I was reading the Saturday Reviews section of the Times this morning. The cover and article about How Victoria Met Abdul was going to be an interesting read and I’m looking forward to seeing the film. This in itself wasn’t startling but as I read the piece describing Victoria’s close relationship with this man, how she was taken by the exotic curries, how she learnt Urdu when she was in her eighties and he was her constant companion until her death, a thought began to strike me.
Only a few years before she died Queen Victoria arranged a tea and Christmas tree for the families of the men of Windsor who were away fighting in the Boer War. My grandmother, Mabel, her sister Lily and their mother were invited to the castle where they were served tea by the princesses. Afterwards the queen was wheeled out in her chair to distribute presents to the children from the huge decorated tree that dominated St Georges Hall. When the sisters were beckoned forward and asked what they would like from the tree 5 year old Mabel looked up and pointed to the top of the tree where a large glass decoration shone reflecting the lights around it. Asked if she wouldn’t rather have a present from the base of the tree, Mabel was adamant that the thing she wanted was that glass decoration.
As she retold the story to us many years later – realising she had her heart set on the decoration Queen Victoria instructed a coloured retainer to fetch a ladder and bring it down. Her story is backed up by the invitation, a donkey cart and the tree decoration which were treasured and kept. In addition to these was a print of an illustration from The Daily Graphic of the Queen handing Mabel her present. Behind the Queen’s chair can clearly be seen a distinguished Indian dressed in a turban and royal regalia.
The story was first told in an article in Country Life in December 1977, where this drawing was reproduced. The image faded over the years but was part of the collection which was donated to the Windsor Museum in 2016. Although it is difficult to make him out in the faded picture I’m convinced that Abdul is probably the man depicted and was the one entrusted with fetching the tree decoration for my grandmother.
Does it make a difference when deadlines and word count targets are self-imposed or generated by others? Either deadline is hit by distractions or other activities whether or not they are social or work-like. It can be empowering to plan targets; disheartening if the days slip by and writing opportunities evaporate. The need to write is dislodged by chores that must be achieved by unwritten deadlines. Writing sessions have to be planned in as part of the daily routine – work-like slots rather than treats once more boring jobs are finished.
I can empathise with writers who choose to lock themselves away to write; blank out the everyday world and social engagements. For those of us starting out the idea of a reclusive writer’s hideaway is attractive but seems self-indulgent. But if I am to take my craft seriously I must write with a purpose. All writing exercises – book reviews written to a deadline, this blog; they are all good practice – part of the writer’s craft. But also a distraction from the novel word count target. 300 words here and 6 x 200 word reviews have their own merit but don’t contribute to the 4000 word weekly novel target. The target has slipped away between a librarian lunch and appointments in town. This week’s time to write is foreshortened by our departure for a summer vacation. I’ve designated our break as a target free zone; but maybe between holiday diary entries and reads, I might be able to jot down a few hundred words every now and then. Any scene written, dialogue scripted or setting planned will ease the weekly word count targets post-holiday.
I will have to go long and write like the wind for the last three weeks of August but for now succinct is sufficient.
I’m a great admirer of Aidan Chambers, writer and advocate for children’s literature. I’ll write about him in my books to inspire page; but there was a serendipitous moment when I found a copy of Seal Cove by Aidan amongst the books I had bought for our children as holiday reads. It was one of our family traditions to buy one or two new books to read when we were away on holiday. It probably evolved from my own childhood holidays when we were bought bumper summer edition comics for the long car journeys to Cornwall, Wales or the Lake District. I probably also took a pile of library books as well, but I digress. Other memorable holiday books of my children’s were Whose Side are You On? by Alan Gibbons and War Horse. The significance of these books was that I have been fortunate to meet the authors in recent years. Is it strange that even as an adult these books and others have made such an impression on me?
With Susan Cooper’s books it was different. I volunteered to host an author event, without thinking or realising who we would be welcoming to school. I began to get an inkling when I mentioned her visit in our local book shop; two of the shop assistants were very envious and one asked if there was any chance she could join us for the talk. I had missed out on reading Susan’s early books The Dark is Rising series. I read and loved The King of Shadows but had forgotten that she was the author. So when she visited Sidcot on a promotional tour for Victory I was unprepared for the revelations of her writing career and background. Both the students and I were in awe as she casually mentioned her Oxford tutors JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. I learn a lot from hearing authors talk about their tips for writers. Susan’s memorable presentation included her use of her notebook for ideas.
I can’t recall whether I read The Dark is Rising series before or after her visit but it was just a small section in The Dark is Rising that stopped me in my tracks and captured my attention. Susan Cooper is renowned for her “sense of place”. In this particular scene I knew exactly where she was: her character walks down Huntercombe Lane to catch the bus into town – Maidenhead. She describes the view down to the river from the lane. That vista has been blocked by the M4 which now cuts off the sight of the Thames; but I had travelled down that road so many times. It was a shock to recognise and pinpoint the location. Many books are set in landscapes familiar to the readers who know those places. Maybe it was identifying such an ordinary place in fantasy fiction that struck me; or it might have been just a powerful identification of a connection with an inspirational author.
It seems that there comes a point in time to become a writer. When I read The Uncommon Reader a while ago, I was struck by a comment along the lines of a reader should inevitably become a writer. For me there were a series of prompts – ‘Would you write an article on…?’ ‘Would you write book reviews?’ Then, ‘you ought to write that story.’
After three years of a Craft Your Novel evening class, our group therapy sessions were at an end. I have the tools, the guide and the writing routine. Only time will tell if my writing habit becomes an addiction akin to my reading dependency.
Reading always came first. The local public library was my source. As soon as I finished one pile of books I could swap them for others. My choices were quite random. Now my reading is focused but diverse. The need to read for work and reading groups leaves me little time to explore my own reading preferences; but working as a school librarian supplies me with more than enough volumes to keep me reading throughout the year.
Now I must juggle time for reading or writing. One feeds the other, but they are mutually exclusive.
Places for reading or writing: reading has always felt like a luxury; a treat for when the chores are done, or an indulgence for holidays; a comfort before work must begin. No opportunity is missed – awake early or a few pages before sleep. I relish journeys on buses, trains, boats or planes. I can escape the crowds in a world of my own. Holidays are perfect for devouring several volumes. I used to have the dilemma of which and how many books I could pack. Vacations in the UK meant more books could be packed in the car; holidays abroad meant a luggage allowance; or to be more exact a book limit. E-readers have alleviated this problem but still require me to buy the alternative format when I may well have a perfectly good print version.
Now I not only have a book with me wherever I go but must take my writer’s notebook everywhere. Like reading, a chance to write should not be missed. The notebook is essential to jot down ideas or to indulge in a bout of free-writing, or drafting a scene, dialogue or dramatic event, when it isn’t possible to sit tapping the keys of my laptop. I used to fanaticise about setting up a writer’s den in the summer house. I imagined myself cocooned in my shed like Roald Dahl, except I’d have my laptop rather than pads of paper, sharpened pencils and a ball of chocolate wrappers. However it wasn’t to be; the original battery in my laptop wouldn’t hold a charge, the extension lead wouldn’t reach; and it was such a palaver to empty the summer house of the garden furniture – benches, chairs and the table stacked and padlocked against burglars. Then when the shed was empty, its pentagonal shape didn’t allow for the large rectangular table to open up inside. I tried writing outside a few times when the summer weather allowed, but of course the glare on the screen made checking or editing what I’d typed more hassle than it’s worth. We don’t have an attic or a garret, although I used to have a darkroom up in the garage loft. Like the summer house that place is not conducive to a writing routine. My space is the kitchen table, which gives a work-like atmosphere to my writing sessions. For all but the hottest days in the summer, this is the cosiest place in the house, with the luxury of the Aga to take the chill off sitting huddled over my keyboard and screen.