Adventures in Self-Publishing: Why Self-Publish?

It’s been five years since my last book, The FitzOsbornes at War, came out and occasionally readers contact me to ask whether I’ve written another book and if so, why it isn’t available for them to read.

There’s a long, complicated answer to that question, and there’s a short answer.

The short answer is ‘Yes, I’ve written another book! I finished writing it ages ago! It’s really interesting and funny! But it hasn’t been published because no-one wants to publish it!’

The long, complicated answer is … long and complicated. Firstly, for the past few years, my energy has not really been focussed on my writing career. I got really sick and was in and out of hospital for months, so I felt I was doing really well just to finish my manuscript and write some blog posts and answer readers’ emails. When I was better, I went back to college to update my (non-writing) qualifications and then found a new day job, and that took up all of my time and energy for a while. I pretty much handed my manuscript over to my agent and left him to get on with his job, which was trying (and, it turns out, failing) to get my new book published the traditional way, the same way my previous four books had been published.

The second part of my long, complicated answer has to do with how much the publishing industry in Australia has changed since I became a professional writer. When I signed my first publishing contract in 2006, ebooks barely existed. There were lots of Australian publishers, of all different sizes and types, all keen to take a chance on an unknown author, and there was much excitement (and money) in the Children’s and Young Adult section of publishing, due to the success of Harry Potter and then Twilight and The Hunger Games and all those other best-selling books for young readers. It was a good time to be writing YA, and I was lucky to get my start then.

However, in recent times, publishers have had to deal with a number of challenges. The Australian government keeps trying to push through legislation that would devastate the local publishing industry. Large publishing houses have merged into huge multinational publishing houses, and lots of small publishers have been swallowed up or disappeared, so there are fewer publishers accepting manuscript submissions. Digital piracy is now a massive problem and book sales are down. There’s a new generation of consumers who want everything on the internet to be free and available immediately – and why should they read a full-length book, anyway, when there are so many other things they could be doing online? It’s much harder for publishers to make a profit these days, so they need every book they publish to be a best-seller. When Fifty Shades of Grey sold by the truckload, I’d hoped this would give that particular publisher some spare money to spend on quiet, thoughtful, quirky, unlikely-to-be-a-bestseller books (like mine). But no, what Australian publishers are actually looking for is the next Fifty Shades of Grey, or at least a clone of whatever is currently on the New York Times bestseller list.

This is a problem for me as an Australian reader, and even more of a problem for me as an Australian writer. Australian publishers are still publishing books by Australian writers, including debut authors, but these tend to be writers who are easy to market – celebrities and young, attractive, gregarious writers with a huge social media following.

Given all this, it’s not really surprising that publishers’ marketing departments were not wildly enthusiastic about my new offering. “Wait, it’s about … science? And history? But in the form of a mystery story? With teenage girls as the main characters, girls being all clever and … solving problems with science? And there’s no romance? And you actually expect teenagers to read this? Wait, this is mostly set in Australia, are you serious, don’t you realise how useless that is for attracting international sales…” And so on. It didn’t help that the book doesn’t fit neatly into one marketing category or genre. I was told it would be impossible to market, and therefore publish, “because booksellers won’t know which shelf to put it on”.

(I should point out here that my new book does have lots of jokes! And cool illustrations! Also vampires, witches, werewolves, body-snatchers, unicorns and parachuting cats. I should probably also note that there’s quite a bit of what Americans call ‘diversity’ and I call ‘real life’, which tends to worry Australian publishers – although hopefully that is starting to change.)

Anyway, by the end of last year, it seemed clear that the only way this book was going to exist was if I published it myself. I did think very hard about whether it was good enough to be published. I mean, if more than one publisher had rejected it, it must be badly written, right? Except publishers are not making judgements about a manuscript’s literary quality, but about its commercial potential (see aforementioned Fifty Shades of Grey). And there are many examples of publishers getting it wrong (all the publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, for example, or those who told Rebecca Skloot that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wouldn’t find a readership). In any case, I think I’m my own harshest critic. I’ve previously abandoned one whole first draft of a novel, plus another half-finished manuscript, because I just didn’t think those particular stories were good enough for publication. When I picked up this new manuscript after a long period of time (it sat on one publisher’s desk for nearly two years), I was able to read it with a fresh eye – and I was genuinely interested in the story and the information, and even laughed out loud at one of the jokes. I think it’s the sort of book I’d pick up at the library or pay actual money for in a bookshop.

So, I’ll be running a series of blog posts over the next few months about my experiences publishing my own book. It won’t be all How To Publish Your Own Book expert advice, because I don’t really know what I’m doing. It may end up being a What Not To Do, which should be helpful for authors contemplating taking this path. As always, I welcome your comments!

Next in Adventures in Self-Publishing: What’s This Book About, Anyway?

‘The Furthest Station’ by Ben Aaronovitch

'The Furthest Station' by Ben Aaronovitch

There’s a new Rivers of London book out! Except it’s not a novel but a 140-page novella, and I’d thought it wasn’t being released until September. It turns out that an American publisher, Subterranean Press, has just released a signed, limited-edition hardcover for $40, with another 26 signed, lettered editions available for those willing to pay $250.

My local council librarians must have been in an extravagant mood, because they’ve just bought three of the limited-edition hardcovers. I read copy number 676. Look, it’s signed and everything:

'The Furthest Station' signed by Ben Aaronovitch

Is this book worth nearly two dollars a page? Well, no, but it’s a charming story with some characteristically amusing Peter Grant commentary, set sometime between the events of Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree. In this book, London’s trains are being haunted by some ghosts who are behaving very strangely, even by ghost standards. Peter, Abigail and Toby the ghost-hunting dog join up with Jaget of the British Transport Police to find out what the ghosts want – and then realise that they need to save a real, live person from a terrible fate.

There are two other strands of the story, one involving a brand-new river god and the other involving those talking foxes who first popped up in Whispers Under Ground. This is at least one too many strands for a book of this length. Neither of these two stories seems to have anything to do with the main mystery plot and they aren’t resolved in any satisfactory way. I’m particularly annoyed about the foxes, because they’ve been hanging around for four books and we still don’t know anything about them. No, wait – we find out they talk to Abigail because she feeds them kebabs. I sincerely hope they do something more interesting in the next book.

The central mystery itself is resolved fairly quickly and is probably the least interesting part of the book, although the ghosts themselves are poignant. I most enjoyed the bits in which the Folly characters interact – Abigail and Peter taking a break from ghost-hunting to sit on a train platform and eat Molly’s packed supper (“steak and kidney pasties, still warm, with a recycled jam jar full of pickled onions staring out at us like so many eyeballs”), Nightingale sitting at the kitchen table polishing his shoes and reminiscing about his school days to Peter, Abigail teaching Molly how to upload cake photos to Molly’s Twitter account. It was good to learn about Abigail’s ‘internship’ at the Folly, although she did show distinct signs of being a Mary-Sue. (Nightingale calls her a genius! Postmartin’s amazed by her Latin skills! She’s bound to ace her GCSEs! She’s such a techno-whiz that even British Transport is impressed! She can talk to animals! And she hasn’t even turned sixteen yet!) Peter and Nightingale argue about whether they should teach Abigail magic or not, but we all know perfectly well that she’s going to be the next Folly apprentice. And let’s hope that turns out better than the last time a brilliant young woman joined the Folly …

Curious Science: ‘Can Writers Prevent Disease?’

This evening, I attended a talk on two of my favourite subjects, writing and science. It was held at my local council library, which happens to be located at Circular Quay, between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. I arrived early so I went for a little walk and took some photos. Here is my artistically blurred depiction of the Bridge:

Sydney Harbour Bridge at night

Customs House, which houses the library, is a rather impressive structure itself. (I didn’t take any photos of it because there was a mob of seagulls loitering in a menacing manner on the forecourt, but this is what Customs House looks like.) The foyer has a glass floor and underneath it is an amazing 1:500 scale model of the City of Sydney, updated yearly, complete with tiny yachts and ferries bobbing about the harbour and tiny street lights that are turned on each night. I also checked out the current exhibitions, including Count Us Together, a small but fascinating collection of photos, posters and newspaper articles about the 1967 Referendum.

The writers-and-science talk was organised by a confusing number of institutions (“The City of Sydney Library joins forces with Inspiring Australia to host a Vivid event as part of the Curious Science series”) but aimed to discuss new partnerships between the Charles Perkins Centre and Australian writers. I was especially interested to learn more about the Charles Perkins Centre, because I happen to work next door to it, and often spend my lunch break in an adjacent courtyard, eating my salad sandwich and wondering what they actually do in that snazzy new building. It turns out the Charles Perkins Centre houses about nine hundred University of Sydney academics who are working on the problems of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other associated disorders. The Academic Director of the Centre, Professor Stephen Simpson, explained that obesity has a range of causes and consequences. It’s not simply about people eating too much and not exercising enough, or even about will-power – it has complex causes that include poverty, education levels, agricultural practices, cultural expectations, the built environment and many other factors. Accordingly, the Centre employs staff from a wide range of academic disciplines – philosophers, medical specialists, architects, psychologists, physicists, agriculturalists and many more – who collaborate in a fluid, creative way in research and teaching. Given all this fluid creativity, it seemed natural that the Centre would seek to work with some writers, especially when a generous philanthropist gave them a lot of money for this exact purpose.

Their Inaugural Writer in Residence last year was Charlotte Wood, whose writing was described as “innovative and confronting”. I have not actually read any of her novels, even though she is a Very Famous and Serious Literary Figure in Australia, because each time I come across an interview with her, she’s saying something that annoys me – for example, informing readers that they are lazy and immature if they enjoy reading novels with likeable characters. (I’d thought she was also the Serious Literary Australian Author who’d sneered at YA novels, complaining they were all about Issues that were resolved in “candy-floss epiphanies” involving trite “growth and change moments”, but then I realised it was Anna Funder who said that.) Anyway, I was interested to hear how Ms Wood’s residency had worked, but her description was a bit vague. I think there were some formal meetings and presentations, but she emphasised that many of her most valuable interactions with the Centre’s scientists had been serendipitous meetings in stairwells and so on. She told the scientists about her novel-in-progress (she noted that this required a mind-shift of her own, novelists being notoriously reluctant to discuss their work in its early stages) and asked them lots of questions, and then she incorporated this new information in her work. For example, when she told a geriatrician that her planned novel was about three women in their seventies, he made an offhand remark that at least one of the women would have a mother who was still alive and in her nineties, which came as a surprise to her. Another scientist challenged her to include some evolutionary biology in her novel, which she did by giving one of the characters an elderly dog with dementia.

Her novel about aging – which is still a work in progress – does sound very interesting and I’m keen to read it. Mind you, Ms Wood did manage to make me roll my eyes (metaphorically speaking, of course) at least once, when she claimed that elderly women characters in OTHER books (and indeed, in our entire culture) are ALWAYS depicted as frail, incompetent and obsessed with the difficulties caused by their aging bodies and minds, whereas her book will be UNIQUE in that it will have women characters who just happen to be in their seventies and otherwise are as real and complex as younger characters, although of course she will avoid making her characters look like the ridiculously happy, healthy and wealthy people in glossy retirement home advertisements. Now, I can think of at least half-a-dozen well-written novels with real, interesting elderly women characters and I’m not even researching this area, so I don’t think it’s all that unique. But possibly I misunderstood what Ms Wood was saying or my listening comprehension had been biased by my previous impressions of her.

Then Alana Valentine, who’d been commissioned by the Centre to write a play about body dysmorphia, read some scenes from her work-in-progress. Ms Valentine interviews people on a particular theme – in this case, how people, especially women, prepare for their wedding day – and then uses their words to construct a play. The scenes involved a wedding dress couturière talking about a distressed customer being emotionally abused by her thinner mother and sister at her wedding dress fitting, and then a fat woman discussing her fear of even entering a wedding dress shop to look for a dress. The scenes were funny and sad and thought-provoking, and she read them very well. She’d been planning to drag audience members up on stage to enact another scene with her, but the session was running out of time and this idea had to be abandoned (to the great relief of the audience).

Professor Simpson was keen to note how the Centre’s scientists had benefitted from the partnership with the writers, by increasing the scientists’ awareness of a different form of creativity. However, he stressed that this was not the sort of thing that could be measured in relation to Key Performance Indicators and that the writers weren’t being called upon to ‘communicate science’ in any kind of didactic way. The Centre is also considering partnerships with other creative types, including visual artists and musical composers. One audience member asked whether Ms Wood had felt the residency put a lot of pressure on her to ‘deliver the goods’, which I’d also wondered about, but Ms Wood felt that it had been no more than the usual novel-writing pressure (that is, hoping it will all work in the end) and in fact, the Centre had provided a free and inspiring atmosphere and the scientists had been generous and helpful in sharing their knowledge.

No one actually answered the question of whether writers can prevent disease, but that was okay. It was an interesting discussion, I learned some things and I got to take a nice walk around Sydney Harbour.

I should probably also mention that my new book, which will be out later this year, is all about science and medicine and is set in the University of Sydney. More about that later.

Miscellaneous Memoranda

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler turns fifty this year and The Smithsonian Magazine has a great article about the true story behind the book. Really, that book is the only reason I’d ever want to visit New York (although sadly, the bed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that Claudia and Jamie slept in and the fountain they bathed in are no longer there). And did you know there was a film made in 1973 called The Hideaways, starring Ingrid Bergman as Mrs Frankweiler? The trailer looks … not very good. Has anyone seen the film?

– And speaking of beloved books, did you know that I Capture the Castle has been made into a musical?

– Here’s an interesting article about the day jobs of various famous authors. Did you know that Dorothy Sayers worked in advertising and devised the ‘Toucan’ Guinness ads? And that Jack London was an ‘oyster pirate’, and Vladimir Nabokov a butterfly curator in a museum, and Harper Lee an airline ticketing clerk?

– Sadly, authors need to scrounge for money because “celebrity deals are shutting children’s authors out of their own trade”.

– Regarding Nabokov, apparently his favourite word was “mauve”. A new book by Ben Blatt reports on the statistical analysis of thousands of ‘classics’ and contemporary bestsellers, concluding that while women write about both men and women, men write overwhelmingly about men; that the writers who used the most clichés were all men and those who used the least clichés were all women; and that Tolkien really liked exclamation marks.

– Finally, here are instructions for how to turn your boring conventional shoes into shoes that look like pigeons. (My favourite part of the story is that Kyoto Ohata created the shoes because she was worried her regular shoes were upsetting the pigeons she encountered on her daily walks.)

‘Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life’ by Peter Godfrey-Smith

'Other Minds' by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds is an engrossing account of how intelligence and ‘consciousness’ might have evolved in animals, specifically in cephalopods – that is, octopuses, cuttlefish and squid, those fascinating sea creatures who are “the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien”. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Sydney, writes in a clear, accessible manner about this very complex subject, with a great deal of warmth and humour and creativity (for example, he describes scallops as “swimming castanets” and cuttlefish as wearing “animated eyeshadow”).

He begins by discussing how neurons (nerve cells, the building blocks of the nervous system) might have evolved in our earliest common ancestors, then looks at how the cephalopods developed their vulnerable soft bodies and why they might have ended up with such large and complex nervous systems. An octopus has about 500 million neurons, comparable to a dog, but these are not distributed in the same way. Dogs and other vertebrates, including humans, have a large brain that directs the actions of the body using neurons, which branch off from a spinal cord. However, the octopus “is suffused with nervousness; the body is not a separate thing that is controlled by the brain or nervous system”. Its arms can act on the direction of its brain or can act completely independently of the brain and each other.

Octopus behaviour is as mysterious and strange as its neuroanatomy. They can perform well in experiments – learning how to navigate a maze, unscrew jars or operate a lever to receive food rewards – but they also have a tendency to cause mayhem. In one experiment in the 1950s, an octopus named Charles decided to break the lever he was meant to be pulling, snapped off the lamp above his tank, and directed jets of water at the experimenter. Octopuses in captivity often escape, cause floods or short-circuit the lights. Even if they decide to hang around and cooperate, they can recognise individual humans, are aware of when they’re being observed, and can behave in ways that seem deliberate:

“Octopuses love to eat crabs, but in the lab are often fed on thawed-out frozen shrimp or squid. It takes octopuses a while to get used to these second-rate foods, but eventually they do. One day, [Jean] Boal was walking down a row of tanks, feeding each octopus a piece of thawed squid as she passed. On reaching the end of the row, she walked back the way she’d come. The octopus in the first tank, though, seemed to be waiting for her. It had not eaten its squid, but instead was holding it conspicuously. As Boal stood there, the octopus made its way slowly across the tank toward the outflow pipe, watching her all the way. When it reached the outflow pipe, still watching her, it dumped the scrap of squid down the drain.”

Fortunately, most of the observations described in this book are not of poor captive octopuses, but octopuses in the wild, notably at an unusual site off the east coast of Australia, which the author and his colleagues named ‘Octopolis’. Although octopuses are usually solitary creatures, the octopuses living at Octopolis have built a little town, perhaps for protection from predators, and they interact in fascinating ways. The researchers make a point of not interfering with the octopuses, but the octopuses are curious about the divers and their camera equipment, and even make ‘friends’ with one particular researcher, Matt Lawrence:

“Once at a site close to this one, an octopus grabbed his hand and walked off with him in tow. Matt followed, as if he were being led across the sea floor by a very small eight-legged child. The tour went on for ten minutes, and ended at the octopus’s den.”

There’s also an intriguing chapter about the giant cuttlefish, which can change its skin colour and shape in seconds – as camouflage, to communicate with predators or prey or its own species, even as random patterns when resting. Remarkably, it can match its skin colour to its surroundings, even though the two eyes in its head seem to be colourblind. What it does have are thousands of photoreceptor and colour cells all over its skin, which can detect and reflect changes in light and then activate colour cells in response – in effect, ‘seeing with its skin’.

So much about cephalopods is still unknown, and a lot of this book consists of questions and tentative attempts at answers. Why do cephalopods need such a complex nervous system when most of them barely seem to communicate within their own species? Why do they have such enormous brains, when they have such short life spans to use those brains? How can a tree live for two thousand years and a boring rockfish for two hundred years, when the splendidly colourful cuttlefish and curious, clever, playful octopus live for only two years? (Also, who knew that there was such a thing as a vampire squid?)

Other Minds is highly recommended for readers interested in animal intelligence, and in cephalopod intelligence in particular. It would probably help readers to have some basic knowledge of the theory of evolution and how human cognition works, but I think the author does a good job of explaining complex ideas in an accessible way. There are some lovely photos in the book and the author has posted some interesting videos on his You Tube channel.

‘Aunts Up The Cross’ by Robin Dalton

“My great-aunt Juliet was knocked over and killed by a bus when she was eighty-five. The bus was travelling very slowly in the right direction and could hardly have been missed by anyone except Aunt Juliet, who must have been travelling fairly fast in the wrong direction.”

'Aunts Up The Cross' by Robin DaltonSo begins this highly entertaining memoir about a rich and eccentric Sydney family in the 1920s and 1930s. The author’s many older relatives tend to die in unusual ways: Aunt Juliet’s husband was killed when he fell through the dining room floor and broke his neck; Uncle Spot fell off a ladder while attempting to change a light bulb; Uncle Luke tumbled backwards off his office chair; Aunt Eva ate too many green apples; Aunt Jan died “from blowing up a balloon”. Even a visiting plumber dies of a heart attack after catching sight of the author’s ravishing mother, who’d “emerged naked from her dressing room en route to take a bath”.

There are also a number of unbalanced servants, pets and permanent house-guests, as well as an interfering grandmother who lives downstairs with batty Aunt Juliet (before Juliet gets run over by the bus) and a doctor father with a gambling habit who manages to shoot his own knee off (by accident, in his consulting rooms, while seeing a patient). The author claims “it was the clash and mingling of the Irish [on her father’s side] and Jewish [on her mother’s side] temperaments which provided this climate of high dramatic comedy. The fact that the doors were open and everybody joined in was pure Australian.”

Aunts Up The Cross was first published in 1965, long after the author had moved to London, and it shows (the author is particularly scathing about Australian architecture and the state of Australian theatre). The edition I read, however, was the 2001 Penguin re-release, which includes dozens of fascinating photographs of the various aunts and uncles and grandparents, the author’s extremely good-looking parents and the author herself as a pretty and indulged only child. There are also photos of the family mansion in Kings Cross, which burned down during the Second World War and is now the site of Fitzroy Gardens and the El Alamein Fountain.

My only criticism would be that this book is so short, a mere two hundred pages. I’d have liked to have learned more about the author herself, who went to a day school with the Governor’s daughter, then a posh country boarding school before working for the U.S. Army office in Sydney during the war and getting engaged multiple times. However the author, now ninety-six, has a new memoir out entitled One Leg Over, apparently about the many men who fell in love with her over her long and eventful life, so I have that to look forward to.

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Eight

Saturday Night: Foley’s Folly Light

Now we’re back to Peter, in the lighthouse’s lantern room, watching the girls carry out the first phase of their plan. A few days ago he’d been questioning his future at Dartmouth and taking absurd risks to try to prove himself, but now he seems more confident and thoughtful:

“All his life he was going to have to be prepared to make plans which would risk other people’s lives as well as, or even instead of, his own. And the older he got, and the more important, the more it would happen to him. Besides […] it wasn’t as if the alternatives at the moment lay between danger of their own making and eventual safety at Foley’s hands. If they waited, they were almost certain to be killed when the U-boat’s crew got hold of them. And besides–Peter blushed rather, for it sounded pretty pompous as soon as you put it into words–it was probably a thing they ought to do–to do everything they could to prevent that oilskin package falling into enemy hands. And you couldn’t fight the enemy without taking some risks.”

He goes out onto the narrow, wind-shaken walkway to watch Ginty and Nicola almost drown, then once the crisis is over, suddenly remembers his terrible, paralysing fear of heights. He finally manages to crawl inside the lantern room, berating himself all the while (“how jolly silly he must look, crawling painfully along a gallery which Nicola, for instance, would simply have run round”), but then – Foley comes in! Peter shoots out onto the gallery and tip-toes around it, keeping himself on the opposite side of Foley until Foley gives up searching the rocks below and goes back downstairs. Hooray, Peter’s fear of heights has now gone! So that’s one good thing Foley has achieved.

Peter now has a long wait till night falls and the fleet returns, so he passes the time reading the horrifying diary of Fabian de Noyes Foley, the wrecker ancestor – a book which Lewis Foley keeps in the lantern room, although, given how much he worships his ancestor, you’d think he’d store the diary in a more secure place. It’s good to see Peter showing a proper respect for other people’s books, though:

“…that book had made him feel so absolutely furious that if it hadn’t belonged to someone else, he would have dropped it over the rail to be pulped and pounded to pieces by the sea.”

It doesn’t matter if people are traitors – don’t damage their books, especially irreplaceable historical records.

At last, Nicola and Ginty arrive (Nicola is very relieved to see that Foley hadn’t shoved Peter off the top of the lighthouse that morning) and they start sending out their SOS as soon as the fleet appears. But it’s rainy and the fleet is far away and there’s no answering signal. (Typical of those adults.) So poor Peter and Nicola (Ginty is being useless again) keep signalling into the night, knowing it’s hopeless – except all at once, there’s a response! They send their message and are asked to repeat the bit about the U-boat’s arrival time and then they read the signals “message received” and “R”. (Is it Robert? Frankly, he’s the only adult I have any faith in at the moment.)

Meanwhile, Ginty is on the stairs thinking of all the dreadful things that could happen to them – getting shot, having to go in the U-boat, being carted off to Siberia – when she hears Foley running up the steps. She doesn’t even have any weapons, but she resolves to do her best:

“She never doubted he would overwhelm her in the end, whatever she did, but she might have been able to hold him off, just long enough for the others to get the message through.”

Aw, now I like Ginty again! And I like her even more when she throws her paraffin lantern in Foley’s face, causing him to lose his footing and tumble all the way down the stairs. Unfortunately, he’s still alive, just badly injured. Peter gets the package of secrets off him and Nicola locates the key to the transmitting room, although Ginty is busy feeling “more worried than a good counter-spy should over an enemy agent who has been put out of action.” She administers first-aid while Peter retrieves the revolver from the transmitting room and locks it.

Things are looking up! The only problem is, Peter suddenly realises that they don’t know who responded to their signal. What if it was the U-boat? (It’s okay, Peter. I’m sure it was Robert. Well, fairly sure.)

Sunday Morning: Ships in the Bay

Foley regains consciousness and is rather surprised to see Peter is alive. Foley is also not very happy to learn that the children have signalled to the navy, especially when Peter says he’s thrown both the secrets and the downstairs key into the sea. Foley is now doomed, but the children’s fate depends on whether the U-boat or the navy reaches the lighthouse first. And then a fog rolls in. Oh, the suspense…

Now a boat is approaching! But is it friend or foe? Nicola dashes off “with a relishing piratical look” to fetch knives for her and Ginty:

“Ginty stared at the knife in her hand without any relish at all. It was quite plain that whatever sort of fight Peter and Nicola intended to put up against the U-boat crew, Ginty meant to go quietly.”

Poor Ginty. Especially as the boat carries the U-boat crew. Ginty goes inside and puts her hands over her ears because “she simply wasn’t going to see or hear anything until they came to take her.”

But Peter and Nicola are made of sterner stuff. They watch Foley getting berated on the beach for failing to kill the children and losing the secret information – foiled by those pesky kids! – and then Peter loudly defies the enemy leader’s orders for the children to get down on the beach. The enemy leader brandishes a revolver at Nicola and worse, calls Peter a “little boy” who needs to be taught a lesson.

So Peter shoots him dead with Foley’s revolver.

Don’t mess with the Marlows!

Then the fog rolls away, revealing not just the U-boat but three Navy destroyers. Well, it’s about time they showed up. In an immensely exciting scene, the men on the beach, including Foley, try to get back to the U-boat, but the Navy blows up the U-boat and Foley and capture the surviving U-boat crew. But even in the midst of the action, the author makes space for astute observations of characters’ reactions:

“‘Oh, Binks,” [Nicola] said half-sobbing. ‘Why didn’t you stop him? He’ll be killed, I know he will.’
‘He’d rather be,’ said Peter, grabbing her, ‘I should think. Get down, Nick. They’re firing.’
Nicola, however, put her head up. She was still, though she hadn’t the least idea of it, sobbing in a breathless way because Foley was dead, or about to be, but at the same time she was intensely interested in what was going on.”

Eventually the children are taken aboard one of the destroyers to tell their story to Commander Whittier and Nicola is only mildly surprised, at this stage, to find Robert Anquetil on board. Whittier tells them about Lawrie’s accident and Nicola says her father will be furious that Lawrie didn’t have her bus fare and didn’t look before she ran across the road (which is, in fact, what he says when he finds out). Then Whittier says “that sounds like Geoff Marlow.” So Whittier actually knew Commander Marlow personally and still said the Marlow children were expendable! (Heaven knows what he’d have done if it’d been a group of working-class non-navy children – probably used any surviving children as live bait for his next useless spy-catching scheme.)

Whittier also says they’re to forget everything that happened and not to speak about it again, not even amongst themselves. Well, that’s really going to help Ginty’s post-traumatic stress disorder. He also mentions that Johnnie Thorpe “knows more than he should” and that Johnnie’s also been warned to keep silent forever. Then Nicola thinks to ask Whittier who saw their signal and is gruffly told it was Robert:

“But it was quite obvious there was a grandmother and a grandfather of a row on, so she said sturdily: ‘It was jolly lucky he was there. ‘Cos we were signalling when the Fleet passed and they never saw a thing.’”

Then she stares Commander Whittier down until he agrees with her and apologises to Robert. Yay, Nicola! Then she gets to spend the rest of the voyage on the destroyer’s bridge and she doesn’t feel a bit seasick. Really, it’s Nicola who ought to be at Dartmouth.

Also, Whittier asks Peter what he said to the enemy leader, then explains that man was the Nazi equivalent of a Rear-Admiral:

“So just remember, when some haughty sub in your first ship is telling you what a low form of life you are, that you once gave a Rear-Admiral his marching orders.”

And, you know, shot and killed him. But it doesn’t even seem that there’s going to be an inquiry into that. At least Peter is happy that he still has a naval career and that his vertigo is cured.

Finally, the children meet their relieved mother and they go off to see Lawrie in hospital, where Lawrie is being Lawrie:

“Whatever had happened to the others, Lawrie didn’t think it could have been nearly as impressive as what had happened to her. Fractured bones, broken bones, concussion–Lawrie felt they would have to produce something pretty remarkable to compete with that.”

Oh, Lawrie. What a goop.

Final random thoughts:

– What happened to Ida Cross? Did they arrest her? How did a woman like that even get mixed up with Foley? Assuming she wasn’t a fervent Communist and it wasn’t her idea, did he seduce her into this plot? If so, he’s even more despicable. He gets a noble suicide and she’s left to face the consequences.

-Has Robert Anquetil now blown his cover as an intelligence agent? Won’t the locals notice if he turns up at port on a navy destroyer? Hadn’t they noticed something before this? Anyway, he ended up being my favourite adult in this book. When he broke the rules, at least he was doing it to save the children.

– I really hope David was kicked out of the navy for attacking Robert, locking him up and taking over the boat. But he probably wasn’t. I mean, the navy didn’t seem to do anything to Foley for getting eighteen men killed.

– I don’t really see the point of Johnnie Thorpe. I wondered if he’d be shown to be brave and helpful, just to show the Marlows were being superficial snobs when they ostracised him, but he remained an idiot throughout.

– I was also kind of hoping the Thorpe daughters would play a useful role, thereby proving that even young ladies who wear tight, colourful trousers can be brave and helpful, but no, they might as well not have existed in the story. I’m starting to think that Antonia Forest’s idea of a heroine is a tomboy, because any girl character who displays any stereotypical girl behaviours, like being interested in clothes, always turns out to be useless. I have nothing against tomboys (I was one myself), but it would be nice to see a bit more variety when it comes to portrayals of heroines. I’ve only read two of her books though and maybe I’ll have a pleasant surprise in later books.

THE END (for the moment)

You might also be interested in:

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’ by Antonia Forest
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Two
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Three
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Four
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Five
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Six
‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven

and

‘Autumn Term’ by Antonia Forest

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Seven

Saturday Morning: Peter Makes a Plan

Peter’s plan is that he will hide in the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse and Ginty and Nicola will pretend he’s drowned during an escape attempt. Then that night, Peter and Nicola will signal to the passing fleet while Ginty keeps watch. Ginty is appalled by her proposed role and confesses that she failed to act the last time she was meant to be keeping watch, at Mariners. There’s a nice bit of sibling bonding as Nicola and Peter console her, saying it wouldn’t have made any difference (probably true) and Peter even says it isn’t worse than “the boat thing”. Ginty has no idea what “the boat thing” is, but suspects they still think her “a bit of a dope” (also probably true).

She has a chance to prove her courage during the first phase of the plan, when she and Nicola have to take the dinghy through the secret tunnel to get to the sea. And Ginty does it in stoic silence! Well done, Ginty. Then Nicola hops out and Ginty rows the dinghy into the wild waves, far enough out to wreck it. There’s a terrifying section when she nearly drowns trying to swim back in, but it’s also the first time I can recall Ginty showing much care for anyone else:

“She struggled on furiously, watching Nick wade slowly forward, slip, recover and come on, and was so absorbed by her fear that Nicola might stumble and be swept away that she barely noticed how close in she had come …”

Mind you, it’s possible that Ginty’s just worried about her parents’ reaction if they ever find out she let Nicola drown. (I should point out here that Nicola can barely swim and can’t row, which seems a bit odd for someone as obsessed with sailing as Nicola is. But she and Lawrie did seem to spend many of their early years being invalids.) Then Nicola, striding “confidently forward”, steps straight into the sea, but luckily Foley has turned up and hauls her out of the water. Ginty, on the verge of a panic attack, then does a very convincing job of explaining Peter has drowned. Her general uselessness does have some use here – Foley doesn’t even question her story. In fact, he finds her uncontrollable sobbing “thoroughly unnerving” and ends up banishing her from his presence.

Back at the lighthouse, Foley goes up to the highest room, the lantern room, to see if Peter has washed up on the shore. Unfortunately, the lantern room is where Peter is hiding. Nicola, petrified, tries to stall Foley, but fails. Foley comes back down after “a long silence” and shakes his head at her. But what does that mean? She’s seen how good he is at playing chess, she knows he must be good at telling lies (“A traitor would have to be”). Is he playing with her the way a cat plays with a mouse?

“Besides, if Foley had found Peter, they would have to make another plan. At least–she would have to make another plan. There wasn’t anyone else.”

Just as it seems Nicola must have super-human reserves of resilience and fortitude, she falls asleep while she’s meant to be watching Foley and sleeps through the whole day, “like the dormouse in Alice”. (I like all the little references to the books she’s read. Even though she claimed not to be a reader in Autumn Term.)

So we still don’t know whether Peter’s safe or not. Oh, the suspense!

Saturday Afternoon: Mutiny in the ‘Golden Enterprise’

Meanwhile, Robert and his two colleagues, David and Bill, are making their slow way towards the lighthouse. Except Bill, who wasn’t feeling well when he came aboard, now has a fever and possibly appendicitis. David insists on turning back to Oldport at once. Robert wants to keep going because there’s the chance that the U-boat will turn up.

“‘But I keep telling you,’ shouted David. ‘The U-boat’s barely a possibility at the moment. If you weren’t so obsessed about those Marlow children we wouldn’t be here now. Whittier said so.’
‘Said what?’
‘That you had to be kept quiet and happy, and that out here you could have the illusion of being useful without making a nuisance of yourself…’”

Robert refuses to turn back before the turn of tide, so David smashes him on the head, locks him in the cabin and sails back to Oldport.

This, I assume, is that famous British naval discipline and obedience in action.

Conveniently for David (and the plot), Robert is knocked unconscious for three hours, exactly enough time for them to get back to Oldport, yet has no serious cognitive after-effects. David gives an insincere apology and offers to take the blame “if anything goes wrong”, but wisely goes off with Bill in the ambulance because Robert is looking dangerously calm:

“…despite his manner, [Robert] felt so savage with rage, that if he once gave it expression, he was not likely to stop at words. As he very well knew, he had a temper as murderous as Lewis Foley’s if he once let himself go.”

It’s pretty clear that we’re meant to see Robert and Foley as similar men who’ve made very different choices in life, one choosing good and the other evil. If anything, Robert is more admirable, because he chose the side of good without having been born with all of Foley’s material privileges. On the other hand, Robert seems to have had a closer and more loving family than Foley, so maybe Robert was born the luckier one?

While Robert is having dinner and contemplating David’s violent and painful death, the Thorpes’ motor boat, the Fair Wind, crashes straight into Robert’s boat and destroys her. Mr Thorpe is very apologetic and Robert is about to ask if he can borrow the Fair Wind when he suddenly suspects Mr Thorpe is connected with the U-boat. Maybe he deliberately crashed the boat to stop Robert! So Robert waits till the Thorpes have left, then steals the Fair Wind:

“… in a job like this neither praise nor blame mattered very much. The thing was to get it done. And if you broke a few rules doing it–well, if you pulled it off no one cared, and if you didn’t, nothing anyone could say would be worse than the failure itself.”

And the moral of the story is: the end justifies the means, if you’re one of the good guys.

Unfortunately, Johnnie Thorpe climbs aboard at the wrong moment, but he agrees to help when Robert pretends to be a smuggler and waves a knife at Johnnie. It turns out Mr Thorpe is actually a Customs and Excise officer. Also, Johnnie was the one who crashed into the Golden Enterprise. Also, there’s hardly any petrol left.

IS ANYONE EVER GOING TO REACH THAT LIGHTHOUSE AND RESCUE THOSE CHILDREN?!

Next, Saturday Night: Foley’s Folly Light

‘The Marlows and the Traitor’, Part Six

Friday Morning: Breakfast at the Lighthouse

Ginty and Peter wake up in the lighthouse berating themselves about their role in the situation they’ve found themselves in, but Nicola is characteristically cheerful. Foley will be gone now and they can go home! Except when she goes outside, there’s Foley, standing by the remains of the Talisman. He has guessed about the sugar in the engine – turns out he made up that song – and Nicola bravely confesses to what she did, then asks why he’s a traitor:

“Oh, I don’t know. Don’t you get fed up, sometimes, with all the smug dutiful people, all busily scratching their little livings, all saying the same things, all professing the same beliefs in the same words that all the generations have sucked dry before them? Ninety-nine point nine percent don’t even know what the words mean. It serves them right if someone chucks a bomb into the antheap occasionally…”

Ooh, Foley, you’re such a rebel. He sounds like a fourteen-year-old schoolboy giving a bombastic speech behind the headmaster’s back. Nicola is unimpressed, because, like the Famous Five, she believes a traitor is “quite the most beastly thing to be”. And the fact that Foley’s amused by her reaction makes it even worse.

Over breakfast, Peter quickly grasps that they’re in greater danger now that the U-boat crew will be arriving at the lighthouse on Sunday. Ginty has a panic attack about having to go into a U-boat. (Don’t worry about that, Ginty! You’ll be murdered before that happens!) Then they watch the navy fleet sail along the horizon on their scheduled exercises and the children are disgusted by Foley’s reaction:

“Foley didn’t look particularly anything–not vengeful, not conscience-stricken, just mildly interested.”

Foley goes to feed the seagulls (because he’s the sort of complex villain who’s nice to animals) and Peter desperately tries to think of a plan. If only there was a way to signal the navy fleet when the ships make their way back that night … Hang on, they’re staying in a working lighthouse!

As Peter tries to figure how he’s going to get up to the light, there’s a brief moment of hope when Robert Anquetil’s boat, the Golden Enterprise, sails past. Nicola leaps up in excitement, but Foley grabs her, yanks her arm behind her back and says he’ll blow her to pieces if anyone moves. Ginty eventually finds the courage to say:

“‘Let her go. You’re hurting her.’

Foley let go at once. He peered down at [Nicola’s] face and then said, in the sulky aggrieved voice that an older child uses to a much younger one: ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Why on earth didn’t you say?’”

Well, Nicola didn’t say because she has a horror of looking cowardly and childish. But Foley’s volatility and immaturity is really horrifying in this scene. And this is a man who was actually employed as a teacher!

Switching to Robert’s perspective, we discover he’d been scouring the coast for a glimpse of the Talisman’s dinghy when he spotted the cloud of seagulls at the lighthouse and remembered Foley’s habit of feeding them. So Robert used the secret entrance to the lighthouse:

“He felt a sense of betrayal, that he should be using the secret channel Lewis had shown him when they were schoolboys, to fight and defeat him. But Lewis was always putting one in these predicaments…”

Finding the Talisman’s dinghy tied up behind the lighthouse, Robert is tempted to rush in, overpower Foley and rescue the children. But there was a fifty-fifty chance Foley would win in a fight and Robert, unlike Foley, is cautious and calculating:

“It was no occasion for bogus, single-handed heroics. His duty, here and now, was to return to the mainland and report his discoveries.”

But he’s not completely unmoved and as he leaves, “he wished with all his heart he could have stayed there”.

Doesn’t he have a radio in his boat? Or a shoe phone? What kind of intelligence agent is he?

Friday Afternoon: “The Children are Expendable”

Back at the police station, Robert suggests to Commander Whittier that Foley may have intended all along to hide at the lighthouse till the coast was clear, then leave the children there while he escaped. Whittier, who’s read Foley’s file, says Foley would never be so sensible, calling Foley:

“…a wild, slapdash young man, with a life-or-death temperament. Plenty of courage, but no discipline. No loyalty, either.”

He reveals that during a wartime raid, Foley decided to disobey orders, leading to the deaths of eighteen men. (Yet despite this, the Navy: a) allowed Foley to remain a navy officer, even after the war; b) gave him a job teaching naval cadets; and c) gave him free access to top-secret information, even after they suspected he was a spy. Well done, British Navy.)

Whittier has worked out the U-boat will surface near the lighthouse on Sunday night, which is when the navy will grab Foley and the U-boat crew and save the secret information. Robert wants to rescue the children first, but Whittier points out that the children may already be dead. If they are alive, Foley could warn the U-boat during the confusion of their rescue.

“You understand me, don’t you, Anquetil? There can be no question of any premature attempt to rescue the children […] the children must be regarded as expendable.”

Again, this is a CHILDREN’S BOOK. And the British authorities, the good guys, are saying it’s fine if three English children are murdered as long as the good guys get a chance to catch the bad guys, when it’s just been shown that the whole situation has arisen due to the good guys’ total incompetence! And no mention of the fact that the three children are the offspring of a naval commander.

Even Whittier seems to realise this is a bit much, because he allows Robert to take a couple of men, David and Bill, on the Golden Enterprise to keep watch on the lighthouse and says if the U-boat surfaces, “wireless us, and do what you can”. So there is a radio on the boat?

But first Robert goes to speak with Lawrie, who confirms Foley had photos of a torpedo and that the others were taken off on the Talisman. Poor Mrs Marlow, who thinks Robert is with the police drug squad, says it sounds more like spies than dope and asks whether she should try to contact her husband, now on fleet exercises. Poor Robert lies his head off and they agree it’s best not to bother Commander Marlow. (I wonder, if the children turned up dead in the middle of his fleet exercises, whether he’d interrupt his work to come back home. Probably not.) Oh, and as Mrs Marlow sits by Lawrie’s bed, she thinks:

“It seemed almost worse than the time her husband’s cruiser had been bombed and she had waited to hear if he were among the survivors.”

And she probably didn’t cry, even then!

Next, Saturday Morning: Peter Makes a Plan