Holiday reading

As I’m not writing at the moment, there’s a chance to catch up on reading, and the upcoming holiday means a break from the usual routine – shopwashcooktellysleep – and some lazy days ahead in which to do nothing but enjoy other people’s writing.

I love the Persephone Books list – they republish forgotten 20th century gems, many by women writers. The writing is generally so precise, so literate – and so redolent of times past, some of which I just about remember from my childhood in the 1950s.  At the moment I’m reading Noel Streatfield’s The Saplings.  She’s famous for children’s books, notably Ballet Shoes, but she writes wonderfully for adults too.

Next up for the holiday, another Persephone: a short story collection by Mollie Panter-Downes. Better known for her regular column, Letters From London, for the New York Times during WW2, she evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz-torn capital in much of her other writing so I’m really looking forward to her short stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven.

Fiona at Pitshanger Bookshop recommended All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winner  Looks interesting, and there’s even a WW2 dimension – my obsession and inspiration.  Judging by the swoony reviews (which can’t always be trusted) it promises to be a page-turner.  And, for light relief, a Susan Hill crime yarn, The Various Haunts of Men, the first in her Simon Serrailler series. It’s set in a fictional small cathedral city, so I shall imagine that it’s Chichester, a small cathedral city on England’s south coast which I know very well.

Happy Christmas!  Or to my American readers, Happy Holidays!  Keep writing – and reading – and see you next year.

‘How to write best-selling non-fiction…’

I know I can do the writing bit. It’s the ‘best-selling’ bit I’d like to do better. So I joined a Guardian Masterclass last Sunday afternoon to find out how…

I’d been on a weekend GM course before, so I knew the form. Kings Place is a mightily impressive building but it manages not to be intimidating. On the edge of the wonderful Kings Cross redevelopment, it is both cooly contemporary but also welcoming, so unlike the Step-No-Further newspaper offices of the past.

The course was led by Simon Garfield, who’s written or edited 17 non-fiction titles and whose latest, the edited diaries of an unknown Englishwoman spanning 60 years, is getting admiring reviews. Oh, to be half as creative and successful…

He was a sympathetic and helpful tutor and his unusual speech impediment made me listen to what he was saying more intently, trying to work out what combination of letters tended to trip him up. He did us (about 60 or 70 of us) the very great compliment of treating us all as professional-writers-in-waiting, though probably less than 1 in 10 had actually published anything. No matter. We were there, so we must be serious about our craft.

I’d be putting Guardian Masterclasses out of business if I repeated all his valuable tips – some of which were already painfully familiar to anyone who’d actually been through the professional publishing mill – but two small things did hit home:

  • don’t talk about your book idea or work-in-progress, because every time you do, it tends to die a little for you. How true this is, so I intend to stop immediately. Which is a bit of a bummer for the future of the ‘New Projects’ section of this website…
  • turn off the net when you’re writing. No-one will die if you don’t reply to emails for 24-hours (or even a week).  I can be disciplined once the study door is shut, but this doesn’t stop me reading every interesting-looking email as it pings in. Perhaps I could have finished those books weeks earlier without the pings? So I shall stop that, too.

So, in answer to the question about Masterclasses posed about a dozen posts ago, I’d say that yes, they are worthwhile. Everything you can pick up from published writers, agents and publishing professionals will help you reflect on and improve your craft.  And in the process you’re bound to get chatting to interesting people who share your passion for writing – and, who knows, other things too. What’s not to like?

Launch sellout at Pitshanger Bookshop!

Last night I Heard My Country Calling was officially launched at my lovely local bookshop in Pitshanger Lane, Ealing.

SueExpoundingThis was an open event, not a luvvie publishing party – and all the better for it.  Only about half of the 40 or so people there (it’s a small space so it felt packed to the gunwhales) were friends, neighbours and people I’d press-ganged to come. The rest, miraculously, came of their own accord on a dark, damp November evening.

Pitshanger Bookshop owner Fiona Kennedy gave me such an enthusiastic introduction – she’d read the book and seemed genuinely to have loved it – that I launched on my little talk and readings on a high. I don’t get much chance these days (or, frankly, for the past 40-odd years) to make use of my Drama training, but I gave the readings welly and did my best to bring print to life. Not so difficult as Elaine and her story leap off the page unaided.

When I’d run out of voice there were informed and appreciative comments and questions from the audience. And – as often happens at these events – a sprinkling of people with intimate knowledge of the subject through family or other contacts. One chap made a bee-line for me afterwards to tell me all about his mother – an agent with F Section, sent into France – and show me her memorabilia.  He omitted to tell me her name – just her codename!

SueSigningThen a long queue of people with books to sign. Fiona was thrilled that she sold every single copy in stock – even the one on display in the window.  This, apparently, is unprecedented!

So, pretty much a triumph all round. Thank you Fiona for your tremendous support for us local authors, and thank you to everyone who came, especially my dear Sis who made the trip from the Isle of Wight specially to be there. Madden relatives in Australia and Canada who’d helped me so much in my research were, I know, there in spirit.


Spooks and Secrets on Halloween

Appropriately enough for October 31st, I spent much of the day talking about spooks and secrets at a special lunch in central London for people interested in or connected to the secret services – especially those active during WW2.

soe1We met at a discreet hotel a stone’s throw from 64 Baker Street – original home of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). These days an anonymous office block, a green plaque betrays its wartime past as the hub of planned sabotage and subversion in Nazi-occupied Europe between 1940 and 1945.


soe3A rather unwieldy group of us trooped in and up six flights of stairs to find the rest of the building firmly locked to us. No matter, we made do with the atmospheric staircase, imagining the hands of the brave SOE agents and their bosses on that same polished brass handrail…

Then back to the hotel for lunch and some serious networking. A fascinating range of people were in attendance: a sprinkling of elderly SOE survivors, relatives, experts, academics, writers and knowledgeable amateurs fascinated by this secret world hidden from the public for so many decades.

Here I was able to talk about ‘my’ agent, Elaine Madden to a very receptive audience and make influential new contacts. A great day. I came away buzzing and with a new biography of top woman spook, Daphne Park. My thanks to Jedburgh expert Clive Bassett for introducing me to people – and for taking the photos!


No such thing as bad publicity?

From the giddy heights of Radio 4 to… well, the very local. This week I’m being interviewed by the Hounslow Chronicle and Get West London. Though this seems like sweating the small stuff, I know I shouldn’t turn my nose up at local media.  Any attention is welcome in a world stuffed with shouty people clamouring for print and online space. If it results in a single sale it’s worth my while.

Perhaps more important to me than (even) sales at the moment is the response I’ve just had from some of Elaine Madden’s living relatives in far-flung parts. Cousins in Australia and Canada who have followed the progress of the book with interest and helped me with photos and family information have at last had the chance to read it and let me know what they think.

This is always a tricky moment. We all have our own idea of how a certain character in our lives should be portrayed. Does a biography enhance or destroy that image?  Luckily, they loved it, all of them saying unprompted that they felt they learned so much more about her and the times she lived in.  And they also said something else that surprised me: that they didn’t realise before reading it what Londoners (and indeed ordinary people in the UK and Europe generally) went through during the worst of the Blitz and WW2.  We take it as read; but it’s new to so many others.

Time for a quick sandwich before Get West London calls…

Woman’s Hour

To be interviewed on BBC R4’s (I want to say ‘iconic’ here, but it’s such a cliche) Woman’s Hour  is both an honour and an ordeal.  You feel so much more exposed on radio than telly somehow… and a live interview first thing on a Monday morning gives you the whole weekend to worry about whether you’ll fluff it. I’d done one before, on The Children Who Fought Hitler, but that was pre-recorded so any fluffy bits could be edited out before broadcast.

This was The Real Thing.

But there’s something about entering the portals of Broadcasting House – the original entrance under the Eric Gill sculpture of Propspero and Ariel, not the flashy new bit round the corner – that inspires pride. It is our BBC after all (take note John Whittingdale and those who would diminish the Corporation through malice or neglect). From there I and my fellow-interviewees (on vaginal sprays, as it happens) were taken into the competent and comfortable embrace of the WH team where, in the Green Room we were greeted by presenter Jane Garvey and told the running order.  Vaginal sprays were on first. I was on last, so I had another 40 minutes or so to listen to a packed edition and admire Ms Garvey’s skill and professionalism in handling so many disparate items with humour and an enviable light touch.

The Green Room clock ticked ineluctably on.  Then it was time…

Max Hastings and Romantic Twaddle

Veteran journalist and much-published military historian Max Hastings has a new book out on the secret war. His thesis is that secret codes, agents and subversive activities during WW2 contributed little more than a jot towards Allied victory. I might argue with that, but he says something much more infuriating in his Introduction: “Most accounts of wartime SOE agents, particularly women and especially in France, contain large doses of romantic twaddle”. 

Sweeping or what?  He might be thinking of some early embroidered ‘autobiographies’ and some later books and films (Charlotte Grey is a culprit here – but this is fiction, Max). He certainly ignores more recent excellently-researched biogs and scholarly studies – done by women. But more important (for me, anyway) is his dismissal of Romance as anything to do with War.  For many of the woman who joined SOE, old-fashioned romantic notions of King & Country, duty and service inspired their actions – and let’s not dismiss another possible motivation: that they might have romantic adventures in the course of their clandestine duties.

Elaine Madden in FANY uniform 1944
Elaine Madden in FANY uniform 1944 – looking romantic?

This isn’t twaddle; it was part of these women’s experience of the secret war. It’s certainly true of Elaine Madden’s experience as I found when I was researching I Heard My Country Calling. And she wasn’t alone.

So I stand up for women and for Romance!

The Agony and the Ecstacy…

There’s nothing quite like opening that Jiffy bag and seeing the first copy of your new book, hot(ish) off the press.

I Heard My Country Calling
I Heard My Country Calling

The first thing I do is check they’ve spelled my name right. Yes, I’ve pored over proofs obsessively but the second t in Elliott sometimes inexplicably goes AWOL. Jolly good, all t’s present and correct.

The cover is a strong design and says what it needs to, but the weight and feel of a book is important too. Does it feel good to handle and is the paper a decent gsi? What colour is the hard cover beneath the jacket? A nice cream with gold lettering on the spine, good choice.  How has the plate section come out – are the photos hi-res and glossy and are the captions as I recall writing them?  Like many book-browsers, I always turn to the photographs first to give me a flavour of a non-fiction book.
Continue reading

Radio Times Festival – we were there!

Venerable listings mag Radio Times launched its very first TV/Radio/Book festival this year 24-27 September in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace – and we were there!Not exactly in lights... ... but on the programme!

Not exactly in lights…
… but on the programme!

The line-up was starry. Everything from the stars and writers ofWolf Hall to Doctor Who and Call the Midwife. David Attenborough, Peter Capaldi, Brucie, Andrew Marr, Jon Snow, Thomas the Tank Engine, Simon Schama, Phillipa Gregory… The best-known names in British telly and publishing in fact.  And Steve and me, talking about Britain’s Greatest Generation  and how we rose to the challenge of getting 90 and 100-year olds to tell their stories for the series and the book.

Yes, we were in a marquee, and our select but lovely audience gamely put up with competition from a VERY LOUD session on Radio 4 coming from the other end of the tent. We just about made ourselves heard over the theme tunes to Listen With Mother and The Archers...

But these are quibbles.  It was a privilege to be part of such a buzzy and well-organised event. Afterwards we went to sessions with Russell T Davies (writer of Dr Who, Bob & Rose, and the amazing and under-rated Second Coming) and Peter Kosminsky – a hero of mine who directed Wolf Hall  and who has been making brilliantly controversial drama-docs for more than 30 years –The Government Inspector, The Promise, Britz, Shoot to Kill among them.

Worryingly, both speakers were pessimistic about the future of the BBC and seemed convinced that the Tories are intent on dismantling it out of spite, revenge or pure ideology. We’ve been here before and the Beeb has survived political onslaughts from governments of all stripes. But it is Britain’s most precious cultural asset and events like this that round up so many BBC gems and talents remind us just what we’ve got to lose. I predict a Luvvie – and a public – fight-back.

This was the first RTFest – let’s hope it becomes an annual fixture. Popular culture deserves no less.


Chiswick Book Festival


This is a great little litfest – local to West London yet attracting a starry line-up  including Max Hastings, Mary (Queen of Shops) Portas and senior stateman Vince Cable,. So I was honoured to be invited to join a panel for the launch session on Thursday evening this week in the stunning Palladian setting of Chiswick House. Well, in a tent actually, though a pretty splendid tent with chandeliers and posh flower arrangements.

Waterstone_Chiswick_book_FestMy fellow-panelists were Sonia Purnell, author of a just-published biography of Clementine Churchill (First Lady, the Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill) and James MacManus who has cleverly woven the story of Roosevelt’s wartime aide Harry Hopkins into a engaging novel about love and cross-Atlantic politics in Blitz-worn London (Sleep in Peace Tonight).  We were kept in check in the nicest possible way by our Chair, Diana Preston, author of A Higher Form of Killing, about 3 horrific episodes over a 6-week period in WW1 that changed the course and conduct of warfare forever. Continue reading