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Letters to Strabo — Roman Holiday

Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday (1953) starring Gregory PeckAfter his long stay in Venice, Finn travels through Italy reaching Rome at Easter 1978. There he gets a job on an English-speaking newspaper.

“By early May, I’d got an idea to do a piece on another literary hero of mine – the English poet Shelley. I often passed the Keats-Shelley House near the Spanish Steps but I’d never gone in. So I arranged to meet up with the curator there who took me round the exhibition, pleased to have someone visiting who wasn’t just ticking boxes on their tourist itinerary. It was actually a very interesting little museum.”

During his tour he meets a young Irish girl, Anna:

“She clapped her hands and started complaining about all the stuff she wanted to see while she was in Rome but couldn’t because of the constraints of the dire tour she was on.

‘Maybe you could help me out a little?’ she asked with a suggestive grin.

‘Sure why not?’ I replied. It was the best offer I’d had in a while.

‘It’s all endless saints and relics, so tedious when there’s so much else to see,’ she added. Of course, I seized the opportunity. I wasn’t missing out this time.

‘OK, why don’t we do all those other things you wanna do, together?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you have to work?’ she replied quizzically.

‘No, I think today’s officially gonna be a holiday!’

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They tour round the city, Finn taking her to several off-beat sites he knew near the Trevi.

“Of course, there was no way I could resist the temptation to take her to the ‘Mouth of Truth’ at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, although it was a bit of a hike.

That man-like face, thought to be part of a Roman fountain, is located in the church portico. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that if you told a lie with your hand in its mouth, it would be bitten off. Gregory Peck tried that routine out on Audrey Hepburn live on the set of Roman Holiday, scaring her witless while the shot was running. Most days, a constant line of tourists tries to relive the scene from the movie.

Delightfully, Anna also fell for it, hook, line and sinker. She screamed, jumped six inches in the air and then thumped me before bursting out laughing.”

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Later than evening they meet up again at an open-air disco on the banks of the Tiber, right under the shadow of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

“As the evening wore on, however, a dispute of some sort arose amongst the locals, which turned into a brawl, which turned into a mêlée. Some Swedish lads got themselves involved (the Viking hordes were back in force). They were rounded up by bouncers and it looked like we might be next, but then the cops turned up. In the confusion, I managed to escape with Anna and her girlfriends out of a fire exit. We ran laughing through the back streets trying to avoid the riot police who were randomly firing tear gas.

‘I’d ask you up, Finn, but you know what they’re like in these hotels,’ she said breathlessly as we reached the entrance.

‘Yes and I’d probably end up sleeping on the couch anyway, wouldn’t I?’ I asked ironically.”

Letters to Strabo


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Letters to Strabo — Eve in Venice

Adam_and_Eve_on_Doges_Palace_in_Venice“After all those months apart, I thought it’d be an awkward reunion, but I was wrong. Her first words to me, ‘my sweetheart’, set the tone. She was warm and friendly and full of fun. We had a seriously awesome time scooting round Venice. The Saturday was one of those Canaletto days when the blue waters of the lagoon gleam and the whole city is alive and sparking. We did St Mark’s Square, we did all sixty-two Tintorettos in the Scuola di San Rocco, the Lido and Murano, Rizzo’s famous statue of Eve in the Doge’s palace for which a Duke of Mantua once offered his weight in gold.”

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“Then on our last evening, under the mist of a silver moon, we ate at a swell ristoranto and walked past the Rialto along the Strada Nova towards the labyrinth of medieval lanes, canals and archways that lead to the blind alleys of the Ghetto.

‘Goddam, isn’t it beautiful here?’ she said. ‘I really feel alive, Finn.’

‘Even on that first day in Olana, I wanted to kiss you,’ I replied stroking the fine down on the back of her neck.

‘Why didn’t you?’”

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“‘Hold me closer,’ she said.

‘If I do, I won’t ever wanna let you go,’ I replied and snuggled up so she was enveloped in my arms, with her hair curling around my jacket.

‘I fear this is some sorta dream, that’s all. That I’ll wake up in the morning and it’ll all be gone. That it’s all a mirage.’”

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“The next morning, she had to get back to the London to catch her flight back to the States and so took an early train to the airport. Her visit was over in a flash. I realized as I waved her off, tender as it was, that we still hadn’t really answered the most fundamental questions about our relationship. She was always so coy about what was going on in her life back home.”

“Venice in the winter is quite a different place to the straw-hatted heaven of summer. The bright young mistress loses her midsummer make-up. Most of the foreign tourists disappear; in fact there are very few foreigners at all apart from a few language students. What’s more, the weather had suddenly got colder; the languid waters of the lagoon gleamed more dimly, often morose and misty for days on end.”

Letters to Strabo

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Letters to Strabo — Sand and Guggenheim

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When Finn arrives in Venice, it’s in expectation of a visit from his French girlfriend Françoise. After a week of sight-seeing on a student budget in the youth hostel, he goes to meet her at the station. He’s shocked at her extravagance right from the start.

“She asked where I’d been staying. When I told her, she looked at me in disgust, rolled her eyes, smelled my duds and said something very rude in French. Then she announced that she’d be staying in the Danieli. I’d be welcome to join her but only if I showered and if not, then it was really up to me. My mouth dropped.”

In fact even more ostentatiously, Françoise has booked the very same room that George Sand stayed in a hundred and fifty years older with her lover Alfred de Musset. He realises pretty soon, that the comparison is one he ought not to relish.

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“George Sand was thirty when she stayed at the Danieli, de Musset was only twenty-three but reputedly exceedingly handsome with dazzling eyes. I might have flattered myself, therefore, that there was some sort of intended echo; however, I wasn’t that stupid.” 

When, after a month, he [de Musset] became ill with delirium tremens, Sand called for a medic, but ended up falling in love with Pagello, the handsome Italian doctor. He attended to de Musset for a few days but then they absconded together to Paris, leaving de Musset to recover, stranded and with a huge hotel bill.

“Life is the most beautiful thing of the world when one loves, and most hateful when one ceases loving,” wrote Sand.

Finn soon discovers the real reason that Françoise has agreed to meet him in Venice, is in fact to introduce him to Peggy Guggenheim, the famous art collector.

“The next day we had a pleasant enough breakfast together on the balcony. She suggested I might like to shower again while she got dressed. ‘But that would be twice in twenty-four hours,’ I protested. Then she announced she was taking me shopping to buy some decent clothes. ‘I’m dead-ass broke,’ I objected, but she said it was business and she’d be paying. Apparently, we were going to visit her good friend, la padrona Guggenheim, as she was known, at her villa and ‘You need to look [and presumably smell] the part,’ she said.”

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“Two hours later, suitably smartened up in an obscenely expensive Italian silk shirt, flannels and jacket, we approached la padrona’s villa, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, by gondola. Its low façade formed a welcome break in the tottering line of grand palaces. It had a sort of ordinary human scale to it. However, that was the last aspect of la padrona that did seem ordinary!”

Peggy had glided back and forth amongst the glitterati, weaving the shuttle of her golden loom through the art history of most of the twentieth century. Although not exactly a beauty (she had a prominent nose that had been badly reset after cosmetic surgery), she’d been renowned as a collector of men as well as art. Finn had read that she’d slept with a thousand lovers (although that number seemed more than a little improbable). In any case, she’d certainly exhausted three husbands.

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“At four-thirty precisely, we descended the moss-stained marble steps and glided out onto the busy canals. The gondola was steered expertly by Gino, her personal gondolier, dressed in full seventeenth-century livery. It was like a royal procession; the gondola was thickly carpeted and cushioned, with polished brass seahorses and colored oars and the iconic six-pronged ferro at the prow. We were accompanied by one of her prized Lhasa terriers.”

Françoise starts to behave very oddly after this visit. Not sleeping well, being generally difficult. All this comes to ahead after a day of sight-seeing, when she suddenly draws Finn to one side at the top of St Marks as they view the famed bronze horses in the loggia and reveals her true motives:

“From somewhere, who knows where, she’d apparently conceived the sickest notion that I’ve ever heard. She outlined it to me in clipped breathless words. She’d been told in a dream the previous night that I would be the last conquest, the last paramor of la padronna. She’d come up with a plan. There would surely be a Pollock, a Blue Pole, in it for me, or a Picasso for her. It was simple; it couldn’t go wrong…”

Letters to Strabo

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Love in Lindfield — Henry James and The Spoils of Poynton

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“‘Now do you know how I feel?’ Mrs Gereth asked when in the wondrous hall, three minutes after their arrival, her pretty associate dropped on a seat with a soft gasp and a roll of dilated eyes.”

Henry James, The Spoils of Poynton

My third novel Love in Lindfield takes its structure from Henry James’ novel The Spoils of Poynton. There is a connection to Lindfield in that Henry James visited Charles Eamer Kempe at Old Place in Lindfield around the time the novel was published and there is a fair possibility that he based the character of the dowager Mrs Gereth on one of Kempe’s close female friends, Lady Louisa Wolseley:

“‘Wolseley, come to think of it, perhaps I do know that name,’ he replied. He looked at his notes. ‘Yes, I was looking online last night to see whether Henry James had ever visited Old Place. It turned out he did. I found a letter of his from March 1897 to a Lady Louisa Wolseley where he described such a visit. It sounded like she’d been trying to persuade him to come for some time. The letter’s very precise: he caught the 11.40 from Victoria arriving in Haywards Heath at 1.17 where he met up with Lady Wolseley coming from Brighton. The train was late!’

“‘Nothing’s changed, then!’ laughed Maggie. ‘But yes that would be Frances Wolseley’s mother, I’m sure.’

“Harry went on to read from the notes he’d made on his iPad. ‘James described Kempe as ‘very amiable’ and the house as a ‘phoenix’.

“‘The man himself made the place more wonderful and the place the man. I was greatly affected by his courtesy and charm.’”

NPG x96478; Louisa Wolseley (nÈe Holmes), Viscountess Wolseley by Alexander Bassano

The novel describes the struggle between Mrs. Gereth, a widow of impeccable taste and iron will, and her son Owen over a houseful of precious antique furniture. The story is largely told from the viewpoint of Fleda Vetch, a young woman in love with Owen but sympathetic to Mrs. Gereth’s anguish over losing the antiques she patiently collected.

Widow Adela Gereth tells the sensitive and tasteful Fleda Vetch that she’s afraid her son Owen will marry the coarse Mona Brigstock. Owen soon becomes engaged to Mona and wants to take over Poynton, the family home filled with Mrs. Gereth’s carefully collected furniture and other art objects. He would like Fleda to help get his mother to leave the house with a minimum of fuss.

Mrs. Gereth moves to Ricks, the smaller family house. Fleda visits the house and is unhappy that Mrs. Gereth has furnished it with the best pieces from Poynton. Owen says that Mona is angry with the “theft” of the valuable heirlooms. Meanwhile, Owen is becoming more attracted to Fleda instead of the crude Mona and eventually declares his love for her. Fleda insists that he honor his engagement to Mona unless she breaks it off.

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I’ve adapted the story and set it in Lindfield. Mrs Gereth is translated to Serena Ross, the widowed owner of Old Place, who is considering downsizing to a house on the common. However she is against giving Old Place to her son Ryan (Owen Gereth) because of his infatuation with the ‘unsuitable’ Monica Malling (Mona Brigstock) the local pub land lady. Our heroine Ellie (Fleda Vetch) is employed by Mrs Gereth to do an inventory of the house prior to Mrs Gereth’s move, but becomes sucked into the family dispute in a way that turns increasingly dangerous for all concerned.

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In The Spoils of Poynton, Mrs. Gereth finally returns the fine furniture to Poynton. After a few days Owen and Mona are reported to be married, and they go abroad. Fleda gets a letter from Owen asking her to select any one piece from Poynton as hers to keep. Fleda goes to Poynton but finds it completely consumed by fire.

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In my own novel Love in Lindfield… well I’m afraid you’ll have to read the ending for yourself, but it has some dramatic turns of its own!

Love in Lindfield

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Letters to Strabo — James Joyce meets Clara Clemens in Zurich

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By the time she arrived in Münich six months after her father’s death, Clara Clemens, Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, was no stranger to pain. She’d suffered almost twenty years of family tragedy, including two near fatal accidents, but was still remarkably hopeful:

At last if nothing happens to my husband I have really landed in a beautiful harbor & soon enough [can] worship every ripple in the delicious blue sun flecked water. Even father’s & Jean’s deaths cannot take from me this longed for happiness which is actually mine.

But the reference in her letter to what might happen to her husband was eerily fateful. By the summer of 1914, the pieces on the European chessboard were moving rapidly, perhaps more rapidly than they’d ever done before. She escaped with her husband, who as a Russian had been arrested, to Zurich with the help of a friend, the Prussian Ambassador. At the same time, James Joyce, stranded as an English teacher in Trieste, began work on Ulysses while plotting his flight to Switzerland. Four years later, in 2018, he was still there. He’d published Portrait of an Artist and was still slaving away at Ulysses. But Clara Clemens had returned back to the US with her husband.

Much of this period has been captured in Tom Stoppard’s work Travesties. But I too have been wondering, like Stoppard, what would have happened if the chronology had moved in slightly different ways? It’s given me an idea for my own take on Stoppard’s play, a sort of sequel. But in my version, Clara Clemens makes an, as yet historically unremarked, second appearance in Zürich.

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“The atmosphere at the Pfauen was jubilant. The English Players’ first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest had been a triumph. James Joyce and Claud Sykes, a former actor in Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s company, had started up the acting troupe the previous year in an attempt to earn some ready cash. Joyce was holding court, reading from his latest manuscript, occasionally breaking into song while swilling down bottles of Erzherzogin Fendant de Sion.

“‘White wine is like electricity. Red-wine looks and tastes like liquefied beefsteak,’ he declared.”

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“His black jacket, grey flannel trousers and little round black hat; his pale blue eyes; the small tuft of hair under his lower lip and smart moustache all gave him a slightly rakish appearance. His appearance was that of a friendly, very competent man of the theater rather than a figure that would eventually change the world. None of Joyce’s closest friends thought of him as a potential international celebrity.”

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“The Joyces: James, Nora (still Miss Barnacle, as they married many years later), Giorgio (12) and Lucia (10), lived in an apartment on the first floor of Universitätstrasse 38. Lucia Joyce was a happy and hard-working schoolgirl but she hated the damp and crowded poverty they lived in, the struggle to obtain food, the all-consuming obsession of her father’s master work in progress. More seriously, of course, she was well aware of her father’s failing eyesight and increasing drunkenness and her mother’s slow descent towards a nervous breakdown.”

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The previous year Joyce had suffered a recurrence of attacks of iritis and synechia, connected to severe toothaches. The pain made it impossible for him to work. He was also suffering attacks of glaucoma and his doctors advised an operation. But Joyce resisted, blaming the weather for his eye problems. He agreed finally, however, to leave Zürich for the Italian part of Switzerland over the winter, where the weather might aid his recovery.

But on that wet late-April evening, he was walking home from the Pfauen when he collapsed in the street with an acute attack of lumbar pain. The attack left him motionless for twenty minutes before he could move at all. There was nobody around to help him. Slowly, he began to crawl along the sidewalk. He was in total agony, already bitterly regretting his decision to ignore his medics’ advice.

“‘Can I help you, sir, are you all right?’ shouted a pretty young woman in evening dress from the window of her passing cab. Joyce looked up. The woman spoke oddly precise German. She must have seen him lying there on the pavement through the lights of her cab. Her husband was sitting beside her on the back seat. The night had turned cold; it was no weather to be out alone on the streets.

“Joyce was surprised but certainly relieved to hear the hint of an American accent. ‘Yes, I’d greatly value your help,’ he replied, in his calm but slurred Irish-German. ‘I’m in quite some pain as you can probably tell.’

‘Oh my Lord, but it’s Mr Joyce, isn’t it? Why, we were only at your play a few hours ago. Mein Herr, bitte helfen Sie ihm, so schnell wie möglich einzusteigen. Wir müssen ihn sofort nach Hause bringen. Ossip, don’t just set there, give the poor man a hand, won’t you?’

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“Clara Clemens, her Russian- Jewish husband and their seven-year old daughter Nina, had recently arrived back in Zürich from the States. They’d made a long and arduous journey to fulfil a promise to fundraise for those that had helped them escape four years earlier. Before the outbreak of hostilities, Ossip had been conductor of the Munich Konzertverein. They’d fled following his arrest as a possible spy after the outbreak of the war. He’d only been freed following the personal intervention of Herr von Treutler, the Prussian Ambassador to Bavaria, an intimate friend of the German Emperor and great fan of Mark Twain.”

A week later they met up again with Joyce and his partner Nora Barnacle for dinner:

“‘So, Mr Joyce, are you working on a new book?’ Ossip asked changing the subject.

“‘Indeed, yes I am. I’m working on a novel. It’s a sort of reworking of Homer’s The Odyssey.’

“‘How very interesting, Mr Joyce. My father was familiar with Homer, you know,’ said Clara. ‘He was a great travel enthusiast. Of course, his first book Innocents Abroad was about his tour of the Mediterranean. He visited many of the sites mentioned in The Odyssey,’ she added.

“‘I know of the work, although I confess I haven’t read it. I’m afraid that although Homer was a master of poetry, he was a pretty unreliable travel writer; most of the sites he mentions are almost impossible to identify nowadays. Interestingly, I’ve recently come across an amusing epigram written by Eratosthenes that Strabo quotes in The Geography: ““You will find the scene of Odysseus’s wanderings when you find the cobbler who sewed up the bag of winds.”’

“They all laughed.

“‘In fact, my interest in Ulysses is not that of a traveller, nor even a warrior; it’s in his humanity. I believe his story is not only one of the earliest but also one of the most human in literature. He didn’t want to go to Troy; he viewed the war, rightly, as a pretext for Greek mercantilism. You may recall that when the recruiting officers arrived on Ithaca to take him with them, he pretended at first to be ploughing, then pretended to be mad. That was, of course, till they pushed his two-year-old son Telemachus into the furrow in front of his plough. His decision to go to war was purely that of a father and husband. It was a simple choice really, a matter of parental love, of flesh and blood. He had no choice.’

“‘My father would have loved to hear this; he hated the stupidity of war, you know!’ added Clara.

“‘Indeed, I’d have loved to discuss this with him. You know one day I have it in my mind to do my own Huck Finn story. I’ll name it in his honour of course. Finnegan’s “fin” or “wake”. It’s a play on words; my own homage to one of your father’s finer wisecracks! If I can ever get around to reading the original properly, that is!’

Letters to Strabo

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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.