Marsh frogs sing loudly in the ditches

rye-marsh-frog

Isn’t this a lovely cadence? How thoughtful of the Environment Agency display at Rye Harbour to phrase a wildlife description so poetically. Sadly, the marshes are contaminated; walkers are advised not to pick the blackberries. But on a cold February day, the marshes did offer chilly walkers stories to keep their interest, displayed by gaunt defensive structures or wooden bird hides.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Rye town itself was bursting with literary references, reminders of a slower but not gentler age, of swashbuckling crime, political favour, and the influence of empire. This is a town of historical heavyweights and royal visits. Ghosts jostle for position, and many of them were writers. Rumer Godden, living after Henry James in Lamb House, claimed to be haunted there by the characters he created in The Turn of the Screw and E F Benson, creator of Mapp and Lucia, also lived in Lamb House but you wouldn’t know it from the plaque outside which references only James; you can do a Mapp and Lucia themed walk through the town which is the model for Tilling and indeed, just as in the books or BBC films, we saw the genteel High Street brought to a standstill by a large vehicle selfishly pursuing its own interests without thought to those of others.

Are you still with me?

rye-lamb-house-1
Lamb House

I was attempting a homage to James by extending my sentence multiple clauses beyond any memory of how it began, but the master could hold his syntactical nerve longer than I can and already I spot a full stop approaching like a cannonball to stop my train of thought. I was going to add to the ghostly layers by pointing out Joan Aiken, who was born in Rye and is now better known as the author of the fantastic Wolves of Willoughby Chase children’s series, wrote The Haunting of Lamb House (1993), three linked stories featuring James and Benson (who both wrote ghost stories too). Cannonball time again!  Notwithstanding, I recently re-encountered Henry James, and it’s worth persevering, though you need a deep breath for some expressions and views we would now find offensive. But the psychology of What Maisie Knew, about a child watching her parents’ marriage implode, is bang up to date. It was reimagined as a film in 2012 and is a compelling watch, along with many other film versions of James’s works (perhaps because  someone else has navigated the syntax and distilled the themes and characters). Meanwhile let me point out if you haven’t read Joan Aiken you should stop what you’re doing and hunt her down now whether you have a child to share her books with or not.

The cannons of Rye Castle couldn’t always stop incomers, writers or otherwise. Wrye-foreigne were amused to drive through “Rye Foreign” on the outskirts, so called because this harmless looking village once belonged to the French, in the days when the English used to retaliate by swiping parts of Calais when they were off their guard. Rye Foreign it remains, and I’d love to know how the residents voted in the referendum. They must keep a low profile: the locally born barman at our hotel hadn’t heard of Rye Foreign, though there it is, lurking on his very doorstep.

Built in the 12th century, rebuilt in the 15th, the Mermaid Inn had stories to tell too. This listed – and listing – building has at least four visible staircases, a warren of beamed rooms, stone fireplaces, a priest’s hole, more hidden staircases, a medieval cesspit (en suite with our room, but we had more modern facilities too), and graffiti and murals dating back centuries. In an exciting twist, proof that Shakespeare acted and may have stayed there was confirmed just this year: receipts show payments to his troupe by the Mayor, and wall paintings within the inn, some restored in the 1920s, appear to reference a performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost. Actors who definitely have stayed there include Dame Judi Dench, and Joanna Lumley among others. It was pleasant to read the history of the inn, sitting in Dr Syn‘s Chamber, which is named after the smuggling Romney Marsh vicar of Russell Thorndike’s novels. (Much odder, to spend time by the roaring fire of the bar, with the most incongruous book I could have thought to bring, The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed, which I’m reading for background research for my own novel. This searing story of women living through the  Somali civil war of the 1980s did make Mapp and Lucia seem irritating and trivial. But I was in an anti Mapp and Lucia minority, to judge by the chat around me.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Rye is a good town for pottering. Each cobblestone has its own tea shop, and each tea shop a neighbouring antiques dealer. rye-tiny-book-store-2I picked up some second hand designer clothes and a jigsaw, to be kept for a reward when the novel’s first draft really is finished. There wasn’t room for us in the Tiny Book Store, and Lamb House was closed until March so we drove on to Bateman’s, 20 miles away, where Rudyard Kipling lived. This was, frankly, disappointing: their collection of Kipling editions was mainly closed and they couldn’t find a copy of the Just So stories whose illustrations I wanted to show my partner. He didn’t have them as a child and what a treat he missed! But there was an exhibition about film versions of The Jungle Book (not only Disney), and gardens that would have been a pleasure to explore but for the drizzle. Hopefully the event below for World Book Day will be more fun – if I lived nearby I’d certainly go.

 

Rye was quite a contrast to my trip last week down Leyton High Road. It was a reminder of UK variety: you can drive for just a couple hours and encounter (or not) a completely different spectrum of classes, races and interests. I’ve returned from chocolate box views to chocabloc traffic, expansive marshland to suburban housing, but each area has as many stories to tell in the unexpected places as in the obvious ones. While I was away more suggestions and responses came in from the helpful network of informants I’ve sourced to authenticate the background to my novel. I think one of the things they’re telling me is: stop swanning around the likes of Rye, Dartington Hall and Stratford-upon-Avon, and get on with that first draft before your young heroine grows grey hair and wrinkles. Otherwise all our generous help will have been for nothing.

© Jessica Norrie 2017

The world in four short blocks

printerApologies for more infelicities than usual this week. I lost two hours to a petulant printer which didn’t welcome my novel’s complete first draft, grinding out crumpled disordered sheets and requiring intense therapy every ten pages. A charming (no, really: I requested and value her knowledge) Gujarati friend then pointed out everything that was wrong with the chapters featuring a Hindu family. Ten percent of the 300 hard won pages is effectively waste paper.”See?” crowed the printer.”I said you should wait.”

kwikfitWell, wait I did last night after a puncture revealed contemporary repair kits are a poor substitute for a spare wheel. Three hours later the efficient Turkish breakdown man arrived; then there were three more hours at Kwik Fit this morning. It was my turn for petulance. Friday mornings are my blog writing time!

The charms of the Kwik Fit waiting room are limited (despite the cheerful efficiency of the Afro Caribbean manager) so I wandered along Leyton High Road, which I hadn’t explored since it was tarted up for the 2012 Olympics. And you know what? We writers should get out more. Immediately I found enough material to keep a modern Dickens in business. My quick photos tell a story of their own, just waiting to be peopled with loves, misfortunes and human warmth.Please read it, if possible in conjunction with my posts Peace and about teaching in multicultural areas. This scruffy corner of a soon to be gentrified corner of London deserves to be recorded, and I’m only sorry I did it in such a hurry.

leyton-peculiar-2
The peculiar hair salon and the monstrous fruit

Peculiar Hair and Mush Turkish Traditional Barbers both looked welcoming, although I avoided Mermaid Massage (special services available) in favour of the Chinese acupuncturists:

leyton-acupuncture-2

Our household now has the shoe rack, door handles, green nail polish, and banana sweets we didn’t know we needed courtesy of the “Carnival” cornucopia, where I was served by an Irish lady while the cashiers chatted in Urdu. Sadly I couldn’t see anything in Blackwell’s window to tempt me, since I don’t need any old toy cars or dusty Tower of London souvenirs.

leyton-carnival-2
Zoom in for the Mama Afrika Kulcha Shap and Cleopatra’s, to the left

leyton-blackwells

For the first year in many, I’m told no new Eastern European children were enrolled where I used to teach. Here, three miles west, Romanians and Polish seem to enjoy mixed fortunes: this van certainly wasn’t delivering to Sainsbury’s, and “Gaska” is moving up and down the parade.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I didn’t get photos of the Muslim Cultural Centre, the Al-Jazira cafe, the yam and plantain displays or the (excellent) Portuguese restaurant but I did discover where in East London Malaysia meets Mogadishu…

leyton-wherer-mogadishu-meets-malaysia

…and where you can find Somali, Romanian and Spanish food sharing a block with a more traditional tyre provider than KwikFit.

leyton-shops-2

leyton-shops-11

 

For a breath of relatively fresh air I could have walked around Coronation Gardens but the cricket ground was in use, unlike (apparently) Billy’s wooden workshop by the gates:

leyton-coronation-1

leyton-billys-carpet-workshop

A bar whose name I forgot to record (sorry) provided some great street art:

leyton-street-art

…and I now know where to take clothes for repair:

leyton-tailoring

Last came the moment that may even make a three figure bill and the loss of six hours worthwhile. I didn’t stage this juxtaposition. It was just waiting for a writer to use, outside another empty shop relocating along the parade.

leyton-romanian-i-love-london

I ♥ London too. Please keep the connection, everyone.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Getting it right

mrs-ahmed-2
My attempt to sketch my Somali mum. Her story is not all as depressing as my bad drawing makes it look!

I posted recently about how well an author must know their characters. Much of my time since has been spent trying to make mine authentic. I’m nearing the end of a first draft of a novel set in multicultural London. My story follows five families, but only one reflects my own heritage. I’m pressing ahead with this, because although there are increasing numbers of wonderful books exploring the experience of specific individuals and communities, there are not yet enough that show us together, looking at how we all participate in and contribute to our institutions, our schools, hospitals, local government, commerce,the arts, sport, the media. Post Brexit, it’s essential to depict our cities as the relatively successful melting pots they had begun to be. By that I don’t mean to belittle the disadvantages experienced through racism, class or poverty. But in the UK, compared to some parts of world, I think we were, pre Brexit, tentatively moving in the right direction in terms of rights and opportunities for all. (If you don’t have a right in the first place, how can you defend it?)

But – please don’t say I told you so – I’m now realising how much more I have bitten off than I can perhaps chew. It’s all very well thinking I can write about a Punjabi heritage family because I taught classes with at least 25% such pupils for over twenty years. The difference now is that instead of them entering my classroom (and as we all know, everyone sheds something of themselves when they enter a classroom, for their own self preservation), the direction is reversed. I want full access to their homes and their thoughts.

mr-ling-2
My businessman dad

It’s quite a leap. For example, consider their back stories: content I may not end up even putting on the page but which must be verifiable if my characters are to be rounded and believable, more than just stereotypes or caricatures. I can imagine the childhood of my white UK character, and that of her parents and even grandparents, through a lifetime of my own cultural knowledge.I know enough about everything from which magazines each generation read, what the biscuit tin looked like, to what would have been a special treat or horrendous setback. I know so much I have the luxury of discarding most of it, selecting only what fits best.

But of my Punjabi family’s back story I know very little. I can trace their route to the UK. I can work out roughly at what point they were able to take on a mortgage, the location of the nearest gurdwara, and which generation received what in way the way of education. But in what ways does their daily lived experience differ from or match my own? Their choice of furniture, the way they move around their homes, how much privacy their children have, how they feel about Brexit and Trump, Bake off and Bollywood? It’s as though they had drawn their window curtains to stop me peering in.

A place of very little knowledge isn’t a bad point of departure. It means everything I find out is a bonus, could influence the plot, colour my decisions and the reactions of my eventual readers. It also means BEWARE! I’m tempted to use every small fact that comes my way. But I must pick and choose, when I have enough material, just as I would for the others. I mustn’t get fixated on one website, read just one book, ask only one person. I need a cross section, to check and cross check, and maybe, as I would for any character, go for the fact that’s atypical, the feature that doesn’t follow the crowd. My characters aren’t going to be interesting just because they’re Punajbi, Somali or born in Hong Kong.They still have to be eccentric, lovable, martyred, in poor health, artistic, bigoted, comical and sometimes unpredictable.

61ploihpwxl-_sx363_bo1204203200_The alternative path, with less risk of getting anything wrong, also risks making them too bland. Michael Rosen, in an otherwise very positive review of Peter in Peril, about a Jewish child growing up in Nazi occupied Budapest, says: “my only slight quibble is that the family are de Jewified.They have nothing cultural or religious marking them out.” But what marks them out must be correct. I received a lesson today, when in answer to my question a helpful Punjabi reader told me my Punjabi grandmother would be “very unlikely” to have behaved as I said she had as a young girl. My first reaction was irritation: now I have to alter my plot, dammit. It also affects my grand finale. Second reaction: whew! Thank goodness I asked. There are only so many mistakes an author can make before a book sinks into the one star mire.

Therefore I’m humbled by and grateful for the offers of help I’ve had from Punjabi and Gujarati people, some known to me from work and others complete strangers, alerted to my needs following a chance remark to a helpful book blogger – please do look at her Bookalicious-traveladdict blog here. Yes, by all means, said the friends she contacted on my behalf, do email us your questions! Here you are – the answers by return! Anything else you want to know, just ask! heroine-with-suitcase-2The generosity with their time and thought is very, very much appreciated – all to help out an author they hadn’t heard of two days ago. Book bloggers have received a bashing in some places recently: let me put on record that to a woman (they’re mostly but not all women, and unpaid) the bloggers I know have given practical, prompt, generous and efficient help whenever I as an author have asked them for anything.

So onward we march, my heroine and I. The word count hasn’t increased much, but the quality of the words has. I think I’m ok now for sources to flesh out my Indian heritage families, but if there are any UK born Somalis out there, or anyone who is of Hong Kong Chinese heritage and bringing up a child in the UK now, I would be very pleased to hear from you. Who knows what havoc you could play with my plot?

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Northern Lights

Here’s a very short book quiz:

  1. In which country is 10% of the population a published author?
  2. In which country did 4 million adults not read a single book for enjoyment in 2013?
  3. And in which of the two above did more than half the country’s population read at least eight books a year, with the most popular Christmas present a book?

The good news, on behalf of the British book trade, readers, non readers, children, adults, English speakers and others, Christmas celebrants and those with other faiths or none, is that the Jolabokaflod Book Campaign aims to learn from Iceland, represented by numbers 1 and 3 with the UK in between. The campaign says: Essentially, we want to inspire people to discover – and rediscover – a love of reading for pleasure.

Last night it was my pleasure to attend their gala party at the Café Royal. First, I learned how to pronounce Jol – a – bok – a – flod, more or less as written, the faster the better. Even in Brexitland familiarity gets our tongues round Djokovic, Pocahontas and tagliatelle bolognese with ease, so I disagreed with the guest who said it was too complicated. Especially once we unpack the meaning which is, roughly, Christmas Book Flood.

jola-bokafold

Icelandic author Hallgrímur Helgason describes the tradition thus: Jolabokaflod … is the nicest of Icelandic traditions. It may always have existed … since we have been saga-nerds for a thousand years, but it acquired its current form in the Post-War Years. When people had little money and even fewer things to buy … locally made books became the perfect Christmas present. Publishers went with the flow, a tradition was born, and ever since, almost all Icelandic fiction and most of the non-fiction is published in the month of November.

For the authors, it’s a bit of a horse race. You can almost hear people calling: ‘Let the games begin!’ and ‘May the best book win!’

“Saga-nerds!” Eat your heart out, Dr Who!

jola-catalogTo quote the website: “every year since 1944, the Icelandic book trade has published a catalogue – called Bókatíðindi (Book Bulletin, in English) – that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November.” (Meanwhile we get flyers from Tesco.) “People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas.…gifts are opened on 24 December and, by tradition, everyone reads the books they have been given straight away, often while drinking hot chocolate or alcohol-free Christmas ale called jólabland.”

Jol(a?) – Yule. Bland – a drink without alcohol. Icelandic’s a doddle. You can practise huddled on your sofa during those Icelandic noir series on BBC4 – Case, or Trapped.

A feature I especially liked is the emphasis on books as a personal gift. In Iceland, when giving a book you give something of yourself, and subsequently it’s expected that you’ll ask how the recipient got on with it. The UK JBC (sorry to abbreviate, my heroine wants me to save my typing strength for the novel) has its work cut out. “Oh, aren’t books lovely! What a shame you can’t really give them as presents!” When I overheard that in Foyles recently, the assistants and fellow customers were all too British and discreet to shout: “Oh yes, you CAN!”

The JBC issues a Book Bulletin, funded through Crowdpatch. You make book recommendations with a donation, and at the same time inform JBC of any URL you wish to promote (for a book, product, service, blog etc). They feature your recommendation and promotion together. You can also start a “patch” to fund any “campaigns that encourage people in communities … to buy books to give to friends and family for reading during a special event...”. The scope reaches way beyond the book trade to education, activism, chaitable and cultural provision and more.My understanding is that it continues year long, not just at Christmas.

jola-chris
Christopher Norris

How did I get involved? Well, book traders have always been networkers. One of first and best was Martyn Goff, Booker Prize administrator and National Book League director, who died in 2015.I went to represent my late father Ian, also a “bookman” as they were once known, at his memorial service, where I met Christopher Norris, who was instrumental in setting up World Book Day and now JBC. Martyn was still networking from beyond the grave, getting me invited as a result to the sort of book trade event he and my father used regularly to attend. (It was a special pleasure to meet Suzanne Collier from Book Careers who remembered them.) Christopher was an efficient, genial and informative host and my agent Bill and I had a wonderful evening for which many thanks are due.

jola-lamp
The Lumio lamp

Drinks flowed and delicious canapés were served in traditional style, but there was also state of the art photography (not my pictures here!) by Christina Jansen, glorious husky singing by Eckoes, and a draw for two extraordinary book lamps by Lumio, JBC’s sponsors. They’re stocked in London at the British Library and the Conran Shop, and I need to write a bestseller fast, because I didn’t win one. (If you have friends in Australia, you could help crowd fund my book lamp by telling them my own first novel The Infinity Pool is on an Amazon monthly deal there until February 28th.You can read about the ups and downs the first time it went on Aussie promotion here.)

Another sponsor, The Cuckoo Club, provided generous hospitality for an after party, but this Cinderella needed to be fresh enough today for blogging and lip service to my demanding heroine-in-progress. She kept me on track last week; that lamp is in my sights.

For the last word, back to Hallgrímur Helgason: Thanks to the Jolabokaflod, books still matter in Iceland, they get read and talked about. Excitement fills the air. Every reading is crowded, every print-run is sold. Being a writer in Iceland you get rewarded all the time: People really do read our books, and they have opinions, they love them or they hate them. At the average Christmas party people push politics and the Kardashians aside and discuss literature. ‘His last book was so boring, but this one’s just great!’

In Iceland book lives matter in every sense of that phrase: The shelf-life of the book, the lives in the book, the life of the writer and the life of the reader. 

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017