All posts by francesthomas

I was born during the War in South Wales, where my mother had gone to escape the bombs. My mother’s family was Irish and English, my father’s Welsh. Later we moved back to South London where I grew up. Since I was an only child, I read lots of books and when the books ran out, I made up stories, a habit I’ve never lost. Later I went to a convent school, where I was bad at needlework and netball. The headmistress didn’t like me because my hair was untidy – still is, I’m afraid. I read English at London University and took a teaching course. I married a historian, Richard Rathbone, and I have two daughters and two grandchildren. My most interesting work, apart from writing, was working with young dyslexic people. Contrary to what many believe, dyslexics can become passionate readers and imaginative writers – I look forward to seeing several of my ex-pupils featuring in the Booker Prize shortlist one day. My first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980. I’ve published many since, for children and adults, but I especially enjoy writing for children. My children’s books have been translated into ten languages. We lived for many years in North London, and I still think London is one of the most exciting cities in the world. But a few years ago, we decided to make a complete break, and came to live in this beautiful part of mid-Wales where we used to spend our family holidays. I now live here very happily, trying to learn Welsh (ond mae’n mor anodd!) going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.

The Unwelcome Guest again

The Unwelcome Guest seems to have been taking up far too much of our time and attention recently what with hospital visits and appointments for this and pills and injections for that. Much as you’d like to, you can’t avoid it, though cancer’s not a subject you’d ever chose to become an expert on. But I know for many people it’s difficult to broach – is it rude to talk about it, or ruder to pretend it isn’t there? ‘I wanted to ask, but I didn’t like to,’ people say, and I guess you can’t blame them for feeling awkward.
Well, I suppose everyone’s different – some people don’t mind talking, some people just want to go away into a hole. But I think that most want to stay attached to reality during the process of treatment and that means being quite happy to talk. I don’t need anyone to put on one of those special serious voices: ‘Do tell me, my dear, how are you?’ I don’t want people to give me advice on what medication I should or shouldn’t be taking, or which alternate treatment will make me feel so much better. But there are all sorts of light neutral questions that you can use to broach the subject; How’s the chemo going? How much longer will it go on for? Have you got a nice consultant? What’s the worst thing about the treatment? What are you looking forward to doing most when it’s all over? How do you pass your time? If someone doesn’t want to talk, you’ll soon get the hint and change the subject. Otherwise, it’s just a very big elephant in the room.
People will tell you you’re ‘brave’ and that you’re ‘fighting’ cancer. But you have the treatment, and it’s probably better for everyone around if you can be upbeat about it, but bravery is something different and special, and doesn’t really come into it. Likewise there’s no ‘fight’ involved. It’s a fairly passive process. You have the treatment, and wait for the results. If they’re good you’re pleased, if they aren’t, you’re despondent, but ‘fighting’ involves something a bit more proactive. People talk of ‘winning’ or losing’ the fight against cancer, but really you just take what you’re given. Of course, if eating organic vegetables, or having alternate medicines, or praying, makes you feel a bit better, or more in control, that’s fine, but it’s the poisons coursing through your body that are actually doing the business.
I guess the worst thing is the boredom of not being yourself during the treatment. In my case I have a bad back, so I’m hobbling around weakly everywhere. Your brain sort of works – just enough to remind you that you still have one – but concentrated effort is a bit beyond you. But, I’m looking forward to a bit of normal life again – believe me, I shan’t take it for granted. At any rate, I might not be brave and I might not be fighting, but I’ll try to keep the door shut on the Unwelcome Guest for just as long as I possibly can.

Second Lieutenant P.E. Thomas

Edward Thomas grave

…otherwise better known as the poet Edward Thomas, and whose grave we went to visit earlier this year, in the little cemetery at Agny, near Arras.

Edward Thomas was a strange and difficult man,  depressive and quite unsuited to  domestic life, despite the attempts of his adoring wife Helen to make it a perfect one for him. He went for long, gruelling walks through the English countryside, during which he absorbed more than most people ever could, of its  sights and smells and sounds, although he didn’t start writing his poems until the last years of his life. Yet he was not a gloomy companion. Eleanor Farjeon, who also loved him, wrote: Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh and liked what he saw. He saw more than anybody I ever knew and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with.

            As an older married man, he could have avoided enlisting, but he joined the Artist Rifles in 1915. In many ways the life of the army camp suited him – it gave him a kind of liberty and a purpose in life, and we was popular with his men. In 1916, he was sent to France.  He died at Arras on Easter Monday 1916. The story that Helen believed was that he had just paused to light his pipe when a shell whizzed close to him, and he died from the blast without a mark on his body. Apparently, though, there may be other versions of this story, and I believe there is a new biography in preparation which I shall await eagerly.

After the war, his reputation seemed to dwindle, maybe because unlike the other war poets, he chose not to write about the horrors of war, except indirectly. He was also tarred with being that terrible thing, a ‘Georgian’. But I’m glad to say that seems to be over now, and his poetry is admired for the subtle and complex thing that it is. Ted Hughes described him as ‘the father of us all.’

Here’s a short and moving poem from 1915 about the losses of war and what is left behind.

 

In Memoriam

 

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood

This Eastertide call into mind the men,

Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Girls of Troy

owl

I bought this little owl in Nauplion in Greece a few years ago, and ever since then, she’s been sitting on my windowsill, watching me as I write. We were then on our way to Mycenae, where I stood under the Lion Gate and thought about Agamemnon and Troy. The Iliad is the strangest of epics – it doesn’t begin at the beginning nor end at the end, the heroes die, and anyway don’t behave heroically. War isn’t depicted as something splendid and manly – quite the opposite in fact. The Iliad must be the first great anti-war story.

Of course, as you’d expect , from the time and the culture in which it was composed, it’s an overwhelmingly male story, full of dark age masculine values,  killing, looting, revenge. Women don’t have much of an active part to play. Yet it seemed to me that lurking in the nooks and crannies of this great male epic, there were a number of stories of women and young girls that would be be fascinating to explore. For example, what about Helen’s only daughter Hermione.  What was it like to be the daughter of the most famous beauty in the world? How must it have felt to her when her mother deserted her? Were they close? Were they affectionate? And things became even more intriguing when I found that Hermione was also linked with Achilles’s son Pyhrrus. Two children of impossibly famous parents. There must  be a story there.  And then poor Cassandra, cursed with the gift of making prophecies that no-one would believe . She  must have seen what was happening to her, and maybe tried to prevent it, but could do nothing for she was under the control of the powerful god Apollo. And finally, Electra, driven by the constraints of honour to seek that horrifying revenge on her own mother.

These stories gave me the idea for my Girls of Troy trilogy. The first volume, Helen’s Daughter, is the story of Hermione, and leads up to the start of the war and the sacrifice of her cousin Iphigenia. The second, The Burning Towers, tells the story of Cassandra, through the eyes of her slave-girl, Elissa.  There are no happy endings for anyone in the Trojan story, especially poor Cassandra, whose final days are particularly gruesome, so without giving too much away, Elissa will find a way out and a life of her own.  Athene’s little owl will play an important part in her story.  And finally, Electra, whose story I am still working on.  She sees her beloved father murdered by her mother and her mother’s lover – and feels that she and her brother Orestes have no choice but to seek revenge in their turn.  It’s a difficult story, and one that is  challenging to write about, but I’m enjoying the challenge.

I’m lucky to be working with http://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/    to bring this dream to fruition and I hope to write about the process from time to time on this blog,

History again.

medieval painting

 

Let me introduce you to a piece of artwork by Frances Thomas aged twelve-and-three-quarters.  As you can see there is a lot going on in this picture, and I can assure you that all the detail is accurate. I was obsessive about detail, and still am to a certain extent. I can’t move on until I know what my character is wearing, is seeing and how they’re going to get about. Luckily it’s so much easier when you can find stuff out in ten minutes on the internet rather than spending a morning in the library. In those days, my bible was  the Quennell’s marvellous  History of Everyday Things in England, which I still consult. I  was also obsessed at that time with the Middle Ages – it must have been a particular book which triggered the obsession but I can’t remember now which one.

As you can also see from the painting, I was more of a story teller than an artist, though in those days, I longed to be both. There was always a story or seven running through my head, though I didn’t start writing them down till much much later. And of course it’s obvious that without books, I wouldn’t have been either. As a slightly nerdish only child, the trip to the library was one of the high points of my week. I read anything that attracted me- not so easy as in those days library books were stripped of their dust jackets and blurbs and bound in drab library bindings, so finding out what you were reading was always a bit hit-or-miss. I’ve put what I can remember of my favourite childhood reading list below. I also read historical fiction as an older teenager, where it filled the gap between childhood reading and the more difficult world of adult books – then I devoured Mary Renault,  and Robert Graves’s Claudius books. I also read a lot of romantic stuff by people like Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, though I was aware that these weren’t quite, er, top-class.

Anyway, though I shall probably wake up screaming in the middle of the night as I remember the really really important book I’ve just left out, here are my top ten childhood historical books:

 

Rosemary Sutcliff  – anything and everything by. But if I have to single out:

Simon

The Eagle of the Ninth

The Armourer’s House

 

Geoffrey Trease    – again anything and everything by. But let’s go for:

Cue For Treason

Crown of Violet.

 

Barbara Leonie Picard  – Ransom For a Knight   A beautifully written story by a writer whose translation of The Odyssey was one of the seminal books of my youth.

 

R.D.Blackmore  -Lorna Doone    Oh, how many of those stories-in-my-head involved wild moonlight rides over the moors and fearful blood feuds and beautiful maidens.

 

Dorothy M Stuart – A Child’s Day Through the Ages. Probably a little dry. But I loved these stories, especially the one about the little priestess, of which I was reminded when I later read  Ursula le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan.

 

Henry Garnett  (not Henry Treece, as I misremembered, though I enjoyed Henry Treece too)  Thirteen Banners.   Set in the days of Simon De Montfort. The usual brave children escaping with a message. Can’t remember much about it now but I know it was good fun.

 

Meriol Trevor   Sun Faster, Sun Slower.  Time travel. Re-reading it recently, I realised how very Catholic it is, which I was then too, though am no longer. But the story of the escaping Jesuit priest is still very exciting.  Meriol Trevor wrote fine poetry too, which I’ll try to post on this blog some day.

 

Some historical stuff, like Flambards and Barbara Willard’s lovely Mantelmass series didn’t come out until I was too old to read them as a child. But I reckon that we children of the fifties lived through a golden age of children’s historical fiction. Do let me have more of your own lists of favourites – I’ve loved reading your comments.

Past or Future?

redcap

 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

9781845495411-Perfect.indd 

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  http://www.francesthomas.org/

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

P1010100

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.