Follow monroe_aly on Twitter

Monday 17 December 2012

Literature on the Loch

Last August I was invited to Ardoch House on the banks of Loch Lomond. I have to admit I’d never been there before. Yes, of course, I knew it was beautiful but I simply wasn’t prepared for it: the setting and the views from Ardoch House are breathtaking. There’s the loch, the hills to the North, but most of all an extraordinary sense of calm, an almost edge of the world magic, a sort of visual balm. It is wonderfully freeing.

I went there, together with Maggie McKernan, to meet Carlos Alba and Peter Armitage, the owner of Ardoch House. Peter is often described as a ‘businessman turned philanthropist’. In other words, he retired early ‘to give something back’. His particular interest is ‘human capital’, especially the development of young people - most of all, young people from disadvantaged back grounds. He has put some 7.5 million pounds of his own into rescuing and developing Ardoch House, and he and his family bear all the costs themselves. To help with the running he lets Ardoch out to corporate clients and that allows him to offer courses and accommodation to children based charities in the UK and abroad.

Carlos, who is a novelist himself, also helps Peter Armitage develop and promote different projects for Ardoch House - among them, photography holidays and creative writing breaks - called Literature on the Loch.

Apart from writing fiction myself, I also worked as a teacher for many years and now sometimes teach courses to foreign academics – usually research groups - working at English Universities. The aim is to help them communicate successfully with their peers but also with other non-specialists. It’s interesting, very specific work. It’s quite different dealing with an academic who grew up in Japan, from one educated in Argentina or Jordan, for example. Languages come with all kinds of baggage, conventions, and manners – and sometimes very different ways of thinking - which require a slightly different approach for each person. Teaching such a wide variety of people how to write articles that communicate their ideas and arguments clearly and successfully is quite challenging, but also very rewarding. For Literature on the Loch, I’m looking forward to combining my writer’s hat and my teaching hat – and to helping each person develop their own individual voice and style.

Since that first meeting, plans have gradually been taking shape. The first of these creative writing breaks will be at the end of March or beginning of April (date to be confirmed shortly). There will be a writing workshop each morning, most afternoons free, and each evening there will be a guest speaker who will then join everyone for dinner and chat. I will be conducting the workshops together with Maggie. The team of guest speakers will include writers Carlos Alba, Andrew Williams and Christopher Brookmyre, as well as David Robinson, literary editor of the Scotsman.

You can read more about Literature on the Loch by visiting the website, which has just been launched.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Black Bear

This is the cover for the next Peter Cotton book, which will be published on 9th May 2013 by John Murray, and is available now for preorder from and from 

Friday 23 November 2012

No Lady

I’ve just come across a very nice review of Icelight in this month’s edition of The Historical Novel Society. It’s always good to get a review which shows evidence that the reviewer has enjoyed and engaged with the book – even when it comes with reservations. While talking about what he kindly describes as the ‘brilliant characterisation’, the reviewer points out that some of the characters ‘use some unpleasant male language’ which he says is ‘distasteful though refreshing coming from a female writer.’  He then says ‘Aly Monroe is no lady.’

I was immediately amused by this, but it reminded me of something a long time ago. I have mentioned elsewhere that I was very much into acting when I was young – attended drama classes until I was eighteen, and even seriously considered drama school before deciding to go to university. What I remembered was this. When I was about fifteen, I was asked to choose a speech to perform from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I knew perfectly well that they expected me to choose sweet Miranda. But I rebelled at being typecast. Instead I chose Caliban’s speech ‘This island’s mine, by Sycorax, my mother ...’ Caliban is usually portrayed as wild and deformed, between man and beast, and speaks his pent-up, imprisoned rage in wonderful, energetic,  verse. I really relished this. It has often been said that one of the attractions of acting is that you can experience being something and someone else. In fact, the act of characterisation from an acting point of view means that you blot yourself out and ‘assume’ another person.

When I began writing – relatively late in life – I drew on my acting experience of characterisation to create my characters. This was familiar to me. You listen, hear the voice, see where the characters will go and how they will react. The words they speak are theirs.

The characters the reviewer referred too would certainly never have used ‘lady-like language!


Wednesday 10 October 2012

Paperclips and Chatter

Yesterday evening I went to The Edinburgh Bookshop, a small independent bookseller started about five years ago by Malcolm and Vanessa Robertson. They have decided to concentrate on their publisher Fidra and the bookshop has been taken over by Marie Moser. Yesterday was in the nature of a small celebration of what had been and an introduction to the new. (Marie once worked for James Thin, now Blackwells.)

There were a number of people showing support. Among others, I spoke to authors Ian Rankin and Nicola Morgan (who gave me a lift home). A couple of readers asked me who I was and certainly pretended to know my name. I enjoyed the lady who asked me why so many book covers had a solitary figure walking away into the distance on them. ‘Is it because art departments don’t have much imagination?’ I was pleased to say that the cover for Black Bear due out in May next year has no figure at all on it, though I suppose Castle Hill lighthouse in Rhode Island also tends to the solitary.

But the most surprising conversation I had was with Joanna Geyer-Kordesch. I have been doing the final edit of Black Bear. The background to the book is Project Chatter – ostensibly an effort to replace the use of torture but most famous now for experiments in so-called truth drugs or serums – and Operation Paperclip, again most famous as the process by which many scientists from Nazi Germany became US citizens.

It was Joanna, professor emerita of the History of European Medicine at Glasgow University, who brought up Paperclip. Her father, Karl Kordesch, joint inventor of the alkaline battery, whose name is on more than a hundred patents, was recruited to this operation from Austria in 1953.

In other words Paperclip carried on long after the war. We talked about the influence Paperclip had had on the development of US technology and its consequent importance in the world we know. There was of course the other side. Some of the scientists in 1945 really needed those paperclips – this being an operation that not only provided new paperclips for CVs but sometimes a new CV as well. Professor Geyer-Kordesch mentioned those who had worked on truth-serums. 

My warmest wishes to Vanessa  - and very good luck to Marie and the next stage of the Edinburgh Bookshop.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Cutlasses and Daggers

On July 3rd last week I headed down south on the train to London for a few days. In the evening I went to Crime in the Court at Goldsboro Books in Cecil Court, in celebration of Independent Booksellers Week. This was only the second year for this event, but it has all the feel of a long established tradition, with a lovely, friendly atmosphere.  It was a great privilege finally to meet and chat with the extraordinarily generous Mike Ripley. I was also pleased to meet Gordon Ferris, and run into Laura Wilson and Stephanie Merritt (S.J.Parris) again – both of whom I’d met before. All three were also on the shortlist for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Dagger Award. There were so many people I talked to that it’s impossible to mention everyone here. I look forward to going again next year. Thanks to David Headley for holding the event – and for all his support for writers.

The last time I won a prize was when I was seventeen. I was wearing a sword at the time (playing Imogen in Cymbeline) so it was a shock to win an award now. The CWA Daggers Awards ceremony on Thursday July 5th was an elegant affair held in the library at one Birdcage Walk. A special evening, meeting new people, catching up with others, accompanied by my editor Kate and my agent Maggie.

For a full list of the winners – and the long lists for the CWA Gold Dagger, the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger and the CWA  John Creasey (New Blood ) Dagger , click on this link:

Thanks to everyone for all the congratulations I’ve received. I hope by now I’ve got back to everyone individually.

On a personal note, the thing that has given me most delight is my three year old grandson saying congratulations on Skype and offering to fence his wobbly pirate’s cutlass against my dagger.

Friday 25 May 2012

Shortlisted for Ellis Peters Historical Fiction

I’ve just heard that  ‘Icelight’ has been shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Award for Fiction - together with  ‘The Crown’ by Nancy Bilyeau, ‘I Will Have Vengeance’  by Maurizio de Giovanni, ‘Bitter Water’ by Gordon Ferris, ‘Prague Fatale’  by Philip Kerr, ‘Sacrilege’ by SJ Parris and ‘A Willing Victim’ by Laura Wilson.  

Tuesday 15 May 2012

A Question of Image

I met Laura when we appeared together at the Guildford Book Festival last October. It was
an enjoyable event and we got on well together.

But neither of us was aware that the image our publishers had of us was so similar!

Laura's book has just come out - as always, definitely worth reading.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Rehabilitation of Cocoa and Men

Yesterday I heard a strange story. It stemmed from the filming in Edinburgh, with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, of one part of an adaptation of The Railwayman, Eric Lomax’s account of his time on the Burma Railway as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War 2.
Mr Lomax has actually met Nagase Takashi, his interrogator and torturer, and they have reconciled – or as Mr Lomax puts it, ‘the hating has to stop’. This took some time, until the late 1990’s. The victims of torture are double victims. The aftermath is also torture. The victim is cut off from everyone by distrust and bitterness.

Of course Eric Lomax was by no means alone. It is also the case that the POWs after WW2 received little in the way of support or, if necessary, treatment.

What I learnt yesterday is a strange footnote. It is a sort of recognition of what some of the prisoners went through, but curiously colonial.

In 1951, what was then the Gold Coast and is now Ghana had a cocoa problem. Cocoa had been imported years before from Brazil and was – and is – one of Ghana’s chief crops. Unfortunately, the cocoa trees were falling victim to swollen shoot disease. Dr Kwame Nkrumah had just won the first elections in the Gold Coast and an ambitious Cocoa Rehabilitation Scheme was started.

Somewhat to the surprise of those already there, the British sent a large contingent of men to help. A lot of these turned out to be ex-POWs. Somebody in Whitehall had had some sort of reaction and had read how cocoa is grown. Cocoa is not a plantation crop, like rubber or tea. It’s cultivated by many small holders in small areas cleared in the ‘bush’ or forest. These small holdings are spread out and not easily accessible, except on foot.

So the new ‘cocoa officers’ were provided with what were described to me as ‘huts’ and left on their own to police the cocoa in their area and to sort themselves out –  like versions of Thoreau’s Walden in the tropics – without the benefits or stresses of a social life. I don’t know who thought – or even if they did – that a different sort of tropics after these ex POWs experiences in Thailand and Burma might help. I suspect this was more an effort to chivvy them along and make them get used to being useful again.

I don’t know how successful this was with the ex-POWs. Swollen shoot disease persists and, as in 1951, is usually treated by destroying the cocoa tree. That didn’t make the small holders happy. I don’t know how the ex-POWs dealt with that.

I do know Eric Lomax was one and that it took him many more years to forgive his torturer.      

Wednesday 28 March 2012


Many years ago I read Lady Audley’s Secret , a ‘sensation’ novel of 1862 by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. It was a huge best-seller, made the author rich and enabled the publisher to build a villa in Barnes he was proud to call Audley Lodge.

Years on, not a lot of the book has stayed with me – but some of the ‘sensations’ have, particularly the very heightened rendering of a train journey in which the discomfort of the passenger is not due to the unusual speed of transport, but in going from city to city surrounded by anonymous people. She cannot begin to know if the people are who they look to represent. The taxonomy of village life has been swept away. She is lost in a world without markers. Her feelings are particularly acute because she is a ruthless social climber herself and is travelling to make sure a secret remains secret.

Lady Audley does not want fame. She wants high rank as a kind of worldly cloak to keep her safe in her, at the very least, sociopathic pretensions.

As I’ve said before, part of my Sunday morning routine is reading Javier Marías’ weekly column in El Pais.

A couple of weeks ago he dealt with anonymity of another kind. As a twelve year old, Marías became aware that his father, the philosopher Julian, received anonymous mail. Marías senior had left Spain with his family after Franco took power. No choice really, he was declared unfit to be a university professor and thus deprived of his livelihood. When he managed to return to Spain from the USA, he was welcomed by a barrage of anonymous mail.

Marías senior explained to his son that people who sent mail anonymously were of course cowards. There was also very little point in reading what they wrote since there was no address to reply to.

The point here, of course, is that the anonymous mail was also hate mail with no right of reply.

Javier Marías writes that he has had his own share. Some of this has been political. Some of this has been literary.

Of course, anonymous hate mail has a very long, very repetitive history. (The insults are rarely inventive) But it’s deeply unpleasant to be on the receiving end.

Marías, however, notes a change since the development of social media. In Spain – and elsewhere in Europe – the argument over copyright law in the internet age has led to attacks by those in favour of what they call ‘democracy’ – see arguments over pricing all the way to free downloads – on those who want to be paid royalties for their work. The tactics used, from publishing photos of where an author lives, to details of his or her family, carry a marginally bigger threat than a letter hoping the author rots in hell. In other words, behind the freedom of information or right to know comes the threat of ‘we know where you live’.

What’s interesting is that this type of anonymity is collective. While Javier Marías’s father knew pretty well the groups behind the mail he received, he also knew they would deny sending the stuff and were protected by the Franco regime.

The new internet anonymity is a lot more public – the attacks on Marías Sr. were private, were attempts to wound him. Publishing however that a writer’s twelve year old daughter goes to such and such a school and lives in this building, widens the threat to someone merely related to a person who ‘overcharges’ for his or her work.

Quite apart from the reality – the writer does not get much of a say in the price set by the publisher – the tactic seems to me near trolling, and akin to the bully-boy stuff employed by Franco’s hacks.

Who does it remind me of? Lady Audley actually. However cloaked, the anonymous attacks are self-righteous to the point of craziness.

Thursday 22 March 2012

The Circumlocutions of History.

Henry James is famously on record as saying that historical fiction is impossible. He always did have great respect for the dead and thought, probably accurately, that it was not possible to do justice to the motives and feelings of people quite as intelligent and limited as we are.

I thought I had solved some of the problem for my books by sticking to the edges of living memory. Now I’m not so sure. Recently, by accident, I came across a documentary film called Without Gorky. I needed a moment to work out that the film was not about Maxim Gorky, the writer. This was more recent. It involved the artist Ashile Gorky who hanged himself in 1948. The documentary was made by Cosima Spender, the artist’s grand-daughter. Her other grandfather was Sir Stephen Spender, the poet.

The star of the piece was Gorky’s widow, born Agnes Magruder in 1921. Gorky called her Mougouch and she is now known as Mougouch Fielding, having had, as third husband, the late Xan Fielding, friend of Patrick Leigh-Fermor from their days in Crete during WW2.

At age ninety, Mougouch rolled her own cigarettes and talked of the last terrible weeks of Gorky’s life. He had had colon cancer, the barn where he worked had been burnt down, he had been in a car accident that temporarily disabled his painting arm, he was drinking and violent and Mougouch had, for two days, sought solace with the Chilean painter Roberto Matta.

I certainly don’t feel able to make any judgement whatsoever on a painful story that caused long-term distress. But I do feel able to talk about something else. I’ll call it fiction. In the documentary it became clear that the painter’s name was not actually Gorky. He was probably an Armenian called Ardoyan and he had spent his life in America making up an entirely fictional person who painted what he did. His wife did not know this until long after he died, had no idea that his accounts of his past were, possibly, an effort to enable the painter he became.

It’s a good, curiously old-fashioned documentary. I don’t mean that the technique is old-fashioned, but the people who appear in it. The maker’s parents, Matt Spender and one of Gorky’s two daughters with Mougouch, have lived in Tuscany for many years and apparently provided some inspiration for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1996 film called Stealing Beauty. Matt Spender provided the terracotta sculptures shown in the film.

I mean that it is perfectly easy for the past not so much to take on the air of fiction but to provoke disbelief in the viewer. You don’t actually need a powerful story or an unlikely one, you just need to be aware of the time elapsed.

I have also recently seen TV interviews from the fifties. Nancy Astor was asked if women had the mental capacity to be MPs. She had been one, but replied with considerable forbearance. Edith Sitwell spoke in praise of Marilyn Monroe, saying that her nude calendar was no moral stain. Had her critics ever really been hungry? As it happens I agree, but Miss Sitwell was also most dismissive of people she considered her social and moral inferiors.

I could go on, but in interview after interview long forgotten people spoke with invincible aplomb and self-importance.
There were two things of interest. The interviewers behaved with enormous pomposity and deference. And the most unsuitable people made pronouncements on what they wished. Nowadays Gilbert Harding’s views on women – he liked ‘unassertive’ flowers – might elicit the question ‘why do you lump all women together?’ or just get booed.

The problem with fiction, however, is that if you use direct quotes from the 1940s say, the reader now may find them incredible. History, even still living history, has to take second place to fiction – or a version of history.

Friday 2 March 2012

Private and Public

Last Monday I went to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. It is a lengthy stretch of medium sized buildings, includes a teaching hospital, and combines the appearance of a campus and an out-of-town shopping mall, but without all the adverts. It is preceded by something of a hymn to the motor car - vast (full) car parks. Despite an arch or two and a dome (the mall), the Infirmary gives a sense of office building techniques adapted to health care. My husband tells me the mall itself reminded him of a real mall in Inverness circa 2001, except for the lengthy section given over to RBS, Britain’s favourite bankers. The Infirmary was opened in 2003. The trees haven’t fared very well.

I was there for an angiogram. This was not, as my sweet editor Kate Parkin enquired, due to the pressures of authorship, but to paternal genes. I now have a right arm the colour of a David Hockney winter tree in Yorkshire, colour-coded by his ipad - despite the attentions of Debora McGill, student nurse at Napier University. Her shifts are thirteen hours for three or four days – and then she gets to study. The other nurse, Elaine Esteban Aguilar, equally attentive, was also on long shifts. Both – Debora too despite her married surname - were originally from other countries. Both were excellent and very sweet.

In medical terms I found things out. My condition is treatable with medication. Otherwise I had to wait a lot to stop bleeding from the radial artery. This is the artery favoured by suicidal Romans in warm baths. After the procedure, protocol dictated I had to drink a lot of iced water and I had to have lunch – basically a sandwich also available in the mall already mentioned. And a banana. I also got what I will call a cubelet of apple juice.

With me in the ward were Leanne R, there for a pacemaker. Leanne is 27 and has Down’s syndrome. She was back in the ward cheerfully listening to music within an hour and a half. Sarah L had less good news. She needed a by-pass. Having already been through treatment for lymphoma Sarah was remarkably cheerful and gave us all a wave as she was wheeled off to an inpatients ward. Also there were two other angiograms and a kidney biopsy.

I had a wheely bed, a chair cum throne of Scandinavian-type wood frame and red seat and back, a gown that somehow reminded me of the defunct airline British Caledonian, and paper knickers. My husband got a stackable chair, also red, that stayed with him in the lumbar region until Tuesday.

During the procedure he was sent off for a walk. He met an elderly gentleman saying he had had quite enough. His new heart valve was clicking and wouldn’t let him sleep. He also met a young father of three whose blood clot in his left foot had turned into a biopsy on his hip. And he met two ladies, one there for an endoscopy and the other, as she put it, there as translator.

I suppose hospitals are always interesting. There is the personal element, and hospital routines and protocol. You certainly see how things work in the NHS. On the whole, at least in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, pretty well.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Help With The Ironing

When I was young I loved to act. Ophelia in Hamlet, Margaret Roper in A Man for All Seasons … even Caliban in The Tempest. I had what my father called ‘the acting bug’ and for a time seriously considered Drama School against University.

In the end I chose the latter. Part of growing up is working out what suits you. But my past interest also explains why I am occasionally struck by admiration for – or doubts about – a performance I see.

I should be clear here. I admire an actor like Bruno Ganz. I have been a fan since the wonderful Marquise of O, Eric Rohmer’s version of Heinrich von Kleist’s short story. Ganz is probably most famous now for his portrayal of Adolf Hitler in Downfall, a version of Hitler’s last twelve days in a Berlin bunker.

It is hard to conceive of what he went through to play this role. Raging, banal, pathetic –the performance is also good for what it does not do. There is no poetry, no mad grandeur, no catharsis. In short no MacBeth.

But there are some horrendously revealing moments. For example when Magda Goebbels, brilliantly played by Corinna Harfouch, decides to kill her children because she cannot bear the thought of them living in the world that is coming. She doesn’t quite look at what Hitler has been reduced to, but shifts her eyes just a little towards the bunker wall as she spouts loyalty to the ‘dream’ that was.

This projection or third element in a scene is very powerful.

Yesterday I was reminded of this when I heard someone mention the reaction to Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady. The gist was that nobody had attacked Bruno Gantz for playing Hitler, and that some of the reactions were against the ex-prime minister herself.

Like the speaker I was not living in the UK when Mrs Thatcher was in power. I do remember members of the Miners’ Union visiting Spain to raise funds during the famous strike. And I know my father loathed her.

Worse, I haven’t even seen the film. I have however – it is hard to avoid – seen various clips of what is at the least a remarkable piece of mimicry on Ms Streep’s part.

Now one of the reasons for my father’s dislike was Mrs Thatcher’s manner and voice. He regarded them as hectoring and affected. This has something to do with British political and social history. Edward Heath had done something similar - that is, acquire a tone and enunciation that, say, Sir Alec Douglas-Home had not had to acquire. Heath and Thatcher had both, as it were, stepped up from fairly modest beginnings to a fruitiness beyond that of mumbling toffs. A few years later Tony Blair – and many others – would go the other way and shed the sounds of privilege.

So I was struck in the clips by Meryl Streep’s third element – Mrs Thatcher’s own projected view of who she was and what she represented. I don’t know that it will win her an Oscar. Viola Davis has also portrayed an aspect of American social and political history in The Help.

Yes, I played Viola in Twelfth Night too.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Viva La Pepa

In exactly a month’s time, on March 19, celebrations will begin to mark the 200th Anniversary of a Spanish Constitution colloquially called ‘La Pepa”. This is because March 19 is the feast day of San José (Father’s Day in Spain) and Josés in Spain are often called Pepe or, as in this case, Josefas are called Pepa.

The constitution (the first of seven since then) was drawn up by Las Cortes de Cádiz, ‘Las Cortes’ being the word Spain still uses for Parliament. The reason for Cádiz was that the rest of Spain at the time was occupied by Napoleon’s forces – indeed French troops were camped outside the fortifications on the only road that connected the city to the mainland.

At one level then, La Pepa was an act of defiance in what Spaniards call the War of Independence against the French.

At another, while Cádiz was protected by British ships and supported by British money, the constitution was meant as an enlightened blueprint for the future not only in Spain but in also in South America.

It is often called a ‘liberal’ constitution, but the word has shifted meaning. La Pepa was liberal in the sense that the Constitution of the USA was liberal – with one main difference. The Spanish chose a constitutional monarchy rather than no monarchy at all. Other matters, the separation of powers, a free press, freedom of trade and so on will be familiar.

In political terms of course, La Pepa was a failure. Fernando VII returned in 1814 as an absolute monarch, and while it was periodically resurrected, (mostly in 1820-1823), La Pepa was pushed into the utopia bin.

It remains however an influence. It influenced other constitutions. Norway’s of 1814 for example, as well as the constitutions of countries in South America that broke away from Spain a few years later.

And in a way it remains an aspiration. There is a large and pretty pompous monument to La Pepa in La Plaza de España in Cádiz, complete with lions and draped ladies, put up around a hundred years later. And now the second bridge into Cádiz from the mainland is to be called La Pepa for the bi-centenary.

But mostly, I think that first constitution is a reminder that a group of men (yes, that’s men, they talked of universal male suffrage) from both sides of the Atlantic could, when under siege, work fast and hard to translate a desire for justice into a code of words.

Next month, then, for the celebration of the bi-centenary, there will be tall ships and lots of politicians. But the attraction of written constitutions is that they frame and are bigger than the politicians who work within them.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Proof of Life

I belong to a large group of writers who consider that, once a book is published, it is no longer theirs. Yes, title and name go on but the reader takes over, to like what they read or not.

One of the most interesting parts of this change-over is the reader’s reaction to the behaviour and even fate of characters in the book. Just like the writer, the reader brings his or her own tastes, impressions and emotional life to the process.

Occasionally, someone will contact me to comment on a character. Don’t let this person go, for example. Or, as recently, ask why I let my character Cotton behave ungenerously to a girl called Anna, a Czech refugee working or trying to work in theatre during the freezing winter of 1947.

I usually have a back story for my characters. This is to help me ground them, but I don’t, of course, put all the back story in the book. The reader, if taken by the character, is free to provide their own.

My correspondent was taken with her. Her person, her difficulties and her reaction to them. She is, to use Muriel Spark’s title, a girl of slender means. She’s ambitious but trying to keep warm and to eat. As a result, she uses people and since she is ambitious, sometimes over-estimates the abilities of someone, like Cotton for example, to help her ambitions. I think it is fair to suggest that the hardness of her life encourages her to think others have much easier lives.

In the particulars of Icelight, Cotton behaves ungenerously, having returned to his flat with a newly acquired and bandaged razor wound about eight inches long on his right thigh.

In effect he passes Anna on to a dimwit with money who might be able to help her. But it does remain that he gets rid of her and does so without many flourishes.

I’d like to think this is convincing. But I may be wrong.

What I do know is that such reactions help this writer – it’s proof of life and as such both encourages me and makes me want to try harder.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Penny Pinching Pirates

Yesterday I found out that my latest Peter Cotton novel, Icelight was being pirated. Flattering? I am not sure.

Publishing has long been a compacted cottage industry, by which I mean that multinationals aggregate a great many individual writers to look like one big umbrella with a logo on it. Experience of other industries suggests this model does not always work. Music, for example.

What does appear strange is the great divergence in demand. Very many people want to read – or have wanted to read – the Twilight Saga. Likewise the Harry Potter books. In my case, however, the pirates are now catering for what I can only describe with any politeness as a boutique interest. To be blunt, Peter Cotton has no theme park, nor film series.

No. We are talking here of penny pinching pirates.

My cynical husband has assured me that the meaning of ‘copyright’ has changed. It now indicates a right to copy.

Since my sales really do not justify a J K Rowling type legal team using a ‘watermark’ to trace buccaneers, he has come up with what he terms ‘an oblique response’ – namely the manufacture of pins and T-shirts. The pins will be ‘P’ for pirated. The T-shirts will bear legends like ‘I’ve been pirated.’ He suggests the margins would match royalties and invites suggestions.

I am a little surprised that the pirates have bothered. There is inclusive and there is swashbuckling. Not much swash here, I think. This is more like Scrooge than Jack Sparrow.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Twelfth Night - Noche de Reyes!

Everyone is back at work in Britain, tinsel and Christmas trees tidied away, but in Spain, this is ‘Noche de Reyes’ the time for present giving, and the official end of Christmas. This year for the first time, my little grandson who lives in Spain was aware and excited about Santa coming (Santa duly did) and tonight eagerly awaits the Three Kings – los Reyes Magos.

Twelfth Night is of course the title of a Shakespeare play, so called because Shakespeare was commissioned to write a play for the celebration of the Epiphany – the twelfth and last day of Christmas. The play itself has nothing to do with Christmas or the Three Kings, but it has been one of my favourites for a very long time – deliciously funny and witty, and who could not be in love with Viola, the strong young heroine who (as do a number of Shakespeare’s heroines) dons men’s clothing to survive and speaks wonderful lines? When I was about 12 I had a Twelfth night party in which everyone had to assume the name of one of the characters of the play. It ended with us dismantling the Christmas tree. As a tradition, I have to say, it didn’t catch on.

This Christmas, record numbers of E-readers have found their way into people’s stockings. It was only to be expected, therefore, that downloads of ebooks would soar. According to some sources millions of ebooks have been purchased in the UK alone since Christmas. I will put to one side for the moment the Daily Mail’s characteristically measured report of the seemingly unstoppable rise in piracy, echoing what has happened in the music and film industry. One of the things that has struck me is the number of people who have been downloading classics (many of them free) and have announced that they are going to include them in their reading along with their habitual literary diet. For some, this is about trying something they have never read before; for others, revisiting well-loved books.

So, on ‘Noche de Reyes’, if you want a free ebook for your fine new e-reader, resist the temptation to download a pirated version. Instead, be adventurous. Find something surprising, that is new for you, unlike anything you normally read, among the classics legitimately available for free download. Or download an old favourite, to carry with you and dip into wherever you are.

I, of course, have downloaded Twelfth Night.