Friday, April 22, 2011

His Majesty’s Starship, part 3: a bloody children's publisher?

Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion ... and approached it ... and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.

Placing it with a publisher was quite atypically easy. Two friends from my writers group already shared an agent, Robert Kirby. Robert had been sufficiently tickled by their descriptions of the group to ask if he could have first refusal if any of the rest of us ever wrote a novel. I sent His Majesty’s Starship to him in August 1995, shortly before the Glasgow World SF Convention, which was my first worldcon. He finally accepted it, and me as a client, in January 1996. I had an agent! For a while I enjoyed dropping the words ‘my agent’ into conversation with friends, family and strangers.

(I recently came across an old letter from Robert thanking me for introducing him to his latest client, one Alastair Reynolds. Purveyor of retirement plans to agents, that's me. No finder's fee, sadly.)

And then Scholastic expressed an interest in it.


A bloody children’s publisher?

Robert’s precise reason for sending the book to Scholastic was, and I quote, “Gilmore seemed to me a sort of modern day Biggles and the level of sex and violence would not have raised the collective eyebrow of readers of Captain W.E. Johns.” As Gilmore, in the draft he read, was a divorcee from a group marriage with a teenage son, and there is an alien sex scene in chapter 16, I disputed this point of view, but it’s amazing the effect having a publisher actually express interest will have on you.

Further, I had been put off Scholastic by hearing horror stories from a friend who had had a novel published by their Point SF imprint which was systematically neutered to make it suitable for a young audience. (Or rather, one suspects, for the young audience’s parents.) The approaching middle age, divorced heroine became a teenager. At one point, in the original draft, she comes down first thing in the morning and finds the boyfriend having breakfast, with the implication he had stayed overnight; now he had to walk up the garden path first thing in the morning and ring the bell to be let in.

I don’t know who edited that book but it certainly wasn’t Scholastic’s David Fickling, a boundlessly cheery Roy Hudd lookalike and publishing genius. (All my writing breakthroughs seem to be thanks to someone called David: Fickling, Pringle, Barrett ...) Practically my first card on the table when I met David was that the alien sex scene stayed. “Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. I was to learn he said a lot of things cheerfully, including his careful enumerations of your novel’s precise faults.

David was the man who had signed Philip Pullman (Northern Lights had just won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction) and was looking for something meatier than Scholastic’s usual teen fare for a new imprint. Robert forewarned me that David thought the book was bogged down with too much detail. I went into the meeting determined to refute this viewpoint and I left agreeing with him. I also saw how it took far too long for the story to get going, and it finished too soon – about three quarters of the way through the book, with a lot of mopping up after. I needed to rewrite it so that it ended at, you know, the end.

The kicker was: if David suspected for a moment that I was just agreeing with him to get the book published, rather than rewriting with my heart in it, he wouldn’t be interested. Not that I would have just agreed with him to get it published ... but it concentrated the mind.

This began the first of quite a few rewrites: new opening chapter, throwing us straight into the action and highlighting Gilmore’s tactical ability. A space battle, a few people killed. All good stuff. I sent off the rewrite.

Early 1997: he didn’t like it. I began to see the problem: I had added more plot but left the excess verbiage in as well. David did me a huge favour for life at this point by recommending that I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, first of the Aubrey series. O’Brian’s characters just slide into the action: Aubrey has been through some considerable scrapes prior to the novel’s opening and we only hear about these second-hand.

I applied this to the novel and I cut out anything that didn’t directly relate to the action, including (though it broke my heart) chapter 8, in which the Rustie Arm Wild interviews the crew. That chapter was the key one to introducing not only the crew but also the alien mindset to the reader. The novel was now down to 92,000 words, from its first draft of 113,000.
Back to Scholastic, and David courted death with a casual comment along the lines of: “don’t I remember a chapter where Arm Wild interviews the crew? I quite miss that ...”

I restrained my homicidal impulse and learnt the lesson: anything that develops the characters is probably acceptable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the action. The interview was reinstated.
In January 1998 I sent in the final draft at 100,000 words, and it was accepted. And despite all the twists and turns over the last two years, it really was the story I originally wanted to tell.

I was struck by all the pluses of dealing with David, as opposed to the horror stories I had heard of other publishers: incompetent editors who want to be writers themselves and fiddle at every stage; who have no idea of science fiction beyond Star Trek; who bow to the High Priests of Marketing and tell you to put the sex here, the extra 200 pages there, and where’s that dragon when we need it? And all for a product that ultimately will have a life expectancy that makes a mayfly seem pensionable, because that’s how the bookselling system works. (Note: further on and many years later, I still have yet to meet any editors who match this stereotype ... but I was young then and, like it or not, the stereotype exists.)

I was bowled over by an editor who encouraged me to cut. Not willy-nilly, but surgically. Cut this, yes, but expand that, because you leave off just when the reader’s getting interested ... you see? And yes, I did see. David never lifted a finger to fiddle with the science fiction – that was entirely my own. He just concentrated on the story, and I came out the other end of the process a convert to the demands of children’s publishing: proper children’s publishing, not plot lobotomy as is sometimes practised. Just tell the story, then stop. That’s it. No more. Let it be as long as it needs to be. And you end with a story to be proud of: the story you wanted to tell.

I still had to stay on my toes. There were those within the Scholastic empire who clung to the old ways and David couldn’t control everything. Like, a frowning copy editor changed one character’s “Sod it!” to “Damn it!” We compromised on “Nuts!” (I had a vision of the guy wandering the corridors of their offices in New Commonwealth House muttering “Sod it / damn it / nuts / sod it / damn it / nuts ...”, perhaps looking to see which of his colleagues swooned at what.) Strangely, the occasional utterance of “Christ!” caused no upset at all; a sad reflection etc. etc.

The learning experience continued right up until the end. At proof stage, I was told it was one signature too long for its price range. Books are typically printed in multiples of sixteen pages – eight pages get printed on either side of a large sheet of paper which is then folded and trimmed. That is a signature. My choice was: cut it by sixteen pages, or let Scholastic put it up by a pound. I cut the sixteen pages. It’s humiliating to realise your book has sixteen dispensable pages in it, but it was an invaluable exercise.

His Majesty’s Starship was published in December 1998. My author copies were delivered while I was at work on the last working day before Christmas, so I had to go and collect them from the depot. As I drove away from the depot, with the holidays ahead and my first novel in the boot of my car, the radio announced that Peter Mandelson had resigned from the cabinet. And then it played the third part of Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, a piece of music I really enjoy with a triumphant trumpet fanfare.

I was pretty pleased with myself and with life generally.

Still am.

Life goes on …

It enjoyed modest success and some fairly nice reviews: I still relish the tingle when I saw SFX had awarded it more stars than the other book on the same page, a Star Trek: Voyager novel. It went out of print in 2002. A few years later I did a print-on-demand version because I was still getting a trickle of enquiries. And then, last year, I heard Cheryl was starting a new e-book publishing company ...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

His Majesty’s Starship, part 2: B5, bad guys and by golly, a sequel

Like me, Babylon 5 was also on a mission to do right what Star Trek got wrong. Its key innovation was the story arc – the idea of an overall plot across the entire series that would take many episodes to unfold. Nowadays it’s almost unknown for a series not to have an arc. Babylon 5 gave us a universe of consequences – if a character broke a leg in one episode, they were on crutches in the next. In one episode a fighter pilot was killed and the closing shot was of Commander Sinclair composing a letter of condolence to the next of kin. Humans in Babylon 5 were a minority species, one among many, as opposed to the apartheid-like setup of Trek in which humans are clearly the minority yet equally clearly in charge of almost everything. It was a universe where it was okay to be religious, without the right-minded good guys on the one hand ‘respecting’ your faith until their hearts bled and on the other quite obviously despising it as primitive superstition.

None of it was actually original in comparison to written science fiction, which had grasped all these innovations in the fifties or earlier. For television science fiction it was brand new and I felt a lot of moral support.

Babylon 5 also gave us a feisty Jewish-Russian female second-in-command; not a combination of features you would expect to be duplicated easily. Well, I got there first! Hah!

I enjoyed dividing the Earth into the political map of 2148, including such nations as the Confederation of South-East Asia, the Pacific Consortium, the Holy Arab Union, the South American Combine and the United Slavic Federation – and of course the Vatican. Then, once I had the entire planet neatly divided into political entities, I suddenly realised to my horror that I was doing what Trekkies do – I was neatly delimiting and parcelling up a potentially fascinating future to make it manageable. So the published version names a few nations, but many more are now implied.

Books need antagonists and it would have been too easy to make the Rusties the bad guys. In fact their invitation to the nations of Earth was pretty straight, for the amount of information they chose to reveal. So, the tension had to come from within the humans. For the baddies I chose the Confederation of South East Asia. This was a superstate India and its puppet satellite states; Pakistan, Bangladesh (I take credit for the first ever Bangladeshi on a starship, I think), Afghanistan, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma. I really should add I had and have nothing against India – but the baddy had to be a global superpower of 2148, and I have no doubt that India will be one. Europe and North America will have long had their day by then. Whether India is a good or a bad superpower, only time will tell. In His Majesty’s Starship it’s just emerging from a mad and bad period, and there’s a tension between different factions who have different views of the past. Several of the Confederation characters are perfectly decent guys who just happen to have been born into this situation and so I gave the Confederation the NVN, an equivalent of the Waffen SS, who unquestionably are bad and not necessarily well liked by their compatriots. As I don’t speak a word of Hindi, NVN stands for ‘Not Very Nice’. NVN uniforms were plain green, based on the pyjamas I was wearing at the time. Depending which part of the novel you read, the uniforms are either dark or pale green, which has two possible explanations: dark green for dress uniform, pale for combat (or vice versa); or, they left the dark uniforms in the wash too long.

Then I unexpectedly started thinking of a sequel …

I honestly hadn’t intended to. But I showed some chapters at Milford 1994 in Rothbury, Northumberland and they came up with two unforeseen reactions. First, I explained the background plot and an immediate reaction was: that’s what the aliens want, and we’re the best they can do?! And second, a criticism was made that Gilmore was a bit bland. He needed more background. He needed a family! Thus his eighteen-year-old son Joel was generated spontaneously from the ether, together with a perfect rationale for the Rusties’ actions, and these two things together gave me enough material to write The Xenocide Mission: the only sequel I have written so far.

In part 3: finding a publisher and discovering I'm a children's author.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

His Majesty’s Starship, part 1: origins

The lovely Cheryl tells me His Majesty’s Starship and Jeapes Japes are available in the Wizard’s Tower book store. They’re out there! EPUB and Kindle! £4.99 each! Buy them!

All of which inspires me to reminisce. In the best spirit of present-day science fiction I shall do it in three parts.

When I was young I read Robert Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast. This proved upon retrospect, and indeed upon actually doing it, to be a bad idea because it’s terrible and I couldn’t believe it had been perpetrated by the same author as my beloved Starman Jones, which I read and re-read compulsively up to the age of about 13. However, there is a very brief mention in it of a Royal Space Force. That was an image that hung around in my mind for a long time after, but I didn’t just want to fling it straight into a story as a given. I wanted to know how such a thing had come about.

Also, much as I love good ol’fashioned space opera, with space battles and hyperspace jumps and lasers, I grew up on much more plausible Arthur C. Clarke-type spaceship stories, where there is no artificial gravity and ships must obey the laws of physics. I wanted to write a story that could start in a Clarke-type universe and plausibly end with whizz-bang-splody ships.

In my twenties, I read Hornblower. I had dipped into this before but now at a stroke I now read the entire series. I was struck by an aspect of Hornblower that eluded me as a child: his self-loathing. He is a hero and can never believe it. Every mission he undertakes he is convinced will be his last – and this at a time when the English had shot Admiral Byng on his own quarterdeck for messing up. That was my hero!

I almost had a novel. I didn’t know back then that the phrase ‘Hornblower in space’ was already fast becoming a cliché; I only had a vague idea who Honor Harrington was and David Feintuch’s Hope series had yet to be published. It probably wouldn’t have been a problem if I had, though, because both those others are set well after the start of their respective eras. I however wanted to cover the beginning. For example, why exactly would anyone want to arm a spaceship?

I also wanted to bring the limitations of nineteenth century naval warfare to space, as I think the principles will be pretty similar if it ever happens. In Hornblower’s day, ships were big and slow and couldn’t hide. If you were doing five knots and your enemy came over the horizon doing five and a half, then sooner or later there would be a battle, but you could spend all day just looking at your enemy as he crept closer and closer without being able to do a thing about it. There was nowhere to run to, and when the fighting started you just sat there and took it. And so, these principles were applied to the big space battle in the novel, when it came.

Mix ’em all together and I had my background.

In Asimov’s Foundation trilogy there is a throwaway line about Gilmer, the man who sacked the Imperial capital Trantor and brought down the remains of the Empire. This led to a vague resolution as a teenager, filed away at the back of my mind next to the Royal Space Force, that I would one day chronicle the future history of the Gilmer family. To kick them off, my depressive spaceship captain was named Gilmore. Michael Gilmore, because I’ve always liked Michael as a name: I’ve never met a Michael I didn’t like.

I kicked back against Hornblower’s depressive excesses. He never really accepts that actually he’s quite good and his self-pity becomes actively annoying to the reader. Thus by the end of the story Gilmore has good reason to believe he’s actually quite good at what he does.

Never assume an author is putting himself into his characters, but Gilmore’s lack of self-belief certainly mirrored part of my own personality. I began to write His Majesty’s Starship in 1993; I was still in my late twenties and had no idea what the future might hold. I had no idea if I would ever be called upon to lead a large body of people, or even a small one. I did know I didn’t fancy the idea in the slightest because I had no confidence that I could. And so far in my life, I’ve managed to remain a lone wolf.

And the required jump to a Trek-type universe by the end? Okay, I begged the question here: aliens, already technologically advanced, come to Earth with an invitation to the human race to help them develop a world they have available. I called them the First Breed, for reasons which become apparent; the humans nickname them the Rusties. When someone in my writers group said ‘First Breed’ sounded vaguely threatening, hinting at ideas of racial supremacy, I knew I was doing this right.

It took a while to finalise their physical form. At first I played around with all kinds of shapes in my mind but they all came back to the ‘man in a rubber suit’ syndrome; I could take them about as seriously as I could take Trek’s alien of the week. I certainly wasn’t thinking of them as non-human. Then I remembered the Hefn of Judith Moffett’s wonderful (and underrated) Ragged World (tales of the Hefn on Earth - geddit?) series, who are as at home on four feet as they are on two. I put the Rusties on all fours and, voila, aliens!

This also helped me right a grievous wrong that was perpetrated upon science fiction in the early nineties. There was an especially irritating story in Asimov’s called ‘The Nutcracker Coup’. Quite apart from being nauseously cute and upholding the right of all decent Americans to interfere in the affairs of less developed planets if they find the culture un-American or even if they are just plain bored, it featured a four legged intelligent race which – and I gaped with astonishment when I read it – still carried things about in its front legs, so that if one of them was holding a gun on you, say, it hobbled along on three legs while it kept you covered. An interesting take on evolutionary theory, I thought. How would these creatures ever invent the gun? Or any human-type tool that effectively disabled an entire limb if it was going to be used?

Thus, my Rusties had grasping tentacles on either side of their heads which they used the same way we humans used hands. Other things about them just came off the top of my own head. Rusties appear to human eyes to be flaking rust, hence the name (first I actually wanted them to be sweating iron oxide, but my biochemistry isn’t up to it), and when they are conversing face to face, humans have to fight the urge to pick the flakes off the alien’s skin. A Rustie’s nostrils are at the top of its domed head, above the eyes – they come from a relatively predator-free stock that evolved on the plains, so need to keep their airways free of dust and dirt – and thus humans tend to make eye contact with the alien’s nose. They communicate very much by body language, managing to transmit whole concepts in an instant with a gesture or a scent that would take a human much longer to say out loud; this meant I had to find a way of writing down a Rustie conversation from a Rustie’s point of view. And they are herd animals, which is very important.

Finally, the ship itself: His Majesty's Starship, HMSS Ark Royal. This was originally Raptor, a pun on Trek’s Bird of Prey, until I decided that the UK probably would call its first starship Ark Royal – and anyway, it pushed up the word count.

Much too much of my motivation for His Majesty’s Starship was wanting to do right what Star Trek did wrong; like, emphasising that my ship's have seatbelts and depressurise during battles. At the time, Star Trek was the only viable space-based series on television, other than repeats of the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century – both of which could only be loved for their classic cheese status. But then, in 1994, a few thousand words into the first draft of His Majesty’s Starship, Babylon 5 hit our screens and changed everything.

To be continued ...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Vence en Provence en France, part deux

Okay, the key, take-home lesson to impart to anyone visiting Vence is that you can turn left when leaving the car park beneath the Place du Grand Jardin. Failure to understand this key point led to much unhappiness and tristesse and enforced navigation of the hired Renault Clio twice around incredibly tight and steep little streets and corners of an old Provencal town, feeling more and more like something out of an advert and wondering when I would bump into Nicole and Papa coming the other way.

Later, I would look down from our room in the Hotel La Victoire which was right above that particular junction and see that everyone was turning left, even though I had clearly seen a sign forbidding it. I mean, come on, I know this is France but even so, I thought that level of disregard for basic traffic regulation was unusual. So I went and took a closer look at the no-left-turn sign, and noticed the extra bit beneath it that said something about 13.5 tons.

Dommage. On with the holiday.

La Victoire: tres joli, on one corner of and overlooking the main square, run by a lovely couple; cheap and cheerful, like a bed and breakfast except that you have to order the breakfast. So, not so much B&B as just B. Discount arrangement with the car park so that it’s affordable to leave your car there. Room clean and comfy but at 6’.5” I was glad not to be spending more nights in the just-about double bed. Definitely a warm weather hotel, as the only communal area for sitting in is outside the front door where you can watch the world go by. This is fortuitously next to a very nice ice cream stand.

Wednesday, explored Vence, not just the Matisse museum but elsewhere. The core of the town is a walled off medieval pedestrian-only labyrinth, containing such things as the cathedral, which itself contains a mosaic by Chagall (a lot of artistic stuff in this vicinity) ...

... and the first Madonna & Child I have ever seen that makes Mary look young and makes both mother and son look like they’re having fun. Suspiciously like a real mother and son, in fact.

The Chapelle des Penitents Blanc had an interesting art exhibition: the artist had taken a few hundred left profile photos, mirrored them so that the subjects seem to be looking themselves in the eyes, and artistically adorned them according to some internal standard known only to the artist. It said something – no idea what – but I enjoyed looking at them all, which probably means it’s proper art, or something.

May I also recommend the Restaurant Cote Jardin, where we dined simply for its amazing view across the valley. Actually eating out on the terrace would have been counter productive as you go down a few steps and therefore would have the view blocked by the trees; much better to stay up in the main building. We ate there twice, and the first time had the slightly surreal experience of being an English/Swedish couple in the south of France not being able to help eavesdropping on the party of Norwegians at the next table.

Thursday, off down the road to St Paul de Vence, a hilltop town that is even more bijou and medieval and labyrinthine, perched on top of a rocky crag, just begging to be the setting for a fantasy novel ...

... and guarded at its main gate by a Transformer.

This is just one of the many arty tableaus and sculptures around the town. Can I be excused for thinking that this one, consisting many dead mobiles, remote controls etc, looks just a little like a very large Jedi training aid?

From here we also got our first glimpse of the Alps, which we had previously forgotten all about. You can see them very plainly from the plane, but for the outbound flight you need to be sitting on the left and we weren't.

St Paul de Vance sadly knows exactly how alluring it is to tourists and while it may look the part, almost every building is a shop selling something touristy. Still, there are people who live there; there are people who can still call it home. Chagall is buried somewhere in the cemetery at the end, but we signally failed to find the grave, possibly because (having looked it up on Google images) it’s just like – well, a normal grave. How odd.

The road there is hair raising for a Brit accustomed to Oxfordshire, switchbacking along the side of steep hills. Doing a comfortably safe maximum of 50kph I could swear I was hearing men's voices; then I looked in the mirror and saw we were being tailgated by a couple of racing bikes, with more behind, and what's more we were obviously holding them up. Eventually they were able to overtake, and we repaid the compliment on the next uphill slope.

Friday, perhaps the biggest miracle of all – finding our way through Nice rush hour not only back to the airport but to the Europcar office within it.

And that is what we did on our holiday.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How to steal like an artist

My friend Dave asked for my thoughts on How To Steal Like an Artist, so I may as well share them with the rest of the world too. He's talking about creativity generally; I take a specifically writer's views.
  1. Yup.

  2. Indeed - this is part of your becoming. Having an idea helps, however, to give drive and focus to your creativity. Knowing who you are feeds into your creativity and vice versa.

  3. Depends. Sometimes there's a contractual obligation. However, let's assume this is about starting out as a writer, so it's probably true. However, having written what you like, go back and check it isn't just fan fiction. Sometimes you have to drown your kittens.

  4. YMMV. This works for him; I know for a fact it wouldn't for me.

  5. Yes, even when you feel they're crowding into what you really want to do, i.e. be creative.

  6. Get a good publisher with a publicity department. You should be free to spend your energy on creating.

  7. Well, yes. Not sure why this makes the top 10 - it's a bit like saying we live on a world with gravity.

  8. Oh yes. Oh yes! Don't be afraid of making mistakes, because if they're typical newbie ones then people will people will move on. But if you enter the realms of total epic jerkness, people will remember. Oh yes. See

  9. Also true. This is why I get so irritated with people banging on about not wanting to have a boring 9-5 job when in fact they've never tried it.The boring 9-5 job gives you stability and subsidises the important stuff you do with the rest of your time. All the other things he mentions are true too.

  10. Also true. Make your audience do some imagining rather than spell it out for them - it will be better than anything you write. Cf. the entire career of Anne McCaffrey after the mid-80s.

Monday, April 11, 2011

His Majesty's Starship, Jeapes Japes, and absolutely no DRM

Now I've signed the contracts (as of today) I'm delighted to announce the republication of His Majesty's Starship and the first-time publication of Jeapes Japes, my short story collection, both by the wonderful Cheryl Morgan's Wizard's Tower Press and both as ebooks. Check out the online book store shortly, and behold Andy Bigwood's excellent cover.

I remember in one of my first serious writing efforts, c. 1984, imagining people reading something off a book-sized handheld gadget - and I was imagining the image being something more sophisticated than a cathode ray tube which was pretty well all that was available back then. Go me! What I didn't foresee - though anyone who actually knew a thing about computer files could have worked it out within minutes - was the whole DRM thing.

One of the great things about Cheryl's contract is that it specifies the books have no DRM protection. Now, you can see why publishers want to protect their books. In principle, with a paper book, anyone could take a photocopy and pass it on to friends; in practice, they probably won't. With ebooks - indeed with any kind of software - they very easily can and do, and the publishers lose a sale. The publishers lose many sales. So, publishers want to make sure that doesn't happen and they slap protection on - which effectively criminalises all the innocent readers, i.e. the majority. People don't like that. Would you buy a paper book that you could only read in your own house, or your own house and that of a designated friend, just in case you photocopied it? Of course not.

But what about the lost revenue, you ask? Well, yes, that is a tough one and it's a strong argument - but it will never, with existing technology, get over the point that people simply don't like being treated as potential criminals just because of the minority (raking in huge sums) who actually are. Even Apple, which is pretty good at using its weight to get its own way regardless of everyone else's feelings, was forced to drop DRM on iTunes. The successful publishers will be those who acknowledge there will be leakage of revenue, and work with it.

I'm hugely grateful to Cheryl for her principled stand on the matter, and for giving the books this chance.

Going back to the books, I did this cover myself (photo by Derek Walker) and take full responsibility for any sub-optimal awesomeness.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Sadly, we didn’t stay in a convent

Last year Best Beloved was watching a programme about Henri Matisse, learned of the existence of the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, and fell in love with it. At that point it became an intended holiday destination.

It’s attached to a convent of Dominican sisters, which takes visitors, so we did consider staying and I was rather looking forward to the conversation: “so where are you going on holiday, Ben?” / “Oh, I’m going to stay in a convent …”

But no, we went for a more conventional hotel and it was probably the right choice.

Vence is a half hour drive north of Nice. Nice is built on the one flat bit of the Alpes Maritimes, which as the name suggests is otherwise quite hilly. You don’t go far inland before awesomely steep hills and cliffs start arising all around you, verdant and with homes clinging to them until they get so steep people stop trying. Most of Vence is on the top of one of these, spilling down on either side, and to the north it looks across a valley dominated by the Baous – immense, imposing cliffy peaks. At night the valley rings with what at first I thought was a crowd of laryngitic cicadas but eventually realised – no jokes, please – must have been hundreds if not thousands of frogs. The chapel is on the north side of this valley, looking back at the main town.

No photos allowed inside, sadly, so I’ll have to describe it. It’s very simple, and elegant in its simplicity. Not large – a total seating capacity of maybe 50 or so. The floor is paved in white stone, the walls and ceiling are painted white, and even the Matisse drawings (of which more later) are done in simple black strokes on white tiles. The building is L-shaped with the congregation sitting in the longer part and the sisters in the bit around the corner. The altar sits on a dais at an angle to catch both wings of the chapel. You may roll your eyes when I say it reminded me a little of the TARDIS console, classic design, the focal point that quietly presides over the white space around it – but I mean that as praise, honest.

At the end of the chapel behind it, and also on the congregation’s left, tall, thin floor-to-ceiling windows are paned in regular patterns of blue and yellow – very Swedish – which cast a beautiful hue on the white floor and walls. They are exactly the right colours to splash around the cool interior: even when it’s well over 30 degrees outside, you feel cool just looking at the colours.

(An alternative design Matisse considered, of which a mock-up can be seen in the museum, had much more autumnal colours of orange and black and gold. It would have been effective but also incongruous when you knew that outside was actually a nicely sunny Provencal day. Maybe if the chapel had been further north in France.)

There are three large line drawings by Matisse in Good News Bible sort of style: a tall robed figure who is St Dominic to the right of the altar (Dominicans, remember), a Madonna and Child with arms outstretched to the right of the congregation, and the stations of the Cross on the rear wall.

It’s only open at certain times of day and you want to be there right at the opening. There were already about 30 people waiting when we turned up. A brief talk by one of the sisters and then you’re ushered out for the next lot. By the time we emerged, coaches had started pulling up outside.

And now I’ve said all that, it occurs to me there’s nothing to stop me scanning the postcards we bought. Top, looking towards the front; St Dominic and Madonna & Child on right. Bottom, towards the back with stations of the Cross.

More to follow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Holiday limerick

Aujourd'hui je pense
Nous allons au sud de France
Where a chapel near Nice
Designed by Matisse
Se trouve dans la ville they call Vence.