Hazel McHaffie

The Captive Queen

Having devoured the two Tudor novels by Alison Weir (reviewed in recent posts), I was keen to read her third excursion into fiction: The Captive Queen.

This one goes back four hundred years earlier, to the twelfth century, a time of which, I confess, I knew very little. And it tells the tumultuous story of the making of a nation, of passionate personal and international conflicts, of a high-profile royal marriage in meltdown. Records that far back are incomplete but, as an historian and novelist of integrity, Weir has extended great efforts to fill in the gaps as authentically as its possible to do, as her end note explains.

At the core of this tale is the beautiful, fabulously wealthy, young  Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). As the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, she’s the most eligible bride in Europe. She’s also a formidably wise and firm governor, a trustworthy leader, and a woman who inspires passion, famed for her fairness, generosity and humanity.

But her own powerful emotions lead her into tumultuous situations. After fifteen years as Queen consort of France, she turns her back on a shattered marriage to King Louis VII, her crown, and two young daughters, to pursue the love of her life.

Louis VII has been more monk than either king or lover, and Eleanor is a sensuous woman with strong dsires. As soon as she can persuade Louis to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity within the forbidden degrees dictated by the Church, she launches into marriage with Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, who combines youth (he’s ten years younger than her) and handsome looks with voracious carnal appetites, conveniently drawing a veil over her adulterous liaison with his father Geoffrey. Their union represents not just the fulfillment of their love and lust for each other, but the founding of one of ‘the greatest empires in Christendom’, spanning vast territories on both sides of the channel. Henry becomes Henry II of England and they produce a further eight children together, three of whom later become kings themselves.

But in time Henry reveals his true nature: cruel, overbearing, jealous, self-important, serially unfaithful. Eleanor is forced to acknowledge that her own beloved subjects reject and dislike him and his dictatorial ways, and that she personally has gone from one disastrous marriage to a weak and inadequate man, into one where she is a captive wife to a very aggressive husband. When she remonstrates with him, he betrays his patronising view of women: ‘… a wife’s duty is to obey her husband, to rear his children, and to warm his bed when he so desires. And there it ends.‘ Never mind that she was a ruler in her own right as well as Queen of France before he ever met her! He increasingly sidelines her. By now Eleanor can see that he is utterly incapable of appreciating her point of view, and once his mind is made up, nothing will move him. ‘I am determined to have my way’ extends beyond ruling despotically, taking territories and insisting on absolute obedience; it includes deflowering innocent well-born girls as well as taking many other beautiful and available women.

When she discovers the extent of his unfaithfulness, in spite of the passion within their marriage, Eleanor feels totally betrayed. But when she confronts him, Henry is brutal: ‘We are a partnership, Eleanor. You are Aquitaine, and I am England, Normandy and the rest. Together, we straddle much of the western world. Nothing can sunder us, not even hatred. To be invincible, we have to work together, to give a semblance of being in harmony. Our personal feelings do not count.’ Political gain and advantage is his sole driving force. But even in her worst nightmares, Eleanor could not have envisaged just how vengeful this man she had once loved so passionately could be.

It is, however, his obsessive relationship with Thomas Becket, that proves Henry’s greatest preoccupation for years. Initially Becket, as Henry’s Chancellor, is his best friend and companion, so much so indeed that Henry entrusts his own eldest living son and heir, Henry, to his care and guidance. But when King Henry insists on making him Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket changes completely, becoming a hair-shirt self-flagellating ascetic, and in defence of the Church, turning against his King, and openly defying him. Henry’s rage, born of pain and betrayal, knows no bounds. In his desperate search for absolute power, he is even prepared to use his own infant daughters to score points against his enemies! Afraid for his life, Becket seeks refuge on the continent, further fuelling Henry’s impotent fury. When the King eventually extends an olive branch, Becket returns to England, but shortly afterwards he is brutally murdered in his own cathedral by knights who believe they are fulfilling the King’s wishes. Henry however, is wracked with guilt and remorse; this was never his intention.

Things go from bad to worse for him when Eleanor, disgusted by the extent of his domination and unfaithfulness, turns her back on him and, with her endorsement, his sons all rebel against his tyranny. He has her imprisoned, first in a single barren room in a tower in Rouen, later in a bleak wind-ravaged stone keep in Wiltshire, demoralised, starved of civilised company, cut off from the rest of humanity, with no news of her children – a terrible punishment for such a free spirit with sunny Aquitaine a constant ache in her heart. Only by degrees does he eventually relax the strictures and grant her more comfort and luxury, although she remains closely guarded.

A bitter decade follows. Henry seeks to have the marriage annulled. His newest paramour dies of cancer. He impregnates his son Richard’s betrothed, King Louis’s daughter, Princess Alys. Vile rumours discrediting Eleanor abound. The young King Henry dies.

It’s their shared parental grief that finally persuades Henry to release Eleanor, reunite her with her children, introduce her to her grandchildren, and free her to visit all her disputed fiefdoms  to re-establish her – and thence his – sovereignty. But good intentions only take them so far. Eleanor is increasingly appalled by the behaviour of her husband and her sons, and bowed down by the death of yet another of her boys.

Henry consigns Eleanor once more to captivity, in the same stone keep, and this time it is only his own death that releases her – after sixteen years captivity.  Now at last, Eleanor is appointed to rule England as its regent on behalf of her favourite son, King Richard. She rules wisely and well, puts many wrongs right, upholds the rights and interests of her people. But her success is dulled by the haunting tragedy and sadness of both her tortured marriages, all the mistakes and misjudgements, the enmities and betrayals, the loss of nine of her eleven children. She dies aged 82, amidst the peace and tranquillity of her sisters the nuns of Fontevrault, in the heartlands of the River Loire.

Apologies for such a long resume, but almost 500 pages of galloping story about such an exceptional, colourful and passionate woman and Queen, justified more than a bald summary. I’d highly commend this romping tale to anyone interested in a period of history that is so often shrouded in the mists of time.

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Three-a-Penny

Almost exactly 121 years ago to the day, February 1899, Lucy Beatrice Malleson was born in Victorian London. Better known as Anthony Gilbert or Anne Meredith, her two pseudonyms, she was prolific in her literary output but received limited sales and acclaim. It’s a refreshing change to read an autobiography that concentrates on ‘failure’. Even at the height of her success, when she slept with a glowing tribute from her publisher under her pillow, she mourned: ‘I was one of those unhappy authors who can please everyone except the public.’

Her memoir, Three-a-Penny, is like no other. And her motivation seems to be captured in Dorothy Sayers’ comment to her: ‘You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people.‘ Exciting enough, indeed, to justify a factual account of her life and ambition, but the author seemingly apologetic about her ‘mediocrity’.

From an early age Malleson made up stories. She began publishing articles and poems whilst still a teenager, and brought out her first crime novel aged just 28. In all, she went on to produce over 70 novels, as well as a number of plays for the BBC, before she died in 1973 aged 74. And yet, she never achieved the status of others of her generation. Nevertheless, she remained an incorrigible optimist;
‘… if you know in your heart of hearts that Providence intended you for a success and your main desire in life is to assist Providence to this end, why then you will never see a book with your name on the spine without the eager thought, “This may be it. This probably is.” And when the book sells no more copies than its predecessor, well, by that time you’re always neck-deep in another one, and this one, without doubt, will bring you that elusive fame and financial security that glimmer like distant stars on the far, far horizon.’ And I suspect her gritty determination to plough on despite modest sales, will strike a chord with us lesser writers far more than the success stories of the star-studded celebrity authors.

The beginning section of Three-a-Penny is the best, in my view. It might well be another novel! Her vivid snapshots of her childhood precocity and innocence, in particular, are utterly beguiling, not least because she refers to herself quaintly throughout as ‘one’ instead of ‘I’.

For example, she had her own clear and trusted theories about God. He was not above taking care of an unhemmed tablecloth, but he also kept an enormous ledger like the butcher’s. ‘God presented His bill when you died, and if you had done wrong you went to hell for ever. Hell was like a glorified nursery grate on which people lay, always, in imagination’s eye, decorously dressed in outdoor clothes, perpetually burning yet never consumed.’

Where babies came from exercised her for a long time. ‘One knew. They came in a doctor’s bag, each with a label round its neck. The doctor’s house resembled the giants’ larders of nursery days, crowds of infants in long clothes hanging on hooks awaiting delivery.’ When her own baby sister was imminent she was deeply troubled by the huge potential for the family to be given the wrong child.

On one occasion her mother insisted the nurse take her and baby outside to get fresh air in terribly inclement weather. Freezing cold, Lucy cried piteously and remorselessly, attracting the sympathy of ladies in fur. But not Nurse.
‘Nurse pushed the pram as though she were a machine. When we reached the Park she anchored it by some railings and went into a little house marked Ladies. She told me to come in too. My tears momentarily ceased. I had never been inside one of these little houses. But once there Nurse seated herself squarely on the wooden seat, plucked me over her knee, and went through the familiar ritual of lifting clothes and undoing buttons. Smack! Smack! Snack!
‘I’ll give you something to cry for, my lady,’ said Nurse.
I stopped crying in sheer astonishment. I had never realised they built little houses in public parks just for  this. I was so much surprised I made the rest of the journey in awed and crestfallen silence.’

Again and again Grown-Ups let her down. ‘You couldn’t believe them; they had a different truth from yours.’ She was forced to work out her own understanding of the world.

She was a precocious child, reading avidly, and romping home with full marks for her essays – her ‘only distinction‘. There was never any career other than writing in her sights and, aged 14, she applied to her father for £10 for a correspondence course to equip her to write for the press – for money. ‘Write! Under my roof! Never!‘ was his implacable response.

When the war started she was forced to a stark realisation. And by now the whole tone of the memoir changes to something much more prosaic and factual. One’s aunts became nurses; one’s menfolk did important war work. ‘… nobody thought it was proper to write novels and one was a little ashamed of reading them.’ Instead she went off to secretarial college and became an unpopular but diligent student, determined to make something of her life. Her first job was a sobering one, with the Red Cross, dealing with relatives searching for information about their missing sons and fathers. Against the nightmare of such raw emotion, a letter from the Family Herald accepting her poems came like a beacon in a dark world. Together with a postal order for three and sixpence. Success! But … ‘I hadn’t imagined I should ever be paid with anything less than a cheque’.

Work in a Government Department, increased her growing awareness that the war had robbed her, as well as the returning soldiers, of youth. She wrote regular columns and articles, subtly concealing political and sociological and economic ‘pills’ in a ‘lot of feminine jam’. She also sold some of her verse to august publications like Punch, the Sunday Times, the Observer, and certain literary weeklies. Buoyed up by this success she progressed to experimenting with novel writing, even taking time out from paid employment to do so.

Early efforts proved unsuccessful but two publishers eventually saw her potential. ‘One day you will write a good novel,  but this is not it.’ ‘You have the makings of a novelist, but you haven’t quite rung the bell this time.’ Those were the days when publishers gave feedback and Malleson benefited from their insights and advice. So, when a crime novel was accepted by Collins, she was wild with excitement. When it proved to be ‘a complete flop‘, failing to earn even the paltry advance offered to an unknown writer, she was devastated. To make matters worse, Collins subsequently declined to publish her next book, leaving her feeling permanently discredited by this double failure. ‘I no longer wanted to talk about books.’

Back to office life she went. The work was way beneath her skills and when she was alone she would cry with humiliation. ‘But I was like a dipsomaniac who cannot forsake his bottle. I began a new detective story …’

This time she decided to use a male pseudonym: Anthony Gilbert, and the book was comparatively well received, helped in some measure by the secrecy and speculation surrounding the author’s true identity.

During the next seven years she published no less than fourteen novels, many short stories, and a few poems. American contracts, second rights, and translation into six different languages followed. She felt sufficiently confident and socially conscious, to allow condemnation of the lack of support for the under-classes, to creep into the underpinnings of her writing: ‘What an opportunity they offered to a novelist!’  But she was not a fulfilled person. I was never more financially secure … but I was lonelier than I had ever been in my life.’ So much so, indeed, that when she found herself invited to join the Hiawatha Club for Women she couldn’t think of a single distinguished name to offer for a reference. ‘The women I know are all pure, home-loving people who don’t seek the limelight.’ 

When The Slump knocked the bottom out of the American market for English novels, Malleson’s agent recommended she concentrate on young romance as the most sure-fire bestseller. ‘That avenue being closed‘, she turned her mind to thriller-writing, naively believing there to be ‘no rules‘ and no need to pay attention to ‘psychology, probability, King’s English or logic‘. She allowed herself three weeks to complete the first one. But she soon realised she was sacrificing art on the altar of filthy lucre and abandoned this supposed shortcut to wealth. Instead she wrote and re-wrote and refined a new manuscript, a crime novel, and submitted it under the name of Anne Meredith. This one eventually appeared in 1933 where it attracted considerable interest and mixed reviews but reignited the interest of the Americans. And it brought her an invitation from Dorothy Sayers herself to join the elite Detection Club. Conditions for entry were exceedingly rigid; in no circumstances could a thriller-writer be admitted for instance! At the swearing-in ceremony, the candidates were reminded of the solemnity of their oaths: ‘… if you fail to keep your promises, may other writers anticipate your plots, may your Publishers do you down in your contracts, may Total Strangers sue you for Libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and your Sales continually Diminish’. Only a writer could, I suspect, feel the full power of such a curse!

Writing was an obsession with Lucy Malleson regardless of her public profile: ‘When I’m not writing, I am not more than half-alive. I am miserable, hopeful and dejected by turns. Then someone slowly emerges out of this mental fog …’ And this new character would quickly assume a full identity and drive her onwards again.

It was The Coward – about a man who accidentally commits a murder, the character with whom Malleson most identified – that precipitated her into the limelight amongst the literati. She had felt writing this story to be pure self-indulgence; no one would want to read it, but she couldn’t bear the thought of dying in an accident next day without finishing the one book she was most desirous of writing. To her utter astonishment it received rave reviews from the critics and fellow authors. But sadly, poor sales. It seemed she simply could not please the public.

It’s her very honesty that endears her to me. Her experience resonates.
‘… so many authors admittedly have these overwhelming qualms of self-distrust and a sense of their own futility’.
‘ … one reason why writing is such fun – it’s so chancy. And I wouldn’t exchange my one-chance-in-a-million for anybody else’s security.’
Rejection slips, poor sales figures, challenges to one’s sense of self-worth – these bedevil almost all of us; it’s how you react to them that matters. And Lucy Malleson shines through as humbly aware, doggedly determined, delightfully perceptive, entirely without pretension. The kind of person I should like to be placed next to at a dinner party.

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‘Calm down, dear!’

In a former life I used to be a midwife working in an extremely busy labour ward (I’m third from the right in this photograph). In spite of the fast turn-over, we spent long hours with the couples in our care, and often developed warm relationships. We were, after all, sharing one of the most special, intimate and precious experiences in their lives.  And for me certainly, it was always a privilege and a thrill as well as a relief to see the infants safely in their mothers’ arms. Indeed, I always said that, if it ever ceased to be a miracle, I would quit the job. It never did; I left for other reasons – good ones.

However, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. One day a mother registered a complaint against me with my boss. Why? Because apparently, I had exhorted her to ‘push into your tail end.’ It demeaned her apparently, reducing her to the status of an animal! Now this was fifty years ago, at a time when we’d never even heard the term ‘political correctness’, never mind become obsessed with the notion, but even so, I confess I felt mildly irritated. When you’re spending a good chunk of a day/night with a woman, encouraging, supporting, reassuring; working through official breaks and long past your shift-hours to deliver continuity of care, you don’t tend to doctor every word that comes out of your mouth. You’ve got more important priorities, I’d suggest. Especially if the woman hasn’t a clue what she’s supposed to be doing and has no knowledge whatsoever of the anatomical names for the parts of the body she’s employing for the mysterious but monumental effort of giving birth. But hey ho! I could only apologise and try to learn from the experience. Fortunately the Superintendent of the Labour ward was a no-nonsense, straight-speaking, hugely experienced woman who fully shared my values, and she generously let me know (without words) that I had her sympathy and confidence.

When I watch Call the Midwife on BBC1, I’m often reminded of those days, since the programme’s set shortly before the time I’m talking about. The Nonnatus midwives even use terms of endearment when encouraging the mothers in their care – ‘sweetie’, ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘darlin’!! Ppphhhwww!!! It’s some years now since real-life carers were told to eschew such expressions, lest patients/residents/clients, felt patronised, although I’m quite sure they were used in all innocence as terms of affection and engagement, not slights.

Nevertheless, all these decades later, I’m feeling a sense of disbelief. The Royal College of Nursing has just issued a document for its practitioners in which it advises against addressing women as ‘ladies’ to avoid causing unwitting offence … hello?! Other terms now off-limits include ‘pensioners’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘mankind’, ‘manning a ward’, ‘gays’ … Oh, and don’t forget to be scrupulous about selecting the preferred pronouns for people who don’t subscribe to the usual binary classifications, and … You get the idea. Nor is the RCN alone in this; it’s about three years now since the British Medical Association deemed the term ‘expectant mother’ to be taboo, lest it offend transgender people …!!!

Really? Seriously? Has the world gone completely mad?

In the security of my own blog, I think I might be allowed to voice a personal opinion and declare that I honestly think the powers that dictate these things would be well advised to concentrate on gaining more time for clinicians to do their jobs, without the colossal pressures currently hedging them about with stress and restrictions. Time for them to save lives, to ensure safety and the best care, in the first instance. Giving them breathing space – time to attend to those niceties and refinements without burning out themselves. Easing the chronic under-staffing and over-working they labour under, instead of putting even more pressure on them to examine every word before uttering it. Pphshaw!

It appears I got off lightly all those years ago!!

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Keeping the memories alive

As I’m sure you’re aware, it was Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday this week; 75 years since the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camps. And as ever I was profoundly moved by the first-hand accounts from survivors, their insistence that the horror must never be forgotten. It seems appropriate then to dwell on some aspect of it in my reading, so I chose a book that delves into the ongoing struggle for survivors of juggling memory with moving on.

There’s a Hebrew saying: Hold a book in your hand and you’re a pilgrim at the gates of a new city. That seems more than usually apposite for the novel I want to share with you today: Fugitive Pieces  (the book that gave me the quote).

Fugitive Pieces comes wreathed in superlatives: ‘lightness in gravity’… ‘exemplary and inspiring humanity’ … ‘exceptional literary craft’ … ‘exquisite care’ … ‘heart-shaking intensity’ … ‘extraordinarily taut and elegant’ ... promising much. Clearly a literary work, then. Yep. It won international acclaim and … big breath …  the Orange Prize for Fiction, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction, the Trillium Book Award, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Heritage Toronto Award of Merit, the Martin and Beatrice Fischer Award, the Harold Ribalow Award, the Giuseppe Acerbi Literary Award and the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Phew.

The  star-studded author is, however, new to me. Anne Michaels lives in Toronto where she composes music for theatre and writes poignant poetry. Her father’s family emigrated to Canada from Poland in the 1930s. After huge success with her poetry, Fugitive Pieces was her first novel, allowing her to move into a more expansive medium in her ongoing exploration of the relationship between history and memory, and how we, as a people, remember. She spent almost a decade honing it.

The principal protagonist in the book is also a poet, Jakob Beer, born in Poland in 1933. His first-person voice tells two thirds of the story. Everybody Jakob knew as a child has disappeared. They were Jews. Aged seven, he is forced to listen to the cries of his parents being murdered while he hides in a closet. When he emerges, his sister Bella has vanished, never to be found again, almost certainly brutalised.

Jakob escapes and hides before being discovered by a Greek archaeologist and paleobotanist, Athanasios Roussos, aka Athos. ‘Scientist, scholar, middling master of languages’ as Jakob describes him. Athos takes the lad home and hides him for four years, and Jakob clings to his saviour as the one person he can trust; their mutual devotion and affection are deep and real. But Jakob remains ‘perpetually afraid, as one who has only one person to trust must be afraid.’

After the war Athos is offered a job in Canada and takes Jakob with him. But, try as they might to start a new life with a new language and new customs and new responsibilities, both Jakob and Athos remain haunted by the past.  Athos spends long hours into the night recording the experiences; Jakob’s dreams are coloured by the associated terrors, both known and unknown. After Athos’ death, Jakob marries a young woman called Alex, but that relationship flounders as her sheer vitality and energy threaten to obliterate the precious memories Jakob is agonisingly seeking to resurrect and analyse.
The memory of his sister – a benign and constant presence, only a gossamer wall away, separated from him only by a fragile vibrating membrane …
The memory of the barbarity of the Nazis who decimated his family …
The memory of the Italians surrendering to the SS on the island of Zakynthos, the horrors that followed …
To lose those memories is to risk losing his very self. ‘… each time a memory or a story slinks away, it takes more of me with it.’

He hears the cries from the past, at first dimly, but if he lets them, they grow louder, more insistent, filling his head. He feels compelled to move closer to them, deeper inside himself, not to turn away. And to fathom the why of what was done to his people. He concludes:  ‘Nazi policy was beyond racism, it was anti-matter, for Jews were not considered human.’  Animals, rags, refuse – these were fit only for the rubbish heap. Ethical principles were not, then, being violated in their minds. But Jakob struggles to include his beloved sister in that pile of inanimate rags. Or the infants born even while their mothers were dying in the extermination chambers. ‘Forgive me, you who were born and died without being given names. Forgive this blasphemy of choosing philosophy over the brutalism of fact.’

Athos had been a perfect companion. He helped replace essential parts of Jakob slowly as if he were preserving something precious and enduring. By contrast Alex is wanting to set fire to everything in his past and begin again on a healthier, more positive path. The bigger the pressure, the more Jakob shrinks away from her. She increasingly lives a life of her own until she can’t take any more, and walks away from his unfathomable lost-ness.

Once Jakob has plumbed the depths of what happened to his people, his family, and provided his own answers, he arrives at a milestone. He realises that his ghosts are not trying to keep him in their past, but to push him into the real world.

He eventually finds love with a poet Michaela – a ‘voluptuous scholar’ with a ‘mind like a palace‘. She’s twenty-five years younger than him. ‘Looking at her I feel such pure regret, such clean sadness, it’s almost like joy.’  Understanding his past, attuned to his needs, accepting him just as he is, she helps him find true peace. And rest. And – half a century after his sister’s death – understanding. His sense of desolation finally eases away.

The language is unashamedly poetic and conveys the music within Jakob’s soul, so eloquent in his writing. So, to me, it feels somehow to stretch credulity somewhat when, in Part II, the same … dare I say it … ‘overwrought’ style is used for a new voice, that of Ben, one of Jakob’s students, who goes to Idhra on the Greek island of Hydra in search of the poet’s notebooks. He lives in Jakob’s house, searches for Jakob’s life in his notebooks, follows in Jakob’s footsteps over the island.

The Beer’s house is just as it was left, as if the owners will walk in and resume their lives at any moment. But tragically, they won’t. After only a few months of happiness together, Jakob and Michaela have both been killed in a car accident during a trip to Athens. Jakob, by this time sixty years old, has nevertheless been dreaming of a child of his own with his beloved: a new Bella or Bela to remember them through the years to come. Paradoxically the night of their death was the very moment when he was to discover the note revealing the magical news that Michaela was indeed pregnant.

Shutterstock image

Ben carries his own scars. His parents had been liberated from the ghettos four years before he was born, but they had steadfastly refused to talk about the horrors, which hung instead like dark shadows, silently, malevolently, pervading everything. ‘There was no energy of a narrative in my family, not even the fervour of an elegy … My parents and I waded through damp silence, of not hearing and not speaking.’ Their past comes through in their strange behaviours, colouring his experience of ordinary everyday life, only dimly comprehended. His childhood dreams are haunted by doors being axed open, by the jagged yawning mouths of dogs. His parents delight in small things, setting him bizarre standards for appreciating music, food, nature, clothes. For them, ‘pleasure was always serious’ – the aroma of a jar of coffee, the fragrance of freshly laundered linens, a new pair of stockings. They are adamantly opposed to taking even legitimate handouts from any authorities. They spend their every day fearing: ‘When my father and I left the apartment in the morning, my mother never felt sure we’d return at all.’  ‘Who dares to believe he will be saved twice?’ his mother whispers.

It’s through Jakob’s poetry that Ben finally understands, because it encouraged him to ‘enter the darkness and find his own way back’.

A meld of poetry and prose, Fugitive Pieces is a tale of memories, and finding peace and understanding even in the face of the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Just one dimension in this unfathomable tragedy.

Hatred consumes you; forgiveness sets you free.

 

 

In memory of the victims of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides.

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Harming children: Truth v fiction

Well, I must confess I had a real sense of deja vu this week.

Six months ago, my eleventh novel, Killing me Gently, was published. It centres on a young mum who struggles to care for her little girl and comes under suspicion of deliberately harming her. Health workers, social workers, the Child Protection team, the police, all get involved. And in spite of all the vigilance, all the protestations of innocence, the baby is still being harmed. Should the professionals take her away from her parents for her own safety? Or should they give her the benefit of the doubt? Either way there are huge risks.

Now here we are, in real time, in real life, listening to a mother from the west of Scotland who was falsely accused of harming her disabled daughter. She alleges she became suicidal and doesn’t want something as horrific as this to happen to another family, so she’s pursuing her grievances through the courts to highlight the issues.

I have no inside knowledge of this case, but the facts as I understand them from the media and an interview with the mum are:
PARENTS: Kirsteen and Craig Cooper.
CHILDREN: Three daughters.
YOUNGEST: Baillie, has cerebral palsy, uses a wheelchair and is tube-fed.
HISTORY: Baillie was admitted to the Children’s Hospital in Glasgow in December 2016.
The child suffered repeated infections which raised concerns for her parents, and they registered a complaint related to poor hygiene in the hospital.
A member of staff suspected Kirsteen was deliberately inducing illness in her daughter.
PROFESSIONAL SUSPICIONS: The mother was causing infections; cutting feeding tube; stealing blood to induce anaemia. Suspected diagnosis? Fictitious or Induced Illness.
CHARGES: A charge of attempted murder was brought in July 2017. Kirsteen was put in a cell overnight.
CONSEQUENCES: Baillie had to go and live with her aunt and grandmother; Kirsteen was allowed only very limited access to the child, and that only under supervision.
OUTCOME: Charges were suddenly dropped after a few months.
CURRENTLY: Kirsteen is preparing a legal case against NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde.
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: The Queen Elizabeth University Hospital of which the Children’s Hospital is a part, is currently the focus of a public inquiry over safety fears and patient deaths from infection. It’s under special measures.

It felt decidedly spooky listening to and reading details of a situation with significant echoes of the plot which preoccupied me for a couple of years. I have huge sympathy fpr any parent whose baby is taken away from them, but … yep, there’s sure to be a but! … I’m forcibly reminded that most of this account comes from one source, viz. the mum. The whole scenario can look very different according to where you stand, but professional and legal etiquette denies the healthcare professionals a voice. My heart goes out to all those in authority who are required to safeguard the interests of the children in their care. Damned if they act, damned if they don’t. I made myself walk in the shoes of the nurses, the doctors, the protection people, as well as the parents and grandparents when I wrote Killing me Gently. It was not comfortable walking in any of their footsteps.

From a purely selfish angle, I’m profoundly glad my book came out before this case hit the headlines! At least I can’t be accused of stealing their story.

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The Lady Elizabeth

Well, in a week of widespread turmoil following the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex about their decision to withdraw from the traditional roles associated with their status as senior members of the royal family, it seems fitting to talk about previous blue-blooded incumbents – Prince Harry’s ‘glorious’ ancestors no less. And I’m not talking about the Duke of Windsor /King Edward VIII, who also married an America divorcée. No, rather let’s go back to the 16th century …

The year is 1536.

From a young age, Elizabeth Tudor, flame-haired fiery daughter of King Henry VIII, the most powerful king England has ever known, is very aware that she is different. She is an exceptionally gifted child with prodigious and precocious talents, a show-off and a rebel. Even aged three she is attuned to tiny nuances which betoken a shift in power. Why, for instance, does Sir John Shelton suddenly stop calling her ‘Lady Princess’ for example, and adopt the title ‘Lady Elizabeth’? What possible reason could ‘The King’s Highness’ have for decreeing such a thing?

Those around her see a small innocent child; they cannot bring themselves to explain the vagaries of the court or the bedchamber to her.  But the sudden beheading on the order of the king, of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, aka ‘The Whore’, and the introduction of a new stepmother/Queen, Jane Seymour, cannot be kept from this curious and impressionable mind. She seeks answers. She listens in to private conversations whilst pretending to be absorbed in juvenile pursuits.  She makes it her business to winkle out information. Risking much, her governess describes the young vibrant late Queen to her:
‘… your mother was a charming lady. She was not beautiful, but men found her very attractive. Your father the King pursued her for seven years, which must give you some idea of how fascinating she was. Accomplished too. Everything she did, she dd gracefully – she could dance, sing, embroider, write poetry, play the lute and virginals, and as for intelligence and wit – well, she shone. She was slim and poised, and always elegantly dressed, for she had a way with clothes, and could make much from a little. You are very like her in many ways.’

This information is at once comforting and dangerous to Elizabeth. To speak positively of her mother is to criticise her father the king, who had the woman who had been his great passion put to death for adultery and treason. Elizabeth soon feels the burden of knowledge. Even she can be banished from the court and her father’s presence, if she speaks unwisely. When she is, she feels the disgrace keenly.

In The Lady Elizabeth, the second work of fiction by Alison Weir, we see the world of the Tudor court through the eyes of this, one of the most famous characters of all time, Elizabeth I, (1533 – 1603) who reigned for 44 years as the last of five monarchs in the Tudor period. Yawn, yawn, you might be thinking; it’s surely been done to death. But no. Weir starts with Elizabeth as a tiny tot and takes us up to the moment she is declared sovereign, imagining vividly how such a pampered and revered child would perceive the world around her, how react to inexplicable tragedies, how reconcile her dream of power and wealth with the changing edicts of her father, how respond to her own fluctuations on the ladder of inheritance and divine right. We watch her preparing for her coming destiny, responding to a series of stepmothers, to the adulation of men, to banishment, to threatening death.

As we saw last week, this is an era when the monarch commands frightening power, the power of life and death. Elizabeth sees it at work in her own beloved father, whom she both adores and fears. After his death, without his majestic presence and absolute control, her world becomes a confusing and threatening place. Under her sickly young brother Edward VI, she is suddenly barred from court, forced to ‘rot’  in obscure properties away from the public eye. Bewildered and enraged, she is consumed by pain, loneliness, resentment and suspicion, all too aware of fickle loyalties, suspect motives, intrigue, back-biting, rumours, an ever-present sense of impending peril.

But this highly educated and clever young woman has inherited something of her father’s formidable will and presence herself, and in spite of her youth, she develops strategies for survival and getting her own way.

Her older sister Mary who assumes the throne next, is also King Henry’s daughter, however – determined, implacable, imperious. What’s more, she is devoutly religious, bent on bringing the country back to Catholicism. ‘Heretics’ who refuse to recant are burned at the stake or beheaded. Aghast at the brutal persecution her sister supports, Elizabeth outwardly succumbs to Mary’s demand that she attend Mass, whilst inwardly vowing to be a more compassionate Queen if and when her turn comes.

Mary is only too conscious that Elizabeth’s conformity is not genuine; the only problem is she can’t prove it; her young half-sister is devilishly clever. And although we know the eventual outcome, Alison Weir’s descriptions of their battles, of Elizabeth’s fall from grace, imprisonments and house arrest, the accusations and threats, keep us in suspense. The more I learned of the historical detail – around her mother’s execution, her own bastardy, her precarious childhood, the scandal of her relationship with the Queen’s husband, her religious rebellion, her imprisonment in the Tower and subsequent house arrest, Queen Mary’s mistrust, the schemes to marry her off against her will and to banish her from the country –  the more I could only marvel that she survived. But in reality, Mary’s brutal regime predisposes the people to support Elizabeth and strengthens Elizabeth’s own certainty that the only way to keep the throne safe is through the hearts of the subjects.  ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’ as she herself puts it.

The author admits that she has speculated in places, but on the basis of evidence and factual records, her surmisings are perfectly plausible. When she was fourteen Elizabeth did have a highly suspect and indiscreet relationship with Admiral Sir Thomas Seymour, the Queen’s husband. Whether or not it resulted in a pregnancy can’t be proven, but there is sufficient known to support such an hypothesis. She most certainly recognised that it was a small step between the warm tumbled bed and the cold axe and grave.

Much as I found this book compelling and engrossing, I was again disconcerted by points of view abruptly changing within sections. There’s a case to be made for an omniscient narrator, but Weir purports to be seeing the world through the eyes of her characters, and it’s discombobulating to have the perspective blurred by sudden unheralded leaps into another mind. Perhaps this is a throwback to her more academic writing where history allows such tactics. Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for such a brilliant insight into life in Tudor times.

A salutary reminder that the shenanigans of the present incumbents of the royal dynasty pale into insignificance against the lives, loves and deaths of their forebears.

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Living breathing history!

14th November 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.

What a fab opening paragraph; dramatic, intriguing, suspenseful. And credible. Here is a 16-year-old girl surrounded by ambition, scheming, greed and treachery: ‘I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.’ And we know it to be true. That’s the thing with historical fiction about famous figures. We know the basic plot, we even know a lot about the characters, but Alison Weir brings them totally alive. And because she’s an authority on the historical detail, she weaves in so much real life, that we can easily believe the fiction too. We’re in extremely safe hands. Some parts of this book may indeed seem far-fetched, the author concedes, but they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.

A word then, about this remarkable author. Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the UK since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books. Her biography makes fascinating reading in itself.

Having published ten factual history books, she moved into fiction, ‘which is something serious historians attempt only at their peril‘, as she says herself. But it gave her ‘a heady sense of freedom’, allowing her imagination free reign, trying to penetrate the minds of her characters. In telling the shocking stories of life in one of the bloodiest and dangerous times in history, her aim is to enthrall and appall in equal measure. And indeed she achieves that aim.

Her writing is masterly. We can smell those fetid, hot, dark, fearful birthing rooms; sense the backbiting and treachery behind the obeisance; fear each fickle regal mood change and caprice; despair at the restrictions and inequalities of court and diplomatic etiquette, class and gender; tremble with the naive maidens, pawns in their destiny as obedient and virtuous brood mares; cringe at the barbarity of religious fanaticism. Weir weaves together a massive cast of characters, intricate contextual detail, politics, religion, romance, with consummate skill.

Innocent Traitor is the first of two books set in Tudor times, telling the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her death through, not just her eyes, but those around her.

Lady Jane Grey is the granddaughter of Henry VII, great-niece of Henry VIII; cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Precious Tudor blood runs in her veins. From the moment of her birth, she is in direct line to the throne, and destined for great things. As a growing child she is bright and articulate, extremely well educated and articulate and a devout Protestant. Unwanted daughter of a ruthless mother and a scheming father, she nevertheless becomes a pawn in their dynastic power games. They set her up to be Queen of England, a reign which lasts a mere 9 days from 10th to 19 July 1553.

These are the times when a sovereign could command a whole country to espouse his/her preferred religion. With a change of monarch or a regal whim the people are required to swing from Catholicism to Protestantism … and back again. Protesters are put to death as heretics. Following Lady Jane’s brief reign, Queen Mary demands a return to the Catholic faith. Initially she is keen to show leniency and give people time to change, but  unscrupulous schemers (including Jane’s father) take advantage of her gentleness and plot to overthrown her. She is forced to accept the dangers of giving them a foothold – heresy, revolt, treason – and concludes: ‘I have thought long on this, and prayed for guidance and I have decided to revive the old statute against heresy, and root it out, for it is like a canker that gnaws away at the very vitals of the Church. Those who do not recant will be burned at the stake. If my people will not come to salvation by gentler means, then they must be constrained to it, for the safety of their souls.‘ As the French Ambassador puts it: ‘…a foretaste of hell-fire on Earth wonderfully concentrates the mind, and can bring about the conversion of the most stubborn heart.‘ Gibbets are placed at every street corner to help the people ‘learn that it is no light thing to rebel against their lawful sovereign.‘ And Weir doesn’t spare us the horror of what burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering, mean. The people of the time thronged to watch the spectacle; she drags us into the crowd, forces us to watch with them. But looking on through the eyes of a 16-year-old innocent girl counting down the days to her own beheading, walking to that feared block, kneeling, praying for the last time … it’s powerful, harrowing stuff and definitely not for the faint-hearted.  As a reviewer from The Times says: ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.’

Faced with the burden of consigning that innocent girl to death, Queen Mary says: ‘I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.’  I suspect there are royals closer to our time who might embrace the same sentiments at times!

 

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The Apprenticeship

Saturday 28 December 2019: our twentieth (!!) Christmas story/play with the grandchildren. The culmination of a year knitting over forty hats while I devoured all those psychological thrillers you’ve heard me talking about!

It’s now twenty years since the first child was born and I was asked to create a new tradition for a new generation. Back in 1999 I wrote a simple story for a ten-month-old that involved her floating away on a balloon to a distant land and rescuing a little African girl from poverty. Actual printed-out photos of our baby granddaughter enacting the story back then were glued into position on the page to illustrate it. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I’d still be doing this two decades later! But of course, in that time, technology has changed out of all recognition. The hard-copy books of the story are digitally produced, liberally illustrated; the narrative and the moral within it infinitely more sophisticated.

This year the drama took place largely outside – a first, and a big gamble given our uncertain weather! Thankfully it was dry and relatively mild, although slushy mud in one place claimed one victim (me), and a keen wind towards the end made lighting sparklers tricky. The in-between generation took responsibility for being one step ahead of the actors, setting up each scene in different places throughout our local nature reserve and town. I simply had to trot along, narrating the story, with the youngsters following a lantern, working out clues at each stop.

The story basically revolves around four young people who notice an advert in a shop window for an apprentice to an inspirational and magical milliner. All four decide to apply. Selection is through an initiation ceremony where they have to identify desirable attributes for such an employee, using magical thinking caps and various tools and artefacts – a different colour of the rainbow at each stop.

Puzzling …

 

Concentrating …

Recording …

Collaborating …

We began at 1pm and it was dark by the time we stood around a fire in the garden, finally  learning who had been successful in gaining the apprenticeship.

The day ended with a rainbow meal, some of it assembled by the teenagers themselves, using colourful ingredients.

Now here we are, post the event I’ve been preparing for all year, racing to get the books created before 12 January – our annual target date for publication, which this year coincides with our second granddaughter officially becoming an adult!

It only remains for me to wish you all every blessing in 2020. To those who are sad or struggling: may you find peace and solace. To those whose lives are rich and full: may you find contentment and gratitude. To those who fear the future: may you find hope and confidence. And may God bless you, everyone.

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Season’s Greetings!

Boxing Day! Christmas can be a troubled time for some, a joyful one for others. Whatever your circumstances, I wish you peace and blessings.

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The Story of Lucy Gault

After all the thrills and scares of the psychological thrillers I’ve shared throughout this year, it seems like a good idea this week to give you a real change; something gentler. and more contemplative. Something calm to counter the mad hurly-burly of the festive season. A book moreover that was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

The Story of Lucy Gault was first published in 2002 – the year its author received a knighthood in recognition of his services to literature, no less!  OK, sounds a pretty exalted pedigree to me. I’m listening.

As you know, I do periodically try to read acknowledged literary works, and this one looked promising when I found it squirrelled away in a little independent bookshop in Wigtown – Scotland’s National Book Town.
Slim volume – tick.
Described as ‘gravely beautiful, subtle and haunting‘ – tick.
By William Trevor a multi-award winning novelist – tick.
Set in a specific historical period: provincial Ireland at the times of civil unrest and anti-English violence – tick.

I’ll do my best to give you a flavour without including spoilers, if I can.

It’s 1921, the slow gentle pace of fires lit in the waiting rooms of railway stations, servants knowing their order in the echelons of society, solid rubber car tyres, communication snail-paced, barefoot children and be-shawled women begging in the streets, the smell of poverty oozing from infested buildings, the backdrop to the central drama a country in a state of turmoil and unrest, a people torn apart by violence and rivalry.

‘It is our tragedy in Ireland that for one reason or another we are repeatedly obliged to flee from what we hold dear. Our defeated patriots have gone, our great earls, our Famine emigrants, and now the poor search for work. Exile is part of us.’

Setting fire to properties, poisoning pets, destruction and invasion – all are commonplace, and Lahardane, the Gault’s family home, is not immune. Heloise, its mistress, fears her English ancestry makes them a particular target, but her ex-army husband, Captain Everard, doubts it; the status of the house, the possession of lands, his own military connections, would be more than enough to attract trouble already. One by one, neighbouring families have moved away, and when local youths try to incinerate their house, Everard shoots his gun from an upstairs window to scare them off. He doesn’t intend to wound but nicks the shoulder of one of the youths. The Gaults are now at even greater danger; they have no choice, they must leave Ireland.

Their only child, Lucy Gault, is eight years old. She’s a somewhat solitary child, staying close to the glens and woods above Lahardane, only occasionally rebelling enough to sneak out for a forbidden swim alone in the sea. Eavesdropping on adult conversations, she picks up something of the adults’ tension. She, however, is determined she will not go into exile from her beloved home; rather she will take steps to force her parents into staying.

When the time comes to leave, she is nowhere to be found … then her sodden summer vest is found in the shingle, one sandal in a shrimp pool … her mother is haunted by the local fishermen’s conviction that nobody has ever escaped the sharks in that part of the ocean … In the end the bereft parents give up hope, and set out for Europe, nomads, leaving no forwarding addresses, no record of their destinations – a tiny sad part of the Irish diaspora.

Only those remaining in Lahardane, arrested in time and memory, wait and keep hope against the day the Captain and his wife might return. And in the waiting, keeping faith. Rooms dusted, ornaments left in their accustomed places, summer vases full, beehives nurtured, footsteps on the stairs and cobbled yard – all these are offered as tokens of that hope.

But what of the rebellious Lucy, the lad whose shoulder took that bullet, the faithful retainers, the solicitor doing his best to keep Lahardane functioning? Their stories unravel alongside the abiding sorrow of Captain Gault and his wife. Guilt, remorse, torment, superstition, faith ebb and flow, denying them peace. The advent of war in Europe changes hopes and aspirations, alters perspectives; influenza sweeps through whole populations. And gradually out of a life shaped by calamity comes a mystery: tranquillity, a faithful offering, a gift of mercy, that astonishes all who see it.

The gentle pace, the antiquated style, of this quiet unfolding story perfectly reflects the emergence of that humbling peace and redemption. I closed the book with a sense of reverence. Would that the world held more such quiet heroism and boundless mercy.

‘Written with grace and finesse and charged throughout with a pervasive disquiet’
‘Unusual, beguiling, beautiful’
‘Stark yet tender’
‘Silence, secrets, muteness, tell the loudest stories here’
‘A homage to the gift of redemptive love’ …
All true.

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