Monday 31 August 2015

The Granduate: On a Very Special Relationship

Friends Now 

The girl on the couch, unwell
Are you expecting? I say.

The anticipated storm of temper

A slight smile from him. 
At least,  he says, I'll see him grow  
in my lifetime 

Through the years he drove the boy
to and fro from school, putting him
through his paces. 

He watched the boy catch the egg,
kick  a  rugby ball through high posts,
wield a mean cricket bat on the field. 

He saw the boy off in his father's car
laden with high hopes, books,
and essential technology. 

He imagines the boy -white-coated - 
working with 
phenomenally powerful magnets. 

And now, today, he sees him
in cap and gown, 
beard trimmed, hair clipped. 

The boy throws his cap into the sky
and has  very special smile
for his grandfather. 

July 2015

Friday 21 August 2015

'A Rare Breed.'. The significance of reviews.

Newspaper reviews can be as rare as hen's teeth, so it's great to look back at my newspaper reviews and hope that my new novel The Pathfinder will find such appreciative readers 

Would you like to review it? In the press or on Amazon?

Here's a sample of reviews of my writing: 


‘A terrific read. A world on the cusp of change and we experience intimately.’ Historical Novels Review.

 ‘A powerful writer.’    Mail on Sunday.

 ‘Wonderful…Robertson deftly intertwines two time periods, slowly absorbing one into the other through the remarkably likeable protagonist.’   Booklist USA.

‘A great storyteller… she weaves another tale with ideas that still resonate when the story’s over.’ Northern Echo.

‘Wendy Robertson is a rare breed – a writer with an exquisite gift for creating vivid, relateable characters.’ Scottish Daily Record.

Note:: In The Pathfinder I have taken the available material and archaeological history of late fourth century Britain and addressed the powerful pre-Arthurian myths of Macsen Wledig and the British princess Elen. My intention is to weave a story that has hope, truth and justice at its heart.’  W.

Here's an extract which tells how and why Elen is a Pathfinder

[..] Elen:  You should understand that as well as being born and trained as Seers, members of my family have always been pathfinders – my father, Eddu, his father, Caradoc, and the grandfathers and grandmothers before him, going back seventeen generations. I learned the names of these ancients by heart - first at my father’s knee and later at the Seer School in the Green Isle across the water. They were famous across all the island of Britain.
It was they who found the paths that criss-cross this island and the lands across the sea. I have learned that a thousand generations ago the pathways were slight, mere shadows in the grass, reaching out and up to the horizon. As time went by our people started to mark them properly with stones, to raise them with the trunks of fallen trees, and to line them with small stones and pebbles. Then we planted thorn hedges to stop people and animals – tame or wild - destroying our road. Along the way, we would build small temples in stone and wood to shelter the rituals and protect the tributes to the gods that blessed the track and kept clear the way to the next high spot.
I have to say that in these times the pathways are all made. There seem to be no more for me to find. And yet, because of my family heritage, I am still known as a pathfinder.  [...] 
Read The Pathfinder  

Saturday 15 August 2015

Chocolate Truffles & Your Friend E. A Writer’s Commentary.

The Occasion

Last night we braved buckets of rain and long traffic hold-ups to cross county lines and get to the Howick launch of writer Anne Ousby’s new novel Your Friend E.

The charming Howick Village Hall was crowded with Anne’s friends and fans and furnished with wine, an exquisite buffet and specially made chocolate truffles. (Truffles play a somewhat menacing role in the novel – read the novel to discover why.)

And so the scene was set for an excellent book launch,

The Author

Buy Anne's Book 
Anne, whose plays have been performed across the North and whose short stories have been broadcast on the BBC, has now turned her hand to writing novels to some effect, having published four novels since 2010. She has moved from the stern beauty of her Northumberland home to the dusty heat of contemporary South Africa to set three of the novels - most recently Your Friend E.

Her daughter Catherine, who was at the launch last night, (very proud of her mum) has lived with her own family in South Africa for eighteen years and Anne, who visits her daughter frequently, has become fascinated with that country,

Your Friend E, like Anne’s other novels, demonstrates her detailed interest in this ever-changing country: she is clearly inspired by her experiences there and brings an outsider’s eye to that complex environment. As I said to Catherine at the launch, being the stranger in a community is a good position for a writer. She takes nothing for granted and notices what may be overlooked by an insider’s eye.

The Story

Evie, the central character and the narrator of this psychological novel, is doubly obsessed.   She is experiencing the trial and sentencing of one murderer and struggling with the dark memory of another. She is walking into a complete breakdown before our eyes, her life and identity crumbling beneath her. Her own crucial family narrative, past and present, entwines itself around her present perspectives on the two acts of murder. Her reliability as a narrator fluctuates in the reader’s mind compelling us to drive on right to the end of the novel.

The Place

And always – as in Anne’s novel, Patterson’s Curse - the South African landscape with its exotic flora and fauna plays a fundamental role in Your Friend E. This underpins and authenticates the universal realities of the contemporary world, where fundamentals like prejudice, sibling rivalry and domestic violence are a commonplace.

The Writing

There was some discussion at the launch as to whether it is possible or desirable to have an unsympathetic main character. The implication was that Evie with her obsession and vengeful determination is an unsympathetic character.

Well, I didn’t find Evie the least bit unsympathetic. I empathised with her in her stressful family situation and I sympathised with her desire for resolution, even revenge. The writing helps this by skilfully holding the balance between the past and the present. And the clarity and non-judgemental style here allows us as readers to tolerate the destructiveness of Evie's despairing emotions as she pursues her vengeful quest. It encourages us to root for Evie’s survival and hope for her return to some kind of normality.  For me Evie is not at all an unsympathetic character.

And Anne Ousby treats us to a perfect surprise at the end - an end which is another universal beginning,

Highly recommended.

Writer’s Note

This is a short novel – sometimes now called a novella – very popular these days. However it is perfectly structured to tell this whole story and has the weight and significance of a much longer novel. It strikes me also that it would make a very good film. Any film makers out there?

Monday 10 August 2015

Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border – a Writer’s Commentary

Bedtime Story
With my tendency towards insomnia I get to hear a lot of fragments of broadcast-radio in the early hours. Recently I heard an episode and a half of Sarah Hall’s novel The Wolf Border.  I was very intrigued with the fragment of story so I checked out the novel and the writer.
Great cover. Imagine the author name
and the wolf silhouette on  the hill
picked out in gold and the title set against
green. planting.Sumptuous.. 

The following day my high-octane reader-friend Gillian told me she had just read a superb novel – original and absorbing. The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. (I had been complaining that there is so little originality on modern fiction.)

So I ordered the novel on-line and it arrived yesterday. And now I have spent a delicious day and a half reading and enjoying it.

Very finely and closely written, The Wolf Border is about Rachel, a world authority on wolves - currently working with wolves in Idaho - who is drawn back to her home territory of Cumbria in Britain to work for an enigmatic millionaire earl. He engages Rachel to head a project aiming to re-introduce wolves on his wild land in the Lake District.

So far, so ecologically trendy.

The Story
But the story is so much more than that. More ambitious. More significant. The action takes place over a two year period – in which time the prose floods us with closely observed details of the landscape, seasons, smells, sounds and skies of Cumbria.

But this is no rendering of a country idyll. The action is set against the political background of Scotland’s ‘Yes’ vote for Independence and of the subtle operation of power in British politics. At the heart of the novel are the wolves and the complex arguments for their positive role in the hierarchy of predators.

The collection of people Sarah Hall brings into the story is varied and authentic, adding depth and ambiguity of the characterisation. More than this, the narrative unfolds steadily, arousing the reader’s curiosity, compelling her to read on and on through this long novel. (433 pages.).It is cleverly written and very hard to put down.

One central strand of the story as it develops is the way in which we witness the evolution of Rachel’s emotional identity, as, among other elements - the birth of her son filters through the routines and habits of the pair of wolves as they settle in the prepared land and go through the rituals and processes of attachment involved in their own breeding process.

The Writing
In the hands of a less gifted writer all this barrage of information would be almost unreadable -didactic and very heavy going.
One key to Sarah Hall’s skill in avoiding this problem is that she tells the whole story through Rachel’s eyes, using the third person voice but completely from Rachel’s point of view. We are very close in. We are sharing Rachel’s experience. This immediacy is enhanced by the fact that story is written almost completely in the present tense - very hard to pull off in such a long novel. Sarah Hall manages it.

This is because the originality, delicacy and immediacy of the prose clarifies the complex subject matter, making it easy to read, raising questions in the reader’s mind and sweeping her forward through the action.
The overt transparency is enhanced by her decision not to use punctuation marks for speech. This has been done before but it works very well indeed in this novel.

And she avoids the strong structural element of chapters and titles. The novel is split into substantial parts and these parts are very simply separated by white space. This adds to the flow and the unity of the whole novel.

The Wolf Border shouldn’t be an easy read, but it is.

The Book
Like many of us writers and readers as much as a third my reading is on Kindle, which is functional, useful and fast. 

But there is no denying the extra dimension of literary and reading pleasure in reading a tactile, well designed book such as this. My own interest in book design has been enhanced lately since – in my modern role of artisan writer, - I have been designing and producing my own books.

Faber & Faber are to be congratulated on the design qualities of The Wolf Border which reflect the assiduous care of Sarah Hall in writing the book. The cover is brilliantly designed, a kind of metaphor for the novel’s themes and style. It has a simple clear typeface and is printed on substantial paper and has gorgeous green endpapers.

A wonderfully original novel The Wolf Border certainly earns a permanent place on my book shelves. Highly recommended to those who love good books. original stories and excellent writing.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Elen Walks on Fire: Excerpt from The Pathfinder

So now my novel The Pathfinder

is out there

strutting her stuff

(If you are inspired to read THE PATHFINDER you can obtain it HERE.

I hope you are entertained and enjoy it. Let me know.)

About the story:

The Pathfinder centres on the lives my heroine Elen, her song-smith brother Lleu and their father Eddu a King of West Britain.  

In 383 AD, myth and history tells us of a truly great love story that blossoms between Magnus Maximus, the Roman leader in Britain - afterwards for five years Roman Emperor - and Elen, daughter of a powerful British king in the place we now call Wales. Magnus is fascinated by Elen, a gifted Seer, healer and ‘pathfinder’ whose talented ancestors made straight roads in Britain long before the Romans.

As the Roman Empire begins to crumble, the love and marriage between Elen and Magnus forge a link between the sophisticated creative and trading Celtic culture (with its esoteric rites and rituals) and the pragmatic military culture of Rome, now beginning to impose Christianity on the known world.

But while the story contains political and historical themes it is the  essentially personal story of Elen and Magnus Maximus (called Macsen Wledig in the Welsh histories), Lleu, Elen's brother and Quintanius Sixtus, Macsen’s friend.

And there are touches of Druidic magic...

Obtain Book

Here is an extract from the story, where Elen walks on fire at the Aclet Midsummer revels the day after she has met the Roman commander by a water pool.

Excerpt from Chapter 14 Walking on Fire

[…] Now Lleu’s voice rises in the air. His is not a prayer but a story. He declaims a tale about the ancient power of fire that first came to our ancestors from Lugh the sun God. 
           His tone deepens as he tells of great forces raised by Seers to defend our West Britain from the invaders. He names heroes who fought and seemed to win, then were defeated and slain in their thousands. He names great women who defied the enemy and threatened them with spells and bolts of fire spouting from their fingers. Then he tells how these heroic men and women of the highest council of the wise in the British West - – who in their honeycomb brains held ten thousand years of knowledge of the earth, the sky and everything in between; who were the nestlings of the Gods; who were the most significant of our people – all these great ones who were driven into the sea and slaughtered in their thousands.
         Now, here on Aclet field, you can hear a feather land. You can sense all the people there around the fire-pit straining not to look at the visitors or the bright Roman standard floating above their heads. They are tense, waiting.
        ‘But, wait! Listen to me,’ Lleu goes on, ‘that fire still flickers around us even today. We are still here. And in time the British people will rise again and light their torches to drive the invader from their lands for all time.’
         Even through my meditation I see that what Lleu is saying is forbidden: pure treason against Caesar’s men.  My blood chills. I swear that if Lleu turned to the crowd this minute they would take up the fight and demolish the invaders even here in their midst.
       But Lleu’s voice fades on the air and now an eerie silence fills it. My grandfather and uncle’s faces are stern and Kynan and Gydyan have their hands on the hilt of their swords. The soldier with the standard senses something, even though he cannot understand Lleu’s words. His thick muscled arm tenses as he grasps his standard more tightly. But the three of them, the Commander, the General and the Procurator are standing easy, their faces neutral.
        The moment passes.
        ‘But now in our day!’ Lleu cries on, ‘the flame that will achieve this miracle is the flame of love, the warmth of peoples who see the eternal human spirit in each other’s face and wish the other no harm.’
         Kynan and Gydyan relax and fold their arms across their broad chests again, to enjoy the show. The soldier’s grasp on the standard loosens.
         ‘And now listen to me!’ I jump into the silence. ‘My brother Lleu and I will walk the fire to show to you…’ 
         I scan the crowd, my glance stopping very briefly on the General and passing on ‘…to show you that we can make this miracle with our own human spirit and the help of the gods, sustained by our ancient power over fire and water, over the earth all around and the sky above and everything in between. In this action we show we are the British people and this we always will be. We are still here.’
        At last the people in the crowd send up loud cheers and out of the corner of my eye I see the General smile slightly and say something to the man beside him, his Procurator.
Lleu raises his hand. I close my eyes and think of the statue of Olwen, of Arianrhod in the centre of the pool in my father’s house. Cool holy water.  This is what I have been taught.           Then I raise my hand and, side by side, Lleu and I begin, steady step by steady step, to walk on fire. We do not hurry.  The crowd breaks into great applause as finally we leap back onto the grass at the far end. The old priest, still standing there at the end of the fire pit, waves his staff across us and sings a blessing. I am filled with energy and delight and smile broadly as I wave at the great circle of people standing here. Lleu holds up his arms in a victory salute. The young stick fighters beat their sticks against each other making a rattling rhythm. A pipes-man squeezes out a few notes. Another man makes his elk horn pipe squeal.
         Lleu smiles and shushes the crowd. ‘Would any here like to walk the fire as do my sister and I?’ He grins broadly at the chorus of groans.
         The General’s Procurator shakes his head and calls out in a gargled version of our own language. ‘Only a fool would do such a thing, sir. My master here says that you and your sister do indeed have a gift with fire.’ He pauses. ‘Although he and I, of course, would question your history. […] ’

(If you are inspired to read the novel you can obtain it HERE.

I hope you are entertained and enjoy it. Let me know.)

Saturday 1 August 2015

Historical Research, The Pathfinder, and Celtic Britain

The notion of ‘The Historical Novel’ encompasses a very broad field, from the lightest historical romance, through weapon-laden, bloke-ish historical battle-fests, through stately home flowery historical flourishes, through be-whiskered historical detective crime, through clunking, information-heavy didactic dissertations on some historical period thinly veiled in story.

And now and then there will be a psychological literary time-set masterpiece which is all novel, with history printed naturally through it with Blackpool through rock. (See Pat Barker and Hilary Mantel)
On Amazon in Kindle and in Paperback 

Researching and writing historical novels induces the recognition in the mind of the writer and the reader of universal issues that relate to any and every age: love, hate, revenge, war, ambition, dominance and submission at the personal and the political level, in addition to the socio-pathic moral certainty of those who think they know best for those around them and the world.

The universality of these themes means that we, in our modern world, can enjoy a good novel with great characters set in any other time than their own.

Occasionally I wonder about the nature of my own storytelling in this mixed bag. Many of my novels, labelled ‘historical’, are set across the period from the late 19th Century to the 1960s and 1970s. Some even creep into the 1990s to a period which now seems very historical – of the past.

Now I have moved further back in history. In researching and writing my latest novel The Pathfinder – which is based in and around the crumbling of the Roman Empire in Britain and Europe – I kept thinking how similar were the attitudes and understandings of the occupiers (scions of the Roman Empire) to the Germans in WW2 in their occupation of Europe, with their aim of the Thousand-Year Reich, modelled on the Roman Empire. The German ambition came to an end very soon. But it was similar to the Romans with its principles of control, exploitation, domination and imposition of German values on what they saw as inferior peoples.

The Roman occupation of Britain pre-echoed these principles. The Roman writer Tacitus wrote. "On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames.’

This account is echoed in Celtic myth in stories of the destruction of thousands of the priestly caste now called the Druids, driving them into the sea at Anglesey in their thousands. Tacitus’s account documents the superstitious fear the Romans had of the indigenous British with their strong organic religious identity led by religious elite with deep historical and natural scientific acumen which informed all aspects of life in Britain.

 This elite sect had sustained its power through generations with an education system for it gifted young men and woman that ensured that its values and attitudes survived through time. In this way boys and girls were bred and educated for leadership. So the occupiers’ decision to destroy this leading population had its own logic.

I was reminded again of researching my novel Long Journey Home where I found accounts of the occupying Japanese drove thousands of Chinese (the clever leading elite of Singapore) off Changi beach.

In The Pathfinder I have avoided referring to the priestly Brirish caste as Druids. For me this term has too many associations with the 19th century romanticisation of all things Celtic. A worryingly artificial construct.

In my novel I refer to my heroine Elen, her song-smith brother Lleu and their father Eddu as Seers. Similarly, as Elen like her father is an hereditary pathfinder in the ancient British trading tradition, I researched the long straight paths of pre-Roman Britain. In doing so I came across the extensive literature about Ley Lines. Again, sticking to my intention to stay within the 384 AD mindset, I have avoided using this term.

Writers of the best historical novels use historical research to feel their way into what it truly was to live in a particular time in a particular place. What emerges from their storytelling is first, that readers may enjoy and relish a well-told, sometimes quite complex, story; second, that the readers may access universal truths that hold true in any time zone and might apply to their own lives.

I hope, in my own modest way that I am one of these. 


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