Sunday, August 30, 2009

As summer ebbs


I thought I was set to leave Plymouth, but it seems Plymouth is leaving me. Fog has rolled in today to wipe the whole place from view while foghorns are lowing out in the Sound.
We took a wet-weather spin around the National Marine Aquarium this morning, especially pleasing today after finishing Jim Lynch's novel The Highest Tide. The prawns and shrimps were among those creatures that struck me most with wonder, having been woken to the variety and profundity of seashore life by this tale of a thirteen year old boy whose hero is Rachel Carson and who shakes his whole West Coast town with his findings on the shore, starting with a giant squid. It's wry, beautifully written, and taught me a lot without ever being didactic.
Our own attempts at wildlife watching have been pretty fruitless ... hours at sea around the Cornish peninsula showing us a few gannets only, twenty-three of us on another trip bobbing about on the Sound wielding our mackerel rods, the single catch coming from an eight-year old lad. Still, it's been good to have all this time on the water. Thursday I set aside for some serious writing but was persuaded to take a wee stroll along the front. Down in the Barbican the little red ferry that plies the route from here to Cawsand was tied to its pontoon ready to go. Well why not? The subsequent coastal stroll down to Mount Edgcumbe and a second ferry was one of the finest days of putting off writing that I've ever had.
The new novel is progressing. With switching home and job I realized I was unlikely to finish a draft so I've contented myself with moving it forward, establishing some momentum.
I shift from here towards the new job in Hull next week, via London and New York, where I'm taking a trip out to the Catskill Mountains to start the research process for my new biography. More of that in time. I'm not being coy; introducing the subject requires more energy than I feel like summoning right now.
I hope your own summer's been cheerful.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Agatha Christie at Greenway


When I first arrived in Plymouth I asked around about the area's literary heritage. People paused, and eventually came up with Daphne du Maurier (across the county line in Fowey) and Agatha Christie, who took her summer vacations in a home she bought near Dartmouth.
We spent a few days in Fowey last month, running a workshop for the British Council at the Eden Project. Daphne de Maurier's home is not open to the public, but occupies a splendid site down by the bay. Since that was ticked off, yesterday was the turn for the Agatha Christie pilgrimage.
Dartmouth, home to the Royal Naval College, makes for a handsome starting point, a range of individual houses and stores going back to medieval times steeped along the hillside that rises from the river. A ferry runs the 25 minute cruise along the River Dart to the pontoon below the house, Greenway, a National Trust property opened to the public after major renovation this Spring. Agatha Christie used to look up from the river and term this house 'the loveliest place on earth', and took the opportunity to buy it when it came up for sale in 1938.
The house has been left as a home, hats piled up on a table and photographs on a sideboard, rather than turned into a themed literary heritage walk. It's appealing how no area is roped off. I entered the dining room and felt curiously at home - since home in my teenage years had a similar style, underground passages running out from the wine cellar, the house a steady accretion on top of its medieval foundations (Oliver Cromwell was schooled there, and the writers Dorothy Hartley and Cecil Roberts had childhoods there before mine, their and my bedroom one of twenty-seven rooms in the house). As two homes sell (one in Santa Fe, the other in Plymouth) it was comforting to be spilled back into the memory of an earlier settled time that Greenway evoked.
The frieze around the top of the room in the picture was painted by American forces when they requisitioned the house in World War 2. It's intriguing that Agatha Christie was so open to narrative that she was happy to live with this intrusion into her home thereafter.
It seems just two of Agatha Christie's novels stemmed from her occupation of the place, without being written there, which suggests summers were a time for reading, walking, gardening, gazing above the magnolias from her bedroom window to look downriver and dream up a plot or two. It's tempting to follow her example and down tools for the summer - indeed this blog posting is a Sunday morning evasion of the novel that's open in another window. I'm in the middle of dreaming up another household, this a Bavarian townhouse of 1938. I've penned in a scullery and a billiard room so far, the main livingroom still somewhat hazy on the far side of the hallway.

(The photo of Dame Agatha and myself comes from the seafront at Torquay, where she was brought up)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Plymouth's fireworks


Plymouth's great for audiences. Folk head out for the evening determined to give themselves a great time. Give them a duff tragedy in the theatre and they'll still find something to laugh at and rally for a cheer at the end.
The last two nights have seen thousands gather in the natural arena of the Hoe as it surrounds Plymouth Sound, watching the British Fireworks Championships burst out from the pier across the water on the Mountbatten peninsula. Three displays each evening, the close of each was greeted with applause and whoops of cheering.
I wonder about the rules of scoring such things. They seem to play out at three heights, a sustained development building to a vast closing crescendo, some votes for colour and variety and sound maybe. My favourite was a high burst as of a yellow chrysanthemum that kept growing into wilder and wilder blossom; quite moving.
Fireworks can still render me childlike, as with the closing finale of the Abbey Park Show in Leicester when I was truly a kid. In 1984 I stood in a grandstand in Tienanmen Square in Beijing, half a million people below me and Deng Xiao Peng over to my right, as the sky filled to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the founding of the republic. The Chinese run with poetic names for their fireworks, like 'a thousand nightingales kiss the stars', the whole sky ablaze with wonder. I stood and stared up like the kid in ET, taking the occasional break to wipe embers from my eyes.
It's good to be small and human in a crowd in such a way, all caught in wonder for a moment.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Postcard from Home

Rain's just swept the distant Plymouth shoreline out of view. Oh well, it will encourage me to get down to the business of moving office and home (I've been appointed to the Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Hull from 1st September). The last four days, with a car hire, have been in merry holiday mode however. Yesterday we stood up on Dartmoor looking back at our apartment on Plymouth Hoe, and have been up n the moors for the last three days. Prior to that was a chase through the seas off Penzance, our rubber inflatable bouncing through the swell in search of basking sharks. No such sightings, but it was pleasant to view the skies, and the coastline from out at sea (looking upat John le Carre's house, a run of three white terraced cottages on the cliff edge near the tip of the peninsula).
The new novel kicked back in during my time in France. It gives a kind of balance, the hermit life, writing and walking in nature, but when I find I've lodged the loaf in the knife drawer and my slipper's in the washing machine, I suspect I need to step back into the world for a while. I've been living more in 1938 than 2009.