Monday, 6 August 2007

Waghorn of Suez

Just before I left New Zealand to come to Britain, more years ago now than I am prepared to acknowledge, my great aunt took me aside to give me two pieces of information which she thought might prove useful to me on my travels. The first concerned my great-great grandfather, a man by the name of Thomas Fletcher Waghorn, to whom family folklore attributed the honour of having been the driving force behind the construction of the Suez Canal.

That this was not true – or was at least true only in part, and then with qualifications – I was later to learn. But what my great aunt wished to impress upon me at the time was most of all the extent to which the British Government had failed, and History itself under-valued my heroic ancestor - so that it was going to be up to me now, as family representative travelling abroad, to disentangle noble truth from base misrepresentation, and try to gain for the the poor man the credit he deserved.

“When you pass through the Suez Canal
” my great aunt told me; “You will see a handsome statue to Ferdinand de Lesseps; and to your great-great-grandfather something altogether humbler - it stands above a public lavatory now, I believe! But it bears an inscription from de Lesseps himself, in which he pays tribute to the part which your great-great-grandfather played in the Canal’s construction.“

I saw neither of these statues, as it turned out. The ship I sailed on was to have called at Aden, but there was a strike on in Aden that day which would have made it dangerous, and so we put down anchor at Port Said, in Yemen instead. I learned many years later that the Waghorn statue had in fact been demolished during the course of construction work in the area; but I have seen photographs of it in the National Geographic magazine and other publications, and have established that it was raised for him by de Lesseps on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and that it did indeed bear an inscription which said, among other things, "Where he led, we followed."

The other thing my great-aunt wished to say to me was more a stern admonition than an item of family history. It concerned a second cousin of my father’s, a girl who had left New Zealand to go to England earlier in the century, and who, according to my aunt, had brought the family reputation into wilful disrepute. “Whatever you do, don’t do as she did!” I was warned. “Kathleen was a wicked girl – she spent all her father’s money and she broke her mother’s heart!”

The ‘Kathleen’ in question was in fact the writer Katherine Mansfield – and it has always seemed to me that if I wished for proof of the validity of the biblical quotation “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country and in his own house”, I had only to remember my great aunt’s brusque dismissal of the achievements of my unfortunate cousin twice removed, Kathleen.

I had been in England many years before I found the time or inclination to try to trace either of these family connections to their roots. I had married, and raised a family; and although I had studied the life and work of Katherine Mansfield in some depth - being especially interested in her connection with those other favourites of mine, Virginia Woolf ( who was rather spiteful about her while she lived; though did pay fulsome enough tribute to her after she had died); and D.H.Lawrence... although I identified quite closely for a time with Katherine Mansfield, for poor old forgotten Thomas Waghorn, I scarcely spared a thought in more than twenty five years.

I literally stumbled, in the end, upon the full story of the man who is sometimes still referred to as ‘Waghorn of Suez’. I had happened to be planning a visit to the Medway towns, and in thumbing through a guidebook for Chatham and Rochester, came upon what was to me the magical phrase “Waghorn Memorial’. So there it was – he had been born in Chatham and they had honoured him there! The citizens of Chatham had put up a bronze statue to his memory; his grave is outside the vestry door at the church of All Saints, Snodland; and there is a memorial to him on the south wall of the nave.

I discovered too, that in the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry for Chatham, Kent, only two prominent former citizens are deemed worthy of mention – one is Charles Dickens, the other Thomas Waghorn. This was the sort of stuff to warm my great-great-granddaughterly heart - if only I had been able to phone New Zealand to tell my great aunt and my father! But alas, my discovery had come too late for that. My great-aunt was long dead by then; as were all my other great aunts and elderly cousins - and sadly, also my father, whose delight would have been greatest of all.

My father had earlier been over here on a visit, and had spent much time trying to locate the facts – any facts - about his great-grandfather Waghorn. He had gone about the country following all the slender leads he had, but had come up with nothing; not even the date, or place of his birth. All he found was a written tribute left by the novelist William Thackeray, which he discovered in an old book, in a library in Exeter........ Thackeray had been one of those Victorians intrepid enough to travel on Waghorn’s Overland Route from Cairo to Suez, and he had remembered the occasion, and the man, with these rather astonishingly ringing words:

But what are his (Napoleon’s) wonders compared to Waghorn’s? Napoleon massacred the Mamelukes at the Pyramids; Waghorn has conquered the Pyramids themselves; dragged the unwieldy structures a month nearer England than they were, and brought the country with them..... Be ours, the trophies of peace! Oh my country! Oh Waghorn!”

The story of Thomas Waghorn is a short one, full of tremendous incident – but ending sadly. He gave his life, and every penny of his money to his dream of creating a shortcut between Britain and India; but in the end, events – and his own government – were against him, and he died, aged only fifty and virtually penniless, without ever seeing any of the fruits of his labours. There is a splendid account of his life and exploits in the National Dictionary of Biography, and I wish I were able to reproduce it here in full, for it tells his story in greater detail, and with considerably greater flair, than I am going to be able to do.

There is more to tell – lots more, and it’s rather thrilling, Boys’ Own stuff! There’s also the oddest little twist of history at the end – nothing is ever quite what it seems, I have learnt, when it comes to family folklore passed down by word of mouth through generations! I think I have probably said enough for one day and one post, however. But for anyone who might be interested in learning more, I shall try to come back again another day, to complete the tale.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

No way to write a book!

I am a New Zealander by birth; descended from a long line of Scots and Irish protestants as so many New Zealanders are, for all their stout colonial spirit and resistance to British membership of the European union. I tell you this, not in order to start some sort of vaguely political debate, but just to point up the peculiar degree of puritan conscience I have inherited from my pioneering ancestors. The sort of conscience that says work is an ethic, and a stern one at that; and that one should never fall into the trap of allowing oneself to enjoy it too much.

What has happened to me is that I have fallen into taking the line of least resistance when it comes to writing a novel. Finding myself stumbling hopelessly over writing the real thing ( and feeling my age creep up on me all the while, putting me pretty much beyond the pail when it comes to looking for an agent or a publisher) … I have resorted to putting it out in instalments as a blog. That it seemed a good idea at the time, is the best that I can say in my defence. It still seems a good idea, for all the pitfalls it presents – and I believe it’s the one that Dickens himself might have taken, had he the good fortune to have lived in a technological age….. (That he did so stupendously well without it is no part of my brief of course – though I do feel I must mention it just in passing, lest it be thought I seek to equate myself with him!)

The only thing that’s wrong with this new endeavour of mine is that I seem to be enjoying it too much. A state of affairs that doesn’t sit at all happily with that old, old puritan conscience of mine. I shouldn’t really be enjoying it at all, should I? I certainly shouldn’t have been allowed the luxury of immediate gratification by way of daily responses from readers! That sort of thing just isn’t permitted, when it comes to producing a work of fiction. I ought to have had to struggle more; suffer rejection and neglect. I ought to have had to run the gamut of reviewers’ vitriolic criticisms, at least – before I was allowed to sit back and enjoy the fruits,if any,of my labours.

I take some comfort (and I have to point out, here, that the puritan conscience finds its comfort in the oddest places) .. from the fact that I probably do have a positive army of detractors. The vitriolic critics must be out there somewhere: it’s just that, this being a blog and not a book, I am spared the horror of having to hear their voices. Still, they must be there: nobody can lead such a charmed life as to escape them altogether. So, I reassure my troubled conscience with the thought that, for every one reader of mine who writes in to say ‘well done, and please don’t stop’ - there must be fifty more at least who simply pass me by disdainfully each day; too bored even to take the trouble of entering the comment box.

If I didn’t think that, I should probably feel obliged to give up on the spot. I’d close down the blog and return at once to the old hard slog of the unprinted and probably unprintable. It’s the path I have followed for more than fifty years after all – why should I suppose that anything has really altered now? Meanwhile though, I bask a while in the unexpected warmth of reader involvement and approval. Only taking the precaution of reminding myself now and then that after all it’s not real, and cannot last! Sooner or later the bubble must burst; the blog will founder, the detractors emerge in force, and I’ll be on my own again. Trying to find the way of cobbling the thing back into something which resembles a book.

It’s as I said at the beginning therefore, isn’t it? Nothing in life is meant to be this easy. One is meant to labour and be heavy laden…. and a blog is when all is said and done, no proper way of writing a book!

(Or is it, who can say? Only time will tell.)

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Let Madeleine Come Home!

Today, I can think and speak and write only of little Madeleine, lost in Portugal. The whole world is united, it seems, in caring about Madeleine and her parents. The whole world watches and waits, hoping for good news and holding its breath in terror lest there should be bad. The whole world watches Madeleine’s mother and father growing thinner almost by the hour; holding their other two babies fast and trying to ensure that life, for them at least, goes on with as much normality as possible.

The whole world cares, with all its heart, that this little girl should be found safe and well at last, and returned to the safety of the life she knew, and has every right to go on knowing, throughout all the years of her childhood. A safe and happy childhood is every parent’s care, and every child’s natural right, and the whole world is up in arms against the idea that for little Madeleine ( and others like her – we shouldn’t forget the others) this right has been suddenly and cruelly violated.

The whole world minds, desperately, that this unspeakable thing should have happened to an innocent little girl who had known nothing but good in her life. The whole world, that is, with the exception of the one, or two, or three people who kidnapped and are holding little Madeleine. To the people who have committed this unspeakable act, the whole world might cry out now with united voice, in fury as well as pain: “Listen to the world and feel its outrage. Listen to its anguish – listen to its hatred if you can. Listen with whatever of ordinary humanity is left in you – and let that little girl come home!”

Monday, 7 May 2007

A dog may resemble a king

I take my title from that of Christopher Howse, who is I believe the Religious Affairs correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, and who wrote a short article in that newspaper on Saturday May 5, entitled “Mosaic of a dog not a king’. My own title is marginally less bewildering than his, it seems to me - though I’m not sure I shall be so successful in unravelling the conundrum which lies at the heart of his article. I have read it several times, and still emerge feeling that there is something wrong, somewhere, with his logic. There’s an Alice in Wonderland quality to it, that makes one recall how horribly muddled one felt, as a child, when the Red Queen shouted “Sentence first, verdict later. Off with his head!”

Religious debate has always been a bit like that though, hasn’t it? The assumption is always there, that one must suspend disbelief in order to believe. And if that were not conundrum enough, one need only go to Christopher Howse’s exposition of the position of heretics within the Christian church, to know that the confusion hasn’t ended yet. Howse takes as his starting point the idea that heresy “has quite a good press these days”. He refers of course only to heresy within the Christian Church - which seemed a wise precaution, given the kind of press that heresy receives elsewhere, just at present.

We no longer burn heretics, anyway. Though as Howse points out, it remains important still, for Christians to distinguish their own beliefs from those of heretics. And he cites, in illustration of this, a “little book of essays from different hands edited by Ben Quash and Michael Ward, the Dean and Chaplain of Peterhouse, Cambridge”. The book is entitled Heresies and How to Avoid Them, and the “helpful subtitle” is Why it Matters What Christians Believe.

So far, so reasonable, I thought; I’m prepared to go along with that. Being uncertain of what I believe or disbelieve anyway, and having a lingering fondness for ecclesiastical obfuscation and the spirited debate, I’m prepared to go some distance with most things; even those with which I’m inclined most profoundly to disagree. I was even ready to go along with the mosaic of Christopher Howe’s title – though I could have wished that the image it portrayed had been just a little sharper, and more to the point! The image is taken from the words of St Irenaeus, ”a third-generation Christian who had known the martyr Polycarp, who had known the Apostle John……….’ (And if that seems complicated, just wait for the complication of Irenaeus’s image itself, and his prose!)

St Irenaeus was anxious, apparently, to “preserve the teachings handed down to him, and he characterised heretics, who had their own versions, thus”:

"It is as if someone, when a beautiful image of a king has been made by a skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the king all to pieces, then rearrange them together to make them turn into the form of a dog or a fox, and even then but poorly executed; and should then maintain that this was the beautiful image of the king that the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels.”

I don’t know what you make of that? And it’s true that I’m no sort of historian or biblical scholar, so I can’t be sure how much of written doctrine was available to St Irenaeus at the time of writing. But it does seem to me that, even allowing for the scarcity of written records, St Irenaeus must have had some access to the lucid prose of earlier scholars - which makes his own rather dismal showing all the more difficult to comprehend! (Perhaps he didn’t though? Have access, I mean. As I said, I’m no sort of scholar, and have no way of knowing for sure. Perhaps I ought to have suspended judgment therefore, and given St Irenaeus the benefit of the doubt?).

Christopher Howe moves on swiftly enough from St Irenaeus anyway, to consider some of the more esoteric heretical creeds, and then to compare their doctrines with those of orthodox Christianity itself. And it was here, that I found myself most seriously perplexed. He cites one in particular. It was called Theopaschitism; and though he concedes that it wasn’t exactly mainstream, even for its time, he did still seem to think its beliefs worthy of a mention. Theopaschitism maintains ( or did maintain, at any rate – I’m not sure that it’s still around) that “God suffers and sorrows in sympathy with mankind”; and that “ if he did not, he must be considered aloof and unloving”.

A sensible enough creed, wouldn’t you say? But Christian teaching, it seems, does not agree. “The trouble with this” Christopher Howse says; “ is that the traditional teaching about God is that he is good and wise and almighty………… and so much above the frailties of creatures that his own act of being is not corruptible and his desires are not thwarted. Christians accorded him the property of impassibility – in other words he could not suffer.”

“ If God does not have these perfections,” Christopher Howse goes in; “including the ability to do what he wishes, then his promises to us are not to be relied on. If he is changeable, vulnerable to the effect of events, then he would be in no position to get us out of the mess we are in.” And he ends by quoting St Paul, who said “If we are faithless, he remains faithful- for he cannot deny himself.”

Now I don’t know how you feel about the two doctrines – but for my own part, the Theopaschitian one seems the kindlier and more humane. Christianity doesn’t stop there though. It has a great deal more to say on the subject; and it was with Christopher Howse’s final contention that I felt myself most passionately disposed to disagree. He goes on to point out that “Jesus Christ is believed by Christians to be God and Man”………. “If he were not God, the reconciliation would be insufficient. And if not man, mankind would not be caught up in the reconciliation”.

This is the usual Christian fare of course , and one can take it or leave it as one will. But when, right in his closing paragraph, Christopher Howse elects to say this :
“If, as the writer Elie Wiesel suggested in his celebrated novel Night, it is true to say that, when a man is wickedly hanged in a concentration camp, God is the suffering victim, then it is only true because God became man. In that lies our hope.”………..
.... why, then, I am driven to cry aloud at last: “Give man a break, Elie Wiesel and Christopher Howse! Let him retain the dignity of his own suffering at least!”

I wonder what anyone else thinks?

Sunday, 29 April 2007

What's to shout about?

I have just been on a quick trawl through blogland and come back feeling vaguely depressed. So many voices out there, saying so many different things, and yet in the end, all is silence. How can that be though, when silence is so very precisely what it's not? And what is silence after all, if not the echo that follows when somebody has opened his mouth and found that no-one‘s listening?

Communication is what it’s supposed to be about and suddenly, it seems everybody’s doing it. Communicating, that is: to greater, or lesser effect. Some have only to open their mouths and say the first thing which comes, for the whole world to seem to be listening. Others scream and shout in vain, and might do so until doomsday, for all the response it’s ever going to get. The trick seems to be to find the one spot in which to feel at home and settle comfortably in it, whether anyone’s listening or not.

Take me for example. Not because there’s any reason on earth why you should do – but simply because I am here and this is my particular spot. I wrote a piece about Henry James the other day. Full of hope I was, that somebody, somewhere , would write back to say Yes, yes, that’s right, I love him too. Books have been written on him, after all. Millions of words have been expended, so he must be a person who counts. Again though, only the echo of silence. Except for the one person who wrote in to say how much she disliked him, and to complain of his failure of ‘narrative grip’ . Now I’m not at all sure I know what narrative grip is – but it does seem as if Henry James, as a subject, is out.

It was the same thing when I wrote about Virginia Woolf and Dante, and not a murmur from anywhere did they evoke. Am I to conclude that the whole world has somehow moved on from people like Virginia Woolf and Dante – or was I simply shouting from the wrong treetop in the wrong place? Either way, it doesn’t seem to matter very much. Blogland is only a microcosm of the whole after all – and this particular blogspot only a microcosm of that. But since someone, somewhere must be talking about and listening to something, the trick (again) seems to be find out what it is.

Is it Kate Middleton, I wondered yesterday, when I saw a Mirror headline saying that she “blamed Charles” for the breakup? Was Charles responsible for the breakup of Kate’s relationship with William? And if he was, was he right – and if right, does anyone really care? Well, Kate cares, of course; and so, I daresay does William himself. Kate’s friends care, and Kate’s mother, and most of the readers of Hello. The same people, I’m sure, who care whether Richard Gere should go to court in India or not, over that rather foolish public kiss. What was Richard Gere doing grabbing Shilpa Shetty in public like that – and what, in the general scheme of things, does it matter anyway, whatever it was?

It might on the other hand be the question of Prince Harry that people are minding about today. Should he go to Iraq or shouldn’t he? The Queen says he should, the military top brass seem to disagree. Would one receive a spate of comments if one expressed an opinion, blogwise, on the future of Prince Harry’s army career, I wonder? Probably – but again, what’s to shout about? In the end he’ll go or he won’t go: it’s as simple, and finally un-newsworthy, as that.

Iraq itself remains intensely shoutable-about, sad to say. But after the war has been argued over, and won, and lost, and then won and lost all over again in an entirely unforeseeable way… after Saddam has been toppled, and shamed, and then achieved a kind of glory after all right at the moment of dying… after the shouting has been shrill, and then sombre, then shrill and sombre again, and still the brave young men die out there for no conceivable end………. the only question which seems left to ask is: should they stay, or should they come home? Sooner or later they will have to be brought home of course. It would seem better that it should happen now, while some at least of them are still alive.

It is not my intention to be flippant about Iraq though, for I care about it deeply, and always did. But then it’s not my place to talk about it either, since I am neither the Prime Minister, nor the Defence Secretary, nor even Bryan Appleyard. So the search is still on, for me, to find the thing that is mine to talk about. Better to stick to Henry James, perhaps? Or better still, find something really meaningful to shout about. On the whole, I think that one can only say the thing which comes, and go on hoping for the best.

For me, the next thing which comes will probably be the loneliness of the long-distance blogger. That, and the difficulties experienced by the first-person narrator, in fiction. Not mainstream blogging subjects either, I concede it. Especially since I’ll be taking people like Emily Bronte, and Evelyn Waugh, and Scott Fitzgerald as my models, not one of whom seems likely to raise much of a shout. There’s a good deal of re-reading to be done before I can attain to it, anyway; I shall have to go through Wuthering Heights again, for a start. So there’s still time to reconsider my position, and find something else that works.

But what is blogging if not an exploration of the art of the possible? One says the only thing one can, and if no more than one person listens, has it not at any rate still been said? There’s a whole world of blogging out there; and Harry will, or will not go to Iraq. The world will still turn, and sometime the brave and battered troops will actually come home. And when all has been said and done, and written about, and said and written about again - it’s still going to be pretty much as I said about it at the outset: what’s to shout about?

(Just a thought, that's all.)

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The Henry James Effect

Is there anyone else out there, I wonder, who is, or was (or ever will again be), hopelessly addicted to Henry James? There can’t be many, I suspect. If indeed there are any at all. People are much too busy, these days, to struggle with the rotund, the resonating, the too-rococo sentence. The allusive, over-subtle approach irritates them, and the parenthetical tendency defeats. You have only to take that word parenthetical itself, for example. It’s a James word if ever I heard one, yet I can’t be absolutely sure it actually exists. But there it is: the ordinary vocabulary can sometimes sag a little, when the rococo in prose is under consideration. And needs must anyway, as they say, when it’s Henry James who drives!

No, it’s the short, sharp, staccato sort of thing that works best for people these days, I’m told. I even seem to remember that there was an instruction to that effect in a little book I bought recently on the practice, and art, of blogging. The implication having seemed to be, that since everyone is so very much too busy now, to do battle with protracted sentences, the potential blogger had very much better forget all about them, and do what he can to go with the current stream instead. It seemed rather a pity to me, I confess it. I have a lingering fondness for the protracted sentence - and parentheses have always seemed to be one of the staples of the compositional life. ‘Playing the Proust Game’, I have always called it; and it’s better than crosswords or sudoku, by half. For exercising the brain there's really nothing else quite like it - since it involves staggering all the way to the end of the sentence, without once going back to see how it started out!

It was a comment left on my fictional blog, I Beatrice, yesterday, as a matter of fact, that has prompted me to go down the Henry James route this morning. Somebody wrote to say that, although it was a long time since she had read James herself, she nevertheless thought she detected something in my own style of writing, that put her in mind of his. I was humbled by the comparison of course - since though one always dares to aspire (as why wouldn’t one, if one were trying at all?), one never does quite presume to hope. (Too many ‘ones’ there, I acknowledge it. But it’s a hard road to escape from, once having started out!)

I was humbled – but I was also vaguely troubled - by the comparison. Because there was a time when the Henry James thing was the only one I really knew, or wanted for myself. All through the sixties and seventies, when my own children were small ( and when I really, according to the standards set by today’s so-very-much-busier Mummies, oughtn’t to have had time for any such thing) ……. at every available spare moment in those busy years, nonetheless, I was to be found with a Henry James novel somewhere about my person. To such an extent indeed, that if I happened to have sat down for a moment without one, my small children would feel impelled to run anxiously off and fetch it for me! Small wonder then, that at that period in my life I began to write, to think - to talk even, I don’t doubt ! – like Henry James.

One small anecdote from that period springs to mind, and I relate it here , because I think it probably illustrates my past addiction better than anything else could do. It concerns my elder son, who is a lawyer of rising distinction these days, but who was then a rumbustious boy of five or six. He wasn’t ordinarily the sort of child to pre-occupy himself with a book - and especially not one of "Mum’s Henry James sort"! But he had happened to be watching a Quiz programme on television that day, and so astonished was he by something he heard there, that he must run in to me at once, crying “Guess what, Mum? That man didn’t even know who wrote The Golden Bowl !”

That little recollection somehow epitomises all that the Old Master meant to me in those far-off days. And seems to illustrate, as nothing else quite could, the long struggle I have had to free myself from his influence since. I no longer wish to write like that. It’s not that I love him less – I can’t help remembering what Virginia Woolf once wrote of him, for one thing: how she said that in the history of the novel, there was no-one else who, having gone to all the lengths of constructing his sentence, could bring himself to smash it so resoundingly at the end! No, I certainly don’t love him less; but I seldom read him any more. I have come to recognise that such a style as his is hopelessly addictive, and that, even could one have hoped to emulate it, for today’s tastes, it simply doesn’t ‘do’. It has taken me many years to free myself from his influence, though, and I genuinely believed I had done it at last.

Which is why it came as something of an unpleasant jolt, as well as a pleasure, yesterday, to be told that to someone else, my style had seemed vaguely reminiscent of his. Somebody had discovered my guilty secret, that's what it was – and I felt somewhat shame-faced as a result!

Not that it wouldn’t give me the most enormous pleasure, just the same, were somebody else to write in and confess to having had (or having still), an addiction rather like mine.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Why didn't anyone stop Virginia?

Those of you who are fond of Virginia Woolf will know that she had a little writing hut at the bottom of her garden in Rodmell, Sussex. Some of you may even have been down there, as I have, to see it for yourselves. In which case you will have noticed its proximity to the little path that leads to the local school – I seem to remember her writing in her diary sometimes, about the pleasure of hearing the chatter of the children as they came and went from school. More gloomily, you will also have noticed her hut’s proximity to the fields beyond, and then to the River Ouse; in which, having filled her pockets with bricks one day, she took it into her head to drown herself.

I hadn’t meant to start on a melancholy note though, and should never have gone down that particular track! I have always been sorry that someone didn’t manage to step in at the time, and forestall the awful event. Leonard might have done it perhaps, if only he’d been looking hard enough in the right direction. Vita Sackville West always thought, afterwards, that she might have prevented it too - if only she’d known! Nobody did prevent it though. And so we are left with the sadness of knowing that anything which Virginia Woolf might have written later is lost to us – simply because Virginia herself wasn’t thinking straight that particular day, and nobody else was looking.

But that wasn’t to have been my point either. What I meant to start by saying was that I too am fortunate enough to have a little hut of my own at the bottom of the garden. Roald Dahl had one, I believe; and so, respectively, did Dylan Thomas and George Bernard Shaw. Shaw’s was mounted on some kind of turn-table, I believe, so as to be moved in any direction to catch the sun. But that would be an engineering feat beyond the range of anyone I know, and a luxury to which I have never thought of trying to aspire.

My little hut is painted green - I have thought of re-painting it heavenly blue. It has a wide bay in front, with four latticed windows, and a nice little latch on the door. Too pretty for a hut or a shed, really, so I more often call it the summerhouse instead. I have made pale green gingham blinds for the windows; they shade my laptop from the sun on summer mornings, and in winter help to keep me protected against the frost. Inside, I have heat and light, a table large enough to accommodate all the paraphernalia necessary to keep the creative effort going (dictionaries, that’s to say; thesauruses, and endless supplies of clean foolscap paper) - and all my favourite books on shelves upon the walls. I am obliged to share my hut with lawn-mower and garden chairs of course; and with an old fridge-freezer that was too good to throw out, and that is useful for storing fruit and vegetables, and all the extra food one somehow accumulates at Christmas, and other festive times.

But none of that seems to matter very much, when once I am down here and have switched my laptop on, in the mornings. The lawn-mower has become my companion indeed; and the humming of the fridge-freezer has a friendly sound - perfectly attuned, I find, to the functioning of the compositional process. Having a room of one’s own, Virginia called it. And in that at least she was absolutely right. For it is of all things the most inestimable in value, to anyone who tries to write.