Tuesday, 24 July 2012

I've been taking stock of my time, recently (I never have enough of it!) and realising that I'm spending too much time blogging - much as I enjoy it - and not half enough time writing fiction. I have decided, therefore, to amalgamate my Amber Heart and my Wordarts blogs. I'll be leaving the posts in place here, but I've also exported them all to my Wordarts blog here and that's where you'll be able to read any new material about the background to the novel from now on.
I can only keep up to so many blogs in any one month - but I still have quite a lot to say about the history and culture of Poland, so do sign up to Wordarts, if you're interested, and keep watching.

Monday, 11 June 2012


Cover art by Claire Maclean

Most people will now be familiar with Baltic amber jewellery which you can find in many shops here in the UK and - I'm sure - worldwide. Of course there is plenty of fake amber on the market. You can usually spot it by its regularity and general nastiness but if you're in any doubt, rub it against a wool sweater - amber will pick up bits of paper afterwards; plastic won't. 

I love amber. I love its warmth, and its glow - the way it has the look of trapped sunshine, the way you can see tiny seeds and even insects, trapped deep inside it. 

On one of my first visits to Poland, back in the 1970s, my cousin took me to visit a friend of hers, an artist who worked with amber and silver. I can still remember the smell that filled his studio as he polished a big chunk of amber on some kind of machine - it was the scent of long dead pine forests, pungent and magical. 

On that visit, my Polish great aunt Wanda gave me an old and beautiful amber necklace with a tiny fossil in each bead. It had survived the war with her and now she was passing it on to me. She told me that I should wear it often, because it would be good for my health. A couple of years later, while I was living and working in Poland, teaching English at Wroclaw University for the British Council,  I was given one or two tiny amber hearts - it seemed to be a favourite way of shaping the resin. 

When I first drafted out what I thought of as my 'Polish novel' - it went through various titles over the years - I always had in my mind a piece of jewellery as a sort of talisman, something that would have significance for the main characters,  something that might change hands, but that would survive down all the years as my own amber beads had survived. I knew that it had to be amber - something warm and beautiful and desirable and rare. 

Gradually, I began to 'see' it in my mind's eye, and it had to be a heart, encased in a delicate silver filigree. I don't possess such a piece of jewellery. I only wish I did! And I've never seen one quite like it - not consciously, anyway. But I found it easy enough to conjure it up in my imagination and set it down on the page. As you'll find, if you read the novel, it threads its way through the story, not so much significant in terms of plot as in signifying something about the relationship between the heroine, Maryanna, and the hero (if hero he can be called) Piotro: some enduring, warm and magical quality. 

If you find yourself reading this blog on or before  the 13th or 14th June 2012, you can go to the Kindle Store at Amazon UK or Amazon US and download both The Amber Heart and my other new novel, Bird of Passage, to your Kindle, for free. There are similarities between the two books which I think I only realised after I had written them, over a span of years. Both are 'big' stories, heart rending tales of a love affair which - if not exactly forbidden - then is one which is pretty certain to encounter problems. Both of them involve a relationship which begins in childhood and lasts throughout life. And both of them deal with certain tragic realities of the time and place within which they are set - one in nineteenth century Poland and the other in twentieth and twenty first century Scotland and Ireland. 

I've been thinking a lot, recently, about how to describe my novels for readers. None of them slot comfortably into any single genre, which I think is why I've had such problems finding a publisher in spite of a string of rave rejections of the 'we love this, but we're not sure how to market it' variety. They are unashamedly love stories, but not really romances in the conventional sense. And I think that's set to continue with the next two at least - both of them love stories, but not in any conventional sense. 

However, I realise that I enjoy a good romance as well as the next woman. And if you look for definitions of that word online, you will find this one: 'A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.' 

Well, I'd be very happy to have that applied to any of my novels, but especially, I think, to the Amber Heart. And it seems to me to be a pretty good description of amber itself. It's certainly one which my cover artist, Claire Maclean, picked up and ran with in her gorgeous cover design, which seems to encapsulate the novel and the idea of amber all in one beautiful artwork. 

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Karol Kossak, My Romantic Hero

Great Uncle Karol Kossak
Recently, I did a guest interview for Rosemary Gemmell's excellent Reading and Writing blog. Rosemary asked me about researching my new novel, The Amber Heart and wondered how much my Polish background had informed the writing of this book. It brought to mind all over again, my charming great uncle Karol Kossak - that's him above, trying to squeeze his immensely long legs into a small horse drawn vehicle!

Karol was married to my Polish grandfather's elder sister, Wanda Czerkawska. There were five children in the family: Zbigniew and Boguslaw, Wanda, Ludmilla and my grandfather Wladyslaw. All of them, except Great Aunt Wanda, fell victim to the war in one way and another. The two elder brothers died in some border skirmish. Ludmilla, pretty, flighty and flirtatious, married a Polish army officer but was imprisoned in Auschwitz and died there. Wladyslaw was imprisoned by Stalin, released, and died of typhus on a long, enforced march East. Wanda met and married Karol Kossak before the war - he and my grandfather were good friends. Karol wasa younger member of a family of distinguished Polish artists, of which Juliusz and Wojciech Kossak are perhaps the best known. They painted battle scenes, were fabulous equestrian artists and all in all were a fascinating, if slightly Bohemian family.

My dad, who was demobbed in the UK after the war and stayed as a refugee, finally managed to get in touch with some of his family through the Red Cross. This was years later, after he had met and married my mother, and quite a long time after I was born. His mother died not long after this, but he stayed in touch with the Kossak side of the family.
I went to Warsaw by train when I was in my twenties to visit Karol and Wanda, who were living in a small spa town called Ciechocinek, and their daughter Teresa, who was living in Warsaw and working as an animator.
We had to cross East Germany to get there, and the guards came aboard with dogs and guns! Karol was like a throwback to another age. I had never met anyone quite like him. Later, I saw a production of the Merry Widow in Vienna, and - as I told Rosemary - Count Danilo reminded me irresistibly of him. Karol was utterly charming. He would take me out walking or for rides in the horse drawn droshkis that were used as taxis in the town where they lived. The drivers would all doff their hats to him. We would go to cafes for coffee and cognac and he would draw little sketches on paper napkins for me - I have them still. He would kiss my hand and generally behave exactly as a romantic hero should. I think I was in love with him, even though he was in his eighties.
My Polish was about as bad as his English so we spoke in French which I could manage - and which he had spoken in pre war Poland.  He told me stories about the grandfather I had never known - how he was a 'ladies' man' - how he laughed a lot, was fond of practical jokes, was generous, brave and an excellent horseman, one of the last of the Polish Lancers.

When I came home, I wrote poems about Karol, and then a couple of radio plays reflecting my Polish background, but I always knew that eventually I would write a historical novel, or perhaps more than one, set in Poland. The Amber Heart is that novel and Karol found his way into it as Julian – the heroine’s delightful brother-in-law.

But sometimes, a poem still says it all - and here's the poem I wrote for Karol, not long after I came back from Poland.


I remember
talking with my uncle Karol,
walking arm in arm
on Polish evenings when
mist spread over flat fields
and women were burning
the last of the potato leaves.

We wrinkled our nostrils.
It was a kind of myrrh for us
preserving the moment yet
bitterly telling time.

There's no cure for it.
Though I hurtle through youth
for love of him
he’s gone too far before. 

If you find yourself reading this blog on 23rd or 24th April, you can get a FREE download of the novel, on Amazon Kindle, in honour of World Book Night. If you look at the Authors Electric Blog, you'll find an interesting and eclectic mix of experienced and award winning writers, all of whom have decided to go for Indie Publishing in one form or another.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

A Traditional Polish Easter

I have a vivid memory of my father - when I was very young - sowing a little tray of grass-seed, a few weeks before Easter. When it grew long and green, he trimmed it back with scissors, and sat a white sugar lamb on the grass. He told me it was what people did in Poland when he was a little boy. Many years later, when I began to research the background to my novel The Amber Heart I realised that even within Poland - much as in the UK - customs and traditions varied from place to place.

I love this kind of thing - in fact I must be one of the few people to have a postgraduate Masters Degree in Folk Life Studies. I did it at Leeds University, back in the 1970s, a year or so after I had graduated from Edinburgh University with an honours degree in English Language and Literature. The course no longer exists, but it was fascinating to study and research a combination of social and oral history - the traditions of the 'people'.

Every Easter, even though he died in 1995, I miss my dad with a great pang of sadness, because here in the West of Scotland - apart from the consumption of industrial quantities of chocolate - nobody takes much notice of Easter as a festival.

I was born and brought up in Leeds, although we moved to Scotland when I was twelve. My best friend at primary school, Olenka Jankowska, was Polish too, and her parents celebrated Easter with as much enthusiasm as Christmas. We always marked the day in our house and followed a number of Polish customs, but I would also join in with Olenka's family over the holiday. The scent of yeast cookery takes me back to that particular time and place, with another little pang of sadness, because Olenka, or Sandra as she was called at school, died when she was in her late 20s. That wonderful scent of sweet yeast cookery - among other things - has found its way into the Amber Heart, of course!

In the weeks before Easter, dad would also paint eggs, sometimes decorating them with pieces of coloured cloth. I have some of them still as you can see from the picture above. You can, of course, hard boil eggs, paint them and then eat them, but if you want to keep them from year to year, you have to prick a hole in both ends and 'blow' the contents out (to be used for your Easter cookery). It works, honestly!
In Poland, little baskets of produce, eggs, ham, bread, would be taken to church to be blessed by the priest.
On Easter morning, people say 'Chrystus zmartwychwstał!' meaning 'Christ is risen!' to which the traditional response is  'Zaiste zmartwychstał!' - 'He is truly risen!'

Olenka's mum baked the best cakes I've ever tasted, especially at Easter: big trays of apple and plum yeast cakes, 'sernik' or baked cheesecake on a pastry base, dense and luscious.The Easter meal always involved heaps of hard boiled eggs, fat frankfurter sausages, rye bread with caraway seeds, big dill pickles, sauerkraut, soft cheese and salads of all kinds. It was probably my favourite meal of the whole year. Later, even when I was grown up, dad would make delicious pastries, called 'chrust' and 'favorki' (favours) like a cross between a doughnut and a biscuit.

On Easter Monday, known as 'Wet Monday' in Poland, dad would usually  manage to get up early so that he could drench us in water. We would always forget what day it was. Back in the late 1970s, when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, it wasn't just water that you had to avoid. If you weren't careful, you would be drenched in cheap perfume, which would stay with you for days.

I try to replicate some of these celebrations each year and to some extent, I'm successful. I bring in greenery and put out my painted eggs. I do some yeast cookery. I've even invited some friends to an  Easter tea in the past  - but it's never quite the same and I just finish up by being faintly sad.
I've decided that the missing ingredient which I can't supply is belief. I myself can embrace the season and celebrate it. I can go along with the magic of it all. It still gives me a little thrill of excitement.
But nobody around me can. So I'm fighting a bit of a losing battle.

When I think about it, it was one more reason why I wanted to write The Amber Heart. I wanted the chance to immerse myself in a time and place that was once very special to me. You can't relive the past, but you can certainly find ways of writing about it.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Publication Day, at Last

Cover image by Claire Maclean
There was a day last week, when I began to wonder if I would ever get The Amber Heart onto Kindle as I had promised myself - and a lot of other people -  before the end of March. I had been through it so many times, so many edits, big and small, that I have quite literally lost count.. 
The Amber Heart must have run to hundreds of drafts! Agents and editors had read it. Suggestions had been made and accepted or rejected. Years had gone by. But enough is enough and here it is. At long, long last.
I first began to research this story almost thirty years ago. It was loosely inspired by some episodes from my own family history, most particularly the information that my father's widowed grandmother had had an affair with her estate manager on those wild Eastern Borderlands of Poland where they lived. Researching this intriguing episode of family history and pinning down some dates, I realised something that not even my father had understood: that she had been a fairly young and wealthy widow, when Julian Czerkawski, a rich and distinguished relative of her late husband, died, unexpectedly. He had been both a Polish representative to the Austro Hungarian parliament, and a doctor. His death was premature in that he was stabbed by an intruder, and died of his injuries some days later. Childless and unmarried, he had left his estate to her youngest son, my grandfather, who was then only eight years old. She would, of course, have had to appoint somebody to manage the estate until my grandfather,Wladyslaw, was old enough to take possession - would have travelled back and forth between the two houses. And so an affair began...

Wladyslaw Czerkawski
The story in the Amber Heart is set much earlier, in mid-nineteenth century Poland, but all the same, the relationship intrigued me and some of it found its way into the central relationship of the novel which is a story of strong mutual physical attraction. 
Somewhere in my remote family history is an old aristocrat who had outlived many wives, fathered many children -  and died in a riding accident while in his eighties. And he too has found his way into the novel, albeit in highly fictionalised form!

Back in the nineteen eighties, when the first drafts of this novel were written, my then agent, the late great Pat Kavanagh, did her level best to sell it. But we kept being told that 'nobody is interested in Poland.'  The feedback on the book itself was wonderful but it fell at every marketing hurdle because of its Polish setting. She told me she was deeply frustrated by it. But I knew that if she couldn't sell it, nobody could.

Which is why I'm now letting it take its chances on Kindle. I'm hoping that somebody out there might be 'interested in a novel set in Poland' - and even if you don't care where it's set - I hope there are elements about this big story that will move you, regardless of time and place.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Makowiec - Poppy Seed Cake - A Polish Christmas Cake

I know Christmas is long past, but Makowiec - which is a sort of poppy seed roll  - probably counts as my favourite cake in all the world, and not long ago, somebody asked me if I might be posting any Polish recipes on this site. I will - after all, food looms quite large in the Amber Heart - and here's the first of many. You can make it for Easter, instead of Christmas. But it's a bit of a cheat, really.

Polish cuisine (and Austrian too) uses poppy seeds not just in bread, but in a variety of desserts and cakes. As in Austria, many of their cakes and pancakes and pastries involve yeast as a raising and lightening agent. I once spent Christmas in Warsaw with my Polish relatives. All the food was excellent, but it was the poppy seed cake, aromatic and delicious and strange, which I remembered more than anything else - the poppy seed cake which still seems to me to be the 'taste of Poland.' Sadly, it's hard to find and difficult to bake. Or it was, until very recently.

But now, Polish delis are springing up all over the place - we have one in Ayr called The Polish Cottage, and occasionally you'll find a piece of Makowiec in their chill cabinet. I browse around this shop a lot, listening to people chatting in Polish, reading the labels (they stock some of the best jam I've ever tasted) and sampling the salamis, But it was only on my most recent visit that I spotted the can pictured above and realised that you can now buy the filling for poppy seed cake ready made - a filling which was always tricky to make, involving cooking and grinding something that's impossibly fine anyway! This is a can of 'poppy seed mass' with ground seeds, orange flavouring and a few other things. I know it's a bit of a cop out, but I couldn't resist it.

I haven't made my 'instant' Makowiec yet, but I will. And meanwhile - here's the recipe for the characteristic yeast pastry which you'll need to contain the seeds.

Cream 2 oz fresh yeast with 3 tablespoons of cream, sour cream if you can get it, and a teaspoon or two of sugar. Leave aside in a warm place until it begins to bubble a little.
Rub 6 oz of butter into 1lb of plain flour sifted with a scant half teaspoon of salt.  Add 2 heaped tablespoons of caster sugar, and then work in the yeast, two whole eggs beaten with one or two egg yolks (eggs vary in size) a teaspoon of vanilla essence and (if necessary) a little milk. Work the dough well, by hand. It shouldn't be too stiff or too wet but like a soft pastry. You can add a little grated orange peel if you wish.
Roll it out thinly into a rectangle on a lightly floured board. Spread the poppyseed filling evenly (and quite thickly) over the dough, leaving a margin all round of about an inch or so. Then roll up carefully and seal the edges with a little milk or beaten egg. Transfer this to an oblong buttered pan (you can line it with foil if you wish) and allow to rise for an hour or so. Pierce the dough once or twice with a skewer to prevent it from splitting. Then bake in a medium oven for about 45 minutes. It should be brown and well risen.

This recipe, incidentally, comes from a wonderful old book called Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the table, by Maria Lemnis and Henryk Vitry, which is crammed not just with excellent recipes, but with lots of fascinating information about Polish history and cuisine.

You can use this pastry for all kinds of other things - especially those wonderful Austrian pastries with plum jam and cream cheese. And you can buy that rich plum jam - more like a plum butter than a jam - in your local Polish deli too.

Monday, 12 March 2012

My Inspirational Polish Dad - Julian Wladyslaw Czerkawski

My late mother used to tell the story of how, as a young woman in postwar Leeds, she went into a local shop where a casual acquaintance said to her, 'Now that the war is over, I think that they ought to send all those Poles back, don't you?'
'Not really,' said my Leeds Irish mum. 'You see, I've just married one.'
The one she had 'just married' was my lovely dad, Julian Czerkawski.

My grandfather, Wladyslaw Czerkawski

Dad was very young when war broke out. That's him, the toddler with the girly hair, at the very top of this post, with his rather aristocratic parents, Lucia and Wladyslaw. I always think my grandfather, whom I never met, looks like Laurence Olivier playing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. I only have two pictures of him, but I love that wavy hair, those wide-set eyes and high cheekbones, that clear, direct and somewhat daunting gaze. I wish I had known him but - although we didn't know it at the time, because he had simply disappeared in the war  - he was dead long before I was born.
There's my dad again,  just a little later, on the right, in his velvet 'Lord Fauntleroy' suit and wrinkled tights, looking much more boyish.The billy goat was called Goat, plain and simple, and for some reason he loathed women. He would chase and butt any woman who ventured into his paddock. Lucia - plump and pretty - was afraid of him, but he rather liked Julian. Poland was, of course, caught between the rock of the Nazis and the hard place of Joe Stalin. If one of them didn't get you, the other did. My grandfather was imprisoned under Stalin, released when Uncle Joe changed sides, but sent - as so very many Poles were - on the debilitating long march east across Russia, to join the army units on the Persian border. Like so many Polish soldiers, (and so many civilians too) he died of typhus and is buried in Bukhara on the Silk Road.

My father, meanwhile,  had been through a string of deeply harrowing experiences, but eventually he had made his way to England, via Italy, with a Polish tank unit, as part of the British Army. He was initially stationed at Duncombe Park near Helmsley in Yorkshire, and when he was demobbed, he worked for a while as a textile presser at a mill near Leeds. The choice of jobs for refugees was strictly limited at that time: mills or mines, and no arguments.

While there, he met, courted and married my mum, Kathleen, (on the right of this picture, holding my hand - her elder sister, my Aunt Vera, is on the left) and soon after that, he went to nightschool and began studying the sciences which he loved. Had the war not intervened, he was destined to be trained as an artist, by his uncle-by-marriage, distinguished Polish watercolourist, Karol Kossak. Julian dabbled in art all his life, and it remained a much loved hobby for him, although he always doubted if he could have made a career of it.
Me and my dad. Note my ringlets. I think I look like something from the 1920s or 30s - but dad was always handsome!

By the time my father retired, many years later, he was a distinguished biochemist with a double doctorate - a DSc as well as a PhD. He always wore his learning lightly, was the perfect gentleman, the best dad a daughter could wish for and in spite of, or perhaps because of, all that he had suffered in the war, he was never bitter.

Perhaps because dad had married an English speaker, and perhaps because of his background, which was rather cosmopolitan, we were only on the fringes of the Polish community in Leeds. I remember wearing a traditional Polish costume, with embroidery and ribbons. I remember eating Polish food - my best friend at school was Polish too. But we seldom went to the Polish club. Because he was studying, dad wanted to learn English as quickly and as well as he could so - to my great regret - I didn't learn to speak anything but the most basic Polish.

All the same, dad had a fund of stories - and he told me all about the Poland of his childhood. He had been the son of a landowner, who had an old estate at a place called Dziedzilow, near the ancient city of Lwow. The family even had a coat of arms (oddly enough, it includes a goat!) It all seemed strange and enticing: nothing like my typically working class Yorkshire childhood. For me, back then, and for many years after, the Poland of my imagination was as exotic and enchanting as a place in a fairy tale - and with the same faint air of unreality. I knew that I wanted to write about it. In fact, I did write a couple of radio plays set in Poland, which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4. But I wanted to tackle something much longer, and I thought even then that it would be a novel. I began to research the background material many years ago, and one of the main sources of inspiration for me was my father. After he retired, I asked him to put down everything he could remember of his early life in Dziedzilow. I have his notebooks and sketches still. By the time he was born, the old manor house, which inspired a somewhat embellished Lisko, in my novel, was long gone, burned down in some previous conflict, although the cellars and ice house were still there. The family lived in what had once been the old Steward's House. The landscape of Lisko, in the novel, is the landscape my father described to me. This may be one reason why writing The Amber Heart was such a pleasure - it was written straight from my heart!

Dad, in his father's car - the only car in the district