Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Christmas One and All

Here's wishing y'all a very Happy Christmas, and hoping it's free of disasters, family quarrels and Marley's Ghost.

I will be disappearing from the internet for a bit to spend time in the bosom of my family as it were, but mainly to ogle at David Tennant tomorrow night.

Thanks to all who've come by this blog this year - those who comment and those who don't - and especial thanks to all you lovely people who've come and bought copies of my book.

The good news from my editor pre Christmas was a) very good sales b) she liked book 2 (phew!) c) she liked the idea I've had for book 3. (double phew!).

I think after nine years of trying I can finally call myself an author....

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Romantic Novelist's Association Prize

I am hugely proud to be a member of the Romantic Novelist's Association, so it is with great pleasure that I direct readers of this blog to the fact that the longlist for the Romantic Novel of the Year has just been announced on the RNA website at:

I'm pleased to see a few of my writing chums on there, including Kate Lace who also doubles as the RNA's very fine and dynamic Chairperson.

If you like romantic fiction, go and take a look. You'll be in for a treat or two...

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pastures New Online Launch Party

Finally, finally. I have this sorted.

I have now got my online launch party up and running at :

All readers of this blog and their friends are very very welcome to attend.

Thanks to Political Umpire's very clever suggestion I am investigating the possibility of linking my radio interviews on the blog, but not sure if I can.

You can listen again on Radio Cambridge to Friday's edition of Cambridge Calling. I was on just after 9.30am.

Today I did Radio Cumbria and Radio Suffolk prerecorded. The Radio Suffolk one went out this afternoon, but not sure about the other. Will track down details and post here later.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Stop press!

For anyone remotely interested, I am going to be interviewed on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Cambridge Calling, 95.7 FM and 96FM, tomorrow morning around 9.30am. They originally asked me to be on at 9am. but I figured they wouldn't want to interview me on my mobile in the school playground...

I am also doing Radio Cumbria on Monday morning, around 11 I think.

An Embuggeration.

As most people will have read by now, Terry Pratchett has just revealed that he is suffering form early onset Alzheimer's.

I am a huge fan of TP who along with Margaret Atwood (for different reasons) is my favourite living author, so I was really dismayed to hear this. He seems tragically young to be afflicted by this vile disease, but in true TP style points out he isn't dead yet, and is planning several more books while he still can. I wish him the opportunity to write many more as Chrimbo in my household won't be the same without a Pratchett Tome being passed round the family. In fact on Spouse's side we're all such fans that more then one usually gets bought.

I haven't got much time to do a lengthy discourse, but I fell in love with Terry Pratchett one holiday years ago. A friend was reading Reaper Man and sat giggling by the poolside. When he'd finished, he passed it onto Spouse who was also soon roaring with laughter. So I grabbed it after him, and was completely hooked. Reaper Man remains one of my favourite Pratchetts. It tells the story of how Death, who always speaks in capital letters and though affected by humans never quite understands them, gets bored of collecting souls, and decides to take a holiday. He goes off to work on a farm, where no one can cope with the fact that they are looking at a skeleton, so they just think he is a skinny farm hand (except of course for children who aren't so daft). In the meantime all the undead, the zombies, the vampires etc come back to life, and as Death is also responsible for animals, each animal gets its own Death, in his absence. After much mayhem and hilarity, Death realises he's needed and goes to put everything right. He takes on all the animals again, apart from rats, who get to keep their death, complete with his little black cloak and scythe. The Death of Rats squeaks at his victims in capital letters.

From there I went back and read Pratchett's earlier books like The Colour of Magic, where Rincewind the cowardly wizard pursued round the Discworld (Pratchett's insane world - which is a flat disc balanced on four elephants who stand on top of a giant turtle swimming through space. Believe me, it makes perfect sense when you read it), and Witches Abroad (another favourite) where I encountered the wonderful creations that are Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg for the first time. One glorious brilliant thing about Terry Pratchett is that he gets women in a way I have never seen another male novelist do. There's a line in Monstrous Regiment about ironing which is so true I really couldn't believe it had been written by a man.

Another thing about him, that many people in the literary world at least, seem to miss is that he isn't just writing comic fantasy novels, but he is holding up a mirror to our world in every story he writes. So in Moving Pictures he satirises Hollywood, in The Word, it's the press who come in for a bashing and in Monstrous Regiment it is war and armies (but not, I think solidiers who get a sympathetic hearing). He is always on the side of the common man against overbearing authority, for colour and life and imagination against greyness and dullness, and common sense and decency against wrongheadedness and cruelty.

I haven't read a single book of his that hasn't made me roar with laughter and want to WRITE LIKE THAT. I hope he has the opportunity to write many more. And above all I hope he keeps his sense of humour and courage through the trials that are to come. Somehow, I think he will.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Pasytures New

I have been feeling a bit glum this week despite the excitement of the book launch, as there are a couple of things that are getting under my skin at the moment, neither of which I can do anything about.

Yesterday my good humour was restored by a conversation with the children on the way home. I had just been to the Post Office to pick up a parcel that hadn't been delivered last week. In it was a copy of Closer Magazine, where woohoo! I love my publishers! - Pastures New as featured as one of their books of the month.

Ooh Mummy, does that mean you're famous, said no 2.

Nooo, but it's still nice.

Mummy's famous, Mummy's famous, chorussed no 4 and then demonstrated her new found reading skills by reading the blurb out to me. It was only afterwards I realised the book underneath mine is called Call Girl, about a prostitute...

Can I read it? (PN not CG) demanded no 2.

I don't think it's quite suitable, I said. I don't go for too much sex in my stuff (far too scared of winning the Bad Sex Awards, see http://womanwhotalkedtoomuch.blogspot/2007/11/bad-sex-in-fiction-awards-2007.html for Marie Philip's brilliant take on this year's winner to see why. That and the worry of my mother reading it.) however I'm all in favour as a writing friend of mine puts it of bad sex IN fiction, which is a lot easier to write. So I do have a thread running through the story of Saffron's search for her lost libido, which takes her among other places to a sex shop, an attempt to dress in exciting lingerie without her seven year old noticing (based - ahem - on a similar true life experience) , and eventually to poledancing lessons (not at all based on true life), which probably isn't quite what a nine year old should be reading.

That's not fair, said No 2 crossly. You're my mum. I've GOT to read it.

At this point no 3 piped up with, What's Paystures New about then?

At which I collapsed in a little hysterical heap.

I think Paystures New is an excellent title for a book. Though my blogging friend Rivergirlie has suggested Pastries Nouveaux which might be even better - perhaps for the French edition.

I feel a competition coming on. Watch this space as I am dammit going to organise an online launch party, and I had one idea for a comp, but no 3's given me a better one. I shall also be stealing by lovely bloggy friend BecandCall's Root Shoot and Marry Game again and as this is a launch party for a romantic novel, I think it has to probably be around the subject of heroes. Any excuse to get pictures of Johnny Depp, David Tennant, Richard Armitage, Daniel Craig and Russell Crowe up there. I may have to expand it though as I have far too many heroes. I haven't even got started on the oldies like Sean and Clint and lovely lovely Jimmy Stewart... Sigh. Be still my beating heart.

Anyway. I will keep you posted as to what's happening and readers of this blog and anyone else who cares to join in, you are most cordially welcome.

In the meantime, if it isn't too much of a change of direction, I am working on my Auschwitz blog and will be posting it shortly I hope....

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Auschwitz/Auschwitz Birkenau

I have been promising a report back about my trip to Auschwitz for some time now - and though it probably doesn't sit fantastically well with the comparative frivolity of having a book published, I want to write this while it is still fresh in my memory. I appreciate it's not the most cheerful of subjects, so by all means, anyone out there who isn't interested, please look away. (Political Umpire, I know you will be!) It also isn't intended to be an indepth analysis of the history, so maybe a bit short on detail, but rather it is a personal reaction to what I saw there. Part of me feels it is rather arrogant to write it at all - after all what more can I add to the reams of words written about the Holocaust? But another part of me thinks remembrance is important, and so for what it's worth here is my testimony to what I saw.

We travelled to Krakow halfway through October, and arrived to freezing cold weather. It snowed on our first morning, so our trip to Auschwitz (which is an hour and a half by taxi from Krakow) was slightly bizarre, as we passed snowfilled fields juxtaposed with trees dancing in autumnal reds and golds.

Our incredibly helpful taxi driver took us to the entrance, organised our tickets and guide books and said he'd meet us in two hours.

I must confess, I walked through the gates at Auschwitz with some trepidation. As I posted before I went, Spouse and I took a trip to Buchenwald many years ago, and though we only walked around the perimeter fence, it was eerie enough to make the blood run cold. I wondered how I would feel going to the camp which has become synonomous with the Holocaust.

We were struck first by the fact that the original camp at Auschwitz (at first used to round up Polish anti facists and the aristocracy) was made up of red brick buildings, and looked more like an army camp then anything else. This is because it was originally army barracks. One of my friends remarked it wasn't how she'd imagined it from the footage you see, and this is because, the bits you associate with Auschwitz are at the secondary camp, built in the mid 40s when the first one got too small.

The place was packed, full of people on tours, going in and out of the barrack rooms, which were set up as exhibitions. With that many people you'd expect a lot of noise. But visiting Auschwitz is unlike any other tourist attraction (if indeed that's what you can call it) I've ever been to. It is a sombre, sometimes distressing business, and one feels disinclined to chat even with the closest of companions, unless in a whisper. Anything louder feels disrespectful somehow.

In one of the first rooms we came to, I spotted this on the wall, which for me expresses perfectly the reason, anyone with breath in their body and humanity in their soul, should at some point in their life make a pilgrimage, if not to Auschwitz to somewhere similar.

As readers of this blog are probably aware by now, I think history is fantastically important, and I think this quotation sums up why. Stumbling across it gave me the answer to why I was there at all, to why anyone comes to visit a place of such suffering. I am fortunate never to have lived through dangerous and cruel times, but it behoves those of us who are so lucky to bear witness and remember for future generations the cruelty inflicted by man on his fellow man.

The Holocaust is unique in the annals of human evil in that it was done in such a cold blooded calculated, way. We came across rooms where there books open listing in great detail prisoner's names, and addresses, and why they were there, and how they died. I find it incredible that anyone could ever deny the Holocaust took place, because it's all there in black and white. My German wasn't up to deciphering a lot of it but it was easy to get the gist. My good blogging friends Political Umpire and Dave Hill were discussing the David Irving business at Oxford last week, and I am sympathetic to their reasoning no one should give airspace to his obnoxious views. But actually, having been to Auschwitz, I think we should go one better then that and just laugh at them. How he can claim to be a credible historian and deny the numbers is beyond me. Because it happened. There is evidence. And what's more the state recorded what they actually did.

This of course is the most iconic image of Auschwitz. Arbeit Macht Frei - I think translates as Work makes you free, the irony being here of course, that most of the inmates of Auschwitz were literally worked to death. To the left of the entrance is a little wooden hut where a sentry apparently sat.

When people first came here, I wonder what they thought? Did they know that they were going to certain death? To begin with Iget the idea, the deaths were more arbitary then planned, and a result of cruelty and neglect. As I mentioned previously the original inhabitants of the camp were dissident Poles, but already in their treatment you can see the seeds for the order and regulation of the Final Solution.
Every single Polish prisoner was photographed and given a number. Many of those photographs were on the walls in the exhibition rooms. I don't think I have ever seen anything more haunting and terrible. The pictures are in black and white, and whether it is the way they were shot, or simply that the faces were so thin, but the thing that struck me principally were people's eyes. There were pictures of old men looking resigned, younger men looking defiant, children holding back tears. On all their faces there was a look of reproach that I cannot understand how anyone could ignore. Surely whoever took these photos must have had some sense of remorse about what they were doing? Or maybe not. Somehow somewhere in the hell that was Auschwitz, normal humanity seems to have walked away and looked on the other side.

The prisoners were housed in the barracks above. They slept in some instances in bunks, and others on straw and matting on the floor. There were roughly 400 to a building, which had poor sanitation and was freezing cold. Even in October it was cold. I dread to think how bad it must have got in the depths of winter. Disease was rife and thousands perished simply from illness and poor malnutrition,and it's easy to see why.

Here's an example of the sort of detail which makes Irving's position so laughable. Here is (I think from memory, I couldn't blow the picture up anymore) a list of the women who came to the camp, when they arrived, when they died. Each of the pictures I mentioned above had the prisoner's date of birth, arrival at the camp and date of death. When Jews were brought here, they weren't photographed, but their details were recorded meticulously. There have been (and sadly will be again) genocides in the world since the Holocaust, but the bureaucratic way it was done does I think make it chillingly unique. How could the people who worked here have squared this laborious detailing of people with the knowledge of the brutal way they were treated? I think that is the thing that shocks you over and over again at Auschwitz. What made ordinary people behave in this way? How was it that Rudolf Hoss, the camp's commander was able to work day after day sending people to their deaths and then go home to his family and drink wine with his wife (as described by Laurence Rees in his excellent TV programme and book about Auschwitz)? It does defy belief.

Here is the entrance to one of the most chilling places in the camp: the so called Death Wall. Prisoners were taken and housed in a barracks to one side, and then stripped naked before being taken out to be executed at the death wall below. Or they were hung on posts as punishment for hours on end. One of the many cruelties was using other prisoners who got better food and conditions as a result to carry out this work. What would any of us do in such a hell hole to survive? I wouldn't like to bet on nobility carrying the day. I doubt I would be that brave.

And here is part of the Death Wall itself. Reconstructed and with touching memorials to the people who died here. Despite the very sombreness and terrible nature of it all, it is possible to take heart from the fact that people haven't forgotten, and do come here to remember and mourn. Thousands died here, but individually, many of them are still remembered by family and friends, which is, I think a testament to the strength of man's spirit.

One particularly unpleasant aspect of camp life was the daily roll call which took place here in all weathers. Often prisoners were made to run round the block without shoes, on cobblestones till the cobbles ran red with blood. There were attempts at escape apparently, and the Polish resistance was active, but what could you do against an enemy which wore you down till you were physically too weak to do anything, or which dealt with insurrection by shooting every tenth prisoner?I think, not a lot is the answer.
And yet there were people who defied the regime. We visited (not pictured) the cells where Zyklon B was first adminstered (again the systematic way it was done is what shocks - you can still see the pipework going into the cells), and I came across the cell of one Maximilian Kolbe. As a catholic his name was familiar as a martyr who gave his life for another prisoner, but I hadn't realised it was here. A shrine is now set up in the cell to his memory - whatever you think of religion, it is another small step in favour of the human spirit rather then against it.

This is the original gas chamber. It didn't seem appropriate to take pictures inside so I didn't. I was quite surprised in a way how small they were. People were stripped and shaved, and told they were going to shower, and taken inside a very small room with tiny windows at the top, and then locked in while the room was pumped with gas. It took them twenty minutes to die. After that their bodies were removed and burnt in ovens next door. This was also done by other inmates. I did find it quite hard to picture that, because it was utterly horrific, but coming out we came pretty much straight to the spot where Rudolf Hoss was hanged at the end of the war, and despite being generally against capital punishment I have never felt more strongly that hanging was actually too good for him. Compared to the suffering people underwent in his camp, his end was relatively swift and painless. I didn't and still don't feel the slightest remorse thinking about that, which I find quite striking, as perhaps it illustrates how easy it is to fall into the notion of revenge. If I could feel so little compassion for the man when I have only seen what he did, how much more must those who suffered at his hands felt?

We came away from the main camp feeling very sombre, and rather sad. There is no other way to experience it I think.
"Very sad place," our taxi driver said, as he drove us the three kilometres to Auschwitz Birkenau - a cliche perhaps, but nonetheless true.

Here is a picture you will no doubt recognize for it's iconic nature. This is the main entrance to Birkenau, and was where we've all seen in war footage and photos, the people were taken off the trains and divided. Those considered weak - the elderly, nursing mothers, children under fourteen, were separated off and made to walk down the train tracks pictured below. They're gone now, but in the distance they would have seen the chimneys of the gas chambers, little realising what they were going to.

There was a steady plod plod plod as we walked around which can only have been a fraction of what it sounded like. And maybe, because I've seen it so often, or maybe because there is nothing left (the Nazis burned the camp as they left), I could picture it all too well. Thousands and thousands of people being stripped naked at the side of the tracks and then forced to walk down the track to their certain deaths. We wondered how they could have been so passive, but I don't know how much people understood what was about to happen to them. Plus they were weakened by days in the cattle trucks, and if you were there with your small children would you risk being shot? Probably not, if you didn't know that you were facing certain death.

One of the saddest things in the exhibitions, is the property that was left behind. There are displays of glasses, wooden legs, bowls, cups, toothbrushes. Most heartrending of all to me though, were the suitcases, still with people's addresses on, and the shoes. The shoes really did for me. Thousands upon thousands of pairs of shoes piled high behind glass, some together, some separated from their partner - a tragic metaphor for the families ripped apart perhaps? - many of them with the heels worn to absolutely nothing, where the owner has walked how many miles to what end? These people were fed the most preposterous lie, that they would be repatriated from the Ghettos and given a new life in the East, so they took with them everything they owned, and instead were sent to their deaths, their belongings stolen. The shoes seemed to symbolise that in a particularly tragic way.

The lucky ones - who were given a second chance - were marched off to the quarantine section of the camp, pictured to the right in the picture. Here they stayed for a year to get fully inured to the camp conditions, unless the cold and disease hadn't killed them first. The huts you see are reconstructions and I counted 25 of them roughly, and about 15 rows. About 200 people were crammed into each hut. The turnover was vast. For Irving to say that the figures of the Holocaust are wrong is arrant nonsense. If anything I wouldn't be at all surprised if the numbers were greater then currently thought. Even with the Nazi's thoroughness, the throughput of prisoners was such that they might have got it wrong

Conditions were impossibly bleak. Prisoners wore thin clothing and ate less then 1000 calories a day.

They slept in bunks in huts like this, which must have been even colder then the ones at the main camp.

Again sanitation was an issue and disease was rife. Quite frankly it was amazing anyone survived it.

Here is the remains of one of the gas chambers. A lot is often made of the obeying orders line the Nazi regime took. Here is evidence, if it were needed that the architects of the Final Solution knew that it was wrong - why else would they try to hide what they'd done?

I was moved to tears here by a plaque simply bearing the message in memory of the people who died. Such a simple phrase. So many many victims. It's shocking and sad and to our fortunate eyes almost incredible to think such evil should ever come to pass.

For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.

I started with a quote and I end with this one from the memorial at Auschwitz. For despair we should always feel about such evil acts and we should learn the lessons of history, and take heed.

Sadly, I feel the cry of despair resonates across the decades and can now be heard in Darfur, Zimbabwe, the Congo and many others.

I would like to feel that we have learnt our lesson, but as Michael Palin said who visited Auschwitz in his recent tv series (coincidentally shown the weekend I was there), I'm not terribly hopeful.

But so long as places like Auschwitz exist and remain as a memorial to the great evil that was done there, and so long as there are people who come and still remember, maybe we stand a chance of learning from the past.

As we walked alongside the tracks, the only sound we could hear was the tramping of feet. There were several school parties visiting the day we went, and many of them walked back down the track. At first, I was slightly shocked, I don't know why - it didn't seem respectful and Auschwitz is a place that demands respect. But then, I admired them in a way. A bit of me didn't want to walk on the tracks, to cover the ground where so many people suffered, and I think perhaps that is the wrong reaction. Walking in their footsteps is a form of pilgrimage perhaps, and a way to honour and remember the dead.
Visiting Auschwitz wasn't an easy thing to do. And I am not sure what words I can use to describe how I felt when I left. To say I'm glad I went seems not quite right somehow, but I think it was a good thing to do.
As I said at the beginning I think the purpose of visiting is to bear witness and to remember and pass on the knowledge to future generations. The future is the path untravelled, and if the cry of despair has any purpose, it must surely we all have to hope give us the opportunity to change that future before it happens.