Cell by Cell

I’ve been reading a brilliant essay in the compilation Write, edited by Claire Armitstead (Guardian Books). It’s by A S Byatt, and it’s about the writing of her novel Possession.

Possession has been, since it appeared, a key text for me—because of its story, its subject, its brilliant interweaving of times and materials. And because of the way it made me cry at the end, touched by the story itself, but also by the frisson of potential the book gave me, a feeling of possibility for and excitement about my own writing that I can’t define. This was one of many streams that, in some invisible underground way, watered the terrain of my first book Inscription.

Something Byatt says in this essay strikes me:  “Formally my novel needed the presence of real poems…..” Her editor, poet DJ Enright, said she shouldn’t use Ezra Pound's poems, as she’d planned, but should write some herself. So she did. “When the book was finished, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic were troubled and dubious. They begged me to cut out the poetry, to cut down the Victorian writing…..I wept in the early mornings. Then it won the Irish Times Aer Lingus Prize, and the Booker prize, and to everyone’s astonishment—including my own—became a bestseller.”

I have the inevitable reaction, not for the first time: “So what do publishers know?!”  (Dear publishers, obviously this apparently blanket scorn does not apply to any astute publisher who is interested in my book!) Byatt was already a well-known writer with a respected reputation when the publishers told her that her instincts for her book were all wrong. What chance for the rest of us?

This triggers a negative whirlpool of thoughts. Instead of being stuck there, I’ll try to take Byatt’s experience as a gift. I’ll add Possession to the heap of wonderful but unusual books that have captivated readers, once a brave publisher took the chance. Books that give me courage. Books that cross boundaries, like those of Geoff Dyer, W.G. Sebald, Eimear McBride….

But there’s another thing. Publishers were scared by the poems in her finished novel, but Byatt had originally intended to write something even more experimental. Then she read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which gripped readers while drawing them into medieval theology. “The secret, I saw, was that if you tell a strong story, you can include anything else you need to include. So I started inventing a detective story…."   That strong storyline is probably the reason for Possession’s wide appeal and runaway success.

Since the book I'm writing is partly about the nineteenth century, I should say that, far from aspiring to imitate Possession—and who could?—I'm trying to do something very different. Luckily, the nineteenth century, like Heaven, is a mansion with many rooms. 

I’m trying to grow a book, cell by cell. The cliché of comparing book-writing to pregnancy is a cliché for a reason. As I talk about my project, and think of revealing its working title, I feel the hesitancy of a newly expectant woman who hardly dares mention her condition, far less give the child a name.  Yet like the embryo growing unseen, my book does have, ate least for now, a small life; I pray it will continue to grow, metamorphosing, becoming stronger….

Maybe soon I will be able to speak its name.

Bright Abyss

I’m sitting in my morning chair, on a glassed-in balcony giving a wide view of the sky—intensely blue today, with only a few cloud-wisps. The sun, which earlier I saw rising, gradually strengthening its light, has started to melt the bloom of frost on the rooftops.

Beside me, a book I am reading in small doses, because it is so intense I have to keep stopping: My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman.  This American poet was editor of Poetry for ten years; he now teaches at Yale Divinity School, and has written other books of poetry and prose. My Bright Abyss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is, he says, “a mosaic,” made over seven years, as the cancer he’d been diagnosed with at thirty-nine “waxed and waned.” He didn’t intend to mention his illness, but realised that not including it would be dishonest as the book happened “in that shadow."

The book is subtitled “Meditation of a Modern Believer” but, as with all the best books, it can’t easily be summed up. It’s about being, or failing to be, or wondering what it means to be, “a believer,” and it's also about the deepest aspects of living, about creativity. Reviewers have praised its lyrical prose and the new way it approaches age-old questions; Casey N. Cep said "here is a poet wrestling with words the way that Jacob wrestled the angel...;" Marilynne Robinson called it "very lucid and not at all simple;" Jamie Quatro said the book "unlocked the universe for me;" and David Skeel says if Gerard Manley Hopkins "were transported to early-twenty-first century America, this is the kind of memoir he might have written..." 

Wiman does mention Hopkins (whose writing I love), and also evokes him implicitly, as in the word "thingness" in this passage:

“Some poets—surprisingly few—have a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its “thingness”  and ramify beyond its own dimensions. Norman MacCaig: “Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass/And hang zigzag on hedges.”......[another example follows].

What happens here is not “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” a cliché of poetic perception. What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see.

Contemporary physicists talk about something called “quantum weirdness,” which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to perceive. The effect I get from MacCaig’s metaphorical explosiveness, or from that of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, or Ted Hughes, is not of some mystical world, but of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”

The “mysterious resonance between thing and language…that reveals a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see;” the way poetry seems to glimpse “something of reality as it truly is;” such hints and intuitions speak to us profoundly. Wiman gives us clarity at the edge of the ungraspable. 

The sun is passing now behind the three tall trees, so its brightness is less direct, but the sky is still a most lovely blue. And speaking of blue, Blue Planet II is currently on television. This jaw-dropping series, a work of art, an experience, takes us into that other blueness, the ocean. In the second episode, we penetrated fathoms down, where all the blue is gone; there is no sunlight at all, so enormous is the mass of water above. And in the seabed there are ravines, deeper still. Yet in that underwater darkness there is more light, and life, than was ever thought possible: squids with luminous ink, eels sparkling like strings of Christmas lights; a fish with a transparent head, bulbous eyes buried inside it, gazing through the clear jelly.

We saw the sponge coral called Venus’s Flower Basket, a delicate white cup of openwork, with the complexity of lace. Inside its chamber, shrimp are living; as tiny larvae, they were swept in through the gaps, and they have grown there, safe from predators. They are now imprisoned, too big to get out again. However, their young escape through the weave, and so a new generation is dispersed.

This hidden world has been invisible to us until now, miles deep, below the waves. A reality we could not see, until the submersibles, with cameras and lights, penetrated the abyss, and revealed a hitherto unknown and yet real dimension. 


It's been so long since the last post here! I've no excuses, really, except that a trip to the USA in April, which included the marathon task of —yet again— sorting possessions, going through memorabilia, giving away and selling books (agony!), interrupted the rhythm, such as it was.

In the States I also read from my poetry book, Sudden Arabesque, at the quirky, historic Pen & Pencil Club in Philadelphia (alongside brilliant Philadelphia poet and Pew Fellow J.C. Todd).  A writer I met there came to Oxford for research soon afterwards, and we had lunch together. The writing life brings delightful connections, and we spoke about many aspects of this life, including the way support from other writers helps combat the sense of being alone.

To my astonishment, she said she'd read my previous blog posts, and that I should stop neglecting this space. Sometimes that's all I need: the knowledge that even just one person is waiting for what I'll write.  So, hello again. Since I've been away, as well as doing a few poetry readings, I've been immersing myself in the world of my new book, and I've made a sort of beginning; though of course it may turn out to be a false start, or the middle, or not even part of the book at all.

Even after the success of Adam Bede, George Eliot was afraid she would never be able to write anything again. For all her genius, she suffered agonies of self-doubt. For lesser mortals like me, it's worse. I forget over and over that with my first book I had the exact same certainty that it was impossible, the same knowledge of my inadequacy for the task, as I do for the second. I did—after a long struggle—finish the book I'd so often thought unfinishable. Those who've read it have said they enjoyed it. Only writers will understand, perhaps, that I might resort to printing out these responses, every one precious to me, so I can look at them often—daily if need be! This may sound hopelessly pathetic to those who can't relate to the constant shoring-up-of-confidence writers often need; but the mental voice saying "you're so feeble" is sometimes so overpowering that only drastic infusions of reassurance can begin to drown it out. 

I used the word marathon for my possession-sorting task, but in fact creating a book is even more marathon-like. However, runners must enjoy marathons, or they wouldn't keep doing them again and again. And when I look back on the writing of my first novel, which I've called a "struggle," I have an affection for that time, a good memory of what I felt while in the throes of it; and rather than "struggle," it was a kind of enjoyment, like that of being deep in a complicated puzzle or swimming in the breakers of the Atlantic.  There was pleasure in getting my teeth into the project, making something, being absorbed by difficult work.

Ah, but of course Elizabeth Gilbert says all this so well. After writing the above, I belatedly thought to look back at my own last post. As I'd forgotten saying, she urges us to delight in our creativity, rather than complain that the work is hard. I'm glad I did manage to catch myself in mid-moan, and recognise that I enjoyed the process. 

The writing life is like a marathon, too. Very rarely does achievement come at sprint speed.  However, unlike a marathon, it's not a race, though we may watch with a twinge of envy as another writer overtakes us. Better (though not easy) to be as generous as Matthew Rees, who in this year's London Marathon stopped to help a sinking runner over the finish line.  

We need patience, and we need to pace ourselves; we must learn how to work, how to wait, and how to find the joy. And we need writing friends. In Sudden Arabesque there's a poem about finding the courage to swim in a cold mountain lake: 

The lake's dark plum-skin                                                                                                                                                               must be split;

for past the plunge                                                                                                                                                                           there comes an ease in it....

It was my dear friend Penny who encouraged me to jump into the lake; she has long encouraged me in my writing life as well. We all need cheering on, a listening ear. Now to some work, so I can say I've done something when I go to meet another fellow writer for tea.




I've been inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book, Big Magic. As with a lot of writing about creativity, it's not so much what she says as the voice she says it in, that endearing, intimate, enthusiastic voice that many of us have enjoyed from her previous books. 

One thing that really struck me is this:

 "I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not.....[long and wonderful sentence follows, building up to:]  .....but simply because I liked it."

And she urges:  "So try saying this: 'I enjoy my creativity.' "

Elizabeth Gilbert got me thinking.  As she says, few people speak about creative enjoyment out loud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.  We tend, ok, I tend, to emphasise the difficulty of the creative life. All than pen-gnawing anguish, the myriad drafts destroyed and rewritten, the times of block, the times when you feel no-one will ever read a word of the thing you've been toiling over for so long...all of that.  And yes, it is true. It is hard, quite often. But Elizabeth Gilbert reminds me what I don't remember often enough: I love it, anyway.  I enjoy the challenge, the puzzle, the struggle with that slippery customer, language; I enjoy the desire to make something out of the texture of life, and the attempt to fulfil that desire;  I enjoy the difficulties of making the writing work, even when they are driving me to distraction.  But I so often forget to really inhabit this enjoyment, and own up to it.

Elizabeth Gilbert says she long ago decided to "reject the cult of artistic martyrdom," and to trust that she has been made a writer for a reason. To trust that the work loves her as much as she loves it. She describes, in simple but powerful words I long to quote even unto the breach of every copyright law, how she seeks to be open to inspiration, to believing that inspiration wants to come to her. We all live under delusions, she says, so why not choose a helpful one?

"The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you."

I'm currently wrestling with...hm, there I go again!  Rather: I'm currently working to discern the shape of my new book, and I feel stuck, and frustrated...oops.  (You can see how much I need to hear Gilbert's message right now).  Yes, the book is being slow to emerge; but I do love the stuff of it, the materials I'm gathering to make it with; I love the feel of it, elusive as it is, and so vague; in the last few days I have crept a smidgen closer to its hidden form, like a photographer trying to approach the animal in hiding; and I am trying to be welcoming to the wisps of creative stimulus I might miss, if I yield to panic about how fast time is passing or about the impossibility of doing what I want to do....I am trying, but I do need these reminders. It's humbling, but true, that I can be helped by words like these, or by Anne Lamott in the classic Bird by Bird, or by Annie Dillard, who in The Writing Life says that every work has an insoluble difficulty, but the writer

"....writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he."  (Or she, of course, like the brilliant Annie Dillard herself).  

..."he can do it, and only he."  "The work wants to be made through you."  

However it's said, whoever is saying it, this is the message to live by; but it requires trust, and hope, and faith. And humility—an openness to reminders when they are needed!







New growth

No blog posts since just before Christmas....a disgrace in my own eyes, though I doubt anyone else has noticed!

But here we are, in early spring, and the signs are all around now: I'm seeing crocuses, snowdrops, even the bright flowers of the tiny tête-à-tête daffodils I bought in a pot to have indoors last spring. I planted them outside when they had finished blooming, and now they have come back. This small thing pleases me no end; their little flaring trumpets make me rejoice.

Yes, it has been a cold February, but the flowers are so encouraging; they bring hope....

Spring is also in my mind because I have been editing my forthcoming poetry collection Sudden Arabesque. Not only is the cover a wonderful image called "Easter" by artist Ruth End, there are quite a few poems about spring in it, or really about the impossibility of catching the spring, of rendering that delicate insinuation in the air, that hint of coming growth and green....poems trying to say in a fresh way what has been said before. It's the freshness in the expression of it that matters, I believe, and not the newness of the subject: for it's been well said that there is nothing new under the sun.

I find it a fruitful challenge to try to say in a poem why, not just in spring but in every season, the sight of some quite ordinary thing, or of an ordinary thing seen in a new moment or in a different light, can be so moving. Many of my poems are about what I've seen in my normal surroundings, in the small town of my home in the States, or the larger town I'm in now, walking around, looking at parks and gardens and hills and trees. The transformative moments in every-day life....

Even saying that sounds like a cliché! That's the struggle of poetry, the war on cliché (I think Martin Amis has used this title for a book....which illustrates that other writerly worry about inadvertently saying something in exactly the same words as someone else!).  But the struggle of writing, the meaty work of grappling with the language, building with it, playing with it, structuring and restructuring, knitting a sentence and then picking it apart...that's the work I love.

Only those who also do this work understand the joys of it, and the demands; the difficult tight-rope walk between hope and humility; the long slog, and the sudden shafts of light (all too infrequent).  We should support each other, and encourage each other when it seems too hard.

I wondered whether I would ever succeed in writing a whole novel, and not only did I manage it (after, it must be admitted, a ridiculously long time!) but the book found a publisher and won a prize. Many times a poem, like a sudoku puzzle, has seemed insoluble, but then the answer—though sometimes after months—does come.  I hoped that a publisher would want a book of my poems some day, but was never sure; so I am delighted now that Oversteps Books is bringing out Sudden Arabesque. 

These things have happened to me, so they can happen to other writers too. Onward and upward!









I wonder as I wander....

Last week I heard this lovely Appalachian folk carol sung in Gloucester cathedral, where the extraordinary acoustics made the voices of the St Cecilia's Singers soar and echo and resonate between the vaulted arches...they sang many wonderful works that evening but this simple and poignant piece was one of the most moving.

There is much to wonder about in this world, especially at this time of year when, for those who celebrate Christmas, spiritual attempts to see the past in the present, to transcend time and ponder the meaning of Bethlehem, come up against the crass consumerism all around. Not to mention the ongoing horrors of terrorism and war.

"And is it true? And is it true/This most tremendous tale of all...." so wrote John Betjeman in his famous poem "Christmas," juxtaposing the humour of the "tissued fripperies" and "hideous tie so kindly meant" with the mind-blowing possibility "The Maker of the stars and sea/Become a Child on earth for me?"

I cannot tell, I do not know, but I would like to celebrate Christmas as if it were indeed true. (And I would like to consider Christmas as lasting for twelve days from Christmas day onwards, not starting in early December and ending on Boxing Day!).

One of my three children is already with us, two are wandering in from abroad and I wonder if they will arrive in time, despite storms and strikes. Then we will have an enormous Christmas gathering with my many siblings and their families, and our mother. Even through this ghastly cold I have been fighting, which as colds do has been making me feel as if the end is nigh, I have the sense to know how very fortunate I am, in so many ways.

We have a candle in a glass jar behind our lovely German advent calendar, a cut-out of San Marco in Venice, with angels by great artists in every window. As the light shines through the windows, the angel paintings glow. But the candle is burning low, and stammers like my own faith or spirituality or whatever name I can give the thing within me that keeps flickering, but feebly.

Blessings on us all, whatever we believe, trust in, or hope for; and now it's back to a few more tissued fripperies, bed-making, and nose-blowing. May "a star's light" fall on everyone this Christmas, and may the New Year bring a more peaceful world, and hope of a home for all.





Ring Out, Wild Bells!

Actually I'm using this quotation from Tennyson's In Memoriam (section CV) a little ahead of season. It's about the bells that ring out the old year and ring in the new.  We aren't quite there yet; there will be Christmas bells first. But his lovely lyric illustrates the emotional power of church-bells.

Last Sunday afternoon I was in Gloucester, on a crisp, sunny day; the cathedral tower was bathed in light and the blue sky burned through the fretwork of its turrets. From that tower cascaded peal after peal of bells, rung by the bell-ringers, as every Sunday from one-thirty to three pm. I stood there with the glorious sound washing over me, and was grateful for the bells, for the ringers, for this ancient sound that has been part of our landscape for so many long centuries.

The imminent closing of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the birthplace of Big Ben, the Philadelphia Liberty Bell, and other bells all across the world, prompted a brilliant piece by writer Jane Shilling HERE. She starts with "Ding dong merrily" and ends up quoting "the great Nigel Molesworth's" version of Donne's "It tolls for thee;" in between, she shows the importance of bells in our culture.  Will our grandchildren, she asks, hear as many bells as we do? Ancient villages are being swallowed by sprawl, church congregations age and decline;  "the knowledge of how to ring the bells may vanish along with the skills of casting them."

Yes, there are still many campanology-lovers and bell-ringing groups, thank goodness, and they are finding new recruits. I recently met an American writer who now lives in Scotland, and, with her Scottish husband, rings bells there.  There are some bell-towers in the States, and active bell-ringing groups, but the ringing of church bells isn't a part of the national soundscape there, as it is, or was, in Britain. My American husband, one day at Stow-on-the-Wold just after a wedding, was sceptical when I said the peals were made by real people pulling on bell-ropes at that very moment. But it was so.  (And the ring of eight bells we were hearing is actually the heaviest in  Gloucestershire. Its oldest bells date from the 1600s).

Change-ringing began in Britain. Christopher Howse, in a brilliant piece  HERE  prompted by the simultaneous ringing of all the country's bells for the 2012 London Olympics, writes, "Change ringing sets bells free; paradoxically by a strict arithmetic formula, like a complicated knitting pattern."  I read thIs essay while living out of England, and found my eyes welling with hapless nostalgia. By a lovely serendipity, on the same very day (reading about the mid-nineteenth-century for my new novel), I learnt that Gabriele Rossetti, Dante Gabriel's Italian father, marvelled that in his newly-adopted city of London, "The very bells play tunes!" (The Rossettis in Wonderland by Dinah Roe.) 

Howse quotes "Church-bells beyond the stars heard," from George Herbert's extraordinary poem "Prayer." And in a 2009 piece about bells HERE he cites another marvellous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Two of my most beloved poets *; their poetry, the bells, the landscape....all this is inextricably mixed in our heritage, interconnected, like that complicated knitting pattern. 

Howse's 2009 essay was a lament on the closure of "the other British bell foundry", Taylors. So now, if Whitechapel Foundry is closing too, does it mean there will be nowhere left in Britain where bells are cast?  

That would be cause to ring the mourning-bell.

*(in fact, ahem, that church-bells phrase is an epigraph to my poem "Fabric," in my collection appearing with Oversteps Books next year. End of shameless plug).




Orla & Super Sowilo!

Sowilo Press is an imprint of Hidden River Arts, a Philadelphia arts foundation. As anyone visiting this website can't help knowing by now, this small independent press awarded my novel Inscription the Eludia Prize in 2013, and published the book last year. Then, in the 2016 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, Inscription was chosen as one of twelve semi-finalists. This is a serious award, and the winner, The Turner House by Angela Flournoy, has been named Book of the Year in many quarters, including Oprah's magazine. My book was in excellent company!

In 2014 the Eludia Prize winner was Northern Irish writer Orla McAlinden, for her collection of short stories The Accidental Wife. Sowilo Press published the book this year. Now one of those stories, 'The Visit,' has won a major award—it's the Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year!  

This means that a small press in Philadelphia has international reach, publishing books that have been connected with major awards both in the USA and Ireland!

Sowilo does publish home-grown authors too; Tree Riesener of Philadelphia won the Eludia award in 2012 for her own book of stories, Sleepers Awake! and she is also a prolific and much-published poet. There are earlier Sowilo books by American writers as well.

The point of all this, apart from my wanting to celebrate Orla's success, is that small publishers can be an important part of a book's journey to finding readers. Writers shouldn't overlook them.

I have some good news of my own: my first poetry collection will appear with Oversteps Books in 2017! More information to follow. 

And now I am trying to really make headway on a second novel. It is so true what they say: you know you have written one book, but you just don't know how you did it, and you can't believe you will be able to do it again.

But I am forging ahead, if forging is the word for a process that feels like wading through treacle. I have help from writing friends; it's good to be accountable to someone. Good to check in with a fellow writer and compare notes....which is exactly what I have to go and do right now.

Forza, fellow writers! Forza is a word I learnt in Italy, it's how you cheer on your team; something like "Go for it!" combined with "Courage!"  Forza, and forge onward, and never ever give up.






Present and Past

It's about time I mentioned Maria Popova of the website Brain Pickings. Her compilations of inspiring and thought-provoking words from writers, artists, and thinkers of all types are marvellous, and her newsletter brings regular treasures to my inbox. The latest is about poet Mary Oliver and her book Upstream: Selected Essays.

The whole thing is a brilliant meditation on the creative life. And I will copy out these words of Mary Oliver's and put them where I can see them, often:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.


I've been going to various events at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, listening to writers who have heard that call to creative work, and who have, by dint of dedication and sheer hard graft, succeeded in making something beautiful or powerful or interesting out of nothing.

I loved the poetry of Matthew Hollis, who read from his pamphlet Stones.

What passes in the present is present in the past. 

And there it lies upon the latch.

Our hands tremble on the morning match.                                                                                                                                                            

The book is letterpress printed and bound by hand; Hollis prefaced his poems with an illustrated talk about how the pamphlet itself was made. We understood a little of the care and skill that went into making this slim volume; the work of setting the type, hand-spacing it, line by line, page by page; of the printing itself, of trial and error until it is just so, and of letting the ink dry, which takes three days. It was fascinating, and seductive, and a celebration of the book-maker's craft. 

Other poets whose work I enjoyed were Sarah Howe, who wrote Loop of Jade, and Rebecca Perry. Confusingly, nomenclature-wise, the Festival also brought us the novelist Sarah Perry, speaking about her book The Essex Serpent. Sharing this event was Francis Spufford, author of The Child That Books Built and the brilliant Unapologetic, about faith; he has now written a novel, Golden Hill. There was an interesting conversation about setting novels in the past; Perry's is set in 1890s Essex, and Spufford's in 1740s New York.  The moderator Andrew Holgate asked if either of them had hesitated before writing something that could be called a "historical novel," because, he said, a snobbish attitude is still sometimes found towards to such books. Both replied firmly, No. Sarah Perry said that she did hesitate five years ago, when she was writing her first novel, "...because I wanted to be taken seriously," and didn't want to be accused of shirking a novelist's duty to grapple wth the present day. (I'm paraphrasing here, from memory and scribbled notes). But then  she realised that even a novel set in the past is "as much about us as it is about them." And besides, she said, "human hearts do not change, human behaviour does not change."

When writing Inscription, I thought about the same issues, wondering about the difference between "historical novels" and novels that just happen to be set in the past. Francis Spufford made a distinction between novels that are written like a theme park trip back in time, where you know what you are going to get, and those that offer creativity, surprise, and invention. Others might say that since so many "literary" novels are now set in the past, we should drop the genre label "historical novel," or at least stop thinking of all historical novels as "bodice-rippers" with minimal literary value. Indeed, A. S.Byatt, Hilary Mantel, David Malouf, Jesse Browner, Marguerite Yourcenar, and many other writers have amply shown that a novel set in the past can be of the greatest literary excellence.


The Festival, as always, prompted much thought about writing, reading, and creativity.  Now to see what inspiration I have gleaned and use if in my own writing. I hope it will help me as I shape what I hope will be my own new novel set in the past; this time, not as distant as the first century AD of Inscription, but much closer to us: the 19th century. Which I have been thinking about for several years, and, for the record, before I knew about Sarah Perry's book or any other of the recent 19th century novels. It must be something in the Zeitgeist. I am trying to find out what, and why.  Trying to give some "power and time" to my own creative instincts. For after all, as Hollis says, "What passes in the present is present in the past."




Accidental Wife; and Writing Life.

I read Orla McAlinden's book The Accidental Wife as soon as I could get my hands on it via my trusty local book supplier. 

This book of interlinked stories has been published by the independent Sowilo Press of Philadelphia as the latest Eludia award winner. My own novel Inscription won the award the year before, so of course I would think the press has brilliant judgement! But honestly. Skip mine if you like (though of course I hope you won't!), but read the first Eludia winner, Sleepers Awake by Tree Riesener, and read Orla McAlinden's book, and you'll see that Sowilo is picking very talented new writers for this award.  

So I thought The Accidental Wife would be good, but in fact it's even better than I expected. It has variety, and interest; I believe in its world and its people. It moved me as I read, and made me laugh, too. But you can learn more about it, and what I, and other readers, think about it, on Amazon. Go HERE (UK) or HERE  (USA). (Actually, I said the same thing in both places, but if you go to the right website for your country it might be easier for you to click "buy now"! Or if you prefer, order from another online bookseller; or from your local bookshop).

On her blog ( HERE ) Orla McAlinden writes amusingly about the experience of being interviewed on television in "Fame, Shame...and One-handed Typing." She surprised herself by cleaning the kitchen for the cameras and by caring more than she ever thought she would about how things would look to the viewers.  A sort of "shame," she says, an unusual feeling for her. 

Like Orla, I was brought up Catholic; though I'm not a Catholic now, I am grateful for this upbringing. However, in the wrong hands—and I did encounter some of those—there was an over- emphasis on guilt, sin, and shame. But shouldn't we sometimes feel a bit ashamed? Her blog piece made me think about what I am ashamed of now.

Some things I'm ashamed of won't be mentioned here. But one of them is the disarray of my writing space. Or not-writing space, as another thing I am ashamed of is my current lack of writing discipline.  Or more specifically, because I did rediscover discipline when preparing my poetry collection last month, my lack of application to my new book.

I've been reading Gordon Haight's biography of George Eliot. (This is part of my research for the new project, so it does count as work. Lots of one's work as a writer is reading, and mulling). I am encouraged to learn that even this most brilliant of novelists suffered from lack of confidence. Before each new book she felt that what she wanted to do was impossible; she would never be able to achieve it.  After spending thirty-one days in Florence doing research for Daniel Deronda, she wondered if it would all be in vain. Or if, as she wrote, "it were possible that I should produce better work than I have yet done! At least there is a possibility that I may make greater efforts against indolence and the despondency that comes from too egoistic a dread of failure."

Ah, that last phrase. "Too egoistic a dread of failure." The old, impossible, balance between caring too much, for egoistic reasons, and not caring enough. The writer's struggle. The writing life. Which reminds me of Annie Dillard's wonderful book of the same title....

...but now I must go to my yoga class. "Greater efforts against indolence" are needed, both physically and mentally!

Feeding the Lake

Third time lucky. I've been trying to write a blog post for a while now, and actually wrote two pieces that both somehow vanished when I tried to save them. I was hoping to manage a post while it was still August, which would have meant for the first time achieving two posts in the same month. But it was not to be. A poor show, considering I have been aiming for once a week! But the weeks fly past nowadays, as fast as months used to do.

One of the lost posts was about the tragedy of another terrible earthquake in Italy, while the memory of the 2009 devastation of L'Aquila, once my home for five years, is still fresh. That city and surroundings lost 300 people and will never be the same. Nor will Amatrice and the towns around it.  But whatever I said about it would have been not very coherent and after all, what can one say, or do? Except weep, and prompt each other to donate to the Red Cross....

Now it's September. My poem "September Afternoon in the Schoolyard"—its final lines are on this website's home page—begins like this:

Taut, amazing, lazuli sky: September:                                                                                               four o'clock: each leaf is distinct: the brightness                                                                             edges every pebble: the shadows sharpen                                                                                 woodchip and grassblade.

This is North America's clearest season,                                                                                           lucid, unequivocal; this light suits white                                                                                   clapboard houses ruled like unwritten schoolbooks.

It was started, as the title indicates, in a playground in the town in Pennsylvania where I lived for twenty years, in that extraordinary clear light you often get in the north-eastern US in September and October.  But as the poem shows, lovely as that light was and as much as I enjoyed its clarity, I missed England:

                                         But I keep wanting                                                                                                                          muted English shades; and a crumbled honey                                                                          limestone wall, its time-softened contours blurry,                                                                            lost in moss....

Now I'm in England again, among the muted shades and limestone walls. Yet sometimes even here there is a clear bright day, and yesterday was one of those. Bright sunshine, brilliant blue skies, and in the afternoon as the sun dropped lower, the air cooled fast, and this autumnal hint gave me that September feeling. A feeling of those new school notebooks, and of new beginnings. I haven't been part of academia since I left university, but I have three children fairly widely spaced, and so for a huge swathe of my life September meant "back to school." Once they were all at school full-time, this also meant back to work for me, back to days with solitude and time to write, as I was in the lucky position of not having to go off to a nine-to-five job. So the feeling of a clean slate, a new leaf, a fresh notebook, affected me too.

Today, on September 1st, I have this frisson again. Over the last month I've been sorting poems with a view to gathering them into a collection. Despite the luxury of time over the years (or some would say, because of it) I have a very small oeuvre (!); I am an exponent of slow poetry. Very trendy, surely, like slow food. Also of slow novel writing. And slow essay writing.  So there aren't that many poems to sort.

But I am done with the collection-gathering, for now, and am ready to turn to other work. I have a couple of projects in view: my embryonic new novel is seeking its shape; I also want to write a couple of essays, and re-enter the freelance world. Time to dig in, to get cracking....slow writing is all very well, but I don't have all the time in the world. I must work harder, I must do more.

What is it that drives us to write? It's a mysterious thing.....though in my own case, using language is really all I know how to do well (except for various skills acquired during the raising of those three children, skills that aren't much appreciated in the world at large). But still, what impels me to keep doing it, to keep honing words and phrases and listening to their sound and trying to balance it all? I am not sure; its something to do with loving what Jean Rhys called the "huge lake" that is all writing. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, she says, and we can add the writers we admire; and there are "mere trickles, like Jean Rhys." (Of course now she is acknowledged as much more than a trickle). I do not matter, she says. Only the lake matters. You must feed the lake. 

And so I keep trying to feed the lake with my own tiny runnel of writing. And now, the nights are drawing in.



Today, it seems, is #Nationalbookloversday...I saw this on Twitter, and so global is the world nowadays that only this moment have I realised it is a US rather than a British thing. When I saw it, I wasn't actually thinking of it as connected to any particular nation, but rather to all of us who belong in the Republic of Books. Anyway, I may be based in the UK now, but I lived twenty-seven years in the States, and most of my library (or what's left of it after moves and downsizings) was gathered there.

"Blessed books—any one of which is worth all the toggery we ever put on our backs," wrote the artist Samuel Palmer in a letter. And how true. I'd always sooner buy a book than a piece of clothing. I read Palmer's words in the wonderful biography Mysterious Wisdom by Rachel Campbell-Johnston; she brings this artist of poetic landscapes to life, often quoting his own vivid expressions and forceful opinions, as well as delicately probing the mystery of his art. I heard her speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2011, the year the book came out, and on the strength of her brilliant talk I bought the book on the spot. I hadn't read it properly, though, until just the other day. The book was waiting on the shelf for just the perfect time; that is what books do, our faithful companions. 

My novel Inscription is a love letter to the book, to the book's codex format as well as to the richness reading brings. The books we write are alchemical compounds of all the books we've read, transmuted somehow.  Inscription touches on the historical mystery of how the codex book form evolved, and I have my first-century protagonist affect its spread a little. The protagonist of the modern strand is herself a book-lover who says, "Books have become my country."  The books on my shelves, or so I feel, hold my life, remind me I have lived and read; they are part of me. 

Of course, I also love libraries and bookshops. Second-hand and charity bookshops are my favourite haunts. In Cheltenham, where as a teenager I combed the shelves of Alan Hancox's room after room of books, I now browse in Peter Lyons's eclectic and fascinating collection; or in Cheltenham Rare Books next door, with its tempting first editions and literary oddities (as well as Inscription, honoured to find itself in such company). Even a modest budget will stretch to something in both these places. Then in the charity shops, especially those just selling books, there's always some great find, and the money goes to a good cause, or that's my excuse.

For new books there's Waterstones, and I am glad of it, but when possible I go to the independent Suffolk Anthology, a beautifully curated (as the trendy saying goes, but it's really fitting here) selection of new books on every subject. I'd be singing its praises even if it too didn't stock my book, as it also has coffee, cake, a place to sit down, and always a warm welcome.

"Blessed books,"indeed; I can't help loving them, and wanting them. What I have to safeguard, in this new world of addictions like facebook and twitter, is time for the reading of them. And I have to make sure I have a bit left over to write my own.




Distractions and the Tightrope

First, an update on the new planner....I have been using it, off and on. It's not quite incorporated into my routine yet, partly because I went away and the book was a bit too big to take with me; but when I have used it, it has really helped, and I can see that using it consistently could hugely improve my self-organization. The key part is (of course) the part I find hardest: writing the goals I set for the week into an actual time slot on an actual day! But I do like the way it encourages thought about the shape of a day, a week, and even year ahead, and reflection on where one has been and where one is going.

Part of the problem with productivity is avoiding the lure of the internet. This is harder when there is some Seriously Good Stuff to be found. The last couple of days have been a feast of thought-provoking pieces. First, the wonderful Maria Popova of Brain Pickings has some inspirational excerpts from Herman Hesse about books, starting with this:

"Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books."                                                     From his 1930 essay "The Magic of the Book." 

Then a facebook friend posted an excellent essay on Rose Kelleher's website Rambling Rose by poet A. E. Stallings debunking some of the common misconceptions about formal poetry. Some of these ideas (formal poetry is anti-feminist, formal poetry is elitist) seem to me ridiculous, but it appears some people do have them; Stallings disposes of them brilliantly. 

And then, just when I have been thinking a lot, again, about Gerard Manley Hopkins, I come across a recent piece about him and his dark sonnets in Commonweal by Matthew Boudway. It's complex and thought-provoking and I need to re-read it before I know whether I am on board with everything it says, but anyway it brings eloquently before me once more this brilliant poet and his struggles, so hard to relate to today for those of us in secular society. Hopkins died on June 8th 1889, just shy of 45, after some very miserable months, even years; so it is some comfort to know his last words were apparently "I am so happy. I am so happy. I loved my life."

At least essays like these feed into my writing mind. So much on the internet doesn't, and is distracting or (as with recent news from Orlando) deeply upsetting. Some discipline is required, some filtering, some dedicated time-keeping, and I am (with the planner's help) trying to start working on that....just as soon as I've looked up that reference and checked my Twitter feed....Enough of this "I am an addict" stuff—especially galling as I thought it would never happen to me. (Can I just point out that at least I don't, usually, go online on my phone?) In other news....

Since I last posted here, I've had an exciting experience with my novel Inscription: it was long-listed for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, one of twelve semi-finalist titles chosen out of over 150. Although it wasn't a finalist, this vote of confidence in the book has given me great delight.

It's also a spur to beginning my new book, which is an amorphous blob at the moment, but gradually begins to take shape. (I think. Or am I mad to be saying even this much?)  I know, or I trust, that once I have a better idea of where it is trying to go, I will be caught up in it and dedicated to it, as I was when writing Inscription. Though I will still need to make time for working on my poetry and gathering my first collection....

Good luck to all of us handling that slippery medium, language, and walking the tightrope of the writing life!


"What is all this juice and all this joy?"

"Nothing is so beautiful as Spring..."  says Gerard Manley Hopkins, opening the poem I quote in my title. I agree; spring is definitely my favourite season, and always has been. An American friend of mine experiencing her first English spring said the other day that it was "magical."  In Pennsylvania Spring can be wonderful too, especially after the brutal winter; but there it changes so quickly into summer. There isn't (it seemed to me) the same tentativeness, the same delicacy, the same limpid light that is outside right this moment, as the morning's showers clear—perhaps only for a while—and the sunshine breaks through. And then comes the song of the blackbird, which I used to miss so much....

Every spring as a child, and then as a teenager and college student, I felt the same delicious frisson, a shiver of promise, and I still do. As intensely as when I was young? Perhaps not quite. But I feel it, a sensation that can't be described—not that this has stopped people, including myself, from trying. The challenge is to try and say something fresh about spring's very freshness, and it seems impossible. (I have been lucky, a couple of my spring poem attempts have been published; perhaps I'll post them on the Poetry page).

It's always and miraculously true that the season brings renewal to the green and growing things, and I find myself seeking renewal too. Wanting a fresh start in writing, in relationships, in my (currently dormant) spiritual life.  There ensues the usual struggle between this desire and my simple human laziness. 

This year something very simple and—apparently—unspiritual is helping with a tentative rebirth of creativity; how much, only time will tell. It's a new planner. Just as the mundane chore of cleaning and organising one's desk can make space for fresh ideas to blow in, so finding a planner that seems to allow room for creative projects as well as daily chores can help one (or help me—best drop this pretence that everyone's as hopeless as I am) manage time a trifle better.

 I carry no brief for this company, with which I have no connections whatsoever, but I am liking my new "Passion Planner." My sister discovered this American enterprise, and when I was last in the States I ordered and brought back two planners, on sale because we're almost half-way through the year. The company was originally and successfully crowd-sourced as so many people responded to the idea of the young founder, Angelia Trinidad.

Her planner notebook allows space for mind maps, prompts you to write down good things that happened as well as things "to do," helps you to formulate clear goals for both work and personal life, gives you space to write your hopes at the start of each month and a reflection at the end, and provides nice big sections named "Space of Infinite Possibility." There are also inspiring quotes scattered throughout: this week's is from Abraham Lincoln: "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading today."  There are helpful tips which you may or may not like, but can ignore if you want, such as "Avoid the unnecessary stress that comes with procrastination" followed by an idea of how to use the planner to actually do this.  In short, it's an unusual mix of the guided and the open-ended. A combination journal, agenda, and sketchbook. As Trinidad says on the introductory page, "I wanted to create the planner I wish someone had give me when I was feeling lost, so I decided to make it myself." 

I'm currently enthusiastic, though of course, like so many new starts, it may fizzle out. But perhaps the breezy energy of spring will buoy me towards a new phase...

"Birds build — but not I build," said Gerard Manley Hopkins, in another, very different, poem.  That's how I've been feeling for a while, but now I hope there's a change in the air, for me and for anyone who longs to build or to make something this spring.

Here's wishing everyone creative juice and joy.






Alan Garner: "The numinous as a book"

How quickly time passes, how many days have gone by since I last wrote here. At least by posting today I'll prevent April from slipping away unmarked.

I was lucky enough recently to be at the launch for a wonderful collection of essays in honour of Alan Garner, called First Light, edited by Erica Wagner.  As a teenager I was captivated by Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen and I have been in his debt ever since, though have not kept up with all his books through the years. But now I will read all those I missed, and revisit the ones I read when so young that I probably missed a good deal of their complexity.

 A few years ago, I heard him speak at the Cheltenham Literature festival and he was mesmerising. And what a wonderful feeling to be there listening to someone whose work enchanted me so forcefully when I was fourteen; apart from anything else, it made me feel much younger than I am. Or, to put what I mean less flippantly, it gave me a wonderful sense of continuity in my reading life. (A bit like when Madeleine L'Engle, whose Wrinkle in Time was one of the most important books I read as a ten-year-old English child, came three decades later to a conference centre near where I lived in northeastern Pennsylvania, and I met her at last).  

If you don't know the work of Alan Garner, I can't convey his spell here. But contributors to the book include Philip Pullman, Stephen Fry, Robert Macfarlane, Ali Smith, Salley Vickers, Margaret Atwood, Rowan Williams, Michael Wood....he appeals to writers and artists, but also, as Erica Wagner says in her introduction, to scientists, archaeologists, historians. His words "make worlds which connect" with the work of all these different people.

At the afternoon lecture preceding the reception, I found myself sitting next to writer Katherine Langrish. In her contribution to First Light, she says Garner's first four books changed her imagination. "Under the seeing eye, landscapes reveal layers—strata—of history, prehistory, geology and legend. Places are founded in time, time becomes a dimension of place." 

Garner himself, in his talk "The Voice that Thunders" (collected with other lectures and essays in the book of the same name), says he has the combination of "an academic's and a magpie's mind that sees, finds or makes connections and patterns where others do not."  It's this making of connections and patterns that is his magic.

His fictions connect real places in modern England with the life of their past centuries, and with the myths that sleep in their stony underground bones. He does not really write for children, though children are sometimes the protagonists of his books and young readers can enjoy some of them.  Describing the twelve-year-long writing of Strandloper (published 1996) he said it began with a newspaper cutting about a man from a hamlet called Marton, close to Garner's own home, who had been transported to Australia in 1803: "I know instantly that I am pregnant with his story." He begins researching, delighting in what he learns as he collects information, follows many seemingly-unlinked threads; and then becomes "enthralled as the unconnected themes begin to converge....and for me it is the convergence, an elegant and natural simplicity of resolution, that hidden union, which has always been waiting: the numinous as a book."

The "Voice that Thunders," he says, is the name the Aborigines give to the source of inspiration. He has heard it himself. In the writing of Strandloper it commanded: "Go to Marton church." He had known this church all his life,  but now it showed him, in the patterns of its medieval windows, a link with the patterns used in Aboriginal ritual body art, and with the abstract patterns of dot, zig-zag and spiral, the "entoptic lines," used in cave paintings and elsewhere in many different times and places. In this church he found the climax for his story, and his fiction came full circle, back to home ground.

Impossible in this space to give more than a hint of the resonating power of Garner's themes, stories, and images. Or of his language. Or of the way he intertwines myth with reality, making them seem—or showing that they are?—part of the same story. But it was an amazing experience to be with so many other people who had been moved by this writer. It was a testimony to the power of language, of story, of the way books can touch the deepest parts of us. 

As Hugh Lupton writes of Garner in First Light: "At the back of our battered landscapes and our tattered shreds of folklore he gives us story and prayer, the deep culture of England." And David Almond puts it thus: "He helps us touch the extraordinary ordinary objects, helps us experience the sacred places...And we are enthralled by this world made so very real, and by the mystery that lies within and all around it." 



There is balm in Gilead

I'm reading Marilynne Robinson's Lila, third in a sequence of novels after Gilead and Home. These books are extraordinary. Sometimes, reading a brilliant book makes me feel a sort of irritable envy, a "wish I could have done that" resentment. But Robinson's work is beyond that sort of response. It leaves me awed, moved, and full of gratitude that she exists, and that she has made these books.

They do what books should do: illuminate the ordinary moments. ("Oh, I will miss the world!" says dying old John Ames in Gilead). Bring to life, through real, flawed people, the power of kindness, faith, and love ("Nobody deserves anything, good or bad. It's all grace," says Boughton, forgiving the son who has given him endless sorrow, in Home). Show redemption, resurrection even ("Strange as all this is, there might be something to it, thinks Lila in Lila). But never preachingly, never cloying or sentimental, and looking unflinchingly at the hard things too, so the flashes of grace are well-earned. These books may have spiritual implications, but they make you love the very stuff of physical life.

I've always been drawn, in reading and in writing, to matters of the spirit. My background and inclination are Christian, but my beliefs, not that I have anything so firm as to merit the word, are more and more open-ended and wide-ranging, and I flee from dogma. Paul Elie says, of psychiatrist and author Robert Coles, that he "was the very archetype of the secular post-modern pilgrim—not a believer himself, but a person who is attracted to belief, prone to it, often covetous of it in others, and who is brought to the threshold of belief imaginatively through his reading." I recognise something of myself here, though I have done so little with my own pilgrimage. 

That quote is from Paul Elie's fascinating book, The Life you Save May Be Your Own: an American Pilgrimage, which looks at four writers, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor, and they way the sought the truth in their lives, in their ways of living but also in the way they wrote: "Their writing was the most personal way of all, for in the act of reading and writing one stranger and another go forth to meet in an encounter of the profoundest sort."

Years ago, I was asked to participate in a conference at DeSales University about writing and spirituality. As I listened to the other speakers, I felt an overwhelming sense of homecoming: this is my place, my territory, this intersection of writing with the search for something "beyond", and although I've been forgetting about it, this is where I belong. Similarly, when I read Parabola magazine, which examines "the search for meaning" and explores the world's spiritual traditions, I feel at home and enriched there (and glad three of my essays have contributed to its archive). The writers who excite me often inhabit that borderland where twin yearnings, to make something well with words and to find meaning, flow into each other: Annie Dillard, Madeleine L'Engle, Darcey Steinke, Frederick Buechner, Michael Mayne, Ronald Blythe...

That borderland is my natural habitat, though I could never shed the kind of light on it that they do, and that Robinson does. Apart from anything else, my "faith" in anything "beyond" is at present a feeble and wavering flame. But then, perhaps that is when I most need to spend time there? At any rate, I know that's the territory where I want to walk, and work. 


Note: The reason I'm reading Lila now, and about to re-read the earlier Gilead books, is that my wonderful local independent bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology, is running a seminar on them on March 23rd.

A Blank Page

Spring is in the air; there are greening leaf-buds on the trees. Crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils are at their peak or even beyond, and the next wave of new growth and flowering is almost ready. The days are longer; and there's a subtle excitement, a sense of potential for something new.

I'm sitting looking out of the window at the morning sun beginning to break through cloud cover and I'm thinking about my idea for a new book. It's still very much unshaped...like a water-colour artist's paper covered only in a hint of wash, with faint forms beginning to appear, but still undefined. I have become fascinated by the mid-Victorian era, 1840s and 1850s, and I know the book will involve that time frame somehow. I know some of the themes, am formulating an idea of character, a sense of place; but it is all happening so slowly.

Spring comes quickly; soon the bluebells will be here, azure mist on the woodland slopes ; and one spring follows another faster and faster for me now. This book idea has been simmering for a few years already, though I find that hard to believe. It was the same with Inscription; and even once the idea took shape, my perfectionist way of making draft after draft, of rewriting over and over, meant the book took still more years to create and complete.

Time's wingèd chariot is snapping at my heels, to ruin Marvell's metaphor; and I berate myself for being such a slow writer. Months to write a poem? Years to write a book? Why? Why am I so ridiculously glacial in pace, when my bones know, every day more deeply, how brief this life is?

I can change some of my habits, I can exert more self-discipline. I can remind myself of what it felt like to write journalism, with no leeway.  I can give myself deadlines. And with the new impetus of spring, I'm determining today to do just that.  But I don't think I'll ever be a speedy, prolific writer, turning out a book a year, as some authors do, or a finished poem a day.

And I realise that, as usual, I have to find a balance; once again, it's that tightrope we writers walk. I must indeed get a move on, if I want to finish another book. But I shouldn't panic about it, as that leads to paralysis. I need to forgive myself for being slow and perfectionist. It can be modified, but it probably can't be fundamentally changed. I need to accept that it's just the way I am.

Yet I am an impatient person, at the same time. I have to remind myself that it's not a race; remind myself to relax; to rediscover the play of making something, the enjoyable puzzle.

Here's a bit from a book that is moving so many readers now, When Breath becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a writer and doctor who died a year ago at 37: when he held his newborn baby, her weight in one arm, gripping his wife's hand with the other, "..the possibilities of life emanated before us. The cancer cells in my body would still be dying, or they'd start growing again. Looking out over the expanse ahead I saw not an empty wasteland but something simpler: a blank page on which I would go on."








Laughter in the Bath

I started this post last night because of something that made me laugh while reading in the bath. It was about people in a boarding house during the war: "Mr Thwaites...spent much of the time writing embittered letters in the Lounge. These, after he had put on his overcoat and cap, he took round to the Post Office and posted in the most acid way. He passed pillar-boxes on the way, but did not trust them, as not going to the root of the matter."  

That last bit is what elicited the chuckle: Mr Thwaites is a thoroughly nasty man, but I admit I share this trait with him. I too hesitate to consign a letter to a pillar-box, much as I like them—and we even have an octagonal Victorian one five minutes' walk away, the VR elegantly adorning its front, the (admittedly small) mouth leading to a perfectly responsible cavity emptied regularly by employees of the Post Office. It was apposite that I was reading this in last night's bath; earlier in the day (which of course was Sunday) I'd posted a letter in a box that proclaimed its last collection was at 5:30 pm, but "there may be" other collections during the day. That half-promise was annoyingly vague. Immediately after dropping the envelope in, I was assailed by regret: surely it would have been better to go to the post office next morning, Monday, when my letter would have been pretty imminently dispatched, rather than leave it in a box which quite possibly would not be emptied all day. (My regret would have been greater if I'd remembered then what I've only just recalled as I write, that I could have gone to the Post Office anyway because it's open on Sundays now! This is quite a recent development; perhaps a hearkening back to earlier times, for example 1841, when post offices were open on Sundays—except during morning religious services—and from 6:00am to 10:00 pm during the week.)

All this reminds me of a British book about a British man in England, who for a reason I forget was looking at or thinking about a pillar box. It was seen from his point of view, through his thoughts. Because I was reading the American edition, I found him thinking about a "mailbox" instead. This man would never have thought that, and I'd bet millions that the author didn't write that. The editorial tampering destroyed the credibility of the character and his world.....I'd better stop, this is a hobby-horse of mine. Of course, after years of living in the States, I learnt to say "mailbox" myself, instead of "pillar box" or "post box." Now that I'm back in England I find I've sometimes forgotten the vocabulary I grew up with.

But to get back to the bath, where I laughed, recognizing myself in the ghastly Mr Thwaites.  He comes from Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947); it is bleakly funny, and brilliant. Hamilton is like a sort of grimmer Pym (and this is an accolade, for I deeply admire Barbara Pym, and she can often, beneath the surface cosiness, be very dark—see Quartet in Autumn). Slaves of Solitude is about a disparate group of people who for one reason or another—bombed out of their London flats, suddenly impoverished—have to live in a boarding house. Trapped there, enduring ghastly communal meals rife with awkward and even cruel conversations, they struggle through their days as best they can. I'm only a third of the way in, but I am awed by the writing of this author whose work I've only now discovered, on a friend's recommendation.

In fact, she lent me her copy; I hope when I give it back it won't be too wrinkly. I approach a bath like Dodie Smith's Cassandra in I Capture the Castle: "I bask first, wash second, and then read as long as the hot water holds out."  Unlike her, I have the luxury of being able to top up the water greedily to extend the bliss....how wonderful that the blessings of hot baths, and of books whether in or out of them, never grow stale.


Glorious mud

Follow me, follow, down to the hollow, where we will wallow...you know what comes next, and we have certainly seen enough mud in the last few weeks to serve us for a very long while. Maybe I shouldn't have written about the sun last time.

Today I'm concerned about a practical issue: how you may follow me, or rather follow this blog, should you wish to. All three or four of you. So this post is just a test one as I try to work on that. I may try to link this blog with my old blogspot blog...watch this space.

Anyway I will be back soon with more about really important things like books, reading, and writing.