Friday, 9 March 2012


I will not be writing this blog next week. I am off to Italy for a week, setting out on Tuesday.

I've been before, of course--as a classicist, how could I not?  After four visits to Rome I still haven't managed to go to all the things on my top-ten A-list.  I doubt I'll manage them this time, either: we're only in Rome for a day, this time, not long enough to hit Hadrian's villa, and as for the Via Appia Antica, one really has to do that on a Sunday, when it's closed to traffic.

The impetus for this visit is my 83-year-old mother, who has lost none of her wanderlust with age.  In a casual chat she lamented the fact that she had never seen Florence or the Bay of Naples, and it didn't seem to me that there was any reason for her to put up with that situation.

I've been to Florence three times.  I remember the first occasion most vividly: I drove there with my fiance--as he was then--on a holiday from Paris, where we were living at the time.  I left the car parked in a row with other cars, and returned awash with the glories of the Renaissance to find that the whole row of motors had been towed away.  (The police were very understanding of our foreign stupidity, and let us off the parking fine, though we still had to pay the tow charge.)

The Renaissance is not really my period, though Florence is hard to resist.  I'll feel more at home, though, in the Bay of Naples.  I've been to Pompeii and Herculaneum before, too--twice--but I can't imagine getting tired of them.  On my first visit I was too excited even to take pictures, and grinned so hard that at the end of the day my whole face ached.  I was calmer second time around, but no less enchanted.

Picnic in Herculaneum

We wandered through the ruins marvelling
at frescoed ceilings, bowls of painted fruit,
medusa-headed fountains and mosaic floors--
then settled in a garden where we ate
salami sandwiches on benches in the shade.
Beyond us stood the bath-house where they found
the huddled bones of the all the city's dead.
Vesuvius rose above us, hazed with blue.
In the garden, pomegranates grew.

The men and women who resided here
like us, and like Demeter's daughter, knew that fruit:
the tree that loves the water, loves the sun;
the biting sweetness of its seed upon the tongue
and taste that binds to death when dark has come.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

World Book Day

As an author I feel obliged to take note of the first of March, though I know that no comment I could make will be half as impressive as the celebrations at my grandson's school, where the children are arriving dressed as their favourite fictional characters. (I mean, really, what words can compete with the faces of a lot of excited four- and five- year-olds?)  Still, the occasion offers a chance to reflect on the craft which has engaged me all my life.

Like most authors, I read a lot, at least when I'm not writing myself.  (I'm supposed to be writing now, but the latest book is stuck--again--so I've been giving it a break and loading up the Kindle.)  I enjoy books of many different types:  literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy, murder mysteries, popular science, poetry--everything, really, except romances, which I just don't get. (They seem to me nothing but improbable obstacles to an inevitable outcome.)

When it comes to style, though, I can't seem to arrive at any conclusions about what I like.  I know what my principles are when I'm writing. Never use a long word unless it really adds something that isn't there in the short one; never use a Latin word when an Anglo-Saxon one will do; whenever possible use a verb instead of an adverb, a noun instead of an adjective;  look for ways to cut, rather than expand, descriptions; if a metaphor feels strained dump it, and so on.  When I'm reading, though, I'm inconsistent.  I condemn some books (high-brow and low-) as over-written, word-heavy, too elaborate.  Persicos odi, puer, apparatus! as the poet Horaces says, 'Boy, I hate these Persian gewgaws, these interwoven crowns can never please me.'  I recently read Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie; after the first chapter I found the dense, vivid language wearing, and by the end I was skimming paragraphs, only stopping to read them through if it looked as though something was actually happening.  How much better, I thought, was the limpid prose of, e.g., Andrew Miller's Pure, everything in its place and every nuance counting!  Yes, I told myself, simple, clear prose really is better . . .then I remembered how much I love the verbal extravagance and inventiveness of Neal Stephenson or Michael Chabon.   I certainly can't claim them for the simple and limpid school, but I absolutely love the way they write.

I'm on firmer ground with fiction's other ingredients. I like it when characters have distinctive voices, so that you know who's talking before you reach the 'X said'. I like characters who aren't too simple, and I like to be shown, rather than told, what they're like.   I like books that have a plot--not necessarily an action-packed one, but there should be a conflict which is resolved somehow at the end.  I don't like epics; I want what I read to have a beginning, a middle and an end--but that's a matter of taste, not an aesthetic judgement.

There are times when being an author myself prevents me from enjoying something I otherwise might.  This happens most often when there are holes in the logic of a plot.  I try very hard to avoid these when I'm writing, with the result that I notice them at once when I read them.  No, I think, the timing doesn't work; or Why does she think that? Nobody would think that! or Why the hell does the bad guy bother?What's in it for him?--and then I can't read any more of an otherwise entertaining author.  There are other times, though, when being an author myself means I enjoy something most people miss.  Patrick O'Brian, for example, had a mastery of narrative which was extraordinary: he could make time speed up or slow down, move from breathless action to long weeks of calm without jarring; convey details in dialogue or slip into first-person narration through journals and letters without once slowing the momentum of the book--all without calling attention to himself.  That's real writing.