Tuesday 28 February 2012

How Lovely is The Light of Morning

How lovely is the light of morning
fingering its way
through chinks
in heavy curtains,
their hems weighed down
with fragments of lead

How lovely is the light of morning -
bright harbinger of a day
where work and play
may dance together,
like children in a park
excited by a red balloon.

The Light of Morning

Saturday 25 February 2012

Hockney, Bright Splashes of Colour and Directionality

There is something about directionality.
I come down to London to visit daughter Debora and the lovely Sean. Once here I go up to town on various days to the RA to see the Hockney Exhibition; to have lunch at Villandry  with my agent Juliet; to research  Victor West at Kings College. Then tomorrow I will, reluctanlty,  go home back up North.
The Hockney Exhibition is about scale. It is after all entitled The Bigger Picture. The Royal Academy is architecturally suited to these massive paintings and montages of paintings; the magisterial enfilade of tall rooms leading through (directionality again!)  large archways from a central hub is so well suited to this blazing collection of recent work which is admirably and appropriately contextualised in earlier work showing us how Hockney arrived at this high point in his career where his consummate skill and massive imagination here addresses trees and landscapes as  living, writhing, sensate things. Or in one case dying things in - my favourite series - paintings of a felled tree - the clean,  curved, greeny yellowy logs lying alongside their stumped parent beside the road leading through the trees.

The impact is astonishing. As the milling crowd enters the central hub there are gasps of appreciation at the long perspectives, the enormous canvases, the original rendering of the familiar. The eye is invaded by the vibrant, electric blues, the pulsing purples, the gorgeous greens, the tender yellows, the teasing greys. Then - most - dramatic- the reds and oranges that  bring a shimmering transatlantic echo of the Grand Canyon right into  the Yorkshire Dales.

Then there is a change of scale and you have to move right in discover delicate treats in terms of Hockney's artist's notebooks - large, small, fan-shaped. These are full of the  notes, drawings and inspirations - clearly the genesis of the larger work. These books  are testament to the fine draughtsmanship upon which the artist bases the flaring creativity that surges into his  experimental expression in the large canvasses,  projections and collages. The notebooks are set under glass covers but above them on screens you can see them -  the delicately wrought drawings.

Then there is a section on the way he uses iPad as drawing/painting tool. This is very interesting and does indeed bring his method up to date. However for me they are less personal and than the drawing or the painting: something of  a veil between the see-er and the artist.

No small view can do justice, though, to the larger than life painting of this artist. Interestingly the paintings and drawings are full of directionality. Repeatedly Hockney takes you down the same roads and pathways through landscapes, down woodlend paths, through a hole created by overhanging trees in woodlands, along motor roads, up mountain escarpments, through clouds hanging low between mountains.

 I love the direction, the energy, the vibrancy, the youth of this exhibition. It inspired me to think of my own directions.

I hope you manage to see this exhibition if you go up or down or across to London.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Stories from Other Lives: The Dreaming Bed,

I woke up too early then went back to sleep.

Now I am in this cluttered auction room surrounded by the detritus of a hundred lives. Something catches my eye. Here is a great  big  bed  standing  sideways  against a wall, illuminated by a skylight.  The head and foot of the bed are built from two great cupboards with finely carved doors.

An auctioneer in a yellow waistcoat strolls up and says. 'Interesting bed, that. Inside contents are part of the lot.'
I walk around the bed: once, then twice. Finally  I open the cupboard doors and inside I see:

one folded travel rug
one yellow jar with feathers in ;
two thermos flasks - one large, one small
a pile of books with bright leather bindings 
three blue Chinese jars in different sizes
two enormous  ledgers withe red spines
one very thick pink wool scarf
one a green ceramic cat with a long slender neck
one dusty whisky bottle half full
two boned bodices, one pink, one black
one silver aluminium step-ladder
one navy Fleet Air Arm peaked cap
three worn wool rolled up blankets;
one pot of orange marmalade with a faded label
on  folding beach  chair, striped

I decide to bid up to fifty pounds for the amazing bed. The yellow-waistcoated man takes the auction and  I'm driven to bid sixty five pounds to make this dream bed my own. The auctioneer nods at me, his eyes opaque,  as he brings his hammer down.

When I woke up I was very happy that I'd got this bed with my sixty five pound bid. I knew this was on important dream. It was very different.  I never dream in this detail, I never dream in such colour. Most importantly I know that the questions I ask myself about the bed will give me thirty stories or a very long novel.

Writer's bonus


Saturday 18 February 2012

Three Elements of Place For the Artisan Writer

I woke up with the thought that there are three aspects of place that are significant in the writing life.
Editing in My Garden

Element One is the place where we write. A good artisan writer should be able to write anywhere – on planes and trains, in the garden, bedroom, bathroom or kitchen, inside, outside, in bars and hospital waiting rooms. And of course, (if you find one open) libraries. I suppose now we must add cyberspace to our writing locations.

The instinct and the ideal, though, is to make a special interior space in which to write: a temple dedicated to your vocation.

I did this even when I was very young, I lived then in a tiny two up and two down house with my my mother, sister and two brothers. In the bedroom which I shared with my sister and mother I set up a long collapsible pasting table by the window. This was was my private space. Here I did my homework and here I began to write seriously; I wrote at this table even when ice was etching snowflakes on the inside of the window.

After I married, in our second house there was a spare downstairs bedroom which I commandeered as a writing room. I got someone to build shelves all along one wall for my growing collection of books and bought a huge, battered office desk at an auction for £2. And there I did another kind of homework for my teaching job. And on that desk I wrote the first novels which were published.

Write Anywhere and Everywhere
 Occupying another house for many years now, I have a big study with a real fire mentioned by Avril in her post about our conversation with Richard Hardwick for The Writing Game. This is a generous space dominated by the same £2 desk which started it all and has shelves on all four walls, full of books. Lots of writing and talking stuff goes on in this space but the serious writing - the current novel, for instance - happens upstairs in the little writing room which I’ve written about before. This is where the real work happens. Here there is only room for one person – the writer. This is my place, My temple.

Stairway to Story
 Element Two the need to locate the characters and action in a place that adds to, that underpins, that shows rather than tells of the main themes of the novel. Think of the psychopathology of cities such as Dickens’ London and de Balzac’s Paris, of Martin Amis’s London and Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh.  Think of the drawing rooms of Jane Austen, the muddy nightmarish battle trenches of Pat Barker, the Gothic moorland of the Brontes!

These writers know how to use place as a substructure for the themes of the novel and to illuminate depth of the drama and the emotional pathology of the characters. The best of writers have always done this instinctively: the significance of place underpinning the pace and the active drama of their narrative.

I don’t know if there is some magic formula for this, except to read widely and deeply  the work of writers who do this well, until it is part of your own intuition of writing. And observe, observe, observe your own experience in life as you move around. Make lists of what you see and the feelings and wisdom it inspired. These days of course we can note place with a camera, of course, transforme it in our imagination and incorporate what we see into our fiction. But nothing in this process beats a sharp eye, a good ear, and a fat notebook.

Element three is doing it!

 Here's me...

Read and Write
AOR Work in progress

'… The courtyard is dominated on one side by a wall which is more like a black stone cliff. Lolette’s granddaughter Marie France. Aurelie’s cousin, tells us this wall is part of the medieval wall of the old village of St Thibery. Before we reached our destination - this tall house on the edge of the village - Aurelie had driven us through its narrow streets which seem to have no corners; they it coil around a mediaeval abbey whose ornate arched gateway is out of kilter with the dusty ordinariness of the village…

…  ‘Grand-mère is in the courtyard,’ announces Lola in her clear young voice. She leads us through a large kitchen lined with cupboards painted blue, set around a vast table covered with a gleaming green oilcloth. Then we are hustled  through double doors into the shady courtyard built into the wall of the old village. On the left is a long black stone trench filled with geraniums. In the middle a white umbrella offers shade a green plastic table and four chairs.  
Imagine and Transpose

At the far end, under a very old whiskery palm tree ,sits a very old lady with her leg up on a cushioned stool. Her hair ,  thin and whispy is pulled to the top of her head in a knot. She is wearing a yellow flowered crimpeline frock and slippers on her bare feet. I have to remind myself that she is the same age as Francine…'

Thursday 16 February 2012

Writing Competitions Are Wonderful

Hooray for my writing buddy Avril ! She has just been shortlisted in the imaginative  Doire writing competition. An Irish competition, it has an international entry, so this is a satisfying achievement even so far. As I say to Avril, the Irish certainly know what they’re doing where the English language is concerned,! Their judgement will be true. I just want her to win it now! Cross your fingers.

Writing competitions, whether you win them or not, are a very good discipline for a writer. They give you a deadline, a clear brief, a growing sense of audience that some stranger – not your sister, your brother, your best friend - out there really rates your words on the page. Whether you win it or not when you write for a competition you are practicing for  strangers.  This forces you to write at the top of the game: you can’t expect strangers to read your mind and know what you intended to mean, how you intended to say it.

Having judged many national writing competitions I will tell you that the cream tends to come to the top. If you keep trying and improving you will get there.  Being placed in competitions should boost your self esteem, increase your self confidence as a writer and make you write more and better. And I will also tell you -  the more you write the better you will get! (Seems like common sense, doesn't it?)

It is –as Avril and I have proved  – delicious to talk writing over a glass of wine, or brainstorm in your writing group. But if you want to grow as a writer there is no substitute for writing on and on,  for writing with creative discipline. Writing competitions are one  good way to sustain that growth.

If you want to sample Avril’s winning  style (almost wrote smile…) download her book

Susie Drew and other Stories.

Avril says:  Susie Drew and Other Stories is the second in the series Beyond The Mask - stories of prison life. Susie Drew Susie Drew has the habits of a jackdaw, stealing bright objects, little bits of nothing that shine. She steals food too, coffee from the Nescafe jar in the staffroom. She’s your cleaner, the best cleaner you’ve ever had. Puts the coffee in screws of paper, buries it under the mattress in her prison cell…
Heroin Trees – Roxanne and Me Roxanne is a working girl. Nita is her friend…I wasn’t long out of prison after the first time and things weren’t going well. Despite all my promises I was back with Sonny and using again, our money heated up in spoons: liquid money shot into our veins and laid out nodding on the couch. We managed alright for a while because he was dealing, but when Sonny got sick and I started wondering what the hell we were going to do for money that was when Roxy rang…
Pink Passion Marie is looking for love - I met him at the Pineapple, one Thursday night. I used to go there most weeks looking for something. I suppose then I might have called it love, although I barely knew it. You can’t know what you’ve never had. Can you? And I never had much of it when I was growing up…
Susie Drew and Other Stories (Beyond The Mask)

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Siren People And a Child's Game

Siren people stand all square
cropped hair, demeanour muscular -
family men, bluff, pragmatic
living on the wrong planet
I thought you were illegal
Siren says

So much standing, watching
suits standing-watching-types
This one frowns, pokes and peers -
challenges my Remegel, my Ventolyn
You need the proper documents
Siren says.

The steel clad halo doorway
electric barrier, bulletproof screens
induce a sense of safe enclosure -
a mere illusion of security
All to keep you safe,
Siren says.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Mary Ann Cotton and the Power of Myth

Part of the fun of writing fiction is the research. Every one of my novels has required me to get not just the facts right, but also the feeling. The facts are often easy – laid out there in histories and argued about in learned articles.

Of course diaries and letters are great for that specific 'feeling' research. I am currently gathering materiel for a future novel which will partly be set in mid Nineteenth Century Paris – a fascinating world of different rules - that is growing into life in my writer’s head. Part of gathering materials to illuminate feelings and worldviews of a time is research novels written during those years. Across at on my other blog my post' Raffish Courtesans, Balzac and Elvis Presley' explores the notion of novels in the research. process

Last night I watched the excellent Whitechapel drama on television. I like the way this series blends history with the present day to extend the well worn police drama genre to something slightly different, The present episode involves poisoning. There is some talk of poisoning being a 'woman’s crime'. The tame eccentric researcher in the drama then introduces Mary Ann Cotton as the notorious nineteenth century serial killer who used poison as her means. And last week there was an awful article about her on the Mail Online
There is a reaon why my hackles have been rising at all this. Mary Ann Cotton lived a mile from here. And around here her status as our own particular Bad Girl lives on nationally and internationally at the level of Myth. There is even a nursery rhyme which begins Mary Ann Cotton, she’s dead and she’s rotten

A few years ago I decided that this legend could be the basis for a good novel and wrote my novel called A Woman Scorned is about Mary Ann Cotton. It was to be a work of fiction, but inspired and informed by a detailed study of the real people and events surrounding the trial and execution of Mary Ann Cotton in 1873. I studied newspapers – this trial became a national sensation reported in lurid terms assuming her guilt well before the actual trial, and contemporary documents such as court and police reports. Court reports and newspapers involved verbatim accounts where you can hear not just what people say but how they say it – great for a novelist. (Charles Dickens – alive and working in these same years - as a young man was a trained court shorthand writer which is where he must have honed his ear for intricacies of accent and indiosyncracies of speech….)

I actually started to research and write this novel assuming the basic rightness of the myth.
However my perspective in it changed as I read and thought about how Mary Ann’s first solicitors gave her very bad advice, assumed her guilt, neglected her proper defence and in effect robbed her of money; I eventually realised that modern rules on forensic medicine would have blown out the forensic evidence presented here as ‘proof’ of her guilt - one point Viscera were dug up out of the bare earth where they had been buried to be re-examined; and hiw a big gun in the form of barrister Sir Charles Russell made to long journey North to mount the prosecution of this bold, pretty woman, this outsider in a very tight old-fashioned village where deaths were common from the diseases of poverty including the scourge of typhoid. (Finally, a year after these events, after much discussion, a new drain was installed at the bottom of Johnson Terrace in West Auckland …)

Interestingly in1889, seventeen years after this case, Sir Charles Russell, Mary Ann’s prosecutor, defended the middle class Florence Maybrick against a charge of poisoning her husband with arsenic. Amongst other legal strategies he touched on some of the arguments employed by Mr Campbell Foster in the Mary Ann Cotton case. He seemed to be on the verge of securing an acquittal when Maybrick destroyed her own case by making a statement admitting a degree of culpability. Unlike Mary Ann, Maybrick was not hanged. She served fifteen years in prison and lived to an old age in the United States. Russell later became an MP, then Attorney General in Gladstone’s ministries of 1886 and 1892, ending up as Lord Chief Justice of England in 1894.

The case has had its historians. Arthur Appleton, in his book, Mary Ann Cotton concluded that Mary Ann probably killed 14 or 15 people. Tony Whitehead, whose well documented account Mary Ann Cotton, Dead but not Forgotten is presented in rigorous style but in the end – in my view, unable to deny the power of the myth - he almost drifts to the conclusion that Mary Ann was probably guilty in three cases.

So, I changed my mind. As I read and thought about Mary Ann it dawned on me that by modern standards of justice this case was at least unproven. The novel makes the case that Mary Ann was probably not guilty but rather was the victim of rising hysteria in the region and in the country, creating a powerful and enduring myth which put on the cloak of truth.

I said at the beginning here something about how fiction can give the writer some hold on the feeling around a case, can be a window on the truth of complex events. I have to say that one fiction which kept jumping into my mind during the research and the writing of A Woman Scorned l was Arthur Miller’s play Witches of Salem.

I suppose all this all that Mary Ann is indeed Gone But Not Forgotten...

Sunday 12 February 2012

Francine on a Bicycle

New novel: Work in Progress

Francine on a Bicycle

... I wedge the suitcase on my bicycle and walk it down to the harbour. Madame Griche is there outside the laundress’s door, now closed and locked. She has her heavy bicycle with her, which sports baskets back and front, not so uncommon these days.

She smiles slightly when she sees me. Then she makes me empty my case and share the contents between her baskets and mine. ‘No point in letting them into our secret, Francine!’ she says, wrapping the books and paper in an oiled cloth and puts them at the bottom of her back basket. We throw the case itself into the broad river.

Then we make our way out of the town, side by side on our bicycles, keeping to the narrow lanes away from the coast where the soldiers lurk. They are so afraid of the sea and what might emerge from its pulsing waters. After all there have been secret landings here. ‘The sea is our friend,’ says Madame Griche. ‘Now we know the Americans are firm for the endgame alongside the poor old English they may turn up anywhere.’

As we ride along she explains to me that in the beginning everyone thought the Boches would march straight into England, just as they'd marched straight through France, so why should we have any faith in the English? She goes on: ‘Love them or hate them, though the English do hang on. They hang on, Francine! Because of them, and perhaps more importantly, the Americans, France will be returned to the French. To us!’ Even thrusting her big legs down on the heavy pedals of her bicycle Madame Griche remains every inch the teacher. ...

Saturday 11 February 2012

Jonathan Ocean Swimming

(New novel: work in progress...)

Jonathon Tye had been sleeping very well at the Maison Bleu. The air was good - balmy but still fresh with salt on the breeze. He had always loved swimming in the ocean and this week he'd managed a several dips in the warm waters of the Mediterranean with the boy Joe Conroy, who was very easy company.

He thought of the time he swam too far out to sea at Scarborough, leaving his mother and sisters shivering behind their canvas windbreaks, raked by the chilly breezes bouncing off the North Sea. That was when he discovered how much he liked sea swimming. In the salt water he felt strong, light and graceful - completely unlike his earthbound, lumbering, oversized self. There in the cold North Sea he had relished his chilly freedom, scything his muscular arms to force his body through the water, now and then turning onto his back to rest his lungs and steady his breath before, gulping air, he turned again to set off again for the horizon. Here the Mediterranean was soft as milk, a different kettle of fish from the North Sea. But there was the same delight in striking out for the horizon.

Then he thought of his headmaster's delight when, as a young teacher he volunteered to drive the minibus to Scarborough for the Wednesday swimming trips: one option on the games afternoons. Although this group were mainly shirkers and dropouts they were no bother. When he parked the mini-bus on the sea-front half of them would vanish, sliding off to smoke or drink, invading of the fairground with infantile glee. They would turn up again at the appointed time and pile into the mini-bus, filling it with the smell of fish and chips and half-digested beer. He would laugh at their groans when he opened all the windows wide and drove fast to get rid of the stench.

Jonathan’s mind moved on now to Joe Conroy and his rather different take on a trip to the seaside. The boy had an intuitive grasp on the right word in the right place and the courage to say what he felt. And he had such experiences, such insights to communicate. Jonathan sensed that there was power there, like a ticking bomb.

Friday 10 February 2012

Glynn's Radio Essay On Charles Dickens

After the February programme on Bishop FM listeners were very interested in historian Glynn Wales’ segment which placed Charles Dickens in the context of Victorian England. He researched this especially for the February Edition of The Writing Game on Bishop FM where we celebrated the bicentenary of the genuius that is Charled Dickens. The podcast (on this page) and iTunes edition of this programme is avaiable if you wish to hear Glynn’s talk and also Peter's wonderful reading of the extracts from Nicholas Nickleby. Click on The Writing Game to read the full text

Recording for Rachel

Yesterday Avril and I made our way to a studio at the Forum, Darlington to record for Rachel Cohcrane, driving force behind Listen Up North Rachel Cochrane’s audio website, and eclectic mix of spoken word entertainment. At Listen Up North she says the present @ audiodrama, poetry, short stories and extracts from novels and interviews drawn from that truly inspirational place that is the North East of England (although sometimes the boundaries have been somewhat extended!)’ You can listen to their content online or by downloading our audio files so you can listen at your convenience.

Avril and I were there to read for Listen Up northfrom our current ebooks her When You Hear The Birds Sing and my Paulie’s Web. I admire Rachel for her support for all kinds of writers – radio playwrights, short story writers, poets and novelists. As you will see from her website she has a very open policy and all serous writers can apply for inclusion.

When you write a novel and live with it for more than a year the characters you create live with you alongside you. You end up hearing their voices. So yesterday. reading from Paulie’s Web for Rachel I heard the voices again of Paulie and her friends.

This novel emerged from my experience between 1991 and 2002 as writer in residence in a woman’s prison. It took me ten years to digest the extremities of my experience in prison and write my novel as true fiction in a way that pays tribute to the many women I met while working there. If, by the by, it goes some way to cracking the absurd stereotypes of women in prison it will be an extra delight. While there are dark passages here I make no apologies for the ultimately optimistic tone of this story which is a true reflection of the humour, stoicism and kindness that I was witness to in my prison experience.

The story goes like this: Paulie Smith, rebel, ex-teacher and emerging writer comes out of prison after six years, her conviction overturned. As she moves around in the next few days, struggling to readjust to the scary realities of life ‘on the out’, she reflects on her life in prison. She focuses particularly on her first few weeks inside, alongside the four very different women whom she first met in the white van on their way to their first remand prison.

Paulie’s thoughts move from Queenie, the old bag- lady who sees giants and angels, to Maritza who has disguised her pain with an ultra-conventional life, to Lilah, the spoiled apple of her mother’s eye, to the tragedy of Christine - the one with the real scars.

And then there is Paulie herself, who ended up in prison through no fault of her own. Their unique stories, past and present, mingle as Paulie, free now, goes looking for these unique women who have now been ‘on the out’ for some years and are, Paulie hopes, remaking their lives.

It was a pleasure to be reminded of all this and to read from this novel for Rachel and I really look forward to hearing it on the Listen Up North website. wx

Out of a Crisis comes a Better Solution!

Some of you have noticed that my http://www.wendyrobertson.com/ site has very peculiarly and completely crashed. A disaster! Visual chaos! I hope it will be retrieved soon. It will be redeveloped by someone who has the skills (not me!). I like to be independent about my computer stuff but to do that task is quite beyond my skills.

Anyway I decided I’d take the opportunity to create a second blog. This new one would focus on the reading of books, rather than - as does LIve Twice Tasted - writing, the work in progress, the creative process of writing and, of course, my own novels.

This new blog http://www.wendysloveaffairwithbooks.com/ will reflect this other side of my literary obsession - the whole world of books. (This world did exist on Life Twice Tasted but, I have felt for a time that the focus on reading needs its own space.)

So Wendy’s Love Affair With Books (link there on the sidebar) will feature stories of important books in my life, reviews and commentary on the current books I am reading as well as books that are out these in the contemporary world. I will also ask certain people to be guest reviewers on this blog and perhaps comment on the role of books in their own lives. We will feature prizewinning books and perhaps books that should have won prizes. The Kindle revolution will definitely be part of this mix. I know I am not the only devoted reader who has included the Kindle option as part of my reading life.

So – see you here and see you there! I hope you will find these complementary blogs fun to read - just as I
love writing them
. wx

Monday 6 February 2012

The Wind from the Sierra

In the twilight of the ward

the old girl pulls me to her side

and whispers in the tight shell of my ear

Her voice - dancing on a roaring tide -

surfs sixty years of life with West Coast ease

I let down my hair, she says, in the Spanish War -

after the lice, the blood, the mucus-mud

of that first Conflagration women

cut their hair: all tight bobs and snaky curls

Not me. I treasured my locks. Daytime

on the ward I wore them tightly bound,

moulded to my head, like a Roman helmet

At night I brushed them out, tress by golden tress -

a miserly Rapunzel alone in my room.

Of course, since the Spanish prelude

we’ve had our own wars – not so much

the innocence of face to face

but cities raped, skies riven, fire storms:

nothing like the cloth-capped anarchy

the fluttering posters pitted innocently

against the tyranny of flying steel

And now the young pay world-rates for

learned argument for empty justification

- those comfort-men in suits -

as hearts are ripped out of men and cities

and the price of planes, hidden bombs and gas

is paid in flesh and pain

administered by medallioned clerks.

In the twilight of the ward

the voice in my ear is now a fading tide

I smell salt and iodine, Dettol and rotting fish.

My hair fell loose in Spain, she murmurs

And lifted in the warm wind of the Sierra.


NB I found this poem (written 1996 ) when I was sorting files on my hard disk.

I think I must have written it while I was researching my novel which begins in the Spanish Civil War My Dark-eyed Girl

Saturday 4 February 2012

What the Dickens in the North!

Posted on February 3, 2012 by Wendy

clip_image001Writing Game February 2012-01-29

Broadcast on Sunday February 5th at Noon

And afterwards available from Bishop FM


To download as a podcast

And as a free download on iTunes under ‘Literature’

This month on the Writing Game we are celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens in 1812 Two Hundred Years ago.

In the programme Writing Gamer, historian Glynn Wales will put this great novelist in the context of his political and social times . His novels reflect the social and political life of Charles Dickens, whose vast creative energy led him to chronicle his time using his very personal insights into the great themes of the day – justice crime, punishment, politics, economics – and into the idiosyncrasies of personality and the comedy and tragedy bedded into individual lives. As Glyn concludes these issues resonate right down to the present day

Here in South Durham we have a special interest in Charles Dickens because events in our own area inspired what Peter Ackroydyd, in his biography describes as “perhaps the funniest novel in the English language.– Nicholas Nickelby.” Yet despite its distinctive and characteristic comic element the inspiration for Nicholas Nickleby was an essentially tragic.

Dickens – interested in social and educational reform – as we will hear from Glynn Wales later in the programme – had heard of the scandal of what were known as the Yorkshire Schools – boarding Academies within travelling distance of Greta Bridge – the north Yorkshire staging post of the London coach.

The Bowes Academy – which is at the centre of the first drama in this novel – was one of several schools right across the district that were advertised in city newspapers such as the London Times. The one from Nicholas Nickelby which Peter Laurie reads for us on the programme mentions ‘no vacations’ – which is very chilling. These cheap boarding schools were used by the burgeoning Middle Classes to hide away and forget unwanted children – often illegitimate.

At the age of 26 in January 1838 – always up for a virtuous adventure – Dickens and his illustrator Hablot Brown traveled North under assumed names and stayed at the King’s Head, Barnard Castle to get the facts -min true journalistic fashion

There, by pretending they had a child to board, they encounter William Shaw, headmaster of Bowes Academy, in whose school – according to a recent court-case – several boys had gone blind from mistreatment and neglect.

In a cemetery in the area Dickens found the graves of children from these schools, one of which inspired Dickens to create the character of Smike, who is a symbol of all the suffering children in these schools. The relationship between Smile and Nicholas Nickleby is – for me – the centre of this remarkable novel, knitting together as they do a whole kaleidoscope of adventures and encounters which are the comic and tragic essence of this great novel.

I read this and many other Dickens novels when I was young and have good – if fading – memories – of Nicholas Nickleby, To refresh these fading memories I re-read it for The Writing Game this time on my Kindle, eBook reader. And I loved it.

I found that Reading it on the Kindle an advantage in that It made me concentrate on the language on each page and relish the prose for its forensic detail, for Dickens’ marvellous sense of place; for his wonderful rolling Victorian dialogue, for his delight in the ironies of personality and character ; for his anger for the innocents.

It’s true that to read – or re-read – Dickens you have to have patience; you can’t race through the novel as though it were a modern thriller, you might need to change the rhythm of your reading but it is so much worth it. It is like a good meal with several delicious courses:

If you give yourself time and you will relish it even more.

The programme features historian Glynn Wales and Peter Laurie – known for his drama productions and St Johns School – reads extracts from Nicholas Nickleby in an appropriately thrilling fashion.

Broadcast on Sunday February 5th at Noon and afterwards available from

www.bishopfm.com/ to download as a podcast

And as a free download on iTunes under ‘Literature’


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