Past or Future?


 As I hinted before, one of the reasons I’ve started this blog is that I’m intending to self-publish a trilogy of books set in ancient Greece with a mythological twist. I’ve had the usual reasons which, alas, many writers are familiar with these days from  publishers who don’t want to take them – but one pops up more frequently than most; books set in the past don’t sell, they say.

The current acceptable mode still seems to be fantasy. I’ve nothing against fantasy; I read fantasy and science fiction with pleasure, and I’ve written fantasy novels myself.  But it’s sad that at the moment it seems to be the only thing going. There’s much good fantasy out there, but also plenty of dire stuff – too many ‘feisty’ sword-slashing heroines ( why do feisty heroines  have to behave like violent men?) too many Chosen Ones finding their way among dragons and orcs and elves to the Throne that awaits them.

When I was a young reader, there wasn’t that much fantasy around. What I loved, and what expanded and excited my imagination, was historical fiction. Impossible to imagine my reading days without Rosemary Sutcliff, without Geoffrey Trease.  Historical fiction, well-told, breathed life into the dull dates and statistics of history lessons , and told us valuable things about how our present world had got to be the way it was. It reminded us that people managed to live, and live full lives, in circumstances which we couldn’t imagine in our comfortable middle-class households, that human nature was really unchanged  over the centuries.   And looking at how the Romans performed their task of conquering the world taught lessons, many not quite comfortable, about how the British had attempted to do the same, and left red smears all over the school maps we then used.  I think misguided political correctness was one reason why both conventional history teaching and historical fiction fell out of fashion in the 70s and 80s – history obviously needs to be taught in a different , less imperialistic way now, but it’s still just as important as it ever was.

Above all, it was fun.  I loved charging about in the Middle Ages,  or the seventeenth century,  or Elizabethan London – or just about   any-when as long as it was vividly and imaginatively described.  Also, much of it was gender-neutral; boys could identify with heroines and girls with heroes without really noticing that they were crossing the sex-divide. I’ve  still got some of those precious books on my shelves now; I’m looking at Ransom For A Knight  by Barbara Leonie Picard,  Redcap Runs Away  by Rhoda Power, The Gloriet Tower  by Eileen Meyler, Sun Faster, Sun Slower by Meriol Trevor  (great time-travel, this,) lots of Rosemary Sutcliff, of course. Others, equally precious, have got lost, stolen or strayed over the years.  Somewhere, there should be, but I can’t find, Henry Treece’s Thirteen Banners and  Rosemary Sutcliff’s  The Armourer’s House in a lovely OUP edition with illustrations by C.Walter Hodges –  the illustrators were as important to me as the writers; so few books seem to be illustrated any more – a great shame.

I think my proudest moment ever as a writer was when Geoffrey Trease gave one of my books a kind review – I was quite overwhelmed; that someone who was a near-deity of my youth had actually read one of my books and had enjoyed it was almost too much to take in. I remember I sat down and wrote a gushing over-ebullient letter of joy which I then tore up and reworked through several drafts, cooling it down in a very Lucy-Snowe-ish way until what I finally sent to Geoffrey Trease probably didn’t contain  much sense of the excitement which I felt but found so hard to communicate. I’m a bit sorry about that now – I think I could have gushed a bit more. And he was a nice man – I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded.

I know I’m not the only one to be saying these things – the excellent History Girls blog has been doing great stuff in publicising new historical fiction, and I hope they’re winning the battle for the rest of us.


What other historical novels do my fellow readers remember from their youthful days? Or didn’t you read it at all? Do tell me. I’d love to hear. I hope to print my top ten list in my next blog – I wonder if you’ll share any of them.

Just beautiful…

What with one thing and another, the Unwelcome Guest  has been claiming just too much of my time and attention recently – too much time spent driving to hospitals, some far away, too much time being prodded and poked and zapped and pinned and needled. A whole army of experts and specialists is dedicated just to Me – I’ve never had so much attention in my life. (Ah, if only editors would be so interested…)  Last week, we went to a fairly distant hospital, which, as well as a five hour round trip, involved several hours sitting waiting for treatment.  The hospital, unlike my local one, was a pretty grim place. Whoever decided it was a good idea to sit cancer patients in a waiting room that resembles the economy lounge of an  airport in a third world country? Luckily a kindly nurse directed us to a Maggie’s drop-in centre just around the corner. Maggie’s centres were the inspiration  of Maggie Jencks, who died of cancer in 1995. She believed in the therapeutic qualities of the right environment, and also that cancer patients sometimes needed somewhere to ‘just go’.  Here, in a  beautifully designed building, lovingly furnished, I was able to  spend my several hours sitting calmly and comfortably sipping coffee; certainly an indication of how environment can affect mood.  Even the books on the shelves at Maggie’s were books I wanted to read and not the usual junk (yes, I am a literary snob.)  I found a copy of Yeats’s poems, which I was glad to do, because this poem had been running through my head for days, having seen many swans on many lakes after all this wet weather. While Yeats’s later poems can be tortuous and obscure, with meanings to be grappled with and teased out, some of the early ones are straightforwardly beautiful. We’ve grown rather suspicious of beauty in art in the last hundred years or so – we’ve been taught to feel that art’s main role is to startle and shock and unnerve us. As indeed it must, some of the time, or our minds would get flabby and complacent. But… there is still a place for simple beauty, a Mozart aria, a Piero della Francesco Madonna, a Shakespeare sonnet, a Chinese porcelain dish.  And this early poem by Yeats, which is…just beautiful.



The Wild Swans at Coole                       William Butler Yeats


The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky:

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans


The nineteenth autumn has come upon me

Since first I made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.


I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,

And now my heart is sore.

All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,

The first time on this shore,

The bell-beat of their wings above my head,

Trod with a lighter tread.


Unwearied still, lover by lover,

They paddle in the cold

Companionable streams or climb the air:

Their hearts have not grown old;

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.


But now they drift on the still water,

Mysterious, beautiful;

Among what rushes will they build,

By what lake’s edge or pool

Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day

To find they have flown away?

The Sign Post


The Sign-Post.

It didn’t start off as a book at all, merely as a resolution to read more poetry, to read in fact a new poem every day. But before too long, I discovered, as I jotted down my thoughts on the poems I was finding, that my notes were turning into a sort of diary, and what I was writing was  fast turning into a book about reading poetry, and eventually that book found its way into print.  It’s called A Bracelet of Bright Hair and you can read more about it on my website

Since I feel that each new enterprise deserves a poem to set it off and get it going,  I looked for a poem to start this blog. After all, as Sigmund Freud said, everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.  The poem I’ve chosen  is by Edward Thomas, that charming, damaged and difficult man, whose grave in Northern France we visited earlier this year – another thing I’d like to write about before too long. This poem brings to mind the more famous one by Thomas’s friend Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken, about journeys and choices, their seemingly arbitrary nature and their profound reverberations. Curiously, Frost hinted that his poem was in fact partly a sly dig at Thomas, who was famously indecisive when it came to making choices. Frost makes a choice – but he muses on what might have happened had he chosen the other way. It can be read, and usually is, as a life affirming, positive poem.  Thomas’s poem is altogether bleaker; a cold monochrome pervades the first few lines, and the characteristic despair kicks in at the end of the first verse;  At twenty you wished you had never been born.  But then a second voice interposes itself, the voice of the Other Man, the mysterious doppelganger who accompanies Thomas in so much of his writing, and seems to offer, if not  a happy ending, at least some sort of reconciliation. Death will put an end to all, but the poet, at sixty, might be content, after all, to be here or anywhere talking to me/ No matter what the weather on earth/At any age between death and birth, To see what day or night can be… Of course, Thomas never made that sixtieth birthday, but he crammed a lot of experience, good and bad,  into the thirty-nine years that he lived, and this is a poem of mature years, reflective and  meditative. A good way for me to start  this venture, anyway.  Where shall I journey, O where?


The Sign-Post         Edward Thomas


The dim sea glints chill. The white sun is shy,

And the skeleton weeds and the never-dry

Rough long grasses keep white with frost

At the hilltop by the finger-post:

The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed

Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.

I read the sign. Which way shall I go?

A voice says: You would not have doubted so

At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn

Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.


One hazel lost a leaf of gold

From a tuft at the tip, when the first voice told

The other he wished to know what  ‘twould be

To be sixty by this same post. ‘You shall see; but either before or after,

Whatever happens, it must befall,

A mouthful of earth to remedy all

Regrets and wishes shall freely be given;

And if there be a flaw in that heaven

‘Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be

To be here or anywhere talking to me,

No matter what the weather, on earth,

At any age between death and birth,

To see what day or night can be,

The sun and the frost, the land and the sea,

Summer, Autumn, Winter Spring, -

With a poor man of any sort, down to a king,

Standing upright in the air

Wondering where he shall journey, O where?’

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times


Well, there are many reasons to regard this as the best of times. I’m lucky enough to be living with Richard, my lifelong partner, in a most gorgeous part of Wales. Every morning there’s something new and lovely to see from our window, changing light on the hills, the network of trees, shadows etched into soft green slopes, red kites circling in the sky, fast moving clouds during the day and a dazzle of stars at night.
I’m lucky to have two daughters who still speak to me, after what – looking back now – seems a somewhat haphazard and muddled, though well –intentioned, sort of mothering. I have two beautiful grandchildren, whose own mum and dad are making a great job of their parenting.
We were lucky to have spent our sixties catching up with our travelling, four visits to India, trips to Egypt, Greece, Sicily, Spain, Pompeii, all the places we meant to go to when we were younger and busier, and never did.
I’m lucky too, in that since all I ever wanted to do in life was be a writer, I can look at a shelf of books, properly published, with my name on them. Some have even won prizes. I’ve written all sorts of books, baby books, adult novels, a biography, I’ve contributed to a book of children’s poetry and some short story collections. My ideal level, though, seems to be stories for girls of about 12-14 – the age when I was a most avid and involved reader. I’ve got plans in this direction, which are some of the things I want to talk about in this blog, and I’ve also made a tentative start on a longer term plan, which is to be the biography of a well-known woman writer, and I shall be talking about that too. I want to write about poetry, too, and how reading it can inform and inspire your life.
So that’s the good stuff. The bad stuff sidles up sneakily alongside now. Two bad things to be precise. Last March, Richard was suddenly taken ill with what might very well have been a fatal heart attack, but was fortunate enough to be rushed to hospital in time, and patched up. He’s doing well now, but his condition is something he has to manage carefully and will always have to do so. Then about two months later I had a diagnosis of cancer – myeloma, a nasty one. Well, what do you say about cancer? This isn’t intended to be one of those Brave and Heartwarming narratives about My Cancer Journey. Cancer’s a bugger. It elbows its way rudely into your life without a by-your-leave, won’t take no for an answer, and doesn’t budge. You all know the dinner guest who refuses to take the hint when everyone has long gone home, and continues to sit there, a complacent grin on his face (it’s usually a him, I’m afraid) telling tedious stories without noticing that you’re not joining in the conversation, your eyelids are drooping, and all you want to do is load up the dishwasher and get to bed. Well, that’s cancer for you. It stops you doing things like going on holidays, walking in the hills, spending precious days with your grandchildren, and instead mucks up your bodily functions and generally screws you up by making you attend to its dreary monologue. I’m lucky so far in that I have a good medical team and a reasonably pleasant centre to go to, but it’s still a hospital, and now Richard and I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discussing our various conditions, something I vowed when I was younger that I’d never end up doing. I don’t really feel scared, distressed or depressed by my state.  I’m just saddened that I’ve stopped being quite the person I used to be, and annoyed by the Unwelcome Guest.
I don’t intend to write too much about the Unwelcome Guest, and since this is early days for me, I don’t really yet know how our relationship will work out, only I know his plans for me aren’t good. But I intend to ignore him as much as I can and get on with the interesting things that still remain. He can’t stop me looking, or imagining, or thinking, or writing. There are still lots of things I want to be doing – plans I want to complete. And I mean to do so. So I do hope you’ll drop by from time to time and share some of the good stuff with me. You don’t have to commiserate with me about the Unwelcome Guest – if you’re nice people I shall take that for read, (and if you’re not – if you’re going to be abusive – then I shall delete your comments.) So, welcome to my blog. I hope we’ll be friends.