Another chapter from my life book: Prostitutes, Ms. Groves & ‘Dr. Strangeglove’

After the ‘Doctor Clouseau’ incident (see December’s post), and having sold our successful green-grocery business for several, valid reasons, we bought a very mock-Tudor house in Ilford and lived there for ten good years. During that period, I worked part-time in my most exciting job EVER, for an old established publishing house, based in the City of London, called Kaye & Ward Ltd., As secretary to the two female editors of the ‘Childrens’ and ‘Adults’ books, it was an education and delight. Hooked on words, to make up a ‘mock children’s book’ and meet artists, occasionally writers and illustrators was a treasured bonus. But another ‘life curve’ was on its way when, seduced by the tantalizing idea of running a ‘Tea Rooms’ – for my other half and I both enjoyed cooking and people – we sold our house and bought a business in Bournemouth.

We were to discover that, seemingly, half the population also wanted to run Tea Rooms, and so any decent establishments were very expensive and sought after. PLAN B was then considered. We decided on the hotel business. Bournemouth and surrounds were vetted and combed, and we found “Broughton Hotel,” a splendid Edwardian house, covering three floors with a manageable garden and reasonable parking area. Eleven bedrooms sounded just about right. A genial bank manager was successfully courted and papers duly signed. We were HOTELIERS!!

Our enthusiasm and optimism overcame a few blips…and I soon had an enviable waist-line again… (and muscles where women don’t usually have many…). But, hey, onwards and upwards.

dt-fawlty-towers-1We were, temporarily, a little deflated when a local butcher asked us where our hotel was located and, on learning its position, guffawed and said in a loud voice “Oh, my God, that’s where the Prosies touted for business until recently!!” (It was thickly wooded by pine trees, so understandable from their point of view.) On noting our open mouths…he quickly added that “It’s out of bounds for them now, though…” What a relief, though still food for thought! (We, much later, experienced the secret company of two plains-clothes detectives with powerful binoculars who surveyed the area once our dining room had been vacated after dinner… They declared it “Safe!” while hovering over-long on the shapely figure of one of our female guests waiting for a friend on the opposite side of the road…

It was only when we were moving in, that we realised we had ‘inherited’ a sort of ‘comfortably-off’ (despite claims to the contrary) elderly resident, who was an entrenched Ms! (once in charge of the local telephone exchange.) “I have to pay into a Cremation Fund” she told me, “…so have to be careful with my money! You won’t be putting up my charges will you?” (My husband rattled a large box of matches, with a wicked gleam in his eye when I told him…) We soon realised she almost laid claims to ‘owning’ the building… but she was, at first, polite and manageable, so we acquiesced.

Dungeon-like lighting and dark corners were banned: mirrors; lighting, plants and pictures adorned the walls and suitable areas and the brown cabbage-roses wallpaper removed from the residents’ lounge. Ms. Groves kicked up quite a fuss about our ‘refurbishments’ but we stood firm. When, at a later date, a guest took umbrage at Ms. Groves ownership of the TV set and we offered to buy her one for her room, she nearly exploded! Our ‘dear little octogenarian’ was proving to be anything but…A short period of sulking ensued but she still refused our offer, while grudgingly accepting she had to share the only set.

Life was far from dull for long…. and we survived one or two near mishaps, one mishap (saved for another occasion), and a couple of minor floods…We also managed our first Christmas without a scratch or divorce papers being thrust on either of us… Our bookings were growing pleasingly (despite no ‘Answer-phones’ then) and we had return visits from Travelling Salesmen and weekenders alike. Our prowess at cooking for around 10 to 28 people was steadily growing and we still have the ‘Guest’s book’ with blush-making comments to prove it. (While we didn’t serve pheasant, partridge, pate de foie gras or truffles… we could cook an excellent roast dinner and offer rice and pasta dishes and vegetarian fare, with salads, soups and tasty desserts aplenty. And all for a reasonable sum!) Short-stay and longer-stay guests came and went with little trouble and, to be expected, we had some memorable types who left a more indelible mark. Let me tell you about one in particular…

peter-sellers-as-dr-strangeloveOne night, at around 10.30, pm, our doorbell rang and I discovered a shortish, long-haired, middle-aged man standing on the step. He was dressed in a three-quarter length, sheep-skin coat and wore jeans and cowboy boots, with a scarf nonchalantly knotted at his neck and a shoulder-bag on one hip. Ummm!

‘Good evening, madam,’ he said with a brief smile…’ I’m a physicist looking for a bed for the night. Can you oblige?’ (Husband later suggested I should have replied ‘Have you split any good atoms lately?’ but my brain’s slower than his…) ‘Certainly, sir.’ I heard myself say, and he was shown a suitable room, then ushered into the lounge where he partook of a round of ham sandwiches and coffee as ordered. Ms. Groves had just vacated her usual armchair and the TV set and he made himself comfortable, as our other guests had left that day.

The next morning – having professed to have ‘Slept like a log.’ and been scrutinized by our resident at the next table, I served our new guest’s breakfast and was requested: ‘Would you kindly cut up my bacon and sausage please!’ and it was only then that I noticed his right hand was encased in a black glove (shades of Dr. Strangelove, later naughtily altered for private consumption to ‘Dr.Strangeglove’ ). Taking in my slight change of expression, he explained…’ It was badly damaged in the flash-back accident.’ ‘Oh dear!’ I exclaimed, rather lamely. Our new guest later engaged our middle son in a game of snooker (?) and bent his untutored ears with talk of nuclear fusion and the like. I believe he let him win the game so that he could escape…’Mr. Wellington’ as he had signed the visitors’ book, then progressed to the lounge, where he turned the TV channel to a children’s cartoon programme while Ms Groves nearly choked on a mint she was chewing while watching a documentary. I had the misfortune of entering the room at that precise moment, and quickly assessing the situation and not wanting blood shed over our new carpet, (further noting the rolled up Crossword puzzle magazine and the thunderous look on the scientist’s face) commented on what a lovely day it was for a walk in the sunshine.

‘Madam, would that I could…I’m afraid I have to forego the sun since the flash-back accident.’ I believe I uttered something quite inane in reply..

doctor-frankensteinLater that same day, two young nurses were driving through the County, and desirous of stopping halfway through their journey, booked in for the night. Our other visitor was soon conversing with them most animatedly, and they later told me how knowledgeable he was, that he had once been a medical doctor, before taking up science and, further, was a direct descendant of the Duke of Wellington! When one mentioned that her brother had lost two fingers in a firework accident, he offered to operate and replace them (I’d heard of fish fingers, but really?!) What, with one good hand?

Our strange Mr. Wellington stayed on for another two days (during which time he nearly asphyxiated our permanent resident by smoking countless Gauloise cigarettes in the lounge, despite repeated requests that he cease.) Ms.Groves spent the time thereafter either in her room or took several walks and expressed her utter disgust at the situation. Naturally, I was relieved when Mr. Wellington announced that he was leaving. ‘My housekeeper has erased much of my work off the blackboard and I have to return home. Also, my Jaguar is ready, dear lady, so I regret I must leave. I have so enjoyed my stay and shall return in the autumn with a few of my scientist chappies.’ (How did he receive a message from his housekeeper? I hadn’t noticed any pigeons around and there were no mobile phones then?! ) Just after his departure, the telephone rang and a mechanic called Jim asked:

‘Have you a Mr.Campbell staying there? Only his Ford’s now ready for collection.’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘Just a Mr. Wellington who said his Jaguar has been fixed. And he’s just left!’

‘Sounds like him,’ he laughed and rang off.

So, who was ‘Mr. Wellington?’ or should that have been Mr. Campbell? Or was he just another Walter Mitty?

Note: Hard to believe, but the above story is true. Apart from the Duke of Wellington, I have changed the names for obvious reasons. When I later wrote a book about hotel life, the magazine “Good Housekeeping” wrote a short review, but they wouldn’t accept a story about Dr. Strangeglove, as they deemed it ‘too surreal,’ Or words to that effect.

There may be a couple of ‘follow-up’ stories about our hotel life, which could hardly be called ‘pèdestrian,’ and when we finally ‘threw in the towel,’ something quite extraordinary occurred. I was approached by a publishing company (Kogan Page Ltd., of London) and commissioned to write a modest book about running a small hotel! It even went to a reprint. How about that?

© Joy Lennick 2018

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‘The Highs and Lows of Leticia Dombrowski’

Seven lines from the seventh page of current work in progress: ‘The Highs and Lows of Leticia Dombrowski’

‘Then the thoughts take on a different form. Had he – his teenaged self – really been so sharp with his loving, warm, over-needy Mama; disenchanted with the sometimes cloying atmosphere of the home he really loved? He shrugs, briefly recalling the testosterone-absorbed years. His Papa came into focus, bearded, prematurely white-haired, sharp-featured (‘That nose could pierce a can!’ from his Mama), and serious. How he had insisted on absolute commitment to learning Hebrew, the Talmud and Russian! That he, Daniel, held a very different opinion on organized religion soon came to light…’

© Joy Lennick 2018

Let me tell you a story…

glasses-booksCommonly known in writing circles as a ‘hook,’ a lot has been said over the years about the opening sentence, or two, of a tale. It’s common sense to try and grab a reader asap, be it with something dramatic, curious, unusual or quirky. Not all writers do, of course. I’ve read some bland opening sentences over the years and yet – reading deeper – some books have ‘delivered’ more than promised. It is, nevertheless, a good idea to give careful thought to those first words which confront you when you open the cover. As I always have piles of read and unread books everywhere…I picked five at random and checked them out.

The first one: Kate Granville’s The Lieutenant began: ‘Daniel Rooke was quiet, moody, a man of few words.’ Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8) by Sandy Balfour, simply said: ‘Let me take you back to December, 1983.’ Both openings were an invitation: to know more about the ‘quiet, moody, man’ in the first instance, and a direct request to return to December, 1983 in the second. So, both subtle hooks… The third book, called The Seed Collectors by Scarlet Thomas starts: ‘Imagine a tree that can walk. Yes, actually walk. Think it’s impossible? You’re wrong.’ The fourth book titled Amsterdam, written by Ian McEwan, begins: ‘Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill.’ Both openings intrigue. A tree that can walk? And who was Molly Lane? None of the authors are amateurs. They knew what they were writing.

The fifth and final book, a favourite by Carlos Ruiz Zafon The Shadow of the Wind states: ‘I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time.’ Another interesting, mind-winding opening.

Fast-forwarding to Writers’ Ink member, Nigel Grundey’s, latest novel, The Vienna Connection, let’s see what his hook is…Take his first paragraph; ‘Can we trust the messenger?’ asked Harry Ward slowly as the tall Warrant Officer scratched at a scar on his cheek, then returned the hand-written note to his commanding officer. ‘What it says is believable, because the Nazis broadcast their plans for Rome and Paris before liberation. But why wait until now to reveal the details?’ Again, intriguing.

Some more examples of great openings here www.dailywritingtips.com

It’s great fun this writing lark, plotting and planning…

 

© Joy Lennick 2018

 

Bella Italia

VeniceThe first introductory ‘Whistle Stop Tour’ of Italy’s most famous cities almost scrambled my brains. Oh the majesty of Venice! To see painter Canaletto’s (little canal) print of the Piazzetta on the wall of my childhood home become a reality before my eyes, was a joy; and as we alighted the ferry, was that Vivaldi’s music I could hear?! There is a magic veiling Venice which delights. Were we really walking across the vast Piazza San Marco, gazing at St. Mark’s Campanile, and the Doge’s Palace? Alas, there is only room for a thumb-print.

Travelling through Italy’s verdant countryside, with the divine voices of Pavarotti, Carreras and Domingo (radio-borne), we were charmed by the terracotta roofs dotting the horizon, the abundant flowers and the adjective-begging scenery passing our window.

Trevi fountainIt seems almost criminal not to give a brief description of Assissi, but we were impressed. Next stop, Rome. Hardly a place you could ignore – from the vastness of St. Peter’s Square, the grandeur of The Vatican, the incredible Sistine chapel, to the many churches and museums. Our brains were in danger of over-load…

We next added our coins to the three offered in the film to the Trevi Fountain; stood in the Coliseum: which seemed steeped in death, and from where I escaped asap!

Via the town of Pisa, with its famous leaning tower (yes we had our photo taken holding it up!) we arrived in Florence – ‘Cradle of Renaissance’ – wondered at The Diomo (cathedral) Santa Maria del Fiore, and the quaintness of the Ponte Vecchio, shop-bearing bridge straddling the river Arno. Yet another jewel in Italy’s impressive tiara. Satiated by so much antiquity, we longed for the following week’s calmer atmosphere.

ponte-vecchio-masseffect84_wp6_9366Catching us by surprise – inducing a coach-load of travellers to catch their collective breath – the town of Riva suddenly lay at our feet: the sparkling waters of Lake Garda lapping the hem of its skirt. Praises buzzed in the air like bees¸ smiles inhabited faces. We were in thrall of its beauty and had surely found a little piece of heaven! As recorded by murals and mosaics, ancient Romans visited this lovely haven. No fools they! Elongated Lake Garda sits grandly in the north eastern part of Italy, surrounded by towering cliffs and mountains with abundant vegetation; saucer-like, creamy magnolias growing on its slopes. Every day, around late morning, a determined wind whipped up the lake water. Cue wind-surfers, who appeared like water-borne butterflies. Later, fun over, they disappeared as the wind dropped, leaving the lake serene.

lake-garda-istockOut hotel – more than we had hoped for after the basic fare of our first week’s tour – was delightful, with ‘silver service’ at our elbows. (It was, after all, a reasonably priced package holiday.) The service was impeccable, the food delicious, and the waiters handsome… As in Spain, the pleasing Passeggiata – promenading – was popular with local families: the praiseworthy public gardens the venue. Riva has a tranquil, refined air, the inhabitants mostly elegant Italians. The shops and produce were a delight, and the restaurants and cafes had me purring like a spoiled cat. As for the rest rooms – there were ‘state of the art’ loos in Riva – self-flushing, and taps which turned themselves magically on.

So, what did we do in Riva? We explored, admired, laughed a lot, ate a lot…fortunately walked a fair mile or so…and ferry-chugged across the satin-like waters of the lake to sup coffee and eat delicious pastries in a minimalist café on the far shore. Exploring the many small towns and hamlets peppering Lake Garda’s banks was a must (a bus hugs its contours). The narrow, medieval, cobbled streets come alive as I recall the charms of Sirmione and Malcesine; and in Desenzano there is a castle and grounds where outdoor concerts are held. A trip to pristine, pretty Gardone, pleased, and a day in buzzing Verona: “Wherefore art thou Romeo” intrigued. An aged edifice boasted a painted fresco: a faded scene, in part depicting the devil prodding his fork into the ample posterior of a well-endowed maiden, bawdy enough to bring a blush to a Nun’s cheek.

Ah, Bella Italia, you made my heart sing!

 

© Joy Lennick 2018

© All photographs are copyright of the respective photographers

 

 

On characterization

Just think what we would have missed without the rich, apt, quirky characters of so many worthy authors. Of course, everyone has their favourites, but for me, Dickens is squarely in the spotlight for such a wealth of them. The sad but brave Tiny Tim, put-upon Oliver, the evil while wonderful, avaricious Fagin; doomed Miss Havisham and David Copperfield. Then there’s the resilient, long-suffering Jane Eyre from Charlotte Bronte’s pen, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird – who epitomized the good in man, and countless more noteworthy fictional human beings, enough to fill a large tome.

OliverOnce you have your story/plot figured out, how interesting it can be to people your work with characters. One of the many joys of writing, is the freedom it gives you to do – within reason – whatever you like. Most authors will have a pretty good idea of the genre of their book, and of the beginning, middle and end. Not all though. I’ve read of some writers who only have a rough plan and let their characters pave the path forward. You can read a plethora of ‘how to’ books, some with similar advice, some with original ideas, but, when it comes to YOU as author, the words will emerge from YOUR mind, which – remember, is totally unique.
Over the years, I’ve attended one or two writing groups where a few of the members have had only the woolliest ideas of how to write a novel, and our very intelligent, experienced teacher of one, tried guiding them in the right direction. One man was hung up on sex and paid little attention to characterization; he didn’t stay the course. Another, a sweet-natured woman, wrote a thick book wherein the sun always shone, everyone had irreproachable manners and the characters wouldn’t say boo to a goose. When gently criticized, she lost her temper and departed. Fortunately, most serious writers want to learn, and while I’m ‘rich in years,’ I know that the more I absorb, the more there is to learn….and that’s part of the joy of writing. Curiosity usually pays off, if it doesn’t polish you off….If you push yourself beyond your self-imposed limitations, you’ll doubtless improve. While, self-satisfied writers, I’m sure, are two a penny, serious writers should always strive to better themselves and give due attention to all aspects of their work, from the story-line/plot -. which is vital – to characterization, which could put YOUR book up there with the greats.

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A labyrinth of meanings…

labyrinthEvery now and again, most writers come across – or have a fascination for – . a word which either has contrary meanings or some peculiar draw, don’t they? My word of the moment (and for a while now), is labyrinth. I’ve used it several times and thought I knew what it meant. Wrong! Well, it wasn’t completely incorrect, as many other writers have used it in the same way…I’ll explain… (Have your cocoa and slippers ready…)

Labyrinth is defined as meaning “A complicated, irregular network of passages or paths, in which it is difficult to find ones way.” Or “A complex structure of the inner ear.” (While, of course, interesting to anyone with ear problems, I’ll respectfully put the second definition to one side.) The Cambridge English dictionary, however, defines the meaning as being a tad different (and an aid to pen chewing scribblers, or unsure key tappers) It’s added boardwalk, esplanade, pavement and bridle path, etc., And, in Greek mythology, a labyrinthine structure was built underground to house and confine a monster with the head of a bull and the body of a man called a Minotaur, belonging to King Minos of Crete. (Although why he couldn’t have purchased a Persian Blue feline or a Cocker Spaniel, from the local pet-shop, goodness only knows…) Some people do like to muddy history, don’t they?!

I digress…The first time I used the word labyrinth. I was writing about Dylan Thomas and Laugharne, where he compòsed Under Milk Wood and a whole raft of poems. Being half Welsh, I was on yet another trip to one of my favourite places in Wales: the third. The sun had shone on all three occasions, which was noteworthy in itself…It was Spring, tra la, and the synonymous daffodils were nodding approval, lighting the edge of the estuary like a stage-set. My imagination was way ahead of me, as I walked up the steep – wait for it – “labyrinthine path, under a dense, and untidy umbrella of green foliage – darkly mysterious while beckoning…” Suddenly inspired, the story/novel was to be called The Herons of Laugharne and I even had them (the herons) “picking their delicate way across the shallow waters like corn-footed ballerinas” I had , roughly, mentally written the first chapter before I reached the top of the labyrinth…Sadly, it’s still lurking somewhere between other, forlorn, quarter/half-finished attempts…Hey ho.

Being satiated by everything Dylan – from the modest shed in which he slouched over lines of poetry for days, his trusty whisky bottle rarely far away, to the Boat House where he lived with his wife Caitlin. I moved on. I did wonder what else he could have written had he not succumbed to the ‘devil drink,’ dying at the early age of 39 after downing around ‘13’ shots of the hard stuff ’ in New York city, but he left us some memorable lines and characters. How, once read, could you forget the words

“Do not go gentle in that good night.

Old age should burn and rave at close of day.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 

One, WONDERFUL, book which did, most deservedly, see the light of day, written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is called THE SHADOW OF THE WIND, and – if you haven’t read it, please do. A man in Spain, who had inherited a book-shop from his father specializing in rare, collector’s editions and secondhand books, took his young son to the: ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ and bade him choose any one from the thousands secreted there. “Pleased with my choice, I tucked it under my arm and retraced my steps through the LABYRINTH , a smile on my lips.” That word again. Zafon’s writing is an absolute delight, his characterisation memorable. Anyone who writes: “…a waiter of such remarkable decrepitude that he looked as if he should be declared a national landmark.” And “The man’s oratory could kill flies in mid-air.” passes muster with me. As time passes and the young lad grows up, people seem to find ‘the book’ inordinately interesting, and literary curiosity becomes a race to discover the truth behind the life and death of the author: Julian Carax, and to save those he left behind.

As the Observer observed: “The language purrs along. While the plot twists and unravels with a languid grace.” And Stephen King said: “…a novel full of cheesy splendour and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots…one gorgeous read!” There’s not much I can add to that.

 

© Joy Lennick 2017

 

The trials & tribulations of a writer

maltese-greenstreetAfter the unmitigated triumph of my novel STRANGLERS IN THE NIGHT some twenty plus years ago, I strode purposefully forward in my Bali Manic shoes and Chanel suit, inhaling the sweet smell (No.5) of success, sipping champagne en route to a glittering literary future. And then the cookie crumbled, as they say…
The head Judge in the competition which led to my book’s meteoric rise, was foolhardy enough to admit having bribed the other judge as he was hopelessly in love with me… Sales ceased, interest flagged, and talk of a film was out the window. I was totally flabbergasted and cast down; as was the overweight, aged Judge who managed to bankrupt himself. A deep abyss yawned before both of us. I was vaguely flattered, but how could he have done such a thing?!

If you believe that, you’ll believe anything! I don’t even know where it came from… Do us writers EVER know? There must be some mysterious conduit into our psyches. Who cares, as long as it happens and continues.

Now the semi-true bit…

I woke up at 4.30 am thinking about characterization, but obviously, lines were somehow crossed.

Having worked hard on a collection of short stories, I had five in the bag. All eclectic and a bit zany. One was titled TAKING TIME & OTHER THINGS (confessions of a kleptomaniac), another HARD FEELINGS (the intimate memoir of a concrete manufacturer). The sixth was proving a problem. I tapped my teeth with a pen, as writers do, and realised it was just limping along, (the story that is)…Why? That trusty light bulb then pinged on. Of course, it was my antagonist!. He had as much menace as a new-born baby. Totally unsuitable. There lay a teaser…What to do? I’d interviewed a few ‘baddies’ before he arrived and begged me for the role. In a weak moment, being a soft touch, I said yes. He was in my office awaiting further instructions and I felt deep dismay at what I was about to do. But it had to be done.

Morning, Kevin, I said. You okay? How’s your mother’s leg now?

Mornin;’ better. He replied, looking crestfallen as if anticipating the worst, took a pristine hanky from a pocket and blew his nose. Loudly. He then drew himself up to his full five two height, sniffed and said:

You’re gonna fire me, aren’t you?

Afraid so…

Was that a tear in the corner of his pale blue eye?

Fuck it! he said, mildly shocking me. He never swore… and continued…

I’ve played the role of Tiny Tim on the stage … been someone’s cowardly younger brother and died of tuberculosis in a film, but I’ve never been a hero or a villain. Thanks for nothing! And he marched out of the room, missing my pathetic Sorry, Kev!

willemdafoe_7_rgb-470x335There were two more hopeful candidates sitting outside my office, I invited the ugliest one in. He was chewing gum.

Morning! Please take a seat. Name?

Hank James

American?

Yeah, ma’am.

Any acting experience?

Yep, was in HOW RED WAS MY VALLEY and VAMPIRE LEADER, he told me, still chewing.

I took in his shifty, dark eyes, his tall, rangy, but wiry build, and his cauliflower ear and quickly said:

You’re hired!

 

 

Ciao for now.

Joy x