If you’ve not yet discovered the Tea or Books podcast hosted by the lovely Simon (from Stuck in a Book) and Rachel (from Book Snob), then pop over and listen to their latest offering, which is all about novels based on real events and real people. They’ve been looking specifically at A Pin To See The Peepshow, by F Tennyson Jesse, and EM Delafield’s The Messalina of the Suburbs, which are both based on a notorious murder case. Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were hanged in 1923, for the murder of her husband Percy the previous year, although it seems Edith took no part in the killing.
I gather the two authors treat the story and its characters very differently, and I’m intrigued to find out more, especially as the case itself is so well documented, which could inhibit any efforts to turn it into fiction. Anyway, I’ve downloaded the Delafield book to the Kindle, and have pulled Peepshow from the Virago bookcase and started reading, but I haven’t finished yet (the problem with reading several books at once is that it takes a long time to complete anything, so I’ll report back on this one later). Margaret Atwood tried something similar in Alias Grace, a fictional account of a double murder in 1843: I didn’t think this was as good as most of her other work, but it might be interesting to re-read it alongside these two.
It set me considering other novels based on real life – although not necessarily on crimes. To start with, I thought it must be quite difficult to write about real situations and people, because you while you can interpret things in your own way, you can’t alter known facts, and your portrayal of someone might vary from the generally accepted view. But many novelists mine their own lives or their family histories – think of Jeanette Winterson with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, or Antonia White with Frost in May and its ‘sequels’. Or does the fact that these books grew out of personal memories rather than public knowledge set them apart from books turning real life into fiction?
And what about historic fiction? If that’s not based (however loosely in some cases) on people who actually existed, and events that really did take place, I don’t know what is. For example, there’s Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where we know exactly what happens, yet she keeps us on the edge of our seats, watching the machinations of the Tudor court, unable to warn the participants of the fate that awaits them. And Beryl Bainbridge also used real people as inspiration – you wouldn’t think there is much left unsaid about Dr Samuel Johnson, but in According to Queeney she revealed a lonely, vulnerable man, while still acknowledging his irascible temper and uncouth ways. .
All in all, I’m inclined to think that an awful lot of fiction is a retelling of real events, altered, presented from a different perspective perhaps, and related by narrators who are not always reliable.
Simon and Rachel covered a lot of ground in their discussion about books based on real life (though I don’t think they mentioned any of the ones I thought of). Books they highlighted included Virginia Woolf in Manhattan by Maggie Gee, and Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar, as well as Gyles Brandreth’s The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries and Amadeus, Peter Shaffer’s controversial play about Mozart. Does anyone else have any ideas about fictionalised books based on real life and real people?
PS: I spent an enjoyable few hours catching up on some of the older podcasts I missed during my absence from blogging, and ended up adding things to the Wish List, though I ought to concentrate on the existing TBR pile.
PPS:If you’re signed up to iTunes, you can find Tea or Books on their iTunes page.
“Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.”
Here is a piece about The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts, by Edmund de Waal, which was panned by most professional reviewers, and I can’t understand why, because I absolutely loved it. I heard it first when Radio 4 abridged it for a Book of the Week (I am, as you may have noticed, a huge fan of BBC Radio 4). It took me a long time to acquire the book, even longer to get round to reading it, and longer still to write about it – but here, finally, are my thoughts (after a second reading).
De Waal, an acclaimed ceramicist, intended to spend a year tracing the history of porcelain, and visiting the three ‘white hills’ which became central to porcelain manufacture in China, Germany and England. His quest took him longer and further (in distance and time) than ever he dreamed and is unquestionably a pilgrimage, for not only does he seek the ‘sacred’ places of the porcelain industry, but he also searches for enlightenment. As he travels he reflects on his own life and work, and his journey becomes a kind of meditation, a paean to porcelain, clay and life itself. It’s a lovely meandering sort of book that wanders from topic to topic and place to place, embracing history, science, politics, art, culture, kings, paupers and alchemists. Especially alchemists.
I had no idea that porcelain is not the same as other china, or that making it is a kind of alchemy, where one type of material is mixed with another and they are magically transformed into something completely different. Porcelain, it transpires, is not just white clay. It’s a special sort of white clay (kaolin), mixed with a special sort of stone (petunse), in exactly the right proportions, and fired at exactly the right temperature (an incredible 1,300 degrees Celsius), so it fuses together to become beautifully transparent and luminous, like a kind of glass.
Nor did I know that Europeans spent much of the 17th and 18th centuries obsessively seeking a formula so they too could make this mysterious china, which was imported – at great expense – from the East, and was available only to the fabulously wealthy. The process of making it (like the production of paper, gunpowder and silk), was invented by the Chinese, who kept their manufacturing method a closely guarded secret. And from the earliest days the history of porcelain, the most delicate and beautiful of china, has been marked by the blood, sweat, tears – and even deaths – of the men who laboured to make it.
The tales of those men, and of those who collected porcelain, are gripping, and de Waal’s journey is fascinating. His search for the origins of his craft took him all over the world, to palaces and prisons, cities and slums, museums and mines. He admits he is obsessive, but his love of porcelain, and the raw materials needed to create it, are infectious, and his accounts of the process of making, and his own responses, are intriguing. And he has the ability to clothe the bare bones of history, bringing the past to life in a way that makes you feel yes, this is the way it must have been.
He has amassed a staggering amount of information – in places it is so dense I felt a little judicious pruning might have helped. And despite his efforts to organise his data and thoughts into themed sections he’s a bit of a butterfly, darting here, there and everywhere, flitting from one thing to another, but I don’t mind that, and I adore his taste for the quirky and offbeat. He writes beautiful, lyrical prose, and his book is a very personal response to a very individual quest.
His account of visiting China and the Kao-ling mountain, in Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi Province, is spellbinding. This the place where it all began 1,000 years ago. Here, by an accident of nature, kaolin clay and petunse are found more or less side by side, and the ground is littered with discards from the past – centuries-old broken shards and misshapen pots.
“… on and up is a hillside of shards, a tumbling landscape of brokenness, a landscape of all the ways that pots van go wrong. It is not a spoil heap, careless but discrete. It is a whole landscape of porcelain.”
It all seems very exotic, like something from a fairy tale, and I find myself wondering who first combined kaolin and petunse, and why they wanted to… what led them to try that particular technique? Did people realise just how important it was? De Waal sees how these two different materials are extracted, cleaned and refined, and I’m surprised at how dirty and noisy the processes are.
I’m also surprised that Mao Tse Tung was presented with an Imperial Tea Set made in Jingdezhen. The finest, purest clay was transformed into teacups, saucers, teapots, coffeepots, sugar bowls, wine ewers, wine cups, cake plates and cake stands, all in white, painted with candy pink sprays of peach blossom. It sounds an unlikely gift for the Communist revolutionary who was the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. Even more astonishingly, the clay seam was sealed, just as it had been for the generations of emperors who preceded him, to prevent common people using any leftovers!
In France de Waal considers a porcelain pavilion constructed by Louis XIV so he and Madam de Montespan could enjoy intimate trysts. This apparently, was not created from Chinese style hard porcelain, but from ‘soft paste’, which makes me think of cake icing and modelling dough, and somehow sounds most unsafe.
And in Germany I get lost. All the people, places and science made my head spin – there was just too much information. To cut a long story short, there’s mathematician Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who uses light, mirrors and lens to boil water, set fire to wood, and melt stone and metal, leading to an interest in porcelain. And there’s Johann Friedrich Bottger, an apothecary’s apprentice, who claims he can create gold from lead (this is 1701, and we are on the cusp between old and new, alchemy and science, superstition and knowledge). The duo end up working together and Bottger eventually produces porcelain.
Back in England there’s a tribute to William Cookworthy, who produced the country’s first ‘hard paste’ porcelain, similar to that made by the Chinese. Suddenly I know where we are: Plymouth, where my Elder Daughter lives. And I realise I have encountered Cookworthy and his work in the city’s museum, without registering the significance, so I squeeze in a return visit, just a couple of days before the museum is shut for a massive makeover.
I love Cookworthy. He’s one of those wonderful 18th century Englishmen who were filled with curiosity about the world around them, and were knowledgeable enough to keep detailed records of their findings, and he deserves to be much better known. A Quaker chemist, he lived and worked in Notte Street (where the Arribas Mexican restaurant stands – I cross the road there when I go to the Hoe or the Barbican). In the mid-1750s he discovered china clay and china stone (the English versions of kaolin and petunse) at Tregonning Hill, in Cornwall. Apparently, after speaking to bellfounders he noticed that the heat from their furnace fused some of the stones lining the mould, so he gathered specimens and spent years experimenting.
He was granted a patent and established The Plymouth Porcelain Factory at Coxside, bySutton Pool (the harbour). The first piece to come out of the kiln looks like a mug, but is actually a cider tankard. It was March 14, 1768 – the date is stamped on the bottom, along with the letters ‘CF’, for Cookworthy Fecit (Cooksworthy made me).
Towards the end of the book de Waal returns to Germany, to track down the haunting tale of the Allach factory where, during ww2, prisoners from Dachau were ordered to make high quality porcelain for the Nazis. Pieces made there include a Bambi, ‘liquid-eyed, spindly legs, head tilted’. Like de Waal, I am shocked that such beautiful porcelain, a symbol of innocence, should have been made in such harsh conditions, for those who upheld such a brutal, killing regime.
At the very end, trying to explain himself and answer the questions people ask, he says:
“I answer that white is a way of starting again. It is not about good taste, that making white pots was never about good taste, that making porcelain is a way of starting again, finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself. That I don’t get bored. That I make them myself.
And that no, I’m not writing. I have written. And I am making again.”
This is a Happy Post about the day in London I enjoyed last week with my Younger Daughter (the Speech Therapist), because she thought I needed cheering up! On the train there I was fortunate to snap up what seemed to be the only spare seat (occupied by a pink suitcase which was bigger than me, but the owner was happy to move it). So I sat and read this ( please try to ignore blurriness of the photo!)
It’s Jan Struther’s Try Everything Twice (Virago Number 361, published in 1990). Like her better known Mrs Minniver, it’s a collection of short essays reflecting on Life, the Universe and Everything, very light-hearted, very much of its time, but offering moments of deeper thought, and always beautifully written. It was just the thing for a journey, and I am enjoying it very much, so a proper review will follow in due course.
Our day began at the Wellcome Collection, which is only a few minutes walk from Euston, and has interesting collections and exhibitions, as well as a lovely cafe, where we sat and chatted over a lengthy ‘breakfast’ of sandwiches, cake and tea! There’s also a brilliant bookshop, where I fell in love with this:
Then on to Lambs Conduit Street and the wonderful Persephone Book Shop, where I bought RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, which has been on my Wish List for ages, Making Conversation, by Christine Longford because it sounds as if I will like it, and Kay Smallshaw’s How to Run Your Home Without Help, because I gave my copy to my Elder Daughter (I wrote about it here way back in 2012).
We walked through Bloomsbury, looking for the the Oxfam Bloomsbury Bookshop, but didn’t find it (how can you possibly lose a bookshop?), so we headed for Oxford Street, which I usually avoid like the plague, but the Darling Daughter needed a dress, and I’d promised to fund it (belated Christmas present). Mission accomplished in a surprisingly short space of time, we had a mooch around Soho, where we browsed in Gosh! Comics, which boasts an amazing array of comics, graphic novels and rather unconventional art books that make you look at the world in a different way. I was going to buy a graphic novel, because I’ve never read one, but but I didn’t know what to choose!
Then we popped into Gerry’s Wines and Spirits, in Old Compton Street, where I succumbed to a bottle of rhubarb and ginger gin, which is a little extravagant, but I thought I deserved a treat. I have to admit that in the past I’ve never been a fan of gin or vodka, but I recently discovered that when flavoured with fruits or flowers they are very nice indeed!
We had afternoon tea in the cafe at Foyles, in Charing Cross Road, where they played lovely, soothing classical music, and we sat for ages and ages, with a pot of tea apiece and the most delicious raspberry and polenta cake, adorned with fresh fruits and a generous coating of icing sugar. Obviously there are books galore here – it is much bigger than the Birmingham store – but I was very restrained and din’t buy anything.
It was a Walking Day, when we ignored buses and tubes and, according to Younger Daughter’s phone ‘app’, we notched up 10,200 steps, but I’ve no idea how accurate that is. As an added bonus we stumbled across Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop in Bloomsbury Street, which has the most eclectic collection of new and second hand books I’ve ever come across, and I thought how much my father would loved it. I didn’t buy anything but they gave me a bookmark promoting 1917: Russia’s Red Year, a graphic novel by Tim Sanders and John Newsinger, and I suddenly realised this year is the centenary of the Russian Revolution, and thought I really should read something about it. Does anyone have any recommendations?
Another bonus of walking is that we passed lots of little parks in the squares. Surrounded by railings, we thought they were for the benefit of residents, but they turned out to to be open to the public, so we walked around them, and although they were a little bleak at the moment (it is January, after all) we spotted bulbs pushing through the soil, and there were buds on the trees and shrubs, and a few plants were in flower, and we saw all kinds of birds, and lots of squirrels, including this little chap in Gordon Square Gardens:
On my London trips Younger Daughter and I often wander round the bigger parks, like Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Green Park and St James Park, but we’ve never thought about these little gardens, which are beautiful, tranquil oases for people and wildlife, and we might never have seen them if we hadn’t been on foot.These cyclamen were in Gordon Square as well, and I love the bright pink flowers and colours and patterns on the leaves.
At one point I used to do a lot of cross stitch, so when I arrived home I searched out this embroidery of cyclamen and snowdrops, two flowers which always seem to be a sign that spring is on the way. Really, I should frame some of my needlework, instead of stuffing it in a box, but its the creative process I enjoy, rather than the finished product.
All in all it was such a pleasing sort of day, filled with small things that made me happy, and my luck held when I caught the train home and found an empty seat (there have been times when I’ve sat on the floor, Jeremy Corbyn style, there and back again). I was going to continue reading Jan Struther, but plumped for The Week in September (why stick to reading one book at a time, when you could read two, or even three… or more). This was every bit as delightful as I hoped, and turned out to be a perfect train read, since it features a train journey from London to Bognor, and made me think (among other things) about the changes in rail travel since the book was written, and the train journeys we made when I was young: holidays, day trips, shopping, visiting relatives in London, travelling across Ireland to see my grandparents, and the daily commute to and from school. As soon as I have finished it I will gather my thoughts together and put them down on paper. Meanwhile, here I am, outside Persephone Books.
A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.