went by the board.

One of the casualties has been the garden. It would have been good to have finished “putting it to bed” for the winter while the weather stayed fine but that just didn't happen – the Indian Summer we have been enjoying broke with a vengeance shortly after Indian Summer was published. I blame Marcia.

Sadly I have no idea what this chap is called but there is something about that solid - even stolid - stance of these terriers that always appeals to me. "Come on world," they say, "I'm ready for you!"

Friday, 3 October 2014

The Indian Summer Ends

Why the title? Well, the weather is breaking and now we are about to be plunged into autumn,

May I say how much Marcia and I enjoyed reading your various comments last week. She is, of course, thrilled to feel that she has created characters that readers feel are real (and, being Marcia, never fails to be amazed when people say so). Anyway, just for fun: any thoughts on the way that Honor Trevannion coped with the various predicaments that life strew in her path?

Marcia signing books in the Totnes Bookshop and, below, with Cliff Shephard the shop's manager.
The moth I showed you last week is known as Angel Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa): my thanks both to Joy in Delaware and, on this side of the Atlantic to John Lockwood in Warwickshire for identifying it for me. The adult is no problem but the larva are generally considered to be a garden pest as they feed on a wide variety of foliage and flower buds. So there you have it – do you value your plants more or the occasional and rather delightful moments when you see the adult in all its glory? The Royal Horticultural Society suggests either torchlight sorties during which you remove the larva by hand (and then what?) or using a chemical pesticide. Personally I am rather against using pesticides: in part because it seems simply wrong and in part because you don't know who is harmed by them (including, of course, people).
While Marcia was signing books, this immature herring gull was enjoying a spot of lunch just up the road. Was he stealing some cat's lunch or had someone put this out for him in a cat bowl?
Which leads me on to think about the role of insects generally in our lives – a role that I fear is somewhat overlooked. There has been a collapse in the bee population here in the UK. This matters as bees (and other insects) are vital for the pollination of many of our crops. It seems that the decline started in the 1990's with the introduction of neonicotinoids – a group of pesticides. Although there is no actual proof that these are directly responsible for the population crash, the timing must make it real possibility.

It is, of course, always tricky to be sure as to what causes what since that was about the time when in the UK we started to introduce a more intensive form of agriculture which included monoculture which destroyed many habitats that were bee (and other insect) friendly.

Back in the spring of 2013 the European Union banned the use of certain insecticides – but was that a wise decision? Ignoring any feelings we may have for the insects themselves, it is, I suppose a matter of balance. On the one side is the loss of potential food as a result of damage caused by insects – on the other is the loss of pollinators such as bees resulting in lower crop yields. I am glad that the EU imposed this ban and rather ashamed that the UK voted against it but I think that says more about me than anything else.

Causation: a very interesting subject and one that crops up when Marcia and I are talking about whatever it is we are writing about (be that her novels or some of the hacky stuff I am working on). It rather matters and I suspect that not taking causation seriously enough is the cause of much that is written that doesn't quite work.
The other day we visited the Two Bridges on Dartmoor because Marcia had a feeling that her new group of people might meet there. It was a fruitless trip as it happens - she drew a blank. Meanwhile the hotel's little flock of geese appeared and one of them plonked itself down in a way I have never seen before - so I took his (or, of course, hers as the case may be) portrait.
Why, to take a recent example, did Tristan behave the way he did? Well, by the time we get to the end of Postcards we know the answer to that question. The important thing is that Marcia knew from the outset what made him what he was and so he was, throughout, a fully rounded character. Thus it is that she (or we) delve back into the history of all the people that appear on the page (and quite a few who don't but who would have been an influence on those who do).

This applies not only to the people but to the landscapes as well. I have often mentioned that Marcia will 'see' a given location which will include certain objects – a certain sort of house, plants, a view, a river and so on – and then we have to try to find out why such objects exist where they are placed. In the end (and this is another of those mysteries) it will come together and everything ends up making sense. Getting there, however, can be fraught.

It's a bit like that when I'm writing what I think is best described as 'cod history': chatty and informative but with no pretensions to be taken as serious history. The intention to give a feel of a certain place over a given period of time. First of all, of course, it has to be honest (which means accurate) but after that it all depends on why the history is being written. This is in my mind, of course, because I have just finished the Dartmouth book and am starting on Marcia Willett's Tavistock. Although I have often written and talked about the history of Dartmouth (and a few other parts of Devon including Dartmoor) as it happens Tavistock has not been one of them so I am starting from square one.
Since I expect that most of you are now into Indian Summer, I thought you might like this picture of Haytor.
Going as far into the past as I can I discover that there is a suggestion (I have yet to find definitive proof of this) that there was an earthwork about mile to the north east of the centre of the town which would seem to be about four thousand years old. At the end of the day this earthwork may or may not be mentioned in the book. If it is, it may be no more than a sentence and certainly no more than a couple of paragraphs.

Meanwhile, this small hill which seems to have been built by human hands will occupy my thoughts for some time as I trawl through all sorts of information in books and on the internet in an attempt to answer three questions which are dominating my thoughts at the moment: who built it, what was it and why was it built? All of which is, of course, summed up in one word: causation.

As I write this, Marcia is doing something similar as she probes into the past, the present and, indeed, the future of some of the people occupying her mind. One thing is for sure: unlike my people, none of them will bear the labels of Briton, Celt, Saxon or Norman.

This extraordinarily charming chap answers to the name of Leo. He is a Dutch Partridge Dog – a breed unknown to me. It seems that they are far more popular in the US than they are here in the UK. Having read up what I can about the breed I am sorely tempted – but I shall have to fight the temptation as we really have decided that there will be no more dogs. Honestly. Probably.