Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Things are hotting up

At last the novel is going to print! I'm not sure I thought this day would ever come. There will be a limited  pre-publication number, for reviewers in the main.

These are the fliers which will go to journals -the Edward Thomas Fellowship and Friends of the Dymock Poets: (with cover picture too)


Did anyone ever begin to be a poet at thirty-six in the shade?’ Edward Thomas asks.

Following the outbreak of the First World War he does begin to write poetry after a lifetime of prose and his self-doubt and melancholy start to lift, helped by his close friendship with the American poet, Robert Frost.

This poignant novel tells the story of the last years of the poet’s life. Told from the point of view of both Edward and his loyal wife Helen, it shows him wrestling with words along with marriage, children, the perpetual lack of money, and eventually with his conscience.

Inspired by Edward and Helen’s writings, the novel is set against the beautifully evoked landscapes of Gloucestershire and Hampshire that offer the couple only partial peace.

A Conscious Englishman by Margaret Keeping will be published by StreetBooks on Thursday 7th February 2013

ISBN 978-0-9564242-3-5 £9.99
For pre-publication discount (£2 off cover price + free UK delivery), please contact Frank Egerton (email: info@streetbooks.co.uk, mobile: 07967 246482) quoting CODE NEWS271112

Creative Writing Courses.

I think fewer people are sceptical about these courses than used to be the case; even if they are there are more than enough enthusiasts to make up for the doubters.

Little Clarendon Street

Ten of my group - 2006 -2008 Creative Writing  Diploma at  the University of Oxford - met last night for a meal at Al - Andalus, Little Clarendon Street.

We all agreed that  the course had been a life-transforming experience and that we  go on gaining from it. Five of  us there and one other  have gone on to take Masters since and most are on the way to being published.

 Someone is now in a motorhome around Europe, another, a lawyer, has given up law to write drama. Another has been twice short-listed for the Bridport Poetry prize - and hadn't even let on , Neville! Liz Gifford 's novel  is to be published in September and another accepted. Brian moved nearer London and is taking a great Masters on 'Writing the City'.

So if you can, and are hesitating, our recommendation would be  - go for it!


Like Health and The Glory it dramatises  -  'the gap between aspiration and or desire and its realisation; between the speaker's capacity and high possibilities symbolised by early morning or early spring or both.' (Longley)

Unless it was that day I never knew
Ambition. After a night of frost, before
The March sun brightened and the South-west blew,
Jackdaws began to shout and float and soar
Already, and one was racing straight and high
Alone, shouting like a black warrior
Challenges and menaces to the wide sky.
With loud long laughter then a woodpecker
Ridiculed the sadness of the owl's last cry.
And through the valley where all the folk astir
Made only plumes of pearly smoke to tower
Over dark trees and white meadows happier
Than was Elysium in that happy hour,
A train that roared along raised after it
And carried with it a motionless white bower
Of purest cloud, from end to end close-knit,
So fair it touched the roar with silence. Time
Was powerless while that lasted. I could sit
And think I had made the loveliness of prime,
Breathed its life into it and were its lord,
And no mind lived save this 'twixt clouds and rime.
Omnipotent was I, nor even deplored
That I did nothing. But the end fell like a bell:
The bower was scattered; far off the train roared.
But if this was ambition I cannot tell.
What 'twas ambition for I know not well.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Biographical fiction, HG Wells and David Lodge

Ultimate biog fiction?

HG Wells
Anthony Beevor - an historian's objections to 'faction.'

Yesterday in Oxford  I met Linda Hart, my Robert Frost guru, for the first time, though I had seen her on stage at the Malvern Coach House Theatre ( for the production on Frost featured in an early blog.)
 We met at the English Faculty Library, St Cross and sat over a long lunch at the cafe on its St Catherine's side - worth finding, in the Politics section - and talked.

Linda seems to have come round to accepting that biographical fiction is not all bad. She told me that David  Lodge recently talked about the 'Year of Henry James' - see last blog- and then more generally about the use of real figures in fiction.
He has a recent novel on HG Wells, 'A Man of Parts' published, which I have just ordered. With that and the Jude Morgan on Shakespeare I'm about to start,  I'm heavily  into biographical fiction.
As the 'Conscious Englishman' is now being printed I'm thinking about reviewers and wondering about David Lodge himself - rather a cheek, but nothing venture...

Anthony Beevor wrote  a Guardian  article - also called  'Author, Author'( 19 February 2011) on  the perils of faction, and Lodge referred to his views.  It's very well worth reading if you are interested in this subject. Beevor  is a historian and his argument is essentially that truth is lost or blurred by these works, even though immaculately researched, like Hilary Mantel's Cromwell.
Mantel says,
'Unlike the historian the novelist doesn't operate through hindsight. She lives inside the consciousness of her characters for whom the future is a blank.'
 Beevor comments that the historian should do both, seeing things as the protagonist did at the time, then analysing.

'But the key fact is that when a novelist uses a major historical character the reader has no idea what he or she has taken from recorded fact  and what has been invented in their re-creation of events.
Restorers of paintings and pottery follow a code of conduct in their work  to distinguish the original material from what they are adding later.'

I believe Lodge added that maybe Beevor wanted  the made-up bits, or else  the 'real' bits,  in bold! (But isn't it rather dated to be adamant that we are sure of 'real'?)

Here Beevor speculates about its popularity:

A blend of fact and fiction has been used in various forms since the dawn of creative writing, starting with sagas and epic poems. Yet the appeal of faction to writers and readers has recently increased in a dramatic way. Is this due to a poverty of imagination, as some critics argue? Is it a marketing-driven phenomenon, perhaps catering to the modern desire in a fast-moving world to learn and to be entertained at the same time? Is it influenced by a curious need for authenticity, even in works of fiction? Is there a prurient compulsion to fill in those gaps in our knowledge about the private lives of great figures, which history has failed to cover? Movies and TV now revel in the speculative biopic.

I think there is some truth  in all those factors if I'm honest - on the first,  like Jean Rhys on writing the Wide Sargasso Sea,  'I cannot invent, but I can imagine.'

Poem of Edward Thomas - because  I feel he is getting lost in  all this

First Known When Lost

I never had noticed it until
'Twas gone,---the narrow copse
Where now the woodman lops
The last of the willows with his bill.

It was not more than a hedge o'ergrown.
One meadow's breadth away
I passed it day by day.
Now the soil is bare as a bone,

And black betwixt two meadows green,
Though fresh-cut faggot ends
Of hazel made some amends
With a gleam as if flowers they had been.

Strange it could have hidden so near!
And now I see as I look
That the small winding brook,
A tributary's tributary rises there.

Has anyone noticed that on copying from Oxford's digital 1st WW site the enjambents are lost? It's like one of those exercises in a poetry writing class where you have to guess where they should be. I quite enjoy putting it right really, and am almost tempted to try it without checking Edna Longley - but no, the capital letters give it away.

'First Known When Lost' is the title of a rather wonderful blog, by the way.

Monday, November 19, 2012

'Faction'? No,  Biographical Fiction.

The two novels that gave me the idea of writing a novel about Edward Thomas's last years were  these:
David Lodge, in his 'The Year of Henry James', wrote about the 'co-incidence  waiting to happen' - that he and Colm Toibin were writing their novels at the same time. (The same thing has happened to some extent now with Edward Thomas of course, but not, I hope, in fiction.)
Lodge puts forward his thoughts about the James coincidence in 'The Year..' but more interesting to me is his discussion about the current  popularity of biographical novels, especially as applied to the lives of writers:
'It could be taken as a symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative in a culture where we are bombarded from every direction with formal narrative  in the form of 'news'. It could be regarded as a characteristic form of post-modernism - incorporating the art of the past in its own processes through reinterpretation and stylistic pastiche. It could be seen as a sign of decadence and exhaustion in contemporary writing, or as a positive and ingenious way of coping with the 'anxiety of influence.'
After commenting  that the same has happened in drama he goes on:
'In short, the  biographical-novel-about-a-writer has acquired a new status  and a prominence as a subgenre of literary fiction.'
That was published in 2006, when I was just getting under way myself. His sections on acknowledging sources, the 'voice' and on seamlessly joining facts and fiction are good and I will look at them in the next blog.
Since then there have been many many more - notably for me 'Arthur and George' by Julian Barnes. I had an opportunity to talk to him and rather wasted it by chatting to him about settings - it is Staffordshire based and one scene is set in the building which was an annexe to my (and Carol Anne Duffy's)old  school.  He did tell me that the genesis of the idea -  the Dreyfus case - came to him on a visit to Germany.

There is a 'novel'- not well received, about Frost too. This is the blurb:
'Through the revelatory voice of fiction, Brian Hall gives us an artist toughened by tragedy, whose intimacy with death gave life to his poetry-for him, the preeminent symbol of man's form-giving power. This is the exquisitely rendered portrait of one man's rages, guilt, generosity, and defiant persistence-as much a fictional masterwork as it is a meditation on greatness.'

Recent additions to the genre, if it is one.

'The Great Lover', Jill Dawson's 2009 novel about Rupert Brooke in Grantchester - very speculative, entertaining.

Another - my former tutor on Oxford's creative writing Diploma course, novelist Clare Morgan, who has  Nietzsche,Virginia Woolf, and some modern characters woven together in her gripping, 'A Book for All and None.'

Then there is  Jude Morgan who is prolific in this field  - the Byron trilogy, the Brontes - A Taste of Sorrow - I've read the Byrons and learned a lot, but have yet to read the Brontes. And now - what courage! Shakespeare! Surely that is the ultimate challenge. It's very well reviewed so I've ordered it:

The Secret Life of William Shakespeare.

'In this confident and accomplished fictional rendering of Shakespeare's life, Morgan makes a virtue of how little we know for certain about the playright. Not only does the paucity of fact open up spaces in which the novelist can operate with greater freedom, but Morgan has turned our lack of knowledge into a quality of unknowableness in his protagonist .'   (Jane Housham) That sounds excellent.

Life After Death

Andrew Motion on Keats, 'The Invention of Dr Cake' and on Edward Thomas in the collection 'Interrupted lives'  - made up a post-mortem future for them so is in a sense pure fiction. Reading the Edward Thomas is a very disorientating business, all well known facts and then suddenly:

'At 7.36 a shell landed nearby, just as he was standing to fill his clay pipe. The blast poured over him, sqeezing his heart and wrinkling the diary - and a letter from Helen - that he had tucked into his pocket before he started out. As he staggered backwards a piece of shrapnel skimmed towards him. missing his chest but lacerating his left arm between the wrist and elbow. He collapsed into the shell-hole unconscious. Stretcher-bearers found him that evening.'
His left arm amputated he is invalided home and has a 'honeymoon' period with a very happy Helen, but .... well, it's interesting to read, along with Marlowe's, Shelley's, Katherine Mansfield's, Plath's and Angela Carter's resurrections.

What does this all amount to? My feeling is that some readers, me for one, love these things and others, perhaps more scrupulous and scholarly types, loathe them. I rarely get through  a great bumper biography I've bought or borrowed - there have been exceptions, George Eliot's notably - but I learn plenty and sometimes retain more deeply from novels.

Edward Thomas wasn't a fiction reviewer - why is that? - but he had read everything that mattered, and of course he tried his own, the odd 'Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans', a 'faction' indeed as it is based on his own Welsh family in London.  Guy Cuthbertson (OUP) will elucidate it I know and I'll try it again.

 No poem as this is all prose so:
From The Childhood of Edward Thomas - his unfinished autobiography:
So I used to enjoy going about with Henry to look at the pigeon shops in Wandsworth, Battersea and Clapham, occasionally to visit the back-garden lofts of working men in the same neighbourhoods. He had me in tow and I think I remained for the most part silent in the background unless I had a bird to buy. These long rambles among crowds of working people under the gaslight, in all sorts of weathers, were a great pleasure and were interrupted by a greater one when we stood and looked at pigeons in an atmosphere of shag smoke, grain and birds. At one time I paid a good many visits to the lofts of a tradesman in our neighbourhood, a tall gross pale-faced man with a truculent geniality. He was said to ill-treat the small wife who did most of the shop work and to be going under an assumed name for some bad reason. John would never have endured him: if he had to deal with men below him he preferred gamekeepers and such like who had to be tipped and knew their place. But the man kept scores of long-distance homing pigeons. Their high circlings visible from our back garden, and their rushing lower flight between the chimney-pots, were sublime to me. It was a great day therefore when I went round to him to get the pair of young black chequers which I had been awaiting for many days. I was to have them, so I understood, for two-and-six the pair. When I already had them in my hands I learnt that they were two-and-six each. This was beyond my means, nor did I want to have one of them at such a price. So he took them back into his hands at the door. Then while I was still lingering he put the head of one bird in his mouth, as I imagined in fun, or to slip a grain into its beak. His teeth closed on the slender neck tighter and tighter, the wings flapped and quivered, and when he opened his jaws the bird was dead. I was speechless, on the edge of tears. He looked down at me with a half-pitying grin, remarking that I was "still soft-hearted". My tenderness turned to hatred for the man, yet I could not speak. I dared not show my feeling. With only a meek resentfulness I even accepted his gift of the surviving bird. It became the prize of my pigeon house, always distinguished as "the young homer". The man I never did more than nod to again. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

What about Wales? What did Wales mean to Edward Thomas?

Sunday Times Cover, 11th November '12

I mentioned this excellent article by AA Gill last Sunday.
That 'quiet voice of England' headline has upset at least one person: an anonymous reader of my publisher Frank's blog, justthoughtsandstuff: -

'I, too, read the article on Thomas in the Times and was irritated (but not surprised given Gill's historic hostility towards the Welsh)by its title ('The Quiet Voice of England')and not even a passing acknowledgement of his Welsh roots (both his parents were Welsh)of which he was very proud, to the extent that he gave all his children Welsh names (Merfyn, Myfanwy and Bronwen), and note, his son's name spelt the Welsh way, with an 'f' rather than a 'v'. And now here's this book, 'A Conscious Englishman.'
If, by this, certain English people are trying to stake an exclusive claim on Edward Thomas as being one of their own, then it is a deception that does not bear scrutiny.' There is no doubt that he loved England, but he is more fairly described as an Anglo-Welsh poet.'
 Thomas's parents were born and brought up in Wales, moving as young adults to London where their six sons were born. Edward had Welsh grandparents living in Swindon whom he often visited, and a cousin in the country near Swansea. He was proud of his Welsh roots.  I wasn't aware that AA Gill had also added Wales to his long  list of dislikes - but what can you expect?
Frank replied sympathetically being half -Welsh, but pointing out that the 'Conscious Englishman' comment was Thomas's own, referring to his having patriotic thoughts in 1915. He added that Thomas's pride in his Welsh roots is made clear in my novel
 I commented, rather defensively now I think:
'I am slowly growing into a conscious Englishman,' was a significant statement in his growing belief that he had to 'do something' about Britain at war. He called himself an 'accidental Cockney', was described by a very close friend as 'A Londoner with a covering of Oxford', and the truth is that English language and literature, writers and preoccupations filled his thinking constantly. His prose 'Beautiful Wales' is lovely, but  I find only two poems relate in any way to Wales - Mountain Chapel and Helen of the Roads - a pity. His poems and 90% of his prose are specifically placed in southern England, no doubt reflecting demand for the prose and daily influence for the poems. So in a way Gill is right.
 But do read Thomas. He saw 'lovers of the Celt' as poseurs:

'Their aim and ideal is to go about the world in a state of self-satisfied dejection, interrupted, and perhaps sustained, by days when they consume strange mixed liquors to the tune of all the fine old songs which are fashionable...I cannot avoid the opinion that to boast of the Celtic spirit is to confess you have it not.'

 Ouch! You can always rely on Thomas for honesty.
Of course 'I am slowly growing into...' does imply that he was not a conscious Englishman beforehand. He is using England to mean Britain as he disliked that term and thought it meant nothing: people only relate to their own 'holes and corners.' It's annoying for 'the rest'  but I think it was even more prevalent then than now, when we are a bit more attuned to separate identities.
 I missed a line from my quote out of Beautiful Wales:
'If you can discover a possible Celtic great-great-grandmother, you are at once among the chosen.'
By this I  feel sure Thomas is satirising the 'lovers of the Celt', the pretentious aesthetes in contrast to  real Welsh people - and that he, being always wary of sham emotions, was cautious about how much he could claim to be Welsh or part Welsh himself. In his Preface he writes :
'I have....to confess, chiefly for the benefit of the solemn reviewer, that I know nothing of the Welsh language.'
There are puzzles about Thomas and Wales - he omits Wales entirely from his 'A Literary Pilgrim in England' - known by him as 'Omes and 'Aunts - which includes a chapter on Scotland!
It would be good to have comments on why this might be, especially from Wales - my guess is that it relates to the suppression of Welsh culture by the establishment and education at the time, so that there was little demand for prose? But that's an uneducated guess.
On reflection Frank's anonymous reader does have a valid point and the English should recognise Thomas as an Anglo-Welsh poet.
It is odd that Gillian Clarke, - isn 't she still the National Poet of Wales? -  writing on Thomas in Branchlines doesn't mention his Welsh roots either.

A friend commented that WH Davies  and Thomas had a close friendship.
Phil Carradice in the BBC Wales blog confirms my sense of what Thomas meant by 'English' and 'Englishman' in
 It does seem extraordinary to younger people  but I can date the time when 'British' began to be properly used to around 1980 - it was rarely heard before then.
But there is Words, written on May Hill where he could look towards Wales, just before he enlisted.
UT of us all
That make rhymes,
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in the wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through--
Choose me,
You English words?                                                                                       
I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak;
Sweet as our birds
to the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew,--
As our hills are, old,--
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.
Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales,
Whose nightingales
Have no wings,--
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,
And the villages there,--
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb,
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.
Maybe that partly answers the question? 


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Printing is imminent - Green's Cafe again

Over the weekend I was proof-reading the novel in the PDF format type-set by Frank of StreetBooks. I am ashamed to say that having printed it out I found a great many changes I wanted to make - not Frank's errors but my own.

Some were factual changes which, partly as a result of this blog, I needed to make. Linda Hart, who knows everything about Robert Frost, robustly put me right on several matters for which I was very grateful. Others were minor word changes and a few deletions.

Here is some advice to any writer - PRINT IT OUT, PRINT IT OUT, PRINT IT OUT. It's impossible to read as a reader any other way. And out of consideration to your publisher don't make dozens of last minute changes which were well within your power to make earlier!

Frank was delayed for our meeting so I had plenty of time to sit and dread his reaction to my long list of amendments, but I needn't have worried - he was very philosophical about it.

What was  worrying was my difficulty in obtaining permission to publish extracts from Robert Frost's letters to Edward and to Helen. It was  unclear to me who could give consent - publisher, Holt, as the internet suggests, or an individual who is the executor of the Robert Frost estate, or both. Once I was in touch with the Executor, Peter Gilbert, he was very prompt, friendly and helpful and within 24 hours gave me the permission 'gratis.'

 This printing is pre-publication, in order to have some review copies, so there is time before February 7th for the final edition.

 Thomas's second proper poem and so absolutely his own, much more than the Frosty first, Up in the Wind. He has quite changed my attitude to mud and to 'bad' weather as he notices what other's miss.


November's days are thirty:
 November's earth is dirty,
 Those thirty days, from first to last;
And the prettiest things on ground are the paths
With morning and evening hobnails dinted,
With foot and wing-tip overprinted
Or separately charactered,
Of little beast and little bird.
The fields are mashed by sheep, the roads
 Make the worst going, the best the woods
Where dead leaves upward and downward scatter.
 Few care for the mixture of earth and water,
Twig, leaf, flint, thorn,
Straw, feather, all that men scorn,
Pounded up and sodden by flood,
Condemned as mud.

But of all the months when earth is greener
Not one has clean skies that are cleaner.
 Clean and clear and sweet and cold,
They shine above the earth so old,
While the after-tempest cloud
Sails over in silence though winds are loud,
Till the full moon in the east
 Looks at the planet in the west
And earth is silent as it is black,
Yet not unhappy for its lack.
Up from the dirty earth men stare:
One imagines a refuge there
Above the mud, in the pure bright
 Of the cloudless heavenly light:
Another loves earth and November more dearly
 Because without them, he sees clearly,
 The sky would be nothing more to his eye
Than he, in any case, is to the sky;
He loves even the mud whose dyes
Renounce all brightness to the skies.

The Nick  Dear play at Almeida - Richard Eyre and Nick Dear were on Front Row this evening - The play sounds very interesting. Dear said he wrote it to explore whether Thomas had a death-wish, suicide by war. If he did he put up plenty of smokescreen, saying often that he wanted to survive and that he could almost enjoy the war if he knew how long it would last and whether he'd survive.
I have a feeling that some Frost fans may be troubled by some aspects.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dominic Hibberd whom I'd know for many years, died last August. This anthology traces and understands  the moods of the war from the fervour of 1914 to the tragic desperation of 1918, through poems and commentary. The whole collection gives a  unique immediacy and empathy both with soldiers and those left at home.
When so many died it feels uncomfortable to focus on just one man. But as that is my brief I will; except that on my visit to Edward Thomas's grave at Agny what moved me most was the number of graves with no name marked 'Known unto God.'


With the Artists' Rifles, 1915

Thomas's war diary
On leave at Steep, 1916


Edward Thomas is buried in Agny Military Cemetery, France. You can just make out the word Poet at the foot, arranged by the Edward Thomas Fellowship.

Helen, who never recovered from losing Edward, wrote of the night before he left for France,

'So we lay, all night, sometimes talking of our love and all that had been, and of the children, and of what had been amiss and what right. We knew the best was that there had never been untruth between us. We knew all of each other and it was right. So talking and crying and loving in each other's arms, we fell asleep as the cold reflected light of the snow crept through the frost-covered windows.
    Edward got up and made the fire and brought me some tea, and then got back into bed, and the children clambered in too, and sat in a row sipping our tea. I was not afraid of crying any more.'
And in the morning,
'We were alone in my room. He took me in his arms, holding me tightly to him, his face white, his eyes full of a fear I had never seen before. My arms were around his neck. 'Beloved, I love you,' was all I could say. 'Helen, Helen, Helen,' he said, 'remember that, whatever happens, all is well between us for ever and ever.'

Poem: mostly Edward Thomas.
War Diary
In just ten weeks your time in France is done -
only those notes for poems you'd never write:
Enemy plane like pale moth beautiful among shrapnel bursts.
A still starry night with only machine guns and rifles.
Sods on dug-out fledged with fine fronds of yarrow.
Hare, partridges and wild duck in field S.E. of guns. 
The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made homes for many more. 
Blackbirds sing at battery.
We know by now the dug-outs, shrapnel, ruins
Novembers reel them yearly through our thoughts. 
Moths jackdaws stars, though,
yarrow blackbirds hares,
these are your own,
as, asked ‘What are you fighting for?’
you, sifting English earth into your hands, said,
‘Literally, for this.’