Monday, 24 April 2017

Dracula, or The Un-dead, by Bram Stoker


'Read Classic', an occasional series of posts from 
Kitchen Table Writers, looks at Bram Stoker's Dracula

I was holidaying in Whitby when I first realised that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a surprisingly modern novel. I’d watched the Hammer film versions of the book in my misspent youth and they left with the opinion that the book was a bit of late Victorian gothic horror, no where near good enough for me to need to wade through all that gore. But every Whitby bookshop had a copy of Dracula in its window, and naturally, I soon succumbed, reading it on the top of blowy cliffs and in the shelter of the beaches below. I took it on every walk, along with my butterfly identification book.


We did a lot of walking that holiday, passing the whaling arch on West Cliff, which Stoker would have passed too, with his family, when he holidayed here in June 1990. He stayed at Royal Crescent and it was there I discovered just how inspiring his time in Whitby must have been. Bram Stoker had found his inspiration. Standing in the crescent, you have a view of the North Sea, past sloping green cliff and grey sands. Across the river estuary are the imposing ruins of the Abbey, which must have been at least as gothic then as it is now.  The churchyard of St Mary lies below, the location of a vampiric attack in the second half of the story. As twilight falls, bats begin to swoop into view.

Mina, one of the two young female characters in Dracula, voices Stoker’s thoughts on the town: Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes, and which is the scene of part of "Marmion," where the girl was built up in the wall. It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows…

Bram Stoker also spent time at Whitby library – he made notes from 'An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, in which he must have seen the name ‘Dracula’ for the first time. The fifteenth-century Vlad Dracula (Vlad the Impaler) was as bloodthirsty as his fictional counterpart, impaling his enemies on long spikes and nailing turbans to the scalps of foreign ambassadors. Stoker gives his reader the historical allusion that Count Dracula is the descendant of Vlad – in his Author’s Note he explains that the documents assembled in the novel are real. Even as I read this, before starting the novel, I was reminded of the hype around The Blair Witch Project, and saw how astute Stoker was as a writer. 

He’d called this story The Un-dead for all the time he was writing it. Just before publication, he changed his title to  the wonderfully charged-up name of the antagonis. This  may have changed its destiny, although ‘un-dead’ remains a popular trope today, especially in Young Adult literature.

I began my holiday read, and soon found that it was not at all like the Hammer Horror version…or for that matter like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) which I found almost unwatchably hammed up. Dracula contains elements of the conventions of gothic fiction…dark-shadowed, cobwebby castles juxtaposed with vast remote landscapes and vulnerable, virginal girls threatened by black-coated evil-doers… but Stoker contrasts his Transylvanian castle with parochial Whitby and the bustle of London in the 1990s.

Starting with that holiday in Whitby, Stoker used a wide range of research methods and a clear understanding of modern character development to write the story, but a stuck with the traditional gothic novel structure; diary entries, letters and newspaper cuttings etc. It opens with the most famous section of the book, Jonathan Harker's Journal, which recounts his visit to Transylvania as a lawyer helping the count through his London property transaction. Harker falls under the spell of the Brides of Dracula and succumbs to the vampire’s influence. This opening feels like it has an impossible resolution and I turned the pages as fast as any modern thriller, needing to know how he could possibly escape with his life. At that point, I had no idea how many other characters would not escape with theirs. The novel keeps twisting and surprising us, as Dracula, on his way to London aboard a ship (hidden in a coffin) is washed up in Whitby and escapes in the shape of a black dog, and we’re introduced to Renfield, who is incarcerated in  a mental asylum where he lives on a diet of flies and spiders.

Stoker's masterpiece was part of a fin-de-siècle literary culture obsessed with crime – this was the time that Jack the Ripper stalked Whitechapel – and sensationalism – these were the original ‘naughties’. The book strips away the layers of late Victorian anxiety such as loss of religious traditions,  colonialism, scientific advancement, plus a growing awareness of female sexuality and a continued fear of homosexuality.  The book is a mirror in which generations of readers have explored their own fantasies. 

Maurice Richardson described it as; a kind of incestuous, necrophilious, oral-anal-sadistic all-in wrestling match, and no one could argue with that (or prevent themselves from rushing to read such a book).





Thursday, 20 April 2017


Thank you so much,Indie Shaman for your kind and detailed review of In the Moors, the first book in the Shaman Mystery Series.
And, there's a Book Give-away alongside the review, with a copy of In the Moors up for grabs. To go Indie Shaman's Facebook Page for further details.
In the Moors is a dark thriller, dealing with chilling serial crime but, due to the skill of the author’s writing and the humour and engaging character of Sabbie Dare, it is also a highly enjoyable read that is very difficult to put down once you pick it up.
In fact the main issue for me was reaching the end of the book and wondering what I could read next that would match up to it. Fortunately there is a book two and three in the series (although I started the series by reading book three, so also can confirm you can read them in any order). And hopefully Milton will continue the series with a book four.
Very addictive and highly recommended!
To read the entire review click here
Or, why not read the this most recent issue of Indie Shaman, in which my article on 'The Red Lady of Paviland' features alongside other excellent articles? You can find out more here.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Very Hard Work of Getting Published

Once again, I'm delighted to say that a previous student has contacted me to say they’ve had a book accepted for publication. I get really excited when this happens; and hopefully, once the ‘wraps are off’ that writing friend of mine will be telling you about her success herself, in a guest post on this blogsite. In the meantime I have a message from her. It’s for all of those who read Kitchen Table Writers while writing your own first novel. 

“It’s bloody hard work.”

Every single student I’ve ever had, who got their contract in the end, would endorse that sentiment. I’d endorse that sentiment! 

You have to work very, very hard, and often for a very, very long time. No let up, and perhaps not even a glimmer of hope on the horizon to keep you going. 

When I started to write I had two small children and a part-time job. working nights so that their father could be there when I wasn’t. I didn’t have much time to write. Then, just as I got going, my mother developed severe dementia and came to live with us. That cut down my time even further. In fact, there was always something that could get in the way of writing regularly, and indeed, I didn’t always manage to write regularly, but I tried not to give up. I worked my way through my first children’s novel and found an agent. Eventually, that magical contract with HarperCollins appeared on my door mat (yes, it was the door mat, back in those days). People started to ask me what one needed to write successfully. And I kept telling them. 

“Bloody hard work.”

There are three main kinds of bloody hard work attached to the production of a novel. The first is the hard graft of the start. Have you filled three notebooks with ideas and snatches of prose which you’ve discarded, half used, or actually included? Have you yet thrown away half your novel and gone back to the beginning? Have you asked someone to look at the glimmerings and been slated on what you showed them? If not, you haven’t lived. And you certainly haven’t worked hard enough yet. Tossing out a lot of early work is part and parcel of the ‘first novel experience’. (Along with a lot of…yep…hard work.)

The second stage is completion. You’ve now actually got a draft that you’re pleased with. Heck, you might be actually proud of it, and so you should be; getting to this stage deserves huge congratulations from everyone who knows you. (It might also get huge sighs of relief, but that is a premature emotional reaction on their parts.) Believe me, this second stage is hard work. Mentally – you’re glued to a computer while you try, and try again, to formulate a synopsis that will do your novel justice, plus a covering letter that is neither too showy nor too dull. Physically, you need sheer grit and determination to go on when you realise that the synopsis and covering letter needs to be written, with slightly differing nuances, every time you send it out. Emotionally, it’s hard too, when back they bounce. Steadily, you work your way through the Writers and Artist’s Year Book, but no one wants you yet. Then, all at once, some one does want to see the entire book and you realise there may still be typos and other potholes. You need to go through it with a fine tooth comb. When the manuscript returns with a kind of ‘yee-ees…’ you discover that this agent or editor wants heaps more work done. 

Heaps. Of very, very hard work.

Finally, you reach the third stage. You’ve had the contract checked by the Writers’ Society
and you can proudly proclaim you’re to be a published writer. Just as you sit back with a sigh, a long list of ‘do’s’ will arrive from the publisher. Set up a website or blog. Write a good blurb. Contact everyone you know for an endorsement. Promote your book. Start booking engagements. Plan your launch. Do book readings. Be a presence on twitter. Start the next book.

It’s such bloody hard work being a writer!

At least, when you reach that stage, you, along with all other professional writers, can reassure the new guys that your novel didn’t just come out of the air. 

Please do this – don’t let them believe that you glibly typed away for a couple of hours a week and then success just happened without further effort. Please tell them that you:
  • Filled up notebooks 
  • Had times you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Wrote half a novel and dumped it
  • Had further times when you didn’t believe in yourself
  • Took two years of back-aching, sight-failing keyboard work.
  • Almost had to start again anyway.
  • And that you’re still working hard to this day.

At that point, you’ll also know, as my friend knows now, just how important it is that people they know buy their new book. That it took a long time to craft it into a readable novel, and that it’s really worth reading, and yet is priced lower than a cinema trip. 

Why not pop over to Amazon today where putting ‘Nina Milton’ into the search engine will bring up that very, very bloody hard work – all of which is now transformed into steamingly good reads!


And do watch this space for news of my ex-student’s success.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Writing Before You Start Writing



The writer’s greatest fear – the blank page or screen.  

You sit, ready to begin.

You really, really want to write. In fact, you’ve got a great idea, although it’s still a bit...unformed. So you stare at the screen, for a long time, before you finally start to tap. 

Five paragraphs (or even worse – five lines,) down, your head slumps forward. You’re pretty sure you’ve written rubbish, and now you’ve even run out of rubbish to write. You hand slides to the mouse and before you know it, you’re playing that stupid game someone on Facebook sent you.

What went wrong? You know that you really, really wanted to write. Why can't you write?

You’ve forgotten something hugely important:

Most writing, starts long before you sit in front of screen or paper. First of all, you  have to ‘imagine up’ your writing.

Story, novel, play, poem…any writing at all, begins in our heads. Most successful writers do huge amounts of imagining, thinking and planning before they touch keyboard or pen. For this, they visit a strange place in their heads, which becomes increasingly real, the more they go there.

These methods of enhancing the imaginative process are open to all, and intently useful to those who are about to embark on their first writing. 

If fact, you have already done this, many times; we all do it every day. At its least intense, it's called day dreaming. As it becomes more intense, you may find that you reach a level where you're taken far away from your surroundings. Although you are not asleep, you are not fully alert either. The pulse of your brain has slowed, becoming Alpha brain waves. It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, your mind soars off on such a totally different tack that when a passing friend calls your name, you don’t hear them, and if they tap your shoulders, you jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Then you apologize, saying, ‘I was somewhere else there, for a moment.’ The friend understands instantly. We all recognize this ‘losing of yourself’, but we don’t make use of it nearly enough. 

Entering this slower state of thinking allows you to take advantage of the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, where vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye and we become receptive to information (as in self-hypnosis) beyond our normal conscious awareness.

This trance state, is also called by may different names, and you might like to choose one that you’ll feel comfortable with:
  • Daydreaming
  • Reverie
  • Fantasizing
  • Introspection
  • Brown study 
  • Muse descending 
  • Deep listening
  • Slipping into a trance-like state
  • Visualization
  • Mental pictures
  • Head movies
  • Relaxed imagining
You might want to call this ‘meditating’, but a more accurate definition of meditation is that of emptying your mind by concentration on a single thing (such as your breath). However, you might find it beneficial to meditate prior to tapping your imagination, emptying out the normal ‘gabble of thoughts’ for a few minutes before letting your mind settle on what you next want to write. 

Once the process is underway, you can burrow deeper and deeper into your mind, until you reach the many voices of your self, unlocking something that you didn’t previously know was there. 

I discovered that dropping down into this world was hugely enjoyable. Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by the fact that plots, characters and entire scenes can drop into one’s mind from nowhere. For millennia people have asked whether such creations come from outside us, or deep within. The Greeks had it sown up, of course. The Nine Muses were goddesses who visited those ready to create works of art and dropped the inspiration into their minds.

http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Muse.html
Consider now if you have a special place or time or activity where you find yourself quite naturally thinking the words that will eventually turn up on the page. What are you doing when you write in your head? For me, it has to be walking alone. Once I’m underway, my feet seem to direct themselves, whether I’m heading to the nearest shopping centre or through a woodland, and my mind flies off on a journey into my project. Thoughts and memories are loosened and released and worlds of possibilities to open up. Your writing will be sharper, more present, more melodic. Your settings will have the tastes and colours and the subtlest background sounds all built in. You’ll be able to stand right beside your characters; you will see their freckles and dandruff, and where they cut themselves shaving. What’s more, they will regard you as their therapist, they will open their hearts and tell you everything that troubles them, from their first memories to their most hidden infamies.

Here is a list of special times where allowing yourself to concentrate on setting up ‘writing before writing’ can really work. For instance, if you already take the train to work each day, and find that you’re mind wanders as it moves steadily onward, then don’t forget to pack your notepad and pen. 
Study all the methods below and tick the ones you think would work for you, or already work for you. Add others that might better apply to you:

[] Walking alone
[] Repetitive tasks, such as housework
[] Gardening (especially weeding)
[] Lying half awake in bed
[] Listening to music
[] Sitting quietly (indoors or out) with eyes shut
[] A journey on train or bus
[]
[]
[]

Look through your ticks. You can have a go at several of these or you can choose one method you could employ more frequently. For instance, if you like the idea of spending more time sitting with your eyes closed, try to do this on a regular basis, but rather than allowing your mind to wander without any structure, think in terms of the writing you are working on. When you don’t know what to write, the visualizations will send you in search of memories from your childhood or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can go to seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot.  You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, drive, eat.  You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down. Very soon, scenes will play in your mind, characters will speak to each other, settings will become clear, and – perhaps most importantly for the moment you sit in front of a blank scene – you'll hear your narrative unfold in your head.

For some writers, this feels way too unstructured. Dropping the tight grip on the reigns of their writing feels scary. They find it hard to consider 'daydreaming' as part of 'the writing process'. If they're not actually writing, they're not writing at all. But your creative self could gallop at will if only you let it. After all, you can tighten the reigns again during the drafting process when you return to that blank screen, full of ideas. To start with, give your writing horse his head.

Naturally, translating these ‘visions’ onto the page is not always straightforward. Ideas can start to slip away, to fade as we try to describe them on paper. The feelings you had turn out to be difficult to translate into words. The key to this problem is to always have a notebook nearby – if you don’t record these thoughts quickly, they will float away, possibly never to bee seen again. Use your notebook to write down everything that comes to you – even if it feels unusable or incomprehensible or crazy at the time.

Your imagination is where your writing begins - using this technique, you can enter your creative world and roam around it at will. The writing that spills out as you sit up and grab a pen or laptop can become the foundation of your projects. You are recording words and images directly from the interior of your mind. 

 You are now writing directly from your own inspiration. Enjoy!

Monday, 27 March 2017

MAKING MAGIC WISHES - WORKING WITH SPELLS

I’m a pagan, so people often ask me if I ‘do’ magic spells. The answer is – not often. As few as possible, in fact. There’s two main reasons for that. I’m not a discontent sort of person, I tend to be happy with my lot. Okay, an ocean-going yacht might be nice….but honestly, I suspect it would only be another thing to clean. The other reason I don’t do magic is that I believe that once a spell is cast, if the result isn’t as instantaneous as one was hoping, then that magic hasn’t worked. So I avoid doing lots and lots, on a weekly or monthly basis, so that I can heartily prove to myself that when I do some magic, it really has an effect.

I’ve experienced quite a few (definitely a high percentage) of successful spells in my time. The secret always seems to be desire (LOADS of it), strong intent (preparation and concentration are important) and then… pwuffff! allowing the wish to go…out into the ether, the astral, the spaces between particles…wherever you think wishes might go once you release them.

The letting go is last is the most essential part. Hanging onto hopes, desires and dreams doesn’t get you anywhere. In fact, it holds you back. Everyone knows someone who has spent most of their life pining after the thing they always wanted but never got. This makes a person shrivel up. It stops them loving the life that is actually out there for them.

At a druid gathering with my first lap harp
One of the earliest pieces of magic I remember physically compiling and releasing took place about twenty years ago. My friend had been given a beautiful harp,  with a sonorous tone and extraordinary carvings in beautiful wood.  Out of the blue, I found myself looking it over and fervently wishing for a harp like that. I stroked in lovingly, and was allowed to play it, for a few moments. Harps are very forgiving instruments, and instantly it made angelic sounds for me. But I said nothing. I knew that this harp had cost far more than I could ever afford – harps are very expensive.

The following week I was at a Druid Camp. It was high summer and there were tents all over a huge field in the West Country. The first workshop I went to was pretty arbitrary; Making a Mosaic Tile. I had no idea why I’d chosen it; I’m not good with my hands, or able to work with shape and colour with any panache. Quite quickly, among all the art-and-crafty types around me, I felt out of place and rather uncomfortable.

Then I had a flash of inspiration. I wouldn’t worry about art. I’d make a spell. I worked all through the morning, to create a mosaic tile with the picture of a harp. I put my deep yearning for a harp into every bit of ceramic I glued onto the base. 

Perhaps because I wasn’t concentrating on getting an artistic likeness (something I do find hard!) in the picture, it came out okay. It looked like a harp. People commended it. I left the workshop alone, and found a sunlit glade at the edge of the campsite. I lay the tile down and called to the spirits of the place to hear my call. I was asking for my very own harp. Then, I let the desire go…pwufff!

That was Saturday. The following day, the friend with the beatuful new harp turned up at the camp, to give a workshop herself. She pulled me to one side, as we shared a meal in the cafe tent. “Nina, you know I’ve got a new harp, don’t you?” I nodded, trying not to let my eyes show the envy I felt. “Well, it occurred to me – you could have my old lap harp!” She produced it from under a piece of black velvet. 

It wasn’t as glorious as her new, carved harp, but that didn’t matter. It was for me, to make my own music on.

Yewberry
“Jim told you about my mosaic, didn’t he?” I said. But she just looked puzzled. She’d had no idea I’d been doing harp magic. As she’d got ready for the camp, she’d passed the old harp and thought, “I’ll take that with me for Nina.” In my view, that was not a coincidence. My magic, which had materialised out of a strong, sudden yearning, and executed with care and intent all that previous morning, then let go, by dedicating my desire to the spirits of the place, had wafted up out out, until it reached my friend's generously-hearted mind.
Learning to play a harp isn’t easy. You have to hold your fingers in an odd position which I’ve never really mastered. But I could already play the piano a bit, and this was just a naked piano, wasn’t it? I discovered that I was fine, so long as I invented (I hesitate to say ‘composed’), little tunes of my own, often with little songs that half drowned out my early mistakes. And the lap harp was very portable; I could take it into the wild to play on my own or to other druids (druids are very forgiving!)

The following April, my birthday arrived At the druid grove that month I was given my birthday present from my family. It was a harp, carved into the shape of a swan, with a golden chain around her neck. She was already named, Yewberry. I was thrilled that my original magic had such a lasting effect. 

At the book launch for In the Moors
Since then, my connection to magic has mostly been part of other people creating their own magic, to stunning effect. But about six years ago, I an idea came to me, a story about a shamanic practitioner, Sabbie Dare. This book would be a thriller, in which Sabbie discovers that the people who come to her for help include those in deep trouble…people threatened by crime…people caught up in crime…people capable, even, of murder. She soon understands that it is her nature, through her connection with the spirit world, which draws these people to her. And, slowly, she learns that her ancestral past also has that link. i

t felt like a good idea, so I started writing. Once I’d sent a draft to my agent, I created a piece of magic to send it on its way. This, like the ceramic tile, was a physical act, which I hid in a small golden casket (that I found in a charity shop – not really gold, of course!). On that equally magical day when my agent rang to say that I’d been offered a three-book contract, I dismantled the items inside the golden casket. 
The first Shaman Mystery, available from Amazon




That work had been done…all I had to do now was write two more books!

Interested in magic? You can find every spell known (almost) in The Element Encyclopaedia of 500 Spells by Judoka Illes (Element Books). You can read more about British Shamanism in Singing the Soul Back Home by Caitlin Matthews (Connections Book Publishing) and more about the history of druidry in Blood and Mistletoe, by Ronald Hutton. Also try the website for the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids 




Monday, 20 March 2017

Seven Amazing Books only I Can Recall


Instead of reviewing books on the best seller list, or books winning prizes, this time I’m going to look at seven books that have generally been forgotten.

But, I haven’t forgotten them – in most instances, they are still in my bookcase. The memories I have aren’t only of the stories inside the covers, but of the time and place I read the book. Here are my ‘FORGOTTEN SEVEN’, starting with the most recent, and moving back in time.

ONE - The Voyage of the Narwhal

In the spring of 2000, I took three girlfriends on holiday to the Costa Del Azahar…the coast of orange blossom. We stayed in my tiny flat, which overlooked the Spanish Mediterranean. We basked in some early sunshine, ate at seafood restaurants, shopped at the markets for cheeses, wines and soft, Spanish bread, and took long walks along the coastal paths. We talked a lot, too, because we’d all known each other for at least twenty years and it was great to catch up. And I read my airport purchase; The Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett. It seemed a fitting read; the tale of a journey while we too, were away from home. But the Narwhal was grinding through the ice of the North-West Passage, rather than swimming in southern seas. 

It is 1855 and Erasmus Wells, an introspective naturalist, wants to extend his scholarship on this expedition to the Arctic captained by his brother-in-law-to-be, Zechariah Voorhies. Zechariah is nothing like shy Erasmus. He’s an impetuous smart-aleck who hopes to find a legendary ‘open polar sea’ and a missing explorer who disappeared a decade before.

So there’s the early clue – people die when they go to this place. 

The voyage turns colder and sourer, as winter closes over the ship, and things go badly wrong. "I want my NAME on something," Zechariah tells Erasmus. "Something BIG -- is that so hard to understand? I want my name on the map.”. Although this is fiction, it rang horribly true, knowing as we do how explorers have lost their lives on both freezing continents. The waters are hazardous with shifting icebergs, the sled dogs die, and a sailor succumbs to lockjaw. Very soon they are hemmed in by ice on all sides, and the Narwhal spends an entire winter in the arctic with dwindling supplies of food. The crew splits into factions as Zechariah becomes in turns tyrannical and moody.

In the middle of a Spanish holiday, I was swept into this chilling adventure, and can still marvel at Barrett’s psychological insights into her characters and the depths of the philosophy with which she underpins her story. 

TWO
Kasuo Ishiguro wrote The Unconsoled between The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. Both these books went down well with the book reading world, but The Unconsoled sank like a stone. Why? I kept asking as I read and reread it. Why aren’t people getting this marvellous book? 
Ishiguro is one of my favourite contemporary writers. (See my review of his latest, The Buried Giant.) His books are imaginative, inventive, strongly crafted and push the boundaries to the very edges. The Unconsoled is my favourite of  all his novels. 

It's a slippy book, disorientated in time and space and drenched in music. Unlike the subsequent Never Let Me Go,  now a film, The Unconsoled  dropped out of sight like the anchor on the Narwhal, after receiving universally bad reviews at the time of its publication. The Telegraph review said it was a sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work and the Guardian said it left readers and reviewers baffled.  One literary critic said that the novel had invented its own category of badness. Meanwhile, I was reading it with intense absorption and enjoyment. But I'm glad to say that by 2005 literary critics were beginning to agree with me...they voted the novel as the third best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005, and The Sunday Times placed it in 20th century's 50 most enjoyable books, later published as Pure Pleasure; A Guide to the 20th Century's Most Enjoyable Books. 

The Unconsoled is set over three days in the life of concert pianist Ryder, who has come to an unnamed European city to perform. His memory seems patchy and selective and he drifts from situation to situation as if in a surreal dream, unable to totally understand what is going on. 

One scene in the book has never left me; Ryder is in his hotel room when he notices that the rug is similar to the one he played soldiers on when a child. Suddenly, he realizes that the room is actually his old bedroom; he's back in his childhood. What follows is a tender, almost cherishing memory of better times. In 1995, I’d recently been nursing my mother, who'd died of the advanced stages of a particularly psychotic form of Alzheimer's disease, and Ryder's problems and experiences reminded me of the twilight world she'd lived in, where real life probably invaded her dream world in unpleasant ways...she was happiest when imagining I was her sister, Beatrice, and that we were both in our twenties and living together before Mum married my father (Beatrice never married – in fact she came to live with the newly-weds!) Listening to Mum's mad conversations with herself gave me a wonderful insight into what life was like before the second world war (my mum was quite old when I was born). 

I would recommend Ishiguro to anyone who hasn't yet read him...all his books. But The Unconsoled has a special place in my heart and will never leave my bookcase...so get your own copy!

THREE
Talking of the surreal, I was listening to A Good Read, the longstanding programme on reading and books on BBC Radio Four, when I first heard about The Hearing Trumpet. “This is a bonkers book,” said one of the programme’s guests, who’d been asked to read it. “It’s mad. Utterly bats in the belfry.”
I rushed to Amazon and ordered a second-hand copy. I had to find out if he was right. 
Written in the early 1960s, but only published in 1974, The Hearing Trumpet is Leonora Carrington’s best loved book. Carrington was born in Lancashire to a strict Catholic family, and began to paint when she first came into contact with surrealism through her lover, painter Max Ernst. (See the cover illustration, left.) Her stories are as surrealist as her paintings; she writes with originality, imagination and charm. The Hearing Trumpet  is a classic of fantastic literature, reminding me of a childhood favourite, Alice in Wonderland, but rather than falling down a rabbit hole, we view the world through ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby’s ornate hearing device. Marian’s family commit her to a sinister retirement home, with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes. The occupants have to endure the twisted religious sermons of the proprietor while they eat their weird meals overlooked by a portrait of a leering Abbess. When Marian happens upon a book detailing the life of the Abbess, the pace hots-up remarkably, into a magical adventure of escape. The guest on A Good Read was perfectly right. This book is bonkers. But such fun to read!

FOUR
I still have my battered copy of Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, possibly the most important novel to come out of South Africa before it abolished apartheid. It was published in 1948 the US; in South Africa it created much controversy. When I opened it again to write this, the smell of old books came wafting out, taking me back to the seventies, when I bought it at a second-hand stall. At that time, South Africa apartheid was still universal, with vicious race laws. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robin Island and, here in the UK, I wanted to find something that would explain all of this to me. Cry, the Beloved Country, with its major theme of the overwhelming problem of racial inequality, suited my needs. It’s still an incredible read, and a reminder of how important it is not to turn back the clock.

FIVE
One rainy afternoon, I watched the 1945 black and white film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, on the TV. I was a young mum at the time, and was drawn to the story of this impoverished but aspirational second-generation Irish-American living in Brooklyn, New York City, during the first two decades of the 20th century. So I did what eleven year old Francie Nolan did all the time; visit my local library to borrow the book. Written in 1943 by Betty Smith, the book was an immense success at the time. It must have hit the same nerve with that reading public as the film, and subsequently the novel, did with me. It’s the story of family life, and the immigrant experience. The Nolans are poor, often hungry, but they fill their home with warmth and love. The main metaphor of the book is the Chinese ‘Tree of Heaven’, which grows outside the window of the family’s run-down tenement building; a symbol of Francie’s desire for a good education, which she manages to obtain through some subterfuge with the US school system. This beautifully written account of the American immigrant experience might be due for a revival, for various reasons, right at this moment. 
SIX
Vita Sackville-West was a successful and prolific novelist and poet, but I actually know her best as the person who created the wonderful garden at Sissinghurst and as the inspiration for Orlando by Virginia Wolfe, written while they had a decade-long affair.
My copy of All Passion Spent arrived through the post in the form of a Virago Classic Triple bill. I had no idea where it came from, but I was truly grateful and delved into the three novels by three women, loving this one the most. I hung onto the book for years, but recently took it to discuss at my book club and gave it away so that others could enjoy it.

All Passion Spent came out in 1933 and focuses on some of Sackville-West’s primary concerns. She, like Wolfe, was passionate about people’s place in society, society’s constrictions on people, and women’s control of their lives. The story follows the elderly Lady Slane’s thoughts on her life’s influences and controls, happiness and relationships, while she relaxes in the summer sun. She believes, as her life is approaching its end, that she should downsize, and by the time we reach the final third of this short novel, summer is over and Lady Slane has settled into a tiny cottage She’s hoping to be almost forgotten, allowed to get on with being old, but she finds she’s still too linked to her past. She bumps into Mr FitzGeorge who has arrived from India and has secretly been in love with her since their youth. After his death, he bequeaths his outstanding art collection to Lady Slane and she passes it all to the state, much to her rather unlikable children’s disgust.  This empowers her great-granddaughter Deborah,  who finds the courage to break-off her engagement and pursue her love of music. Lady Slane observes this with pleasure, for Deborah will be taking the path that Lady Slane herself longed to, but could not. The novel is not a great classic, but it is interesting and entertaining, and worth a read.

SEVEN
I don’t know if Vita Sackville-West ever read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, but I’m betting she might have. It is the first novel to be written by a working class person, so especially loved by the socialist left in the UK, but mostly forgotten by everyone else. Robert Tressell, whose real name was Robert Noonan, was a housepainter in the early years of the last century, and a member of the Socialist Democratic Association, an early version of the Labour Party. When Noonan died in 1911, he left his 250,000 word novel in the hands of his daughter. who sold it for £25. In 1914, the book came out as a 150,000 word first edition, and in 1918, after the 1st WW was over, it was slashed again, to 100,000 words (the length of the books in the Shaman Mystery Series!) and sold at one shilling. But an uncut version is available, if you’d like to take a look. 
Image from the 2010 London dramatization
To quote Wikipedia, Noonan’s story is…based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers.  The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Noonan's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses. House decorator Frank Owen understands just how the middle and upper classes take advantage of his skills; he sees them as being ‘given away’ in the ‘great money trick’. 

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, as it’s an explicitly political work, but I loved it. The characters Tressell draws feel authentic and compassionate. I especially remember Owen’s little son, who swears by the efficacy of breakfast porridge, thus prophesying our own interest in the health-given benefits of oats today.

Perhaps you have read some of these long-forgotten books yourselves and loved them as much as I did, or maybe you hated them with equal passion.

If so, do tell Kitchen Table Writers by leaving a comment below.