Sunday, 31 May 2020

Wild gardening a year on

It's the last day of May and I wanted to make a record of our garden because it's bringing me so much happiness.

I'm a lazy gardener - my greatest pleasure is admiring someone else's gorgeous borders instead of sweating over my own. I grow vegetables because they're much easier than herbaceous borders and you can eat them, but the rest of the garden is down to my husband (pruning, path-laying, pond-digging, rock wall-building). Also, I've a strong feeling that much modern gardening is about control and fear of the wild, beyond us and inside. Just looking at all the brightly coloured strimmers and choppers and plastic grass makes me very sad inside.

Until last year we had a lawn. It was a hassle and boring to look at. We wondered what would grow if we didn't cut the grass, so we left it to do its own thing - our own No Mow May but for a whole year. We mowed paths through it partly so that the garden still worked for us and partly so that the untidiness looked intentional, and then because we found that the mown paths grew different wild flowers as long as we didn't mow them often.

The result was a complete joy.

This year it's even better. We have more flowers, far more insects, and more birds too. The newts have been joined by frogs, and a huge toad jumped over the path in front of me yesterday.

House martins are exploring our eaves this year for the first time, and a bat nightly circles the garden. Swifts have gathered overhead, and though they're fewer than we used to see, last year there were almost none so we were overjoyed to see them return. Goldfinches are everywhere, alongside the usual bluetits, blackbirds, magpies, collared doves, jackdaws, dunnocks, wrens and robins. And the bees are in their element. In the quiet of lockdown, we can hear them buzzing, the chicks in their nests, the swishing of the grass in the breeze.

On 18 April I surveyed the wild flowers in the garden, and found 26 species. It's not a fancy garden and it's not huge - maybe a third of an acre, with a chunk of it used for growing vegetables (and drying washing) and another chunk paved - but it was packed with variety. Today, some of those flowers have died back and others have taken their places. I'll survey them this week, but today I'll sit at the grassy table at the top of the garden and enjoy them.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

On finishing my novel (spoiler: it's set during a pandemic)

Last week I finished the novel that I started in December 2013. Six and a bit years of ups and downs, loss of confidence, moments of great happiness in writing, and finally a manuscript that I've placed in a folder called FINAL.

Trigger warning: this isn't one of my blogs about walking in the fields. My novel is set during a modern viral pandemic.

Seven years ago I had my appendix out and was pretty ill for a while. I was thoughtful about mortality. I read Pepys's diaries in bed each night and was mesmerised by his telling of living through the Plague in London in 1665.  It first appears there on 7 June:

"This day, much against my Will, I did in Drury lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord have mercy upon us' writ there - which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw."

I'd read Camus's La Peste as a student and the diary brought it back. Camus's telling of a town locked down in desperation sits deep in my subconscious even if I no longer remember it in detail. It's one of those books that changes you invisibly.

How would we respond now to such a plague, I wondered?

My characters were clear in my mind from the start: a mother and her 19-year-old daughter who live on the road in their van. The mother is absolutely sure in her convictions, fuelled by anger about modern society. She rejects it all, refuses to engage with anyone except her daughter. I find such people mesmerising and terrifying: I don't know how to handle such righteous rage and tend to hide from it. I wondered what it would be like to be her daughter, trapped in a van in a wood in winter with love and anger.

I read Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, and my heart travelled with the people who had nowhere to go but were forced to wander from town to town hoping that someone would leave supplies out for them: no one would let them in.

If such an infectious and fatal illness struck us now, how would the people I live among behave? Would they allow my child to come home, possibly bringing sickness and death? Who would I open my door to?

What would happen to my characters, out on the road? So free and yet so vulnerable?

I began to research plagues and pandemics. I filled notebooks and folders. My shelves filled with jolly titles like The New Plagues.

By 2016 I was wading through papers by virologists and epidemiologists.

They had titles like, 'World invests too little and is underprepared for disease outbreak' (BMJ, 2016; 352: i225).

And, 'Seven reasons we're at more risk than ever of a global pandemic' (CNN, 2016).

And, 'The Threat of Pandemic Influenza: Are We Ready?' (National Academies Press, 2005). (The answer is a resounding no.)

I downloaded the UK's public health plans for a flu pandemic. They never seemed to consider a non-flu pandemic in their planning.

At the top of one set of plans I scribbled: 'BUT IS THIS AN UNDERESTIMATE?'

It was utterly plain to me - with my O level in Biology and a degree in French - that our government was horrifically unprepared for a pandemic, even though it identified a flu pandemic as the number one threat to our country, far above terrorism.

Politics kept winning over science. Our politicians didn't want to invest in public health, or strong infrastructure, or relieving poverty so that people and communities were healthier. They shouted about crime and foreigners and scroungers, and they cut funding to hospitals and social care, and they pushed more and more people into poverty.

Pandemic? Who cares, they effectively said. They ignored what scientists had been telling them for years because it would have meant spending money on things they didn't value.

So when the news came from Wuhan at the start of this year, I knew what was coming. I couldn't do anything about it. I felt helpless. Weeks before widespread panic buying I bought flour, pasta, coffee, oil, tinned tomatoes and chocolate and put them in a box under the stairs. I remembered reading a US epidemiologist who said he had two months' supplies at home and was planning to hide out with his family for as long as it took. Now, of course, two months seems laughable.

I watched the news and kept writing. I was in the revisions by now, sorting out plot quirks and clunky dialogue.

By the time we were locked down, I had an almost final version. One of my lovely readers sat with it in the middle of the night while feeding his baby, waking each morning unsure what was real - my book or the news on the radio.

Last week I read it through one last time.

'My' virus is far nastier than COVID-19. It spreads faster and kills more people. It's carried initially by domestic cats, and it starts right here in the UK. It's entirely plausible and judging by the way our government has responded to COVID-19 - and is still responding right now - we'd be utterly devastated by it.

I'm angry. We knew this was coming. No one can 'beat' a virus, but we could have been prepared. We could have saved so many lives and we still need to.

I'm afraid too. My parents are in their 80s. Their domiciliary carers have no PPE (not necessary, says government advice, though one of the carers is off sick with COVID-19). My son is in the shielded group because he has an underlying health condition. It doesn't make him any less my son, any less valuable. If he catches COVID-19 I may never see him again.

This has been such a strange time. People keep saying that, and it has become a cliche, but it is no less true. I have been happy writing and I am proud of my novel. It's about so much more than the facts of pandemics and viruses: it's about people and how they live together even in the strangest times, and it's about trust and hope.

Hope isn't enough to keep us safe, but it's so important. Here's hoping for better times.

Wednesday, 26 February 2020

One field is all I need

I don't think I'm unusual in having a favourite field.

It's down a short and often very muddy farm track, just past the gate in the photo above and it has a well trodden path through it that could take me in all kinds of directions. But often I don't go much further.

Years ago I'd stop in this field - it wasn't my favourite then - because I didn't have the energy to walk more than ten minutes from the house. Now, sometimes I can walk miles, sometimes I can't.

Sometimes now I dawdle there so long anyway that I never get out even if I did mean to walk over the small hill to the farm beyond, or up to the heathland reserve where the buzzards live.

Sometimes I know I'm going to the field and no further, and that's ok. Today was one of those days.

It's February. It's been raining for weeks so the mud is deep and oozy, red where the iron in our soil has bled. The trees are still bare, but there are shoots, and catkins, and the birds are singing springtime songs from the hedges.

There are sometimes cattle in the field, but not often. It's too small and lumpy and wet to grow a crop in. There's a shallow dampness that's not quite a stream, with marshy plants and ground that never sets hard even in summer.

There's a telephone wire from which a pair of kestrels swoop into the clumpy grass come high summer.

There are huge oaks, cities in their own right, where I'll see woodpeckers later, and saw jays saving their acorns last autumn. Today the trees are splendid, their dinosaur trunks vast and warm under my hands.

There's a stream big enough to paddle in but it's on the other side of the narrow wood that runs alongside the field. Magic happens on this side. The field is only metres wide between the skimpy wood and a rough hedge. Birds leap across the gap between wood and hedge, linking their hideaways and their food and their song perches.

And in high summer every step I take lifts butterflies from the grass and marshy ground like table crumbs from a shaken cloth. It's magical.

Today, I went out in the late afternoon, low sun coming from a high blue sky that turned suddenly black, with a wind that rattled the branches and flung hailstones into my ears, and I couldn't have asked for more.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Jura's unreal wildness

I'm writing this, as often, to work out what I think about something. It's our last day on the Isle of Jura and the others have gone for a walk leaving me with the log burner, a pot of coffee and a table with a stunning view over the Sound of Jura to Kintyre.

It's beautiful. That's what everyone keeps saying. Sweeping hillsides, the Paps rearing up in the background, sea eagles swooping over our heads, huge skies, incredible.

And yet I'm finding Jura hard to love. Is it me, or is it Jura?

Here's a nice piece of timing. As I wrote the line above, my son sent me a link to Tracey Ullman's sketch, 'You Woke?'. Tracey is leading group therapy for young people so woke that they can no longer have fun. Ouch.

But here's a thing. Jura is owned almost entirely by a very small group of people for whom it is a playground. One has created a private golf course, looked after by 25 staff, but played on by no one. Most of the rest of the island consists of a handful of private estates managed for deer stalking. While we have the right to roam, thanks to Scotland's access legislation, in fact if you pick a line across a hill there's every chance you'll come up against an impenetrable deer fence. The estates call the shots when it comes to where we can go. This is a very strange form of wilderness.

The deer eat everything: Jura's hills are bare of trees and shrubs because no shoot or sapling can survive such a concentration of deer: there's a 14-pointer stag in the garden, for goodness sake, and thousands across the island as a whole. We've met them everywhere we've been.

In the small folds of land around farms and houses, outside the deer estates, Jura is stunning, with ancient woodlands hanging with lichens and ferns. These parcels of land show just what Jura has lost, but could regain if the deer-stalkers did not determine the ecology of the land.

And yet, in the Jura Hotel, I asked where people work who live on the island, and those estates employ many people. The population is growing: six babies were born this year. Visitors come to see its strange bleakness. We are here to find peace on an island with only about 200 residents and one road, and expanses of unpopulated country. And we've found that.

Do I need to get over myself? Maybe. I'll make another coffee and check the sea for whales, but this is a weird place.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Thinking about the wild

That's me in a beech copse not far from home. It's one of my favourite places, especially in summer when the light is sea-green and always on the move. It's only a giant's stride from one side to the other, but it feels somehow a secret place even though I know plenty of people pass through because there's a path worn through the leaf litter, and invisible kids have made camps out of sticks.

I'm not sure I'd call it wild, but I'm thinking about that. Wild things live there, and it's a very different-feeling place at midnight. And if I lie on that leaf litter and look mighty closely at the soil, I see all kinds of things getting on with their lives, completely indifferent to me.

I'm wondering if it's that indifference that makes a place wild, however small or close to home?

My beech copse is a long way from Ardnamurchan, where we spent a little bit of this summer, as far west as you can go on the mainland before you have to swim.

One day I walked alone to the top of this small mountain, and it felt wild, though the sun shone and I had a cinnamon bun in my bag.

It was so little visited that there were no paths so I wound my way up through bogs and heather and over rocky lumps, up to the top from where I could see nothing but clear blue sky, hills, islands fading out to the horizon, and all around, the endless sea. And below me a pair of small lochs.

They were too tempting, so I scrambled down, stripped, and swam, safe in the knowledge that there was no one at all on the mountain to see.

That small mountain felt deeply wild, though I was never more than an hour from the village out of sight below the ridge. Is wildness all relative? My wild is your home? Your terror is my happiness?

I've been reading books on walking in the wild, on finding its edges, on loss, and death and rebirth in those edge places, on the creatures and plants that live in our wild places, on how we are as humans in the wild, and what earthworms taste like. Everyone's wild is their own, I'm finding, because it depends what you bring to it: grief, a warm bun, a bunch of strangers, or the person you love, a question, a desire for space, a need to know ...

I'm teaching a short course in a few weeks where we'll explore some of the latest writing about the wild and the natural world. I'll be sharing some of the best of the books I've been reading, and we'll write, finding words for the wild we seek, love, and fear. I can't wait.

Writing the Wild, University of Kent at Tonbridge
Two weeks: October 9 and 16
1.30 to 4.30

Friday, 8 February 2019

My homemade writing retreat: can I write a novel at home and not be distracted?

This is for all the writers who have ever despaired of having enough time and space to write at home, and who can’t go on a retreat. 

I’m part way through a novel. I have a first draft of 80,000 words, and 20,000 words of a much better second draft that I wrote last month. This post is about how I made space to write those 20,000 words, despite the odds - and mostly despite the reasons I gave myself for not writing them.

1: I apply for a writer's residency

I applied for a writing residency – a whole month in a Scottish castle cut off from the world*. It was a glorious thought that I might actually get to do this. It was also a terrifying thought, because what if I realised part way that I couldn’t write for a whole month? More importantly, what if there was a crisis at home and I wasn’t there to sort it out? 

These are stupid reasons to be afraid of a writing retreat. They are also excellent reasons to go on one.

Why are they stupid reasons? One, I am a professional writer - I write copy for my clients every day and have done for decades. Of course I can write every day. Two, I should get over myself. I am not the only person who can sort out crises, even if I think I am.

Anyway, it didn’t matter because I didn’t get the residency. 

2: Crisis: I don't get the residency

And what did I feel when I heard that I wouldn’t be retreating to that castle with my laptop and notes and nothing else to do but write?

I thought, I’ll never be able to finish my novel now.

I allowed myself to think this for a while. In a way, maybe it was comforting. It gave me a good reason for not finishing the novel I started five – yes, five – years ago.

Then I thought, but I like my novel. I think it could be good. It certainly is inside my head and some of the bits I’ve written already, I’m pretty pleased with. People whose opinions I value have liked what they read. (Not my mother-in-law, who demanded to see the first page, and put it down after one paragraph.) I know I can write the novel I have in my head and my notebooks, if only I have time and energy. 

Ah, there’s the drag. Time and energy. I don’t seem to have enough of either to write a novel. But who does? Other people write novels. They don’t all hang out in castles with food laid on and nothing else to do but write. We are not all Virginia Woolf with a room and an income and people who cook and clean.

Again, I told myself to get over myself. Be more Sarah, less Virginia.

Then I got realistic. I do struggle to write in amongst the morass of my daily life.

3: Real reasons I find it hard to write a novel


I write copy every day for a living, so by the evening the last thing I want to do is wiggle that mouse and get writing again.

I can hear you larks telling me to get up and write my novel before I start work. No. That is not an option. More on exhaustion later. 

Writing fiction is hard, much harder than writing copy. There are many days when I tell myself I’m not in the right mood to write fiction. I’ve learnt to ignore this voice. It’s a devil voice that does not have my best interests at heart. I can always write something. 


Do I have enough of it? No, I don’t. I’m 55 and I don’t have time to waste. I’m not planning on being a one-novel wonder. I have things to say, think about, explore, and I don’t have time to lose.

On the other hand, there are meals to cook, friends and family to love, fields to walk. I volunteer half a day a week. I campaign for the Green Party. I grow vegetables. I read. They are all important to me. They all take time.

I also need time doing nothing in order to write; time when I think about what I’m going to write next; and time when I don’t think about it but am thinking about it on some other level. Without this, I begin to write clunky, emotionally empty words that merely move the plot on.

Family crises

Aren’t they a strong reason for not being able to write? Well, yes. They are. And there have been quite a few. They’re mostly other people’s crises, so I shan’t go into detail but they’ve been hospital serious, might not survive serious, and some have gone on for years. Some are still happening.

They have stopped me writing, though never completely. I can write poems in the thick of pretty much anything, and do because sometimes they’re the only way I make sense of pretty much anything. But it really isn’t possible to write a novel if you’re setting up care packages, or being alongside someone who is so ill they’re not sure how much they want to be here. Or at least it isn’t for me – maybe some people can power on through no matter what’s going on. I run out of mental and emotional energy.


I know I’m supposed to be so desperate to write this novel that I’ll sit up till three in the morning, night after night, weeping with exhaustion but determined to go on … but I’ve been that woman. More than 20 years ago I got ME, probably in part because I was that woman. These days, merely writing from 9 to 5 every day exhausts me. So, no I won’t write at dawn, nor into the night. If I do, I become too ill to write at all.

4: I make a decision to value my writing, because if I don’t …

When I didn’t get a place in that castle for a whole, glorious month, I allowed myself to feel sad (possibly even sorry for myself); and then I gave myself a talking to. If I didn’t think my novel was important enough to carve out time and space to write it, sure as hell no one else would. 

I told myself to value my writing. To stop talking about how important it is to me, and to do something about it. I decided to prove how much I care about being able to write by putting aside everything else and writing for a month. I'm sorry if I sound like a self-help book. I don't read them because they're so bloody annoying and self-satisfied. Feel free to be annoyed with me. But please bear with me.

I’m not so privileged that I can throw in my work for ever. I have to earn money to pay bills. But I had a long time away from work recently because I was ill and that taught me that I can become obsessed by the need to work before anything else.

I can also be obsessed with the idea that the people I love need me to be available at all times of the day or night. It’s possible that they think this too, but it isn’t true.

5: A radical plan to retreat and write for a month at home

I decided to retreat and write at home. After all, it’s warm, dry and has good armchairs and an excellent library. I like it here.

I took January off from work. I told all my clients that I wasn’t available – no, not even for a quick phonecall and no, not for any emails either. I’d be back in February. I was working on a huge, complex project and needed to concentrate. 

I told my family that I was only going to speak to them in the evenings and at weekends.

I told my friends that I’d see them in February. I turned down invitations. I turned down offers of cake.

I cleared my desk of all family admin (and when you have power of attorney for three people as well as your own household to run, that can be a fair pile of crap).

6: How did writing for a month at home go?

Well, not everyone completely understood the ‘I’m not talking to you this month’ thing straight away, but I was firm. By the end of the month, my phone was silent. My email ghostly.

My clients seemed – remarkably – to think it was cool that I was off writing a novel. They haven’t abandoned me.

And it was heaven. From the first day to the last – four glorious weeks – I wrote. I sorted out gaping plot holes. I talked to myself, worked out characters’ voices and quirks, found out how to write them, found my voice for this story.

I wrote 20,000 words in this new voice, from a new point of view, and those words are massively better than those of the first draft.

I didn’t feel lonely, despite seeing and speaking to pretty much no one. My husband – who doesn’t write and finds most of what I read, let alone write, mystifying – was my perfect companion. (I did see a sudden splurge of people on my mum’s 80th birthday, and it was lovely, but I was glad to be back writing the next day.)

I felt deeply happy. Deeply sure that I was doing something good and that I was right to be retreating from the world and writing.

Maybe surprisingly, it wasn't hard to write at home, despite the cornucopia of distractions around me. It hadn't been easy to set aside this month for writing and I knew it would end all too soon, so every day I was glad to write.

I dreaded the end of the month.

7: Three lessons learned from my home writing retreat

I’m back at work. I feared that on day one at my desk every client alive would wake up to my presence and clamour for my undivided attention. Again, get over yourself, Sarah. They were busy doing their own things. We’ve made plans for the weeks ahead. Work is coming in, but not in a deluge.

Take a break

On that first day, I tried writing the next scene of my novel after work, to keep up the momentum. It was no good. I wrote it but I was exhausted – almost certainly because a month of intensive writing was exhausting. I should know this by now but I’m a slow learner. Three days of feeling like a mouldy dishcloth later, I cut myself some slack and took a day off. I spent it at a friend’s funeral, but a day off writing was what I needed. Big lesson – I can take days off. This is a long haul, I can’t do it all without a break.

Edit as I go: that's the way I write

And that’s connected to another important lesson learned. I had hoped to finish the second draft in one month, but three weeks in I realised that I don’t write that fast. 

I felt bad about this but then I had some luck. I found out that I’m not alone. Not everyone churns out page after page in an unstoppable, fabulous flow.

I stopped reading fiction part way through the month and turned to my heap of unread magazines and journals. In a mslexia from 2016, Alison Moore said, ‘I need to know that what I’ve written so far is as right as I can get it. I have to tidy up as I go along, which is how I keep moving forwards as smoothly as possible; I don’t like the feeling that I’m leaving a bigger and bigger mess behind me.’ I love Alison Moore’s work, so if it works for her, that’s good for me too. 

It's ok to write slowly

In the same edition, the equally lovely writer Emma Healey said, ‘I write in 500 word bursts, working very intensely, then I run out of energy. It’s infuriating, because the book builds so slowly. But if I force myself to write more - if I’ve missed a day, for example, and try to catch up – then it’s useless.’ It was such a relief when I read that. I’d been beating myself up for being so slow. Surely I could do more, faster? No, I’ve learned that if I’m writing completely new words, 500 is pretty much my maximum too. More if I’m rewriting, maybe.

And one more lesson

There’s an irony here. I’m writing this blog post when I could be writing the novel. But that’s another thing I’ve learned. I live in the world, and while a month away from it is utterly wonderful, I can’t ignore the world forever. I’m no Salinger. (In lots of ways; I’m not comparing my writing to Salinger’s.)

But I will step back from the world a little. I’ll give myself time to think and write. I’ll spend less time working. Less time sitting about chatting. I won’t read anything that’s not worth reading. I won’t be blogging for a while. 

I will finish this novel.

*Hawthornden: lovely LitHub piece about Hawthornden's fellowships. They were quite right not to choose me – I sent work (not from this novel) that I didn’t love as an example of what I wanted to do better next time. Foolish me.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

In the dark, time has a different shape: Halloween thoughts

I'm writing this sitting by the woodstove, it's dark outside, the winter's cold is coming, though the wind has stilled, and the day is almost over. I've been reading Sarah Moss's new novel, Ghost Wall, set out on the moors of Northumbria where ancient people made sacrifices in the peat bogs and I'm glad to be indoors. It's Halloween and not a night to be out among the spirits.

I'm not superstitious, but there's a strange change in the way I feel about being out when the light falls early. I was up on the Ashdown Forest this afternoon - it's not a forest in the modern sense, but high open heathland with vast views to both the North and South Downs. The Forest feels as if it goes on forever, though it's only about ten square miles, but it rises above all the surrounding farmland and villages so when I'm up there I feel as if I'm in another world.

By the time I parked at Old Lodge it was almost 3.30 and the sun was already low. I didn't hurry, but when the light began to fade I turned back. The Forest may be small, but it's easy to find yourself further from home than you thought, and when it's dark the heathland feels enormous.

All the time I was there I saw no one, though I could hear cars along the High Road. I saw a buzzard, crows, ponies grazing, a black deer that watched me from a stand of Scots pines. The ground was still dry from the long hot summer, the heather scratchy on my shins when I left the path to explore a lump that might have been a tumulus.

There were iron age people here, before the Romans. They left their marks in hill forts and tracks and burial mounds. When I was a teenager I spent weeks up here excavating one fort, found an ancient nutshell in the midden beyond the fort's walls, post holes, stones carefully laid, the residues from smelting. I smoked my first cigar in the Hatch Inn, drove madly down and off the Forest to collect my A level results, and back to celebrate my leaving.

We were a practical lot, archaeology being almost entirely manual labour - digging, scraping, barrowing huge amounts of spoil. And we lived on site, camping where the Romans must have lain when they arrived, laughing about the legionnaire who walked the walls, whom no one saw or believed in.

It was easy to laugh when it was light, or sat round the fire close together, the Forest invisible beyond our circle of crackling light and heat. But on the long walk up the road from the pub, with no street lights, no houses, no torches, it felt different. It was dark, truly and deeply dark, and time seemed somehow fluid, as if all the people who had ever been here might still be walking among us.

It's a luxury to experience dark like that.

Sometimes, I wait till late, when no one else will be out wandering and I walk away from the lights of the village and into the dark of the woods. If there is no moon I can barely see the trees, except where they are silhouetted against the faint orange glow from the town, so I turn away and walk south and once again I can feel the strange lightness of true dark.

It has no weight, it is limitless. I am untethered and invisible within it. There is nothing to fear.