Friday, 29 May 2015

Launch of Tying Down The Lion

I am very happy to let everyone know that Brick Lane Publishing has arranged a launch for Tying Down The Lion.

The venue is Waterstones bookshop in the beautiful town of Bath and the event begins at 6.30pm on July 9th 2015.

I will be reading extracts from the book, signing copies and talking about my path to publication. 

If you would like to come, just let me know via the Comments or my Author Page on Facebook and I will be very happy to see you there.

My heartfelt thanks for all your support and enthusiastic comments throughout the process of writing Tying Down The Lion, from its beginnings as a short story to a work-in-progress, then finally to my debut novel.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Elvis and The Cold War

In 1958, Elvis went to West Germany, but not to rotate his famous pelvis. He was drafted to a tank division that would help prevent the Soviets storming through from the east.

Khrushchev had given the Western powers six months to leave Berlin, but the US, UK and France stated their intention to stay exactly where they were. As a result, Soviet tanks were expected to emerge from the same East/West German mountain gap through which Hannibal and Napoleon had once invaded. Elvis's unit was sent to guard it. However, he - and many young men like him - could not fully comprehend why they were there at all.

They were justifiably mystified about their presence in West Germany, since it was likely that the Soviets were more concerned with spreading communism to countries that were easier targets and would eventually unite with them against America. Were the Russians really coming? As Elvis himself said, "What the hell are we doin' this for anyway?"

During this time, Elvis became a significant person in the forefront of the Cold War, because he was the epitome of freedom. West Germany, aware that his popularity could encourage young Germans to lend weight to NATO, took advantage of his presence, even running a competition for winners to take tea with him. East Germany, however, blustered at the moral decline he represented. Rock 'n roll was considered savage, a threat to ordered society and, according to defence minister, Willi Stoph, “a means of seduction to make the youth ripe for atomic war.” They had to find something to counter all that Elvis stood for and their response was -  the Lipsi.

The Lipsi - the name designed to offer a degree of 'modern' appeal - was a staid, old-fashioned dance strictly for couples, with the man leading the woman and not a pelvic thrust in sight. There was minimal bodily contact and both the steps and the hand movements seemed childlike and innocent. Its introduction - officially endorsed by the state - openly demonstrated the communist party leaders' distaste for men and women dancing solo and therefore able to make their own individual moves. The Twist, for example, was declared to be harmful to one's internal organs. Signs were put up in dance halls declaring that dancing apart was forbidden.

East German youth took to the streets in protest. Arrests and prison sentences followed. Among the evidence in court were pictures of Elvis found in the rebels' homes.

Khrushchev's ultimatum eventually came to a crescendo with the building of the Berlin Wall. Elvis had left Germany by then and the east was sealed against western decadence.

In Tying Down The Lion, we meet East Germans of the age between the younger and older generations. For them, weary from the horrors of World War II, the rebelliousness of youth has passed by, but the compliance of old age has not yet set in. It is therefore with a gentle touch of disdain and self-mockery that they teach the Lipsi to our English narrator, Jacqueline. Her knowledge of music is confined to television programmes such as The Black and White Minstrel Show, although she has seen Ready, Steady, Go!, in which the gyrating dancers met with her grandmother's shock and disapproval.

Perhaps, to the younger British teenager of the sixties, whose eyes sometimes had to be covered while they gazed at exciting new sights on the small screen - and to those who covered them - the Lipsi was representative of a tamer, more 'respectable' time. Whereas to those of the age to seek greater self-expression, it was stuffy, prim and repressive.

The final irony is that 'Elvis the Pelvis' had already outraged the establishment with his gyrations (he eventually had to be filmed from the waist up for television) and with his music that crossed racial divisions in just the same way as he disturbed the leaders of East Germany, and yet the US found it useful to parade him as a symbol of western culture during the Cold War - a perfect example of how the ideals and standards of different countries and regimes are not as diverse as they might at first appear. That said, the Lipsi was doomed never to catch on - anywhere.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Family Car Journeys - then and now

Lovely and talented writer, Shirley Golden, has kindly hosted my guest post comparing the joys and pitfalls of family car-holidays today with road travel in the sixties.

Here I am in 1968 - very sulky behind my clip-on sunglasses - between my parents and beside the road somewhere in West Germany. While my mother is wisely enjoying the picnic, my father is brooding - I think he was short of both petrol and cigarettes. The very shiny Corsair was his absolute pride and joy, but the 'joys' of the family holiday seem to be eluding him here.

Thank you, Shirley - I really enjoyed the memories that this brought back.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

A Temporary Uprooting

In this extract from my short story, A Temporary Uprooting, which ignited the inspiration for the novel, Tying Down The Lion, narrator Jacqueline is contemplating the imminent trip to Berlin.

The prospect of venturing Abroad throws into relief the existing conflict between her narrow-minded English grandmother and her German-born mother. Grandma's friend, Elsie, gleeful at the opportunity to stir up a hornet's nest, offers no help.

“Elsie says there are soldiers clicking triggers on every corner of Berlin,” Grandma tells my mother.
Elsie blushes to the black roots of her dandelion-clock hair.
I reassure Grandma that Germany is an ordinary country like ours, but she says, “What, with all that sausage?”
My mother has kept a newspaper picture of a Berlin bride in tears because her grandparents must watch the wedding from the other side of the Wall. The elderly couple strain to see the white froth of the dress from their bedroom window, their knotty, tired hands clasped together on a cushion laid on the sill.
But, divided city or not, I imagine the people on both sides wake up and groan at the cat for leaping on them before the alarm clock trills, accuse each other of leaving toothpaste-spit in the wash-basin and hope to shake out more than dust from the pit of the cornflakes box, the same as they do here.
For the people of Berlin, half of a city has to mean the whole of it.
Grandma says, “I don’t trust sausage with green bits.”
“Nell, they are only peppercorns,” my mother explains, elaborating the peppercorns with a whispered German swear-word that only I hear.
“Pepper's white," Grandma says. "And it's for mashed swede.”
My mother promises to make Grandma her four o'clock tea every day in Berlin, vowing to pack the lump sugar and a quarter pound of best leaf, even when Elsie says the guards will poke bayonets in her handbag. Mother won’t let anyone float a German lemon slice in the cup, but Grandma should not expect the milk to come from a bottle.
I imagine them singing the praises of the British milkman to my West Berlin aunt. The other aunt lives behind the Wall with - according to Elsie's over-taxed imagination - a cupboard full of nothing but pickled cucumbers,  coffee made from rotting sugar-beet and chocolate bars that taste of earth. 
My mother and I have a one-day pass to visit her in East Berlin...

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The open road that may close wounds

One of the main characters in Tying Down The Lion is Roy Bishop, the driver of a battered Morris Traveller entrusted to transport his family from England to Berlin. While he invests his faith in his beloved car, his wife and children must put theirs in him - their 'King of the Road'. 
But for Roy, this is more than a trip, more than simple driving for pleasure. The car must survive because the open road ahead represents his longing to escape the devastating psychological effects of World War II. The war may have ended over twenty years earlier, but he still suffers from what was eventually to become known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and had previously been recorded as 'shell shock' in WWI and 'battle fatigue' in WWII.
These days there is greater and growing sensitivity towards unseen wounds, an ability to acknowledge that stressful events can cut deep inside and more encouragement to seek professional help. However, that does not mean it is easy to find solace. Before asking for support, the sufferer has to acknowledge the impact of their ordeal and express their torment when such recognition can itself force open the emotional scars and cause deeper pain. 
For a man like Roy, who returned from a war which hailed its men as heroes, rather than casualties, it is especially difficult to expose the concealed damage. Although by the time of WWII, military psychiatrists had arrived at the conclusion that any soldier could reach their breaking-point, many men saw their failure to cope as a weakness.
Roy is a husband and father in the sixties, an ex-soldier who served his country during the worst conflict in history. He believes that he is not expected - indeed, not permitted - to show emotion. He has a different role to play now. He must look after his family without caving in, despite the horror of the past shadowing him with dogged persistence. When sometimes it becomes unavoidable that his wife and children witness the signs of his agony, the harrowing scenes are not discussed afterwards. No help is sought.
This was a time when the revelation of feelings was often considered unmanly. A masculine image was important. My own father, who suffered horrific dreams after the war, refused to push a pram or carry a bunch of flowers. Although he felt proud of his children and lovingly tended the beautiful blooms in his garden, he could not bear to have his pride or his tender side revealed in public. In many families, everyone - both male and female - was discouraged from outbursts of inner feelings, even within the privacy of the home. It was termed 'getting in a state' or 'being emotional' and considered a demeaning and embarrassing lapse of strength.
Therefore, even during the relative peace of England during the years of the Cold War, Roy must battle on, the conflicts inside him lingering long after physical battle has reached a conclusion. Ever hopeful, he devises his own 'cure' - the road ahead. This way, there is no looking into the horror of the past, no peeling back the 'soft' side of himself, no revelation of the terrible hurt that has to stay with him forever. His family must not lose their unshakeable belief that he will reach his destination. Only his mother is less sure that he will bring them to Berlin in one piece - not only because of her uncertainty about his driving prowess and the delicate condition of his car, but also perhaps because she senses his fragility inside.
If Roy could choose a mantra from more enlightened times, this quote from author M.B. Dallocchio might be appropriate for him: "The open road. Seemingly my only friend for years upon end since leaving war. The road embraced me, let me breathe, and more importantly, did not judge me."

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Writing an Iceberg

Ordinary people - both English and German - left mentally scarred by World War II; homes that have been transformed in a grotesque way or shifted altogether; a holiday that opens up family fissures; an ancient car that struggles to reach Berlin; and the city itself, pockmarked with bullet-holes and split in half: these inherent parallels provide the nuts and bolts of my debut novel, Tying Down The Lion. But how does a story-teller reveal interconnecting themes without consciously laying them bare to the reader? I try to explain The Iceberg Theory in my guest post for Brick Lane Publishing.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

A Book is Not a Baby

People tell me my book must feel like my baby. They say that with publication imminent, watching that baby take its first steps must be a wrench. The truth is, I don't feel like that. Once my book was finished, there was a positive and welcome sense of detachment - it was a complete being and ready to try its luck in the world.
If it succeeds in entertaining any of its readers, then it will be successful and I will be inordinately proud. Not of me, but of it. This is not some sort of coy modesty. I feel this way about short stories too. Once they become complete pieces, I see them in a different way. They must stand alone. I send them off and wish for the best possible outcome, but without expectations, since those can lead to disappointment. However, I am always hopeful, as there would be little point submitting if I couldn't allow myself a sliver of that. If the story is unsuccessful, I am disappointed for it, not for myself. If it flourishes, I am overwhelmed with happiness, but for the story, not for me. The mood has changed since we were closely acquainted. I am occupied with a different set of characters, an unrelated setting and brand-new words. This is why they cannot feel like babies. If they were, it would be impossible to discard one in favour of the next.
I really miss the characters I have created and wish they were still with me, but none of them can be tiny infants - even those who actually are. They must all stand on their own feet. If they seem to be faltering, then I probably shouldn't write The End just yet.
My book cannot be a baby. It has to go out and speak for itself, function on the precipice without me clutching hold of it and clinging on for all I'm worth - just in case I decide to pull it back from the brink.
A book and a baby are two different entities. One is painful to produce, causes endless anguish and disturbs sleep. The other is soft, pink and gurgly.