August 2017: In Praise of Bookshelves

Pity the poor e-book reader whose life holds no tangible evidence of books read and loved and books yet to enjoy.

My childhood mentors were E. Nesbit and Noel Streatfield. Their fictional children were bolshy and wilful and rarely blessed with good looks, perfect role models for a child with an appalling haircut and a fatal desire to please. Later, I moved on to Georgette Heyer who remains a great antidote to low spirits, Agatha Christie, and Margaret Irwin whose historical novels gave me my choice of subject at university.

In my student years I loved D.H.Lawrence. I thought he was very wise which shows what a very unreconstructed female I was. Now I love the American authors Ann Patchett, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout: they show with great skill the vulnerability of each and every one of us. It is liberating to realize that there is no-one who has all the answers.

July 2018: Getting to grips with Twitter

I love the sound of this title: hey, folks, I’m getting to grips with Twitter! Until a few weeks ago, I was a Twitter virgin and now, thanks to a tutorial from my daughter, Rosie, I can tweet and re-tweet and like and put up photos, and , yes, I am getting to grips with Twitter in the same way that on the only occasion in my life when I (temporarily) caught a fish, I got to grips with an unbelievably slimy and slippery mackerel.

Here is what I’ve learnt about Twitter:

1: I still don’t quite understand the concept of hashtags. However, it’s undoubtedly true that #DebbyHolt sounds far more important than Debby Holt does.

2: It is quite enjoyable but undeniably time-consuming trying to fit my thought for the day into 240 characters. I spend far too long trying to decide whether to delete a “very” or a “rather”.

3: On Twitter, journalists opine and comedians are funny. I’m still not sure what authors are supposed to bring to the table. We can’t keep talking about our working day. “Spent twenty minutes this morning watching cars drive past my window…” doesn’t quite work.

4: It’s great when a tweet gets a response. Hard to believe, I know, but some of my tweets do not, and then I feel like a guest at a terrifying party where everyone but me is being quite fascinating while I stand by a rubber plant in the corner and smile vaguely at the wallpaper.

5: Wouldn’t Oscar Wilde have been brilliant at this?

Sir Walter Scott: June 2017

On Sunday, I was at Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott. I first visited the place a few years ago when I was on holiday in the Scottish Borders. I knew very quickly that I wanted to write a novel set partly in the area and that somehow Sir Walter had to be involved.

As part of my research, I read the journal he wrote in the last seven years of his life. When he began it in 1825, he was wealthy and famous, the most celebrated author in the world. Then, in 1826, everything went wrong.  His publishers, of whom Scott was a partner, faced bankruptcy, and Scott vowed that he would clear all the debts by the efforts of his pen. Then, in May, his wife died. The journal, begun with such optimism, became a chronicle of his deteriorating health and his vastly expanding workload.

What is extraordinary is the warmth and humour and kindness that shine through the pages. Here is Scott in 1827: “Workd in the morning as usual…Some things of the black dog still hanging about me but I will shake him off. I generally affect good spirits in company of my family whether I am enjoying them or not. It is too severe to sadden the harmless mirth of others by suffering your own causeless melancholy to be seen. And this species of exertion is like virtue its own reward for the good spirits which are at first simulated become at length real.”

I defy anyone to read his journal and not fall a little in love with him.

June 2017: About Secrets

I’ve been thinking about secrets lately. It seems to me that, at least in personal relationships, what makes them so powerful is not the secrets themselves but the act of concealing them. It is that act that changes the balance and alters the equilibrium because one partner knows something the other does not.

In Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal, Jerry has a long affair with his best friend Robert’s wife, Emma; Jerry, the betrayer, feels betrayed in turn when he discovers that Robert knows about the affair.

It seems to me that secrets are pretty dangerous and best avoided whenever possible. Look at the two great scandals of the twentieth century if you don’t agree. The Profumo affair almost brought down Macmillan’s government and certainly fatally wounded it. If John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, hadn’t lied to Parliament about his affair with nineteen-year-old Christine Keeler, history might have been very different.

With Watergate, it was not the fact that burglars broke into Democratic Party HQ that did for President Nixon, it was the increasingly desperate cover-up that he and his aides tried to orchestrate. A simple, straightforward apology would have been far more effective.

I will not conceal the reason for this particular blog. My eighth novel, The Dangers of Family Secrets is published by Accent Press on June 29. Its subject is the pernicious effects of long-buried secrets on a couple, Felix and Freya, and their twin daughters. Freya is a genealogist and my novel has been partly inspired by friends who’ve uncovered fascinating stories about their ancestors online.

All families have their secrets. It’s how they deal with them that makes them interesting.

April 2017: Happy Talk

I’m aware I haven’t posted for a while. To be honest, the world’s in such a sorry state at present that I’ve found inspiration difficult. My mood wasn’t helped after I finished reading “Sapiens”, a stunningly brilliant book by Yuval Noah Harari. He shows us how humans became the dominant species on our planet and he makes it clear that we should not feel too proud of this. Our history is a violent one: we’re cruel to each other and we’re even more cruel to all the other species on the planet.

This morning I went to the gym and, while dolefully plodding on the running machine, I watched Breakfast News. An interview was carried out with two young men who’d run in the London Marathon. They’d both been near the finishing line. One stopped when he saw the other was about to fall from exhaustion. He then helped him to struggle across to the finishing line and thus gave up his chance to win a PB – I have NO idea what a PB is, but it obviously means a lot. Anyway, both men were sweet and self-effacing and made me cry, (not a good thing when you’re on a running machine.)

Walking home, I realized – not for the first time in my life – that despite all the misery and greed and violence in the world, there are many people who are kind and thoughtful. And then I thought of the lovely weekend I’d just had with my sister, Aleda. I recalled the Skype call from youngest son Charlie last night and the conversation I’d had with oldest grand-daughter, Lyra: “Granny, you sound far more sensible in your books than you do in real life.”

In other words, it is always important to remember the many people we know or we read about who lighten our lives. As Winston Churchill said, “I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem too much use being anything else.”

February 2017: The Oscars

Does everyone feel like I do about this? Does everyone feel that Christmas has come early?

The Oscars ceremony is run like a vast well-oiled machine with heaven knows how many competent and clever individuals involved in the preparation for an event that is screened round the world. And then, this time, in the final and most important category, the presenters were given the wrong envelope.

It gets better. Warren Beatty looked confused and hesitated for so long that his co-presenter, Faye Dunaway, assumed he was trying to make a laboured and wholly unfunny joke. He showed her the card. She barely looked at it before announcing with huge confidence that La La Land had won. We all have Faye Dunaways in our lives: people with such self-belief that they make us feel correspondingly awkward and unsure. But Faye was wrong. Indecision and hesitation can be good qualities and, while I’ve never held a candle for Warren Beatty, I felt like giving him a cheer.

Finally, as with every feel-good movie, there was a happy ending. The teams behind La La Land and Moonlight were gracious in their reaction to the amended announcement. Perfect!

So now, next time I fail to back up an important document or leave plane tickets in the Heathrow car park – Thank you, dear taxi driver for getting me there and back in time to catch my plane – I shall remind myself that we all make mistakes. Human beings – all human beings – are fallible. Hallelujah!


December 2016: Two great novels

I have a friend who won’t read fiction.  ‘If it’s made up,’ he says, ‘it doesn’t count.’ I’ve just read two novels that might change his mind.

Ann Patchett’s first novel has echoes of her latest, Commonwealth, in that both have enigmatic characters. Her first, Patron Saint of Liars is about Rose, a kind and competent woman  who wreaks havoc on those who love her.

In Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, the eponymous character is an unlikable and difficult woman for whom the reader comes to have great sympathy and affection.

What I should – shall – say to my friend is that good fiction gives one the chance to know people in a way that biographies and memoirs can rarely achieve. On a very basic level, good fiction makes one want to do better and be kinder. That’s not a bad resolution for 2017.

Have a very happy Christmas and a brilliant New Year!

November 2016: Getting On

One of the pleasures of a long marriage is being able to trade symptoms of physical and mental deterioration. I can recount an extraordinary memory lapse when I failed to recognise someone who, apparently, I knew pretty well; my husband can instantly trump it with an amnesiac episode of his own.

It must be difficult for those men with much younger wives. They must know that every time they wish to mention rheumatism or blood pressure or possible dementia, the air becomes febrile with panic and fear and possible regret.

Health conversations should be held only with long-term partners or very old friends. I would definitely not burden my children with them. You have to be at least 50 to find such things interesting. My mother – like my father-in-law – was a stoic. My father was a hypochondriac and also the most dynamic 66-year-old I’ve ever known. He never reached 67. He died after a car accident that was not his fault. My mother-in-law was a joyous spirit who more or less lost her mind after her husband’s death.

So, my husband and I continue with our latest updates on the ailment front while grateful that today at least we can still enjoy the music of Leonard Cohen. We will raise a glass to him tonight.