Thursday, January 29, 2009

January 29th - 'The Day It Rained Forever'


I just picked up a story before bedtime. It has as fine an opening as any. 'The hotel stood like a hollowed dry bone under the very centre of the desert sky where the sun burned the roof all day.'
Forced to guess the author, I'd have said Paul Bowles. In fact it's Ray Bradbury. I saw him some years ago hobble on to the stage in Los Angeles with a stick that might as well have been a wand, for he waved it and everyone in the audience loved him. I've never known an author stir a crowd so completely. He's a true magician.
The story is 'The Day it Rained Forever.' The hotel's inhabitants are waiting for the day when the rain must come. It happens this day every year. January 29th.
A parcel arrived for me in the office today. I kept it wrapped so as to bring it home in the rain. 'Is it raining then?' I was asked. 'No, but it will, it will.'
Here in Plymouth that's no canny prediction. The rain tonight was drizzle, so quite relaxing. In the story, the sound of thunder is an approaching car, set to release its death rattle in the dust road in front of the hotel. It carries a lady harpist, travelling in search of an appreciative audience.
By story's end 'the fifty years of drought were over.' We were in to the time of the long rains.
Picking up this story on this day, I like to see it as a symbol of this new Obama era. Maybe the man's gentle rhetoric can end a cultural drought. Maybe this gasping planet can find some relief.
Whether that's so or not, it's fun to have discovered a gem of a story from 1959, that managed the magic of talking to me now.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Edinburgh Review - The Turkish Issue


I'm just back home from a cafe in West Hampstead, chatting about novel writing with Jonathan Rugman, and pick up a padded envelope. It holds the latest issue of The Edinburgh Review. They've been following country themes. The latest is Turkey, and it features a long short story of mine, 'Letters to the Parishioners'.
The timing is a sweet coincidence. Years ago I decided one night that I had to find someone driving to Turkey so I could accompany them, as research for a novel I had in mind. A priest headed out in the footsteps of St Paul, sent back a sequence of letters (hence this story), and then vanished. Somewhat in the way of the Canterbury Tales, the parishioners decided to head off in search of him. I needed to know what that journey was like.
The next day, driving around the Scottish hillsides with a new pal, she said to me, 'A friend's just asked if I'm free to drive with him to Turkey. He's just been posted there as The Guardian's correspondent. Sadly I don't think I can make it.'
That friend with the jeep bound for Turkey was Jonathan. The deal was struck, off we went, catching some of my priest's journey along the way.
On arrival in Istanbul I sped eastward that time, into a war zone, collecting the chapter on Ararat for my book on sacred mountains. A separate trip saw me travel further in the footsteps of St Paul. I don't know if that full novel will ever manifest itself, but I'm proud of this story. It's a strong, long piece, the priest's letters sent back from Tarsus, Antioch and Antalya. It plays with themes of spirituality, women and the Anglican church, gays and Christianity; a bold piece I'm fond of. I'm delighted The Edinburgh Review had the strength and taste to take it!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Pyrenean Winter


Vines in a field above the village of Sournia.

Cattle, and a fine reflection of colour in the trees near Rabouillet.

Olive trees near the Aqueduct in Ansignan.
Three images of winter in the French Pyrenees. The weight of snow on trees snapped many branches and brought down power and phone lines. All very atmospheric .. and cold.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Jill Dawson's THE GREAT LOVER, and her Rupert Brooke

I kept to my daily pattern on this first day back in Plymouth, turning right for the promenade on Plymouth Hoe rather than left for the university, so that I can reset myself by gazing at the sea. 'Twas a foolish romance this morning, wind spitting sharp rain into my face. So close to the sea, I keep stepping out into squalls.
I'm fresh back from the French Pyrenees, and its romantic sense of a winter getaway, our mountain village deep in snow with its power cut off as we arrived in the dark.
So it's sweet to cast my mind back to June 2007 when I was blogging about a visit to Grantchester (June 7th), outdoors yet warm in sunshine, taking tea in the Orchard Gardens with the writer Jill Dawson. This tea-room near Cambridge was once home to Rupert Brooke, before he moved to the Vicarage next door.
As Jill and I chatted, the idea for her new novel settled into her head ... and rooted. It's out shortly (our discussion pleasingly acknowledged), and I read an advanced copy while bundled up against the chill of our French home. Called The Great Lover, after a poem by Brooke, the novel's a curious delight. The delight is in the writing, the characters, their tale, the fresh evocation of a landscape and time one hundred years ago. The 'curious' is in its fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Brooke shares top billing with a fictional maid, Nell Golightly. By the end of the book, following the factual course of his biography, he ships out to Pacific Islands to find a way of falling in love without a rush of complications. His heart, and better sense, keep yearning for this fictional Nell, a woman of earthy beauty and practical good sense.
A trip across domestic class structures is of course a bigger journey than a voyage around the world, so Rupert and Nell were never likely to become a real-life couple. Brooke is young and self-centred, much loved but not wholly lovable, but grows into the fullness of a real being by the novel's close. Nell grows too, but from the beginning I missed her whenever she departed the scene for a while. I fancied, somewhat foolishly no doubt, that Nell was Jill Dawson whisking herself back in time for a dalliance with the poet before letting him go. It's hard to make a character that real without investing her with a great deal of oneself.
I closed the novel with a real sense of Rupert Brooke, a caring for his life and time, that I suspect is at least as true and vivid as any I might have grasped from a biography. The book concludes with some details of where snatches of dialogue etc have been borrowed. Early on I thought Jill was playing a splendidly clever game, differentiating between Brooke the letter writer and the same man in memoir mode, the letters so much more self-conscious and stilted. In fact in turns out these letters were Brooke's own. In giving us Brooke in her own voicing, Jill's managed to improve him, setting him so beautifully in his period but delivering him to ours.