Fighting the Green Man

Canterbury Cathedral's Green Man
          I was going to write this week about how busy I was last week with various business trips - but now that they're all done, I can't find any enthusiasm for blogging about them.
          Instead I’m going to write about an idea that has unexpectedly taken over my mind.  It keeps nudging in when it isn’t wanted, and won’t go away.
          I woke up one morning a couple of weeks ago, thinking about it.  You ought to  make, it said, a Green Man face out of papier-mache.
          But why would I want to?  While having nothing  against Green Men, I don’t want one.  I didn’t know I wanted to make one.
          But the idea won’t go away.  When I’m trying to concentrate on other things – like writing a blog, or finishing the Sterkarm book  – it sidles in.  You could use, it says, one of those cheap plastic face masks as a former… Where did that come from?  I hardly even knew those masks existed  - though there they are, on Amazon, 99p
          I dismiss the whole notion.  It’s a waste of time.  But it won’t go away – The leaves could be different colours, it says, as I wake on another morning.  As if the year was turning: some bright green and spring-like, others yellow and red.  There could be berries.
          But I don’t want to make it!  It would take a long time, it would be messy – and what would I do with it, even if I finished it?  It would be big, and heavy and utterly useless.  I couldn’t sell it: I wouldn’t even want it myself.
          But still the idea won’t go away.  Try, it whispers.  See if you could do it.  You’d have to look at different leaves – it’d be interesting, something different.  Go on…
Norwich Green Man
          My aunt laughed when I told her.  The Prices are all the same, she said.  They just want to be making something.  Don’t care about it when it’s made – they only want to make it.  Your grandfather, she said, when he worked at the brickyard, used to make animal figures out of clay and fire them along with the bricks –  and then would give them away. He wasn’t interested in them when they were done; he just wanted to see if he could make them.  Look at your brothers, she said, always drawing, painting, modelling, carving... Can't help themselves.
           But where do these ideas come from?  Why are they so insistent and hard to dismiss?  Why are they there waiting when you wake up?  Why a Green Man, of all things?
          So that’s where I am at the moment – trying to finish the Sterkarm book that might make me some money, trying to publish my backlist as ebooks, and trying to fight off a Green Man…

          I also blog over at Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?

          And if you love books, and have an e-reader, you might like to rummage through this goodie-bags of books.

Defending The Villain

          I’ve been reading reviews of my book, The Sterkarm Handshake on Goodreads.  Most of them are good – four and five star.  People say how much they enjoyed the book, and I heartily thank people for taking the time and trouble to post a review – even though they may have done it for fellow readers rather than me.
          However, I was struck by how many of the reviews – even the positive ones – took issue with the character of my villain, the Company Executive Officer, James Windsor.
          He’s called a ‘one-dimensional character’ and ‘a pantomime villain’.  He even, commenters say, in shocked tones, makes fun of the heroine’s size.
          This puzzles me.  Early reviews of the book said much the same thing; and here are later readers saying it.  Could I have got it so wrong?
          I don't think I did.
          Now I’m fully aware that any writer arguing against adverse comments is going to look like an egoist who can’t take criticism.
          But I’m going to do it anyway.  I’ve been publishing since I was 16.  I’ve been taking criticism, constructive and destructive, on the chin for the whole of my adult life.
          I don’t quarrel with those who say that the book is too violent, or that the heroine is irritating, or even that it’s boring.  I’ve said the same things of books by other writers, even of books by writers whose other works I’ve loved, so I’m neither surprised nor dismayed that some people dislike some of my books.  I had my reasons for writing it the way I did; but other people would have made different choices, and dislike those I made. Fair enough.
         The comments on James Windsor puzzle me, though.  When I write, I obviously create scenes, plots and characters that seem, to me, convincing – since if they don’t convince me, it’s foolish to hope they’ll convince readers.  I characterised Windsor as I did because it’s my observation that there are people like him abroad in this unhappy world.  Not everyone, not even every CEO – but some.
          I’m quite glad to think that so many of my readers seem never to have met a James Windsor, but I’m puzzled too.  They’ve never met a bully?  Really?
          And yet bullying at work is commonplace.  (Nor is it new: I was talking about this with my aunt, and she told me that she left her first job, 64 years ago, because her boss bullied her so much.)
          James Windsor has financial power, and power over employees, and he enjoys using it.  He gets a kick when people have no choice but to obey him.  It makes him feel better about himself – why wouldn’t it?  It proves his success as much as his car, his home, his expensive suits.
          That he’s one-dimensional may be true to the extent that, in the books, we see him only with subordinates – or people he thinks should be his subordinates, such as the Sterkarms.  (But he has no hold over the Sterkarms, and they don’t give a spit for him.)
          I also think it’s fair to say that Windsor is good at his job, intelligent, witty and, quite often, right.  He makes the mistake made by many ‘civilised’ men before him, of underestimating the ‘uncivilised’, but he’s far from stupid.  He’s just not benevolent.  Take a look round the world and you’ll see plenty of intelligent but malevolent people.
          With his equals or superiors Windsor would be charming – well-mannered, witty, friendly, considerate.  With equals, he has a reputation to sustain, and from superiors he has something to gain.  I’m told that my great-grandfather was like this.  Among workmates and pub-friends, towards strangers and such superiors as policemen and bosses, he was ‘a great laugh’: generous, witty, charming.
          At home, he made no effort to charm. He terrorised his wife and children, kicking one of his sons senseless for defending a sister, and deafening a daughter by hitting her on the ear with a seven-pound lump hammer.  (He was a blacksmith, and ordered his daughter to hold a chisel while he hit it with said hammer.  She annoyed him by flinching, and he hit her with what he had to hand – the hammer.)  But that night, in the pub, he was ‘a great laugh’.  Does this seem OTT, too melodramatic? - But it's true, and very similar scenes are being enacted on the day you read this, somewhere near you.
          A friend in publishing once told me of a writer she was friendly with.  She’d known him for years and they’d always got on well when they met at launches and lunches.  Then, due to the last recession but one, my friend was given notice.  Shortly after, she met the writer again.  They hugged and kissed, and he asked for her news.
          She said she’d lost her job, and felt rather depressed, since she couldn’t imagine finding another, given her age and the state of the industry.
          The writer replied, “Oh, you’re no use to me any more, then, are you?” – turned his back and walked away, leaving her gobsmacked and speechless.
          Very James Windsor. He, the writer, and my great-grandfather were narcissists.  They aren't in short supply, and they aren't always serial-killers.  I think they're quite often in positions of authority, both because they want to be, and because their unswerving self-interest helps them to get there.
          As for Windsor’s insulting remarks to my hefty heroine – have my readers really not met people like this?  Really?
          While writing Handshake, I met a woman who worked for an executive, and asked her about her job and boss.  She told me, rolling her eyes, that he always addressed her as ‘Gorgeous,’ even calling her this in front of others.
Now, this would be patronising and offensive enough, but it went further.  My informant, though professionally impressive and very well groomed, was fully aware that not many would seriously call her ‘gorgeous’.  Hence the rolling eyes.  Every time he called her that, especially in front of others, it was a put-down.
          But how could she complain?  She had a well paid job which otherwise suited her well, which she might lose if she complained.  Even if you don’t mind losing your job, how can you complain that your boss calls you ‘gorgeous’?  But she and everyone who heard it knew that it was a sneer.
          Why did her boss sneer at her on a daily basis?  Because he could.  He enjoyed it.
          It was this meeting which nerved me to have Windsor speak to Andrea as he does.  At one point he gives her expensive chocolates saying, “I’m sure you’ll know what to do with them.”
          Andrea reflects that Windsor’s gifts are payment for the right to insult people.  This is the politics of gift-giving.  At its most benign, it’s an affirmation of friendship – at its less benign, it’s manipulative power-play.  It’s hard to quarrel with someone who gives you expensive gifts – and some use that to get away with bad behaviour.
          It’s these experiences, and my own, which lie behind James Windsor.  I don’t think, unfortunately, that he’s unrealistic or pantomimic at all.
          But I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.  I will take them on the chin.

Delicious Comfort Food For A Cold Summer

Rainy rose
          It’s June, the joyous midsummer month!
          In my garden, roses bloom– their petals scattered by lashing winds, their buds rotted by ceaseless rain.  It’s the English monsoon season.
          The last forecast I saw said it will be slightly warmer and brighter this weekend, for which I suppose we should be grateful, and then return to chilly rain next week.
          Earlier this week, I had friends over.  I gave them duvets to huddle in, as the wind blatted rain against the windows, but thought I ought to do something more to cheer them up and remind them that, hey, it’s summer!  So I cooked blondies.
          As you probably know, blondies are brownies, only with white chocolate.  If you’d like to make some, gather the following ingredients: 

250g white chocolate
200g unsalted butter, diced
3 large eggs
150g caster sugar
Half teaspoon vanilla extract
200g plain flour
Half teaspoon baking powder
150g fresh raspberries

Makes about nine.

          Break up 150g of the white chocolate and place in a heat-proof bowl with the 200g of butter.

          You almost certainly know the drill here – have a saucepan of boiling, simmering water, and place the bowl in the saucepan, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water.  Then set a timer for 6 minutes and just leave it to melt, while you get on with other things.

          Which means breaking the three eggs into a bowl, and whisking them madly until they froth.  Easy if you have an electric whisk.  You’re going to have a tired arm if you don’t.

          Add the sugar and vanilla extract to the eggs and whisk again, until the mixture thickens but is full of air.

          The timer should have rung by now.  Give the melted chocolate and butter a quick stir, and take off the heat to cool a little.  (If it’s too hot it will cook the eggs when added to them.)

          Give the egg-sugar mix another whisk.  When the chocolate has cooled, add it to the eggs and sugar, and whisk again.  (It being white chocolate, I found it much less fluid than melted chocolate and quite difficult to get out of the bowl.)

          Now sieve the flour and baking powder over the mixture.  Carefully fold in.

          Take another 100g of white chocolate, and coarsely chop.  Fold into the mix.  (If you chop coarsely, the blondies have delicious lumps of white chocolate hidden in them.)

          Pour into a well-greased baking dish.  If you use a fairly deep dish, then you will have fudgy, gooey-centred blondies.  Use a shallower one, and they are crisper and more biscuit like – whichever you prefer.

          Take the 150g of fresh raspberries and scatter over the top of the mixture.

          Now to cook…  I found this recipe on a website, and saw that many people had complained about the cooking instructions being wrong – and they were right.  The instructions were to bake for 25 minutes at 180 degrees C, 350 F, or Gas Mark 4.

          But after 25 minutes, the cake was nowhere near cooked – was almost still liquid.  Even after 40m, it wasn’t cooked in the centre, and was starting to brown too much around the edges.  I covered it with foil and left it in for another ten minutes – so that’s 50m in all – and then it was about right, but was looking overdone around the edges.

          So, if I made these again, I would try 35m at Gas Mark 5, and then check, and perhaps cover with foil longer was needed.

          However, despite the difficulty over the cooking-time, the finished blondies were delicious: moist, sweet and slightly fudgy in the centre, with the taste of white chocolate and the tang of raspberry.  Even the slightly too brown edges weren’t a disaster, as one guest asked for those parts, liking the crunchiness (I don’t think she was merely being polite.)
          We ate the blondies cold, but I imagine they’d be even better warm, with the chocolate lumps slightly gooey.
          As I bought the chocolate in 300g blocks, I had 50g left over.  I melted it and dabbled it all over the finished cake, before I cut it into squares.  As I hadn’t added any butter to soften it, the white chocolate set hard on the blondies’ tops, like very delicious concrete, which added a certain bite, about which no one complained.
          The cook, however, could eat that 50g of white chocolate… cook’s perks!

Of Lambs, Scones and Blind Summits

          I spent last week in a place of sugar-white beaches and palm-trees, turquoise sea, all-surrounding bird-song, blue skies unmarked by any wisp of cloud, and air-shaking, tarmac-melting heat: the Highlands, Scotland’s west coast.
          We drove to Oban and caught the ferry to Mull. I love ferries, especially little everyday working ferries.  There was a Scottish Water van and a plumber in the queue, and I wondered whether, when they were given their work-sheets that morning, they thought: Oh great! I’m going to Mull! They probably did in this weather, Davy said.  But in January, not.
Iona's cathedral
          On Mull we drove the length of the island to catch the passenger-ferry to Iona.  It was so hot on the island, we were glad to go into the shade of the beautiful cathedral.  While walking through the fields we heard corncrakes – I recognised the call from my Dad’s description: ‘Like a stick being dragged across railings, or a football rattle being shook slowly.’  He used to hear them, as a boy, in the fields around his house, but those fields have long vanished.
          We stopped for a drink at the Argyll Hotel, which served the best scone and coffee of the whole trip.  We sat in a sunny garden, beside a richly scented rose-bush, looking at a white beach, blue sea, and the mountains of Mull beyond.
          I dropped a few crumbs, but they were cleared by an unusual waiter (right).
          We stayed the night at a B&B on Mull, where the landlord didn’t give us a key because, ‘we never lock anything up.’
          We crossed back to the mainland from Tobermory (or ‘Tobe’ as the locals seem to call it), and spent most of the next two days on the most beautiful beaches that could be imagined.
          Everywhere was what Davy called ‘great lumps of scenery’.  I’m not sure exactly what constitutes a great lump of scenery, but you won’t go far wrong if you include at least one loch, a dozen mountains, a quantity of boulders and burns and any amount of blue sky.  As a bonus, throw in a beach and a couple of deer.
A great lump of scenery
          There was so much beauty that, at the end of a day, I was exhausted, and longed to sit in a dark room, stuffing my face with pot-noodle and watching ‘X-Factor’ as a corrective. But after a night’s sleep, I was eager for more scenery lumps.
          But the roads! The signs say ‘single-track’ and they do not kid. They are so narrow there isn’t room for a car to pass a cyclist.
Passing-places are provided, on alternate sides.  If the nearest passing place is on your side, you pull into it, and wait for the other car to pass.  If it’s on the alternate side, you stop opposite it, and the other car uses it to pass you.
          At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work, and with locals, it works very well.  However, journeys are enlivened by foreign tourists, who don’t understand the system, or feel more comfortable driving on the left, and instinctively dive for it in an emergency.  A motorcyclist, for instance, shot across in front of us, into the passing-place Davy was just about to enter.
Another lump of scenery
          A huge camper van sat in a passing-place, watching us approach, and as soon as we were nearly level with him, pulled out, entirely blocking the road.
          Another couple made angry shooing motions at us, telling us to reverse, when the nearest passing-place was on their side, immediately behind them.  Our nearest was a considerable distance back along a winding, hilly, narrow road with a steep drop on our side.  Davy wasn’t budging, shoo as they liked, and it was they who reversed – having caused a minor queue. Not easy on roads so remote and quiet.
          The roads were so narrow, with so many blind hilltops, hairpin bends and deep dips that the road often vanished like a magic trick.  You reached the top of a rise, to see the last of it whisking round a lump of scenery, leaving nothing before you but moor. 
          Potholes had crumbled the road’s edges away, and there were drops and ditches at the sides… We had to develop a system where Davy, driving, kept his eyes on the road immediately in front of the car, while I watched as far ahead as possible (a glimpse of road sometimes reappeared in the distance) so I could forewarn him of approaching vehicles.
          After many miles of this, we passed a shiny new road sign: ‘Beware: Blind Summit.’  Workmen had been despatched from some distant depot to erect that sign.  Beyond it were miles and yet more miles of difficult, blind, narrow hairpin bends and blind summits, where sheep, cattle, motorcyclists and camper vans lurked unseen.  Why that particular blind summit deserved its own sign, we never discovered.
          But it was a great trip, and even on the morning of the day we returned, we brewed up on great slabs of rock by a waterfall, and enjoyed a coffee-break that no cafe or hotel could equal.
         I took many photos, but there were some sights I missed and wish I hadn’t…
         The enormous – HUGE – red, shaggy Highland cow standing at the roadside in a lowering glen (hey, embrace the cliché), its horizontal horns so wide that a single horn nearly spanned the narrow road.
         Two small lambs asleep on a moorside verge, their legs intertwined and wrapped around the pole of a ‘passing place’ sign.
To distract Madwippet from a mention of a cat.
         The ginger cat splayed on the pavement of Tobermory’s high street, abandoning itself utterly to the hottest sun it had probably ever known in its short life.
         But the lost photo I regret most is of the sweeps of bluebells spilling down to the loch sides.  So I tried to put the scene into words instead:

Brawling bluebells,
                       Vibrant, cobalt,
Run to the lochside,
                            Steel-blue, cobbled;
The mountain’s wall,
                Tawny, bony:
And the sky

And the palm-trees?  They do grow in the west of Scotland, where it's warmed by the Gulf stream.