Thursday, 1 April 2021

Klara and the Sun, and Piranesi; Two Elegant New Stories

I’ve just read two books, recently released in beautifully tooled hardback. As I was reading them, I’d close them momentarily to gaze on their covers, which become meditative if you let them. The first, Clara and the Sun, is from my all-time favourite author, Nobel Laureate, Zazuo Ishiguro…his ninth book.  The other, Piranesi, is only the second novel of an increasing favourite of mine, Susanna Clarke, author of the amazing  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Clarke’s story, Piranesi, is a fantasy set in an alternative universe. Ishiguro’s story is almost sci-fi, set in the near-future. Yet, something  links these books, unalike though they are. The narrators express themselves with an almost stilted, careful politeness and are both concerned to a high degree with loneliness, and what they can remember. 

Although they were only born a few years apart, Clarke and Ishiguro have very different stories. Ishiguro came to England from Japan when he was five. His mother had been in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped, and was very slightly injured. His father, oceanographer, brought his family to the UK for work.

After university, Clarke worked in publishing, especially editing cookery books, while  she secretly began her first novel in her spare time. “I had a kind of waking dream,” she says, “about a man in 18th-century clothes in a place rather like Venice, talking to some English tourists. And I felt strongly that he had some sort of magical background – he'd been dabbling in magic, and something had gone badly wrong.’ She sold the unfinished manuscript to Bloomsbury in early 2003, after two publishers rejected it as unmarketable. Bloomsbury were so sure the novel would be a success that they offered Clarke a £1 million advance. After promoting her book, she fell ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, and it’s taken her a long time to write a second. And, even though Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel was a huge success, Clarke has not yet fully been given her due, unlike Ishiguro.

Very early on, it because clear that Ishiguro would be a writer. In primary school he recalls creating…a character called Mr. Senior, which was the name of my friend’s scoutmaster. I thought this was a really cool name for a spy. I got into Sherlock Holmes around then in a big way. I’d do a pastiche of a Victorian detective story that began with a client arriving and telling a long story. But a lot of the energy went into decorating our books to look exactly like the paperbacks we saw in the shops—drawing bullet holes on the front and putting quotations from newspapers on the back; “Brilliant, chilling tension.” —Daily Mirror.

 As a teenager, Ishiguro describes himself as a… “guitar-playing hippie.” After finishing his degree, he worked with homeless people in London, until…”almost by accident, I came across a little advertisement for a creative-writing M.A. taught by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. Today it’s a famous course, but in those days it was a laughable idea, alarmingly American.” Out of that MA came his first book, A View of Pale Hills, set in Nagasaki. 

copyright Andrew Testa

“I tend to write the same book over and over,” Ishiguro admitted in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. On most fronts, his books couldn’t be more different. But there are themes he returns to time and again…how we witness things…perceive things…and how this affects our memory. And then there is this somewhat formal and stilted narrating voice that most of his characters have.  For all this to work, he employs ‘unreliable narrators’. 

In his second book, Artist in a Floating World, Masuji Ono used to be a respected artist but now the 2ndWW is over, he recalls his past subjectively, ignoring the grim reckoning that has followed the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Ono’s guilty secrets centre on guilt, and they come to haunt him as he tries to marry off his daughter.

The Remains of the Day (1989) won the Booker Prize and is a glorious film. Lord Darlington’s butler, Stevens, has given his life for ‘the house’, without ever realising…or admitting…two things – that the housekeeper is in love with him, and that he’s been in service to a Nazi sympathizer.

My own early favourite The Unconsoled, baffled some critics who savaged it, but others right described it as ‘a masterpiece’. Written almost in stream of consciouness, it’s the story of a concert pianist who arrives in a foreign city not knowing where he is or what he’s supposed to be doing.

In Never Let Me Go (2005)  the narrator is a clone who grows up in a children’s home for clones whose organs will be harvested one day. It’s never clear at what point our narrator realises what her fate is, but she is the most delightful of companions as she unfolds her terrifying story.

Maybe Ishiguro’s seventh novel, The Buried Giant won him his Nobel Prize; it’s a very great book, which I talk about in more detail here.

Finally, we have Klara and the Sun. This elegant, eloquent and intricately controlled novel explores what it means to be an Artificial Friend  – a humanoid machine bought by parents to provide companionship for their teenage children, who, having been genetically manipulated, or ‘lifted’ to gain higher intelligence, are lonely home-schoolers who need a friend. Klara is chosen by Josie, who responded badly to being ‘lifted’ and is often seriously ill with something that may kill her as it killed her sister. As before, Ishiguro seeds in hints and clues about the shape of this futuristic world, allowing us to do most of the imagining ourselves. Klara takes it for granted that we’ll understand the odd pixilation she experiences with sight, and the fact she can’t smell…and the fact that some people describe her as no better than a vacuum cleaner. Klara is programmed to want to help, and unlike other AIs in fiction, who rebel, her willingness to help humans is misused in chilling ways. 

The New York Times says…I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy, the way Hardy’s novels, at the end of the 19th century, captured the growing schism between the natural world and the industrialized one. There is no doubt that Ishiguro’s novels will become the sort of classics that Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure have become.

Will Clarke follow those footsteps and continue to bring us remarkable novels with remarkable stories? I've written about the amazing  Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell here. And now we have Piranesi, in which the narrator can’t recall his original name. Devoid of reliable memories, he lives in a strange, ocean-washed (and occasionally drowned) stone-built land which consists of miles of empty halls and courtyards. In his journal he writes about a vast array of statuary in the halls, and the fifteen other people who have lived in this world, all of them now reduced to their bones, except his one so-called friend, ‘the Other’, who only visits for an hour twice a week, but brings him surprising gifts such as new shoes and plastic bowls and is the person who has named him 'Piranesi'. This is not a fond naming; Giovanni Battista Piranesi was born in Venice is 1720  and became a classical archaeologist, architect, and artist, famous for his etchings

Work by Piranesi

of fictitious and atmospheric "prisons". So I will call him what he calls himself... The Child of the House He loves his world, and, unlike Klara’s teenaged friend, does not feel at all lonely. In fact, when someone new infiltrates this world, he’s terrified, especially as the Other warns him that this interloper will only bring madness. 

I’m going to stop there, before I reveal all the twists and turns of the story. To find out what happens to this Child of the House, and where is is he lives, and how these others are getting into it, you'll have to read this beautiful book. 

 “Some ideas go into your mind and become part of the furniture,” Clarke says. “Piranesi’s favourite statue is of a faun in the pose of Mr Tumnus. There’s so much of Piranesi in that story that I must have subconsciously remembered …Anyone who’s read Narnia as a child, for whom it is a formative book, constantly is aware that they have that desire – one day, there will be the wardrobe. Something that will take you there. It’s a very old longing in me.”

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury

Klara and the Sun is published by Faber & Faber 

Saturday, 6 March 2021

A Catch-up of Fiction Today. 7 novels that novelist can learn from.


I was really lucky; my final proof reading of the new Shaman Mystery was last month. As this fourth book about the incorrigible Sabbie Dare is set in February, I was able to soak up all those drear February experiences – the perpetual rain, the sudden moments of sun, the deep frosts, the dark evenings. 

Through the Floodgate
opens in early December 2014, when across the the Southwest, dramatic storms began. On the Somerset Levels, where Sabbie Dare lives, floods were threatening to yet again wreck farmland and villages. The first chapter shows the secret meeting between two feuding farmers, the torrential rain not able to dampen their anger and hate. 

When Sabbie picks up the story, at the end of January,  the floods are beginning to recede. A car is revealed beneath the floodwaters in a Somerset valley...Harper's Coombe.  Many vehicles were 'drowned' in the 2014 Somerset floods, but this one contained a dark secret. A man, dead before the floods overcame his car. And lying next to him, a shotgun.

    It seemed the saddest occurrence of the all the sadness of the devastation. According to bulletins, he was named as John Spicer. He had parked miles from his prosperous farm and big family, and shot himself in the head. 

    He must have chosen it as a quiet spot and driven there through the rain, too wrecked in his life to want to go on with it. He’d stuck a shotgun in his mouth. Not a cry for help – he knew he would die. Then, as the waters rose, he floated inside his car, like spacemen float around their cabin, alone, undiscovered, the murky waters covering him as if he was a burial at sea, the car a coffin. 

 Sabbie is thinking about John Spicer because she's at the funeral of a childhood friend. Kerry, who she knew as a child when she lived at the Willows Children's Home, had thrown herself from the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

 In this latest episode in Sabbie's life, I will explore the darkness that surrounds suicide, the darkness that pervades sexual abuse, and the way natural catastrophes can wreak havoc on the farming community.

But writing should never stop you reading, in fact, it is the most important and useful method of developing as a writer. I'm going to look at seven books I've read since the pandemic has locked us down at home. All of them are very different, but they have all helped me write and rewrite.  Because the shops are shut, they came into my possession in a variety of ways; I collected an armful from charity shops, and a pile from the library before it closed. I filched a couple from a 'free books' shelf outside my village hall, people have kindly given me books, and I ordered one from the net. This was a motley collection and the reading generated a diversity of reactions from me. Here are seven, in order from most disliked to most loved. 

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

Jim Crace  is known for slightly off-beam...okay, slightly weird stories. His Harvest is a favourite of mine, a gripping tale set in a quasi-medieval village. But Being Dead left me as cold as the two main characters, who are dead within a page or two of the opening. We watch them decompose, after an opportunist thief kills them to steal the little they have brought with them to make love in the dunes beside the beach they met on, thirty-odd years ago. They are not all that likeable, in life or death, and I might have given up   entirely, had it not be

The Lonely by Andrew Michael Hurley

Atmospheric and brilliantly described, the landscape of this book supports a slow-burning story that takes you into dark places. Two brothers, one almost fully responsible for the other, discover that the grown-up world they are both almost part of is bleaker and more disturbing than they could have imaginined. I do feel that the story would have told better if we'd moved between the present day (where they're older and wiser) and the past; the visit to The Lonely to heal Andrew, the older brother.

Akin,  by Emma Donaghue 

I’d been gifted the very beautiful hardback copy of this book, with its slightly Art Deco cover depicting Nice on the Cote D’Azure. I’ve already read two books by Donaghue; Room, and The Wonder. These two books are as different as a pea is to a pod, and I was not disappointed to discover that everything about Akin is different to those earlier novels.

I was drawn to the book because I know Nice well, I have family just along the coast, but it was the moment I read the blurb on the flyleaf that I knew I would not be able to put this book down. Who could resist this; A retired New York professor’s life is thrown into chaos when he takes his great-nephew to the French Riviera, in hopes of uncovering his own mother’s wartime secrets.

As you leaf through the frontispieces, towards the first chapter, you come across the dictionary definition of ‘akin’, and also several very grainy black-and-white snapshot pictures. A grand Nice building, a strange symbol, a couple on a park bench, snapped from behind. What these mean is revealed steadily as you read into the book.

Noah Sevaggio is eighty next week. He’s never been back to the city where he was born, and in the past few years he’s lost his entire family; his brilliant wife, Joan, his sister and brother-in-law and even their son, Victor, who died of a drug overdose in his twenties. Eleven-year-old Michael is Victor’s son, and has been living with his granny since his mother, Amber, was thrown into jail for selling drugs. Now Granny has died and Michael has no-one.

Of course Noah is talked into taking on this child. Michael is savvy and streetwise and battered by a young life of hardcore experience, deprived of almost everything Noah would hold as needful for an upbringing. He’s full of suppressed anger and blatant cheek, with a mouth chocked with swearwords Noah didn’t know even existed. He’s had little education, but he’s smart. Noah trails him around Nice, so that we can also enjoy getting immersed in its seascape, its sounds and landmarks, its smells and tases. They are searching out the past of Noah’s mother’s final years in the city, after she’d packed Noah and his father off to the US.They use the grainy photos he’d found in her effects and Micheal becomes as keen on the quest as his great-uncle. 

All Noah was attempting to do was fill a gap, throw his ungainly self down so the kid could ross over this abyss. Weren’t all of us bridges for each other one way or another?…And then it struck him that it was really the other way around. This boy was saving Noah. Rescuing him from the trap of habit, the bleak tedium of counting sown the year of his retirement. Michael was the little ark, crazily bobbing, in which one lucky old man could go voyaging

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better by Benjamin Wood

The book starts off like any family drama, a steady rise in tension showing the aftermath of a family break-up. I imagined it would be about a twelve-year-old boy's assent into manhood, where he learns the facts of growing up by taking a trip with his estranged father. ‘I believed my father was a good man, somebody whose blood was fit to share.’ That might have been clue enough that things were going to take a dreadful turn. Wood  breaks a well-known rule…never tell the reader what is going to happen at the start of the story… with the words; As we drove off, [Mum] was smiling at herself, a limp hand spread across her heart. It was the last I ever saw of her. What’s the writer doing? I had to ask. This is a dangerous tactic, only to be used when you’re hugely confident it’s the right approach. By the time I was a third into the novel, I could see his rational. The gentle, steady incline up the tension stakes was tempered with vulnerability. They’re heading towards the Lake District, but as the story moves through this beautiful landscape, it becomes a place of blood and terror, it’s beauty is replaced by a ragged, tattered, chaotic, menace. The seedy pub, the rusty gates, the cluttered interior of the Volvo’s boot. No one is going to fully survive this story, and for a while I was sure Dan would be one of those who would perish at his father’s hands. 

The Beekeeper of Alepo by  Christy Lefteri 

Lefteri, herself a child of Cypriot refugees, volunteered in a Greek refugee centre during the Syrian crisis, then came home to London and wrote this book. Nuri, a Syrian beekeeper, and his wife Afra, an artist blinded when their small son is killed as a bomb lands in their back garden take a hazardous route across Turkey and Greece to find safety in the U.K. The novel moves betweenether this journey that starting in Aleppo in 2015 and the other from England the following year, where they are applying for asylum. Nuri and Afra manage to escape their shattered hometown, but they bring with them memories that haunt them. Nuri thinks, as they travel, wait and apply, that it's his wife who is the broken one of the two. He has no idea that he is suffering silently from PTS. 'You are lost in the darkness,' Afra says to Nuri. He still has his love of beekeeping and Afra still has a gift for art, and we get deep into their thoughts, indeed their souls, helping readers to understand experiences they will luckily never have. 

The Past by Tessa Hadley   

I love Hadley's writing, and so I should as she was one of my mentors on the MA in creative  writing at Bath Spa University. Each of her novels allows for a steady and subtle exploration of very ordinary people…albeit mostly middle class ordinary people…who hardly know, at the start of the stories, what hidden depths they actually possess. In The Past, a family of four siblings arrive at their dilapidated family home, to talk about selling it.  There’s a lot of them in this former rectory, but they squeeze in and proceed to do anything but talk about selling the house. The teenagers make love, the unwelcome new in-law makes a friend of one of the three sisters. Another sister tries to face up to what she thinks is her failed life and the third has no idea what her two children are up to…they have found a dead dog in a ruined cottage…and they know who it once belonged to. As we move towards the climax, there is attempted suicide by a deep river and a devastating fire. Nobody dies, but as the past is revived, everyone changes.                

The Little Red Books by Edna O'Brien.
This book has been feted by the literati and reviewers world wide, and rightly too. It has a mythical feel from the start, but is overlaid with comedy, tragedy, horror, history and realism. It has a wide panorama which starts in a tiny village in Ireland Cloonoila, , with its priest, its nuns, its housewives and its gossipy pub and posh hotel. But it spreads out, to Bosnia, London and finally to the Haig, where the Bosnian war criminal, Dr. Vladimir Dragan, based on Radovan Karadžić. It has wide-ranging themes, but the most clearly portrayed is that of exile; immigration and asylum, focusing first on the workers at the posh hotel, one of whom, soon recognise Dr Vlad and is terrified. Through the story walks Fidelma, the draper's wife, who falls badly for the sexy Vlad, and hopes he will give her the child she's failed to have with her weary husband. She get pregnant, Vlad gets arrested, she gets bloodily attacked by his Serbian followers. Some of this book is shockingly hard to read, and it's as though, at eight-five, O'Brien has decided to pull out all the stops, employing many styles of writing and many structures of plotting. The book is full of interiors, with a lot of free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness, as well as a lot of pulling-back from close narrative perspectives, so that we feel as if we are soaring over countries to see violence, disregard, and strong ethical actions in equal measure across Europe. This is a must-read for anyone who loves books that really want to tell you something about our world, and are not afraid to do so.   

Saturday, 13 February 2021

FREE Book Deal from Amazon!


When I began writing my Shaman Mystery series, I had a some themes and ideas in mind. I’ve carried these through the first three books into number four, which is due to be released this spring. 

I wanted to exploit the atmosphere of the Somerset Levels, which are startlingly beautiful, often in a raw and dark way.  The wetlands have some of the most rich wildlife conservation areas in the UK, plus breathtaking scenery such as Cheddar George, Black Rock, Glastonbury Tor and Blue Anchor Bay. It is a stunning place,  especially in summer, with its pimple hills rising out of the flatness of the land and the glittering sheen of rivers. But there are stark shadows that fall across this land, and I wanted to use those to give the books richness and an undertone of fear.
The constant pumping out of moisture into rhynes, ditches and canals, and the extracting of peat in vast quantities for commercial use, is looked at in the first book In the Moors. 

The ominous and ugly outline of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power station is a sinister focal-point in the second book, On the Gallows (in the US, Unraveled Visions). 

The third book, Beneath the Tor, is set in Glastonbury, which, as Sabbie Dare points out, has a darker side of profit and loss and promotion of some unqualified, if not pseudo, therapists. The fourth book centres around the terrible flooding of 2014.

Through the Floodgate, the fourth Shaman Mystery, is soon to be released in paperback and Kindle editions. With the flooding of the Somerset Levels as a central symbol, the second  overarching theme is that of suicide. 

As rains devastate the Somerset moorland, successful farmer John Spicer is discovered in his drowned car, shot through the head with a possibly self-inflicted cartridge. Meanwhile, Sabbie is attending a funeral. Kelly King, who she knew from the Willows Children’s Home, has thrown herself from the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Shaman Sabbie Dare becomes mixed up in these seemingly unrelated cases, once of which takes her into her past, and both of which lead her into unexpected peril.

To celebrate the publishing of number four in the series, Amazon has a FREE BOOK DEAL for anyone who has not yet indulged in the first Shaman Mystery, In the Moors.

You can download it for free – but be careful, there’s a warning in this book review! Warning: when you read this book make sure that you are going to have some free time, as once you've started you won't be able to stop turning the pages. Sabbie Dare is a great character, and the descriptions of her shamanic therapy practice and the part it plays in her understanding of the central mystery are enthralling and have an authentic feel to them. (Verified Amazon review in the UK 28 January 2020):

An UK readers who don't use Kindle can purchase a signed copy of the book by emailing me on

Here’s a quick rundown of the series, and some recommendations from readers:

In the Moors

A body found buried in the eerie depths of the Somerset Moors leads shaman Sabbie Dare  to uncover repressed memories of her client, Cliff, who has been charged with a child's murder . . 

Library Journal: Sabbie Dare is the most compelling protagonist I’ve met this year, and Milton’s tale is riveting…the visceral suspense Milton creates is commendable, not to mention terrifying. I like pairing her work with Elly Griffiths’s atmospheric English mysteries.

On the Gallows/Unraveled Visions 

A young Romany, exploited and far from home–a girl trapped in a cult–Sabbie Dare can’t ignore their plights, but as close as she comes to the answers, there are people who want to keep the truth buried forever.

Suspense Magazine: This well-written story is incredible knowledgeable, suspenseful, and a truly cool adventure into the world that lies ‘beyond’

Beneath the Tor

On a Midsummer night on the Glastonbury Tor, beautiful Alys Hollingberry dies suddenly after dancing away the night. Sabbie looks to the spirit world for help as a deranged killer searches out victims. This is innovative and interesting. 

Verified Amazon review: The writing is excellent. The weaving of the Arthurian legends into the book adds quite another dimension to the Sabbie Dare stories. It is mystical and intriguing. The atmosphere of 'otherness' works well. I really enjoyed the smooth transition from what is - to what might be. Hidden among the ancient tales in the mists of Avalon. The plot is complex, and dare I say devious, it twists and turns to the final climax. Nina Milton is to be congratulated on this most original and intriguing story


Other reviewers also have trouble putting the series down;

Ronald Hutton, author of Pagan Britain and The Triumph of the Moon: 'Nina Milton has created a unique fictional world in her Shaman Mystery Series, featuring Sabbie Dare as a young shaman. With Beneath the Tor she passed the ultimate test of a writer, that of causing me to put off useful jobs which I really should have been doing, in order to see what happens next. She has become a mistress of plot-weaving, and above all, she pulls off the trick of setting the totally fantastic amid the totally everyday and making the two fit together with pace and excitement.'

Mara Freeman, author of Kindling the Celtic Spirit and Grail Alchemy: ’A real page-turner, In the Moors cost me several hours of sleep because it was so un-put-downable! An engaging heroine, a landscape at once so real and so menacing, and an intriguing mystery had me enthralled into the wee hours!

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Candlemas, Imbolc and St Bridget

 During my winter rambles through the lanes at this time of the year, I’m on the lookout for those very first “stars of the ground”; snowdrops. As the push through the dark, cold soil, they shine like fairy lights, bringing little glimmers of hope and expectation. As I walk, this comes to me;

White ribbons in the breeze,

Snowdrops beneath the trees

Bridget’s welcome we await

The land regenerates

The days spread out more light

The sun is higher and bright

Bridies youth and passion spark

The song of wren and lark.

The sap begins to rise

First shoots burst in surprise

And the maiden’s green adorns 

The land she will transform

New lambs are filled with glee

Catkins drape every tree

Early birds are chorusing

As Brige invokes the spring

Imbolc Imbolc!

The goddess spreads her mantle wide

Brigantia has returned. Nina Milton

In the song I speak of Bridget’s feast. She is a revered Irish saint, but prior to that she was a Celtic goddess of the Irish Pantheon – daughter of the great Dahgda. She is both gentle maiden and Queen of the South. She is also the Lady of the Well and goddess of healing water.  She is Lady of the forge, goddess of fire, the year’s midwife who births the sun. And she is Lady of the Bards, goddess of poetry, song and inspiration and goddess of the hearth, so it stands to reason she would have many names; Bridghid, Bridie, Bride, as well as Bridget. Her symbols are, white ribbons, the eternal candle flame; the healing well, the blacksmith’s forge and the pen. In Britain, some celebrate her day with a profusion of candlelight calling the day, Candlemas, while the Irish call this celebratory day, Imbolc. 

There has been all kinds of metaphorical and actual gloom and despair around us for the last twelve months, especially since we were slap bang in the middle of the dark, dark days of late winter. The festivals of the winter solstice and Chrismastide are over. Snow and heavy rain sweeps the land. It’s so dark and dismal that  many people have followed the Candemas tradition of not taking down their Christmas lights until the 1st of February. I’ve done this myself, leaving my ‘Tree of Light’ to burn on through January. When I switch it on each morning, it does raise spirits, surprisingly so. Anyone who is doing this has begun to celebrate the feast of St Bridget and Imbolc, rejoicing as Bridget spreads her green mantle across the earth, and lightens the skies.

But the soil hasn't lost its icy hardness yes. There's a Scottish hag-goddess called the Ceallaich who is inside the fiercest of winds, the deepest drifts of snow and the sharpest bite of frost. She's the one who brings down roof tiles and creates black ice on the roads; she's not to be forgotten because she's not done yet. February is a battle between the goddess Brighid and this dark hag.  Here’s my thoughts on the Ceallaich



Scrag End,

Hag Wending

Her cackling flight 

Over the mushroom yews.

Samhuinn night holds her,

Her soaring cloak unfolds her

As she rides her birch broom.

Storm Eye

Borne higher 

Than Circling wind,

A vortex for a throne.

Below, as we run for cover

She shrieks a laugh and spins

Stridng the tides.

Boughs creak

Clouds flapping

Seas flooding, seeing blood.

She shakes the earth 

Till fire spews.

Lifes elemental horrors are hers

As she beats out the storm


Misshapen crone, 

Winter harpy - time for home,

Let late winter snows gentle 

Lambs and snowdrops into life,

I implore, beseech you, hag,

Its Bridgets time, so pack your bag. Nina Milton

Through the snow and ice of January, we've kept our sports up with little traditions. We  Wassailed our.fruit trees, taking out tankards of hot apple and ginger, and the left-over recyclable Christmas crackers to make gun-shots sounds with. We garlanded the trees with bright paper, and sang the wassailing song;

Here we come a wassailing

Among the leaves so green,

Here we come a wandering

So fair to be seen.

Our wassail cup is made

Of the rosemary tree,

And so is your beer

Of the best barley.  Anon

Then we toasted the trees and the land; 


Here's to thee, old apple tree,

That blossoms well, bears well.

Hats full, caps full,

Three bushel bags full,

An' all under one tree.

Hurrah! Hurrah! Anon

January 25th is Burns Night, a great tradition if you are a meat-eating whisky drinker (veggie alternatives are, I believe, available). We had fun online, Zooming the family with a video of the haggis being piped in, followed by slicing it through with a ritual dagger, while reading Burns’ poem, Address to a Haggis;

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face, 
Great chieftain o the puddin'-race!

Aboon them a' ye tak your place,

Painch, tripe, or thairm:

Weel are ye wordy o' a grace

As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,

Your hurdies like a distant hill,

Your pin wad help to mend a mill

In time o need,

While thro your pores the dews distil

Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,

An cut you up wi ready slight,

Trenching your gushing entrails bright,

Like onie ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sight,

Warm-reekin, rich! Rabbie Burns

Finally we arrived at St Bridget’s Eve, January the 31st. For pagans, Imbolc is the start of spring, even if it doesn’t feel much like it. It’s all about what is happening under soil, and in the sap of the trees. Life is beginning, burgeoning, unfurling, bursting. The field next to me was brown after the harvest of it’s winter barley. Now, a pale greenness is spreading across it Bridget’s cloak takes hold on the landscape. 

In normal times I would be holding, or attending, an Imbolc ceremony to celebrate the beginning of spring. This is a “hearth ritual”, usually held in the warmth of someone’s living space, but if it’s a nice day, it often feels good to be outdoors enjoying every little bit of sunshine. 

This description of the day is from

February 1 is St. Brigid's Day, also known as Imbolc, and marks the beginning of spring.

It is one of the four major "fire" festivals (quarter days, referred to in Irish mythology from medieval Irish texts. The word Imbolc means literally "in the belly" in the old Irish Neolithic language, referring to the pregnancy of ewes.In ancient Irish mythology, Brigid was a fire goddess. Nowadays, her canonization is celebrated with a perpetual flame at her shrine in Kildare.One folk tradition that continues in some homes is that of the Brigid's Bed.The girls and young unmarried women of the household or village create a corn dolly to represent Brigid, called the Brideog ("little Brigid" or "young Brigid"), adorning it with ribbons and baubles like shells or stones. They make a bed for the Brideog to lie in and are later visited by all the young men of the community who must ask permission to enter the home, and then treat them and the corn dolly with respect.

Ronald Hutton, in his book Stations of the Sun, also talks about the Bridie doll, fashioned in the likeness of a woman, often festooned with white ribbons, and a shell or crystal placed over her heart,  left outside the house on St Bride’s evening. The women of the house would call out, 'Bridget, come in, your bed is ready!’  Calling in the spirit of Bridget is calling in the spirit of spring; that wonderful warming that none of us, I imagine, can wait to happen!

This year, Jim and myself wanted to find something that will give us a sense that the season is now moving on. I liked the idea of creating a Brigit's Bed'. I have a tiny Bridget doll, which I rested in a basket. We lit nineteen night-lights, floating them in a bowl of water. We gathered  reeds from the wet field nearby, to be made into a Bridget cross, and s
at at the kitchen table, each making a Bridget's cross; twisting thin, springy reeds into a complicated four-armed pattern. Not quite weaving coats from nettles, but I found making the perfect central pattern much harder than Jim did. We  opened a ritual circle, calling in Bridget and asking, quite politely, for the Ceallaich  to get lost – to curl up and sleep through the summer until the winter arrives again. dressed our alter with these symbols of the coming spring

We are at the gateway into spring imagined in Celtic times, the Iron Age, when for early farmers the tilling and harvesting of the land was the hub to the wheel of their lives.  Imbolc spoke of growing light, growing warmth, of hope for the new year. It still does; the grass grows anew, the waters flow free and lambs are being born in Britain's fields. It’s the time of quickening, when in the womb of the Earth, spring stirs and grows green.

And then, at last, the sad moment has come. I’ll be taking down my glittering festive tree. Or should I hang onto it, unlit, until the end of the pandemic, if that ever arrives? On that blessed day, we will want to light every house, every window, every tree in the kingdom to celebrate our release.

The Iron Age Celts were as keen to see things warm up as we are. They called it the greening of the land – the spreading of Bridget's green mantle across the earth, and that is already happening, right now, beneath our feet. When we talk about spring in this way, we aren't talking about the weather. February is well known to be prone to snow, ice, sleeting rain. But through the white layer over the earth, the snowdrops bloom. Imbolc is about seasons, not weather. The land is stirring, as it does every February. Buds are black on the ash trees. Spears of daffodils are shooting up through hard ground. The birds are establishing their territories. And the snowdrops are arriving, like stars on the ground.

 And now, bit by bit, day by day, the sun will come, it will warm the land, Bridget will spread her green mantle and soon, we will be tending our spring gardens, getting them ready for a flower-full summer. 

Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Doctor Zhivago: Novel or True Story?

Doctor Zhivago:
 'Read Classic', an occasional 
series of posts on 
Kitchen Table Writers

For almost all my
  life I’ve been under an illusion – a massive misapprehension – that I can trace back to an afternoon matinee in 1965 when we settled into our plush popcorny seats for the new David Lean Epic, a film that featured spectacular landscapes, a heartbreaking love story and brutal scenes of civil war.

Yes, Doctor Zhivago, the film.

Five years later I bought a two-volume edition of the book and started the long journey though those landscapes, that love story, that awful bloodshed. Yesterday, fifty years on, I finally came to the last page in  Pasternak’s book. As I did so, my illusion lifted. 

For all those years of faltering, stopping and restarting at the beginning of the book yet again…I understood and presumed that Doctor Zhivago was a real person. 

It was clear to me that the book was biography. I was unable to come to terms with the idea that anyone could invent such an epic tale –  starting at the time of the last Tzar and documenting the revolutions of 1905 ad 1917, finishing in the  days of the 2nd World War. Surely such an expansive boundless tale was based in some truth? Surely Pasternak had researched the real, if slightly forgotten, life of a Moscow doctor? 

Hum along as you read

I’m a novelist myself, always on the lookout for characters and ideas, but not for one moment did it occur to me that Pasternak had made those  life-sharp characters up….Yuri and his gracious wife Tonia…Lara and her idealistic, ruthless husband Pasha Antipode…the evil Viktor Komarovsky and the shadowy figure of Yuri's half-brother, General Yevgraf Zhivago. 

But of course Doctor Zhivago is a work of fiction. It’s not even Pasternak's first work of fiction, although most of his writing is poetry. Of course, he made it all up!

Or did he? 

Pasternak's sister, Anna,
wrote a book about Olga

In 1946 Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya, a 34 year old single mother, Every afternoon Boris came to her office and walked Olga home. They became lovers, despite Paternak remaining married. In 1949, while carrying Pasternak's  baby,  Olga was arrested by the KGB. Her apartment was ransacked for items connected with Pasternak and she was repeatedly interrogated. She refused to say anything incriminating about Pasternak. She was sentenced to ten years hard labour and miscarried early in her time in the GULAG. When he heard of her arrest, Pasternak said, weeping, "Everything is finished now. I'll never see her again. It's like death, even worse…Stalin is a ‘murderer.’"

Of course all novelists are inspired by the love they themselves feel – all loved ones are the most ‘special’ of people. Olga Ivinskaya was a poet, a clever and compassionate person and I like to think that their deep love, and their terrible parting, galvanised Pasternak to write his greatest work. Doctor Zhivago was smuggled to Europe by an Italian journalist and published in Milan in 1957.

Boris Pasternak
Now that I know the truth, I can see that in the novel Pasternak created his own alter-ego – a poet, philosopher and physician whose life is disrupted by war and his enduring love for a charismatic, beautiful woman. Most of us have seen the film, and know the story shows the way his life brushes past Lara’s at crucial times in hers – they both witness her mother attempting suicide, and Yuri is there when she tries to shoots her abuser, Komarovsky, at a party. Pasternak sets up this yearning and almost eternal love early on in the story.

One of the most romantic aspects of the book is the way Zhivago journeys through the vast landscapes of Russia. After serving in the First World War, the Zhivago family leave communist Moscow for the Ural Mountains, where, Tonia is pregnant with their second child and Yuri begins an affair with Lara. Zhivago is forced to join a partisan army fighting the Tsarist Whites, but he escapes, walking through the snows to Yuriatin, where Lara lives. 

Pasternak’s intent was to interconnect Zhivago to as many of the Russian people as he could.  Like his inventor, Zhivago’s gentle and artistic character makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. He is unable to take control of his fate, and dies in utter poverty. leaving poems as his legacy. 

Doctor Zhivago is not an easy read, but it is a heady and rewarding one. 

Wikipedia sums it up when it says; The plot of Doctor Zhivago is long and intricate. It can be difficult to follow for two reasons. First, Pasternak employs many characters, who interact with each other throughout the book in unpredictable ways. Secondly, he frequently introduces a character by one of his/her three names, then subsequently refers to that character by another of the three names or a nickname, without expressly stating that he is referring to the same character.

Oh, ye gods, those names are sooo hard. This Wiki character map shows what that really means for the reader; 

But I do like to complete a work of classical literature every year, and 2000 was a great year to be reading this complex but breathtaking book. I started again at the beginning once more, and I kept going…until I reached the end of the story. 

I felt fantastic. I’d read this book, described as ‘the first work of genius to come out of Russia since the revolution’ (V.S. Pritchett). I'd loved every word of brilliant prose...

But the sun sparkled on the blinding whiteness and Yury cut clean slices out of the snow, starting landslides of dry diamond fires. It reminded him of his childhood. He saw himself in their yard at home, dressed in a braided hood and black sheepskin fastened with hooks and eyes sewn into the curly fleece, cutting the same dazzling snow into cubes and pyramids and cream buns and fortresses and cave cities. Life had had a splendid taste in those far-off days, everything had been feast for the stomach!

In 1958, Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Six days later,  under pressure from the Soviet Union, he sent a telegram: "Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure.” Pasternak’s poetry, plays, and translations were well known in the USSR but Stalin’s government  had threatened, suppressed, and spied on him. Doctor Zhivago was never published in the Soviet Union. 

Alec Guinness as  Yevgraf Zhivago
and Rita Tushingham as Tanya

It is the ending of the story that is most surreal and puzzling…most of which is absent from David Lean’s 1965  film version. After Yury has tricked Lara into taking her daughter and going away with her previous abuser, Komarovsky, he returns to Moscow and begins living with Marina, and they have two children. On the way to his first day’s work at a Moscow hospital, he dies of a heart attack. Lara comes to the funeral and asks Yury's half-brother if there is any way to track the location of a child given away to strangers. She stays for several days and then disappears, likely dying in a concentration camp. Years later, Misha and Nicky are fighting in World War II and encounter a laundry-girl, Tanya, who tells them her life story. They determine that she is the daughter of Lara and Yury. And that is how the story ends, except of course, there are pages of the poetry of Pasternak, writing as Zhivago. These straggling, strangely plotted final sections only consolidated my idea that all this must be true. It felt too raw, too human and, to a degree, too far a coincidence. I could see the reality of the lonely man seeking solace, already sick at heart and shameful that his wife and first two children now live in Paris. It felt painfully true.

Doctor Zhivago is mind-widening and lyrical. Beautiful prose and strange, eloquent dialogue. Descriptions of the huge landscapes of Russia, and a story that documents its turbulent twentieth century. If you've never read it, you can do so here, in an excellent translation (Pevear and Volokhonsky).