Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Spirit of the World

Best of luck Danny, we said, and then we watched in the grip of increasing awe and astonishment as the stadium split open with mesmerising centuries-worth of culture and music that make up the sum of our small Isles, zipping past us in generous and fleeting succession. This was no history lesson but the simple recounting of one nation’s story and its reach to the rest of the globe. From literature and revolution to punk and the parachuting Queen, it was never elitist. With humour and a wink of confidence, it included everyone, and triggered the most amazing once-in-a-lifetime event in the city we love so much. Within minutes, the cynics were silenced. If they didn’t get it, then they had no soul.

And then the sport began. The bells rang out to the world and the joy and spirit of the games seeped onto our streets, along our pavements, down into the Tube, and on to smiling faces. It rode on top of buses, past flags and banners fluttering on every corner. In the parks they spread their picnics, and erected the screens, conjestion scaremongering a distant memory. The arenas were full (well, almost) and voices were lost from cheering, arms aching from waving, but never ever growing tired of it. Thank you, London 2012 – it is a privilege to be just one tiny part of it. 

But what are we going to do when it is all over and the cauldron is extinguished? Simple answer is to carry on living the dream and passing it on. This is our world, our gift, our joy. And the spirit of the world and the Isle of Wonders cannot be snuffed out.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

We will remember them

Every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres, at the going down of the sun, a large crowd gathers in respect and expectation. Every evening, without fail, buglers march out, the crowd falls silent and holds its breath as the proud and mournful Last Post is sounded.
But pride can slip easily into bitterness among the fields of Flanders and the valleys of the Somme. For here the inhumanity of war is uncovered, just as farmers’ ploughs today churn up a chip of backbone, a stick of rib and a curved piece of skull. One hundred years on, shells and bullets, many still live, are also a perpetual harvest. I toured the Western Front to try to understand our nation’s degradation of its youth, but could only scratch the surface of comprehension. I could only stand and stare.
Their names are listed row upon row on the Menin Gate, utterly shocking in their thousands but actually a mere drop in the ocean among the endless cemeteries and battle grounds. The Tommies gave their theatre of war a human and humorous edge, naming places Hellfire Corner, Suicide Road and Blood Alley. They called their tanks Fritz Flatteners. They laughed, of course, or else they died. (After all, it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)
Stand on the Messines Ridge with binoculars and you can see almost the whole of the Line, stretching from Loos in the south to Passchendaele in the north. And in this benign landscape, force yourself to imagine the filth and the noise of war: the firestorm at Hooge where burning oil was jettisoned over trenches, the poisonous quagmire of Ploegsteert, the violent slaughter in the wire at Beaumont Hammel. In Sanctuary Wood, you can still touch bullet holes in the blasted, ragged trees. Watch the river Somme make its peaceful wide sweep through rolling countryside further south and learn of the revolting carnage at Serre where the mowing down of a generation occurred in approximately ten minutes.
The enormity of the numbers of the dead is beyond belief; the staggering amount who were simply “lost” and unaccounted for driven home by the single and empty word on missing French soldiers' headstones: Inconnu. The monument at Thiepval will leave you gaping and speechless. All these placenames, notorious, stagnant and cold in our collective psyche, should be carved onto every school curriculum.
As the sun goes down over the Western Front, the wind picks up and the grasses rustle but the earth remains silent. And, in the morning, people rebuild their lives. With nonchalant shrugs, farmers erect barns over mine chambers still packed with explosives, they use former dug-outs as wine cellars, they plough up the white bones of century-old youth while birds continue to sing from the hedgerows. Life goes on here because that is what they ceased living for. And they remain in the cemeteries, legions of them, lying perfectly still, perfectly regimented, under pristine headstones.
All seems peaceful on the Western Front. All quiet apart from, of course, the bird song.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Listen without prejudice

When the audio version of A Season of Leaves came out - soon after the book was published – I promptly put my copy of it on the shelf and forgot all about it.
Presented in a lovely case - on 12 CDs no less - the novel is read by actress Anna Bentinck who has done over 800 similar recordings for the BBC. But I shied away from listening to it and left it to gather dust. What stopped me? Well, I do have this thing about reading my own work out loud, so to hear someone else do so would have been excruciating for me - and I’d want to head red-faced for the hills.
However, four years on, after being encouraged by the person who understood my fear but made me do it anyway, I duly uploaded the CDs to my iPod for my daily commute. Once I’d stopped giggling and cringing, I settled into listening to the, believe me, bizarre experience of having my own words relayed back to me and was pleasantly surprised. Anna does not just read the book out loud, she gives the story nuances, pauses and emphasis, exactly how I originally intended. She gives the characters different voices that fit their personalities like a glove. She portrays their humour and their humanity just as I first imagined. And even though I know what’s going to happen next, I am enthralled!
Hearing my words being reborn and the story spinning out, like it did as I wrote it, has given me bags of confidence and a whole new belief in myself. Now, why didn't I do this years ago?

Saturday, 4 February 2012

In the deep freeze

We’re breaking records here in Chesham.
December 2010 saw the mercury famously drop to minus 17 (I think it made the One Show), and last night we plumbed the depths to minus 11. It’s something to do with the microclimate that our dear little Chiltern valley creates: sheltered and protected from the wind, temperatures plummet in certain wintry conditions.
This is bad news for the commuter community. The poor old Metropolitan line from Chesham creaks along at the best of times but during a cold snap, it positively cries for help. The trepidation when I leave the house to set off on my epic journey to work in London is tangible. Will I or won’t I make it?
Apart from falling on my btm in treacherous ice outside the station last year (resulting in a bruise the size of a dinner plate), these snowy mornings don’t bode well if you have any self respect or fashion sense. My friends and colleagues arrive at work in neat little coats and ankle boots, having made their way via the toasty Tube or more reliable/convivial train services. I, meanwhile, have left my home attired in layer upon layer as advised and shivered for an hour on an un-heated Met line train to arrive eventually: ruddy cheeked and dressed like a yeti.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

I'm back in the room...

And I can’t believe it’s been so long. For those of you who’ve missed me while I retreated into my hermit’s cave, from now on I will try not to be such a lazy blogger.
I’m here to tell you that, despite a rather prolonged radio silence, it’s all been happening behind the scenes.
The good news is I that have a new two-book deal with Allison & Busby (small publisher of big books is their pleasing tagline), which means my second novel The September Garden will at last see the light of day. Publishing date will be this summer (I will of course let you know the exact time and place as soon as I do!).
My retreat from the world of blogging gave me the time to nurture The September Garden (spending a week in blissful Cornwall - read about this in my blog Return to the Honey Pot), reworking the story and bringing it back to life. The result is a novel set in London during the Blitz, in Occupied France and amid the rolling Chiltern hills of Buckinghamshire. It is the story of two cousins who, as squabbling rivals, are thrown together by the outbreak of war. And they fall for the same man, with devastating consequences. As I like to say, if you love romantic,war-time fiction, you have come to the right place.
I am just finishing off the copy editor’s corrections now and this exercise highlighted quite acutely to me my inability to translate English into French properly. As you can guess, it has been a while since I took my French O Level. And the fact it was an O Level gives the game away just that little bit more…