Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lest we forget

This week, on 22nd July, was the exact 800th anniversary of the massacre at Béziers. Did you read anything about it in the papers? See an item on TV? Get a newsfeed or other alert about it? No, neither did I.

So I'm going to write about it here.

The Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent 3rd against the Cathars in what is now the Languedoc region of France and mustered in Lyon in June 1209. It was led initially by Arnaud-Aimery, the Abbot of Citeaux, who was a Papal Legate.

When they reached Béziers, they sent its bishop in to negotiate with the citizens to hand over the 220 or so heretics listed as being in the town. They refused. By a fluke, the French army got into the city and started looting and killing.

People shetered in the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire and the church of Mary Magdalene, whose Feast day it was. They were all slaughtered - men, women, children, priests - burned or hacked down and the churches set fire to. It was on this occasion that the words "Kill them all - God will know his own" were attributed to Arnaud-Aimery.

He could have said them; he certainly wrote to the Pope saying that his army had killed 20,000 people that day. Twenty thousand people, two hundred and twenty of which were designated heretics. You can do the maths.

What does this have to do with books? I have written one about it, called Troubadour, published on 3rd August. So you can regard this as a shameless plug. Or a memorial to the brave citizens who were murdered 800 years ago in the name of religion.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Death of a fairy

I suppose I first met Naomi Lewis at a publishing party about thirty-five years ago. Over the next three decades, she was always there, always the same, a tiny figure dressed in black (invariably) and always at the centre of a group of fascinated listeners.

Chris Powling confided early on that he believed she was a fairy. She certainly knew how to enchant. I used to take my three daughters to some of these parties and she was unfailingly kind to them and genuinely interested in them. She heartily approved of the fact that we were all vegetarians (this is no longer true of the youngest) and I could not get her to read Peter Dickinson's The Dancing Bear, which I thought was his best book, because she would not even consider a story which touched, even sympathetically, on any harm to animals.

She explained to me at one such party - the only way we ever met - about how she rescued London pigeons that had cotton or nylon tangled round their feet. Although I share her compassion for animals, I would find it VERY difficult to pick up a pigeon, let alone untangle anything from its claws.

Her reviews of children's book in the Observer were always illuminating and beautifully written. And her collections of re-tellings of fairy stories will remain on my shelves for ever.

She was ageless and asexual and able to do things I couldn't, like a true fairy. It's a few years now since I'd seen her at a party but I had no idea that she was only 26 months short of her centenary. I don't know what her actual funeral will have been like, but I like to think of it as William Blake's vision of a cortège of grasshoppers and a rose-leaf for a bier.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In praise of writers

This weekend there was a conference in Bristol all about Diana Wynne Jones. Not like the fanfests that are Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett conventions but but a proper academic conference dedicated to the work of one writer, which is a rare honour - especially in the children's book world. Sadly, in the end Diana herself was not well enough to attend, which must have been a disappointment for her as well as all those delegates and speakers gathered together.

Still, it must have given her a warm glow and writers need this. They need constant praise from reviewers, fans, peers, academics and family members, because their work is necessarily solitary and without feedback. This is why they experience such pain when they get a bad, or even snide, review.

Recently my namesake Alice Hoffman reacted so badly to a less than positive review of her latest novel in the Boston Globe that she posted the reviewer's address and phone number on Twitter and encouraged her readers to write or ring to blast her with their displeasure. Hoffman has since apologised and deleted her Twitter account but the bad smell remains.

We all hate bad, lukewarm, innacurate or spoiler reviews - I had one in the Times once that began "This book made me feel sick"! - but there is only one possible response: dignified silence and a hope of boomerang karma.

The other side of the coin is that you don't know how to rate praise from someone until you know what else they like. I've lost count of the number of fan e-mails I've had that say "You are my second favourite writer after X" where X = someone like Christopher Paolini!

It might be over-fussy to care about the literary standards of those who praise us. But I'm afraid I do. And that includes reviewers. But I won't be tweeting about it.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

A first and big feet

This is the first time ever that the Carnegie Medal has , in 72 years, been awarded posthumously. And it has gone to Siobhan Dowd, for Bog Child, the last book she finished, just a few months before her death from cancer in 2007.

A very shouty David Fickling, who published all Siobhan's novels, said she would have been "so wickedly delighted to have won ... the Big One." It was an emotional moment when the prize was announced and all three of Siobhan's sisters were there to accept it on her behalf, Denise thanking David and the two other people who had helped to launch Siobhan's career - Writer Tony Bradman and her agent Hilary Delamere.

But it was not an emotional decision; the book has been widely praised for its beautiful writing and the accomplished interweaving of the plots of hunger strikes in Northern Island and an ancient corpse of a young girl found by archaeologists. It tells the story of Liam whose older brother is close to death in prison, following Bobby Sands, and the history of the child found in the bog.

Earlier, Catherine Rayner had charmingly accepted the Kate Greenaway Medal for Harris Finds his Feet, a picturebook "about a learning curve" in which a hare grows into his outsize feet. Much was made of Catherine's own size eights, which were discreetly hidden behind the podium.

Behind me were sitting an earlier short-listed author Linda Newbery and 1976 winner K M Peyton, in front of me Siobhan Dowd's agent and beside me one of the judges. It was a special place to be on a special day.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Parental Guidance

I had to read this, didn't I? And I found it absolutely compelling, in spite of its flaws. (Must write a post one day about how page-turning does not necessarily = excellent).

I actually think it's much better than the Booker Prize-winning Possession, where the story in the past was so much more interesting than the one in the present, and almost a masterpiece.

It is big in scope, the plot taking us from 1895 to the aftermath of the Great War, and it is well written. I'll do the synopsis quickly because if you read literary reviews at all you must be aware of the underlying story.

It charts the development of four families, two called Wellwood, one called Cain and one called Fludd. (Now you'd have to be VERY secular and ignorant not to see the Biblical overtones in this choice of names). Olive Wellwood, who recalls Edith Nesbit, is Socialist whose children's stories keep the wolf from the door when her husband, Humphrey loses his job as a banker through writing inflammatory articles. They have seven living children, only one born after the beginning of the book, but in time we learn that not all seven share the same two parents.

Olive's sister Violet lives with the breeding pair as an unpaid nurse and nanny and there are many comments about who is the real mother, the one who gives birth or the one who raises the child, which gain an added poignancy as the children's biological parentage is revealed.

Humphrey's brother Basil is a real banker and has two children, the older of whom flirts with Marxism in Germany. Prosper Cain has two children too and is a widowed Major working at what will become the V & A. Three more children for the monstrous genius Benedict Fludd, a potter who sexually abuses his two daughters, with his wife's knowledge and then makes obscene pottery based on their genitals. (He is clearly suggested by Eric Gill, although one reviewer referred to him merely as a "bully").

Are you keeping up? That's fourteen children and adolescents lined up near the beginning of the novel. But they are not all. The two most interesting are not from this Edwardian class of money, privilege and the luxury of having political opinions. Philip Warren, the self-taught artist found hiding in the V&A in the first chapter, and later his sister Elsie both end up in the Fludd household. A German puppetmaster has teenage sons; the young people proliferate like William Morris leaves in the fabric of the novel.

Olive and Humphrey Wellwood are in their way monsters as bad as Benedict Fludd; incredibly selfish about their sexual appetites and need for flattery, they also neglect their children and think they don't need to be told who their parents are. Olive compounds this by leading a sort of vampiric life, sucking the childhood out of, in particular, her favourite eldest son, Tom. Each child has a book written specially for him or her, not for publication.

This is a kind of extension of the labelling that all parents are prone to do to their children: the sensitive one, the clever one, the unconventional one. Olive pins her children's lives to these stories as unemotionally as if she were collecting butterflies and doesn't notice when the stories no longer fit.

But there are other monsters in this book too, namely Herbert Methley, a ghastly naturist novelist who preys on young women and is the cause of two illegitimate pregnancies.

So, a large cast of characters and it is unwieldy, particularly near the beginning. Byatt tells the names of every guest at Midsummer Party given by the Wellwoods - and what names! Pomona Fludd, August Steyning, Griselda Cain, Florian Wellwood. Not content with that, she has to tell us what every single one of them is wearing, in some detail. And this is not the only time.

This is partly what stops it short of being her masterpiece. Either she needs a braver editor or she needs to listen to the editor she has. In this encyclopaedic charting of details, which can be very telling, she lapses into the flabby because of not knowing where to draw the line between what she knows (and has thoroughly researched) and what the reader needs to know.

And we all know what's coming don't we? 1914 looms like a brooding presence over the whole book. But for Tom, a more personal, localised tragedy removes him from that option. His mother dramatises his story without telling him and that violation, piled on top of the physical and sexual abuse that caused him to run away from his private school and become almost a wild boy of the woods, precipitates him towards a different end. What's the good of having enlightened creative parents if they can't save you from torment and then betray you publicly?

In a spectacular display of parental neglect, Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland lost their son Fabian to a tonsilitis operation performed in their kitchen when he was only fifteen. They had forgotten that he shouldn't have food before an anaesthetic and, left alone, he choked on his own vomit. I'm sure A S Byatt knew this story. Her own son was killed in an accident at the age of eleven. These facts resonate throughout The Children's Book.

Towards the end, when we are in the thick of the war and its aftermath, Byatt interleaves a poem written by Julian Cain about the names soldiers give to the trenches and I couldn't read it. I didn't want to read a poem at that point; I needed to know who survived and who didn't. I doubt I was alone in that.

And she has a tendency to introduce charcters and tell us lots about them and then abandon them.

But my God, she can write! No-one else I know has pulled off so well the descriptions of imaginary works of art, particularly those of Benedict Fludd and Philip Warren. For those alone it is worth reading The Children's Book.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bearded author expelled from Facebook

Famously bearded children's author Philip Ardagh (the best-selling Eddie Dickens books) has until recently been a very visible (well, partly) presence on Facebook, regularly commenting on the status of friends, many of whom are also children's writers and illustrators.

Until he took it into his head to wish someone a happy wedding anniversary and then compounded the felony by wishing someone else a happy birthday. He received two warnings from Facebook about abusive behaviour and has now disappeared from the site.

All his posts have also been removed.

But Philip's friends have not taken this lying down; as well as petitioning Facebook to reinstate this harmless if bumbling giant, many of them have donned similar beards in protest (see the Book Maven, above).

But wait - could this all just be a cunning plan? Philip has a new book out - four in fact - called Grubtown Tales, published by Faber. Surely not even PA would stoop to PR that involved his Facebook friends making fools of themselves in photoshopped beards?

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The tantalising gap

The charm of this photo of two laureates embracing justifies its place here, even though it is a bit blurry! The Maven was sitting on a windowsill 31 floors above Tottenham Court Road/Oxford Street (on the inside, naturally) on Tuesday and taking photos from a distance over the heads of a large and enthusiastic audience.

The tension was ratcheted up as more and more lovely people came to tell us what a great job Mike Rosen had done for the last two years (hear, hear) and what an exciting two years we had to come. Viv Bird from Booktrust, Sue Wilkinson from MLA, Toby Bourne of Waterstone's, Lord Chris Smith ("So nice not to be an MP these days!"), Julia Eccleshare, and then Mike Rosen, the outgoing Laureate.

He's started the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, the A-Z of Poetry (from Agard to Zephaniah) and the Poetry on YouTube project, which his son Joe has been working on. He made a dramatic difference to a school in Cardiff, the subject of BBC4 documentary and has launched the Just Read initiative for schools (of which more anon). And he has been a powerhouse of energy as a champion of children's books and reading.

Mike said we are at a vital moment in the history of the book, when we need to decide whether they are for everyone or for a self-selecting minority.

Then came Andrew Motion, the outgoing Poet Laureate, who has worked closely with the Children's incumbent in the ten years of the younger laureateship. He described the title as an "honour, a benediction, a commendation and a challenge" and if anyone knows what he's talking about it's him.

Then came at last the big announcement - that the Children's Laureate for 2009-2011 would be
Anthony Browne.

This, although not a surprise, had been a well-kept secret. It was time for another illustrator, since we hadn't had one since Quentin Blake, the first, and Anthony Browne is a hugely popular and judicious choice. He has won the Hans Anderson Medal, so has enormous prestige internationally. More importantly, his work, with its gorillas and chimps and references to art and disturbing background details in which floral wallpaper might turn into pigs if you don't keep an eye on it, is instantly recognisable to and enjoyed by children.

He will be a terrific laureate, concentrating on picturebooks and the "tantalising gap" between words and pictures. He will get us all playing the "Shape Game" that he invented with his brother Michael - there to play it again on stage at Centrepoint. As Anthony said, "Everything comes from somewhere else."

The Maven expects some very good things to come from this appointment.