Archive for January, 2012

There are many novels which have been important to me at various times in my life. Some inspired me to make changes, while others captured the  circumstances or challenges of a particular  time. There are books I revisit when I feel I need them. Others I will never read again, perhaps because I fear they might have lost the magic they held when I first read them.  That said, I would find it difficult to name a book that changed my life.

Yet in the relatively short history of the novel, there have been books that can be said to have changed the world, or at least influenced attitudes and values.   They are novels that  stand against persecution, de-humanisation and exploitation of the many by the few and remain for the most part as relevant today as when they were written. Here are eleven (as a starting point)  that I think have changed and are still changing the world.

  • “A Christmas Carol” (1843)  –  Charles Dickens –  Collectively Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces to the poor. But in this novella  Dickens’ overall  message is expressed most succinctly, at least for me, particularly when the Ghost of Christmas Present  reveals the two children and says, – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
  • “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”  (1851) –  Harriett Beecher Stowe –  A book that increased awareness and help change attitudes towards slavery.
  • “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929) –  Eric Maria Remarque – One of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life. Commenting in the preface Remarque says that  he,  “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book was banned and burned by the Nazis prior to the Second World War.
  • “Brave New World” (1931) – Aldous Huxley – The novel demonstrates the loss of individual identity that can come through assembly line production, indoctrination and the abuse of technological “advancement.”
  • “The Citadel” (1937) A.J. Cronin –  Exposed the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. In the novel, Cronin advocated a free public health service in order to defeat the wiles of those doctors who he said “raised guinea-snatching and the bamboozling of patients to an art form.” It played a major role in the development of the National Health Service in the UK.
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) – John Steinbeck – The book was subject to many  public book-burnings,  but Steinbeck changed attitudes on the plight of the poor and migrants following the great depression. Steinbeck wrote, before writing the book: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this the Great Depression and its effects.”
  • “Diary of a Young Girl” (1944) – Anne Frank – Ann Frank’s Diary stands as a symbol and reminder of the effects of persecution on ordinary lives and still communicates with young readers.
  • “If This is a Man” (1948) – Primo Levi – Not just a testimony of suffering and cruelty in the concentration camps – but also a demonstration of how mankind can be dehumanised through degradation.
  • “1984” (1949) – George Orwell –  Gave us the concepts of “Big Brother” and “Doublethink.” Revealed the dangers of Nationalism, Censorship, Surveillance, Manipulation through propaganda and alerted people to the dangers of an over-powerful state and totalitarian government.
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) – Harper Lee – Deals with issues of race and class discrimination, but in a way which is almost uniquely accessible to younger and older readers alike.
  • “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) – by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed in the Soviet Union. The book also forced Western countries to acknowledge their hypocrisy in ignoring breaches of  human rights behind the “iron-curtain.”

This is very much a first draft, a few initial thoughts.  Time is limited at the moment, but I do intend to come back to it – and hopefully add new books – and add more detail to those I’ve already listed. I wanted to post it now though, while the idea was fresh in my mind, almost as a first impression.

And I was also hoping that any readers here might suggest other novels worthy of inclusion. I’m particularly conscious that I haven’t listed any books published after 1962 and that many countries and even continents are not represented. But as I said this is very much a first attempt.

Any suggestions? – Should there be fewer or more in the list? – and why?


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Page from a Book on Alchemy (Wiki)

On the run from the law and his numerous creditors, and with a bounty on his head, Claude Du Vall returned to his native France.  In leaving England he also left behind his career as a highwayman for a while. In France he became a confidence trickster, a latter day hustler.

The first potential prey he set his trap for was a Jesuit of some note. The priest had reached the rank of confessor to the royal household, though those who knew him better would not have described him as a spiritual man.  He was in fact a well-known miser and noted for both his wealth and greed. In short he was the ideal “mark” for a man of Du Vall’s talents.

For this particular “hustle” Du Vall took on the part of an Alchemist, building on the belief, still common in the early 17th Century that the means of turning base metals into gold had already been found, but kept secret. He started rumours and watched them build around him – that he had studied under the great masters of Alchemy in Venice and Romethat he had stolen their secrets – and that they were after him. The priest was soon drawn in.

Du Vall convinced him that he needed money to escape and that he did not have the funds to set up a laboratory and make enough gold to flee the country. Thinking him penniless and in fear of his life the priest believed he had the upper-hand and could exploit him. After all, he had so little to lose and so much to gain. All Du Vall was asking for was enough to set up his laboratory. But of course that was only the “seed-money” just enough to tempt his prey.

Du Vall set up his laboratory and invited the Jesuit to watch him turn metal into gold. He heated a mixture of lead and tin in a small crucible, added a few secret ingredients, mumbled some incantations in an apparent semi-trance – and stirred the mixture with a metal rod. When the process was complete he showed the priest the considerable deposit of gold at the bottom of the crucible.

Then came the “sting” – Du Vall had little problem in extracting more and more money from the priest, with each demonstration. And of course he was long gone before the priest discovered that the rod he had used for stirring the mixture was hollow – filled with gold filings – held in place by a wax plug – that melted with the heat.

(This is one of the true historical crime stories I came across in researching “Avon Street. If you enjoyed it, there is another true Claude Du Vall tale in the post below – Thief of Hearts)

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Astor Place Opera House Riots (Source: New York Public Library Digital Gallery)

                                                        “WORKING MEN

                                 SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE

                                                          IN THIS CITY?”

This was one  of the bills  posted around New York in May 1849.  The public show of anger followed the announcement that Edwin Forrest (American) and William Macready (English) were to play Macbeth on the same opening night, in the same city.  Macready was to appear at the Astor Place Opera House, while Forrest was  at the Bowery Theatre.

In America in the early  nineteenth century the theatre had a popular following almost as great as sport has today.  Actors had huge and  loyal followings, perhaps more avid and devoted than contemporary celebrity fans, and at the time the theatre in America was still dominated by British actors.  Edwin Forrest was the exception, the first American star – and Forrest and Macready, ” as they say, “had history.”

Shakespeare’s plays were the pinnacle of culture in the theatre and the yard-stick by actors were judged. For Macready and Forrest they were almost like cage-fights. Forrest alleged that Macready had started it, arranging for his friends  to “hiss” him on stage in Lodon. Macready said that Forrest was the instigator “booing” him on stage at  Edinburgh. Their disputebecame very public with letters from both in the press. And their fans were incensed.

On the first night of the productions in New York followers of each  infilitrated the other’s theatre. Many of Forrest’s fans went to Macready’s performance and pelted him with rotten fruit. Crowds began converging on the Astor Place Opera House and a full scale riot broke out. The police could not cope with the mayhem and militia were called out and for the  first time the state militia were  called out. They tried to disperse the crowd, but rather than retreat, the mob turned on them.  The militia opened fire.

By the end of the riot 120 people had been badly injured or wounded and 25 lay dead – all in the name of culture.

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Reder, if male thou art,

Look to thy purse;

if female, to thy heart.”

The hanging of Claude Du Vall, at Tyburn on the 21st January 1670, drew a huge crowd, many of them ladies of high social standing. They stood out from the crowd in their fine gowns, but most kept their identities hidden behind elaborate masks, in the fashion of the day. Each had come to see the death of a legend, for the Frenchman Du Vall, was the epitome of the roguish, gentleman, thief.

His reputation was made on the night he robbed a carriage on Hounslow Heath. Du Vall discovered that its passengers, a gentleman and his lady, were wealthy, and carrying almost £400. He gave chase, overtook them and stopped the coach. The lady in the carriage began playing on a small flute. Du Vall rode towards the door and dismounted.

Sir,’ he said, ‘your lady plays excellently and I make no doubt but she dances as well. Will you please to step out of the coach and let me have the honour to dance one courant with her on the heath?

The husband agreed and he and his lady stepped down from the coach. Then , as the  gentleman looked on, his wife and Du Vall danced in the darkness.

When the dance was over, the couple made to re-enter the coach, but Du Vall stopped them, telling the husband that he must now pay for the entertainment that had been provided . The husband duly handed over £100. Du Vall smiled and said,

‘This hundred given so generously is better than ten times the sum taken by force. Your noble behaviour has excused you the other three hundred you have in the coach with you.’

He also gave them the  password for the night, which would ensure that as they continued their journey, no other highwayman would rob them.

The incident created a legend, which grew. Du Vall’s memorial in St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden reveals the legend of the man:-

“Here lies DuVall: Reder, if male thou art,

Look to thy purse; if female, to thy heart.

Much havoc has he made of both; for all

Men he made to stand, and women he made to fall

The second Conqueror of the Norman race,

Knights to his arm did yield, and ladies to his face.

Old Tyburn’s glory; England’s illustrious Thief,

Du Vall, the ladies’ joy; Du Vall, the ladies’ grief.”

Du Vall had many other adventures before he met his death on Tyburn Hill, but they will keep for another day.

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In the winter of 1803, everyone in Hammersmith had seen the white ghost, or knew someone who had. It haunted the churchyard and the narrow passage that ran into Black Lion Lane. Many believed it was the spirit of a man who had committed suicide the previous year, his soul unable to find rest. Rumours spread, some said that the spectre had “horns on its head, and glass eyes,” while others said, it had no head at all. Thomas Groom told everyone who would listen that he had been walking through the graveyard when the spirit had attacked him,

from behind a tomb-stone, which there are four square in the yard, behind me, and caught me fast by the throat with both hands, and held me fast; my fellow-servant, who was going on before, hearing me scuffling, asked what was the matter; then, whatever it was, gave me a twist round, and I saw nothing.

At 10-30p.m. on the 3rd of November Francis Smith set off to hunt down the ghost. It was a cloudy night, with no moon, and the high hedges that lined the lane (that the spirit frequented) made it as dark as any cave. Within minutes Francis saw the white shape approaching. He drew his pistol and called out to it. But the white ghost came nearer. He  shouted to it again, but it would not stop. Francis panicked, aimed the gun and fired. The white shape crumpled to the ground. Approaching tentatively, the gun still in his hand, Francis saw the body of the man he had just killed.

It was Thomas Millwood,  a brick-layer, his face covered in cement-dust, wearing as a witness later testified,

linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him; his trowsers came down almost to the edge of his shoes.

Francis Smith gave himself up and confessed to the killing of Thomas Millwood. At his trial 12 witnesses testified to his “good character.” Others confirmed the darkness of the night, the prevalence of the ghost-sightings and Smith’s good intent. The woman who had lived with the deceased victim, even recounted a conversation they had had on the previous Saturday.

he said he had frightened two ladies and a gentleman who were coming along the terrace in a carriage, for that the man said, he dared to say there goes the ghost; that he said he was no more a ghost than he was, and asked him, using a bad word, did he want a punch of the head; I begged of him to change his dress; Thomas, says I, as there is a piece of work about the ghost, and your clothes look white, pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger; I don’t know what answer he made; he said he wished the ghost was catched, or something of that sort.”

Francis Smith was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. Thankfully the King later commuted the sentence to a year’s hard labour. The publicity surrounding the case also prompted Mr John Graham, an elderly shoemaker. to come forward and admit that he had started all the rumours by pretending to be a ghost. He had dressed in a white sheet to “frighten his apprentice,” who used the lane and churchyard on his way home. The apprentice had apparently  been scaring the Graham children with ghost stories.

Researching my historical crime novel “Avon Street,” I came across accounts of many strange crimes, but this was perhaps the strangest.

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“Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.”

William Safire, “Great Rules of Writing” (or how “rules” are only meant as guidance – and sometimes better broken)

I’ve heard writers speak about being taken on by the first agent they approached and their book being part of a bidding-war by publishers. It does happen, but I suspect my own experience is closer to the norm for new writers – a seemingly endless stream of submissions and rejections, with very little feedback on what the publishers liked or didn’t like. It’s understandable in a way.  Publishing is, after all, a business.

There are so many good writers, trying to get published now, and the tendency seems to be for publishers to go for books that are easier to sell in a crowded marketplace. That usually means that the book fits neatly into a popular or literary genre, or has a good marketing “hook,” or that the author has an interesting back-story or means of marketing themselves – hence the popularity (certainly in the UK) of books by Celebrities.  Non-celebrities need to write well to stand a chance of being published, and despite what anyone says most still need a little slice of luck, or kismet – the right submission, to the right publisher, at the right time – a book that taps into the reading mood of the moment, or fits well into a genre or topic that is growing in popularity.

The important thing to remember as a writer, is that if you enjoy writing, hang onto the sense of joy that writing gives you. Trying to get published can be (not always) a very negative process. It is just over a week to my book, “Avon Street” being published, but it has been a long road. It almost killed my enjoyment of writing at one time. But writing can give you so much. It teaches you to observe in new ways, to find better ways of expressing yourself, to test different perspectives on life, to try out someone else’s shoes for a while , to understand more about your own thought processes and emotions, and those of others. It gives you the chance to create something beautiful and to communicate that beauty. And it’s great when you write a story, or poem, or article, or book, or even a sentence, and you just know – It Works – and others enjoy it.

But a writer needs feedback, or at least I did and the usually polite rejections of publishers won’t give you many clues. The knock-backs and rejections can be demoralising. If you feel confident enough, share your writing with friends and family, but remember that they can’t always be relied on for objective criticism, and that relationships are involved. That said, one of the best compliments I got was when my sister-in –law read a few chapters of the first draft of “Avon Street” and said, “Wow, it’s like a real book.

So join a class, or a writing group or forum and share your writing. It doesn’t have to be a University, or a course that awards qualifications, just somewhere where writers exchange their writing, and support and learn from each other. Join websites where writers criticise each other’s work (though sometimes you need a thick skin). Try and write something every day even if it’s just a journal that only you read. Learn the rules of writing and then invent your own.

And keep trying – keep editing – keep improving. As Mark Twain said,

“The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say.”

But more importantly – Keep enjoying writing.

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“Inheritance and upbringing might make us who we are, but it is the decisions we make that determine who we become.”

I did not understand what a “writer’s voice” was when I started writing. I thought it was a term that academics and literary people used to create some sort of mystique around the process of writing. It sounded arty, and pretentious, and unreal. I could write stories that people found entertaining, and that was all that seemed to matter. But the writer’s voice is important. In a sense it’s what makes a book unique, what makes any writing unique. I just hadn’t realised it.

Wikipedia defines the writer’s voice as:-

“The literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author… As a trumpet has a different voice than a tuba, or a violin has a different voice than a cello, so the words of one author have a different sound than the words of another. One author may have a voice that is light and fast paced while another may have a dark voice.”

That may true, but only in part. It’s not simply the style that determines the writer’s voice, but also plot, subject matter, characters, dialogue, settings, pace, atmosphere, and themes. All of these are just as important as style in asserting the writer’s voice, in allowing the book to speak.  In part I think the writer’s voice is a confidence issue – knowing what you want to say, what story you want to tell, what “insight” or experience or perspective you want  share; and having the confidence that it is worth sharing and that you have the ability to do it justice.

Defining the writer’s voice get’s even more confused nowadays because the writer is often regarded as a brand – the stronger the brand identity, the more books are sold. And people expect the writer to be like their books, or for their books to be like the writer, which in most cases I suspect, they are not. The writer’s voice will rarely be a true representation of the writer’s personality, you only need to look at the biographies of past writers for confirmation.

Al Alvarez, the English poet, critic and writer said,

‘For a writer, voice is a problem that never lets you go…a writer doesn’t properly begin until he has a voice of his own.”

A fortunate few seem to be born with a strong voice, a huge talent, and the necessary confidence in their voice. For others, like me, it was about working with what talent I had, and “finding” my voice through constant practice, and experimenting with different styles and genres and challenging what and how I wrote. Gradually I began to recognise the writing that worked, and the writing that didn’t, began pushing my own boundaries, but I was still largely concerned about style and technique.

When I had finished the first draft of “Avon Street” I asked a few family and friends to read it. They seemed to find it enjoyable, and easy reading, but it still seemed to me as though something was missing. It still wasn’t the book I had wanted to write. It didn’t say what I wanted it to say. In short there was little to distinguish it from other historical novels. Then it struck me that I hadn’t started the book with any real idea of what I wanted it to say. It was just a story, a compelling story I hoped, but just a story. Yet towards the end of the book, one of the lead characters, Richard Daunton, says, “Inheritance and upbringing might make us who we are, but it is the decisions we make that determine who we become.” As I wrote the words I realised what the book was actually about, and what I had been trying to say without really realising it.

I began re-writing, but this time knowing what the book was about – the ability to shape who we become (for good or bad), to escape the confines of what is expected of us, and the terrible loss of potential that often goes unrecognised. I tested the opening chapters on websites where writers criticise each other’s work and tried to address the issues they raised. My confidence increased because I believed more in the story I was telling and it began to show in the writing. The characters became more real, more rounded, they began to dictate changes in the plot, sub-plots developed, other themes emerged, the pace took on a new tempo, and my style and technique seemed to evolve.

You can say it was the writer’s voice emerging, but it felt to me almost like I was  finding the voice of the book. Or perhaps it was part writer’s voice, part the book’s? Or perhaps I’m just over-thinking the whole thing and contributing to the mystique?

But “Avon Street” now, is a very different book that when it started, just as I am a different writer than when I began.

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