Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lest we forget

This week, on 22nd July, was the exact 800th anniversary of the massacre at Béziers. Did you read anything about it in the papers? See an item on TV? Get a newsfeed or other alert about it? No, neither did I.

So I'm going to write about it here.

The Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent 3rd against the Cathars in what is now the Languedoc region of France and mustered in Lyon in June 1209. It was led initially by Arnaud-Aimery, the Abbot of Citeaux, who was a Papal Legate.

When they reached Béziers, they sent its bishop in to negotiate with the citizens to hand over the 220 or so heretics listed as being in the town. They refused. By a fluke, the French army got into the city and started looting and killing.

People shetered in the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire and the church of Mary Magdalene, whose Feast day it was. They were all slaughtered - men, women, children, priests - burned or hacked down and the churches set fire to. It was on this occasion that the words "Kill them all - God will know his own" were attributed to Arnaud-Aimery.

He could have said them; he certainly wrote to the Pope saying that his army had killed 20,000 people that day. Twenty thousand people, two hundred and twenty of which were designated heretics. You can do the maths.

What does this have to do with books? I have written one about it, called Troubadour, published on 3rd August. So you can regard this as a shameless plug. Or a memorial to the brave citizens who were murdered 800 years ago in the name of religion.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Death of a fairy

I suppose I first met Naomi Lewis at a publishing party about thirty-five years ago. Over the next three decades, she was always there, always the same, a tiny figure dressed in black (invariably) and always at the centre of a group of fascinated listeners.

Chris Powling confided early on that he believed she was a fairy. She certainly knew how to enchant. I used to take my three daughters to some of these parties and she was unfailingly kind to them and genuinely interested in them. She heartily approved of the fact that we were all vegetarians (this is no longer true of the youngest) and I could not get her to read Peter Dickinson's The Dancing Bear, which I thought was his best book, because she would not even consider a story which touched, even sympathetically, on any harm to animals.

She explained to me at one such party - the only way we ever met - about how she rescued London pigeons that had cotton or nylon tangled round their feet. Although I share her compassion for animals, I would find it VERY difficult to pick up a pigeon, let alone untangle anything from its claws.

Her reviews of children's book in the Observer were always illuminating and beautifully written. And her collections of re-tellings of fairy stories will remain on my shelves for ever.

She was ageless and asexual and able to do things I couldn't, like a true fairy. It's a few years now since I'd seen her at a party but I had no idea that she was only 26 months short of her centenary. I don't know what her actual funeral will have been like, but I like to think of it as William Blake's vision of a cortège of grasshoppers and a rose-leaf for a bier.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

In praise of writers

This weekend there was a conference in Bristol all about Diana Wynne Jones. Not like the fanfests that are Harry Potter or Terry Pratchett conventions but but a proper academic conference dedicated to the work of one writer, which is a rare honour - especially in the children's book world. Sadly, in the end Diana herself was not well enough to attend, which must have been a disappointment for her as well as all those delegates and speakers gathered together.

Still, it must have given her a warm glow and writers need this. They need constant praise from reviewers, fans, peers, academics and family members, because their work is necessarily solitary and without feedback. This is why they experience such pain when they get a bad, or even snide, review.

Recently my namesake Alice Hoffman reacted so badly to a less than positive review of her latest novel in the Boston Globe that she posted the reviewer's address and phone number on Twitter and encouraged her readers to write or ring to blast her with their displeasure. Hoffman has since apologised and deleted her Twitter account but the bad smell remains.

We all hate bad, lukewarm, innacurate or spoiler reviews - I had one in the Times once that began "This book made me feel sick"! - but there is only one possible response: dignified silence and a hope of boomerang karma.

The other side of the coin is that you don't know how to rate praise from someone until you know what else they like. I've lost count of the number of fan e-mails I've had that say "You are my second favourite writer after X" where X = someone like Christopher Paolini!

It might be over-fussy to care about the literary standards of those who praise us. But I'm afraid I do. And that includes reviewers. But I won't be tweeting about it.