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Work in progress: A literary almanac
A peek behind the velvet curtain at what I'm writing at the moment
I’ve always had a bit of a thing about dates (that’s chronological specificity rather than the edible sweet fruit from the palm family Arecaceae). This manifests itself in an interest in customs and traditions, a completely reasonable insistence on only eating Hot Cross Buns ON THE RIGHT DAY OF THE YEAR AND ON NO OTHER, and of course in writing books.
Most of my books have important dates in them, especially Menus That Made History and A Book of Book Lists which have quite precise sections. And Art Day By Day: 366 Brushes with History is obviously entirely date-based, a history of art which very much does what it says on the tin. The book on which I’m now working (in fact I’m in the final furlong) is along similar lines. The working title is The Book Lover’s Almanac (so it will look smart on your bookshelf alongside my previous The Book Lover’s Joke Book) and the idea is similar to Art Day By Day, a short history of the world of words with a titbit for every day of the year.
Each chapter is going to start and finish with a list of important births, deaths, first publication dates, and final words of famous writers. Then, month-by-month, readers are treated to a daily piece - sometimes pieces - of ‘on this day’ literary history. I’ve tried to make this as intriguing, international, culturally-sensitive, and as wide-ranging as possible. So to give you an exclusive taster ahead of publication (later this autumn), here’s something from each month from the uncorrected final draft:
1959: Sylvia Plath has her brother Warren round for dinner. She cooks roast beef, creamed spinach in broth, and her signature pudding, lemon meringue pie.
1902: During his visit to Italy, EM Forster falls up the steps at St Peter’s in Rome and brakes his right arm (just as he was recovering from a sprained ankle in a previous fall). His mother looks after him for the rest of the month - washing, cooking, and tending the many flea bites which he gets on his arm - while visitors bring various presents including buns, ivy from Cicero’s villa, and a branch of mimosa.
1870: Queen Victoria meets Charles Dickens at a private audience. In her diary she mentions that he was “very agreeable, with a pleasant voice & manner”, the two of them standing as they chat although the monarch leant on a sofa. They discuss his reading tours, the nature of Americans, English class divisions, and what he is working on. This was in fact his unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Indeed, the queen misses an opportunity to find out exactly how it would end since Dickens has told her advisor Arthur Helps that he would be happy to tell her all about the plot and his plans. Apparently the queen was happy to wait to find out.
2012: The British Library makes a remarkable discovery in one of its holdings, a mid-14th century cookbook by Geoffrey Fule which includes a recipe for unicorns. The book also contains recipes for codswallop and tripe. Two years later, it also notices what appears to be an alien spaceship in the 15th century Huth Hours, confirming contemporary testimony by Lionel the Imbecile.
1944: After three years of bedtime stories about Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking), Astrid Lindgren presents her daughter Karin with a handwritten book of her adventures for her 10th birthday. She then sends them to publishing firm Bonniers who, after some consideration, reject the book. It is published at Christmas 1945 after Lindgren wins first prize in a children's book competition run by publisher Raben & Sjogren's.
1912: “Bad. Wrote nothing today.” Franz Kafka, diary entry.
1992: On the morning of her death, the prolific Rosemary Sutcliff is still writing. The 72-year-old author of The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset is around two thirds through the second draft of the book which has the provisional title The Sword Song of Bjarni Sigurdson. It becomes Sword Song when it is published five years later in 1997.
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2015: Keen that his unpublished works remain so after his death in 2015, around 10 of Terry Pratchett’s novels in progress are entirely destroyed when, according to his own instructions to be implemented after his passing, they are smashed up by a steamroller and a concrete crusher at the Great Dorset Steam Fair in England. The remains of the hard drive go on show in the local Salisbury Museum.
1947: Andy Dufresne's wife Linda and her lover are murdered in Stephen King’s 1982 novella ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’. Andy is found guilty of the crime and incarcerated in Shawshank Prison from where he makes his dramatic escape on March 12, 1975.
1944: Dylan Thomas fails to attend the wedding of his close friend the Welsh poet Vernon Watkins where he is supposed to be best man. Remarkably, it does not ruin their friendship.
2021: Novelist Joanne Harris chooses her writing shed as her castaway luxury on Desert Island Discs.
1956: Writer Michael Bond is looking for Christmas stocking filler presents for his wife in Selfridges on London’s Oxford Street. He spots the last teddy bear on a shelf and, feeling sorry for it, buys it on impulse. He calls him Paddington after his local railway station…
The end of January is the perfect time to treat yourself to my two most recent books, pictured above. A vailable from your local independent bookseller, and of course online (in fact currently half price at Waterstones and Amazon).