Tuesday, 25 March 2014

How did the Friends (=Quakers) fight Fascism?

Having spent two years in the beautiful old wood-panelled Quaker library at Friends House on Euston Road, reading 1930s magazines and notes from pacifist meetings in wartime, I was really excited to be invited to their history group tonight to talk about my novel, Of Love and Other Wars.

Jennifer, the lovely librarian, had helped me with many, many eccentric queries during my research (minutes from the Friends Ambulance Unit committee in 1941, records from the Germany Emergency committee, letters from wartime ambulance workers in Greece... the list goes on). It was nice to be able to show her the end result. Reading from my book in the room where I had sat with my pencil, messy notes and laptop gave me an unexpected feeling of completion.

My novel is about conscientious objectors during World War Two, a subject that still divides opinion in Britain. To get a feel for the audience, I like to start each reading by asking if there are any conchies in the room, or anyone related to conchies. Until tonight, the total show of hands had always been zero.

Well, at the Quaker library, half the room seemed to raise their hands. This was exciting as well as terrifying. I am used to talking about ambulance workers, tribunals, land work and jail terms to a general audience. It was quite a different matter to read a scene set at a wartime tribunal and wonder if the audience members felt it rang true - because after all, they had been there. Thankfully they seemed to enjoy the chapters. I also shared some letters from the archive, such as note written by a pacifist window cleaner in Chingford to his clients. He explains why he won't be able to clean their windows for a while (he lost his tribunal and is going to jail, but still has long-term hopes for an international brotherhood united by Esperanto, of which he is a teacher. It's an incredibly sincere and heart-breaking note that ends with an apology for not being a better window cleaner: "my heart was not in window-cleaning.")

We left plenty of time for questions and contributions, and I wish I had recorded them. People talked about their families' experiences as well as their own. One woman had brought a stunning photo of her mother, a committed pacifist, wearing a sandwich board that advertised a "Women's Day of Peace". Another photo showed her equally dashing father - a fighter pilot! He decided to fight because his sister was trapped in occupied France.

It was fascinating, and a great reminder of how many stories are out there, waiting to be told.

Making my own oil paint

Check out these lovely Old Masterly earth pigments from French and Italian ochre mines (except for the Ultramarine, of course... couldn't resist). It's quite moving to think that this has been humanity's palette for most of our history, from cave paintings to Rembrandt's self-portraits.

I ordered them from a company in France as part of my research for the art forgers novel. The pigments were cheap - a euro or so each - but postage was very expensive (flat fee), so it made sense to order lots. Looking at them, I wish I'd ordered even more.

I'm now trying to decide between linseed oil and walnut oil. Might mix two different batches for comparison's sake. What is striking is that all the earth colours harmonise, even the riskier combinations eg the warm, greyish-brownish Terre Verte and the more acidy Terre de Nicoise (the two pots on the bottom left). This could potentially be a disgusting-looking combination reminiscent of an old sofa left out in the rain on a toxic waste site. But it actually turns out to be rather soothing and subtly elegant.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Bestseller prompts Germans to ask, is it ok to laugh about Hitler?

So this was the original title of my review of Timur Vermes' book, Look Who's Back, for the Daily Telegraph. Admittedly, it's not particularly zippy. They changed it to "How Germans have fallen back in love with Hitler", which made me spit out my coffee when I saw it. Maybe it's the Reuters background, but I generally prefer neutral headlines to wildly provocative (and kind of misleading) ones. Then again, "neutral" doesn't get you a lot of clicks.

If the headline offends you, please try to ignore it and just read the piece: