‘“Man is a foul thing, little and poor, a stinking slime, and after that a sackful of dung and, at the last, meat to the worms. In his final hour he lies with a shooting head and rattling lungs and gaping mouth and veins beating, his fingers cooling, his back aching, his breath thinning and death coming. His teeth grin grimly in a bony head, maggots make breakfast of his eyes. Man is weak and fruitless, a clothed cadaver clutching at his worldly things, a skeleton that will one day clack for want of blood and flesh; a festering mound of skin and nail, and after than an unlubricated heap of bone. Is man the master of his life? Does he own the moments that make it up? No, those moments are God’s, to add to or subtract as he wills. Man is a sinner whose life speeds him day by day towards a tomb, not a master of his body but a slave to it; his red lips will turn black and his eyes will fog over and his feet will stiffen and his tongue will slacken and his ears hiss with death.”
Amen, they said, as they trailed up the nave with gifts for the dead.’
There have been many biographies of Henry VIII’s Lord Privy Seal, but surely few so weighty or well-researched. Like many, my interest in Thomas Cromwell was catalysed by Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and the Mirror and the Light. Cromwell is atypical of Tudor dignitaries in that he was lowborn. The son of a blacksmith, he was self-made and self-educated. From these inauspicious beginnings he rose to the right hand of a capricious and unstable king. Cromwell bullied lords and dined with dignitaries. He liquidated a centuries-old religious order and ushered in political foundations that remain to this day. Not a bad biographical subject.
‘I had waited for it, the wet season, through every blistering morning and the heated rocks of afternoon, and still I was not prepared, not for its density, immensity, the roar upon the roof, the obliteration of all distance, the air sucked from my lungs, as if it meant to kill me. This rain was the temperature of blood. It polished the tree trunks until they shone.’
Blackwater Island, off the Devon coast, is the storm-lashed setting for W.C. Ryan’s World War One murder mystery. It is the home of Lord and Lady Highmount, whose sons have been killed in the trenches. They arrange a séance in an attempt to contact their sons, to which the mediums Madame Fader and Count Orlov are invited, along with codebreaker Kate Cartwright and the mysterious Donovan. Kate and Donovan are agents under the watchful supervision of British intelligence, sent to investigate the rather less unworldly theft of military intelligence by the Germans. Kate carries with her a secret – she sees the spirits of the dead as they wander the earth. These apparitions are well-crafted side characters and Ryan manages to write ghosts in an unexpected and interesting fashion.
‘The only thing he might have expected to find but hadn’t was a bible. On the other hand, Scardale was so cut off from the rest of the world, they might still be worshipping the corn goddess here. Maybe the missionaries had never made it this far.’
‘…a sentence or a passage is rhythmical if, when said aloud, it falls naturally into groups of words, each well fitted by length and intonation for its place in the whole and its relation to its neighbours. If you’re writing prose, the best guide is to cultivate an instinct for the difference between what sounds right and what sounds wrong, a syllable-by-syllable attention to sound, a feel for rhyme and breath.’
Despite the incontrovertible fact that reading about writing inevitably (in the short term at least) makes one less productive, it is a habit I frequently fall into. Whether it is writing whilst standing up (Hemingway) or scribbling to the smell of rotten apples (Schiller) it is tempting to believe that if we change one or two writing rituals we will find ourselves blessed with inspiration or writing for sixteen hour stretches. So it was that I added ‘How to Write Like Tolstoy’ to a modest collection including Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’ and Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’.
‘“We believe that there is some kind of conspiracy, some kind of secret organisation working against the Party, and that you are involved in it. We want to join it and work for it. We are enemies of the Party. We disbelieve in the principles of Ingsoc. We are thought-criminals. We are also adulterers. I tell you this because we want to put ourselves at your mercy. If you want to incriminate ourselves in any other way, we are ready.”’
‘Like a witch’s lair in a fairytale the ancient manor house crouches in its tangled garden. I can’t take my eyes off the ivy-choked window above the front door. It was from that window in 1913 that 16-year-old Maud Stearne watched her father set off down the steps with an ice-pick, a geological hammer – and murder in his heart. We’ve all heard of Edmund Stearne. We’ve marvelled at his works and shuddered at this crime. Why did he do it? Did he confide his secrets to a notebook? Why won’t his daughter reveal the truth? For more than 50 years Maud Stearne has lived the life of a recluse. I’m the first outsider who’s met her and been inside Wake’s End. What I’ve learned blows her father’s case wide open.’
‘Every book about Gypsies that I have studied mentions the people described above, give or take a few other hardy stalwarts, but no one else. Writers stay in their comfort zone; when writing about a subject that they know little about, they keep to familiar ground. The reason for this, as I’ve mentioned before, is that few writers ventured into the caves, dark forests and far out-of-the-way places where the bulk of the Gypsies and Travellers existed. Instead of exploring the lives of these individuals they chose a few famous characters from the herd and ignored the rest. What a different story I could tell if more attention had been paid to the Gypsies of old as a community where strong baskets were woven, horn spoons carved from sturdy rams’ horns that would last a lifetime, earthenware, thick and watertight, was fired, ropes twisted that were strong enough to circle hay bales, brooms made to sweep a fine skelp of farmyard, and pot-scourers that could scrub a pot clean and would last for ages, with washing pegs able to prevent the wildest winds from roaring off with the weekly wash.’