A thank you to my friends

This post is by way of a huge thank you to all the friends who have supported me in different ways on my writing and publishing journey. I am blessed in having a great number of friends spread all over the world – some going back to childhood, others relatively new, most somewhere in between. Writing is a solitary occupation and it’s easy to get discouraged. Being able to call on so many loyal friends has made all the difference – whether for moral support on the rollercoaster ride to publication, for giving me valuable feedback on early drafts, for practical help with accommodation, lifts or launch arrangements or for spreading the word about my books among their own friends and social media contacts.

In business circles, it would probably be called networking, but as a writer, I feel uncomfortable viewing contact with friends as a business strategy. In fact, although I’m selling something (my books), I have great difficulty thinking of it as a business at all. Perhaps this is because, up to now at least, it hasn’t provided me with any significant income. Perhaps it’s because money has never been my motivation for writing. Then again, perhaps I’m just being precious.

P1110585        IMG_8436

Launching the book at (so far) half a dozen different venues in both the UK and Spain and always seeing friendly faces in the audience has meant a lot to me. I am truly grateful to all who made the effort to come and who then bought and read the book, posted reviews and/or bought more copies to give as presents – all of which has helped massively in getting the books out there.

IMG_20190608_121414        fullsizeoutput_d80



IMG_8557          P1110605


Thinking just of The Red Gene (though it was a similar story with Secrets of the Pomegranate), I have a multitude of friends to thank. My artist friend Allan drew the maps. Lala recommended reading material and put me up in London while I researched at the Marx Memorial Library. Javi, my pilates teacher, invited me to visit his parents in Antequera, the setting for a large part of the book. Lucy put me in touch with Pepita, a retired Spanish midwife. Paloma, a nurse friend in Granada, provided me with details of hospital routines. Rosa, a doctor, checked some of the medical details in my novel. Resu introduced me to her lovely mother, who spoke of her life during the dictatorship but sadly didn’t live long enough to see publication. Sue, Lily, Andrew, Lucius, Ann and Jane gave me valuable feedback on my first draft. Isabel read the Spanish sections to check their authenticity. Expert photographer Candi did a photo-shoot that has provided me with an ample choice of shots for publicity. She also arranged for me to use the beautiful Carmen de la Victoria for my Granada launch and introduced me to Gerardo, a fellow Granada University professor, who gave a brilliant introduction to my talk. My brother Tony helped arrange my Oxford launch and spread the word mong his friends and acquaintances as well as putting me in touch with Marcos, the flamenco guitarist who played at the launch. Barbara, Anne and Jill made sure my book was included in their reading group programmes for next year. Flor took the record for number of copies bought for friends – about twelve, I think! Sue arranged my talk in Mojácar and invited me to stay with her for the weekend. Almost all my Spanish interviewees were friends of friends or relatives of friends. Numerous others – too many to mention by name – encouraged me along the way when, believe me, encouragement was badly needed. My sincere thanks to every one of you. Without your support and belief in me, my journey would have been lonelier, less successful and a lot less rewarding.


The divine power of the novelist

I’m not the world’s most decisive person. Even quite trivial decisions cause me endless stress. I dither and agonise, considering one option and another, sometimes half the night. Yet when it comes to my fictional characters, I suffer no such torments. Quite the reverse, I revel in my control over their fates. Limited only by my imagination, I am free to manipulate their lives at will, reward or punish them, bring tragedy or triumph onto their heads. Like an omnipotent god, I can give them what they most crave or deny them all consolation. And what’s more, it’s power without responsibility because after all, it is only a story.

In both Secrets of the Pomegranate and The Red Gene, I had to kill off important characters – not an easy option. After accompanying them for months or years, sharing their innermost emotions, their hopes and dreams and darkest fears, I had come to regard them as close friends. Being so attached made it feel almost disloyal to sacrifice them for the sake of the plot. It might surprise some readers to know that even the author who has engineered their demise feels a keen sense of loss.

Far more than non-fiction writers, who deal mostly in facts, novelists are faced with myriad decisions at every stage of the process. Before even starting to write, the basic questions of plot, characters, setting, point of view and more have to be decided. But it doesn’t stop there. Although it’s true that the characters take on lives of their own, it is still up to the author to set the seal on every small act, approve each line of dialogue uttered, resolve the quandaries they face.

In The Red Gene, after researching the backgrounds of the real British nurses who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, I had to decide on my heroine’s social and geographical milieu and her motivation for going to Spain. Was she one of those girls from the East End of London or a northern industrial city who had joined a trade union or the Communist party after seeing at first hand the terrible conditions of poverty and disease in the slums of her hometown? Was she driven by her political beliefs, the mission to stop fascism in its tracks? Or was she from a more comfortable background, moved less by politics than by humanitarian concerns, feelings of empathy for the suffering population in Spain.

fullsizeoutput_65f    5930046





Once I had decided on Rose’s background and the impulses that prompted her to take this brave step, her personality began to emerge but not without a whole series of choices by her creator (me). All her actions, the decisions she herself made throughout her life, were dictated at least in part by this personality, influenced naturally by the experiences, good and bad, that I’d chosen to put her through.

As a girl born at the start of the Franco dictatorship, Consuelo had far fewer options open to her than did Rose. Whatever personality I bestowed on her, the mere fact of being female determined her function in life: to be a wife and mother. Growing up in a strongly nationalist family, it does not even cross her mind to question her role.



Her daughter Marisol, on the other hand, inhabits a very different Spain, one that has changed almost beyond recognition. She has many more choices, many more opportunities, which means I, as the author, was faced with many more possibilities. I was free to give Marisol the personality and path in life that best suited my purposes.

In developing the plot, there are logistical questions to be resolved – like how to get my characters from one place to another. Rose’s decision, revealed in the first two pages of the book, about what to do when the war was over, determined the whole direction of the story but it was up to me to decide on the outcome of that decision and later to find a way of getting her safely out of Spain. Achieving that tricky feat relied on an interaction between chance events and aspects of her personality. My ingenuity was similarly tested in Consuelo’s case. Having decided where I wanted her to grow up (in what kind of family and geographical location), my challenge was to find the means of enabling it. This time, I had to rely solely on fate to achieve my objective.

My biggest decision, however, concerned the resolution of the story, how it would end. Would Rose and Consuelo, the two most important characters, meet and if so, how and where. On that particular point, my lips are firmly sealed. To reveal the answer would be a complete spoiler for those who haven’t yet read the book.

Photos for The Red Gene: where it all happens

1*0RqWi1HW1RH-Q2in35xctA IMG_1050

Suicide Hill, Jarama  PART 1                       Republican hospital at Tarancón PART 1

river and railway line    2004_1031Image0083

2004_1031Image0084 Railway line Antequera to Algeciras PART 3


IMG_1393        IMG_1379

Rio Borosa 11      Rio Borosa 2


Sierras de Segura & Cazorla, Jaén  PART 3

fullsizeoutput_baa          IMG_20181104_123227373_HDR    fullsizeoutput_bb6

Civil War trenches, Sierra de Huetor, Granada

convento-de-belen    images  imagesfullsizeoutput_d61    que-ver-en-antequera-2

indio-vigila-Andalucia-AYUNTAMIENTO-ANTEQUERA_EDIIMA20160318_0674_18Antequera: churches and Peña de los Enamorados (“The sleeping giant”)  PARTS 2, 4,  & 6

images              images

River at Oxford  PARTS 5, 7, 9 & 13

73fe4346_z    bbc5ecce_z

Parador, Jaén  PART 7


Granada, market in the Realejo PART 8


Campo del Prinicipe, Realejo, Granada (painting by Allan Dorian Clark)  PART 8

    fullsizeoutput_65c  fullsizeoutput_65a

Cañar, PARTS 7 & 9

IMG_3432  Capileira early morningpampaneira 4

2006_0415Image0013    2006_0415Image0007

Alpujarras PARTS 7, 9 & 12

IMG_3437  Bodega Pampameira 3





Bibliography: Some of my background reading for ‘The Red Gene’


The Civil War

Paul Preston                                  The Spanish Holocaust

Richard Baxell                               Unlikely Warriors

Helen Graham                               The Spanish Civil War: a very short introduction

David Boyd Hancock                    I am Spain

Chris Farman, Valery Rose & Liz Woolley  No Other Way: Oxfordshire & the Spanish Civil War

Henry Buckley                                 The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic

George Orwell                                  Homage to Catalonia

Ronald Fraser                                   Blood of Spain: an oral history of the Spanish Civil  War


Women in the Civil War

Paul Preston                                        Doves of War: Four women of Spain

Angela Jackson                                   British Women and the Spanish Civil War

Jim Fyrth & Sally Alexander  (Ed.)  Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War

Judith Keene                                        The Last Mile to Huesca: an Australian nurse in the   Spanish Civil War

Nan Green                                            A Chronicle of Small Beer

Post-war Spain

Gerald Brenan                                     The Face of Spain

Ronald Fraser                                       The Pueblo

Ronald Fraser                                       In Hiding: the life of Manuel Cortes

Juan Eslava Galán                                Los Años del Miedo

Juan Eslava Galán                                De la Alpargata al Seiscientos


The Guerilla

David Baird                                           Between Two Fires

 Legacy of the Civil War

Giles Tremlett                                       Ghosts of Spain


Javier Cercas                                         Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis)

Dulce Chacón                                         La Voz Dormida

Ángel Fábregas                                      Sulayr dame Cobijo

Almudena Grandes                               El Corazón Helado (The Frozen Heart)

Alberto Méndez                                     Los Girasoles Ciegos (Blind Sunflowers)

 Henry Buckley was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Spain between 1929 and 1939. Based in Madrid but travelling widely, he witnessed first-hand the years of the Second Republic and the Civil War. His account, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, has the immediacy of someone on the spot throughout. Sir Paul Preston is the foremost authority on 20thcentury Spanish history and has written many books on the Spanish Civil War, including a biography of Franco. The Spanish Holocaust is a harrowing account of the war and its aftermath including the extra-judicial murder of around 200,000 men and women by the Franco regime. Doves of War: Four Women of Spain tells the fascinating and often tragic stories of four women involved in the conflict, two on each side. One of them is Nan Green, a communist who followed her husband George to Spain with the International Brigades and worked as a medical administrator. George was killed on the Ebro in 1938. She was an inspiring woman and her memoir, A Chronicle of Small Beer, makes compelling reading. For a concise history of the Civil War, I’d recommend Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War: a very short introduction. In I am Spain, historian David Boyd Hancock writes about the Civil War using the first-hand accounts of writers, artists, photographers and fighters from various countries who joined in the struggle against fascism. Unlikely Warriors   by Richard Baxell tells the story of the British volunteers, over 500 of whom gave their lives in the struggle. No Other Way, published by the Oxford branch of the International Brigades Memorial Trust, details the 31 volunteers, some quite famous, who had links with Oxford.

Angela Jackson examines the backgrounds, motives and experiences of women in the Civil War. Their involvement, whether as medical or relief workers, administrators, journalists or broadcasters, is also described, mostly in their own words, in the excellent anthology, Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War. Historian Judith Keene’s Last Mile to Huescais about Australian nurse Ada Hodgson and includes the diary she kept of her time in Spain.

Ronald Fraser’s oral histories, The Pueblo and In Hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes give a fascinating picture of life during the long decades of Franco’s rule through the personal testimonies of one village’s inhabitants.

Between Two Fires describes life in the village of Frigiliana during the 1940s and 50s when quite a number of those opposed to the regime (and therefore under threat of imprisonment or worse) had taken to the hills and were conducting a kind of guerilla warfare with the Civil Guard. Local people were often caught in the middle, hence the title. David Baird, long resident in the village, uses many first-hand accounts to tell the story from both sides.

Juan Eslava Galán’s two books offer an ironic take on life during the dictatorship through stories peopled by fictional characters.

Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, formerly the Guardian’s correspondent, has lived in Madrid for many years and writes extremely well about contemporary Spain. The first part of the book, in particular, is about the legacy of the war.


Taking account of changing sexual mores

In writing a novel like The Red Gene with a time-frame that spans nearly eighty years and is set in two countries with differing cultures, attitudes to love and sex are one way of reflecting the changes and disparities in social mores. My three main characters, born in 1915, 1939 and 1975, respectively, one in England, the other two in Spain, have very different perspectives, due largely to the influence of the cultures they belong to.

Rose, born in the early 20th century, daughter of a Church of England vicar, has imbibed the conventional morality prevalent since Victorian times. Any departure from the acceptable norms of society carries a stigma, while the very real fear of pregnancy in the days before ready access to birth control is also a hugely inhibiting factor. Rose shivers at the thought of Clark House, a home for unmarried mothers in Oxford, run by Skene Moral Welfare. And of the disgrace an illegitimate child would bring on her parents. Jack is burdened with the intense shame of his own illegitimacy; another character must hide his homosexuality. War often breaks down social conventions and when Rose falls in love with Miguel in Spain after witnessing so many deaths at close hand, she grasps the fragility of life and how precious is love, and her inhibitions melt away.

Consuelo, growing up in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, with the Catholic Church imposing its moral values and repressive rules on society, is reminded constantly of the penalties of sin. At home, at school, in church, in her compulsory attendances at Acción Católica or La Sección Feminina, the codes of acceptable behaviour are drummed into her, accompanied by warnings of the dire consequences should she stray from the correct path. The warnings start in childhood and increase further as she approaches puberty. From the age of thirteen, she isn’t allowed out without stockings, even in the summer; she must cover her arms and wear skirts that come well below the knee; she isn’t permitted to so much as speak to a boy… Meanwhile, her oldest brother Francisco considers her fair game and snatches any opportunity to sexually molest her. Another brother forces himself on one of the maids, leaving her pregnant, with the result that she is sacked in disgrace. As Consuelo notes, the rules are different for men. Her brothers openly frequent brothels. It is considered neither unusual nor immoral for men – whether married or not – to patronise these casade putas.

Courtship in the Franco years followed strict conventions. Novios were denied any time alone together; the chaperone (usually a family member) kept them in sight at all times. A brief, furtive kiss was the most that could be expected in 50s Spain. Consuelo is terrified at the prospect of her wedding night and feels only relief when the act is over. A couple of years later, she muses about the physical side of her marriage.

“They never talked about what went on in the bedroom. She relished the kisses and embraces, which kindled intensely loving feelings towards her husband, but the act that followed, though no longer painful as at first, was uncomfortable; she always felt relieved when it was over. Fortunately, Enrique’s performance rarely lasted long and, as the Sección Feminina book had promised, her husband quickly fell into a deep sleep, leaving her free to put in her rollers anapply her face cream. She still couldn’t quite shake off the notion that carnal relations were a mortal sin, even though the catechism stated that within the sacrament of holy matrimony, where procreation rather than physical pleasure was the aim, the act was sanctified. Enrique never asked if she’d enjoyed it; if he had, she would have lied rather than hurt his feelings.”

When the first northern European tourists begin to arrive on the coast in the 60s, with their bikinis and miniskirts, the repressed Spaniards are shocked. The men ogle, the women disapprove, worried about the effect on their husbands.

Marisol, growing up in the far more liberal atmosphere of post-dictatorship Spain, has a much more matter-of-fact approach to sex. For her it’s something to be enjoyed, not hung up about like her parents, who find it too embarrassing to talk about, preferring to steer clear of the subject and hope for the best with their daughters.

I’m of the opinion that when writing about sex, generally less is more. I don’t avoid it altogether but I do prefer to leave something to the imagination. Like most writers (I assume), I’d rather not be a contender for the Bad Sex Award.


Education in Spain during the Second Republic and under the Franco dictatorship

In the Spain of 1930, over half the population (and the great majority of women) were illiterate. More than a million children received no schooling at all. The nearest school might be more than two hours’ walk away and although there were plenty of families who thought it worth the effort in order for their children to receive education, not all were so motivated. Besides, the children were needed for agricultural work, often from a very young age. Miguel in The Red Gene tells Rose how, like many of the children in his village in rural Granada, he could only attend school after several hours of work on the land, starting before dawn and resuming after the school day finished. At certain times of the year like harvest season, all hands were needed, which meant half the children were absent from school.

The Second Republic, which put an end to the Primo de Rivera dictatorship and drove King Alfonso XIII into exile, was declared on April 14th 1931. It stood for democracy, progress and universal rights, a separation of Church and State. Under the Republic, power would rest with the people rather than the Army and the Catholic Church as before. The new constitution introduced agrarian reform, autonomy for the regions and recognition for their languages, reform of the Army to make it politically neutral, employment protection and equality for men and women. Universal suffrage was introduced for men and in 1933 this was extended to women.


Education – previously the preserve of the Church – was seen as one of the most vital tasks, the cornerstone of all the reforms to be introduced. Under the new constitution, free universal education – secular, compulsory and mixed – was established. A literate population was considered essential for the working of the Republic. Only through education would citizens become emancipated. It was also seen as a way of uniting a divided society. Ambitious plans were drawn up to create thousands of new schools (7,000 were built in a less than a year). Miguel felt passionate about the Republic’s plans for education, joining others in the community to help in the construction of one of the new schools. While they were still being built, temporary schools were set up in any serviceable location – often a room in the Town Hall. To ensure that education reached the entire population, teachers were reimbursed for visits to people’s homes, including the most remote farmsteads and cortijos, where these itinerant teachers sometimes arrived on donkeys. Pedagogical Missions were set up to recruit and give proper training to teachers, most of whom had been up till then poorly educated and poorly paid. School inspections were introduced and teachers required to complete university-level courses. Their salaries as well as their status rose accordingly. They were regarded as the intellectuals of their communities and highly respected.


Education was generally seen as a great privilege. Not just children but older people too were offered opportunities to learn. The Republic encouraged all forms of culture. Clapped out lorries brought mobile libraries and museums, film projections and theatre productions (including García Lorca’s Barraca travelling theatre company) to far-flung villages so that the rural population did not miss out.


Religious education had been the responsibility of The Compañia de Jesús. This was now disbanded and religious orders prohibited from teaching. Teachers were no longer obliged to impart religious doctrine. In fact teaching methods could not have been more different from what had gone before. Children were taken out into the countryside to study from nature; they were encouraged to participate in debates instead of reciting from memory; boys and girls shared the same classrooms and were educated in equal rights. The opportunity to progress from nursery school to university was offered to all, depending on ability, attitude and vocation rather than economic circumstances. Hardly surprising that all this was anathema to the Church and the fascist party, the Falange.

When Franco came to power, all these progressive educational policies were immediately reversed. Over fifty per cent of the teachers were either assassinated or went into exile. Responsibility for education reverted to the Catholic Church. Religious instruction in the morals and doctrine of Catholicism became compulsory in all schools, with inspections carried out by the Church. Regional languages were banned and pupils taught ‘patriotic values’. Mixed classes were prohibited, with girls’ education aimed at preparing them for their role as wives and mothers. The bachillerato end of school examinations ran on two tracks, thus ensuring social discrimination. This even extended to the uniforms worn by children of different classes. Consuelo in The Red Gene notes the striped uniforms worn by ‘the poor girls’, who play the same games in recreo but separately. Predictably, women’s right to vote was also abolished and not reintroduced until the new Spanish constitution was implemented in 1977.

fullsizeoutput_c43                      fullsizeoutput_c41


Tricks of time in life and in fiction

This month marks twenty years since I left England for Granada. The years are rolling by now at such a runaway pace I can scarcely believe it’s been two decades. My first year in Granada, on the other hand, felt more like ten. One of the great benefits of major change is the way time expands, the freshness of new experience lending every moment a savour that marks it out. That year, 1999, stretched out with a miraculous elasticity: a collection of discoveries, impressions, experiences like beads on a string, each one precious, if only for what it taught me. Striving to live wholly in the present, I learnt to use my senses more fully, to appreciate more.

The speed of time passing is one reason I dislike too much routine in my life. If you want to prolong time, routine is the enemy. Not that drawing out time is always desirable; sometimes I long to speed it up. When you’re in pain or waiting for something, time can drag interminably. I think the longest year of my life was the one following my miscarriage as I attempted to get pregnant again, my hormones screaming out their loss. Patience is not my best virtue but for a writer hoping to get published, it’s a necessity. Waiting for phone-calls, emails, other people’s decisions in any sphere of life can make every minute seem like an hour. Becoming a parent warps time similarly. There’s no comparison between the first month or year of your baby’s life (especially the firstborn) and a month or year when they’re at secondary school.

Time plays other tricks too, cruel or kind. Looking back on my own life as I work on my memoir, it strikes me just how crucial timing is in so many aspects of our lives. Meeting the right person at the wrong time or the wrong person at the right time can ruin a life. Catching the zeitgeist as a writer or any kind of entrepreneur requires astuteness but also an element of luck. Getting it right can make all the difference between success and failure. Accidents frequently happen through the tiniest of misjudgements. A split second when life and death are a mere hair’s breadth apart. Timing is all. The opening of my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, shows Deborah and her friend catching a train by the skin of their teeth. The train is one of four targeted in the 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid, ‘the train of death’ as the press (in real life) later termed it. Had they missed that train, there would have been no story.

Writing fiction entails making important decisions about how to deal with the passage of time. A novel can span a day or a century. As a writer, you can manipulate the passing of time to best suit your story. In Secrets of the Pomegranate, the action is condensed into four weeks, with the past conveyed through Deborah’s diaries, which go back twenty years. The Red Gene, only a little longer in word count, spans eighty years with protagonists from three generations. Maintaining the thread of the story when bypassing large chunks of time poses a challenge but omitting or skimming over the less eventful periods is the only sensible option. No one wants to read about the boring bits of the characters’ lives. (Would that in real life we could press a fast-forward button to skip the boring bits and a repeat or slow motion button for the good bits.)

Time can so often fool us, distorting the passage of time as we look back. Events that our brain places in the distant past may have taken place just weeks earlier if some dramatic interruption to our normal routine has occurred in the interim, while experiences from long ago may be so strong in our memory that they seem like yesterday. Watching a slide show of my overland trip to Kathmandu in 1974, taken by a fellow-traveller, transported me back to my twenties, the forty plus intervening years shrunk to nothing. My married years up to 1984, on the other hand, belong to a whole different lifetime.

Writing from the point of view of Rose, the central character of The Red Gene, I had first to get into the mind of a girl in her early twenties. Seeing life through her eyes as she aged and was moulded by the experiences that made up her story involved accompanying her right through to her nineties. Having worked with older people in the past (decades ago but still vivid in my mind) helped me portray Rose in old age. I don’t feel my age or I don’t feel any different were phrases I would hear almost daily. What is forty or sixty or eighty supposed to feel like? Time impacts people in different ways. Assumptions about age and attitudes to it differ from one culture to another and even in the same culture expectations of age change over time.

When I reflect on my twenty years in Granada, I don’t feel I’ve changed significantly although the world around me certainly has. The steep learning curve involved in settling in a new country has been tough at times but also energising. Maybe I’m a tiny bit wiser and know myself a little better as a result. I’ve become a grandmother (five times over). But do I feel my age? Of course not!