One moment in the writing of Sleeping Beauties I remember with – well- a mixture of pride at overcoming a problem and indulgence at the way I did it.
There are two comic authors I cannot read when I’m writing a novel – P G Wodehouse and Richmal Crompton – both have such distinctive styles and the way they say things in their books is entirely and seductively funny. In Sleeping Beauties, Tabitha owns a beauty salon where she has a trainee called Chloe. Tabitha believes in beauty and light and spirituality in the matter of her beauty salon – Chloe has yet to learn how to approach this idea with the clients. It was a scene I struggled and struggled over but still Chloe would not come – so I allowed myself a quick read of a William Brown – he is SO clearly what he is, and so single minded in his way through the world, and so funny without realising it, that he was the perfect blue print for my Chloe. I’d like to think that scene represents an Homage to Ms Crompton… And I’d like to think that Chloe emerged as a fully rounded character – and one whom I grew very fond of too. I hope you enjoy the book which is coming to you very soon.
Best wishes from Mavis Cheek
Bathtime with Birds
I am now devoting my life to pleasure. And one of my greatest pleasures is to have a bath before bedtime. Those of you who have read Yesterday’s Houses (I think it was my twelfth novel) will know that I was always a woman in search of the perfect bathroom wherein to have the perfect bath. To bathe at night is warming, soothing, gentle on the psyche and I glide into bed thereafter in a happy state for opening my book (currently ‘Stoner’ by John Williams – a gem from the past).
While lying in the bath I sometimes listen to Radio Four – secure in the knowledge that I will hear nothing to frighten the horses, nothing to make me feel either that I am missing out on some marvellous new erotic excitement, or remind me that I am now a tad too wrinkled for anything very lively, very much. Sometimes the bath is early and it’s Book at Bedtime (if you didn’t catch the Muriel Spark you missed a treat) – sometimes it’s later – and it’s all kinds of different programmes – none of which have ever been particularly cutting edge or disturbing. But last night, Oh last night, was different.
The first thing I heard when I switched on Radio Four was mind blinking. It was a description necrophiliac rape. On water. The people talking about it were less shocked and disgusted than amused. Amused. And not only that, but it was necrophiliac rape that one woman said she had observed while out with her young son. At this point the woman seemed remarkably impervious to the fact that she was subjecting her young son to something that would traumatise him forever. The soothing quality of the bath was rapidly disappearing. So was my liberal tendency. Violent sexual acts on Radio Four, indeed – and people joking about it. The world had gone mad.
It took a little while for the truth to be revealed; the team on the radio were discussing ducks. Ah ducks. So that’s all right then. Except the duck discussion moved into an illustration of the scientific pursuit of ducks which was startling in its detail to say the least. First we learned from the (male) scientists about various aspects of bird science which seemed to centre around, in the male, sex and brain size. Why would anyone be surprised about that? Or feel they have to give a lifetime of study to prove it? This interesting but rather one-dimensional discussion was occasionally, and thank the stars, interrupted by Katy Brand (she it was who had taken her son to watch necrophiliac rape and who had by now realised this was not a good thing) who did her best to put some human leaven into the enthusiastic males who had moved on from necrophiliac rape to the need to measure a male duck’s penis. I dropped the soap.
A male duck’s penis is, apparently, amazing. We were informed that this extraordinary realisation was gleaned, not from live ducks, but from duck road-kill. That made me feel a lot cheerier. And what the passionate professor found (despite, one assumed, its being a tad squashed) is that the male duck’s penis is shaped like a corkscrew. A very, very long corkscrew. And that the female duck (who probably died in the same collision – or possibly from the gang-rape perpetrated by those pondlifes) has – as no woman reading this would be suprised to learn – managed to subvert this male-duck plan of owning a penis that will not be stopped. The masculine plan being that once entered the female duck cannot get rid of the male duck until he has done the job. And she will be entered by very many ducks who want their wicked way with her when, frankly, one would do perfectly. So, what the female duck has developed to divert these excess rampant males, apart from a corkscrew vagina (weird these water birds) is a corkscrew vagina that does not only go up to the vital bit, but has little off-roads, little dead-end streets, little cul-de-sacs – and when the male duckery (change one consonant, as Dorothy Parker once said, and you have the story of (the female duck’s) life) has gone on too long Lady Duck manages to SatNav him up one of these. He thinks he’s got to where he wants to be, but in fact he has gone to Bournemouth.
By the time I’d got to this part of the programme any idea that I would go to bed and read and rest was shot. For then – Oh then – we moved on to the burning question of what was the stupidest bird the professor had ever studied and the professor said there were no such things as stupid birds (something that might be passed on to the male population of Essex, or, indeed, possibly Peter Stringfellow). Hens? Absolutely not. Hens were clever. And so were cockerels. Hens not quite so clever once caught by the professor who used them unashamedly to pursue his grand design on the gallinaceous community of measuring the competitive output of birds’ sperm. How rarely does a writer get to write such an idea. The headlines are that a hen is entrapped and has a form of chastity belt put up her by the jolly professor which will hold the sperm so that it can be measured. And in pursuing this unlikely activity the professor has found that the cockerel can recognise if he has already had a go at a hen – by looking at her face – and why not? Then, although he’ll have another go at her (he is, after all, a game bird) – he will not bother about the impregnation bit because he has already done it. So, he gives her very short shrift in the sperm department. As measured by the prof. Excellent. But it was at this point that a thought crept over me about this experiment and its conclusion, and the thought was this: WHY?
I know this is Philistine Thinking writ large but my lovely neighbour has been coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose for nearly a week. She has a cold. The common cold. I have probably caught it from her by now. Scientists have known about the common cold probably since the dawn of science. They have not cured it – not even got remotely near it. Oh, they bleat, there are so many viruses that cause the common cold that we can’t find a cure – not even for the most common of the common colds’ viruses, the rhinovirus – sorry. So, we thought we would measure the competitive output of birds’ sperm instead. And – while we were at it – we thought we could take a look at a duck’s penis. It’s the next best thing we can do.
The bathwater was cold. I was cold. I got out of there and tottered into bed only to be struck by the thought that I shall never be able to look a female duck or a hen in the eye again.
Of course it’s Louise May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ – with the wonderful Jo March (who should have married Laurie) being a splendid role model for any aspiring writer who also likes to have a romance in her life. Curl up with it – sip tea and eat a warm mince pie and know that everything turns out fine.
No Christmas list complete without Dickens – the man, they now say, who invented Christmas – but not ‘A Christmas Carol’ – ‘The Pickwick Papers’ has a wonderful Christmas chapter – logs a-blaze, punchbowls and goodwill to all men (and women, I hope). Read it and you will instantly feel warm on the snowiest of nights.
And the humour and fun (and romance) of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Christmas at Thompson Hall’ – with lovely Christmas delights and people falling in love – amusing and happy. That’s what we need.
Margaret Atwood’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest ‘Hag Seed’ is a very good one to settle down with – her usual beady eye and her usual humour and irony mix into a very satisfying read for the Christmas period. Or failing that ‘The Heart Goes Last’ which is fun, and should make you think twice about the world of robotics.
If you want a snow-bound whodunnit, Martin Cruz Smith’s ‘Stalin’s Ghost’ should crack it for you. Moscow is snowbound, the ghost of Stalin appears on the underground – and Arkady Renko – whom you may have fallen for in ‘Gorky Park’ all those years ago, is back and just as out of kilter with his superiors as ever.
And, of course, there must be an English Country House murder mystery – so pick a Christmas Agatha Christie – ‘Hercule Poirot’s Christmas’ where a nicely savage murder and a suspiciously unmournful family gives the detective a bit of a problem.
Short stories are A Good Thing at Christmas, and Jo Jo Moyes ‘Paris For One’ should do it. Just enough time to read a couple of the stories in between feasting and drinking bouts.
And for the brains – there is always the ‘Penguin Book of Puzzles’ to work off some of the fat surrounding the little grey cells. Or to make that irritating know-all in the family pipe down.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it