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Rare Books, Hidden Gems and The Elephant Man

After two years of literary events and book shopping being relegated to the internet, now we are slowly coming back to having events and fairs in IRL (in real life)!

The Norwich Book Fair at the Millennium Library in Norwich in April this year was held as part of the Provincial Book Fairs Association (PBFA) calendar of book fairs around the United Kingdom. The free event was well attended and the bright atrium of the Forum was a perfect way to show the books to potential customers.

Local second-hand booksellers had set up stalls for the public to peruse old, rar or limited edition secondhand titles. The stalls were close together and each had marked out the types of books for ease of viewing, such as murder, mystery, and art. All sellers had a broad range of subjects and titles. This meant you had Agatha Christie rubbing shoulders with Beatrix Potter and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Cassell Book Club first edition 1967

In this mix I had the good fortune to discover an original edition (Cassell, 1923) of ‘The Elephant Man and other reminiscences’ by Sir Frederick Treves.

Treves was a prominent British surgeon in the 1800s, who after meeting Joseph Carey Merrick (often misnamed as John) and giving him his card, was called on to help him when the police rescued a cowering Merrick from a over-excited crowd at Liverpool street.

At Liverpool Street he was rescued from the crowd by the police and taken to the third-class waiting-room. Here he sank on the floor in the darkest corner. The police were at a loss what to do with him. They had dealt with strange and mouldy tramps, but never with such an object as this. He could not explain himself. His speech was so maimed that he might as well have spoken in Arabic. He had, however, something with him which he produced with a ray of hope. It was my card.’

TREVES 1924

Those words ’It was my card’ are so wonderful! This was Merrick’s ‘get out of jail’ card. Fortunately Treves was at the London Hospital when a messenger came for him. Treves then went straight to the station and Merrick was taken to the Hospital, where he received kindness, food and a safe place to sleep.

Etching of ’The Elephant Man’

Merrick was suffering from a rare condition called ’Proteus syndrome’ that had made his life intolerable. The condition leads to an overgrowth of bones, skin and other tissues and finally extreme disfigurement and deformity. He had trouble walking, using his hands, speaking and his skin was rough and his head so heavy that he couldn’t lie down properly as the weight would asphyxiate him.

Treves would write compassionately about Merrick’s life, with all its difficulties and sadness, in his book. Below is the first page.

Page from Sir Frederick Treves book

In 1982 the book was made into a film with John Hurt as Merrick and directed by David Lynch. The story of Joseph Merrick is terribly sad, bit it is also an example of extreme perseverance to survive despite his terrible disability. He was, as Treves tells us, ’remarkably intelligent. He had learnt to read and had become a most voracious reader.’

For more information on Joseph Merrick I would suggest looking at his wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Merrick

This gives a good overview of Merrick’s life and travails and how he was saved by the good fortune of meeting Frederick Treves, and his own sweet nature and love of reading.

One thing I find very interesting is that Merrick’s favourite pursuit was reading love stories. Treves story about Merrick is most definitely not a love story! But by the end you do feel a sense of caring about Joseph that is similar to reading a good romance. Treves shows him to be a nice, intelligent and lovable young man in his twenties and I love that.

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Read the book or watch the film?

Photograph of the Nile from 1920s

It is ‘murder’ of a book by watching its film adaptation first?

As an Agatha Christie fan, I’m a sucker for any new adaptations of her books. So when I heard the much delayed (by Covid) film release of ‘Death on the Nile’ was due out I was very excited. But, before heading to the cinema or some streaming device, I first had to read it again.

I say ‘again’ because I presume I have read it sometime in the past. But I didn’t have a copy of it. This could be because in the past, I used to borrow her books from the library so I might never have owned this one. I certainly can’t remember who did the murder, even though I’m sure I’ve probably watched an old version of the film. Awful! But I find good mysteries are like that, especially Christie’s. There will be a lot of potential culprits and often the thing that sticks in your memory is the setting of the crime, ‘The Orient Express is an example of that.

I am also aware that I have lots of books and as such am always nervous about adding to my TBR (To Be Read) pile. However, in this case, I thought it was worth it as I like reading mysteries and these are also the sort of stories I like to write. Therefore, I think of it as my ongoing homework from one of the masters of the genre!

I am aware you could be thinking, “Won’t reading the book ruin the film?’ I don’t think it will in this case because Christie’s work is so wonderful to adapt, with the locations, the vehicles of the time and clothing (in this case they would be from the late 1930s) watching a film of her books don’t ruin it for me. Instead, if it’s done well, it merely adds to what I’d imagined reading it. And knowing the ending in advance is quite useful. I can, again, track how Christie set up ‘pointers’ to who did the crime and why.

Death on the Nile poster for 20 Century Studios film

That final point is very important. Christie never has murders without a clear reason. Although she knew some deaths do occur without real thought, planning or even malice because the perpetrator had a mental illness or made a foolish mistake. She didn’t like those in her mysteries. She wanted the murders in her books to be done with focussed reasoning and ruthlessness.

As the brilliant Sophie Hannah, who has continued writing Poirot mysteries with the Agatha Christie estate’s blessing, says:

“The real mysterious hook in crime fiction is not so much whodunnit, but ‘how on earth can the apparently inexplicable be explained?’”

Sophie Hannah 2015 Irish Times

I believe this is why people still love the work of Agatha Christie. She continues to pull us in because she was the mistress of great plotting and able to create wonderful intriguing, surprising and devious characters to populate her stories!

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BOOKS MAKE A ROOM LOOK MORE BEAUTIFUL

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Alice Walker wrote a book called ‘Horses make the landscape look more beautiful’ 

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And I agree, but would further say that if you don’t have access to a horse, books make a room look more beautiful. Books and everything that they represent: information, entertainment, anger, love and joy, are portable receptacles of our deepest feelings, thoughts, hopes and sometimes horrors. A lot for a small paper package to encompass, don’t you think?

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Of course, we now live in a digital age and all the things I’ve just said are also available on your tablet or smart phone. Which is also portable, but can be linked up with a global library of even more books, more ideas, more knowledge. Which sounds fantastic, but is it? A good book can hold your attention for minutes, sometimes hours and, if it’s a real page turner, most of a whole day! The difficulty with the digital world is it can be one of constant distraction while you’re reading that page turner.

Unlike a digital copy of a book on your smartphone, your new physical paperback from your favourite author won’t call you after two minutes and ask what you want for your birthday. It doesn’t remind you that you haven’t made your doctor’s appointment or told the school your daughter has chicken pox and won’t be in class today. Or notify you that your bank account is now overdrawn and needs attention.

In case I’m sounding very anti-tech, I love computers. I love their potential and that of the internet. I listen to book podcasts, I read and write e-books, I watch adaptations of books on streaming services online and enjoy them. But I also love physical books and don’t see a problem with using both. 

In my twenties I worked for a large publishing house and there were lots of discussions about the the ethics of the working conditions for workers printing the actual books (basically they weren’t paid much) and the environmental problem of paper waste from making so many books. Publishers print lots of books, even now when all the major publishing houses also offer ebooks.

The environmental impact of so many books being created is a complicated subject that I don’t pretend to be an expert on, but fortunately writers like Lucy Siegel in the Guardian newspaper did a short report on this in 2013 which I’m attaching here: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jan/06/should-i-buy-an-e-reader

In my own little terraced house, currently shared with my partner and son, we have loads of books and are constantly having to review how to store them (shelves are best) and what to get rid of. We take books we can’t keep to friends (who have their own book storage problems) charity shops or sell on Ebay. Not for any great profit I admit, but it’s nice to know you’ve helped someone to get a book they really wanted. Or via Ziffit.com, also not for a great profit (are you seeing a pattern here?) but it’s part of The World of Books Group and I myself have bought second hand books from them. As such, I was happy to read what The World of Books says:

The World of Books Group purpose: A circular economy, for-profit company that supports charities and protects the planet by enabling more goods to be reused.

It really cheered me up to read this because I have always tried to live by the reuse, recycle and reduce philosophy, and now there seems to be more sustainable channels to do this. Even for books!

Some of the books I’m currently reading (I’m never reading just one book) are:

The Manningtree Witches by A.K.Blackmore 

The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay

Girl A by Abigail Dean 

Let me tell you what I mean by Joan Didion 

Please note, I’ve linked to the titles places where you can buy them, but obviously it’s always better to get them from a physical bookshop if you can!

I am also listening to a BBC Sounds podcast ‘Murder Must Advertise’ An adaptation of a Dorothy L. Sayers murder mystery title with her aristocratic amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. Think Bertie Wooster, but with brains. If you like Agatha Christie I think you’ll like Dorothy’s work too. This one is set in the 1930’s at an advertising agency and Sayers did herself work in one of those as an advertising copywriter, so she knew her stuff about that work and her writing about that is quite funny! Worth a listen.

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Movable Type and Editing

For every writer there is a wonderful moment you look forward to. It is when you finally finish your first novel. The delight of writing ‘The End’ and knowing that it’s done! The joy! The chance now to send it to friends to read and to publishers to publish! All that will immediately happen.

Sadly, that isn’t what happens. The hard truth is that when you ‘finish’ your novel, all you’ve really done is finish your first draft. Which will lead to editing and revisions and possibly major rewrites. And that will give you your second draft. This can go on many times. This is before you try to publish it…

You could, feasibly, blame 15th century Johannesburg Gutenberg (for more about him read this page online https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes_Gutenberg) for all this heartache. Why? Because he invented the first movable type press in Europe and that led to mass printing, newspapers, books and so on. In many ways he could be looked upon as a hero, but others might say that printing has its demons and I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that editing is one of those. 

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to improve how you edit your written masterpiece. You can read books about it, of which there are many, but they won’t give you another pair of eyes to weed out mistakes.

Another option is to do a course. I myself attended an online zoom class with Ella Micheler, an editor/translator/publisher via The National Centre of Writing to get some tips. Ella was very friendly and good at explaining the different elements behind getting a manuscript print ready.

After going though the basics of what editing must be done before a manuscript can go to an agent or publisher, we then considered how after the basic proofreading your script will then need more complicated editing. The sort that requires experienced editors to make it work. I’m talking about Conceptual Editing and Developmental Editing and Structural Editing. If you want more information on these take a look at this blog by Reedsy explaining them.

If this sounds complicated, I think it is. Especially if you aren’t trained or have years of experience. Which is why, if you don’t have an agent or publisher already in place, it might be time to pay to get your work professionally edited.

What I’ve learned from doing two degrees and many fiction writing courses of different time durations, is that there’s a whole lot of editing to do before any your written work is finished. And especially if it’s a novel to be printed. Which is absolutely the correct thing to do. Even if your novel isn’t printed onto paper (as many aren’t these days) and exists instead as a Ebook online, no one wants to read a story that is full of mistakes.

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NaNoWriMo or not? And was Jack Kerouac doing a similar thing…

Jack Kerouac (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Jack Kerouac became famous for writing his iconic novel, On the Road, while living on Benzedrine, coffee and pea soup (made by his wife Joan) on a road trip over thirty days. He wrote on one long sheet of paper, using tracing paper he’d cut to size for his typewriter and then taped together so he wouldn’t have to slow down for more paper. Although it was ‘“spontaneous writing”, he had planned some of it in advance, something people trying to copy him might not have realised. After editing it, and I can only imagine how difficult that was, it was published in 1957 and became a cult, “Beat Generation” hit.

Being able to write in the same circumstances in such a short space of time as Kerouac did appears exciting, radical and dangerous. However, writing a book in a limited amount of time is not as unusual as you might think. Many successful novelists have systems that help them plan and finish books in a similar amount of time. Authors like Arthur Conan Doyle with A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery, was written in three weeks and weighs in at 43,625 words!

But for the less practised or less successful writer, the possibility of managing that can feel impossible. With this in mind, and for reasons still not entirely clear to me, this year, (blame the pandemic) I decided to do NaNoWriMo. If you don’t know what that is, check out the website Nanowrimo.org for a full explanation. Basically, you write every day for the month of November to create a novel of 50,000 words.

Does it have to be 50K words? Well, that’s the idea, though others say it’s as long as you want. Others say it’s an excellent method to ensure you write every day. Getting into the habit of putting words on the page is always good if you profess to be a writer.

Before I started, I followed the ‘preptober’ guidelines (i.e. planning your novel in October)- all available on various websites online. My favourite was an American one on the Heartbreathings.com blog, which had fun downloads and lots of encouragement. I really enjoyed this method as I did the same planning with the novel I wrote, SuperRecogniser (now in the editing phase). I like to know where I’m potentially going with a story and be able to change what I’d thought I’d write and then go off in a different direction. I did a bit of that in Super Recogniser and see that I’ve been doing it in my NaNoWriMo work. Which makes it fun!

The most interesting thing I’ve found about having a deadline every day for your personal writing is that you are more pushy about getting uninterrupted writing time. Which is a good thing. Other people take your writing time more seriously and because of this, so do you.

If you’re interested in doing NaNoWriMo, you still can! Fewer days, fewer words, but still a useful exercise for writers. Or, of course, you can do it on a different month…

The ‘Joy’ of Constraint

(Not to be confused with The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Painting and The Joy of Cooking…)

BEOWULF with Grendel head (Illustration 1910)

I imagine you know what ‘joy’ means, but ‘constraint’ is trickier isn’t it?  The dictionary definition is a ‘limitation or constriction’. Which could be unpleasant or, I’m suggesting here, sometimes liberating. (Oh and I love that picture above of Beowulf!)

In these days of the Coronavirus, everyone is finding their lives being constrained in one way or another. Whether it be the rules about how far you’re allowed to travel, what places you’re able to visit and how many other people it is safe and legal for you to meet. Tough times.

Where does that leave us? Staying home, keeping within a small, prescribed circle of contacts, and not venturing too far beyond the everyday. That could be a nightmare. However, it doesn’t have to be.

If you usually work in an office, with all the travel and work rules that that entails, suddenly working from home will require both self-discipline and rigor. Those aren’t bad qualities, but that can require a breaking down of your previous work methods. You no longer have the office to monitor your day and offer the teamwork an office environment can have. (If you don’t usually work at an office, substitute ‘office’ with your usual work environment.)

If you usually work from home, like many writers and artists and freelancers, you’ve already faced the working from home demon. The one that doesn’t notice or care if you’re in your pyjamas at 3pm but still expects you to get your work done. It’s the same grinning demon who only slightly raises its eyebrows at you playing loud music while you work and you taking a break to watch an episode of your favourite comedy show while eating cereal. It’s all about Getting The Work Done! Obviously, that’s a best case scenario. But sometimes best case scenarios are all we can hope for. Along with changing our everyday routines, I wonder if being constrained in how we live our lives could actually help us grow as people?

Not commuting means gaining hours of your life every week!

Not going on holiday could mean saving money and the planet by not doing long journeys.

Being settled at home with family, by not being out at work so much, can allow for nurturing better relationships.

For some people, the nature of their jobs does not allow working from home. Appreciating the amazing work of core staff, healthcare workers, teachers, delivery people, police, and so many others, who are often overlooked. This is another reason why I think individual ‘constraint’ of ordinary living can actually be a  positive thing. It makes us look around us more clearly and be thankful for the good things we still have.

The final word on the ‘constraint conundrum’. It only works for as long as we can see it’s necessary and useful. A bit like doing Haikus?

Here’s a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (b. 1763) and one that I feel that fits with working from home:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

Kobayashi Issa


Other times, you might want to move away from that to epic poems. Something meaty and exciting in readiness for when the Coronavirus recedes, which it will. Something like a great warrior’s story?

 Here’s the start of Beowolf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

Gutenberg.org     If you want to read more click on the Gutenberg link!

New Beginnings

Today I’ve gone back to my old WordPress website! I’ve decided to rename it ‘yasminwrites‘ as that sums it up. It’s about my writing and writing in general. If you followed me before, thank you. If you didn’t, please feel free to take a chance! I’ll be posting updates on my work in progress, literature news, and forays into the joys and the challenges of writing, for pleasure or profit.

Things like:

  • deciding if your work is progressing at all or just plain stuck
  • looking at how doing a Creative Writing course can be a game-changer or an expensive dead end
  • wondering if you need to change your writing methods or genres and how to manage that best.

That’s all for now. I’ll be updating website links and other housekeeping in the next few days. See you then!

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April is Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Chandos portrait
Chandos Portrait circa 1610

April 2016 will be steeped in all things Shakespearean as William Shakespeare (1564–1616) died four hundred years ago and everybody is (still) talking about it. Which is good as everyone should know who Shakespeare was and what an enormous debt the modern world owe to his work. What not everyone might know is that someone so important to the English language and literature in general for his plays and poetry would only have been 52 on his death. Which seems a terribly early death for someone so very gifted and prolific.

But in our current times we have lost other gifted and prolific artists at an age that seems too young. Only this week the British writer, actor, musician and director Victoria Wood (May 19, 1953 – April 20, 2016) passed away at 62. And yesterday the singer and superstar Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016) died at only 57. This is obviously very sad for their family, friends and many fans. Part of our sadness is because we can’t help but wonder what these artists might have produced if they’d lived longer. What we can still enjoy and treasure is what they made in their lifetimes and looking at the example of Shakespeare’s life, we know that the work artists, writers and musicians produce can endure long after their death.

Shakespeare understood the human condition of hope, desire and dreams. He was also well aware of how very short life is. Of course, I need to round off this slightly maudlin start with a small Shakespeare quote, it’s one of my favourites:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Tempest


tempeststorm

Illustrated by Charles H. Buchel, 1904

The joy of writing is that you can transform sad, difficult events from our little lives into something new and positive. All the writers I’ve spoken of understood that.

wordpress-shoe-collection

On Tuesday I went to the Norwich Writers’ Circle launch for the  Olga Sinclair Open Story Competition 2016 This is for a 2000 word story on the theme of shoes and is being sponsored by a Norwich shoemakers, Van-Dal Shoes.

It was a great evening with talks by people from Van-Dal shoes, which is celebrating 80 years. Frances & Michael Holmes  did a presentation based on their book The Story of the Norwich Boot and Shoe Trade telling us fascinating stories and showing archive pictures from the local shoe trade over the last century.

Then Ashley Stokes from the Unthank School of Writing spoke about the creative writing courses they are running, both online or at evening classes.

Finally, the writer Rachel Hore, whose most recent novel is The House on Bellevue Gardens, will be adjudicating the prize and gave tips on what she will be looking for in the competition entries. All very useful and inspiring.

The House on Bellevue Gardens by Rachel Hore

Also inspiring was getting a copy of The Cafe Writing Map in the post from Writing Maps. These are ‘creative writing prompts and ideas for stories’. Good fun and they currently have a 30% off Writing Maps in April!

 

Writing Maps logo

Agatha Christie – still the Queen of Crime

Agatha Christie, surrounded by some of her 80-plus crime novels.

January is traditionally a time for new things, new ideas, new starts. It makes sense to do this as it follows closing the old year and moving on. Named after the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions and from the from the Latin word, ianua, which means ‘door’, this is the door to the new year! So why am I writing this almost half-way through the month? It might be because the start of the year is always very distracting after the end of year celebrations and holidays. It might be because I dislike following the crowd with publicising new year resolutions that could soon be broken. It’s also tricky until you know how plans from the previous year have done, so you can definitely feel like a true Janus figure with one head looking back while the other looks forward.

Janus_coin
Janus coin

I was (and still am) waiting for the results from some short story submissions. One got longlisted, which was great! But didn’t win, which was less great… However, as any writer/artist knows you have to get used to knock backs and still keep trying. There are websites for dejected writers devoted to this sort of thing, but I take the old fashioned view of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. All you need to remember is that every writer, from  Agatha Christie to Stephen King, had numerous rejections, but still kept writing.

I used to read a lot of Agatha Christie (1890-1976) but not much recently. However, over Christmas the BBC did a fantastic adaptation of ‘And then there were none’ (BBC 2015) and it reminded me what great plots and interesting, believable characters Christie created and how wonderful the BBC is at making adaptations of novels  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06v2v52

And then there none BBC 2015
And then there were none                                                                BBC 2015

I always liked Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot because they weren’t hard boiled cops or jaded investigators trying to solve a murder. Instead they were unusual (an older Belgian and a much older English lady) and as such slightly humorous as people underestimated their abilities, which were exceptional. I hadn’t read ‘And then there were none’ before, it has had different names over the years (some more insulting than others). There is no central detective character like Marple or Poirot, instead there is a range of ten people on an island, each wondering who the murderer is. In the story the reader (or viewer) will have to decide which of these people are likeable and trustworthy and those who are clearly not. This was Christie’s great talent for getting readers to make assumptions about the characters (which are often proved to be false) and putting in red herrings to keep us off the scent. One thing I hadn’t previously known was her education in pharmacy which helped her attend to patients in the First World War and also gave her knowledge of poisons for her stories. Perhaps it is this specialised knowledge that gives her stories an extra veneer of reality and makes the endings more satisfactory for the reader.

If you want to find out more about wonderful Agatha this website is a good resource: http://www.agathachristie.com/

 

Dodie Smith – The Shop Girl Writer

 Dodie Smith
Dodie Smith

On the last day of November the weather has gone to rain and wind. Good weather for hunkering indoors and reading and writing.

It got me thinking about all this year’s literary prizes (and there were a lot) and how some of the results of those prizes won’t be known until 2016. Writing for competitions requires a lot of hope and patience.

The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting ­http://www.writeaplay.co.uk/ was won this year by Katherine Soper. When I read about this one phrase stuck in my mind, the winning play was described as ‘written by a shop girl’. Obviously you wonder why they didn’t just call her a ‘writer’ as that’s clearly what she is. And the words ‘shop girl’ sounded­ slightly pejorative, as if working in a shop was bad. But it’s also funny! Lots of writers have worked in shops, some still do, and then I remembered reading about another playwright who was also referred to as “Shop Girl Writes Play” by a newspaper after she won a prize. That writer was Dodie Smith (Dorothy Gladys Smith, 1896-1990) and she was working at Heals in 1931. Before she started writing novels, Dodie Smith wrote plays. She had worked in the theatre so writing plays would have seemed a natural progression.

Most people will know of Dodie’s first novel I Capture the Castle published in 1948, which has that famous and brilliant first line, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” After that the rest of the book has a lot to live up to and fortunately doesn’t disappoint. It’s such a wonderfully funny, bittersweet love letter to growing up, writing and England. The 2003 film version with Romola Garai as the narrator, Cassandra, definitely does the book justice.

I Capture the Castle film
I Capture the Castle film

Dodie’s other famous work was the children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956) which was apparently inspired by a friend’s comment about Dodie’s own beloved dalmatians “Those dogs would make a lovely fur coat!”

Dodie with dalmatian
              Dodie with dalmatian

It’s another well observed book and mixes humour and fear brilliantly. Cruella de Vil is terrifying, but also a great (if unintentional) anti-fur ambassador. Who would want to be like her?

Cruella_de_Vil
            Cruella_de_Vil

Dodie spent all her life writing and if it wasn’t books or plays, it was letters to friends or her diary. She was a full-on full-time writer and a wonderful inspiration to anyone who’s ever worked in a shop and dreamed of be able to write professionally.

If you want to know the full story about Dodie get hold of Valerie Grove’s biography Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith

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