Authors for Grenfell Tower

I’ve never liked tower blocks. I had a friend who lived on the 13th floor of what used to be called a “hard to let” block in east London. She loved the view from her balcony, and kept flowerpots tethered in five unblowoffable ways to the railings, but even stepping on to it made me feel weak at the knees. Perhaps my knees were already weak when I arrived, because I always used to walk up the stairs. The lift was creaky and claustrophobic. Supposing it got stuck? Supposing someone scary got in it with you?

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Cuttings from the “I”, “The Guardian” and the “Evening Standard”‘ June 17th & 19th 2017

Even posh tower blocks – skyscrapers, rather, penthouses, high rise living and the other more affluent synonyms – worry me. The only time I visited New York, I was less scared sleeping on the 34th floor than I’d anticipated. It certainly felt more solid than Annie’s hard to let tower. But waiting ten whole minutes for the busy lift down at breakfast time was frightening. In a medical emergency, that would have been precious time wasted just trying to get away from your own front door.

And in a fire? In the real life towering inferno of last week? Lucky middle class me, who hasn’t lived through war or had to try and escape violence and poverty only to end up in an on-the-cheap death trap. Lucky middle class me who goes up one flight of stairs to bed, in my brick built house with working smoke alarms and, come to think of it, four exit doors and recently certified gas and electricity services. Despite having seen and never forgotten “The Towering Inferno”, despite having watched the Twin Towers TV footage replay over and over again in the wake of that attack,  I can barely imagine the reality.

So please, take a look at this. An auction (open internationally) run by authors, publishers, agents, all proceeds to the Red Cross fund for the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster. Bidding ends at 8:00 p.m. British Summer Time on Tuesday 27 June 2017.

 

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(These three pictures from the top of the homepage were correct at 11am on Friday 23rd June. More are added all the time.)

Do you write? You can bid for an editorial critique from Johnny Geller of Curtis Brown, or Juliet Mushens and many others. Maybe you’d like your submission package assessed, again by top agents in their field. (Try not to include a typo in your bid to Johnny Geller, liek I did.)

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Do you read? John Boyne, Linda Grant, Caitlin Moran, Adele Parks, and David Nicholls are among many well known authors offering signed copies, some first editions, some doodled as well as signed. Other authors are offering named characters in their next work.

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Do you teach, or are you a parent/carer of school aged children? You can bid for school visits from YA authors, from adult authors, from picture book illustrators and authors, and from drama groups.

Ever fancied a writing retreat? There’s one in Devon to bid for, one in Cornwall, and even one in California! And more, since I wrote this, I think…

And the delights of “miscellaneous”! You can bid for up to ten entries for the Bath Novel Award Prize, or to chat about books over coffee with Lucy Mangan, or to play with the Authors’ cricket team! Someone’s joking his bid is only for the position of wicket keeper, I wonder if a batsman’s six will overtake his bid. (It does look like an all male affair. But no carping, in this good cause.)

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Check the FAQs if you have any doubts. There are so many items and bids already, it’s a bit long to scroll down the home page, so visit the items for auction list, the categories sidebar, or the tags.

Happy bidding and good luck!

I’m not putting my usual © sign on this. Please share it, reblog it, tweet it – but remember: Bidding ends at 8:00 p.m. British Summer Time on Tuesday 27 June 2017.

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Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Order, order! Ideas for a cross party parliamentary book group

I’ve put together these titles and questions for my imaginary cross-party MPs’ book group, meeting at the House of Commons once a month. Since participation will help all MPs do their job in an empathetic, efficient, positive way, I’ll let them claim the books on expenses (also there are so few local libraries left they’d be lucky to get them there). I’ve allowed 48 books, one per month for four years, sorted into themes, plus a year to digest. So there can’t be another election until they’ve read them all, ok?

On poverty and deprivation, and the effect they have on the lives of potentially healthy human beings:

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

Germinal by Emil Zola (1885)

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell (1914)

Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood (1933)

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell

Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (1935)

Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (1945)

Wigan Pier Revisited by Bea Campbell (1984)

Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth (2005)

The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited by Stephen Armstrong (2012)

MPs’ book group question: How far do you think living and working conditions have improved in the UK and elsewhere since each of these books were published?

On the rich, and how their behaviour affects other individuals and society as a whole:

Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac (1835)

Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (2015)

MPs’ book group questionsDiscuss the extent to which the characters in these novels enjoy equality of access and opportunity. Discuss the ways they use their money, when they have it.

On immigrants, migrants, displaced people and their places in our society:

Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham (1939)

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski (1949)

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam (2004)

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (2007)

The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed (2013)

No Country for Young Men by Julia O’Faolain (2015)

The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla (2016)

MPs’ book group questions: Imagine you are a character in one of these books. What would be your main hopes and fears, and how realistic are they? Can you get what you need without harming other people and how vulnerable do you feel yourself?

On War and its effects:

Hiroshima by John Hersey (1953)

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982)

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (2015)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the worst scenario of all the ones described in these books? Do you think the world is a safer place now than at the time of the wars these books discuss? How could you end existing conflicts and prevent new ones?

On the death penalty:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966)

A Perfect Execution by Tim Binding (1996)

MPs’ book group question: In your view, do the main characters in these two books make you more or less sympathetic to the idea of imposing a death penalty, and if so for which crimes?

On old age and dementia:

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (2014)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (2014)

MPs’ book group question: Can you imagine being old yourself? What difference do money, company, good mental and physical health and empathy make to the life of an older person?

On education:

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Roaring Boys (1955 by Edward Blishen

Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School by Leila Berg (1969)

The School I’d Like Revisited by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor

MPs’ book group questions: All these books raise questions about how and what we teach children. In what ways do you think our treatment of children and the curriculum we deliver have improved since these books were published?

On the environment:

The Tower to the Sun by Colin Thompson (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify ways in which adults receive the same message, and how the problems it highlights are being dealt with?

On First World/Third World inequality:

Angus Rides the Goods Train by Chris Riddell and Alan Durant (1996)

MPs’ book group question: This is also a picture book aimed at children but the message is serious. Can you identify any novels for adults which deliver the same message? How are the problems it highlights being addressed internationally?

On the NHS:

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh (2014)

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MPs’ book group questions: This book describes  surgical expertise developed within the NHS. How precarious do you think this expertise and practice is, going forward? Will it still be possible to write a book about a contemporary NHS in five years time?

On Women:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith (2009)

Saving Safa by Waris Dirie (2013)

MPs’ book group questions: Would you say the lives of women in the first novel and the second book of are reflected anywhere in the world in contemporary society? How much do you know about FGM and forced marriage? What measures can be taken to protect women from all kinds of exploitation and abuse?

On LGBT rights:

Maurice by EM Forster (written 1914, published 1971)

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides (2002)

Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson  (2011)

MPs’ book group questions: What is the earliest date at which these books could have been published without significant personal risk to their authors, and why? How can you continue to protect LGBT interests?

On human rights and freedom of expression:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

1984 by George Orwell (1948)

For Every Child: The Rights of the Child in Words and Pictures by UNICEF (2000)

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (2000)

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016)

MPs’ book group question: What measures would you personally take to ensure that none of your constituents were ever subjected to any aspect of any of the kinds of oppression described in these books?

Good luck, new and returning MPs! I’m sure most of you are truly good people who genuinely have the interests of your constituents and of the people and places of the world at heart. I hope you will enjoy and learn from these books and make wise decisions based on what you have read.

If any fellow bloggers or those who follow this blog would like to make their own suggestions below, please do so! I wanted to include books on addressing the threat of terrorism, but got a bit stuck. And on childhood, but had too many – that will be for another post. And on Remain/Leave/Soft/Hard/No-deal Brexit… Over to you!

© Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

The Three Tenors

So you thought the three tenors were Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Vienna 3Pavarotti? Not so – they’re sausages, a frankfurter, some other darker variety and a veal sausage and they’re available in the Café of the Vienna Staatsoper. In this pretty room you may if such is your pleasure order “Three Tenors” or a “Rigoletto” (which is a sausage salad). My photo of this disconcerting dish is very small, for minimal offence to my vegetarian readers. (I chose the spinach strudel, with lettuce.)

51wntwjpdalSince in Vienna the three tenors can be anything, I’ve chosen a third variation: books, During a recent trip I read or reread three novels set in Vienna (with thanks as ever to the wonderful TripFiction site which you can consult for reading matter to match any destination you can think of). They give five stars to the first I chose, but I’m afraid I’d remove at least two of those. A Woman of Note by Carol M. Cram (2015) starts in 1827 with an excellent idea for a heroine, Isabette, a fictitious young woman pianist and composer whose ability rivals Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. But it sinks into cliché with too many descriptions of a singer friend’s pretty gloves and blue ribbons. The author neglects what could have been evocative descriptions of this most visual of cities. Instead she gives us endless expository dialogue to help shift the one dimensional characters around in the style of a Woman’s Own short story from the 1970s, and provides a (mercifully) brief sex scene worthy of the Bad Sex awards: “He moved his hand up her thigh, his breath becoming ragged and out of rhythm. Andante to allegretto. …he pushed his body and hers to allegro.” Hmmm. I wonder what variations Mozart’s fingertips might have conjured for that.

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The piano in the apartment where Franz Schubert died in 1828.

Plot digressions into lesbianism and sexual abuse are worthy rather than interesting, although I am sure music teachers and promoters did abuse their protegées and played their parts in keeping women’s career prospects unequal. An erudite bibliography suggests a lot of authorial research (sometimes plonked unharmoniously into the narrative) and genuine pleasure in the music of Schubert, Beethoven and Chopin. This was a missed opportunity to create a convincing story and explore a fascinating period of women’s and musical history in a unique setting. Looking at TripFiction’s list again it seems others have dealt with the same theme, so it does get exposure elsewhere.

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Vienna State Opera House, which opened in 1869. The architect committed suicide after Emperor Franz Josef referred to it in displeasure as “a railway station”. I hope it’s not too heartless to point out what a good plot that would make.

51jrqt32cqlI had better luck with Mortal Mischief (2004) by Frank Tallis. It’s a 19th century detective romp. To judge by the selections listed on TripFiction, Vienna’s baroque and 20th century architecture and dense cultural history encourage writers to indulge in a wild cocktail of music, classical and modern art, sculpture, historical events, psychoanalysis, medicine, education, imperialism, nationalism and the whole gamut of politics, cafes and brothels, coffee and cakes, Vienna 13clairvoyance and fairgrounds, bombastic urban settings and the wonderful Prater park. Tallis just about brings it off – I was a bit bogged down by the heavy velvet brocade of his opening storm scenes: “Liebermann looked up at the livid millstone sky. Ragged tatters of cloud blew above the pediment of The Imperial like the petticoats of a ravished angel. The air smelled strange – an odd, metallic smell.” But as he got into his stride the descriptions became more digestible and it was a pleasure to revisit the Belvedere Palace grounds, the Secession Building, the University and the Prater as his story hurtled through the city like a Viennese tram, picking up colourful characters at every chapter – a surgical instrument maker, Sigmund Freud, a locksmith, prostitutes, actresses and mediums, English governesses, police chiefs, magicians and kitchen maids.  If some of them are more caricature than real, well, that reflects Viennese grandeur, exaggeration and cuisine. The musical accompaniment tinkled comfortably alongside the narrative whenever detective Rheinhardt and his doctor friend Max Liebermann took a breather with a relaxing session of Schubert duets. I was pleased to find these new (to me) discoveries feature in other adventures, particularly as Leibermann and the governess left a romantic thread unfastened at the end.

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Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, from their information leaflet.

Mortal Mischief features the Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, and so of course does my third choice, Graham Greene’s The Third Man, the novel treatment of the screenplay Greene wrote for Carol Reed’s famous 1949 film noir. The Vienna of The Third Man is not the confident 1900s cultural capital of Tallis, and lacked the exuberant fairground where we spent our last morning. Instead it’s a bombed out city divided into four zones where petty and serious crime thrive in an atmosphere of curfew and desperation. “The Prater lay smashed and desolate and full of weeds, only the Great Wheel revolving slowly over the foundations of merry-go-rounds like abandoned millstones, the rusting iron of smashed tanks which nobody had cleared away.

Actually there’s surprisingly little verbal description of Vienna as a setting in the book of The Third Man, which Greene himself said in his Preface “was never written to be read, but only to be seen. It was dedicated to Reed, “in admiration and affection and in memory of so many early morning Vienna hours at Maxim’s, the Casanova, the Oriental.” My forceful image of ruined buildings and unlit streets through which Harry Lime dodges his pursuers must come from the film. But in both, the labyrinthine sewers, scrubby landscapes, muddled policing and befuddled hero serve as a metaphor for fallen glory, profiteering and corruption. We saw very little of that in the bustling, affluent, well behaved city we visited, so Vienna has created a successful veneer since those days. Or maybe business dealings there now really are cleaner than in London. It wouldn’t be difficult.

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Warning: if you read this edition, the introduction contains spoilers for both plots!

Greene and Reed found more than one kind of suspense in Harry Lime’s confrontation with Rollo Martin (Hollie Martin in the film) in the topmost gondola – an idea to which Tallis pays homage when Liebermann also takes the ride with the man he suspects of murder. In Mortal Mischief the innocent characters also return to its thrills whenever they can – as Freud explains, it replicates the experience of flying. It’s a sad reflection on over stimulated 21st century travellers that we became rather bored when dangling at the top of the Ferris Wheel. Health and safety means there’s no danger of a villainous shove through an open door or of smashing the glazing, and the views are stunning. But the ponderous wheel turns slowly and waits a long time in each position – unlike the pacy plots of all three books above, though not dissimilar to the way my companion reported the Three Tenor Sausages sitting in his stomach. No Sachertorte for him that afternoon!

 

(Information for coffee drinking, cake eating bookworms: The cafes we visited were the Prückel, the Tirolerhof, the Mozart and the Oper, all equally memorable. The Tirolerhof in particular is a quiet reader’s dream, all customers engrossed in books or the newspapers supplied by the establishment, no music, and voices that rarely rise above a whisper. You could write a novel here before the waiter bothered you with the bill.)

 

© Jessica Norrie 2017