Saturday, 29 January 2011


I'm supposed to be writing but am endlessly distracted - so I've been reading about nkonde, or African power figures, on the grounds that there's one at the centre of the story I'm wrestling with at the moment.

I saw some nkondes in the Brooklyn Museum last year and they made my hair stand on end. One look at this picture shows why - the underlying carved figures themselves aren't that frightening, but once they've been worked on by the fetish expert, or nganga, who adds clays, cloths, nails, hair, and other materials they're transformed into repositories of power. They'll protect the owner from harm, chase down thieves, destroy someone who has broken an agreement, whatever the nganga has designed it to do - and power radiates out of them.

It seems strange to me that people buy these power figures to display as art - I can't imagine sharing my space with something to which such violence has done, and which seems so clearly malevolent.

This image is from a great essay at


Feeling my age - had no idea what OSM meant when my son skyped it to me. Read it aloud and it's obvious: awesome!

Friday, 28 January 2011


 Old St Pauls, destroyed by the Fire of London, by Thomas Wyck c 1673

I've been reading The Shorter Pepys for years - it sits beside my bed and I read it a month at at time, with gaps where something else takes my fancy. The diaries begin in 1660, just as Charles II comes to the throne after Cromwell's rule - frightening times, where anyone in public life would have good reason to tread carefully. Yet Pepys rarely alludes to the underlying tensions directly, instead describing the daily life of a hard working public servant whose main task is to provision the navy as it fights the Dutch. He never seems secure, and his life is a non-stop circuit of meetings and machinations in Whitehall, at his office, in Greenwich and Deptford, in people's houses and in coaches between the meetings: I long ago forgot who is who and have no idea whom he trusts and whom he doesn't.

Not that it matters - I love him for his unabashed desire to make money - you never know what might be round the corner - and to be well-regarded at court, and for his constant pleasure in friends, good food, music, books and the theatre.

Anyway, I've finally reached 1666. The plague has been running through London for months, ebbing and flowing, sometimes worrying Pepys, sometimes going unmentioned. So I knew the Great Fire must be on its way, but when? Finally, this week:

2 Lords Day. Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today. Jane called up, about 3 in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City...

It's here! And Pepys gives a wonderful first hand account of the disorder, the fear, the speed of the spread of the flames:

... walked along Watling Street as well I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save - and here and there sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary good goods carried in carts and on backs. At last met my Lord Mayor in Canning Streete, like a man spent, with a handkerchief about his neck. To the King's message, he cried like a fainting woman, "Lord. what can I do? I am spent! People will not obey me. I have been pulling down  houses. But the fire overtakes us faster then we can do it."

He goes out in a boat on the Thames to see the fire better, and notes that among the boats carrying people's possessions, one in three has a virginall or two in it. He believes at first that his house - which he is the the middle of doing up, thoroughly modern man that he is - is safe, but then realises how far and fast the fire is spreading. So he moves most of his furniture to a friend's house away from the fire, and then - best touch of all, returns to bury in the garden his wine, his papers, and his parmesan.

Wonderful stuff!

For a quick daily Pepys fix try

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Robin Robertson 'At Roane Head'

If I wake early I turn on Radio 4's Today programme, where the reliable grimness and predictability of the news is guaranteed to lull me back to sleep. This morning was no different - I snoozed peacefully to the grey wash of  bankers' bonuses, NHS destruction, why our schools must teach facts ...  Nothing there to welcome me to wakefulness.

All of a sudden, a break in the rhythm and tone snaps me awake. Robin Roberston is reading his poem, 'By Clachan Bridge'. I experience two minutes, maybe, of black beauty.

I've never heard Robin Robertson before, so I go online and listen to him read 'At Roane Head' too. I am transfixed. It's bleak, gleaming, and gorgeous.

It's on the Radio  4 website this week - along with readings from all the other poets shortlisted for this year's TS Eliot prize. Turn off the news, and go listen!

Friday, 7 January 2011

Salt Publishing are wonderful

I can't quite believe this, but Nicholas Royle has just asked to include my story 'The Swimmer' in The Best British Short Stories 2011, due out in April from Salt Publishing  and . Blimey - I feel deeply honoured!

'The Swimmer' was the first story I sent out (and only the second I'd finished, if I'm honest) so I'm somewhat wide eyed and stunned. But finishing 'The Swimmer' last summer was what I needed to get me going (I've long had an extensive collection of brilliant openings), and I've since finished (or nearly finished) a handful more - I just hope I can produce something I like as much as 'The Swimmer'!.