THE DEATH OF DENISE ROBERTSON, AUTHOR OF “DON’T CRY ALOUD.”

It was a horrible shock when our much-loved author, Denise Robertson, died in April. So far, each time a new author has come through to Hopcyn Press, the writer him or herself has become a real friend, and this was particularly true of Denise. We are located in Russell Rd, a turning off the very end of Kensington High Street in London. Right now the cherry trees are in full flower, and how I wish that we could expect anther visit from Denise today; that she would ring our bell as she has done so many times, and could see what this Spring has done to our street.

Denise’s latest book, DON’T CRY ALOUD cost her a great deal of pain and effort to produce. She preferred writing her famous novels, but this project of contributing what she could to the fight for humanity and justice in the Family Courts was so important to her that she was determined to see it through. The heart-breaking stories of enforced adoption which she had come across in her career as an agony aunt haunted her.  Following the publication of DON’T CRY ALOUD last year there was a good deal of publicity in the media, and I watched her being interviewed on Loose Women on TV. Knowing her well by now, I was surprised to see that she was nervous and even fragile in the intensity of her feeling for the subject. I had looked across at her so many times when she was talking in the privacy of our office about the horrendous suffering experienced by some parents in the Family Courts, and seen tears in her eyes. But even so I had not fully realized how intense her emotions were. She was a very lovely looking woman and must have been a complete dish when young. She had a delightful friendly and intelligent manner, and was always beautifully dressed; and although she was no longer at all slim she made no fuss about climbing our stairs!

She hoped for a good deal of support, when her book came out, from Christopher Booker, andothers who had a declared interest in this area of the justice system, and there was a tremendous, but sadly brief, upsurge of interest in the problem. I wonder what she thinks of it now. I had rather wanted Denise to explain the origin of the title, DON’T CRY ALOUD on a blank page before the beginning of the story, but I can tell you here. It refers to advice given by Social Services to mothers who face a last interview with the child which is to be taken away. Apparently the mother is urged not to cry aloud, but to weep silently, and to force her tears to flow inwardly where the child may not see them and be damaged by the remembrance of a mother’s frantic grief. The quotation from the judge, Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division of the High Court of England and Wales, at the beginning of DON’T CRY ALOUD says it all:

"It must never be forgotten that, with the state’s abandonment of the right to impose capital sentences, orders of the kind which family judges are typically invited to make in public law proceedings are amongst the most drastic that any judge in any jurisdiction is ever empowered to make. When a family judge makes a placement order or an adoption order in relation to a 20-year-old mother’s baby, the mother will have to live with the consequences of that decision for what may be upwards of 60 or even 70 years, and the baby for what may be upwards of 80 or even 90 years."

I pray that Denise’s generous efforts and genius for telling a story in her book DON’T CRY ALOUD will continue to touch the hearts of many readers, and arouse the sort of response which can force bureaucratic changes where they are so badly needed.

Pax 1934-1941 Launch Party

THE PARTY GIVEN BY HOPCYN PRESS TO CELEBRATE THE LAUNCH OF MICHAEL HOLZMAN’S NEW BOOK PAX 1934-1941

 
 

This was one gorgeous party – a guest list of a hundred authors, journalists. publishers, agents and friends gathered at Daunt Books in Holland Park Avenue last week to celebrate the launch of this brilliant historical fiction. Apart from drinking 3 litres of negronis, and also various wines, this is the speech they listened to, and which explained everything:

"Welcome, everybody, to this celebration to launch the publication of Michael Holzman’s new book, Pax. Michael is that startlingly handsome man over there, and I am Marguerite Evers, the director of Hopcyn Press.

These are turbulent times for publishing and literary institutions. In fact, a fair gauge in my opinion of the seismic disturbance caused by the arrival of ebooks, Amazon, digital printing, and stylistically the language of popular press in literature is roughly six on the Richter scale. And going up. And yet, like farming the irresistibly fertile slopes of active volcanoes, as people do, publishers and bookshops are busy at it. You’d think this was no place for a small firm like Hopcyn Press to wander quietly up and start digging.  Most of the famous old publishing firms have sought safety in numbers by banding together into battalions of well armed companies, each company consisting of four to six platoons, and occupying new ground well fertilised by celebrities. But Hopcyn Press is completely independent. This publishing company may be named after a rabbit, but it has the heart and stomach of a lion. There are also new bands of publishers offering services a bit like mercenaries; being paid first before joining battle. Hopcyn Press does not do that either. We function in the classic tradition. It might seem that therefore the odds on our survival would be far too great; and so they would be were it not for writers like Michael Holzman and professionals like his literary agent, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson.

When Christopher first sent me the manuscript for what is now called PAX, I was momentarily incredulous. The first page I instantly recognised as the sort of writing which no small publisher can usually get their hands on. It is written in diary form – a device which both Christopher and I particularly like. I warmed immediately to this format and the seductive brilliance of the style of writing. For me the prime consideration when assessing any book is whether the writer can write; not such an obvious priority as you’d think. That wonderful talent, the product of combined intellectual and artistic fire-power, is what Jeeves would call the sine qua non of a book for me: the indispensable charm of clear beautiful prose. On my first reading of Pax I foraged anxiously ahead to see if the author maintained it. He did. He does.

The next hurdle in the assessment of any manuscript is content. There is a reading public for verbiage without content, but Hopcyn Press isn’t in their number. Had this manuscript got a story, a purpose? It has. It is essentially a modern historical novel which unfolds out of a deceptively safe academic chrysalis of pre-second world war scholarship which lulls you into thinking that it is absolutely real. The narrator is a young American who arrives to study Art History at Cambridge in 1934. That, of course, was a period of outstanding scholars in the field, such as Berenson, Fritz Saxle, Venturi, Gombrich. Then there are the younger men such as Blunt, Burgess, Hobsbawm appearing at Cambridge, whose attachment to Communism lights another flare under the narrative. Added to this, the narrator has a godfather in London who is a very wealthy American political socialite. In real life Chips Channon occupied a similar position, and so our narrator can describe an insider’s (imaginary) account of the political stresses between Chamberlain and Churchill and their opposite points of view which adds a whole facet to this complex and fascinating story. Michael’s previous writing has been non-fiction; he has published many academic papers, and also a number of biographies. I hope I won’t be treading on too many toes if I say that I don’t associate that milieu with the flexibility and instinctive melody of the best fiction writing. But Michael makes the jump with miraculous skill. In this book, the actual style of the writing carried me irresistibly over the pages, even if two or three together were all about Georgioni or the legs of a piece of seventeenth century furniture. I was absolutely glued to it like a moth landing on a pool of jam, and I am normally a very self indulgent reader. When eventually I met Michael at Didcot railway station, he had come over from America in order to discuss his book, and I had gone to collect him from his train without finding out in advance what he looked like. How is a writer with jet lag going to recognise a nondescript publishing woman in boots? Only by waiting until everyone else with better things to do has gone, and you hesitantly say to that man, “Are you . . " I mention this because subsequently, on the drive to our house, I had to simultaneously not drive into hedges or sheep and yet take in the, at first, rather awful news that Michael himself never did study at Cambridge, never did live in the fens and has spent very little time in England. I simply could not believe it. How, then, could he have made the imaginary experiences of his hero so utterly authentic. I studied at Cambridge myself. I was an undergraduate there and I had absolutely assumed that only a fellow hoplite could write about the place so accurately. His cool, compulsively alive and intensely real style had me fooled, and I think it will have every reader fooled intermittently throughout the book. As one reads, when fiction takes its licensed leaps away from the path of authentic history there is a shock factor every time.  This is a book of remarkable wit, scholarship and originality. There is also some rather naughty sex, for which I apologise. But by the time I realised it, like some of the characters in the book, I could not say no. I hope you will all be unable to say no to the temptation of taking a copy home with you this evening."

When I remember this speech-moment I am compulsively reminded of the scene in the film Babe, in which the pig who thinks he is a sheep dog confronts the whole flock. Scary. They are crowded, fleece to fleece, right in front of him, and he has to persuade them to do as he says. They are very clever animals. sheep. In the film Babe was successful; and I didn’t do too badly at the party. Most of our guests went at once and bought the book! Do thou do likewise? Oh, yes!

Dear Mr Putin

As I am a citizen of a Western democracy I can express the opinion that you are right and our Prime Minister is wrong as regards Syria, without risking any official retribution.

Our politicians seem reluctant to face the obvious fact that if there ever was any real difference between the original ’rebels’ against Assad and the zealots of ISIS, they have certainly become mixed up together in the resultant chaos. It is no longer really possible to distinguish the one from the other, or to avoid killing both if either is to be overcome.

Personally, I never subscribed to the apparent conviction of some of our politicians – William Hague for example – who seemed convinced for reasons never quite explained that the ‘rebels’ were good and Assad very bad. A similar naivete characterized their plans in Iraq. Western politicians thought Saddam Hussein very bad, and they were right. But they were not right to assume that removing him would be to give place to anything better. It did not. What followed has been worse. Also. he was only one man; he could only kill and torture a limited number at a time, whereas the UK alone killed more than 10,000 civilians during their ‘rescue’ missions under Blair and Bush.

Like Saddam Hussein, Assad ruled by fear. With the example of Iraq in the recent past, how canwestern politicians base their actions on the assumption thatidentical qualities of brutality and cruelty would not emerge among Assad’s ‘victims’ (and rebels)once they had the opportunity? So far Assad’s removal has only cleared the pitch for men just as bad, or worse.

Take the example of your own country. The population which supported the unrestrained tyranny of the Tzars subsequently supported the tyranny of Stalin with just as much enthusiasm. We are told that Stalin’s harshness toward the subject people of Communist Russia was even worse than that of any Tsar.

To return to Syria – the unspeakable rivalries of Al Qaeda, ISIS and secular Muslims and their ruthless predations on the non-combatants of their own fellow countrymen offer no hope of peace. But Assad may be capable of restoring law and order. He did it before. Perhaps with help and advice he may do it again, but with a measure of moderation. You yourself are surely an example of this.

Vital information on Extraordinary Rendition

I can contribute a useful piece of information on the subject of UK involvement with extraordinary rendition. In 2004 by chance I heard an interview on the World Service at 3am. It was of a Syrian born dual citizen of Canada who had been detained at Kennedy airport on his way home. He was returning to Canada after a family holiday. He described how he was kidnapped, flown to the UK, stripped at the airport of his clothes – there was detailed description of how this was done with unusual expertise in 70 seconds – andforced onto another flight . He was taken first to Jordan and then to Syria where he was tortured repeatedly for 10 months. He stated that the UK Prime Minister of the day, Tony Blair, had cleared permission for the Americans to use two British airports, one in England and one in Scotland, for the purpose of Extraordinary Rendition. This news item was never repeated, so I did not have the opportunity that I expected to have in order to note down exact dates and some other details. News items are normally repeated but this one was not.

I found no reference to Extraordinary Rendition on the news in subsequent days or weeks, either in the papers or broadcasts.. I asked many people if they had heard of extraordinary rendition but it appeared to be a secret only very briefly and accidentally let out.

Five years later I was a guest at a lunch for alumni of the legal profession at King’s College, Cambridge. I took the opportunity to ask three well known senior judges for their opinion of extraordinary rendition. They either pretended to be, or were, ignorant of it. I knew very well that if Tony Blair had secretly complied with a request from the United States so inimical to the UK judicial tradition as this of extraordinary rendition, someone in the judiciary must know of it. This permission to give UK hospitality to enableillegal actions is quite separate from the further issue of whether or not British security services were subsequently involved.

Now that the truth is emerging it has been possible for me to discover the name of the man I heard, but I have not seen it written down. It sounds like Maher Arar. The date of his detainment at Kennedy was 26 September 2002. In 2006 he was completely exonerated; in 2007 given a public apology.

I cannot understand why this coalition government under David Cameron is so reluctant to admit to an act of perfidy committed by Tony Blair, his predecessor.

Q&A with Janet Burroway

What is your background as a writer? How did you start out?

According to my mother, I wrote my first poem at the age of five (about Jesus). I did write a pile of verses at eleven and twelve, and was taught the poetic feet in after-school sessions by a kindly English lit teacher.  

How would you describe your usual writing process?

Long agony and dread succeeded by brief flashes of joy when the sentence or the image finds its shape.  I procrastinate terribly, mindful that Victoria Nelson says "If you accuse yourself of procrastination, you're an accuser, not a procrastinator."  But it is my husband (Peter Ruppert, Utopian, Film and German scholar) who smoothes my way by pointing out that my morning routine - dishes, flowers, garden, tidying- is in fact a ritual during which I am if not consciously writing then preparing myself for the task, as a runner prepares by stretching.

Is there any book(s) over all others that has held a lasting effect on you, and why?

Yes. Curiously, it was The Oresteia, and particularly the preface by Richmond Lattimore in his U. Chicago translation, that let me understand, and aspire to master, what he called "symbol complex" but I am more comfortable thinking of as "motif." I studied this work at Barnard under a particularly inspiring professor, and I could, after reading it,  decipher the way that a given image could recur, reveal, and shape a long fiction. 

Is there any one published book that you wish you had written yourself?

Here's a wonder.  Though I would not turn down the chance to have written Middlemarch or Portrait of a Lady, the thing that made me cry,  "I wish I had done that!" was the film of Rocky Horror Picture Show, to which I used to take my boys as teenagers.  I have always, always wanted to write a musical, and so…   

Are you currently working on anything new?

This is a busy time. Bridge of Sand comes out in early October.  I have just turned in the copy for the new editions of Writing Fiction (9th) and Imaginative Writing (4th), both of which I believe will now be in international editions and e-book versions.  They will come out in the winter of next year.  I'm ready to proofread a collection of essays by older women writers that I have edited: A Story Larger Than My Own.  That comes out from University of Chicago Press in March '14, followed in April by the publication of my memoir Losing Tim, about the life and death of my elder son, from Think Piece Press in Minneapolis.  In workshops at Chicago Dramatists I am also writing a play about Tim, feeling freed by having written the memoir to shape and distance myself from the sad material - a process very salutary for me. 

More nearly done, however, is that musical, an adaptation of Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, for which I've written book and lyrics, with music by Matthew M Kiedrowski, who is literally fifty years my junior, and quite brilliant.  We have had a table reading and a concert reading with the Midwest New Musicals group, sponsored by the NEA (sixteen lovely voices send back my words!  a thrill!).  Now we are refining, rearranging the scenes, tossing out favorite songs that don't do the trick, writing new ones.  And are looking for angels to produce it. Barry Unsworth was wonderfully enthusiastic and supportive, but he sadly died last year -not before he heard a recording of the concert reading, though.  His widow remains a staunch ally, and we hope to do her proud.