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Death in Leamington — when Peter met Alice

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‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
‘To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax –
Of cabbages – and kings –
And why the sea is boiling hot –
And whether pigs have wings.’

Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking-Glass

The final chapter of my second novel Death In Leamington is set as a party at which a lot of loose-ends get sorted out, some in unexpected ways. The party, given by Eddie for his wife Alice’s 40th birthday, turns out to be quite a surprise:

“‘For heaven’s sake, Eddie Peterson, can’t I trust you for a minute?’ Alice demanded loudly as she entered the kitchen. She turned down the volume on the CD player and surveyed the mess covering the kitchen table. Carrie and Eddie had been making jam tarts while dancing wildly round the kitchen to the latest release from a well-known Swedish pop duo. She wished Eddie would not encourage Carrie like this; she was growing up quickly enough as it was. Alice was however relieved that he, for once, was dressed reasonably smartly in a tweed Burberry jacket, twill shirt, rolled-up green cavalry trousers and Converse trainers and had remarkably thought to wear an apron over his best clothes while preparing the tarts. She wasn’t sure but she could swear that he was wearing eyeliner too. Carrie, on the other hand, was wearing a scruffy T-shirt and jeans and was almost completely covered in flour; there was pastry, jam and orange marmalade all over the table and more flour on the floor. There was also the distinct smell of burning sugar from the oven. Alice opened the oven door, cursed and then quickly opened a window to allow the smoke to escape.”

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Alice is dressed in a little blue and white flowered dress that she’s found waiting for her, but she still has no idea what Eddie has planned for her 40th birthday party. As he leads her up the steps out of their basement flat onto the road, she imagines the restaurant that she hopes he’s booked for her and she’d seen ringed in the phone book the other evening.

“‘So where would you actually like to go?’ he asked, somewhat vaguely, staring up at the evening stars as if he had not quite made up his mind where to take her yet. The air was slightly chilled after the warm autumn day, so that their breath escaped into the darkness in quietly swirling coils of moisture. Alice was shivering slightly, either from excitement or from the change of temperature; the goose bumps raised on the skin of her forearm. The scent of late jasmine from the window boxes on Lady Mary’s windowsills above them was slightly intoxicating in the night air.

“‘I’ll go wherever you are planning to take me, handsome sir,’ she replied, enjoying the game but also getting slightly frustrated with his obvious tactics to confuse her. She suspected he knew exactly where he was taking her. 

“‘Well then, if it’s really going to be up to me, then it has to be ‘second star to the right, and straight on ’til morning,’ he said, laughing.”

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I got the idea for this scene from a play “Peter and Alice” based on a meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the woman who inspired Alice, and Peter Llewellyn Davies, one of the boys who inspired Peter Pan, at the opening of a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. The play sees enchantment and reality collide as this brief encounter lays bare the lives of these two characters. The play starred Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw.

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But as it turns out, Eddie has other plans and instead of the hoped for restaurant, leads her instead into the main house above their flat, where a series of surprise guests are waiting for her.

“Alice was now very confused. This was not at all what she was expecting. The hall was strangely quiet, only disturbed by the patient ticking of a long case clock, but she was suddenly aware of a white fluffy shape pushing to get past her in the doorway. The white shape (actually a rabbit called Carrie) deposited a little glass box under the ornate Empire console table and ran off into the room at the end of the corridor. Alice, intrigued, stooped to pick the box up and opened it to find a small cake, on which the words EAT ME had been beautifully marked out in currants.”

My own version continues with various details and characters taken from both books including Captain Hook, Mr Smee and Tinkerbell and a very blue Caterpillar called Hugh:

“There was a big sign hung above the entrance – The Blue Caterpillar’s Hookah Palace.

In the corner of the gazebo, sitting on a cushion shaped like a mushroom, was a very blue-looking caterpillar, smoking the advertised hookah. He puffed three times and then took the pipe out of his mouth and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

‘So, who are you, little girl?’

‘Alice,’ she said, flirting just a little bit with her hands and eyelashes.

‘Well come and sit beside me, little Alice,’ said the caterpillar, smoothing off the cushion for her to sit on. ‘May I offer you a drink?’ he asked, pouring her a huge glass of champagne.”

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I hope this all makes sense, but if not I’m afraid you will have to read it to understand how the story finally unravels!

Death in Leamington

Letters to Strabo — Meeting Gwendoline in Cambridge

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BRITAIN is triangular in form; its longest side lies parallel to Keltica […] The greatest portion of the island is level and woody, although many tracts are hilly. Their atmosphere is more subject to rain than to snow; even in their clear days the mist continues for a considerable time, in so much that throughout the whole day the sun is only visible for three or four hours about noon.

Strabo, Geography Book IV, Chapter V

Finn, despairing of his hot and cold relationship with his french art gallery friend Francoise, crosses over to England from Paris to meet up with Gwendoline Bryon, a scholar and Strabo expert in Milton College Cambridge. Right from the start she poses a challenge to Finn, she’s not at all the dusty archivist he expected:

“In the flesh she was quite different from what I’d imagined. Small, even waif-like, with short reddish hair and a plaited fringe threaded with beads. Her cherubic dimples, bitten down nails and slightly whimsical smile made her look like a schoolgirl rather than a woman in her late twenties.”

In fact she takes charge from the beginning, showing him around Cambridge and putting him right on the basic facts about Strabo in the depths of the college library. But her mischievous smile and no-nonsense enthusiasm quickly begin to get under Finn’s skin:

“To her credit, she didn’t flinch at all when I opened the door wearing only my shorts. She asked if I wanted to join her for lunch. I nodded and went to close the door, but before I knew it she’d barged into the room and was opening up the drapes to let in the bright sunshine. She was clearly intent on taking charge. 

‘Nice legs,’ she said, hardly looking up from her book.”

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Over the weekend, Finn falls somewhat in awe of her, so when she invites him to supper in the college hall he goes along and then joins her for an evening punt trip along the Backs that runs past the main colleges:

“Someone once said about girls that: “They are either very pretty or very clever or very sweet but never all three.” In Gwen’s case that was a load of malarkey. She absolutely nailed all three at once, but not in any classic mixture. She wasn’t pretty in a girlie sense and you couldn’t have described her blue-stocking confidence as merely sweet, but she was fearsomely clever. There was something inherently appealing about the way her passion for her subject shone through. What’s more, her slightly croaky voice was hellishly sexy.”

Fortunately sense prevails and despite a couple of awkward encounters, they settle instead for a brother-sister relationship which progresses throughout the novel. She giving him tips for where he should go on his travels, he seeking her advice. It’s a sweet relationship that develops ultimately into a deeper friendship.

“‘Why are we holding hands?’ she asked.

‘Sorry, it just seemed…dark.’

‘Ah, my knight in shining armour,’ she joked and pulled me closer.”

At the end of their long weekend they take a trip to London to see the sights. after a day touring sites and galleries, Gwen is keen to take Finn to a London play and they are lucky enough to see two future giants on the English stage, Judie Dench and Ian McKellen in an Ibsen play called Pillars of the Community.

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It proves quite a eye-opener to Finn, with its anti-capitalist and feminist messages. Right up Gwen’s street though he thinks. Then, during the interval they are drinking in the bar where they both spot a poster for a performance of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. Finn is struck by some lines on the poster. His next destination has been determined.

“During the interval, we went to the bar and stood drinking rancid warm white wine, while admiring a display of film posters from the previous season’s performances. Gwen pointed out the one for Stoppard’s Travesties. She’d been to the performance herself. That was quite a coincidence because I’d seen the same play before I left the States. I read out a great passage written on the poster:

I learned three things in Zürich during the war. I wrote them down. Firstly you’re either a revolutionary or you’re not, and if you’re not you might as well be an artist as anything else. Secondly, if you can’t be an artist, you might as well be a revolutionary… I forget the third thing.”

So next stop Zurich, via Heidelberg and Basel and an encounter with James Joyce.

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Searching for Amber — the Four Sea Interludes

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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.

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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.

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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

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Letters to Strabo — Shakespeare and Company, Paris

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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.

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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

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Love in Lindfield — Jane Burden and the Oxford Union Murals

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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!’

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‘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.

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‘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.

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

Letters to Strabo — poets and painters in the South of France

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Finn and Francoise continue their rail journey over the French border stopping at the town of Collioure. Here they stop to take in the setting painted so often by the likes of Matisse:

“The town is French, but has a distinct Catalan feel. At the time of our visit, it was recovering from its annual Saint Vincent festival. As we descended through medieval streets from the station towards the sea, we caught glimpses of the royal castle and lighthouse luxuriating confidently around a picture-perfect Mediterranean bay. I felt instantly relaxed as we wandered the narrow alleyways soaking in the comfortable conspiracy of its street life, as if I had shed a northern skin. The tint of azure water, the deep terracotta roofs, the colorful mix of scruffy children and bourgeois old-timers has inspired a myriad of iconoclasts over the years, including Braque, Picasso and, of course, Matisse. It seemed a lovely, tranquil place.”

“However, we soon discovered the town had a grittier side too. It was the death place of one Antonio Machado, an exiled Spanish poet, who crossed the border with his elderly mother in 1938, in the face of Franco’s advancing Republicans. Poignantly, his last homesick poem: Estos dias azules y este sol de infancia (These blue days and this sun of childhood), was found on his dead body, buried in the pocket of his tattered overcoat. I bought a book of his poetry in the town to read later in his honor.”

After a brief stay in Nice, our couple continue on to the Cap d’Antibes, where they spend a day in the shadows of the rich at the magnificent Hotel du Cap:

“If the hotel was astounding, the clientele were even more so. I didn’t dare look at the waiters in case I was presented with a hundred buck magnum. It was as if it was still inhabited by the likes of Fitzgerald’s Dick and Nicole Diver and their glittering friends. Murder, incest, neuroses…the setting contained more than enough to inspire any writer!”

“That evening, we returned back to the bright lights of Nice where we stayed one more night. We made love on the balcony looking out at the stars across that enchanted garden. There were crickets and lemon trees and ivory strains from the piano bar below; what further encouragement could I guy get? It was a long and passionate night.”

The next day our couple take the morning express to Paris.

“The train was one of those beautiful streamlined machines the French do so well. In our smart compartment there were a number of classy-looking couples and a solitary short dapper man sitting opposite. I guessed he was in his early sixties, with a moustache and rakish grey goatee and a large leather satchel filled with books.”

George owned a bookstore on the Left Bank, the setting for the next stage of Finn’s adventures in Paris…parisnice

Letters to Strabo

Death in Leamington — a poem by Sir John Betjeman

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She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

The opening lines of Sir John Betjeman’s poem Death in Leamington, gave me the inspiration for both the title and one of the characters in my crime novel based in this elegant town in the English Midlands. The murder of an elderly foreign visitor sets off an intricate chain of events, surprising literary encounters and one too many unexplained and gruesome deaths. For those who are interested there is a great YouTube video of Kenneth Williams and Dame Maggie Smith reading the poem on the Parkinson Show:

In addition to the name of the poem itself, I incorporated some of the idea of the poem with my character Winnie Norbury, a once-famous Shakespearean actress languishing in a Leamington nursing home who is suffering from early onset dementia. After the murder in Clarendon Square she witnesses from her upstairs window the subsequent road accident in which the murdered foreign businessman’s assailants are mowed down on their moped by a mysterious black car. She provides the vital clue in tracking down the car. The clue is hidden in the interchange below, between her and the nurse Izzie who finds her in a state of some distress:

‘MAB, MAB, busy old MAB!’ Izzie heard Winnie crying.

‘Winnie, what is it? Calm down love,’ she shouted at her down the corridor of the nursing home.

‘MAB! MAB, busy old MAB!’

‘OK, OK, Winnie, I’m coming!’ she called.

‘I don’t know what’s come over her – she’s just this minute started screaming her head off,’ shouted the bemused Czech nurse as Izzie ran down the corridor towards Winnie’s bedroom. It was nearly the end of her shift, what had seemed like the longest shift ever and she was looking forward to meeting Penn at her bedsit in less than an hour.

‘MAB!’ something in Winnie’s cry curdled Izzie’s blood.

Death in Leamington

You’ll have to read on I am afraid to understand what happens to both Winnie and Izzie next as I don’t want to give away that plot point, however you can be assured that Death in Leamington continues unabated just as in Betjeman’s poem! The book is available directly through Troubador publishing or on Amazon:

 

I will leave you with the closing lines of Betjeman’s poem.

“Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.”

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Letters to Strabo — Being Barcelona

After visiting Seville, Finn and Francoise carry on by train to Barcelona. They were told the cathedral might take a further fifty or sixty years to finish. It was as if it revealed the very synapses of Gaudí’s mind in its raw incompleteness:

“Of course, Barcelona didn’t disappoint. How could it? Even then it had a sophistication that made it feel like it belonged to another country. If Madrid was the regal but sterile wife, Barcelona was the fertile and fecund mistress.”

“We started at La Sagrada Família and were immediately left in awe at its sheer verticality, its tangled and absurdly swollen outlines. A furtive combination of lifts and spiral staircases took us inside the narrow pinnacles of the Nativity Façade, decorated with jewel-like glass and mosaics, some of which the guide told us ‘only the angels would see’. Back at ground level, we cowered under the forest of marbled columns that soared into the vibrant canopy above.”

“After our iced drinks, we headed purposely towards the area called Las Ramblas. As soon as we got there we noticed a crowd gathered in one of the squares and for a while watched a curious happening performed by a man made-up as a clown. He was parodying a Holy Week parade with papier-mâché figures, supported by what appeared to be members of the local gay community, tattooed and dressed in wild, flamboyant clothing. Françoise asked one of the spectators who the man was. He was apparently Ocaña, a painter and street artist who was very popular.”

But that wasn’t, however, the end of our romantic adventures for the day. The bar we chose was full of young kids, many of them hosts and hostesses from the trade fair. It had recently been refurbished with modern art dotted amongst the original oak furniture and wrought-iron balustrades. We were about to order when a group of young Spaniards on the next table invited us to join them. I wasn’t sure given they were speaking Catalan, but of course Françoise accepted without hesitation. My doubts were confirmed, however, when one of the prettier boys started hitting on her straight away. She didn’t seem to discourage him either. There then followed another of those conversations that seemed to follow me around everywhere I went on that surprising peninsula.

‘Eres Americano?’ asked one of the girls seated across the table from me, when she saw I was temporarily free of my own chica.

‘Yes, is there a problem with that?’ I replied probably over-aggressively. I was on my guard and getting mighty hacked-off about the other guy coming on to Françoise.

‘Be calm, you are too serious, my friend. Que sólo están jugando – they are just playing. You are deep with una pasión, no?’

We were young and that, after all, was what Barcelona was all about. Politics could wait.

Letters to Strabo

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Searching for Amber — finding Jade

“Jade lies stretched out on a towel on the beach, studying the silver rings on her fingers, the sheen of drying moisture on her faintly tanned skin, the ripples of toneshadow
around her ribs. Thoughts pass through her mind like quicksilver, grains of new ideas bright as magnesium. She is brave shining fortune, newly crafted on this bitter
shore; she feels torn between humility and delight. She is determined and her ambition plain for there is a knowing smile written across her face.”

Searching for Amber is an engaging exploration of love, violence, betrayal and loss, told through beautiful writing, natural imagery and poetry. When Jade, a passionate young photographer, is attacked by drug pushers and saved by the brooding shipwright Martin, she becomes increasingly obsessed with her reluctant hero’s tragic back-story. Her pursuit of Martin’s affection and her consequent obsessive search for Martin’s lost sister, Amber, ultimately leads Jade to discover the truth about her own mother, who abandoned her as a baby in the late 1950s, and the tragic events that led to her disappearance.
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I chose the name Jade initially as a counterpoint to the name of the tragic main character Amber. But as I began to develop her character, I found a strong young woman in her own right. A talented young photographer, who is determined the help her new friend Martin find out what really happened to his mother. Her inspiration is both love and curiosity. She is meticulous in her craft and her search, like the lens of a camera, looking for clues, for perspective.

“The shredded scenery flapping around her dances in the rising wind, moving with the giddiness of an incomplete plot. She re-runs her earlier thoughts in her mind to confirm
her own understanding of the next stages of her plan. Between hers and the profile of any child there is virtually nothing; but she is already attractive, desired, exciting. She
brushes the silk of her scarf away from her eyes, takes her faithful camera from the denim bag lying by her side, lifts it and begins to work methodically again, as if physically stretching the pebble ridges of the beach like calico with her lens.”

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In fact, I have since used Jade’s character in each of my first four novels. She played a small part as a photographer in Death in Leamington and as one of the two fracking protesters in Love in Lindfield and we meet up with her as a young art student on the steps of  Sacre Coeur in Letters to Strabo. Never waste a good character!

“The girls, Jade, Sally and Lucy, were art students on their first trip to Europe. They were mighty excited. Inevitably, unworthy thoughts began to form in my mind as the stars pierced the twilight. OK, it really didn’t take much to put those sorts of ideas into my head in those days.”

Letters to Strabo — Columbus in Seville

The Archivo General de Indias, “General Archive of the Indies”), housed in the ancient merchants’ exchange of Seville, the Casa Lonja de Mercaderes, is the repository of extremely valuable archival documents illustrating the history of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and the Philippines. It forms the backdrop for the next stage in Finn’s journey round the Mediterranean after Lisbon:

“I was anyway determined to visit the famous Archivo de Indias while I had the chance, a treasury of maps and relics that was fabled to contain drawer after drawer of documents from Seville’s great period of exploration. I’d read that Columbus’s plan to cross the Ocean westward to India had been supported by several notions in Strabo; the passage that reputedly influenced him the most was a quotation from Eratosthenes.”

 

“It was mid-afternoon by the time the train finally pitched into Seville. Exhausted, we took a pony-trap to a small hotel in the Calle Rodrigo Caro, nestled in a courtyard near the cathedral. On one side our room overlooked a patio shaded by orange trees, on the other a balcony opened on to the street.

That evening, we ambled through endless alleys and squares till we reached a stone villa right on the outskirts of the city center. It was surrounded by a high brick wall within a small clearing in a grove of olive trees. There was a large, gaudily painted wooden gate at the front. She unlatched the gate as if she knew the place and we passed through.

Inside was a charming patio, fringed tidily with palms and bright geraniums. There were a number of docile-looking dogs lying chained and disinterested along one wall. I could hear the sound of running water from a fountain nearby and the clear and perfectly enunciated plucking of a guitar within the house. Françoise called out and the music stopped. A man in an open white shirt walked out of the shadows to greet us, holding the guitar. I recognized him at once.

 

‘Such a delight to meet you, Mr Finn,’ he said, kissing me on one cheek and then the other. ‘Of course I normally detest Americans, but for the delicious Françoise, of course, I will make an exception, just for this one evening.’

‘It’s just Finn,’ I replied testily. No ‘mister’ and we’ve met before, remember? I thought to myself. ‘My surname’s Black,’ I added, trying to ignore his rather strange idea of a welcome. 

‘Ah Black, that I can see already, mi amigo negro,’ he replied. ‘Does your girlfriend avoid pleasure, too?’

‘Raul, sois sage,’ she barked. ‘It’s well-known that most anti-Americanism has its roots in l’impuissance sexuelle.’

‘El beso de la mujer araña (the kiss of the spider woman),’ he laughed. But she seemed to have won that round. And it kinda set the tone of the conversation for the rest of the evening!”

Letters to Strabo