It's also the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War 2, which means that Ellen's sequel, Divided Loyalties, set between 1935 and 1946, can follow soon afterwards. Everything was going well with it until I hit a sudden big snag which I should have seen coming.
Here's the original Walker cover.
I think it's great. It has the same house style as the cover of Ellen's People - the girl's face surveying the telling action photograph underneath. I didn't want new covers: I wanted those. The half-completed third book in the trilogy - which will have to appear by December because it's the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall this year as well - will have my own cover using the same arrangement because it's so exactly right.
Walker happily gave me permission, which pleased me because I've usually had curt refusals when I've asked for original covers, though I had to pay a fee which I thought was fair. But they said, reasonably enough, that I'd have to get permission from the Imperial War Museum for the Ellen photograph and Bettman/Corbis for the second. The IWM let me have their photograph for a fairly nominal sum. I assumed for too long that my experience with Bettman/Corbis would be similar. I should have contacted them months ago.
On Friday the 11th I finally bit the bullet. They were certainly very efficient about replying to my first exploratory email. I was given permission to use the image within half an hour. But they told me that Walker had paid £485 to use it and as a special concession they would let me have it for £365. That's £850 they will earn from one photograph which has probably been a pretty fair earner already. Now, this was a blow. I don't think such a sum is reasonable for an indie author who might not even get half that when the book is published. But it is a brilliant photograph. It's real blitzkrieg stuff, dramatic, striking, even frightening. It's perfect. And see how well it fits on the page.
What do I do? Do I grit my teeth and pay them? I could get two new covers for the money. I've already told Bettman rather indignantly that I won't so I've probably burnt my boats there. Do I look for another photograph which will fit and can be easily photoshopped? Not easy. I've spent hours since then going through sites with stock images and found nothing remotely suitable. I could spend whole days, weeks even and still find nothing.
So what do I do? Do I grovellingly ask them to ignore my previous email and pay up? Do I give up a lot of valuable time looking for a substitute and probably not finding one? Or is it just possible that someone reading this blog might say, 'Ah, I know just the thing he wants and where he'll find it.'? Because if that someone can let me know of a good substitute I'll be so grateful.
Now I'm going to change the subject rather abruptly. But it does all hang together. Ever since it appeared on April 7th I've been thinking about Julia's blog about books for prisoners and been much affected by the indignation she expresses at such a flagrantly self-defeating action. It's cause for much anger. I believe that we as Electric Authors have what amounts to a duty to do something about it.
But it's more than that. It's about how the such a regressive measure is so symptomatic about our society as it's developed over the last few years. It's not the Great Society any more, it's not even the Big Society, nor, despite political posturing, is it entirely the Broken Society. And it's definitely not the 'No such thing as' Society.
None of these. It's the Vindictive Society.That is what we have become. Every walk of life, everything to do with reform of the Benefits system, every 'reform' of the NHS shrieks out that dreadful word - and please don't get me started on the Border Agency (as was).
I shouldn't have written that last bit because it has got me started. I think of the Mauritian girl deported just before her exams and the Russian wife not allowed to join her British husband and their daughter. We still have our own issues with the Border Force. Worst of all is the McIsaacs case, where the American headteacher of a Scottish primary school for the last ten years didn't have his work permit renewed and was refused indefinite right to remain. His marriage was dismissed as 'sham' and his Scottish wife of four years who has cancer was told that she would have no trouble in settling in the USA because there would be no language problems for her. How dismally cynical. That crime against decency was, fortunately, aborted because of the public outcry.
And I'm not making a party political point here, though I know it's intensely political in the purest sense of the word. I have little interest in the miserable creatures who masquerade as our political leaders. I'm convinced that no change of government would, whatever the present lot's would-be successors may say, have the slightest effect in changing the way we have become. I read yesterday, by the way, a review of a book which sounds like a good analysis of why we are where we are now. A Precariat Charter: from Denizens to Citizens by Guy Standing (Bloomsbury). I'm buying it. The concept of the Precariat looks spot-on.
I was thinking about this as I was finally checking the texts of Ellen and Loyalties. Both are about wars, grim and touching the very limits of vindictiveness. But both also depict a generosity of spirit in the face of adversity which is not subjective sentimental wish-fulfilment on my part but an actual quality, tangible, shared, which I remember because who would not? This optimism in the face of impoverished greyness survived, I think, for about fifteen years after the war. Then the slide began, slowly but unmistakeably.
Brendan Gisby, in his lovely review of Out of the Mouth of Babes, for which I was so grateful, said I was a 'caring' author. And I like to think that I am. But that doesn't mean I'm a soft touch. Of all the things I've written, my attitude to the world is summed up, though perhaps obliquely, in a passage in Divided Loyalties. I know I'm making this a very long blog, but I hope you'll bear with me as I quote it here.
It's in the voice of Anna, the youngest daughter of the family at the centre of the action. She has been an incidental voice so far but I give her centre stage at the end. She is a talented violinist and is in 1946 at the RCM. Earlier, she has mused that while some people think in words, others in pictures, she thinks in music. For years she has felt that there's ideal music somewhere which expresses all she feels about the war, about fate, about grief and about hope, but it's unattainable, just beyond her powers of thought.
This quotation has deliberate echoes of the marvellous passage about Beethoven's 5th in EM Forster's Howards End. I loved that chapter so much. How I wanted to find a context in which to use music in the same way. The conclusion of Divided Loyalties gave it to me. I tried to transmit the regenerative power of creativity and great art as a sure defence against the foul powers of vindictiveness.
I hadn’t played my cello for some time. The violin was all I had time for at college. But I knew about Tortelier and been told that the Elgar was a lovely work though I didn’t know it, so I bought a ticket.
On the day of the concert I caught the bus to Northampton. It broke down three miles the other side of Wicester. As it was a fine evening we all sat on the grass verge while the conductor ran to the nearest village to phone the depot.
Half an hour later another bus arrived. But I didn’t get to the Town Hall until long after the concert started. The first thing I saw was a notice: WE REGRET TO SAY THAT M. TORTELIER IS INDISPOSED AND IS UNABLE TO PLAY TONIGHT.
How annoying. He was the main reason I came. Did this mean they wouldn’t play the Elgar concerto? I wasn’t allowed in the hall until the overture “The Corsair” by Berlioz had finished and the audience were applauding. As I struggled to my seat whispering apologies to people, I half-heard an announcement about Paul Tortelier’s absence and saying who would play instead. I didn’t catch the whole name: it was Joseph something, nobody I’d heard of. There was disappointed muttering and someone booed, which I thought was going a bit far.
I found my seat and looked at the orchestra, men in black suits and white bow ties, women in white blouses and black skirts. The conductor, whose name was Arthur Swavesey, had left the stage but soon returned with the soloist, a young man, slim with black hair. He must be a fine musician to be playing such a work but he seemed shy and nervous. He tuned his cello and waited, bow poised, for the conductor to bring him in.
The Cellist by Kay Jamieson
Usually a concerto starts with a long passage from the orchestra, but not this one. The soloist almost plunged into the cello, his bow really hitting the strings with four chords, urgent, angry and sad at the same time. His nervousness disappeared: it was as if he was asking his cello questions and the cello answered him. The orchestra made a quiet comment as if telling them both to calm down, but the questioning went on until the orchestra came in again with a restless, melancholy melody. The cello took up the theme and in its insistent swaying was a strange nervous energy. I knew that Elgar wrote the concerto just after the first war to express his despair at the misery it plunged the world into. This theme was a lament: I had a vision of a dark, bowed figure looking down on scenes of destruction and weeping for the folly of it all.
Suddenly I had one of those rare, strange moments when everything seems to come together. The music which I’d tried so hard to hear and failed, the music which said everything I felt about the war - this was it. Elgar was saying exactly what had eluded me, as if it had been just behind a curtain I could never twitch away until tonight.
It brought back all that we had been through: Dad taken away, Mum comforting a dying man in the air raid, Paul walking among the ruins and meeting Helmut, the dreadful events Helmut must have been through and, more than that, the far worse trials of millions of others, some, which we were only now hearing of, unspeakable, beyond human imagining. But most of all I remembered Walter dying separated, estranged from us, and cursed the way events had turned out. I longed to see Julie and little Walter again: it wouldn’t make things all right but it would ease the pain of the rift. But already the cello was gently moving me away from such private thoughts. The nameless soloist bent low across the instrument, seeming almost crucified over it. And then I understood that the shrouded, brooding figure looking down on the ruins was the cellist himself.
The first movement was over: the second began. In the few seconds between, the audience breathed out a collective sigh of satisfaction. No booing now because the famous man had not arrived. A light, nimble theme: did it mean that life would be good again, settled, calm, without fear, without hurt? Once again I watched this incredible soloist. He was caressing the cello almost lovingly, as if it was a frail thing which could shiver into nothing in his hands. He made it sing of a happy time now lost, gone for ever, yet somehow gave it a nuance which whispered that such unalloyed happiness was never there in the first place; it was what we wanted to remember and deceived ourselves into believing our remembrances were true.
So the orchestra, like a quiet and tactful guide, led him almost shyly into a third movement of subtle, echoing, yearning phrases which ended in a whisper and then nothingness and made me want to cry.
For the first time since he started playing, he seemed to come out of a trance. He sat back and looked round as if surprised that we were still there and he hadn’t been talking to himself. The orchestra abruptly started a strong, energetic theme which said “Come on, you can do better than that” and in answer he again plunged into the cello, almost sawing it in half with the bow, as if desperate to keep up, to share in such exuberance - but somehow failing. The orchestra tried again: shining brass, ranks of violins, cohorts of cellos, seductive woodwinds, all urging him to join with them. But it didn’t work: they gave up and he started another long conversation with his instrument, in which despair and a subdued anger unobtrusively combined. The orchestra came back, half-heartedly, as if they knew their attempt to raise the cello’s spirits hadn’t worked. The soloist still mused: the concerto ended with a profound sigh despite the orchestra’s last attempt at cheerfulness. He lifted his bow gently from the strings: he had said what he and Elgar – and I - wanted to say. He sat expressionless, as if the music had haled the soul from his body.
Again, a silence. Then everybody stood: applause, cries of “Encore!” and “Bravo!” and waves of appreciation swept down on him like breakers on the shore. He stood and bowed, very slightly from the waist. The orchestra joined in the applause: the conductor stepped down from his rostrum and shook him heartily by the hand.
I must have been the only person in the hall who was not clapping. I couldn’t: I just watched him. I was too full inside for applause: suddenly I was afraid of crying alone in the crowd. I had heard something which said perfectly everything that these last years, my childhood, all my life so far, meant to me.