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Still Joining Up The Sparkling Dots

The quotations below encapsulate many of the reasons I chose the novel form for the Berkeley Series.

There is no doubt that fiction makes a better job of the truth.

Doris Lessing

Nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction.

Nadine Gordimer

Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.

Mark Twain

Like many rich men, he thought in anecdotes; like many simple women, she thought in terms of biography.

Anita Brookner

Biography lends to death a new terror.

Oscar Wilde

Discretion is not the better part of biography.

Lytton Strachey

I had to do the book because there was an unauthorised biography which didn't tell it like it was.

Cilla Black

Just how difficult it is to write biography can be reckoned by anybody who sits down and considers just how many people know the real truth about his or her love affairs.

Rebecca West

One good anecdote is worth a volume of biography.

William Ellery Channing

People think that because a novel's invented, it isn't true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.

Anthony Powell

There is no psychology; there is only biography and autobiography.

Thomas Szasz

There is properly no history, only biography.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Biography is the only true history.

Thomas Carlyle

I can find my biography in every fable that I read.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Almost any biographer, if he respects facts, can give us much more than another fact to add to our collection. He can give us the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.

Virginia Woolf

When THE WOLF AND THE LAMB was a Work in Progress, I described it as a biographical novel, a recognised genre in those days. Several months after publication, the tag was changed to 'novelised biography'. This doesn't fit under a ready-made heading, but more accurately describes what's going on. To me, and it seems to readers, 'biographical novel' is opaque,  whereas 'novelised biography' sparks curiosity. Who? When? Where? How? Why?
    The subtle shift in emphasis has aroused a more focused interest.
    Why not just write a biography? It might have been easier! A novelist, whilst using imagination to reconstruct events and decide what hinges upon what, cannot muse upon a timeline. A story demands positive chronology and, because it is about real people, that deserves to be as faithful as can be made.
    Firstly, I chose the novel form because the story begged to live in 3-D. It needed to be a product of the social, cultural, economic, religious and political conflict of the times. The late Georgian era was one of dynamic change to landscape and livelihood and the beginning of a revolution that is still going on. Then there was Bonaparte, the Corsican Monster, on the doorstep. I wanted to make a psychological journey into Mary Cole's life and try to discover how it was for her, how she forced the locks of the oubliette that was the female universe, whilst keeping the reputation lost to her ambitious sisters. There is no doubt that she identified with many of Mary Wollstonecraft's beliefs, but never resorted to aggressive, or even assertive, feminism.
   The second reason, and this is bound up with #1, is because I can tell you what appears to be true, but it may not convey the truth about this remarkable lady. Yes, mine is a personal reconstruction and it's possible that there are places I've joined up the dots wrongly. But from ranging wide and delving deep into research documents, trawling through thousands and thousands of records, checking and cross-referencing, this is the basis on which I believe it happened. It proves nothing if not the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
   As a young novelist, I rifled through less well-known figures of history in a bid to find a subject that snagged attention but hadn't been tackled. On an arts course based in Bath, a visit to Berkeley Castle brought the quest to an end. There, in the drawing-room, flanking one side of the fireplace wall, was the Hoppner painting above. It brought a tingle to the nape. I knew that woman. In spite of her Jane Austen clothes, Mary Cole struck me as modern, a woman whose strength of character shone through her beauty. There is in her a wistfulness, a touch of injury and a resolve not to be defeated by circumstance. She had plenty of confidence, instilled by a mother who saw status as an accident of birth, and a father who strove to provide an education for his daughters, albeit modest, in a local academy.
   They were all women of destiny.
   The sisters, Ann and Susan, made themselves available among the aristocracy and eventually married well, emigrating to the New World where they daily played out their roles among prosperous merchant bankers and the founders of the American Constitution. Mary, the youngest, was demure, and from the moment the feckless Lord Berkeley spotted her sitting in a bow window in Gloucester with her needlework, he hounded her from every hiding-place, finally resorting to kidnap.
   She consorted with all the movers and shakers of her day, including royalty, some of whom were antagonistic and some who genuinely loved her.
   Her story has been with me for thirty years. I do hope readers will enjoy it, but whatever they make of it, this is my magnum opus. Into Book Three, the story is still evolving and there are more scintillating dots to join up which cast a trenchant light upon the earlier decades and present a whole new tier of consequences. One thing is certain, old enemies die hard and scandal has a life of its own.
   It is a fascinating journey which has enriched my life beyond telling.

A Berkeley Castle window through which Mary might have looked out upon her beloved Vale

On The Edge Of Unbeing


A Poem for the Feast of Pentecost

They don't know what comes next.

They are trembling,

assembled together for comfort,

confused, bereft, vulnerable,

exposed to hostile forces,

on the edge of unbeing.

They've nothing to bless themselves with

and their manifesto looks dumb

without a party leader.

Where are they to go from here?

It was safe in his company,

despite the witchhunt.

The suffering had a purpose.

They trusted what he was about,

dimly grasping that the 'whited sepulchre'

must be blasted to shards.

To Regain Paradise by dint of law

and the redistribution of wealth

was both illusion and travesty

that cost blood anyway.

He had come to weigh himself

in the balance,

the fulcrum of those scales

unhinged by Adam for all time,

without some Mighty Advocate

intervene with a case

of special pleading and turn the tables

on the wealth-and-muscle hungry,

those with intellectual pretensions

and stiff-necked arrogance.

But why abandon his own,

just when the tide seems

to be turning? The corporate

wounds, defiantly repairing, are now

incorporeal. His mother, the chamber

of his incarnation, the only shrine

and single point of focus, holding it

all together: they could scavenge

with their eyes of dust until eternity,

the vision fumed with nostalgia.

But hark! This rushing wind fans

embers into conflagration.

He's here! In cloistered space!

Mary's haloed head peers heavenward

and hands are linked in concord.

Atomic Courage! Immortal Inspiration!

Babel rased to debris! Love reigns!

No power on earth can quench

Shekhinah's fire! Go, tell the world

and dare to live as if...

From JERICHO ROSE, Songs from the Wilderness (Collection in preparation.)

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This Book - Some thoughts on the Baileys Prize

'I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.'

Virginia Woolf

Under the hashtag #ThisBook, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, launched in 1996, asks readers to name the inspirational work that has made the most impact on them. This is a tall order and a very particular one. The temptation to name novels we consider great literature does need to be resisted in favour of any that have been a strong catalyst in the way we approach our lives.

Age must come into this equation. Maturer readers, while they may relish new discoveries in a variety of genres, are perhaps not so amenable to having their preconceptions overturned, or being startled by the breaching of what was once off-limits. Their choices are likely to be retrospective and at least partially influenced by stories with a universal and timeless appeal, as is largely evidenced by titles submitted by well-known personalities.

If I had to choose one book from the whole canon of my reading to date which has impinged the deepest and provided a platform for mining the treasures of subtext and the dynamic irrelevancies of stream-of-consciousness, it has to be Virginia Woolf's The Waves. 'I wish you could live in my brain for a week. It's washed with the most violent waves of emotion.'

We are submerged in a Darwinian sea with its hypnotic rhythms. We yield to its undertow and the silent, darting interplay of light and shadow. The boundaries between the characters are not flesh and blood and space. They share a seamless unconscious that roams free through Time and Creation. Only momentary impressions distinguish them from each other. They are modified, qualified, enlarged, enhanced, overcast, by their fleeting proximity to each other and the way a random universe has assorted them, forcing them through the hoops of daily role-playing required to function in a mortal sphere.

These characters are turned inside out, yet miraculously distinct, as they unreel their surface monologues and unveil their uniqueness.

Like a pioneering cartographer, this book offers a map of the human psyche when the mist has been wiped from the lens. Such revelation means you can never look at the world in the same way again.

To have understood this, to be so the thing itself, is surely genius.

There are other women writers who have exerted no less an influence, though the reasons, by comparison, are fairly mundane. What period novelist could discount the energetic prose of Jane Austen, witty and worldly, wicked, wise and wonderful, capturing in vivid relief the social customs and atmosphere of the late Georgian era?

Georgette Heyer, a great entertainer, had the knack of mimicking Austen's verve against a background of meticulous research and a facility with language she did not have to hide. She claimed that if she were cast away on a desert island, she would sooner have Austen's work than any other. I loved Heyer when I set out on my writing career. That tempo, those idioms, plus all the colourful detail of the times, supplied the courage to turn up the vacant page in the typewriter.

Having said this, the writer whose method, vitality and insights, have become almost ingrained and have helped to inform the Berkeley Series, is Helen Ashton, a respected novelist, who appeared not to achieve the recognition she deserved. In her day, there was less emphasis on fame and more on the virtues of steady industry as representing success. She possessed a gift, largely lost nowadays, which is the ability to engage dialogue within the spellbinding narrative of legendary storytelling.  She has written with dashing elegance of William and Dorothy (Wordsworth), of Parson Austen's Daughter, The Swan of Usk (Henry Vaughan) and of life in the household of the Prince Regent at Brighton Pavilion from the perspective of a footman.

 Finally, to jump forward a few decades, I can't omit Susan Hill whose earlier stories touched many raw nerves. Her sentences are often composed of idiosyncratic, intersecting clauses that are natural as running water and soak into the skin. With effortless fluency and an inadvertent eye, she unpacks the menace beneath the apparently innocent, not the Machiavellian, nor the malevolent, but the sinister in everyday exchanges loaded with unprocessed grief and emotion. How did she know about the instructions written in carpenter's pencil, on torn-off scraps of greaseproof paper, with which an embittered mother sends her son to buy fish, stressing what she will and won't pay for, and to go to the beach for it, not the fishmonger? It's like reading a leaf from your past.

In this general vicinity, I might sneak in Margaret Drabble, Rose Tremain, Kate Atkinson, Salley Vickers, Irene Nemirovsky, all for different reasons. I wish the list was more contemporary and less seemingly xenophobic when I've enjoyed the writings of other cultures and landscapes. (The brief here is gender specific, too.) And I wish there were expanses of leisure time to explore!

Would I have discovered these authors without a literary fanfare? Was it easier for the cream to rise in the days when publishing had integrity and writers had a clearer sight of their goals? I don't know. The old maxim that youth is a gift of nature and age a work of art may have just a little to do with it. Who knows what may emerge when the present writing generations come into their own?

But what all the authors mentioned have in spades is Voice. Cadence. Style. Empathy. Instinctive gifts they have developed through practice. Because of it, their images lodge in the shadows of the mind, unforgettable as ancient poetry.

Mistaken Vintage!


Fire And Wine

A poem for the Feast of Pentecost

And then it happened...

We hung around for safety

above ground level

the clamouring souls outside

a packed embolus

fain clutching our feet

as if they craved live contact

with celebrity

and sought a fragment of him

we could not furnish

that desert instant

the Word became illumined

sparks ran among the

stubble of our deadlocked heart

bursting occlusion

We recalled the phrase

God is a consuming fire

We had thought it meant

wrath; titanic sacrifice

on our part, not his

Holocausts were done!

The quality of mercy

much spoken of was

now eternally unstrained

its current flowing

This was the God of

Shadrach and his noble breed

passing through furnace

defying wild destruction

unseared and annealed

It was the God of

Moses and the burning bush

bridling lakes of fire

of brimstone and Gehenna

passionate in peace

Divine transfusion

filling us with sentience!

We rose up as one

the livid fear doused and gone

We had to tell it!

So high on rapture

we gave the false impression

the wine of Bacchus

irrigated our parched veins

Mistaken vintage!

The Feminine Principle

For true love is inexhaustible; the more you give, the more you have, and if you go to draw at the true fountainhead, the more water you draw, the more abundant is its flow.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

boundary breaker
ocean bites into the shore
like Eve the apple
cataclysm of ice-caps
old salt solution

rivers swell, banks break
tides roll and sweep, seethe and creep
deluging fissures
searching blind and blighted creeks
for enfranchisement

water sinuous
as serpent mythology
suggests oases
silently the silvered planes
mirror glass ceilings

virtual pome of
hardbitten technology
where's the salvation
in knowledge, remote control
of what was Eden?

winter follows Fall
frost exploits cracks in earth's crust
sun shifts latitude
earth and water, air and fire
reconfigure strife

pales to liquidated text
rules of engagement
anticipate bottom lines
the Garden a maze

no visionary
stake in well-earned real estate
yielding fruit past the
sum of integral parts, still
New Eve, New Adam