Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Retreating to Brisons Veor

Last week I turned away from my world for seven days. For the first time in my life, I took myself from family, home and work purely with the aim of writing. I was allowed to stay at Brisons Veor, a house perched on the very tip of Cape Cornwall, where writers and artists can spend time alone or in small groups. I went alone, and it was wonderful.

It was strange, too. Thirty years ago I lived alone for one year in France and since then I've always lived with other people. At Brisons Veor in December there is no one else around after dark: the coast watchers from the lookout post drove away at 4.00 pm, and the sun set at 4.30, and all I could see from my windows was the red light flashing off Land's End. All I could hear was the waves below, rushing up the rocks and into the cove.

It felt very empty.

But after a few days, it felt right. Each day I walked on the cliffs, I thought, I ate cake, and I let the ideas which have been piling up in the corners of my mind for years come together.

I've wanted to write a long story for a long time. I've had plot, characters, situation and setting jigging about in my mind, all disconnected and jumping out of reach in the short moments I've had to try and pull them towards me.

This week they came together. It will take me months or maybe years to write them into being, but I've started, and I'm very happy.

Thank you Brisons Veor. I hope I'll be back.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

On Harrison Stickle I lifted up mine eyes

A couple of weeks ago, we sat on Harrison Stickle and looked out across the Langdale valley towards the south. Beyond the fells of the Lake District we could see a glimmer of sea at Morecambe. It was my birthday, my fiftieth birthday, and it was the right place to be.

I've been climbing the Langdale Pikes since I was a teenager with my parents and brother. I returned with university friends the week after our finals.  My husband and I have climbed them many times, before and after we were married, and then we brought our children.

So here we were again, sitting in a gap in the clouds, without children for the first time in 20 years, eating egg sandwiches, and feeling the wind on our backs, full of rain that would, wonderfully, twist past us and on to the heights of Bow Fell, leaving us in warm October sunshine.

Nothing has changed, though of course much has changed. The same something pulls me back to the fells time and again, and I'm not sure what it is. The getting up a hill is all sweat and aching muscles. There's no way round it. Why do I keep on climbing?

A few years ago we went pony-trekking in the Welsh borders. Just over the road from the stables was a chapel, and inside we found a beautiful window through which we could see a green hillside, and inscribed on it words from Psalm 121: I shall lift up mine eyes to the hills whence cometh my salvation. We had stumbled upon Capel-y-Ffin, where Eric Gill had lived and worked, and on his celebration of the power of the hills to restore.

Gill and God had a complicated relationship, and God and I don't have one, but I know what he meant.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Small Wonder 2013

If you've never been to Small Wonder, the annual short story festival at Charleston in Sussex, here are some tips:

Save up. You'll definitely want to buy at least one book. Where else are there hundreds of amazing short story collections waiting just for you?

Wear woolly socks. The barn is charming, atmospheric, and chilly once the sun drops below the South Downs.

Expect to lie awake when you get home. Your mind will buzz with the stories you've heard, and the ideas that have leapt into your notebook.

Remember your notebook.

In mine, I've written lots of things that I'll keep to myself for now, but also: Alison Moore says that home is often a dangerous place, and that her short stories are about 'little fractures'. Brian Kimberling - who's lived in all sorts of places and is about to head home to Indiana - says that people who don't have mixed feelings about home aren't paying much attention. Deborah Levy says that there are lots of missing pages in the stories we tell about ourselves and they're probably the most interesting. She likes to read Freud and Agatha Christie, especially the stories where the clues are clunky.

The picture, by the way, is from one of the incredibly comfortable Small Wonder sofas. My Mum's next to me, and it's thanks to her and my Dad that I've been going to the festival for years, as they cleverly spotted that it's my perfect birthday present. Thank you!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

On the road

Clients often ask me to visit the people and places I'm writing about, and I love getting to know my subjects face to face, but the travelling has some downsides - in the last few weeks I've drunk a lot of tea in paper cups, left hotels at dawn far too often, and watched numbly as landscapes flash past train windows.

There are new story ideas sizzling gently, but no time to write them, nor this blog. I'll be back!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Lounge on the Farm 2013: telling stories (no tassles yet)

Will Sutton, Chris Tinniswood and I just told stories at Lounge on the Farm, a music festival near Canterbury, Kent.

Somewhat to the surprise of the people in the Peaceful Progress tent, we not only read stories - what was much more fun, we wrote new ones while they watched, using words they'd just given us.

We hoped to show our audience that you can write anywhere, you don't have to wait for the muse (who is she?), and anything can inspire you. And it worked - not only did they give us loads of words, but they clamoured for us to write them stories, and some even stayed behind to write their own.

It was far less terrifying to write in front of an audience than I at least imagined, mostly because we explained that one of the best things about being a writer is giving yourself permission to take risks, and not worrying that the words appearing on the page might be rubbish. Just seeing what happens with an idea or a word is all part of the process.

When we'd finished, we had a great weekend listening to the bands, and boggling at the Boom and Bang Circus. Will says they've given him some ideas for our next outing. I'm just hoping he's not thinking about their flaming nipple tassles!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

It was this big! at Lounge on the Farm 2013

It's almost time for Lounge on the Farm - my third visit, but first as a performer - and I'm staving off my terror at agreeing to write flash fiction live in front of an audience, using words they've just given us, by making a poster. Very primary school. Very soothing.

I'm working at Lounge with two friendsfrom the ReAuthoring Project, Will Sutton and Chris Tinniswood. Will's first novel - a Victorian detective extravangaza - launches next week, and I hope he'll be telling our Lounge audience a new story featuring his splendid lead character Lawless. Chris's Nostradormouse has gone international, but is keeping quiet for Lounge, as Chris is revealing a very different kind of story on Saturday.

I'll be telling two stories - one incredibly short, and one rather longer, and that's all I'm going to say for now.

And finally, Will's written us a song - he sent us over a sound file this morning, and I rather suspect I'm supposed to be practising.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Bus stop graffiti

I caught the bus into town and because I hate to miss it (there's only one an hour) I got to the stop ten minutes early and I had lots of time to admire the graffiti.

The first graffito, just above the bench, was the kind of thing you might expect:

But then someone felt all pastoral on the side wall:

And someone else got all philosophical opposite:

For some reason no one makes graffiti on the outside of the bus shelter, but its surface is completely covered in staples:

They're left over from years of posters advertising plays, sports, music and campaigns, and I'm sure that the poster stickers don't see themselves as graffiti artists ...

Friday, 17 May 2013

My Unclear English Prize 2013: a basic holistic of chunky granularity

When it comes to disentangling jargon, Google is our friend, but even Google struggles with chunky granules:

I don't think I did. So here's Google's next best offer: a piece of Chunky bar, to give you strength for what's to follow. 
Take a deep breath before you read the paragraphs below. They're from a real email, sent yesterday to someone I know. If they make you feel ill, remember the poor sods to whom they were sent - they had to make sense of them and find some way of replying. They weren't allowed to shout, scream or in any way abuse the sender. All I've changed is the names. In case you're wondering, this isn't technical language that made sense to the recipients, it's gibberish. 

On chunky : the principle is not compromised at all, it is the principle of chunky not the principle of “giganagarous”  (very very very large)…  the trick is to be chunky at the right level of granularity for re-use/multi usage, business need and future proofing (chunks at the object level not at the entire data set size)…  it is not about breaking the architecture with giant messages for the sake of it.  In short, we simply need to make sure that the chunks are the right sized chunks… 

D;  please review B’s mail and give me your view of the right way forward and how the data team can support the project to strategic and right sized immediate success. 

B, review with the data and integration team the chunk sizes and ideally we can define a basic holistic of chunky granularity or similar guideline to help people get the granularity right going forward. / or simply the data team can propose the chunks to SIG…
Is this the first time 'holistic' has been used as a noun? A small point amongst such horrors, but it's surely a development that's worth noting and fighting vigorously.

It's stuff like this that makes the job of a writer feel like a noble calling.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

In which I lose my appendix and find a flurry of flowers (and a chilli)

OK, so this isn't my appendix - when I came round from the anaesthetic a couple of weeks ago and the surgeon thrust a photo in my face of what they'd just chopped out of me, I wasn't entirely with it. All I remember is  something blurry and alarmingly multi-coloured. Various people have expressed their disappointment that I didn't ask to keep the offending gangrenous organ in a jar. I'm sorry. I hope this half-mouldy chilli from the bottom of our fridge is an appropriate substitute.

Since my surprise visit to hospital, I've been convalescing. What a splendid word. For the first time I can remember, I've lain in bed or on the sofa doing absolutely nothing. I didn't really have thoughts either, just vague observations - it's raining again, there's the starling in the roof above my head, I wonder what's for dinner. And once a day I'd walk slowly round the garden, stopping every few steps to gaze at the unfurling leaves on the dog rose, the frog spawn wiggling and then hatching, the blue tit starting its nest in the tree by the kitchen. Then I'd head back to the sofa.

I'm recovering now, and yesterday I went for my first proper walk. I  headed out along Burrswood drive and here's what I found along its verge - spring flowers exploding into action, all at once, an awesome display of what's been waiting all these weeks. They're not great photos - I took them on my phone - but I just had to record finding sixteen different flowers in a few hundred yards.


If you're wondering what they all are, here's a list, reading from left to right, top to bottom: wood anemone, cuckoo flower, daisy, violet, daffodil, dandelion, dead nettle, wild strawberry, ground ivy, fritillaries, cuckoo flower again, hawthorn, stitchwort, bluebell, lesser celandine, marsh orchid, primrose, and one final shot of fritillaries, dandelions and violets.

I think I rather fancy being a Victorian lady who reclines on a sofa and sketches wild flowers all day. It won't last, but I'm making the most of this strange and luxurious disconnection from my everyday life.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Writing the London Marathon

26 Miles London Marathon 2013 route

I’ve never run a marathon, but I’ve written one and my piece about the finish line of the London Marathon went live at 26 Miles today.

As the crow flies, Greenwich to The Mall is only a few miles. Back in the 17th century Pepys used to walk it often to do deals in the royal shipyards (and stash a little more cash in his personal coffers). On Sunday, though, thousands of runners will take an all-round-the-houses-pubs-docks-and-offices 26 miles and 385 yards to get from A to B.

Rather them than me. I had way more fun writing the marathon than I would have running it.

As part of the 26 Miles project I’m the last of 27 writers who’ve each examined a mile of the route and, with a collaborator, created something about what they found – a poem, a story, a film, a documentary.

I worked with photographer Mark Cocksedge. We wanted our piece to reflect the constant flow of people, like blood through veins, through and around St James’s Park. Why were they there, in a place with no homes, offices, shops or warehouses? When we didn’t get permission to take photos in the park (though thousands of tourists were snapping away around us), nor to interview people, we knew what we had to do.

Mark created a really great slide show - it's at the end of my piece - so we hope you'll take a look and celebrate the  people we met and the strange place they were passing through.

If you'd like a bit of background history, here's a neat potted version by a London cabbie, and a longer one from British History Online. Poor old lepers, thrown out to make room for Henry VIII’s deer.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

New shoes, new story


That's me, walking in my new shoes. Exciting, isn't it?

I have to admit that I am excited, because these shoes stand for the start of a new project.

Like pretty much every writer I know, I walk when I write. It's where I think, try out new words and rhythms, and let ideas float about. Walking is essential to writing for me. I don't know if it's the regular pace, the doing of something only slightly distracting, the being away from my desk, but it works every time.

I'm about to start a really big piece of writing, one which I've been thinking about for years. There's going to be a lot of walking involved, so my news shoes are my biggest investment in this story.

I'm not going to say more about it, so instead, here's a link to a beautiful poem, Walking Around, by Pablo Neruda.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

We're all northerners

Here's a 15th century world map, from the Nicolaus Germanus Codex, which is based on Ptolemy's second century maps. It only shows the northern hemisphere, but the UK's still perched right up at the top. We look as though we're about to fall off the edge of Europe into a blue emptiness.

From most British people's point of view I'm a southerner. But I lived in France and Spain and that taught me that all of us here on the isles of Britain live a northern life. Anywhere further south and the light's all wrong, especially in the winter. Ptolemy calculated latitude according to hours of daylight, so he saw the world according to light too.

Winter's been hanging on this year, and it's beautiful still. Even on a grey day there are surprises.
And at the end of a sunny day you're almost guaranteed something special, when the light's the lowest  and reveals hidden shapes and textures.

 I may be alone in this, but even after months of wet and cold I still love the winter.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Natural history

Yesterday I dropped in to Tunbridge Wells because I wanted to sketch a Painted Lady butterfly. There aren't any out and about in March, but there's a case of dead ones in the museum. My sketch isn't worth sharing, but I did want to say, isn't a nightingale small?

And doesn't this owl look sad?

I've been visiting the natural history room in our museum since I was small and I don't think the exhibits have ever changed. It's kind of comfortingly spooky, and also interesting, because the exhibits stay handily still while you inspect them at close quarters.

The other rooms of the museum are filled with clothes and dollshouses and endless cabinets of Tunbridge Ware boxes. Are they un-natural history?

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Passing the ball: football, music and writing

 Yesterday I loaded my cello into the car and set off to play Haydn trios for an hour or so with a couple of friends.

That's not us in the picture - we were too busy playing to take a picture. It's the Duke trio, and they're playing Hadyn too.

Anyone who plays this kind of music will realise that my friends were being kind by choosing Haydn - they picked the simplest, most predictable music, the kind where if you get lost it's entirely possible to guess your way back.

Haydn's perfect for me because I'm not much of a musician - but even with my skills we could make good music together.

 I love making music with other people because of its immediacy. You sit down, tune up, and play, and there it is - music!

I remember talking to a wonderful cellist about creativity - and he said that he wasn't creative in the way that a writer is, because he simply plays the notes that someone else has written.

What he said is true, but there's more to it. When he plays, he stirs my soul - he brings his own tone, phrasing and understanding to the piece. When I play with others, it makes me happy to follow that route through the music together. We're creating something that wouldn't exist if we didn't pick up our bows and make a noise.

In lots of ways, playing music with others is a bit like playing football. You need technical skills, you need to understand the rules, you follow a pattern, and you have to play as a team - there's some room for stars, but mostly it's down to collaboration. Great teams have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what the others are doing and what they're about to do.

A game of football or a Haydn trio can be a mess of indivuduals failing to pass, or it can be a beautiful synergy - wonderful to play inside, and almost as good to watch. And it's a thing of the moment: when the players leave the pitch, it's over.

Writing, though, is different. I spent yesterday morning editing one story and beginning another. I'll spend weeks on each before I send them out. I  choose every word on the page afresh, one by one, every time I begin a new story. There are patterns, yes, and there are games I can play, but there's no one there to bounce the ball back, or play the harmony. I'm on my own. But when I've finished, there's a story. It's still in the room after I leave.

That's why I like playing trios, but it's also why I love to write.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

A Slice of Tongue

Now here's a strange thing - today I received requests from two English undergraduates in the US for more information about my story, 'A Slice of Tongue'. It appeared in Paraxis in 2011, and it seems they're writing dissertations on it.

I'm honoured and rather fascinated to know what they make of it.

They asked for links to reviews of the story but of course there aren't any, so I can't help there. They also wanted a bit of biographical information and some 'tips' as one of them put it. So I sat down to think about what made me write the story, and though I've no idea if this is helpful, here's what I came up with - simpler to put it here, I thought when the second request came in, than to email people individually.

I live in East Sussex, which is a rural county in south east England, and it's where I grew up - the landscape and places around me often play an important role in my stories.

I wrote my first short story, 'The Swimmer' in the summer of 2010. It was published in The Warwick Review, a UK literary print journal, and spotted there by Nicholas Royle, who picked it for Salt's Best British Short Stories 2011.  'A Slice of Tongue' was one of four stories I wrote in the summer after this (the others being 'All Fall Down', 'The Flotsam Cafe', and 'A Job Worth Doing').

'The Swimmer' was essentially realistic: it's highly descriptive and the river is recognisable to anyone who lives near me; its plot is grounded in reality too. In the stories that followed it, by contrast, I allowed myself to write almost by instinct, and all four have some degree of fantasy in their plots.

I wrote 'A Slice of Tongue' for an issue of Paraxis that had libraries as a theme. (Libraries are a political issue here, as many are threatened with closure through government cuts.) As with almost all my writing, the location was important in the genesis of the story. It began for me with a mental image of the inside of my local library, into which someone introduces an item of food - a forbidden thing in a place where everything is dry and organically dead - but in fact full of life in the stories on the shelves. Both the library and the butcher's are real places - I worked in a butcher's shop at weekends as a teenager, and spent hours in the library directly opposite it, but I gave myself the freedom to follow my gut feelings about both places, rather than the more prosaic reality, and the story is the result.

It feels rather strange to be writing about my own work - I don't think I'll make a habit of it. I'd prefer readers to make up their own minds, to have a personal response to the words on the page. But I'm rather thrilled that people are studying the story, so I hope this has helped a little.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Ice hedge

Anyone reading this in the UK will know that we have snow, so I shan't mention it again.

I may just have to talk about ice, though. The huge puddle on the road into our village vanished this weekend. Cars splashed every last drop into the hedge, where it has reformed and frozen solid around  branches and thorns.

We have an ice-hedge, and almost no one has noticed.

In a car you don't have time to look. You don't walk this stretch because of the cars. But if you cycle - you see everything.

(And even if you fall off on the ice, you don't hurt for long!)