Charlie Britten's writing blog

Dear Reader, you may remember my post on the Anne of Green Gables Museum in August.  Since then I have written a piece The real 'Lake of Shining Waters'on the Museum for The Copperfield Review, which will appear in the autumn edition and, this weekend, the editor, Meredith Allard, has previewed it on her blog, together with some photos taken by my husband.

This morning, as I have a little time to myself, I have tried writing Morning Pages, using Word and tagging my Word document as I saved it.  It came out more like a journal entry, detailing what I was doing now and had been doing for the last few days, unfortunately, whereas I wanted it to be a place where I could set down thoughts and thoughts about settings and emotions which I could use in my writing later on.  I suppose these things will come with practice.  Does anyone know of any sites giving guidance on morning pages, please?  A cursory look on Google just brought up promotionals for journalling sites.

Why don’t I like Downton Abbey?  I think I am in a minority of one on this.   This evening I cleaned the kitchen floor rather than watching it.  I definitely don’t hate it and there have been many Sunday evenings when I have sat in the room while my husband watches it, trying to do something else.  It’s quite harmless in its way.  Am I being snobby because it’s so middlebrow?  No!!!!  Everything I read is middlebrow.  I am middlebrow.  I listen to Classic FM, for Goodness sake.  Am I being snobby because it’s a soap?  (As my students would say, it so is.)  No!!!!  Years ago I used to watch Neighbours.

Downton Abbey should be all the things I should like – historical, English, gentle, with occasional bursts of humour.  Although I have read in the newspaper that there are a few inaccuracies, as to costume, household practices and use of language, generally I believe it to be an authentic representation of life at the beginning of the twentieth century.   It’s much better researched than anything coming out of Hollywood, for sure.

I have explored every corner of my soul, usually on a Sunday evening, but I cannot find a proper answer to my question.  I think a lot of it is that, on a Sunday evening, especially when I was contemplating returning to work on Monday morning (not now, thank Goodness), I can’t be bothered to get involved in a soap.  I want to relax.  Some people would say that watching a historical soap like Downton is relaxation, and, if I was the slightest bit engaged with Lady Mary or any of the other characters, or was able to tap into the plot, it would be relaxing for me too.  The trouble is that they do not interest me.   Fiction is supposed to be all about character but, for me, these characters are too wooden and too ordinary and I can more or less predict what is going to happen next, although, to be fair, they appear to be working for ten million viewers.  I don’t think Julian Fellowes – in the unlikely event of him reading this post – would be too bothered about my view.

The thing that annoys me most is not the show itself but its viewers, who take it all too seriously, spending hours discussing Lady Mary, Carson and all the others, as if they were real people.  Also I mentioned above that I’d read letters in a – broadsheet – newspaper discussing the historical authenticity of the costume and set… while there are refugees cold and starving in Turkey, Italy and Greece.  A few days ago, whilst walking through the servants quarters of Anglesey Abbey (a National Trust property), I heard over and over again – from grown ups – that it was just like Downton and this is where Carson or Mrs Patmore would sit.  Get a grip, everybody.  It’s not real.  Really, it’s not real.

So what’s the matter with me?  Why can’t one hopeful historical novelist join in all the Downton Abbey fun?

Downton Abbey Cast

Att Flickr

Available from Penguin Random House.

When Harold Fry, a nondescript, recently retired man living in Devon, receives a letter from his former colleague, Queenie Hennessey, telling him that she is dying in a hospice in Berwick, he composes a brief reply and sets off to the letter box to post it – only he walks past several letter boxes and decides to walk all the way to Berwick, in a pair of yachting shoes and without his mobile phone.  As you do.  The novel chronicles his journey, the people he meets on his way, his thoughts about his wife and son, his childhood and the job he has just left.   The plot is quirky, involving a lot of suspension of belief.   Harold himself is endearing, naive and innocent, yet growing in wisdom as the book progresses.  Unfortunately, his Stepford wife, Maureen, never really becomes real to me, but stays on the page as a sort of ‘any woman’.  Although I accepted, on paper, that she is working through her issues through housework, I expect a woman in the twenty-first century to have had a job at some point in her life.  That said, the way she and Harold verbally snipe at each in the first chapter is sharp and painful, even though it does not exactly lure the reader in.  Other characters come and go, as befits a story about a journey.

This novel, which is Rachel Joyce’s first, was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, won the UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year and was also the best-selling hardback book in the UK from a new novelist in that year.  ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ is perfect, characters perfectly drawn, plot perfectly constructed, with hooks (such as Harold being teetotal) strategically placed, and all fitting perfectly into the Three Act Graph.  By and large, Rachel Joyce follows all The Rules, except – very occasionally – changing point of view mid-paragraph.  Her characters pontificate to themselves a lot, but that is in the nature of the scenario.  She shows that she can describe, with some wonderful depictions of changing English scenery, also that she can write dramatic encounters between characters, slowly and precisely, building up the tension and the emotion.


But, Dear Reader, I think you can sense that there is a but, although I can’t quite say what it is.  Maybe, as they say, it was me not you, Harold Fry, because I didn’t connect with you or your journey.  Maybe this book is too perfect.  Perhaps a few rough edges would have provided a point of connection.   There was a lot that might’ve happened in this book, but didn’t.  This can be a plotting strength, because it may mean that a writer is avoiding cliches, but ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage’ was, for me, a little dull.

As Maureen grew vegetables, and because it is difficult to think of any other suitable images, I’m ending with a few pictures of the last vegetables in my garden, struggling to keep growing in the lacklustre autumn sun and not drowning in the rain, dew and general wetness that clings to everything outside at this time of year.   There, you see, I can describe the natural environment too.

tomatoes beans cucumbers

Republished by Virago.

Although not published until 1969, ‘In This House of Brede’ is set in the 1950s and was adapted for television in 1975.  As is explained at the very beginning of the book, it arose out of the author’s close contact with the Benedictine community at Stanbrook Abbey during a family crisis.  Involving intensive research into the Benedictine history, liturgy, music and traditions, it took her five years to write.  During this time, the abbess at Stanbrook asked, rhetorically, in her presence, why nobody ever wrote novels about nuns and she couldn’t bring herself to say that she was in the middle of doing just that.

The novel concerns – mainly – widow Philippa Talbot who, in middle age, gives up her successful civil service career to join the House of Brede.  Before entering the abbey as a postulant, she orders three whiskies at the local pub, and drinks them in the space of half an hour, only to find, when she eventually gets there, that she is required to kiss all her new sisters in religion.   She mentions to the abbess that she might smell of alcohol but there is no question that she can hold it.  Philippa is a character a reader can have confidence in – able, level-headed, not afraid of making hard, (but wise) choices- although it is apparent that some of the other nuns find her a threat.   The reader also shares the lives of other members of the community: the anguish of Sister Cecily, whose family and friends cannot understand her vocation, and put every obstacle in her way; the insecurities of Dame Catherine, who, to her surprise, is elected abbess, and, in time, becomes a more effective spiritual leader than sainted Mother Hester who preceded her.

‘In This House of Brede’ was the second book recommended to me by my beloved aunt in Canada (the other being Alan Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’ – see earlier review), a remarkable choice for someone who is not a Christian.  My aunt is also my Godmother, but she tells me that she didn’t dare say no when my mother asked her.  There is a wonderful photo of her holding me, draped in oceans of shawls,  at my Christening, with – apparently – my grandmother (out of the picture) telling her how to hold a baby.  She has been a very caring Godmother to me, especially after my own mother died.

Even though I read Rumer Godden’s ‘The Greengage Summer’ many years ago and found it  irritating, I enjoyed ‘In This House of Brede’ more than I have enjoyed any book for several months.  I always seem to get on better with the older books.  Over the last few days, I have pondered why and I cannot exactly put my finger on it, except that it appears to me that novels written in previous generations tend to generate characters, like Philippa Talbot, whom the reader can have confidence in, whereas contemporary writers are always encouraged to create characters who are flawed, and not just a little bit flawed either.   I get very frustrated with characters who get blind drunk and then do something totally stupid.  Older works also tend to be written upbeat, whereas nowadays dystopia is very much the fashion.  I  have enough to be depressed about in real life without taking on the troubles of a character in a book, who – after all – doesn’t actually exist.  But I seem to be in a minority of one here.


I’m shocked to see that the last post on this blog was dated 8 August, which was when I was still on holiday in Canada.   I’ve now been back in England for three weeks, one spent babysitting Beloved Grandson and two working.  So, you ask, Dear Reader:

What have I written recently since my last post?  Not a lot.

What have I had published?  Two reviews on Copperfield Review (ones I’d done earlier, obviously).

What have I read?  Quite a bit.  Here’s the list:

Hollow Mountain and Shadow of the Rock – both by Thomas Mogford (Spike Sanguinetti, crime thrillers).  Despite really enjoying the fourth book in the series (Sleeping Dogs), I didn’t enjoy the first three at all, basically because they were more thriller than crime, with lots of violence and a violent and unlikeable protagonist.   Books written for he-men, methinks, whereas cosy crime is for us girls.  Fiction Fan was also writing about unlikeable protagonists in her blog this week.

Death on Lindisfarne – by Kay Sampson, also Killer’s Countdown – Wendy H Jones.  These are both Christian literature, a genre I’m very keen to get more into.  These two novels, both advertised in the Association of Christian Writers magazine as ‘crime fiction’, were very different from each other.  Death on Lindisfarne, the second in the Aidan Mysteries series, was much as I expected, featuring Christian people and set against a backdrop of Lindisfarne Isle and northern saints, although it wasn’t in any way preachy.  Interesting for me as a hopeful Christian writer was that it tackled some difficult issues, such as abuse in children’s homes, abusive relationships and how we sometimes make assumptions about people which turn out to be hurtful.  On the other hand, Killer’s Countdown  seemed, initially, to be  mainstream crime fiction, with no direct mention of God and only one short prayer towards the end.  DI Shona McKenzie and her team must’ve eaten enough sugar and fat for the whole of Scotland, and she was a grumpy old thing, but I rather enjoyed her grumpiness, as I think I would have been grumpy in her place.  However, she still had time to talk to Auld Jock, the tramp.  This was Christian literature in a different way, understated, about a principled and honest woman, living a Christian life as a matter of course.

Go Set A Watchman – by Harper Lee.

When I said I’d written ‘not a lot’, I didn’t mean nothing at all, just one review, of Go Set a Watchman, which I have subbed.  What a hornets’ nest!  Every reviewer has rubbished it… but I’m not going to.  I cannot repeat my review here but, in my opinion, Go Set A Watchman is more difficult and more honest than To Kill a Mockingbird, and all those who have screamed ‘Atticus is a racist’ all over Facebook are just not getting it.

What else?  I’ve installed Windows 10 on my computer and also the Kindle app, which is a boon when you’re looking for quotes for a book review.

And I’ve lost the Fitbit, probably whilst taking Beloved Grandson on a miniature railway.  Do I miss it, Dear Reader?  Actually, no.

Hope to have something more positive next time.  I was supposed to have retired last Friday (27 August), but my line manager asked me to stay on for another two weeks.  However, I should definitely be off the leash on Friday, 11 September.  I cannot go on Twitter at #amwriting yet though.

Meanwhile, has anyone any ideas about how to write with a cat sitting on my knee between me and the keyboard? Cat sitting on writer's knee. She’s fine when she’s still, but she fidgets and takes ages to settle.


Book available from Macmillan.

Having rubbished Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys about a year ago, when I read the play and went to see it at the theatre, I was dismayed when my lovely aunt in Canada pressed a copy of Bennett’s ‘The Uncommon Reader’ into my hands, saying how much she had enjoyed it. However, I could see that it was a slim volume (124 paMasonic Hall at Fort Edmontonges), and I am on holiday.

“You don’t read proper books,” said my One and Only Husband, when I started reading. True, darling, true, I don’t normally, and one of our jobs on my retirement will be to clear out the many paperbacks which we have both read 10, 20, and many more, years ago and which we will never read again. We will have to offload them on to unwilling charity shop, who will probably send them to be pulped. This is the main reason I read everything on Kindle. Btw… Ssh…over this holiday One and Only has started reading from the Kindle app on his iPad.

Back to ‘The Uncommon Reader’. The premise of this short novella (first published 2006) is that our Queen (Queen Elizabeth II) gets into readinRose hips In Wild Rose Countryg in a big way, thereby neglecting her royal duties, also acquiring insights into political matters on which she had normally been prepared to accept the advice of politicians and courtiers. The story starts well with the royal corgis running into a mobile library van in the grounds of Buckingham Palace and HMQ taking out a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett just to be polite. The best parts of it concern the machinations of equerries and civil servants, jostling for position between themselves, but all determined to nip the Queen’s new hobby into the bud, for no better reason than that she had never read much before and they were used to her old ways. Other members of the Royal Family don’t figure much, except for occasional short appearances by Prince Philip who is depicted – guess how? – as a grumpy old man. (No surprises there, then.) The end of the book was enigmatic. I think I understand it.

I always have reservations about fiction which includes real people, especially people who are still alive and when they have major roles. Sue Townsend’s short, supposedly humorous, work, ‘The Queen and I’, in which the Royal Family were turfed out of its palaces and put on a council estate in Leicester, was similar, but not at all funny, merely a whinge by someone who resented the Royals having more than she did. Bennett, however, wrote about HMQ witWigwam at Fort Edmonton h gentle sympathetic humour (nothing laugh-out-loud), intimating that the Queen was wiser than those around her. He developed for her a character of his own, which may or may not be accurate, but was gentle and respectful – yes, I know, an unusual adjective for a twenty-first century author – but all the more effective for it.

Bennett’s English style, btw, is not vivid or parChurch at Fort Edmontonticularly fluent and on occasions it jarred. For instance, this is the opening sentence. ‘At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber’. His style was wordy, with lots of long sentences, joined by ‘and’. Get that past your writing circle!

So what did I say to my lovely aunt this morning when I gave the book back? She’s a very direct lady, who doesn’t do flannel but does do plain speaking. I told her unequivocally that I enjoyed it.

The photos are of Canada, nothing at all to do with Alan Bennett of ‘The Uncommon Reader’.


Confederacy BridgeWhen we started planning our holiday in Canada, I knew that, this time, we had to go to Prince Edward Island.  We have visited Auntie Mary in Edmonton (in the West) twice already, but I found myself saying to The One and Only Husband, “…wouldn’t it be nice to see the East as well.  You know, Nova Scotia… Halifax… And…. Ooh… We could go to Prince Edward Island.  They’ve built a bridge now, you know.”

“Why?”  asked One and Only.

Why indeed?

Auntie Mary was not encouraging.  “Well, you could go to PEI if you like…  Yep, you go there and see what you think of it.”  I knew what she was getting at.  The existence of The Shining Waters Family Fun Park, which I’d seen advertised on the Internet, was surely enough to put off anyone over ten years old. 

However, last Friday lunchtime saw us driving over the Confederation Bridge from New Brunswick into PEI then eating lunch in Tim Horton’s diner in Summerside, thinking about how to spend our afternoon.    One and Only was all for going to the Anne of Green Gables museum at Park Corner immediately, so as to get-it-over-with, I think.  So we did.  Dear Reader, this was no theme park.  Think National Trust, without the tea room.  This was no children’s thing.  In fact, its clientele were all (except for One and Only) middle aged women, quietly and respectfully walking from room to room,  looking at the first edition books on the shelves, perusing mounted letters and photographs.  The setting was idyllic, with the real Lake of Shining Waters in the grounds of the museum.

It was so moving I nearly cried.  I found my eyes brimming with tears, one if those truly heart-stopping moments which are so unbearably intense you want them to end.  Yes, I know it was all fiction and none of it really happened, you know, but  L M Montgomery’s Anne Shirley, along with the Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, and Enid Blyton’s stories , had formed a huge part of my reading childhood.  Also my mother had recommended Anne of Green Gables to me (as she had the Chalet School) and I had, unconsciously imbibed and internalised L M Montgomery’s outlook on life, loving, homely, grounded and – in spite of her sad start in life – upbeat.

The most poignant exhibits were a letter in which Lucy Maud recalled a meeting with someone who had known her mother ( who had died when she was 22 months old) and another letter in which she thanked a nephew for sending her $10 as, apparently, she earned very little from her books.  In one of her diary pages on display, she recounts how she wrote the first chapter of Anne of Green Gables, the one where Mrs Rachel Lynde sees Matthew Cuthbert go out in his pony and trap, how the words just came to her, as she sat at the kitchen table in the evening sunshine.  I believe her.

(Will include photos later.  They are on my iPhone and I’m writing this on the iPad.  I’m writing this post using the Internet facilities on Westjet and we’re about to land in Edmonton.  Hope to include photos soon.)


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