Searching for Amber — the Four Sea Interludes


Britten’s Four Sea Interludes form the backdrop for my novel Searching For Amber. The first movement: Dawn provides the opening scene of the novel on the brave, shingle beach at Aldeburgh.

“Under the fluid metal of a steel-blue sky, the body of a young woman strokes silently through the dawn waves.”

We soon learn that Jade, the swimmer is also a photographer, determined to complete her project to record the daily movement of the village. Her ambition whetted by the tales of the sea that she has found there. She meets two strangers on the beach, a young girl, who could have been her fifteen years ago, and an older man. A man she will encounter again as her story unfolds.

sunday morningSunday Morning.

“Can I see a falling tear, and not feel my sorrow’s share?”

William Blake’s line open up the next phase of the story. Jade has now met Martin, the dark, brooding shipwright, who lives in a shadow-land of his own making. Half-seduced by his rough edge and determined to find out more about him, Jade sets out to discover the truth behind the disappearance of his sister after a family tragedy, twenty years ago. She is drawn on a calm Sunday morning to visit the local church, where she finds a plaque commemorating the loss at sea of a boat about the time of Martin’s sister’s disappearance. The vicar guides her to visit Thomas Ogilvie, who lives in a manor-house up the coast, to find out more about the story. But she is met by his obvious attempts to distract her from following the story.


Our story now moves on to Moonlight. It’s ten years on from their first meeting and Jade visits Martin at his home in Coggeshall. He is now a successful carpenter, she is equally successful as a magazine freelance photographer. But her visit reignites her earlier curiosity about his past. This time she is determined to see her project through, but in doing so begins to discover more about her own past too. So that her and Martin’s story become more and more intertwined.


The Storm, in which Martin’s father perished at sea, and was commemorated in the church now provides the resolution to the story. The tragic loss of the fishing boat set off a chain of events, between Martin’s sister Amber, Thomas Ogilvie and his brother Ralph that led to a further tragedy and Amber’s flight from the scene.

We discover the final truth in the last chapter Passacaglia, where Jade returns to the beach at Aldeburgh and the full story of who Amber really is unfolds.

“Under the fluid metal of a steel-blue sky, the body of a young woman strokes powerfully through freezing waves, her legs extended, the winter ice chilling her skin, her arms reaching for resolution in the evening air.”

Searching for Amber


Letters to Strabo — Shakespeare and Company, Paris


On the train from Nice to Paris, my main protagonist Finn Black meets a solitary, short dapper man called George.

“I guessed he was in his early sixties, with a moustache and rakish grey goatee and a large leather satchel filled with books… He asked me a few questions about my travel experiences and then reached into his satchel and handed me a battered paperback. It was a copy of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

“‘You should try this. I’d be interested to see what you make of it. No one was quite sure about it at the time, but it’s still hot stuff,’ he said chuckling.”

It turns out that George owns and runs a bookstore on the banks of the Seine near Notre Dame. He invites Finn to stay there for a few days. “He only had two rules: to work in the store for two hours a day and to write something, anything, every day.” That suits Finn down to the ground: while his girlfriend Françoise is busy dealing with her art gallery friends in preparation for an exhibit she’s organising, he can get down to some serious writing.

But Finn soon finds out that this bookstore has history, specifically an earlier incarnation was run by a lady called Sylvia Beach who was a friend of Joyce and Hemingway, amongst others. The original Shakespeare and Company was closed in December 1941 during the German occupation of France. It’s been suggested that it may have been ordered shut because Beach denied a German officer the last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. When the war ended, Hemingway “personally liberated” the store, but it never re-opened on this site. It was only when George Whitman started the present day store in Sylvia’s honour that the name was restored.


Anyway the history and the things he discovers inspires Finn to begin his own story about his experiences in the south of France. It also leads him to discover more about the exact nature of his relationship with Françoise and his increasing doubts about its sustainability. I won’t give any more spoilers on that here!

Anyway, after I wrote this part of my novel, I came across by chance the section of the film Before Sunset that is set in exactly the same bookstore. So I’ve incorporated this scene in an imaginary interview between the store manager and the writer Adam Black below which links together my own story and the story in the film.

Bookstore Manager: So Adam Black, welcome back to Shakespeare and Company, it’s been almost thirty years, hasn’t it?

Adam Black: It has indeed, but it’s great to be back. I see you still have the famous sign upstairs.

Manager:  “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise?” Yes, of course.

After some more background on the writer’s work, the bookshop manager opens the floor up to questions

French Journalist 1: So do you consider the book to be autobiographical in any way?

Adam: Well I guess everything is autobiographical in a way. There are bits of me in there, but bits of a lot of other people I’ve met too.

French Journalist 1: And the section set here in Paris, in this very bookstore. Was that about you?

Adam: Well, I was here about the same time as Finn visited yes, but the events are of course completely fictional…

French journalist 2: So there was never a girl called Françoise that you met in Spain and travelled with by train to Paris?

Adam: Well, that’s not important; it’s just a story after all

French Journalist 1: Do you think they ever met again after they split up? In real life I mean?

Adam: No. I’m afraid that I don’t think they ever did, sorry, I don’t think they ever would have done.

French Journalist 2: Maybe a subject for your next book?

Adam: Maybe.

At the back of the room he notices a face in the crowd, a beautiful woman wearing dark glasses. He leans over to the bookshop manager and whispers.

Adam: Look, I’m terribly sorry but I’ll have to leave now. I have a plane to catch and still have to shop for my wife.

Manager: No problem…Well thank you Adam, we really appreciate you coming here today. I hope you won’t leave it so long next time!

Adam gets up, talks to one or two admirers and then goes over to the woman waiting patiently.

Adam: Françoise?

The woman: I said you’d include me in one of your books one day.

Adam: And I said I wouldn’t ever do that

The woman: Menteur, I think you already did. Do you want to go for coffee somewhere?

Adam to himself: I think I’m gonna miss that plane.

Letters to Strabo



Love in Lindfield — Jane Burden and the Oxford Union Murals


The Pre-Raphaelite murals in the old Library at the Oxford Union were painted between 1857 and 1859 by a team of young artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.  The paintings depict scenes from the Arthurian legends. My own novel Love in Lindfield incorporates the painting of the murals in a scene where Burne-Jones wife, Georgina, relates how she first met Charles Eamer Kempe at Oxford:

“You asked if I had any recollections of Mr Kempe. Well I certainly do but it was quite a long time ago. The first time I met Mr Kempe was nearly fifty years ago in 1857, about the time he went up to Pembroke. He was a very handsome young man, artistically inclined although he’d gone up to study for the ministry. He was a few years older than me. Ned and Topsy had introduced him to me one day while they were painting murals at the Oxford Union and we dined together that evening.

“When we were introduced, I remember he immediately made a very good impression on me – he was both serious and shy; but as I later learned, had an ever-curious manner and an amusing and avuncular humour. I remember him telling me over dinner that his chosen course had been to go into the Church. It was his first love, he said. Indeed his only ambition had been to follow the ministry of Christ. But he’d found that his speech problems were a great impediment, preventing him from easily preaching in public. Fortunately, at Oxford he’d come across a whole series of new influences. An alternative course of action had begun to open up to him. Inspired by Ruskin’s ‘Seven Lamps’, he’d started a detailed study of local ecclesiastical architecture.”

Unfortunately the painting of the murals had proved to be a bit of a disaster. As the letter goes on to explain: “Ruskin and Rossetti had organised the whole project. But unfortunately there’d been a forced pause in the proceedings while unexpected technical issues were resolved, so they’d temporarily returned to London.” In fact, the attempt by the painters to paint onto freshly applied distemper had resulted in the images fading as they were exposed to light from the upper windows of the library.

“The need to work in distemper at height between large whitewashed windows meant that the chalk and size-tempered paint was already fading. They’d originally planned to have the job finished by the end of the Long Vacation, but it was October and still the murals were nowhere near done. 

But after a while I could tell that he was ill at ease. We were standing next to Topsy’s nearly finished mural: ‘How Sir Palomydes Loved La Belle Iseult’. He looked somewhat disturbed by it, but pretended politely to admire the brushwork.

‘It’s most remarkable in form,’ Kempe volunteered. Topsy frowned and Ned laughed. I could tell Topsy was annoyed.

‘The young man’s right Topsy, quite remarkable!’

Cropped_Oxford Union Mural_Morris (1 of 1)

‘I believe it has some merits as to colour, young man, but I must confess I should feel much more comfortable if it had disappeared from the wall as I’m conscious of it being extremely ludicrous in many ways,’ Topsy whispered between his teeth. He turned to look at Rossetti who was inspecting his own less complete work, ‘Sir Launcelot’s Vision of the Sanc Grael’, on the other side of the room.

‘How are you pleased with it, Gabriel?’ he shouted.


‘It’s beginning to be unintelligible,’ Rossetti replied, cursing. Indeed, the glare of the sunlight from a gap in the whitewashed windows made the detail almost impossible to see. Only the radiance of its variegated tints gave any great impression of its rendering. You could just discern the face of his new muse, painted in the form of Guinevere standing amongst the branches of an apple tree. She was staring down at the sleeping Launcelot with the Holy Grail by his side. There was no mistaking her dark, crinkly hair, her slightly tilted nose, enormous dark eyes and sublimely long neck.

This woman of course was the famous Jane, who later became Morris’s wife. The paintings were repainted and survive today.

Jane Burden was born in Oxford, the daughter of a stableman. Her mother Ann was illiterate and probably came to Oxford as a domestic servant. Little is known of Jane Burden’s childhood, but it was poor and deprived.

In October 1857, Burden and her sister Elizabeth, known as “Bessie”, attended a performance of the Drury Lane Theatre Company in Oxford. Jane Burden was noticed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Struck by her beauty, they asked her to model for them. Burden sat mostly for Rossetti as a model for Queen Guinevere and afterwards for William Morris. During this period, Morris fell in love with Burden and they became engaged, though by her own admission she was not in love with Morris.


She remains one of the deepest inspirations for the pre-Raphaelite movement.