Astrology as a tool to create characters

When I invent characters in a new novel I often turn to basic astrology to kick-start me on the construction of their personalities. I admit to not having an in-depth knowledge of the subject and I believe sun signs (and astrology in general) are only one influence among many on character but my own personality and those of the people I know best conform surprisingly well to the traits associated with our sun signs. I’m well aware too that astrology is much more complicated than just the sun’s position on the date of birth. The exact time and place of birth have to be taken into account; the position of the other planets and the way they interact with each other also has an effect. However, as a basis, purely as a point of departure for my imagination, I find it helpful. Then I can add in the other important elements: the influence of their upbringing and experiences; their genetic inheritance – as well as giving them particular quirks that make them more interesting. We are all – in fiction as in real life – complex beings. A protagonist who fitted into a simple formula would be flat, lifeless and boring.

Some readers of this post will, understandably, scoff at my attention to star signs – both those who know more about astrology and those who dismiss it as superstitious nonsense. All I’m saying is that it works for me. To take as examples the main female protagonists in my novels: 

In Secrets of the Pomegranate, the two sisters, Deborah and Alice, have very different character traits despite sharing genes and family background. Deborah is Sagittarius, an exuberant fire sign – adventurous, freedom-loving, restless, risk-taking, confident, passionate, scatty, irresponsible, sure of her opinions and at times dismissive of other people’s and with a thirst for knowledge. Alice is Taurus, an earth sign – home-loving, practical, cautious, responsible, reliable, warm-hearted, caring, placid, a good friend who loves to do things for others but can be stubborn with a tendency to self-righteousness.

In The Red Gene, my nurse, Rose is Pisces, an intuitive, emotional water sign – sensitive, compassionate, kind, selfless, sympathetic, idealistic, generous, open and capable of loving deeply. Consuelo is Virgo, an earth sign. Modest, kind, hardworking, conventional, a worrier, timid and lacking in confidence – though this is probably due more to her upbringing in a cold, adoptive family. Marisol is a fiery Leo – a natural leader, generous, warm-hearted, loving, with a sunny personality but a tendency to be bossy.

I don’t always use this astrological approach. I may already have a clear idea of a character’s personality – perhaps based on someone I know or a composite of different people I’ve come across in my life. Often the story I want to tell dictates the nature of the protagonist. And of course there’s something of me in all my characters, including the males. As their creator, it’s inevitable, whether or not I’m aware of it.

One could equally well use the Chinese horoscope or any other classification of personality types. It’s a blunt tool, no more. My knowledge of the Chinese horoscope is superficial to say the least but from what I’ve read, I can imagine Deborah might be a horse, Alice a dog, Rose a sheep or a pig, Marisol a tiger, Consuelo an ox. My grandmother Gretl could be a rabbit, her husband Heinrich a rooster.

In my current ‘work-in-progress’, I don’t need to imagine the personality of my protagonist as she’s based on a real person, my grandmother, whom I knew well, though only in her later life. She was, incidentally, a Cancer – a water sign like me. I never knew her husband – he died long before I was born – so I’m writing from what I’ve learnt of him from his wife and daughter (my mother). Without knowing his birth date, I imagine him as a fire sign, an Aries I would guess – a natural optimist always brimming with ideas and a tendency (often disastrous) to take risks. He’s ambitious and hardworking but spends easily, delighting in big gestures and spontaneous generosity. He can turn on the charm and his energy is attractive, making him popular wherever he goes. Living with him is another matter. He can be sulky when crossed, selfish and needy of attention.

Some readers of this post will, understandably, scoff at my attention to star signs – both those who know more about astrology and those who dismiss it as superstitious nonsense. All I’m saying is that it works for me. To take as examples the main female protagonists in my novels: In Secrets of the Pomegranate, the two sisters, Deborah and Alice, have very different character traits despite sharing genes and family background. Deborah is a Sagittarius, an exuberant fire sign – adventurous, freedom-loving, restless, risk-taking, confident, passionate, careless and scatty, sure of her opinions and at times dismissive of other people’s and with a thirst for knowledge. Alice is a Taurus, an earth sign – home-loving, practical, cautious, responsible, reliable, warm-hearted, caring, placid, a good friend who loves to do things for others but can be stubborn with a tendency to self-righteousness.

If nothing else, it’s fun!

Fiction or Biography? Imagining the life of my grandmother

After taking time out to write a memoir, I am now 12,000 words into a new novel. This one is different in more than one way. For a start, it’s not pure fiction but a story based on the incredible life of my grandmother. And unlike my two previous novels, it’s not set in Spain but in various central and eastern European countries where Oma (as we called her) lived before arriving in England in 1939. Stories about her life intrigued me already as a child: her elopement with a Jew, his escape from prison and subsequent leap from a bridge onto the roof of a train; the family’s midnight flit from Bulgaria to Vienna in the late 1920s, followed by six years of hand-to-mouth existence in a village on the Danube, which then gave way, thanks to some shady deal, to a life of luxury in Rome. As I began to engage in a bit of superficial family research for the memoir, I found myself drawn in to my grandmother’s life story. 

With my mother

It has to be a novel because I’m familiar with only the bones of her story: the origins and religious background of her parents, the main events of her life including her marriage, the dates of her movements from one country to another and what motivated them (few were of her own choice). I know rather more about her life in England, first as housekeeper to a refined older lady in Surrey and then, at far too young an age, in a residential home – years when I saw her fairly regularly. My brother recorded an interview where she talked about her life; my mother shared a few stories. I know too the details of her horrific death. The rest will have to be conjectured, the lengthy gaps covering her day-to-day existence through the years filled, the framework of known facts incorporated into a coherent whole. The last of Oma’s children, my Aunt Inge, died only last month at a very advanced age. Any childhood memories she might have had are now lost. So it will be fiction certainly, but my intention is to follow as closely as possible the trajectory of my grandmother’s ninety-two years of life.

I can imagine conversations, guess at emotions (aided by the recording and my memories of her), but the background details that would make her story come alive: the ambience of fin-de siècle Vienna or pre-1st World War Bulgaria or pre-2nd World War Rome might just defeat me. Researching the background to her peripatetic life is a huge challenge – even more so in these times of restricted travel. I can’t visit museums in Vienna or Ruse (the town in Bulgaria where my mother was born) or Rome. My German is rusty, my Italian was never that good and my knowledge of Bulgarian is non-existent. Only so much can be sourced from the Internet. As I construct scenes from my imagination, I am constantly stymied by my lack of detailed knowledge. In the last few weeks, I’ve had to investigate such varied topics as corsets and bust bodices, the marriage rules of both Calvinists and Jews in early 20th century Austria, the type of German shorthand used in 1910, the history of elevators, socialist parties in 1930s Austria, Gustav Klimt’s paintings and attitudes to them, the Hispano-Suiza luxury car… And I’ve only just started.

Oma with my mother

How can I make my novel authentic in the face of so many unknowns? It was far easier to create vivid, true-to-life backgrounds for my novels about Spain, a country I’ve lived in for over twenty years and where I speak the language. I could use my own knowledge, read Spanish sources and interview Spaniards who have lived through similar experiences to those of my characters. Previous unpublished novels were set in the familiar geographical and cultural landscape of England, where I was born and lived until 1999.

So this project will certainly be challenging. However, despite the difficulties, I intend to carry on researching and writing, because the story of her life is truly remarkable. No one, on meeting her in her later years could have guessed that this quiet, modest woman, fond of pottering in the garden or knitting for her grandchildren, had lived a life so full of drama. 

With me

Following in my characters’ footsteps – almost

When I arrived, after a long drive up a dusty track, at my friend’s finca high up in the Sierra Nevada, I had a strong sense of déjà vu. I knew this place – or so I felt, though I had never set foot there before. It struck me as slightly uncanny because what I was seeing was a scene I had invented: the setting of a part of my novel, The Red Gene. The part where Rose and Miguel, shortly before the end of the Civil War, head to the mountains and join with other fugitives and guerrillas to lead a precarious life in the wild. They sleep in makeshift shelters under the trees, washing in rivers or waterfalls, moving on every few days to evade the Civil Guard.

They were in hilly country now, making their way through vegetation of holm oak, juniper and pine. Above them, rocky outcrops stood out against a deep blue sky while below, narrow river valleys threaded the landscape with silver. The walking was harder here and several times Rose stumbled on a rock or tree root or missed her footing on loose earth and stones. Although Eduardo said nothing, at times she sensed his impatience. They were heading towards his village of Beas de Segura. He knew people there, they would be safer, he said.

Often they saw no one all day. At night they slept on beds of dry leaves in hollows between the trees, wrapping themselves in blankets and huddling all three together for more warmth. They washed when they could, in rivers studded with boulders. One afternoon they stopped at a waterfall where the cascade gushed into a deep clear pool. The men stripped off and stood for a few seconds under the full force of the torrent. After dipping her feet in the pool, Rose washed the rest of her body as best she could without immersing herself. The water was icy.”


The finca where I spent the weekend extended to 5,000 square metres of land among chestnut woods at an altitude of 1,700m. Rose and Miguel were in the Sierras of Segura and Cazorla, further north in Andalucía and not as high, but with much in common in terms of flora and fauna. In this part of the Sierra Nevada, chestnut predominated, along with walnut, wild cherry and other deciduous trees, especially holm oak, but also evergreens like Scots pine. Blackberry and hawthorn grew wild everywhere, as they do in the other sierras of Andalucía, though the berries I gorged on this month would not have been ripe for Rose and Miguel in the winter and early spring of their exile. Owls and large raptors like eagles and vultures are common in all these mountainous areas. Among the small animals to be found are squirrels, rabbits, hares, weasels and foxes; wild boar are rarely far away. We walked – or rather – clambered up steep slopes of loose earth to a waterfall that could almost have been the one I described above.


In contrast to my protagonists, we enjoyed relative luxury, with tents to sleep in and running water. A showerhead, connected by hosepipes to a water barrel, hung from a tree. Cooking facilities consisted of a wood oven built of brick and a hob with bottled gas, while a campfire kept us warm on cold evenings and early mornings. A natural spring gushed from the rocks, providing us with the purest drinking water. But although we had these comforts and were not living in fear of the Guardia Civíl, we were, like Rose and Miguel, living an outdoor life surrounded by nature in what seemed a timeless environment. As I sat by the campfire listening to the rattle of the cicadas (the Spanish word grillo is much more onomatopoeic), I thought of them and their maquis companions, unable to take the risk of lighting fires, constantly having to move on.


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At one point we had a conversation about bird calls and my friend’s imitations reminded me once again of a scene in my book.

“Now Rose and the two men were on the move again, better armed and provisioned, more cautious. News had reached them of the rebels’ entry into Madrid. Any day now, Franco would be in control of the whole country; the war would be over and their situation infinitely more dangerous.                                                                                                                                                 

‘We’ll have to move by night,’ Eduardo told her. ‘In silence. No talking, no coughing, no snapping of twigs underfoot. During the day we stay hidden. Do you understand?’                         

Catching the tension in his voice and demeanour, Rose nodded. ‘I understand.’

‘You need to learn the signals,’ he said. Putting his hands to his mouth, he imitated the call of an owl, followed by that of a hoopoe. Even the birds would be deceived, Rose thought, impressed.

‘Practise until you get it right every time. And make sure you can recognise them too.’ She listened carefully as he explained their interpretation: how many repetitions, how long the interval between them… ‘Getting it wrong could mean death,’ he added.”

A weekend in such an environment, isolated from the world with no mobile signal or internet, none of the usual trappings of civilisation, far removed from all my familiar routines, away from the eternal talk of coronavirus and its accompanying anxieties, a weekend outside time, enveloped in the peace and beauty of nature brought a kind of euphoria, an immense sense of relief. And yet, adjusting to such a change wasn’t easy. Learning to do nothing and just be demanded concentrated effort. And then, all too soon, it was time to return to ‘normal’ life. Normal life, but with some essence of what I had experienced, a nourishing peace, remaining with me.


For Rose and Miguel the ending was very different.

Isabel Allende and me

For our last reading group meeting, we chose Isabel Allende’s recent novel, Largo Pétalo de Mar (in English, A Long Petal of the Sea). I knew very little about it before I started reading – only that the main characters were among the many Spanish Republicans driven to seek exile in France towards the end of the Civil War when defeat by Franco looked inevitable, and that the setting later moved to Chile where they found refuge and rebuilt their lives. I knew also that the famous Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda played a part in the story.









I wouldn’t presume to compare myself to such a renowned writer as Isabel Allende, but as I read, I was amazed time and again by the similarities with my own novel, The Red Gene. Both books were published in the same month, April 2019; there was no question of one influencing the other. So it seemed to me almost uncanny how much the two novels had in common. Hundreds of novels have been written about the Spanish Civil War. I’ve read a few of them, both before and after writing my own, but none bore any resemblance to The Red Gene in terms of plot or structure, only in general background. Largo Pétalo de Mar did. Several members of our reading group had already remarked on it independently before we met to discuss the book.

The Red Gene Amazon

I can’t go into too much detail without giving away spoilers, only to say that both novels were partly set in the Spanish Civil War; both had long time-frames spanning three generations of two contrasting families – one on the Republican side, the other of rich, right-wing landowners; both combined the personal and political in a similar way with a love story at the centre. In both books, a baby girl was stolen and given away to a ‘good’ Catholic family while her mother was told the baby had died. In each case, many decades passed before the crime was discovered and some kind of reunion became possible. The main protagonist in my novel was a nurse, in Allende’s a doctor. In addition to these general resemblances, one or two scenes had quite remarkable parallels. Some striking coincidences can be found even in the detail. Allende’s musical main character had the name of Roser, while mine, also musical, was Rose.

Opinions of the book in our group varied, as they always do, but I’m a big fan of Allende and I loved this one as much as any. It lacks the magic realism of some of her earlier novels, having more in common perhaps with Hija de la Fortuna/Daughter of Fortune and Retrato en Sepia/Portrait in Sepia. She is a wonderful storyteller and I found this new novel easy to read, hard to put down. War, exile and belonging are important themes, along with love, destiny and how the course of our lives is often determined by political events beyond our control. The history and politics are seamlessly interwoven with the lives and loves of her fictional characters so that it never feels heavy. I highly recommend it and would welcome any comments from those who have also read The Red Gene.



The Time Between

I’ve been here before. Many times. In that worst phase of the writing journey, the time between finishing one project and embarking on a new one. The time of submitting to agents or publishers and waiting for responses that in many cases never come. If we are interested in your submission you should hear from us within approximately twelve weeks. Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of material we receive, we cannot respond to every submission. If you do not hear from us… Or something similar. Others tell you your manuscript is not right for their list, softening the rebuff with some gentle encouragement: a reminder that opinions are subjective and another agent/publisher may take a different view of your work. When the submission in question is a memoir rather than a novel, rejection or lack of acknowledgment can seem even more of a personal affront. It’s a waiting game, one that requires huge reserves of patience.

And these last few months of lockdown due to the pandemic have been all about waiting. For many less fortunate, they have also been about illness, death, loss of loved ones and financial insecurity. I am lucky to have escaped lightly so far, to be only inconvenienced by the isolation, limitations to my freedom and a mild but pervasive sense of anxiety. As each phase of our Spanish lockdown has ended, I’ve rejoiced at the cautious easing of restrictions – first being able to exercise, then meet friends outdoors, then sit on the terrace of a bar and move around more freely. But the waiting isn’t over, not by any means, because I’m also waiting for what they call in Spanish the rebrote, a new wave of Covid infections that seems certain to happen when our borders are opened and some kind of ‘normal’ returns. The ‘new normality’ is due to start next week but how long it will last is a big unknown. Like everyone else, I long for the fear and the precautions to end, to throw away my masks, walk into a shop without queuing, hug my friends, relax in company. Above all, I’m longing for the freedom to travel safely, to see my family.

I can’t do anything about the wait for a positive response to my memoir or for an effective vaccine that will banish the coronavirus worldwide. What is within my power – and only mine – is the motivation to start a new writing project, one that will absorb me and take my mind off the constraints of our present situation and the uncertain future. And because it is up to me, it’s the most frustrating of all. Ever since The Red Gene was published, I’ve been searching for a new project to inspire me, one that would offer the same kind of creative satisfaction. In the meantime, I’ve penned a memoir, but I feel it’s time now for a return to fiction. Should I go back to one of my earlier unpublished novels and give it a major revision? Or work on one of the new ideas that have drifted into my mind in recent months? I could perhaps write a novel based on the life of that eccentric female character from Bristol I discovered a few years ago and have started to research.

Alternatively, having delved into my family history for the memoir and learnt more about the colourful and frequently hair-raising life of my grandmother, I could opt for a fictionalised account of her life. The framework and a few telling details are there; far more is missing and would have to be constructed from my imagination. Painstaking background research would be needed, but if current limitations on travel continue, that research would be difficult if not impossible. My grandmother lived in five countries (and was forced to flee three of them) before finally settling in England. Only one of her children, my Aunt Inge, is still alive. Her memories would be invaluable but at ninety-five, she can no longer write or type and her home is in California.

Very soon I will have to decide on one of these ideas and start work. Because I’ve had enough of waiting. Life as we knew it may be on pause for the foreseeable future, but to waste time waiting for the old normality to return is pointless. We must recognise that the world has changed and if we are lucky enough to remain alive and in good health, we must stop seeing this time as ‘limbo’ and just get on with life, accepting its restrictions, taking all necessary precautions and appreciating what is still possible. Which for me includes writing.

Exit Phase Zero: the joys of nature and exercise

After seven weeks of lockdown in Spain, Phase Zero of the ‘de-confinement’ was announced just over a week ago. At last we can go out to exercise, albeit within set hours, close to home and individually. A week earlier, children had been allowed out for the first time and I realised how much I’d missed seeing them. The sight of a parent and child in the street is enough to bring a tear to my eye. Inevitably I think of my grandchildren, wondering when it might be possible to see them again. Will I have to wait till next year?


On the first day of adult freedom, I watch hundreds of cyclists, runners and walkers stream past on the road below my terrace during the designated ‘sport’ hours of six to ten in the morning and again from eight to eleven in the evening. The release from confinement has made everyone frantic for fitness. I’m desperate to get on my bike but don’t rate my chances on the narrow, twisting road with so many keen young Lycra-types zooming round the bends at breakneck speed.

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Instead, I wait till ten, the hour for older people to walk, before heading down the hill and over to the other side of the valley where a path zigzags up the hill through woods and then levels out to follow an acequia, one of the irrigation channels dating from Moorish times. The path is overgrown in places: undisturbed for so long, nature has taken over. Poppies, dog roses and other wild flowers abound. Riotous broom daubs patches of yellow amongst the differing shades of green. In the acequia hundreds of tadpoles dart about while an old toad with bulging eyes looks on. The views from here are magnificent. I can see my house directly opposite, the Alhambra from a different angle, the Abbey further along in Sacromonte and hills stretching away into the distance.

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Other walks too are within range. I can make for the Abbey, where this year for the first time, roses have been planted along the outer wall. From there I’m surprised to observe that the more distant hills still have a capping of snow. My view takes in poppies and beehives, scattered houses and caves. Or I can walk up the shady path leading to the closed Alhambra, accompanied by the sound of water tumbling and gushing. Yellow irises and elderflower are in bloom. I meet hardly a soul.

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After a couple of days, the activity on the Sacromonte road has lessened enough for me to take to my bike. Early in the morning the air is fresh and sweet. I’ve been out several times, almost alone on the road. It feels good to be using my cycling muscles again. My rides have been accompanied by birdsong, cockerels crowing, goats bleating and a donkey braying; at one or two gates a dog barks as I sweep by. I’ve enjoyed sudden whiffs of honeysuckle, passed fig trees laden with fruit, parcels of land neatly sown with rows of vegetables. I return home after thirty or forty minutes’ vigorous ride, refreshed and ready for the day, which at eight or eight thirty is only just beginning.


Unlike some parts of Spain, Granada will not be moving on to the next phase tomorrow. Regions and provinces with lower figures of contagion will allow movement within the province and – on condition that social distancing can be maintained – visiting family in the locality, meeting in groups of up to ten, the opening of some non-essential shops along with bar and restaurant terraces. Here we will have to wait.


Our perception of freedom is all relative. After so many weeks with only essential food shopping allowed, the chance to exercise, to enjoy nature at close quarters in this year’s lush and beautiful spring feels wonderful, feels like enough for the moment. I’m not sure how long it will feel like enough. Another week? Two weeks? How long will I be able to keep my mind free from thoughts of what I would in ‘normal’ times be doing this spring and summer and autumn: trips to the beach, swimming in the sea, meeting friends, seeing my children and grandchildren? Living day-to-day without making plans or thinking about the future is a hard discipline but one I’m beginning, of necessity, to learn.

Scrabble and Bleach: lockdown three weeks in

After three weeks of lockdown, life has taken on a different rhythm. I am getting used to a slower pace, hands like leather, the smell of bleach, an empty diary.


On March 13th, hugs and kisses – the customary way to greet friends or acquaintances in Spain – gave way to ‘social distancing’. It happened literally overnight. Now we instinctively turn away, step back or cross the street on sighting another person, gripped by fear. How quickly long-ingrained habits can change. And how I yearn for human touch, hugs with family and friends. How long will it be before we can safely enjoy physical closeness again?

On the other hand, phone calls have come back into fashion. I am in more regular contact with my children than I have been for a long time, though geographically as distant as ever. Game after game of online Scrabble with my son provides a welcome distraction. Friends from way back suddenly call or write, having heard the worrying news from Spain (though Britain is only a week or two behind). Humorous memes – dozens of them each day – are being shared, doing the rounds in our WhatsApp groups and on Facebook. Much of it is a kind of gallows humour but it still makes us laugh. In between the laughs, we exchange angst-ridden tips on how to disinfect fruit, keys, phones, shoes, door knobs, and on how long the virus can remain on surfaces. We can bemoan the shortage of alcohol in the shops without having to explain that it’s not the drinking kind we’re after but the 96% proof variety for disinfection.


Who would have guessed that taking the rubbish to the bins in the street (in Spain we don’t have home collections) would become a treat – one of the few justifications for leaving the house? Shopping – the only other permitted outing – is grim. With entry to shops severely restricted, queues form outside but so spaced out that conversation is difficult. In any case, everyone looks tense and afraid: other people are a danger. Arriving home with the supplies provokes a similar degree of alarm. I leave my shoes outside, wash my hands, take out the food, wash my hands again, ponder where to put it, in what order to disinfect. I consider the toxicity of bleach, whether it’s safe to eat salad, the conflicting environmental and safety factors involved in keeping my plastic bags for re-use as opposed to discarding them. I wash my hands again.

There is only one topic of conversation. Brexit has been ousted as foremost cause for concern; it scarcely seems relevant now. Very little other than the virus does. Even the weather is of minimal interest when you can’t go out. In fact rain and cold make confinement less frustrating. Unable to talk of future plans or interesting activities we’ve been up to, we exchange recipes instead. What we’re cooking and eating is pretty much all there is to differentiate the days. It’s difficult to remember what day it is anyway. Past and future seem equally remote. Making plans has gone out of the window: living day to day is the only sensible strategy. This may be no bad thing if it teaches us to fret less, be more spontaneous and not take anything for granted.

Having time to spare is a novelty for me. Yet without the motivation to tackle all those long-postponed tasks, it’s proving less of a bonus than I would have expected. Now I have no excuse for not cleaning the house more thoroughly, sorting out drawers, wardrobe or paperwork, starting a new writing project. But the prospect of weeks or months of house arrest takes away any urgency, induces a dull lethargy. I’ve removed the batteries from my alarm clock, talk and hum to myself even more than usual, wear the same sloppy old clothes day after day. My hair is growing ever bushier (the lockdown began a day before it was due to be cut) and my botched attempts to trim my own fringe don’t encourage me to tackle the rest. Can I be bothered to colour it when nobody sees me? And what if the washing machine breaks down or my computer crashes? More worrying still is the possibility of needing a dentist. In these days of isolation and social distancing, such intimate contact takes on a terrifying aspect. With my fragile teeth ever at risk of breaking, eating requires extra care. Any kind of non life-threatening emergency presents an alarming scenario.

The realisation that I may not see my children and grandchildren for a very long time is hard. Even when restrictions are lifted, will I dare get on a bus or train or plane again? From where we stand now, the risks seem huge. I’ve happily managed without a car since moving to Spain, have driven only once or twice during that time, but will I come to regret my dependence on public transport? Speculation is useless. For all the predictions and projections circulating in the media, the truth is nobody knows any of the answers. All we can do is find ways to make the most of our isolation, support others in whatever way we can and try to avoid catching this wretched virus.


Ways to stay sane and cheerful in a crazy, frightening and uncertain world


Lately, following the news as I tend to do, I’ve been finding it hard not to succumb to overwhelming feelings of sadness and despair. What with environmental disasters, endless wars and idiot or downright evil politicians in charge of too many countries (to name just a few of the dangers), keeping depression and negativity at bay certainly isn’t easy. I could of course just boycott the news, bury my head in the sand and ignore all the terrible things happening in the world. But while it might be good for my mental health, I don’t altogether approve of such ostrich-like behaviour.

Now, on top of all that, we have the pandemic to frighten us on a more personal level. Here in Spain, everything is shutting down. The streets are empty, even the Prado and the Alhambra closed, the tourists gone. So, partly to keep up my spirits, I’ve put together a few ideas for ways to stay sane and keep going, even in isolation mode.

As a writer, I’m fortunate to have a readymade means of escape. Once I get stuck in to my fictional world (even if that world reflects some of the less positive aspects of the real world), I can forget for hours at a time the fears and preoccupations that would otherwise be troubling me. The protagonists of my novels have different concerns and it is within my power to give them hope, to reward them with love or the realisation of their ambitions. Even if their story is sad, I feel their grief at one remove, as a second-hand emotion.

Having all my social life and out-of-the-house commitments cancelled due to the virus gives me more time to write, which is a definite positive. It also gives me more time to read: another brilliant way of escaping reality for a while. Immersing ourselves in a gripping story can temporarily take our minds off whatever worries are bugging us. I can quite understand the appeal of happy endings in times like these. Romances fulfilled, ambitions realised, difficulties overcome – these are scenarios more likely to lift our mood.


Dancing is another pursuit I can’t recommend enough – and who says we can’t dance alone in the house? It’s one of the most joyful activities I can think of and it costs nothing. From the twist, the letkiss and the locomotion (anyone remember those last two?) in my teens, to freestyle bopping to the Stones, the Beach Boys or the Who in the 60s and 70s, I moved on to ceilidh dancing in Shropshire, salsa in Cuba, England and Spain, and more recently to biodanza and tango (I even had a phase a couple of years ago trying to learn swing and lindy hop but at sixty-something, neither my brain nor my legs could keep up with the twenty-somethings who made up the rest of the group). Whatever the style, I’ve always found dancing a great way to boost my mood. As of yesterday, my regular dancing is cancelled so dancing in solitary it will have to be. The music is part of it and you don’t have to leave the house to liven things up with some music. Even if you don’t dance, just singing along to anything with a good beat works well. Don’t worry, be happy seems like a good choice right now. It’s probably not the best time to listen to Leonard Cohen, much as I adore his songs and his voice. For those who can play an instrument, making your own music must be even better.


I’m lucky to have sunshine (the best mood-lifter of all) nearly every day but wherever you are, there is beauty in nature. Going for a walk, a run or a bike ride can really help keep you calm and rekindle hope – it’s spring after all. The countryside is beautiful, nature awakening, bulbs flowering, trees coming into bud and blossom. Plus any kind of exercise fosters wellbeing. I’ve been feeling a strong urge for the sea over the last few days so yesterday I took a three quarters empty bus to the nearest beach. It worked wonders as soul medicine. Even swimming in an ice-cold sea felt invigorating and the sun was strong enough to warm me up afterwards.


UPDATE 14th March:  No more walks, bike rides or trips to the sea for the foreseeable future. Spain is in lockdown and leaving the house other than to stock up at the supermarket or pharmacy is prohibited by law. Still, I have my terrace and I can at least look at nature from there. I am luckier than most.


Restrictions on our freedom come as a shock but it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded that most of the world’s inhabitants do not and never have enjoyed the freedom to move at will. Many emigrants far from home struggle to earn enough money to support their families back home, often separated from them for years on end; others are trapped in war zones, unable to escape.

We can try to focus on the positive – on the amazing volunteers risking their lives to help in the refugee camps, medical staff working on the frontlines of wars or attending to virus sufferers, for example. They are making incredible sacrifices every day. There are far more selfless volunteers putting themselves at risk to help others than selfish types who clear the supermarket shelves of toilet paper or steal sanitiser and face masks from hospitals. Then there are the inspiring young campaigners like Greta Thunberg and other activists fighting to save the planet, a new generation in whom to invest hope.

Children live in the moment – being with them can infect you with their natural optimism, their sense of fun. Although at the moment we grandparents are supposed to be keeping away from them (mine are, in any case, far away)… Well, as they say here, ¡Ánimo!






The Exile of Republicans after the Spanish Civil War

An exhibition currently on in Madrid and well worth seeing tells the sad story of the half million Spaniards on the losing side of the Civil War who fled Spain in early 1939 to avoid living under a fascist regime that threatened harsh reprisals for those with Republican sympathies. Some of those who escaped spent the rest of their lives in exile, dying before a safe return was possible; others remained until the death of Franco nearly forty years later. The great majority fled to France but South and Central American countries like Mexico, Chile and Argentina also took in refugees, while the US and some other European countries admitted smaller numbers.


A lucky few managed to get on boats, most from the port of Alicante. Notable among them was the Stanbrook, captained by a Welshman, Archibald Dickson, who ditched his cargo and and massively overloaded his ship by taking on board some 3,000 desperate refugees. Risking missile attacks from enemy destroyers blockading the port, the heeling Stanbrook cast off, eventually arriving in Oran, Algeria, where the passengers were quarantined for a month in dire conditions before being allowed to disembark. Far more – many thousands – were left stranded at the port of Alicante after the last ship had departed. With all hope lost and knowing their likely fate, some committed suicide. Those who remained when Italian troops arrived soon after were herded to makeshift camps, where many died from starvation, disease, beatings or forced labour in the salt marshes.









But the vast majority left on foot, on donkeys or mules or on lorries, braving the snow-covered Pyrenees between Andorra and the Mediterranean, often using goat tracks and smugglers’ routes to reach one of the passes still open and cross into France, while others attempted to reach the border by coastal routes. The French police and military disarmed and registered the Republican soldiers, directing them to concentration camps on the beaches of Argelès-sur-Mer and Saint Cyprién. As the photos show, the lack of shelter meant they had to dig holes in the beach for protection from the elements. They were hardly sufficient against the cold and rain of winter and many died of disease, starvation or exposure. The injured or sick and the majority of women and children were gradually evacuated to refuges scattered across the country but thousands remained trapped in the camps of the eastern Pyrenees or were sent to others established further west.


The luckiest were those who made it to France and boarded one of the boats sent by Mexico to rescue Spaniards from the camps there. The first, the Sinaia, sailed from Sète in 1939; later others followed. Mexico was one of the few countries to not only accept but welcome Spanish Republican refugees. When the Sinaia landed in Veracruz, the passengers were greeted as heroes and helped to settle there.

The Sinaia

The curator of the exhibition 1939 Exilio Republicano Español, Juan Manuel Bonet, sees it as ‘an exercise in memory’ and a chance to reflect on all that was lost when half a million people escaped over the border. It portrays in written testimonies, photographs, artworks, posters and sound archives the trauma and the physical hardships suffered by these refugees. Along with photographs by Robert Capa of the retreat, known as La Retirada, and those taken by Francesc Boix in Mauthausen, where seven thousand of the Spaniards who escaped to France were later sent at Franco’s bidding, are physical objects: spectacles, a spoon, a penknife; a suitcase belonging to one of the few survivors and kept by his daughter. Equally moving are twenty-two compositions by Pierre Gonnard that consist of photographic portraits accompanied by testimonies of those who were children in 1939, remembering the flight of their families and talking about their lives in exile in France.


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Among the exiles were well-known artists and writers, scientists and intellectuals, including Picasso and the poet Antonio Machado, who died in the French Pyrenees only three weeks after crossing the border. Manuel Azaña, last President of the 2nd Republic also died in France: the Republican flag that covered his coffin is on display alongside his desk. The collection of paintings, sketches and sculptures includes a couple of works by Picasso, others by Granell, Gaya, Fenosa and many more. Dozens of books are also displayed: the poems of Alberti and Ayala, the writings of philosopher María Zambrano, among many more. Picasso’s Guernica had been taken to safety in New York; there are images of its return to Spain in 1981 during the ‘Transition’ after Franco’s death. One section of the exhibition highlights the work of Frenchman Philippe Gaussot, a left-wing Christian who helped rescue Republican women and children and, with the cooperation of a Catholic Aid Committee, set up safe colonies for the children in France.

Also featured is the story of the 3,000 children from Republican families who were evacuated to Russia early on in the Civil War, sent by their parents, who feared for their safety in Spain. Little did they know that until 1956, none of them would be permitted to leave the USSR and return to Spain or see their families. They lived and studied in special refuges and after World War II, started work in various jobs and professions. Some stayed permanently in Russia, others returned with half-Spanish half-Russian identities, trapped between two countries, two ideologies and two languages. The exhibition in Madrid includes written testimonies from some of them.

Britain too had played a part by evacuating Basque children and bringing them to Britain after the bombing of Guernica. In 1937, the Habana, an old cruise liner, sailed from Bilbao to Southampton with nearly 4,000 child refugees on board. The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, had been reluctant but public opinion forced him to change his mind. Even then, permission was only granted after the refugee committees organising the rescue had accepted responsibility for the upkeep of the children. They were accommodated in camps set up in several different towns in England and received support from many local people. However, on the whole, Britain stuck solidly by the non-intervention treaty it had signed. If (like Germany and Italy), it had chosen not to, the outcome of the Civil War might have been very different.

Helios Gómez, Evacuación, 1937



Spain’s Mengele

The Spanish documentary, The Silence of Others, about the crimes perpetrated by Franco during his 40-year dictatorship and the long drawn-out struggle for justice by victims and their descendants, was shown on BBC TV last week. Several of my friends in the UK told me how moved they had been, watching it. Having already seen the film, I was not surprised at their reactions. It is harrowing. The grief and in some cases bitterness of those interviewed – survivors and relatives of those imprisoned, tortured, executed, disappeared – is still raw decades later. There has been no reconciliation process in Spain, no apology or admission of wrongdoing, let alone prosecution, no attempt at any kind of reparation. The ‘pact of silence’ agreed in 1977 during the transition to democracy that took place after Franco’s death swept all the crimes of those years under the carpet. The silence continues. Forbidden to pursue their case in Spain, the victims are now relying on the Argentinian courts under the law of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. Some progress has been made. Arrest warrants have at last been issued against some of the alleged perpetrators, including torturers, former cabinet ministers and doctors involved in cases of stolen children.

The film includes interviews gathered over six years with those who were imprisoned and/or tortured, those who have family members lying abandoned in mass graves and with women whose babies were stolen from them during the long years of the dictatorship. Their stories are heartbreaking. How must it feel to see your torturer walking free in your own neighbourhood? To be unable to honour your deceased loved ones by giving them a decent burial? To know your stolen child exists but be unable to trace them? The documentary mentions the ‘red gene’ – the theory put forward by Franco’s chief of psychiatric services, Antonio Vallejo Nájera that gave the title to my recent novel.


Vallejo Nájera (sometimes referred to as Spain’s Mengele) was born in Palencia in 1889. He was sent to the Spanish Embassy in Berlin in 1917 and became a great admirer of the Nazis and their eugenics theories. After returning to Spain in 1930, he set up psychiatric clinics and later conducted experiments on Republican prisoners, including some from the International Brigades. He argued that Marxists, anarchists and anyone who supported freedom or equality was suffering from a pathological condition. The men, he said, were of low intelligence, while ‘red’ women participated in politics only to satisfy their sexual appetites. They were degenerate, given to delinquency and a marked sadistic nature that allowed their animal instincts to be unleashed. Reasons for their high level of participation in Marxist politics were found in their characteristic mental instability, poor resistance to outside influences and lack of control over their personalities. “When the brakes that normally contain women in society disappear, it awakens in the female sex the instinct for cruelty, surpassing all imagined possibilities, by removing intelligent and logical inhibitions and giving way to feminine cruelty that is not satisfied with merely committing the crime but grows stronger in the execution of it.”


Re-education of Republican prisoners, both male and female was therefore essential. According to him, order, discipline, personal sacrifice and punctiliousness in service defined the Spanish race or spirit and in order to improve it, schools, universities, workplaces, cafes, theatres and all social spheres should be militarised and strict rules be imposed on women.

It was Vallejo Nájera who gave a pseudo-scientific justification for removing the babies of Republican women from them at, or soon after, birth. He argued that it was the only way of eradicating or curing the ‘red gene’. It would avoid contaminating the children with the evil of their mothers and ensure that the Spanish race remained pure, thus liberating society of a terrible plague. His views on women obviously chimed well with those of Franco and the Falange: women’s sole function in life was to bring up their offspring. This would perpetuate their mental inferiority; what intelligence they had would naturally atrophy.


In writing The Red Gene, I wanted to bring home the dangers of fascism at a time when extreme right parties are gaining popularity in a growing number of countries. I chose to do so not by writing about politics but through the story of one family caught up in such inhumane practices as those perpetrated in Franco’s Spain. Up to 300,000 babies were stolen between 1939 and the 1990s (ideological motives later gave way to greed). In most cases, the mothers were told their babies had died. The Red Gene is fiction but true to its time and its context. It’s a story I feel could well have happened.

The Red Gene Amazon