Blood, Books and Birthdays

May 5th was a busy day. It was my first day back at university as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, it was my younger daughter’s birthday and it was publication day for my second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton - a tale of loss, choice, secrets, old churches, garden mazes and early hydro-electricity.


It is set in 1924 in a fictional Wiltshire village between the standing stones of Avebury and the ancient Savernake forest—and, by contrast, in Wembley at the extraordinary British Empire Exhibition and the newly built stadium.

Wembley 1925

A few weeks from finals yet many more students said it was all coming together—sometimes with electric connections—than were shuddering on the edge of pre-exam angst. In my day there was more weeping, more 72 hours-on pro-plus-and-no-sleep-until-seated-psychotic-in-exam-hall as a revision technique.

My one tip: practice writing essays in pen. After years of word-processing the mind and hand need to learn to work differently.

Yesterday’s essays included post-war Italian film, the mind-jangling sexual politics of Houellebecq and the Englishness in Agatha’s Christie’s detective stories. I scavenge them all shamelessly for future ideas. On the way home in the car I listened to Bleak House. By the time I got back, I was in literary meltdown. When I am in my final hours, characters from Beowulf to Sapper, Angélique to Mr Rochester, Mrs Dalloway, Count Fosco, Sydney Carton and Lord Peter Wimsey and, yes Captain Emmett and Kitty Easton will cluster, vaporously, around my bed.

With maternal diligence I rang my daughter who was spending her birthday afternoon giving blood. ‘I’m O Negative, the universal donor,’ she said, casually but proudly as if virtue had driven her to select it deliberately. ‘Which reminds me no birthday cards have arrived.’ ‘The Post, darling,’ I said. Repeatedly.

Sometimes I look in envy on books with very short titles: Catch 22, Exodus, even Silas Marner or Wolf Hall. Student essays usually abbreviate so that Murder on the Orient Express is MOTOE or The Confessions of a Justified Sinner TCOAJS. When my publishers and I came up with the titles of my novels, which had resonances of contemporary titles of the 1920’s, we didn’t have Twitter in mind and I can hardly assume the world will recognise TROCJE or TSFOKE.

So yesterday, after too much celebrating, too many essays, and too much blaming of the Royal Mail, I proudly announced my new novel on Facebook: The Strange Return of Captain Kitty Lytton. Marketing is everything; and I failed. The sharp-eyed will spot that it was a confused amalgam of The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton and its predecessor The Return of Captain John Emmett.

But “Lytton”? Where on earth did “Kitty Lytton” come from?

That was her original name. She bore it right through the drafts, the polishing, and almost onto the title page and the dust-jacket, until one of the marketing people at my publishers murmured: “Ah. The Strange Fate of Kitty Litter. Fascinating.” Marketing people are often maligned. But from now on, I will defend them to the death.

And thank heavens for Find & Replace...

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