Friday, December 30, 2011

Happy New Year to All the Readers of Midatlantic!

In Memoriam (Ring Out, Wild Bells) Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Beguiled by the Past

The grave of my great-uncle John Teasdale Mackintosh in Odiham churchyard, Hampshire, England

The other day when reading Alice Munro's semi-autobiographical story collection The View from Castle Rock, I ran across a quote that struck a chord with me. In the Epilogue, Munro is searching for the grave of one of her ancestors in an old graveyard in Joliet, Illinois. She writes about how many human beings, as they get older, get hooked on pursuing their family history. 
"Once they get started they'll follow any lead. People who have done little reading in their whole lives will immerse themselves in documents, and some who would have trouble telling you the years in which the First World War was begun and end will toss out dates from past centuries. We are beguiled. It happens mostly in our old age, when our personal futures close down and we cannot imagine – sometimes cannot even believe in – the future of our children’s children. We can’t resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging onto the threads, insisting on being joined to dead people, and therefore to life.”

This is exactly how I felt when researching my own family’s history. Yes, it does become more important to us as we get older and can look back over the contours of our own lives and beyond them to those of the people from whom we are descended – gene by gene, chromosome by chromosome. But this is also how I’ve felt as I’ve slowly unearthed and pieced together the facts of the lives of the Salmons of Tahiti. It’s partly the thrill of the detective work involved in genealogical research but it’s also the very human need to find and tell a story. And for those of us with no children, the stories we tell are all we’ll leave behind us. They matter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Books of Many Colors

Just one of the bookcases in our dining room

While waiting for the kettle to boil the other day, I began idly counting the books in one of our bookcases. A couple of minutes later after scribbling some sums on the grocery list pad, I’d calculated that we probably have around 2,000 books in our house.
That’s not very many compared with the 33 million in the Library of Congress, the 14 million in the British Library, or the 11 million in the Bodleian at Oxford University. But for a modest 3-bedroom colonial, it’s a lot.
There are 3½ full-length IKEA bookcases in our dining room as well as a nifty built-in shelf that runs the length of the room at just below ceiling height, which alone holds – I reckon – 80 paperbacks. There’s another full-length bookcase in the living room and one at the top of the stairs, plus one and a half in my office that are groaning under the weight of books about Tahiti and 20th-century British and European history. This is not to mention the contents of several smaller book shelves in the spare room and the basement.
We could probably cull fifty to a hundred and never miss them, but I’m not in any hurry to try.
How many of these have I read? I really couldn’t say. Maybe half? Or less? Which means that I have a host of literary treasures at my disposal, ready and waiting to be discovered. Having so many books on the premises means that, when I get into a reading frenzy on some subject or author, I can usually satisfy my cravings just by going to my own shelves. For example, to fill a gap in my reading of the classics, I recently embarked on a tour through the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson. I began with The Master of Ballantrae because he wrote it in Tahiti in 1888 while staying with Tati Salmon. (Tati described RLS sitting up in bed in the Salmon house in Papara scribbling furiously on a pad on his knees.) I knew that, when I finished it, I had copies of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, and Kidnapped right here under my roof whenever I was ready for them.  
Also, on those rare occasions when I’m at a loss as to what to read next, I can browse my stacks and remind myself that we have copies of, say, Slaughterhouse Five or The Tin Drum or The Old Man and the Sea.
I have often been teased for organizing my books by the color of their spines. But that is how I remember them. The other day a friend asked me if I had a copy of Midnight’s Children that she could borrow. I knew I did – and remembered it as a Penguin trade paperback with a white and orange spine and was able to go straight to the right shelf and found it wedged between Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood and The Stories of Colette – in the same color combo. It’s a weird unconscious mnemonic device of mine – my own instinctive Dewey Decimal system. Thank god I have it or I’d never find anything I was looking for.
Clearly it would make more sense to cram our 2,000 books onto an e-reader, but where would be the fun in that? Our house is an embodiment of Anthony Powell’s 1971 novel titled Books Do Furnish a Room, and to me the sight of a neat row of matching orange, blue, or green spines is a real aesthetic pleasure. In these gray times, it is good to have as much color in our homes and in our world as we can find.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Let Me Count the Ways

This is the time of year when one is supposed to stop and contemplate what one is thankful for. Thanksgiving itself falls at the end of November and is closely followed by the triumvirate of religious holidays Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza. And then New Year with its resolutions. Not to mention my birthday at the beginning of December. So many opportunities to take stock.
So here’s my attempt to gauge the extent of my gratitude for what I have.
·         The support and love of my family, friends, and husband.

·         The health and strength of myself and my loved ones.

·         Having enough paid work to keep body and soul together.

·         My genes, which have given me positivity, drive, and a can-do attitude from my Dad, creativity, empathy, and common sense from my Mum, and a sense of humor from both.

·         My passion for writing, which, even when I’m unable to indulge it for long periods of time, never ceases to make me happy. When I discover a new way to solve a narrative problem or when I find the right rhythm to a sentence after many tries. When a character takes an unexpected turn that turns out to be exactly in character or a scene comes together with depth and texture that has come from my deepest imagination.

I will be making up stories till I die. It is what I do and who I am, regardless of whether anyone ever reads a word that I write. And I am profoundly, eternally grateful for that.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Back to the Island

Herman Melville
I am buried, avalanched, drowning in paid editing work right now, which is the reason for my recent neglect of Midatlantic. I’ve been yearning to get back into writing Children of Eden, but between my workload and the onset of the intense social whirl of the “holidays” (which seems to start earlier every year), I don’t see that happening any time soon. But I have carved out a tiny fragment of time in which to share with you a glimpse of Alexander Salmon in 1842. A mere two years after he arrived in Tahiti with nothing to his name but a diamond ring and a set of shirt studs, he had married a Princess and become the trusted brother-in-law of the renowned  Queen Pomare IV.
The glimpse that we have of him is through the eyes of Herman Melville, later to be author of Moby Dick but at that time a lowly deserter from an American whaling ship. He and another deserter came to the Queen’s compound with the idea of asking for work. Before he was shooed away by the Queen’s ladies, he noticed another house in the royal compound “of large size and fine exterior; the special residence of a European...who had done himself the honour of marrying into the Pomaree [sic] family.” This was Alexander Salmon, and there was something about him that put Melville’s nose firmly out of joint.

“The lady he wedded being a near kinswoman of the queen, he became a permanent member of her majesty’s household. This adventurer rose late, dressed theatrically in calico and trinkets, assumed a dictatorial tone in conversation, and was evidently on excellent terms with himself. We found him reclining on a mat, smoking a reed-pipe of tobacco, in the midst of an admiring circle of chiefs and ladies. He must have noticed our approach; but instead of rising and offering civilities, he went on talking and smoking, without even condescending to look at us."
Even though Melville's appearance was bedraggled and uncouth after weeks of living rough, he had obviously expected the “adventurer” to acknowledge and welcome a fellow white man. In this, he entirely mistook Salmon’s attitude to class and race. The Society Islands were full of disreputable sailors who had jumped ship and were living off the bounty of the land and little else, and Salmon would see no reason to associate with such a man simply because their skin was the same colour. As a Victorian Englishmen, he was extremely class-conscious and, having grown up as the son of a tradesman, he never ceased to feel he had to prove his credentials as a gentleman. Like many other emigrants to Tahiti, he welcomed the chance to reinvent himself away from the stifling social constraints that prevailed in Britain.

However, unlike most Englishmen of his generation and time, he was remarkably free of the idea of white racial superiority. Having been born a Jew in an overwhelmingly gentile country, he was used to being an outsider and did not think about race in the same way that conventionally brought-up young Englishmen had been taught to think. Some settlers and visitors spoke with distaste of his cross-racial marriage. For example, one British visitor to the island described him as having contracted “a low marriage with a native of the island; I say ‘low’ even though she boasts of being of royal blood.”

To Alexander Salmon, his wife’s skin colour was of no consequence but her royal blood was of paramount importance. It enhanced his prestige and status - in Tahiti, back in Britain, and in his own eyes as well - and elevated him to a trusted relative of a Queen. However small and insular this particular royal circle may have been, his privileged place in it was an enormous source of pride to him all of his life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Death in the Garden

On Sunday morning November 6, 2011, we lost our beautiful cat, Daphne. She was 15 years old and had been getting thinner and more fragile since the summer. She went missing on Saturday night - the coldest night since last winter - and when she didn't return in the morning, we knew things were bad. We searched under bushes in every yard and called her name up and down the street, and the incoherent prayers that I'd been sending up began to coalesce into one fervent plea, "Please god, let me see her again one more time."

An instinct made Mike pull aside a large plant pot in our neighbors' yard and there she was, limp, apparently lifeless but still - just - alive. He held her as I ran, heart pounding, to the house to get my purse and keys and a blanket. Then he laid her on my lap in the back of the car and drove as fast as he dared to the emergency animal hospital. I cradled her in my arms and crooned at her as she drew her last slow rasping breaths, looking up with eyes that didn't see me. By the time we pulled up outside the hospital,I could tell she was gone.

Some kind friends have pointed me to this poem, which is a far better epitaph for my darling girl than I can come up with in my fumbling, incoherent grief. It's by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Franz Wright.

On the Death of a Cat

In life, death
was nothing
to you: I am

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occured

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised to an infinite
power and perfection) - no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered
friend -


Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Secret Lives of Houses

The White House is the L-shaped house on the left with the tree behind it.

I grew up in the most atmospheric house I can possibly imagine.
The White House was built in 1760 for Sir Harry Erskine, the local Member of Parliament for Anstruther. So by the time my father bought it in 1965, it was already more than two centuries old. It was in a dilapidated state when we moved in, and for months we lived in just three rooms while the house was being restored under the National Trust for Scotland’s Little Houses Scheme. My parents did such a fine job that in 1972 the government designated The White House as a Grade A Listed Building in Scotland, defined as being: “Buildings of national or international importance, either architectural or historic, or fine little-altered examples of some particular period, style or building type (approximately 8 percent of the total).” Definitely not to be sneezed at.
But as a child, I cared about none of this. What mattered to my brother and me was that it was like living in a ship. The house was situated directly behind the sea wall of the old West Anstruther harbor. During the gales of winter and the spring tides, great waves of water would crash against the house and break over the roof.  And when the weather was calm, we had the whole beach to play on with its continents of rock formations straggling out to sea. A fertile plain for our imaginations, both indoors and out.
It was very much a practical house with the thick stone walls and deep log fireplaces appropriate for the climate. No chandeliers, no fancy moldings, just a couple of fireplaces that were supposed to have been designed by Robert Adam, the famous 18th century architect and interior designer. There was enough room inside for us kids to have not only a playroom, where we made up plays and puppet shows, but also a music room where, as we got older, we played records and entertained our friends. In other words, it was a truly magical house in which to grow up.
But in 1981, my parents had to move south to the London area, and the house was sold. I had been back to Anstruther a handful of times over the years, but I had only seen The White House from the outside. It wasn’t until 2009 when I finally set foot in it again.
I was visiting Anstruther with my niece Florence, and I wanted her to be able to see the place where her father and I had grown up, about which she had heard so many stories. So I called the current owners, Cairns and Lindy, to ask if we could stop by, and they were kind enough to agree.
As I stepped over the threshold through the familiar red front door, I expected to be overwhelmed by a tsunami of memories. But I felt nothing very much. The rooms were essentially the same, though decorated quite differently. It was pleasant to see them again, to compare notes with Cairns and Lindy about how each one looked in our day and to tell Florence stories about where our piano stood or where our poodle Angus slept, but there was no sense of deep familiarity and certainly no emotion.
But then as we were heading down a staircase towards the front door, our tour almost over, I paused to point something out to Florence. As I spoke, I happened to put my hand on the smooth warm wood of the top of the newel post and felt a surge of tactile memory so strong it stopped me dead in the middle of a sentence. It was like my younger self had reached out and touched me, palm to palm. I almost staggered.
How many times must I have touched that post as I headed up to my bedroom to do my homework or played on that staircase with my dog. A thousand? Ten thousand? Enough to leave a kind of psychic imprint that lay in wait for me for 30 years?
When we lived in The White House, people used to ask me if I’d ever seen the ghost of a white lady who was supposed to haunt its hallways. I used to scoff at the idea, but now I wonder. As I get older, it seems more and more plausible to me that houses retain the echo of the people who have lived within their walls. Maybe someone living in the house in the 22nd century will one day hear the echo of childish voices or catch a glimpse of a young girl in bell-bottomed jeans floating down the stairs, with one ghostly hand resting on the top of the newel post.
Top of the newel post at the end of the banister on the right

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Adams in Eden

Henry Adams, American historian and novelist
Extract from Chapter 1 of Children of Eden:

When Adams and La Farge returned from Tautira, Tati invited them to join the family in the festivities to commemorate the opening of a bridge on Teva land near Papara. Here again was the comic opera aspect of the island - the pomp and circumstance of a European empire paradoxically recreated on a tiny South Sea island.  Adams delighted in the incongruities and the local color alike.

The Salmons and their guests were up early and had the Teva house ready by 9am to welcome the French Governor. The men were dressed in dazzling white suits, the women in their best dresses with wreathes of flowers in their hair. The Governor – a Martinique native with the imposing name of Étienne-Théodore-Mondésir Lascascade - was a small, middle-aged man with mutton-chop whiskers and receding hair. He had arrived from Papeete in his coach, sweating in the tropical heat. As representative of the great motherland of France, the Governor was very affable to Adams and La Farge, but Adams was impatient with the absurdity of diplomatic conversation. “We had to be formal for near two hours with this little man in a tall silk hat, frock coat, and tricolor sash.” So Tati sent the Americans on ahead to the bridge with Marau, Cheeky, and the Brander boys, along the coastal road, which was lined with two hundred natives in bright dresses waving French flags, in expectation of an official spectacle.

Adams found the ceremony itself anticlimactic but thoroughly enjoyed the luncheon that followed because of the interesting dynamic that existed among the principals of the drama.

The lunch was served European style on two parallel tables. The Governor, as host, sat on one side of a long table with a big bouquet of exotic leaves in front of him, which blocked his view of the person sitting opposite him. This just happened to be His Majesty, ex-King Pomare V wearing a pair of eyeglasses that looked remarkably like goggles. Adams was relieved to see that, at that hour in the morning, Pomare was not obviously drunk, and was keeping a low profile. At the second table, almost back to back with her ex-husband, sat Queen Marau. Despite being close enough so that they could not fail to brush against one another from time to time, the couple studiously ignored each other’s very existence. Adams, sitting across from Marau, was able to watch the tense body language of the divorced couple to his heart’s content while sipping the Governor’s imported Bordeaux. As Adams gleefully observed in a letter home, “it was the sort of thing that one naturally puts in a novel.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Back to the Garden

I used to think I was cut out to be a songwriter. When I was in high school in Scotland, my best friend, my brother, and I sang together in a folk group with the very ’70s name of Fable. We sang songs from our parents' record colection – Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, and, of course, The Beatles. For a while, I tried my hand at writing songs of my own, the usual trite teenage stuff about yearning for boys who won’t even look your way. I soon recognized that songwriting wasn’t going to be my forte. However, I’m proud to say my brother Andrew Mackintosh – a much more talented musician than I have ever been – has written some excellent songs of his own over the years since we played together. You can listen to some of them here.  
But it was back in the days of Fable that I first started listening to the music of Joni Mitchell and realized just how ambitious a three to five minute song was capable of being.  
The first Joni album I owned was For the Roses (1972). In songs like “Let the Wind Carry Me” and “Barangrill,” I began to get a sense of how songs can be about more than a single emotion – love, longing, nostalgia – and actually tell stories. Like an Edward Hopper painting and any short fiction worth its salt, a Joni Mitchell song, despite its brevity, contains whole worlds and back stories.  
For instance, in “Harry’s House” (from the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns), an executive on business trip “opens up his suitcase in the Continental suite, And people thirty stories down, Look like colored currents in the streets, A helicopter lands on the Pan Am roof, Like a dragonfly on a tomb, And business men in button-downs, Press into conference rooms.” Meanwhile, he is thinking of his wife. “He drifts off into the memory, Of the way she looked in school, With her body oiled and shining, At the public swimming pool.” He thinks of the house and garden he wants to buy for her for them to build their dreams in. Not until the very last line do we discover that she has that very day told him “just what he can do with Harry’s house, And Harry’s take-home pay.”
In “Edith and the Kingpin” (also from The Hissing of Summer Lawns), a rich man arrives at a local dance. “Disco dancers greet him, plain clothes cops greet him, small town, big man, fresh lipstick glistening.” He spots a young girl across the dance floor – “His eyes hold Edith, His left hand holds his right, What does that hand desire, That he grips it so tight.”  Edith, the chosen one, listens to the other girls as “one by one they bring, his renegade stories to her, his crimes and his glories to her.” She ends up in his bed, listening to the wires in the wall humming, but we can see what will happen to her. “Women he has taken, Grow old too soon, He tilts their tired faces, Gently to the spoon.”  
Joni is also the queen of the evocative visual details that put you squarely in the space and time of which she is singing:  
“Three waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings, Talking about zombies and Singapore slings, No trouble in their faces, Not one anxious voice, None of the crazy you get, From too much choice.” [Barangrill]
 “A camera pans the cocktail hour, Behind a blind of potted palms, And finds a lady in a Paris dress, With runs in her nylons” [The Boho Dance]
“It fell from midnight skies, It drummed on the galvanized, In the washroom, women track the rain in the make-up mirror, Liquid soap and grass, And Jungle Gardenia crash on Pine-Sol and beer.” [Paprika Plains]
Joni is famous for writing autobiographically, but she is also capable of writing brilliantly from the point of view of another narrator, sometimes as unreliable a narrator as you can get. For example, in “Raised on Robbery” (from the 1974 album Court and Spark) she describes how a man is sitting in a hotel bar “when along comes a lady in lacy sleeves” who proceeds to spin him a sob story. “We had a little money once, They were pushing through a four-lane highway, Government gave us three thousand dollars, You should have seen it fly away, First he bought a ’57 Biscayne, He put it in a ditch, He drank up all the rest that son of a bitch.” She tries to get the man to come home with her - “I’m a pretty good cook, You’re sitting on my groceries, Come up to my kitchen, I’ll show you my best recipes.” The man moves away, without even finishing his drink. In no more than four eight-line stanzas, we’ve seen the whole bleak and feckless life that lies behind the woman's bravado.   
These days, it grieves me to say, Joni’s crystalline voice has fallen victim to her chain smoking habit of many years, but to me she will always and forever be the supreme exemplar of the short story in song.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Back in the saddle

It’s almost the end of September and I haven’t written a word since July.
This of course is an exaggeration. I have written a great deal – some blog posts (though not enough), a number of long e-mails, and some advertising material for my recently published booklet. So when I say I haven’t written anything for two months, what I actually mean is that I haven’t added so much as a line to either Children of Eden or Albion’s Millennium. And it’s beginning to get me down.
There have been the usual disruptions to my routine, some pleasant – like a house guest – some not so pleasant – like a sick cat – plus I have had paid editing work that needed to be done. Nevertheless, I have been complicit in letting these daily events stand in the way of my productivity. I have let perfectly good half-hours slip through my fingers because each one didn’t seem long enough to get started so I might as well check Facebook instead.
This is the subtle art of procrastination, an art which I have practiced all my life. I know I’m not alone in this and may, in fact, be less guilty than many. And it’s true that I don’t have the full-time helpmeet or amanuensis that every writer needs to smooth the path to productivity (and nor does anyone else these days). But the bald fact remains that I don’t make the best use of my time for the purposes of writing.  
Yet, if I don’t write, my mental health begins to suffer. My sense of purpose gets buried, making me lose track of who I am and what I need to live a full and satisfying life. And I am always conscious of how fast time goes by and how little one can afford to waste it.  
So it’s time I got back in the saddle. Like exercising, it can be hard to get back to it after a layoff but once you do, everything seems possible – the 10lbs you’d like to lose, the novel you’d like to finish – instead of a far-off goal separated from you by insurmountable obstacles. I can’t wait to feel like that again.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lost in a Haunted Wood


I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One Woman's Imagination

On my recent trip to the UK, I was getting out of a cab at King’s Cross train station when I saw a long line of people queuing outside the station. Curious, I walked to the front of the line and found that all those people standing in the heat were waiting to have their photograph taken against a plain brick wall with a sign that simply said Platform 9¾.
No explanation needed. This was incontrovertible testimony to the power of one woman’s imagination. That and the 450 million Harry Potter books she’s sold and the eight movies that have grossed $7,672,299,413 worldwide. Not to mention the merchandise, the theme parks, and the forthcoming interactive website PotterMore.
I was at King’s Cross to take a train up to Scotland. While in Edinburgh, I had tea and a slice of Victoria sponge cake at The Elephant House. This was the coffee shop where that very woman, J.K. Rowling, then a penniless single mother, used to sit for hours nursing a coffee and putting her imagination down on paper, her baby daughter asleep in a stroller beside her.
Which is where it starts for all of us writers of fiction. Applying the seat of the pants to the chair and putting one word down and then another and another. Not being afraid to write badly, not letting your internal critic get in the way. Being bold and brave and confident, even when you are writing about something that you doubt if anyone else will ever understand – a world that you carry around in your head, that you are creating out of nothing, out of thin air. Just telling the story and not thinking or caring about what becomes of it afterwards. Writing because it makes you happy and because you just have to do it.
Bringing to life a whole, rounded, full-bodied story is – and must be - a satisfaction all of its own. But if you find your book makes people so excited that they queue round the block to have their picture taken with a blank wall that your imagination created, then that’s the icing on the cake.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Blowing in the wind

I don’t suppose there will ever be another week in my life in which I go through an earthquake and a hurricane. I certainly hope not. Having grown up in Scotland on the shores of the North Sea, I am no stranger to gale-force winds and torrential rain, but these suburban houses aren’t built with two-foot stone walls to withstand the elements. On Sunday morning after a long, sleepless night and a near miss from an enormous snapped-off tree branch, my husband and I felt fortunate that our house emerged from Hurricane Irene with the power still on and the basement dry.   
Our recent double whammy from Mother Nature brought to mind a story by Jack London that describes the horror of a cyclone striking a low-lying atoll in the South Pacific. The story, called The House of Maputi, is set in the Tuamotus Islands, which are a long chain of atolls (an atoll is a flat coral island consisting of a ring of land round an inner lagoon) roughly 200 miles north and east of Tahiti. In the 19th and early 20th century, they were the center of the Polynesian pearl shell industry, and people from all the other islands in the South Pacific would flock to the Tuamotus during diving season to find work.  
When a cyclone (as hurricanes are called in the Pacific) hits an atoll, there is no escape - no hills to climb to escape the enormous waves or to shelter from the battering winds. The only way to go is up – into the coconut palms.
In Jack London’s story, a trader named Alexandre Raoul lands on the tiny island of Hikueru to bargain for a magnificent pearl. As the cyclone roars in, he lashes himself to the top of a writhing palm tree, and from this perilous perch, watches the clusters of people clinging to the treetops like “bunches of human fruit.” As the wind increases, he sees trees being uprooted, “flinging [their] load of human beings to the ground. A sea [wave] washed across the strip of sand, and they were gone… He saw a brown shoulder and a black head silhouetted against the churning white of the lagoon. The next instant that too had vanished... The bunches of human fruit fell like ripe cocoanuts. The subsiding wave showed them on the ground, some lying motionless, others squirming and writhing.”
Jack London was using his imagination but he was describing a real hurricane, one that had struck the Tuamotus on January 13th 1903. Between the winds and the accompanying forty-foot tidal wave, 377 people were killed, and not a building remained on Hikueru, which had previously been a sizeable community of houses, churches and warehouses.
Among the dead was Alexander Brander, the oldest son of Princess Titaua (my biography of whom has just been published) who had been living on the island and selling pearl shell and copra to visiting schooners. His common-law wife and one of his two daughters also perished in the storm. And three years later, another hurricane was to claim the life of yet another of the cast of characters in Children of Eden. Narii Salmon, the handsome and gentle youngest son of Ariitaimai and Alexander Salmon, was drowned along with his son when his trading schooner was smashed to pieces in the even more ferocious cyclone of 1906.
Thus can fiction illuminate the bald facts of people’s lives.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

When the earth moved

I was lying on my bed on Tuesday afternoon just before 2pm when my house distinctly shuddered. As I sat up in alarm, the shudder became a violent shaking, like sudden turbulence on a plane. I staggered along the upstairs hallway, wailing with fear and confusion. I couldn’t think straight but my mind reeled with visions of a massive gas explosion or a bomb blast. But the reverberations went on and on, and I clung to the banister while the house heaved and rattled and rumbled around me. It felt like the world was ending.  
It wasn’t till the movement finally subsided that I was able to uproot myself and run for the front door. My neighbor shot out of his house barefoot, looking as stunned as I must have looked to him. “What the f--- was that?” we called to each other, and he pointed to my windows which were still gently undulating. I hadn’t thought solid matter capable of moving like that. Still thinking it might have been an explosion, I dialed 911 with shaking hands but got a busy signal. But within five minutes every TV channel had switched to emergency coverage and was announcing that we’d just had the strongest earthquake on the east coast since 1897.  
It turns out that where I live in Maryland is part of an “active seismic zone” centered on a faultline that runs through central Virginia, south of Washington DC. And apparently there have been 200 earthquakes in this area just since 1977. I even remember feeling a couple of them - in one the house shuddered under me once as if a particularly heavy truck had just driven by and in another I was woken in the night by our window air conditioner unit seeming to move and settle in the window. So I’d come to think of earthquakes on the eastern seaboard as being a barely perceptible shiver in the earth.  
But this was a whole different ballgame. Because it was so utterly unfamiliar and unexpected, it felt supernatural, as if a great wizard had pointed his wand at the land and said: “Commoveo!” (That’s the Latin imperative for shaking something violently – I looked it up.) In fact, I remember wondering as I clung to the banister if this was what Judgment Day would feel like.   
In describing his experience of the 1835 Concepción earthquake in Chile, Charles Darwin, while remaining calmly scientific in his account, described exactly the “strange idea of insecurity” that being shaken like dice in nature’s palm produces.
“I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer… There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain FitzRoy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects.”
Perfect horror though it was while it lasted, I’m glad I went through it, especially as no one was killed or badly injured, because nothing is more valuable to a writer than first-hand experience. And I now know my imagination would never have done it justice.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

By the North Sea

Jim Tribble, myself, and Glenn Jones
Picture courtesy of Kevin Dunion

I’ve just come back home to the suburbs of Washington DC after a three-week visit to the United Kingdom – hence the absence of posts on Midatlantic over the last month. I spent lots of quality time with my mother and other family and friends, but my trip was also notable for the launch of my booklet-length biography of Princess Titaua of Tahiti (From the South Seas to the North Sea) in my home town of Anstruther on Thursday July 28th.

Two events on that day celebrated the Princess. In the afternoon, there was a ceremony to mark the installation of a plaque on the outside of Titaua’s Anstruther house, Johnston Lodge. Placing blue information plaques on the exterior of buildings that have been lived in by notable people is a tradition in Britain, and this was the Princess’s turn. A group of people gathered in the rain to commemorate the event. A local historian, Dr. Stephanie Stevenson and I each said a few words, and a couple of photographers took our pictures for the local press. Although the weather was a bit uncomfortable, it felt appropriate because the same conditions prevailed at the Princess’s funeral in the same town 113 years ago. Afterwards, we hurried down the road for tea and biscuits at the marvelous Scottish Fisheries Museum, where I used to work in the school holidays.
The rain had stopped by the evening when the Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection held a reception at the town’s bookshop, East Neuk Books, to celebrate the Burgh Collection's publication of From the South Seas to the North Sea. I gave a short talk and slideshow about the Princess’s life in Tahiti and her strong connections with Scotland. The evening was particularly memorable for me for the chance to reacquaint myself with some old friends from my childhood, including my outstanding and inspiring high school English teacher, Alistair Leslie, still going strong in his mid-80s.
My thanks to Glenn Jones and Jim Tribble, the chairman and publications officer of the Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection, for their efforts in bringing the booklet to fruition and to John Barker of East Neuk Books for hosting the launch. And to everyone who came and bought copies! All proceeds will benefit the Burgh Collection’s work in preserving the written and oral history of Anstruther.
The evident interest that the Princess’s story evoked in Scotland has led me to decide to write a longer book about Titaua and her two Scottish husbands, focusing on her great love for her second husband which estranged her from her children and caused her to die 10,000 miles from home. Of course this will be in addition to Children of Eden, the book I am already writing on the Princess’s Anglo-Tahitian birth family, the Salmons. At this rate, I may spend the rest of my professional life working on this story but I can’t think of more interesting and enjoyable way to spend it.
From the South Seas to the North Sea: The Story of Princess Titaua of Tahiti can be ordered from: East Neuk Books, Rodger Street, Anstruther, KY10 3DU by phone (01144-1333 310474) or e-mail ( The book costs £4.99 (£3.25 for bulk purchases) plus £1.50 postage for UK orders or £2.50 for overseas orders.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Finally... in print!

My short biography of Princess Titaua of Tahiti – the eldest daughter of the Salmons – is being published by the Kilrenny and Anstruther Burgh Collection on July 28th 2011.  

From the South Seas to the North Sea: The Story of Princess Titaua of Tahiti can be ordered from:

East Neuk Books, Rodger Street, Anstruther, KY10 3DU
tel: 01333 310474

The book will retail at £4.99 (with a trade price of £3.25) plus £1.50 postage for UK orders or
£2.50 for overseas orders.

Thanks for your support everyone!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Into the Mirror

One cold Sunday in December 1885, Henry Adams, historian, novelist and grandson and great-grandson of Presidents, found his wife dead on the floor of her room in their Washington D.C. house. Clover Adams, a talented amateur photographer, had swallowed potassium cyanide, one of her developing chemicals.
Clover=s family had a strain of depression and mental illness. A maternal aunt had killed herself by taking arsenic, and Clover=s sister was later to throw herself in front a train. On the Adams= honeymoon in Egypt in 1872, Clover herself had sunk into despair, feeling unworthy of her brilliant husband. AI never seem to get impressions that are worth anything and feel as if I were blind, deaf, and dumb too.@
Her spirits lifted when she and Henry returned to Europe, and their marriage was a happy one with no significant reappearance of Clover=s depression. But in the spring of 1885, her beloved father died in Boston, and for the next several months she could not sleep or eat and became obsessed with her own unworthiness to live. Henry watched over her from day to day, anxious for any sign of improvement. In November, the signs finally came - Clover slept better and paid visits to a few close friends. But her recovery was simply a reflection of the peace she had found in deciding to end her life.
Adams spent the first night of her death alone in their house with Clover=s body. From the first, he was determined to survive the terrible blow of his wife=s death with a stoicism worthy of his Adams upbringing and heritage. But as Adams= niece wrote late in a memoir, AUncle lost the companion of his life, and part of him was buried forever in silence or in what the world would call >irony.= ... he plunged into a life of restlessness and travel, of searchings, questionings, and of intense loneliness.
Adams decided to have his wife buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, the graveyard of St. Paul=s Church, where they used to ride together. Determined to erect a worthy memorial over her grave, he turned to his friend, the eminent sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Adams had a vision of the figure he wanted to preside over the grave, but he found it difficult to convey his idea exactly to Saint-Gaudens. He gave the sculptor a photograph of a statue of Guan Yin, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of compassion, but it wasn’t until – one day in the studio – Adams draped a blanket over the head of the sculptor’s boy assistant that Saint-Gaudens was able to grasp the pose that Adams had in mind.
With that settled, Adams decreed that he didn’t want to see anything of the statue again until it was finished. He received the first photographs of the completed memorial while he was in Tahiti in 1891. He was relieved to discover he did not dislike it, and friends wrote to tell him that the photographs did not do it justice. When Adams returned to the States and saw the statue itself, he was satisfied that his friend had not only captured his vision but had created a masterpiece, one that was constantly presenting the observer with new challenges and questions. “Like all great artists,” he wrote in The Education of Henry Adams, “St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.”
The memorial consists of a seated figure draped and cowled in a long encompassing cloth. It is cast in bronze and set against a block of pink polished granite. In accordance with Adams’ specific instructions, it has no identifying mark or inscription. The statue speaks for itself – as Adams said, “The whole meaning and feeling of the figure is in its universality and anonymity.”
Adams was annoyed that the public insisted on assigning a gender to the figure when he and Saint-Gaudens had deliberately conceived of the figure as asexual. While the face has a feminine aspect, the right arm has a distinctly masculine muscularity. Not even the President, his friend Theodore Roosevelt, was immune from rebuke. One evening at a dinner party at The White House, Roosevelt referred to the sculpture as a woman. Adams wrote the next day to correct him. “Should you allude to my bronze figure [again], will you try to do Saint-Gaudens the justice to remark that his expression was a little higher than sex can give. As he meant it, he wanted to exclude sex and sink it in the idea of humanity. The figure is sexless.”
Henry Adams himself lived on until 1918. He died in his sleep of a massive stroke at the age of 80 and was buried next to Clover under the brooding androgynous figure of his own imagining.