The fire that Alice finds herself having to deal with at the start of my new ghost novel, The Girl in the Ivory Dress, was inspired by a real life tragedy, the near-destruction of a heritage gem just a few miles away from where I live – and where I had at one stage been planning to get married.
Clandon Park House is an eighteenth century Palladian mansion near Guildford, run by the National Trust. On April 29th 2015 a fault in a distribution board led to an inferno that shot flames high into the night sky and gutted every room bar one. The house was swiftly evacuated and fortunately no one was hurt. An emergency plan to salvage the precious artefacts of the house was enacted, and 80 firefighters, Trust staff and volunteers did their best, sliding paintings down ladders and passing items out through windows. Much of the collection was lost however, including such iconic items as a football kicked into the enemy trenches to start the charge at the Battle of the Somme.
A couple of years after the fire the public was allowed to visit again, enabling me to take these photos. It was one of the main places that we used to visit as a family, and my wife and I had shortlisted it for our wedding. It was a real loss to the nation. But there is hope, with the Trust restoring the main rooms on the ground floor and planning to open the upper floors for exhibitions and events in the near future…
I’m excited to announce that The Boy in the Burgundy Hood is out today!
This is a double first for me – my first ghost story, and my first novel for adults!
Here’s what it’s about:
A ghost story with a difference.
She’s not afraid of ghosts.
Alice Deaton can’t believe her luck when she’s offered her dream job at a medieval English manor house.
Mired in debt, the elderly owners have transferred their beloved Bramley to a heritage trust and Alice must prepare it for public opening in the spring.
But then the ghosts start appearing – the woman with the wounded hand and the boy in the burgundy hood – and Alice realises why her predecessor might have left the isolated house so soon after starting.
As she peels back the layers of the mystery, the secrets Alice uncovers at Bramley’s heart will be dark – darker than she could ever have imagined…
Hope you’re hooked! The story was inspired by a trip to the fabulous, atmospheric Ightham Mote in Kent – and by a real job interview my wife had in a remote country manor, which you can read about here.
Here’s the latest in my series of Poems on Video from my collection Up in the Air.
An alembic is a distilling tool that combines different elements to create something new. It’s used in philosophy for a process of refinement, or transmutation. This poem, written about a summer evening in my grandmother’s garden in Eastbourne, is my first video request. Let me know if there’s a poem from Up in the Air that you’d like me to read on video.
And of course this poem is dedicated to my grandma, Pamela Isobel Lilian Korn.
I’m halfway through writing my next book, which I’m describing as a ghost story – with a difference.
The idea for the story came from a real life event. When I had just started dating my wife she went for an interview for a very intriguing job. It was a Property Manager post in an isolated country house that had recently been given over to the National Trust. There was accommodation for the postholder in the building. For security purposes, she would need to spend most of her time there, day and night. It was a wonderful opportunity, a beautiful property set in remote rural England.
But there was a catch.
The house was still lived in by the previous owners, who had been forced to turn to the Trust when the financial burden of running it became too much. This scenario is not uncommon, as few rich and aristocratic families now have the funds to sustain such enormous, old, leaky buildings. Some manage to generate sufficient income by opening the property up themselves, but not many. Most either get sold on to hotels, or go to into terminal decline and get demolished. A few get passed on to the National Trust.
It was at the job interview that my wife found out more about the set up. She gathered that the previous Property Manager had left under unusual circumstances. A breakdown was even mooted. The implication was that it was not because of the stress of managing the house itself. It was because the former owners had their own ideas as to how the property should (continue to) be run.
They hadn’t let go. And subsequently they made the manager’s life difficult. Very difficult.
My wife was offered the job, but she never took it. I’m glad as it was a long way to travel for us to see each other. Who knows whether our relationship would have survived that distance.
But I’ve always been fascinated by the set up. I’ve always known there was a story in there somewhere. And now, with the addition of a ghost or two, I have it. Why is it a ghost story with a difference? Well let’s just say, she ain’t afraid of ghosts.
Here’s the second in my series of videos in which I read poems from my book Up in the Air. This time, The Cormorants, one of the first poems I ever had published. It’s a short poem about yearning and restlessness, seabirds, and the remote and lonely Scottish island of Iona.
As always, if you like it, please leave a comment.
The first of an occasional series of videos in which I read poems from my book, Up in the Air.
I wrote Weather Map when I was living in a small flintstone folly owned by the National Trust on the edge of a housing estate in London. At the end of the garden was – beyond a tricky pile of thorny scrub – a beautiful and little-known tributary of the Thames, the River Wandle. I had just started going out with the lovely woman who was to become my wife.
So, here is me reading Weather Map. If you like it, leave a comment.
I’ve been really pleased by the reception of my first poetry book, Up in the Air, which reached the top ten in Amazon’s ‘Inspirational Poetry’ bestsellers category.
I wrote a post about how I started writing poems here. I mentioned it was climbing Scottish mountains and reading William Wordsworth that kickstarted my love for poetry. But citing Wordsworth as an inspiration is hardly hip these days. So I thought I’d tell you why I like him. Then, hopefully, you will too.
There are three reasons I love Wordsworth:
#1 His Idealism
As a young man in the 1790s, Wordsworth travelled on the continent and was excited by the fresh ideals of the politics he discovered. He believed passionately in the French Revolution, that there would be a new dawn of equality and liberty for all humankind. Unfortunately it was followed by the Reign of Terror and Wordsworth ultimately retreated, disillusioned, to his private sanctuary in the Lake District. I’ve got a feeling quite a few of us would like to do that these days.
#2 His Poetry
Obviously. Wordsworth created some of the most inspired and memorable lines in the English language. Look at these for instance:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
That best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Come forth into the light of things, Let nature be your teacher.
With an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
#3 Above all, his love of, respect for, and insight into Nature
As one of the greatest Romantic poets, Wordsworth described the inner life and value of Nature like no other:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear, – both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
He understood the mysterious interplay that our thoughts, our minds, have with Nature. Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey is my favourite poem, and I think the lines about what the eye and ear ‘half create, and what percieve’ is a revelation.
I often re-read Wordsworth’s poems, when I arrive in the mountains, or see a new, inspiring landscape. We can never be sure about the inner life of Nature, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower as Dylan Thomas called it, and what our part in it is. But many of us believe that there is something really there beyond dim, blind, mechanics. And we see that, in a semi-objective, semi-imaginative way, we are not only created by it, but have a mysterious role in creating the world ourselves.
Interested in finding out about my poetry? Go here.
In The Secret of the Tirthas, the demons and their followers are desperately seeking to capture the Artefacts of Power. These magical items have gained their power from the devotion of worshippers over the centuries.
Each Artefact in the story is based on a real life sacred object, from a different religious tradition. Here’s a list of them, with the culture or religion they came from:
Nkisi statue – a wooden figure from African shamanistic religion. People drove iron nails in to release the power of the ancestor spirit residing in it.
Hilili Kachina – a raindance doll with a snake hanging out of his mouth, from Native American culture.
The Holy Grail – a chalice containing the blood of Christ from the Last Supper, much pursued by medieval knights.
The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, Rossetti
Easter Island statue(maoi) – over 1,000 of these mysterious statues were constructed by the inhabitants of a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. All the statues look inland, away from the sea. It is thought they represented ancestors, guarding over the islanders.
Easter Island sculptures from the original Garden of Rooms in Herefordshire
Venus– the statue is based on the famous Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany and believed to be 40,000 years old. She was carved from mammoth tusk.
Venus of Hohle Fels (Image: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Green Man – a figure from Western paganism, symbolising the regenerative, mysterious powers of Nature.
Green Man from a Herefordshire church
Other Artefacts in The Secret of the Tirthas:
Yingarna– a goddess of creation, who carried children from different Aboriginal tribes in her many bags.
Shiva Lingam – a holy symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, carved from stone.
Buddha’s Tooth – there are several teeth relics of the Buddha, including a very famous one in Sri Lanka.
Last week I had a short break with my family in Kenilworth, a small town in Warwickshire. I was born in Eastbourne but moved to the Midlands when I was very young, and spent most of my childhood there. Despite not having lived in Kenilworth for 20 years, I was surprised at the deep connection I still felt with the place.
We rented a small cottage near the ruined but impressive Kenilworth castle. The castle was owned in its prime by Robert Dudley, the probable love interest of Queen Elizabeth I. They had been friends ever since they met as prisoners in the Tower of London. We spent a day in the castle, stomping up rickety, often rotten-looking stairways, taking in the magnificent views from the keep and the stately wing that Dudley built for the queen.
We spent a long time at the nearby flooded ford. With a small crowd, we cheered those cars that went for it and booed those that didn’t. (At least until our youngest, ignoring pleas to step back from the railings, was soaked by an SUV.)
We visited Leamington Spa, where the highlight for the boys was not the lovely Georgian Parade but a new rotor-blade swing in Victoria Park. We spent a sunny day in Stratford-on-Avon where the river had flooded its banks. Finally we visited splendid Warwick Castle, which unlike Kenilworth survived the ravages of the English Civil War.
I was excited to be back in the area I grew up. But I hadn’t expected the depth of connection I felt, run through by the precious seams of so many good – and some not-so-good – memories. I realised that, despite the length of time away, this still felt like my place. I love where I am now, and I’ve loved being in Scotland and London. But these small, Warwickshire towns, and especially Kenilworth, are where I was formed.
They are the places where I will always, to some degree, belong. Where do you belong?
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, the forthcoming book in The Secret of the Tirthas, takes place in a fabulous country house based on Polesden Lacey, a property near Dorking that was almost bequeathed to the Queen but ended up in the hands of the National Trust.
My wife and I take our boys there on a regular basis, as they love amongst other things getting their hands on old stuff, grandfather clocks, the chickens when they’re not away on holidays, and, appropriately, the stone griffins. Plus the grounds are huge, and beautiful, so there’s plenty of space to run around.
I always wanted the series to be very diverse, with equal parts mystery and action, and a strong contrast between the exotic and well-known. After Lizzie’s harrowing ordeal in the Cameroonian jungle in The Dreamer Falls, I decided to revert to a gentler setting, with the emphasis once again on mystery and intriguing characters.
After watching an excellent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and then reading the no-less-brilliant book) I knew Lizzie’s story leant itself to the same kind of set-up. So I did some research and took a lot of photos of the building, uncovering more of the absorbing story of Margaret Greville, who bought the house with her McEwan’s inheritance (‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress’), and who held regular country parties for socialites from London and the wider Empire.
Portrait of Margaret Greville, Polesden Lacey
Margaret Greville collected ‘people with the unerring eye of a stamp-collector’ according to the Evening Standard, and her guests included European Ambassadors, Earls and Countesses, writers and poets – and Maharajahs. A perfect mix for an intense and suspenseful story, in which Lizzie is left wondering whether guests are who they say they are – or whether they are demons in disguise, come searching for a lost Artefact of Power.
The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask will be out in the early summer. The final book in the series (currently with numerous working titles!) will be out early next year.
Margaret loved her dogs, all of whom ended up in Polesden’s famous pet cemetery.