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.
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.
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.”
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!
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!
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.
I’ve been musing on heroes lately. One of my greatest is Jarvis Cocker whose pop anthem, Common People, is one of the greatest songs ever written. Is it any wonder that any time Pulp played it at festivals, the audience reacted with such glorious enthusiasm and energy? There is no-one who hasn’t at some time felt an outsider in a world where so many others seem to be confident and glamorous, and rich. What Jarvis does so perfectly is to articulate the allure while showing the absurdity.
But now, here is Jarvis, hero of common people like us, and what is he doing? He is using his beautiful voice on ubiquitous TV adverts in which he describes recipes – Omelettes with goat’s cheese? Really? – made from luscious items, courtesy of Sainsbury’s.
I have struggled with this. Why did he accept the job? Surely he must know that every time people like me watch him describe in soft, seductive tones yet another dubious concoction of ingredients, our immediate reaction is one of disappointment and disillusion.
But now I see that I have been unfair. It is never wise to put individuals on pedestals. Charles Dickens wrote passionately about social injustice and yet he behaved with great cruelty to his middle-aged wife. Elizabeth Jane Howard wrote with searing wisdom about the follies of love and yet her private life was chaotic. There are charismatic actors who turn out to be husbands from Hell; there are likable politicians who prove to be ruthless in their pursuit of personal gain. It is unfair to expect Jarvis to be the ever-principled outsider. In the grand scale of things, providing the voice-over to Sainsbury adverts is not such a great crime, however irritating the adverts are. (And they are SO irritating.)