Looking for a Villain?

Actually, I don’t think there is a villain in this story, certainly not Mr Rankin. He had to say something, poor chap. He went for short and funny. And Romantic Novelists Red in Tooth and Claw is number one in the Crime Writers’ Joke Book.
It surfaces again and again – in Harrogate last year, at a local conference this;  in print, in after dinner speeches;  year after year, after year.

Rankin said it himself, a few weeks ago, interviewed by The Independent on Sunday. ‘”Crime writers,” he explained, “are usually very well-balanced, approachable people, because we channel all our crap on to the page. In the crime-writing community we joke about romantic fiction writers and how they’re all evil, backstabbing bitches because they don’t have that outlet …” ‘

As I said yesterday, it would be a great story if it were true – rather like Georgette Heyer in Devil’s Cub, saying that ‘Mr Comyn, for all his prosaic bearing, cherished a love for the romantic which Lord Vidal,a very figure of romance, quite lacked.’

But I have just sat reading the RNA Archives, moved to tears sometimes by the affection, the respect, the support these romantic writers have shown for the last fifty years to the new writers (the ‘pre-published’), authors both struggling and  successful, and sometimes the damn near post published.

For instance, five years after she died, people were still writing of ‘our dear Mary Burchell’, the ebullient, romantic and supremely generous second President. (Heroic, too. With her heart in her mouth, she and her sister helped Jews escaping from Germany and Austria before the War. Read her autobiography, republished last year as Safe Passage by Ida Cook. )

So – I don’t want to demonise Mr Rankin, or any other writer, of crime or otherwise, and I apologise to anyone who thinks I do.  (Really sorry Paula and Eileen, if you think I was carried away.)  I don’t even want to stop them telling the joke, if they enoy it. I just thought that someone, sometime, should say, actually it’s not true.

If not now, when?

If not me, who?

Pissed off and paranoid

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when two or more crime writers are gathered together, one of them will say, ‘But of course, Romantic Novelists are the ones who really plunge the knife between the shoulder blades.’ All laugh.

Last night at the Crime and Thriller Awards, it was Ian Rankin.

Bum. Because Ian Rankin is one of my favourite authors and I wanted him to be – well – not up for a lazy laugh, frankly.

To some extent, I see why he did it. Of course, it ought to be true. Writers live by dramatic irony, after all.  In real life, the gore and cruelty merchants should be stamp-collecting trainers of guide dogs for the blind. The love-conquers-all mob should demean their rivals, dispose of surplus spouses and destroy the universe while they’re at it.

But life isn’t like that.

I’ve just been diving through the Archive of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and, in fifty years, what comes across most strongly is the sheer good heartedness of most of them.  No spite,  no briefing against.  There are disagreements, of course;  even rows.  (Usually when there wasn’t enough tea.  But then that first generation was mainly from a class who Told Cook and hadn’t actually had to provide it themselves before.  They soon adjusted.)  But they liked each other and they had a damn good time – and genuinely rejoiced in fellow writers’ success, especially those who came through the RNA’s unique New Writers’ Scheme.  In fact some, like Sheila Walsh and Elizabeth Harrison, stayed on for life, through chairing the organisation and beyond. 

And they, we, have gone on doing it for fifty years.

I didn’t find the Romantic Novelists’ Association until well into my career, and I can honestly say I’ve never found so many friends and like minds in one place before – though we quite often disagree.  And from those who don’t like me, I receive courtesy and a hearing.  How many organisatons of 700 people can you say that about?  

To be honest, the worst you can say about Romantic Novelists is that we can be just a touch defensive.  Rosie M Banks we can take.  (Well, actually, some of us are enthusiasts.)  George Orwell we have learned to live with  – romantic novels should be read by ‘wistful spinsters and fat wives of tobacconists’.  But when fellow popular novelists call us back-stabbing harridans, it hurts

And it’s not true.

To Be Read

Radio 4 is going to dramatise a neglected classic next year and is asking people to vote on which one to go for. The short list has been proposed by ten contemporary writers, including Joanna Trollope and Ruth Rendell.

And I am in a dilemma – where to start? Apart from two, which I definitely don’t want to read again, they all intrigue me.

So – do I start with Charles Williams, OUP editor and occasional Inkling, and his time-and-space travelling fantasy Many Dimensions, recommended by Ruth Rendell?

Or The Rector’s Daughter, the love story by F M Mayor, published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, which Susan Hill recommends?

Or Rasselas, about which, to my shame, I remember almost nothing? Or an Anthony Trollope I’ve never even read, Miss Mackenzie?

Help!

Divers Englishmen, the Newt Fancier

More about my great enthusiasm, the Greater and Lesser Spotted Englishman.

2) The Newt Fancier (amicus pleurodelinae)

Primarily, though not exclusively a British species, found widely, but particularly prevalent in places of extreme learning, such as Oxford University, the English Folk Song and Dance Society and Lords. Colouration various but a beady eye and extreme concentration are universal characteristics. Very vocal when interest engaged, otherwise silent. Difficult to spot, but once lured out of the undergrowth, unmistakeable. Lives entirely in its own world. Well worth the effort.

Typical specimens:

Augustus Fink Nottle      Gussie is a long standing chum of Bertie Wooster. Typical of the species, amicus pleurodelinae, he is retiring and inarticulate, except when strongly moved. Unfortunately, the only thing that moves him is the behaviour of newts, which he studies to obsession level and, more important, to the exclusion of all normal social awareness. Indeed, in trying to woo Madeline Basset, the girl of his dreams, Gussie decides to take a hint from the Newt’s Guide to Courting. Thus he explains to Bertie his intention to attend a fancy dress ball in scarlet tights:

‘In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.’

‘But you aren’t a male newt.”

‘I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn’t find me grousing if I were a male newt.’

‘But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn’t look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.'”

‘She would, if she were a female newt.’

You see? Surreal, but Gussie, who lives entirely in his own newtified world, is quite unaware of it. The Mephistopheles venture, of course, ends in tears. Does Gussie learn from that and change his behaviour? He does not.

See Right Ho Jeeves by The Master, P G Wodehouse.

Robert Webb      I was not sure about naming a performer, even after Webb’s jaw-dropping performance on Comic Relief as a hair tossing breakdancer. After all, performers pretend. The great truth about the amicus pleurodelinae is that it is without artifice. And it is wholly unaware that its obsessions are not universally shared. However, Marion Lennox directed me to this quite different RW clip, and I am now convinced.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTchxR4suto

The intensity, that lack of self-consciousness, the sheer beady-eyed lunacy certainly qualifies. Any lecturer from the twenty-fifth century, when he prepares study notes with quotations from Jane Austen to guide his class of Little Green Jelly Fish through their mid term exams,  will undoubtedly add ‘a gentleman does not conga’ to the list of Mr Darcy’s bons mots.

He Who Does Not Twitch       Twitchers collect lists of birds they have seen. They want numbers. They want rarity. They are, if you like, the collectors-for-collecting’s sake of the bird world; the one night standers; the flybynights. Your true Birder, by contrast, is one who studies, savours, concentrates and delights.

I was once in a small – very small, it seemed to me – boat on a river in Northern Queensland with a Birder of my acquaintance. There were twelve people in the boat, many of them substantial. It was low in the water. The river was known to contain salt water crocodiles. The Birders (i.e. everyone except me) kept their binoculars glued to the branches of tall trees on the opposite bank, looking for rare species. Indeed, I saw a Papuan Frogmouth myself, and an utterly charming bird it is, too. BUT – but, but, but – there were crocodiles in that thar river and nobody but me was keeping an eye out for them. Floating logs  approached our boat and I nearly fainted with horror; a low hanging branch brushed my back andthere was a moment of quasi heart attack whichs still sends me all of a doo dah, if I think about it.  It went on for hours.  When we got to dry land, I could barely speak.

When I mentioned this some time later, the Birder was surprised and just a little bit disappointed in me.

‘You should have been paying attention,’ he said. ‘We weren’t there to look for crocodiles.’

Yup, the amicus pleurodelinae lives in his own world.

Gentlemen, I do not begin to understand you, I think you are barking mad.  I count myself blessed that I live in the same world as you. Respec’

The Frivol, the Geek and Writers’ Time

Units of measurement are wondrous things. Someone – it may have been a Cambridge Professor of Physiology, W A H Rushton FRS; or Isaac Asimov; or even Willie Rushton, Great Man of Thought that he was – proposed a unit of pulchritude. If Helen’s faced launched a thousand ships, argued this philosopher, then we can measure how beautiful a woman is by the number of ships her face would launch. One boat launched equals one milliHelen.

Whoever he may have been, this chap steps effortlessly into the Gallery of Frivols. Welcome, friend!

Writers need a unit of measurement, too.

Anthony Trollope, who invented letter boxes and ran a large part of the Post Office, as well as being the author of the Barsetshire and Palliser novels and much else besides (and my very favourite Victorian) wrote for three hours every day.  He measured his output.  (Don’t we all?)  Only he did it not by time or by number of words written.  He did both.

As Post Office Grandee, he went all over the country in those stately Victorian steam trains and, in order not to waste time, had a portable desk made and wrote while he chugged along. When at home, he got up at half past five and wrote for three hours. And he wrote at the rate of 250 words every quarter of an hour. Apparently he kept a diary recording how many pages he’d done every day.

Now you make think this is a bit obsessive.  Maybe even a touch of the Geek?  Imagine what that man could have done with a fully powered  MacBook Pro.  But by golly, it got the work done.

Because I,too, need to get the work done I propose:

let one Trollope be 1,000 words per hour, a semiTrollope would be 1,000 words in 2 hours;  a demisemiTrollope would be 1,000 words in 4 hours.   So if you write 1,000 words a day, as recommended by Graham Green and Stephen King both, you could do it at the rate of one Trollope, two semiTrollopes, fourdemisemiTrollopes . . .or even eight semidemisemiTrollopes, if it takes you the whole working day.   

Alternatively, a deciTrollope would be 100 words in an hour. 

Writers should always have targets.  I foresee hours of happy calculation to achieve mine.

Stir my tastebuds, melt my heart

I’m not sure that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach but it surely is a tried and tested route into a woman’s. As every discerning reader knows.

My good friend and fabulous RITA and RUBY winning author, Marion Lennox, is blogging for the first time, and musing on food and royals in romantic fiction at www.iheartpresents.com  She says: ‘You know, writing’s wonderful– I can just close my eyes and think what would I most like to eat, and there it is, on the page. So my would-be princess can indulge in French champagne and lobster patties and truffles and caviar and strawberries tasting of the sun….’

So true.  And your readers can indulge right along with her.

I always remember the first Mary Stewart I read, Madam, Will You Talk

Cover for the new edition by Hodder & Stoughton 2005

Cover for the new edition by Hodder & Stoughton 2005

For two days the heroine runs away from a dangerous man who she thinks is a villian. And then, suddenly, he is beside her on the quay in Marseilles and there is nowhere left to run . . .

So what does he do?

He takes her to dinner. (That’s my kind of dangerous man.)

And what a dinner.

I remember still those exquisite fluted silver dishes, each with its load of dainty colours . . . there were anchovies and tiny gleaming silver fish in red sauce, and savoury butter in curled strips of fresh lettuce; there were caviare and tomato and olives green and black, and small golden pink mushrooms and cresses and beans. The waiter heaped my plate, and filled another glass with white wine. I drank half a glassful without a word, and began to eat. I was conscious of Richard Byron’s eyes on me, but he did not speak.
     The waiters hovered beside us, the courses came, delicious and appetizing, and the empty plates vanished as if by magic. I remember red mullet, done somehow with lemons, and a succulent golden-brown fowl bursting with truffles and flanked by tiny peas, then a froth of ice and whipped cream dashed with kirsch, and the fine smooth caress of the wine through it all. Then, finally, apricots and big black grapes, and coffee.

Ah, apricocks and dewberries. They never fail.

But truly, isn’t that the most luscious, sensual scene? Aren’t you there, mouth watering? Haven’t you already decided that the provider of this voluptuous feast has to be the hero?

How much more powerful must it have been in 1955, when the book was first published. Many foods were still rationed in Britain.  It was only ten years since the end of the War, with its austerity and British Restaurants. For the 1950s English woman, this idyllic meal  (to say nothing of the plates that disappear as if by magic) must have felt as good as going to Cinderella’s ball herself.

And it still does the business today – for me and, I bet, for thousands of others. Which is why Hodder printed a new edition fifty years after that first publication.   

Scrummy

The Alpha, The Frivol and the Kindly Young Man

Oh, I love Freddy in Cotillion. He’s so kind. I don’t think many of Georgette Heyer’s heroes are.  He’s not just kind to Kitty,either;  he’s pretty good to his sisters and I love his relationship with his parents.

But I’m not sure I’d call Freddy a Frivol, exactly. He’s not mischievous. Though I agree with Liz, Jan, Evonne and Jane, there are a lot of other similarities. And he’s certainly a charmer, not least because he doesn’t know it himself.

There are hints of  Heyer’s other daffy young men in Freddy, of course. Think of Viscount Dashwood in The Convenient Marriage or the whole crew out of Friday’s Child.  (Sherry and his friends always reminded me of William Brown’s Outlaws, actually.  But then I was quite young when I read Frdiay’s Child). But I’m sure Jane is right, Freddy is unique as a romantic lead. 

Cotillion must have been a real challenge to write. It has got an Alpha hero in Jack.  Only, for once, we see the Alpha as he really is: wilful, impatient, arrogant, as well as sex on a stick. And he gets his come uppance. Ultimately he doesn’t deserve Kitty – and she sees it before he does!   

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Cotillion may not be High Romance but it is amazingly touching – especially when you realise that Freddy has known all along what Kitty was up to and has fallen in love with her anyway. And then, when he asks her to marry him but doesn’t expect her to say yes because he isn’t romantic, there is a whiff of real pain. 

Actually, I think Georgette Heyer undersold herself when she said all her heroes were either Mark I or Mark II. My favourites are all pretty unique.  I adore Sylvester, who is very high in the instep, occasionally arrogant, but kind, too, if he chooses to be. Much more complicated than an unadulterated Alpha.  Of course, wicked, wonderful Damerel is pretty Alpha but I forgive him.  And then there’s glorious Hugo in The Unknown Ajax who winds up his estranged family by talking like his groom and pretending he went to a scrubby Dame School instead of Harrow.

Now I come to think of it, Hugo just might be a Frivol after all.  I thought Georgette Heyer didn’t get the full enchantment of the Frivol, but I may have done her unjust.  I can just see Hugo getting the giggles.

Liz, Jan, Evonne, Jane, you are geniuses.

The Frivol as Romantic Hero

Loving them as I do, I would love to write a romantic hero frivol. (See previous post.)  But can it be done? Even the Incomparable Georgette Heyer did not quite bring it off.

Lord Rupert Alastair – ‘Solitude’s the thing. Solitude and a fat ham’ – is undoubtedly a wondrous Frivol. But he is also a resolute bachelor.

Lovely Sherry in Friday’s Child has a touch of the Frivol but marriage sobers him – along with making him a warmer and more wonderful human being, of course, and capable of slugging slimy Sir Montagu.

I love that book – but I’m not sure romance quite takes with Frivols.

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In praise of Divers Englishmen

What’s the point of a blog? To share things you know and love, right?

Right. I’m starting with Englishmen. Some of my best friends (and a good percentage of my lust objects) are Englishmen. I don’t think they get the press they deserve. Maybe because we don’t take the time to think about them rigorously enough. So I’m going to try.

1) The Frivol (homo hilaris urbanus)

An entirely British species, generally found south of the Tyne, with a pronounced chattering call, playful, very sociable. Fond of word games.

Typical specimens:

Henry Blofeld – cricket commentator extraordinaire, who cheered me up no end today by confessing one of his worst on-air mistakes. ‘You get into terrible trouble with Spoonerisms,’ he said darkly. Then he described being in the commentators’ box when Graham Gooch scored 333 against India at Lords. As the hero left the field, Blofeld told the radio audience, ‘Let the crowd do the talking’ and paused for 10 seconds, presumably to allow the listeners to throw their gardening hats in the air. Resuming, as he says himself, in full Churchillian mode, he announced to a grateful world, ‘Never before in the history of this great ground of ours has a cloud crapped like this one.’

Dr Spooner – a Victorian Dean of New College, Oxford, who gave his name to the transposition of consonants to change meaning. Probably most, possibly all of the examples quoted are apocryphal. The one most loved in my family was ‘Let’s raise a glass to the queer old Dean’ – otherwise the dear old Queen. Though my own favourite is ‘the Lord is a shoving leopard’. Yeah. I’ve lived with cats like that.

The Voice from the Back – Someone out there knows who this particular VFTB is; sadly I don’t. On my first day in the Overseas Department of the Bank of England three people told me about him. Whoever he is, I take my hat off to him. For, back in the early 70s, when the world came off the gold standard and the IMF was trying to devise an international unit of currency, the relevant committee was chaired by Mr (later Sir) Jeremy Morse – who went on to become Chairman of Lloyds Bank and inspire the Inspector of that Ilk.  Eventually they came up with SDRs (Special Drawing Rights) in the IMF. Not a name to conjure with. What might they call them instead? Sequins? Doubloons? Said the Voice from the Back, ‘You could always call them Morsels.’

Thank God for the Frivols.

Gentlemen, I salute you.