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

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Round and the Square

I had fun being part of the Author Team at the Central England finals of the Kids' Lit Quiz in Oundle earlier this month. I was with Lucy Coats, Pippa Goodhart, Julia Jarman and Mark Robson. We did very well and I even won a £5 book token for knowing that Roald Dahl's first wife was Patricia Neal.

I had to write a survey of the state of children's books in the UK for the Italian journal LIBER, whose "comitato scientifico" I am on. It's the first thing I've had to do for them.

And I've just finished editing my last edition of Armadillo, the magazine I founded ten years ago. That makes 40 and I'm very glad to hand it over.

I saw Table Manners, one of the three Alan Ayckbourn Norman Conquest plays at the Old Vic. The theatre has been transformed into an In-the-Round space. And it was very accomplished, though the actor playing Sarah drove me mad with her fussy gestures. Stephen Mangan was very funny.

We went to see Love's Labour's Lost in Stratford last Friday, with David Tennant as Berowne. I can't imagine it better done, even if I did find DT a bit too in love with himself. The set and costumes were gorgeous and I do love the thrust stage at The Courtyard. Theatre-in-the-square, for all that Max Bialystock says "nobody gets a good view!" is very satisfying.

The very next day we were in Covent Garden for Elektra. It was superb! I am obsessed with the House of Atreus and have always found this version of it particularly compelling. Susan Bullock was thrilling in the main part and the Clytemnestra and Chrysothemis were equally good; the men are almost cyphers.

I saw the last two episodes of Simon Schama's American series and am watching Little Dorrit. Andrew Davies has done largely a good job, apart from ridiculously giving Flora Finching, a middle-aged, middle-class widow the line "What about the Chinese women? I hear they are different 'down below' but you wouldn't know that would you, being a bachelor?" Outrageous, as well as cheap and nasty. And I hate the fact the director has cast a black actor as Tattycoram, which slews the whole nature of her position in the household. (It doesn't help that she can't act). But Tom Courtenay and the others are magnificent.

I finished reading War and Peace after four weeks. It was a great translation but I was just as cross with Tolstoy and Natasha at the end as when I read it decades ago. She doesn't care about anything but her husband and children.

Since then I've read If No-one Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor, which was OK and very interesting structurally, but a bit slight. Then Robin Hobbs' Assassin's Apprentice, which is the first of a nine-book fantasy sequence. But I think I'm going to stop there. It's a bit too gloomy for me.

Am now reading The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for the third time (in Italian).

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

They will not grow old

I've just seen the four World War 1 veterans being helped to lay their poppy wreaths at the cenotaph and had to turn it off in order to write something. Yesterday was the 799th anniversary of the death in a wretched dungeon in his home at Carcassonne of Raimon-Roger Trencavel, Viscount of Béziers, Albi and Carcassonne and a great hero of mine.

In 1209 when Pope Innocent lll's "crusade" against the Cathars (who were not called that then but just Believers or True Christians) was launched by the noblemen of the north, Trencavel was only 24, married (to Agnes) and with a little son. The crusade was supposed to attack his uncle, the Count of Toulouse (Raimon Vl), who was believed to have sanctioned if not ordered the murder of the Pope's legate, Peter of Castelnau, the year before.

But Raimon did penance and even eventually joined the crusade himself. So the French, who had been promised they could keep any heretic land and property they took, if they served in the army for forty days, turned on Raimon-Roger, the next wealthiest victim they could find. He probably wasn't a Cathar himself though he was a sympathiser.

When he saw the way the wind was blowing, he rode to the very well-fortified city of Béziers and got out all the Jews and took them to Carcassonne with him. Béziers should not have fallen but it did and the French killed everyone inside, orthodox and heretic alike, men women and children, as many as 20,000 people who had sheltered in the cathedral and other main church. No-one was spared

The authorisation for this war crime came from Arnaud-Aimery, Abbot of Citeaux, who headed the army. He then marched on to Carcassonne, which fell less than a month later. The inhabitants were allowed to leave taking only what they were wearing. Trencavel was still alive in his own dungeon when the French assigned his lands and titles to Simon de Montfort (not the one the University is named after).

And then, on November 10th 1209, Raimon-Roger's death was announced "from dysentery". This brave young man would have been an embarrassment if he had lived and I simply do not believe that his death was an accident. I wrote about him and all this in Troubadour, which comes out next year.

So I wanted to honour him along with the other fallen of the many horrible wars that have happened since then (and before). Raimon-Roger Trencavel, hero and martyr, who did not grow old.