Topicality, or anniversaries, can give writers real opportunities.
The events of August 1968 are the setting for Prague Spring, the new novel by Simon Mawer. He has written before about Czechoslovakia, as readers of The Glass Room will know, that telling and compelling history of a villa that is remarkably like the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. (See https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/the-glass-room-revisited/.) He shows the same confidence and attention to detail here.
The novel focuses on two diverse couples whose lives become intertwined in Prague as the political tension mounts, as Warsaw Pact troops are massing on the borders. Two students decide to hitch-hike across Europe: wealthy, Home Counties Ellie (revelling in the role of revolutionary socialist – this is 1968, remember!) and poorer, Sheffield-born James. Their relationship shifts as they find their way across Europe, depending on the opportunities or the hazards that face them. Dubček and “socialism with a human face” have been much in the news, and the toss of a Deutschmark decides that they will go to Prague to see it rather than head south to Italy for the sun.
Meanwhile, at the British Embassy in Prague, Sam Wareham (a fluent Czech- and Russian-speaking First Secretary) has met beautiful Lenka Konečková. She is the daughter of a victim of the show trials in the 1950s, and is someone anxious to enjoy the new freedoms the Prague Spring has brought. With her Sam explores this new optimistic world in ways that might well have been closed to him if he was confined to his usual round of Embassy socials and official trade union visits.
The mixture of this exciting new freedom, and the threats gathering at the frontier, generates a tension that pervades the love lives of these characters and the people they meet and the places they go. We visit a chaotic pop concert given by a ramshackle American pot-smoking pop group the Ides of March, and at classical concerts we are transported by the music of Dvořák and Brahms. We attend an exuberant political meeting; just like the hitchhiking couple, we meet a wide range of folk on the road, we come across an influential Party member, and we see shadowy people in action at the Embassy. Musicians feature quite prominently – as well the Ides of March we meet a famed German cellist, a more famous Russian conductor and his young violinist lover. There is even a cameo appearance by the Moody Blues (as a way of evoking the late 1960s in the minds of those of us who were there, bringing in Nights in White Satin is a masterstroke). Dubček is seen briefly. We visit Café Slavia and are greeted by a shortish man in a leather jacket who we are told later is a playwright … There is a lot of sex (as, I recall, there was in The Glass Room).
Reader, I don’t think I’m really spoiling it if I tell you that the paths of these two couples cross and the Russians do invade. The sense of massive confusion throughout the city when that happens is well described. The Prague Spring is being brutally brought to an end and our protagonists find themselves in the midst of the horror and the chaos.
Simon Mawer has included in the text four short explanatory notes to give some background: on the suspicious death shortly after the Communist coup d’état in 1948 of the Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk; on the Communists’ murder in 1949 of the democrat Milada Horáková; on the Bavarian-Czechoslovak border; and on ‘Ghosts’ – Kafka, Hašek, the Castle itself, and the letter from five members of the Czechoslovak Presidium to Brezhnev asking him to intervene to save the country from counter-revolution.
In August 1968 I was staying with a German family in Bielefeld. I recall their fear that the Russians wouldn’t stop at the Czechoslovak border. Many readers will have their own memories of what it was actually like to be in Czechoslovakia as they unfolded: for those of us who don’t, Prague Spring is a novel that tries to capture that historic moment.
Published by Little, Brown ISBN 978-1-4087-1114-9
(This piece first appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of the British Czech & Slovak Review, the newsletter of the British Czech & Slovak Association – see http://www.bcsa.co.uk. To hear Simon Mawer talking about this book in a radio interview go to https://www.radio.cz/en/section/books/simon-mawers-prague-spring-a-complex-love-story-amid-the-drama-of-1968.)
Reading the posts on ‘Which Children’s Characters Still Walk Beside Us?’ I realise that I don’t have any such fellow-travellers.
Is that a male thing, or just me?
There were books I liked (eg The Magic Pudding) but I can’t claim to remember the characters by name. In my house we had a long-playing record of Treasure Island (the audio book of yesteryear!) which meant that I only ever heard that one intonation, the characters only ever had that one voice, and I didn’t really take to them. So I didn’t have Long John Silver or even Jim Hawkins as mentors or friends as I got older.
Molesworth perhaps has stayed with me longest. I look at my old copy of Down with Skool (1953, by Geoffrey Willans, illustrated by the great Ronald Searle) which I see
“Contanes Full Lowdown on Skools, Swots, Snekes, Cads, Prigs Bulies Headmasters …” etc. Teachers say things like “This is not going to hurt me as much as it hurts you”, “I am hoping to get a job in the colonial service somewhere”, “Unless the culprit owns up the whole school will dig the vegetable garden”, “Mr Chips? No such character ever existed”, and “I am still hoping for a job in the colonial service somewhere.” Canes (or rather “Kanes”) are omnipresent, as are Latin verbs.
But even though I myself had Latin grammar literally beaten into me (I remember being caned for making the literally schoolboy error of thinking that castra, a camp, declined like mensa, a table), I can’t say that this shared experience made Nigel Molesworth my companion through life.
Audio Arcadia's General Fiction Short Story Competition, Bath Children's Novel Award, Flash 500 Competitions, H E Bates Short Story Competition, Henshaw Quarterly Short Story Competition, Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, Reflex Quarterly Flash Fiction, Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition
Yesterday was one of ninevoices’ fortnightly writing days. An opportunity to share work-in-progress, discuss books we’ve read, and encourage one another to persevere – perhaps the most important quality for a writer, after talent. And, to demonstrate its importance, ex officio member Skipper trawled around the room in search of a dropped or donated fragment of food and reminded us with his melting brown eyes to be dogged in our literary endeavours.
Here are some ways:
The Magic Oxygen Literary Prize wants stories up to 4,000 words and poems up to 50 lines on any theme. Prizes are £1,000, £300, £100 and 2 x £50 in each category. The entry fee is £5 and FOR EVERY ENTRY A TREE IS PLANTED IN AFRICA. Worth entering for the good you are doing, with the possible bonus of winning one of the prizes. The deadline is 31 December. Details: http://www.magicoxygen.co.uk
Flash 500 Competitions hold quarterly competitions for flash fiction, up to 500 words. Prizes: £300, £200 and £100. Entry fee is £5 for one, £8 for two. Deadline 31 December. Details: flash500.com
Bath Children’s Novel Award. Send first 5,000 words and synopsis. Prizes: £2,500, various shortlist prizes, including Cornerstones online course worth £1,800. Entry fee: £25. Closing date 2 December. Details: http://www.bathnovelaward.co.uk
Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition for full-length novels of 30,000 to 80,000 words, suitable for readers 7-18. Prizes: publication deal worth £10,000. All longlisted writers receive an editorial report. Entry fee: £15. Deadline 18 December. Details: http://www.chickenhousebooks.com/submissions
H E Bates Short Story Competition for up to 2,000 words. Prizes: £500, £200, £100, £100 for best short story by Northampton writer not winning another prize. Entry fee: £6, or £10 for two. Closing date 3 December. Details: http://www.hebatescompetition.org.uk
RW Themed Flash Fiction Prize. Short fiction up to 500 words on quarterly set themes. December: ‘Running Away‘. Prizes: £200, 2 x £100. Entry fee: £8. Closing date 30 December. Details: http://www.retreatwest.co.uk
Henshaw Quarterly Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,000 words. Prizes: £100, £50, £25. Entry fee: £5. Deadline 31 December. Details http://www.henshawpress.co.uk
Audio Arcadia’s General Fiction Short Story Competition for stories up to 5,000 words. Prizes: anthology publication, royalties. Entry fee: £5.50. Closing date 31 December. Details: http://www.audioarcadia.com
The Exeter Novel Prize is open for entries, and asks for the first 10,000 words (including synopsis) of a novel that has not been accepted for publication by a tradition publishing house. The first price is £500, plus a trophy. Five shortlisted writers will each receive £100 and a trophy. Entrants must not be currently represented by a literary agent.The entry fee is £18, payable by Paypal. Details http://www.creativewritingmatters.co.uk The closing date is January 1st – technically next year, but the morning after New Year’s Eve isn’t the best time to press all the right buttons on your computer. Do it well ahead of time!
The Moth Poetry Prize awards 10,000 Euros for a single unpublished poem, and 3 prizes of 1,000 Euros for runners up. Closing date 31 December. Details: http://www.themothmagazine.com
Skipper would like to remind you to check all details carefully before entering any competitions. Good luck!
The children’s section of our local bookshop has been invaded by older adults buying Christmas presents for grandchildren. Watching them picking up titles from the classics shelf I wondered if they are secretly longing to buy the books they loved as a child rather than today’s bestsellers?
Perhaps all of us can remember the books which seemed to frame our childhood and become part of our identity. They were usually about ordinary children in the real world; they gave us companions who shared the same feelings and troubles. Such books were entertainment and escape, but also something even more valuable. They contained characters who inspired us with a wider vision. Without ever being preachy, they were stepping stones in the confusion of growing up and sorting out what matters in life.
Anne Shirley in the Anne of Green Gables series, Emily Starr in the Emily of New Moon series (L. M. Montgomery), Myra in Apple Bough, Laurel in Saplings (Noel Streatfeild), Katy Carr in What Katy Did (Susan Coolidge), Sara Crewe in A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett) – just some of the vital friends who lived beside me in childhood and ever since. It’s good to see them still on the shelves in bookshops along with today’s favourites Harry Potter, Hermione Granger and Matilda.
On one of my frequent trawls through the treasures in our local Waterstones I noticed that the wonderful Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is out in paperback. For anyone who enjoys a classy historical novel, this would make a perfect Christmas gift.
Having loved the book in hardback, and enthused about it on this site when it first came out, I thought I’d reproduce those earlier thoughts here. Since that time I’ve re-read Golden Hill several times, seeking pointers on how to write a top-flight historical novel. Francis Spufford makes it look easy, but sadly that isn’t so…
With apologies for repeating myself, here, again, are my thoughts on this outstanding book. I’m still waiting for him to write a sequel, or Hollywood to come up with the film. It’s a cracking tale.
An impatient, personable young man from London has himself rowed from the brig Henrietta to the New York shore of 1746, carrying a bill of exchange in his pocket. It’s for the vast amount of one thousand pounds – and must be honoured within sixty days by trader Master Lovell, who owes this sum to the London company who issued the bill.
Deeply suspicious of this ‘strip of a boy who comes demanding payment of an awk’ard-sized fortune, on no surety‘ – and with London a six-week sail across the ocean, meaning a fraud couldn’t be uncovered before the money falls due – Lovell and his fellow merchants have a decision to take which could ruin them. Is the mysterious Richard Smith genuine? A bold-faced crook? Up to devious political mischief? Or attempting something much darker?
For everyone agrees he’s up to something. He openly admits to it. Yet despite hints and red herrings, nothing will get the truth out of him – not offers of violence, rooftop chases, a duel, a branding, nor the threat of the hangman’s noose. Smith keeps his surprising secret to the final page.
Francis Spufford’s novel is a fine plum pudding of a book, rich with spice and full of silver-sixpence-like surprises. I gobbled it up, swallowing (along with envy of an author who can create such a clever game of pass-the-parcel) layer-upon-layer of story from which the reader must tease out clues to the secret at its core.
The language is gloriously dense in places. But if it is occasionally purple, it’s the colour of a Georgian brocade waistcoat, the texture of the cloth opulent under one’s exploring fingers, yet not necessarily giving helpful information about the wearer’s identity. This is arguably necessary, since modern language would struggle to convey the landscape of a city where church spires look down on a display of trophy human scalps; where the reality of a duel of honour is a blundering struggle through deep snow, with spurting blood and unexpected consequences; where one of the great cities of the world is in the bold process of creating itself.
Then there are Spufford’s wonderful characters: the feline Tabitha, who hates novels yet quotes Shakespeare; the voluptuous Mrs Tomlinson, who makes Smith a saucy but generous offer he cannot, for politeness, refuse; the intriguingly erudite Achilles, ‘a tall African of about Smith’s age, wearing livery, with long limbs and a tight knob of a head like the bole of a dark tree‘ who has a complex and surprising relationship with Septimus Oakeshott, the Governor’s young aide. My heart still breaks over Septimus.
Historical novels don’t have to be bodice-rippers. They can be Wolf Hall. They can be The Miniaturist. They can be Golden Hill. Those of us trying to write about the distant past can only see such mastery, and gnash our teeth with envy.
This is the month of the Tonbridge Poetry Trail. Poems of several local poets are displayed in the windows of many local shops, from Optimum IT Solutions at the north end of the town to Sulston’s Kitchen in the south (see https://roundelpoetrytonbridge.wordpress.com/events/ for more names). 24 shops, 24 poets, 24 poems … Maps are available in most outlets. It’s all sponsored by the Tonbridge Festival.
There’s a reading on Tuesday, 30 October at 7-00 pm at the Tonbridge Basil’s (30 High Street). Should be good! (You’re asked to post on Facebook if you want to attend – https://www.facebook.com/events/570207576752852/ .)
My train journey home on Tuesday evening was muchly delayed – long enough to qualify for a refund! “Signalling problems in the Chislehurst area …” But no worry: I had a seat, and some good reading material. Two good reading materials in fact. I settled down to a happy session.
I remember the green gaze is the latest poetry collection by Matt Chamberlain (for previous ones see the posts https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/collaboration-one-mans-trash/ and https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2016/12/29/lowering-awareness/ on this blog). In his Foreword Matt Chamberlain talks about seeing things in colours. He writes, “The preceding year has been difficult, with bereavements and faltering friendships … But green says ‘calm tolerant, easy’, and when buffeted between red heat and deep blue cold, I sought its neutrality. I longed for the return of nature. I remembered the green gaze.”
‘A Father’s Day’ will echo with anyone who’s lost a loved one, thinking of the everyday actions that won’t be done again. ‘Commuters’ suggests ways of passing a train journey, eg “Rain makes patterns and I imagine introducing people to their own reflections, me their gentle intermediary.” ‘Counting’ describes the sheer abundance of nature: “Frank swept away twelve tons of leaves last night but morning said ‘I’ll raise you’; now the scarlet carpet is measured in fathoms.” ‘An Old Soldier’ recalls one’s youth in a way that will resonate; we won’t have in our own memory bank an Action Man stuck for years on a telephone line, but we’ll have the equivalent.
And many more, as they used to say on the sleeves of compilation LPs. (Talk about going down Memory Lane!)
The other was Mythos, Stephen Fry’s retelling of many of the Greek myths. As you would expect from him, it’s so readable, a fresh take on familiar stories. And many of them that weren’t familiar to me. Told with affection and a modern feel. In the very first chapter, for example, describing Chaos and the creation of the universe, he explains how your trousers began as chaotic atoms, became your trousers, will become landfill, and in time will return to cold Chaos once the Sun expands and destroys the earth. When telling the story of how Europa, changed by Zeus into a cow, swims across the Bosphorus, he delights in pointing out that ‘Bosphorus’ and ‘Oxford’ mean exactly the same thing. Time and again we see the Greek origin of our words or our ideas.
His imagined conversations on Olympus entertain, as does his recognition that he is repeatedly introducing us to perfectly beautiful young people, who may well (but not always) come to sticky ends once their beauty attracts an Olympian. Adonis, Ganymede, Narcissus, Echo, Psyche, Semele – they’re all here.
Sometimes he gives us interesting variants on what we’re used to. Athena, for example, changes Arachne into a spider not because she presumptuously took her on in a spinning competition, but as a reward for being a great artist, the poor girl having just hanged herself in mortification a few moments before.
Eventually the signalling difficulties in the Chislehurst area were resolved. But I hadn’t minded.
Shortlists follow shortlists …. I too am now enjoying this thrill (see Sarah’s previous post) having just heard that I was shortlisted in the 25th birthday writing competition run by the excellent Link Age Southwark. The competition’s theme was friendship and/or generations, and I sent in “She’s Leaving Home”, a story of parents packing their daughter’s belongings into the family car. This was the fruit of some ninevoices’ set homework. So it can pay to do that homework!
I look forward to reading the stores that won the prizes in the Link Age Southwark comp. Well done those guys!
I’m always heartened by writers’ honesty about disappointment – and, TBH, I have a lot more time for posts with titles like ‘The Rejection Diaries’ than for ones like mine above. But … yesterday Maggie posted her excellent monthly round-up of forthcoming competitions and as, minutes later, I found I’d been shortlisted for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award, I thought I’d just say how jolly grateful I am to her for her monthly reminders.
Do have a go at one of the October competitions she lists. You might get placed – and it’s such a boost!