This week I joined Amanda Vanstone on her ABC National Radio show Counterpoint to discuss white lies and whoppers and why we might do it. Click on the link below to listen.
‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’
Today we are a mere ten minutes walk from our house but feel like we might have taken a stroll down a country lane, except for the screech of a train every other minute and glimpses of a distant crane atop the skeleton of a new build. Even the looming ironwork of the local gasometer only signifies the coming of the modern age for the Victorians, having been part of the landscape since 1845. Apart from the scurry of a squirrel and the rustle of the leaves from a disturbed bird, we are very much alone. The sun is glorious (really the only adjective) - is it brighter in the winter months because it’s lower? I remember only broad sheets of blinding white sunlight from my childhood in the far North of Queensland, but this is golden and warming and basking.
Wandering along, the headstones, graves and crypts are a motley lot. Some lie lopsided, having sunk into the damp soil, some have been lovingly replaced and the marble stands tall and new, even though their resident has ‘fallen asleep’ over one hundred years ago, and then others have been worn bare. Every so often we pass a large family crypt of ‘notable people’ – aristocrats, philosophers, authors, doctors, engineers…. Decorated with ornate statues and motifs. And dotted all over, are the shiny new ones, black granite with gold lettering, complete with photographs, nicknames and faux flowers.
The cemetery was the first of the "Magnificent Seven" garden-style cemeteries in London and I am struck by the majestic oaks, already bare, giant chestnuts and plane trees whose leaves, yet to fall, are a startling yellow. I have read that Wilkie Collins and Harold Pinter are both buried here, (amid so many other ‘notables’) but in this cityscape of headstones I am at a loss where to find them.
We come to the Anglican Chapel, a grand neo-classical listed building that sits on the peak of a small rise. Shafts of light shine between the colonnades creating symmetrical shadows across the terrace. We tentatively walk through, unsure what we will find, but there is no one around and when we come to a set of grand doors, they are sealed shut. Plaster peals from the cornicing and again we feel like we are exploring the ruins of bygone grandeur. Except that one can still be buried in the catacombs beneath. Something has been pinned to the large green doors. Up close, I read that it is an advertisement from the Friends of Kensal Green Society, ‘Tours Offered’, £7.50, every first and third Sunday of the winter months.
The cemetery is famously mentioned in GK Chesterton’s poem ‘The Rolling English Road’ from his novel, The Flying Inn, 1914.
I laugh to think how many a night had already ended up in [the] Paradise where good news was heard and fine things were seen... and many surely had their version of paradise, but we never went via Kensal Green cemetery (thankfully).
The Rolling English Road
by GK Chesterton from the novel The Flying Inn, 1914
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.
His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.
My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
brutalism study #2: stepping into The Barbican feels like stepping onto the set of a slick 1970s dystopian film. I’m wearing an amber coloured jumpsuit with cowl neck and flares and a pair of chunky platforms, drinking something with an umbrella in it and channelling Jane Fonda circa Klute. Except I’m not, I’m in standard Mum uniform aka jeans and a jumper and I’m running after my toddler who is dangerously close to the infinity edge of the lake that runs through the residential block - complete with reeds and ducks!
What could be more appropriate - this architecture - to rise from the ashes and rubble of World War II and create the totalitarian landscape upon which the cold war played out. Criticised for its bleak and depressing fortresses, there is still something honest about it: the repetition of lines, shapes, curves and angles, can actually be, pleasing. The term originates from the French word for ‘raw’ as Le Corbusier described his choice of material ‘beton brut’, raw concrete.
So fitting that the Barbican was used as a limited edition cover for George Orwell’s 1984. But I have yet to read any fiction that has actually been set there. Suggestions please?
Last night we walked up Primrose Hill in the twilight. The sun was setting across the other side and the fiery light burned through the trees. People gathered at the top, their silhouettes like statues against the mauve skyline and we all stood together watching the City lights grow brighter as the sky grew darker. Someone played Marvin Gaye on a portable speaker and the kids danced and jumped along the raised step.
We stuffed our hands into our pockets and put our hoods on, the first time we felt the cold this winter, and waited. We didn’t know where they would come from but then there would be a 'bang bang bang' and a 'screaming whistle' and we would turn and catch a glimpse of the colourful, falling stars that had been set off in a neighbouring village, and then nothing.
We waited some more and felt the history of the place beneath our feet. There was a natural hush about the hill, a magnetism that pressed against you. For it was a place where wolves once roamed and druids gathered and where duels were won or lost. Centuries ago, it almost became a cemetery, and in HG Wells' The War of the Worlds it was one: the martians came to the hill to conquer and then to die.
We moved our feet and saw that there was an etching beneath them: 'I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill’.
Someone shouted,‘Look, there!’ And then: ’Bang! Bang! Bang!’ There was a spray of green and red and yellow falling and then nothing.
Feeling brutal? Trellick Tower getting a semi make over? Brutal study #1
Originally designed by architect Erno Goldfinger, it was the first place I looked at to rent a room way back in Dec 1998 having responded to an ad in the Trading Post (no internet!) for ‘Room to rent in Portobello’. The woman’s flat was full of 60s concert memorabilia including one of Tom Jones’ shirts he had thrown at the crowd.
‘The lone tower block at the end of Golborne Road.’ It’s also the home of one of my favourite characters, the inimitable, Keith Talent, from one of my favourite books, London Fields by Martin Amis.
The enchanted garden. Surreal light. Columns to hide behind and run between. Spiralling vines and floral treasures. A couple of faeries were found here too... I’ve always loved overgrown gardens especially ones that seem to take over - much more scope for your imagination. It’s about once what was or what could have been. This one was said to have inspired Lewis Carroll and I can see why. Totally felt like Alice!
Hidden away in North London you have to know where you’re going to find it. We were practically the only ones here on this glorious day. London still so many secrets.
I've been offline for a while focussing on family and writing but my article on the sharing economy has just been published for Refinery29.uk and this is a subject well-worth talking about. Living far away from my family and having a young family of my own, I have never craved to be a part of a local community more than now. Then I started reading about the sharing economy and had a burst of hope in my heart for this troubled world we live in. Wouldn't it be great if we could get to know our neighbours like the old days, share stuff we didn't need, counteract this current throw-away society and have more meaningful connections? Yes! Where do I sign up? Er... I mean... download. Paradoxically, while technology is pushing us further apart it's also bringing us closer together. But like everything, you only get out as much as you put in.
Can a mother love her child too much?
Rachael’s Gift examines a co-dependent relationship between a mother, Camille, and her teenage daughter, Rachael. Camille worships her daughter in an all-consuming, and adoring way that sometimes feels uncomfortable. It seems Rachael gets away with whatever she wants, exhibiting some sly and manipulative behaviour, but it’s soon apparent that Camille is no less controlling and calculating. Together, they push and pull at each other to get what they desire most and Camille thinks nothing of lying on her daughter’s behalf.
Most people would say they would never do this and would not condone this behaviour in others and yet it does happen – probably more often than we think. I know of one mother that lied to the school’s headmaster about the whereabouts of her school-wagging son; another who lied about the age of their child so they could start school early and one who flatly denied their child had been a part of a gang of bullies even though there had been witnesses.
So why would we lie on our child’s behalf? Is it because their behaviour reflects badly on us? Do we love them so much we want to protect them at all costs, even if it means turning a blind eye and acting badly ourselves? Perhaps it is a case of not wanting to address the issue at hand? Most probably it is a combination of all of the above.
Being a mother to a two-year old I am just discovering the emotional complexities that inevitably arise. For the past year my son has shown aggressive behaviour towards his peers – hitting, biting, pulling hair – the usual. I’m told it’s completely normal and is a phase that will pass. It doesn’t make it any more bearable. Once the offence has been committed, hanging my head in shame, I run through a ritual of apologies: console hurt child; ask my son to apologise to the distraught victim; repeat ‘No hitting’ and then separate him from the scene followed by copious amounts of apologies to the parent of said victim. It’s a mortifyingly soul-exposing exercise that makes me wither with embarrassment at my child’s behaviour and reluctantly take responsibility. If I am too tired, it's far easier to stay at home than to take him out, and watch him like hawk with bated breath. I admit, sometimes I have witnessed my son do something and I have wanted to turn my head the other way, smile at the parent and raise my eyebrow with, ‘What? My son? Never.’
Thankfully, my own mother (incidentally nothing like Camille) inspires me daily with the extraordinary yet everyday feat of having raised five children. I still don't know how she did it! Thanks Mum!
Happy Mother’s Day!
A friend recently reminded me of an expression I used when people asked me how I managed to complete my novel after seven years. 'You mean, B.O.S? I said. 'Bum on seat!' She laughed, 'It says it all.'
It's not the most eloquent of expressions (nor can I lay claim to it) but it does get to the point. Quite simply, it means turning up to the page (or whatever it is you want to achieve) and discarding the rest.
Paula Hawkins was a financial journalist and wrote four romance novels under a pseudonym before writing 'Girl on the Train'. Although she completed it in six months, she had to borrow money from her father and spent every moment of that time writing. Emily Bitto winner of the Stella Prize 2015 re-wrote her novel, The Stray's, in ten drafts and runs a wine bar to finance her writing. Anthony Doerr, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize took ten years to write 'All the Light We Cannot See'. Peel back the publicity and there's always a hard working solitary author with their bum-on-seat.
It was also a little nudge for me to get back to work.
Thanks to George Clooney's adaptation of Edsel's The Monuments Men the world has awakened to the repercussions of Nazi atrocities that are not just events in history but real ongoing issues, with deep emotional resonance for Jewish holocaust victims and their ancestors.
Helen Mirren stars in the 'Woman in Gold' just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. The film follows the story of Maria Altmann's battle with the Austrian government to retrieve paintings by Gustave Klimt, originally stolen by the Nazis during WWII.
The Altmann story is just one of the more high profile and successful cases of restitution of Nazi looted art. There are thousands of unclaimed objects d'art and thousands more missing and many more cases that languish in the courts unresolved.
I first discovered the story of Nazi looted art during my research for RACHAEL'S GIFT and could not believe Hollywood had yet to render this subject on film. I was originally looking at the fake art trade (another surprising story in existence) wanting to find inspiration for my character who 'discovers an old painting with dubious history', when I came across thousands of paintings with dubious histories that had originally been 'confiscated' from Jewish families for either adding to Hitler's Linz Museum, destroying (if deemed unworthy) or exchanged with art dealers where it would find its way on to the art market. I read Edsel's book The Monuments Men and Hector Feliciano's The Lost Museum and wondered how this story - still active today, was not part of household discussions.
That was over five years ago now and since then the Monuments Men has been released, Woman in Gold is out this year and Helen Rothschild's novel, The Improbability of Love (about a woman who stumbles across a painting with dubious history) is to be released this May in the UK with film rights already sold.
It's nice to catch the zeitgeist, but really I'm glad that the story of Nazi looted art is coming into consciousness and hopefully there will be some catharsis for victims and their ancestors. Lest we forget.
Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, has caused some controversy with his recent quote that creative writing courses and grants are killing western literature.
"Grants cut off writers from society, whereas past greats worked as ‘taxi drivers and waiters’ to feed their imaginations." He refers to Samuel Beckett in this instance.
I'd love to run a poll with taxi drivers and waitresses to find out how much their jobs are fuelling their imaginations. Working as a secretary in the finance industry certainly fed my ambition to get out of there. But how much did it nourish my imagination - a born daydreamer, my imagination was already in overdrive - what else did my office job allow, if not, an opportunity to daydream? And perhaps the odd character.
In no order, working as a temp, bit-actress, TV production coordinator, film development executive, barmaid, cocktail waitress, nanny and possibly a host of other labels I have forgotten, has given me an insight into human behaviour that spurs me to write (Yes, Mr Engdahl, you are right.) Partaking in a creative writing course (whilst working) only served to shape and encourage my writing. I might not be winning the Nobel prize but life fuels the imagination in many surprising ways - not just working as a waitress and a taxi driver. Just look and listen.
The heat of the Australian sun, an instant burn, not easily forgotten. The ocean smashing against the shore, carrying far through the night. The outline of a sail on the horizon. Jagged cliffs dropping sharply into a rocky whitewash. It's dangerously sentimental, but I can't help it. The places where you grow up bury themselves inside you, a hot-iron brand, that glows brighter when closer. It's good to re-charge.
During this week's segment on Studio 10, Joe Hildebrand suggested the reason my book was published was because of the way I look. Talk about controversy! Several people mentioned they were 'disgusted' by this comment and said, 'Looks have nothing to do with it!' and 'It's a shame that hard work had to be boiled down to a discussion about looks.'
When you submit your manuscript to agents and publishers all you have to rely on is the calibre of your words on the page and nothing else. There's also no photo of me on the jacket cover.
I was amused by Joe's comment; after all it is his job to create a bit of a stir. Love a juicy discussion.
Rachael's Gift stands alone.
If we all knew the answer to this we would all be writing bestsellers. Perhaps we should ask JK Rowling and EL James? The short of it is there is no short cut. Work hard, be passionate and be persistent. Also be honest with yourself about your work.
Rachael's Gift began seven years ago. Actually, it was long before seven years. I have always wanted to write but I was yet to find the confidence to do so until a little bit later in life. And like any creative endeavour you have to study the craft and hone your skills before embarking as a professional. I was eager to learn, so I signed up to a novel writing course, took a job as a PA in the City, and wrote in the mornings, evenings and weekends. I spoke to fellow students, teachers, writers and industry people and listened to their advice. And I read. I read a lot. All the time and everything. I read books that I aspired to and others that I didn't, fiction, non-fiction, magazines and blogs, and it gave me the goalposts for where I wanted to go with my writing.
I'm asked if it has been difficult to keep up the momentum over so many years, but the truth is I look back and I have loved it. Of course, there have been challenges, frustrations and set backs but I absolutely loved the process and am really keen to immerse myself again with the next one.
I've been really lucky to get this far and there is still so much to learn; I can only hope that people enjoy my writing.
If you're keen to write a book, just sit down and start writing. But love what you do, it's the only way.
Thanks so much to the Studio 10 team, Sarah Harris, Jessica Rowe and Joe Hildebrand for your generosity and fab questions on your show today. It was a blast! Had to be dragged off the sofa!
A question I've been asked is whether the book is based on my life or not. The answer is yes and no. My life is inexorably entwined with RG intentionally and unintentionally. The life of the book evolved over time, as did I, and therefore what I lived influenced what I wrote as I wrote it. But no, my teenage years were not nearly as exciting as Rachael's. I wish I'd had the audacity to take freedoms the way she does, but the reality is, I was way too much of a scaredy goody-two-shoes!
I will say, however, that there are emotional experiences I've had and certain behaviour that I've witnessed that have become small obsessions and it is these things that I hope I've captured true to life and explored in my book. And I once lived in Paris when I was eighteen but more on that another time.
So why do we do the things that we do? And how far are we willing to go to get what we want? And is it all worth it in the end? #discuss.
We fly in pre-dawn. The sun is yet to break. No orange glints off the silver wings of the plane. No gliding over the majestic skyscrapers and bearing left over a sparkling blue shoreline. Instead, we're met with a bitterly cold wind and darkness, but glad to have arrived in one piece, dragging a cabin-fever toddler behind us, and mentally preparing myself for the fog of jet lag that will descend for the next two days.
It's this fog that befuddles my brain when later that day, I walk into Mosman's Pages and Pages and see RG piled high next to The Miniaturist, Little Lies, The Paying Guests, among others. My mother-in-law urges me to say something. So I pick up a copy and, (forgetting that I look like a 'before photo' in a makeover segment), say, Excuse me, I've just flown in from London and this is my book. I'm not sure what I expected, but I'm sure I went bright red. The staff were lovely and immediately asked me to sign a bunch. They even took a photo and tweeted. It wasn't until I walked out that I realised I'd signed with the bank signature I've had since I was twelve: acameron in running writing with a ballpoint pen...
There are a few defining moments for a debut author and this is one of them.
Then we took a stroll down Balmoral.
Only two days to go until RG is officially released. I had a dream last night that Rachael's name was misspelled on the front cover... I'm told this is all normal anxiety behaviour for a debut author.
Pretty chuffed with Picador's home page:
There's nothing like the feel of a hard copy in your hands. Book lovers know. The smell of the printed page; the rich texture of the paper, rough as if straight from the tree; the sound of the page turning. Will the hard copy die out? People have feared books throughout history. Hitler tried to burn them. Technology is giving them some good competition. But there's nothing better then to curl up on the sofa with a good one. Does one curl up with a kindle?