Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Art and Memories in St Ives


The last time I was in St Ives was 1967. Eric Sykes's silent comedy THE PLANK was on first-release in the local cinema. In the museum I dropped big copper pennies into the 'What the Butler Saw' machine and watched housemaids undress.
I'd saved up my pennies for weeks in an old cigar box, and had blown them all in the penny arcade within an hour of arriving. Somehow I got enough money together again to buy my older sister Michelle a gonk.
Our family was staying in the Carbis Bay Hotel. For sixpence Michelle and I could take the scenic branch line for one stop, or try and race it on the pedestrian footpath above.
I couldn't wait to get away from this most beautiful Carbis Bay in the end. The hotel ran children's events. My little sister Elizabeth was 3, I was 10. We were the last two left in musical chairs. The hotel manager held her hand as we ran round and around. The music stopped. I was nearest to the chair. I made my decision. I would sit in it but let her have the prize. It seemed the most honest thing to do. Some laughed, but everyone was shocked. The prize was automatically given to Elizabeth without reference to me. I felt utterly ashamed.
I guess I'm over it at last. It was good to be back. As with all towns, St Ives is now too clogged with traffic but one main shopping street is for pedestrians and the streets and alleyways cut across each other at cute angles.
The Tate Gallery is new to the town since I was there. The landlady at our B&B told me how the local artists are unhappy with their hanging policy. 'Because they aren't hung there?' I asked, and was right in one.
It's understandable. New galleries tend to ace it as buildings but their art collections disappoint (I'm thinking of the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Getty in LA, and to some lesser extent the new gallery in Stromness though there the building is so fine and the art is catching up). Much of the Tate is taken up with Adam Chodzko's new work, rooms full of his installations. the St Ives schools of painters are still there, but somewhat marginalized and I came away with no sense of what's ticking in Cornish art now.
Still, they have the most important element ... a new cafe resplendent on its top floor.

And the gallery must bring new art lovers to the town. We went in to the delightfully fresh Wills Lane Gallery, and came out with a small Maggi Hambling oil, one of her Waves series. I've been following Maggi Hambling's work for more than twenty years and never presumed that I might one day live with one. It's a joy to have her splash upon our wall.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Babs Horton - Recipes for Cherubs


Well there's a relief ... Babs Horton's editor and publicist from Simon and Schuster came down to Plymouth for a big launch party for her latest novel, Recipes for Cherubs. Babs and her family were taken up to London for the big summer bash Simon and Schuster holds for authors of their upcoming titles. They made and released a fine promotional video for the book (well worth watching).
SO what's wrong with that? Well, we share the same publisher (my own Suffer & Survive comes out from Pocket Books on August 4th) but I had no launch party, no video, got invited to no summer bash. I'm not quite a star.
SO what's the relief?
I stayed up late to finish Recipes for Cherubs last night. It's terrific. Babs Horton (Royal Literary Fellow down at the University of Plymouth) is wonderful too. This book deserves everything going for it.
In fact, far from being disgruntled, I think Simon and Schuster should be doing more for it. It's gone straight to mass market paperback and I understand sales are doing well, but in literary terms this should be attracting stellar reviews. Reading it I thought first of Dylan Thomas for the dialogue, the interweaving portraits of eccentric yet normal lives in a small Welsh seaside town of 1960. Then I reckoned the more regular comparison would be with Rose Tremain, maybe Deborah Moggach. Without Babs Horton's Plymouth connection, I fear this book might have passed me by.
The plot's grand and artfully played out, so you are left turning and pondering to the end. Lives of a dramatic crew from 18th century Italy run a parallel story, as characters will eventually cross seas and time for lives to be shown as linked (I like this notion of inheriting our ancestors).
In teaching writing, I like to show how to 'write with attitude' ... and this book offers many beautiful examples of that skill. So many strong-minded wilful characters, clear about what they are seeking yet open and growing along the way as we learn to see their environment through their eyes.
A great read all round ... heartily recommended.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Budgie 2


The last few weeks have seen a few sorry looking seagull fledglings around Plymouth Hoe, heads still fluffy, squatting on the floor as though on their nests.
This one fell from a nest and has taken up residence on the steps of the Conservative Club, just two doors up from us. We were dropping it scraps. Then a lady appeared out of the club with a bowl of water, and we knew the creature has a chance.
She had fostered an earlier seagull, she told us, one with a broken leg, buying it tuna and pilchards. When it grew fit enough to fly it kept returning, of course, eating the scraps from the Conservative plates, growing enormous. Eventually it was run over by a lorry.
That was Budgie. This is Budgie 2. Last night its parents seemed to be swooping around it as its call changed to a mew, but it's there on its own again tonight. Since it is the lady's day off, I've just fed it some chicken stuffing. It gives out a frightening squawk, flaps its wings (surely a good sign), and runs forward to peck away.
Nature of course will do its thing. On Saturday we were walking around Rames Head and saw some magnificent savagery in the skies, a peregrine falcon flying off with its magpie catch, other magpies chattering warnings from the hedgerows. Then a buzzard started flying against the peregrine till the magpie, now dead, was dropped to the field. We thought of the magpies who robbed the blackbird chicks from the nest in our pyrocanthus tree a couple of years ago. What goes around, comes around.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Chasing Haldane to Sennen Cove


Still in gentle pursuit of my biographical subject John Scott Haldane, as the paperback of his life comes due, we took a two day summer break near the rim of Sennen Cove. Haldane brought his family here for their summer holidays a century ago.
I like my chapter on the place, but a research visit would have made it even better. Walking the coastline gave me a true sense of the family's journey out to Longships Lighthouse (above) - while a painting in Penzance's Penlee House Gallery showed me what the lighthouse looked like in Haldane's day.
I hadn't realized the proximity of Sennen Cove to Land's End, and came to know the route Haldane took with his children to run inside Nanjizel Cave. It reminded me of the value of site visits to fuel a biography with all-important details. I like visiting a landscape and trace its features back a hundred years or so. For Haldane I chased his ghost round his homeland, his university, a coal mine where he achieved his initial breakthroughs, and up Pikes Peak in Colorado, but only now am getting round to his holidays.
I wrote of the Haldane family staying with a Mrs Pendar, who ran the Ship Inn. Pendar is still a local name, but I found no sign of the Inn and began to worry for my facts. However asking around, I learned the 17th century Old Success Inn did go by the name of the Ship in the early 20th century. that brought a small phew of satisfaction.
The weather was largely a sweep of winds and rain, so we dipped underground at Geevor Mine to imagine Haldane's work deep inside the tin mines of the region. After a tour of the workshops we were guided down a mine shaft of the 1700s by a former miner ... and again I learned something that would have entered the book. Haldane was an expert on gases and pioneered methods to help workers in the intense heat of the deepest tin mines. What he didn't know, because this gas stayed hidden till recent years, was that the heat stemmed from radon, a gas emitted by decomposing granite. The examiner filled me in on the latest information.
You have to let a book, and a biographical subject, go - but there's always more to learn.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Robert Harris - 'The Ghost'


Philippe Sands is back in front of the US Senate Hearing on Guantanamo today, after his last testimony there was interrupted. His weekend appearance at the Ways with Words festival returned to me last night as I stayed up late to finish Robert Harris's The Ghost.
Jon Snow, Sands's interviewer, felt no political leader would be brought to account for actions deemed to be war crimes. Sands felt differently, that a new administration in the US will bring a flow of information to light and that prominent arrests could happen through 2012 to 2015.
Robert Harris ups the stakes by having an ex-prime minister hounded by the International Criminal Court it what is recognizably now, his figures clearly modelled on Tony and Cherie Blair. It's a very bright, cutting and imaginative take. Behind it all is a cunning analysis of Blair's positioning Britain as an American client state. I'd like to give more away ... but it really is fun to discover the twists and the characters of this book through to its last page.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ways With Words - Dartington

Diana Athill guided my choice of day to visit the Dartington Ways With Words Festival yesterday. I was pretty sure that this game, intelligent nonagenarian woman would give great value, which she duly did. Some quotes:
Of her childhood, "It was taken for granted that out of doors you rode and indoors you read."
I've long been aware of the dangers of writing to please one's mother, and on this: "I'm glad my mother is dead, because I'm sure she would have found my books deplorable ... I was writing about things one ought to have kept quiet about."
Writing for her, she told us, was initially therapy. She dealt with problems in her life by facing them in this way. When age and wisdom removed such problems she presumed her writing was ended, but then in her book about her editorial years with Andre Deutsch, Stet, she discovered writing for fun.
Of her editing, she sees her job in the same way as I see mine while teaching ... you don't want someone to write the book as you would write it, but to write the best book that they are trying to write. The switch in later life to being edited herself did not cause major problems: "To tell the truth, I've hardly been edited because I turn in a pretty good manuscript." Ian Jack made three suggestions for one book, asking for more at these points, and after some demurring she complied. "What came out as a result was good."
Penelope Lively was her interviewer. Jon Snow took a more proactive turn for his spell in that role, sharing centre stage with the human rights lawyer Phillipe Sands. Three sessions seemed enough for the day so we rounded the visit off with Jonathan Fenby giving an erudite and loaded talk on China. The plan was to have lunch and a walk along the River Dart in the hours in between. But not so, for danger lurked.
The festival attracts a fairly elderly crowd, a lot of walking sticks, and it was fine to be among such advanced engaging minds. Every question from the floor was good. And elderly as they were, I'm the one that came away from the occasion as a physical crock. You'd imagine strolling across a lawn at a literary fete was a safe thing to do.I now know better. Tripping over a tent's outstretched guy rope I fell headfirst and heavy onto a cobbled path. Such was my tumble an ambulance was called. Vision turned to stars, joints to aches, it's all good experience for future fiction I suppose.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Hard-Hat Diving, Stromness

Holidaying in the Orkneys last summer, an article in the local press saw me stepping off Stromness pier weighed down with 100lbs or so of equipment, while a mother and son pumped air to me down a rubber tube. It is, I understand, the one openwater chance in the world (do correct me if I'm wrong) to experience hard hat diving.
What tempted me was the chance to walk in the footsteps of John Scott Haldane. My biography of him, Suffer & Survive, was just coming out. Haldane devised the dive tables which allowed divers to reach depths without experiencing the bends. He plunged overboard in hard hat diving equipment, in Scottish waters, despite being unable to swim. So how was that experience?
My own version was relatively tame by comparison, walking the harbour floor beneath a lifeboat, but adventurous enough - and I'm told I broke some records. I've just posted a full account on the articles page of my website ... please visit and have a read.
A celebration of Haldane's dive tables, and this consequent Centenary of Modern Diving, is taking place at the University of Plymouth, October 31st through November 2nd 2008. I'll be talking on Haldane's life on November 1st. A fascinating programme is lined up ... no web link available as yet, but book the date if you're interested.