Sunday, 2 December 2012

Every superhero should wear chocolate (and glasses)


I'd just like to say that I'm incredibly honoured that Sarah Salway asked me to appear in her Kent Writers Series.

You can read my answers here and - more excitingly - see her fabulous find (how does she do it?) of a catwalk show where every model is a superhero ... wearing chocolate.

Awesome in every way.

And if you'd like to be inspired by Sarah, have a look at her Etsy shop where she's selling beautiful and extremely tempting packs for writers and readers.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Short stories at Totleigh Barton

For weeks, months, in fact, I've been positively jumping about inside with excitement about going on my first Arvon course. I'd signed up for:

six whole days dedicated to nothing but short fiction. 
Adam Marek and Tania Hershman as tutors - how awesome can you get? 
and no email, no mobile signal (and no family or work) so for the first time ever I could think about - and do - nothing but write.

How could I resist? Actually, I've been resisting for years - though it's my idea of heaven, going on an Arvon course felt wantonly extravagant. And yes, it was extravagant, but wanton, no.

It was heaven, but the kind of heaven where people drink lots of wine and get all passionate about adjectives. Where they plead for more of Tania's word cricket sadism - writing on the spot, using random words lobbed down the dining room table at one minute intervals. Where the thought of being flooded in and unable to leave a house with no connection to the outside world, only libraries, sounded like heaven to pretty much everyone.

It did rain an awful lot.

But the sun shone too, and Helen Dunmore made it through the floods for a wonderful night of readings and conversation.

And I learnt that even amazing writers can produce first drafts with some pretty dodgy prose in them (thank you Adam for being so generous - we all really appreciated it!). I learnt that I can and probably should expect to rewrite that first draft far more radically than I ever have before. I learnt that it's fine to take your time - lots of writers produce only a few stories a year that they like. I learnt that I really enjoy writing flash fiction.

I learnt loads more too (including how to make a rather delicious Thai green curry) but above all I reminded myself that I write because I love writing.

Monday, 5 November 2012

I think it's time for a gingerbread latte

I've written a couple of new stories, but I'm keeping them to myself ... they need time to settle, and I haven't had a moment for quiet contemplation.

Work has been truly hectic over the last few weeks, with lots of late-night sessions at my desk to hit deadlines. I'm feeling a bit tired, perhaps because I've also done two readings, attended one launch, spent a day at Small Wonder (short story heaven with cows), another at The 26's Wordfest (where I signed up to write the London Marathon), seen some great (and some less great) exhibitions, gathered the last vegetables and stacked logs for the winter, caught a couple of very different but inspiring plays, got to know Florence the kitten.

I've also cooked lots of dinners and made coffee for lots of builders, and we emptied our loft. Finally, last night we saw Skyfall - just what I needed.

Today, I'm celebrating: my first fiction royalty cheque came in the post (for the splendid amount of £29.27), and I've just sent off a magazine feature so I have a whole afternoon off before tomorrow's project comes in. What am I going to do? I think I'll head into town and treat myself to a gingerbread latte.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Still: Roelof Bakker inspires 26 writers

I'm looking at my own copy of Still as I write this - it arrived a week ago, and I've been saving it. It's a treat for a rainy day, which today surely is.

On the cover, it simply says 'edited by Roelof Bakker', but that only tells part of the story. Roelof took a wonderful sequence of photos of Hornsey Town Hall. It had been abandoned and he saw the beauty and poignancy of its empty spaces. He made an exhibition of his pictures. And then, because someone - Andrew Blackman, I think - said that there were stories in them there pictures. he commissioned 26 of us to write them. And then he set up his own press and published the book, complete with gorgeous photos. What a man!

I'm off to the launch on Wednedsay, at Foyles, and I shall be saying a huge thank you to Roelof for including me in his project - it has been a true privilege.

Roelof interviewed me about my story, by the way, so you can see the interview and the photo I chose over on the Negative Press blog.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Harold Mockford - light and dark

Yesterday I gave myself a treat and drove down to the Towner gallery in Eastbourne to see its retrospective of Harold Mockford. To be honest, from the reproduction of his picture in their leaflet, I wouldn't have bothered - and the image above doesn't do him justice either. Luckily for me, a friend told me I had to go and see for myself. Thank you Colin!

Anyway, the picture above is Mockford's When the Lights Come on, and it's wonderful. He's captured completely that feeling of an English winter, of being outside when most other people are already home, turning on their lights, making cups of tea, of looking in and wondering.

Most of the pictures I saw yesterday were painted in Eastbourne and Newhaven and on the South Downs, but they're far from provincial even though their subject is so localised. They're about a particular place, yes, but they're also about place - the energy, solidity and secrets of any where.

Mockford often paints scenes at dusk, so many of his pictures have large areas of shade, or almost complete dark - but they also shine with light. His Newhaven ferries, lamps at level crossings, moonlight on the Long Man at Wilmington pulse with energy in the darkness.

In some of his pictures, he focuses for us and paints in detail only the core of the picture, and leaves its surroundings dark, or roughly painted. The effect is discomfiting - there's something going on here that we don't understand. It's as though suddenly we have tunnel vision and stuff's going on outside our field of vision that he's not letting us see. Even where he paints the whole picture, we know there's more to it than meets the eye - these are landscapes and streets with blood running through their veins. They're vivid, alive.

I wondered as I looked what makes Mockford's pictures so powerful when landscape paintings can be so emotionally flat in less able hands. And I concluded that it's not so much technique - though that's there in spades - but gut feeling. This isn't a man who took a photo of some shapely hill, or unusual park gate, and painted it back in his studio. Mockford paints from memory because these landscapes and streets are part of him. It's like he's painting himself. What's impressive is that he can reveal it to us.

Finally, as a tribute to Mockton, I took a photo as I left the Towner. I love the way he includes arrows on the road in several of his paintings, always pointing away from the picture's apparent focus, sending us off sideways, towards something outside the painting. I hope he'd smile at this one.

Monday, 10 September 2012

I'm not much of a swan but I like swimming

On Thursday my friend Steffi Pusch's exhibition of photos opens at the Ashdown gallery in Forest Row. This isn't one of her photos - it's snap of me swimming in the Medway on a roasting hot day a couple of weeks ago.

Swimming in the river is one of my most favourite treats. We cycled up over Speldhurst and Bidborough - sharp hills both - and down to Leigh where we threw our bikes down and jumped in. It was contagious - some passing walkers flung their clothes off too and dived in to join us.

Anyway, that's a diversion. Steffi's photos of the river are beautiful . I'm really glad she's showing the sequence she took for our Old Stile Press book, The Swimmer and to help her celebrate her opening, I'll be reading from the story on Thursday night.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Instant gratification

Ooh, it's good to be appreciated!

Sending marrows out into the world is so much easier than sending stories: boy do I hate the standard literary editor's statement 'we aim to reply within three months'.

I quite understand, oh beloved publishers whom I hope are reading my stories (five out there right now, and they're good, they're good!). I know you're overworked and un(der)paid.

But frankly even live lit is easier than the wait. And giving marrows away wins hands down for that easy immediate glow.

Thank you!

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The marrow of a story

Last week was hectic: the usual work stuff, preparations, briefings and meetings with new clients, an hour-and-a-half trip across country to see Hamlet, a last minute rethink and rewrite of the end of story about to go to press, a whole day on LV21 telling stories - and dinner with all our neighbours. It was great, and threatened to be just a bit too frantic.

Luckily for me, I topped and tailed the week with a day in the garden. For me that means the veg plot - it's my bit of the garden, and it's where I go for a dose of sanity and silence.

At this time of the year it's burgeoning. What a splendid word - fat and luscious with juice. And that's exactly what my courgette patch was full of - not courgettes, but burgeoning marrows which had escaped my attentions during a week of work.

So last weekend I put out a pile of ten marrows by the front path with a notice asking people to take them. All were gone by the next day.

Yesterday another ten had grown, so I took four and turned them into soup for the freezer, and put six out on the front path. This morning they'd all gone.

It makes me strangely happy to share my produce invisibly like this - to send something I helped to create out into the world - and though it may seem a stretch, it's a similar feeling to the one I felt when telling my story on LV21.

It was dark, so I couldn't see my audience, and they were silent except when one by one they came forward to drop a pebble in my metal bucket, to tell me to start reading the next section of the story. Even as I was standing there in the chain locker with my story in my hand, I knew that it wasn't my story alone any more - it was the audience's too.

When you publish a story, it leaves you. If someone picks it up and reads it, it's theirs, it's in their head and even as its writer you don't have any control over what it's doing in there.

I knew this, but being in the same space, in darkness, listening to my readers absorbing the story, was something very special. I could almost hear it moving through the air between us.

And the same went for the other ReAuthorers - Sonia Overall, Sarah Salway, Kay Syrad and Will Sutton (who took the photo above - thank you Will) - their stories flowed through the pipes and spaces of LV21 and created something really amazing. What a day.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Pebble story

In a minute I'm going to put a metal bucket, nine pebbles and nine small sheets of paper in the boot of my car, and then I'll drive to Gillingham.

I'm heading for LV21where I'm going to tell a story in the chain locker.

If anyone turns up to hear it, they'll be given a pebble (there are pebbles in the story, so it does make sense, sort of) - if they want to hear a part of the story, they put their pebble in the bucket. If they don't, they walk away.

I'll report back on whether this does engage my audience in the process of telling a story, or whether they walk out in disgust!

Oh, and this is another lovely ReAuthoring project, so there will be lots of other writers on LV21 today doing surprising things with words.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Confession: I'm a control freak

It's been quite a week, with two very different highlights.

This was me on Wednesday telling my new ghost story at the Whitstable Oyster festival ...

...and this was the GB cycling team leading the peloton yesterday on Box Hill (blurriness due to me taking the picture on my phone while cheering wildly).

Neither quite went as planned. I think my story went down well - it felt good as I read it - but it proved incredibly difficult to engage listeners who were just passing by. I'd spent hours on the story itself, and almost as many making posters and leaflets to hand out to attract an audience. But on the day, posters and leaflets weren't what was needed - I did have delightful listeners, but it was Facebook and friendship which brought them along (and the sterling work of the ReAuthoring team who brought me to Whitstable and looked after me there).

The one exception was a man who came in to the pub for a drink and (foolishly?) sat at the table next to mine - so I simply went up and asked if he'd like me to tell a story. Not at all what I'd planned, but it worked - he looked really thrilled at the end, and we had a great conversation about why stories and poems mattered to him.

Leap forward to yesterday. The GB cycling team had a plan - they'd deliver Mark Cavendish to the finish and he'd sprint over the line, just as he did in the Tour. Only it didn't work out - a load of other cyclists took the initiative and vanished into the distance, leaving the perfectly planned GB team out of the action.

We cheered anyway, and hoped till the last minute that they'd pull it off - but in the end, it was the guts and risk-taking of Vinokourov that won out and took the gold medal.

I'm off to LV21 in a few weeks to tell another story, and I'm determined this time not to plan it all to the last detail - I'll leave some ends untied, maybe, see what happens on the day. This time I'll be confident that my story will thrive no matter what the audience does. What's the worst that can happen, after all?

Monday, 23 July 2012

Writing displacement activity #99

This is a wobbly photo of my homemade (can you tell?) poster for Wednesday's storytelling.

It's not as wonky in real life (the edges curled up and made it look lopsided when I took the photo) and the colours are much much lovelier, I hope. Indeed, if I squint and turn the lights off I can almost persuade myself it has a touch of sub sub sub Rothko about it.

That's an accident - it's actually supposed to be a picture of something in the story.

The poster's to take the place of costume, trumpets, props and general loud announcements that if you step into the Duke of Cumberland between 3 and 7pm, I'll tell you a ghost story.

Both poster and story are low key, but rather scary, I hope.

I practised telling the story today as I cycled into town, gathering some strange looks from the waiters smoking outside the High Rocks inn, and the old lady on the path by the fair ground. Sorry guys - hope I didn't give you nightmares.

Monday, 16 July 2012

I'm telling stories live this summer

If you're anywhere near Whitstable, Gillingham or Forest Row this summer, you can come and hear me telling stories. I've put links up on my new 'Where you can see me' page over there on the right.

Next week I'm telling a kind of ghost story at the Oyster Festival. I've completely rethought it after ten days away on holiday - same story, new way of telling it. I tried out my original on my family as we sat over drinks. Reading to them made me realise that I'd written something that works on the page, but was really slow as a live story.

So I'm going to be brave. I'll let go of the comfort of reading and tell the story as I would if I met you in the pub. Which is, after all, what I'm doing.

See you in the Duke of Cumberland

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The ghost of a story

Where do stories come from? It's something people often ask writers, and mostly our answer is that we don't know - which is probably rather frustrating to the questioner.

I've been writing a ghost story over the last couple of weeks. I used to be terribly afraid of ghosts when I was a child, and though I would read any book, every book, I learnt to avoid ghost stories. I still do - even the thought of re-reading The Turn of the Screw makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.

I'm not sure, then, why I wanted to write one. But I think it simply seemed the best way to tell the story which had been preoccupying me. I've a life-long fascination with floods. My father was the river engineer when I was a child, and one of my earliest clear memories is of driving through the 1968 flood as it swept through Tonbridge. For years I lived near rivers, and being cut off by floodwater was part of the rhythm of my life. But I always lived above the river, up hill, beyond the hundred year flood line. I've never been flooded or in danger. (Though I have been cut off, and the Medway did swill around the rusty floor pan of my car most winters for years - it's most unpleasant when water swooshes from the rear footwell to the front and up your legs because you've driven through a flood, and the water hasn't had time to drain back out through the rust holes before you go down hill. Just saying.)

This new story is about the 1287 flood which wiped out much of the coastline of eastern England. It was caused by a storm surge - opposing winds drove down the North Sea from Scotland, and up from the Channel, pushing its shallow waters before them. The water had nowhere to go but the low-lying land of East Anglia and north Kent.

That flood moved the coastline inland. That's a dry statement for something so dramatic. There were people living on the land that vanished.

I wondered what happened to those people, and I couldn't find any mention of them. So I wrote a story. I don't know why I wanted to tell it, but it's been itching at me for ages and I'm glad it's out there on the page now.

I'll be reading my story at the Whitstable Oyster Festival on 25 July, more or less where it's set so if you're in the area, come along and say hello. I'm part of the ReAuthoring Project so we'll be a whole bunch of writers bringing you Whitstable-flavoured treats.

Oh, and if you look closely at the map above, you'll see a place where the sea and the estuary meet marked 'The Spit'. It's neither sea nor land, and is, I think, now only visible at the lowest tide. That 'I think' is crucial  - I'm not sure because I've only been to Whitstable once, and I don't know its sea or tides. The story I've told is fiction. I made it up.  (But here's a rather nice video by Henrietta Williams of people fishing on the Spit - it's a magical place, where I'm pretty sure there's a ghost or two when the light and the tides are right.)

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Running in the rain

Can you tell? This is a picture of a very happy woman.

I'm soaking wet after running through the woods in the pouring rain and I loved it so much that when I got home I stayed out in the garden - once you're wet, you're wet, after all, and it was delicious to feel the rain running down my scalp as I squelched across the grass.

What a luxury the rain is - I had the woods all to myself. Not even one hardy dog walker was out. Maybe I shouldn't say this in case you all rush to join me in my glorious sodden solitude, but it's beautiful out there - green and juicy, streams running in surprising places, the earth exhaling that special scent of tiny things growing...

... and setting off new ideas in my mind. I'm off now. A story came to me as I ran in the rain this morning, so I'm going to start writing it now.

Monday, 4 June 2012


Here's what remains to me of the jubilee - one slice of strawberry macaroon cake going soft in the fridge.

I imagine the Queen's kitchens are heaving with leftovers - what do they do with them? Or do the servants chew on cucumber sandwiches for weeks, until they're so dry only the swans will eat them?

I wonder if the Queen's ever wanted to blend in with the rest of us. Would she be freaked out to find herself in the park in my village, sitting on a blanket next to me and my neighbours, drinking Pimms, and watching the world go by with no one noticing her?

I wonder if I had more fun than she did?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Buttercups for all on the no 9 bus to Hammersmith

Here's a shaky experimental video from my iPod, taken early this morning in the field above Ashurst. Apologies for the quality - it's my first video. I've edited it, in as much as I've worked out how to cut the section where I peer into the lens wondering if it's filming, and I eventually figured out how to turn the picture the right way up too. That's quite enough for today.

My walk was a joy after a hot day in London yesterday, which was fun but didn't involve any buttercups - there was, however, lunch with my photographer friend Steffi as we watched the world go by outside Southwark cathedral, followed by a visit to the very strange Antiquarian Bookfair at Olympia. It's full of stunning ancient maps and books, smart suits and money. It also gives a corner to people who make beautiful books today, and we were there to see Frances from Old Stile Press - it was a real pleasure. I'm also deeply honoured to find that The Swimmer sits alongside poetry by Ted Hughes and Philip Gross.

Anyway, London was hellishly hot yesterday, especially the no 9 bus from Green Park to Kensington Olympia. For all those who have to travel on her daily, here are some buttercups.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Hand-written landscapes

Last weekend I went down to Hastings, to make some sound recordings of the sea

but when I got home I found that despite getting drenched in spray, all I managed to record was the wind blasting across the microphone - no trace of the crashing waves, gulls, or crunching feet on pebbles.

If I sit by the sea for long enough, its size begins to overwhelm me. At Hastings, the boats set to sea from the beach as there is no harbour, so when the sea's too much I look instead at the boats pulled up on the shingle. How can something this human, this fragile, survive in the waves?

I've been going down to Hastings since I was a small child, and it has found its way into my writing - both as the almost setting for my short story, The Flotsam Cafe - and as something more subtle. Perhaps it's become part of my character. Down on the Strade I'm reminded how close to the edge we live in Britain - of land, and familiarity, of safety.

I'm glad the British Library has decided to recognise literature and place in its new exhibition, Writing Britain. I spent a happy afternoon there this week, and it confirmed my strong feeling that place is central to our writing, from the Green Man and John Barleycorn through the vast body of writing inspired by industrial energy and wastelands and cities, to Ted Hughes' eel poem 'Catadrome' - new to me, and a joyful discovery. I was there for almost three hours and could have spent longer easily - though it was frustrating that the light had to be so low over many of the manuscripts, and that so many authors treasured paper so much that they wrote in minuscule script which I simply couldn't read.

And scripts abounded - right up to Graham Swift's handwritten Waterland, and McEwan's manuscript for On Chesil Beach. No typewriters or PCs for them - there were the words as they flowed from their hands, their inky hills and valleys mapped out on the page.

I write with a pen when I'm beginning a piece - but can't imagine writing a whole novel by hand. I'm too impatient once I get going. Maybe I should experiment with resisting my impatience, writing at my hand's speed?

Monday, 23 April 2012

The Swimmer - The Old Stile Press

Almost two years ago I wrote my first short story.

I'd begun plenty of stories before, but when the going got tough, I'd always abandoned them - I was unable to close my editorial eye long enough to finish an imperfect beginning. And of course most beginnings are imperfect. They need work, revision - but only once you've reached the end.

This was the first one I'd seen all the way through to its conclusion, and it was a  scary process. I had to force myself keep going, to refuse to let myself put it aside and start another.

So when I finished I was ecstatic - but I'd no idea if the story was any good. I was far too close to it and the process of writing it.

I showed it to Susan Wicks, who's almost entirely responsible for me coming to believe that I can write fiction. She read it and suggested strongly (that's about as strong as Sue gets) that I send it out. So I did, and it was rejected. She suggested I try again, and Michael Hulse at The Warwick Review published it, in the December 2010 issue. I was overwhelmed - I'd been a jobbing writer for years, but writing fiction was something else. It matters too much to get wrong, but Michael's approval meant I could turn away from my decades of self-imposed fictional  silence.

'The Swimmer', that first story, is about a woman addressing her fear of going down to the river that she watches every day, of stripping off and slipping into the water.

It's not about me - though me and the river in the story have a long history - but maybe me and the woman were in some way addressing our fears together.

I couldn't have predicted what happened next - Nicholas Royle at Salt chose 'The Swimmer' for The Best British Short Stories 2011, where it sat alongside writing gods like David Rose, Hilary Mantel and Michele Roberts.

I almost froze at this point - could I ever write another story people liked as much? But I got writing again, and more of my stories were published.

I told my friend Steffi Pusch about 'The Swimmer' - she's a photographer who takes fabulously instinctive pictures - and we wondered if we could make a book together, blending my words and her pictures. I showed Steffi the place on the Medway where I'd set the story, and she spent sunny days down there creating images that capture perfectly the heat and intensity of the story.

We started to look for a printer - we both love letterpress - and each came across The Old Stile Press, who make utterly beautiful hand printed books. I didn't think they'd be interested, because they're publishers rather than printers, but Steffi was optimistic and wrote to Nicolas and Frances McDowell, describing our joint work.

To our amazement they wanted to publish our book, and last week they received the first bound copy - that's their photo of it at the top of this entry. Doesn't it look gorgeous? I haven't received mine yet, but I couldn't wait to celebrate its publication here.

Nicolas and Frances have written a lovely blog entry about the book at The Old Stile Press Blog with more pictures, showing off Steffi's photos and the fabulous typography.

Thank you Steffi, Nicolas and Frances - and Michael and Nicholas - for backing my first short story!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Finding time to write

I skimmed a piece about The Golden Notebook in the Guardian Review over breakfast this morning - I've never finished the GN, despite being told by many people I should, so I was quite glad to see that Diana Athill at least also found it hard going.

Anyway, the bit that made me grit my teeth was where yet again I read that there's no excuse not to write - in particular that children aren't an excuse. How many times have I felt admonished by other writers to stop making excuses and get down to writing?

You have children? Pah! Ignore them!Write at midnight! Find a partner who'll look after them!

You have a job? Write at 5am before you leave!Or give up work and starve - but you'll be able to write all day!

One of the benefits of being a bit older is that I don't feel I have to listen to this rubbish.When I read profiles of writers who gave everything up - or who forced their families to give everything up - so that they could do nothing but write, I'm not envious.

I like being part of a family. I also like my work , and it pays the bills.

The problem is that I also love to write - it's what wakes me in the middle of the night, it's what has me talking to myself as I walk the fields, telling and re-telling stories and finding the words, it's what makes me impatient for everyone to leave the house on a writing day so that I can have space and silence. Writing defines me.

So how to find time to write? Midnight's out - years of ME taught me it's not sustainable. Instead I award myself writing days - I block them out in my work and family calendars and guard them jealously. Of course I write at other times too - a couple of hours one morning if work's not urgent, an hour after dinner if I really want to finish something. But I hate the bittiness of that.

Writing days are where all the steam I've built up through a week or two of not writing - or at least of not writing stories, as I'll have been writing copy and features - it's where all of it comes out. And though no one could call my writing domestic, the time I spend with my family and my friends feeds into my writing. I'm hearing rhythms, seeing strange juxtapositions, wondering why, or what if. And after many years of forgetting it, nowadays I do always carry a notebook and everything goes in there.

It works well for me, although I have had to learn to be patient. I've discovered that when I've finished a story, even if it's short, only a couple of thousand words, I need a break. Even if I had another week free, and a brilliant idea for the next story, I couldn't start it straight away - I need the old story to seep out of my mind, and the new one to sidle in slowly, while I explore its possibilities.

I did try earlier this year to be more productive - after all, in my professional life I often have to produce copy day after day for different clients, in various voices, telling a new story each time. So surely I can do the same with my short stories?

Well no, I can't. I can churn short stories out, and they're not bad, but they're not good enough.

So I'm going to stick to my pressure cooker style of writing - and while the pressure builds up, I'm going to spend some time with my family. Sod Doris Lessing.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, Alice Oswald

I've been reading Alice Oswald's The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile for a few months now - it's so richly written that I put it down for weeks between each poem.

Last night I sat up till midnight to finish it, going to sea with 'The Three Wise Men of Gotham Who Set Out to Catch the Moon in a Net', the surprising narrative poem which rounds off the collection.

Surprising, because narrative isn't what drives most of the poems here - though people move (or lie awake) through many of them, the poems are observations, close watchings: of a wood coming to life in spring, the moon's light on the sea, a neighbour on the other side of a party wall.

I bought the collection because I opened it in a bookshop and loved the first two lines of the first poem, 'Pruning in Frost':

Last night, without a sound,
a ghost of a world lay down on a world,

The final poem has a wonderful opening too, returning to the motif of moonlight on the sea, but this time blending the prosaic (signalling the story to come) and the poetic:

It was a monday night. The moon was up
and throwing golden elvers on the water.

This final poem swept me up in its rhythms - Oswald creates a strange, magical world, never whimsical, completely rooted in the physical sensation of being at sea at night, and transports us utterly.

Not every poem in the collection worked for me, but it's been a joyful experience to discover Oswald. I'll be back for more.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Last weekend I took part in something it's hard to put a name to. I heard someone call it a 'creative retreat', and it was that - we retreated, and we created. But it was much more too.

None of us knew what to expect from the  ReAuthoring weekend, and I'm still slightly bemused, to be honest. I had a great time, played some amazing games of keepy-uppy,  emoted with a chair, learned to take applause without doing that half smile that says 'I know this isn't what English people do, I'm as embarrassed as you are' and created three short performances based on one of my short stories. Boy was that difficult.

I've no idea what they were like to watch - the first was fairly excruciating to perform, the last quite fun. I think they conveyed something of the story they were based on - but who knows? I'm building up courage to ask to see the videos.

Performing a version of my work may not change what I write, but it will, I'm sure, make me more aware of who's reading it - or watching it - and what each word might convey to them.

And I'm definitely more comfortable with the idea of standing up in front of people and giving my work to them. It's OK. I'll never be an actor, but I can learn from performers. Breathe. Be present in yourself. Sounds like hokum,  but it works.

If I'm brave enough, and the videos don't make me despair, I'll pull apart another of my stories and create a new performance because the ReAuthoring team is busy setting up opportunities for people to come and see our work. It's scary and exciting, and the only way I can imagine doing it is alongside the other five writers who clowned, shared generously, and took my breath away with their work.

Thanks, ReAuthoring!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Homesharers in The Guardian

I don't usually write about my paid/professional/non-fiction work here, but today I'm making an exception because if you click here:

you'll see a piece by me and lovely photographer Mike Pinches in The Guardian's Saturday magazine.

This is triply exciting, because ...

... it just is, if you're a freelance writer

... the piece was terribly hard to pull together (though I hope it doesn't show)

... we thoroughly enjoyed meeting our interviewees and it's a real pleasure to see them and their stories here on the page.

Homesharing's a brilliant, simple idea. An organisation - it could be an local Age UK, a council, a church, or a social enterprise - brings together a person with a spare room who needs a little light support at home, with another person who can offer that support and who needs somewhere affordable to live. Each pays a small monthly fee - far lower than they would pay to a care agency or in rent. The homesharer commits to providing around ten hours' support a week, which they can fit around work or study. The householder has someone to help with daily life, and who sleeps in the house at night. The organisation provides support and security in return for the fees.

So far, so sensible. But what makes homesharing so interesting is the relationships that develop between householders and homesharers, and these are at the core of what makes a successful homeshare so powerful.

It's also what drew us to meet homesharers - though the nuts and bolts matter, it was the relationships which fascinated us. They ranged from courteous and slightly formal, to intimate and full of deep affection, and while matches which work well are the holy grail of homesharing, it became clear that common values and respect go a long way to making for a happy household.

We began work on our homesharing piece last March, when we met Mrs Haar and Joanna. As soon as we met them we knew this would be a great subject - their relationship was complex, and based on an instinctive understanding of hidden boundaries, and we wanted to meet more people in similar situations.

The Guardian liked our pitch and asked for five more interviews. We did another in London, with Marjory and Heather - two people who were a joy to spend a day with - and then hit the buffers. We'd begun the piece at exactly the wrong time. These aren't easy programmes to run because they always involve taking time to get to know the people involved. And time costs money. Government cuts and the pressures on anyone involved in the voluntary sector meant that homeshare schemes were closing faster than we could meet the homesharers they'd brought together.

The schemes in Oxford and West Sussex folded one after the other. Somerset was making no new matches, and nor was Bristol. East Sussex, bucking the trend, was setting up a new scheme, but were clearly uneasy about letting me talk to their new homesharers. Then Age UK Carlisle and Eden put its hand up - it was underway too with a new scheme, and had a match who'd love to talk to us. Off we went to Penrith in the September heatwave to meet Maureen, Ken and Viktorija.

They were great interviewees, but that was it. No more schemes. We could have found more people in London, thanks to the enormously helpful people at Share and Care (who support Marjory and Heather), and Crossroads Care Central and North London (through whom we met Mrs Haar and Joanna), but The Guardian wanted a spread of people across the UK, and there just weren't any more homeshare schemes.

We did think about going to Paris, which has a hugely successful scheme called Ensemble2Generations but The Guardian wasn't keen. It began to look as though we'd have to abandon our piece, despite the great pictures Mike had taken, and the screeds of interview transcriptions in my pc.

At this point, all I can say is what a splendid scheme CSV is. Not only because their volunteers do amazing work throughout the UK, living in with people with considerable need for support and care (unlike the homesharers, volunteers may provide personal care and usually work around 35 hours), but also because CSV really pulled out all the stops to set us up with three more interviews. Thanks to them we set off for Dunfermline, Milton Keynes and Birmingham in quick succession, and met some amazing people living difficult but full lives with the help of their volunteers, and often discovering lasting friendships along the way.

So hurrah for all the people we met, and all the people who helped us to meet them!

Age UK Carlisle and Eden
Crossroads Care Central and North London
Share and Care
Homeshare International - the umbrella body for homeshare schemes worldwide, with a database of UK schemes
Shared Lives Plus - the UK umbrella body for homeshare and other similar schemes

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Where I read

At the weekend someone asked me when I read short stories - they felt that a short story wasn't satisfying enough when they sat down in an armchair and pulled out a book, so they never read them. I thought about it and here's my answer:

I leave books of short stories and poetry around, so that if I have an urge, or ten minutes spare, I can pick one up and read. I can then carry the poem or story with me in my head.

This seems to me to be the best way of reading such intense and juicy things as poems and short stories. I need space in my head after reading one so that it can soak in, and so that I can think about it. It takes a truly stunning story or poem to stay fresh in my mind if I read another one straight after it.

So here's where I read:

in bed

in the kitchen
on the blue sofa

on my way out of the living room

in my office, when I should be working

no comment

in the living room (this is The Pile of books waiting to be read)

 back in my office

and there's always a book in my bag, just in case there's a nice little gap when I'm out.