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Showing posts from March, 2010

The White Guard

Whenever I try to talk about Mikhail Bulgakov I go all spluttery and purple-faced, my eyes water, I choke and gasp, and I might after a few minutes’ gibbering manage to squeak “bloody genius” – and that doesn’t express a fraction of the regard I have for his work. Mention The Master and Margarita and I fall apart completely. Refer to his novel The White Guard and I may just about manage to convey that it’s got the best ending of any book anywhere in the universe at any time. Imagine, then, how much I was looking forward to seeing The White Guard at the Lyttelton Theatre last Saturday (20 March), in Andrew Upton’s “new version”. I read the novel in readiness, spent the afternoon at the splendid Wallace Collection, and then went to the theatre. The performance surprised me. The play was funny – and I hadn’t expected that. Yes, I expected humour – this is Bulgakov – but I suppose I had something darker in mind. I was frustrated by not knowing how much of a new version Upton’s rewri

Quidve petunt animae?

You may have noticed that a blog or two ago I used a Latin quotation. Perhaps you wondered why. The fact is, I’m hopelessly addicted to being hopeless at Latin. I started learning it about three years ago. After two terms of a beginner’s course (now cut, along with a host of other wonderful adult education courses like art and archaeology), and armed only with a dictionary and grammar I am travelling through the underworld with Aeneas. Very slowly. Why am I learning Latin? Because I’m a writer. Let me explain. The novel I am currently working on has as one of its main characters an eighteenth century classicist. I wanted to understand what it was he loved and why, know a little of what he knew. The other main character is the Roman who haunts him, and to get to know him I had to learn about Roman history. Without Latin what can you know of that? I did the same thing when I wrote a novella set in Wales. I taught myself some Welsh (forgotten now, alas). So I am learning Latin because

Merrily Merrily

So it’s a capital offence to use adverbs? It is, according to Elmore Leonard, who lays down the law in his book 10 Rules of Writing , to be published shortly. If you haven’t seen the Guardian’s Leonard-inspired article Ten Rules for Writing Fiction , in which a number of authors share their dos and don’ts, you should. It’s packed full of advice: useful, funny, exasperating, gnomic, silly…see But the poor old adverb. Why such animosity? I think there can be few words as wonderful as an adverb when it’s used in the right place. I remember the first time I came across “friendlily” many years ago, in a novel by Kate O’Brien. I’d never thought you could make an adverb of friendly and it stopped me dead in my reading tracks. Hang on – isn’t that what good writing is not supposed to do, interrupt the flow, introduce a bit of rough with the smooth? Well, no, not really. The occasional jolt or jar can work won

A mote will turn the balance

When I was at school I had problems with A Midsummer Night’s Dream . It wasn’t just the dull way it was taught in my school back in the day. Students nowadays have much livelier texts to read from; many don’t even have to read a whole Shakespeare play any more but can get by with extracts. (Though how deciding half the school population are too stupid to read Shakespeare and thus denying them access to a hugely important element of our culture fits into the brave new widening participation world is beyond me. Still, it keeps the school exam results looking good.) The real issue for me was the play’s violence. This is a work that is often played as if it’s sweet and light, a bit of a romp, an easy confection. It’s got fairies, hasn’t it? But for me from the very start it was the violence that struck and disturbed me. A play that opens with a father threatening his daughter with death if she doesn’t marry the man of his choice, and that daughter being told that her father should be as

Missing Simon Armitage

Last Sunday (28 February) we (husband Gerard and I) went to see Simon Armitage at Bath Literary Festival, reading from the anthology he and bird enthusiast Tim Dee have put together: The Poetry of Birds . I love birds and I love Simon Armitage’s poetry and I’m sure I’d have loved Tim Dee too except that when we got there Simon Armitage was cancelled. That is, he was unable to be with us but lovely Helen Dunmore took his place. Lovely she is, but we had our hearts set on Simon Armitage so we got our money back and then looked for ways to redeem the morning. We quickly found them in coffee and cake followed by a joyous half hour in that book paradise which is Topping & Co Booksellers. I first encountered Mr Armitage at On the Border, a series of poetry readings which take place in the Drill Hall, Chepstow. He was appearing with Owen Sheers, and if I am honest – though at the risk of hurting Mr Armitage’s feelings – it was Owen Sheers I wanted to see. (If you want to know why read R

Good things come

Fill in the missing word:- They also serve who stand and - Good things come to those who - - in the wings I’ll accept “wait” but the word I was looking for was “write”. I know, you won’t find “write” listed under “wait” in your thesaurus but that’s Roget’s oversight, not mine. I’m convinced that writing and waiting are synonymous. Not in the sense of sitting down and waiting for inspiration. Who needs to wait for words who is a writer? But if you write you do wait. I think that what you need to be a writer is masses of patience and faith in your own longevity. It seems to take ages to finish your book because you want to wait until it’s as good as you can make it before you send it out. So you leave it to one side, a few weeks here, a few weeks there (while you start the next one of course). When you think it’s had long enough you read it and wait for the despair to pass. This happens after nail-gnawing days and teeth-grinding nights when you suddenly realise what’s wrong with it an