The Death of Andrea Levy

The Death of Andrea Levy
'You take what you know and shape it in to a story'
 Yesterday I heard of the death of Andrea Levy, author of such prize winning books as Small Island and The Long Song,  those wonderful fictionalised stories - the first based on her parents’ arrival in the UK from Jamaica – her Dad arrived on The Windrush and her Mum, some months later. 
The second based on the end of the slave trade in Jamaica. I heard her do a reading one time, from Small Island and she was a wonderful performer/reader/ story teller.  Of course the title, Small Island, refers to both Jamaica, where her parents came from  and the UK where they landed and she grew up – she grew up and went to school near where I live – close to the Arsenal Stadium.  She continued to live in North London and wrote Small Island mainly in the reference room of Hornsey Library in Crouch End, London N8, which is also one of the libraries where I go to write. 

I had seen Alan Yentob’s affectionate interview with her a few months ago (as part of his Imagine series) and she had briefly referred to her long  illness – she was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago and she reported that it was now ‘terminal’.  She was matter of fact and brief in her discussion of it.  She was also matter of fact and brief in answering Alan Yentob’s questions about the death of her mother, which clearly was a source of great pain for her.  At one point she says, gently but firmly, when he tries to sneak in a question ‘Alan, what part of  - I won’t discuss my mother’s death - did you not understand?’

Her work, as she has said, highlights the history of the Caribbean peoples in the UK in the 40s and 50s, people, whose near ancestors were slaves of the British Empire, working the plantations  on Jamaica and Barbados and all the other British owned islands of the Caribbean.  When the slave trade was abolished by Britain in 1833, the plantation owners got huge financial compensation and slaves got nothing.  Many former plantation owners settled in Marylebone in London where they built fine town houses with the proceeds.  Remember that next time you go to Marylebone. The descendants of the slaves were in that immigration rush after WWII, returning to, as they saw it, 'the Mother country', where they were needed to rebuild a Britain ravaged by 6 years of a terrible war.
 And remember that too if you travel to Canary Wharf tube station.  Turn right outside the station,  past the huge gleaming bank tower buildings. Walk down some steps and then left along the old wharf – the old Victorian warehouses for storing sugar cane are still there.  The wharf in front of these, is where slaves were off loaded and stood in shackles – being auctioned to the highest bidders – men, women and children.
The Long Song features one particular slave who had a relationship with a plantation owner and later a child by him.  When Andrea Levy started researching her own ancestry, to her surprise she found that her great grandmother’s life mirrored the story of Miss July in The Long Song.

The news of her death on February 15th 2019th was not therefore too much of a surprise to me, but somehow still a shock which made me cry.  Her work has highlighted a dark part of our British history which had seldom been written about.  I will continue to celebrate her life and mourn her loss.

Have you got a story from your life to tell?  My book gives you a chapter by chapter how to guide, takes you through all the steps...Available on Amazon - 

Writing Memoir.  How To Write a Story from Your LIfe, by Anna Meryt

Another one Bites the Dust - bye bye 2018. Hello 2019.


Well I'm not sorry that 2018 is over.  We had major family traumas. My children's father (my best friend and ex husband), became ill, deteriorated rapidly and suddenly he was gone. Devastating. One spark of joy - a new birth, a grandson, which brings hope and life and energy. So I just want to close the door and move forward into 2019, asap.
It's a funny thing about grief, just when you think the worst is over and you're moving on, boof!  Out of the blue when you least expect it, it rises like a wraith and pole axes you in the head again.  After a while you manage to get a grip and everything's ok again for a while.  I wrote a poem about it a few years back - it's in my poetry collection called Heart Broke
Heart attack
I’m picking out
the shards of glass,
counting. That’s the last,
isn’t it? No. I find more splinters.
There. It’s all done.
I feel a little better.
And then another dart
alerts me …
I start picking again.
So ... 2019. What's to do?  I've got so many writing projects I don't know where to start.
Finish my second memoir.  Changes are coalescing in my head about that.  I wrote half it and then stopped last June.  The unfolding tragedy intervened.  But I've been mulling it over, back and forth. 
Did you see the interview with Andrea Levy - in the BBC Imagine series , the presenter is Alan Yentob.  So interesting - she's one of my favourite authors - she wrote The Small Island, The Long Song - both of which have been dramatized by the BBC and shown recently.  The first is about the experiences of the Windrush generation,(Windrush was the name of the ship that brought the first group to England).  They were  coming to help rebuild the Mother country after the Second World War, the difference between the dream and the reality. The second book - Long Song is about the slave trade in Jamaica and its aftermath. The slave traders were all compensated when slavery was abolished in 1833 and the slaves got nothing - so were largely forced to remain as indentured labourers - their lives little better.  If you live or go to London, go down to Canary Wharf to the tiny museum there built on the wharf where the slaves from Africa came in and the sugar cane from the plantations also was brought in.  You can still see several of the brick warehouses where the sugar cane was stored and the place near the museum where the slaves stood on the dock to be auctioned.
Anyway I'm digressing as usual, back to Andrea Levy's interview.  She told Alan Yentob that she writes for an hour, then goes off and does domestic stuff and mulls it all over for the rest of the day.  ONE HOUR.   I was quite stunned.  And vindicated.  I hear of writers who religiously sit at their desks at the crack of dawn and write all day and stop in the late afternoon and I feel guilty.  My writing processes are so haphazard. I spend all morning getting chores done7ish, getting dressed, answering emails, following up Facebook and Twitter stuff.  My working day will start c. 2-3 and then I'll work until 7ish if I can.  Of course some days I have to do other stuff, I'm doing an author marketing course, I'm writing my blog, sending out to my mailing list (as here) or meeting a friend for lunch or going out in the evening ... so I'm lucky if I do 2 hours writing a day.    Andrea Levy does one hour, one of the most successful writers in this country today, does one hour and makes no apology for it.  So no need for guilt about my random and disorganised process.
Another thing that came out in the interview is that Andrea Levy has terminal cancer, she has an aggressive form that is beyond treatment. That was a shock.  Here's death rearing up again. I really can't be bothered to start blahing on about death and renewal in an attempt to make it, death, alright for you the reader.   I also don't like using all the euphemisms we do use as substitutes for the word death.  You won't get a positive spin on death from me.  It's the end of this life, whatever you believe happens next. It will be a great shame to lose Andrea L but she will leave behind a body of work of major importance in illuminating the slave trade and it's aftermath. Did I mention by the way that Marylebone in London was built largely by the compensation revenue given to the slave traders returning from the plantations?
Anyway, back to 2019 and my plans for the year ahead.  They've definitely been coloured by the events of 2018. I want to, for when I'm gone, leave behind a body of work that is of some use - whether as story telling in relation to places and times I have lived through or passing on some knowledge or using my skills to research and write HOW TO non fiction.  I've got 3 of those in the pipeline as well as the 2nd memoir.  Watch this space.

My books on Amazon:
Writing Memoir. How to Write a Story from Your Life
.A Hippopotamus at the Table - a memoir set in S Africa in the mid 1970s

A Hippopotamus at the Table

Cafe writers

I like to write in different places, cafes, libraries, hotels.  today I'm trying out hotels.

I tried the Ritz first, after a short stroll in Green Park with lovely autumn trees against a bright blue sky. First you walk in through a side entrance and two liveried doormen check you out.  Once inside the Ritz, I walked into the café/bar area and got told off for my 'dress code'.  This apparently referred to my shoes - black trainers. 'Sports shoes' said the Polish Bar Manager with distaste.

It was very busy in the main hallway inside with lots of gold regency furniture.  I walked up and down - all the same ornate style with lots of curly bits. I would have stood out like a sore thumb in my black leggings, mini skirt and the offending black trainers. Everyone looked quietly opulent.  Me with my battered old laptop, penchant for sitting cross legged on the furniture and table scattered with papers. There was no where to sit where I would have felt comfortable or relaxed. There was no where to sit where there wasn't a 'dress code'.  In other words they didn't want riff-raff like me in there.  The feeling was mutual.   So I left. 

I walked down the road to Brown's Hotel, as I'd been reading Stephen King's memoir 'On Writing',  (again) the day before. 

Mr King tells the story of how he wrote Misery. Bear with me it involves Browns. On the plane over from the USA with his wife (First Class I assume), he fell into a deep sleep and had a vivid dream about a writer who'd gone off to write in a cabin in the wilds, breaks his leg and gets trapped there with an over zealous and increasingly sinister female fan.  Sounds familiar?  Anyway he scribbled a note of it on the back of a napkin before they got off the plane. He and his wife got a cab into London and went to stay in Browns.
'... on our first night there I was unable to sleep ……. a lot of it was that airline cocktail napkin.... I thought it was just too rich not to write. 
        I got up, went downstairs,and asked the concierge if there was a quiet place where I could work longhand for a bit.  He led me to a gorgeous desk on the second-floor landing.  It had been Rudyard Kipling's desk, he told me with perhaps justifiable pride.  I was a little intimidated by the intelligence, but the spot was quiet and the desk seemed hospitable enough; it featured about an acre of cherrywood working surface, for one thing. Stoked on cup after cup of tea (I drank it by the gallon when I wrote … unless I was drinking beer, that is), I filled sixteen pages of a steno notebook.  I like to work longhand, actually: the only problem is that, once I get jazzed, I can't keep up with the lines forming in my head and I get frazzled.
When I called it quits, I stopped in the lobby to thank the concierge again for letting me use Mr Kipling's beautiful desk.  
'I'm so glad you enjoyed it,' he replied,  He was wearing a misty, reminiscent little smile, as if he had known the writer himself.
'Kipling died there actually, he died of a stroke.  While he was writing.'
I went back upstairs to catch a few hours' sleep, thinking of how often we are given information we really could have done without."

So there I was, I walked into Brown's - nice decor, nothing showy, lots of the colour brown to live up to it's name. Muted décor. I found this quiet under-stated ground floor bar area, found myself a warm quiet corner and got out my laptop.

 No poncy, liveried barmen or women looking down their noses at me this time.  Pleasant helpful staff - one appeared by my side, I ordered tea - a silver pot arrived, she poured out the tea through a silver strainer, into my cup. Then disappeared and didn't bother me again.

My laptop -  wouldn't you know it - the battery was dead.  The Italian girl at the desk plugged it in for me, by her desk and I told her the Stephen King story.  She called the bar manager [Polish] who was fascinated, told me how she spent too much time these days on social media instead of reading books.  She took me to another young woman, a neat and attractive brunette. The famous desk  I was looking for,  had apparently now been moved to an upstairs suite.  This turned out to be occupied, but that young woman insisted she would go up there when it had been vacated and take a picture of the desk and email it to me.  What a difference to the Ritz.  The staff were lovely at Brown's and I sat there at my laptop for several hours with one pot of green tea in a silver teapot - no one bothered me - and munched my way through the sugar lumps .... oh dear.

As soon as I get the photo of this famous desk, I will add it to this blog and won't that be interesting?
As for Browns, well it was a lovely place to write on a cold winter's day.  The staff were all friendly, helpful and accommodating.  Definitely recommended. Although that pot of tea was £8!


     I'm writing this a few days later, yes, dear reader she did email me a photo of the desk.  How kind but what a disappointment.  Rudyard Kipling died in 1936, Stephen King wrote Misery and published it in 1991 ish.  You'd expect such a desk to be a heavy old fashioned oak(?) affair with ink wells etc???  Well Stephen King describes it as 'gorgeous' and 'it featured about an acre of cherrywood working surface'.  
     The photo the Browns' staff member sent me  - no no no. This desk is a thin plain black slab on dull functional legs with boring chairs. I'm not even going to post it up for you.  It's just too dreary.  I've written back to her and thanked her for her kindness in remembering my request, but challenging the desk pic ... it can't possibly be can it?  I shall write again and tell her what Stephen King said.

Now I wonder how much they charge for a pot of tea at Claridges and The Dorchester?  And then there's the Savoy ....  and the  Hilton and the Grosvenor Park.  Am I setting my sights too high?