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Archive for the ‘Autobiography & Biography’ Category

Rosemary Sutcliff's mother Nessie Lawton

Rosemary Sutcliff always remarked on Midsummer’s Eve (June 23rd) in her diary. She called it her official birthday; so she had two birthdays a year, like Paddington Bear and the Queen. It was also the birth day of her mother. Here in the UK we largely missed Midsummer’s Eve this year, with the EU Referendum looming, and the turmoil in the wake of the resul

1988 June 23rd Thursday … There’s another blackbird’s nest in the front garden, in place of the one the ginger cat took.

1989 June 23rd Friday … Started to watch last day of Ascot, but of course it disappeared – industrial action …

1991 June 23rd Sunday. Midsummer’s Eve—Cold as winter, and pouring with rain all day.

1992 June 23rd Tuesday. Midsummer’s Eve. My Official Birthday. Mummy’s birthday … Went and stood out in the garden for a few minutes before bed. Was lovely, smelling of grass & night scented flowers.

June 23rd 1992 Diary entry Rosemary Sutcliff

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Hawthorn or may tree blossomMay 10th Tuesday. Went along for the ride when Ray took Mrs Prosser home. The may all coming out along the lanes. Joan collecting my earrings and a white shirt for dying grey in Chichester today. Should be back in half-an-hour or so.
© Anthony Lawton 2012

The may refers to the  ‘may tree’, or hawthorn. The blossom appears on the tree at the beginning of May in the south of England. According to the Royal Horticultural Society, “until the calendar was changed in 1752, hawthorn would be in flower for May Day, which used to be 11 days later than it is now”.

At  the May Day celebrations people and houses used to be decked with may blossoms or boughs (‘bringing home the may’) which were traditional decorations, associated with the woodland spirit known as the Green Man.

I think of her writing this always in bed at night – I sometimes sat there when she did, as I recall. However, maybe my memory plays tricks, for this entry is apparently written during the day (‘Joan will be back’, from shopping, ‘in half-an-hour or so).

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Academic Bill Barnett, from Stanford University Business School, has posted about his view that most successsful business strategies emerge, they are not carefully planned in advance—”Discovery trumps planning”. This accords with the views I have peddled for many years, first at Leicester Management Centre and then Warwick Business School, and latterly as a CEO in the not-for-financial-profit sector in the UK.

But it also made me think of parallels with something Rosemary Sutcliff said once to an interviewer about how she went about writing her novels:

I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. I do have a certain amount of framework: I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way.

I do not write to a standard length. I do not know how long a book’s going to be. I find that a book takes its own time and gets to its own proper ending place.

Dog in Rosemary Sutcliff book illustration by Charles Keeping

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Rosemary Sutcliff on writing - plot and length

More of Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words here, on this web-site.

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Acclaimed internationally for her historical novels and books for children, Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was the subject of many magazine profiles. Sadly she is no longer here to create pieces like the ‘This much I know’ feature in magazine of The Observer newspaper. But this much she did know, as revealed in her answers  late in her life to Roy Plomley’s questions on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs. Photos of Rosemary Sutcliff, historical novelist and children’s writer

A spinal carriage is like a coffin. It is very uncomfortable. You lie flat out in this ‘thing’, and all you can see the are branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead.  It is extremely boring.

I didn’t learn to read for myself until I was very old — I was nine before I could read. I think this was because my mother read aloud to me so much. Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.

I think it honestly never occurred to my parents that a child growing up and going through her teens required other young people. I was never allowed to bring friends home. They were very understanding; nobody could have had nicer parents. But they were very sufficient unto themselves.

Miniature painting is cramping. I was a good craftswoman—but I always had this feeling of having my elbows tucked too close to my sides when I was doing it. I gave it up to write. And I could write as big as ever I wanted to, I could use an enormous canvas if I wanted to.

I feel most at home in Roman Britain. I always feel it’s perhaps a little shameful to be quite so at home with the Romans, because they really were a very bourgeois lot, but I do feel very at home with them; I feel, ‘Here I am back at home again’ when I get back into a Roman story.

I think I do believe in reincarnation. I hope I do, because I think it’s the one thing that makes sense, that makes for justice and a really sensible pattern to life.

I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen. So, I write in longhand.

I start with an idea; never a plot. I’m not very strong on plots, but I start from a theme, which grows from the idea. I do have a certain amount of framework: I’ve got to know how I’m going to get from the beginning to the end, and a few ports of call on the way.

I do not write to a standard length. I do not know how long a book’s going to be. I find that a book takes its own time and gets to its own proper ending place.

I take great pains that details should be right. I am quite shameless about writing to people—people who know about breeding horses, or whatever it is—and asking a particular question. People are usually very kind about sharing their own expertise. I do rely very much also on the feeling ‘does this smell right’, ‘does it have the right feel to it?’.

I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman—although most of my books are told from a male point of view. I can’t write about girls from the inside. I don’t think the absence of sexual encounters is because I’m writing for children—I don’t honestly know why, it’s just happened that way.

I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry. The situation became impossible. My own family was so against it. People’s feelings were very different in those days to what they are now, about anybody with a disability being allowed to have any emotions. Neither of us were very grown up and we just couldn’t cope. So that was that.

Source:  BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘.

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Rosemary Sutcliff (b. 1920; d. 1992) was  the subject of many magazine profiles. But sadly she is no longer alive to create a ‘This much I know’ feature in The Observer newspaper’s magazine. But this much she did know—revealed within her answers to Roy Plomley on BBC Radio’s Desert Island Discs.

screenshot-2015-04-02-12-23-09

  • A spinal carriage is like a coffin.
  • Chiefly I had books read to me, which is a thing I love to this day.
  • I was never allowed to bring friends home.
  • Miniature painting is cramping.
  • I feel most at home in Roman Britain.
  • I think I do believe in reincarnation.
  • I can only create from the top of my head, down my right arm, and out of the point of my pen.
  • I start with an idea; never a plot.
  • I do not write to a standard length.
  • I take great pains that details should be right.
  • I don’t think I’m a particularly masculine kind of woman.
  • I don’t know whose decision it was not to marry.

For more, see fuller post here

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Rosemary Sutcliff was an internationally acclaimed British writer for children, one of the best of the 20th century. Romey (as I knew her) is not around to answer those sets of questions sent by magazines for brief celebrity profiles; she dies in 1992. Some answers to imagined questions can be deduced from Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words in her 1983 session on BBC Radio’s ‘Desert Island Discs‘. Where were you born?

To my shame I have to admit that I was born in Surrey, but  I count myself as a West Country woman, as a Devonshire woman.

You were very ill as a child; what happened?

I contracted juvenile arthritis. A spinal carriage was rather like a coffin; it was very uncomfortable, and you lay flat out in this thing, and of course all you could see were the branches of the trees or the roofs of the houses going by overhead. And it was extremely boring. With any luck you were perhaps allowed to sit up on the way home from a walk.

(more…)

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