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. 

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


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.