On Castles and Wine and Rain . . .

I’ve dragged myself to my desk today to catch up with the 523 emails that accrued whilst I was off visiting one of the most beautiful areas of Germany. The Moselle Valley is littered with castles in various states of repair (and ownership). Perusing the handy-dandy Castles on the Moselle guidebook, it revealed just how many of these wrecks – most of which appear to have been trashed by the French at some point over the last five hundred years – have been gleefully handed over to a visiting prince, emperor or even merely enormously wealthy potentate who happens to have wandered by, lumbering them with enormous repair bills and no way to abrogate responsibility without losing face. Cunning, I thought.

It should have been the perfect choir tour: as a guide once said to @LitAgentDrury and me in Rhodos some years ago: ‘You got yer ’istory and you got yer culture – and some of it’s even quite interesting!’. (That was an interesting visit; the extraordinarily hungover young lady in question was clearly better able to deal with the drink-sodden louts of Faliraki than the educated winers-and-diners of Lindos . . .)

But back to the Moselle Valley from Koblenz to Trier: as I was saying before I got distracted by the thoughts of Greek sunshine, it should have been perfect: as well as the aforementioned castles, a variety of picture-postcard villages and towns and the spectacular landscape, the Moselle Valley has ten distinct grape varieties that make for some truly exceptional wines that rarely make it out of the country as the vineyards (mostly running up very steep mountain terraces), though perfectly formed, are small.

The Moselle Valley

So what, we thought as we checked I had music (tick), choir folder (tick), choir dress (tick), picnic for train (tick) and fully loaded ereader (tick), was not to like?

We were suitably smug, @LitAgentDrury, Chris and I, the only three of us who had voted to go by train, leaving St Pancras at three in the afternoon after a lovely luncheon and arriving at Koblenz, three trains later, just before ten p.m.), rather than the 40-odd who struggled to the coach for a four a.m. start and staggered into the Hotel Scholz just in time for a six pm rehearsal (oh joy!).

And the first day was indeed everything we’d hoped for as we took the cablecar to Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, high above the Rhine (‘Yer got yer ’istory . . .) and then a picturesque drive to the spa town of Bad Ems (‘Yer got yer culture’) for our first concert . . . perhaps we shouldn’t have tried the waters before we sang, but I don’t think many noticed the sulphuric tones to our voices . . .

And then things started to go slightly awry. First off, the promised internet coverage was conspicuous by its absence, and I’d promised to phone an agent with an offer for a rather wonderful little gem (more on that later; I’ll just give you a tiny hint: the Arthurian legend never goes out of fashion, if it’s done well . . . and this is).

I didn’t worry too much, as I had my trusty Batphone with me. More on that later too; I’ll just say: never trust the advertisements! (I’ll be having words with Neil later . . .)

We’d all seen the rather dour weather forecasts for the week, but Chris had decided that just as her cat would walk from the back window to the front, expecting the weather to be better, so she would search for a weather forecast that was more to her liking than the ones we’d all come up with . . .

And astonishingly, she did, and it looked like the sunshine on Tuesday had proved her right and the rest of London Forest Choir wrong . . .

Only, as a German publisher once told me at Frankfurt when I groused about the rain, ‘It was advertised!’ it turns out you can fool the weather gods only so often . . . within a couple of hours the sky had turned leaden, the wind had risen and the streets were taking on distinctly wet hues.

The following morning’s Rhine cruise – all four hours of it – looked much like this:

The Rhine Valley

(Yes, that’s a castle. Good, huh?)

That evening’s concert was in Bad Münster. The spa water was even worse, but the audience was equally appreciative (if significantly damper than at Bad Ems).

The following day our excursion to Cochem (that’s Cochem in the first vineyard pic, by the way, as seen from the castle) was marginally less soggy, but it took me so long to climb up to Reichburg that we didn’t actually have time to go inside.

Good thing one of my fellow choir members bought some postcards: now you need never know we opted for a bit of off-piste wine-tasting instead of the aforementioned ’istory and culture . . .) The afternoon’s concert at the Florinskirche was greeted by a good audience and less-grey skies so we all celebrated with German beer, as you do.

And the final day took us to Trier, a particular favourite of Ian’s and mine. But it was hard to get excited about Germany’s oldest town when all you could see for miles around was open umbrellas and sad faces.

So instead we took refuge, first in the cathedral – sadly, the Robe of Christ, which is pretty high up on the relic scale – was locked up inside a big box inside a gated niche, so we had to imagine the glory of the sacred robe gifted to the town by Helena, mother of Constantine.

So after that we had no choice but to whizz over to the actual Constantine Basilica, where we stood in awe in the largest of the Roman basilicae, on the very place where Constantine the Great (aka Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, AD 306–337) had his great throne.

The first Christian emperor, the man responsible for the Holy Roman Empire, made Trier (then Augusta Treverorum) the capital of Rome’s Western Empire and his home.
(Yer got yer ‘istory . . . don’t say I never share!)

The shiver down my spine was not just from being soaking wet.

I managed to finally get my phone to work that afternoon, four days late, but Constantine was smiling on me and I got the book. Sorry, Other Publisher – but I promise I’ll treat it properly!

The train journey home was uneventful, as I am sure are most of those 500-odd emails, but they both had to be done.

So I can hear you wondering: yes, okay, nice hols and all, but what has any of this got to do with publishing? Well, other than the fact that I did read Stephanie Saulter’s just-delivered sequel to Gemsigns (and I have no doubt you’re going to love Binary even more), today’s lesson, Beloved Reader, is to do with this: I’ve come home to the sky a very odd colour – I’d call it blue if I didn’t know better. And there’s a great ball of light there too. All very strange.

I thought skies were always grey, and generally on the wet side.

And here’s the thing: this is so unexpected, not just after the week that’s plunged central Europe into floods, but after months of cold, grey, miserable weather that I feel like I have stepped into a fantasy novel: it doesn’t feel normal.

And yet good fantasy and science fiction is where the author manages to do just that: to make the weirdness feel real, normal, understandable.

It’s one of the things I always say to those idiots who try to dis genre fiction as ‘shallow’ or ‘pulp’: those who write our sort of fiction have to do everything a literary writer has to do, and more, because as well as the characters and the plot and the pacing, you have to build your weird world so successfully so no one notices the joins – and that’s the same whether you’ve got two moons pulling the tides in different directions, or inserting vampires into downtown Denver or gun-toting androids into modern Seoul, or walking dead into post apocalyptic America . . . our Beloved Author’s got to put an enormous amount of thought and effort into how that world works so you, Beloved Reader, don’t have to.

That includes the flora and fauna too: they have to make sense within the context. If you have a high-gravity planet, large creatures are going to have a hell of a time managing all that force; likewise, if there’s next to no gravity, how’s something like a sparrow going to keep grounded? So you need to work out how that’s going to work before you even start writing, so that no one’s going to stop reading halfway through and chuck the book into the charity bag because it doesn’t make sense.

That’s no small task for any writer (and let’s not forget the editor, copy-editor and proofreader, who all have to check that it works too). So next time you get to the end of something and realise you’re looking around for a dereshadi or you thought you caught a glimpse of something that looked awfully like a scaffwolf, raise a glass to the imaginations who came up with all the nuts and bolts that turn out such exceptional works of fiction . . .
. . . and hope they are fiction . . .

While I have you, two brief mentions: Waterstones are about to launch a new promotion: ‘The Book That Made Me’, all about the personal influences that books have on us all.

The book chain is going to ask the nation for books that made the biggest impact on them and the stories behind those changes – maybe a book made you travel the world, take up a musical instrument or get married. They have a microsite – Waterstones.com/tbtmm, and they ask you to use the Twitter and Facebook buttons to tell all your friends you’ve taken part and to share your story.

And for all your short fiction writers: the British Fantasy Society’s short story competition is about to close. Award-winning editor and BFS stalwart Allen Ashley (he won the BFS award for Best Anthology in 2006 as editor of The Elastic Book Of Numbers from Elastic Press) is judging.

This year’s competition closes at midnight British Summer Time on Sunday 30 June. Word limit is 5,000 words. Allen is planning on announcing the winners at WFC, the World Fantasy Convention, in Brighton, if all goes according to plan.

BFS members can enter one story for free (and if you’re reading this and not a member of the BFS and the BSFA, why not?) and it’s just £5 per entry for non-members. For full submission guidelines click here

Now I really am going. Those 523 emails won’t read themselves, you know . . .

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