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Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Nominal Emoticon.

If you want a crash course in humility – publish a novel. In the last couple of days I have been asked if my main character is called Cotton because a) he absorbs atmosphere and information or because b) he ‘cottons’ on.

No, no, this is entirely fair and my response - that the character just came to me as Cotton - is beginning to sound rather ethereal, even to me. What was I thinking of?

Well, first off, I don’t think of Cotton as quite a hero. He is not Richard Hannay from The Thirty-Nine Steps. Hannay is a good name. The nearest word to Hannay is probably ‘handy’ – sometimes used in Edinburgh to denote anything between ‘knowledgeable’ to ‘useful.’

Against that, I didn’t, as I understand some writers do, scour obituaries or telephone directories for a likely sounding name. A Laidlaw, perhaps. Or a John Deed. And I wasn’t looking for something odd or puzzling like Rebus. I read somewhere that James Bond came from the author of a book on Jamaican birds on Ian Fleming’s shelves.

I suppose Mike Hammer as a hero is fairly direct. Poirot combines pear and harlequin. Sam Spade will eschew adjectives. Philip Marlowe is knight-like if possibly not at Deptford, though Philip may hint at great expectations.

George Smiley was way before emoticons.

And that I suppose is the thing. The main character’s name is a nominal emoticon, whether the writer is thinking of that or not. I don’t think of Peter as a strong name in English. It may mean ‘rock’ (see petrified) but it doesn’t sound hard. Cotton has a little more bite to it. Peter Cotton together? A name the character could grow into.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Terrazzo and Tortilla

When I first went to Spain in the early seventies, I remembered my Italian grandmother. This was sparked off by a combination of smells. It took me some time to work out just what it was: a sofrito of garlic and olive oil and tomatoes – and bleach. Spanish women used a lot of bleach (and sometimes something they called aguafuerte, literally strongwater - diluted hydrochloric acid). When I was very young I used to watch my grandmother washing the terrazzo floors – I thought of them as ‘mosaic floors’ and as a small child I’d watch the mosaic ‘pop’ back to colour: red, green, a deep pink and what I’d now call French blue.

So much of our memory is made up of smells. Rather stronger than Proust’s in my case but the same principle. The best smells come from cooking.

In The Maze of Cadiz (due out on November 13th) Peter Cotton arrives in Spain in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, and gets a real taste of the poverty the country is experiencing. His first decent meal is tortilla with Serrano ham. Comforting, satisfying, simple food that has become chic with time.

Here is how I have always made tortilla de patatas (after watching my Spanish friends in action and eating the results). It’s similar to the frittata my grandmother used to make. But this will give you a taste and a smell of Cotton’s Spain:

  • ½ kilo of potatoes - waxy, salad potatoes are best for texture and flavour and hold together well. Never use floury baking potatoes. They definitely do not work. (I tried this once when I didn’t have any others and, although it tasted ok, it was a soggy mess.)
  • 1 small onion - or even better, several spring onions
  • 4 eggs
  • some good quality olive oil
  • a little salt and black pepper.


  • non-stick frying pan
  • a slice or wooden spatula
  • a large plate for turning the tortilla


  • Peel the potatoes and cut into cubes or small slices about a third of an inch thick.
  • Peel and chop the onions. If you are using spring onions, keep the finely chopped green part to one side.
  • Heat some oil in a non-stick frying pan - enough just to cover the potatoes.
  • Add the potatoes and fry gently, stirring and turning occasionally until they are nearly cooked.
  • Add the onion and continue cooking until the onions are soft and the potatoes are cooked but only just beginning to take colour.
  • Remove the potatoes and onion from the pan. Drain well and put them into a bowl. Add salt and black pepper to taste.
  • Beat the eggs with a pinch of salt, and add to the potatoes and onion mixture in the bowl.
  • Add the chopped green part of the spring onions and mix well.

To make the tortilla

  • Drain the oil from the pan and wipe out with kitchen paper to ensure a smooth surface.
  • Add some oil and swirl around the pan over the heat to coat the surface – better a little more than a little less oil, as you can always drain it off when the tortilla is cooked.
  • When the oil is hot but not quite smoking, add the tortilla mixture and tilt the pan to spread evenly. Shake the pan from time to time, until the tortilla moves freely.
  • Turn the heat down low (to avoid the surface from becoming burnt or too brown) and continue cooking, shaking from time to time, until it is nearly set.
  • Place a plate over the pan and invert so that the tortilla is now turned over on the plate.
  • Add a touch more oil to the pan if necessary and heat before carefully sliding the tortilla in, to cook the other side. Use the spatula or the slice to press in and shape the tortilla neatly around the edges.
  • Turn the heat right down again and leave until the tortilla is cooked through.
  • Slide on to a fresh plate and leave to cool for a while before cutting – either into wedges or into squares if serving as a tapa.
  • Serve with mayonnaise

Tortilla is good to eat hot or cold, but never put it in the fridge. My Spanish friends disagree about whether it is more authentic with or without onion. I prefer it with. You can also add chopped green or red pepper when frying the onions and/or some chopped chorizo.

A different, equally delicious tortilla can be made substituting the traditional potato mix with aubergines, garlic and onions (add some courgettes and a little green pepper too if you like). This is good served with a fresh tomato sauce.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Facts and Bones

Today, 12 October 2008, Javier Marías has an interesting article in El Pais newspaper on what I mentioned in an earlier blog entry. ‘El Pais’ means, literally, 'The Country' and there was a time when the mere name of the paper was regarded as an insult to Spain’s position in the world (see 'La Patria' or 'Fatherland', beloved by hacks in times of Francisco Franco anxious about his legacy).

The subject is Historical Memory, grave-digging and relics. Marías does point out the traditional contradiction of eternal life and the enormous attention paid to bones in Catholic societies. He also uses the word ‘puerilidad’ - puerility - in the endeavour to find out what happened to, say, Lorca in what - this is me - is a kind of living archaeology. By that I mean within living memory, with relatives of the dead still alive. He mentions an uncle of his who died at age 17 or 18, and that the fact of his murder is worth more than finding his bones in a place where they have lain for seventy years beside other victims.

Our problem may be that we want to see, have, even possess what is gone. At one level this is understandable. At another, again me, this is derisory. We can’t recapture, sort out or establish justice years after. But we don’t want to forget, unless it suits us.

Marías is an exceptional novelist, quite well known outside Spain. I recommend his books. (See, for example A Heart So White published by Vintage 1997, excellently translated by Margaret Jull Costa).

Another Spanish language novelist, not so well known, is the Peruvian Alfredo Bryce Echenique. Some years ago, I tried to get him published in English and failed. His Un mundo para Julius – A World for Julius – was translated into English – not too well - for an American academic publisher, and that rather did for La Vida Exagerada de Martin Romaña, an account of a Peruvian, in 1968 Paris, that makes you laugh - until you cry.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

A Gamut of Names

I have fixed up to go to London – I am in Edinburgh – to sign 250 copies of the The Maze of Cadiz for Goldsboro Books nearer the publication date of November 13. It is their book of the month. I’ll blog how I get on. I have also been asked to an informal readers’ group lunch at Heffers in Cambridge, some time in November

Meanwhile, nearly four weeks ago, my nearly 90 year old father-in-law came for lunch – and then, on leaving, fell on the last step of the stairs. He was born on 11-11- 1918, the last day of the First World War. Had he been a girl he would have been called Irene. The name means ‘peace’ apparently and since he was born in the North East of Scotland where they speak something called the Doric, Irene didn’t stick as an alternative. At his grandmother’s funeral, my husband was approached by an old man who asked ‘Are you Peacie’s loon?’ -Are you Peace’s boy? (I don’t think that quite qualifies as a feminine side, more nominal gender and a cross-check).

Luckily, though a little shaken by the fall, my father-in-law was all right. We all decided however that it would be better if he stayed over.

I have rarely heard him speak of his war time experiences. He takes – as my own father took – a sceptical view of the treatment of his generation as heroes. What he does occasionally talk about is ‘the fog of war’. I don’t think he means just the difficulty of knowing what is going on in any action – that ‘fog’ includes the ignorance, incompetence and accident that accompanies any effort to wage large-scale war. He was lucky, for example, to avoid the fate of some of his regiment who carried on to Singapore after the Japanese had taken it, because nobody had thought to revise the orders. Instead, he was disembarked in India and later sent into Burma ‘to see where the Japanese were’. A lot of men died in this endeavour but not one of them was killed by the enemy. They died from disease (some in accidents, usually drowning), having been sent out in the rainy season without jungle equipment, medicine or proper maps.

As a result of this expedition many changes were made but he returned with malaria and pneumonia and weighed six stone. The doctors told him that the experience would undoubtedly shorten his life. In those circumstances it is difficult to get anything right at all.

He is now back to walking four miles a day and following the state of the world. He’s had quite a lot to work on recently.

The designer of my website is Seth Nichols. He lives in Barcelona. Because his middle name is Francis, in Spain he is often called Seth Francis. We know about this. In Spain people have two surnames, father’s first, mother’s second, and, faced by English multiple first names, tend to take the second in a full name as the surname.

My husband’s second name is William. You just get used to it – and to people not knowing your real surname.

More delightfully, I was often called ‘Lucy’ when in Cadiz. I don’t know how this started. At one time I tried to correct this but was told that, no, I was known as ‘Lucy’ and that would have to do. It gives you a gamut of names. If someone had called out Lucy William – I’d have looked round.

The feedback so far on the website has been very good. ‘Clean’ and ‘clear’ are words that people use a lot. Website design is something I know very little about and Seth led me through a pertinent if gentle yes/no process – and provided me with colour charts. I am intrigued by the word ‘clean’ - I take it to mean the opposite of ‘cluttered’. ‘Clear’ would be ‘unfussy’ as well as ‘easy to follow’? I certainly did not want curlicues and flowers. The site has also been called ‘professional’. Well, yes – Seth is a professional web designer, though I understand I was very lucky to find him.

Reading Notes

This is a little embarrassing. When I am writing I don’t read thrillers. On the way to the US I read After Dark by Haruki Murakami. On a plane certainly, the book was very amenable, having something of the same sense of night lights and flow.
I have also been reading some of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee series. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who died in the late sixties, one of the first to write historically set mysteries, often using Chinese source material. Set in the 7th Century, they have something of the crime fairy story about them and the traditional puzzle.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

First Step

A little over a month ago, on Labour Day in the US, at a family wedding in Narragansett, R. I., I had a conversation with a charmingly gloomy young American who was in love with sailing ships. He had just had the opportunity to be skipper in a schooner race out of Newport but, in his own words, had ‘blown it’ because he ‘had not been brave enough’. The difficult thing for him was that he had thought he was ‘keeping tight to the course’, when what had been needed was the realisation that a chance to win had opened up, was there…and then, irredeemably, was not. One of his main regrets was that his crew knew. He could see it in their faces.

It was interesting to meet someone who both mentioned and admired Joseph Conrad so much - not something I often get the chance to do. Amongst 19th Century sea-faring novelists, I prefer Herman Melville. Not just for Moby Dick. Benito Cereno is a marvel, with an incidental take on the 19th Century American view of Spanish fatalism. Melville describes the sea better than Conrad and the young American accepted this, but he could not imagine how a reader would find Ahab more interesting than Lord Jim, his own favourite character. In his own expressive phrase, ‘Ahab is a stick, Lord Jim lives.’

Lord Jim is a book about someone who assumes he is brave, and finds himself in an absurd panic. He then spends the rest of his life in expiation of what he sees as his own cowardice. Lord Jim flees civilisation to be incessantly, even wilfully courageous. But can never rid himself of that first failure.

I don’t know that this is a tragedy, but I do think that characters and people sometimes get the elemental and the elementary mixed up. The test and the quest, the mettle of a man? But both measured by a simple moral chart which is acquired when we are young and necessarily vulnerable - uncertain about what trust and loyalty, even to oneself, involves. It also includes the notion that a hero has to be extremely vigilant – in case he misses his chance to step up.

Waiting for a first book to come out is a desultory and unheroic business - much more like Ishmael clinging to a coffin (no white whale, though) than reporting on Lord Jim’s inevitable death. This is not exactly worry, more an endless checking to see if I’ve got things right, forgotten something – or got things wrong. You don’t want to let down the people who took you on, and you don’t want to disappoint the reader. It’s rather like trying to see if you left a zip undone from an old photographic negative.

It also makes me a little too aware of what I have written. I mention Lord Jim in The Maze of Cadiz. This is meant to be an indicator, a helpful pointer. Cotton is very wary of bravery. He knows just how much spin and convenient elision is involved in the concept.

And then there is the question of imposition and names. There are commercial categories for books and The Maze of Cadiz has been put in the ‘historical spy thriller’ section.

For me the word ‘thriller’ always has something electric about it. Almost a century ago, John Buchan fixed the genre as running on a tightrope between the improbable and the just possible. Running has a lot to do with it.

But it is also worth pointing out that Buchan himself used the word ‘shocker’ – and there is definitely something of buzz and jolt about this kind of thriller. When we first went to Spain, the washing machine gave jolts and sent tingles up my arm when I touched it. ‘What do you expect?’ said the baffled electrician I called in. ‘It’s electricity.’ That was when I found out that the Spanish then often earthed through the water pipes. (I later passed the parcel of sensation on to Cotton). As my mother-in-law put it ‘ouch. Yes, enough electricity to alarm but not to kill.’

Of course there have been many other types of thriller, often done, and done for a long time, in less propagandistic times. Graham Greene and John le Carré, for example, both examine moral greyness, character flaws and human weakness within a framework of intelligence communities.

There is then the thriller that squeezes in ways we recognise disturbingly well. I wanted to put the reader in the same stifling scenario as the main character and with as little idea about what was going on. I wanted to add a flavour of unease and anxiety to an unidentified risk. If thrillers are usually brisk nightmares that turn out as victorious daydreams, I wanted to give the nightmare a little more twisting time, and introduce a doubt about whether it would turn out well.

My charming American acquaintance had wanted to understand something about his future prospects as the captain of a schooner in a race. The Maze of Cadiz ends without Cotton having fully understood what he has done. I don’t want to give away the ending, but he will have to make some drastic decisions about himself. Has he been brave or has he acted out of alarm? Or will he shut off, in a kind of mental mutilation, in order to keep going? He has done his job in extreme fashion but what has it entailed? No, no grateful superiors and praise.

Then there is the ‘historical’ angle. I am always a little suspicious when people behave promptly, perfectly and up-to-the minutely in a historical context, always a little let down when the 14th Century baron has an instinctive grasp of how the Plague was spread, or the 16th century lawyer is portrayed as a precursor of the Human Rights Act. In this case, anyway, The Maze is within living memory. Peter Cotton may still be alive, living abroad, though I suspect his second wife Helen, died in 2005.

It has been suggested I write about real ‘Historic’ or ‘Historical’ Memory for a newspaper. Next year will be the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War. The Memory mentioned is an effort by the present Spanish Government not so much to lay ghosts to rest, but to find out what happened on, now in, the ground. This has involved a lot of grave finding and grave digging.

As I write this, there is a debate in Spain on whether or not to exhume the remains of the poet Federico García Lorca. He was buried near Granada with a number of others summarily shot in 1936. His family have, rather elegantly but not entirely willingly, agreed that if other families consider it necessary, they will allow the exhumation.

I did want to write something exciting, but perhaps a little less fantastic and a little more pertinent and less gung-ho than Buchan’s great The Thirty-Nine Steps. Fathers, grandfathers, even great grandfathers – everyone has a living history. Outside fantasy and within some approximation to history and recent life spans, thrillers are murky. They dice with inconvenient uncertainties and truths about our own judgements.

Outside a thriller’s remit? Not, I think, if you have a wider sense of thrill. Wonder over escapism? Something like that.