Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Algarve: This Shore is More

"Mykonos may be alluring, Ibiza tantalizing, and St Tropez may have the ultimate swagger, but the Algarve in Portugal is my port of call for dreamy, charming and authentic. And the light: at sunrise, it’s luminescent with shades of cotton candy and bluebells; at sunset, it dissolves listlessly into a canvas of tangerine and ink."    Scarlett Roitman

Isn't that a beautiful scene? I discovered Scarlett's blog through Instagram and was drawn immediately to her gorgeous descriptions of Faro and the coast, backdrop to many scenes in 300 Days of Sun.

The introduction to her post This Shore is More continues:

"I may not be a creature of habit, but when it comes to July and August, all roads seem to lead to the Algarve. I’ve been coming here for fifteen summers. My husband, Mark, and I loved it so much, we started developing properties here (and if you’re interested, visit It’s a mere two and half hours from London, summer perfection is guaranteed (it averages 300 days of sunshine a year), and it truly has the most spectacular beaches in Europe. This is a canvas of whitewashed towns and villages, scented orange groves, rugged, russet coastline and biscuit-coloured sands."
You can carry on reading over on the Diary of a Londoness blog - and I strongly urge you to do so, for stunning pictures, some lovely writing and a glorious taste of the Algarve!

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Belles Rives: F Scott Fitzgerald at Juan-les-Pins

A long-held wish came true last weekend. I went to the Hotel Belles Rives near Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. We were staying with old friends nearby and this, to my sublime delight, was where they had booked for dinner on Saturday evening.

For this was the villa that F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda rented for the summer in 1926. They had so enjoyed their time on the French Riviera the previous year with wealthy American socialites Gerald and Sara Murphy and their bohemian circle - Gertrude Stein and Picasso, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, and their mutual friend Ernest Hemingway - that Scott and Zelda returned with their five-year-old daughter Scottie to recapture the experience.
Ninety years ago, the property on the edge of the shore at Juan-les-Pins was called the Villa St. Louis, and was supposed to be a retreat from their frenetic life in Paris, where Scott was trying to write a new novel after the publication – to surprisingly indifferent sales – of The Great Gatsby, but constantly getting sidetracked by friends like Ernest Hemingway and the bottle, and Zelda was studying dance. 

The heat and light, the blue Mediterranean sea and scented umbrella pines, the lush, bright flowers and balmy nights provided Fitzgerald with a sensuous backdrop for the novel which would become Tender is the Night: the “diffused magic of the hot sweet South … the soft-pawed night and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below”. Even today, when development has scarred the landscape he would have seen, his description of place is instantly recognisable.
Though the building has been extended, it is still owned by the same family who turned the Villa Louis into a hotel in 1929. The ambiance of the 1920s is carefully preserved and enhanced and leads straight out onto the fabled terrace above the sea.

As the sun set and the lights began to scintillate on the hills towards Cannes and on the yachts at anchor, I realised there was a small green warning light blinking at the end of a jetty on the shallow rocky shore. Could something similar have been here on Fitzgerald’s previous visits to the area and found its way into the book as the green light on the dock that Jay Gatsby makes a symbol of his longing for Daisy?
We sipped champagne Bellinis overlooking the water. It was impossible not to be “borne back ceaselessly into the past”. Fitzgerald’s writing is remarkable for its sense of loss and nostalgia, even for the moment that has only just passed. It occurred to me that the Portuguese word saudade, untranslatable in English, comes closest to capturing the yearning sadness that infuses his most lyrical passages, trying to hold fast to moments of fleeting beauty. All the more poignant when you think of Zelda's descent and the subject matter of Tender is the Night, a novel that would not be published until 1934 due to her illness and Scott's need to earn easier money in the interim to pay for her medical care.
For the Fitzgeralds, the summer of 1926 on the Cap d’Antibes did not prove idyllic, despite the setting. Zelda was close to the madness that would blight the rest of her life. Scott made little progress on Tender is the Night and took refuge in drink, as he always did. Neither could Zelda restrain herself. Their increasingly reckless and erratic behaviour resulted in strained friendships with the Murphys and others. One night Zelda threw herself headfirst down a flight of stone steps because she was so incensed that the dancer Isadora Duncan was flirting with Scott.
Sadly, the rented villa was the scene of vicious marital arguments. In adulthood, Scottie recalled her parents fighting bitterly and constantly. Zelda kept fully packed luggage in every room, threatening departure at the slightest grievance. The dream of a successful life together was coming to an end.
The story goes that one night husband and wife had been drinking hard, and – inevitably – fighting. Rising to Zelda’s taunts about his professional and personal failures, Fitzgerald stormed out. At a restaurant not far away in Juan-les-Pins, where an orchestra was employed every evening to entertain the diners, he persuaded the musicians to come home with him, no doubt offering a ridiculous amount of money. He led them into the Villa Louis, ushered them into a room – and locked them in. He commanded them to play all night if they hoped to be released by dawn. Then he turned to Zelda and asked her if she still thought he was a loser.

In the present day, the music comes from the piano bar, a grand room with stunning décor that carefully evokes the 1920s and 30s. What looks like a painting by Braque on the left is actually a picture viewed through two separate windows. Through the window on the right, you can see the dining terrace.

We were a party of seven, and we had a wonderful evening. The food was gorgeous, mainly fish, and beautifully presented. The lemon soufflé for dessert was heavenly! I couldn't resist taking my camera out to help me remember all the lovely art deco details, and the way each corner is designed to evoke the atmosphere of the Jazz Age.

Monday, 18 July 2016

A sense of place

I never set out to write novels that were particularly known for their sense of place. I set out to write stories that rang true and that transported the reader into another place and time, drawn into authentic surroundings, experiencing what my characters were seeing and hearing, smelling and tasting.
As Simone de Beauvoir tells us in her autobiographical Force of Circumstance: “I do not mention the colour of the sky, the taste of a fruit, out of self-indulgence (…). Not only do [these details] allow us to apprehend a period and a person in flesh and blood, but by their non-significance they are the very touch of truth in a true story.”
This is the start of a guest post I wrote for Karen at My Reading Corner. If you'd like to read the rest, please hop over to her blog on this link. The photo above is of one of the lovely, yet abandoned buildings facing the marina in Faro in Portugal, setting for 300 Days of Sun.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

A tough ask


It's always tricky when you put your book in front of reviewers who know far more than you do about a key component of your work. But it has to be done, as a kind of test. So I couldn't be happier that the verdict from the Algarve Blog is a resounding thumbs up for the setting and story of 300 Days of Sun.
"She has a brilliant way of describing minute details which bring a place to life, and makes you feel as if you are really sat in a local Portuguese café drinking a rich bica coffee and conversing with the locals."
You can read more on the Algarve Blog, and be charmed by the southern Portuguese backdrop in Alyson and David Sheldrake's fabulous photography and atmospheric posts. The following three photos are (c) Algarve Blog, reproduced here with permission.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

300 Days of Sun: Behind the book

I am always inspired to write by the places I visit and Faro, on the southern coast of Portugal, was no exception. I had never been there before, though I knew the name from a hundred airport departure boards, as the hub for tourists travelling to the Algarve. My daughter Madeleine, then seventeen, was taking a Portuguese language course in the town. She and I were charmed from the first evening, by its mosaic pavements, by the laid-back atmosphere in the August heat, by the sea and the glimpses of green salt marsh. In the afternoons, we found various ways to get to the beaches and islands – and the first time we went to Praia de Faro, thanks to churning winds offshore, we did find the sea curiously green and furry.

For all the geographical accuracy of my portrayal of Faro, the town in this book is an imaginary version, and all aspects of the story are fiction. However, certain elements, like great storm of February 1941 and the re-opening of the Café Alianҫa during the local elections (held, in real life, in 2013), are superficially true. The storks' nests on dizzying ledges, as below, are also a characteristic feature.

It would be disingenuous to pretend that the heartbreaking disappearance of four-year-old Madeleine McCann from Praia da Luz in 2007 had no influence on this story, but what set off my narrative was a TV report of renewed investigative efforts to find her several years after the event. A woman who lived locally was being interviewed, and she was angry. “Why all the interest in this one case?” she asked. “There have been others too, you know. What about them?” It was an unkind reaction, I thought, but intriguing. Although I watched out for the next broadcast of the story, and the possibility that this woman’s implication had been followed up, she did not feature again.

I wondered why these questions were not pursued further. Perhaps the reporter hadn’t been able to find out more in the time. Perhaps the implications were too large, too unwieldy. It struck me that sometimes important questions are never answered. Sometimes they are uncomfortable, or not politically expedient. Worst of all, events might be deemed too long ago to matter. An old story: the most damning dismissal a news editor can give. But what are the families who have lost children in this way to do? Of course they will continue in their quests to rescue them, or to know what happened.

Running through this novel are questions about identity. It’s an issue that can be hard enough to answer in normal circumstances. But what happens if a child grows to adulthood and discovers he is not the person he thought he was? A personal history is undermined, shown to be misleading at best, psychologically shattering at worst.

And there are other ways for a person to become someone different. One is by living in a foreign country. This particularly interests me, as I was moved across Europe and Asia so many times as a child, that the simple question, “Where do you come from?” has no simple answer. Each different country left an imprint and memories of home. For Alva, in wartime Lisbon, the moment she changes her perception is when she realises that her husband has no intention of taking her “home” to America.

Crossing borders is a theme that threads through the story. During war, national borders are threatened by invading armies; they must hold to keep the illusion of safety. Historically, Portugal was a nation defined by her navigators and mariners who took to the seas to explore the globe. Present-day Faro has constant movement of planes and trains and cars and boats; the students taking the language course are looking to expand their horizons and move on; Nathan and Joanna are always on the move, on ferry boats and cars and on foot.
In the past, Esta Hartford’s book depicts Alva’s flight into the unknown and how quickly some people can adapt when they have to. The same is true of Nathan. Yet there’s also a sense of unease. Assuming new ways of life, confounding expectations and finding the inner resources to do so are not easy. Borders reflect personal security and psychological boundaries. What one finds within them can often surprise – and perturb – but new countries, new homes, always open a new perspective on the world.

Above all, I hope you enjoy the escape into a fascinating and atmospheric place.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

300 Days of Sun: UK ebook news

Good news for UK readers: you can now download the ebook of 300 Days of Sun for only £2.99 from Amazon's Kindle store. If you don't have a Kindle device, there is a free download app that works for an iPad, as in the photo.
I'm trying a different publishing model over here this time. The HarperCollins luxury paperback from the US is available here, and I'm putting out the ebook independently. We'll see how it goes, but I'm quite excited. What else can you buy for £2.99? A very small glass of wine? Some good chocolate? Go on, treat yourself to a read!
Journalist Joanna Millard has traveled to the Portuguese town of Faro to escape an unhappy love affair and a stalled career. While attending language school, she meets Nathan Emberlin, a charming young man with a mysterious past. The two embark on an odyssey that will take them deep into Portuguese history, particularly the dark years during WWII. A deeply satisfying novel, a rich story with a strong feeling for time and place and the expert pacing of the best thrillers. Readers will appreciate Lawrenson’s ability to combine stunning atmosphere with a fascinating historical backstory.
— Starred Booklist review, USA
As in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, Lawrenson merges past and present, doubling identities and events to dazzling (and sometimes dizzying) effect. Set against the lush but corrupt coastal resorts of southern Portugal, the novel’s shadowy deeds seem only more dangerous in this sunny clime. While not as intense as Robert Wilson’s Portuguese thrillers, this novel is sure to please those who relish the untangling of crimes in exotic locales.
Library Journal, USA 

Friday, 15 April 2016

Lisbon in wartime


During the Second World War, Lisbon must have been a fascinating yet frightening and desperate place. As Hitler’s occupation swept across Europe, neutral (or supposedly neutral) Portugal became one of the Continent’s last escape routes. In an iconic image that many will recall, Lisbon was the transit point for Bergman’s Ilsa when she was waved off by Bogart’s Rick in the classic movie Casablanca, made in 1942.

When Ilsa arrived, like Alva Barton in The Alliance - the novel within 300 Days of Sun she would have found Lisbon a confusing city of dubious trades, conspiracy, and deception, and a hub of espionage. The Atlantic port was flooded with a million refugees, including Jews and Allied POWs who needed berths on passenger ships heading west. The American Export Lines shipping office was besieged. But there were also considerable numbers of foreigners coming to Lisbon with the intention of staying for various nefarious purposes—including large numbers of Nazi personnel.

However, despite the tensions, contemporary accounts of arriving in Portugal at that time by American and British writers describe a place of light and color and flowers, friendliness and generosity from the ordinary people—and profound normality after the horrors many had witnessed. The Portuguese welcomed the refugees with extraordinarily good grace. 
In July 1940, the New York Times Lisbon correspondent Alva E. Gaymon wrote vivid accounts of the swelling international population in a city that still retained the lights and luxuries of pre-war Paris. In the same month, Lilian Mowrer, the wife of notable US foreign correspondent Edgar Ansel Mowrer, who had been based in Paris, wrote of the city: “Lisbon, the port of good hope, from which they could escape from the Germans by Clipper, or ocean liner, or freighter, or tramp ship—anything that would take them away from a Europe that was rapidly becoming a prison.”
 Yet despite the glittering harbour on the Tagus estuary, the superficial joviality of the Portuguese who opened their doors, the fisherwomen who walked barefoot carrying their baskets on their heads, the nightclubs where jazz bands played or fado singers captured a mournful mood, all felt the unease of living in an authoritarian regime. Salazar’s Estado Novo—the New State— was watched over by a Gestapo-like secret police and a censored press. If the locals also seemed to sway with the winds of war, favouring the side that seemed to be winning, and welcomed the hard currency these people brought, who would blame them?

Even before the United States joined the war, American nationals arrived in a steady stream to work with Lisbon’s embassies and news agencies, working closely with the British in many cases. It soon became obvious that not all these hundreds of new staff were engaged in normal diplomatic work. Military and naval attachés gathered as much information as they could. Press officers crowded in. Teams of expert coders and decoders worked on sending and receiving communications around the clock. False identities and spies were two a penny. In a show of strength, US battleships put in to harbour – their crews were said to be the happiest foreigners in Lisbon, as they were the only ones certain of a passage out. 

As the guns of war raged elsewhere, the Allies and the Nazis faced each other every day in the squares and streets, cafés and restaurants of Lisbon. Passenger planes flew in from New York: the famous Pan Am clipper service, a luxurious flying boat that landed on the Tagus river. Noel Coward, travelling on propaganda work, called the aircraft: “a well-appointed bus that had become somehow embedded in the sky”. Meanwhile, on nearby Portella airfield, black-painted converted Nazi bombers were bringing in passengers from Berlin alongside scheduled flights from London.  
Lisbon, with its swirling sea mists and rumours, its mixture of grand architecture and twisting medieval streets, was a place of brittle glamor. Famous names passing through, helped on their way by well-wishers, or using their fame to promote the Allied cause, or in the process of making their names, included Antoine Saint-Exupéry, Marc Chagall, Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming (the creator of James Bond), Lord Mountbatten, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and scores of minor European royalty. Gone with the Wind star Leslie Howard was killed in 1943 when the airliner he was traveling in was shot down over the Bay of Biscay.

On the coast, the enemies sunbathed within earshot of each other and gambled together at the casino at Estoril, where the cream of European society, including royalty, was sitting out the war in sunshine and relative comfort. Across the roulette tables, under glittering chandeliers, as in the boulevards of Lisbon, Allied intelligence agents pitted their wits against the German Abwehr and Gestapo, each side trying to infiltrate and disrupt each other’s business by any means possible. Legendary secret agents like Garbo, real name Juan Pujol García, who played a double game for the British while apparently spying for the Nazis, made Lisbon their centre of operations.

The Hotel Palacio in Estoril (below)

For Hitler’s Germany had a pressing reason for sending agents to Portugal: the acquisition of the mineral tungsten. Tungsten, or wolfram, was a vital component in the manufacture of armour-piercing munitions, and the nearest deposits were mined in Portugal. The Nazis needed to cut deals with the Portuguese. But they were at an historic disadvantage, thanks to England’s status as Portugal’s oldest ally. These two countries had supported each other for 800 years and had the trade links to prove it, in port wine …and tungsten mining. Naturally, the Allies were equally determined to frustrate any Nazi bid for an element needed for arms manufacture. 

But the Portuguese, led by Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar were playing a dangerous game, walking the tightrope of neutrality. An intellectual economist, Salazar was known as “The Plainclothes Dictator” and had more in common ideologically with Hitler than with the Allies. The gold the Nazis offered in payment for tungsten was hard to resist for a poor country that was vulnerable to invasion either from Germany or Franco’s Spain – and Salazar did not resist taking it. Both sides put pressure on him, and made their deals, politically as well as economically. 

Even before the United States joined the war, Americans were involved in humanitarian organizations in Lisbon. An early presence was the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker endeavor working for peace and the relief of suffering. The Lisbon office director was Philip Conrad, and his assistant Howard Wriggins would go on to become a distinguished US diplomat and academic.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – known to most in Lisbon simply as “The Joint” – worked tirelessly from the start, too. Its head was a rabbi with a doctorate from Yale, Joseph J Schwartz, who had been in Europe when the war began. He set up headquarters in the city in June 1940 and set about finding food and shelter for the desperate and displaced in the first instance, and paperwork and transport across the Atlantic in the second.

In October 1942, a group of thirty American women, all officially involved in child welfare, arrived in Lisbon on a Portuguese liner with the purpose of escorting one thousand French children to America and safety in the care of temporary foster families. But the invasion of North Africa and the occupation of the former free zone of the South of France meant that the children’s escape route was blocked. In a further tragedy, one of the women, Hazel Helen Mackay, of the Children’s Welfare Foundation in New York, disappeared from the dangerous sea cliff of Boca do Inferno – the Mouth of Hell – near Cascais. Only her shoes and handbag remained.

On the offensive, newspaper reporters from all countries were engaged in a ruthless game of black propaganda as well as information gathering. Disinformation games began, with British newspapers made up for sale in Lisbon carrying stories that would unsettle the Nazis and feed false leads.

Voice of America and the popular radio commentator Elmer Davis entered the fray in June 1942. Hollywood led the way in challenging for hearts and minds in more subtle ways by providing many of the movies that played in the cinemas.

Journalist Marya Mannes was a later arrival. She had been an editor for Vogue magazine in her native New York before moving to Italy in the 1930s with her husband. In the teeth of war, the couple had returned to the United States. He was soon a navy pilot and she used her editorial skills to gather information about the situation across Europe from the refugees who had made it across the Atlantic. From this, she moved into intelligence work, being trained as a spy for the Secret Intelligence Branch of the OSS.
She was sent to the Lisbon station just before the D-Day landings in June 1944. Her cover was that she was working as a reporter for The New Yorker, and indeed she did produce several Letters from Lisbon, but her brief was to mingle in the city, keeping alert for any promising information and swapping gossip with the other foreign correspondents. So credible was she simply as a glamorous magazine writer – she was tall, blonde and beautiful – that she would even tell men who asked what she was doing in Portugal, “I’m an international spy, of course!”

Eventually, as the war swung in favor of the Allies, the most crucial deal was negotiated by Churchill and the old ally England: the use of the Portuguese islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores, as a forward base for the United States Air Force. Portugal emerged one of the winners after the war, too. Salazar’s shrewd trade in wolfram saw the country’s balance of trade deficit go from $40 million in the red in 1939 to a $68 million surplus in 1944. A significant amount of that can be accounted for by payment from the German Reichsbank to the Banco do Portugal of 124 tons of Nazi gold. 
* The photo at the top of the page comes from my Instagram review of Ronald Weber's excellent book, The Lisbon Route.
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