Friday, April 06, 2007

In praise of Anne Scott-James

For a provincial newspaper reporter, which is how I started my working life, a public holiday is a working day. As far as I'm concerned, this is an ordinary weekend.

According to the birthday list in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, April 5th was the 94th birthday of Anne Scott-James, one of first women journalists in Fleet Street and greatly admired by my generation of post-WW2 newspaper reporters.

Maddeningly, I missed the book published to mark her 80th birthday, but it shouldn't be difficult to get hold of a copy.

"Anne Scott-James, journalist and gardening writer, was one of the first generation of career girls, rising to become a magazine editor at thirty and later a famous and controversial columnist. She has written her autobiography in the form of letters to her daughter, Clare, a series of memorable sketches of her life and times.

She vividly evokes the period charm of her childhood; growing up in the twenties in town and country; and Oxford - disillusioning, but salvaged by music, tennis and Greek. At a time when a professional woman was something of an oddity, she became one of the first female journalists in Fleet Street, joining Vogue in the 1930s and - a rewarding experience - working for Picture Post during the war.

After marriage (to writer Macdonald Hastings) and children (her son is journalist Max Hastings, Clare works in television), she was Editor of Harper's Bazaar and had columns on the Sunday Express and Daily Mail. This exhilarating career took her worldwide and involved her with such personalities as Bert Hardy, Lesley Blanch, Cecil Beaton, John Betjeman, Nancy Mitford and Rosamond Lehmann. She writes, too, of her marriage to Osbert Lancaster in 1967, of their travels in Europe together and their mutual love of architecture and gardening. Soon afterwards she began to write her well-loved gardening books.

Anne Scott-James recalls with wit and insight a wealth of stimulating experiences, people and places; her rich interests; and the adventures of a career that she adored - a life that, with characteristic modesty, she says has `never been boring'.

Elegant and beautifully written, Sketches From a Life is as engaging and charming as all who have read Anne Scott-James's columns and books will expect."

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Raymond Briggs and Elfrida Vipont

When my three small grandsons came to lunch last Sunday, the eldest brought a new book sent to him by friends of his parents.

It was a Puffin picture book called The Elephant and the Bad Baby. The Amazon UK summary reads – "One day, an elephant offers a bad baby a ride through the town, and so begins an adventure and a chase. But when the elephant realizes that the bad baby has forgotten his manners, the chase ends with a bump and tea for everyone."

The book is currently ranking at 1,544 and here's one of the reviews. "My goodness, what a blast from the past. This book was my all-time favourite book. I remember reading with with my dad. Now, I'm a student teacher, and i recommend this book to parents and children everywhere, and i will certainly be reading it to my class."

The story is illustrated by Raymond Briggs whose biography, here, tells us he "was born in 1934 to a milkman father and a mother who had been a lady's maid. He left school at 15 to study painting at Wimbledon School of Art. After a typography class at the Central School of Art and two years of national service he went to the Slade School of Art to study painting. His first work was in advertising but he was soon winning acclaim as a children's book illustrator as well as teaching illustration at Brighton College of Art. Raymond Briggs is one of the foremost creators of illustrated books for adults and children. He has won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice, as well as numerous other awards."

The author was Elfrida Vipont (1902 - 1992), to whom a delightful web page has been put up by Jo Robins and Sue Tredrea.

The page is part of Collecting Books and Magazines, a website based in Australia's Blue Mountains [of which I have happy memories] which has been serving collectors since July 1997.

What worried me about the story was that although it was made clear to the Bad Baby that he must say "Yes, please," not just "Yes", nothing was said about the elephant's habit of taking things from shops without paying for them.

Maybe when Elfrida Vipont wrote the story, shop-lifting was not as widespread as it is today. But no doubt most of the people who read it to their children and grandchildren will stress that taking things from shops is Seriously Bad Behaviour!!

Another comment on a comment

Anne McAllister, whose comment on sex with a stranger I'm answering today, is an American writer I had the pleasure of meeting at a Harlequin Mills & Boon author day held in London in the Nineties.

Her bio tells us, "Anne lives in the Midwest now, though she left her heart in the far west as a child, which explains why even her Caribbean beach bums and New York entrepreneurs are, at the core, cowboy heroes." She calls her husband The Prof.

She starts her comment by asking, "Still stirring up hornet's nests, are you?" This suggests that she sees me as an habitual "stirrer". Not so. Surely anyone with a long overview of the romance genre must feel deeply concerned about where it seems to be heading?

Anne McA goes on, "Like Jenny, I would be far more concerned if Julie's heroine were habitually hopping into closets with strangers. Or ended the book thinking it was a good idea (yes, I know that's a fragment). It all has to do with character development, doesn't it? I, for one, like my characters to have a bit of growing and changing to do. If they're paragons to begin with, why bother?"

Have we really arrived at the stage when a heroine who has never had casual sex is regarded as an unnatural paragon?

How many middle-aged romance writers had casual sex when young, or would wish their daughters/granddaughters to go in for it. So why make their heroines behave in a way that, in their own heart of hearts, they think is unwise and/or wrong. There are plenty of other flaws a heroine can be given.

Of course Anne McA is correct in her comment, "And teenage pregnancies have existed longer than romance novels or, indeed, any kind of books at all."

But must they exist forever? Surely, by now, in advanced societies where reliable birth control methods have been available for decades, accidental babies should almost be a thing of the past?

I gather that, in Julie Cohen's book, birth control is used during the sex-in-a-cupboard scene, but the condom breaks having been in the hero's wallet for too long. I hesitate to do a search for how often condoms break for fear it might result in a deluge of spam from condom sellers but, from what I've read, breakage appears to be extremely rare.

Another comment-on-a-comment tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Stanley Morgan booked for [James] Bond event in Germany

An interesting private email came from Stanley Morgan last month. [If the link doesn't work, check the January archive for my previous blog about him on Saturday, January 13, 2007].

On 18 March – and I have his permission to quote – he wrote,"Linda and I had a most interesting weekend at the Radisson Hotel, Heathrow 2/3/4th March. We met many delightful people, most of whom are featured in the attachment. Never imagined that one day we would chat with astronauts and a Dambuster bomb-aimer."

The photo of Stanley, playing the concierge in the James Bond film Dr No, is borrowed from the Autographica site attached to his email.

His email continued, "I have enjoyed your recent blogs, particularly, perhaps, the piece about Arthur Hailey. He exemplifies, par excellence, the advisability of 'writing what you know', and of 'coming to the subject fully prepared', the theme of my offering, you may recall in Part 1 of The Boss Articles.

It did not surprise me to learn that he received cool critique of his books. No author that commercially successful could avoid the viperous vituperation of the literati.

When I first arrived in Ireland, driven there by excessive taxation, I was interviewed by the Irish press who advised me, as a successful yarn-spinner, to 'avoid the local literati like the plague, they'll eat you alive'. I took their advice, yet still managed to attract a wickedly snide piece on signing £100,000 contract with W.H.Allen.

I have just received an invitation to attend a Special Bond Event in Germany in August, linked to UNICEF. Incredibly, it has been suggested that I read from and talk about my books! I replied that I'd be delighted to do both. But doubtful sufficient interest since my books are not published in Germany. I have this awful vision of myself, on stage in a vast auditorium, with Linda in the only occupied seat."

Buying Bond books in the Fifties

I'm sure that won't happen and there will be a full house. I should love to be there. I started buying Ian Fleming's Bond books [in hardback] in the Fifties, after the first was serialised in the Yorkshire Evening Press at York while I was a YEP reporter. Another staff reporter was Vivian Brooks, who wrote detective books under the pen-name Osmington Mills.

The only information I can find about her is in her father's Wikipedia entry. She was born in 1922 and died in 2003. I remember her as a large, jolly, but perhaps sometimes lonely, woman in her early thirties who sometimes came to lunch with us. Afterwards, the three of us and her dog would walk on the nearby flood meadows beside the River Ouse. When I left the YEP, we lost touch.

Bella Andre's comment on current discussion

Commenting on the Julie Cohen/sex with a stranger discussion, Bella Andre wrote, "You said it yourself--why can't novels can be fantasy?--in your recent post about the MISERY category for new books. "Who wants to read those books?" you asked. Well, not me. And I don't want to write them either. So that's why I, too, write very sexy contemporary fiction.

And, I'm not ashamed to say, I hope you and your readers do go to my web site. A little self-promotion is not a bad thing. After all, if it gets one more reader to pick up a great love story--that, indeed, happens to begin with some extremely hot sex--then I say hooray for all of us. I get to write more fun books for Simon & Schuster and my readers get to vicariously experience fantastic love and sex through the pages of my books as well.

In fact, it's time for me to get off the internet for the next few hours. I've got a sex scene to write."

Book world equivalent of sleazy mags

I had a quick look at Bella Andre's blog where I read -
"Monday, January 31, 2005
Erotic Romance: A how-to guide
Ever thought about writing erotic romance? Me either, [sic] until I found out what a hot market it is. Which got me wondering, "Can I do it?" So I sat down one Saturday with an idea in my head about two erotica authors who meet at a writer's convention and lo and behold, three chapters flew from my fingertips. Seriously, I had written 8,000 funny, sexy words before I so much as looked up at my computer."

I have nothing against born writers writing for money rather than literary acclaim, but I don't approve of the thousands of not-born writers who are currently cluttering the market with largely second-rate stuff.

This writer also contributes to a blog called RedHotRomance described as "The best in SIN LIT from 9 red hot Bay Area writers!"

This sort of thing strikes me as the book world equivalent of writing for those sleazy magazines on the top shelves in newsagents' shops. I'm amazed that a wife and mother, which I gather Bella Andre is in her private life, would demean herself by writing borderline porn. The market for children's books is also booming. She would do better to turn her talents to that field.

More comments on your comments tomorrow.

Sir Patrick's lost love

Also in today's blog
Moral Guardian's comment and Lee Child

There was an interesting interview with Sir Patrick Moore in the Daily Telegraph recently, but unfortunately it isn't available online yet. Here, for anyone who hasn't heard of him, is another piece from an earlier Telegraph.

"Sir Patrick Moore has brought astronomy to the masses now for half a century, and is widely celebrated for his enthusiastic and supremely knowledgable commentary on television coverage of the Apollo missions to the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s."

"His programme, The Sky at Night, has a devoted following, which is not least why it has clocked up 650 editions. Yet the BBC, absurdly, chose to put out the 650th at 1.55am, when only the most dedicated insomniacs would be watching, and when even most astronomers have gone to bed.
Perhaps someone thought the programme had to go out under cover of darkness to be appropriate. Or perhaps it was thought that, at a time when so much rubbish is on television, something genuinely good should not be allowed on until well after the watershed. Either way, the great Sir Patrick and his devotees deserve better."

According to the recent interview by Neil Tweedie, "Talk to him about his own life and you won't get much…He fell in love but once, with a nurse called Lorna. She died in an air raid. "My girl was killed. That was that," he says in a matter-of-fact way, refusing the temptation to "emote". "I didn't want to be a bachelor. I wanted a wife and a son but Herr Hitler had other ideas. I didn't want to live my life alone but that's the way things went unfortunately."

The interview carries a picture of him as a young man, looking rather dour but definitely attractive. Born in 1923, he would have been only 22 when WW2 started so, however much he loved Lorna, it seems a little surprising he never met anyone else. Perhaps he was discouraged from forming another attachment by his mother. His father was gassed in WW1 and died when Patrick was 24, after which he lived with his mother, who had trained as an opera singer, until her death at the age of 91. It was she who gave him a book The Story of the Solar System written in 1898 by G F Temple.

Patrick Moore was only six, with a weak heart which had necessitated his removal from preparatory school, when he received this present. "A few pages were enough to launch him into outer space."

In 2002 his mother posthumously published Mrs Moore In Space, described at Amazon UK as "A whimsical view of life on other planets by the late Gertrude Moore, mother of famous astronomer Patrick Moore, who provides the foreword. Her drawings and descriptions are humorous, yet informed. She paints a picture of a universe inhabited by exotic beings, often with amorous intentions. The paintings were made over an extended period, between 1900 and 1974."

Moral Guardian's comment and Lee Child

On the Julie Cohen/sex with a stranger discussion, Moral Guardian [rather an off-putting pseudonym] wrote - "Thank you for raising this issue. I think the key point is that novels are not meant to be morality tales. If they were, we would have to ban a high percentage of them on the grounds of encouraging murder, torture, irresponsible shopping as well as every form of sexual behaviour - a quickie in a cupboard being one of the least disturbing, by a long way."

As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of Lee Child's thrillers. The photo of him receiving an award is borrowed from his Wikiepeda bio.

I don't remember any of Lee Child's books, or books by other crime writers I like, that don't make it clear by the end that baddies invariably or usually get their comeuppance. Will blog about the "irresponsible shopping" bandwagon another day.

[Novelist, publisher and blogger Susan Hill is another Child fan. "I have finished reading a very very good Lee Child thriller. I do find the Jack Reacher books absolutely compulsive. Graham Greene once said that the hardest writing of all was description of fast action but Child makes it look like a piece of cake."]

By the way, when I clicked on Moral Guardian's link, I didn't get taken to her blog or website but to the link above Kate Walker's comment. I have asked Kate if there's some connection, but she hasn't replied yet.

Finally, M/Guardian wrote, "As for website colours; let she who has perfect taste cast the first stone."

I can't claim perfect taste, but surely one of the functions of a website reviewer is to point out when a site needs improvements such as deleting a Flash intro, installing a search facility or email link, making the text adjustable etc? Fortunately Julie Cohen's content counterbalances her [to my eyes] garish colour scheme.

Sorry if that's not PC, but I prefer plain speaking to PC-ness and I think most of my readers do too.

More comments on comments during the week.

Monday, April 02, 2007

An ideal place for a respite for writers?

Also in today's blog
My comments on readers' comments re sex with a stranger

I wonder how many readers will recognise the house in the bookmark on the left side of today's blog?

Long ago, when I was a reporter on the Eastern Evening News at Norwich, the Editor, Alfred Cope, gave me an excellent piece of advice.

A small man, as lean as a jockey, with piercing blue eyes, he said, "Read the obits in The Times every day."

I've been obeying that instruction ever since, though latterly the Daily Telegraph's obits have been better than those in The Times. It was reading the obituary of Sir Joseph Cheyne in the Telegraph recently that inspired today's blog. Unfortunately the online obit doesn't include the photo of Sir Joseph as a good-looking Major in the 11th Battalion of the Queen's Westminsters with whom, during WW2 he served in Africa and Italy where, later, he lived.

From 1976-1990 he was curator of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House on the Spanish Steps where Keats had lived for three months before his death in 1821. From the K-SMH's excellent website, I c&p-ed the following.

"In 1907, the house in which John Keats died was finally bought outright for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association. This is the story of how that came about."

"In 1903 the rooms in which Keats and Severn had lived were occupied by a pair of American women, both writers, Mrs James Walcott Haslehurst and her mother who spent much time permitting the curious to see where Keats had spent his last days. The house was in a dreadful condition and the women wanted to buy it so that it could be preserved as a shrine but did not have enough money. In February 1903, Robert Underwood Johnson, an American poet, walked down the Spanish Steps to look at the house in which Keats had died, noticed its bedraggled appearance, entered and made enquiries. He called together a dozen of the American literati resident in Rome, one prominent Englishman, and their spouses."

Discovering that the house has a first-floor apartment, with an outside terrace, for short-term rentals, from three nights to six months, and as neither of us has been to Rome, I emailed the site for more details.

By return I had a reply from the Assistant Curator, Josephine Greywoode, who told me the rental rates are - per night 150 euros, per week 700 euros, per month 1500. Mr Bookworm tells me the euro exchange rate on Saturday was 1.44 euros to the pound sterling.

Ms Greywoode also sent me a link to an availability chart and more details about the apartment, including, "The large and comfortable bedroom is set slightly back from the Steps whilst the small living room looks out onto them. The separate kitchen opens onto a creeper-covered pergola and terrace furnished with table and chairs."

Two more replies to readers' comments

Julie Cohen wrote three comments in response to my blog about her and I'm going to reply to the points she raised when I've read the book under discussion.

For the time being I will only applaud her diplomatic tone. Some writers become very hot under the collar about any breath of criticism of their brainchildren, or even of their genre/publisher, but Julie has far too good a grasp of PR make that mistake. Apart from the PR aspect, at both her site and her blog she comes over as an as easy-going, laidback personality. Without having read a book of hers yet, my instinctive feeling is that she will go far and before long, I hope, emulate Jennifer Crusie by breaking free of the constraints of series romance and being published in mainstream women's fiction.

Jenny Haddon's comment

I was surprised and delighted to find a comment from Jenny Haddon because I know how much extra work her role as Chairman of the Romantic Novelists' Association involves.

Jenny began her comment -

"Surely the important thing is that sex with a stranger is the starting point of Julie's book, not the end? According to Robert McKee, stories start when people do (or have to do) something out of their norm. If Julie were advocating SWAS as a lifestyle, there would be no story. "

Jenny's comment continues, "It's not a 21st century phenomenon either. In 'This One Night', Denise Robins's heroine falls into bed with a stranger on a train, as they flee the Nazi advance in Europe. It was published in 1942."

Denise Robins' 1942 novel about sex with a stranger

The reference to Denise Robins made me hunt for my copy of Stranger Than Fiction, her life story published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1965, in which she refers to being elected as President of the RNA in 1961.

Towards the end of her autobiography, she describes a September 1938 holiday with one of her daughters in Czechoslovakia. After crossing the border into Germany, they were woken up, told to pack their bags and leave the train. Escorted by black-uniformed Stormtroopers, they were taken to be questioned by an official.

"I can't say however that we were at all frightened. As yet, the black shadow of the Swastika had not fallen across our country."

In fact it had and a later RNA President, Mary Burchell, was already involved in rescuing Jews from Germany which she wrote about in We Followed Our Stars whose jacket I found at Fantastic Fiction with this summary - "Ida Cook was born at 37 Croft Avenue, Sunderland. Together with her sister (Mary) Louise Cook (1901-1991), she rescued Jews from the Nazis during the 1930s. In 1965 the sisters were honoured for their rescue work and named among the 'Righteous Gentiles' in Jerusalem, thus joining Oskar Schindler among others. Ida Cook wrote over a hundred romance novels, many of which were translated. She helped to found and was for many years president of the Romantic Novelist's Association."

But probably Denise Robins was too preoccupied by her divorce from her first husband and her relationship with the man who became her second husband to be paying much attention to world affairs.

Having, through a slip-up by their travel agency, no German visa, mother and daughter had their luggage searched but were issued with temporary visas.

Although 65 novels are listed at the front of the autobiography, This One Night is not among them. However Fantastic Fiction lists a 1975 paperback published by Avon.

No doubt the novel was inspired by the journey to Czechoslovakia. And it may be that the powerful attraction the author felt towards the man she had met on a trip to Egypt, O'Neill Pearson, made her feel that her hero and heroine, if strongly attracted and feeling their lives were in danger, would make love. Whether Denise and O'Neill consummated their relationship before the divorce from her first husband is not revealed, but seems probable.

During WW2 many virtuous young women who, in peacetime, would have remained virgins until their wedding night, made love with their boyfriends and fiancés for fear that they might be killed. Who, in those circumstances, wouldn't?