Talking about books… with Andrew Duncan

In mid-March, when lockdown started, I was approached by the Editor of the Clapham Society Newsletter and commissioned to carry out a series of virtual interviews with local, debutante authors. The Newsletter, which goes out to people in south London, is usually inundated with requests for publicity for any local events, but, thanks to COVID-19, most of these events ( including the Clapham Book Festival, unfortunately ) were being cancelled. So copy was needed and this seemed a good way to support local authors – whose books might otherwise sink without trace without the oxygen of publicity – as well as to entertain and inform the readers and fill the Newsletter.

Consequently readers of my blog page will see a number of articles over the coming weeks, entitled ‘A Conversation with……’. The first of these is a conversation with Andrew Duncan.

As the seventy fifth anniversary of VE Day, on 8th May 2020, passes during CORVID19 lockdown, now might be the time to read about WWII. If fiction is your preference, try ‘Somerville’s War’ by Clapham author Andrew A Duncan (Vineyard Books, 2020). This novel evokes the tranquil, timeless and sometimes petty-seeming world of rural southern England and its response to war; from the pilots of the RAF and ATA, the Special Operations Executive agents and the spy masters at the famous ‘finishing school for spies’ at SOE Beaulieu, renamed SOE Somerville in the novel. Beginning at a sailing club on the Somer (Beaulieu) River in the Hampshire countryside, the novel takes the reader to war-time London and thence to occupied France, as a large and varied cast of characters, crossing generational, class and national divides, contribute to the war, often for very different reasons.

Julie Anderson (JA): Why, as a long-time Clapham resident, have you chosen to write, so evocatively, about rural Hampshire.

Andrew Duncan (AD):  I grew up at Beaulieu, Hampshire, where my grandparents went to live in the 1930s.  I inherited a house there and now divide my time equally between Clapham (my London based publishing business) and Beaulieu.  As a writer you will know what a head start that gives you in writing a novel, especially a first novel, if the geography is at your fingertips.  Then there is the fact that Beaulieu/Somer is and was a unique place – and that I love the variety of the scenery and the closeness of the sea – you can never get bored with this extra dimension.  It really got under my skin aged around sixteen – just like the Henry character in the book – though I’m not the basis for his character.

Also, I felt that there was a vacant slot for a ‘Beaulieu’ novel; not just that, but that the place itself could be a character in the novel in its own right – as London is in Dickens – but, heaven forbid, I am not comparing myself with him. 

JA: It has been said that England and the English never quite recovered from WWII, so deeply is it embedded in the national psyche. What is it that drew you into writing about this period?

AD: Partly just that: WW2 stories can be good sellers as a genre, maybe third in popularity after the chick lit-female interest-romance and crime genres.  Also because I had some more or less original material – SOE Beaulieu and the ATA women pilots – which had not yet been realized in fiction – anyway not properly. It’s also a bonus that Kim Philby taught at SOE Beaulieu.  I felt this last could give not only reviewers, but readers, something fresh to latch on to. 

Like many another of my generation WW2 had an indirect impact on my life, but this story also struck me as a handy vehicle for a psychological subtext. All four main characters start with obsessions.  By the end they are either destroyed by them or come to terms with them. I hope some readers will enjoy thinking about why and how this happens. There are clues all through the text that they are dealing with obsessions, and on page 332 there is a fuller explanation.

Also partly because I wanted to explore writing a story that exists in the twilight zone between fiction and non fiction – history is not half handy for that.

JA: One central strand of Somerville’s War is a love story, told from the point of view of a young woman ATA pilot.  Why did you make Leonora such a central character and have her feature so strongly in the tale?

AD: In part because realizing one of those women doing men’s work long before it became commonplace seemed to me of special interest to modern women – and men. It puts feminism in perspective.  Partly because I know the territory:  my mother was one of those ATA women and, although it was very hard to get her to talk, I did come to understand what the experience was like for her and consequently I felt I had the insight to write about it.  Leo is partly based on my Mum but only the foundations.  What you see of Leo when she’s in the air is different to my mother, more like other females I have known.

In Leo I wanted to create a real heroine – a human with quality but some serious flaws.  She is truly courageous, not because she feels less fear, like some people, she feels plenty: her nervous system gets slammed by the dog fight and by the storm. Yet she finds her way out of it through moral fibre.  I wanted to show the moral dimension of courage in women operating in the same way as it does in men. I also wanted to explore female aggression, a considerable thing…   I am hoping that in Leo’s dogfight I get near the heart of that, especially when she presses the trigger.   

So Leo was a vessel for these themes and that is why I have her near the heart of the story.

JA: Events in Somerville’s War take place in 1940 and the book captures the attitudes, prejudices and morés of the time using the language then widely used. To this reader, at least, the style and pacing of the book also reflects the literature of that period or earlier. How did you set out to write, in 2020, in this style?

AD: This question got me wondering.  Indeed the story telling is generally straight and traditional, but I hope not anachronistic.  But a major feature of the style – frequent short scenes, much hopping from place to place – is influenced by contemporary cinema.

For that authentic feel, yes I tried to recreate the attitudes, morés and speech of the 1940s. But as you suggest it goes a bit further than that.  At the heart of the story is the Brigadier or ‘Brig’, a man who is really a Victorian.  The whole story is in the Brig’s mind, though told by others.  So it seemed right to have a traditional story structure – patrician story telling as the Brig might have done it had he actually written the story.  This is partly why the sex and action climaxes are underplayed:  for Maxwell and his contemporaries, saying less was their way of saying more.

This straight style does also overlay a subtext, a story of psychological development, but reinterpreted in the light of up to the moment understanding of neuroscience. By the way, I’m hoping the story will make readers think again about the Brig and his like: I hope he represents the best of his kind.  That generation and that type are often ridiculed these days, sometimes unfairly.

Lastly, I must admit I wanted to stick up two fingers to much contemporary story telling style which seems to me to be all form and no content. Form should work hand in hand with content – as I hope I have achieved in Somerville’s War.  I deliberately took no notice of trendy story telling devices hoping that clear structure where characters are allowed to develop in a measured pace in the first half would enable a faster paced, action oriented second half.  I was aiming for a natural, easy read and for readers to know the characters before the action gets going – this means the tension is heightened because you care about them even if you aren’t hugely attracted to them.

You haven’t asked about character and hope you won’t mind my adding my thoughts.  In quality commercial fiction Robert Harris and his like are very dominant – superb plotting and story telling but often at the expense of ‘rounded’ characters.   I wanted to have a go at good story telling but also with three dimensional characters, not cardboard cut-outs.   Others must judge if it worked…

Somerville’s War is available online and at bookshops on request at £10.99.

Flamenco in north London

So to Sadlers Wells Theatre for the annual Flamenco Festival in north London. This time I had only returned from Jerez de la Frontera the day before and I went to see Santiago Lara and Mercedes Ruiz who hail from that city.  I have written about this married couple before ( see Lamento and The Guitar in Time ) and I listen regularly to Lara’s guitar playing.

On Saturday they were performing with dancers Maria Moreno, from nearby Cadiz, and Eduardo Guerrero, who I have tried to see several times at the Jerez Festival, only to be stymied by the schedule.  Accompanied by rising singing star Maria Fernandez Benitez, known as Maria ‘Terremoto’, and male singers, Emilio Florido and Ismael ‘el Bola’. They were billed as the Gala Flamenca and it was excellent.

Lara was the musical coordinator and he led the musicians on stage, a second guitarist, Javier Ibanez and percussionist, Paco Vega.  The artistic director was Miguel Linan, renown dancer and regular performer at the Jerez Festival ( see Reversible ).  Linan’s choreography is distinctive, although the three dancers were undoubtedly also contributors ( and listed as such ).

The programme began with Morena dancing an alegria. As is always the case with British theatre audiences, while the dancing was well received, there was little feedback between performer and audience until the end of each piece.  This contrasts with watching flamenco in Jerez, when the audience is supposed, even obliged, to clap, shout encouragement and cheer during the performance. I was very pleased therefore when a particularly spectacular series of steps ended with a sweeping flourish and a spontaneous cheer from the audience.  I noticed Lara, who was nearest the edge of the stage, start to smile.  The performance had ‘taken’ and the audience were bound in.

The show continued with a remarkable pas de deux between the young singer,  and Mercedes Ruiz.  Ruiz, dressed in black, male garb performed accompanied only by the singing and her own castanets  and stamping feet. She was outstanding.  The audience was well and truly captured by now, so much so that Ruiz could be playful, making us laugh as well as astounding us with her artistry.  How could anyone top that?

Well, then came Eduardo Guerrero, long black hair flying, in a stunning Cana.  Guerrero’s arabesques were straight out of the Miguel Linan playbook, athletic, fluid and captivating.  What was not was the truly amazing footwork which followed, which had the audience, by now half way to behaving like Jerezanos, applauding and cheering with every flourish.  As a female member of our group said afterwards, he was gorgeous and absolutely commanding ( and the dancing was pretty good too ).

There followed another pas de deux, this time with Moreno and Guerrrero in perfect synchronicity and a final Solea from Ruiz.  All three dancers returned to the stage for a rousing finale and, by the time the stage lights went down, everyone was on their feet and applauding.  At the curtain calls I was pleased to see the recognition of Lara’s stunning guitar playing and Miguel Linan was also invited on stage to take the applause. He brought with him a birthday cake with lighted candles, it was the birthday of one of the company  and he was persuaded to dance along with the mini-encore.

We left the theatre buzzing, but exhausted, that’s what watching flamenco does!

For more articles about flamenco, in London and Jerez, try         2018 Festival Round-up              Flamenco Fix            Paco Pena

Portrait of an artist…

as a young man, not the James Joyce novel but Tate Britain’s summer exhibition, on Vincent Van Gogh and his time in in south London. Van Gogh arrived at the age of twenty in 1873 and lodged in Brixton ( though it’s described here as Stockwell ) where he fell in love with his landlady’s daughter. He worked for two years at the offices of Covent Garden art dealers Goupil, before turning to both teaching and preaching, when he was dismissed from his job.

Any number of Impressionists and post-impressionists fetched up south of the Thames at some point in their lives ( usually during the Franco-Prussian War and the time of the Paris Commune ). So his was a path well-trodden, by his almost contemporary Pissaro in Norwood, Sisley at Molesley, Monet at the Savoy or Tissot in St John’s Wood (okay, that’s north of the river).

The exhibition is a large one, with nine rooms, containing Van Gogh paintings, drawings and washes, but also many works of contemporary, or near contemporary, artists who were living in London at that time or which Van Gogh would have seen while he was here.  It includes works and prints which Van Gogh owned and there is cross-over here with the Tate’s winter exhibition of 2017/18 The Impressionists in London.

The Van Gogh also includes later, British artists clearly influenced by him.  So, for example, his Sunflowers, in Room 7, is juxtaposed with paintings of sunflowers by William Nicholson, Frank Brangwen and Jacob Epstein, among others.  I very much enjoyed these – the whole is joyous and up-lifting.  I enjoyed too the paintings of later artists, like those of the Camden Town School and David Bomberg and Francis Bacon, who acknowledged their debt to Van Gogh ( see study, by Bacon, left, of his painting of Van Gogh in the sun-bleached landscape of the south of France ).

I am insufficiently knowledgeable to be able to draw any but the most obvious of parallels between Van Gogh and the artists who influenced him while he was here.  That the river-scapes of Whistler, with their floating fogs and twinkling lights, had an influence, especially in the depiction of lights in the Rhone, doesn’t surprise me and there are obvious links to be made with Pre-Raphealite paintings like those of Edward Millais.  Some of the other connections are less obvious, indeed they may seem tenuous to the untrained eye, though I have no doubt that the scholarship behind this exhibition is excellent.

That Van Gogh adored Dickens and his works was new to me, though it fits, some of his portraits have the gnarly yet fluid quality that one perceives in some of Dickens’ descriptions of his characters. That he collected British prints and reproductions – the ‘black and whites’ – over 2,000 of them, often of modern subjects, like the workhouse, the prison or the deprivations of the poor, also feels fitting.  As he said ‘I often felt low in England… but the Black and White and Dickens, are things which make up for it all.’

The exhibition is at Tate Britain and runs until 11th August.  It is very popular, we visited at 4 o’clock on a Friday, when we thought it would be quiet, yet it was anything but.  Afterwards a steward told me that, in relative terms this was quiet!  So beware the crowds.  Entry costs £22, with concessions for students, seniors etc. and if you are not a member you will have to book.  It’s well worth a visit.

For more on art and exhibitions see            Soane and Kapoor          Art on the Underground                 John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

Festival de Jerez 2019

For us another fabulous Festival de Jerez is over. We have all gone our separate ways, though performances at the 2019 Festival continue until next weekend.  Yet again we have been astounded and amazed by the quality, as well as the variety, on offer.

Festival de Jerez 2019 was also the Festival Feminista, a full-throated riposte to recent regional elections in which, for the first time since Franco, representatives of the far right, via the new party called Vox, won seats in the Andalucian Parliament. Vox stands on a specific anti-feminist platform, as well as being anti-immigration and advocating what sounds like a return to the 1950s. So there was a full supporting programme of events for feminists of both genders. The Festival also had plenty of female headliners – Ana Morales, Eva Yerbabeuna, Maria Pages and, on Saturday, Mercedes Ruiz.

We saw Ruiz at the Teatro Villamarta, where she was joined by some famous fellow performers, including some old favourites. The performance, entitled Tauromagia featured original music and composition from flamenco great Manolo Sanlucar, re-interpreted by Santiago Lara as music director ( see The Guitar in Time and Jazz Guitar ) and singer and setter of text, David Lagos. This reunited three of the four protagonists of Lamento a phenomenal performance which we saw at the 2016 Festival. Ruiz was in fine form throughout, dancing with second soloist, Ana Agraz and a fine cuerpo de baile, Beatriz Santiago, Aurora Carabello and Vanesa Reyes.  We, like the rest of a very full theatre, were enthralled and entranced.  The ovation at the end of the performance lasted a long time, and justifiably so.

It was probably just co-incidence, but we saw more dancing this time than usual. Not just the established stars but some newer, up and comers. So, at Sala Paul, Bodegon, an intriguing set by Jose Maldonado, Javier Latorre and Carmen Coy. This had first been performed at a Festival in France in 2016 but had been developing since. We had seen Maldonado as a member of Miguel Linan’s company in 2016 ( see Reversible ), representing the masculine. Here he had a more fluid style although still exhibiting classical training and remarkable athleticism in a set originally directed by Linan. A modern dance piece with flamenco at its heart it was about creativity and art and involved the principal painting pictures with both paint and light, a remarkable Coy acting as muse, creative idea and, possibly creation.  I do not pretend to have understood it all, but I enjoyed it a lot and look forward to see what this talented dancer does next.

The other dancer new to us was Adrian Santana, who we saw deliver Simbiosis, a more traditional set in Sala Compania on Monday night. Traditional, but still with new ideas.  Two male singers sang separately and together of love and loss as Santana and Agueda Saavedra formed a wonderful partnership, dancing solo and together. Stunning.  Afterwards we kept bumping into the performers, now in civvies, but still on a high from the tremendous reception given to their performance and out on the town.  A terrific end to our sojourn at the 2019 Festival.

And guess what, it didn’t rain. Not a drop.  Unlike last year ( see 2018 Round Up ).  Now London awaits the arrival of a clutch of starry flamenco talent at Sadlers Wells Flamenco Festival 2019. This has finally moved from February/March when it repeatedly clashed with the Festival de Jerez to July.  Hooray – two flamenco festivals a year!

For more flamenco try                 Camerata Flamenco Project                           Lola  Dancing to Different Tunes

Some of these photographs are by Javier Fergo for the Festival de Jerez, others by Helen Hughes.

The Wider Earth

In this case that part of it found in SW7.  Specifically, the Flett Theatre (formerly the Jerwood Gallery) in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum, to see David Morton’s new play about the young Charles Darwin, The Wider Earth.

It is a charming piece, showing a Darwin in his early twenties, concentrating on beetles not lectures at Cambridge before a Summer hunting fossils in Wales and thence, with a little help from Uncle Josiah, the social reformer and abolitionist, Josiah Wedgewood, to the Beagle.  This is where the play really takes flight, quite literally with the puppet butterflies, birds and fishes.

The staging is ingenious, a single set on the central revolve stands in for Cambridge, Shrewsbury, Wales, various Pacific Islands, including the Galapagos, Australia and large chunks of south America.  It becomes the deck and cabins of the ship – not boat, as Captain Fitzroy corrects the young naturalist, who, at first sight, he rejects as unsuitable, only to relent later.

The mainly young cast double as puppeteers, bringing to life the exotic creatures Darwin is entranced by. Working with Handspring, the South African puppetry company which brought War Horse to such vivid life, the company has created some excellent animals. I loved the armadillo and iguana and the giant tortoises are wonderful.  Even an adult audience gasped at the near perfect rendition of animal behaviour, so I imagine children would be utterly beguiled – there are a lot of matinee performances.

This Darwin too is somewhat child-like, Emma Wedgewood, later Emma Darwin, tells him the voyage might help him grow up and the central performance has something of the young Micheal Crawford about it, lots of wide-eyed innocence and worthiness. There is little hint of the tough scientist beneath.  The character more subtly explored is Fitzroy, an interesting scientist in his own right, though that isn’t really mentioned here – evolution is the main event, not meteorology (though Herschel and photography feature briefly). Fitzroy suffered from near suicidal depression and that is touched on, as is his volatile character.

The drama catches the intellectual climate of the time, with Lyell’s geological theories already challenging Christian orthodoxy. Debate rages aboard the Beagle, stimulated by the presence of a clergyman, travelling to Tierra del Fuego to take God to the natives, as well as a native Fuegan, Jeremy Button, taken by Fitzroy from the south Atlantic to be ‘educated’ in Britain.  It shows the experiences – of volcanic eruption, of earthquakes and mountain making, of the differences in species from the various Galapagos islands – which inform Darwin’s thinking.

The play is educative in nature and it tackles its complex subject well, capturing Darwin’s youthful curiosity and exuberance. Emma, the solitary female, is given a mind, and a cause, of her own, in abolitionism and there is no suggestion that, within societal norms of the time, their alliance will be anything other than equal.  I must own up here – the character of Emma was played by an Anderson relative, Melissa Vaughn.

The Wider Earth runs until 24th February and tickets cost between £19.50 and £79.  It’s worth a visit, but don’t go next Tuesday, when royalty is visiting.  The photographs accompanying this post are my own and by Mark Douet.  For a first rate novel about the voyage of the Beagle I recommend This Thing of Darkness, by Harry Thompson (Tinder Press, 2006)