Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Saturday, 12 August 2017

FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS ... by Victoria Cornwall


One day I will have a study of my own to write in, rather than a corner of my son’s former bedroom. I can see it in my mind’s eye now. I will have a shelf dedicated to research books and another displaying the first editions of my novels. The room will be tastefully decorated, with perhaps a vase of fresh flowers in the corner. Of course there would be lots of natural light from a large window, with soft pastel drapes and a spectacular countryside view.  In this room I will write my greatest work … at least that is the plan.

Henna Cliff on the North Coast of Cornwall
Of course, writers don’t have to have a study to write in. In fact there are many famous writers who have written their greatest work in an unusual place. I don’t know how much is truth and how much is fabrication, but I have heard that John le Carre wrote on a train, D.H..Lawrence wrote under the trees, Virginia Wolf in a storage room, Dame Edith Sitwell in an open coffin and Roald Dahl in a writing hut at the bottom of his garden. However, the most interesting place I know of is built into a north facing Cornish cliff, and I had the pleasure of visiting it one summer as I walked the coastal path.

Hawker's Hut
Hawker’s Hut was built around 1844, from timber taken from wrecked ships, namely the Caledonia, the Phoenix, and the Alonzo. To reach it one has to briefly leave the coastal path and descend down the steep gradient by way of some slate steps. It was built by Robert Stephen Hawker, vicar, poet and antiquarian of Cornwall, who could name Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson amongst his friends. He was thought of as a compassionate man, who provided a Christian burial for around fifty shipwrecked sailors washed up upon his shore.

He was also considered an eccentric, as he preferred to dress in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots and a pink brimless hat. Tales about him added to his reputation - he talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a pig and a stag as pets. It is thought he even excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays. What we do know for sure is that he introduced the Harvest Festival celebrations to his church, a thanksgiving service where people bring fruit and vegetables they’ve grown to give thanks for a good harvest. The tradition continues today in Cornish churches and chapels up and down the county and the food is later sold and the money donated to a good cause.

Greenway and Caunter Beaches, Cornwall
Despite his busy pastoral life, he spent many hours sitting in his hut, looking at the breathtaking views while he wrote his poems, letters and smoked opium. Today, his small writing retreat is considered the smallest property in the National Trust portfolio.

The hut, which only contains a bench, is built into the hillside, with a turf roof and only the width of a path in-front of it. The Atlantic Ocean crashes on the rocks below, providing a roaring backdrop to the solitary place. The door has two parts, so one can sit inside and be protected from the wind, yet still enjoy the view of the dark blue sea meeting the ever-changing sky above. If one sits at the back, it appears that the hut is on a precipice, with nothing but the roaring Atlantic Ocean, rolling and foaming onto the jagged rocks below.

Hawker wrote many poems and published several volumes such as Records of the Western Shore (1832), Poems (1836), Ecclesia (1840), Reeds Shaken with the Wind (1843/44), Echoes From Old Cornwall (1846). Eventually, money and other worries led him into a gradual decline of depression and delusions. As he lay dying, he converted to Catholicism and when he died, the mourners for this much loved and respected vicar wore purple instead of black.

Hawker's greatest legacy to the Cornish people is his poem The Song of the Western Men. It is a poem that the Cornish people still hold close to their hearts today as they sing it as their anthemic song “Trelawny”.

I may dream of having an ideal study one day, but Robert Stephen Hawker needed no great room to write his works and be remembered for years after he left this world. All he needed was some driftwood, formed into a small hut and built into the face of the North Cornish Coastline. It was what he could see, hear, smell, taste and feel on the sea breeze that inspired his writing, plus the ability to appreciate the unspoilt beauty of the natural world around him.

Do you have an unusual or special place, where you like to read, think or write? Perhaps you have heard about someone else's. I would love to hear about it.





Saturday, 5 August 2017

THE END OF THE STUPID HEROINE? by Gill Stewart



I hope, I really hope, that we will soon, finally, see the end of the stupid heroine. You know the one I mean, the one who is Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) and needs rescuing at every turn. Usually she is rescued by the hero, occasionally by a good friend or relative. And the hero is attractive and capable, but if it’s a female friend/relative then she’s not nearly as attractive as the heroine because apparently being TSTL makes you sexy and desirable. Personally I think it makes her Too Stupid To Be Loved and I find it difficult to understand why the hero is attracted to her.

TSTL heroines were especially prominent in times past. Although Georgette Heyer has some excellent feisty heroines (the eponymous Venetia and Sophy) she also has some quite foolish ones (Horatia in The Convenient Marriage, Nell in April Lady). And I haven’t read any Barbara Cartland for decades, but as far as I can remember all her heroines were TSTL. In fact, some of them were too stupid to speak in complete sentences, but that’s a topic for another day. Almost all Mills and Boon heroines I read in my teens were TSTL – in fact the first time I came across a book with a female doctor as a heroine my teenage mind couldn’t compute it: if she was a doctor she must be bright, so how could she be the heroine??

I would like to think we have moved on from this mindset and that we don’t ever meet TSTL heroines these days. However, there is evidence to the contrary. Bella in the Twilight series is often TSTL and yet she is adored by the vampire hero, and by thousands of teenage readers. Why? Really? I haven’t managed to read any of E L James’ books to the end, but Anastasia strikes me as another TSTL heroine. Just by way of example, in the first chapter of Fifty Shades Of Grey she: is pushed into doing an interview she doesn’t want to do, dresses inappropriately, doesn’t know what Christian Grey looks like or his age despite him being a famous local, falls over her own feet, can’t work the recording device and just generally hasn’t done even the most basic preparation for the task at hand. So TSTLs are clearly (and unfortunately) not yet dead and gone.

But there is hope! Mills and Boon heroines these days occasionally do something silly, or make mistakes, but they are not unbelievably stupid. The heroines of all the women’s fiction books I have read in the last ten years have been either reasonably or exceptionally capable. As well as appearing in much crime fiction as the corpse (where she obviously was TSTL, but was not the heroine), women also often feature as the detective or sleuth. Erotica also often features a strong heroine, so E L James is not typical of the genre.

I don’t read much literary fiction, but I think in general there have been fewer TSTL heroines here, although there are often unattractive ones (and I don’t mean in appearance).

I would like to say to my fellow female writers: if you are a writer, you are probably not stupid. So please don’t portray women in your books as stupid. And to male writers: a stupid heroine is not a realistic heroine, so don’t go down that route. I’m pleased to say that having scanned the list of current best-selling romances (the genre that interests me most) I can’t see a stupid heroine among them. From Jill Mansell to Katie Fforde, from Trisha Ashley to Veronica Henry – the heroines may be wacky, they may be quirky, but they are not stupid! Progress has indeed been made. Compare this to the 1970s when books by Judith Krantz and Jacqueline Susann dominated the best-seller lists.

I’d be fascinated to know if anyone has adored a book with a stupid heroine – and, if so, why?