Maps for lost readers

Tidying up last week, I came across this initial sketch for the road The Magic Carpet families live in, made when I realised I wasn’t describing their comings and goings consistently. I may have had early thoughts of including it with the book – I’m a sucker for any book that has a plan or a map at the front, such as the Cluedo style plans used by Agatha Christie. A Book Riot post here has more great examples.

map 1 for MC

I recently read two contemporary books with house plans for endpapers. It’s a dangerous device as they do suggest extra riches within – Lucy Hughes-Hallet’s Peculiar Ground lived up to the promise with panache as reader and writer explored the grounds of her stately home setting together, but for me bestseller The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle didn’t work for several reasons, one being that the map didn’t match the story.

Joanna Cannon, in The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and Fredrik Blackman in A Man called Ove write their residential street settings so clearly that my mental picture tricked me into remembering plans that aren’t actually provided – I had to check my copies before I realised. I don’t think Richmal Crompton’s William Brown books provided one either, but fifty years after first reading them I could guide you round William’s village to his house, his long suffering school, the Bott’s nouveau riche manor house, and the various cottages where the Outlaws and assorted bespectacled men and tall lady writers lived. My mental navigation skills had first been stimulated by Joyce Lankester Brisley, author of Milly-Molly-Mandy, who does provide a map of M-M-M’s village and by the maps in my Pooh Bear books of the Hundred Acre Wood. Copyright won’t let me reproduce them here but you can see them on the Look Inside pages on Amazon.

A house, a small village, a cul-de-sac – these are all excellent settings because the writer can keep them closed to trap the characters inside while their story unfolds, or open them up partly or in full to admit strangers, dangers or resolution. With only one way in or out (or a sinister back way known only to locals, as in Cannon or Helen Kitson’s The Last Words of Madeleine Anderson) the writer can control character movements as a good general would deploy troops. A fan of early BrooksideI was particularly attracted to a cul-de-sac – a French word but the French don’t use it. They say “impasse” instead, which is much less helpful for plot purposes. Real British cul-de-sacs tend to be designed for and house a more homogeneous demographic than Brookside’s – but in London the monstrous permutations of the property, rental and social housing market lead to all sorts of cheek by jowl variety and make life much more interesting.

So I set The Magic Carpet in a cul-de-sac, with a mix of family structures, incomes and backgrounds, and initially just the school their children attended to unite them. In my childhood, we’d have played outside in such a street. I hoped my characters might grow into that. My initial layout didn’t last: I changed the road name, moved some families and evicted others, swapped addresses, added some posh flats, divided some houses into maisonettes and extended others. I got rid of the central block and paved over most front gardens, with only a posse of gnomes resisting on one of the last remaining lawns. I turned  the luxury flats and the poorest house (council tenanted via a private landlord) to face the main road and the dangerous world outside. With no planning permission required, it was quick and easy. Unfortunately all my new maps turned out like phalluses; if you imagine the (deleted) outline of the close you’ll see what I mean. So with no budget for a pro to  resolve that particular embarrassment, I didn’t include it in the book. But you people who read my blog are special, so here’s my amateur effort: an additional reading aid just for you.

MC final map 2

©Jessica Norrie 2019

A story and prizes for my second blogiversary!

The blog is two! Looking back I see I haven’t included as many short stories as I originally promised, so there’s one below. If you tell me what you think of it (good or bad), I’ll put you in the draw for a book prize – could be one I’ve reviewed, one I’ve liked or one I’ve written. UK only, sorry, readers elsewhere, but I’m a struggling writer….

Anyway, you’re all winners, because this story is for you. It came from my writing course at the British Library, when we had to identify an object in the Library to write about. No photos are allowed in the exhibition I chose, so you will have to make do with the brochure, but do visit; it’s free and very inspiring.

bl treasures
About the “Treasures of the BL” , from the current brochure

TEMPORARILY REMOVED

The exhibition’s sparkling name seduced me: “Treasures!” Entranced, I pored over illuminated manuscripts, hand scribed scriptures, painted vellum and pages of early print. I followed a sign that said: To the Magna Carta. But there was only a glass display case, containing a perspex-or-similar stand, and a printed sign with the  message: “Temporarily Removed”.

I racked my memory. What was the Magna Carta, anyway? And remembered: among other clauses, it declared that everybody, including the king, was subject to the rule of law and had the right to a fair trial. It was, in effect, one of the first declarations of human rights.

And now it had gone. Who took it?

Was it taken by a curator, for legitimate purposes? Perhaps it needed a polish, or was dog eared? Or letters had faded and blurred, and the curator had gone in search of ink and whatever medieval scribes used for Tippex – something made of flax, possibly. When she found nothing suitable for a running repair, she took the whole thing away for safekeeping. Temporarily, of course.

It was unlikely to have been stolen. The area bristled with alarms, the Magna Carta would have screamed “Traitors!” as it was lifted, and the thief immediately been apprehended by the elegant Egyptian security man and his Roman nosed Ukrainian colleague, with their ramrod backs and their epaulettes to die for.

I shared my disappointment with a fellow passenger on the trolleybus home. He confided a rumour, and a few days later it was confirmed by a brave investigative  radio reporter. The Home Secretary herself had had the Magna Carta since last Michaelmas quarter day. Picture the scene:

“Basil! I’ve forgotten the law of the land! Fetch me the Magna Carta!”

The under Home Secretary bowed. “You’ll have to fetch it yourself, I’m afraid, Cynthia,” he simpered. “Only you, the PM – and the King I suppose – have the right to remove the Magna Carta from the Treasures Collection.”

So the Home Secretary sent the British Library a pneumatogram and arrangements were made for her collect the Magna Carta at sherry time, to temporarily remove it to Queen Anne’s Gate or wherever it is the Home Secretary resides nowadays. You’d think it would be safe there, but…

… at tea time on All Hallows Eve, she was sitting by a roaring fire, her Persian cat Nero purring in his basket and Basil buttering steaming crumpets for the three of them. She was studying the Magna Carta, her eyes glowing in the firelight.

“This Magna Carta is too long.”

Basil knew that tone of finality. He put the butter knife down and wiped his hands on his pinny. Only that morning, during the regular watch he kept on the Fortnum’s community noticeboard, his careful fingers had stripped the address of a radical organisation from a recipe for gunpowder soufflé. Cynthia’s deft gesture was identical, pinching a section of the Magna Carta between her coral painted thumb and fingernails, and ripping it decisively away.

“Too many rights, too much to police, administer, and communicate. We can never assure them all. The country can easily do without this one.” Rip, tear.

“And this…”

With gusto the gleaming nails scored, tore and flicked.

Much of the Magna Carta lay in shreds on the Home Secretary’s monogrammed carpet. Basil scurried for the bronze dustpan and brush. Efficient percussion filled the room: stiff swipes of the bristles keeping time with Cynthia’s knuckles cracking.

“Decluttering, Basil. Taking back control. A compact Magna Carta will be neater than all that swollen old waffle.”

She rubbed her hands in satisfaction but her hooded eyes remained restless. “Then again, if a job’s worth doing…” She swooped on the shrunken pages.

“I’ve started so I’ll finish.”

That evening the British Library received pneumatogrammed instructions. The investigative reporter was too late to intercept them and could only report post factum. Visitors to the British Library now will find a new sign:

MAGNA CARTA. PERMANENTLY REMOVED

©Jessica Norrie 2018

Please leave a comment below before midnight BST on April 19th 2018 – improvements, continuations, deletions – to enter the draw. And please stay with me for a third year of words and fictions – it’s a fiction, by the way, that the Magna Carta is anywhere other than safely inside the British library, for now. It was something else – I didn’t check what – that had been temporarily removed.

prize 4

The 12 days of EsseXmas (a secular celebration)

Here’s my 2017 swansong, inspired by a dash to the shops this morning.

On the 1st day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

A massive wide screen TV (no photo. Think I’m stupid, burglars?)

On the 2nd day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Cusk 7

2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 3rd day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling inflatables3 blurry Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 4th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling napkins 4

4 festive pants, 3 blurry Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 5th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

 

FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 6th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 7th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling snowflakes 7

7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 8th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 9th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

bling games 9

9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 10th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling prosecco

10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 11th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

Bling balls

11 golden balls, 10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a massive wide screen TV!

On the 12th day of EsseXmas, Essex man sent me:

a 12 days of Kindle deal so you can buy my book “The Infinity Pool” here for only 99p until sometime in early January (had 10 Proseccos, can’t work out exactly when…)

…11 golden balls, 10 Prosecco glasses, 9 board games, 8 beauty salons, 7 saddo snowflakes, 6 bits of bling, FIVE TRAFFIC JAMS! 4 festive pants, 3 Santas, 2 white vans and a GINORMOUS wide screen TV!

510glyvrrdl

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everyone!

(If you try singing this do send me a video.)

©Jessica Norrie 2017

A goody bag from the funeral director

I wasn’t well last week, so this post replaces the advertised programme. I said I’d continue blogging about Lisbon writers. But Fernando Pessoa and Joe Saramago demand full attention. When your head and eyes ache, you burn with temperature, and you’re not feeling fit for human consumption, their wonderful words do little more than swim around like the ubiquitous Lisbon sardine.

By Saturday I could venture out, and a local shopping street again gave me a lesson in fundamentals. Once the lesson was about multicultural London; last time it was about birth. This lesson, as if to remind me there’s always someone iller than oneself (my cold had reached the self pitying stage), there was a beautiful pair of black horses, kept still by two top hatted gentlemen in morning coats with an elegant engraved glass carriage behind. All you need for a traditional East End funeral. Funeral 2a better

I prepared to walk past in a discreet and respectful way while getting a good look at the horses. But  – where was the coffin? There was only a cheerful lady dressed in black, standing in the doorway of the funeral directors, saying “Would you like a goody bag?”

My instinct, frankly, was to say no. It’s very kind of you but I’ve already felt like death warmed up this week and I am not in the mood for conversation with any representatives of the Grim Reaper, thank you all the same. (Although I did read a lovely blog post this week about the memoirs of an eco-mortician.)

But then all the way round Sainsbury’s I wondered, why would a funeral director be giving out goody bags? And what on earth would be in them? I renewed my supplies of tissues, honey and paracetamol with unseemly haste. What if the lady was no longer feeling so generous when I walked back past?

Funeral 1

 

I’ve only been into a funeral director’s twice (it wasn’t this one). I accompanied my father after my mother died, and a few years later I went back with my sister to arrange his funeral. I remember the employees as respectful, pleasant, rather inefficient on that second occasion (Me: You have been looking after my mother’s ashes so that they could be scattered with my father’s when the time came. Employee: Have we? Are you sure you don’t have them at home? But they did, as I knew, having been there when the arrangement was made, and they were tracked down in a warehouse – the actual scattering is another story.)

But why would you go into a funeral directors if you didn’t have a funeral to arrange or a body to view? Or possibly a crime to investigate or a novel to research?

If intrigued by a goody bag, you might.

The low sun shone on the still quiet horses. It was hard to get a good photo, and felt intrusive, even though there was no funeral, no coffin, no body. The goody bags were stacked by the open door of the shop (would you call it a shop?) but nobody was there now. How sad. Presents had been offered, but people were walking past. I peeped in, and picked up a bag: “May I take one of these?” I called, but softly, in case they were dealing with a proper customer.

Out came the lady in black, and another top hatted gentleman. “Please do. It’s our 200th anniversary. Please, help yourself.” In such uncharted conversational territory, my small talk dried up, I smiled, and left.

Tomorrow I shall go back, and if they’re not busy (but how would I know – outside is well screened and you have to press a doorbell) I shall call in again. When my father’s shop notched up any kind of anniversary, they had big boozy parties, celebratory offers and competitions. But a funeral directors can’t really be seen doing that, and yet, it’s quite a thing to celebrate. 200 years of funeral care! The social history they must have at their fingertips! It would be fascinating to hear more.

Also, it’s the best goody bag I’ve ever had. I benefitted from their need to keep things tasteful. Of course there was a balloon – there has to be a balloon in a goody bag – but it’s as understated as a balloon possibly could be. Some people with a baby are coming to view my house tomorrow, perhaps the baby would like the balloon, or would it send them the wrong message? Hmmm… There were two useful little tins of mints, and two packets of seeds which in a lovely coincidence were forget-me-nots (my mother’s favourite flower) and sunflowers (my father’s). There was a pen, and best of all – they must know I’m a writer – a very good quality notebook with lines ruled, a ribbon bookmark, elastic closure and a matching pen with holder!

funeral goody bag 2 better

Of course, funeralcare is a business like any other and if they don’t make a profit they won’t survive. They do have a captive market, and it was a celebration, but this was nonetheless effective advertising if passers by weren’t too inhibited to engage with it. So I said to B., “If I’m still living round here when the time comes, this firm, W. English & Sons, is the firm I’d like to  use.”

“The problem is, you won’t still be living,” he said.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

Building without dust

Sometimes episodes in a book echo the reader’s life. It’s reassuring, and can be cathartic. Certainly any book whose style or content makes me react: “That’s me/my thoughts/my situation you’re describing!” during the first few pages is one I’d continue reading. It works whether the moment is essential to the plot or a sideline. This week I read “Transit” by Rachel Cusk, and the number of echoes were uncanny.

29939363

To some extent it’s because Cusk deals with universals. Like a fortune teller (and the book opens with one) she discusses the great preoccupations of life: getting together; separating; maternal guilt; moving house; memory. We can all relate to these, and she explores them with subtlety and depth, going inside her character’s heads and saying the unsayable. “There! She’s said it for me!” the reader thinks with relief, as her nameless narrator admits to not fully responding to her distressed child, to not listening to the students she’s teaching, to absolutely loathing her neighbours. (I’m assuming this is a narrator, not Cusk herself.)

Narrator makes so many observations, some Cusk 2are bound to be true for each reader. Even so, what a lot of coincidences, right from page 1 (where the fortune teller’s junk email expresses her situation for her): “I sometimes struggled to find meaning in my present circumstances and to feel hope for what was to come.” (P.2)  Sneering at this resonating description as just a “computer algorithm” reveals Narrator’s own vulnerability. Quickly she distances herself, describing a divorced friend who admits he’s affected by such mailshots too, then moving from him to an estate agent describing his clients: “...the same people who had stormed and wept like frustrated children because  a property was being denied them, would be found days later sitting calmly in his office, expressing gratitude for the fact that they hadn’t got it…For most people, he said, finding and procuring a home was an intensely active state; and activity entails a certain blindness, the blindness of fixation. Only when their will has been exhausted do the majority of people realise the decree of fate.” Thus at a remove of four or more people (self, friend, agent, clients) Narrator/Cusk expresses how we all feel.

My goodness, that’s only on page 3 and already Narrator’s pinpointed me. I’m currently deciding whether to move to “the country” to a just affordable detached house. In “the country” the houses are all different, unlike London where you know what you’re going to see as soon as you ring the bell. Everything in London is white painted and laminate floored, but elsewhere houses are different shapes and sizes, in quirky states of repair and the decor and contents rumble with the lives of their present owners. (I can’t afford the nicer ones and others have fatal flaws that back in the agent’s office I realise would soon have had my blood pressure on the boil.)

Cusk 9
Shall we move to “the country”?

After recounting her hairdresser’s views on life (I too have an articulate, empathetic hairdresser, who I pay as much for his company as for what he does to my hair), Narrator runs into an old boyfriend. How civil they can now be! How objectively she can analyse the way they treated each other! They swap stories of children and homes, and he wishes her well in her move back to London. Yes, I’ve known that…

She’s moving too, but in the opposite direction. Like me three years ago, she has to find something in an expensive city and has limited resources (it’s all relative: I do realise millions of people are far worse off than I am). Like me, she ends up with a dreadful property, all dodgy wiring, rotting floorboards and creatures you’d rather not think about inside and out. It’s a first floor flat, similar to one I once had. Like me then, she has elderly council tenant neighbours below – but where mine there and in my present house were welcoming and insisted my building projects were no trouble, hers are resentful, filthy and offensive. There’s no doubt the work has to be done, but they resist it every step of the way.

building close up
When you share a wall with a building site

Again, the same story as mine, though from the opposite viewpoint. My charming neighbour here died and next door was sold. Cusk is now holding up a mirror to me of how obstreperous neighbours can seem: it ain’t pleasant. To find Narrator describing her dissenting neighbour as a monster troll is disturbing, knowing my emotions run every bit as strong as those expressed in the foul mouthed tirades she receives from  the basement. “It’s these single skin buildings,” the builder said, shaking his head. “Every sound goes right through them.” (P 51. On cue, drilling has started through my party wall and revolting though they sound, I do sympathise with the neighbours. Not only the building is thin-skinned. I find the monster troll in me is very close to the surface.)

builders everywhere 2
Builders, builders everywhere

As I did, Narrator builds a relationship with her builder, (not a “relationship”, you understand, an affinity), and also with his sub contractors. She’s interested in their back stories, their health and their emotional well being, and they in turn try to protect her from the worst of living in a building site, sometimes by acting off their own initiative in ways that surprise and unsettle her. She seeks out friends having similar experiences: “…(Amanda) couldn’t remember what it was like to live somewhere normal,…where you didn’t have to … thoroughly remove the dust and dirt from your person in order to leave the house, rather than the other way around…she had gone to meetings with grout in her hair and plaster under her fingernails…” (p.169).

I’ve only achieved the title of my proposed novel about building, used for this review pending a text to go with it. But Cusk’s done the lot, and unlike me is able to throw in chapters on the sort of literary festival that would never ask me to speak and on having the sort of creative writing student who would never choose me. Like me, Narrator is still building a new life after divorce and it seems to involve as much mess, as many wrong turns, as much expenditure and clumsiness and mood swings and anecdotes as mine. She recounts them dispassionately, hence the catharsis.

21400742“Transit” is also a novel about new people she meets, new chances Narrator builds or encounters; it’s a novel of glimmering possibilities and foul interactions she must either put behind her or put up with. And it’s about self and other: how others have the same thoughts she does; how the light they shine is only slightly different. She shows how expressing experiences and opinions through them (he said that/ she said she/ I asked her what…) permits just enough distance, enough observational objectivity, for writer and reader to step over the boundaries of what it’s conventionally acceptable to explore and confess. The language is simple and clear, almost clinical: it needs to be, because the thoughts she explores develop in sometimes complex and shocking ways. Yet we should not be shocked, because we have thought them too.

13380846I must now read the first novel in this trilogy, “Outline” from 2015, and also “Aftermath” (2009), which was criticised by some as revenge for the rawness of separation and for involving others beside herself. Other reviewers found it pure and cathartic.“Why can’t we just be normal? Why does everything have to be so weird?”  asks the older son in a desperate phone to his mother, when he’s lost his keys to his dad’s house. “I said I was sorry but I had to go.” (p.133) Sometimes, you can’t provide an answer, although you can keep asking the questions, and you do just have to go. At least reading Cusk you know you are not alone.

I’d be interested to know if any readers have had the same experience of identifying with a book, fiction or not, and the effect it had on them.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

The best independent bookshop in London!

Last year I posted to celebrate what would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday and this week it’s my late father’s turn. Ian Norrie was what used to be called a “bookman”. He wrote novels, book trade history, and guidebooks, edited, ran a small publishing imprint, wrote for the trade press such as The Bookseller, served on the committees of trade organisations like the National Book League or book prizes, lectured on bookselling and publishing, helped set up an archive of book trade oral history, and worked tirelessly through lunchtimes, evenings and weekends to maintain the bon viveur traditions of publisher wining and dining.

High Hill party 1958
My mother Mavis and my father Ian at a High Hill bookshop party for author E. Arnot Robertson in 1958

The jewel in the crown was the High Hill Bookshop. In 1956 after jobs including journalism and in Foyles, he went to work in a run down shop in Hampstead High Street. From a literally collapsing building they sold new and second hand books, artists’ materials, and greetings cards, adding records and an art gallery after the company went into receivership and my father and friends formed a partnership to buy and rename it. I think the business cost them £10,000 plus £1,300 annual rent. It became the best independent bookshop in North London. By 1988 when it closed, High Hill sold only books, from three shops knocked into one. Hardbacks, art, travel, history and the university departments were on the left, children’s, sport and religion in the middle, and paperbacks on the right.

Working in a bookshop was every student’s dream, but it was harder than it seemed. I did it in university holidays. You have little time to read, and books are heavy, dusty and not always inspiring. The ones that sold best in Hampstead tended to be high quality and well produced, but we also made a good profit from what Ian called “Irene’s crap table” – Irene Anderson ran the paperback dept and had an eye for books you could pile high and sell cheap. The customer is not always right, and in Hampstead could be arrogant too. Some were just vague. In pre computer days, identifying what someone wants when all they know is “it’s about history and it’s green” took knowledge and imagination (although “there’s a poem about daffodils” didn’t.) Ian despised calculators, so his staff had to add everything in their heads, not easy when a famous politician or psychiatrist is glaring at you as you do it. He didn’t like plastic bags either so we wrapped everything in orange and white striped paper. People would spend a small fortune on books and then proudly tell us they reused our paper as gift wrap.

High Hill memoir
Ian’s book about the shop, featuring our wrapping paper and cartoon by Nicholas Bentley commissioned for the 1958 Christmas catalogue

There were many famous local customers, not then called celebs. Peter Cook was in most weeks, as were Michaels Foot and Palin, RD Laing, Margaret Drabble and Melvyn Bragg. Then there were the nobility, peeved if you asked for ID when they wanted to pay by cheque without a card (anyone else remember cheque cards?) “You see, there are so many of you about,” sighed Perry who worked in hardbacks, when a haughty grande dame objected: “But it’s a Coutts’ cheque! And I’m a Lady!” Meanwhile you could spot the less well known local authors a mile off; they came in on a daily basis and moved their books into more prominent positions.

My father enjoyed writing adverts and did his own inexpensive window displays, which gained a reputation. One was for a new coffee table book about roses, by Harry Wheatcroft (think Monty Don equivalent). For this he plundered my mother’s garden, so the beautiful tomes were surrounded as she pointed out by blooms complete with greenfly and leaf spot. One year he simply wrote in his terrible handwriting: “Give SKOOB this Christmas!” on a big poster and the staff were plagued by customers asking what on earth it meant. (Not all Hampstead residents are as clever as they think they are.) During the 1966 general election they did a big display for Whitaker’s almanack . That was the year Hampstead elected its first Labour MP, Ben Whitaker.

High Hill door notice
Ian’s view was that customers, as well as staff, needed training.

Of course not all customers were rich and/or famous. High Hill had the account for Camden libraries and a number of schools, and Ian always maintained it was well worth opening just after Christmas because of the trade done through small denomination book tokens. When his shop began trading as High Hill, there were hardly any other bookshops in North London, but they began to open in Kentish Town, Muswell Hill, Highgate and elsewhere. High Hill was the grandee, with Ian to his delight being called a “bookseller tycoon” in a TV documentary about Hampstead. One reason was the excellent staff who stayed because although they worked long hours, they received good pay, holidays and pensions, were given autonomy and respect, supported through illness and allowed to play to their strengths. Sheila Judd and Ros Wesson could find a book to answer any child, au pair or parent query, whether for a “hyperactive teenager who’s…er… going through a phase” or “the most intelligent two year old you ever saw” (a claim made for most Hampstead children). A significant child of the shop’s own was the High Hill Press, which published around thirty titles about Hampstead, London and literature.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Eventually there was a threefold blow: the leasehold costs soared, the policy of ratecapping reduced Camden’s purchasing power so losing the biggest customer and Waterstone’s opened up the road to offer serious competition at last. The property was worth more than the business. High Hill was on its final chapter, but all the staff were head hunted for jobs in bookselling or publishing. Characteristically Ian saw it as an opportunity, and in “retirement” continued for another quarter century to write and travel, frequent the publishers’ table at the Garrick Club and play the part of Hampstead, London, European bookman.

High Hill Michael Foot 1988
High Hill signing party 1988: Bridget Clements, Michael Foot and Ian Norrie.

I’ve concentrated here on Ian’s bookselling achievements but, as I said at his memorial celebration at Burgh House in 2009, he was also a loving son, husband, father and brother, reader, writer, sandcastle builder, traveller, entertainer, host, quizmaster, ham actor, cricket umpire, tennis player with a sense of umbrage to out McEnroe McEnroe (when his son-in-law beat him 6-0, 6-0 he complained Andy hadn’t played properly), wine drinker and to many people a very good friend. How he would have enjoyed blogging and the chance to show his many photographs as well as his words, even if, trained on typewriters, his heavy fingers did break more keyboards than Ludwig van Beethoven.

Ian is still sadly missed, and Mavis too – we’re toasting you both in Chablis tonight as we browse the Booker prize list and make our own travel and writing plans.

Next time 2

©Jessica Norrie 2017 and estate of Ian Norrie

What can I say?

It’s Friday again. Unusually, I haven’t made any notes for today’s blog post during the week. I’ve done no writing or editing either in the past seven days. But if I don’t post, it’s the start of a slippery slope, a particular shame as I approach next week’s Blogiversary. So what can I say?

One good reason for not writing was reading. I finished On Golden Hill, which I thought one of best books I’ve read in the past couple of years. It’s a spoof on early English novelists like Sterne and Smollett (at least, I think it is. I’ve never read them, just accumulated enough literary bric a brac over the years to think I would know what to expect if I did. And now along comes a 21st century author with an easier to penetrate, shorter pastiche so I’ll never have to.)

On Golden Hill 2
Detail from cover of “On Golden Hill”

There are great characters – the hero, with the deliberately neutral name of Smith, his friend Septimus Oakeshott, a complex, poignant, wily figure, Tabitha the peculiar heroine, who echoes Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, and the mysterious, tragic but ultimately strong slaves Achilles and Zephyra. Slaves from A-Z, you see? The descriptions of New York in the first decades of colonial settlement are fascinating, and the research into detail impressive – for example 18th century theatre craft or how citizens kept clean. There’s an amusing device, presumably Sternian or Smolletesque, whereby the narrator begins a minute description  – of a card game, for instance, or a duel, and then stops short, telling us he doesn’t have enough technical knowledge and we shouldn’t pay him any credence. Tabitha struck false for me almost from the beginning to the end, but otherwise, this was a stylistically impressive, richly entertaining story with, at the end, a surprising twist that reminded me I was reading in the present day after all.

Then I galloped through the latest Nicci French, Saturday Requiem. If you’ve been with this series from the start, on Blue Monday, you’ll be familiar with psychotherapist Frieda Klein who is unwillingly drawn into investigating whatever gruesome crime the police last made a mess of solving, all the while making powerful establishment enemies, continuing to see clients, and attempting to protect the interests of those who have suffered collateral damage. I thought Monday, Tuesday’s Gone and Waiting for Wednesday were excellent, but by Thursday’s Child I was finding it harder to suspend disbelief and Friday on my Mind has barely registered there.

I’m afraid Saturday is another step down for me. As usual, there was an ingenious plot and I couldn’t put it down but this time it was more because I wanted to tick it off than because I was gripped. Frieda has now walked around London in the small hours a few times too often – the London settings are normally evocative enough to be a character in themselves but these felt barely sketched in. She’s played too many calming chess games, confronted too many invasions of her home and threats to her sanity. As with Eastenders, you can only take so many episodes before you become too inured to be affected. In Saturday Requiem French toys only fleetingly with Frieda’s old adversaries before they disappear without explanation, and doesn’t bother to give her the usual love life or dysfunctional family related setback. This must be because even calm, counselled and counselling Frieda would be too damaged to continue into Sunday – the dilemma for which is set up on the last page and which French is presumably contractually obliged to deliver. It’s an object lesson for a crime writer. Never start a series of books with Monday, or worse still January, in the title.

To be fair, my concentration is not what it was (is anybody’s? Roll on the collective legal action against Facebook, Twitter and all their scheming relations for compensation for damage to our synapses.) Also I was tired after an exciting week. Top sopping for the Hackney Singers at the Festival Hall went very well on Monday, thanks very much for asking. Adrenaline flowed, the London Mozart Players sparkled, the soloists soared and the conductor brought the whole cast together in glorious celebration.

HS

All this just five nights after the same hall was evacuated and events cancelled for the attack on Westminster on Wednesday 22nd. I do not for one minute wish to belittle the suffering and shock of the victims and their families, but Londoners of all races and backgrounds are the heroes of this story. Why? Because in London terrorism cannot keep a foothold however much the media magnifies it: we all just get on with what is important to us. My daughter’s response on the night of the attack was to get on the tube and go into central London so she didn’t miss her evening class – all the other students and the teacher turned up as well. Ours was to deliver the concert we’d been preparing since Christmas. The audience was full, the South Bank was packed in the sunshine, the blossom is out and the great city of London is alive and well.

Blossom

(In my opinion London is more likely to sustain long term damage from the UK’s own foolish Brexit decision and our ridiculous posturing government – satirical material aplenty there for a modern Smollett or Sterne. My despair at that may be the less positive reason I lost writing energy this week.)

However – onwards and upwards! Next week – look out for a giveaway! Look out for some awards! This blog will be one year old and there will be due celebration.

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Slog, blog, stop, sing!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Yesterday I had the lovely surprise of a Blogger Recognition Award from a fellow blogger at Fabulous Fusions. I’ll post about it and make my own nominations in a couple of weeks as it will fit well with my Blogiversary. In April I’ll have blogged a whole year and I’ve learnt some new jargon (Blogiversary?) but I still haven’t changed the world. Must try harder…

HS rehearsal Gill carole Keiko
Before rehearsal at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street

This week it’s been not blog but slog. Slogging over that tricky second novel, editing the first draft, chucking/retrieving words, phrases, chapters, trying to animate my flatter characters, stuff events into my barely existent plot, realise my undefined location and tighten my narrative arc, aka narrative droop. It’s time for a break, and once a week I have the ideal solution when I sing top sop with the Hackney Singers (btw there’d be a loud cheer here if the blog had sound effects, and what follows are my personal views of why we deserve it). Another btw: “top sop” doesn’t mean best sop, it just means the soprano part with the highest notes. Narrative droop or no narrative droop, this artiste likes to aim high.

We’re a community choir, so we don’t audition, yet we manage challenging classical works. Some of us don’t read music; some read music in a confused way; some are musically highly literate. Some have singing lessons and know what to do with their diaphragms; others pitch up once a week and open their mouths.

HS scores

For me it’s a relief not to be working alone but with others, and not to be editing my own work but, having learnt the basics, to be at the finessing stage of someone else’s – in this case, Dan Ludford Thomas‘s conducting of Bach’s B Minor Mass. He makes the decisions; I just try and do as he says. Our excellent music team exert all their expertise, goodwill and grace to help us and so far on the day of performance their guidance has always helped us rise to the occasion. I’ve been in many choirs, but Hackney’s the most enjoyable, because Dan, Andy, James and co accentuate the positive, building on what we can do rather than criticising what we can’t (although you learn to read between the lines. When the conductor says brightly: “Hackney Singers are good at loud!”, that means: “But this bit is supposed to be soft.”)

So we’re always learning, but the music team’s hard work and amiable but firm refusal to reduce their expectations produce results that at best take our audiences by storm, moving and exciting as any live music performance by professionals. Often there’s wine too!

HS bparalympics backstage
Backstage at the Paralympics, 2012

All the choirs I’ve sung in have something in common: sopranos shriek unless lovingly preened, altos can be too subtle for their own good; tenors are an endangered species to be protected from raids by rival choirs; and basses boom along the bottom a bit behind the beat. Hackney sorts all this out with a relaxed attitude and emphasis on enjoyment. For concerts women don’t wear long black skirts and the men don’t wear DJs and bow ties. We weren’t too proud to take part in the recent Sainsbury’s TV adverts. “Yum, yum, yum! Yum, yum, yum!” we sang, grasping all six notes and words with admirable speed in an hour’s recording session. (We’re open to similar bookings, for a contribution to choir funds.)

HS yum yum chaps
Yum, yum,yum at the Urchin studios, 2016

Members have sung Handel on the stage of English National Opera, sung Mozart and Handel at the Festival Hall, sung with Sir Tom Jones and Paloma Faith at the BBC Music awards, and recorded the soundtrack for a Susan Boyle film at the Air Studios in Hampstead. Groups of us have sung at weddings, funerals and for the Mayor of Hackney. A highlight was singing at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony in 2012, wearing Mao suits and such huge cellophane stars on our shoulders that we couldn’t turn round without shouting a warning.

So please come to our next concert, at the Festival Hall on Monday 27th March. The Bach B Minor Mass has grand airs and pretty tunes; poignant sadness and glorious celebration. It’s a big ask even by our standards, and greater choirs than ours have found it one to grapple with. It’s long, complex, requires all the muscular stamina some of us thought we could manage without, has innumerable “runs” (series of fast notes that look like knitting stitches on the page – drop one and you’re lost! You have to gasp – not visibly or audibly – and pick up the thread again wherever you can.) But we won’t be Baching up the wrong tree because as well as Dan and team, we’re singing with wonderful professional soloists and an impressive orchestra, The London Mozart Players. You’ll hear their oboes and flutes “having a party” as Dan puts it, their trumpets fanfaring a huge choral entry, their strings doubling our voices and their bass section duelling with ours.We also have the not inconsiderable help (they would probably put this the other way round; maybe they have a blogger in their ranks who will do so) of one of Dan’s other choirs, The Lewisham Choral Society Bach mass

Why not join us? Next term we’re singing Orff’s Carmina Burana. We particularly welcome tenors and basses, younger singers (younger being an elastic term) and more singers who represent the ethnic diversity of Hackney (but you don’t have to fit any of those categories or even to live in Hackney). Check out our website for vacancy and waiting list details – remember, there’s no audition and you don’t have to read music! You will have to attend regularly and practise, because this music does take some learning. In return you get a leisure activity to bring joy for the rest of your life.

HS flyers

Now I’d better get back to my editing, before the narrative arc flops as flat as a top sop on a sudden top B… I hope to see you in the audience on Monday 27th!

©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