Friday, 27 August 2021

On the significance of putting on my purple cardigan

I have just put on my Writing Cardigan. I don't really have writing fetishes - I can write anywhere, any time. I like to have coffee, but it's not essential. In the past I've written daily while the potatoes or pasta boil for dinner. I've written a whole scene in a cafe in the half hour before an appointment with a funeral director. I've dictated dialogue into my phone in the middle of the woods. But I do love my Writing Cardigan. It's old, bobbly, purple and growing new holes every year, and it brings me great comfort and warmth on this slightly autumnal late August morning.

It tells me that I am settling in for the long haul, and that I'm not going to leave the house today.

It reminds me that I love writing, and inside my head is a good place to be, even if it's messy and tangled sometimes, and the work is difficult and I may have to try many, many different ways of writing some of this book to make it the best it can be. I'm happy here, and lucky to have my Purple Cardigan, and this work.

I put my Purple Cardigan on today because I'm deep into a big rewrite of my novel. I'm stripping out a major plot element that was right at the time, and now it isn't. The book's going to be massively better off without it

When I look at the manuscript on which I've marked all the changes to make, I'm fine. Every post-it marks a cut, a change, or a scene to write and it's a lot, but it's amazing that I have this chance to make my book even better, knowing that in a year it will be published, and I'm so glad to be separating out the wheat from the chaff.

If you've ever done that for real - separating wheat from its chaff - you'll know that it's really satisfying. It's also ridiculously time consuming if you do it grain by grain, by hand, which is what I'm doing in my novel right now.

But I'm writing every day - from breakfast till lunch - and that's amazing after so many years of cramming it into the edges of my life.

Putting on my Purple Cardigan is a signifier to myself that I'm lucky, and deeply happy to be taking the time I need to do this work.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Medway: how did I not know about the estuary?

How have I never seen the Medway estuary before? 

I live near the upper river where the banks are a single-span bridge apart. Sometimes I paddle further downstream under the medieval arches of East Farleigh and Teston. The river can be wild here, uncontrollable, but I can always see the other side.

For most people it's easy to ignore the river up here unless you live in a flooding place. The catchment is vast and invisible but if you track the narrow valleys of the high Weald you can see how every one carries a stream that brings its water to the sea.

I've been following one of them for over a year now, and finally, a week ago, I reached the estuary. It was a revelation. 

I made a seven-day journey to get there and on the third day I escaped the traffic roar of the Medway towns to drop down to the Strand in Gillingham.

There were benches looking out, people sitting in ones and twos. Children paddling in the shallows. Black-headed gulls squawking and diving. A lone tender puttering out to a boat moored in the deeper water. A small island hid the far side but I could see cranes, crate-shaped buildings, industrial chimneys.

I sat for hours looking out over the mudflats and the water, simply enjoying the vastness of the light and the space.

How strange that this water begins as small, earthy streams in our hilly fields.

Strange too, to be looking out over somewhere that is so out of reach to me, unless I grow wings, or float.

I've found a place I think I love (even in the pouring rain) and that I want to get to know better. I'll certainly be back.

More about my Slow Medway project. 

Monday, 24 May 2021

Starling's on her way

I am the happiest writer. Today I signed a publishing agreement with the lovely people at Fairlight Books to publish my first novel, Starling, in 2022. 

I'm utterly amazed and delighted. Way back in December 2013 I started work on Starling with a picture in my mind of a formidable woman living off-grid. Mar is right-thinking, radical, fierce and determined. She's awesome in every sense of the word and I was a bit scared of her. Still am, if I'm honest. What would it be like to be her daughter, I wondered? Starling was born, always on the move, always watching Mar, always ready to run.

Nineteen years later, when the novel opens, Starling and Mar are holed up in a wood in their van, out of petrol, money and friends. Then Mar simply leaves. Starling can skin a rabbit, make nettle stew, fell a tree, but is it enough to survive - to live - when she's alone in a world she's learned to distrust and despise?

I love my characters and am so happy I'm going to spend the next six months immersed in their story, working with the Fairlight team to finish the novel I first dreamed of writing over seven years ago. (This is my bulging and battered notebook, full of the ideas that fed Starling.) 

It's been quite a month. I've tidied away all my copywriting files and cleared my diary. With the Arts Council grant supporting my Slow Medway project for the next year and Fairlight's commitment to Starling, I am going to write full time from next week. As I said, I am one very happy writer.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Slow Medway: finding the river

This, though I'd be amazed if you can tell, is a sketch of the patterns on the surface of the River Medway where the water surges fast just below the weir at Chafford and splits around a small grassy island. It makes so many different shapes and movements in one short stretch of water - I was glad I'd forgotten my phone because it made me really look at what the water was doing. Though I'd no idea what was happening beneath the surface - I was tempted for a moment to jump in and feel it for myself.

I made the sketch last Sunday, huddled against a pillbox out of a searingly bitter wind, in celebration of something truly amazing.

I've been given an Arts Council grant to write a book. I still can't quite believe it. My book's about the River Medway, my slow journey down it from my home to the sea, how my life has been touched by the river ever since I was a baby, and how I'm still not sure whether I have any right to lay claim to it. 

I've been thinking about memory, place, identity and time for a while now. My Dad was the River Engineer, but his memory has flowed away, leaving only faint marks where once he had such deep knowledge and love for the river. 

I've lived near the river for much of my life - sometimes on its banks, sometimes just over the hill. I'm aware of it, always checking its level when I drive over a bridge, noticing the saturation of the soil, swimming in it every summer, paddling up and down it all my adult life, almost drowning in it one January, finding my deepest calm when I slip into its olive, silty waters.

And yet. I'm never sure what the river means to me. I've never been sure if I belong. It was my Dad who was the engineer who had to manage the horrific floods of 1968. My husband is the elite canoeist. Others know far more than I do about the river's ecology. Everywhere I go there are Keep Out signs.

What does it actually mean, to feel you belong somewhere? How would I know if I belong? Does anyone? Can we belong to a place?

I've been very slowly travelling down the Medway for the past year, starting from the cattle pond in the field over the road. It's the source of a tiny tributary and it took me a long time to walk the handful of miles to the main river. We were all locked down, and my ME was bad. I'd walk a mile at a time, then come home to rest.

And once I recovered, I was back to work so my Medway journey had to fit into the gaps in my life, as writing always has. But with one email from the Arts Council, I'm liberated. I'm going to spend the next year exploring the river from my tiny tributary to the estuary. (That's my tributary below, turning fast into a bigger stream.) I'll return to places I think I know well, and on out to the tidal reaches and marshes that feel as exotic as anywhere I've ever been. I'll talk and listen to people whose lives are deeply connected to the river. And I'll wander, and wonder, about rivers and people, time and memory.

Saturday, 19 December 2020

Slow water: on writing, swimming and time

Sea Swim by Ardyn Halter

This year the world slowed down around me, and I slowed too: my body told me it was time to stay close to home, and by mid-summer I was ill enough that walking half a mile was plenty.

But I was looking far beyond the small fields I could wander in. A piece of luck linked me with the artist Ardyn Halter, 3000 miles away in Israel. Together we were asked to explore the idea of A Common Place,  alongside writers and artists from across the world, brought together by the Eames Gallery and 26.

Our pairings were random - our names literally pulled from two hats and called out over Zoom in late June as the heat rose outside and the roads stayed empty. Though the world beyond our doors was closed we were making connections - and the next day Ardyn and I spoke for the first time.

Ardyn lives in Israel and I'm East Sussex, and we didn't know each other's work before that first conversation. How did we begin to find our common place? I'm not sure I remember exactly, but my notes are scattered across the page ... 


        read the water

strong waves

                            fear of below

different person each time


coming home

what colour is feeling?



joy and chemistry

                        never entering same water twice

Some current had pulled our conversation to the water we share - my local, silty river Medway, and the Mediterranean where Ardyn swims daily before dawn. Since the beginning of this year I've been slowly travelling down the Medway towards the sea - swimming, walking, canoeing my way down the river I've known intimately since I was a baby, to a sea I barely know. That sea is connected to all sea, just as the land beneath my feet here, miles inland, flows into the river and on to the sea. This time of year - mid-December - I can clearly hear the water in the soil trickling into the tiny tributaries that gather over the fields and carry this morning's rain all the way to Israel, maybe, if it doesn't get distracted.

Water is slow, even when it moves fast - the rivers are filling and moving quickly after a week of rain here, but on every bend, there's an eddy, a nook where water pauses. Early sun lifts mist from the fields, carrying the water back into the air. Air, earth, water, all one.

My route down the river has slowed right down. I'm getting stronger and can walk a handful of miles now, but the world outside is closed again - I've almost reached Rochester, but it's out of bounds. So, like the water beneath my feet, I'm trickling slowly, wandering almost at random in the fields, up the hills and down the valleys where the streams gather.

But just look at the painting that Ardyn made, Sea Swim. Isn't it utterly gorgeous? It has all the emotion and sensation of the moment swimmer and sea come together. I love it.

And I have a poem, Flow, written after a summer of slow swimming in cool water on searingly hot days. My one constraint was that it must be 62 words exactly. It grew from rough notes made on a day after a walk along a tiny stream, thinking about tides, and from every swim I've ever slipped into:

A Common Place is at the Eames Fine Art Gallery until 24 December 2020.

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.