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Monday 21 November 2011

Icelight - in Best Five Thrillers of 2011

I have just heard that Icelight is number 2 in the Daily Telegraph's Best Five Thrillers of 2011.

Very nice news!

Thursday 17 November 2011

Apologies, Allies and Drop Caps

Yesterday I was contacted by Nicholas Blincoe who kindly pointed out that in his ebook version of Washington Shadow my name was, in the table of contents, given as Ally. This is, I hope now was, the case on Amazon, Waterstones, Apple and so on.

More importantly there is a hiccup at the beginning of each chapter. It is ‘the drop cap problem’. In the printed book each chapter begins with a very large opening letter and continues in upper case for a couple of words.

This has not transferred to the e-version. In fact the first letter has gone up a line and the following letters are a line down, either headless or, in some cases providing a new word.

Thus and for example we have






I got straight on to John Murray and they have got straight on to sorting out the problems. These apparently afflict The Maze of Cadiz as well as Washington Shadow.

I am told Icelight is fine.

My apologies to any readers who have wondered why I should be talking about hens – and thanks again to Nicholas Blincoe for pointing out the mistakes.

Writers are sent author’s copies of their work in print. I wonder if it wouldn’t also be a good idea for publishers to send the e-version as well?

Monday 14 November 2011


My father-in-law clocked up 93 last Friday. Yes, he was born on Armistice Day, on 11-11 -1918. Had he been a girl he would have been called Irene. Irene means peace. I don’t know what the male equivalent is. He was called John.

Naturally we went over to see him and found him pretty well, though mildly amused by all the 11-11-11 cards.

He was more bemused by the poppy business, particularly as applied to the English football team’s insistence on wearing what turned out to be arm bands when they played Spain in a friendly match on November 11.

Like many of his generation, he is appalled by what he calls ‘the arm punching’ celebrations of present day millionaire footballers. ‘Arm-punching’ includes somersaults, group hugs and badge kissing.

May I be frank? I don’t think he has the slightest desire to shake John Terry’s hand.

On a wider level, he is also rather baffled by the poppy insistence. On graduating in 1939, he joined up three months before the declaration of war because he knew war was coming.

He considers himself very lucky, despite weighing six stone when he got out of Burma. His great friend John Wishart died on D-Day. My brother-in-law has Christopher as a second name for another dead friend.

But the thing about being 93 is that you get to consider a long life. And while WW2 was an absolute game changer that doesn’t mean you can’t think about it.

We gave him Max Hastings’ All Hell Broke Loose. His first reaction? ‘We’re beginning to bite the bullet’.

Now my father-in-law has thought for some time that the Russians beat the Germans and the USA beat the Japanese. The British, apart from a brave and rather lucky window, were fortunate to tag along.

But one of his standards is the deaths suffered. The Russians lost millions. The Germans lost about half that number. The British? However cruel this may sound, surprisingly few.

John Wishart, for example, had four years of doing nothing very much until D-Day. My father-in-law himself says he rarely experienced danger – he only found out relatively recently that the commanding officer who sent him and others into Burma was summarily relieved of his post while they were tackling unmapped terrain with neither adequate equipment nor medication. They were sent out in leather boots that rotted within days.

To a considerable extent, military mismanagement dominated the lives and deaths of the British troops. When my father-in-law got to Mumbai (then Bombay), the main preoccupation was whether anyone had thought to countermand the order to sail on to Japanese occupied Singapore. The ship ahead kept sailing and the Gordon Highlanders disembarked into captivity.

John Wishart really died. He stepped off a landing craft on D-Day and was mown down. And it’s partly out of respect for an old friend that my father in law thinks poppies have become as fatuous as ‘arm punching’.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Kerosene and Pink Diamonds.

When I talked with Laura Wilson at the Electric Theatre in Guildford on October 22 we touched on the portrayal of history in film – mostly from the humble aspect of how people actually looked, moved and behaved in the 1940s and early 1950s.

I have fairly recently seen two films with a similar subject - a young woman agrees to ensnare an enemy official for what could be called a cause greater than her own physical and emotional well-being and even survival. The films are Black Book (2006) and Lust, Caution (2007). The first is set in Holland during WW2 and the second in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation of China. Both end grimly, with multiple deaths.

Neither is a bad film, some of the performances are excellent. Tang Wei’s portrayal of her character in Ang Lee’s film is remarkable, nuanced and very brave.

But I want to concentrate on the look of the films. Let me put it this way - there are a lot of very good looking people, flawless teeth and a considerable expenditure and effort on stylish clothes and vehicles.

Now I have nothing against costume designers, art directors and careful lighting. But a stylish gleam does miss a lot that could inform the anguish and dilemmas the protagonists have to deal with. I don’t know how divine details are but they matter and I’d suggest, for this viewer anyway, that they are better rendered without too much prettification.

The Dutch film is not based on a book. Of course it is true that we all bring our own lives to reactions. One of my father’s closest friends was a Dutch mathematician. Aged seventeen when the Nazis invaded, his farmer parents were, of course, beside themselves with fear that he would be taken away to work camp or worse. The result was that he spent the ‘next two years dressed as girl or hiding in the woodpile.’ Of course it isn’t fair for me to ask the film makers to have this kind of very grim surrealism inform their work but I did find the sheer silk, well-cut trousers and slightly stressed new knitwear a distraction.

Lust, Caution is based on a short story by Eileen Chang. I kindled this up. Within a couple of pages there is the kind of passage that shows why words can outdo film images. It involves the hoarding of ‘Kerosene or pink diamonds’ – and reveals the world of collaborators’ wives in Shanghai as they play Mahjong. Kerosene was the highly inflammable fuel for lamps, heaters and, for the poor, cooking. It was dyed pink. It illustrates succinctly and precisely the unease of these women: they dread poverty and they need their wealth to be easily transportable and to keep its value.

Ang Lee is very respectful of his source. It may just be I am getting old. But movies simply don’t allow the same kind of appreciation of the world behind such a remark. Not of course when you are watching beautiful people exquisitely dressed and lit.

Still photographs work however. In the last day or so I have been looking at photographs published in some British newspapers. They come from an exhibition called “The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League 1936 – 1951” at The Jewish Museum in New York from November 04 2011 – March 25 2012.

I have ‘borrowed’ one for this blog. It shows a film poster of a book I mention in the next Peter Cotton and has that wonderful boy and tyre. Yes, it’s a frame but it has all kinds of possibilities and stories.

My father’s tall Dutch friend grew his hair and wore a dress and hid in the woodpile, looking at the mathematical possibilities in curled woodlice. The last time I saw him he asked me what the British had against mixer taps or faucets. A little later he said his main memory of his time in the woodpile was smell. ‘I stank’ he said.

Perhaps that’s the problem. Films can stink but they can’t invoke smell. I don’t know the smell of kerosene but my husband remembers it well from his childhood in Africa.