Harry Potter and the Athenian Quest

My children were the same age, more or less, as Harry Potter, and grew up with him, their interests and concerns maturing alongside his. It was Harry Potter who got my son Robert – for years more into cartoons and articles about football – to grips with reading long, unillustrated texts, paving the way for Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman later on.

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In 2007, Robert and I went away, to join a group, none of whom we knew yet, on an activity holiday with plenty to offer both of us. I never went on holiday without lots of reading matter, and took what I thought were “good” books along for him as well, but without much hope that he’d read them. In pre Kindle days it was a heavy, bulky labour of love.

Rob seemed sad in the days before we left. He liked the holiday idea, but was upset because the final Harry Potter book was due out the day after we were to leave. When he returned all his friends would have read it, and he anticipated having to hide himself away until he’d finished it too, or they’d tell him what had happened. Rumour had it this was going to be a thick book, so he’d be hidden away a long time. Even if he avoided  friends and the media, how would we stop his sister spilling the Bertie Bott’s every flavour beans?

There was no way to get it before we left. Bookshops had strict confidentiality agreements, stocks were locked up at secret locations, copies couldn’t be pre-ordered for dispatch to a remote Greek island, reachable only by several coaches and two ferry trips after flying to Athens. Rob was philosophical, but by taking us out of the UK on such an occasion, I had blundered, and I felt guilty. He packed the other books in silent, dreary politeness.

At Heathrow there was the usual dull hanging about after check in. HP bpopks 1-6Harry Potter posters popped up everywhere. News on the terminal monitors showed children and adults queuing up outside bookshops due to open at midnight, being interviewed about how excited they were. The airport shop windows were swathed in paper, ready for a grand unveiling – just after our plane was due to leave. You could buy the other six – but those we’d read already.

A delay was announced. Hope glimmered: we might be able to buy a copy. But we were called to the departure lounge. There we sat, bored and frustrated, in no man’s land, away from the bright lights of the shopping concourse, but not airborne yet either. My son grew quieter and quieter. I felt more and more guilty.

The plane was called, over five hours late. We arrived in Athens, trailed miserably through customs and got to our hotel as dawn was breaking. There was to be a late morning ferry from Piraeus, and the tour operators postponed breakfast so we could get an hour of sleep in the rooms we’d paid for and expected to use all night. Rob crashed out straight away, jaded and fed up. It was very, very hot.

I thought hard. My father had been a bookseller, and I knew about big events in the publishing world. Here we were in a European capital – there had to be a bookshop somewhere eager to conjure euro treasure from a pile of pristine Harry Potters. Leaving Rob asleep, I went to try and find one.

After my sleepless night, my eyes felt gritty and my tummy wasn’t quite behaving. I had rather a large sum of cash on me that I should really have left in the bedroom safe but I was too exhausted to think straight. I wandered away from the hotel, whose name I instantly forgot. After one block I realised all the street names were written in the Greek alphabet and I’d have no idea how to get back unless I noted some landmarks. Ah – SEX SHOP! screamed huge red readable capitals on the corner. That would have to do. I was just off Syntagma Square, but I’d never been to Athens before and didn’t realise. I’d left my 13  year old son sleeping, oblivious to my absence in a foreign city, we had to be at breakfast within an hour or we’d miss the coach transfer, and I’d prioritised a lone quest in a strange place for a book from another country… It’s not what the parenting manuals advise.

I crossed to a more salubrious side of the square and chose a road at random. Abracadabra! There was a bookshop, the owner just opening the shutters! In the window – two different editions of the new Harry Potter, child and adult. I rushed in, I gabbled, I almost kissed the man, I explained my son’s narrow escape from being marooned on a Harry Potter-less island! He was a serious chap and didn’t respond with due appreciation of the miracle he’d wrought. That would be 33 euros and would I like it gift wrapped? 33 euros! But I didn’t hesitate. I paid, fairly danced back to the hotel and woke Rob, who was very grumpy.

“We have to go to breakfast,” I said.”Can you fit another book in your case, I’ve no space?”

“I’m not hungry and I don’t want more books, we’ve got loads already.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll see if someone else wants it then, it’s ever so big and I can’t carry it myself.” I let him catch a glimpse.

It was one of those moments that sum up what motherhood is about. Rob shot up from the bed, yelling: “HARRY POTTER!” Later on the ferry, someone saw him reading it and word travelled. “How did you get THAT?” An English crowd gathered in wonder.

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Robert had immediate kudos on that holiday. Some savvy people were having it flown out from the UK, but it wouldn’t be there for at least five days and he had a head start. They queued up to persuade him to pass it on to them when he’d finished it. They pestered him to know what was happening until he pointed out that if they left him to it, he’d be able to pass the book on sooner. In the end, he chose a pleasant, mild man, perhaps in his mid thirties, for his successor, buried himself in HP emerging only to swim, wind surf and eat and steadfastly refused to divulge any secrets.

Back in London, two months later, a large parcel arrived out of the blue. It contained a generous selection of recent feature film DVDs. There were hours of entertainment for the whole family as the nights drew in and wind surfing became a distant memory. With the gift was a note: “To Robert. Thank you so much for making my holiday so special by choosing me to read your Harry Potter book after you. Wishing you and your family well for the future. Yours, D.”

Wishing you well too, D, wherever you are. What a great time we all had in the end. It was our first holiday without his father and sister, so it could have been disastrous. There was that delayed start, and the teenagers I’d expected would be company for Rob all turned out to be toddlers. Instead the adults with their shared Harry Potter interest helped him to grow up and he’s now a singer songwriter, telling his own stories in his wonderful voice, while the setting inspired my own first novel too.

 

© Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dark Mirror Murder – summing up

Confession time in The Dark Mirror Murder, with a twist at the end so do keep reading. You, dear audience, need to know whodunnit, whydunnit, whosolvedit and who the victim was.But first, a glimpse of the location:

 

Now, whodunwot? 

Mrs Swingle, the housekeeper. Her alibi is provided by multiple visitors, all able to quote her memorable guided tour of the house. She’s received a full apology from the force and given them all pots of greengage jam to show her forgiveness.

Clarice Bell, the piano tuner (or is she?) No, she isn’t. She’s the London detective, skilled in the psychology of cosy crime characters, who watched, listened and probed until the murderer revealed HIMself (for a he it was). She is linked with Marcus Righter – he plays Watson to her Holmes or would if this novel was set in 221b Baker Street.

Gary Leadthighs: We’ve found our victim. Done in on behalf of fed up neighbours everywhere. Nobody will miss him – not the cheated-on girls, not the unpaid band members, not the forest birds whose songs were drowned out. The band members will take gentler, acoustic careers on cruise ships, the many love children will benefit from his estate, and the birds will chirp anew.

The furniture restorer – or is he? Yes, he is. Mrs Swingle called him in and he was busy repairing the grandfather clock all day.

Eva Dorada: She’s only in the story because every country house crime mystery needs a beautiful young woman. A recluse who is always hiding in her wardrobe, she sees and does nothing. So she’s a red herring, but better looking.

The ghost: Well obviously it wasn’t him. He doesn’t exist, and anyway, he’s benign.

The visitors: Nah.They never got out of the bottleneck to the car park. They should have taken the ferry or the steam train, or reserved a parking space in advance.

Which leaves Neil Stephens, the murderer and Young Robbit his accomplice.

Neil Stephens was reading Dostoevsky in the boathouse as usual, pressing his people counter every time a visitor entered. To his irritation, the heavy metal form of Leadthighs suddenly cast a shadow over his Kindle. His annoyance turned to rage when Leadthighs produced a microphone for an impromptu gig in the tranquil boathouse. Seizing his opportunity, he pulled a lever by his chair, à la Sweeney Todd, and dispatched the ageing rocker to the depths of the Georgian bathhouse below. With the splash came a strangled cry – he hadn’t realised Young Robbit was in the act of hiding contraband at the very moment of his evil deed! But Young Robbit, who’s long coveted the position of lead singer in the local band, volunteered to ensure the body was never found, and all would have remained an eternal mystery had Marcus Righter not fancied taking a plunge to impress Clarice Bell that he was investigating every angle. Somehow though, as always, she got the credit for solving the case and all he got was pond weed in his beard.

DollHow to account for the DNA traces? Neil Stephens also volunteered to care for the house at times, and would pass his hands lovingly over the treasured memorabilia. And Young Robbit had attempted on numerous inept occasions to steal them. The important family heirloom turned up in the wardrobe with Eva Dorada. It’s her comfort object, and she keeps it with her always.

Now the twist you’ve been waiting for,which is my excuse for this nonsense. Well, in August we visited Greenway, the holiday home of Agatha Christie and I thought an homage would be an enjoyable way to blog about it. She and her husband were great collectors, as seen in part 1. We arrived by boat with a ferryman of great charcater. We toured the house, were invited to play the Steinway and kept well informed by the wonderful National Trust Volunteers, especially in the room with the World War II frieze.

We explored the Battery and the boathouse, with bath house below, where Christie’s novel Dead Man’s Follygreenway 2 is set (it’s a best seller in the NT shop). Here we met another volunteer who was reading Dostoevsky on his Kindle but had to keep stopping to count and advise visitors. To compensate for turning this pleasant and helpful man into “Neil Stephens” the murderer, I’ll give a shout to his son’s book promotion business, which he told us about when I said I was a novelist too (only 90 short of Christie’s tally).

Afterwards we were wandering peacefully in the beautiful gardens when decibel hell broke loose. The Stones, Bowie…great songs murdered by a deadly dose of distortion and volume. The source was idyllic (looking) Dittisham village across the river, famous for its beauty and its plums, and home to the Dead Man’s Folly ferryman. Fortunately the non fictional ferry was due and “Bob Robbit” delivered us back to Dartmouth and a perilous Kingswear walk along a narrow path perched between the tracks of a steam railway and a steep drop to the beach – but that’s another story.

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leaflet from Greenway ferry and National Trust

 

Words from the wise: writing with Marina Warner

Dartington courtyard

In the warmish summer of 2016 there was a wise and beautiful lady who ran a writing course in the grounds of the medieval hall at Dartington, among the trees and flowers where music plays and voices sing from dawn until the moon rises shimmering over the river.  I stumbled onto Marina Warner‘s course by accident, having been too dreamy to read my brochure attentively, and expecting only music in this enchanted place. But her welcome was as gracious to the wandering stranger as to the more studious participants, and this is what happened over the next five magical  days.

Replete with a breakfast of local fruits and meats, we passed through fertile gardens and followed a green slope shaded by a spreading mulberry tree.writng hut outside Steep stone steps led to a small wooden hut whose interior swelled Narnia-like to encompass a bay window and another storey below. Here we descended to write our stories on days when the rain lashed the leaded panes and the clouds grumbled through the grey skies. But such times were few: in sunnier hours we found secluded dells and tranquil shade wherein to nurse our newborn words.

“Cross-currents in the Ocean of Stories” was the theme: Marina led our journey through stories past and new, across oceans and deserts, from Mount Olympus through Arabian nights, crusades and silk roads and Celtic woodland, widdershins through conflict and desire and the eternal plight of the refugee. In safety we met monsters and explored the byways of fairy tales. We were a varied group of ages and styles, with backgrounds in writing and teaching and radio and television, psychotherapy and the visual arts. One of us could say with proud truth:”I was born in a place called Drama”. And because Dartington is a meeting place for young and old, raw and persevering and gifted and internationally famous musicians, we were also viol players and lutenists and singers, and when we were not listening, reading and writing, we were making music together.writng hut with flowers

Marina spoke of realism and fantasy, how Ted Hughes and Philip Pullman make the fairy-like corporeal and psychological, of the highly valued slave musicians of the caliphs and of the souls of trees. In our hut in the garden, we considered plants: no respecters of borders, cross fertilising, blow-ins without language. We agreed that fairy tales can be told and retold ad infinitum, in an oral tradition that seems everlasting but is yet vulnerable, a tradition that is bottom up, but used and reused by the gods of literature, by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Boccaccio and Dante, Kafka in his “fairy tales for dialecticians” and in our own times by Angela Carter and AS Byatt.

We considered riddles, quests and prohibitions, objects that come to life and speak, (magic carpets; violins strung with the hair of murder victims), astrology and imprisonment, the princess who says no and the princess who yearns, the ghost and the creature transformed. We found love, hate, desire, and shame and redemption in these stories; curses and physical deficiencies; possibilities that break all known rules and yet reside within a universally recognisable framework.

And what of language? There were proverbs, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, rhetoric…strange languages and onomatopoeia. We learned from admonitions and fables and received advice. We told the time: predictive, recollection, time stopped as in the Sleeping Beauty, time postponed as in the Arabian Nights. Who is the narrator and what does she know? Is the child reliable; does the old crone tell the truth; can the messenger be believed?

We talked of modern fairy tales, making sense of horror. Marina told of a Nobel Prize winner writing of Chernobyl and of the Last Wolf of Extremadura. Does cruelty in fairy tales incite, or comfort? She is working at present on storytelling projects with refugees; some psychologists do not want to add to their trauma by using fairy tales; others see it as cathartic. But refugees are not a blank slate: they disseminate and collect their own tales on their journeys, as did the men (and women?) who accompanied Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. (See more details of the Palermo based project here.)

writing hut inside

Marina set us tasks. We’d to find an object in the garden and set a riddle; we’d to use repetition as in a traditional tale (I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll BLOW your house down). We’d to write of an item precious to ourselves: jewellery proved popular here, but one man chose the participant badge without which he would not be fed, instructed or entertained at Dartington and I chose my glasses which enable me to see. We were asked to write a piece of persuasive dialogue.Some of us faltered, some of us omitted it, nobody failed, most of us bloomed. This was not a modern course, with aims and objectives and evaluations at the end, or if it was they were well disguised: it appeared that we meandered from curious to fascinating, from touching to heart-rending, from personal to universal, but in the terrible world of today it all made perfect sense. Marina quoted André Jolles: “The miraculous is here the only possible guarantee that the immorality of reality has stopped.”

It’s too early to say that we all wrote happily ever after, but we were set on our way. Updating this in July 2019, I’d like to thank Marina again here, a few weeks before my second novel The Magic Carpet is published. I’m not sure it would have taken the form it has, or any form at all, if it were not for that initial inspiration from her course. I cannot recommend highly enough a reading of Marina Warner’s work. If you can combine it with a visit to Dartington, you will be in a fairy land of your own. May your good wishes be granted and bless you for reading.

Dartington window seat

 

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

 

 

 

 

A Dartington bonne bouche

I didn’t post last week because I was away on a music and creative writing week at Dartington International Summer School, of which much more when I’ve unpacked. But here’s a riddle from the writing course, inspired by a tree in the wonderful grounds.

 

A gaping mouth, one sabre tooth and heart shaped blackened eye

Skin wrinkled lines, arrayed from rigid neck

Hide turned to grey and white, once brown (a trace remains)

Rhinoceros top lip; muck growths along the snarling jaw.

 

I stroke the roughened neck along the grain

This armoured beast will live to strike again.

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This bark formation seemed quite terrifying when I took the photo; now home in suburban London I can hardly spot what I saw then. An example perhaps of the magic of a place that can inspire, and of the difficulties of keeping that inspiration alive?

©Jessica Norrie 2016

 

Holiday reading, holiday writing

What do you look for in a book for the beach?

Not too thick a spine, nor too glossy a cover for greasy hands or it will fall face down in the sand. This book will be maltreated enough, without an inherent weakness to make it disintegrate eveIsola delle Femmine 2n sooner.

More importantly, the subject can’t be too dense. You need something you can immerse yourself in while squinting one eyed against the sun as your hat brim flops in your eyes, and you baste elbow-propped, sticky with sweat and stained by melted ice cream. Your attention is easily distracted by a nearby volleyball game; by drifting conversations that wander past and fade away; by a sad-eyed vendor who trudges towards you with coloured beads or more mobile phone covers than there can possibly be mobile phones in the world. The banana boat comes in and aeroplanes zoom above. So you need recognisable characters who are different enough to be interesting; clear viewpoints that are just stimulating enough to keep you awake but not too alarmed; a setting that’s accessible and preferably attractive, and a compelling plot.

If you’re a tourist on a beach, reading a book with a tourist beach setting, reality and fiction blend in a haze of holiday delight, enlivened by the frisson of new experiences and dashes of local spice. In your dreams and your siestas, two worlds merge in a dimension that’s neither real nor entirely imaginary.

How does a writer provide it for you?

Holidays lend themselves beautifully to fiction.  When a writer goes on holiday, it’s as though a special show has been staged for them to exploit. The setting is well delineated, a curved beach with palm tree backdrop; a fairy lit restaurant with a dance floor; a winding coastal road, flower covered cliffs on one side, scenic heart stopping abyss on the other. But sometimes there’s poison in paradise – half built hotels and blackouts; sharks and pirates; murder and mudslides….

Holidays have a structuremore flowers... put in place for the taking, and it’s been used by grandees from Virginia Woolf and Arthur Ransome to contemporary Philip Hensher and any number of crimes and romances in between (just check the Amazon genre categories). The beginning is the arrival; the reader becomes familiar with the location at the same relaxed pace as the fictional visitors, but in the second week or the last days it gets more urgent to extract every drop of pleasure and interest from the trip. It’s easy to establish the safe base of a daily routine and build in set pieces – a carnival, a storm, even a full moon will do, for it would go unnoticed in normal daily life. Then, if all goes well, the homecoming may have a sense of achievement or if questions have arisen, one of disillusion. Or there may be no return home…

And, as in pantomime, there are stock characters. The newly married, wide eyed couple. The once handsome loner, elegant here but he’d be louche at home. There’s often a hotel proprietor or a guide, knowledgeable and sexy and just a little bit sad, who provides useful local details and can take some narrative responsibility. The writer can play around with a mysterious traveller, who compensates for the holiday bore (a walk on part only) or set up difficulties via the liability who has an accident or gets ill. It’s mean but irresistible to contrast an innocent beach belle with a woman who, bulging in a strappy top, represents the fading flowers at the end of the too hot day. Her male counterpart, in silly shorts, winks and tries above his whisky always to sound wise.

The writer can keep the world real by occasionally signposting children, building a sandcastle or failing to fly a kite and that’s all that’s needed by way of characterisation for them. But (apart from the children) what you see is not what you get: on holiday appearance is everything and back stories are hidden, but swimwear gives away fewer clues to class, occupation or taste than normal clothing would. These people meet, or want to meet and don’t, or meet too often, fall in foolish love, give away too much too soon and have to retrieve the situation within a time limited framework. They act without inhibition; they bare their souls after making the assumption that they’ll probably never meet again.  Then something happens – a crime, a disaster, an accident, or maybe the weather just breaks. They react, they cope or they don’t, they survive or – doubly tragically when it happens on a dream holiday – they die.

Meanwhile the locals watch, and brood, and plot and celebrate…

You’ll find all this and more in “The Infinity Pool”,  on offer on Kindle at 99p / $1.43 until May 21st  but well worth paying the full price for too. Have a good trip!

 

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© Jessica Norrie 2016