Saturday, March 10, 2007

An irresistible book, even at £18

On 15 June last year, Adrian Weston wrote this comment – "Can I urge you to read Honey From A Weed by the late great Patience Gray? I think you would like it as a piece of prose and it would sit well with its companions on your shelf."

Maybe my public library's copy was out on loan at that time. Anyway I didn't borrow the book until last month.

Subtitled Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades and Apulia, illustrated with drawings by Corinna Sargood, and published by Prospect Books in 2002 [first published in 1986] at £17.99, it's the most delightful book I've read in ages. Although I am of the generation who regard £18 as serious money, I have ordered it from a St Peter Port bookshop.

I could buy it for less from Amazon but I want to see Guernsey's four independent bookshops survive. At Amazon UK there is the following review by Adrian Weston – "Patience Grey was a wonderful writer who devoted most of her life (it seems) to feeding 'the sculptor' rather than writing. Always in pursuit of the perfect stone for his work they ended up in various far-flung corners of the Midi and Patience crafted exquisite and simple food from weeds with no utensils. And then she crafted the food-writing equivalent of Manna from the experience. Honey from A Weed is a beautiful, beautiful piece of prose, a document of now-vanished mediterranean rusticity and tantalising to the taste buds. A book everyone should find a space for on their shelves - I love it unreservedly."

And another reviewer wrote - "Honey from a weed is no ordinary book. It's not a cookery book, a history book, or a travel book, but something of all three. Gray has lived around the Mediterranean for 40-odd years, and knows several of its cultures - particularly Greece, Catalonia and Italy - deeply. She writes mostly about peasant food, and how it is shaped by the economy and geography of the regions where it develops - religious fasting in the Greek islands, for instance, takes place at a time when historically food was scarce, for instance. She has also gathered extremely useful information on wild plants and herbs and their names in many different languages and dialects. She is a hugely knowledgeable, scholarly but entertaining writer."

There is also praise from Theodora Fitzgibbon - "It is not like any other book written in the past 50 years and its memory will stay forever" and Jane Grigson [Times Literary Supplement December 26 1986] wrote – "Beyond the many unusual and simple recipes, this book is a summary of the best kinds of Mediterranean experience. Gray's perceptions are of a depth that is beyond the most ardent traveller."

How I missed it in 1986 is a mystery, but perhaps that was the year we spent a good deal of time exploring the Caribbean with a view to moving to one of the islands.

The sculptor with whom Patience Gray shared her life was Norman Mommens. Earlier she had had a career in Fleet Street after beating, in 1958, 1,000 applicants for the job of putting together the women's page on the Observer.

I am now in pursuit of three other books she wrote. Plats du Jour, Ringdoves and Snakes, and Work Adventures, Childhood Dreams.

Do make time to read Patience Gray's obituaries in The Telegraph and
The Guardian.

When my copy of Honey From A Weed arrives, I intend to print them out and paste them to the flyleaves. Thank you for your recommendation, Adrian.

I'll be taking tomorrow off. Back on Monday.

Friday, March 09, 2007

"Publishers should never encourage authors to meet"

Yesterday Macmillan CEO Richard Charkin wrote, "Publishers should never encourage their authors to meet each other. It can only end in unionisation, jealousy, and collegiate authorial carping."

Nowadays, thanks to the Net, it's difficult for publishers to stop authors from getting to know each other. I can't see any harm in it.

As I may have mentioned before, for almost twenty years, after writing a letter to my then Mills & Boon colleague, Charlotte Lamb, I had an extremely rewarding pen-friendship with her. We met in London on a few occasions, but mostly we exchanged weekly faxes about the books we were reading. I wasn't in the least jealous of her greater fame and fortune. She was far more prolific than I so deserved to earn more, although most M&B authors were earning substantial incomes in the Seventies and Eighties. Sadly that is not the case today, and even super-prolific romancers earn peanuts compared with the soaring income which sent Charlotte Lamb into tax exile on the Isle of Man.

Today I have enjoyable private email exchanges with a few other authors and also with a number of readers scattered around the globe. But, more than six years after her untimely death at 62, I still miss Charlotte Lamb's faxes of which I have a large collection stored in grocery cartons in my workroom in Spain.

They are riveting reading because she was a woman of strong opinions, some of which would have caused an uproar had they been expressed on the forums where today's much more mealy-mouthed romantic novelists discuss their genre.

Although she wrote many of her novels on a computer, Charlotte never shared my passion for the Net or switched from faxes to emails.

The photo of Charlotte on holiday in France is from a blog designed by one of her three daughters, Jane Holland.

There you will read – "This blog is in memory of my mother, Sheila Holland, better known to millions of fans worldwide as Charlotte Lamb, author of more than 150 romances and thrillers. Since her tragic death in October 2000, I have been collecting editions of her novels; no mean feat when you consider her almost inhuman prolificacy as a writer. In the late 70s, for instance, she wrote a 55,000 word novel, 'The Long Surrender', over the space of a single weekend, a novel which not only became a bestseller but was a ground-breaking work in the world of romance. Between 1979 and 1980 alone, Charlotte Lamb published over 21 novels. She also wrote thrillers, romances and historical novels under these pen-names: Victoria Woolf, Laura Hardy, Sheila Lancaster, Sheila Holland and Sheila Coates. This site is dedicated to bringing some of Lamb's earliest titles back to her fans and celebrating her greatest - and ongoing - triumphs as a novelist. Do please leave a comment if you have a question or something to share about Charlotte Lamb."

A very different breed

There is no doubt that the majority of today's women authors of popular fiction are a very different breed from their predecessors of 30/40/50 years ago.

What I find particularly strange about today's published writers is their apparent keenness to recruit new writers. Of course in many cases, the real motive for giving "workshops" etc. is actually to gain publicity for their own books. But when it is obvious that the whole field of women's fiction is grossly overcrowded, you would think they would try to find other methods of promoting themselves.

Re Richard Charkin's comment that authors getting together "can only end in unionisation", Charlotte Lamb did found AMBA, the Association of Mills & Boon Authors. But although members meet in London twice a year, the association has not fulfilled the founder's hopes for it. M&B's parent company, Harlequin, "currently publishes over 1,300 authors from around the world." Romance Writers of America has 9,500 members. Understandably, the UK authors' first concern is to please their publisher, not to raise contentious issues.

Tomorrow I hope to write about an outstanding non-fiction book recommended by Adrian Weston in a comment some time ago.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Keeping up with contemporary culture

First, my apologies for being offline for almost three weeks because of travelling and techie problems.

A link on Richard Charkin's blog took me to an interview at Modern Mom, headed A Balancing Act, by Samantha Ettus with Jane Friedman.

In case you have never heard of her, Jane Friedman is the President and CEO of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. "In 2006, Friedman was honored as Publishers Weekly Person of the Year. Here Jane takes time to reflect on her experience balancing life as a mother to Stefan, 31, Bradley, 25 and Stepkids, Dylan, 25 and Morgan, 23 with her wildly successful and demanding career."

The question I thought most interesting was, "If you had an extra hour each day how would you spend it?"

To which Jane Friedman replied, "I would read. I know this sounds strange being the CEO of a publishing company, but among reading reports, watching TV to keep up with contemporary culture, and doing emails, I have very little time to read for pleasure."

Recently I've spent several days watching BBC 1 and 2, ITV and Channel 4. If they are a reflection of contemporary culture in Britain then the country is in a bad way. The majority of the advertisements and the programmes seemed to be aimed at people with little or nothing between the ears. Presenters and reporters with pleasant voices are thin on the ground. I don't mind, indeed I like, regional accents. But they are few and far between.

Do you remember Moira Stuart who, from 1981, presented almost every news bulletin devised on BBC television? Why have pleasing voices like hers become so scarce?

There's no denying that the "BBC voices" of my youth now sound affectedly upper-class. But is there no happy medium between those laughably la-di-da accents and today's ear-jarring vowels?