Catherine Czerkawska's Blog

March 27, 2018

The Posy Ring, the first novel in a planned series called The Annals of Flowerfield, is due for publication by Saraband on 12th April. 

Here's what it's all about! 

When antiques seller Daisy Graham inherits an ancient house called Auchenblae, or Flowerfield, on the Hebridean island of Garve, she's daunted by its size and isolation. But the building, its jumble of contents, its wilderness of a garden and the island itself prove themselves so fascinating that she's soon captivated. She's also attracted to Cal Galbraith, who is showing an evident interest in the house and its new owner, yet she's suspicious of his motives – with good reason, it seems.

In parallel with their story runs that of sixteenth-century cousins Mateo and Francisco, survivors from the ill-fated Spanish Armada who find safe passage to the island.

There, one of them falls in love with the laird's daughter, Lilias. The precious gold posy (poesy) ring he gives her is found centuries later. Are its haunting engraved mottoes, un temps viendra and vous et nul autre, somehow significant now for Daisy and Cal?

Well, are they? You'll have to read the book to find out. And if I can get my head down and get out of my usual winter malaise, there will be another one in due course.

I've been dealing in antique and vintage textiles for some years now. It's my other day job alongside the writing. I've always collected textiles, always loved finding out their various histories, and they often find their way into my fiction. But when I realised that my collection was getting a bit too large for comfort, I started dealing in them as well. I've done antique markets and boot sales as a buyer and as a seller, and still go along to browse and buy.  As soon as online selling became possible, I set up a dedicated eBay shop, specialising in textiles with the occasional foray into vintage clothes, teddy bears and costume jewellery, although I'm about to transfer my 'niche' shop to another site called Love Antiques. 

The fictional Isle of GarveI've known for some time that I wanted to write a novel about this world, and I've always thought how wonderful it might be to find a house full of 'stuff'. but I've also known how horribly challenging it would be. How on earth to sort out the rubbish from the treasures? It's difficult enough when you buy a large quantity of boxes of old linens and lace at auction. I've hauled things about, (textiles are incredibly heavy especially when linen is involved!) and spent hours deciding what to keep, what to sell, and what to recycle back into the saleroom or charity shop. I've observed too - I am a writer, first and foremost - watching the hierarchies in the salerooms and among the dealers, watching the quirks of various auctioneers, watching how the whole business works. 


I've also lived in a two hundred year old house for almost forty years, so I know all about the challenges of old buildings as well. Taking on an old house when you're rich is still, I think, challenging. (Not that I've ever been rich enough to experience it.) Doing it without enough money to tackle it properly can be an ongoing nightmare. 

But this isn't all that the book is about. Because in parallel with the modern day story, there's the story of the house and the island at other times, layers of events, people, relationships, like the layers built up in the agates I sometimes find on our nearby beaches. Nobody goes back in time in the Posy Ring. It isn't that sort of novel. But the past always, in some sense, influences the present, and various artefacts discovered in the present day still have something of their past clinging inexorably to them. 

As nice Paul in the BBC antiques programme called Flog It is so fond of saying - 'That's what it's all about.'

Meanwhile, I've never yet found a posy - or 'poesy' - ring. But I sure wish I could! 

Young Woman in Yellow - my inspiration for Lilias.
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Published on March 27, 2018 05:31 • 11 views

February 24, 2018


End of Shift
For a part of Scotland that is the birthplace of Scotland's greatest poet, as well as the other 'two Roberts' - artists Colquhoun and MacBryde - we do seem to treat our contemporary artists pretty carelessly, here in Ayrshire. If a career as a visual artist is a struggle in most of the UK right now, it sometimes seems to be beyond difficult in this beautiful, historic and generally fascinating part of the world. Mind you, all three Roberts left. So, much as we love this place, I often find myself wondering if we should have done the same.

Tam O' ShanterScotland's finest woodcarver.
For some years, my husband, Alan Lees, made a reasonable living as a full time woodcarver. In fact he has been called 'Scotland's finest woodcarver.'

Rocking horses were one of his specialities - big, beautiful, sculptural rocking horses. He must have made dozens of them over the years, all of them with star names like Arcturus and Zuben'ubi, all of them with a time capsule which the client filled with a little parcel of personal documents.

These originals were supplemented by some fine restoration work of antique horses made by companies such as Ayres, the 'Rolls Royce' of rocking horse manufacturers. He would never over-restore, but often a horse had been so badly damaged that only full restoration could save it.


Gorgeous restored antique horse.Sad old horses.
Sometimes a sad old horse would arrive quite literally as a bundle of sticks in a box.
Occasionally, we would have to pick up hideously damaged and even more badly restored horses (no ears, broken jaws, legs replaced by broom handles, gloss paint, string tails) from inaccessible places.

I remember two of us struggling to carry one large beast down a narrow spiral staircase in a castle. Another owner burst into tears when he saw his old rocking horse miraculously restored to him, as a birthday gift, recreated from the box of charred sticks that had been brought to Alan's studio. Somebody had put it on a bonfire and it had only just been rescued in time.

Outdoor carving.
Alan also used to make huge, monumental outdoor carvings, sometimes from fallen trees that were still rooted in the ground. Examples of his work can still be seen here and there throughout Scotland.

Alan in more active days, with one of his smaller outdoor carvings :
an otter waymarker outside Straiton.Arthritis strikes
All of this may help to explain why a number of years ago, he fell victim to severe and chronic arthritis, both osteo and inflammatory. So he had to find something else to do, something that didn't involve lifting and walking and hauling large lumps of wood about.

St Patrick and The SnakesHe painted.

He had always done sketches for his carvings, and had attended life drawing classes among other things, so it wasn't too big a leap.  But he was never going to want to paint your average small, safe, rule-obeying local landscapes. He loved colour and he has a vivid imagination.

His art is, I think, extraordinary. Of course I'm biased but I've never seen anything quite like it. There are names for his style of painting - folk or naive art - but real popularity of this kind of work usually comes out of left field, whereupon the critics will jump on the bandwagon and talk about bold colours and child-like vision and so on.

Pictures telling stories.
Alan's work is narrative art too. Many of his pictures tell a story. The colours are vivid, luminous, striking, while the detail is often precise and fascinating. These canvases, some of them quite big, are full of movement and emotion and atmosphere. Sometimes they are nostalgic, sometimes that nostalgia is mingled with an element of hard hitting social observation as in 'Hope' below, which sold almost immediately to an elderly man who told us it reminded him of his own childhood. The same interesting combination can be seen in Alan's paintings of fishing boats, farming and village life.

Hope
I love them and many people who see them seem to love them too. He has sold a surprising number of pictures, when he can show them, when he can get the footfall, when the kind of people who might appreciate them are able to see them. But most of them, alas, don't seem to live here in Ayrshire.

Tattie HowkersExtending the range.
Of course his physical health means that big city fairs are beyond him. And sadly, we're forced to the conclusion that Ayrshire is just not ready for this sort of thing yet, even though it has provided him with so much of his inspiration.

In an effort to extend his appeal, last year, he painted a range of paperweights and doorstops on Scottish cobbles. I think they are very appealing too, although they don't have the huge 'statement' effect of the big canvases. But then again, they don't have the same price tag either. He has also tried his hand at a bit of 'upcycling' going back to his first love of wood, and painting scenes on small wooden items such as trays and boxes.

Paperweights and doorstops.Fairs and shows.
We used to do numerous fairs and shows with the woodcarvings, and although Alan sold very little on the day, he did get a great many subsequent enquiries and commissions from people who had seen his work, or even seen him demonstrating, so it was well worth the effort and expense. But craft fairs in this part of the world are not what they once were, and artists definitely struggle. We took part in the very worthwhile Open Studios events here in Ayrshire for a few years, but as exhibitors started to drift away from their own houses and studios, concentrating instead on a series of mini art fairs, it become more and more difficult - and less worthwhile - for Alan to participate.

The Slip
In the teeth of adversity
It has to be said, too, that we have had some challenging experiences while attempting to place his far -from-conventional work in shops and galleries in this part of the world. These include the grumpy gallery owner who when Alan, unable to bend and propped up on crutches, dropped some of the work, stood back with arms folded and watched him struggle. Few were as nasty as that, fortunately, but there are a great many proprietors who shake their heads and say 'Lowry' in slightly patronising 'if you like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing you like,' tones.

Lowry? Fred Yates maybe. Grandma Moses too. A touch of Bruegel perhaps. Or the brilliant Bill Brownridge in Canada. But Alan's pictures are not really 'Lowryesque'.

Dawn WatchDamned with faint praise.
We've been sent packing because a gift shop (in Scotland) didn't 'do' Scottish things. We've been told, when attempting to display a couple of pictures locally, that it would cause jealousy among other local artists. We've been asked for exclusivity by businesses that have no intention of placing reasonable orders that would make that exclusivity worthwhile. We have been tutted at, and frowned at, and smiled pityingly at, and damned with faint praise.



Novel inspiration.
I personally have also been put very firmly in my place by an ultra posh young 'expert' at an auction house (not our lovely local one, I hasten to add. They couldn't be nicer.) who rejected Alan's work as 'unsuitable' even though it had been recommended by a very well regarded Scottish artist. 'We get so many requests' he told me. 'We can't take just anyone you know!' I've filed that encounter away under the heading 'inspiration for novels' and since I'm working on a new series of books involving art and antique dealers, it will probably come in very handy at some point.

Alan keeps reminding me of how little Van Gogh sold in his lifetime. He isn't comparing himself with the master, of course, but just pointing out that attempting to sell any kind of art or craft can be a wearisome business and his experience is nothing new.

Coo TrayI know that a single word in the right ear, a single purchase from the right 'celebrity' would change everything. But I'm also frustrated. Alan can sit and paint, is still bursting with ideas and inspirations. What he can't do is trek about the country to fairs and shows, hauling pictures in and out of cars. And with the best will in the world, I can't do it for him. I have books to write - a new novel before the end of summer, and another project to finish in draft form before the end of the year - as well as book events to attend, proofs to read, Etsy shops to keep up to and blog posts like this one to write.

TeaslesArts on Etsy
I have, however, set up an Etsy Shop for him, called Arts of Scotland. At the moment, it's mostly stocked with prints, a selection of his paperweights and some of his upcycling, but when I have a bit of time, I will add the full range, plus all the original art we have here at home. We're very happy for prospective purchasers to make an appointment and come here to view his art. Most of his originals are available as very high quality digital prints too.

One thing we no longer do is 'sale or return' although Alan would be happy to mount an exhibition in a gallery. We used to lend out one of the rocking horses until one came back with a coffee cup ring on the polished wooden stand, while another big, valuable horse was almost spirited away by a shop owner, and would have disappeared for good if we hadn't mounted a complicated 'sting' operation to get it back.

Other than that, though, I don't know what else to do apart from pray for a sudden miraculous 'discovery' with Alan as the discoveree. Stranger things have happened!

Meanwhile, if you know of anyone who you think might appreciate Alan's weird but very wonderful pictures, do send them the link to this blog, or to Alan's own website also to the Arts of Scotland Etsy shop where you can browse a few more images and where a lot more will be coming in due course.

The Lighthouse and the Netmender
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Published on February 24, 2018 04:12 • 8 views

February 2, 2018


This week, with Valentine's Day fast approaching, I'm writing about an old wooden coat hanger - the one in the picture above. It dates from the late 1940s, and it has, as you can see, the letter K burned onto it in poker-work. It's precious to me. I use it every day. You see my late dad made it for my late mum, and that's her initial on it: K for Kathleen. 
Theirs was a love story as intense as any you will read in a novel. Julian was Polish, from a wealthy family. They lost everything in the war, including (most of them, anyway) their lives. He came over with a tank regiment, spent some time in an army resettlement camp before demobilisation, and stayed on as a refugee because there was no place to go back to. Kathleen was a young woman with a Leeds Irish background. 
(You would not believe, or perhaps you would, how many people have recently asked me if he came to the UK as a 'prisoner of war'. But that's beside the point. I know people who did, and who also made a good life for themselves here.) 
My Leeds grandfather was an English Methodist called Joe Sunter. Except that the family were probably descended from Vikings and Joe, with his auburn hair, looked the part. The family had been lead miners in Swaledale throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but had finished up in Leeds by way of Castleford, during the Industrial Revolution. Joe's mum had died young, and his dad had remarried. His stepmother wasn't very kind to the boys, so Joe and his elder brother George left home early, Joe to join the navy and George to join the army. George was killed at the very start of WW1 but Joe survived and married Nora Flynn, my grandmother, a shirtmaker. 
By the time my mother and father met (at a dance) and married, Nora was running a tiny stone floored sweet and tobacconist shop, next door to which Joe had an equally tiny fishing tackle shop - all within a stone's throw of the factories and mills of Holbeck.  Mum and dad's honeymoon was in January, in Scarborough.

My dad, I realise, must have seemed impossibly exotic to my mum. He was dark, handsome, foreign and very charming. He was also, fortunately, one of the kindest men I have ever known. I don't think they stopped loving each other for a single moment. 
Dad began by working in a mill, went to night school and eventually became quite a distinguished scientist, but he always loved to make things. In fact I remember that his hands were the hands of a working man, rough and capable hands that could garden and construct things and build toys out of wood. The coat hanger, with its letter 'K', wasn't one of his more challenging efforts. But it was, somehow, like him, that he would take the trouble to decorate it, just for my mum. In the picture at the top of this post, the hanger is resting on a rather battered wooden blanket chest that used to be in their house and is now in mine - and dad painted that too. 
I've realised over the years that I often find myself writing what I call 'grown up love stories'. They aren't really romances and my characters don't always live happily ever after. Not all of them are good and not all of them behave well. But at the heart of the novels is, I realise, something positive, some recognition of the power of affection and kindness to work a little magic in the world. 
I used to think it would be enough. Now I'm not so sure. 

Inside 32 Whitehall Road in the 1950s. 
Back in those post war years when times were hard and my dad was labelled an 'alien', as though he had come from another planet, somebody said to my mum, 'I think they should send all those Poles back where they belong now, don't you?' 
'No, I don't' she said, forthright as only Kathleen could be. 'Seeing as how I've just married one!' 
Although in every other way I'm sad that mum and dad are gone, I find myself glad that they aren't around to see the rise of post-Brexit xenophobia, to hear tales of children being bullied for their Eastern European names, people being told to go back where they belong, the Home Office letters exhorting people to 'prepare to leave the country', the outrageous suggestion from some think tank that visas for EU migrants should be restricted to those working anti-social hours. 
Either we are all, as they say here in Scotland, 'Jock Tamson's bairns', or perhaps we should all consider going 'back where we belong' - if we can decide where we do belong.
My dad belonged to a part of Poland that is now in the Ukraine. His mother had Hungarian ancestry. My great grandfather James Flynn came from Ballyhaunis in County Mayo but he helped to build Yorkshire's roads. My grandfather belonged in the Yorkshire Dales and, long before that, in Iceland or Norway or whichever country his Viking ancestor set sail from, as an economic migrant. They were all, when you think about it, economic migrants. 
Dad always said that fascism could happen in any country, at any time and in any place. I think he was right. Nowhere is immune. But after all these years I didn't expect to feel the fear of it in my blood and bones, the way I feel it now, here in the UK.



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Published on February 02, 2018 11:02 • 14 views

January 17, 2018

Sex Pest?
Over the past few days, some of our newspapers have been touting the notion that Robert Burns was a 'sex pest'. Quite apart from the stunning lack of historical perspective displayed, the comparison seems peculiarly invidious to me. And here's why.

First of all, the poet had a great many well documented, close but largely platonic friendships with women of all ages. To be fair, he probably wished some of them were more than platonic, especially when the woman in question was young and pretty. But there's little evidence that he forced himself on anyone who wasn't willing and - a rare quality in an eighteenth century man - he seemed happy to write in the character of a woman in the songs he wrote himself as well as those like this one that he collected, here in an incomparable performance from the late Andy M Stewart.

Jean Armour's abiding affection for her husband.
To label as rape the encounter with Jean Armour described in the notorious 'horse litter letter' is to deliberately over-simplify a relationship of great complexity.  So complex and dramatic, in fact, that I wrote a novel about it: The Jewel, published to critical acclaim by Saraband in 2016. I've spent years researching Jean, who has been neglected not to say denigrated by many Burns's biographers. Even Catherine Carswell, who might have been expected to have some sympathy, dismissed her as an illiterate and 'unfeeling heifer'.

Portrait thought to be of Jean in middle age,
by John Moir, courtesy of Rozelle House, Ayr.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. The more I discovered about Jean, the more I found to love. She emerges from a morass of small and often neglected but vital references, pieced together bit by careful bit, as a woman of strength and wisdom, with an abiding affection for her husband.

Disapproving parents and an impatient lover.
In 1786 the poet had offered Jean marriage and then taken her hesitation for rejection. She had little choice in the matter. She was pregnant. With, as it turned out, twins. Her father had torn up the marriage contract and whisked her away to relatives in Paisley. She found herself trying to please both disapproving parents and an impatient lover, a dilemma which would cause family tensions even today.

Burns wrote a string of angry poems and letters. Never man loved or rather adored a woman more than I did her, and to confess a truth between you and me, I do still love her to distraction after all, though I won't tell her so if I were to see her, which I don't want to do. He could self dramatise as much as the next young man - 'hopeless, comfortless I'll mourn a faithless woman's broken vow!' he wrote, but beneath the exaggerated lines runs a deep vein of genuine passion: a prolonged howl of outrage, grief, hurt pride and thwarted desire.

Mossgiel as it once was.
A fond father.
He was driven half mad with it. He may have courted Highland Mary on the rebound, but Edinburgh and potential fame called and that ultimately tragic relationship was short-lived. Meanwhile, Jean's babies were born. Rab was always a fond father and, once weaned, the boy, Robert, went to Mossgiel to be brought up by the poet's mother and sisters while the girl, Jean, stayed with her mother and grandparents along the road in Mauchline.

The relationship was still fraught.

In Edinburgh, Burns met pretty Nancy McLehose. They corresponded under daft pastoral names. The whole Clarinda -Sylvander episode seems to most grown women like an exercise in (almost certainly thwarted) seduction, by means of overheated letters and the occasional equally overheated meeting. The lady was married, middle class and though physically tempted, she was cautious. There's no evidence that the affair involved anything more than a certain amount of touch and go. She probably let him touch, but then she made him go.

Pregnant again.
Unlike Jean who in 1788  found herself again carrying twins.

By John FaedThe poet had been making the most of his Edinburgh celebrity even as he recognised that it might prove ephemeral. Her parents had learned of his financial success and begun to change their minds about him as a prospective son-in-law. Jean and Robert had made hay while the grudging sun of this approval shone. They could not, as the saying goes, keep their hands off each other, but this seems to have been as much at Jean's instigation as the poet's and to suggest otherwise is to deny agency to this strong woman. She was living in the parental home in the Cowgate in Mauchline. James Armour was a man of some consequence in the town who still didn't trust Burns. Jean could have insisted on a chaperone. Instead, she went out walking with the father of her weans, through the woods and fields, well away from the busy household and the prying eyes of the neighbours.

It says a great deal about their relationship and the manner of their courting that in later years, the song O Whistle and I'll Come To Ye, My Lad was a great favourite with Jean, who had her own version  - tho father and mither and a should gae mad, thy Jeanie will venture wi ye my lad. Sadly, this isn't generally the version sung, but it should be.


A girl out of pocket.
The pregnancy must have alarmed them, although it couldn't have come as a surprise. Burns went back to Edinburgh feeling guilty - and truculent - about the emotional and physical mess he had left behind. Unlike many men, he couldn't quite ignore it either. Soon, both of them would be in mourning for their thirteen month old daughter who seems to have died in a domestic accident.

I am a girl out of pocket and by careless murdering mischance too, he writes, bitterly.

He doesn't blame Jean, but I've often wondered if he blamed her mother, since the two were never close, even when Jean's father was reconciled to the marriage. When this second pregnancy began to show, Jean was sent to stay with Willie Muir and his wife at the mill near Tarbolton, a few miles from Mauchline.

Houses at Willie's Mill by Janet Muir
At Willie's Mill.
Willie Muir had been a friend to the poet's father, William, and would have been well acquainted with the Armour family too. In fact the story told in Mauchline isn't that the Armours had 'shown Jean the door' - a myth the poet himself liked to perpetuate - but that, anxious to shield their daughter and themselves from the Mauchline gossips, they waited until Jean was visiting the Muirs and then suggested that she stay put.

Certainly this second pregnancy, unlike the first, seems to have escaped the notice of the Kirk Session, since there is no reference to it in the minutes book for those months. Willie and his wife were fond of Jean and when the poet came back from Edinburgh, I reckon Willie told the younger man exactly what he thought of his behaviour. It didn't go down well, but it must have stung. Muir would know all the right buttons to push, where the troubled relationship between Burns and his late father was concerned.

Near the scene of the 'horse litter letter'.The notorious letter.
And so we come to the subject of that notorious letter. Burns had arrived in Mauchline, all high handedness and self righteous sympathy. But stubborn as a mule too. No, he would not marry her. She had rejected him once and that was that. His protests ring a little too loudly for truth. The best we can say of his behaviour at this time is that it is out of character. He took a room for Jean in Mauchline and later, in a horribly laddish letter to a friend, he bragged that he had made love to a receptive Jean on some 'dry horse litter' in the nearby stable.

I suspect the truth was that Jean, utterly conflicted, submitted to him without much enjoyment and probably in some pain. This was contrary to all their past encounters. I think he knew it, was immediately guilty about it and felt the need to justify it. To recast it as something it was not. The babies, little girls, born soon after, were premature and did not survive for long.

Marriage.
Never a cruel man, Burns had betrayed not just Jean but his own self imposed code of kindness. Even the briefest analysis of his poems and songs shows just how often he uses that word as one of the greatest of all virtues. How often he uses it to describe Jean herself. Even while he was writing pompous rubbish to 'Clarinda' about how much he despised Jean, he was planning something quite different: a future into which she would fit as easily as breathing. He must have known that too.

Within an extraordinarily short space of time, he had trotted back to Mauchline seeking her forgiveness and the couple were officially married - traditionally at Gavin Hamilton's house, just along the road from Jean's lodgings. There is some evidence, in fact, that they were never not married, according to Scots law. But now the liaison was officially recognised.

Gavin Hamilton's house.
The Honeymoon.
The honeymoon period, as described in songs and letters, seems to have been both passionate and happy. This was the time of the exuberant I hae a wife of my ain and the simple but beautiful there's not a bonnie flower that springs by fountain, shaw or green, there's not a bonnie bird that sings, but minds me o my Jean.

EllislandWho among us would not melt at the final verse of Parnassus Hill, in which - travelling between Ellisland where their new farm was being built, and Mauchline where Jean was waiting for him - the poet envisaged Corsencon  Hill near Cumnock as Parnassus with Jean as his sweet muse?

By night, by day, afield, at hame, the thoughts of thee my breast inflame, and aye I muse and sing thy name - I only live to love thee. Though I were doomed to wander on, beyond the sea, beyond the sun, till my last weary sand was run - till then, and then I love thee.

Nobody knows.
Nobody ever knows what really goes on in a marriage and we sit in judgment at our peril. From the moment when they first set eyes on each other, Jean was never absent from Rab's story for very long. She lived for many years after his death and had offers of marriage, but turned them all down. She and James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, were good friends. She even took tea with Nancy McLehose. (Oh to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting!)

She kept flowers in the windows of the house in Dumfries and was endlessly patient with her many visitors. She looked after her grand-daughter for a short time and the girl never forgot her kindness. She visited Gilbert, Rab's brother, on the East Coast, but she was a poor correspondent and always neglected to tell them that she had arrived home safely, so he wrote her plaintive letters saying that for all they knew she could have fallen over Ettrick Stane on the journey.

I think I would have liked her immensely.

A kindly woman and a good humoured man.
I'm often asked what I think of Burns, having spent so long on research for my novel. I always say that I can feel the warm blast of his charm, his sexuality, but most of all his good humour, some 230 years later. There are very few 'sex pests' who would elicit that response. Very few too, who would elicit the kind of lifelong love shown by a fine woman like Jean Armour.

If you want to read more about Jean, the true story, you can seek out The Jewel. You should be able to find or order it in Waterstones and other good bookshops, as well as in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and - of course - online. There's also a companion book called For Jean, in which I've collected the poems, songs and letters for and about Jean, so that you can read them for yourself.

The truth is rarely simple, but we owe it to history to inform ourselves before making 21st century judgments. What do you think?

All about Jean.
.
Read the poems and letters for yourself.







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Published on January 17, 2018 06:28 • 2 views

January 14, 2018

Detail from embroidered dress.Like most  people, I miss my late mum and dad at Christmas almost more than any other time of year. And I've been thinking about my mum a lot recently because I've just dedicated my new novel to her. The Posy Ring is due to be published in April, by Saraband.

It is the first in a series of novels about an old house called Auchenblae on a fictional Scottish island called Garve and it is, among many other things, about the joys and tribulations of dealing in antiques and collectables. My mother was the person who introduced me to jumble sales and salerooms and I still find myself missing our trips to antique markets, salerooms and charity shops.


Mum loved jumble sales and salerooms.
My first clear memory of this is when we spent a year in London, when I was just coming up to ten years old. Mum was a 'Leeds Irish' lass, and Leeds was also where I spent the first years of my life, but Dad was working at a research institute in Mill Hill, and we moved there, temporarily. Posh Mill Hill was awash with church jumble sales. It was like something from a Barbara Pym novel. Mum loved them and I went along too. I still have one or two of the things she acquired there, none of them very valuable, but interesting all the same. (She never, however, acquired the cloche hat that our London landlady insisted she should wear!)

Midi Dress, Vogue Paris Original,1970
When I was twelve we moved from Leeds to Scotland, and mum discovered salerooms. There were two of them in our town at that time, and mum and her new friend, Ellie Hamilton, went into one or other of them just about every week. Lots of the furniture that we still possess came from those salerooms, as did lots of china. Mum was a sucker for a fine piece of porcelain and there are still three or four pretty Victorian tea services lurking in my cupboards.

My lifelong obsession with antique textiles.
When I grew older, I would occasionally bid for mum, if there was something she particularly wanted and couldn't be there. I also started bidding on my own behalf from time to time. I loved - and have never stopped loving - antique and vintage textiles of all kinds. It was the start of a lifelong obsession, and when online selling became possible, I began to deal in them as well. I never stopped writing. That will always be my main occupation. But as most writers know, it never quite makes enough to keep the wolf from the door, so has to be supplemented in some way.

Jean Muir, Vogue Couturier DressGorgeous Vogue Patterns 
Mum didn't collect textiles, but she made them. Her sisters had worked in tailoring factories and although mum didn't, she learned a lot from her siblings. She was a fine seamstress, a fine embroiderer, good at knitting and crochet. If it could be made, she could do it. In primary school, I remember a felt skirt she made for me with an appliqued toy train around the bottom and a gingham print dress with a cloth doll, with yellow plaits, that sat in the pocket. I loved fashion and later my mum made Vogue Paris Original and Couturier patterns: the exquisite Jean Muir dress, the embroidered Mexican smock, the crocheted smock, the amazing midi dress with the weighted hem, when, as a student, I couldn't possibly have afforded such a thing. I have many of them still, although I can't get into most of the dresses these days. But I can't bear to let them go either. They remind me too much of my mum. She stitched her love into them, as women so often do. I wish I still had the Doctor Zhivago maxi coat with fur around neck and hem that she made for me when everyone wanted to look like Lara.

I also wish I still had the heavily embroidered linen smock with a design that ran over the yoke and right down the sleeves. It was even more beautiful and intricate than the dress below, also made by my mum. I still regret giving that one away, many years ago, even though it went to a friend, and I still wonder if it is floating around somewhere online. If you see or posses such a thing - do let me know! I would dearly love to have it back again.

Me and my mum
Precious Vintage
By the way - if you too think you might like to make a bit - or a lot - of extra income from dealing in antiques and collectables, I wrote a small eBook about it some time ago: Precious Vintage. It's very personal, and it doesn't pretend to be a definitive guide. But it does contain a number of useful hints and tips for anyone wanting to dip a toe in these fascinating waters!





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Published on January 14, 2018 07:06 • 2 views

January 4, 2018

Loving and liking.
As most aspiring novelists will know, the rejection letter from a publisher or agent will often include the statement 'I liked your book, but I didn't fall in love with it.'

It happened to me more times than I can remember before I found my present publisher, Saraband, whom, I have to say, I do kind of love or at least like very much. No other publisher in my entire career - and I've been writing for a very long time - has been quite so proactive or willing to treat me as though we were professional partners in some mutual enterprise.

Rejection letters, mostly from men.
I often wish I'd kept all my rejection letters, including the one from the elderly male agent who not only didn't 'fall in love with' my book but went on to tell me it was a 'library novel fit only for housewives.' But at least he was honest about his feelings. And while I'm on the subject, is it only women, young, old and everything in between, who have their wrists routinely slapped by older men in a professional capacity? But I digress.

Falling in love is a kind of madness.
I don't know when this loving/liking thing started to be used, but let's come clean here. It's a way of letting people down gently. If you look up 'falling in love' in the OED it will tell you that it means 'A strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for somebody.' People very seldom fall in love with novels or plays or collections of poems. They fall in love with each other. And sometimes with their dogs or cats. Since words are my business, I should also point out that there is a big distinction between falling in love and loving. Falling in love is a kind of madness. Love persists through thick and thin. As does friendship.
Mind you, there are exceptions!
I'm willing to admit that I've been in love with - and loved - Wuthering Heights since the age of about twelve when I first read it, but there are exceptions to every rule. Some books are special.
All the same, we're grown-ups, and publishing is a difficult business. We need all the friends we can get. I like my current publisher very much indeed and trust her and would hope that even if she wasn't publishing me, we could be friends. I think she's talented, efficient and immensely hard working. One of the good guys. I don't have an agent at the moment. If I had one, I would expect him or her to be one of the good guys too.
But I'm not at all sure that I want a publisher to fall in love with my novels. Apart from anything else, they are going to have to do a whole lot of loving if they fall in love with every single book they publish. Literary promiscuity? Not sure about that one.

Partnerships are the key.
On the other hand, I want them to like the work very much indeed, perhaps even to love it, to be on the same wavelength as me, to appreciate the hard work and - as my publisher does - to make a brilliant job of the actual physical book and its publication. I want them to be realistic with me as well and to do their best for me, if I try hard to do my best for them. It's a partnership, and there's a whole lot of mutual respect going on, but it's not a love affair, because love affairs, in my experience, tend to cloud your judgement.   
Not only is love blind, but you can fall out of it as swiftly as you fall in. And that kind of rejection is probably the worst rejection of all.







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Published on January 04, 2018 05:29 • 4 views

December 5, 2017

A tiny silver and enamel mirror - a rare survival.

I might fit in more than one antique this month. After all, Christmas is a time when this old house really comes into its own and it's nice to reflect on the history of a few precious possessions - not particularly precious in terms of monetary value, but only in terms of the memories they hold for me, like my piano that I wrote about last month,

This month, it's a tiny mirror, no more than three inches long. It's in silver, although since it came from eastern Poland, there's no hallmark. The back has pale cream enamel in an intricate and pretty design that doesn't show up too well in the photograph, and I'm afraid the glass on the other side has been somewhat damaged, although you can still just about see through the centre of it.


My grandmotherIt belonged to my Polish grandmother, Lucja Szapera and on the right is one of only two photographs I have of her. Looking at that rather pretty, vivacious face, you would never know that her story was not destined to be a happy one. Born into a reasonably wealthy Lwow family (and I don't even know if there were any siblings) she met and married my grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski while they were both very young. She must have thought all her dreams had come true.

Wladyslaw was handsome, charming and potentially rich. He had inherited one large country estate while still a child, and stood to inherit another, the one where he was born. Many years later, my great uncle Karol Kossak, who had been one of his closest friends, having married into the family, told me that he had been 'fond of the ladies' as I'm sure he was.

I met Lucja once. My grandfather not at all. He died of typhus on the long march east and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road. Long after the war, the Red Cross found my grandmother and put my father in touch with her. By that time my refugee father had met and married my mother in Leeds, and made a life for himself. Everything the Polish side of the family had once possessed was deep behind the Iron Curtain. The English/Irish side of the family had very little to begin with, but that's another story.

Lucja came to visit us in Leeds while I was still a young child but I have almost no memory of her except as an old and complaining lady who didn't want to be in England and didn't want to be where she was in Poland either. She wanted the promised land of her past. Her health was poor, she had lost everything that mattered to her, and she never came to terms with it.

My father Julian, Wladyslaw and Lucja in happier times. 
Before the war, she had already left my grandfather and returned to the city. My father divided his time between the two. I think she had discovered that she hated living in the countryside. She disliked the mud and the flies in summer, the cold in winter. I sometimes picture her as a character in a Chekhov play, longing for something else. Besides, the marriage had not turned out at all as she expected. My sociable grandfather loved the countryside. He read. He liked music and painting. He loved horses. He was always planning some new venture, something to make money. Like so many he was property rich and ready cash poor.

Poor Lucja was discontented and when my father was born, she was fairly discontented with him too, although the picture above still portrays an idyllic existence. He always remembered his aunt Wanda, Wladyslaw's sister, with more affection, although being a very kindly man all his life, he never really elaborated on the reasons why. As for my grandfather - he was already conducting an affair with the wife of a local schoolteacher by the time war put an end to all such distractions and, ultimately, to him.

Nevertheless, my father brought this little mirror with him to Yorkshire, and thence to Scotland, via the battle at Monte Cassino in Italy, along with a handful of photographs and nothing else. I'm looking at it now. The older I've grown, the more I've come to sympathise with Lucja. Some can build a good life out of nothing. My father certainly did. But for others - and for all kinds of reasons we can only guess at - it becomes impossible, the hill much too steep to climb.

Who are we to judge?

Handsome Wladyslaw


Some years ago, I wrote a novel called The Amber Heart, based on my Polish family history. It's only available on Kindle at present, I'm afraid, but if you want to know more about the turbulent history of a family very similar to my own, in eastern Poland during the mid 19th century, then you could give it a try.


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Published on December 05, 2017 08:45 • 4 views

November 1, 2017

My genuine antique 'B Squire' piano.
Because my new novel, The Posy Ring, due to be published by the ever excellent Saraband in 2018, involves antique dealing, among other things - I thought I would begin to write an 'antique of the month' post. And since I've just had my wonderful old piano tuned, it seems like a good idea to begin with this instrument.

I acquired my upright 'cottage' piano when we first moved to Scotland from Yorkshire, and I've had it since I was twelve years old. That's a very long time, and I love it dearly. I had been learning to play the piano since I was seven years old. My first teacher was a formidable but kindly woman called Miss Ingram who taught at Leeds College of Music in the late 50s. I can remember the head of the college saying that she was an 'iron hand in a velvet glove' and my seven year old self finding this vaguely alarming because she wore little fingerless gloves when she played and taught. The college was in a big and decidedly chilly old building at the end of Wood Lane, in Headingley and I always wondered if the mittens were concealing the iron! She had short grey hair, she wore a faintly Bohemian black velvet jacket over a pleated skirt, she massaged Nivea cream into her hands to keep them supple (the scent of it still takes me back to that time and place) and cleaned her piano keys with milk.

We must have had a piano in the house then, although I don't remember what it was like. But I suspect it had once belonged to my aunt Nora, my mother's much older sister, who was a fine pianist. In fact she had been offered a place at that same college of music to study full time, but she never took it up. Back then 'people like us' - working class people - didn't do things like that, and she  played only for pleasure. Being a good deal older than my mum, she had also - so I'm told - played to accompany the silent movies in the local cinema, when she was still a girl. It was when my mother married my Polish father that things changed, for me at least.

When I was twelve, we moved to Ayrshire and my mother bought me a good piano in the local saleroom. There were two salerooms in the town of Ayr back then, and I can't remember which one it came from but it could easily have been from our single surviving saleroom - the one I visit pretty much every week - Thomas Callan. Mum and dad found me a new music teacher in Ayr and I carried on with my piano lessons until I went off to university in Edinburgh at the age of seventeen, by which time I had reached Grade 7 and was reasonably competent, although I was only ever going to play for fun.


The piano has been tuned by the same person for all those years, a man called Paul Cohen, who is not only a fantastic tuner, who knows all about old instruments, but a brilliant musician in his own right as well. Every time he comes to the house, he marvels at just how good this lovely old piano sounds, because - he says - it IS old. In fact he reckons it dates from the late 1800s! It lives in our cottage sitting room and since the house is much older than the piano, having been built in 1808, and not particularly overheated, the piano seems very happy here.
This time, when he had taken the front off, we examined it more closely, and I took some pictures. The piano was sold by Paterson, Sons and Co but the maker is B Squire - Squire was an old and distinguished London company of piano makers, and when the original Mr Squire died, his wife Betsey took over, in the middle of the 19th century, and thereafter the firm was known as B Squire and Son. Inside, there's a serial number, 17420,  which we can't find anywhere else, but fascinatingly there's also a price of 44 guineas. Which - when you think about what people earned in those days - makes this a very expensive purchase indeed. 
I've played it for many years, sometimes more and sometimes less frequently. Our son had lessons for a couple of years when he was a wee boy, but as his lovely teacher, Lisa Occleston, observed, he was never going to enjoy it much. So when he stopped, I took his lesson slot, to refresh my memory, and a high old time we had every week, while I learned some quite demanding pieces of music. That came to an end when Lisa moved away, and again, I neglected my piano for a while. I always tend to play more in winter than in summer. 
Now I've dug out a heap of music, the piano has been tuned, and I plan to spend a lot more time this winter, refreshing my memory all over again. That's the huge benefit of learning to a certain standard. Even though you neglect it for a while, you don't really forget and can pick it up again with a little application. 
Paul tells me that pianos can hardly be sold these days. Everyone has gone digital. Which seems a pity. When all these gorgeous old instruments have been broken up, they'll probably become valuable all over again. But I wouldn't willingly part with it. And anyway - I don't think we could move it! 


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Published on November 01, 2017 13:30 • 5 views

October 9, 2017

My fictional island of GarveAnyone who has read and enjoyed The Curiosity Cabinet  and, like me, loves small Scottish islands, might be interested to hear that I've spent the last eighteen months or so working on a 'spin-off' novel called The Posy Ring, the first in a series of novels set on my fictional Scottish Inner Hebridean island of Garve, which is bigger than Gigha, smaller than Islay, and sits somewhere in the region of Jura - in my imagination, anyway!

If you want to know what Garve is like, the map on the left might give you some idea. My artist husband, Alan Lees, painted this for me, following my instructions, so that I could keep track of everything during the first tricky drafts of the book. The novels will be centred around an old house to the north of the island (you can just see it on that map) called Auchenblae, or Flowerfield, and like the Curiosity Cabinet, there will be past and present day stories, although nobody actually goes back in time.

You will, however, meet a few of the characters from The Curiosity Cabinet all over again, although this time they are not central to the story.

While I was writing the early drafts of the new novel, I found myself even making plans of my fictional house. It's a rambling old place, a bit run down, and I knew that if the story was going to be consistent, I had to know the exact shape of the building, inside as well as out. So I made floor plans. It was fascinating - one of those tasks that you find so absorbing that it becomes a kind of displacement activity that you do instead of knuckling down to write the book.

I did write it though, and also did a great many revisions and rewrites before I felt it was ready to be sent to my publisher. Now, I'm working with an excellent editor. This is a necessary part of the process because like most of us, I always get to the stage where I can't see the wood for the trees. If you have the luxury of time, I always recommend to people that they finish a piece of writing and then let it lie fallow for as long as possible - because when you go back to it, you'll usually see what needs to be done. But a good editor is beyond price.

It definitely helps to have an editor who 'gets' the way you write, but who is sharp and clever and meticulous enough to ask all the right questions. Fortunately, the problems, such as they are, aren't structural (always a nightmare) but nips and tucks and clarifications. We use 'track changes' and have interesting conversations in the comments. I must admit I find those kind of edits enjoyable rather than otherwise - a process of polishing, and I've always enjoyed polishing things.

Besides, since my two main contemporary characters are antique dealers, I think they might enjoy polishing things as well.
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Published on October 09, 2017 07:09 • 9 views

September 30, 2017

The other day, I had one of those insights that I think it might be worth sharing for the benefit of anyone embarking on writing a piece of fiction for the first time. (I hate that word 'budding' when applied to writers, so I'm not going to use it!)

One of the first things you have to decide, when you're starting out on a novel, is whether you are going to write it in the first or third person and whether, even if you are telling your tale in the third person, (he/she) you are going to be the all-seeing authorial presence with access to the minds and hearts of all your characters at once or, the more likely alternative, whether you are going to be with one or two of your characters, maybe with some insights into the minds of others.

Throughout the summer, I've been working on a new novel called The Posy Ring, with a past and present dimension, so I've been with two different people at different times telling two intertwined tales in the third person. Nobody goes back in time. These are parallel stories with connections between them.

In The Jewel, we are with Robert Burns's wife Jean Armour herself. But even though the whole story is pretty much told from the point of view of Jean, it's another third person narration. I wanted this to be her tale, but I also wanted to be able to have more of an overview than would have been possible if I had tried to tell the story wholly in her Ayrshire voice. The voice is there, of course. How could it not be? But I found I needed just a little distance which is what the third person narration gave me.

Today, though, I'm thinking about first person narration. I used this in The Physic Garden, mainly because William Lang, the main character in that novel, needed to tell his story and it seemed the only possible way of telling it. His voice in my head was very strong. I did, however, borrow a technique from that finest of writers, Robert Louis Stevenson, and made sure that an older and more experienced William was telling the story of his youth. This is the technique used to such good effect in Kidnapped, where an older David Balfour is telling the story of his brash younger self.

Sometimes when I read a novel written in the first person, especially from the point of view of the heroine, I find myself tripping over a certain aspect of the narration. For what it's worth, here's why. We are not, most of us, models of self confidence. When the older David Balfour looks back on the young David he finds himself doing what most of us do from time to time (usually in the middle of a sleepless night) and cringing at our own thoughtlessness or selfishness or bad behaviour. William does much the same in The Physic Garden, as well as trying to rationalise and come to terms with and forgive a terrible betrayal.

But even without that narrative distance, we do not, on the whole, gaze at ourselves in mirrors and notice our bouncing curls or our snub noses or our mouths, 'just too large for prettiness.' We do, sometimes, get up in the morning and gaze at ourselves and think 'what the hell happened?' And the older we get, the more inclined we are to think 'who is that elderly person gazing back at me?'

We are often beset by genuine doubts and uncertainties, by uncomfortable memories, hesitations, and the inconvenient and sudden desire for unsuitable people. But we hardly ever describe ourselves to ourselves in terms of our appearance. We reserve that for the few occasions when we are meeting strangers, and even then, we tend to say what we'll be wearing. Or send a picture.

Why, then, do so many heroines indulge in this form of self description? Tell us what your character feels. Tell us that she can't decide what to wear, and why she finally chooses some article of clothing. Let her express her doubts and fears, her memories, her wishes for the future. Let her tell us how she feels about the hero, if you're writing a love story. Or let the hero tell us what he sees and feels and why he likes or loves what he sees. But be very wary of those mirrors because they can become a cop-out.  Please, please, please don't have her gaze 'critically' in the mirror and then describe her own unruly curls, her green eyes, her inconveniently slender figure, her tiny feet, her long fingers, and so on, while this reader at any rate thinks 'aye right.'

In the Curiosity Cabinet, the heroine is given a mirror, but she doesn't want to look in it - not at first. The reason is that she has had smallpox, and it has left her with scars. She has seen them once, as a very young woman, and after that has avoided the sight of her own face. She doesn't gaze on those scars at all and the point in the story where she is eventually persuaded to look in the mirror is vital to that story, but not because of what she sees. Rather because of who persuades her and why.



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Published on September 30, 2017 12:15 • 1 view