Friday, 25 February 2011

Books by women

I recommend a thought-provoking talk given on Feb 15 at Newnham College Cambridge, posted on the Persephone books website about books written by women.

Moffat Book Events latest

Here is the latest news from Moffat Book Events:
  • tickets for our April 16 event Love and Marriage in Moffat went on sale yesterday.
  • the current March 2011 issue of D&G Life magazine features a picture of cover girl model Hazel Ivins-Whately wearing a vintage 1930's wedding dress from Moffat's Lothlorien Emporium with details of our event on page 116
  • the organizing committee (or 'gang of three') visited the Moffat House hotel on Thursday Feb 24 for a very delicious cream tea and finalised our choice of sandwiches and cakes for tea on The Day with Julie the pastry chef at the hotel. The things we do for art!
  • The last 15 names are sought to complete the founders 'members welcome' box on our website
  • Alistair Moffat, world authority on Borders history has agreed to be our guest of honour at a literary luncheon at the Moffat House hotel on Sat 15 October to talk about his new book on the genetic makeup of the population of Scotland
  • The Lanark Gazette for Feb 24 carried a pic of Moffat Book Events chairwoman Elizabeth Roberts in connection with the distribution of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold on World Book Night (March 5) and her encounters with author John le Carre.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Box of books

Q: When does the message 'the books have arrived' sound like code? A:When the books are 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold. The books are at the Atkinson Pryce bookshop in Biggar whence they will be whisked in an unmarked vehicle today to the Heatherghyll Hotel in Crawford ready to be distributed, courtesy of the proprietor Philip Leek to long distance lorry drivers on World Book Night - March 5 2011. A meeting of Moffat Book Events today to finalise the programme design -to be like a wedding order of service, requesting the pleasure of your company - for our inaugural event at the Moffat house hotel on April 16. Our theme is love, romance and happy married life, most suitable in the feverish, cupcake-ridden run-up to the royal wedding ten days later on April 29. And champagne.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


Holding my battered old paperback copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold yesterday brought back memories of the time I let my house in 1982 to be a location for BBC TV's serial of John le Carre's Smiley's People. I was a single Mum at that time, and the three weeks rent paid for a holiday for me and the girls at the recently-opened Forte Holiday Village in Sardinia. They used the first floor drawing room as George Smiley's bedroom, because the houses in the Chelsea street where the fictional character is supposed to live are too small to film inside. In the series, we see George Smiley (Alec Guiness) and his other colleagues, family and friends approach a front door in that street and then - they are in my house. Alec Guiness used my small office on the ground floor at the back overlooking the garden as his sitting room. While we were away, the cat had kittens behind my filing cabinet and the carpet was alive with fleas. What could Sir A have thought? No further forward today with The Lighthouse Stevensons but am sticking with them.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Pix at AJay's

A lightning visit in defiance of doctor's orders and in falling snow this afternoon to Crawford's corner shop-cum-Post Office, AJay's, for a pre-World Book Night pic for the Lanark Gazette. It was AJay co-proprietor Alan Bierman who suggested I base myself and my 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold on giveaway night (March 5) at Crawford's popular long distance lorry drivers' stopover, the Heatherghyll hotel. Waiting for Lindsey the Gazette photographer, I started Bella Bathurst's The Lighthouse Stevensons which is packed with amazing amounts of information. I plan to be curled up by the fire all day tomorrow so watch out for statistics about wrecks and wreckers.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Another sort of book day

Another sort of book day entirely - guest blogger literary agent Robert Dudley reports:
‘‘Get Writing’ hosted by the Verulam Writers’ Circle took place yesterday at the Uni of Hertfordshire. Verulam are a writers’ group based in St Albans whose moving spirit is one Jenny Barden, a real force of nature. There were about 190 people there who enjoyed a series of events between 9-6. As it was a foul day and quite a few people had travelled considerable distances to get there this was quite a tribute to Jenny’s organising and inspirational skills. I was asked to talk for ten mins at the start of the day with another agent, John Jarrold and Matt Bates, the chief buyer for WHS Travel on ‘How to Impress Us’. Then there were ‘workshops’ run by visiting authors including Rosy Thornton, Leigh Russell, Toby Frost, Jean Fullerton and others on a range of subjects such as Writing a novel with a foreign setting, Creating compelling lead characters past and present, Bringing storytelling alive through the speech of the characters. This was followed by three very senior publishers, Simon Taylor from Transworld, Marlene Johnson, the children’s publisher at Hachette and Gillian Green from Ebury Press talked about e-books. After (a very delicious) lunch the television presenter Sue Cook presented the ‘Get Writing’ cup to the delegate who submitted the best story for the Get Writing Short Story Competition (who actually wasn't a member of the VMC!) – and talked about her life. Then it was time for the ‘pitches’ – to us agents and the publishers - three minute and five minute – which were over-subscribed with would-be novelists and writers. Finally a number of talks and Q & A sessions by publishers and authors brought the day to an end. I don’t know what they charged (it was £55 - ER)but I would say that unless it was very exorbitant most people would have felt they received exceptional value for money.’

Thanks for a v. interesting post Rob - maybe we should try a writing day here in Moffat? See for details of the Verulam Writers Circle's multifarious activities throughout the year.

My birthday

It is my 67th birthday! I am sharing the day in bed with Flo my cairn terrier-in-law (well, she's actually beside the bed) and Geoff Dyer's new collection of essays Working the Room. I met Geoff Dyer several years ago at a writers' workshop. I had never heard of him, but his book about (and not about) D H Lawrence Out of Sheer Rage is a rare, clever, comic masterpiece. He likes book titles with puns: Jeff in Venice for example, or Paris Trance. I am proud to have suggested that he write the essay accompanying my sister Jenny's collection of photographs A Propos Rodin published a year or so ago by Thames and Hudson. So this is my big idea for our MBE followup event in Moffat in Oct: family history. Jenny is compiling ours. Alistair Moffat has done one, in a sense, for the whole people of Scotland, in his The Scots: A Genetic Journey (Birlinn out March 1st). There are organisations out there which specialise in helping us find our roots. Mine are strongly Scottish but I was born and grew up in Kent, the daughter of economic immigrants you might say. I will be crawling up to Elvanfoot tomorrow with a sick note to be photographed by the Lanark Gazette as a participant in World Book Night, Edinburgh-based publisher Jamie Byng's million-book giveaway. I personally am giving away (courtesy of WBN) 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to long distance lorry drivers at the Heatherghyll hotel in Crawford - the nearest village to my forestry business. Next up on my reading list: The Lighthouse Stevensons by local author Bella Bathurst. Our MBE April 16 event features author D E Stevenson who was a direct descendant, casting a different sort of light on her surroundings.

Friday, 18 February 2011

In bed

Hooray for laptops, and hooray for penicillin. My old friend pneumonia loomed on Tuesday, so I cancelled all appointments and stayed indoors with a pile of magazines and Murder, She Wrote. Hooray,too, for the web which means that instead of staring at the wall I can read the papers, see what friends have been up to on Facebook and order some groceries online. Thanks to a great team, preparations for our April 16 event in Moffat is looking good and we have interesting possibilities on the radar for an October followup, including Alistair Moffat's new book (out March 1st) on the genetic makeup of the Scottish population. Ever been to a book event where you could find out who your ancestors are?

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The tree of the movie

Re. The King's Speech:
  • Someone was telling me that her mother used to be a secretary at Buckingham Palace around the time of The King's Speech and from her office window could see Lionel Logan across the other side of the courtyard lifting and lowering his arms for the pauses in the speech.
  • Readers may be interested to learn that our old friend the Sitka spruce plays a significant cameo role in the film. There is a key episode, designed to demonstrate the deplorable grip Wallis Simpson has established over her lover, the new King Edward, and, by extension, his realm: as Helena Bonham Carter (the Duchess of York) and Colin Firth ( the Duke of York) approach Balmoral by car, they pass foresters felling mature conifers. Helen Bonham Carter/the Duchess of York deplores the felling, murmuring ‘Poor spruce’ . The felling is mentioned again as being Wallis’s idea of improving the view. during a scene at a louche party being hosted (inappropriately) by Mrs Simpson after they have arrived at the castle,
  • Spruce is a tree already firmly rooted in Hollywood. In 1947, film magnate Howard Hughes made an enormous wooden seaplane, and named it the Spruce Goose, after the tree it was made from (info courtesy of the March 2011 issue of Vanity Fair).
  • Spruce also makes excellent paper - hence the sponsorship of Moffat Book Events by Forestry Purposes, a company that grows spruce just outside Moffat.

Monday, 14 February 2011


Sleet yesterday on and off; then light snow last night. At this early hour, the tops of cars parked beneath my bedroom window are sparkling white in the light of the street lamps. I have finally picked up And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson, his best novel so far, published last year. The paper is unusually thin, and it is a while before I realise it is 670 pages long. The ingenious framework of the book is that of a man going through his father's - a professional photographer's - archive, for a retrospective exhibition thereby evoking memories. It is a 'state of Scotland' book, and I am hooked. I met James when he was Brownsbank fellow, and one of his duties was to run the creative writing class I attended in Lanark. Brownsbank is the cottage where Hugh McDiarmid lived with his second wife Valda until he died in 1978. I heard last week that the Brownsbank scheme is to close. Valda dyed her hair orange like the fleece of a blackface ram made ready for sale. She used to visit another poet, Bessie MacArthur, at Nunnerie in farthest Upper Clydesdale. Bessie's daughter in law, another Elizabeth, still lives on the farm, now being peppered with the newly-erected turbines of the Clyde windfarm. Elizabeth MacArthur told me a good story about Bessie during WWII sending a formal invitation,'the pleasure of his company', - for tea - to the officer in charge of Polish troops billeted at the nearby village of Abington . To her surprise, he took her at her word and brought his whole company of fifty men. But in those days, there were plenty of occasions when you had to serve tea to that number of people at a remote farmhouse so everyone got a cup.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Love & Afternoon Tea

Happy St Valentine's Day! Everyone agrees (information courtesy of The Writer's Almanac)that Valentine's Day is named for a Christian martyr named St. Valentine. The problem is, there are at least three St. Valentines, all of them martyrs, and not much is known about any of them. One St. Valentine -- Valentine of Terni, from the second century A.D. -- was a bishop, and he was martyred in Rome, but that's all we know. According to legend, another St. Valentine -- Valentine of Rome -- bravely disobeyed the Roman Emperor Claudius II, who had forbidden young men from getting married because he thought unmarried men made better soldiers. Valentine married people anyway, and he was executed on this day in the year 270 A.D. At some point, it was claimed that both of these saints were martyred on February 14th, but there is no reason to think that it is true in either case. Either way, February 14th was a convenient time for the Christian Church to have a holiday because it coincided with an ancient fertility festival that was celebrated every year between February 13th and February 15th. The festival was called Lupercalia, and it was partially to honor Lupa, the legendary wolf who suckled the orphaned twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who went on to found the city of Rome. Lupercalia itself was building on an even older festival, called Februa, associated with cleansing and fertility -- it is from Februa that we get the name February. For Lupercalia, goats and a dog were sacrificed, and then two high-ranking young men representing Romulus and Remus went up to the altar and had their faces smeared with the sacrificial blood. After the blood was wiped off with wool dipped in milk, the men stripped naked, cut strips of skin from the sacrificed goats, and ran around the city, joined by other enthusiastic young men. Lupercalia was a very popular festival, and it was still widely practiced even during the fifth century, more than 150 years after the Roman Empire was officially Christian. In 1913, Hallmark started making valentine cards in the USA and these days, Valentine's Day is a big event in the consumer world. Last year, the average American spent $103 (£50) on Valentine's gifts, food, and entertainment.
Talking of consuming: a market research survey published at the weekend bolsters our decision to go for a slap-up tea, rather than for lunch or dinner at our inaugural book event here in Moffat on April 16. A market research company said sales of scones in Britain had gone up by 42 per cent, while Tesco has seen them climb by an eye-watering 62 per cent. Cream doughnut sales at Tesco are up by 51 per cent and choux bun sales by 36 per cent. "Sitting down with friends for a nice cup of char and a cream cake is not only wonderfully therapeutic, but also an affordable treat" says Karen Poole, Tesco's lady in the hairnet and the chequered overall at the bakery counter. Hear hear ! Book now for your day ticket to a whole 8 hours of delicious mental, spritual and bodily refreshment at

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Off The Page

News today of Off The Page, the first literary festival of music and words in Whitstable, Kent. This chimes with the information in The Kings Speech, that stammerers can often sing their message when they cannot speak it. It turns out that synthesizing the human voice concealed within music was used for recording secure communications between politicians (Truman and Churchill; J F Kennedy and Harold Macmillan) until better methods to scramble speech were found, and speech merged with music lapsed into hiphop.
Melvyn Bragg says, in support of our Moffat Book Events: You may find this laughable, but I think that the arts and the sciences in this country are not only our best bet for the future but our only bet. The biggest employers in this country before World War I were domestic service and the coal industry. Already the creative economy in this country (based on the arts) employs the sum of those two combined.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Biggar, better.

Skeins of geese are flying north, the snowdrops are out and rising sap in the larch trees means they are beginning to redden up: spring is well on its way. It was a glorious sunny morning for a book-led drive down the Clyde valley to Biggar via Crawford, my distribution point for 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to long distance lorry drivers on World Book Night on March 5. Alan in the shop advised me to try two places, and I started at Heatherghyll where the proprietor was most helpful . On to the excellent Atkinson-Pryce bookshop in Biggar which has doubled in size since I last visited, now with a very pretty reading corner complete with gas fire, armchairs and coffee. The World Book Night books are being delivered to Atkinson-Pryce whose proprietors Chris and Sue were both in, plus Chris's black labrador puppy, when I arrived around 11am. As we were discussing WBN and the Moffat Book Event with the D.E.Stevenson book launch on April 16, in came Bella Bathhurst author of a history of bicycles due out in March. One of her earlier books, on lighthouses by coincidence has a Stevenson connection. Dashed off to meet a geologist up the Daer road to discuss the quality of local slate for a concrete poetry project - details to be announced.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Progress on all fronts

Progress has been made on all fronts today with the organisation and promotion of our new book event in Moffat on April 16. We have a very good Literary Development Officer here in Dumfries and Galloway in the shape of Carolyn Yates. She is working closely with us on marketing the event and will be there on the day, hooray! Stacey Paul of the Moffat Initiative is carrying out an energetic, focused and effective publicity campaign. Wendy Simpson, granddaughter of our featured author and sometime Moffat resident D E Stevenson, will be interviewed for the April edition (out mid-March) of our excellent regional glossy magazine D&G Life. Andrea Reive our volunteer co-ordinator has enough ideas to launch 10 events, and is a very welcome addition to our steering group. Invaluable help from vice chairman of Moffat Initiative Colin Harris will help put MBE in touch with students at Moffat Academy, and from Moffat CAN to get us onto their recycling green network in recognition of our 'vintage' theme. Andrea will be investigating possible goody bags for the event sourced from regular attenders at Moffat Farmers' Market to bring D&G's Savour the Flavour into the loop. All we need now is a band and a baseball team.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Birthday boys

Today is the birthday of John Grisham and Jules Verne. Had they been contemporaries, they might have collaborated on a murder mystery set in a submarine. I have opened my secondhand (or 'vintage') copy of The Quest for Merlin by Nikolai Tolstoy, recently received from Amazon. The copy was formerly the property of ( 'pre-owned by') a library at Palos Verdes* in California. The book follows the trail of Merlin to Hart Fell right here in Moffat - there is a beautiful photograph of Merlin's Cave on the back cover. An article in the current (Feb 5 2011) Spectator magazine is of much relevance to Moffat Book Events. In it, Harry Mount argues that book festivals are effectively a series of lectures, and that the public has a thirst for being part of 'the happy hum of human chit chat' *

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Well read!

A mug arrived from The Writer's Almanac online poetry service. Harry (aged 5) was able to read the inscription: Be well, do good work, and keep in touch. Then he and I made a robot, using a big cardboard box which had had a room heater in it for the body, a green balloon for the head (this was probably an alien robot), two cardboard tubes from inside rolls of Christmas wrapping paper for legs and empty tissue boxes for feet. We stuffed bubble wrap into the tissue boxes to keep the legs in place and then taped them with sellotape. The arms were another inner cardboard tube pushed through the body through holes made with the kitchen scissors. We then put gloves on the ends of this tube and propped the robot up inside the glass front door to scare away visitors. Harry then decided to paint the robot so we took him into the kitchen, and after a couple of false starts (pink for a robot? I don't think so) the robot's legs and body are now black with silver glitter spray on top. There are 48 names now in the Moffat Book Events website 'members welcome' box - thanks guys! To fill the box we need about 25 more, so the drive for names continues.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Five days in London

I am reading Five Days in London May 1940 by John Lukacs. It is an hour-by-hour account of critical events when the fine balance in Churchill's war cabinet tipped in favour of the course of fighting on, in the face of the French and Belgian capitulation to Hitler, and the mass evacuation of the British army from the beach at Dunkirk. It would make a good film or play. Back from my own few days in London, I see a mountain of books and paperwork on my table. One task that awaits is a critique, at the editor's request, addressing instances of cultural (and scientific) relativism in some articles in the current issue of the journal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, The idea that all systems of thought designed to explain and predict the world are of equal power and validity seems to me not just wrong but dangerous. Should opinion-formers be required to spell out where they are coming from, in general terms?

New words; buying books; mind maps

I learned two new words yesterday evening: leche-vitrine (windowlicking) is French for window shopping; llavero (Spanish) is the shorter male companion of a tall woman, think the Speaker and Mrs Bercow, President Sarkozy and Carla or Bernie Ecclestone and his former wife. It is derived from the word for a key, and literally means 'keyman', because the man's head as they walk side by side is at the level of the keys notionally hanging from the lady's belt. Talking of Amazons, I just ordered a friend's book, to be published in the US in early March. Delivery date was given as sometime in May. I reported this to the author who wondered if they are using a sailing boat. The explanation may be simpler and less romantic: I had clicked on the 'free super saver' delivery option. I am also waiting for the arrival via Amazon of The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy, a thinly disguised memoir posing as a novel. I identified with the young heroine when I was in my late teens or early twenties. In those days, the early 1960's an avocado was a pretty rare and exotic vegetable, let alone the protagonist in the novel's chaotic (and then, to me, attractive) bohemian lifestyle. I am more enamoured of order now. As preparation for the discussion I volunteered to lead at St Dunstan's on Thursday (the day before yesterday), I cleared my mind by making three mind maps. One was of four interlocking circles labeled Moscow, Paris, Rome, London, the places where events took place or people were born, then lived in exile. Another one attempted to make sense of my theme with lots of lines connecting people. On the third, I divided a piece of paper into two sections headed 'Church and State' and 'Christianity'. Under these headings, sometimes across the central dividing line I wrote: icons, Russia, Art, individual, education, C.of E, family, Orthodoxy, murder, letters, places, Jews, exile, memory, poetry, saints, friends, and spies. At the bottom I wrote a remembered line from The Leopard: 'Sometimes, things must change in order that they remain the same'

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The operation of grace

I was very struck by a sentence in a fellow-blogger's post today, about Brideshead Revisited: ‘the religious theme drove me nuts with its ending of ultimate conservatism, propping up the past, the sterile old British way of life’. Evelyn Waugh explained in his introduction to Brideshead that it is about ‘the operation of grace’ – neither an easy concept nor a banal escapist theme for a novel. It is striking that men capable of such unflinching vision and insights into the human condition – to take just three – as Waugh, Graham Greene and T S Eliot were Christian converts (as for that matter were Boris Pasternak -’zhivago’ is church slavonic for ‘the living God’- and Alexander Solzhenitsyn). I was at a tribute concert by Patti Smith to the late W G Sebald in Aldeburgh on Saturday evening (Jan 29) where every single one of the items had a Christian theme. Sterile? Conservative? These thoughts are to the forefront because of the discussion evening yesterday at St Dunstan's in the West, on the life and work of Father Alexander Men. Someone asked me: why did they need to kill him? The answer given at the time by friends whose opinions I respect was always 'because he was free'. ps How about this for synchronicity: Thought for the Day on BBCR4 today was by Richard Harries who wrote the introductions to both Awake to Life, the cycle of 18 pre-and post-Easter sermons by Father Alexander Men, and the US and UK editions of Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century the collection of FAM's interviews, talks and essays with a short biographical note - contact me for one of the few copies remaining.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

A trip down memory lane

This evening I am leading a discussion at St Dunstan's in the West on the life and work of Father Alexander Men. What happened is this: William Gulliford, the vicar, asked me if I would like to choose a topic for one of his Thursday evening supper meetings. He leads 6pm vespers, then the five or six people who turn up go through to his little dining room/vestry with a kitchen, make supper (baked spuds, cold meat, fruit, cheese etc) and then go through to his cosy study for a sort of seminar.

First of all I suggested Dr Zhivago, some passages in Chapter One The Five O Clock Express but he talked me into Fr A Men. I have sent down to the church a box of the US Continuum edition of Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century - the Life and Work of Alexander Men (a book I co-edited with my friend Ann Shukman) which I rescued from being pulped at a few days’ notice, so that everyone can have a copy to take away.

When I was at my mother's house on Friday, I remembered that I had given a copy to her when it came out and searched high and low for it with no success. But what I did find was a copy of Awake to Life a cycle of Easter sermons given by Fr Alexander and published by my friend Robert Dudley's Bowerdean Press, which I have been reading. A card fell out, a colourful very retro Russian Easter card of two chicks pulling an Easter-egg shaped cart, with a note I had written when I gave it to her.

Finding Awake to Life brought back to me how Rob was involved, and so I will give him full credit for being the first to take up the torch, as it were. I should explain that Fr Alexander was the parish priest of Novaya Derevnya (in English 'New Village') northeast of Moscow on the road to Sergiev Posad the monastery town seat of the Patriarch so equivalent in that sense to Canterbury. Fr Alexander was in every way remarkable:
he embodied the message of Christ, that true freedom is love. The 18 sermons often mention death, and he was murdered not long after he had baptised my elder daughter Abi, by dark forces of church and state analogous to those who cut down Thomas Beckett. At the suggestion of the Rev Chad Coussmaker, chaplain of our Embassy in Moscow and with the encouragement - in the shape of a commission promising a run at his theatre - of Dr Donald Smith,the Director of the Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh, I adapted T S Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral with Mark Rozovsky, director of Moscow theatre At The Nikitsky Gates. Our version was entitled Murder in the Cathedral - a Russian Rehearsal. It was a great success and has toured Russia ever since, winning prizes. Mrs Valerie Eliot, T S's widow who owns the rights does not, however permit any use of her late husband's original material to be co-opted in this way, so this powerful telling of the murder of Fr Alexander has not been performed outside Russia. It is the birthday today of Gertrude Stein who once said: I am going to read what I have written to read, because in a general way it is easier even if it is not better and in a general way it is better even if it is not easier to read what has been written than to say what has not been written.'

A case of mistaken identity

Lunch today with a distinguished former journalist and foreign correspondent at Tom's Kitchen, where the proprietor himself was to be seen bustling about behind the counter for all the world like a common or garden non-celebrity chef. The talk turned to the situation in Egypt, and my friend recalled being wrong-footed by the revolution forty years ago in Iran, when she had not foreseen the Islamist crackdown. We exchanged notes on the books we are reading. She recommended A Woman Unknown, a memoir by Robert Graves' daughter Lucia. The mention of Robert Graves' name evoked a memory linked to Benjamin Britten, as follows: when I was a teenager, I decided to see if I could get up a party to go to hear Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Festival Hall. I knew very few people likely to be willing to go, but thought I would try Martin Tallents who lived nearby. Martin was a cabinet maker, about to move to Majorca to live and work with Robert Graves. I rang the house, and a baritone voice answered. Nervously I plunged ahead and explained the plan. ' I would be delighted' boomed Lady Tallents, Martin's mother, to my utter dismay. So it was that I went to hear the Requiem in company with an elderly woman clad if I remember right in voluminous black bombazine, like Queen Victoria only a good deal taller. Talking of tall women, I swear I passed Naomi Campbell yesterday in Waitrose, in characteristic catwalk stride, holding a jar of something triumphantly aloft as she swept past the fish counter heading towards the cheese.

The Aldeburgh Bookshop

I did manage to dash in to the excellent double-fronted Aldeburgh Bookshop on Monday morning to touch base with John and Mary the proprietors who run the annual Aldeburgh literary festival (this year March 4-6). I went in, and in an extreme parody of the booksellers' worst nightmare, asked for a book I couldn't remember the name of by an author ditto. They did try to find it, and now they do know what the book was - The Possessed by (no not the one by Dostoievsky) but the memorably -named Elif Batuman. It is a comic book for grownups, about Russian literature. I haven't got it yet but it's on Amazon and the web. I also asked for W G Sebald's After Nature, the long poem that Patti Smith based her programme on at the Maltings last Saturday night - sold out. Ditto the winner of this year's Costa prize, Of Mutability by Jo Shapcott. So I bought Maggie Hambling's beautiful book about the making of, and controversy surrounding, her Scallop sculpture to honour Benjamin Britten on the beach at Aldeburgh, with an introduction by Stephen Fry. Here I can smuggle in the boast that the last time I was in Aldeburgh it was as a guest (with John) of Slava Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya. We had taken Yury Liubimov down to discuss how to get out of the Soviet Union. Yury and Slava sat in the sauna for hours while we pottered around the Red House where the Rostropoviches were staying. Slava told us how when B Britten and Peter Pears came to Russia, they had been giving a concert of songs set by Britten to poems by Pushkin. As Galina sang the last line of one which mentioned a bell, the bell in the clock tower at the venue chimed in at exactly the right moment.

Dash for growth

We are aiming to add 50 names to the 'members welcome' box on the Moffat Book Events website (go to, click on 'About' and scroll down past my entry to see what it will look like). We do it for you - email me or

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


As publishers of John le Carre’s novels, Penguin/Viking may be amused to learn that I have been chosen by the organisers of World Book Night (March 5) as a successful applicant to distribute 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. John (David Cornwell) made his first trip to Moscow as a direct result of something I said on a visit to Moscow myself in the late 1980’s.

At the time of the remark which brought about David’s visit, my then (now ex) husband John C Q Roberts was the Director of the Foreign Office-funded Great Britain-USSR Association, charged with making meaningful contacts with individuals and organisations in the Soviet Union on a non-political basis and in opposition to two other, then communist-oriented, British organisations with apparently similar aims in the field.

I myself am a Russianist ie I gained my UK BA Hons degree in Russian, speak Russian etc. We were having lunch at a restaurant in Moscow with one of John’s Russian counterparts, ostensibly discussing forthcoming cultural exchanges, when the Russian suddenly – and presumably for the entertainment of colleagues listening in to our conversation - proposed that the GB-USSR Association should join in a celebration of the life and work of ‘the patriot Kim Philby’. There was a stunned silence , then, inspired perhaps by the vodka, I said: ‘What a brilliant idea!’ The blood drained from John’s face. ‘And we, for our part, could put on a celebration of the life and work of the patriot Colonel Oleg Penkovsky’. John relaxed. The Russian changed the subject.

Later at our customary farewell visit to our then Ambassador at the Embassy, John told the story and our Ambassador said: ‘What an extraordinary coincidence’... That morning, he had received a request from David Cornwell (aka John le Carre) whom the Ambassador said he knew ‘from National Service days in the army’ asking for advice about coming to Moscow for the first time to research a book.

Thus,John and I came to meet David and his wife Jane and John took David to Russia to meet the real life people and places that were later to figure, transformed, in The Russia House – his story of a publisher who becomes embroiled in the world of espionage at the Moscow Book Fair.

We came to meet Fred Schepisi and Michelle Pfeiffer that way too, but that is another story.