Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Two new stories for December

From reading my blog, I realise that it might seem that I spend my time wandering about the countryside taking photos. But you'll perhaps be glad to know that I also spend time writing stories, and last week I heard that two had been accepted for publication. Things have moved impressively fast, and they're both out in the world already.

The first is in Litro, a London-based print and online magazine ( I wrote the 'The Flotsam Cafe' last summer after reading a call for submissions elsewhere, asking for stories on the subject of Britishness. It seems to me that - though we're rarely aware of it - we're people who live, physically, on the edge. We're an island on the edge of Europe, never really fully part of life on the mainland. We're never far from the edge of our land (try living in mid France - or the middle of the US, where the sea is a distant rumour). I wanted to include that feeling with a story about someone who's living on the edge psychologically too.

The second story, 'All fall down', is in Untitled Books ( I wrote it a while ago, and when I'd finished it, I showed it to my son, who said 'It's great, Mum - really mad!'. I wasn't sure that I'd been aiming for 'really mad', so I put it aside. A couple of weeks ago I had another look, decided that I liked it after all, and sent it off to Untitled. I'm really glad I did.

Friday, 25 November 2011

I'm not a poet

Yesterday I went to my writing workshop. About ten times a year a small group of us gather, brace ourselves with tea and biscuits and then dive in for three hours' writing and workshopping. I love it, and being invited to join a few years back is what finally jolted me into taking my fiction writing seriously.

We alternate between short fiction and poetry. I'm really not a poet, as you can see from my attempt yesterday afternoon at found poetry, based on the Brownie Guide promise:

the Queen and God
to do their duty
and help other people

I promise
to do my best

That was our warm up, and we did get rather more serious after that.

Some of the others are poets and some of us are more likely to write short fiction when left to our own devices, but although I've never produced a poem of any depth or flair, the attempt often sparks off trains of thought that lead a while later to a story. And even writing bad poetry is a real encouragement to be brave with language, to take risks, to not always go for the linear or the obvious metaphor.

Having said that, I do sometimes have to rein myself in. There's a fine line between poetic and purple prose, between something powerful, that makes the reader sit up and pay attention - and something that's simply self-indulgent. It can of course be a matter of taste - recently a friend and I were discussing the opening to Jon McGregor's If nobody speaks of remarkable things, which I love - it's like a panning shot, swooping across the city, and it's amazingly fluid. My friend, though, said 'God, it feels just like a creative writing exercise - I hate it!'.

And I know what she means. Perhaps it is a bit over-written. But I luxuriated in it - it's such a rare pleasure in a novel for the writer to be clearly relishing the language. Give me more, I say.

But not too much.

Sunday, 13 November 2011


I've worn glasses since I was about seven. I had no idea I was short-sighted - I assumed everyone saw the world the way I do, blurry, indistinct. In fact, before I got my glasses, so deceived was I about my vision that - in our little gang of children who played cowboys and indians out on the common - the nickname I gave myself was Hawkeye. So it was a revelation the day I got my first glasses and realised the truth.

Heroes don't wear glasses.

Glasses get wet when it rains, so you can't see. They fall off when you climb trees, and when you play hockey. They put boys off. Rock stars don't wear glasses - except Elvis Costello, whom I loved, and not just because he wore glasses.

Nor do astronauts wear glasses. (Until I realised I would never understand physics, I had a dream of being an astronaut. I used to know all the names of the planets and their moons. At thirteen I realised I'd never be an astronaut and began to dream instead of hanging out in French bars like Maigret. Simenon wore glasses, of course, but even I wasn't weird enough to want to be him.)

I can't think of any cool women who wore glasses - apart from my Mum, who got contact lenses as soon as she possibly could. My teachers and grandmothers wore glasses, but they weren't cool. Oh, and Nana Mouskouri.

When I was sixteen, I got contact lenses, which I loved. I wore them from waking till bedtime.

The day I first put my lenses in - despite the pain of shoving lumps of glass in my eyes - I felt liberated, my face joyously naked in front of the world. My glasses had been a kind of barrier and a disguise. They labelled me a swot, a reader, unglamorous, all of which were true. But without them I could choose my persona - I could be a new person, maybe.

I wasn't, of course. I still read obsessively. I worked hard, I spent a lot of time inside my head. But no one could tell unless I told them first. I could pretend.

I wore my lenses every day, all day, until 1988. My obsessive lens-wearing had cut the oxygen off from my corneas, and they'd become stippled, distorting my vision. I saw double, out of focus. So I went back to glasses for six months while my eyes recovered.

I felt ugly in my glasses, and cut off from the world. When you get glasses for the first time, you have to learn to move your head to point at whatever you want to see - you can't just swivel your eyes, or spot things flashing past. Not if you're as short-sighted as I am, anyway. The only way the world will be in focus is if you point your face squarely at it and look through the middle of the lenses in your glasses. If you turn your eyes sideways, you see the frame, and beyond the frame - who knows? Everything is blurred beyond the frame. My world was squeezed back into two small squares of vision.

I got new lenses, gas permeable, which let my eyes breathe. And I went back to wearing them every day for another ten years or so.

In my mid-thirties I got ME and whenever I had the chance I'd shut my eyes and go to sleep - I didn't want the faff of taking my lenses out. So I dug out my glasses, and discovered that I no longer cared if people could spot the swot. I loved being able to go to sleep whenever I wanted. And - a new discovery - my sight was so poor by now that glasses shrank everything. That small distance between eye and glasses was enough to turn the lenses into reverse telescopes. Not much of an asset, except that it makes me look small, and almost fine featured, when I look at myself in the mirror.

I'm easily deceived, plainly.

I find that I quite like seeing the world through a frame. And I can't imagine not being able to put the world aside at will, simply by taking my glasses off.

In fact, I like imposing frames on the world outside my head. Here's a picture from this afternoon:

And here's another - a close-up of some lichen growing on top of a fencepost. That's the upside of short sight - without our glasses we can get right up close and see stuff the rest of you have no idea is there.

Sunday, 30 October 2011


It's almost the end of October and there are few flowers left in the garden - so it was a wrench to pull some of the prettiest up. They were evidence of my slack attention to the veg patch in the last few weeks: we should have eaten this broccoli a month ago, but instead I let it shoot up and open its buds to reveal these delicate yellow flowers.

I knew they had to go, so against my instincts, I grabbed hold of their stems and tugged them out of the soil. I've composted all the old bean plants too and some rather manky lettuces - as well as a mountain of thistles and couch grass - so now the veg patch is clean and tidy and ready for winter.

Tomorrow I return to my desk after a weekend off, and begin editing the story and the magazine piece I wrote last week. Editing's rather like weeding, I guess - sometimes easy, when something's obviously wrong, but often I have to brace myself to uproot things which really do look rather pretty, but just don't belong there.

Now that's a metaphor I should probably weed out. Not today though - I've done enough weeding.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Head space

I've been out and about a lot recently - Plymouth, Dorset, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Norfolk and Suffolk, all in the last month. But this week the family table was turned - I stayed at home while everyone else went away. From Sunday morning till Tuesday evening I had the whole house to myself, and ate alone at that turned table. It's the first time that has happened in almost twenty years.

Normally I cram my fiction writing in around daily life. Which means - because I do need eight hours of sleep a night - that there's never enough time left for it. It's frustrating. I have stories buzzing round my head that I simply can't get on paper because I'd have to be up at three in the morning.

So for two days, I got up late. I ate, drank coffee, cleaned the loos, put vaseline on the hens' legs, and didn't speak to anyone. I just let the story I've been trying to finish for ages swill around inside my head, along with the muesli crumbs and the leg mites.

And at about lunchtime, I sat down to write. I got up only to drink tea, eat chocolate, and pace around the house and garden. If I got really stuck, I went for a walk. Mid-evening, when I came to a place in the story where I needed to leave it alone, I made an omelette, drank a glass of wine. Then I returned to my desk and wrote again, till I was too tired to look at the screen.

I'd take a book from my pile and sit and read for another hour or two before bed. Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate, Gabrielle Wittkop's The Necrophiliac, and Richard Platt's Smuggling in the British Isles have finally made it from the unread pile to the shelves where books worth keeping go. I read short stories by Tove Jansson, Fay Weldon, Barry Unsworth, Janet Frame. I began Alice Oswald's collection The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile.

I watched no television. I didn't tweet, check Facebook, or phone or email anyone. I did listen to Radio 4.

And I finished my story, in a way that I really couldn't have predicted two days before. I began another one too, in the final hour before I collected my daughter from the station.

Yesterday I returned to writing the magazine piece that's due in next week. I went to the supermarket. I cooked dinner at the usual time. I resumed communication with my family and the outside world. But there's still a space inside my head where the new story is swimming vigourously.

If I can finish the magazine piece, I'll write the new story next week, when everyone's out, before I start the next piece of work. I won't have the same luxury of complete silence, and absolute focus on the story - I'll cook, I'll talk to people, hug some of them, I'll have to go to bed at a sensible time. But that space is still there and I'm guarding it carefully.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Cheese, skulls and wandering brides

It was a gorgeous day yesterday, and I'd nothing that I had to do, so I went for a walk. I picked the route from a book and it was a good one: nothing spectacular, apart from being able to see both the North and the South Downs at times, but there was a steady succession of small pleasures.

Here's where the walk began and ended, in West Holtye:

 It's right in the middle of the High Weald and well known round here for its tile-hung cottages, stone and shingle church, and ancient Priest's House.

It's all very lovely, but there are some odd people living in the country around it, judging by these sightings:

Luckily, no one spotted me (I think) and I made my way safely home, via the Plawhatch farm shop  near Sharpthorne, which I go to every so often just so that I can admire their cheese room.

I'm going to have some of their Dutch cheese with peppercorns right now ...

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Evensong in Norwich

I'm just back from a couple of days' work in Norwich - but I arrived early and had a few hours to myself in the city. It's a strange place - I walked in from the station and was downhearted at the grimy shops and battered sixties office blocks. But then I crossed some kind of invisible boundary  and entered another city of cobbled lanes and alleys, a surprising number of craft shops selling floral handmade teddies and wooly scarves, just as many charity shops, and an incredible number of churches.

I stumbled upon The Book Hive, a splendid independent bookshop which doesn't bother trying to stock every title under the sun, but instead presents you with a scarily tempting selection of books that you realise that you really really want to read. And many of them you just don't find elsewhere - or at least you'd have to hunt hard for them. So there was a great collection of writing about nature, and not all by Richard Mabey and Roger Deakin (both of whose writing I love, but they don't own the genre) - there was also a table full of beautiful books from Little Toller (who publish the Clare Leighton I blogged about a while back). And I found Diego Marani's New Finnish Grammar - raved about in the Guardian a while back but invisible in 'normal' bookshops. Given the temptation, I was incredibly restrained and bought only the Marani. It's on my towering bookpile as I write.

By now, the shops were beginning to shut and it was that awkward time for a visitor to a strange city. It's too early for dinner, too late for afternoon tea. Your hotel room is bleak and anonymous, and anyway you don't want to walk all the way back there only to have to return to the city centre for dinner. You could go to the cinema, but you can do that anywhere - it's a waste of a new city. Everyone else is pulling shut their office doors behind them, hopping on their bikes or in their cars, and heading home.

If I were a different person, I'd find a bar and settle down with a bottle of wine in a corner, but I'd be asleep after one glass, and that's no fun.

So I set off to the cathedral. Like all the great churches of the east of England it shoots up into the sky, its stone spire thinning to a blade against the clouds, a strange combination of ethereal and rock solidity.

Inside, I wandered past side chapels and tombs, peered at the skeleton carved into the wall reminding us that we'll all be like him one day, gazed up at the soaring roof, let my mind wander. And then I heard a moment of song.

It vanished as soon as it had come.

And then an announcement over the tannoy, 'If you would like to join us for evensong in the Choir ...'.

I have to admit to being rather nervous - I don't go to church, and it's not part of my upbringing, so I know that I don't know what I'm doing when it comes to services. And I always hesitate - do I have a right to participate as an atheist? Will I pollute the believers' rituals by my presence? A silly thing to think, maybe, since I don't believe in the rituals.

And yet, it was a quietly magical experience, sitting in the back of the choir stalls, behind the singers of the choir, lit by candles, listening to ancient words from the old and new testaments and to sung psalms, saying the creed (peeping at the printed sheet provided), standing, sitting, wondering why today we are hearing about Abraham and Sarah being given Isaac by God, and then about Mary - how terrified she must have been - being visited and told she would be bearing the son of God. We thought about Rowan Williams in Zimbabwe, we sat in silent contemplation.

It was a deeply soothing experience to sit among worshippers, allowing the music to wash through me, and closing my day in peace.

(I clearly didn't take this photo - that really would have been a wrong thing to do - so this one's from the cathedral website. On Monday it seemed darker, though it was still daylight outside. I was sat on the left of this picture, my back to the wall. Those choir stalls are not comfortable - despite the choir master saying it was a good spot for snoozing as he showed me my place.)

Friday, 7 October 2011

Fisherman's Friends on Ilkley Moor

As you'll know from my post of a couple of weeks ago, I went to Yorkshire, land of (some of) my youth. Well, it was marvellous, despite me experiencing it through a thick cold. For old times sake I went specially to Ilkley to buy some Fisherman's Friends - my scent of choice as an unhealthy student.

Fortified by my FFs I staggered from the cafe car park up onto the moor behind the Cow and Calf rocks and slumped on a bench to admire the view. I'd forgotten how the wind never stops up on the moors - even on a day when the sun is beating down the grasses and heathers whisper constantly.

While I caught my breath I watched a great many plump people puff up the slope - it's clearly the hill of choice for overweight locals, no doubt for the same reason as me in my breathless state - you can drive half way up it, and buy a bun on the way down.

I resisted the buns (actually, I needed a loo and there wasn't one) and headed off to find my B&B, up the Wharfe valley beyond Bolton Abbey. With every bend of the road my grin grew bigger - I'd a trace memory of how much I'd loved being up here almost thirty years ago, but I'd forgotten just why. Steep valleys, drystone walls, glimpses of rushing water, barebacked purple moors above everything - and all in incredible glorious sunshine, which is something you definitely don't take for granted in Yorkshire in late September.

I won't go on about my B&B, except to say that I'd feared polyester floral coverlets on the bed, and a bustling landlady who'd want to talk to me all the time, and my fears were utterly unfounded. Here's what I could see from the bench outside my door:

That evening I walked down to the valley and along the river to the New Inn at Appletreewick for pie night, and a pint of Black Sheep bitter.

The next day, I drove over Barden Moor to Skipton. If you're ever in Skipton, there's excellent coffee in the Italian cafe by the castle, and a splendidly idiosyncratic museum - dinosaur remains, lots of pictures of an unfeasibly large cow, miners' lamps, complaints from 19th century commercial travellers about the local rowdy youth - and a Shakespeare First Folio. I love local museums.

Suitably fortified with yet more nuggets of probably useless knowledge, I returned to Wharfedale and set off on foot from Skyreholme (a tiny village with an invisible large house, now a religious retreat) up through Trollers Gill (a limestone ravine), onto Nussey Green (open country) and back to Skyreholme's teashop via Black Hill Road.

What struck me, as I walked through a landscape almost entirely empty of people, and where the only houses were in the far distance, was that this had once been a place thronging with people. On my way up from the village to the gill, I passed great grassy earthen walls, which once held back reservoirs of water for the mills in Skyreholme, all now gone. And just beyond the gill, a ruined hut sits beside the still sound-looking entrance to a lead mine. Very small, it is- you'd have to crouch to make your way in there.

And above it all, Black Hill Road, now a half-made track, but clearly at one time a much-used route from the mills across to Patley Bridge.

This is a place of emptiness, not wilderness. There once were people all over these hills, and now there are sheep and rare flurries of brightly clad walkers on their way back to their cars and home.

When I got home I ordered the new chapbooks from Nightjar Press ( - and yesterday they came. I read one straight away - GA Pickin's Remains - and it was the perfect echo from my final day in Yorkshire, set high on the moors, in an abandoned landscape, the wind singing in the heather as darkness falls. It's printed in a limited edition of 200, so if you want a copy, you'd better be quick. It's brilliant.

Monday, 3 October 2011


On my last day in Yorkshire I was woken by the pinging of an email to tell me that the new issue of Paraxis is online. I could only squint at it on my phone, but even in miniature (and before my I'd even had breakfast, not a good time in my day) it looked a treat, and now I'm home I can see that it's fabulous. And I'm incredibly thrilled that I have a story in it.

It's free to read, so just go to and lap up a bunch of stories, essays, images and thoughts about libraries.
It was an interesting experience, being asked to write on the theme of libraries. I love libraries (have I said so before?) but somehow the stories that came to mind betrayed that underneath I have perhaps a more complex relationship with them than I thought. 'A Slice of Tongue' isn't what I meant to write at all - but it's what came out when I sat down at my desk. And I've no idea why I had to put the butchers' in there, but it was essential - it added some juice, I guess.

And in case you're wondering, I did work in a butchers' when I was fourteen. I left it for a bookshop when I was sixteen - I couldn't resist the temptation of free books (if they had missing pages) and warm feet. Those sausages did taste good though. As for the tongue ...

Monday, 26 September 2011

Poucher's Peak and Pennines

I'm off north tomorrow, on my way to carry out an interview in Penrith on Friday. I'm stopping off in Leeds, then spending a couple of days in Wharfedale, Yorkshire - I'm planning to get up onto the moors and find some space and silence.

It's years since I was last in Yorkshire so I've been hunting for my old maps and guides. My favourite disintegrated long ago - a nice little pocket walking guide - but I found an immaculate copy of Poucher's The Peak and Pennines. I see that I was given it for Christmas in 1982, my first winter in Yorkshire as a student. Though it was written in 1966, my edition was from 1978 so it must have seemed reasonably modern to someone. I didn't use it much because it turned out to be a guide to how to find the best rock outcrops, and I've always been a walker rather than a climber.

However, it's splendid.

It's wonderfully formal, and as an early 21st century reader it's easy to laugh at the tone. But I rather like the respect Poucher has for his reader, even if not many of us would follow his advice:

'Clothes are perhaps a matter of personal taste, and there are still a few climbers who delight in wearing their oldest cast-off suits, often intentionally with brilliant patches as a decoration!'
 'String Vests worn next to the skin have reduced the risks of cold, and by their use the number of pullovers can be cut down considerably.

'Leg Gear is a matter of personal taste; some climbers swear by trousers while others prefer plus twos. I have found the latter more comfortable and in addition they allow more freedom about the feet. The material from which they are made is another consideration. Many have a preference for corduroy, but I do not care for it because it is made of cotton and therefore cold to the skin, and when it gets very wet the material acts like a sponge and retains an excess of moisture. The weight about the legs then increases and is attended by much discomfort.'
What you should wear, of course, is tweed. And on your head?
Headgear has changed considerably in many years, and the feathered, velour Austrian hat is seldom seen nowadays.'
Instead, Poucher recommends either a 'Bob-Cap' or 'an old-fashioned Balaclava Helmet', both of which I can admit to wearing still.

I shall of course be taking a compass, as Poucher recommends. But I've never heard of anyone carrying an aneroid to help forecast the weather and obtain (Poucher's style is infectious) a rough approximation of altitude.

Finally, I shall be looking out for 'Brocken spectres' and 'Glories'. A Brocken spectre, Poucher tells me, is your own gigantic shadow on the surface of mist - usually you're standing above the mist, perhaps on a ridge, looking down on the mist in a coombe below you - and Glories are coloured rings around such a shadow. I've seen Brocken spectres, but never Glories - and I'd no idea they had such lovely names. The forecast is for sunshine, but at least if it's wrong and mist comes over the moor I'll have my compass, spectres and glories for company.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


OK, I dare you to guess what this is. And if you're a woman, once you know, to imagine its use.

This, oh brace yourselves, is a 19th century cervical dilator. I saw it today, and it's about a foot long. I kid you not. It's in the Old Operating Theatre Museum (  and this picture is from the museum's website - the caption says 'the instrument shows wear from use but may be a prototype as even when closed it has a very wide gauge tip for actual use'. I just checked and modern ones are really rather friendlier in design. Why did the guy who designed this think he needed the barbed, pointed ends? All the medical instruments in the museum were designed by men as far as I could see.

I was in London today for lunch with a favourite client, and as she works round the corner from London Bridge, I thought I'd finally get round to visiting the museum. It's tiny - and don't go if you can't cope with incredibly narrow windy stairs - but brilliant, especially if you're lucky enough to be able to join a talk about the operating theatre itself.

We were treated to a blow by blow description of an operation for stones - which took 40 minutes when Pepys had his done in the 17th century, but was down to under a minute by the end of the 18th century. They could take a leg off and have the patient back in the ward in 20 minutes. Speed was pretty crucial as there was no anaesthetic so the patient felt - and saw - everything. The pain was the least of their worries, though, as vast numbers of patients died of septicaemia - unsurprising as the operating table was wood, the bandages made of any old cloth lying around the hospital, the surgeon wore a blood and pus-covered apron (to show how experienced he was) and he didn't see a need to wash his hands or the wound.

No wonder most people steered clear of hospitals.

A month ago I saw the Dirt exhibition at the Wellcome Collection ( just before it closed and among the artefacts was this 17th century Dutch household book of remedies. A woman would have to know so much just to keep her family safe - it's humbling for those of use who simply ring the doctor, or Google our symptoms (and wish we hadn't).

Of everything I saw at Dirt - and there was a lot to see - this is the one I felt a direct connection to. I can imagine sitting at a table with the writer of this book, comparing notes and sharing remedies. I rather wish I had.

Monday, 19 September 2011

My tamed landscape

 My camera's just broken so I finally downloaded the photos on my phone, to see what's been hiding in there. I'd forgotten about this sequence of pictures, taken on a walk in the wood on the hill behind my village. I saw no one - I walk there all the time and rarely do meet anyone - but there was no escaping the fact that people were all around.

I saw balloons, polystyrene cups, iron fences absorbed by trees, paint marks on the plantation trees, the trees themselves planted in regimented rows up the slope, a pump housing and water pipes, the back of a wooden sign ... It's a reminder of how interfered with our landscape is, how un-wild.

Is there a square inch of earth here in the Weald that no one has ever seen? I doubt it - people have lived here at least since the iron age, and even the empty places now were once settlements, fields and hunting grounds. I've never lived anywhere where people haven't made their mark on the land. It feels very safe. I wonder how I'd feel in a landscape where no one has yet walked.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Heaven and hell

This week a magazine asked me (and lots of other people) what my ideal conditions for writing are. I chose silence - though I dithered over normal domestic background noise, as that's what I normally write to.

Today, I was in writer's hell. Everyone was out so I should have been in heaven. I had some copy to write - three pithy statements about a London homeless charity. I'd loads of material and ideas and made great headway, until half way through the afternoon when I suddenly became horribly aware of the builders' cement mixer.

They're working next door and have set the mixer up in the front garden - about ten feet from my office window. It's been running for weeks now (they're doing some serious brickwork) so why, today, did it make me scream with frustration? I had to give up writing and stamp about. I had a shower. I put coffee cups in the dishwasher. I footled on Google, though I really didn't have time to mess about.

Eventually, they went home. And I got back to work, brain refreshed from its compulsory break.

The funny thing is that several years ago, I wrote a book. And I wrote the whole thing while we had builders in our house, on a decrepit borrowed laptop because my office was the only room not being rebuilt, so it was stuffed to the ceiling with furniture, pots and pans, and anything we needed to keep clean of builders' dust.

There was no way I could work in there. So I moved around the house, my sources in a box at my feet, my ears filled with hammering, boots running up and down the stairs, and the latest gossip from that day's Sun (I never did persuade them to read the Guardian). And I really don't remember ever struggling to write, no matter what was going on, and despite often being shattered from working through the night because I had so many words to write and so little time.

Have I become soft?

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Writing to commission

You get a really great picture in today's blog, by photographer Roeloff Bakker, whose images of the abandoned Hornsey Town Hall won a London Photographic Association first prize earlier this year

It's here because I'm posting to celebrate having just finished a short story inspired by another of his photos.

I've found that it's really hard to write a story to accompany someone else's work - though I love Roeloff's pictures, and found them moving and thought provoking, the thoughts they provoked didn't seem to lead to stories that worked with the photo I'd chosen. How far can you move from the picture? And how much can you say in no more than 1500 words?

I put my first feelings on seeing my chosen picture aside as unworkable in story form, and for several weeks have been wresting with other ideas which just didn't seem to grab my attention. Enough, I said to myself yesterday, and sat down and wrote two-thirds of a story. Today I threw it away and in an hour wrote something completely new, which went right back to my first gut reaction on seeing the picture. I've no idea if it works - my (not famously literary) son says it's mad but great and he's looking forward to having a mum who's famous for writing mad but great stories. Me too. But maybe it's mad but terrible. I'll put it aside and re-read in a few days.

If you like Roeloff's photos of abandonment, take a look at these, of the terrible destroyed centre of Detroit, by Yves marchand and Romain Meffre . I'm saving up for the book.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Lounging with Trollope

I've been off the blog radar for the last couple of weeks, doing this and that, interviews for a lovely piece of journalism, a bit of admin, a lot of desperate weeding in the veg plot, heaps of reading (just re-read JG Ballard's Concrete Island to see why I loved it when I was 15, and remembered how shocking and spare it is) ...

... and I nipped up to London a couple of weeks ago, to hear a whole bunch of Bloodaxe poets read (highlights were Susan Wicks and Carole Satyamurti, who were the reason for me trekking from Sussex to Shoreditch, and Kona Macphee, who made a surprise guest appearance, and who was wonderful - she won the Geoffrey Faber memorial prize last year, and I can see why). I'm a poetry slacker - I read in bursts, and then not at all for ages - but whenever I pick up a book of poems that work for me, they remind me of just how powerful language can be, and how dangerous, and how surprising. Poems make me write differently, that's for sure, because they challenge me to move away from the prosaic. Just read Susan Wicks' opening poem from House of Tongues, 'Pistachios' and then try writing a straight piece of prose.

When I left the reading all sorts of new ideas had appeared in my head, and within a couple of days I knew how to write the story that had been swimming around for a couple of weeks getting nowhere. So last week, I delivered it to ... well you'll have to wait and see, but it's coming out in September, I believe. As soon as I know for sure, I'll post the link here and you'll be able to read it. 

Within hours of sending off my story, I was at Lounge on the Farm, a smallish festival near Canterbury - I went last year and discovered that being stuck in a field with 10,000 other people is surprisingly relaxing, as long as you admit to not being 16 and pitch your tent in the quiet field. And watch the big acts like Ellie Goulding only for long enough to realise that she's not very interesting so you're better off in a small tent with an unknown act who might be great, and who won't wreck your eardrums, and where you can sit peacefully on a bale of hay while you listen.

 Here's the crowd behind me at Ellie Goulding:

And here's the six foot four man with a huge hat in front of me:

I didn't discover any acts that I loved this year, which I guess is a shame - but while listening to a whole load of perfectly good acts I did read the first few chapters of Trollope's Barchester Towers. It's not the ideal book for a festival - all around me people were lazing in the sun in various stages of undress, relaxation and inebriation while the residents of the Cathedral Close in Barchester circled each other and schemed with 19th century courtesy. I'm getting along much better with Trollope now I'm home.

Anyway, I shall continue to listen to First Aid Kit and Erland and the Carnival, whom I loved last year at LOTF, and who sound just as good as they did when I first heard them.

And tomorrow I start a new story ...

Monday, 20 June 2011

Bang, bang, you're dead

This was the scene from our bedroom window yesterday afternoon on the station platform beside our house. The local steam railway society holds an annual 1940s weekend, by which they actually mean a World War II weekend. It delivers to my windowsill the happy sight of clipped gentlemen in army uniform standing tall beside more relaxed visitors in 21st century leisurewear. And the oddity of people flocking to our quiet village to wallow in nostalgia for a time when we were all full of fear and when people died horribly.

(And sang cheerful songs, and met lovers, and discovered they could do far more than they realised, and developed great friendships, of course. I know all of this. I just find it strange that so many people, for the most part too young to remember the war, like to celebrate it.)

It also gives some very weird people the chance to march up and down the platform wielding a trunchion, presumably in case the dancers get a bit frisky, or someone forgets it's all make-believe and starts actually letting off bombs and firing guns. What he'd do if he met a German, I've no idea. Arrest them for being a spy?
The worst bit for us is that the noise is relentless - jolly music, sirens, explosions, gunshots ... And at lunchtime on Saturday a Lancaster bomber flies past, right over our garden, very low. It happens every year, and every year that low droning engine noise shudders over my head, I'm filled with a visceral terror. I've no idea why - I've never been in a war, so it's not digging up old memories.

It's all gone now, bar the bunting - that'll do for the Summer Evening and Wine Special next weekend.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Paper, I love you

Can you write on it? my son said when I showed him the paper I made. And I was briefly crestfallen - after all, what's the purpose of paper on which you cannot make a mark? Or at least, if you make a mark, it will soak in, be rendered illegible. What is paper for?

As a reader, writer and editor of a certain age, paper is at the core of my life. I've been surrounded by books for as long as I can remember. The first job I loved was in a book publisher's - and real and important part of the joy of that work was that at the end of a long process of thinking of things people might want to read about, finding authors, working beside them on their scripts, editing them, designing the pages, choosing cover artwork, selling the idea to the sales teams, at the end of all that, a box would arrive on my desk with a pile of brand new books. Real, solid objects which together we had created, and which we hoped to send out into the world for thousands of people to read. And those books were made of paper.

I know that e-books are wonderful. I've downloaded a couple myself (Mary Kingsley's Travels in West Africa being the most recent - sadly not available in my county library). But they don't have the feel of a book.

Books, and paper, have heft. They have physical character. A long one weighs heavy in your hand. Pulp fiction is, well, pulpy. Leave it out in the rain and it dissolves. Even when disposable, they're something.

And beautiful paper is something else again. My first ever business cards (long, long ago) were hand printed, letter press, on gorgeous laid card. I almost couldn't bear to give them away. Each letter sank into the card, floated on the waves of its gently rippling surface. They were objects of beauty. And not very useful, as I spent those early freelance years huddled at my desk, not out and about meeting future clients.

Anyway, this weekend I went up to Birmingham, to a conference of intervenors - people who work one-to-one with congenitally deafblind children and adults, enabling them to take part in the world. They're a real pleasure to spend time with - you probably couldn't find a more communicative, caring and varied bunch in any other church hall in the country. And we had great fun (and made a great mess) making paper - a perfect activity to do with pretty much anyone, including the people they support.

The idea wasn't to make paper that has a function, but simply to see what happens when you make the basics of paper from recycled office shreddings, and add anything that comes to hand. In my case, bits of grass and petals from the space outside the hall - but you can mix in seeds (which will grown if you plant the paper), glitter, feathers, spices ...

I can't say that my paper was exactly an object of beauty, but I love the way that letters from the old shreddings peep out, and that grass stems are enveloped in the pulp, which just sometimes reveals its own origins in its fibres.

My piece about intervenors will be in the next issue of Talking Sense, due out in about a month. It's published by Sense, the deafblind charity.