Elizabeth Jane Howard, Slipstream and the Cazalets: a writer tells her own story

IMG_3078 (3)Before I got started on Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet books I thought they might be too cosy and cream bun-ish for me. But then enough people sang their praises to prompt me to try them, and they turned out to be much sharper and darker than I’d anticipated.

Yes, there are dresses and dinners, but also: sex, sexuality, secrets, infidelity, betrayal, loyalty, unrequited love, requited love, grief, unwanted pregnancies, children who long for lost or absent parents, marriages of all kinds, the tension between duty and desire, and the long friendships of cousins. All that plus a portrait of an extended family as a microcosm of social change before, during and after the Second World War.

So now I have just one Cazalet book left, All Change. It’s always rather melancholy to approach the end of a series. After the first four Cazalet books I read Slipstream, EJH’s autobiography, and that’s what I wanted to blog about. Any writer’s autobiography is of potential interest to anyone who writes or is interested in writing, and this one offered up numerous insights that caught my eye.

Comfort reading… but not

Slipstream is comfort reading, of a kind – up to a point. It’s the story of a woman who survived acute maternal guilt and numerous difficult though interesting lovers to become what she wanted to be – a writer. There are lots of other writers in its pages, too, in various roles and relationships, including Kingsley Amis (to whom EJH was married for many years) and Martin Amis, her stepson – she gave him Pride and Prejudice and declined to tell him how it ended, so he had to read it for himself; he encouraged her to follow through on her idea for the Cazalet books. Here’s some of what Slipstream has to say about intuition, art, war, love, learning, the work and rewards of writing, age and truth.


On intuition, art, the war years and learning

‘Premonitions bring with them a sense of powerlessness and guilt – what can be the point of even half knowing something about which one seems able to do nothing?’

‘To sit for a painter was even better than being asked to turn pages of music for a pianist: it was being a kind of associate member of the arts, and I could think of nothing more desirable than that.’

‘The war hung over our heads, but we hardly referred to it. Glass fell reluctantly from the roof of the school studio, and was kicked aside by earnest, sandalled feet… We were selfish, preoccupied and, I think now, we simply didn’t understand what was going on, as we never considered it long enough to find out. Behind it all was the feeling that we’d be dragged into it eventually so we had a kind of greedy desperation to get every drop out of every second of the time we had left to pursue our own ends.’

‘Walking home, it was clear how very little I knew and how little I understood of anything I’d thought I knew. Even learning to type wouldn’t help me with his feelings, which meant that either education, as I’d thought of it, wasn’t education at all, or it was merely a preliminary, at its best, for something that was going to last for the rest of my life.’


On the preoccupation with love and wanting to write

‘Another reason that my novel took so long was my preoccupation with love. Love seemed to me the most desirable, the most important of human emotions. As far as sexual love was concerned, I was older but not much wiser. But every other aspect of love – intimacy, affection, being first in each other’s lives – I wanted, as much as I wanted to write. The problem of how to combine them was far in the future. I thought that if I could get love right, everything else would follow naturally. I don’t write this to imply I was unusual; most women feel the same in varying degrees, I think.’

‘Furthermore I was lazy with my writing; I’d not yet learned the kind of discipline necessary for serious work.’

‘There is a great difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write, and this isn’t always obvious in the salad days of a writer’s creative life, and sometimes never.’

‘I knew by now that a number of people regarded me as beautiful. But much in the way that rich people don’t want to be loved simply because they are rich, I didn’t want to be loved simply for my appearance…. I simply felt I was making a hash of it, and underlying that foggy conclusion lay the dread that I wasn’t anything else. I still had the desire to write, but depression leaks energy – like pain – and all that summer I couldn’t write.’


On the strange feeling of finishing a book and the knowledge of love

‘The feeling after completing a novel is for me like no other. It’s as though with the last sentence, I have released a great weight that falls away, leaving me so empty and light that I can float out of myself and look down at the pattern of the work I’ve made. I can see all at once what I have been pursuing in fragments for so long. It’s a timeless moment, a kind of ecstasy – a state of unconditional love – that has nothing whatever to do with merit or criticism. Of course it goes, dissolves into melancholy and a sense of loss. Parting with people one has been living with for so long and know so intimately is poignant; they are more lost to you than anyone you meet in life. They remain crystallized exactly where you left them. Altogether, it’s an occasion that makes one feel very strange for some time afterwards.’

‘I began to understand that love is neither a conditional business nor an ever-fixed mark by arrangement. People always know somewhere inside themselves if they are not loved. No gestures, talk, conciliation, pronouncements can prevail over that deep instinctual knowledge.’

‘This trip was a farcical failure… I was supposed to give a reading at Brentano’s bookshop at seven pm. When I arrived there was no audience.’

(of Doris Lessing) ‘We went shopping together, and I wanted a rather expensive jacket, and she said, “Go on. You’ve just finished your book, you can have a treat.”‘

On age, happiness and truth

‘…it’s often difficult to feel your age. Apart from the fact I wasn’t sure what this entailed, in many ways I didn’t feel my age. Like one’s appearance or handwriting, one retains an earlier impression of oneself and takes it for granted, no longer sees what one is.’

‘Nearly everyone I’d known who’d had cancer had died of it in the end. It was extraordinary how all my values shifted – as though I’d shaken a kaleidoscope and all the little segments, though still there, had made an unrecognisable pattern. Unhappy, lonely or a failure I might have been, but even those ingredients of my life now seemed precious – even desirable.’

‘On the ninth morning, I had to go into town to buy food, and suddenly – walking down the street to my house – I lightened completely as though, without warning, I’d emerged from a heavy fog into clear sunlight. I felt extraordinarily, irrationally happy.’

‘Liars destroy the currency of all words: there was no single fragment of truth I could hang on to.’

‘I’ve slowly learned some significant things – perhaps most of all the virtue, the extreme importance of truth, which, it seems to me now, should be continually searched for and treasured when any piece of it is found.’


Writing my next novel

IMG_0175I’ll be hard at work on my new novel over the next few months, so I won’t be posting on this blog for a while. I’ll be back in the spring, by which time the grapevine will look like this.

I love blogging – it’s great to have the freedom to write about whatever catches your fancy – and I look forward to getting back to it in due course. Thank you all so much for reading and so long for now. xx

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival: a feast of books, music, conversation… and cake

Photo: Dan Hall

Photo: Dan Hall

I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.

I’m left with a blur of impressions: a marqueeful of primary school children laughing themselves silly at Christopher William Hill; sitting round the table at the farmhouse where most of us authors were staying, eating the most delicious poached pears; the moon rising over St Endellion Church, where we gathered for evening music of surprising and non-ecclesiastical kinds; lounging round in sudden sunlight on Sunday lunchtime when my workshop was done (you can see a photo of me with Patrick Gale and Neel Mukherjee at this point in this blog post about NCBF by BD Hawkey.)

There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience.  There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.


bloggers @charlottemsabin and @beakheads

North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore

Moray Laing busy booksigning Photo: Dan Hall

Moray Laing signing autographs
Photo: Dan Hall

These are the events I went to:

At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.

Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale
Photo: Dan Hall

The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)


St Endellion Church

Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…


My workshop: handling romance in fiction

At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.

the hero(ine)'s journey

We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Photo: Dan Hall

These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:

  • The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
  • Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
  • On Writing – Stephen King
  • On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
  • The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
  • Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham

And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).


  • Lottery winner
  • Someone who missed last train
  • Ex-boyfriend
  • Single parent on benefits
  • Soldier with PTSD
  • Coffee barista
  • Dog
  • Santa (someone dressed as)
  • Ex-vicar
  • Bailiff
  • Make-up artist
  • Policewoman
  • Depressed Hollywood star
  • Antiques dealer
  • American yoga teacher
  • Bank robber
  • Weather forecaster


  • Fancy dress party
  • Camping site in the rain
  • Traffic jam
  • The moor at dawn
  • Edge of a cliff
  • Therapist’s waiting room
  • Manhattan rooftop
  • Village pub
  • Launderette
  • Smoking shelter
  • Ferry to a Greek island
  • Billiard table (full-size)
  • Purgatory

All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.

Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.


the flowers in each author’s room

Litfest events I have loved

North Cornwall Book Festival, Pasties & Cake.

it was lovely to read this write-up about North Cornwall Book Festival!


IMG_0423I believe to be a great writer one has to read a lot and be willing to learn from others. Book festivals are a great way to meet fellow readers and writers. The North Cornwall Book Festival, which this year was held entirely in the small parish of St.Endellion, was no exception. Although it ran for three days at the end of October, I was only able to attend the final day. However, I couldn’t have picked a better day, the autumn sun was shining, the people (both authors and visitors) were friendly, and the pasties and cake for sale were delicious.

For those who have never been to a book festival before, it is open to all who have an interest in reading IMG_0427and/or writing. It usually involves a variety of presentations, workshops, interviews, readings and book signings by authors, with the aim of fostering a love of literature…

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Alison Mercer on writing Romantic Fiction

It’s true – I love Cornwall even in the rain. And I am still a fan of Mary Stewart!

North Cornwall Book Festival 2015

by Charlotte Sabin

“What do we mean by Romance? Do we mean love stories? Because love stories exist in all kinds of genres.”

Alison Mercer

Alison Mercer is a fan of Cornwall (as she explained this to me, rain hammered against the windows of our farmhouse green room – so she’s being serious). We are very glad to have her here all weekend, delighting audiences with a talk as well as a workshop on writing romantic fiction.

This trip down for the North Cornwall Book Festival is all research material for her next novel, set partially in Cornwall. “The Saturday Mother” follows a mother’s relationship with her daughter under the strain of divorce, and a custody battle won by her ex-husband. Writing in the daughter’s voice was a fantastic experience, Alison explains – but she’s not tempted by writing YA just yet, love stories got her enticed into books in the…

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Handling Romance with Alison Mercer

I really enjoyed leading this workshop at North Cornwall Book Festival – good times all round!

North Cornwall Book Festival 2015

by Elisabeth Strasser @LPenkiller

This morning everybody interested in improving romance in their stories gathered in the cosy atmosphere of the Stone Barn with tea, cake and sweets at the North Cornwall Book Festival. Alison Mercer is well prepared with an outline of her workshop. I recognise The Hero’s Journey on her handout, which is a great tool for structure in storytelling derived from ancient myths.


In the introduction round it becomes clear that there is a good mix of participants with various backgrounds. Self-published authors sit next to traditionally published authors. Some are working on their first novel while others have sent in manuscripts and been rejected. Alison Mercer, the author of Stop the Clock and After I left You encourages everyone, saying “it happens to everybody.” It is important for every writer to have the ability to get through rejection and “soldier on”, comforting words to hear from…

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‘Food and money and sex and crime’: how to be popular

IMG_1303‘… We acknowledged what many journalists were at that time anxious to forget – that the basic interests of the human race are not in philosophy, economics or brass-rubbing but in things like food and money and sex and crime, football and TV. But we did not deal with these things to the exclusion of all others.’ (Larry Lamb, Sunrise)

In 1969 Rupert Murdoch relaunched the Sun and turned it into the bestselling newspaper in the English language. How was it done? Larry Lamb, who was the first editor of the paper under Murdoch, tells the story in Sunrise.

Published in 1989, it’s also a pithy account of how to be popular. The success of the paper was driven by editorial gut instinct rather than data – helped along by an awful lot of marketing (giveaway knickers were the favourite. Graham King, who ran the promotions department, was writing a book about Emile Zola in his spare time.)

Here are some choice quotes:

(On the previous incarnation of The Sun, owned by IPC and given an overhaul by IPC’s then editorial director Hugh Cudlipp): ‘… The newspaper he produced, based so firmly upon the market research, was, like most such products in publishing, so smooth, so laid-back, so iffy and butty, as to be totally devoid of character.’

(On the brief conversation LL had about his contract with Rupert Murdoch after the long dinner that got him hired as editor): ‘The only thing I tried to insist upon was that I would be responsible only to the Chairman. I had seen too many editors struggling vainly to please managing directors who knew little or nothing of the creative process.’

(On the team they put together to relaunch the Sun): ‘We recruited… a handful of Fleet Street’s chronic unemployed, some of whose drinking habits had made them almost unemployable. We needed them as much as they needed us. On the whole, they did not let us down.’

‘…We could not, initially, write a Page One headline with more than three letter Es because in the largest size available that was all we had. There were many stores at that time about Europe, and the EEC. Neither the word nor the initial were popular with me. Both have two Es, leaving only one to play with…’

‘Apart from smelling better, it seems to me, women tend to work harder. They are often more receptive to change. And they are not short of stamina. Women who can handle a couple of toddlers efficiently cannot be short on stamina. Women who can handle a couple of toddlers and a demanding second job are nothing short of miracle-workers.’

(Of Val Hudson, who was taken on to write about prices and quality but then also wrote about her attempts to get pregnant): ‘capable of fine humorous writing – a rare quality…’

‘Most journalists are in the business because they like to feel they have a message of some kind. But it isn’t the slightest use having a message unless one has an audience.’

(Page One opinion, The Sun, June 1970): ‘The time has come, and The Sun would vote Labour. Not because the Government has been a scintillating success. It hasn’t. But because, all things considered, we believe Harold Wilson has the better team. Not only the better team, but a team which is more concerned about ordinary people. Concerned, too, about things like social justice, equality of opportunity, and the quality of living. These are things The Sun cares about. The Sun believes that Edward Heath cares about them, too. But we feel they are more likely to be lost sight of under a Tory administration. For Mr Heath is not the Tory party. And The Sun is not convinced that the Tory leopard has changed his spots.’

Beware the spike between the eyes

Sunrise is a vivid conjuring up of a time gone by, when it was possible for a newspaper sub-editor to lean down to get cigarettes out of a desk drawer and inadvertently spike himself between the eyes (as LL once did, before his editorship of The Sun, when working at the Daily Mail in 1957).

The spike was just that – a long, thin bit of metal for holding unwanted bits of paper. I never saw one in use, but this occasionally dangerous item gave the business of journalism a term that lives on – nobody wants their copy to be spiked.

Smoking in newspaper offices lingered on much longer. When I did work experience at News International in the early 90s, the cuttings library, which was stuffed with old bits of paper, had till very recently been regarded as a good place to go for a quiet smoke.

I also met a somewhat flushed old hack whose name I forget, who reminisced about the good old days when it was possible to down a bottle or two of claret before being dispatched onto a plane to do a story without the foggiest idea of where you were going or what you were meant to be writing about. The Martini-swilling ad men of Mad Men had nothing on the lunchtime boozers of Fleet Street in their heyday.

A few years earlier, in the late 80s, when I was 16 and on work experience at the Reading Chronicle, I was taken to see a printing press running full throttle, churning out copies of the paper. It was an awe-inspiring sight – and sound: power in action. It made a big impression on me, and it’s part of the reason why the newspaper industry in the last decades of the last century is going to form part of the backdrop to the new novel I’m starting work on (hence Sunrise: research).

Adventures on the wrong side of the law

In the late 80s (through to the 90s) journalists still used typewriters and the work experience’s job was usually to count the words in the copy. The court reporter at the Reading Chronicle kindly took me to court with him to give me something more interesting to do. A woman was up for shoplifting, though what she had nicked wasn’t worth much; someone else was in trouble because he’d got drunk and sat in the middle of the road with a traffic cone on his head.

They both looked crushed and thoroughly sheepish, though by then it was too late for regret. I realised how easy it can be to find yourself on the wrong side of the law, and my new novel will touch on that, too.

Food and money and sex and crime… these things are the lifeblood of newspapers then as now. And of fiction, too.

Naturally, there’s a place for animals as well. The chance to win a pet was one of The Sun’s most successful promotions in the 1970s, alongside football stamps (and giveaway knickers). These days, everybody loves a cat on the internet, right?

Yes, there are new ways of finding and reading and watching what interests us. Times change, and the past really is another country. But a good story will always catch the eye, draw us in and get us to turn the page, whether or not it’s on paper.