On sharks and children

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, the movie. Rarely can a film have entered into the collective psyche in the way that this one did. I can’t remember when I first saw it although I do remember when I first didn’t. It was shown on television here when I was a very small child of four or five. I came home from school the following day highly indignant because my teacher had asked the class who had stayed up to watch it. Apparently – or so I interpreted it – mine was one of the very few hands not to be raised. Of course I made up for it in years to come, watching the films (all of them) and reading the book. Perhaps that’s why the spectre of sharks has never been far from my mind when swimming in seas and oceans as geographically, biologically and climatically diverse as the Irish sea, the Mediterranean and the Indian ocean. Older people tell me it didn’t used to be that way. ‘Sharks?’ I recall a great-uncle saying. ‘No, you might worry about sharks if you were torpedoed [he was in the Merchant Navy in WWII] but not at the beach. Never at the beach.’ I did though – and a cousin and I used to spend goodly portions of our Easter holidays in that well-known shark mecca, the Lleyn Peninsula, committing to heart the tragedy on every page of a luridly-illustrated book entitled something like “Shark Attack!” that we’d picked up for 50 pence in the discount bookshop in Portmadoc. Needless to say, any large marine creatures in Cardigan Bay remained prudently elusive.

My children still haven’t seen any of the Jaws films (yes, my five year-old self would be disgusted with me) but the idea of sharks as Something Bad and Dangerous is sewn into their consciousness. I realised as much three or so years ago at a tearoom in Orkney’s Bay of Birsay. ‘There was a pod of orcas out there last month,’ the waitress said, as she put her tray down. My four-year son and niece squabbling over turns of the binoculars in front of the picture windows either did not hear her or, more probably, orca meant nothing to them. My two-year old daughter, however, with eyes fixed firmly on the cakes, tried out the new word. ‘Orca?’ she said.

The waitress smiled, wiped her hands on her apron, and went over to a small display of postcards next to the homemade jams. She put one glossy card on the table. ‘Here,’ she said, pointing to the impossibly smooth curve of black and white back. ‘This is an orca. It’s also called a killer whale although, really, it’s a dolphin’. With wide, interested eyes, my daughter looked up and nodded as if she understood. Then she frowned and looked down again. She jabbed her finger against three tall triangular fins that broke the surface of the water around the orca’s back. ‘Sharks,’ she said, unhappily. ‘There are no sharks in the swimming pool.’ We adults nodded in hearty agreement. ‘Sometimes in the sea,’ I began, before sensing the need for a change of tack. ‘But these aren’t sharks. They’re orcas. And you needn’t worry; this sea is far too cold for swimming.’

The storm that had sent us hurrying along the coast away from Skara Brae had subsided. Wind-driven sea-spray still misted the tearoom’s windows but the seaweed on the shore outside no longer tossed its rubbery green tentacles from side to side like long-haired headbangers at a heavy metal concert. The water – so recently a foaming cauldron with sea birds expertly piloting the wind above it – was grey and almost glassy, and the birds now rode its surface, easy as paper ships on a boating pond. A slice of sun poked out coyly from behind a cloud to coax diamond chips of light from the sea. The children at the window were sufficiently entranced not to notice the plate of cakes on the table behind them. Still clad in now slightly steaming waterproofs, they’d reached some sort of accord as to who had which pair of binoculars. No matter that one was looking through the wrong end; they were happy and quiet. We ate our cakes and drank our tea. I wondered how many times I would need to return before I saw an orca. The four year-olds shrieked simultaneously. Several small balls were bobbing closer to shore before resolving themselves into large grey animals that humped fatly out of the water and onto a narrow spit of sand. One rolled onto its side and waved a celebratory flipper at the sun. I stared at the seals, thinking them fair compensation for the lack of orcas. My daughter looked at them before shaking her head a little sadly. ‘Sharks,’ she said.

On words and ears and why I write

One of the questions every writer faces sooner or later is, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Plenty of us tell ourselves, oh, I write for myself; it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it but if this isn’t exactly a lie, it’s perhaps only a half-truth. Very little makes me admire a writer more than when they stand up to be counted, so to speak, and admit that, actually, they write to be read. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that it tends to be published – and often very successfully so – writers who are brave enough to say as much out loud (although perhaps this is because these writers have less fear of people pointing and laughing or, worse, ignoring them altogether).

Of course traditional print media is not the only way for writers to be heard. Oral storytelling is far older than the written word and, while it has rather lost its place in the western world, it has its successors. Mind you, some forms of writing lend themselves rather better to oral performance than others. Few people would sit through a recital of even a novella but a play is another matter. And the long history of poetry recital is increasingly being supplemented with flash fiction. Years ago I engaged in the quaint-sounding pursuit of “Speech and Drama”, which mostly consisted of reciting – from memory and with appropriate theatrics – a variety of poetry. As a somewhat melancholic teen, I spent far too much time perfecting my performance of several of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” collection. It did gain me a Poetry Society gold medal for spoken poetry after a performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama, during which my grandmother had an angina attack (hopefully unconnected), and also prompted me to plough onwards with my own highly derivative poetry collection (long since consigned to the loft for future generations to squirm uncomfortably over or rats and pigeons to use as nesting material).

The idea of performing my own materials in public had not really occurred to me until a friend of mine – a published novelist – reminded me that it was doing readings of her short stories at the local library that pushed her onwards with her creative writing several years ago now. When that same library, in Winchester, started to host an evening called “Loose Muse“, I read the promotional materials with interest. Started in 2005 by Agnes Meadows, Loose Muse, whose home venue is London’s Poetry Café, aims to provide a supportive environment for women writers of all genres to come together, share their work and learn from each other. As well as providing an opportunity for new and upcoming writers, it also showcases more established ones. For example, I was delighted to hear the award-winning poet Rhian Edwards perform (ukulele and all) and subsequently to enjoy the Family Matters tour, performed by the poet/writers Agnes Meadows, Patricia Foster, Janett Plummer and, in absentia, Linda Shanovitch.

I actually only intended to go along as moral support for a friend who’d been asked to perform one of her comedic short stories in the guest slot but she persuaded me to take along one of my poems in case there was space in the “open mic” slots at the end of the evening. There was – and I read “At Pine Ridge”, published last year in Synaesthesia magazine. The second time I went, I was braver and read something new that I have yet to submit anywhere. It got positive feedback, which has encouraged me to think about to where I might send it but, more importantly, it sparked a conversation among several of the people sitting near me. It’s a poem about early motherhood and everyone near me, including the 80 year-old lady who’d read a magnificent ballad about Queen Eleanor, had something to say or to recall on the topic. It’s a good feeling when something you’ve written engages so many other people and makes what I said in my first sentence above seem only a quarter-truth. Perhaps, after all, writing to spark a reaction in others is what counts…..

Freestyle writing challenge

Two days ago I was tagged by Helen Jones to consider taking part in a short freestyle writing challenge. I used to do this sort of thing a lot. It’s a little like warming up before a run or some other vigorous exercise; it prevents the “muscles” you’re going to use in the main event (whether that’s running or writing) from spasming from the shock of unaccustomed use and reminds you that, actually, this body (or mind) has potential.

And it’s potential that’s you get from a freestyle writing exercise. It’s as far from a polished piece as it’s possible to get but it’s not useless. Far from it. And actually it’s fascinating to see what the mind is capable of coming up with at short notice and with no prior preparation. I’m not sure I’ll do anything further with what mine produced – at least not now – but I will try to make it a more regular thing as a way of warming up to the poetry-writing and novel-editing that currently fills my writing hours.

So, the rules were as follows:

  1. Open an MS Word Document
  2. Set a stop watch or your mobile phone timer to 5 or 10 minutes, whichever challenge you think you can beat
  3.  Your topic is at the foot of this post BUT DO NOT SCROLL DOWN TO SEE IT UNTIL YOU ARE READY WITH YOUR TIMER!
  4. Fill the word doc with as much words as you want. Once you start writing do not stop.
  5. Do not cheat by going back and correcting spelling and grammar using spell check.
  6.  You may or may not pay attention to punctuation or capitals. However, if you do, it would be best.
  7. At the end of your post write down ‘No. of words = ____” so that we have an idea of how much you can write within the time frame.
  8. Do not forget to copy paste the entire passage on your blog post with a new topic for your nominees and copy paste these rules with your nomination (at least five (5) bloggers).

My topic was:

You went to sleep in your own bed but have woken up somewhere completely different. Where are you, what’s happening and can you figure out how you got there?

I didn’t address the brief fully. Reading through my piece, it’s clear I have zoomed in on the physicality of where am I, with scarcely any sense of what’s happening or how I got there. Oh well – things to consider for another exercise, I suppose.

Here’s what I came up with:

Thin grey light – not the soft yellow that flushes the edge of my blind. This light fills the room. Room? Is that what it is? The walls are grey too – and hard, like stone. They’re so cold they feel damp. Perhaps they are damp. Or perhaps it’s my hand. I rub it against the duvet, except it isn’t a duvet. It is…..nothing; only my own self and the translucent cotton of my nightgown. Oh, I’m cold. Yes, I’m cold. I sit up and I’m lying on stone too. I can feel the hardness in my back and around my hips as if my bones have grown overnight, intruding into new places in the muscle. I flex my legs: first one and then the other. I stretch my arms. It hardly seems like my body. And yet there’s the cold; there’s no denying this cold.

I scrunch my knees up against my trunk, seeking the slight warmth the one can offer the other, and wrap my arms around myself. Now I’m halfway to vertical I can see where the light is coming from. It’s seeping around a large rock. I ought to investigate but I’m afraid. The cold is no new sensation. Unpleasant maybe but not yet, at least, unbearable. And for as long as I sit here, rocking to myself, I can pretend I’m somewhere quite usual. Or, better, I can imagine that I’m set to wake any moment. Yes! That’s it! The alarm’s going to go off in a minute or perhaps two. And then there’ll be the smell of toast from downstairs and the sound of someone shouting, ‘Get your shoes on! Hurry up!’ Perhaps next door’s dog barking at the blackbirds tugging worms from the lawn. Anything but this.

Oh. Now I’m listening. I can’t help myself. Someone is shouting but it’s nothing about shoes and nothing about being late. I can’t hear a dog but if there is one I don’t suppose it’s one I want to meet. I turn my head, look around. There’s a big rock – huge – at the back of whatever this place is (a cave?). I get to my feet – they’re bare, of course – and pick my way over the stones that litter the floor. I’ll hide here until whoever it was put me here comes back for me. They’ll rescue me, I’m sure.

Words: 392 (in 10 minutes).

I’m going to flout the rules and not nominate anyone in particular to try this exercise but, if you want to, particularly if you’re a Taverner (and whether or not you have your own blog – you know who you are), it might be fun – and it’s only ten minutes. If you do want to have a go, your topic is: <don’t scroll down until you’re ready to write>









You have just been born. Where are you lying? Who – or what – else is around you? Do you know who you are?

It’s All About Dogs

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.” Gerald Durrell on Roger the dog in My Family and Other Animals

“A black-and-yellow streak shot past the station agent. Dog Monday stiff? Dog Monday rheumatic? Dog Monday old? Never believe it. Dog Monday was a young pup, gone clean mad with rejuvenating joy.” Dog Monday greets Jem Blythe as he returns from the First World War battlefields in Rilla of Ingleside by L.M.Montgomery (from the Anne of Green Gables series)


I grew up with dogs – real-life ones and those in books. The real-life ones were my friends and even my sanctuary when the rest of the world got tough, and just the mere sniff of a dog in a book made me like it more. I haven’t touched an Enid Blyton book for years but the thought of Timmy still makes my heart skip with excitement and I’m yet to get over my yearning for a St Bernard after Rufus and Bruno in The Chalet School series. I even came to look on bull terriers with a softer eye after Heloise in I Capture the Castle.

And now, at last, we have we have a new addition to the household: an almost nine-week old Toller puppy who is as soft and fluffy as a kitten and yet looks head-turningly fox-like, right down to the foxy spring and pounce. He’s not doing much for my daily word count or for the unbroken nights that I was still counting as a blessing even though my children are now both school-age. And the house has acquired the faint odour of eau-de-canine despite daily floor-washing, a liberal application of beeswax, open windows and highly-scented flowers. However that, I tell myself, will dissipate once house-training is complete. (NB There’s no need to disillusion me here. I’m well aware of my future reality.)

My children are exactly the same ages as my younger sister and I were when our family acquired our first dog: an Irish Setter called Penny. Penny was the first of several dogs: Irish Setters, Dalmatians and a Toller.

I have a dim memory of being crowded into a small room in the breeder’s house, a litter of puppies tumbling about in the space between fireplace and sofa, while the breeder quizzed my parents. Where did they live? Had they had dogs before? Would the dog live inside or out? Did they know how much exercise Setters needed? They must have passed the test because Penny came home with us, cradled on my mother’s knee, in the back of the car. Many years later, she said, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t sit in the front seat with her.’ If she had, Penny wouldn’t have had the chance to be sick all over my shoe. I didn’t like the shoes; they were sturdy brown things from Clarks, with T-bars and no hint of a patent shine but I still wasn’t sure I wanted dog sick on them. ‘Don’t worry,’ my mother said, ‘I’ll clean them for you.’

When we got home, I assume the first thing my parents did was take the puppy into the garden. The first thing I did was run upstairs to my bedroom – I’m not sure what I’d done about the vomity shoes – and lie down on my bed, staring at the ceiling. We’ve got a dog! A dog! is what, even now, I remember ran through my mind just like the wobbly caption at the bottom of an old film. (Incidentally, I recognised the same peculiar mixture of exultation and disbelief more than twenty years later with the birth of my first child. It’s a baby…. was my first thought.)

I soon got over the urge to lie prone on the bed and joined everyone else – bar the cats, that is – in the garden. Penny, I was determined, would be my very own Roger, Timmy, Dog Monday, Jack and Pongo all rolled into one. Of course, as a child, and a young one at that, I got all the best bits of having a dog in the family and, walks in inclement weather aside (we lived in the north-west where it rains more often than it doesn’t), none of the drudgery of mopping, wiping, getting up in the night and training – although, to do them credit, my parents got me involved in all of that just as soon as I was old enough. I grew up determined that my children should have the same thing. Now they have and I am filled with a strange mixture of pleasure, excitement and trepidation. Real life dogs are much more work than literary ones but, I think, just as inspiring in their own way.

Gratuitous puppy picture:


The Monkey Temple


Eight hundred rupees in exchange for three hours on a game drive without any other tourists is a bargain I can’t miss. It’s just going to be me, Pradeep, my guide, a driver and – I am sure – at least a glimpse of one of Sariska’s twenty or so tigers. I wear my eagerness like make-up on my face as I climb into the open-topped jeep.

The afternoon is starting to think about dwindling into evening as we bounce along the road into the park. The sun hangs low enough over the trees for me to imagine I am sucking in its rays as I breathe. Everything is hot and damp. I am sitting in a pool of my own sweat, which a small cloud of tiny black flies is finding irritatingly attractive.

Strange bird sounds puncture the heavy air. Peacocks, I recognise. The rest I do not but I crane my neck as Pradeep points out birds I can scarcely see for leaves and branches.

Nilgai, with their elegant black and white socks, and stocky sambar have gathered to drink at a sandy-edged pond. Their ears flick from side-to-side, perhaps warding off flies, perhaps listening. A little further on, a herd of chital are browsing at the edge of a thicket. As I watch, some sound that I do not hear alarms them and they dive for cover, hoofed heels kicking out behind them. In an instant, their spotted bodies have melted away.

Then, the driver cuts the engine again, holds up a finger. We listen. Somewhere, quite close by, monkeys are exploding with angry fear.

“Could be tiger,” Pradeep says, “Or perhaps a leopard.”

We roll forward.

Soon, we come to rest on a sandy track, almost entirely overhung by trees.

Monkeys in the trees twitch with the hysterical hiccups that often follow a really good bout of fury. Whatever has upset them has gone because their attention is concentrated on each other.

“Look!” Pradeep gestures to the ground three feet from the jeep. There, pressed into the path, is a perfect tiger paw print.

The driver leaps from his seat and holds his hand a few inches above the print. He looks up and grins: a beautiful betel nut stained smile. “Big female,” he says. Then, he reaches down and picks up something that looks like a large knitting needle. It is a porcupine quill, unevenly banded in black and white. He hands it to me and one end is tapered to a very sharp point. At the other end, there is a hole, presumably gnawed by a rodent. Why, I cannot imagine.

I hold the porcupine quill almost reverently as we leave the park. It is my talisman.

The next morning, there are plenty of other people’s talismans around: small pieces of fluttering orange cloth and paper tied to the trees that edge the road up to the temple in the park’s centre. As we drive, we pass several people – pilgrims, Pradeep says, – who might have tied some of the scraps of cloth and paper. They walk through the park in twos or threes. Most of them are bare footed and none of them carries anything more than a stick.

The temple itself is coloured a faded pink. Steps lead up to its pillared entrance and Hindu script traces a path above the pillars. A cacophony stirs the treetops.

Hanuman langurs – holy monkeys – spill out all over the place. They hoover through piles of food laid out just for them; they dart over the temple’s roof; a baby seizes its mother’s pendulous black nipple; a slightly bigger baby tries to steal a handful of grain from an adult; and, everywhere, they bicker and joust.

Somewhere, a particularly noisy fracas rises above the sound of the crowd. One monkey, closely followed by another, breaks free from the mass of monkeys and hurtles forwards like a galloping race horse. It seems as if he is heading straight for me. I cannot imagine that he actually is but instinct turns me away anyway. For a moment, my back presents itself to him. And that is when he hits. Four heavy feet slam against my ribcage and a tail whips, briefly, around my waist. The monkey does not stop; he rebounds, using me to change direction and catapult him away from his pursuer.

He was bigger and heavier than he looked and perhaps I was lucky not to have fallen over but I don’t think about that. He may not be a tiger but he is a monkey.

I have felt the solid weight of a wild monkey. I am elated.

porcupine quill

The Comfort of Stories

‘Tell me about when you were little, Mummy.’

‘I can hardly remember,’ I say. ‘It was so long ago. Shouldn’t you be going to sleep anyway?’ I pat the duvet, encouragingly.

He shakes his head. ‘No. Can I tell you something?’

I nod. ‘Of course. Anything.’

‘I’m actually quite terrified when you leave me alone here.’

‘You are? But why?’ I look at him, earnest in the pool of light coming from the bedside lamp. Then I look around. The room is an attic one. Its window is closed and the blind down. The rows of books in the bookcase at the end of the bed look back at me, in a friendly way, I think. At the other side of the room, his special books sit on top of his toy storage chest: the Roald Dahl ones and the spaces where the Tom Palmer ones should be (but those are so special they currently live right next to the bed). Then there’s his play tent – a red and gold striped scaled-down Big Top – with its door held back on its Velcro fastenings. In this light, it’s black inside there. And then there are the windows; he cut them himself. I was cross – of course I was – but he said, ‘I wanted to see out.’ Behind the tent is the small door leading into the eaves storage. I’ve never said so but this is what I wouldn’t like if I was six and sleeping in this room. The door isn’t a snug fit in its frame. We’ve wedged it tight with folded paper, like you do with a wobbly table in a restaurant, but sometimes it comes loose and then there’s a soft banging sound, barely perceptible until you know what you’re listening for. And there’s always a draught, even though the roof is sound and the tiles where they should be.

I smile and move the tent further back against the eaves’ door. ‘What sort of story would you like?’

He smiles too, and I imagine I can see his body relax against the mattress. ‘About your rabbit. What was her name?’


‘That story about her and your cat. What happened?’

He knows the tale well enough to tell himself now but I pick up his hand and hold it between my own as I begin.

            My rabbit was huge. The biggest rabbit I’d ever seen. She was half Chinchilla Giganta, you see, but, of course, she was still only a rabbit and I was always very careful when I let her out to run. I’d shut the dogs away and the cat, too. But one day I forgot to lock the cat door and as I was standing by the greenhouse, the cat streaked by me. Now, she was a small cat but fierce with it and absolutely the animal boss…..

‘Tell me about the dogs and their beds.’

            Ah yes. Well, one morning we came downstairs to find the cat asleep in the middle of the Dalmatian’s bed. The Dalmatian was curled up in the Irish Setter’s bed and the Irish Setter, a huge, gangling animal, was balanced across the top of the cat’s small wicker basket. Yes, that cat had things her own way.

            ‘But not with Bramble,’ he says, his eyes bright.

            No, not with her. So the cat sprinted down the path towards the lawn. I shrieked but she ignored me. And, in another breath, she was right behind Bramble. Perhaps my shriek had warned Bramble, perhaps Bramble sensed her coming up behind her; either way, that big white rabbit turned round to face the cat, stood up on her hind legs, raised her forepaws like an attacking grizzly and brought them down on the cat’s head. Then she turned around and kicked the cat with her back legs. The cat screamed – I’d never heard a cat scream before – and shot up the apple tree.

            ‘And it was hours before you could get her down again.’ He can’t resist finishing the end of the story.

‘That’s right. It was.’

Later, much later, when he’s finally asleep, I hold my head close to his and listen to his breathing. There’s a Tom Palmer book resting on his pillow, and another under the duvet on his chest. I leave them there. And as I go, taking care to leave the door fully ajar so the warm light from the landing fills his doorway, my heart swells a little at the comfort these stories – mine and those of others – are giving this little boy.

The Places We Walk

My first child slept only when being walked in the sling. After much effort and a lot of tears (mine and his), he agreed to give my back a bit of a break and take the occasional nap in a pram. Together we  prowled the fringes of Tower Hamlets and the City of London. In my new-Mum uniform of jeans and tunic tops, I side-stepped the suited people hurrying from tube to office to wine bar to tube, forgetting that I used to be one of them and that, once, they might have been me. I walked the length of Bishopsgate to the Monument, marvelled at the emptiness of Borough market during those hours when all the office lights in the surrounding buildings blazed, strode down to the Waitrose at Wapping (my target – not often achieved – was always to get through the check-out before the baby woke) and often ended with a cheese and marmite pancake for me in Spitalfields market. Then we moved and, I found new places to walk. At first, there was the park and the streets of elegant terraced houses surrounding it, the water meadows and the Georgian streets in the College-side of town and, eventually, I found Winnall Moors. Originally owned by the great Hyde Abbey in medieval times, later developed as flooded water meadows in the seventeenth century and now a nature reserve, it is still hushed perfection. With no dogs, no cyclists – frankly, few other visitors at all – and only the wind twisting through the bulrushes and the call of the sedge warblers, it hardly seems just ten minutes from the city centre.  In the summer, male banded demoiselles, in the metallic blue of a tin soldier’s livery, court the iridescent green females. Swans nest on the path and water voles, with luxuriant grassy moustaches make brief riverbank appearances. Once, on an autumn afternoon, I saw a young fox. He stood, paw poised in what I imagined to be horrified disbelief, before skittering back into the rushes. When the first child was joined by the second, I made occasional forays with both children, stacked like pancakes in their double pushchair. They synchronised their naps only rarely so, with at least one child crying or chattering, the days of the foxes and voles seemed over but then, one winter, we saw a line of deer, slipping like shadows across the path. Now, the children stamp and clatter along the boardwalk, pretending they’re explorers in a tiger-filled swamp. My daughter no longer mistakes the Highland Cattle grazing nearby for horses but I remain wary. This is the child who once said, ‘Oh, it’s a lion!’ as we watched an otter disporting itself at twilight. And so still we look: at the heaving mass of tadpoles in spring, at the coot families, at the changing colours of the trees in this place that has allowed us to slip into it as if we’ve always been there. 024

Writing resolutions

“…December is traditionally a bad month for writing. It is a month of Mondays.”

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The first time I read it, I breezed past this statement. December? A month of Mondays? No, not here. But now that January is here and the schools are back, the chocolate eaten, the house returned to its normal state of just-about-ready-for-a-good-sorting-out (although I’ll have you know that I am exceptionally tidy; I just happen to live with grubs)  and I have once again spent a whole week sitting at my writing table, the document history on my computer tells its own story. Yep, before Monday, I last opened any of my writing files on the 19th December and work in the two weeks preceding that date was…..sporadic. Um. I can see the advantages of the pre-computer age; it’s so much easier to fool yourself on paper. It can’t  have been just me who not only made colour-coded revision timetables but who also made long lists of revision sessions undertaken and perhaps, now and then, misremembered the time actually spent labouring over Physics or whatever. Good for morale, you see. <Ahem>

And so I have been thinking about what I want to achieve this coming year. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions – I gave them up along with the colour-coded revision timetables – but I have reminded myself of a few things:

  1. I can’t edit what I haven’t written.
  2. No-one has to like what I write but shared writing can grow into stronger writing.
  3. I’m privileged to be able to spend so much time doing this thing that is so fundamental a part of me – and I should not be abusing that privilege by using the internet so much. Online shopping can never constitute research. Neither can Facebook. And probably not this blog either…..

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Books can be a bit like clothes. You get used to what styles suit, what feels right and even, perhaps, what fits your self-image. That, apart from the occasional seasonal tweak or up-grade (what’s on the Booker shortlist – or not; what’s on the Waterstones 3 for 2 table; who’s made it into the Granta Best Young Novelists to Watch list), is that. Particularly as you get older, the idea of making changes for change’s sake seems somehow absurd. There’s no-one across the Sixth Form common room to be impressed by your copy of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poking out from the top of your army surplus knapsack, no one-night stands who might prowl through your bookcases and comment on your poetry selection and no-one who might be thrown by finding a Nancy Friday book in your bedroom. A glance through my reading notebook, kept more or less consistently for over ten years, makes it clear that I’m as guilty of this as many people. Much as I might like to think I have broad tastes, what isn’t there is still noticeable by its absence. Margaret Atwood aside, there’s no sci-fi; other than His Dark Materials, there’s no fantasy; dystopia makes only a brief appearance (Margaret Atwood, again, and two post-apocalyptic novels – Julie Myerson’s Then and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven – lent to me by writing group friends) and there are no thrillers at all. “Classics” appear only infrequently and, much as I might like to pretend it’s because I’ve read so many of them already (I don’t note re-reads), I know there are legions still waiting ahead. Oh, and there’s just one play (Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi) and that’s there only because I saw a friend perform in it at London’s Arcola Theatre. As an example, here is my current reading pile – by which I mean the books I’m actually reading at the moment; it’s never just one. books From top to bottom, there’s one poetry book (Stags’ Leap by Sharon Olds), one writing craft book (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott), one (historical) literary novel (A Girl in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie), one contemporary novel by a writer now better known for her YA (The Art of Seeing by Cammie McGovern) and one history book I’m only a dozen pages into (To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD Wallace). Pretty standard stuff for me, really. But always with the potential for excitement too. Staying within your comfort zone does not mean not enlarging your horizons. Set largely in pre-partition India,  A Girl in Every Stone plunges its two central characters into a maelstrom of history that stretches from ancient Persia to pre-first world war Turkey and on, via Ypres and Brighton Pavilion, where Indian Army soldiers are restored to some sort of health, to Peshawar. It’s quite a canvas and its author is not afraid to tackle those issues of politics, faith and national identity that are, so sadly, still resonating today. For an armchair traveller such as myself, this is one author I’ll be searching out more from; and that’s so even if I am, at two-thirds of the way through this book, growing in certainty that the stunning prose and the epic sweep of the book are in danger of washing away the characters that the reader is, presumably, supposed to care about. If A Girl in Every Stone has enlarged my horizons so, in a smaller, quieter way, has The Art of Seeing. Ostensibly a story about sisters – the younger a talented would-be photographer and the elder famous, from her late teens, as a movie actress – and what happens when their worlds reverse, it’s more nuanced than that, touching on envy, the strange nature of celebrity and how easy it is not really to know those who are supposed to be closest to us. Given that the author is herself just such a younger sister of a famous actress it might be easy to suppose this is a defining theme of her work but it really isn’t – and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Stag’s Leap is a collection I’m dipping in and out from. It’s proving hard – psychologically-speaking – to read. What happens when  marriage, and all the love that was contained within it, fades and dies? What happens when one party has already checked out? How does the other party (in this instance, the poet) lift up her head, set her shoulders and move on with her life when so much of it is bound up with the physical presence of the man who is leaving her? Even when she’s still so possessive of his physical self – she spends many lines describing, for example, his “cindery lichen skin” – she is also generous to the point of bravery, appearing almost to ‘suffer’ from the relationship equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome:

“When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, I am half on the side of the leaver”

It’s this generosity that makes these poems fly. And that is what I most want from any book.    

The writing apprenticeship: learning the craft

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.

Stephen King, On Writing

I’m reading a couple of writing craft books at the moment after the members of my writing group decided to exchange some of our favourites. I’ve read Stephen King’s book before but probably not since it first came out, which was long before I started taking writing seriously. And when I did start taking writing seriously, I ditched the craft books as soon as I’d read Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer. When she pointed out just “how many rooms there are in the house of art”, it not only struck a chord that made me shiver with happy recognition (someone else feels like that!) but, more than that, I fell in love with the idea that it was to literature itself I should turn to learn my craft. It just made so much sense. Why should I read lists of rules and dos and don’ts when I could pick up a novel and enjoy it not just for its story or its artistry but for the technical assistance it could provide? It seemed to me a bit like when I was at school and struggling with the (to me) abstract applications of algebra. I was astounded and not a little thrilled when I discovered, in A-level Biology, that I was capable of using and understanding the algebraic concept behind the chi-square test to look at the distribution of marine life on a seashore at low tide. Relating it to something I was actually doing and, crucially, was interested in was key.

And so, for many years, I read not only for pleasure but also to learn. Stream of consciousness? Why, Virginia Woolf, of course. Use of close first person narrator? The Catcher in the Rye. What about close third person? Did you need an excuse to read Harry Potter? OK, Multiple narrators? Try The Poisonwood Bible. How to write a scene with a large number of characters all trying to speak at once? What about the ballroom scene in Anna Karenina? Etc. All very enjoyable, of course, and lovely to have an excuse, if I needed one, to revisit some old favourites. However as time went on and I wrote more and more, I came to have a closer understanding of my own technical weaknesses (mostly, I believed, pace-related, if you’re interested) and began to think a little theoretical help might not be such a bad idea. Yes, there was still a part of me that harumphed about how the writers of one or two hundred years ago managed very nicely, thank you very much, without a craft book ever crossing their table but there was a more insistent part whispering how they didn’t have washing machines or computers or penicillin either and probably wouldn’t have said no to them. Why not take your help where you can get it?

That brings me back to the Stephen King quote at the start of this piece. I don’t remember it from my first reading of the book but it struck me like the lightning bolt I hope never to experience in reality. Of course, I thought. Of course! I’ve been a story teller all my life, often on paper but always in my head. And I think it’s the in-my-head part that’s where I’m sometimes coming unstuck now. A story that stays in your own head or migrates no further than a piece of paper that’s for your own reading needs to please only you, the writer. All the extraneous bits: the interlopers who don’t advance the plot, the descriptive passages that slow the pace but are just oh-too-lovely to lose, the filler adverbs, the dialogue that tells the reader stuff they already know or don’t need to know, none of that matters. However start showing your work to others, whether that’s on a course, in a writers’ group or, big gulp, to an agent, and it matters like nothing else matters. Then – then! – you realise that there is lots still to learn because this is a life-long apprenticeship and that if you’ve seen one (what now seems like it ought to have been a self-evident) truth in one craft book, goodness knows what there is to find in others.