Welcome to my blog. I am not a very regular blogger, but I try to keep this site updated with news and information. If there's none of the above I may just share my random ruminations.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Appeal of the Knave?



....or, what influenced me to become a writer? 


In my view writers are born not made. But I imagine there is always a spark, perhaps a book read at a particular moment, that gets under the skin and turns the vague "if only" into a need.

So many books captured my imagination when I was a young reader. But if I am really honest, the first book that inspired me to try to write romantic fiction was not Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, or even one of Georgette Heyer’s sparkling Regency Romances, all of which I read and enjoyed at a ridiculously young age.

I must have been around 12 - a critical moment for girls, when hormones are on the rise. At that age I was actively looking for someone or something to feed the romantic impulse which was blossoming inside me. I fixated first on a boy who lived a few houses up from ours and who travelled on the same train as me in the mornings to go to school - him to Dulwich College, me to Bromley Girls Grammar. The crush lasted for a year or so, but I never even spoke to him.

Ethel and her older sister, Ella - known as Nettie and Sissie 
A more reliable source of sustenance was the dusty old hard back I found on the book shelves at home. ‘The Knave of Diamonds', by Ethel M Dell, had belonged to my grandmother (maybe even my great grandmother originally). Although she didn’t try to stop me, my mother did try to dissuade me me from reading this book. Looking back, I don’t think it was the subject matter or the sexist attitudes that worried her so much as the critical disdain then prevalent about the quality of Ethel's writing.

My Book Shelf
Prolific, and a huge bestseller, Ethel M Dell was (arguably) the first writer of romance, as we understand the term. Born in 1881, in Brixton (or Steatham - the accounts vary) she was shy and reclusive, and lived with her older sister, Ella. The two women even adopted a baby girl together. She had begun to write while very young and had many stories published in magazines. Most were stories of love and passion and, for those times, were considered very racy. Her cousins would count the number of times she used the words - passion, tremble, pant and thrill. By the time she met and married her own hero, Lieutenant-Colonel Gerald Tahourdin Savage, she was in her forties and very successful. He gave up his commission.

The Knave of Diamonds was her second novel - published in 1912. In this story Nap Errol, the hero, is of questionable lineage. As far as I recall, he is the product of a liaison between a “white” American and a “red” Native American. This flaw is physically represented by his one blue eye and one brown, and it also accounts for the fact that he’s a womaniser and a cad. He even refers to himself as 'a savage'.
The heroine, Lady Anne, is unhappily married to a drunken brute, considerably older than she is.  Nap falls for Lady Anne, and does all in his power to seduce her but, although she is miserable and quite obviously fancies Nap, she is bound by honour and duty to fend him off and stay true to her marital vows. I can’t recall precisely how we get from this dilemma to the happy ending, but in between are all the ingredients of a good melodrama - drunkenness, beatings, abduction, near rape and redemption. What I do recall is that Nap, when on the point of ravishment, was brought to his senses by her high-mindedness and purity of heart.  One could be forgiven for inferring that had he had a woman of less obvious rectitude in his clutches, he would not have stopped at a fierce embrace.  It goes without saying, however, that all ends well with the timely death of the horrid husband.


Even when I first read it I knew it was very old fashioned, with a strong sermonising moral tone, but I loved it. These days it would be considered shockingly un-PC. But I now believe the influence of this book was seminal in my early attempts to write romance. I can see in it so many of the ingredients that informed my own writing in those early teenage years. The bad-boy hero and the good-girl heroine - throbbing with unexpressed physical passion - who tames him.

Ethel M Dell was a trail-blazer, and I still admire the woman for her output and her imagination. But I do not recommend her books as a style guide. The emotions are over-wrought and melodramatic. The heroines are always tired and in need of lie-down, but the headaches and exhaustion they suffer is certainly not the result of hard, physical work. This was a time when well brought up ladies of a certain class - and all of EMD’s heroines are well brought up ladies of a certain class - had servants. What wears them out is the expenditure of so much breathless emotion.

 PB reprint - undated, but 1950s I guess
By the time I acquired the second book in my collection, ‘Charles Rex’- bought second-hand in Bantry, on a family holiday to Ireland when I was seventeen - I still enjoyed it immensely, but my critical faculties had sharpened considerably. Though still a teenager my appreciation was now a far more complex mix. I’m afraid that the bizarre plot, outlandish antics and overwrought (but never physically expressed) passions made me laugh.  I do not possess the complete canon, but I have something like 20 Ethel M Dell books in the place of honour on the shelf above my computer. Including that original copy of Knave of Diamonds I read when I was a girl. I love them all, but they are of their time, a window onto a world long gone, when a heroine's feelings of desire and longing were “unutterable”.


Saturday, February 16, 2019

Drawing a Naked Male Model Can be Challenging

They can't always keep as still as you would like


All my books have grown out of the “What if...?” question.  LIFE CLASS is no exception.

Initially I had the title but no story, so I began to reflect on the accumulated experience of attending life drawing lessons over many years, and there was one incident that cried out to be revisited. 
Before I arrived at Croydon College of Art (now called Croydon School of Art)  aged sixteen, I knew no boys, apart from my cousins.

Here between my first and second year

For a shy, gauche and inexperienced suburban kid from an all-girls Grammar School - becoming an art student was a very big deal.  I’m sure it was a big deal for all of us in First Year Foundation.  Within days, however, we’d relaxed with one another enough to become noisy and brash, and to show off. Then we had our first life class.


NOT the drawing from that first lesson





Of course, we all knew this weekly lesson was a part of the curriculum, so at least we weren’t taken by surprise. But knowing that something is going to happen does not necessarily make it easier to deal with when it does. Imagine us, not yet entirely comfortable with one another, suddenly confronted by a very ample naked woman who we were expected to draw. The lesson passed in a stunned silence from the mixed class of very young students.  The teacher made up for our unusual hush by raising his voice, as if suspecting we’d all turned deaf as well as mute.

“Observe the landmarks of her body and how they relate to one another,” he boomed. “Her crotch ... her belly ... her navel ... her nipples!”

In retrospect, it was funny.  At the time it was more agonising than amusing.  I found it a challenge to even look at her without blushing, let alone to closely study those parts of her body I was too bashful to say out loud!  But, despite the initial embarrassment, I swiftly became used to studying a naked stranger.  In fact, the life class rapidly became my favourite part of the week.  I was captivated by the challenge of trying to interpret the human body in a drawing. 


Peter Robinson (Strand branch) 
When I left college I was unable to find a job in the art world, and for the next few years I was a depressed sales assistant in various London department stores - many of which no longer exist.

The aspect of art I missed the most was the life drawing, and I signed up for an evening class at the London School of Printing. I continued with this for a year but, after a day’s work, slogging over from the Strand to the Elephant and Castle on public transport became a bind and I gave it up. 

At the time it felt like my life was trickling away. In truth it  wasn’t so long before I managed to secure my dream job as an illustrator in an advertising design studio and for the next few years I was very happy earning my living doing what I’d always wanted to do.


As I became more accomplished, however, the work became more demanding and stressful. The workload was always erratic and, when a new commission did come in, it was typically wanted first thing the next morning. 

So when I had my son, I was content to take a break from commercial art. Now at home full-time, I revisited my teenage hobby of writing, and I also signed up for another life drawing class.  Baby-sitting responsibility was my husband’s for one night a week, enabling me to do something just for me.


On that first evening I set out feeling excited and tense.  I had the directions and, as I drove over to the school in Wandsworth, I rehearsed in my mind what faced me.  I knew that my life drawing skills would be rusty, I’d not employed them for years, but there was something else on my mind.   In my experience ‘Life’ models were predominantly female.  At college, over a decade earlier, we’d occasionally had a male model but, maybe to spare the blushes of the very young class, they’d always worn boxers or posing pouches. (One old fellow always wore his black beret, as well!) Surely in these more liberated times, and in an adult class, a male model would be stark naked.


My tension about the evening ahead ratcheted up a few more notches when I couldn’t find the school.  I must have been ten or fifteen minutes late when I eventually burst into the studio.

 Everyone turned to look at me.  The teacher was male.  All the students were male.  And - lying stretched out sideways on a mattress, his head on his hand - the entirely naked model was male.  Wanting to disrupt proceedings as little as possible, I grabbed the first empty spot I saw.  I didn’t think about the position I’d chosen until I’d sat down on the donkey (a wooden bench with an adjustable front flap), unwrapped my drawing pad, and raised my head.  Everyone else had arranged themselves in a semi-circle behind or to the sides of the model.  I was the only one with a totally full-frontal view.  I looked at him, and he looked at me...

You will find a fairly accurate account of what happened next at the start of Chapter Three of LIFE CLASS.  I have given the experience to my heroine, Dory, who is a novice artist attending her first life drawing class. She is no shrinking violet but she finds it an unsettling experience.  It unsettled me at the time, but I didn’t allow the incident to put me off. 
I attended this particular class for a couple of years and we never had the same model again. Then I changed to another, a daytime class with a crèche.  And throughout the years since, I’ve continued to attend life classes wherever I’ve lived. 

I don’t do life drawing because it’s easy. Sometimes it is, but often it’s hard. It can feel almost impossible - particularly if there’s a weirdo model (and some have been very weird!)
But, thankfully, they’re the exception not the rule.  Despite the failures and the frustrations of the discipline, I am drawn back again and again, trying to capture the mass, the angles, the points of balance, the fall of light and shade on that most intriguing of all subjects - the human body. 

LIFE CLASS
Four people hide secrets from the world and from themselves. Dory is disillusioned by men and relationships, having seen the damage sex can do.  Her sister, Fran, deals with her mid-life crisis by pursuing an on-line flirtation which turns threatening. Dominic is a lost boy, trapped in a life heading for self-destruction.  Stefan feels a failure. He searches for validation through his art alone.
They meet regularly at a life-drawing class, led by sculptor Stefan. All want a life that is different from the one they have, but all have made mistakes they know they cannot escape. They must uncover the past – and the truths that come with it - before they can make sense of the present and navigate a new path into the future.


Saturday, February 9, 2019

Snow!

I woke up the other morning and couldn't get back to sleep.  Realising it had snowed in the night I got up and came downstairs to get my camera.

7 a.m. in a Gloucestershire garden




Black bird on the scavenge. 


It continued to snow heavily through the day, but by the next day the sun had come out and a thaw was in progress. First thing in the morning the virgin snow was networked with animal prints. 

Who's been strolling around in our garden as if he owns the joint?
 We suspect this miscreant was the culprit - s/he was caught red-handed just a week earlier.



With a suspect firmly in our sights for the majority of prints, we were baffled by these markings, which almost looked like the patterns on shoe soles, or car tyres, but the shallowness of the imprints, and the swirly snaking shapes were mystifying.

 

Thank goodness for social media.  A friend, Kit Domino, came up with a credible answer.  She suggested it was an owl swooping low to snatch up its prey.  I feel sorry for the innocent mouse or shrew, but I am very pleased to have an explanation and also pleased that the owl (or even, possibly, an early morning  buzzard) managed to find a meal.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

A Tasteful Christmas

I was recently talking about the excesses that some people go in for at this time of year - priding myself on how tasteful our decorations are compared to the lit up sleighs, snowmen, and Santas that adorn some peoples houses. Then I reflected.....


The above left bust is a reproduction of a winner from the Olympic Games - so my husband calls him Victor (although, as he points out, Victor is Latin but the sculpture is Greek). For several years now, at this time of year, he has worn this festive hat. The above right bust is also a reproduction of a Greek head. It is inherited and came to us unnamed, and we have never assigned one to him or her. Though usually sporting a tartan bow-tie in honour of the season, it is only this year that I had the brainwave of applying the antlers. 

The red reindeer always sits on this little shelf in the guest bedroom, but at Christmas his little knitted rider is always placed on his back.  Eric the Sea Gull sits on the sill in the downstairs loo all the time,  his tiny hat comes out annually.  I had to repair it the other year, and replaced the "fur" trim and pom pom. I confess I am a person of habit.












The innovation I am most proud of this year was Toby the Jug.  He's a fairly hideous character who belonged to my grandparents, and because we have a love hate relationship with him, he sits relatively out of sight, at the turn of our top staircase. At this time of year he will usually have either an evergreen or a glittery arrangement growing out of his head. 


But when I was rootling through the boxes and bags of decorations and other ephemera, I came upon our old Santa beard.  There are no grandchildren and we don't do stockings anymore (although I'm ashamed to admit it has only been a couple of years since we drew a line!) so there is no need for anyone to dress up and go through the mad morning pantomime of distributing what had become large sacks to a family of  adults. Standing there holding the beard, and knowing there was another more modest Santa hat in the bottom of the bag, I had the brainwave.  I have to say Toby has never looked so handsome.                             



Thursday, September 27, 2018

What has Writing Got to do With Owls?

Editing or making that ugly ill-formed lump into a thing of beauty


Early one summer, when I was fifteen, I found a fledgling owl on a pavement near our house. He couldn't fly. I took him down to the vet. I was told it was relatively easy to rear owls. But that rearing them in order to return them to the wild was more tricky. They are easily tameable. I named  him Timmy and took him home..........

I’ll tell you in a minute what happened next.



Editing is the best bit of writing because every time you do it you’re making your book better.  But before you can start the editing you have to have the raw material to work on.  Sorry to state the obvious! 

Writing doesn’t come easily to me. To get the original story out and onto the page is a slow, hiccupy sometimes painful process.  It was when I was thinking about the creation of that first ugly, misshapen draft, that the image of my owl came to mind. In the wild, owls eat the whole of their prey, bones, fur and all.  They then regurgitate a pellet of the indigestible part of the diet. So, if you’re rearing a young owl, you have to incorporate some of these elements, to keep this mechanism working.

My mum did not really relish the prospect of having a tame owl round the house, we already had a dog and a cat, so Timmy lived in a large box in our garage (my dad's car was banished to the drive). She devised the idea of shaking a jar of dried beans whenever I fed him, so that he would associate the noise with food.  In those early days I lifted him out of his box and he would sit on my lap to be fed.  It wasn't long before he gave me a surprise by taking off for a test flight. From then on he lived in the garage rafters, from time to time uttering strident screeches, which to me sounded more like Weee-eee-eeeeb rather than Tu Whit.  I now had to climb up a set of tall step-ladders to give him his food. He would still sit on my lap and would allow me to stroke his head while I gave him the scraps of meat wrapped up in rabbit skins (available from a local butcher in those days, and kept in the ice-cream compartment of our small under-counter fridge). I often watched him, sitting up there on his favourite rafter, regurgitating pellets.  It looked a very uncomfortable process;  it looked like it took a great deal of effort;  it looked like Timmy would far rather be doing something else as he gagged, retched and eventually brought up a surprisingly large and steaming lump of matter.

Back to writing. It’s only after the horrible process of excavating that first draft out of myself, that the fun begins.  It’s only when I read the whole thing through that I realise it’s not (usually) as bad as I feared. But even when it is pretty rough and ready, the ideas about how to improve it start to flow. And it’s not just the way I’ve expressed myself that can be tidied up.  New revelations come to me about the characters and their motivations - why did X say that and Y do this?  Flaws in the plotline show up, but also the solutions.  The story may even go off in new and surprising directions.  All of this is like magic and is deeply rewarding.


After we released Timmy we’d leave his food out in the garden every evening on the top platform of the step ladders. And we would shake the jar of beans until he flew into the garden and alighted next to his evening repast. Gradually he stopped coming and we could only hope that he had taught himself to hunt and survived.

One summer night, a year later, we heard a very loud - and very close - ‘tu-whitting’.  It sounded just like Timmy. My dad shone a torch onto a full-grown owl sitting in one of our beech trees.


As we watched he flew down and perched on the top of the side door to the garage where Timmy had lived.  He sat there for several minutes then flew off. It was almost as if he had come back just to tell us he was all right. He'd made it.

 I’ve since discovered that my conviction that Timmy was a boy was misplaced. It’s the females who go ‘tu-whitt’ and the males who go ‘tu-whoo’.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

To celebrate the paperback publication of  One Cornish Summer author Liz Fenwick is running a  'Cornish Summer Memories' feature.

I was delighted to be invited to share my own relections on Cornwall, where my family and I spent many happy holidays.

Left to right - my brother Laurence aged 4, my sister Janis aged 13, and me, aged 8

As I leant towards this calf, it began to suck the end of my plait!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Proud Mother

At the moment I can think of no better use for my blog than to celebrate the achievement of my son, Thomas Williams


Thomas Williams


It's less than a year since the hardback of his book VIKING BRITAIN was published by William Collins.

August 9 is the publication date ot the paperback version of his book  and here it is in all its glory.

NB: Since I wrote this two weeks ago the publishers are already talking about a paperback reprint!



VIKING BRITAIN - A History

There are a few of my illustrations in the book but the very striking cover illustration was produced by Joe McLaren.

To follow Tom on Twitter - @battlescapes
To follow Tom on FaceBook - https://www.facebook.com/thomasjtwilliams