Friday, 30 January 2015


One of the towns that plays a minor role in the book Marcia is presently writing is Ashburton. The first time this town is mentioned in one of her books is in Starting Over for it is where Annie lives. You may remember the paragraphs in which we first meet Annie.

Annie Grayshott replaced the telephone receiver and looked with distaste at her cup of cold coffee. Poor Frances had been talking for nearly half an hour and Annie felt quite numb with the effort of listening. She poured away the coffee and stood for some moments at the window, gazing out over the rooftops of Ashburton and wondering if the situation with Hugh was really as dire as Frances related. After all, Frances was not the kind of person to dramatise herself so why should she, Annie, imagine that she was exaggerating.
     'I suspect,' she said aloud - the fact that her husband, Perry, had died did not prevent her from continuing to communicate with him - 'that it's wishful thinking. I simply don't know how to help her and it's making me feel inadequate and useless.'
     'She needs to get it out of her system.' Perry's shade was, apparently, hovering near the drinks cupboard. `I diagnose a sense of humour failure, my darling. You know my prescription for that. You need a drink.'
Annie sighed and decided to take his advice. She poured herself a large whisky and stared speculatively at herself in the glass that hung beside the window. Her jaw length fair hair had a generous streaking of grey and her tanned skin was especially lined around the eyes but she might have passed for a few years less than the sixty allotted to her.

One of the best reviews written about Marcia described her as “a cross between Jane Austen and Blake Edwards”. I think you will agree that the extract above confirms that view. What is quite extraordinary is that it appeared in Le Figaro.

The Ashburn, having tumbled down off Dartmoor, is now winding placidly through farmland just north of the town.
Back to Ashburton – the town on the banks of the Ash Burn. It is an old community (recorded in the Domesday Book) and was for a while an important one: situated on the main trackway from Exeter down to Cornwall and on the edge of Dartmoor it was important for the sheep and wool market and as one of the Stannary towns where tin was ‘coined’ so that the crown could levy a tax on its production.

And here it is running beside the green. Placid in this photograph, like all moorland rivers it is a different matter when it is in spate. Then it fills this channel and has been known to overflow onto the green after especially heavy rain.
Obviously as these two trades diminished, Ashburton became less important even though it was one of the ‘stages’ on the route from London to Plymouth. This continued to bring in trade until the arrival of the railway resulted in the demise of the highly colourful and romantic but extremely uncomfortable stage coaches. It was finally converted into a bit of a backwater when a new road was built to bypass the town (it being demonstrably not suited to much motorised through traffic) in the 1930’s.

The main road running through Ashburton. You can see why it was that a by-pass was built as soon as the motor vehicle became popular.
When Marcia and I lived in Avonwick we would drive up to Ashburton, buy our supper from one of the best fish and chip shops that I know and take it up onto the moor near Buckland Beacon to eat it. This became quite special when it coincided with a full moon as we could then watch it rising over the sea beyond Teignmouth.

There are no modern buildings in the centre of the town and no large supermarkets. It is a delightful environment in which to do your shopping.
I have been thinking about Ashburton because I am researching the history of the Stannary Towns (for the “Marcia Willett’s Tavistock) which are Ashburton, Chagford, Tavistock and, later, Plympton. As the name implies, this is about tin (stannum) and the usual need of the government of the day to raise taxes on anything that moves or, indeed, does not move.

This magnificent Methodist Chapel stands as a silent witness to Ashburton's wealthy past.
However, collecting taxes is expensive and the cheapest way is to get someone else to do it for you in return for something to make that worth their while. Hence in 1305 Edward I granted Stannary Charters to the first three (Plympton had to wait until 1328) whereby in return for collecting tin coinage (as the tax payable was called) these towns were granted a monopoly on all tin mining in Devon, a right to representation in The Stannary Parliament (which determined the rules and regulations which bound the tin miners) and control over The Stannary Courts (which dealt with breaches in the rules and disputes between miners).

This rather suggests that tin mining here started about seven or eight hundred years ago. Far from it: tin mining was known here during the Bronze Age somewhat earlier than 2,000 BC.

None of which is mentioned in the book Marcia is writing: the only connection being that one of her characters has his office in “Ashbucket” as it is often called here and hereabouts.

There is a rather convoluted link that we have with Zula, seen above expectantly awaiting Christmas dinner. As some of you know, Marcia's son attended Mount House School in Tavistock which, as a result, features in some of her bools. In his day the headmaster was the late Tony Wortham who was to become a great friend after he retired. His successor was Charles Price who also became a friend and who is now also retired. This cheeky Patterdale belongs to Charles's daughter and I am very pleased to be able to share this photo with you.

Don't forget that I am always in the market for pictures of your pets.

Friday, 23 January 2015

From daffodils in Devon to snowy owls in Bermuda

We woke up to a very hard frost today. The field outside our bedroom was white as white – as was the scut on a rabbit that was running along the hedge line. I’m not sure how cold it was during the night but the temperature certainly started with a minus sign.

Since my last blog we have received copies of two more editions of Postcards From the Past - the UK Large Print and, below, the German hard back.
Only a week ago we were basking (well, everything is relative) in daytime temperatures in double figures with the nights rarely dropping below 5°. It is the effect this contrast is having on the plants and wildlife around us that has been in my mind the last few days. For example, last Wednesday as we drove from Totnes towards Avonwick we passed a bank on which there were daffodils in full bloom: in January.

In Cornwall they grow daffodils in their hundreds of thousands and when the fields down there are in full bloom – usually in February – they are a wonderful sight even though the flowers are picked whilst the buds are quite tight. The sale of these blooms, most of which go to London, are an important part of the local economy as are the sale of bulbs.

When I trawled through the various photographs of daffodils that I have taken, I find that the one below was taken on 3 March in 2011 which was a ‘late year’ compared to 2012 (when, for some reason I didn’t take any). It is not that this year is proving to be an ‘early’ one but that it is totally muddled. Following a wonderfully mild autumn and early winter we are now in the grip of extreme cold (extreme for this part of the world that is) and I fear for the plants – and probably animals, too – that have been fooled into thinking spring had arrived.

My main worry is to do with timing – although I fully appreciate that the weather this winter is in no way unique and nature is extremely good at solving these problems. Nevertheless, they do cause difficulties for some species. 

One of my favourite birds is the blue tit: they are pugnacious little people who always wear an expression of intense irritation. Baby blue tits are fed almost exclusively on “green caterpillars” and most bird books state quite simply that the parents “time their breeding to coincide with the hatching of various species of insects which start life as green caterpillars”.

2009 was a good year for the blue tits. Here are a brood of six youngsters, still in their juvenile yellow feathers, braving the rain and feeding on peanuts.

This is just not really true: I am sure that the birds are aware of changes in the weather and do everything they can to get the timing right but it doesn’t always work. If they get it wrong, the young blue tits often fail to fledge and the associated insect species then have a very good year with many more reaching adulthood. It’s a bit like the lemmings and the snowy owls in the northern parts of Scandinavia although there is becomes a very regular cycle.

A lemming
(Photo: Flickr user leo_seta under a Creative Commons license.)
Year one: there is an abundance of lemmings with the result that the snowy owls are able to able to read larger than usual broods. That means that in year two the lemming population is depleted because there are so many more owls. Nevertheless, the owls still rear a goodly number of youngsters. Their problems start in year three because there are so few lemmings and large number of owlets fail to fledge. In year four both species start from a low ebb but that gives an advantage to the lemmings and by the end of the year their numbers are well up. Then, of course, we start the cycle again. I should add that although snowy owls are the main lemming predators they also face attack from skuas and Arctic foxes – and that this explanation of the lemming cycle is not universally accepted.

Snowy Owl. Photo: Pat Haines under a Creative Commons license
No matter how it came about 2013 was a bumper year for lemmings and, as a result, there was a population explosion among the snowy owls. But a rather odd thing then happened – odd in the sense that this is a first. Some snowy owls left their usual territories and decided to explore pastures new by moving south in North America. They have become common place in south east Canada and a few seem to have taken up residence in Washington, D.C. There is even a report that one was seen as far south as Charleston in South Carolina and another in Bermuda. Bermuda? A snowy owl? Well, the report seems the be genuine. As I remarked, nature has a wonderful way of sorting things out.

Have any of you seen anything unusual? If so, please leave a comment below.

Meanwhile, you may remember that I mentioned that Marcia had been ‘interviewed’ using emails by a girl in Poland. Click here if you want to see read that interview – in English as she publishes her work in both languages.

Friday, 16 January 2015


You jolly nearly had to do without a blog this week: following some updates that were downloaded by Microsoft and which were then automatically configured when I switched it on yesterday morning, my computer refused point blank to boot up properly. This is somewhat scary at this precise moment because I have a few rather urgent tasks that were already ‘embedded’ on the hard drive.

This is not a blog which calls for illustrations. This last week has seen the first of this winter's snowfalls in the West Country so I thought I would put up some photographs from my collection showing a few snowy scenes.
One is rather nice: there is a girl in Poland who runs a blog all about writing and literature (actually she runs two blogs: one in Polish and one in English). Whilst the main object of the exercise is to promote Polish literature she also reviews books which have been translated into Polish and carries out email interviews with the authors of such books. Marcia had just finished her last responses and one of my first jobs was to be to email these across to Agnes.

The other urgent task was to finalise the copy editing of the next book, Summer on the River, so that Marcia’s agent, Dinah Wiener, can send the revised manuscripts to Marcia’s foreign publishers.

Panic stations. I really did now know what to do: the usual techniques of trying everything on offer and, that having failed, rebooting the computer a few times did nothing to solve the problem. This was the first “computer panic” since we moved back to the south so I had no idea who to contact. Luckily my laptop was not involved and after trawling through the various options I found on the internet I decided to contact a company called Brandan Computer Solutions Ltd. It needed a visit to put things right but all is well now and the silver lining to this particular cloud is that Marcia has met Warren Dobbs and they got on very well indeed so she now knows who to contact should anything happen when I am not around.

Thus, I am able to keep my promise and talk about punctuation.

Punctuation is one of the most difficult subjects on which to write and one of the subjects about which – in my opinion – far too much has been written already. You could say exactly the same about grammar. What is the point of punctuation (and grammar) other than to facilitate the reader’s understanding of the words that have been written?

The only other possible reason is so that the pedantic writer who follows a particular code for both grammar and punctuation can feel a glow of superiority over other writers who do not follow that code. Apart from the fact that this is a rather ignoble glow, it fails to take into account that there are many different codes and that none of them agrees in all respects. Indeed, the triad that underpins all writing (vocabulary, grammar and punctuation) are all living entities that change from moment to moment.

There was a time when the most important language in the world was French. Then the French academics – aided and abetted by some French politicians – fought hard to keep French ‘pure’: to stop French evolving in a smooth and organic fashion. Although this was not the only factor it certainly helped to ensure that English would become the language that would be understood over most of the globe.

To return to punctuation: it is my contention that good writers use it (or not, as the case may be) not only to facilitate the reader’s understanding but also to influence the reader’s mood, emotions and engagement. In other words, punctuation is one element that creates the individual styles that writers inevitably develop – and which their readers like.

As an example of what I mean: I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read.

That last sentence is a case in point. What would be the point of the Oxford comma after the word ‘comma’? In my view, the ideas expressed in that sentence are an entity even though the two phrases could each stand as separate sentences. Thus there are a number of options. The first is that shown above and the others are as follows.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma, and I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. With the Oxford comma.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma: I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Using a colon to indicate that the second phrase in some way adds to the first.

I generally do not like the use of the Oxford comma. I especially dislike it in a sentence which does not require the reader to ‘draw breath’ as they read. Two separate sentences.

This is all about style, isn’t it? It is about creating – or not as required – flow. It is about changing the pace of the writing by using shorter or longer sentences.

The nuances involved are tiny and it is probable that few, if any, readers are at all conscious of the way a piece of writing is punctuated. You could argue that if they are there is probably something wrong. Nevertheless, as one of those three foundation stones of all writing it is terribly important and I think I detect a good deal of muddle in the punctuation of a lot of modern writing – especially in the newspapers. On the other hand it could merely be that I am stuck in my ways and what I am seeing is no more than the good old English language gently evolving to meet the needs of the modern world.

Friday, 9 January 2015


Yesterday I had a wonderful idea: I was going to tell you about the problems that I had in trying to take a photograph that Marcia wanted. It was when she was writing Postcards from the Past. You may remember the opening paragraph.

There are two moons tonight. The round white shining disc, brittle and sharp-edged as glass, stares down at its reflection lying on its back in the black water of the lake. Nothing stirs. No whisper of wind ruffles the surface. At the lake’s edge the wild cherry tree leans like an elegant ghost, its delicate bare branches silver with ice, yearning towards the past warmth of summer days. Tall stands of dogwood, their bright wands of colour blotted into monochrome by the cold brilliant light, guard the northern shore of the lake and cast spiked shadows across the frosty grass.

We were then at The Hermitage and it was watching the moon reflected above the pond that gave Marcia this idea and she would have liked a photograph of that scene to have beside her as she wrote. So I blithely agreed to take one. Only it turned out to be impossible. Yesterday I decided that I would show you the ‘failures’ as I tried to meet her wishes but I can’t do that either: at some point I deleted them as being of no great value.

Instead I will use some ‘moony’ photographs that you might enjoy and try to explain the problem in words.

This gives you some idea of the problem. Here the moon is exactly as Marcia wanted it to be but is so tiny - and this image doesn't even come down to ground level in the foreground.
You are standing to the north of the pond (in the Northern Hemisphere – can those of you living on the other side of the equator please adjust their thoughts accordingly). The moon has risen and is exactly where I want it – due south – and is almost full. It could not be more perfect so what was the problem. Well, when you look up at the moon and glance down at the surface of the pond you see exactly what Marcia described but it isn’t quite like that. What your brain does is to reduce the distance between the moon and its reflection so that it forms a pleasing whole in your brain.

Full moon but before it has risen very high in the sky and while it is retaining some of the colours of sunset.
The camera doesn't work like that. It shoots what is there with no distortions. The result is that the moon overhead looks tiny and the reflection in the water doesn’t look like a mirror image of the moon even though it is.

This is the last but one of a sequence in which I watched the cloud shaped like some strange animal seem to gobble up the moon.
Then there is another problem: getting the focus right. You look up at the moon and your eyes focus on it and you retain that image as you look down onto the surface of the water. Your eyes again focus, this time on the reflection and that is all very satisfying.

This photograph says almost nothing but I rather like it.
Not so the camera. To focus on the moon you need to have the focus set at infinity. To focus on the pond surface at something in the order of twenty feet. You can’t have it both ways (although if it was a very brightly lit scene you could (at least in theory) by stopping down and so extending the depth of field. Even then you are pushing it: the moon is 225,623 miles from the earth which works out at 1,191,289,440 feet or 59,569,472 times as far away as the pond surface. It is probably possible with some sort of equipment but it is definitely beyond the scope of anything I possess (so I plead guilty to the charge of blaming my tools). The odd thing is that the moon just looks horrid if it isn’t in focus – and the reflection has to be crisp to make any sense.

Here the moon is in focus but the tree is not.
 Yes, I know that I was going to talk about punctuation this week but I am hoping you will not be too disappointed if I put it off until next Friday.

This is the nearest I have to the image Marcia wanted. But here we are looking over a large stretch of water, the surface is not smooth so the reflection is disturbed, it was too early for the sky to be dark enough and the moon is far from full. Apart from that . . .

Friday, 2 January 2015


First things first: a big thank you to all of you who – through Transworld or Dartside Press – have sent us letters and cards this Christmas and New Year time: they really are much appreciated.

Light. Where would we be without it? Not only do we rely on it in our daily round but it figures in all our senses: physical, mental and spiritual. To be blind is one of my pet fears and my admiration for those who manage to live without sight is huge. So, light of my life, let there be light.

Four photographs taken from the bedroom window on the same day starting here about twenty minutes before sunrise.
Light is of special interest to photographers, and I include myself in that group, and for painters such as my mother. She was fascinated by the junction of the land and the sea and many of her paintings were set in coves or on rocky headlands. She would paint the same scene time after time – but it was not, of course, ever the same scene because the light was always different. One of her favourites was Lannacombe Cove which she painted scores of times. None of them contained people: she was not interested in people, just the play of light on water, rocks and the beach.

The sun has risen but as yet all it is doing is slightly colouring the sky.
I have become equally fascinated by the scene from our bedroom window. This started because it was what I spent a good deal of the time, when I was neither sleeping nor reading, looking at it. Not surprisingly it never looks quite the same but what is slightly odd is that there are times when the trees the other side of the field look as though they are miles away and other times when it seems you could lean out of the window and touch them. The same applied to the hills of Dartmoor as seen from our old house, The Hermitage. It is, of course, all to do with the light.

That's more like it.
At this time of the year, Transworld send to us the manuscript of the next book with suggestions for changes made by Yvonne Holland who has been the Copy Editor for most the books that Marcia has written. Her input is invaluable: she checks everything. To my (our?) shame some of the corrections she makes are for errors that one of us really should have seen but didn't. One such: in this book the boat float at Dartmouth features. Marcia wrote this as boat-float but Yvonne took the trouble to check this out and discovered that it is generally written as Boat Float. That may not really matter but the devil is in the details and Yvonne is a master at making sure they are right. It is impossible to over state how important her role is in producing the finished novel nor how good she is in that role.

And, sure enough, we are in for another lovely day.
Where, possibly, there is a small conflict between the way she and Marcia think it is in the matter of punctuation. Now, why do we punctuate sentences? There was a time when I acted as a consultant to some legal practices and the documents I then wrote had to be written with no punctuation at all. The rationale there is that it is important that these documents must not carry more than one possible interpretation and punctuation can lead to disputes as to what that interpretation might be.

In real life, of course, that is not really a problem. So – why has punctuation evolved and how important is it? I shall leave that question hanging in the air until next week.

I do hope that each and everyone of you has a wonderful 2015.