We had a lovely family Easter.   Two grandparents (dwedfully old, as Dana says), three ‘children’ (in the prime of life), their charming spouses, and four grandchildren (dwedfully young, I might say), and a passing-through dog.   It was noisy, chaotic and fun.


 I heard that my children had had a discussion about the religious significance of Easter and realised that because I was so profoundly irritated by my father’s wish to impose his religious views (which were decidedly eccentric) on us, while I had certainly not troubled my children with  my views (or indeed any creeds) I had, in my silence on the  subject, left them woefully uneducated on these matters.   Yet another failure in parenting…


Elisabeth and Robert w ere our hosts (how nice for it no longer to be always us) in their newly refurbished house, and we had all brought contributions to the feast.


At family gatherings there is  always a complicated mixture of feelings:  love and irritation;   pride and worry;  pleasure and fatigue.   But when you come away, back to the peaceful oasis of your own chamber, and discuss events with your own partner, with all his good sense and sound judgement, who also uniquely, loves everyone that you love, you realise how blessed you are.   Your children are the  real riches of your life, and are making their own way;  their chosen partners bring into your life the different habits of their family’s lifestyle;  and that great promise for the future, your beloved grandchildren, each so very different, grow and prosper.

There’s the stylish Alexandra with her various artistic and musical talents;  the beautiful Erin, so practical and competent;  and the unique and fascinating Dana with her lovely eyes, her astonishing memory and her penetrating intellect.


Then there’s The Boy, who was proudly wearing a lovely Postman Pat jumper knitted by his other grandma.    He found himself in possession of a small, silver-paper wrapped, chocolate egg.   I watched him assess and consider the people around him to whom he could apply for assistance, and whether they could be trusted to remove the paper but not eat the egg.   Other children he rejected out of hand.    His grandfather he considered for longer, but obviously regarded the risk of him eating the egg was too great.   Finally, he entrusted the egg to me, but stood with his nose about 2 inches away from it, anxiously supervising my efforts.   I handed him the egg, and then pointing to his mother, said, Ask Mummy if you can have it now.    Ewan is a smart boy.   He knew his mother would be concerned about his diet; whether he would eat his dinner;  other tiresome Mummyish issues.   He popped the whole egg in his mouth and munched on it with great satisfaction before I could even turn him in the direction of his mother.   Oh the pleasures of being young!


I’m (I imagine) a logic and order kind of person.   I don’t really want to care strongly about people because each person you love you offer as a hostage to fortune.   You can see so much about them of which you can never speak, yet at the same time much is hidden from you,  for who can truly understand the heart or desire of another?   When you love someone, you are forever vulnerable.


Yet what is life without love?   Love is the blood that fires the body.   Love is the water that makes the dessert bloom.   Without love, there is only desolation.


May the blessings of Easter, with its great themes of love, redemption and new beginnings, encompass and comfort every one of you.     And may your supplies of chocolate never run out!


My cousin, Sheena, herself a writer, was talking to me recently about writing ‘style’ and I had to admit that it was a subject I had barely considered.

I have always found the written word easy to produce (and to assimilate) and I often prefer to communicate in writing rather than in a personal interview.   If what you’re going to say is  difficult or complex, you have time to consider it carefully and lay it out thoughtfully.   You cannot be interrupted during the process nor do you have to deal with the other person’s emotional responses.   They in their turn have time to think over their reaction and response.   And if the subject were a major or significant issue, you would of course in your written communication, offer to see them in person if they wished.

It would appear to anyone watching me that I sit down to my machine (or take up my notebook) and write immediately and at length with neither hesitation nor preparation.  This is not true.   I will probably have ‘written’ the piece several times in my head, reshaping it, deciding on the ending (which is much easier than the beginning), trying out and discarding phrases.   So when it comes to the actual writing, I’ve already ‘written’ several drafts.   At this stage, I rarely rewrite and what I put down largely stands.   I sometimes shuffle the sentences.   When the piece is completely written, I may check if certain things are accurate and whether my conclusion is fair.    Occasionally I pass the article in front of John.   He rarely alters more than a word or two and he has never said, don’t publish it;  if he did then probably I wouldn’t.  He never makes any comment on my writing style.

And yet writing style is as distinctive as walking, is it not?   We can identify the footstep of those we love out of thousands of steps, yet it would be very difficult to describe how we pick it out.   John’s step is fast, long and surprisingly light, yet that description which is the best I can give would in no way help others to recognise it.    Yet I can identify his coming from afar off, the sound of his step leaping out at me from the background cacophony, even when I am not listening for it.    No-one else’s step, not even those of his sons, sounds like it.

Nowadays in our communications, we’ve mostly lost the intimate give away of the actual handwriting from which conclusions about the personality, education, age, emotional state and physical well being of the writer can all be drawn.     (Mind you, erroneous conclusions can be reached as when the foolhardy Mrs Beck had her latest au pair’s (me!) handwriting analysed and was reassured to learn that she was capable, honest and reliable – which I hope was true – but was not informed that she was of an independent nature, not inclined to do what she was told, not easily impressed and deeply resentful of invasions of privacy, and not especially anxious to please.    I wonder if the analyst saw that and held her tongue, or whether she was just a charlatan and said what her client wished to hear?   Once Mrs Beck told me she had had my handwriting analysed, although I made no comment, our relationship was doomed.   This happened as we drove out of the airport.)

Yet even the typed word has a certain style.   Over the winter, Sheena sent me a long email while she was ill and had a high temperature.   Although her comments were perfectly lucid, they conveyed that fevered, glittering, restless, burning up element of a fever, and I became quite concerned about her.   (She is fine now.)

I would guess, if a writer thought too much about style, he or she would become stilted or over-worked.   Personally I find if you lose a piece of writing (the wretched computer can have its downside), you can never reproduce it quite so well again.   The original has its own freshness and style that can never be recaptured.

Although obviously it’s part of the tools of a writer to have an extensive vocabulary, I find it extremely irritating when people use an obscure or long word when a more common word would express the concept perfectly accurately.   The point of writing is to convey an idea;  to mount an argument;  to persuade to a point of view;  to point something out, and that should hopefully be done in such a way that the reader both grasps the point easily, and gets pleasure in the process.   It shouldn’t, ever, be about displaying how clever you are.   Writers have a lamentable tendency to this weakness;  some quite  distinguished writers suffering from this difficulty.   In my view, in the case of the late Ian Banks, it was forgivable;  in Ian McEwan it is (just about) tolerable; and in Jeanette Winterston it is unbearable, in part because she frequently uses the rare word incorrectly.

Speaking for myself (and this is regarded as a great fault by people advising you how to sell a written work), I don’t really think about the reader at all.   I assume he or she is educated and intelligent, and if interested in the subject will consider it and come to their own conclusion.   I am frequently surprised by other people’s reactions, and I never have the slightest idea which blogs will arouse alot of interest and which will not.

So now I think I’ve said all I have to say on this subject, and I’ll do what I invariably do, and which is also regarded as a grievous fault by certain people.   I’ll come to a conclusion.   (What’s the point in writing if you don’t come to a conclusion?)

Style is good if you have it, but its substance that counts.





I’ve been reading ‘Georgian Literature’ by Frank Swinnerton.   I’m not entirely sure why he calls the book ‘Georgian Literature’, since it includes essays on some writers who are certainly not Georgian (eg D H Lawrence.)


Swinnerton is a good critic and a writer of clear and thoughtful prose.   (Also in his favour is that almost  without exception his learned opinions tally with my own conclusions!)   He wrote some fiction which I shall in due course sample, but the skills of weaving fiction, and of assessing other people’s work, are completely different arts.


It was Swinnerton’s remarks about Henry James that I found most thought provoking.


I feel I ought to begin by apologising for even beginning a critical assessment of the great Henry James.    His intellect was magisterial and vast.   His judgements on anything are usually extremely accurate and with a wide and subtle understanding.   He is acutely observant and well versed in the nuances of other people’s motives and actions.    His writing is superb, and he was entirely dedicated to his art.     And yet, and yet….  you know he is a virtuoso but there is something lacking.


Summerton asserts that the people James writes about are ‘common place’.   I am not sure about this.   Are we not all ‘common place’ in our inner chamber?   Is it indeed not desirable that we should indeed be common place?  After the battle, the siege, the great crises of one’s life, when one has gone out and acted as hero, as priest, healer, soldier, prince – whatever it is that you are when the inner trumpet sounds and you realise that however unwilling or unready you are, now is the moment when you must go out and BE whatever it is that you are – after these brief scenes, though they are the purpose and apotheosis of one’s whole life – you must, if you are to live, return to ordinary life, where you have to be ‘common place’.   You cannot be a hero (in an active sense) every day of your life.   Some days you just have to make soup.    Besides which, days need to be left for other people to be heroes!


I think however Swinnerton’s comments are insightful.   What I had thought (not so magisterially put) was that James had failed because he was too concerned about Art and not enough about Life.   As Swinnerton says, Henry James’ experience was of Life as Art, and not as Real Life.


It is as though Henry James were writing about a picnic.   Instead of recollecting picnics he had enjoyed, remembering the hard ground, the smell of the cut grass, the feel of the sun and wind upon his skin, how one’s back grew weary, how wonderful food tasted out of doors, the wasps, the coolness of the water – his recollections of a picnic are of Le Dejeuner sur L’Herbe by Manet.


Henry James worshipped at the altar of Art, but it was the wrong altar.    In a sense, he lacked the robust and down to earth elements of the common place.   He was ALWAYS the great man of literature (and indeed he was.)   But it would have been better, he would have been greater, if he had on some days, just flung his paper, pen and books aside, and gone out to be a man.