Eugene Delacroix

The Curse of the Camera Phone #TravelThursday #Paris

Gary and I visited Paris at the end of January as I have long wished to see Eugene Delacroix’s painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ around which my WIP revolves. While in Paris we visited the Musee Rodin – dedicated to the works of French sculptor Auguste Rodin.

One of Rodin’s most famous works ‘The Thinker’ is there, set in the beautiful garden. We went out to see it. There was a little queue. We stood for a while, watching this queue. Each person waited patiently, then walked up to the sculpture, sat on the plinth, took up the famous pose, and their companion snapped away. Then they got up and walked away.

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Wonder what he thinks about it all?

We watched for a few minutes and not a single person actually looked up at the sculpture itself. Not a single one.

We spent a good hour or so wandering through the gardens looking at Rodin’s beautiful works, then we wandered through the museum itself, looking at the interesting displays (the work that goes into sculpting – my goodness, it’s like a science!). It’s an absolutely fantastic place, one of the best museums I’ve ever visited. And Rodin looks strangely like an old Tom Hardy! But as we walked round we noticed that the majority of visitors were looking at everything through their phones, snapping away.

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Tom Hardy’s future look?

The day before, we’d been to the Louvre, where all anyone seemed to want to do was to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa. Earlier that morning we’d been to the Musee d’Orsay , where again we had to keep ducking to avoid starring in other people’s photos. That afternoon we went on to Musée de L’Orangerie, home of Monet’s stunning murals. Monet envisaged the murals as providing a place of calm, of retreat, somewhere in the middle of busy Paris to sit and be quiet after a long, hard day. We duly sat and relaxed and took in the beauty of these amazing works. And across our sightline every couple of seconds someone would walk, taking a panoramic picture through their phone.

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Guia Besana for The New York Times

Why do people do this? Seriously, I really don’t understand.

I do take the occasional photo, although I’m not that great at it, but to me, as someone who isn’t a professional photographer, a photo is something I use to remember a good time. The photos I’ve got of Gary and me in Paris are mainly pretty bad and are the two of us grinning away at the fact that we’re standing in front of Delacroix’s house, or the place where Jim Morrison died. I didn’t take any photos of paintings, or sculptures, because what is the point?

When you look at a painting in real life you realise how no photograph can capture what’s actually there. If I’m standing in front of a Delacroix, or a Monet, or a Rothko, or a beautiful sculpture by Rodin or even an intricate carving in the stonework of a cathedral, I know that if I take a photo of it, I won’t be able to recapture what it looks like, how it makes me feel in that moment. And it wasn’t as if these people were looking at the paintings or the sculptures for a while and then taking a quick snap. No, their whole focus was on taking the photograph. I watched one woman come in to one of the mural rooms. She put her phone to her face, and walked round the whole room, with the phone to her face. Then she walked out. Will she look at that again? What was the point of her going to see those murals?

I don’t want to sound like a snob or pretentious, but I genuinely don’t get it. The age of the camera phone seems to have reduced the beautiful things in life to a list to be ticked off. Trip to Paris? Mona Lisa – tick, here’s the picture to prove it. Venus de Milo – tick. The Thinker? Tick. The Kiss? Tick. And here on Facebook is the picture.

And it’s a picture that will show none of the real beauty of that piece of art. You can’t capture those colours, those lines in a little snap on your phone, however good your phone may be.

And, in my humble opinion, you’ve missed out completely on seeing something really worth seeing. But if you do insist on doing it, then please keep out of my bloody way!

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Visiting Delacroix’s Paris #wwwblogs

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Eugene Delacroix

The last weekend in January, Gary and I went to Paris – the realisation of a dream I’ve had for more years than I care to remember. I don’t know why it took so long to get there, but I wish I hadn’t waited. What a fabulous city it is.

I was desperate to visit the home of Eugene Delacroix, the artist around whose painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ my WIP revolves. Of course, I wanted to see the painting itself, hanging in the Louvre, and also wanted to visit his grave, at Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Jim Morrison is also buried, so Gary was happy!).

We stayed in the Left Bank, the art district, so it was a short stroll to the Musée National Eugene Delacroix in the Rue de Furstenberg where Delacroix lived from 1857 until his death in 1863.

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It was a very strange feeling walking through the rooms where Delacroix lived and worked and eventually died. The museum is wonderful – thoughtfully and lovingly designed, with artefacts and objects that belonged to the man himself and many artworks too. The garden at the back of the building has been recreated to include many of the plants and trees he loved and would have grown there. It is so peaceful in the little walled garden – the centre of Paris, but calm and tranquil. It was easy to imagine Delacroix walking there. The garden is the setting for one of the scenes in my book and actually being there was so much more inspiring than looking at photographs.

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We went to the Louvre next, and straight to the Delacroix paintings. There are several of his works there. I have seen some at an exhibition at the National Gallery, but not ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ itself. It is truly a magnificent painting. We sat there, just looking, for ages, really taking it in.

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We did go on to look at the Mona Lisa, because you do feel you have to. There was quite a queue, which we didn’t join, we just looked at it from across the room. To be honest, it wasn’t very inspiring. There are wonderful things in the Louvre, amazing paintings and sculptures, and so many people were walking past these lovely, irreplaceable works to take a selfie with this tiny painting. I do think Leonardo himself would be pretty annoyed to think that that’s the thing people associate him with. It seems to have become something to tick off on a list – been there, seen that.

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Hmmmm…

Anyway, we saved the cemetery for our last day in Paris, and the skies were suitably grey. It is a strange place, horribly crowded and a bit confusing. We were armed with a map though and instructions from our daughter who had been there the week before Christmas. We soon found Delacroix’s grave – it is simple, so unlike his paintings, but somehow that seems fitting. After all, how can you really commemorate someone like Delacroix?

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I always find it touching that people leave small gifts at the graves of those that have touched their lives and it was nice to see single flowers left there. It’s always gratifying to know that other people revere and love the people you admire.

There are so many others here, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, Ingres, Géricault, Balzac, David, Chopin, and of course Jim Morrison, among many, many others. That all these people have Paris as their final resting place is testament to the city itself, vibrant and liberal, intellectual and open, a place where art, music, writing and philosophy have always flourished. In a time when the world seems to be moving to the right, to a political landscape where free thinking, creativity and critical thinking are denigrated and ridiculed, let’s hope it remains that place.

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Street Art in Bristol

Edgar degas

We were in Bristol this past Saturday visiting the university as my daughter is thinking of applying there to study Veterinary Science. It’s only the second time I’ve ever been to Bristol, but on both occasions I’ve been struck by what a lovely city it is.

Without getting too political (I’m sure that anyone who knows me even a little bit will have no doubt as to my views on today’s referendum), the atmosphere in the UK over the last few weeks has been toxic to say the least. We seem to have forgotten about the many benefits of multiculturalism, indeed of culture, and it was lovely to wander through the streets of Bristol, seeing people of many different backgrounds, faiths and cultures. I’m not sure what the exact ethnic make-up of Bristol is, but like most cities, it has that wonderful metropolitan feel – that sense, often missing in small towns, that you can be who you are and no one could care less.

One of the lovely things about Bristol of course, is its connection with street artists, Banksy among them, and the opportunity to see some of their work. It’s quite astonishing to be driving or walking down a Bristolian street, to glance up and see a work of art – just there, accessible, free, as it should be.

I was particularly pleased to see the queen/Ziggy Stardust piece by Incwel. I’m a fan of one but not so much the other (I’ll leave  you to decide which) and I love this:

We also saw this beautiful work by artist JPS:

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Art has always been a comment on our times, a way of expressing ourselves, whether through painting, poetry, novels, and even, nowadays, through blogs. Regular readers and followers will know that my new book involves a girl with a passion for the French nineteenth century painter Eugene Delacroix, an artist whose work I adore. I’ve been very lucky to see some of his paintings. Another painter I love is Mark Rothko, who could be viewed as being as far from Delacroix as it’s possible to get. I’ve also seen some of his work, both in London and in New York.

What Delacroix, Rothko and, I feel, these street artists have in common, is the way they provoke emotion, the way they cause discussion, the way they draw attention, both to themselves and to the world around them. Art, particularly now, can be a provocation and a balm. It has always been a way of celebrating diversity, and culture, and humanity.

I’ll be keeping that in mind today.

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Delacroix at the National Gallery #wwwblogs

 

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The National Gallery

My current work in progress – Chiaroscuro – was inspired by and features the French painter Eugene Delacroix. I love visiting art galleries and have been lucky enough to visit the National Gallery, Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. So I was thrilled when I found out that the National Gallery currently has an exhibition of Delacroix’s work, focussing on his influence on modern art.

So on Easter Monday my husband, son and I went off to London. I’m very lucky that my son shares my love of art and isn’t above accompanying me to galleries. Plus my daughter, who has no interest at all, was on a college trip to the Belizean rain forest (much more her thing) so I didn’t have to feel guilty about leaving her out!

The exhibition was amazing. I know it might sound over the top, but to actually see Delacroix’s paintings in front of me was truly awe-inspiring. And to learn how he was so influential on so many artist who came after him, many of who are certainly more well-known than he is, was really interesting. I don’t know many other people who count Delacroix as their favourite artist, so it was heartening to know that I wasn’t alone and that he was held in such high esteem by artists of the calibre of Renoir, Van Gough, Cezanne, Picasso and Signac, to name but a few; I felt in very good company!

Delacroix is known for his lavish use of colour, but it truly isn’t until you are actually standing in front of his work that you can really appreciate just what that means. And while the paintings by others accompanying his were by artists considered geniuses in their own right, for me their works paled in comparison. As you moved from room to room, it was the Delacroixs that stood out, that captured your eyes and imagination.

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‘Homage to Delacroix’ (1864) Henri Fantin-Latour

The most touching part of the exhibition came at the end though. The wall outside the exhibition is adorned with a print of Henri Fantin-Latour’s ‘Homage to Delacroix’. Fantin-Latour painted this tribute to give Delacroix the recognition, the respect and the admiration that had more or less eluded him in his lifetime. Artists and writers, among them Whistler, Manet, Baudelaire and Fantin-Latour himself, cluster around a portrait of Delacroix – if the critics had not liked him, his contemporaries and those that followed certainly did. And as the exhibition shows, Delacroix’s influence was far-reaching and long-lived. Indeed, Picasso’s ‘The Women of Algiers’ painted in 1955 was one of a series of his variations on Old Masters and was a take on Delacroix’s magnificent painting of 1834. Picasso’s painting sold in 2015 for $179 million, causing a bit of a sensation. Delacroix’s original never made nearly as much, but caused a sensation because of its subject matter and its sexual connotations. And while I admire the Picasso, having seen Delacroix’s amazing painting in reality, I know which I prefer.

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‘Women of Algiers in their Apartment’ (1834) Eugene Delacroix 

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© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / ARN Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) by Pablo Picasso. 

The exhibition is at the National Gallery until 22nd May.

The Role of the Life Model #wwwblogs #Writinganovel

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Study for ‘Liberty Leading the People’

Two of the characters in my WIP ‘Chiaroscuro’ work as life models – one models for Eugene Delacroix as he paints his controversial work ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, while the other, a 21st Century student, supplements her income posing at the local university.

It’s one of those jobs that many people find fascinating. What must it be like to take your clothes off in front of all those people? What sort of person does that for a living?

Well, a surprisingly varied type of person! As part of my research, I read many articles and blogs written by and about life models. They come from all walks of life and come in all shapes and sizes – life modelling is definitely a modelling job where difference is celebrated, where you don’t need to be a size six, and any ‘unusual’ physical features are welcomed, not disparaged.

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Study for ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’

Life models are vital for the development of artists.  Drawing a real person, with all the imperfections, nuances and attributes that come with the human body, is essential practice.  The students are appreciative of their models and respect and realise their importance. So what does it take to be a life model? And what is it actually like?

It’s not as simple as it might appear – it’s not just a case of taking your clothes off and standing there. The Register of Artists’ Models offers some very sound advice. You will need to be comfortable with your body – and happy to be naked in a room full of strangers. You’ll need to be unconcerned by a tutor mentioning your defects over and over again. You’ll need patience and stamina – standing or sitting in the same position for up to forty-five minutes at a time can be uncomfortable, to say the least. And can you come up with interesting poses? Often a teacher will ask you to improvise so you’ll need to be able to think up new positions.

You’ll also need to be reliable – often life models are booked for a run of sessions, posing in the same position so that students can work on a painting or sculpture. You need to be able to guarantee that you’ll be there.

The blogs and articles I’ve read are mostly filled with positive and sometimes extremely funny experiences. Many say that they were worried at first at the reaction their imperfect bodies would fetch from the students, but found that no one was bothered by a middle-aged paunch or too much body hair or dimples, freckles and birthmarks.

So far from being a nudge-nudge wink-wink type of job, life-modelling seems to me to be rather life-affirming and rather good for a positive body image too. A way of celebrating our imperfections (and we all have them) rather than hiding them. And a refreshing antidote to the photo-shopped and honestly rather weird nude selfies pumped out on a regular basis by certain attention-seeking celebrities.

And as the sketches here show, life models are a vital resource for artists – the men, women and even animals that modelled for Delacroix helped to add the vitality and richness that the figures in his paintings possess.

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Crouching woman

Sardanapalus – The Man Behind the Painting #wwwblogs

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My current WIP involves three different centuries and was inspired by a painting by Eugene Delacroix. The painting ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’ portrays a man watching as his possessions (including concubines, slaves and animals) are destroyed around him. The painting is lavish and in some ways shocking. So just who was Sardanapalus and why did he allow this to happen?

One of the problems with trying to write about such an ancient subject is the lack of information. But I have been able to find out a surprising amount – how much is accurate, how much actually happened, is, of course, debatable, but as with all historical research, you can only learn from what’s there, keeping an open but questioning mind.

According to the Greek writer Ctesias of Cnidus (I’d be really interested to know how to pronounce that!) Sardanapalus was the last king of Assyria. Already though, it’s not that simple. The last king of Assyria was actually Ashur-Uballit II. Ctesias was a physician and historian. He wrote a series of books about the history of Assyria and Persia called ‘Persica’. Unfortunately, the books are lost. There are fragments included in other books and abridgements, but not the originals. In the account written by Diodorus, a Greek historian writing in about 30 to 60 BC. who used Ctesias as a source, we get an idea of Sardanapalus as he is later known – a decadent man, self-indulgent, concerned mainly with physical gratification.

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Diodorus

The name Sardanapalus is most likely a corruption of the name Ashurbanipal, the last king of the Neo Assyrian Empire. However, Ashurbanipal was, by all accounts, completely different to Sardanapalus; he was a scholar, a military man, powerful and efficient. The similarities seem to lie in the fact that Ashurbanipal fell out with his brother, as does Sardanapalus in Diodorus’ account, and it is this brother’s death that bears a passing resemblance to Sardanapalus’ fate. However, nether Ashurbanipal or his brother led the type of life that Sardanapalus is associated with. Confused yet?

Delacroix was apparently not inspired by either Ctesias or Diodorus though. He took his inspriarion from the play by Lord Byron, who was inspired by Diodorus. So by the time we get to Delacroix’s painting, we are seeing something inspired by a play inspired by a Greek historian writing hundreds of years before, who was inspired by a Greek physician and historian writing about three to four hundred years before that. It’s not really surprising that things might not be completely historically accurate but we are left with this enduring idea of a lascivious, decadent, self-indulgent man who lived for pleasure.

byron play

It is this that is depicted so well and so shockingly by Delacroix – the moment when, his city besieged, Sardanapalus has everything he owns made into a huge pyre, and awaits the moment when all will be set alight, including him. It is his expression, his apparent lack of concern that really stays with you.

Of course, the painting didn’t go down too well at the time. The violence, the nudity, the actual style of the painting itself and the techniques used brought Delacroix much criticism. It was only in later years that the painting became valued for its boldness and its bravery.

 

New work in progress – ‘Chiaroscuro’ #wwwblogs

I’ve finally completed the research (as far as I can) and have at last put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard, anyway) and begun my second full-length novel. All through the research, I kept myself on track by writing regular blog posts, something that I’m going to continue to do during the actual writing. Hopefully the posts will be interesting to others, as well as giving me a focus!

The idea for this novel has been in my mind for a very long time. Almost ten years ago I was studying for a degree with the Open University. One of the modules included a study of Eugene Delacroix, the nineteenth century French romantic painter, and involved an analysis of his paintings, including The Death of Sardanapalus’.

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Delacroix’s painting fascinated me. It’s so vibrant, the colours are so vivid; there’s so much detail, so much going on. Sardanapalus, an Assyrian king, watches dispassionately as everything he owns, including animals, slaves and concubines, are destroyed. His kingdom is under siege and he would rather everything was obliterated than left to the invaders.

This got me thinking. About Sardanapalus, about his concubines, about the man who painted it all. What stories lay behind the women who were Sardanapalus’ slaves? And what about Delacroix himself, his life, his art? And the models he used? What would it be like to work with an artist like him? These ideas were all jumbled together and have remained so for the last ten years or so. Somehow, I’ve managed to put them all together in a storyline that covers three different eras, three very different women and three very different men. The novel will range from the sixth century BC to nineteenth century France and into 21st century England.

Why the title ‘Chiaroscuro’?

Chiaroscuro is the Italian for ‘light-dark’. In art it refers to strong contrasts between light and dark. Delacroix was known as a master of colour, and he took this contrast to extremes, bringing a sophistication to the technique. In ‘The Death of Sardanapalus’, he uses contrasts of light, of shadow, halftones and bold brushstrokes to create vibrancy, a sense of life and movement in the face of death. I hope to carry this theme through the novel, into the lives of my characters; the lights and darks of their worlds, their relationships, the events that shape them. It’s a bit daunting, but at least I’ve finally made a start.

‘Liberty Leading the People’

Anyone who reads my blog or who knows me at all will know how much I love France. I’ve spent many, many happy holidays there and plan to move there permanently. I don’t want to sound overly emotional but I am being completely genuine when I say that the French people I have met have been, without exception, welcoming, friendly and warm. They really do have a fabulous attitude to life and to living that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.

My WIP is partially based in Paris and the great French artist Eugene Delacroix features. I have spent a great deal of time researching Paris, reading about its history, its culture, its people. And I have been planning a trip – it is a city I have always wanted to visit, but have only passed through (usually accidently when the satnav goes wonky).

Delacroix painted ‘Liberty Leading the People’ in 1830. It has often been seen as a painting commemorating the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century. However, the scene he painted actually relates to what took place on July 28th, 1830.

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After the revolution and the subsequent rise of Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, the Bourbons were restored to the throne,with the brother of the executed King Louis XVI becoming king. Charles X became king in 1824 and he immediately set about undoing the work of the revolution. In July 1830, among other measures, he abolished freedom of the press. This lead to a virtually bloodless revolution; resistance to the king spread quickly and civil war broke out, people refused to work, and crowds gathered shouting ‘Down with the king’. The king tried to solve things by abdicating and making his grandson king. The Chamber of Deputies refused to accept this and the king went into exile.

Delacroix’s painting symbolises this moment – when anything seemed possible.

It has been used as an image for that first revolution – but that, to me, doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the values it represents. The will of the people.  Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity). Liberty, of course, is the symbol of the French Republic, also known as Marianne.

I don’t feel qualified to comment on the events of last Friday, nor do I feel it is my place to do so. But this painting by Mathilde Adorno, using Delacroix’s famous image, says it all for me. Marianne is as apt a symbol today as she was when Delacroix painted her in 1830.

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Eugene Delacroix and the lost art of letter writing

Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix

Researching my new WIP, I’ve been reading the selected letters of Eugène Delacroix.

Delacroix was a rather controversial 19th Century artist. His painting invoked strong reactions for their use of bold colour and for his refusal to conform to the ideas of the day. I think that’s why I like him so much. He’s pretty hard to research however, despite the fact that he is regarded as the father of the French Romantic movement.

These letters then are indispensable and a godsend. They are also entertaining, intelligent, beautifully written (and translated) and hugely insightful. Without them, I would be at rather a loss to put any flesh on the bones of the man whose paintings I so admire.

The letters that are relevant to the period I am researching, when Delacroix was a young man, are written to friends and family. They contain within them clues to Delacroix’s passions, his values, his admiration for his close friends and hints of the rather strained relationship he had with his sister. But what if Delacroix was alive today? How would I find out what makes him tick?

Well, you could argue that it would be a lot easier. That I would just have to look at his Twitter account or Google him to find out the latest gossip, or read interviews in magazines or on websites. But would that give me a true picture? I somehow doubt it. Here, in these personal letters, we have something precious – a real insight into a man that many consider a genius. For today’s artists, musicians, actors and celebrities, what we usually get is a PR approved, carefully constructed, watered-down version of a personality, a life that the artist (or their management company) wants you to see. Yes, we might get to read an autobiography (but this would be run through the usual PR checks), we might read on Twitter what they had for breakfast, but is that a real insight?

And it’s not just in the area of celebrity that something has been lost. The art of writing letters is lost to us on the whole. We write quick emails, tweet or text each other. We don’t sit down and write to each other about our feelings, our ambitions, our desires and our disappointments as Delacroix did. Even our moments of the greatest grief or the greatest joy are now more often posted on Facebook. I’ve seen people ‘share’ the loss of a parent in a post and the response has been a range of sad emoticons. That takes a few seconds. Compare that to Delacroix’s letter to his great friend J.B. Pierret, written after the death of Perret’s father. The letter is awash with empathy, with sympathy, with real feeling, real concern and real emotion. How much more comfort would that give than a ‘sad face’?

I’m not one of those people who think that everything was better in the past – far from it. But I do think in this age where everything is quick, everything is automated, our responses have become automated too. And I do think we’re the poorer for that.

#Writinganovel : Getting Started

It’s almost two years now since I published ‘The Black Hours’. A year and a half since ‘Blackwater’. Since then I’ve carried on with my freelance writing, worked with my husband with his communications consultancy, developed and expanded a successful editing business and judged a playwriting competition.

Not bad you might think. And this is only my work life. I’ve also got two children through GCSE’s and A levels, waved one off to Uni and another to college, got a new puppy and undertaken several home improvement projects.

Now I’m really not blowing my own trumpet here – I’m actually honestly frustrated with myself for what I’ve failed to achieve in those two years. I’ve hardly written a word of fiction. I started a second full length novel and abandoned it. It just didn’t feel right. I then went back to an idea that had been buzzing round my head for a fair few years. It’s a story I know I want to write. It’s also a story that’s going to take a lot of research, based as it is on the life of 19th Century French Painter Eugene Delacroix and this rather wonderful painting:

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So, how is this new novel progressing? Well, it isn’t. I keep making excuses. Yes, there’s lots of research. And I have started on that research. But it’s slow, slow going. Not a single word of actual novel have I written.

I’m very busy. I’m incredibly busy. But so are other people. Other people have jobs, or businesses. Other people have husbands and children and dogs and stuff. And they manage. Some manage to write prolifically.

There is no excuse.

I just need to get off my arse.

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So, I have a whole new determination to get going. And hopefully by getting this out there, on my blog for all to see, I shall actually do it. I’ve made plans to write a blog post about how I’m doing or about some aspect of research or the story behind the novel once a fortnight. I’m a bit anally retentive about schedules, so now I’ll have to stick to it.

I know what I have to do. I have to turn off Facebook. I have to stop reading the Guardian website every morning and getting angry about the comments sections. I have to stop stalking Johnny Marr on Twitter. I have to stop thinking – ‘One more coffee and I’ll get going’. In short, I need to take my own advice from this blog post.

It’s all this man’s fault:

Eugene Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix

And his:

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Johnny Marr and stalker

And yes, that is me looking inordinately pleased with myself!

Any tips on how to motivate myself a bit more?