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family Caitlin Davies

All artists have places that matter to them. Be it where they work, the setting of their latest piece, or where they go to think. Our Sense of Place feature invites you to the places that matter to our authors.

Let Caitlin Davies take you on a tour of the Parliament Hill Fields Lido in Hampstead. Caitlin is a journalist, teacher and novelist, living in North London. Her new novel Family Likeness is out now in paperback.

When I want to clear my mind, to untangle a plot or work out why a character is behaving oddly, I go to the Parliament Hill Fields Lido. There I draft things in my head as I swim up and down in water as blue as a kingfisher’s feathers.


Photograph by Ruth Corney

The lido is on Hampstead Heath in north London, close to where I grew up. It opened in 1938 during the golden age of lido construction, when the capital was to be a ‘city of lidos’. Today there are only two unheated open-air lidos open all year round. And this is one of them.


Photograph by Ruth Corney

 Swimming at the lido feels like being in a pool on top of an ocean liner, temporarily moored in a park and about to pull off. I’m always full of expectation walking up to the Art Deco entrance and hearing the metal shutter going up with a rattling sound, just as it has always done.

I can chart the stages of my life at this place. As a toddler I splashed in the shallow end and in the fountain, used the slides and chutes, sucked Orange Maid ice-lollies, shivered with cold and refused to get out.


Photograph by Ruth Corney

As I got older I started going towards the deep end, which seemed a mile away to me then, but I couldn’t wait to be out of my depth. As a teenager I was only ever at the deep end, because that was where teens showed off. Then I left England for fifteen years and when I came back with a three-year-old child it was back to the shallow end again for me.


Photograph by Ruth Corney

As my daughter grew up she begged to be allowed to swim to the deep end. Now she’s a teenager and doesn’t want to swim with me at all. So I’m back in the deep end, again, on my own.


Photograph by Ruth Corney

The old slides and chutes have gone, the fountain’s no longer working, but the pool has a silvery new metal skin that seems to keep the water warmer.

I’m a fair weather outdoor swimmer, I only venture to the lido on a sunny day, and I go in the morning, before I sit down to write. I often take a problem with me, an assignment to think about. What would happen if this character did that? What’s going to happen when I get to that section of the novel? Do I know what the ending will be? Then just as I think I have it worked out, I’m interrupted by a duck.


Photograph by Ruth Corney

At night when I can’t sleep I often think of the Parliament Hill Fields Lido. I picture myself climbing up the concrete steps that rise from the side like an amphitheatre and looking at the empty pool – in my imagination it’s always empty – and there I am, about to get in.

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Photograph by Glyn Roberts

Swimming to me is like writing, sometimes I swim fast, sometimes I’m just floating. I don’t count lengths; I’m only doing it for enjoyment. But after a swim at the lido I’m ready for the day, and whatever happens after that.

Family Likeness by Caitlin Davies out now.

Running the London Marathon this weekend? If so, we applaud you.

Here’s our favourite running pundit Alex Heminsley, author of Running Like a Girl,  sharing the ten things she can’t live without as a runner. We hope you find them useful.

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Very funny, very honest and very emotional, whether you’re in serious training or thinking about running for the bus, this is a book for anyone who after wine and crisps for supper a few too many times thinks they might . . . just might . . . like to run like a girl.

Lost your running mojo? Watch this video and let Alex coax you back into your trainers…

Follow Alex on Twitter @Hemmo

All artists have places that matter to them. Be it where they work, the setting of their latest book, or where they go to think. Our Sense of Place feature invites you to the places that matter to our authors. Award winning gardening writer Ursula Buchan is the author of A Green and Pleasant Land, which tells the inspiring story of Britain’s wartime gardeners. Here she tells us about her ultimate escape from the city.

Everyone has a place about which they dream, when they are standing in the Tube, or staring out of the office window, or sitting at a screen trying to make words mean something. It is usually somewhere they have been happy, and somewhere to which they always intend to return. Each year, in early spring and early autumn, we rent a cottage in the English Lake District. It is a nondescript little house but its wide windows look out over Bassenthwaite Lake to the Western Fells as well as up to Skiddaw, that great humped whaleback of a fell, often snow-topped in spring.

urs    urs1

I go there to experience hard, invigorating day-long tramps over moor and grassland, across noisy, stone-filled becks and up onto the top of fells, often returning home soaked and wind-blown. I go there for the serenity that comes after such exercise, when the words often flow swiftly and cleanly onto the paper. I go there to see the little native daffydowndillys, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, mixed with graceful hybrids in the churchyard at Isel. And I go there to remind myself that, however big a swell I might feel on a city street, I am just another of God’s creatures creeping about through bracken and heather, magisterially ignored by an indifferent Nature.



Read an interview with Ursula Buchan.

Mother’s Day is on the horizon so we’ve compiled our top Windmill gift suggestions for all sorts of mums. Whether she likes staying up to date with prize-nominated fiction, supplementing muddy knees with gardening books or all things Scandinavian, there should be something here she’ll love.

Be inspired by our ideas and then enter to win the lot for your mum. We’ll pick a winner in time for Mother’s Day!

To enter, follow @WindmillBooks on Twitter and simply retweet this tweet.

The competition closes at midday on Friday 28 March. Full terms and conditions are below.


Night Film by Marisha Pessl - ‘Intensely gripping… In the same league as Gone Girl’ The Times

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – the critically acclaimed portrait of a unforgettable family that spans twentieth-century America


The Lie by Helen Dunmore – love, memory and loss during the First World War

Family Likeness by Caitlin Davies – ‘A beautiful story of family and loss. Haunting and compelling’ Lisa Jewell


Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen - longlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize 2014

A Green and Pleasant Land by Ursula Buchan – a spellbinding book about Britain’s wartime gardeners


The Last Boat Home by Dea Brøvig - an assured debut about sacrifice, survival and a mother’s love, set in small windswept Norwegian town

A Wolf in Hindelheim by Jenny Mayhew - ‘Part Nordic noir, part Brothers Grimm’ Financial Times


Enter to win all these books by following @WindmillBooks on Twitter and retweeting this tweet. Good luck!


1. By entering this prize draw, you agree to accept and be bound by these terms and conditions.

2. This prize draw is open to anyone aged 16 or over who is a resident of the UK or the Republic of Ireland, except for employees of The Random House Group Limited (the promoter), its subsidiary companies, their families and any other company connected with the prize draw.
3. The closing date for the prize draw is midday GMT 28/03/2014 (closing date). Entries received after the closing date will not be considered. Responsibility will not be accepted for lost or damaged entries, whether due to system error or otherwise. Proof of entering the prize draw via is not proof of the promoter’s receipt of entry.
4. The prize is copies of A Green and Pleasant Land by Ursula Buchan, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis, The Last Boat Home by Dea Brøvig, Still Life With Breadcrumbs by Anna Quindlen, A Wolf in Hindelheim, Night Film, The Lie by Helen Dunmore and Family Likeness by Caitlin Davies (the prize). The prize must be taken before 29/03/2014. No cash alternative will be offered.
5. Events may occur which render the awarding of the prize impossible due to reasons beyond the control of the promoter and the promoter may, at its absolute discretion, vary, amend or suspend the prize with or without notice.
6. The prize draw will take place within 1 days of the closing date (i.e. by 29/03/2014) and the winner will be notified on Twitter within 1 day of the closing date (i.e. by 29/03/2014).
7. The winner agrees to the promoter’s use of their name, town of residence and photograph in relation to the promoter’s publicity material.
8. Your personal details will only be retained and used by the promoter in order to send you your prize and will be deleted thereafter unless you have ticked the appropriate box. Your personal details will not be passed on to any third parties.
9. The winner’s name will be available upon the promoter’s receipt of a stamped addressed envelope.
10. The promoter’s decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into in relation to the competition.
11. These terms and conditions are subject to English Law and the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts.
12. The promoter’s contact details are: The Random House Group Limited, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA.

Tony Benn 1925 – 2014.

Tony Benn has left as an enduring monument one of the great diaries of the twentieth century, lasting from 1940, when he was fifteen, to 2009 when illness forced him to stop.

They are published as nine volumes but these are perhaps ten per cent of the 15 million words in the original diary.  I am one of the few people to have had access to the manuscript diary, in the course of writing my biography of Benn.  For this I received every assistance from him and his staff in the jumbled, chaotic office in the basement of his Holland Park Avenue home.


The diaries of course are of historic interest because they reveal the work of a cabinet minister and member of parliament for more than fifty years.  Over time the Benn charts post-war hope, the rise of the Labour militants, the battle of Orgreave and the decline of the Left.  The books also have descriptions of constituents’ experiences in his weekly surgery, an opportunity to meet the people and sample their woes which is hated by some MPs but was embraced by Benn.

They also show the development of Benn‘s family of four children, twelve grandchildren, and the suffering of the death of parents and partner – one would be hard put to it to find anywhere in literature a more poignant description of death and continuing loss than Benn’s of Caroline, his partner of more than fifty years whose illness and death was described in remorseless detail in manuscript, some of which was published in More Time for Politics (2007).


Benn had always felt he ought to be writing a diary, as a part of the non-conformist urge to account for every moment of life as a gift from God.  He explained at one of our last formal conversations: ‘It’s very self obsessed.  I must admit it worries me that I should spend so much time on myself, I saw it as an account, accountability to the Almighty, when I die give him 15 million words and say: there, you decide.  I think there is a moral element in it, of righteousness.’

This need to see time as a precious resource to be accounted for went back to his father, William Wedgwood Benn (Later Lord Stansgate) who expected the boy Benn to fill in a time chart showing how he had made use of his days.  Benn senior had read an early self-help book by Arnold Bennett called  How to Live 24 Hours a Day  on making the best use of time. ‘Father became obsessed with it.’ Benn said.

Tony Benn had been keeping a diary sporadically since childhood.  It had always been his ambition to keep one, and early fragments of diary exist, including one during his time in the services, where diary-keeping was forbidden for security reasons so he put key words relating to places or equipment in code. In the 1950s he began keeping a political diary and wrote at least some parts of a diary for every year from 1953. The emotional shock of his father’s death in 1960 and subsequent political upsets stopped his diary writing in 1961 and 1962 but, with a return to the House of Commons in sight, he resumed it in 1963.

He started dictating the diary to a tape recorder in 1966 when he joined the cabinet because he could not dictate accounts of cabinet meetings to a secretary who was not covered by the official secrets act.  Benn would store the tapes, not knowing when he would transcribe them, or indeed if they would be transcribed in his life­time. His daughter, Melissa spoke of arriving at their home late at night when she was a teenager, and hearing her father’s voice dictating the diary, followed by snoring as he fell asleep at the microphone.

Benn stopped writing the diary after he fell ill in 2009 in what was probably the first stroke he was to suffer.  He explained to me ‘You can’t not be a diarist some of the time.  One day is much the same as the other and it is a lot of effort. You really do have to be very conscientious and keep it up in detail and keep up the recordings and so on and it took over my life, also I’m not sure now that I’m not in a position on the inside on anything where my reflections would be interesting.  I think my reflections might be as interesting as anybody else’s but whether it constitutes a diary when I’m not at the heart of anything…’

‘I never thought of it as an achievement, just something I did, it’s been a bit of a burden to have to write it all down every night.  It began as a journal where I put down things that interested me during the war, I drew a little bit on that for Years of Hope (1994). You can say you’ve achieved a reasonably accurate daily account of what has happened to you and since people are always shaped by what has happened to them so if you have a diary you get three bites at your own experience: when it happens, when you write it down and when you read it later and realise you were wrong.’


Benn did not think he would publish it in his lifetime, but in about 1983 he decided to type up six months and have a look at it.  He invited Ruth Winstone to help with the diary in 1985 and found they worked so well together that she stayed and edited all the diaries.

His final thought on the long labour of the Benn Diaries was: ‘I couldn’t recommend anyone to keep a diary without warning them that it does take over your life.’

Browse Tony Benn’s diaries.

Jad Adams’ Tony Benn: A Biography is published by Biteback.  His next book is Women and the Vote: A World History, to be published by OUP in September.

Many thanks to the OUP blog for their permission to share Jad Adams’ post, which first appeared on 14 March 2014.

Explosive, dark and tender, The Last Boat Home is a devastating novel about sacrifice, survival and a mother’’s love, set in a small, windswept Norweigan town.

Here, Dea Brøvig gives us an insight into the story of Else and the true inspiration behind the novel.

‘A finely written debut’ Stella Duffy

‘The evocation of place is wonderful; the writing fresh, the storytelling assured’ Jill Dawson

If you’ve read The Last Boat Home, tell us what you think on Twitter @WindmillBooks

The Last Boat Home is out now.

Dea BrovigThe Last Boat Home jacket

Dea Brøvig moved to the UK from Norway at the age of 17. After graduating from Leeds University, she worked in publishing in London for eight years. She graduated from UEA’s Creative Writing MA in 2009. The Last Boat Home is her first novel and we’re delighted to be publishing it in March 2014. Here she tells us where she grew up and the locations that inspired the setting of her wonderful new novel…

I moved to Norway from the US at the age of seven and stayed in Oslo until I was 17. Even though it has now been 20 years since I left the country, I still consider it my home. I’ve spent every summer I can remember there, mostly on the southern coast, with its fjords and skerry and beautiful shoreline. It’s a part of the world that fascinates me endlessly. The fictional town where The Last Boat Home is set borrows from real places and is integral to the story.

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Picture 2

Dea Brovig Sense of Place

These days I spend my summers on Tromøya, an island near Arendal, where my partner’s family has a property. I write in the boat shed surrounded by life vests, fishing poles, wet suits, old fenders and other boating paraphernalia.

Sense of Place by Dea Brovig

When we’re there, I’m at my desk by 5a.m. with a thermos of coffee, which I need more for warmth than for the caffeine. I write until noon and spend the rest of the day being Mum. This is my desk:

Sense of Place by Dea Brovig

I write better here than anywhere. It might have something to do with the silence. I suspect the view doesn’t hurt, either.

Picture 6 Sense of Place by Dea Brovig

The Last Boat Home is published in hardback by Hutchinson on 13 March 2014



Anna QuindlenStill Life With Breadcrumbs

We’re delighted to hear that Anna Quindlen’s latest novel, Still Life with Breadcrumbs has been longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize

One of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, the BAILEYS Women’s Prize for Fiction – previously known as the Orange Prize for Fiction – celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing from throughout the world –  it’s fantastic to see Anna selected.

Still Life with Breadcrumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.

Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Breadcrumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.

Click here to read the first chapter of Anna Quindlen’s wonderful novel, published by Hutchinson.

The overall winner of the prize will be announced on 4th June 2014.

Ugly Bus by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas is the author of Ugly Bus and Pocket Notebook. Originally hailing from Wales, and a policeman for the better part of two decades, here he tells us why Shadowlands makes him cry (lack of zombies, apparently), how he’d adjudicate the resultant punch-up at his dream dinner party and why an abandoned lorry looms large in the memories of his mis-spent youth.

Why do you write?

I’ve been a copper for twenty years. There’s a lot of insane shit to work through. Not least repairing my faulty moral compass. So in short: therapy.

What’s your inspiration for writing?

Life. People. Earning enough never to have to go back to work for the police. Ever.

What were you doing before you became a writer?

I was, and still am, Old Bill. Sorry ‘bout that. But I’ve been on a sabbatical for the last three years and can barely remember what it was like to be a plod. Thankfully.

Favourite book?

Just the one? That’s too difficult, so here’s a few: Hangover Square, The Road, A Confederacy of Dunces, Crimes in Southern Indiana, anything by Dan Rhodes but especially Little Hands Clapping. Anything by David Vann. Denis Johnson rocks. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is a work of demented genius. I used to adore the energy and fuck-you vibe of early Chuck Palahniuk, but we’ve long since parted ways. Favourite book of the last ten years or so is Mailman by J. Robert Lennon. Superb and surreal story of a US postie that goes postal.

Favourite film?

Again, too difficult to name just one. Shawshank. Raging Bull. Fight Club. The Pianist. Dead Man’s Shoes. Mulholland Drive. Fargo. Anchorman for the giggles and quotability factor. Lots more. And I’m a huge horror genre fan. Craven, Hooper, Cronenberg, Raimi, Argento et al. Love Romero’s zombie flicks. Any zombie pics actually, because they’re the only things that scare the bejesus out of me. Shadowlands makes me cry, too. Possibly because there are no zombies in it.

Favourite band/album/song (pick any, or all three)?

Depeche Mode have been a constant in my life. Totally uncool to admit it, but I love them. Quite partial to The National. Muse, too. And Burial’s music is just excellent. Scratchy, pulsing, haunting and frequently beautiful. Favourite song is a toss-up between Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and Catatonia’s Bulimic Beats.

What have been the landmark moments in your life to date?

Marriage. Children. Being published. Losing my virginity under an abandoned lorry. The usual.

Where are you right now?

Sitting in my mezzanine bedroom, on a tatty wicker chair and shivering in the Portuguese cold, surrounded by forests of swaying Eucalyptus and perpetually barking dogs.

Your guiltiest pleasure?

Watching Diners Drive-Ins and Dives on Food Network. It’s utter tat, but brilliant. Guy Fieri has the best job in the world: being paid large amounts of money to travel the length and breadth of America while eating lard.

What do you do to relax?

This is rather embarrassing to admit, given my age and their dubious morality, but I do love the occasional blast on a first-person shooter. I’ve always been a gamer, since the days of the BBC Micro and Commodore 64. Shooty games keep me sane, to be frank. Better those than go on a real-life rampage, no?

Approximately how many books do you own?

Hundreds. And I’m yet to read half of them. There are far, far too many books in the world really, and I am doing nothing to alleviate the problem.

Where were you born?

The cradle of civilisation that is Wales.

Fantasy Dinner party. Who would be your four guests and why?

I’ve met a lot of celebrities via my ‘other job’ and, to be brutally honest, most of them have been tossers. Anyway: Noel Gallagher. Larry David. Mike Tyson. Norman Mailer. It would be a scream/punch-up over the trifle.

Tell us about a book you own that you’ve never read.

Catch 22. The shame.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs. I am allergic to cat hair. It makes me mewl like an infant.

Any bad habits?

I used to smoke miniature cigars. Ten a day minimum, until I was borderline emphysemic. But I quit last year and – hooray! – have been miserable as sin ever since. So, bad habits: I am incapable of waking earlier than seven thirty. Utterly incapable. It’s shameful, I know, especially with two young children who are fond of very early starts. Also: snacking on cheese or paté while watching Blu-ray box sets then going to bed very late and waking my wife at two in the morning and whining that I am having a coronary when in fact it’s just heartburn. That. And I’ve just realised there may be a connection between the two.

Hunter S. Thompson used to type out The Great Gatsby to know what it felt like to write it. What would be your choice?

Isn’t that just data entry?

How many places have you lived?

Wales, England, and now Portugal.

If you could be anywhere now, where would it be and who with?

I am where I want to be, with the three people who mean the most to me.

What are your writing habits?

Wake. Eat, drink hot, sweet tea. Pace. Moan to my wife that ‘the scene isn’t working’. Secretly play Clash of Clans in the toilet. Think about lunch. Cook and eat lunch. Reluctantly sit in front of laptop. Type. Get drawn into the scene. Really enjoy writing the scene. Realise you have to collect kids from school and wish you’d started writing a tad earlier. Feel depressed all evening. Repeat each day.

What are you reading now?

A lot of crime novels. It’s a bit Busman’s Holiday, and I’ve steered clear of them for most of my life, but they are research for my next effort. It’s been an eye-opener, especially with British authors. The police procedure and vernacular is mightily wrong in a lot of them, which surprised me.

What and where is your favourite bookshop?

St. David’s Bookshop near the cathedral in St David’s, Pembrokeshire. Tiny, idiosyncratic, wonderful.

Where is your favourite place to read?

In bed. Post-coitus.

Ugly Bus is available now in  hardback.


A Wolf in Hindelheim and Jenny Mayhew

Jenny Mayhew has worked as a TV researcher, studied International Relations in Sri Lanka and written film screenplays on both contemporary and historical storylines.  In 2003, she was nominated for a BAFTA special achievement award for her screenplay To Kill a King.  Jenny has a doctorate in English literature and has taught creative writing courses at Oxford, Bristol and Manchester.  She now lives in Edinburgh and  A Wolf in Hindelheim is her first novel. Jenny talks us through the creation of a wonderfully atmospheric mystery and an unusual and affecting love story.

Where did you get the idea for A Wolf in Hindelheim?

The setting came first. I wanted to set a story in a quiet, remote, unremarkable 1920s neighbourhood which would be the opposite of the glamorous roaring-twenties world of The Great Gatsby and Al Capone-era gangster movies. No tycoons, no bootleggers, no sophisticated artists hanging out in smoky Berlin jazz bars: I wanted to write about unsophisticated folk with ordinary lives and old-fashioned habits and prejudices, scratching out a living in the decade before Nazism took hold.

It’s always puzzled me how ordinary people could be persuaded by the Nazi regime to become obedient Party members and turn on their neighbours. What were those people doing and thinking in the years before Hitler’s rise to power that would eventually make them susceptible to his propaganda? I wanted to edge tentatively towards this question rather than attempt a full-on war story. An ordinary German village in the 1920s seemed like a quietly potent setting for some kind of gradual, disturbing shift of mood.

Starting out with this vague sense of an ordinary community quietly going about its business in the lull before Hitler’s storm, I stumbled on a bizarre claim that helped to focus the idea. It was on a website of unexplained supernatural events, a sort of spooky alternative timeline of world history, and there was a one-line entry that said something like: ‘In a German village in 1925, a man shot a witch who was turning into a werewolf’. I’m not sure it was that year, but it was definitely sometime in the 1920s, because that’s what caught my eye. I remember thinking, really? In 20th century Europe there were still people who believed in such things?

This puzzling statement (which was just a one-line assertion, with no sources or references) gave me the idea of starting an improbable rumour in my imaginary village, and getting different characters to respond to the rumour in various ways. It also encouraged me to be quite bold with the inner lives of my characters, and to let their imaginations run wild. Their grievances and desires and jealousies and credulous fantasies could become quite extreme, I decided – especially if the villagers were still suffering from the experiences and effects of the First World War.

How did you research the book?

The short answer is, I didn’t. All of the places, incidents and characters in the novel are made up; so there was nothing specific to look for in the archives. Hindelheim is an imaginary village in an invented region – ‘south-west Germany’ – which is deliberately notional and unspecific. My aim was not to document anything that actually happened, but to speculate on what might conceivably happen if … and if … As for geographical or historical detail, it’s 99% guesswork.

I showed the first draft to a scholar of German history who very gently highlighted some implausible features; but no doubt there are others. By lucky accident I came across of a book of photographic portraits taken by August Sander in the 20s, I think, which helped me as a kind of aid to speculation. Many of Sander’s subjects – people from all walks of life, and from different regions – look directly at the camera in a way that makes you wonder what is going on behind the eyes.

Where did the characters come from?

The residents of Hindelheim were invented, like everything else in the story, bit by painful bit. They did not arrive one day fully-formed and walk on to the set I’d created for them, unfortunately. For me, building a character on the page is the same laborious, trial-and-error process as building anything else on the page: try this, no that’s not working, take it out and try something else. Tap, tap. Cringe. Delete, delete, delete.

It was clear that the story would need a point-of-view character; not a spotless hero, but someone whose perspective we share more than any other. Theodore, the local constable, has this role. It was also important to have a character who could be drawn into irrational thinking; someone susceptible to persuasion, whose choices would affect the course of the story. That part is played by Eckhardt, a young veteran of the First World War. I also wanted a character who would be a kind of barometer for the sexual climate of this imaginary place, where fear and desire go hand in hand, and where neighbours are both too close to each other and at the same time, are strangers; hence Ute.

What kinds of folklore and tales inspired the story?

The novel has a fairly realistic setting and narrative (I hope!), but there are references to folklore and fairy tales peppered throughout. My reason for alluding to these tales and beliefs was to suggest something about the inner lives of the characters – particularly their inherited notions of good and bad, normal and abnormal, purity and danger. I hoped to give a sense of how the characters think, both individually and collectively. In the tight-knit community of Hindelheim, some thought patterns are shared, like patterns on a common type of wallpaper; but not all. A few individuals – like Theodore, the sceptic of the story – manage to stand apart and question the tales they are told.

As the book’s title suggests, there’s a symbolic wolf prowling around the edges of this story, which means different things to the different characters, depending on what they are inclined to believe. In Hindelheim as in Red Riding Hood, wolves are associated with sexual power and dangerous transformations. And because there’s a wolf, there had to be a character called Peter. Another familiar children’s tale that is mentioned is The Elves and The Shoemaker, which to my mind has a very slightly creepy, controlling aspect to it. (If there were do-gooding elves rummaging around in my workshop at night without an invitation, I wouldn’t be too happy about it!)

One of the central characters, Ute, mentions her aunt’s belief in troublesome ‘night people’. What I had in mind here is a set of legends that were, as I understand it, current in the Middle Ages across Europe, relating to supernatural ‘wild hunters’ who flew by night and disrupted communities in various ways. Ute’s aunt has several other superstitions, most of which I made up. In fact, there is quite a bit of invented folklore in the novel. Members of the fictional German People’s League propagate some weird ideas that I more or less invented at random, hoping to make them seem credibly sect-like and occult. It didn’t seem necessary to be constrained by a single folkloric tradition, or to tie the story down to one particular set of historically documented practices. It’s fiction, not anthropology! As I see it, what’s important and revealing about the characters is not the precise nature of their beliefs, but how they come to persuade themselves, or others, to believe.

Truth is stranger than fiction, though; and none of the made-up rituals or folkloric ideas in this novel is a match for the horrifying beliefs that did, in fact, circulate in medieval Europe. The ‘Jewish blood libel’ was a sort of malicious, long-lasting whispering campaign which asserted that Jews killed Christian children for ritual purposes. The perceived crimes of witchcraft were for a long time punishable, and punished, by death. Preachers regularly exorcised ‘demons’ from people who were suffering with certain symptoms. These things were in my mind as I was writing, even though the novel is set in the relatively modern world of the 1920s. Did irrationality suddenly and completely vanish from Europe at some point before the start of the 20th century? I doubt it. In Hindelheim, old habits of mind prove slow to change – slower than technology or transport, for example – and while the official doctrine of demonology has long since died out, the impulse to demonise remains.

In the years after my story ends, in the 1930s and 40s, the Nazis would revive and utilise symbols from folklore, portraying themselves as legendary warriors ridding the world of dirty Jewish rats. With its rather simplistic images of heroism on the one hand, and of a nightmarish menace on the other, fascist propaganda seems to have captivated audiences by playing on infantile fears and fantasies. This is not explored directly in the novel, but I hope the folklore allusions will help to convey a sense that Hindelheim is nurturing some potentially dangerous habits of groupthink.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing something else set somewhere else – nothing to do with Hindelheim. My rate of progress is as slow as ever. I’ve completed one novel in 44 years, so maybe ask me again in 2058?

A Wolf in Hindelheim is available now in paperback.