‘Sunlight and twilight and firelight’

‘Short breaks in restored historic buildings.’ I love the Landmark Trust, the charity ‘giving new life to castles, forts, follies, towers and cottages.’ We spent most of our honeymoon at one of their Peppercombe places: a tiny thatched cottage, hidden in a wooded valley by the Devon coast.

A short break before Easter needed specific requirements: not far from London, accessible by public transport and affordable. It needed to cater for a recently-bereaved pensioner, a teen laden with AS revision notes (scowling at missing Game of Thrones); a zoo, decent pubs and some form of natural history museum for husband. I wanted somewhere to sit, write and get away from the non-stop drilling and sirens of Whitechapel.

Peake’s House, Colchester ticked every box, full of words like ‘atmosphereic’, ‘snug’ and ‘Elizabethan’. Such a gorgeous and imposing  exterior when you arrive: timbered and mullioned and transomed. (Ignore the next two paragraphs if you’re of a nervous disposition: read on for the true nature of the place.

‘It looks safe round here,’ Mum said. ‘So many policemen!’ I got her inside before she spotted the boiler-suited and masked scene of crimes officer. Murder, a copper told me. Earlier in the week and along the road, though.

My husband was delighted by the cellar, convinced he could call up something nasty from Cabin in the Woods by finding the right object somewhere in the house. Zombies at the very least. My money was on the Satanic jug next to the bed. I didn’t realise daughter was unaware of the cellar and scared her witless by mentioning it. Then I woke up to the sound of drilling …

Colchester has a beautiful castle in stunning grounds, full of forget-me-nots, squirrels and sunshine for us. It has the sweetest Natural History Museum, surrounded with lush growth in an old churchyard, and the requisite zoo. Gran and Grand-daughter were happy with finding the same shops as home. ‘They’ve got a BOOTS!’

We had a wonderful meal at the esteemed Stockwell Restaurant, purveyors of fine medieval fare, a few steps from our front door and they, most generous of restaurateurs, gave us two huge logs so we could have a fire on our last night.

And I was happy, relaxed and inspired. I sat and wrote in almost every spacious and beautiful room, finding the peace and quiet that I needed. If you don’t know the Landmark set-up, they spurn tv, radio etc in favour of well-stocked bookcases, local histories and fiction from authors linked to the area.

Each also has log books, filled in by visitors with lots of advice about which takeaway to use, the best places are to visit and any to avoid. There’s also a lot of info about the place you’re staying and how it was refurbished.

The title is from a book about a similar house to Peake’s. Please don’t pinch it: that’s my short story name for the Landmark writing contest. I want to win so I can go back to my shortlist of, ooh, at least ten other places: temples and lodges and towers …

‘If it welcome you when you enter its hall, if its rafter re-echo gaily as though they laughed with you, if peace come dropping slow in its bedrooms, if it seems just to have stopped speaking to you when you wake, if sunlight and twilight and firelight seem equally the best light of all for its panels, its corners, its great beam – then it is a seasoned house.’

From ‘The Paycockes of Coggeshall,’ Eileen Power, 1920.

Lists, writing and memory

Folkestone_Triennial_Spencer _Finch


Ray Bradbury used lists to spark off his ideas for writing. The one above was detailed by Maria Popova, on her excellent Brain Pickings blog. There can’t be many people with an interest in any creative process who aren’t aware of her inspirational posts: it’s like having an enthusiastic friend who calls to say “Wow! Have you see THIS?” and you know it’s worth reading.

Bradbury elaborates: ‘…when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer.’

Just look at the words Bradbury’s subconscious throws up: a short story in themselves. Mine is more along the lines of THE CAT LITTER. THE WASHING. THE SHOPPING. THE DINNER. THE BANK. THE HOMEWORK. Someone save me from the tedium of my own thought processes. I can’t go on …

To be honest, that was a deliberate list. I didn’t use the unconscious processes most beneficial for triggering thought and associations. A look at the Weekly Blog Club summary up to remind myself of the optional theme: colour, and there’s mention of blue light and blue sky.

Blue. That’ll do nicely: ‘SEA. SKY. HARE. FLOWER. FILM. FALL.’


SEA. The sea in Folkestone can be the blue of postcards but this is rare. One of my favourite highlights of the last Folkestone Triennial was Spencer Finch’s  The Colour of Water You can still see the colour wheel pictured above and spin it to choose that day’s Channel hue. The second part of the piece was only up for the duration: a daily-hoisted flag chosen to match that day’s sea-colour.

SKY. HARE. The picture of Mark Hearld’s “Pisanello’s Hare” here does not show the mouth-wateringly glorious blue of the sky captured in an original print. I’m lucky enough to own one of these and it’s the colour I see when I think ‘sky.’ It really deserves some Doge: ‘Such clear. Many cerulean. Wow.’

FLOWER. A blue hyacinth: from a bulb I planted in the little communal space downstairs and rescued after a hail-deluge this week. It scents the whole flat. In homage to Janet E Davis and her stunning still life paintings, I created Blue Hyacinth with Blue Heirlooms and Random Blue Washing-Up Liquid Bottle Lid. Unlike multi-talented Janet, I’ll never be an artist.
Blue Heirlooms and Random Blue Washing-Up Liquid Bottle Lid

FILM: Blue, by Derek Jarman. I saw him introduce this hypnotic and unique film at Edinburgh in 1993 – not belong before his too-early death – at a screening with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Here’s one of Jarman’s last interviews, given at that time.

That’s more than 500 hundred words: my new self-imposed blog post limit. But it’s the last thought that might lead to something: FALL.

I’m 17, being followed by a drunk boy I don’t want to see, near the Road of Remembrance on the Leas in Folkestone (not far from the Spencer Finch work.) It’s the slope that some ten million soldiers marched down in two World Wars, to sail to Europe. LeavingForTheFront-300x155

I tell him to go away. He says he will, if that’s what I really want, then swings himself backwards over a drop of at least 50 feet. His fall is broken by bushes of rosemary planted in memory of those soldiers. I remember screaming.

There are flashing blue lights: police and ambulance. Who called them? No mobile phones back then.  ‘Did you push him?’ a policeman asks. I’m upset, angry: of course I didn’t.

We go to the hospital, miles from home, in which my father will die more than 34 years later.

I talk to a woman in a waiting room: we’re both from Folkestone. Her husband is being seen by doctors.  He’s a workmate of the boy. His name is Blue.

Soon after, I’ll go to university. The boy will be forgotten.

Pics: Folkestone Triennial, St jude’s Gallery, WW1 Centennial Network

A Tale of Two Blog Posts

Banished_cookie_Liz_de_jager_booklaunchOr, It’s a Day of Two Halves

Diamond Geezer is one of my favourite bloggers. He’s funny, perceptive and informative.  I’m particularly enjoying an annual favourite at the moment – The Count – where he enumerates pretty much everything In his life. I’ve learned loads about London (and its transport) from his blog and he never seems at a loss for a daily subject.

I, on the other hand, seem to struggle for something to write about. I end up in spirals of indecision and concern that this simply doesn’t merit and am far happier when the Weekly Blog Club has a theme. As soon as an idea comes into my head, I knock it into retreat by thinking of everything that it excludes. Being balanced and comprehensive is important but it’s daft when that gets to the point of being counter-productive.

One of Diamond Geezer’s occasional formats is to write a for and against post. He’ll pick a big subject of the day – I’m sure I remember at least one about the Olympics – and enthuse why it is a Good Thing and then criticise the same points. I thought I would do something sort of similar in writing about my day yesterday: very much a day of two halves, Brian. If I’d picked either to write solely about, it would present a very different picture to the whole: morning misery and pm privilege.

Thursday 27 February 2014 Part I

My husband woke me around five am when he got up for work; I didn’t have to be up for hours but couldn’t get back to sleep. Daughter, on the other hand, stayed unconscious hours later despite yelling, threats and my full array of passive-aggressive techniques for coercing her out of bed.

A cat or two had broken into the fridge and swiped most of the ham for her lunch. The lentil soup I’d made days before was starting to mutate on the cooker because no one had washed up.

Despite the early start, I still had to run to get to a hospital appointment on time where – of course – the consultant was running well over an hour late. He was pretty dismissive in telling me that my knees are knackered and my tendons trashed. Two medical students poked and prodded my lower legs and I was sent off with a fistful of MRI, blood test and weird injection forms.

After coming to running late, doing a handful of 10Ks and loving it more than almost anything ever, I won’t run again.  There goes the triathlon ambition. Much sobbing.

Thursday 27 February 2014 Part II

I finished an amazing book (The Name of the Star, by Maureen Johnson) on the Kindle I’m lucky enough to own, before meeting  an author at lunchtime. I knew Louie Stowell through Twitter and she’s been amazingly generous in her support for my writing. We talked about literary festivals and she kindly invited me to go along with her to a book launch in the evening.

My husband pointed out there was no need to go home first:  he’d cook dinner for the teen and come to meet me later from the Underground station. So I went for a haircut (with bonus surprise massaging chair) in Chinatown, sat in cafes and browsed bookshelves.

The launch was for Banished, by Liz de Jager, at Foyles. It was so inspiring to see a debut author, meet awesome women novelists Robin Stevens, author of Murder Most Unladylike and Non Pratt, who wrote Trouble, and talk about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in the signing line. There was wine and popcorn and those rather wonderful customised cookies pictured.

My husband met me from the train, the washing up was done and the teen was in a lovely mood, full of jokes and hugs. Much smiling.



Russell Hoban: with love and thanks

Ben_Osborn_Russell_Hoban_Feb_4_2014Russell Hoban  – it amazes me how some people still say ‘Who?’ Where to start with him?  I was lucky. When I was 18, my English teacher literally threw her copy of The Mouse and His Child at me as I was leaving for university and told me I must, had toNEEDED TO read it.

The RSC put on a new adaption of The Mouse and His Child in 2012, described in the Independent as ‘a thought-provoking delight.’ The Guardian called the book ‘both comforting and devastating’. I think all of those words can be applied to much of Russ’s work and perhaps to the man himself: the impact he seems to have on reading him and those, including me, who had the unforgettable privilege of meeting him.

The same year I started university, my best friend would not shut up about a new book she had read. She raved about its genius and made it sound awful. It was set in and around our home town of Folkestone, Kent, in a post-apocalyptic world and was narrated by a 12-year-old boy writing in a made-up language that was hard to get used to but ok if you read it aloud for a bit. Yeah, right.

The early 80s weren’t the right time for me to find this appealing. A nuclear meltdown seemed a real possibility then and was referenced all around, from Raymond Briggs’s heart-breaking graphic novel When the Wind Blows to the ITV bombshell (sorry) of Threads.

After university at Canterbury, I worked on the Folkestone Herald as a reporter. With Dungeness Nuclear Power  Station at hand, it wasn’t hugely reassuring to watch  local fire fighters rehearse their unstoppable defence of our safety by putting a rope around a notional radiation-blasted area.

I interviewed the inventor of the CND symbol, local resident Gerald Holtam, and was saddened and scared by his quiet melancholy about the state into which civilised people had got themselves.

And seeing that another Hoban book, Turtle Diary, had been turned into a romcom didn’t inspire me to read more. Idiot.

So I didn’t turn to Riddley Walker until nearly 20 years later. Now it’s my go-to book when I’m at a loss (along with Nancy Mitford. An obvious combination.) Yes, it demands concentration, probably complete attention. Good writing should and does. The rewards are endless. I read masses of children’s books now, not least as I’m trying to write them. It’s hard to think of another 12-year-old boy who is as real, powerful and engaging as Riddley.

In 2010, the Guardian chose Riddley Walker for its Book Club and writer John Mullan interviewed Russ. What better present for my best friend than a ticket? We sat with our mouths open throughout and then queued to get our books signed. Russ patiently listened to our various rambling theories about locations, made us laugh, posed for pictures (before selfies, hurrah) and chatted some more.

Not long after, Will Self interviewed Russ at the British Library. You wait years for one Russ Hoban to show up … Do read the article: a brief and affectionate capture of a hero to Mr Self and many more of us. Here’s Will Self,  reading Riddley Walker in his best ‘future Kent’ accent. We had more books signed; the security guards had turned off the lights and his taxi was waiting at gone 9pm but Russ, in his late 80s, stayed chatting and joking and signed my book by torchlight. What a gentleman.

Links for those events are on SA4QE: an inspired annual 4 February event that marks the date of Russ’s birth by encouraging people to note their favourite quotes from his books on yellow paper and leave them for people to find. You can see Tuesday’s quotes on @russellhobandotorg and at the official Russell Hoban website. I’m sure Russ would have loved the use to which Ben Osborn put his Pret wrapper, pictured above.

The fan sites and the event are a labour of love. Russ inspired it in so many of us. Please, please read him if you haven’t. Look – here’s where to start.

Russell Hoban: February 4, 1925 – December 13, 2011. Fine writer, fine man. Wel Im telling Truth here aint I. That’s the woal idear of this writing which I begun wylst thinking on what the idear of us myt be.

“Fact, fact, fact!”* 52 of them

The-future-of_comics_Fringe_Write_Idea_FestivalI will be 52 in April and am getting used to the idea by saying so now. I was going to write a list of 52 facts about me but think this is better because I can fit more in a short space.

That’s four already … or even five, depending on how personal this week’s Weekly Blog Club theme-setter, lovely Kate Bentham, thinks ‘some facts about yourself’ should be.

I’ve loved comics since I was small and the picture above makes me happy. This is partly because it only shows the back of my head but mainly because I’m listening to a debate on the future of comics as part of November 2013’s Writeidea Festival Fringe.

I was a volunteer on the organising panel and am delighted that I managed to suggest and bring in some brilliant speakers. They included a former executive producer of Eastenders, Diederick Santer, who is the brother of my friend Hen; he debated soaps with an Archers scriptwriter who came to my wedding reception, Mr Keri Davies. There was best-selling historical master of the medieval murder mystery Michael Jecks who I had last spoken to nearly 16 years ago at Lingfield Races.

Among others I asked were Booker nominee Alison Moore and fellow SALT-published novelist Simon Okotie, who made me cry with laughter one morning with two words (‘Hulk, smash’. Spoken by a mild-mannered Buddhist, this was for some reason hysterical.) I also asked one poet –  Maitreyabandhu, another Buddhist – a man I greatly admire for his humour and  work on mindfulness for people with depression.

I approached some people through Twitter: Stella Duffy, genius writer, campaigner and generous woman. Her blog post this week made me cry. I want you to read it and I wish her every positive thought I can offer. Melanie Clegg is wonderful Madame Guillotine, an observant and beautifully-descriptive cultural cockney who rocks blue hair in a way that (colour clash) turns me green with envy.

It made my day to have Robin Ince agree to headline the Saturday and spend time chatting with me and my daughter beforehand. Being good at English when I went to school meant ditching science and I wish with all my heart I had his dedication to educating himself in so many scientific areas.

I went to Robin’s Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People before Christmas. I think my favourite on stage was hedgehog-loving author and ecologist Hugh Warwick. My first pet was a hedgehog called Murphy, given to me when I was nine by workmen who’d found him. I adored him and was inconsolable when he wandered next door and ate slug poison.

Back to the picture above. The red hair (I wish I had the nerve to dye mine like it) and yellow dress belong to Nat Guest. I think she probably has the best username on Twitter: @unfortunatalie  I first spotted her online because of her invention of the superb Question Time Tweetalong events; I went to one at the Hackney Attic. I’d suggested the festival have a fringe for the first time and asked her if she would curate the two days.

I suspect by the time she’s nearly 52, Nat’ll be Prime Minister. If she wants. She has a network of intelligent, well-connected and creative people that makes me feel out of touch, dull and slack-jawed. She can also drink me under the table.

I’m looking forward to helping out again this year, with Writeidea 2014.

*I bet you knew that was a quote from Dickens’s Hard Times. And that’s 52 facts about me.






Mrs Malaprop and Mr Waugh

Dad_wedding_Canal_Museum‘But Mr Joyboy, you’ve given him the Radiant Childhood Smile.’

‘Yes, don’t you like it?’

‘Oh, I like it, of course, but his Waiting One did not ask for it.’

‘Miss Thanatogenos, for you the Loved Ones just naturally smile.’

From ‘The Loved One’, by Evelyn Waugh

This afternoon I went to see my Dad, at a funeral directors’ chapel, in the oak mass-produced coffin Mum and I chose. I wanted a wicker one but was over-ruled on the grounds that it looked like a picnic basket.

Mum was also adamant that she did not want a ‘humorous’ funeral (English translation – Humanist.) She’s always been a modern-day Mrs Malaprop and has been telling friends and relatives how Dad slipped away in his sleep last week, despite the doctors’ attempts to resurrect him. No matter how many times I mutter ‘resuscitate’, she’ll carry on.

The last week’s been all phone calls and form-filling, priests and solicitors and sympathy cards. My favourite moment away from it all came when the lady in the cat sanctuary charity shop advised me, “Tell your mum to replace it as soon as she can.” I explained she had possibly misheard ‘Dad’ as ‘cat’. Much as I’d like the gap left by 59 years of being together to be filled by a tabby, I don’t think it works like that.

I’ve sorted flowers, recce’d hotels to arrange a tea for 80, written Orders of Service and discussed Bible readings (as an atheist.) Dad was a devout Catholic for 85 years, apart from a brief lapse during National Service in Egypt, to which his formidable mother put a stop on his return. I don’t know what he got up to and now I never will.

So there have already been requiem and other masses requested by friends, with a full-on service next week. I haven’t had much experience of dead people. I took a defiant glimpse of my grandad, against my parents’ wishes, when I was a teenager and spent several hours a few years ago beside a friend in his coffin at the London Buddhist Centre.

My own views of undertakers were largely informed by Jessica Mitford in The American Way of Death and Evelyn Waugh. I wrote a rubbish thesis on Waugh (rushed so I could spend the summer term watching cricket) and admire his writing beyond telling.

The tear-inducing sight of Dad’s delight in hospital at a priest coming to give him communion – when he no longer really knew who I was – has to be the closest to Lord Marchmain’s Brideshead Revisited death scene that I’ll experience in working class 21st Century Kent.

I’d supposed we would have to deal with someone like Mr Joyboy. I didn’t expect warm, funny, sarky female funeral directors, who have treated us with genuine care and concern.

Mum had dreaded today. Once she saw Dad in his suit, with the lilac shirt and tie that he wore for my wedding three years ago, all that dread went. All she could say was ‘It’s no wonder I fell in love with him.’ Then she hugged the funeral director for cleaning his nails nicely.

Once More, With Feeling

‘Once More with Feeling’ pic from Den of Geek


“She needs back up.”

Those of you who also worship at the shrines of St Buffy and St Joss will recognise those words with no further ado. You will also note the clever play on words in that last sentence (‘ado’: geddit?). For anyone else: I’m sorry for you but it is not too late.

Life’s never too short for catching up with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I read an academic book  recently, full of textual analysis of Buffy, that stripped all the life out of Joss Whedon’s sharp humour and observation, so brilliantly terse and witty and wise. Those last five words in turn are an homage to E.F. Benson’s Lucia. It’s an homage-y sort of day.

‘Once More, with Feeling’ epitomises for me everything that is awe-inspiring about Joss Whedon. He risks a hugely-successful series to include a musical: one that he has written and directed. It does everything imaginable: moves on the plot, defines and explains characters and their actions, is technically accomplished and manages to be moving and utterly hilarious at the same time. This one episode alone earns him the title of writing genius as far as I’m concerned.

So: to back up. I’m rubbish at it:  the singing, the watching the back of the person who saves the world (A Lot) and, even more importantly, the IT variety. At the bottom of the living room cupboard by the window, there is a laptop that maybe, just maybe, still contains every existing photograph of my honeymoon. I watched the screen catch fire a year or so ago and have never dared to check that what seems like a very dead machine is in fact deceased.

I’d rather hold on to the little hope that it might not be. Those photos aren’t backed up anywhere.

Last night, while watching another genius at work – Graham Linehan’s final IT Crowd on 4OD – the screen of the machine on which I’m writing went black. We switched it off for an hour and you probably heard my sigh of relief as it rebooted.

So today, I’ve been backing up the 70K of my novel that was backed up by Scrivener – but only on this machine where the software’s also downloaded. All my writing eggs in one basket. Now it’s also safely in the interwebs on My Writing Spot; twee name but great service for writers by Google. And breathe. I just have to remember to do so every day.

This week I have mostly discovered that out of every hundred words of my prose, at least 50 will be ‘that’. I ‘m trying to stop my teen protagonist sounding either like a middle-aged academic studying mythology or a foot-stamping toddler. I’m getting better at varying sentence beginnings so they don’t all start ‘I’ (get lost, Freud) and not every single sentence still has someone frowning, sighing, turning or gasping.

Whedon-don is unattainable, I know. But the writing’s getting better and it’s still great fun.