Lucy Caldwell joins Chris Power and others to explore the writing of Katherine Mansfield on the centenary of her death.
The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction has announced its 2023 longlist.
Twelve novels are in contention for the £25,000 prize, with settings spanning the globe and the centuries: from ancient Tahiti to Australia and Tasmania at the dawn of colonisation; from seventeenth-century Massachusetts to the 19th century literary salons of Europe; from the shores of Suffolk to the quiet countryside of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset; from the gold-rush-giddy American south to Belfast under siege during the Blitz; and from the cramped streets of 18thcentury London to the sogginess of an Irish bog in the 1950s.
The longlist is:
- THE ROMANTIC William Boyd
- THESE DAYS Lucy Caldwell
- MY NAME IS YIP Paddy Crewe
- THE GEOMETER LOBACHEVSKY Adrian Duncan
- ACT OF OBLIVION Robert Harris
- THE SECRET DIARIES OF CHARLES IGNATIUS SANCHO Paterson Joseph
- THE CHOSEN Elizabeth Lowry
- THE SECOND SIGHT OF ZACHARY CLOUDESLEY Sean Lusk
- THE SUN WALKS DOWN Fiona McFarlane
- ANCESTRY Simon Mawer
- I AM NOT YOUR EVE Devika Ponnambalam
- THE SETTLEMENT Jock Serong
The Chair of Judges said:
‘This year’s submissions to the Walter Scott Prize offered, as ever, many hours of globe-trotting, centuries-spanning pleasure, and our longlist is reflective of the breadth of literary talent, research and imagination displayed by many fine entries. Our longlist also reflects the development of historical fiction from a relatively straightforward depiction of times past to something more complex and ambitious.
‘It’s still true that the past is a ‘foreign country’, but as our twelve longlisted novels illustrate, however ‘foreign’ it seems, the past helps us address the big questions of the present: is art its own justification? What do we leave behind when we die? What is freedom? As well as posing these and many other questions, in the 2023 WSP longlist you’ll find comfort and discomfort, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the heights of love and the depths of obsession, and perhaps a few surprises – in other words, a longlist to read, enjoy, debate and share. ‘
A writing life’s long afterglow…
A year before he died, EM Forster sent a parcel to Christopher Isherwood containing the manuscript of his novel, Maurice. The first draft of the novel, a story of homosexual love, had been completed almost 60 years earlier, but had remained unpublished. Homosexuality was still a criminal offence in England until 1967, and Forster had been an impressionable teenager during the trial of Oscar Wilde, his psych scarred deeply by the cruel sentence of two years’ imprisonment and hard labour meted out by the Old Bailey.
Forster had become weary, he wrote in his diary, of writing about “the only subject that I can and may treat – the love of men for women and vice versa”. In a moving letter to Siegfried Sassoon, he declared his intention never again to publish a novel after A Passage to India (1924): “My patience with ordinary people has given out. But I shall go on writing. I don’t feel any decline in my ‘powers’.” And go on writing he did, returning again and again to Maurice, redrafting, revising; writing not just against the odds, but against the strictures of his own plot, it sometimes seems, to give his eponymous character, in an act of intimate and private heroism, a happy ending.
In his memoir, Isherwood declared Maurice to be “both inferior and superior” to Forster’s previous novels: “Inferior as an artwork, superior because of its purer passion, its franker declaration of its author’s faith.” He, and others who had seen various drafts, had tried to convince Forster to publish it, but Forster was adamant that he could not. Now, in the knowledge that he was nearing the end of his life, Forster gave the book to his younger, openly gay mentee, to do with it what he would. Any royalties, he said, were Christopher’s.
I sat there by her qersu pleading silently for help, from her, from the universe, from anyone
Maurice was published posthumously a year later, in 1971, and in an act of generosity to equal Forster’s, Isherwood donated all royalties, then and in perpetuity, to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, to fund an annual award for a young British or Irish writer, in Forster’s name, for travel in the United States, in the spirit of broadening horizons. Early recipients included Margaret Drabble and Seamus Heaney; most recently Sally Rooney and Stephen Sexton have been beneficiaries. It is a wonderful award – there is no longlist, no shortlist, no sense of competition, just a letter that comes out of the blue, on an unexpected day.
The day I heard that I had been chosen as this year’s recipient began with another email, one not so welcome. It was from my editor at Faber about a story that I’d recently sent him – a story I’d been working on, off and on, for nearly five years. I had intended it as the final story of a collection before any of the rest of the collection existed. Now, it was the only missing part, and it still wasn’t working: it was, as Katherine Mansfield might have put it, “too made-up”, somehow not real – I could feel that, but I didn’t know why. It is not a long story, maybe about 5,000 words, but I must have written more than 50,000 words towards it, in draft after draft after draft that I quarantined in their own separate folder on my computer, with increasingly desperate filenames.
All I could feel was the failure, not just of that story, but of all the things I’d tried to write and couldn’t
I’ve worked with my editor at Faber, Angus Cargill, for well over a decade now, and consider it to be one of the most fortunate relationships a writer could be blessed to have. Angus has read all of my stories as I’ve written them, usually within days, sometimes within hours, and gives me his thoughts while the story is still quicksilver, still malleable. This time, his email was perceptive, as ever – the story was “reaching”, he thought, without quite getting there, which is exactly how it felt to me – but he could offer no immediate practical solution. He added a postscript that the names of the children (“sorry,” he said) were annoying. I felt momentarily plunged into such despondency. The fact that even the children’s names, innocuous enough in any objective sense, were irritating to him seemed a symptom of the extent to which the story just wasn’t working.
I had abandoned work before. Most notably a whole novel, that I finished at 39 weeks pregnant, and went back to when my son was six months old, only to find that it had withered from neglect, ossified, or maybe that I had changed too much, could no longer care about it, or make it live. Stage plays, through lack of technical facility or, more often, a seizure of confidence. More stories than I can count. But this one, I don’t know why, felt particularly painful.
I happened to be in Belfast that day, speaking at a conference at Queen’s University, which is right by the Ulster Museum – whose ancient Egyptian room, and famous mummies, feature in the story. At lunchtime, I skipped the buffet and went to visit them. There is Takabuti, a perfectly-preserved mummy, and Tjesmutperet who, upon unwrapping, was found to have turned to black dust. The story had started when Tjesmutperet came to me in a dream – a strange dream whose spell I lingered in for days, obsessively walking the childhood corridors of the museum in my mind’s eye as I tried to go about my quotidian work – and so I sat there by her qersu pleading silently for help, from her, from the universe, from anyone. The case’s wide, vigilant, kohl-lined eyes stared back at me and I felt that particular loneliness of a writer who has attempted something and failed – has found themselves, in some mysterious, inarticulable way, not good enough in the attempt.
We were acknowledging the long afterglow a writing life can have – one that outlives the mortal span of its author
Returning to the conference, I felt ashamed of the version of myself the chairperson described – that smooth and shellacked success. All I could feel was the failure, not just of that story, but of all the things I’d tried to write and couldn’t, all the things I’d written that could have been truer.
It is a particular, lonely shame. How often do you wish yourself a different writer, with other stories to tell, or the capacity to tell yours better? Maybe most writers know it, Forster certainly did. Why write at all? It is that fundamentally, I think – whatever genetic, psychological, spiritual quirks might be at play – if you are a writer, to absent yourself from the world, to hold yourself at a remove from it in order to better distil it into words, is the way you feel most fully in the world, most fully connected. It’s an intensely private battle – to go deeper, to be truer. You can only tell the stories you have to tell, and only you can tell those stories. There are no shortcuts, and there is no one who can do it for you – no editor, no writer-friend, no long-dead mummy.
But on that day help came, in what felt like the most magical of ways. To know, at that particular moment, that my work had been read and deemed worthy of the EM Forster Award – it was as if Edward Morgan himself had appeared before me, and given a fairy-godfather blessing. It gave me such heart, at a moment when I was feeling that I had lost it. Failure, in my experience, is not usually the penultimate paragraph, the twist before success. That story was almost not even a story, but not an anecdote, either. I managed to go back to it – to go to the places I needed to in order to finish it, this story that was about childhood, about motherhood, about personhood, despair, and hope, in so many complicated ways.
A week later, I went to New York to receive the prize. Honoured alongside me this year – although in absentia, as her wonderful book Seven Steeples was being lauded by the Goldsmith’s Prize at the same time – was writer and artist Sara Baume. It felt a profound honour indeed to stand in that beautiful Upper West Side library, against a wall of signed portrait photographs of eminent writers (I made a particular pilgrimage to Willa Cather’s), to hear Paul Muldoon’s citation.
But even more meaningful was to know that, although I stood there as that year’s recipient, what we were really celebrating was that fortitude can triumph over loneliness, courage over shame. We were celebrating the love story of Maurice, and the affection and generosity of two beautiful writers, beautiful men; the legacy of theirs that gives the most meaningful gift of all – that of time and space, and of broadening horizons. We were acknowledging the long afterglow a writing life can have – one that outlives the mortal span of its author. My heartfelt wish, as I raised a glass that night to Edward Morgan Forster and to Christopher Isherwood, was that wherever they might be now, they might somehow know that we were gathered to salute them, and that triumph of love over fear, in ways that lonely author writing Maurice might hardly have dared dream.
On writing These Days.
As a toddler, my son was obsessed with Janet & Alan Ahlberg’s Peepo! It’s a day in the life of a baby, but in the background is the London Blitz: bombed-out buildings, a Zeppelin. Night after night I thought how, in our bedroom, part of a converted Victorian warehouse in East London, we would have survived the entire Blitz: but safety could be measured in metres, maybe even inches: the rest of the once-adjoining buildings on the street had been flattened.
I started to think that there’d been a Belfast Blitz, too: I remembered my grandma talking about it, her brothers scrambling up the Black Mountain in search of shrapnel. To my surprise – as if the later obliteration of the Troubles had superseded that Belfast – the only fiction I could find was Brian Moore’s The Emperor of Ice-Cream.
But it was just about in living memory. I began speaking to people who’d lived through the Blitz as children, teenagers – even one woman in the year of her 103rd birthday. This was the spring of 2020, and with Covid 19 closing in, my quest took on a new urgency: capturing these stories before they were lost.
In that first lockdown, I wrote with an intensity I can barely describe. The Belfast Blitz consisted of four aerial raids in April-May 1941 which caused some of the greatest devastation and mass casualties of any bombings in the UK, and which people did not think the city could ever come back from.
Surfacing, I’d wonder what my children, then 5 and 2, would remember. Then I’d think of what the Belfast Blitz survivors were telling me. About the day the greengrocer had oranges in, or the new dress made for the scorched doll snatched from flames. The unexpected ride in a motorcar – the joy amid the horror.
Because life does go on. No-one who lived through that time, or these Covid years, remains unchanged. But you don’t get another chance to turn fifteen, or six – to have your first baby – first kiss. As MacNeice puts it in the poem that gives my book its title: These days, though lost, will be all your days. These are our days, and they are all we have, infinitely precious, and we must fill them with as much life and love as we can.
Author Lucy Caldwell is back with a new book These Days, about a city under siege from a vicious four day bombing campaign.
Chris Power talks with novelists Lucy Caldwell and Louise Kennedy about their new novels, both set in Belfast at intense moments of 20th century history, both treatments of women’s lives at a time of war and conflict: Lucy Caldwell’s These Days is the story of sisters Emma and Audrey during the terrifying Belfast Blitz of 1941, while Louise Kennedy’s Trespasses is about a relationship between an older Protestant man and a younger Catholic woman during the Troubles.
In Lucy Caldwell’s forthcoming novel, These Days, she describes bombed-out Belfast – the fire “cascading” into terraced houses, the bank so badly damaged it must be dynamited before it collapses, and street after street which has been completely destroyed.
“Belfast is finished, people say. There is no way we can come back from this,” she writes.
This was not the Troubles but the Belfast Blitz, a devastating series of bombing raids on the city by the German Luftwaffe during the second World War which killed about 1,000 people in April and May 1941.
“I took those quotes from an Irish News journalist who was interviewing people at the time and they were saying Belfast was finished and that it could never come back, and I think there is a real poignancy writing that when we as readers know what is to come,” says Caldwell.
“This novel seemed to come like a gift out of nowhere, and I had always wanted to write it.
“Maybe it’s something that you have if you come from a city. I’ve always wanted to write a novel of my city, and I never expected this would be it.”
These Days tells the story of two sisters from east Belfast – one about to marry, the other in a secret romance with another woman – who must survive the assault on the city; like all Caldwell’s work, it is about women and girls and the relationships between them.
Yet it is, first and foremost, a story of Belfast; of the historical reality of the city at war and what it went on to become, as well as of the many other Belfasts that might have been but which were lost to the German bombs, the Troubles or even the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was writing that Belfast of the Blitz, I was writing with my awareness of what it meant to grow up in Belfast and the Troubles…and I was also writing something of what it meant to live through the April and May of the extraordinary times that we lived through [in 2020].”
These Days had its genesis in her son’s obsession with the picture book Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, which tells the story of a day in the life of a baby set against the backdrop of the second World War.
At the time they were living in east London, in a street that had been badly damaged during the second World War. “I was reading the story to him in bed thinking how strange it was that if his bedroom had been one metre away we wouldn’t have survived the London Blitz. In his bedroom in our flat we would have survived, but the entire rest of the street was obliterated.
“It’s that thing, if you come from Belfast or Derry, you can’t help thinking of the pure vagaries of chance that if you’re in this building, you’re fine, and if you’re a metre away, you’re not.”
That there had also been a Belfast Blitz “was never anything we had done in school”; she remembered her grandmother telling stories about it and “started realising that it was in living memory”.
Caldwell began researching and setting up interviews. “It was that period, that spring of 2020, when coronavirus was closing in, and there was that sense this thing was coming closer and closer and we were unprepared and it was unavoidable.”
She describes it “as if this portal opened of understanding” between life in those months before the first wave of the pandemic and the period of calm before the Belfast Blitz, when people “were telling themselves, almost with a sort of magical thinking, that it wouldn’t happen…when it did happen to Belfast the city was completely unprepared.”
The raids came in April and May 1941, months which “coincided exactly with our first lockdown,” says Caldwell.
“I wrote the first draft of the book in 11 weeks. I’ve never written anything like that before. It felt like it became untethered from reality, and I was living in this world and I was writing these characters.”
As she spoke to women who had been children during the Blitz she wondered what her own children, then two and five, would remember of the pandemic; interviewing a woman of 103 felt like “the most precious thing because at that time it was people in care homes, elderly people who were being hit the worst”.
“On more than one occasion I had managed to find someone and arranged to speak to them and then the conversation never happened, and it felt like there was this precious link and I was saving these stories as they were being lost.”
Born in 1981, Caldwell grew up in east Belfast and, like many before and since, left Northern Ireland at 18 to study, in her case at the University of Cambridge.
She published her first novel while a student and is a multi-award-winning playwright, novelist and short story writer; recent accolades include the BBC National Short Story Award, one of the world’s richest prizes for a single short story, which she won last year.
“I think of myself as a Belfast writer. It’s that Edna O’Brien thing, isn’t it? She says it’s the places of your childhood that haunt you, those crucial formative years. They’re like your bedrock, the place that you return to or the place that you’re trying to resolve. The place you can never escape.”
Yet she is equally part of a “whole generation of us who were reared with the expectation that we go away”. Being Northern Irish in London is, she says, a “peculiar kind of diaspora…because you have the illusion that you’re close, you’re only an hour’s flight or a ferry away and then something like the pandemic happens and you realise you really are far away”.
She arrived in Cambridge in 1999, the year after the Belfast Agreement which ended the Troubles; she recalls both the sense of dislocation – “you feel completely foreign, completely alien” – but also how the agreement brought “suddenly that possibility of plurality, you can be both, you don’t need to be either or.”
She applied for her first Irish passport the year later. To those who came of age at that time, she says, “it felt like those realisations about the complexity of identity are our particular generational thing”.
“The Good Friday Agreement – which is so imperilled – I think it brought possibility and hope and plurality to a whole generation.”
Just as she is a Belfast writer – “in that sort of layered, different-labelled way” – she is also a Northern Irish writer: “I have both passports but none of them ever feels completely right, and I think identifying as Northern Irish is something that’s particularly of that band of us that were that Good Friday Agreement coming of age.”
This sense of complex, multiple identities informs all Caldwell’s writing. The stories in her first short story collection, Multitudes, are told by girls and young women between Belfast and London. Her latest collection, Intimacies, is similarly “a book about being caught between here and there, a condition which is so familiar to so many of us who still call Northern Ireland home even though we’ve lived much of our adult lives away”.
“At first it felt like a lack, and then I realised that was what I had. You work with the material you’ve got.” Of Multitudes, she says: “If I had stayed maybe I would have written something else but I wouldn’t have written those stories.”
Her description of the story that won her the BBC National Short Story Award, All the People were Mean and Bad, could stand for all her work; it is about “closenesses” but also “distances, the distance between where you came from and where you end up, who you think you are and who you turn out to be. All those distances, real and metaphorical and metaphysical”.
This was learned in childhood; she recalls as a girl struggling to answer questions posed by “pen pals who wanted to know what it was like growing up in a war zone, being in the midst of a bomb”.
“I grew up in leafy east Belfast and I had ballet lessons and ice-skating lessons and in lots of ways it was a very normal childhood, and then how do your reconcile that with the girl in my P6 class whose father was murdered, or the time you are stuck in bomb scares or there’s a bomb scare phoned in to your school, or we were swimming and there was a bomb scare and we had to get out of the pool in November and be wrapped in tinfoil blankets.
“At the same time you feel you didn’t grow up at the front line and so you feel guilt at laying claim to any kind of Troubles experience and yet there are all these elements that are just not a normal childhood, so it’s how you come to terms with that.”
She still feels “completely torn…guilty for having left” yet also “so angry” at the poverty which persists in the North, the lack of investment in the arts – which is lower per capita in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in these island – and that almost 25 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement integrated education is still the exception rather than the norm.
I think it’s not talked about enough that the root cause of so much of the Troubles was poverty and systemic inequality
“You look at the sheer number of children in somewhere like Derry especially who are living below the poverty line and you think, if they don’t have an education and if they don’t have artistic outlets for their soul and for their expression…you can see how the old sectarian myths appeal because they give an explanation and a sense of belonging.
“You can see how young people can get sucked into something,” she says. “I think it’s not talked about enough that the root cause of so much of the Troubles was poverty and systemic inequality, and that was the case for the civil rights marches of the 1960s and I think it’s still the case now.”
When she began writing some of the stories that eventually became Multitudes, more than a decade before they were published in 2016, “I never believed that those stories of Belfast girlhood were of value to anyone because they’re not the sort of stories that people seemed to want of Belfast of that place and time…especially in England, people expect you to write about the Troubles or a particular type of story and it can feel impossible to tell other stories.”
This extends to the way in which writers from Northern Ireland are often defined. She accepts she is regarded as a Protestant author, even though she was never baptised into any religion and her parents – who were in a mixed marriage – stopped practising their faiths as they felt it was the only way they could bring up children in that time and place.
“It’s that sense of narrative collapse. People want to see me as a Protestant writer, why? Because I’m not overtly Catholic?
“My mum is from a big Irish Catholic family in England and she went to convent school, and the nuns insisted they all speak in RP English accents so when she came to Belfast of course having an English accent is seen as like upper class aspirational Protestantism, and that wasn’t my mum’s background at all.
“I find it sometimes frustrating, sometimes amazing, and constantly of interest the way those definitions are used to narrow someone or box someone [in] and I’m always interested in the complications or the untold stories – the multiplicity.”
It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker or Belfast being nominated for all the Oscars, it brings a spotlight and suddenly people realise there’s something there
In the years since, those multiplicities have become much more apparent. “It feels amazing to be part of this huge wave of writers [from Northern Ireland],” says Caldwell. “You build on things that other people do and it makes you up your game and there’s a sense of being in conversation, or even on a sort of shared enterprise that feels really exciting.
“I said earlier [in the interview] that it’s opened the floodgates, but it’s blasted open the possibilities for other writers.”
Nowadays, she says, in place of that “received narrative” of Troubles fiction there is “space for so many stories”; she singles out writers like Darran Anderson, Michelle Gallen, Kerri ní Dochartaigh and the “masterpiece” of Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning Milkman.
“There are so many writers who are writing to a world-class standard,” she says. Wendy Erskine, a short story writer and Caldwell’s sixth form English teacher, “is one of the greats, and even young writers like Dara McAnulty, I think he is so impressive in writing nature.”
Yet she resists the idea that Northern Ireland is experiencing a literary awakening. “I’m always quite wary of that…I think of people like Jennifer Johnson, Deirdre Madden, Anne Devlin, this whole generation of women who were writing at a time when it was much tougher to be a women writer.
“So it’s not that the writers haven’t always been there, it’s the sort of attention that gets paid to them.
“It’s like Anna Burns winning the Booker or Belfast being nominated for all the Oscars, it brings a spotlight and suddenly people realise there’s something there and they’re keen to read more.”
Indeed, for writers from Northern Ireland that multiplicity of identities and experiences may just be their greatest strength. “I think it’s so complex and so rich and not resolvable into any one thing, and different in a really exciting, dynamic way for so many writers” – not least Caldwell herself.