Polly Samson and Patrick Gale: seduction, loss, land and longing

Polly Samson's The Kindness and Patrick Gale's A Place Called WinterOutside was a preposterously beautiful, Technicolour autumn day, all blue skies and trees turning the colours of fire. If you’d used it in a film it would have been for heartbreak and parting, a belated outpouring of summer made all the more vivid because it is nearly time to say goodbye. Inside the grand but compact chamber of Henley’s Town Hall it was unseasonably warm; with five minutes to go there were only two seats left, and I took one of them. ‘Not much knee space. We’re rather close,’ somebody said as I squeezed in and arranged myself.

We were a packed and anticipant roomful of mostly women, book lovers and therefore by definition fond of the essentially private pastime of reading, though we were there not to read but to listen and to ask questions, to experience fiction as a public event. Instead of words on a page or a screen, we were going to see the writers who had drawn us there and hear their voices. We wanted stories, but more than that, we hoped for a glimpse into how and why they were told.

At one end of the room was a small and empty stage with three important-looking chairs, which were throne-like but in the manner of an English town hall and therefore designed for the comfortable sitting-out of long meetings as well as to be imposing. I imagine all sorts of practical things have been discussed in that room over the years: the price of corn or parking, the collection of refuse, the balancing of books and the taking of votes.

We weren’t there for any of that. We were there for semen and baby shoes, tales of a psychopathic rapist or a leech-like friend, families divided by wars and continents and the brutal convictions of an era, the tragedy of failed reconciliations and the power of impossible loves. And that was what we got, but as if that wasn’t enough, we also got to find out a little bit about what it takes to make all that stuff up and write it down.

Secrets uncovered: the prelude to post-lunch erotica

Windows were opened; the noises of outside – traffic, the market – drifted in along with the stirring of cooler air. A frisson ran round the room as our writers came in and went up to the little stage and took their places. We were on our way.

I’m sorry not to have a picture of them: they were a glamorous pairing. Patrick Gale is a dazzlingly charming silver fox, with a voice you could listen to forever – I think I’m right in saying he wanted to be an actor when he was younger and he has that gift that some actors have of making an instant connection with other people, a sort of receptivity that both gives and holds attention. I’m onto my fifth Patrick Gale novel now and am a committed member of his fan club, or would be if he formally had one. If you haven’t read any, and you have a space in your reading life for a writer who will draw you in, make you care, make you laugh and break your heart, then go get started.

Patrick Gale's novels

Polly Samson was new to me. There’s something otherworldly about her which makes it not quite right to describe her in worldly terms. She’s beautiful, poised, measured, with the kind of cool intelligence and self-possession that suggest heat under the surface. She’s also kind of rock’n’roll. She’s a lyricist as well as a novelist; her other half is David Gilmour from Pink Floyd and when she’s working on a book she reads what she’s written each day out loud to him in the evening.

Our hour with Patrick and Polly was hosted by Lucy Cavendish, who mentioned that Polly hadn’t eaten any lunch while Patrick had got through two chocolate brownies. If he was skittish, so were we. Off we went with a discussion about how both authors’ latest books had drawn life from their family history and secrets. Patrick told us about Harry Cane, his mother’s mysterious cowboy grandpa who emigrated to Canada under something of a cloud. Patrick set out to tell a story that would explain both what had happened to him and the way the family spoke about him, ‘a story that the women of the family wouldn’t have been told, but that might have been true’: ‘my nefarious scheme of gaying my great-grandfather.’ (I think that might be my favourite PG line from the session, along with the description of the readings as ‘post-lunch erotica’.)

Polly relayed a story from her own family history, a tormenting love triangle in which paternity was at stake. A couple who could not have a baby asked a friend to father a child for them, which he duly did before emigrating to the US, with the understanding that future contact between them would be minimal. But then war broke out and the husband sent his wife and child to their biological father in the US for safety, remaining in Paris to sort out paperwork… and ended up interned and separated from them for years, after which time his wife had decided that their child only needed one father, and was already living with him. A terrible story which culminated in the husband’s suicide.

This fed into Polly’s new novel The Kindness, though transplanted into a different time and place. Polly’s own complicated parentage also provided fuel for the story, and she told us about the father figure with whom she had lost contact, who she later learned had kept her baby shoes close by all his life.

A lesson in how to breathe and a cloudy offering

Both writers read aloud from their novels. Both read scenes that involved seduction, of one kind or another. Polly’s had a specimen jar, innocence yielding to scientific curiosity and a braless milkmaid, the examination of a cloudy offering. Patrick’s had a therapist who teaches a young man to breathe, then introduces him to sex on a bed so narrow that one of them must always be on top of the other. Clients visit in the morning, but the young man is invited to return in the afternoons: ‘You can just wait in the bed.’

We laughed and fanned ourselves with the useful cards explaining who had sponsored the event. They had us. We were sold. Now we wanted to find out how they had managed it. And this is what we learned.

(Warning: there are some spoilers in what follows, though I’ve tried to keep them to a minimum, but if you absolutely hate spoilers, you should go and read the books first. If, like me, you are undisciplined and sometimes even peek at the end of a story before you get there, you won’t care.)

The novel you end up writing may be quite different, in form at least, from the one you set out to write.

This was a bit of a revelation to me as I thought it was only me that did this and everybody else just put together their card indexes or flow charts or whatever and wrote the damn things, but no.

Patrick set out to write a very simple book, drawing on EM Forster and boys’ adventure stories, starting at the beginning and rattling on to the end: wrote it, and then set about chopping it up, both to tease the reader through the narrative and to break up the sadness in it. So the novel is a bit like a thriller, in that you learn early on that Harry has killed someone and that there are loves he can’t speak about.

Polly’s last book was a collection of interlinked short stories, and she set out to write this one as a series of stories but then restructured it so that she had two main voices followed by a third voice. She had been surprised by comments that it was like a thriller, and hadn’t set out to write a novel with twists and turns, but there they were. This meant she’d had ‘the joy of writing from two perspectives’ – she gave as an example an assignation in a Paris hotel described from the point of view of both the male and female lover, a fantasy made real for one and a seedy compromise for the other.

The story will be brought to life by the happy accident of characters who make their own way in.

Patrick told the story of Troels Munck, the antagonist to Harry Cane’s hero and, for my money, one of the most terrifying and convincing villains in all of literature. (A Place Called Winter is revelatory about evil, and how people try to survive it and can be destroyed by it.) The name was given by a real-life someone who had won an auction for it to be included. Patrick described the email exchange that followed: (PG): ‘Is it all right if I turn you into a psychopathic rapist?’ [LONG TUMBLEWEED EMAIL SILENCE] (TM): ‘OK, as long as he is hot.’

Is Troels hot? He’s a bully and a brute, but a compelling one – and he’s real, which is testament to the truthfulness with which he has been created. God save us all from encounters with the likes of Troels – outside of the pages of a book.

Polly spoke about Katie, the leech-like friend who was meant to be just a line in The Kindness but kept turning up. She also described the intense absorption of writing, how her children would come back from school and talk to her about their days and she would find herself not really taking it in, still caught up in the world of her characters. (I know that particular daze.) But she’d read Elena Ferrante while she was working on The Kindness – four years of close work, twenty years of gestation in all – and had found that Ferrante’s characters were as real to her as the ones she had invented herself and was carrying round with her. (Now I have to decide what to read next, The Kindness or Ferrante.)

Polly commented on how characters seem to turn up fully-formed. Patrick agreed: ‘They have to be, or they don’t work on the page.’

But what about planning? Patrick said he plans meticulously, but then ignores the plan. ‘It’s like getting ready for a play – I need to know about the characters and feel confident about who they are.’

The land you put into your book will shape it.

Patrick explained how as he worked on the book he had got increasingly angry about what had been done in Canada, but had wanted to show that in an elliptical way, without tub-thumping about imperialism. It’s there in the tragedy of Ursula. Also, as he explored the landscape and the history of the settlements, he became increasingly aware of how dangerous it was, and how vulnerable his characters were. Hence Troels.

Here’s a surprise nugget for you: there were no starlings in Canada till 1934, as a Canadian friend of Patrick’s told him after reading an early draft. Starlings follow agriculture and it took till then for them to arrive. So you won’t find them in Winter.

Patrick talked about his road trip to find his grandfather’s lot, and asked Polly if the house and garden in The Kindess were based on a real place: ‘I really wanted to go weeding there.’ Polly said the garden was a mixture of gardens she had loved.
Inevitably, your research will shape your book. Are there starlings, or not? Polly’s novel opens with a hawking scene. What size are the baby mice fed to a hawk?

Children in stories – yearned for or lost – exert a special power.

Harry Cane is a father, separated from his child by both distance and disgrace, and the plot of The Kindness hinges on the fathering of a child. Patrick said he felt that the male yearning to be a father is not much written about, and I think this is true; as he said, most stories that touch on this cast the father as the reluctant figure and the mother as longing for a child. (There is a weird nexus of cultural confusion around this, a mixture of blind spot and acute sensitivity – writers, take note: when that happens, there’s something to dig for.)

The story of Polly’s baby shoe lingered with us. (It made me think of the design for the hardback cover of Julie Cohen’s Dear Thing, which featured baby shoes, and which prompted a brilliant baby-shoe-shopping scene in the final version of the book.) At the end of the session, when I was chatting with my neighbours in the audience, one of them mentioned Ernest Hemingway’s potent six-word story: ‘For sale: baby shoes, nearly worn.’

And finally…

Patrick was asked whether he had a favourite out of his books. And yes – he does: they are the ones he wrote during the happiest times of his life: Notes from an Exhibition, Rough Music, Little Bits of Baby. ‘I’m always very protective of the most recent one, it’s like a child that’s just started school.’

And then we were done. We shifted and stretched, murmured to each other about how good it had been, formed an orderly line for books and signing, began to slip away.

Sooner or later we will start to read. We will hear those stories again, not in the august surroundings of Henley Town Hall but wherever we are – on a lunch break, in an armchair on a winter’s night, in the doctor’s waiting room. And once more we will allow those voices to take us somewhere else.

Polly Samson and Patrick Gale were speaking at Henley Literary Festival, in conversation with Lucy Cavendish, at an event sponsored by HW Fisher & Company.

autumn tree

Steve Shirley on autism, the Kindertransport, and the most loving thing a parent can do

‘I was five when my world fell apart,’ Dame Stephanie Shirley (also known as Steve Shirley) told a packed audience at Henley Literary Festival last week. Later to become a pioneering IT entrepreneur and philanthropist, she grew up in Germany in the 1930s, the child of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother. Now 81, she attributes her drive to succeed and her need to give something back to survivor’s guilt – to having escaped and lived when a million other children died in the Holocaust.

Steve Shirley's autobiography

Steve Shirley’s autobiography

The family moved round Europe in search of safety as Nazism took hold, eventually settling in Vienna, where Steve’s older sister had a kind teacher who would let her leave early so that the other children would not throw stones at her as she made her way home. Then their parents heard about the Kindertransport, the organisation that saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children by transporting them to safety.

‘It looked as if Europe was going to descend into barbarity,’ Steve explained, ‘and my parents did a very brave thing.’ They decided to part with Steve and her sister, who came to England: ‘Most of the families ended up in England because very few countries would open their doors to us.’

The children were taken in by a couple they came to refer to as Auntie and Uncle, who paid £50 – the equivalent of £10,000 in today’s money – for each child in order to be allowed to offer them a home. Once they had learned enough English, both girls were sent to school, where they did very well. Steve was so good at maths she was eventually sent to lessons at a boys’ school so that she could benefit from the more expert teaching available there.

Steve’s sister went to university and later emigrated to Australia, where she had a successful career as a social worker supporting children who had been through traumatic experiences. Steve did not go on to higher education on leaving school, however, instead deciding to find a job and start earning, and later obtaining a degree through six years’ worth of night classes. She married, but was absolutely determined to carry on working, and went on to set up a company that employed women with children, working from home, as computer programmers – 55 years ago.

‘People asked me why I should want to go on working,’ Steve said. ‘I felt passionately that I should be independent.’ That was when she decided to use a different name – Stephanie Shirley being doubly feminine, she started to sign her correspondence to potential clients as Steve Shirley. And then she started getting meetings, and the business took off.

Steve was inspired by the John Lewis model in setting up her company, and sought to give employees a stake in its success. When the venture was eventually sold, she had created no fewer than 70 millionaires – as well as undreamed-of wealth for herself, much of which she has given away to good causes.

She has set up a number of charities, including Autistica, which funds medical research into the causes of autism, a residential school for children with autism and a home for adults with autism. She has a personal reason for all this work related to autism; her only child, a son, was severely affected by the condition.

The boy who never spoke again

‘He started off as the most beautiful baby. He was lovely, and then at two and a half, like a changeling in a fairy story, he grew into a wild, unmanageable toddler. It wasn’t just the terrible twos. He was autistic. He lost what little speech he had, and never spoke again.’

At this point, there was an audible gasp of shock and sympathy from the audience, which made me wonder if some of those present had perhaps not heard before that such a thing can happen. Steve was describing a terrible experience, but not an isolated one; I have heard of autism manifesting itself in the same way with other children, though it was not the case with my son. The concept that a child who is apparently developing normally can suddenly go into reverse and become non-verbal again is a frightening one, but for many families it is daily reality and the consequences are lifelong.

Steve’s son was classed as ineducable, which used to be the standard response to a diagnosis of autism – much has changed, thanks in large part to the efforts of parents like Steve. However, Steve managed to find a school that would take him, and he was transported there by ambulance on a Monday and brought back the same way on a Friday.

She kept on working, and throwing herself into work offered her some respite from worrying about her son: ‘The only time I forgot my child was when I was working; I’m a workaholic.’ He became increasingly violent and difficult to control, and in due course had to be cared for in an institution: ‘It was a horrendous period and I ended up having a breakdown.’

After she had recovered, she began to think about how she could move beyond her own family’s problems to help others facing similar difficulties. ‘I wanted to make a difference to other families.’ She said she felt that she had made more of a difference with regards to autism than in the field of computing.

Looking back to her parents’ decision to put her and her sister on the Kindertransport, she described it as ‘the most loving thing a parent can do, to let children go to safety – though as children we experienced it as rejection.’ (Steve and her sister were subsequently reunited with their parents, but were never really able to bond with them following their separation.)

‘The most loving thing a parent can do.’ This is a phrase Steve echoed when describing, with great compassion, the pain of parents of children with autism who have reached the decision that a residential school is the best place for them.

‘When I see parents who let their children go to a residential school, I see them in tears, it’s the most loving thing a parent can do. The children need specialist training, and the pressures on the family are much too much to do any more than to contain the situation.’

Perhaps this is true of every kind of love; love is at its most powerful when it is at its most selfless, when giving something up to save the beloved. And sometimes that means letting go.

Margot Harris: ‘Change is the only constant in life’

Margot Harris' autobiography

Margot Harris’ autobiography

I first heard of Steve Shirley from a colleague who had interviewed her, and thought I would be particularly interested in her story because I, too, have a son who has autism. So when I saw that she was due to speak at Henley Literary Festival as part of a joint event with Margot Harris, who was born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1930 and also escaped to England, I knew I had to take up the chance to go along and listen.

Sitting in the serene surroundings of Henley Town Hall on a fine autumn morning, listening to these two remarkable women recall the horrific events of their childhoods, I found myself very close to tears. Margot Hemming, who still practises as a therapist – a career which she entered relatively late in life – described how she and her family hid from looters on Kristallnacht: ‘It was a mob. We lived over a menswear shop – I was one of five children – and I was upstairs and it was dark when we heard people come in looting. We all kept quiet.’

The looters didn’t realise that there was anybody upstairs and they survived the night unharmed, but later her father was taken away to Buchenwald concentration camp. The family’s solicitor successfully argued that he should be released in order to wind up his business, but was subsequently sent to a concentration camp himself. An uncle who lived in Paris managed to get the family out to England; they were meant to leave everything behind, but Margot’s parents hid some of her mother’s jewellery in little boxes which they managed to smuggle out, giving it to the children to take out to the corridor of the train when the Gestapo came by.

The family lived in the East End of London, survived the Blitz and moved to the US after the war, where Margot enjoyed a lot of parties before settling down to married life back in England, later going on to train as a therapist. Both she and Steve agreed that they could not bear to look back at news clips of the events of their childhoods, and listening to them both remembering that history from the perspective of a lifetime later, I was struck by the extreme poles of human behaviour that their formative experiences had exposed them to: the looters and the rescuers, the kind teacher and the children throwing stones.

I loved hearing both women talk about their work – especially as neither of them intend to stop any time soon. Margot said she believed it was essential to always have a project for the future, just as it was necessary to accept that change is the only constant in life. (This was a point that Steve made too: ‘Tomorrow will not always resemble today’.)

I’ve come across this strongly positive attitude to work on other occasions when I’ve met women of their generation: a straightforward, unambivalent belief that it is a good thing for a woman to have a job, one that she finds interesting if at all possible, and that she should not have to abandon it for family life, though this was an expectation and, in many careers, a requirement in the post-war years, when a woman married.

Steve observed, ‘A woman can do anything she wants these days. I remember when it was not possible for a woman to open a bank account; all those legal barriers have gone – it’s the cultural barriers that remain. We have to make sure we recognise that, and talk to men about it, and have an environment that is inclusive for people from all sorts of backgrounds.’

Steve’s comments about how her work gave her some respite from the difficulties and worries of having a child with autism chime with my own experience, and I think it is also true, or potentially true, for many other parents in the same situation. So much excellent work has been done in schools, but it seems to me that there’s still a desperate need for more suitable childcare for children with autism; their parents want to be able to both look after their families and work, as other mothers and fathers do, but this can be almost impossible without the right support.

I was very glad to have had the opportunity to hear Steve and Margot speak – it was genuinely inspiring to hear how they had survived and gone on to live such purposeful and creative lives; and it was very moving to hear them speak with such clarity about the past, and with so much optimism for the future. I shall treasure my signed copies of their books!

More blog posts about autism