On tidying up and clearing out

messy studySomebody once said that a writer’s best friend is her wastepaper basket, and I’ve always found a strange satisfaction in throwing stuff away – you feel , that like getting poison out of your system, your writing will be better for the destruction. But recently, the controlled chaos in which I’ve always worked  has turned into chaos pure and simple – I could always lay my hands on things, now they seem to vanish forever. So clearly a great turn-out and chuck-out is called for,  and I’ve just embarked on this, pulling out drawers and opening folders and seeing stuff which I haven’t looked at for years, in old-fashioned wobbly typewriter print, on thin copy paper, now yellowing away. I can remember the intensity and devotion  with which I wrote these things, and now I look at them and just see dull words and storylines I don’t care about. So out they go, and good riddance to them. Then there are novels which never saw the light of day and probably now never will, but I can’t quite bear to chuck these – not yet at least.  Short stories which took so much effort and attention, now sitting limply on the page. Who’d ever want them? Out with them. At least I can convince myself that these dull pages were helping me to hone my craft, so there was some point to them.

But some day there’ll be people looking through all this stuff – probably my daughters, who’ll turn to each other and say with bewilderment, ‘Now what the hell are we supposed to do with all this? Why on earth did she keep it all?’  Well, you, whoever you will be, you can chuck them if you want; it’s just that I don’t quite feel like doing it myself, not quite yet.

I suppose I’m about one-third of the way through the process ( you can see how dedicated I am by the fact that I’ve taken time off to write this)  My husband came in and looked around  and said ‘You call this tidy?‘ Which of course it wasn’t, nothing like, but tidying up is one of those things that gets worse before it gets better.

Of course many writers destroy their own work, and not always for the right reasons. Fanny Burney, aged 15, made a bonfire of her writings, probably because someone had told her that writing was unladylike, though fortunately whe changed her mind and went on to write one of the most popular novels of her day. Some writers, like Larkin and Hardy, leave the dirty work up to others, asking that the stuff be burned after their deaths – an unkind burden on a friend, I think. And sometimes, the post-mortem destruction is just vandalism, as when John Murray destroyed Byron’s memoirs, or Charlotte Bronte probably destroyed Emily Bronte’s second novel.

Still, no masterpieces are being destroyed in my study. The process is entirely cathartic. And maybe one day, when the room is clean and neat as a new pin, I’ll post a picture of it for you all to admire.

The real Troy



Heinrich Schliemann, genius and charlatan, liked to tell the story of how he’d been inspired by a picture seen at the age of eight, of the burning of Troy, which had made him vow that one day he’d discover its ruins. In fact, his interest doesn’t seem to have been alerted until,  a middle aged and wealthy merchant, he was travelling the plains of Turkey, and became interested in looking for the disputed site. An English diplomat called Frank Calvert believed a hill called Hisarlik was the real site of Troy, though he didn’t have the money to excavate it, and the place seemed too small to have accommodated all the dramas of the Iliad; no space for ‘topless towers’ here.  Actually, there were not just one, but nine cities built on this site, one on top of the other, until the mound of debris was fifty feet high.  As one city was destroyed, by earthquake, fire, or hostility, another would be built on top.  The space was small, but large enough to house the royal citadel of a city that would sprawl over the plain around it. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that in order to build the final city, the Roman-Greek Ilium Novum, much of the hill had been levelled, destroying the archaeology beneath. However, there would  have been plenty of Homer’s city left to find, if Schliemann hadn’t acted with such disregard. Fired with enthusiasm, he bought the site, and then embarked on a destructive and vandalistic dig.  Hordes of Turkish workmen  gouged a great chasm in the remaining walls, scattering huge stones everywhere over the plain, where they could now only be of use for building by the locals. In particular, he destroyed most of a wall of beautifully made limestone blocks, believing it was too fine to belong to his period, and went on digging ruthlessly down and down. Finally, he stopped at the second city on the site, known as Troy II, which he decided was the authentic Troy. There he had the luck to find a huge cache of treasure, abandoned as though the inhabitants had fled from a catastrophe. He spun a romantic story that his schoolgirl bride, Sophia, was with him at the time – though she wasn’t – and had her photographed in what he decided were Helen’s jewels. These jewels, which he smuggled out of Turkey. ended up in the Berlin Museum,  where they were believed to have vanished during World  War II, but in yet another of the strange convolutions of this story, they have since turned up in Russia, looted by Russian soldiers, and the Russians seem to have every intention of hanging on to them.

But these jewels, whoever they belonged to, certainly didn’t belong to Helen; they were hundreds of years older than that.  And by now, much of the ‘real’ Troy  (Troy VI) , the city he had believed to be ‘too fine’ to be his Troy, lay destroyed and unsalvgeable, scattered  over the plain. Recent more sensitive excavations  have since found traces of Troy VI and have managed to piece together the picture of a royal citadel, of fine stone houses and high walls; but for all his enthusiasm and energies, one can’t help wishing that someone other than Schliemann had excavated such a crucial and evocative site.

When Homer composed his epic, the Trojan War had been over for many hundreds of years; 1250 BC is a possible date – and Troy VI does seem to have been destroyed by fire, though how this related to the story of the Iliad can’t be known.

But far from being an imaginary city, Troy and its kings seem certainly to have existed, and was known , and was known to the ancients .  Homer called it Ilion, and the Hittite kings referred to it as it as Wilusa.    Perhaps it would spoil the legend to know too much about it; I’ve never been to Hisarlik, but apparently the tourist, in the absence of much else to see on the site, is greeted by a huge and hideous wooden horse, so maybe I’m better off with my imaginary Troy, of gleaming walls and white buildings.

(Michael Wood’s book ‘In Search of the Trojan War’ is an excellent account of the Trojan story, and to be recommended to anyone who wants to find out more.)

Imagining Troy

9781781323236-Perfect.inddA war that may never have happened, in a city that may never have existed, fought by heroes and villains who have left no record in contemporary archaeology or inscriptions- the Trojan War is almost a ghost account, trails of words left hundreds of years after the event,the story of a war in which there are no winners, no happy endings, only destruction on destruction; yet this story is one of the crucial founding myths of modern Europe.
Something probably happened at the place we now know as Troy, probably there was an equivalent of Agamemnon who waged war on the city and ultimately destroyed it, but it’s the accumulation of legend and myth around this unrecoverable moment of history that has turned it into the rich legend that we know. Something similar happens in British history with our own legends of King Arthur – there may very well have been a heroic leader, and something about him attracted the accumulation of stories to his name over the following hundreds of years, though probably there never was a sword in the stone, a Round Table, a Holy Grail, it doesn’t matter because the power of the legend is so strong. Likewise, Agamemnon, Helen, Achilles, Hector might never have existed, or might have stepped out of other legends. At any rate, the stories persisted and coalesced, and by the time of Homer, came together to make one of the great stories of all time. Some scholars have doubted whether there was an actual Homer, and supposed the story was put together by a series of oral poets over time. Yet it seems to me that you can hear the voice of a single gifted poet in the Iliad, a poet who has shaped his material skilfully and deliberately. He ignores most of the famous events of the story, the abduction of Helen, the Wooden Horse, and instead concentrates on a period of just fifty-one days, that takes place right at the end of the war. Moreover, it’s the psychological aspect of the war he’s interested in; ‘I sing of the wrath of Achilles – the corrosive anger of just one man and how it affects the course of the war. His sympathies are evenly divided; if anything, he’s on the side of the Trojans. (Did he encounter Trojan exiles with their wealth of stories in that island of his?) And though generations of public schoolboys were brought up to think of it as a valiant heroic epic, it’s actually very much an anti-war poem. Rather than a gung-ho celebration of slaughter, there are heartwrenching details of the deaths of these young men, and the effects on their families; Pedaeus, a bastard boy brought up with loving care by his stepmother, the two sons of aging Phaenops, too old to breed more sons, Hypsenor, son of a revered priest, Abas and Polyidus, sons of an ‘aged reader of dreams,’ who can have no dreams for them any more – you feel these deaths as personally as you feel accounts of young men killed in battles today. It’s an astonishing feat, especially for something probably composed seven hundred years before the birth of Christ.
‘How do you write a story for children on the Trojan War ?’ a woman said contemptuously to me the other day, though I don’t know whether she was berating me for hubris, or the unsuitability of my subject. Well, fortunately for me the conversation was interrupted before I had to find an answer. But the fact is, there are so many stories in the Trojan War that that you can choose among them- in my case, in the second volume of my Girls of Troy series, The Burning Towers, my real subject is poor tragic Cassandra and her poisoned gift of prophecy, though I tell the story through the viewpoint of her slave girl Eirene, an intelligent devotee of the goddess Athene. Eirene watches Cassandra and her fate, but manages to find a life of her own at the end. It was hard to find an optimistic ending out of so much tragedy, but in a story for young people, I like to finish on a note at least of hope.

Of course, there was a Troy, a real city, and its story is almost an epic in itself. Next time, I hope to blog about the real Troy.

Books that change over time…

Of course, it’s the reader that changes, not the book. But it’s strange how books can have an on-going existence in the reader’s mind that the writer can never have intended. For example, I love some of the early chapters of Villette because they convey to me like nothing else the excitement and the romance of going abroad for the very first time; travelling nowadays has lost much of its romance, and even seeing somewhere you’ve always longed to see can’t match the thrill of that first cross-channel ferry to Calais all those years ago, and realising, this is abroad, this is different.
But my jury’s out on Lucy Snowe – sometimes I like her, sometimes I want to chuck stuff at her.
As you change over time, so do your perceptions. This can be especially true of the books you read as an adolescent. Wuthering Heights has often been described as a book for teenagers – and so it is, with its passionate, despised, handsome hero. But when you grow up, and when Heathcliff grows up, what a difference. The last time I read Wuthering Heights as an adult, I gave up at the point where he was strangling puppies. No, that isn’t a hero, merely a psychopath. The late Angela Carter once said words to the effect that most women spend the first half of their lives looking for Heathcliff, and the second half wishing they’d never found him.
And Jane Eyre – as a teenage girl, Rochester, mean, moody and magnificent, seemed to be just the sort of man one would want for a lover. Frances Towers’ wonderful story ‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ describes how he might appear to a teenage girl; ‘Mr Rochester belonged to that part of Prissy’s experience which was too poignant to be shared. Her voice would go all trembly if she tried to tell Bunty about Thornfield Hall. ‘Jane, I’ve got a blow -I’ve got a blow, Jane!’ Was ever a woman so honoured? He was so strong, so fascinating. And rather wicked…’ Yet now, he seems to me just garrulous and self-pitying. And he isn’t very nice to Jane, playing with her affections and trying to trap her into a bigamous marriage. An American Professor friend of mine told me that she’d read Jane Eyre with a crowd of undergraduate young women, but instead of finding Rochester magnetic and attractive, they thought he was simply unpleasant and manipulative. Maybe today’s young women are too smart to fall for these destructive and controlling men (though Fifty Shades of Grey is doing all right.)
I’ve been working through my usual reading of comfort books recently. Jane Austen is always there of course. I’ve reread Emma, which doesn’t change, except to get even better every time. But I’ve also reread Mansfield Park, another of my favourites, though I know it isn’t popular. The main problem in Mansfield Park is Fanny Price of course. I’ve always felt sympathetic towards her, given her disastrous start at Mansfield Park, and the continual put-downs of Mrs Norris. Mrs Norris is my favourite Austen villain.( She reminds me, though I probably shouldn’t say this, dear Reader, of my grandmother.) Fanny shows great fortitude in her beliefs. We may not agree with her reasons for her hostility to the amateur theatricals, but we can understand them. And she stands up bravely, if tearfully,to her bullying uncle when he wants her to marry a man she doesn’t even like, let alone love.
I always feel that Mansfield Park is a story with a sad ending. By the time she gets round to marrying Edmund, we no longer care; and neither it seems does the author, who dismisses this important event in a paragraph. The real story is that of the relationship between two incompatible people, Henry and Fanny. Henry behaves impeccably in Portsmouth, but just as we feel Fanny might warm towards him, Jane Austen pulls the rug from under our feet. Every time I read the story I hope that this part of it might be different, but it never is. So how has the story changed for me, then? Well, for the first time, I’ve become really annoyed with Fanny. Not a joke, barely a smile, just endless prosing and high principle. And why does she have to be so physically weak? Why is walking across the park enough to make her retire to a sofa with a headache? And why is Mrs Norris’s strength in walking seen as one of her flaws? Remember Elizabeth Bennett striding boldly through mud and rain, to be with her sister. Jane Austen, you can do better than that, we feel. And surely, a ten-year old girl, the oldest sister, who has emerged from the mess of the Portsmouth family would have developed some survival strategies to help her out at Mansfield? Okay, I know all the rest of you got there a long time ago, but these are just my feelings of last week.
Another comfort book which I’ve just read, and feel hasn’t changed for the better, is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Of course is has enormous charm and atmosphere which is why we love it. But I’m worried about those girls. At first they seem to be behaving like children, but Cassandra is seventeen and Rose is nearly twenty-one. And they sit shivering and starving in their bleak kitchen while their horrible father ignores them. The story was published in 1949, which brings it not far short of the period my own schooldays and youth when girls certainly wouldn’t be acting in that way; but you feel she is writing about an earlier time, the twenties or thirties. But there was nothing to stop a young girl getting a job in those days, even though the choice of work was limited. All the women in my family worked during that period, teachers, nurses, clerks, shop assistants. It wasn’t felt to be demeaning, and it put butter on the bread and woollen coats on their backs. So what is it that stops these two girls getting work? Just laziness and snobbery, really. They don’t think of themselves as lower-middle class, like the working women of my family; they’re just posh without having any money to be posh with. I’ve also just read The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West, set in the Edwardian age, and all those girls, Rose, Mary and Cordelia, also from a bitterly poor family with an improvident father, are all determined to work. So it could be done.
Am I just getting picky in my old age, or becoming more perceptive, and shaking scales from my eyes? And of course there are books which change for the better as you develop and understanding of them, and I haven’t mentioned any of those. What about you? Do you find books change over time? And is it mostly for the worse or for the better?

Strong women…

GreeceOctober10 276Last week’s post,in which I remembered editors who didn’t think my heroine was ‘feisty’ (horrible word!) enough, got me thinking about strong female characters, and how the writer sets about portraying them. Well, I don’t think I have ever written about a weak and feeble heroine – why would you?- but my heroines have frequently been confused, uncertain, afraid; they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t show some of these characteristics at certain times. However, what makes – I hope – for interesting reading, is how they manage to cope with- and overcome- these feelings.
Of course, if you’re writing about a woman of the past, you have to pit her against constraints that a modern woman wouldn’t know. I’ve placed much of the story of the Girls of Troy series in a sort of classical Greek background, as this is a period we know more about than the Mycenean/Trojan world. But for all their fine words about democracy and freedom, the men of classical Greece gave their respectable womenfolk a pretty bad time. Mostly women were confined to their quarters, where they spent their days weaving and spinning. The fairly foul Hipponax said of women;’There are two days when a woman is most pleasing – when someone marries her, and when he carries out her dead body.’ Even noble Pericles declaimed that ‘the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men.’ Women would have had a pretty hard time being ‘feisty’ under those circumstances.
However, I’m sure that women managed to find ways round some of those strictures and find some freedom and fun for themselves. Hermione, the heroine of ‘Helen’s Daughter’ escapes the Mycenean court on at least two occasions, and at the end of the story is about to make her own decisions about marriage. Eirene, the heroine of my forthcoming ‘The Burning Towers’ is a slave, so her freedoms are even more restricted, but she manages to steal away to pursue the private devotions to her goddess which are so important to her. Electra is the heroine of the last in the trilogy and she is going to haveto behave in very unwomanly ways to take part in the terrible revenge which is to be her fate.
So what constitutes a ‘strong woman,’ either historical or contemporary? There seems to be a feeling, at least in YA books, that to be strong, a woman must be a sort of imitation man, dressing like a man, and wielding killer weapons. True, Katniss Everdene is a successful version of this character – she’s sympathetic and the books are well-written- but there also seem to be a lot of violent girl characters around. Murder and violence don’t do men many favours either- it would be a much better world if they learned to be softer and more ‘feminine’ but that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going.
So what constitutes real strength? A strong woman stands up for herself and learns to combat bullying. She isn’t fazed by internet ‘trolling,’ Mary Beard’s recent response of engaging with some of her ‘trolls’ is a truly strong and courageous one. A strong woman uses her natural empathy to relate to people, rather than thinking that authority means being rude and peremptory. (I had an eye test the other week; the male oculist peered through a machine at my eyes, and simply snapped over his shoulder to an observing student ‘She’s got cataracts.’ Luckily I knew this already, so it wasn’t a shock, but I can’t imagine a women doctor conveying the news so rudely and so brutally.) Often strength consists in not saying, or doing. Strong women will of course fight for their families, often getting no recognition for doing so, especially if they are poor. But truly strong women don’t need to constantly tell you how brave and fierce they are, ( I’ve known some who delight in spinning long narratives the sole purpose of which is to tell you how rude they were to some hapless person. ‘I can be rude to you too, if I choose,’ they seem to imply. Well, yes, and often they are too, but this isn’t strength, just an unpleasant character flaw.)
So who are my favourite woman characters in fiction? Surprisingly I can’t think of too many offhand, but these are some who spring to mind:
Beatrice and Olivia,
Elizabeth Bennett,
Flora Poste,
Miss Jean Brodie,
Jo March,
Marigold ( from Jane Gardham’s Bilgewater)
Berie (from Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?)
So who are your favourite literary females? I’d love to hear.

Daring to use mythology…

GreeceOctober10 153 For the last few weeks, I’ve been lost in the ancient world, as I revise my second novel in my Girls of Troy trilogy. It’s called The Burning Towers, and it describes the siege of Troy through the eyes of Eirene, a slave girl.
Publishers were very sneery about Helen’s Daughter, the first book in the series. Mythology doesn’t sell, they said, and anyway my heroine spends too much time spinning and weaving and not enough time being ‘feisty.’ The current vogue is still for fantasy and harsh dystopian futures. Well, having written both in my time, I’ve nothing against either genre; we wouldn’t want to be without Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones…
And yet, there’s something you find in ‘real’ mythology that you don’t find in ‘made-up’ fantasies. After all mythology is the result of our ancient ancestors trying to work out answers to the elemental questions of being; why are we here? How did we get here? What do we have to do to stay alive? What are we all about? The first tentative explanations or rituals have become stories, the stories have been told and retold over millennia. No one person invented them – countless men and women have played a part in their creation The stories have become beautiful, elegant, unimaginably cruel, intriguing, sometimes plain bewildering. Nothing about them is easy or simple to grasp. Every generation has refined the brew, so that what we have now has a richness and energy to it that you can’t duplicate in a single narrative from a single voice.
For a modern writer to use these highly-charged and powerful narratives for their own fiction takes a bit of courag3e and a bit of chutzpah. Unless you’re just retelling them as stories, you can’t just lift them off the page and reuse them. Also you have to research the historical background of whichever myths you’re using, whether they be ancient Greek, Norse or Celtic, and you face the perpetual historical novelist’s dilemma of using that background knowledge without swamping your reading with dry facts.
Another problem with myth is how realistic you decide to make it. Do you interpret your stories in purely historical terms, as Mary Renault does in The King Must Die? Or do you include the supernatural in your narrative? In the Girls of Troy trilogy, I come to a sort of compromise – I try to make my narrative convincing in historical terms, but the gods and goddesses are there too – I just hope my readers will be able to suspend their disbelief.
With the stories of Troy, there’s another problem; Homer didn’t compose his poems until centuries after the events may have taken place, and they weren’t written down for some time after that. Other versions of the story are even later. The trouble is that the kings of Mycenae and Troy didn’t leave us their versions of events in any form. Only archaeology can help, and since both Troy and Mycenae were excavated by that old crook Schliemann, much of what we might have been able to find out has been lost. Even the famous ‘mask ‘of Agamemnon’ which I reproduce above probably wasn’t Agamemnon at all but a much eariler king. So we have to make the best of what we can deduce. I suspect that the ‘real’ Agamemnon, if he existed, was little more than a sea-pirate, looting and raiding to acquire the gold and precious objects so necessary for a king to distribute among his followers. Was there ever a Helen? Or was Troy’s gold the main attraction? And far from possessing ‘topless towers’ the real Troy seems to have been a tiny citadel.
But … I’ve dared to make my own interpretation of these stories. And from my point of view, they’ve been so pleasurable to write, I’ll find it hard to leave them. (I’m working on Electra’s story of revenge and murder just now – this is causing some problems, but I’m determined to solve them.) I do hope they work for my readers too.

The books I didn’t read…

I’ve written a good deal about the books I read as a child, and this got me thinking about those I didn’t, and the reasons why. Partly it was because in those days, parents didn’t cram culture down their children’s throats as they seem to do now, possibly believing that children were better left to find things out for themselves. Apart from one inspirational teacher when I was nine or ten, teachers didn’t bother either. Weekly visits to the wonderful local libraries were the usual way of satisfying my addiction then, though before the days of plastic wrappers, books were stripped of blurbs and jackets and bound in drab library bindings so you could find out little about them before you took them home. I don’t recall librarians as being particularly friendly or supportive, either. Once, I crept, very scared and timid, into the adult library, where I asked an unsmiling woman if I could reserve a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. She glowered at me, and told me there was no such book. Eventually though she spoke to a few more unsmiling giants, and in the end one said scornfully, Oh what she means is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Silly me. Luckily this didn’t put me off libraries for life.
I suppose the main series that I didn’t read was the C.S.Lewis lot. Something about that title, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, put me off, I think;it sounded a bit patronising to me. Anyway, I never made my way through those fur coats into the snowy forest. I read the series as an adult, though, not long ago, and wonder whether I would have enjoyed it as a child. I find Lewis’s voice too insistently authorial, and I don’t like Aslan and his mawkish sacrifice. As a child, I was an enthusiastic Catholic who could believe in angels and miracles while distinguishing them from fairy tales and fantasy, but I think I would have resented even then the mixture of fairy-tale stuff and Christian polemic that Lewis sneaks into his story.
Another book I thought I had never read, though I must have done at some later stage, was The Wind In The Willows. I recall that I wasn’t charmed by Ratty and Moley and all that blokeish boaty stuff. But my chief problem was Toad. My child’s logic was upset that he could change size in the course of the book – one moment a toad-sized toad, the next human-sized and dressed as a washerwomen. Sorry, Mr Grahame – it doesn’t work. But I do remember reading some pages of Dream Days, and thinking, this man has no idea how real children talk and behave! So thumbs down to Kenneth Grahame.
I loved Rudyard Kipling, though, and never minded the authorial tone in the Just-so stories. He was on my side, I felt. The best writers were those that didn’t talk down to you, but somehow swept you along in their own enthusiasm for their stories and characters – Lousia M Alcott, Noel Streatfield, Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff. They were writing for you and with you.
Of course there were books I didn’t read because the subject didn’t appeal – I never liked horses, so no pony tales. Biggles and his ilk were boys’ books – the divisions between girls’ books and boys’ weren’t so marked then, but there were still differences. I never read Just William, though I loved Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories. Arthur Ransome’s stories seemed dated, and hadn’t acquired the charm of nostalgia.
I never read The Lord Of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, though I know I would have loved it. Partly because for some reason, I though it was one of those big desert adventure sagas, and partly because when a geekish friend tried to persuade me to read The Hobbit as a starter, I could never get beyond the first few lines. Bilbo Baggins is a bit blokey too, but you somehow forgive him. I think that’s the book I most regret not having read at the right time.
There’s a whole other subject here, and one that I’m not going to tackle at the moment – that’s the subject of the books you’ve got on your shelves as an adult, and just haven’t read: Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead another. They stare reproachfully at me; it’s just a stupid mental block, and one day I’ll overcome it.
There were plenty of books I did read as a child, of course. But sometimes I think about those waiting in the wings that never managed to come my way. What did I miss? I’ll never know.

The Legacy of Fatephur Sikhri

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks, partly because world news has been so horrific that it didn’t seem right just to burble away over trivia. But a letter from a young friend of ours travelling in Northern India reminded me of our first journey to India. Our visit then took us to Rajastan, the most touristy area of the country, and with its glittering temples and mosques, its jewelled palaces reflected in lakes, its exquisite colours, it’s easy to see why people want to come. I think the most beautiful place we saw was the long abandoned city of Fatephur Sikri, built by the Mughal emperor Akbhar in the late fifteen-hundreds. Constructed of red sandstone in the centre of barren mountains, it consists of many ornate pavilions laid out among patterned gardens; a beautiful rose-red city, probably abandoned because of its lack of water, it survives almost intact.
Akbhar was an unusual figure among the autocratic rulers of the day. He was brought up as a Sunni Muslim, in a family that was more open to liberal ideas than many others. When Akbhar became ruler, he encouraged, art, calligraphy, architecture and poetry. He was saddened by the fact that though he loved Islam, many of its followers seemed to do nothing more than argue. In the rest of Europe and Asia, Catholics and Protestants were busy slaughtering each other, and the Inquistion was in full flow. One of the saddest memorials I saw in India was a plaque in front of the Portugese Catholic cathedral in Goa, marking the spot where two thousand Hindus had been burned to death for refusing to convert.
In Fatephur Sikri, Akbhar constructed a pavilion which he called the Ibadat Khana, the House of Worship, where Moslems could meet to discuss religion. Unfortunately, everyone argued, so Akbar invited Jesuits and other Christians to join in. They argued too. Akbhar decided that the only way ahead was to found his own religion, one in which people would become enlightened and tolerant. He called it ‘Din-i-llahi’ – ‘the Religion of God’, and unsurprisingly saw himself as its prophet. It was a fusion of Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism, a monotheistic cult, but as much an ethical system as a formal religion. Adherents were to be tolerant, pious and prudent. There was no priestly hierarchy, no sacred scriptures. They ate no meat and killed no animals. Sadly, the new religion never gained many adherents, and didn’t long survive the death of Akbhar.
And yet – it was a brave and thoughtful attempt on his part. A religion that doesn’t make the world a better place is a travesty. But it seems that nowadays, religions have become less, not more, tolerant and humane. Men seem to think that God demands burned and mangled corpses, rivers of blood. Perhaps we need another Emperor Akbhar, more ‘Houses of Worship,’ more tolerance, more talking. Let’s not send the world back to the murderous Middle Ages.

Not a proper blog…

Well, it’s been a funny old week – spent mostly on very long journeys for very short hospital visits. Ten hours driving in three days – exhausting for my poor husband. Also we remembered – we’re not very good at remembering it – that yesterday was our wedding anniversary – the 49th, actually. But by the evening I was feeling too dismembered to do anything other than look at the bottle of champagne we’d optimistically bought on the way home. So I raised a glass of water and Richard raised a glass of sherry, and we determined to do better next year.

Anyway, instead of a proper blog, here’s a poem by Thomas Hardy, suitably austere; melancholy but with a note of hope, about a long married couple and their relationship.

Between Us Now

Between us now and here –
Two thrown together
Who are not wont to wear
Life’s flushest feather –
Who see the scenes slide past,
The daytimes dimming fast,
Let there be truth at last,
Even if despair.

So thoroughly and long
Have you now known me,
So real in faith and strong
Have I now shown me,
That nothing needs disguise
Further in any wise,
Or asks or justifies
A guarded tongue.

Face unto face, then, say,
Eyes mine own meeting,
Is your heart far away,
Or with mine beating?
When false things are brought low,
And swift things have grown slow,
Feigning like froth shall go,
Faith be for aye.

Thomas Hardy

Ideas – so where do they come from?

I suppose everyone confronts professionals with the same questions over and over- actors must be tired of being asked whether they ever forget their lines, surgeons if they are afraid of blood, tight-rope walkers what happens if they lose their balance. The answer comes with a polite smile and a sense of gritted teeth. The question that writers are always being asked, by young and old, is this: Where do you get all your ideas? It’s an odd question, if you think about it – not everyone has the skills to act or do surgery or tight-rope walking, but everyone has ideas; they aren’t exclusive to writers. I suppose the difference is that not everyone recognises them for what they are, and a writer is more likely to worry at an idea and shake it about violently until they can find a use for it. But every time you are intrigued by a newspaper article,or see a couple arguing and wonder what the hell is going on, or have a strange feeling of deja-vu as you turn into a street you didn’t think you knew – on these occasions and many more, you’re accumulating ideas, ideas that if you wanted to, you could fan into a story. For as long as you’re interested in things, then you’re having ideas.
People think that ideas come as flashes of inspiration, and sometimes they do. But there’s another sort which are more like the making of a patchwork quilt, assembling a pile of ill-assorted scraps, looking for a pattern, painstakingly stitching all together. Stories that have their birth in this way are just as valid, if less romantic than those that are generated in a blinding flash. My last two novels for teenagers demonstrate both sorts.Finding Minerva, which is a counterfactual story set in a Roman empire which has never declined or fallen, came pretty much in an instant on a visit of Wroxeter, when I found myself thinking, suppose all this was still here? Suppose the Romans had never gone away? And then I had an image of a tall dark girl running, and I had to find out what it was she was running away from. My new story, Helen’s daughter, is more of a patchwork affair, shuffling around scraps of stories in my head.There was a lightbulb moment, though, when I discovered that Helen of Troy had a daughter Hermione, whom she left behind when she eloped with Paris, and all at once a series of questions rushed into my head; and you can only answer such questions by writing about them.
My favourite story-about-inspiration is one that Trollope tells -I’ve been reading him avidly all summer. As a poor and clumsy boy at Harrow school, he was made miserable by being bullied, and used to escape into fantasy worlds; long and elaborate narratives, so that when he came to write them down as a professional, he was already skilled at plotting and pace and dialogue. This particular event, however, happened after he’d left Harrow and was working as a clerk in the Post Office. It was a wintery twilight night, and he was walking in London drizzle through a park, where he passed a young girl and her nanny hurrying through the wet gloom. He overheard the girl say ‘Oh, I wonder what he’ll be like!’ and the nanny replied ‘Well, we’ll soon know.’ At once something took fire in his mind. What were they doing walking in the rain, and why in such a hurry? Who were they going to meet? And above all, who was the enticing ‘he?’ A long lost cousin? A brother back from America? A rich uncle? All the way home, he was turning these fragments into a story. The girl became older and beautiful- well , he was a young man -and he became her protective hero. I don’t think this fragment ever made its way into any of the surviving Trollope novels, but I love it as a description of the way something trivial can make imaginative fodder. Probably ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have heard the little exchange and almost at once forgotten it. But Trollope knew that it was – it was an idea, and as such to be cherished.