Using Chelsea Flower Show as book background
Also in today's blog
Children's Laureate has 15,000 books in her private library
It's 21 years since my only visit to the Chelsea Flower Show which last week I watched on TV.
The reason I went to Chelsea in 1986 was to set a scene in a novel at the show.
Although, today, many writers seem to be satisfied with second-hand information for their backgrounds, I have always felt that it's essential to visit places and experience events at first hand.
One of the principal characters in my first mainstream novel All My Worldly Goods [Century 1987, Arrow 1988] is a 50-year-old widow, Penelope Carlyon, who in that book spent her days trying to keep in order gardens which, like the house they surrounded, had once been run by a large staff.
So it was not as myself but in the fictional shoes of the Countess of Carlyon that I toured the 1986 Show and later wrote –
"When the marquee filled to the point at which Pen began to feel stirrings of claustrophobia, she slipped out by the nearest exist, which was close to the stand of Chatsworth Carpenters.
The shirt-sleeved, green-aproned figure of the Marquess of Hartington, only son of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, caught her eye. As she passed he was wrapping a black tray for a small white-haired woman with a plastic rain bonnet protecting her perm.
There was no sign of Deborah Devonshire whom Pen knew slightly, not well. Perhaps she would be there later. Chatsworth Carpenters had grown out of the Duchess's involvement in enlarging an inn on her husband's Yorkshire estate. Much of the furniture needed for the additional bedrooms had been made in the building yard at Chatsworth. From that initial project had grown the garden furniture business, all the seats, tubs and trellis pillars being solidly made and based on classical designs.
As she walked on Pen wondered if a more enterprising woman than herself could have instigated something similar at Longwarden, in the days before the maintenance staff had dwindled to one desperately overworked handyman."
If I hadn't been to the show, I should not have seen the present Duke of Devonshire, then in his early forties, serving a customer.
It seemed reasonable to suppose that Pen Carlyon would have met his mother, well-known to all Nancy Mitford fans as one of the author's five younger sisters.
Life-long hobby and obsession
I haven't read any of her books, but I've always admired Jacqueline Wilson's style : the boyish silver hair, the rings. There was an interesting First Person Singular column by her in the Review supplement of Saturday's Daily Telegraph.
It begins -
"I've always loved books: that's why I collect them…As I grew older, I discovered second-hand bookshops. My Dad took me for long hikes in the hills around Guildford, and if I was good he let me browse in a second-hand bookshop before we went home.
It was a long, dusty shop, with rickety steps and odd little rooms. A round room in the middle was crammed to the ceiling with children's books. I saved up my pocket money for months so I could buy some E Nesbits or Noel Streatfeilds."
Wilson says her library is now up to 15,000 volumes.