Thursday, 30 September 2010

Parallel Lives

Neil has been tapping away on his laptop every evening (and sometimes during the day) since we got back. The result is that I have a new website, here at, and I would love to have your feedback on the new look. I think he’s done a brilliant job of making me seem authentic!! That seems a strange thing to say, but I know there are other writers out there too, who feel somehow fraudulent, that they are ‘not a proper writer’ without some exterior evidence to back it up. The books, somehow, are just not enough.

Have you ever tried Googling your name? During the research for the website - Googling my name to retrieve reviews and articles - Neil discovered that I lead a large number of parallel lives. There are 2009 Kathleen (often Kathy) Jones’s living in America, and more than 200 in Britain. I’m used to my doppelganger, Professor Kathleen Jones who writes learned books on social policy and mental health. Our books end up jumbled together on book sites and in libraries. She is now very old and distinguished and an ardent opponent of Richard Dawkins - has even written a book refuting his arguments (Challenging Richard Dawkins). She and I couldn’t be further apart in matters of belief, yet I get many emails from her fans thinking that we are the same person.

Great fun to find that one of the ‘other’ Kathleen Jones’s is a porn star (pictures too rude to show), also known as Granny Jones specialising in gerontophilia - the perversion of fancying elderly ladies. If ever the book trade fails perhaps there’s an alternative career idea! Kathleen Jones is also an animal medium, putting bereaved owners in touch with their pets, also hosts the Kathleen Jones Show in Oregon, is a White Witch practising New Age magic with the Church of the Ancient Ways in Maryland, (see pic) 
and an African/American Baptist Pastor in Philadelphia. The ubiquitous KJ was a ballerina in 1968, but is now a Principal clarinettist with the orchestra of Puerto Rica.

One of my favourites is an American Kathleen Jones, born at the end of the 19th century, who was given a first class education, married three times, owned ranches and oil companies, and became President of an influential literary sorority at her old college Corpus Christi, and died in 1980 at the age of 93. All a bit privileged and up-market - but I really fancied the hat!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tuesday Poem - The Pelican Child

I thought this week I'd put in a piece of animation - the images are by Alice Cohen, around a line from Joy Williams' 'Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child'.    There's quite an interest in Britain at the moment in animating words - for me it only works if the sum of the word and the image generates more than each one individually - it has to go beyond illustration.

For more Tuesday Poems, click here.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Cuban Connection

The internet is the most amazing tool for writers - not just for research, but also for e-publishing and publicity. I don’t think we’ve all grasped the way it’s going to revolutionise our lives yet. My visit to Cuba and the blog diary I kept while I was there continues to have repercussions.
While I was in New Zealand, I was contacted by a publicist working for one of America’s leading Independent Publishers - they don’t call it ‘self-publishing’ (with all its vanity press associations) over there. They asked me if I would be interested in reviewing a novel set in Cuba, written by an ex-secret service operative who had once spent two months in a Cuban jail as the guest of Fidel Castro. Intrigued, I said yes and waited for Havana Harvest to arrive in the mail box. I also said that I’d like to interview the author and sent off a series of questions.
But for the internet the publishers would never have found my blog, or known I had an interest in Cuba, and I would certainly never have found Robert Landori’s novel or been able to talk to him about it. Book blogging is suddenly becoming an important tool in the marketing strategy for authors.
Robert Landori was born in Hungary, is multi-lingual, has a background in international finance and is a prolific story-teller (I’ll be posting my review later in the week on my book blog). He currently lives in Canada. Havana Harvest is his second thriller - the first, called Fatal Greed, is set in the murky world of Cayman Island based finance and money laundering. Both books are independently published and I was very interested to find out about Robert’s experiences with the American system. He was very generous in his responses to my questions.

When did you start writing - did you write as a child?
Never wrote a damn thing until my sophomore year at McGill. Too busy learning languages.
I spoke Hungarian and German colloquially, correctly, fluently and without an accent (a trick of the inner ear) by the time I was ten, and a governess came to the house once a week to teach me English. In 1947 my parents enrolled me in an all-French boarding school in Switzerland.

At school Robert also ‘elected to learn Spanish because it was easy.’ He goes on to say that ‘I made most of my money through speaking that language.’ One result was that he was sent to Cuba.

‘After I became a Chartered Accountant a client sent me to Cuba in 1959 because he wanted to deal with Fidel’s Government and I spoke the language, but he did not. A number of assignments in Spanish-speaking countries followed, but none involved writing. When, one day in 1986, I remonstrated with my then-girlfriend about her reading only ‘trash’ she, deeply hurt, retorted: “If you’re so smart and superior, why don’t you write a book that’s better.” I bet her that I would produce a superior novel within a year. And I did – from scratch: a 381 page thriller, called Galindo’s Turn.

Were you an avid reader?

Yes, I was. I read in Hungarian, German, English, French and Spanish.

What kind of books do you like reading?

Literally almost everything: classics, thrillers, spy stories, literary fiction, etc... Astronomy, chess, history and mathematics fascinate me and – obviously – I devour anything and everything on language.

Who are your favourite authors?

Hemingway, LeCarre, Alan Paton, Ferenc Molnar, Solshenitzyn and the late Mordechai Richler (a friend).

Have you always enjoyed story telling?

Most emphatically ‘YES’! Always have, always will. I’m a born storyteller, and good at it.

Quite a number of ex CIA and British govt agents have gone into fiction writing - John le Carre, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming to name but a few. Is this because they are forbidden to talk about their experiences and so find an outlet in writing about it?

This is not only true about the world of spooks. Players in the murky world of Mergers &, Acquisitions (one of my professions) are also restrained by contract from revealing telling details.

How much of Robert Landori is there in your main character, CIA agent Robert Lonsdale? (I note the shared history - born in Hungary and the familiarity with banking and the world of the secret services.)
Obviously, there’s a lot of Landori in Lonsdale... as well as LeCarre, Deighton and Ted Allebury.

In both Fatal Greed and Havana Harvest you weave your story around actual events. How difficult is it to combine fact and fiction in this way?

If one is a good story-teller and one has a vivid imagination it is not difficult at all. BUT, THE DEVIL IS ALWAYS IN THE DETAILS, so one has to get the background right AND THIS IS AN ART THAT ALSO REQUIRES FIRST-HAND KNOWLEDGE. .

On your website you talk about someone called Dania and her part in the genesis of the novel. Could you elaborate on this for readers of this blog?

Dania was a sixteen year old idealistic student in Santiago de Cuba when she was recruited into the Revolutionary Movement in 1956. Her future husband, Roberto Cisneros, and also one of her uncles – Arturo Duque de Estrada – were already members of the underground opposition organised by the student leader Frank Pais in Oriente Province with the objective of ridding Cuba of the Dictator Batista, if necessary by force.
When Fidel sent his famous message to her uncle that Fidel, his brother Raul and El Che were on their way back to Cuba from Mexico on board the yacht Gramma, Dania decided to join the guerrillas in the Sierrea Maestra. She became Raul Castro’s ‘field clerk’ and fought alongside him.
In December 1958, while working at setting up a fifth column in Havana on Fidel’s orders, Dania and her husband were captured by Batista’s secret police. She was nine months pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in prison. In great pain, she escaped a few hours after giving birth with the help of the prison’s doctor. Had she not done so she would have been shot the next day, as would have been her husband.
Her husband was severely tortured to the point where he never recovered his sanity completely. Totally disillusioned by the way the Revolution became compromised and turned into a dictatorship he, like so many other idealistic members of the July 26th Movement, committed suicide by immolating himself in front of his children.

In 1968, Dania and I were arrested while we were having lunch at the Havana Libre (previously Hilton) Hotel. I was accused of spying and was kept in solitary for 66 days. She was charged with nothing and let go the next day, BUT she was fired from her job and could not find employment (except as maid, or dish washer or waitress) for about four years. Finally rehabilitated in 1972, she married again and worked as a senior official in the Ministry of Tourism until her retirement.
She left Cuba in 1990 after giving up her pension and her apartment, and went to live in the US with her parents and sisters.
In 1993 she gave me a book to read: Case Number 1 of the Year 1989 – the Trial and Execution of Arnaldo Tomas Ochoa Sanchez, also known as El Moro (because of his dark skin). I felt that Ochoa had been treated unfairly. It seemed to me that Fidel and Raul had known all the time about Cuba’s involvement in drug trafficking and arms dealing and that Ochoa had committed no crime that merited the death penalty.
By writing HAVANA HARVEST I tried to right – at least partially – a great injustice.
Having just been to Cuba to meet some Cuban writers I’m interested in your take on the country’s current political situation and the direction it is moving in. What do you see as the future for Cuba?

Fidel has recently announced (although he recanted later) that his economic model is not working. He’s right. An industrious, imaginative and independent-minded people, like the Cubans, are far too enterprising to live within a centrally controlled economy.
After the disappearance of the present geriatric leadership (within the next five years) Cuba will quickly morphe into a Social Democratic state similar to what the Province of Quebec is like today: strong entrepreneurship through small and medium-sized businesses active in the agricultural and hospitality industries, in other words, tobacco, sugarcane, rum distilling, market gardening and floral produce, cattle and horse breeding, at one end, and hotels, restaurants, etc... at the other.
Two new industries may become a factor: off-shore banking and health services.
It is likely that Cuba will make serious inroads into the revenues of islands such as Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bermuda etc...
Partly due to the current publishing crisis, there is tremendous interest in independent publishing in Europe at the moment. This doesn’t just apply to first time authors, - quite a number of well established authors are bringing out their own work. What advice would you give authors thinking of doing this?

By all means self-publish, but make sure that you buy the best of the industry – a house that has strong, wide-ranging and EFFICIENT distribution facilities. This costs money, so don’t venture into the self-publishing field unless you have at least $50,000 to throw at the project.

How did you choose Greenleaf Publishing? Did you try any commercial publishers first and if so, what was their reaction?

Commercial publishers and their gate-keepers, the literary agents, are swamped by good material and unless one has a friend in the business, or one gets to be very lucky, one is bound to be rejected. (Even F. Scott Fitzgerald had to publish his own stuff).
I am proud to say that I had over 70 rejection letters from publishers and literary agents. Altogether I have written six books of which only two have been published
Everybody is writing books these days, so what you need to do is to find a publicist who can create a brand name out of your name, thereby separating you from the run-of-the-mill. I was fortunate to meet such a person: Sarah Wilson. She was the one who introduced me to the Greenleaf Group.

Publicity and getting books into the book retailers is always the hardest part. How do you go about this?

Like John Grisham, I packed a bunch of copies of my first published book into the trunk of my car and went from book store to book store across Canada and the North-Eastern Sates of the US. I met over 20,000 people who told me what they looked for in the type of books I was writing.
My latest book is promoted by Sarah Wilson through blogging, supported by a modest advertising budget. I also lecture frequently on Money Laundering and Terrorism and appear on radio and television whenever I can.
In other words, I beat my own drum constantly and furiously.

What’s the next project? (If you’re able to talk about it, that is!)

I’m in the process of writing a sequel to Fatal Greed, my first published book.
I’m also in the process of arranging for a digital (electronic) version of Havana Harvest.

Is there anything you would like to say that isn’t covered by the questions I’ve just asked - feel free to add any comments that you want to.


Havana Harvest is published by Greenleaf Publishing, part of the Emerald Book Company 

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tuesday Poem: Grete Tartler

During the Ceaucesceau regime in Rumania writers were so heavily censored that it was difficult to write at all.  But people kept on writing and finding ways to evade the censors.  Metaphor was one way to do it - write about one thing and maybe they won't notice you're actually talking about something else.   Women suffered greatly from the regime's oppression and a few years ago I was privileged to meet a group of Rumanian women poets who had managed to write and publish under Ceaucesceau and survive to talk about it. Grete Tartler was born in Bucharest in 1948.  She studied music and Arabic at university and has published a number of volumes of poetry as well as translations of Arabic classical literature.    This poem appears to be about an insensitive teacher, but it's really about the brainwashing of children through the education system, and the restrictions placed on free thought and individualism.  No matter what you think or feel, you have to give the answers the state requires you to give.   The poem is also a perfect example of poetry as political subversion.

Didactica Nova

How many fingers have you got on one hand?
Five, replied the child.
So, how many do five and five make?
Eleven comes the answer.
Can you blame me for getting cross with you?
Didn't I say count?
Why can't you understand
And answer like all the rest!
What if everyone answered like that?
What would happen if nobody understood?
How many fingers have you got on one hand?
Five, replied the child.
Well, how many on two hands?
Eleven comes the answer.
The blows fall.  On the hand with five fingers,
On the hand with six.

Copyright  Grete Tartler
Translated by Andrea Deletant & Brenda Walker

Sorry I couldn't find a link to any of Grete Tartler's poetry for sale.

For more Tuesday Poems click here.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Seismic shift - Earthquake Album

This post is dedicated to the people of Christchurch and to all those who lost their homes and livelihoods.  It's two weeks since the quake and I gather from the geonet map that the aftershocks are still going on - 720 at the latest count.   It was a terrifying experience and I no longer trust the firm ground I'm standing on - because I know it can move.   To mark the two week anniversary I thought I'd post some of the photographs that really sum up the power of the quake.  Not all of them are mine - some came from an image sharing site set up by The Press in Canterbury.

The clock stopped.

The city centre

Al fresco dining

Street damage

The railway used to be straight

Fault through a field

Through the park

Through the road


Landslides in the hills

A historic building lost

This may be restored


The city is now open for business again, though many areas are still cordoned off.  A brilliant effort by everyone involved.   Now residents of New Zealand are worrying about the cost  - which may run into billions - and what it will mean for their fragile economy.  I worry that a lot of the city's character will be lost - most of the damaged buildings were twenties and thirties brick-built and they'll be replaced by modern constructions built to earthquake specs but without the character of the originals.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Home and 'let-jagged'

Rose hips in the garden
Predictive text has a very creative lexicon. Put in ‘jet-lagged’ and you get ‘let-jagged’. But it’s perfectly representative of the upside down nature of the condition! I’m coping with a twelve hour time shift and a complete reversal of seasons. The daffodils and baby lambs of a New Zealand spring have been swapped for the pale sunlight, migrating birds and yellowing leaves of early English autumn. Trying to re-programme your mind and body to accept the idea that night is now day and vice versa has a strange effect. I feel rather wobbly and unreal and have only a vague notion of where I am in time and space. I’m clumsy and knock things over. I wake at 3 am and wander round the house drinking mugs of tea and eating biscuits because I’m ravenously hungry.

It’s good to be back home though and in my own bed. Hopefully this year I’m not going to be travelling so much. Last year I spent only a few weeks at home, and the house and garden feel very neglected.

The big surprise is that the cat is back! Let no one ever tell you that cats have short memories. When I left for Cambodia last September and then for six months in Italy, followed by other long absences, my beloved Heathcliff went to neighbours who thought they were getting a permanent resident. I never imagined he would remember me at all and had resigned myself to losing him. But no. As soon as I arrived home he appeared in the garden, rubbed himself against my legs and followed me into the house as if he’d never been away.  He is much fatter than when I left and has obviously been well looked after.  Heathcliff is still Kathy's cat. I just hope his foster family don’t feel too insulted by this abandonment!

Monday, 13 September 2010

The Tuesday Poem: Don Paterson

Waking with Russell

Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I’d rediscovered.
Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin
and the true path was as lost to me as ever
when you cut in front and lit it as you ran.
See how the true gift never leaves the giver:
returned and redelivered, it rolled on
until the smile poured through us like a river.
How fine, I thought, this waking amongst men!
I kissed your mouth and pledged myself forever.

Don Paterson,   Poetry Archive

From 'Landing Light'  Faber and Faber, 2003

Don Paterson is one of the UK's best poets.  He's also a jazz musician and this gives him a facility with complex rhythms.  His poems read well aloud. 
I love this poem, partly because I like the way Don Paterson plays with the sonnet form, making it utterly contemporary, and partly because of the emotion he manages to convey.   'The first time my baby smiled at me' could be sickly sentimental - but this isn't.    I also admire the way he manages the whole sonnet with only two rhymes - that could be repetitive, but you have to look twice to notice.   The technique is subtle - the structure holds the words together, but it isn't obtrusive.  Just how it should be!

I'm putting this up early because I'm going to be in the air on various aircraft between Christchurch and Heathrow from Monday evening until Wednesday.  Ugh.......

For more Tuesday poems please click on the link.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Getting Ready to Leave

The beach at Sumner
This is the sad part. After six weeks in New Zealand I have to get on a plane (actually three planes) and travel back to England. I have very conflicting feelings. Guilt that after all the trauma of the earthquake, I can just walk away leaving everyone here to deal with the aftermath. Sadness that I’m leaving my daughter and two very dear little boys aged 3 and 18 months and don’t know when I will see them again. And a longing to be in my own home again with my own things around me and my own man to talk to (Neil and I are meeting up in Singapore). So this is a hard leave-taking. Especially as I’ve come to love this country so much.

Yesterday I went to see Margaret Scott to say goodbye. For those who don’t know, she is someone who has spent her life deciphering and transcribing the manuscripts of Katherine Mansfield. Shortly after the death of KM’s husband, John Middleton Murry, she spent time with all KM’s surviving friends and relatives and probably knows more about Mansfield than anyone else alive. In particular she spent a lot of time with KM’s companion Ida Baker, who talked freely to her and who gave her a number of gifts that had been left to Ida by Katherine Mansfield.

On my first visit to New Zealand I arranged to meet Margaret and was warned that she was quite formidable - I was extremely nervous. But the woman I met was shy, warm, utterly dedicated to Mansfield studies, with a rigorous mind and an excellent built-in bullshit detector. Neil and I stayed for a week in Margaret’s garage (converted to guest room!) And at the end of it she had decided, very firmly, that I was the person who was going to write the definitive Katherine Mansfield biography. On my last evening, she produced a beautiful mother of pearl brooch, shaped like a feather and told me that it had belonged to Katherine and that she wanted me to have it. I refused point blank, to accept such a valuable gift, particularly as I didn’t have a publishing contract at the time and didn’t know whether the biography would ever be written. But the following morning, as we left, I discovered that she had surreptitiously given it to Neil to give to me.

The little brooch put me under an obligation - every time I wavered and was on the point of giving up, it looked at me like a little mother of pearl eye and insisted that I carry on. So it is really due to Margaret and her gift that the book ever got written at all. Her own book Recollecting Mansfield, an account of her sometimes hilarious experiences on the trail of KM’s manuscripts, is an excellent read.  The brooch has been on load to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Trust for an exhibition, the Material Mansfield.

So today is my final stroll along the beach. And a last look at the earthquake damage. Nearer the epicentre, one road has been moved across by 12 feet. On either side of it, trees have been felled along the line of the fault and the ground torn apart. The forces of nature are unimaginably powerful.
Fault line through the hedge.

Telegraph road used to be dead straight. 

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Jolting and Juddering

We're all trying to get back to normal here, though life will never be quite as it was before the quake.  So many landmark buildings are either rubble or condemned for demolition.
The initial quake was bad enough, but we've been enduring severe aftershocks.  Yesterday morning was one of the worst.  About five to eight my laptop flew up in the air, water jumped out of the glass beside me, and my daughter and grandchildren were under the table within seconds.   6.1 the radio said.  But it turned out to be of lesser intensity, just closer to us - the epicentre about 5 miles away, on another fault, and only 3  miles deep. This one was different in other ways too.  We've got used to the rumbling and shaking ones - you can hear them coming like a distant train and brace yourself.  The rattling starts gently and then intensifies before dying away.   This one was a huge jolt, as if we were in a car and somone had slammed the brakes on.  Everything leapt into the air and in town apparently people panicked. Buildings that had withstood all the others locally, were damaged by it.  The supermarkets and warehouses had just restocked the shelves, only to find the contents littering the floor again.  Wine, jars, packets, tins all rolling around the floor fit for nothing but the bin.  I had been going to do an interview at the local radio station, but the studio was damaged by this quake.
We're living on our nerves.  You simply never know when the next one is going to be, or how bad it's going to be.  It seems to be travelling along a network of previously undetected faults, hidden by river gravel and silt in the Canterbury basin.  Sometimes the ground seems to be shaking all the time and it's difficult to know if that's just our sense of balance (we're all feeling giddy) or whether it really is.  There's a very good site - the Canterbury quake map which maps all the quakes both small and large and it seems to suggest that our instincts are right - there are constant tremors beneath our feet. 
Odd things happen - perfume atomisers have ceased to work and water bottles have imploded as they do on aircraft with the change in cabin pressure.  So do quakes affect air pressure?
Sand volcanoes appeared in people's gardens and on the beach, where slurried material was forced up from underground to the surface.  We went to look at them today and although the wind and tide have washed the distinctive 'cones' away, there is still a strange porous mound that acts like quicksand when you stand on it.

Sand volcanoes on the beach after the quake

A sand volcano today
We are aware that because our house is relatively undamaged and we have power and water we're having it pretty easy.  My daughter's friend is living in a house where the kitchen has parted company from the rest of the building, there is no power, they have been improvising an earth closet in the garden and water comes from a burst pipe fountaining out of the front lawn.  There are hundreds and hundreds like her.  Whole communities have abandoned houses which will simply be demolished.  And the city centre is still cordoned off.
But the city has long been prepared for an earthquake and the government's response has been amazing.  Hopefully the rebuilding will be quick.  Meanwhile, we've had a much quieter day today, with fewer big shocks, so maybe things are settling down. 

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Christchurch Literature Festival Cancelled

One of the reasons I'm here (apart from seeing my family) is to take part in the Christchurch Literature Festival and promote the new KM biography.  The city's annual litfest is a lovely event that draws writers from all over the world (Barbara Trapido is one of this year's guests) and I was really looking forward to it.  I presumed that it would be cancelled after the earthquake, but got a message last night to say that they were going to go ahead, with a slightly adapted programme. Unfortunately events during the night changed all that.
We had a series of 'cluster' quakes from about 10.30pm until about 5.00am.  There were about eight major shocks.   The smallest was 4.1 and the three largest were 5.2, 5.4 and 5.4.  In between there were almost constant tremors - 15 altogether.  It was quite frightening.  You hear the rumble and then the shaking begins and you don't know whether it's going to stop and die away or whether it's going to get worse.  None of us slept - all in a constant state of alert.  Someone described it  like trying to sleep in a washing machine! 
This morning, buildings that were only slightly damaged have suffered and sink holes have appeared in roads and gardens where the sub-structure of the ground has shifted. Cracks are getting wider.  They are still warning us that we might get an aftershock up to about 6.1.  Meanwhile, everyone is being extremely resilient and positive and there's a really caring attitude.    No panic.  Everyone looking out for everyone else.  Whereever you go people ask if you're all right and then they tell you their own stories.  The Indian owner of the papershop down the road told me that this is god's punishment on the greedy and then told me that his brother-in-law had built a $600,000 house just south of Christchurch last year, one corner of which had sunk in the quake.  He told the story with such relish I got the impression that his brother-in-law was one of those he'd had in mind for righteous revenge!

The damage is quite surreal.  In the centre of town, the side wall of a restaurant has been completely demolished, but inside you can see tables still in place, and set with cutlery and glasses - all perfectly intact.
Sorry to the Tuesday poets group - I have just been too tired to seek out a poem today.  But hope to post for next week.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Earthquake update - Day 3

We are now back in Christchurch. We have power and the sewage system seems to be working here, but there is no safe drinking water because of ruptured pipes and sewers. The supermarkets (those that are open) have been cleared out of bottled water, so we are boiling the tap water and then cooling it. We’ve also filled the bath and every receptacle we can find, just in case the tap runs dry again.

It was strange going to bed last night - we all felt a little afraid of getting back into the same beds we’d been shaken out of two nights earlier.

The full extent of the quake is only just beginning to be realised. It was one of the ten highest NZ earthquakes ever recorded - the same magnitude as the recent Haitian quake, but because buildings here are built to a high specification, there is much less damage. Wooden or concrete structures have weathered it well; brick built buildings, facades and chimneys have collapsed. Christchurch has lost many of its historic buildings - such as Homebush house below.

As we drove out of the city to stay with friends, we passed through areas that looked completely unscathed, then streets where almost every house was damaged, pavements ripped away from the roads, tarmac and paving cracked open. There was a strange grey sludge everywhere - apparently the ground beneath parts of the city was liquefied by the quake and the slurry oozed out of the fractures. Two suburbs have been declared uninhabitable.  We passed a young couple trying to salvage furniture from the ruins of their home and stacking it on the pavement.  One of those moments when you realise how lucky you really are.

This is a street in the centre of the city.

And this is someone’s garden.

The rift from the fault goes right across the countryside, realigning roads, railways and hedges. The Transcenic railway I used last week to go to Kaikoura, now has a few S bends in it that weren’t there before and is closed for an indefinite period.  One of the main motorway slip roads we passed was corrugated like an accordion.

Field taken from the air

There is no public transport at the moment, the centre of the city is still sealed off because buildings are unsafe, and there is an overnight curfew.  The army are very conspicuously deployed. We’re still experiencing aftershocks - some of them quite big (5.1) and they make you pause for a moment and think about running for cover. But then the shaking and rumbling stops rather than intensifying and you can carry on what you are doing. There’s just been another jolt as I’m writing this - enough to rattle objects on the shelf and rock the table I'm writing on. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. But at the moment the predominant sense is one of relief - the damage is to property - only one person died and a hundred or so were injured. If the quake had occurred during normal working and shopping time there would have been carnage.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Earthquake in Christchurch

I woke up at four thirty this morning and the bed was rocking wildly underneath me. There was a loud rumbling noise under the floor and the walls and the ceiling were flexing backwards and forwards like something from a disaster movie. Cupboard doors flew open and objects fell from shelves. I knew I should try to roll off the bed onto the floor with my pillow for protection, but I couldn’t. My daughter Meredith and her husband were trying to reach the children in the next room, but the house was rocking so much they had difficulty walking - the house was swaying from side to side like a ship in a storm. The noise was incredible - the rumbling of the earthquake underneath the ground, the wood structure of the house creaking and groaning, the tin roof sheets screeching as they twisted.

All was in total darkness - the electricity cut out in the first seconds of the quake. Following emergency instructions, as soon as we could stand, we gathered up the children, an emergency bag of food, drinks and warm clothes, got into the car and headed out of Christchurch up into the hills in case the quake was followed by a tsunami - the city is very low lying and there is a very efficient tsunami watch system. On the hill there were landslides and the electricity wires were draped low over the road where the pylons had slid. The radio told us that the quake had measured 7.4 on the richter scale and that there was extensive damage to the city. Later we were told that the epicentre was only 20 miles from Christchurch, about ten miles deep, but because it was inland, there was no tsunami risk.

I walked into town - most of the roads were closed off and I was amazed that so much of the city was intact. Fortunately all modern structures have to be built to high earthquake tolerance levels. Most of the damage was to older buildings.

At the baptist church, which puts up new slogans regularly, I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the current one. As I clicked the shutter, a kiwi bloke behind me quipped, ‘Blimey - they got that one up quick!’

Back home, aftershocks rumbled on under our feet (some of them quite powerful) and pictures swayed and rattled, but everything is still intact. The power is out over most of the city. Water and sewage supplies have been disrupted by broken pipes, where the roads have been damaged. The prospect of having to use the back garden as a loo, and having no safe water to drink has driven us temporarily into the country to stay with very kind family friends in an unaffected area. Luckily my daughter lives in a small wooden house built on stacks above the ground. It behaved like a ship, or a wooden crate - it flexed and warped and stayed intact.

This afternoon they evacuated the centre of Christchurch, and now there's a curfew from 7pm. 

Friday, 3 September 2010

Cookson in Christchurch

I'm now here in Christchurch, in alternating sunshine and bitter showers, and working hard on a Preface for a book of scholarly essays on the novels of Catherine Cookson, though it seems a rather odd location!  It's quite a long time since I wrote my biography of Cookson (1999) , although I wrote a sequel in 2003.   But it's one of the interesting things about writing biography that the people you write about never leave your life, but continue to follow you around.   Catherine Cookson was a big part of my life for five or six years. I still own small objects that used to belong to her, have tapes on the shelf  that once recorded her voice - strong, vibrant, rather low-pitched with that instantly recognisable 'Geordie' accent.  I have her birth certificate, her wedding certificate and a traycloth embroidered by a fan as an anniversary present.  We have other oddments too, the result of an amazing stroke of luck.  When Catherine's belongings were auctioned off after her death, I couldn't afford to buy any of the memorabilia and most of the really interesting material was already earmarked for museums and archives.  But Neil bought a couple of carrier bags of electronic bits and pieces from the Cookson garage. The miscellany inside them included Tom's camera, the family slide projector and a whole collection of slides - intimate photographs of Catherine and her houses, which we still own.
The tapes were another surprising windfall.  I knew that her first agent, John Smith, had written a biography authorised by Catherine herself, which had never appeared.  But it proved impossible to trace him, as he had retired and it seemed no one in the Cookson camp wanted me to meet him.  I was invited to Catherine's memorial service and there, by a wonderful coincidence, I met John Smith.  He was an extremely interesting man, who told me that Catherine, who had requested a 'warts and all' biography, had hated the result, which he had agreed to destroy.  He said he would be very happy to talk to me about it.  A few weeks later, a jiffy bag arrived in the post with a collection of tapes which Catherine had recorded for him, talking frankly about her life and discussing areas of it that she had never talked about publicly before.  It was the most remarkable gift for a biographer and it altered the whole character of the book because the tapes revealed the difference between Catherine's actual life and the public version of her autobiography she had always preferred.
She was, without a doubt, one of the 20th centuries most remarkable women.  Born before women's emancipation, an illegitimate child in one of the poorest communities in the western world, given little education, she nevertheless became one of the richest women in Britain, and one of the world's best-selling authors.   
Catherine's vast output of novels and memoirs has always been sneered at by critics and the academic establishment, despite the fact that she created her own genre and wrote some excellent books.  Now a university press in America is giving her the attention she deserves as a writer, rather than just a remarkable woman.  Her stories of the 'social history of the north east' are going to be put into the context of the regional novel, alongside Walpole, Hardy, Scott, Gaskell and many others.  It's a totally new field of research, called 'Cookson Studies'.
I'm finding the Preface difficult though, because my head is so full of  that other Katherine, and I'm not at home in my office with my books and papers around me, but working in a strange library, or on someone's kitchen table.  No point in complaining though  - as a writer you have to meet deadlines whatever is going on in your private life. 
The new book is to be called, Catherine Cookson Country:  On the Borders of Legitimacy and should be available from Ashgate next year (if I ever finish the preface!)