It’s out! My novel, Mrs Betjeman, about the life of Penelope Betjeman, nee Chetwode, was released on 5 September. Penelope lived a life that spanned much of the 20th century, and the book moves from the hedonistic days after World War One when people tried to blank out their losses, through to the 1980s. It takes in the life of a debutante, the fading days of the British Raj, and country life in the UK between the wars and into the 1950s, along the way. Penelope Chetwode was a remarkable woman, independent minded and clever. She was determined from an early age not to be ‘just a wife’, which back in the 1920s was the destiny for most upper class girls.She eloped instead with John Betjeman, who was considered deeply unsuitable by her parents as his parents were ‘in trade’, and while she was never ‘just a wife’, their unconventional love story was a defining narrative in her life. Available on Amazon.
The end of another busy year and the start of a new one, and of course there are a flurry of resolutions. Writing a book about my father is top of the list. (This was also on last year’s list. This year, I really mean it. I’ve already got out the files of his half-completed memoirs and am reading through them).
Learning to speak French is another resolution, assisted by a weekly evening course at the Alliance Francais in London. I’ve already signed up, before I lose the momentum, and it starts at the end of February. I can’t wait. I’m not telling anyone, just hoping to dazzle everyone with my excellent speaking French when we go on holiday in July, Brexit permitting (let’s not talk about Brexit).
I’ve spent most of this January hibernating at home, getting over the obligatory cold, sitting as close to a radiator as possible and completing a ghostwriting project for an inspirational man from Palestine, born in Gaza, who has made his life elsewhere in the Middle East. It’s been a very satisfying project. As with the best ghostwriting assignments, I’ve learned new things, about life, about people, about choices, and about principles to live by, from this client. It absolutely validates my view that everyone has a unique story to tell.
I’ve also developed an interest in the Middle East as a result, and the minute I get some time off I’m off to Jordan to visit Amman, Aqaba and Petra. This is not just a hedonistic quest for winter sun, although obviously sunshine will be more than welcome after two months of dark mornings followed by nights that begin at 4pm. It’s down to an interest in this small country set in an ancient area of the world and surrounded by troubled neighbours (as I’m sure everyone knows, Syria is next door, Israel just across the water). Steeped in history, with a population of under 10 million, Jordan has been demonstrating extraordinary human kindness, taking in 2 million Syrian refugees. This makes me pause and reflect, not least every time I read a media report about a number of people rescued from an inflatable found in the English channel. Jordan lives with its arms wide open.
Other news: My novel about Penelope Betjeman is coming out in September this year. Before Christmas I received an email from someone asking where they could buy it as it was on their mother-in-law’s Christmas list. I’m very happy to now have a publication date. I will report further as soon as I have anything to add…
January 2018 – A New Year’s resolution.
The last few months have been very busy, spent ghosting a memoir for a family who lost their father a few years ago, and want to record his many achievements for future generations. It’s a really interesting project, taking in the world of a very successful businessman with interests spanning shipping and property and food production. He also sounds like a really decent kind of person and a highly committed family man.
This type of project makes for enduring family history, and writing this one reminds me that I want a similar kind of book chronicling the life of my own father, who died in 2005. He is still much missed, there are many days that I think of him, and countless times when small things happen and I think ‘ah, yes, my father taught me that’.
The reach of a powerful and loving parent can – and perhaps should – be long. My father came from Stoke-on-Trent, worked hard to become one of the most remarkable barristers of his generation, before moving to head up NatWest (as it then was) during some very difficult years for the banking industry. Other achievements included becoming President of the MCC (he was cricket mad, and when the turf on the wicket was replaced, once took it home carefully in a bag to lay it in his own garden). He was also Chairman of the RSC and committed to the arts. His legacy to me is so much more than the sum of the parts; so much more than just memories of many happy times, a weekend walk along the canal in Little Venice in London with a take away coffee (an invention he loved) or him passing by on his way home from work to see his grandchildren. He is still embedded in the seams of my life in the million small things that quietly occur on a daily basis: my love of books, a passion for theatre, watching my two sons playing cricket, a constant sense that justice really should prevail and a determination never to let my mind calcify – remaining curious and engaged is vital. Also the smell of a delicious glass of chilled white wine, the first daffodil of the year, the role of humour and the ability to keep buggering on through the inevitable difficult times. He also showed me the importance of standing up for what you believe in (he spoke up against the Iraq war on the grounds it was illegal when many didn’t dare to disagree with Tony Blair) and that hard work and good manners will take you a long way.
There’s too much to say about my dad for this page. He began to write down his memories before he fell ill and died in a totally unexpected way. This year, one of my resolutions is to try and take that beginning of a book forward, for my children and beyond. I can hear my father in my ear: “About bloody time too…”
I have been writing a novel called Mrs Betjeman, a fictionalised memoir based on Penelope Betjeman’s life. I’ve also just written an article about this remarkable and eccentric woman for the Daily Telegraph. Penelope faced modern challenges we can relate to today – juggling work, marriage and children, as well as finally dealing with the pain of a failing marriage. Despite the fact that Penelope and her husband, Poet Laureate John Betjeman, quietly separated after twenty years together, they still had a lifelong love for each other that was apparent in their frequent letters to each other, until the end. They just couldn’t live together.
Article from The Daily Telegraph 7th January 2017.
Click on a thumbnail to read the article:
My new book, The Wind on his Back, is out now. Six short stories about the frail business of being human. The title story was inspired by my partner being diagnosed with a brain tumour in January last year. The lead character isn’t him – all the characters are fictional – but the notion of looking death in the face was something I wanted to explore.