It’s nigh on the end of the year and Midwinter is drawing on apace . . . and so one’s thoughts turn automatically to the dark si no, no, to joyful caroling and Yule logs, and mulled cider and mistletoe . . . at least, it would, if I were not missing the caroling on account of having bronchitis, and banned from the mulled anything, on account of the antibiotics, and too weak to dress even a very small tree, let alone chop up last year’s to make this year’s Yule log . . . and as for mistletoe: as I am currently engaged in a competition with LitAgentDrury to see who can cough the loudest and longest, I suspect the only use either of us have for mistletoe will be for the spunnocks, who have no compassion and just chatter on all day long . . . muttermuttermutter . . .
But enough of this seasonal misery. Instead of an end-of-year blog telling you about all the wonderful books we’ve published this year*, I’ve agreed that my redoubtable publicist should instead pose me some Festive Questions. I must have been mad . . .
But I did agree, so here goes:
1. What was the best Christmas present you ever received?
Well. What an absolute stinker of a question to start with! I honestly have no idea . . . I could come over all Hallmarky and say ‘my father’ (which would serve you right! My parents had split up and he’d stayed in Canada while we four children came home to England with my mother – and I’ll never forget hearing a voice in the hallway on Christmas Eve which sounded suspiciously Daddy-like, and thinking I must be dreaming . . . cue the hard glissando and the soaring violins . . .) But I don’t think that’s what you mean, is it? All right, I’ll give it a think, and in the meantime, I’ll move on to the next Question.
2. What was the best Christmas present you ever gave?
Oh hells. Another horrible one. (Note to self: next time Andy says, ‘It’ll be easy!’ just run and hide . . .) How would I know? What *I* think is a wonderful gift may well have reduced the unlucky recipient to . . . well, the fact is, a present’s wonderfulness must surely be in the eye of the receiver? (What a dreadful sentence. I’m obviously still delirious . . .) Well, Ian’s Dalek cufflinks were a huge hit. The signed copy of Joe Hill’s Horns sent nephew Josh into paroxysms of delight (for a moment or two he looked suspiciously like the manic bundle of fur which is Holly-dog, my nevvie Oli’s over-excited spaniel – talking of which, finding a carving the spitting image of Holly was another real ‘Yes!’ moment. The gloriously scented violet rose (quixotically named ‘Rhapsody in Blue’) was a huge hit for purple-obsessed Gilly . . . A Hugh B. Cave book – Uncharted Territory – Steve had never even seen . . . Nope, no idea. I’ll come back to that one too.
3. If you could only give one book as a gift this Christmas what would it be?
Great: so I can upset all but one of my Beloved Authors in one fell swoop . . . actually, no, hold on: there’s a way out of this one. You can tell a great book when, months or years later, lines come into your head and make you smile/laugh/cry/scream/weep/giggle all over again. This little clippit describing Martin Windrow (the founder of Osprey Books, a military historian of high renown and about as far removed from ‘sentimental as you can imagine’) meeting his One True Owl for the first time:
Perched on the back of a sunlit chair by the open window was something about 9in tall and shaped rather like a plump toy penguin. It appeared to be wearing a one-piece knitted jumpsuit of pale grey fluff with brown stitching. Two big, shiny black eyes gazed up at me trustfully. ‘Kweep,’ it said quietly. I leaned a little closer. It blinked its furry grey eyelids, then jumped very deliberately on to my right shoulder.
It felt like a big, warm dandelion head against my check, and it smelled like a milky new kitten. ‘Kweep,’ it repeated, very softly.
Who would not have fallen in love with Mumble the Tawny Owl at that minute? So there we are: that’s easy: The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow (Bantam Press). Tick. Next Question.
4. What is your favourite Christmas song?
(What part of ‘sick and enfeebled’ did you not get? Don’t I deserve one easy question?) I grew up in the folk tradition, thanks to my parents, whilst my Grandpapa took care of my classical education – so can I at least have two, one from each side? (But how do I then pick just two as my favourite changes from day to day, let alone year to year? Ah, no, I have it. I was browsing Andrew Gant’s wonderfully entertaining Christmas Carols – and wonderful not just because I steered the Organist, Choirmaster and Composer at Her Majesty’s Chapels Royal towards a certain Literary Agent of our acquaintance after attending a choral workshop of his, and not just because he’s quoting Tolkien by the second page, but because he really gets carols:
They have the power to summon up a special kind of midwinter mood, like the aroma of mince pies and mulled wine and the twinkle of lights on a tree. It’s a kind of magic.
Although I’m tempted to go for Jonathan Rathbone’s magical four-part arrangement of ‘Evening Prayer’ from Engelbert Humperdink’s fairy-tale opera Hänsel and Gretel, I know that’s really just because I didn’t get to sing it myself this year after weeks of rehearsal (though I imagine the good folk at Blackhorse Road tube station know it pretty well by now . . . sorry!). So instead, I’m going for ‘Adeste Fidelis’ – or, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in the vernacular – which, legend has it, was a clandestine appeal to British Catholics to support Bonnie Prince Charlie (although Andy Gant points out that if it was a coded invitation to rebellion, it was, sadly, too subtle for the stolid Hanoverian brain . . .) Oh, and the traditional descant to Sing, choirs of angels, is truly exultant.
In some ways, the folk side is even harder – all I have to do is conjure up the sound of the denizens of Duke’s Folk singing ‘Sweet Chiming Bells’ (a reworking of ‘While Shepherds Watched’) or ‘Wassail, Wassail, Through All of this Land’, one of the dozens of Wassail songs that used to echo through our apple and pear orchards), and it’s Christmas . . . but in fact I’m going to slip over the ocean for ‘The Huron Carol’, a wonderfully haunting Canadian carol written by a Jesuit missionary and set to a French folk tune.
Phew. Right, what’s next?
5. If someone gives you a present you don’t like do you: a) only use it when you are with them b)Return it c) Re-gift it?
At last! Something I can actually answer, for once . . . Not that it’s a simple answer, but here goes: It depends.
What, more? That is a proper answer! Oh, all right: it depends entirely on (a) who gave it and (b) what it is! If it’s a parent, sibling or close friend – well, frankly, shame on you! You deserve to get back How to Knit-Your-Own-Muesli in your Christmas stocking next year! It also depends on if you can get away with not having the three-foot-tall hand-painted bisque porcelain beagle-humping-lamppost sculpture in full view all the time – if said carefully chosen gift doesn’t ever need to make a reappearance, then that’s an easy one: if it’s something I think someone else would really appreciate, then I’ll regift, and if not, I am a great supporter of charities like The Salvation Army – just because I don’t care for it, doesn’t mean someone might pay handsomely for the eight-foot-wide embroidered and embellished tapestry of sobbing child-labourer muckying up the pretty lady’s watered silk wedding gown (Good luck? Are you mad? That sooty handprint will never come out, no matter how many laundrymaids are punished, you know!) And the next one’s easy too:
6. Christmas puddings – yay or nay?
( I think you mean ‘yea’, don’t you? oops, sorry . . . moving on.) That’s a big, fat ‘YEA!’ because (and I say this in the most humble way you can imagine!) I make the best Christmas pud in the world. It’s round, for a start! And it’s chock-full of fruity, nutty, alcoholic goodness, matured for a year or two (though we rarely manage two years) and then steamed for hours on end before being doused in warm brandy or rum and then brought flaming to the table . . . and it’s got proper silver sixpences in it too – so what could be better?
And so at last we come to Question 7 (and here I was, beginning to fear they would never end . . .)
7. Finally, what are you currently working on?
The end of the year is always a mixture of huge delight and mad panic, because it invariably brings a clutch of deliveries. So I have just this minute finished David Hair’s magnificent ASCENDANT’S RITE, the triumphant finale to his Moontide Quartet and move seamlessly onto what I’m pretty sure will be an equally enthralling end to Stephanie Saulter’s ®Evolution trilogy with REGENERATION, and Peter Liney’s explosive climax to Clancy’s story with IN CONSTANT FEAR – and talking of Clancy, keep watching this space because we have some VERY EXCITING NEWS coming early next year. Fast on their heels is the last book in Dave Towsey’s lyrical, gripping zombie Western series; I have no doubt YOUR RESTING PLACE is going to be every bit as original as its predecessors . . .
And I’ve also had submitted novels by a couple of writers I’ve been stalking keeping an eye on over the past few years . . . so plenty to keep me busy until we burst back into resplendent life in the New Year.
So all I need do now is to wish each and every one of you the most splendiferous of Yuletides!
*On the grounds that I’m sure that not only do you all know all about them, I’m hoping a great many of them are going to be lurking in your Christmas stockings and under your trees . . .