Mary's musings

Mary Hoffman, author of over 90 children's books, including the Stravaganza series and Amazing Grace, has begun a web journal which will be updated roughly once a week. You can read more on

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Water and Fire

We had an assessed discussion in Italian Literature this week and the subject was a short story by Corrado Alvaro called "Ritratto di Melusina" (A portrait of Melusina). I got very excited looking up versions of the folk tale and mythology on the Net and in Brewer (where she is equated to Melisaunde) only to find that the story was about a painting made of a peasant girl in Calabria against her will, which made her feel violated. Desperately disappointing! No snakes below the waist or anything.

She is a water nymph, akin to the Lorelei or Rhinemaidens. One of three sisters and the daughter of a fairy Pernissa and the "King of Albania". Mendelssohn wrote an overture, The Fair Melusine, based on the French version of the story is which she marries Roland of Lusignan. Shortly after we met, Stevie and I heard this on the radio, conducted by someone he had known at school. And that is how Antony Beaumont came back into our life because he wrote and got a reply and we met. Antony is godfather to our middle daughter and a dear friend, as well as a world expert on Busoni and Zemlinsky.So the water-nymph did us a good turn.

Big celebrations of Stevie's birthday on Tuesday, involving not water but a great deal of Chateau Neuf du Pape. I gave him a weekend Pass to the Elliott Carter weekend in January where he will go to a concert every few hours and be absolutely saturated in Carter. He is still composing at 92 - Carter I mean.

Up to London on Wednesday for what really was this time my last Management Committee meeting of the Society of Authors. Helen Dunmore is now Chair, who will be excellent, and Margaret Drabble has joined as has Lynne Truss and George Szirtes. A bad time to be leaving!

I spent the night with Bex so that I could be all day in the British Library on Thursday before doing my fantasy panel for Bloomsbury in the evening. The library visit was a great success - all the nine books I had ordered were there, some in Italian some in English. They weren't all useful but many were. And I wrote a bit on the Oxford Tube. Still I did only one chapter last week so the new routine is already slipping.

The panel went well. About 30 librarians in the audience while Wendy Cooling chaired a discussion with myself, Anna Dale and N. M. Browne (Nicky). Anna has two books out both for juniors and very fresh. Nicky writes darker material for older readers ("weird shit" as she put it) and then there's me. A bit of an old warhorse. Afterwards we went out for a quick Thai meal, with Ann Jungman, before I heraded back to Oxfordshire.

My car was a block of ice at Park and Ride - bitter cold has descended here. In celebration of which, and having lunch guests today, we lit the first log fire of winter. It was perfect, playing a silly game and eating crumpets with home-made jam in front of it - just what country living is all about.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Birds

I don't think it's actually Stir-up Sunday today but we made a Christmas pudding anyway. And we've booked panto tickets for 27th and bought an Advent calendar. So it is beginning to look as if we shall have Christmas. Every year I think, "wouldn't it be nice to have it every other year?" It seems to come around so quickly and involve such a lot.

But we're all real suckers for it - love the carols and tree and stockings and we have so many family traditions. But I must keep up the Two-chapters-a-week rule if The Falconer's Knot is to be finished on time, so I mustn't let myself get too sucked in. The novel has reached the stage of going well and letting me get properly into it, so I feel much more positive.

The fanmail has been a bit demanding; they still don't read the FAQs and I'm not going to answer them if the answers are on the website. There's one girl who is really persecuting me about a film of the Stravaganza books. I have answered her at length many times but she persists in asking if I have "given the idea of a film any more thought" - has even offered her and her friends' sertvices for free! Perhaps her father is Steven Speilberg and I'm giving her the wrong impression.

But another wrote that she needed a complete list of my books by the next day or she would fail her assignment! What if I had been away?

We have solved a great mystery: ever since we moved here four and a half years ago, we have had the occasional inexplicable bird adventure. A starling would get into the house when all the doors and windows were shut and it always seemed to be in Rebecca's room. Anyway it happened last weekend and the cats were very excited about it. They nearly caught it but we rescued it and got it out. Then they spent hours sniffing round where it had been. Lonza was on her hind legs sniffing at a low beam in the bedroom and i put my hand up behind it and found a gap between the wall and the eaves space.

So now we know and can get it blocked up. We hope that will be the end of the Hitchcockian experience, since a couple of the birds have died before we found them.

It's turned cold and wintry at last although still bright and sunny. I'm happy that I managed to get my winter clothes out. I quite like winter; just don't like the stage when it's neither one thing or the other.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Fireworks in the cathedral

I've been a bit slowed down by a cold which also meant I couldn't have my flu jab. Then, when I was well enough, I was turned down as not being in an "at risk" category. I've been having them for more than fifteen years since a couple of bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis but it wasn't the rejection I minded; it was the waste of time going to the doctor's surgery.

I battled up to London in spite of not being well and found a much wanted book on Simone Martini, in Italian, in the London Library. Also three articles to make notes on. Then I went across to the British Library and re-joined. I've discovered that they have "thousands" of books in Italian so that could be very useful.

We went to a day school in Oxford a week ago on early Christian mosaics (Ravenna and Rome). The lecturer was very well-prepared but just slightly inaccurate about a lot of things. Still, we are all fired up for a trip to Rome next autumn, to celebrate Stevie's big birthday. Meantime there are this year's November birthdays to cope with. Bex got a set of suitcases and took one to Paris where she went for a short break with boyfriend Toby. And I think I've just had an inspiration for Stevie's.

Ann Jungman, writer and publisher friend, came down this weekend and we had some nice meals including one with fellow-writer and SAS member Liz Lindsay, and a good old moan about how hard it is to make a living in this job currently. That said, I've had rather a good royalty cheque this time.

I've bought a new laptop but mysteriously it won't run New York as one of its fonts in Microsoft Word. Since that is my default setting, I find this oddly disturbing but so far have had nothing but frustrating phonecalls with Microsoft. I'll try Apple next. Bad cess to the person who stole Jessica's i-Book with her architectural work on it from university on Wednesday. She didn't discover this till Friday morning and her back-up CD was in the machine at the time so panic and hysteria ensued. It was particularly upsetting to think it might have been a fellow-student.

On Tuesday we went to Worcester cathedral for a service to inaugurate the new Worcester University. It was a mystery why I was invited. I thought it was because the pro-Vice Chancellor is someone I know but when I met her afterwards she said she had noticed my name on the list so it obviously didn't originate from her. It was a very strange service, because there's no prescribed ritual, I suppose. There were two well-known hymns, which we could and did sing lustily, a noisy protestor at the beginning, a collection of readings and numerous addresses of welcome and thanks. They are clearly VERY pleased at getting University status.

But no-one could decide whether the readings were to be themed or just people's favourites so we had some very inappropriate gloomy Housman and John Betjeman and a staged reading of a scene from Educating Rita, Keats' Ode on First looking into Chapman's Homer etc etc. But the best bit by far was the finale when pure white and silver fireworks shot out from the clerestory in a prearranged pattern. That was genuinely uplifting. After a glass of champagne in the chapter house we exited the cathedral and found the lone protestor standing meekly holding a placard about vivisection. My sentiments are with her entirely but I didn't stop to talk.

Last night we went to hear Boulez conduct the BBC symphony orchestra in a programme of French music, including a piece of his own, as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. Extraordinary how such a revolutionary composer has become a grand old man of the establishment. Debussy's Jeux and 3 Villon poems were enjoyable but very sort of misty and difficult to see the structure of; they seemed to be the musical equivalent of Monet's late water lily studies. Boulez' own "Le Soleil des eaux" was most beautifully sung by Elizabeth Atherton and a really good piece. They are poems by Rene Char and the first is about a lizard in love.

Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle made a little speech at the beginning of the second half and gave Boulez the Ivor Novello award - a very odd association but Pierre accepted it graciously. Then there was what the Barbican's announcer had called "Daphne and Chloe", which sound like a pair of Brookside lesbians. It was so ravishing to hear the full piece instead of a suite and what a stunning composer Ravel is! People who know him only from Bolero have no idea what they are missing. I remember thinking when I was at university that he was a bit of a hack but that was before I'd heard Scheheradzade or the quartet or the Introduction or Allegro, let alone the two fabulous piano concertos. The one for the left hand only was the first piece Stevie ever played me.

Tonight we are off to a fireworks display in Minster Lovell, which I hope will cheer Jess up and also be part of Bexy's birthday celebrations. She has lost her voice and I am still recovering mine so we'll be a husky party. Then we'll go and have a Chinese meal at the Pink Giraffe in Oxford, where they do things like vegetarian duck. And tomorrow we'll have shepheard's pie and champagne, just like Jeffrey Archer - though there I trust the resemblance will stop.