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 ...