Sunday 25 November 2012

A winter perfume

It would be hard to persuade anyone looking into a writer’s study  - desk, notes, books, cups of tea – that writing was very exciting when hard graft was in progress. At its best, writing can be a sensuous experience, a chance to retreat into an inner life and make connections from impressions and scraps of thought.
Invoking the senses while writing can be helped by playing music. I’ve always enjoyed background music while working and tend to have favourite soundtracks for each novel. The Lantern, for example, was written largely to Debussy and Fauré. This time, though, I’ve been less inclined to write with music. I don’t know why, but I’ve found myself turning the CD player off because it’s become a unwelcome distraction.

However, I have been working enveloped in a perfume. Liz Earle’s Botanical Essence No. 15 Eau de Parfum is a warming winter perfume described by its creator as a “softness and warmth like cashmere on the skin”.
I read the list of ingredients before spraying. I was thrown at first because I thought this must be No. 15 Vetiver. But no, the fragrance is a blend of all of these (and the clever packaging is based on old facsimile botanical drawings of all the natural elements in the blend):

The perfume begins to unfurl with a surprisingly citrus sparkle but it’s a Christmassy citrus that mellows into clove and cinnamon like a heady mulled wine. There are strong notes of pink pepper and musky cedarwood. This is a bold blast of oriental, the scent of red rooms and candles glowing. It’s spicy with a hint of blowsy floral and my favourite amber is plumped up with a rich base of vanilla from the tonka bean. The perfect scent for cosy days as autumn fades into winter darkness.
And thanks to the unique relationship between perfume and memory, this is the scent that will bring back the months of working on The Night Flight.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Autumn colour

Moss and lichen on a tree trunk - and a timely reminder that not all autumn colour comes in shades of fire. As I push on with the new novel, I'm trying to capture a sense of place and sometimes the most effective way of doing that is to confound expectation. A scene will be brought to life with small detail, and sometimes the most effective observations are the more subtle ones.
Rather like meeting someone again after many years of lapsed friendship. You find that it's the tiny personal quirks in their appearance - the particular stretch of the smile, the exact shape of the nose, that laugh - features that weren't necessarily memorable in themselves but are now the markers that spark recognition and connect your memories to the real person standing in front of you.

Friday 9 November 2012

Songs of Blue and Gold

The hard slog of writing goes on, made grim by persistent migraine. It’s an all too familiar scenario. The grey skies and rain so conducive to sitting at a desk lost in thought are also a disincentive to the tough walks through the countryside that help keep mind and body in sync.

Despite the frustrations, I remain convinced that this is the most creative time of the year. Before I had this blog I wrote a piece for my website about the writing of my novel Songs of Blue and Gold, in which I tried to capture the moment when words catch fire in quiet times, and the chance reading of one book leads to another. Here it is, lightly edited.

"Inspired by the writer, poet and traveller Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), this is a novel about love and memory, identity and biography.

It sparked into life one gloomy winter afternoon when I rediscovered Prospero's Cell on the bookshelves of a bedroom at the top of the house. Opening it and starting to read was like injecting the grey with vivid blues and emeralds. A richly evocative account of Durrell's life in Corfu in the 1930s, it was first published in 1945 and purports to be a diary in which he is a serious young writer living blissfully in the sun, deeply in love both with his new wife and with the idea of Greece.

Durrell states that Prospero's Cell is a "guide to the landscape and manners" of Corfu but it never quite becomes this. It is a lyrical personal notebook, and what he leaves out is as poignant as what he includes. Its content is almost unrecognisable as the same ground his younger brother, the zoologist Gerald, covers in his famous Corfu book My Family and Other Animals, in which "Larry" lives with the family (which he never did) and is the 'diminutive blond firework' by turns pompously literary and hilarious.

And by the time he wrote Prospero's Cell Lawrence and his first wife Nancy had separated. He was already sadder and wiser, and living in wartime Egypt with Eve Cohen who would become his second wife.

I was intrigued. Further researches and a reading of several biographies soon revealed a complex and contradictory character - and a further two wives. His work, over a period of nearly sixty years - most famously in The Alexandria Quartet - was concerned with duality: love and hate; truth and fiction; memory and misinterpretation. And running through it all, the transfiguring effect of time.

Lawrence Durrell wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean - to Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus), Cyprus (Bitter Lemons), the former Yugoslavia, and finally to the South of France (Caesar's Vast Ghost) where he settled for thirty years.

What was especially rewarding as I dug deeper was that he featured in so many other biographies and memoirs - each giving further insights - thanks to his enduring friendships with writers such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, T S Eliot (who was his editor and mentor at Faber and Faber), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark, Rose Macauley, Richard Aldington and Elizabeth David.

Interwoven throughout were his many loves and four marriages. He seemed to pack so many different lives into one! And while he was a comet blazing, what of the women he collided with along the way, I wondered? How did their stories end? And what of those he met, whose lives he changed but who did not rate even a footnote in the biographies? Soon, I was busy inventing a fictional version of Durrell - Julian Adie - and Elizabeth. 

Julian Adie is a fictional creation, yet I have been faithful to the settings of Lawrence Durrell's life abroad and his quest for "the spirit of place". The White House in Kalami, Corfu is, and was, as described. It is still owned by the Athinaios family, who were Durrell's landlords in the 1930s.

Durrell aficionados might be disconcerted by the way I've played fast and loose with his chronology, compressing and altering his travels and his wives' biographies to give an impression of the author's life without providing in any way an accurate portrayal. In this, the book has more in common with his fictional characters, his use of dualism and reinterpretation, than with real people. "All these writers [in my books] are variations of myself," he said a few years before he died.

For the last thirty years of his life Durrell made his home in the Languedoc, south-west France, where the herb-scented raggedness reminded him of Greece. There it was harder, initially, to find his traces. Time does seem to have reset the co-ordinates. The centre of the small market town of Sommieres remains much as he described it, but across the Roman bridge over the Vidourle, his old house is swamped by the present in the form of a Champion hypermarket and its parking spaces.

But in Corfu, the Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's "place of predilection" where he felt he was reborn as the writer he would become - is scarcely changed from the tiny waterside chapel on the cliff rocks where he and his wife Nancy dived and sunbathed naked, she 'like an otter…bringing up cherries in her teeth,' (Prospero's Cell).

As a reader of his biographies, I couldn’t help but wonder how is it that some people manage to live so many different lives in one, while others lack the courage to change. Does finding out that a parent or husband was not the person you thought they were change the way you feel about yourself, and colour your own memories?

The best biographies charm the reader into imagining they allow us an insight into what a famous person was really like. But how does this square with the difficulty we have in ever really knowing the people closest to us? Even the finest biographies are only one version of a life. What of the episodes that the biographer never discovers, or misinterprets according to his own prejudices and what of the people who are there only between the lines?"

For those who are still with me, here is the opening: of my novel:

By the time I reached Corfu, the season was in its last gasp.

Evening hung early over the bay when I walked the stony beach at Kalami and found the White House. It was just as he described: defiant on a rock, the sea clawing at its feet. On the headland behind, cypress trees pointed into a curdling sky. Pebbles crunched under my feet as I went closer, and waves sighed on grey stones. A brackish smell of nets and seaweed was sharp in the air.

This was how my search began. Looking for someone I didn't know, many years too late. And looking, at the same time, for someone I had always known, but trying to place her in a strange setting, reconfigured in some new history.

If you would like to read on a while longer, you can click this link.

Songs of Blue and Gold is still in print, published by Random House UK, and is available on Kindle.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Quince in autumn

This glowing quince is the latest small masterpiece by Julian Merrow-Smith - autumn encapsulated in warm greys and defiant yellow with scattered leaves. If you haven't discovered his Postcard from Provence showcase of his daily paintings, you must, and tout de suite.
It reminded me that I was going to report back on our quinces left in a bowl in the hall, and whether the dying fruit really did release a sweet aroma. The idea was that we would be welcomed by the natural perfume of coconut and pear, guava, musk and violet, perhaps even a hint of rose. Here's the post: The fragrance of quince.
Well...sad to say the experiment was not an overwhelming success. We travelled more in hope than expectation, and though the quinces have wrinkled prettily, there's not a great deal of scent. When I hold the fruit right up to my nose there's a delicately pleasant smell of pear - perhaps with a hint of ginger - but that's about it. Perhaps some quinces are more powerful than others and these are just not the right type. Still, worth trying. And the bushy tree did look beautiful in the spring.
I'd love to hear from anyone who has managed to achieve a room full of fragrance this way.
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