Thursday, 22 December 2011

Rev./The shortest day

My sister-in-law went to church on Sunday for the first time in years - because she's started watching Rev.  the BBC2 comedy about an inner city vicar.  As a fan of the show myself, I'm not surprised - I just hope she found someone in the pulpit at least half as honest as the show's Adam Smallbone. He's so full of doubts and fears, he's endearing because he struggles, and he's got an almost impossible task: how on earth to be relevant to and meet the needs of the community his church supposedly serves. Adam has a vast and dilapidated church which attracts a small and marginalised congregation.

Friday, 16 December 2011

A princess for my daughter

My daughter met three princesses this year. Their names are Tough, Ordinary and Paper Bag.

The Tough Princess has great swinging fists that slay monsters and beat up fairies, sometimes good ones, accidentally. My daughter discovered a copy of The Tough Princess - in a rather battered condition - after a swimming lesson, towards the bottom of the book box in the spectators' area. This princess has parents who are stuck in the past and who are pretty useless really; she has to take her fate into her own hands. She helps my daughter (and me) remember that girls can be strong and fit and are perfectly capable of taking control of their own destiny.

Another day we were in our local teashop, which has an entire wall of china teapots. 

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Oedipus/Hazel Motes

 Today's post comes from the talented Dawna Kemper who is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Santa Monica Review, The Idaho Review and other literary journals. She recently completed a short story collection and is working on her first novel.

Lately, because I’ve been reading Michael Wood’s The Road to Delphi, I’ve been thinking about oracles, and the desire to have the future spelled out at the same time that we really don’t want to hear what’s coming. (Climate change deniers, take note.) Naturally, I think of Sophocles’ Oedipus, about which Wood writes eloquently, comparing versions ancient and modern.

I was thinking about these comparisons when

Monday, 5 December 2011


I've been preparing to teach a life writing class in which I'm going to introduce some of the basic elements of myth as a way of getting people to write about their own lives. So I've been reading a lot of myths and a lot about them.

As I've done so, I realise

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Poets and Writers/Being a mum

It's beyond my worst nightmare that one of my children should become seriously ill. Which makes an essay I just read in the current issue of Poets and Writers magazine all the more moving and inspirational. Like many creative mums, Lisa Jennifer Selzman planned to write during the day once her kids had both started at school - and she did. But when her daughter Steffie became seriously ill, Lisa's writing ground to a halt.

"I stopped writing because I didn't see the point," writes Lisa.

Friday, 11 November 2011

The Marriage Plot/A literary crush

It takes a lot to get me out of the nest these autumn nights, but the promise of seeing Jeff Eugenides last Sunday sent me fluttering across town. He is my literary crush.

So there I was in the Whitworth Art Gallery, with these huge floor to ceiling windows looking out over a dark park (we must have been quite a spectacle to any creatures sheltering out there) while Jeff sat on a platform in front. Pitter patter, be still my beating heart. He was with  DJ Dave Haslam, who regularly interviews big name writers.

Jeff was plugging his new novel, The Marriage Plot, but took questions about his other two, The Virgin Suicides (made into eponymous film by Sofia Coppola) and Middlesex, which won a Pulitzer.

Why do I like Eugenides so much?

1) He takes his time. One novel every six years or so. That's encouraging.

2) He sets himself seemingly impossible challenges, and carries them off. The first novel he wrote in the first person plural - ie told by a collective narrator. This has hardly ever been done before because it's extremely hard to do well. He also summarised the entire plot in the first paragraph which he claimed he used as a first time novelist's map as he wrote. Just in case anyone thought that degree of difficulty was a one-off, for his second novel he chose an intersex protagonist. And won a Pulitzer for his pains.

3) He prefers novel writing to short story writing (! and see this blog post), because he told us, he likes to have the space to introduce and explore  a whole series of ideas.

4) He was modest and answered all questions thoughtfully, as if he'd never been asked them before. That's courteousy.

I asked him what constraints he set himself before starting to write The Marriage Plot - he said "Tightly dramatized, deep characterisation, " were what he was going for. He read a long extract and it reminded me of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. A good sign.

I clutched my signed copy all the way home and vowed not to leave my sofa until I'd finished it.

Want more?  Here's Zoe Lambert's blog piece about the evening and also Katie Popperwell's interview with Eugenides for the Creative Times.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011


I'm driving through the rain on this October night when I glimpse a movement ahead. As I slow the car to turn into my street, I'm half listening to some guitar-based dad rock while my head churns over a remark someone made at work today, when there it is in the headlights. A fox.

A fox, not a cat, is silhouetted against a garden wall ahead. It slinks in the shelter of the wall then turns to face the car. For a moment everything stops: my hands on the wheel. The music. My thoughts. Time itself. There's a moment of still. I look at the fox and the fox looks at me. Its eyes are wide open, dark, lovely and unreadable. There is no doubting its foxiness: the pricked-up ears, the whiskered snout, its gingery coat made pale by the orange streetlight glow. Fox turns tail - a proper fox-shaped bushy tail - and scarpers over the wall. Then it is gone and I am in the middle of the road, still turning, turning, turning the wheel towards home.

Afterwards my evening is not the same. I hear sirens and traffic noise outside, and imagine the fox out in the great dark.

Perhaps mysteries always lurk just behind the ordinary world. And perhaps it is not great perception but simple luck whether we chance upon a mystery, or whether we drive past, oblivious.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Vernon God Little/The Red Tent

Pick two books at random and read them simultaneously. That’s pretty much what I did this week with The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.

The Red Tent is about menstrual blood and childbirth and midwives. Set in an Old Testament world where women worship their own goddesses rather than the God of Jacob and Abraham,  it’s a true woman’s book - it rewrites a male story from a female point of view.

Vernon God Little ‘writes the body’ of a stinky teenage lad, positively plunges you, in fact, into an adolescent boy world of knicker-sniffing and mother-hating – which is hard to stomach when a) you are a mother and b) you’re also reading The Red Tent.

What both novels do successfully though, is to absorb you utterly into their worlds.

A few years ago I read extracts from The Red Tent with a literacy student, a Jewish woman who originated from Aden, and who with her sisters was forced to leave school at 12. My student disapproved of The Red Tent because it is a re-imagining of the Biblical story of Dinah, and as a devoutly Orthodox person she felt uncomfortable with a re-versioning of the Torah. It also brought back memories of her own childhood in a society where girls were expected to do housework, marry, bear children and little more.

Her response was in part a testimony to the level of vivid detail in the storytelling - Diamant pays great attention to everyday activities like spinning and weaving so breathes life into them.

I almost gave up on Vernon God Little several times – set in the aftermath of a Texas high school shooting, it’s not a comfortable read. The noose is pulled tighter and tighter around our hero’s neck - hard to read, but harder to write. I admire any writer who can unflinchingly take a character to dark places without resorting to sentimentality. The language is astonishing (did I say it won the Booker Prize in 2003?) and the ending pays you back.

Both amazing reads, but perhaps not in the same week.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011


Tonight feels like autumn, tomorrow is National Poetry Day and this week is Children's Book Week. So here's a poem to connect all three. It's about a man who acts like a child and thinks he's a tree (geddit?).
The Fall by Russell Edson
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.

To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.

He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.

But his parents said look it is fall.

Huge numbers of poetry-related events are happening all over the UK tomorrow, including an outing by the bard of Prestwich, Tony Walsh, aka performance poet Longfella. He was poet-in-residence at the Glastonbury festival this year, is a scorching performer and is appearing at Nantwich Library in Cheshire at 7pm.

Up at Bury Library at 5pm, feisty poet and college student Charlotte Henson is leading a poetry workshop "by young people, for young people". More details here.

If you're staying in, try the following. Pick up a book of poetry. (OK, this may necessitate a visit to your local library). Open it at random. Read whatever poem you land on. Ta da. 

If you're feeling really inspired, pick the most interesting sounding line, and use it to start a poem of your own.

The beautiful picture above is from Sung Under the Silver Umbrella © Dorothy Lathrop 1954.

Saturday, 1 October 2011


Yesterday the playground hopped with excitement. The youngest children in school - all 120 of them - were off on double decker coaches to help film an episode of a new childrens' TV show with Justin, the Bafta winning CBeebies presenter. There was nonetheless some grumbling from my daughter and her friends: 
"It's not fair, we never got to do that in year 1." 
Some parts of the BBC have just moved to Salford Quays, down the road from here. Cue much gleeful reporting from the London-based media about BBC employees reluctant to make the move, and misinformation about the grimness of Salford. (As if White City were some kind of earthly paradise.)

But I can only see the BBC move as hugely positive. I had to remind my daughter that she'd already been to the BBC at Media City. During the summer we'd been to Music Boxes, a free Manchester International Festival event at Salford Quays: shipping containers outside the BBC building were transformed into live performance spaces, aimed at the very young. My children were thrilled to spend time there with Mister Maker, another CBeebies star.

OK, perhaps they're easily pleased, but the BBC is already giving a sense of opportunity to a generation in and around Manchester. Those kids at my daughter's school will grow up knowing that they really can become sound engineers, or producers, or reporters, or presenters, or whatever, because they have met people like that. So hats off to the BBC for starting to engage with local schools and families, and long may those relationships flourish and grow.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

New arrivals/inspiration

At work, the academic year is starting, new students are arriving and milling about the campus. It's the pinnacle of a long summer of preparation.

Yesterday, I met Paul J Abbott, induction manager at the University of Salford, a man who genuinely has an excuse to be busy at this time of year, what with 6,000 newcomers on campus and him expected to welcome them all. But that's not stopped his creativity. He's an experimental musician and as he watched the freshers zig zag across campus an idea came to him. He would make their journeys into a piece of music.

It would have been really easy for Paul to say this is the wrong time of year, I can't compose now, I'm much too busy. But instead he turned his day job into art. He made a large map and asked students to mark on it the beginning point of their journey, and to tell him how long it took them to get there.

He explains what he did next:
"By working with an acetate overlay I was able to identify musical lines from using rotations around the point of the compass. These were interpreted into a series of rhythmic phrases by normalising the start points for each journey and using the various times of landing, or points of arrival, to establish a series of complex patterns. The score is in part a text piece around a series of phrases which can be performed by three or more performers."
The result is called Points of Arrival. It was commissioned by Manchester's own Chiasmus Ensemble and you can watch its first performance here. It's had several outings since, including a performance by Paul himself last night.

Musicians make music. Artists make art. Writers write. No matter how busy they are. Because everything around us (even pigeons, see previous blog post) is potential inspiration.

One creative idea often leads to another too. One of Paul's latest projects is to lend a hand with the rehabilitation of the Black Lion pub, on the corner of Blackfriars and Chapel Street. It's been shut for a while, but is now coming back to life as an creative centre for the arts with a live performance space, cinema and bar, thanks to Salford film production company Future Artists.

This Saturday, 24th September, they're holding a Pledge, Pitch, Play, Party event - the public votes for one of ten shortlisted acts - Paul is one of them - and the winner will receive free performance space at the Black Lion.

Why not get down there on Saturday and be inspired?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


Pigeons have been popping up all over the place this week. I love how something as ordinary as a pigeon can inspire a huge variety of art.

First my friends Kaaren and Richard have been documenting the pairs of pigeons nestbuilding in a Parisian windowbox. Just like K and R, these Eurasian Collared Doves are a loved-up pair, who live in artistic and exquisite surroundings, and enjoy some of the simplest and best things in life. Kaaren is a writer whose wonderful insights are informed by a huge knowledge of myth; Richard's beautiful photographs add a vibrant dimension to their joint work.

At the other end of the scale is Brian the pigeon, the Parisians' downmarket London cousin. His blog is earthy, foul mouthed and hilarious. Brian's "PR agent" is Lisa Shand, a talented up and coming writer, who has a great handle on first person narrative, and whose first novel I will be looking out for.

Finally at Bury Literary Salon this week the affable poet and artist Josef Minta showed a short film he'd made featuring pigeons flying in a city sky. They circle and swoop and turn above the rooftops against a haunting soundtrack. To me they seemed like a squadron of world war two bombers, then a pair lifted off into the sky like a still from Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. If you watch it, expect to see something different.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


The first few days back at work after a holiday are always hard. As I trudged to work this morning, my head still full of Scottish beaches, I met a rabbit. This is not normal: I work in the centre of Manchester practically. But my route does take me along the side of Peel Park, a green haven and the oldest public park in Europe.

The rabbit hopped quite confidently up a slope to my left and onto the footpath in front of me. It was a wild brown rabbit, large and plump, with powerful back legs and a cotton wool ball for a tail. It stopped. I stopped too. Its nose twitched. 

It seemed entirely unconcerned by my presence, as if it didn't consider human beings anything out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was an escaped pet? Perhaps. But last time I was in a pet shop, the rabbits were all freakishly cute, with long fur and ears that flopped downwards instead of pricking up. Their big needy eyes pleaded “take me take me take me”. This one had short, dull fur, coloured for camouflage, and he ignored me totally. I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.

He lolloped casually under a hedge and onto the campus, towards a stretch of lawn left unmown to attract wildlife. He (I’m sure the rabbit was a he) nibbled at some clover, and sniffed the air some more.

What does it mean to see a rabbit in the morning? I wondered if it was an omen. His fat haunches disappeared with a flash of tail under a line of shrubs in front of the student shop, and he left me standing there, alone.

Just another creature going about its daily business, I suppose. I pushed the strap of my bag back onto my shoulder. Then I went on my way, towards the noise of traffic, my computer and a nice cup of tea in my hutch.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

East Neuk/Small Island

I'm lucky enough to be sitting at the tip of a glorious green and gold peninsula overlooking the North Sea. Overhead a skein of wild geese are flying in a raggedy V formation.  Behind me, the landscape of my childhood rolls away in gentle hills, with grey stone walls dividing fields of wheat, oats and barley. How lovely it is to bring my own children here, to watch them dig with buckets and spades on the astonishing apricot- coloured sand and hope they absorb some of the DNA of this place as the east wind dries the salt on their skin.

I always like to take something incongruous on holiday which is why I've brought Small Island by Andrea Levy - a tale of immigration, racism and empire - to this cosy, rural and overlooked corner of Scotland. It's a beautifully written tale of the impact of migration and immigration just after the Second World War - multiple narrators handled with real skill, heavy themes treated with grace and lightness. Beautiful. 

Without forcing connections between this place and the book, I can relate to Gilbert in Small Island who feels at one point like a prisoner on his native island of Jamaica:

"Everywhere I turn I gazed on the sea. The palm trees that tourists thought rested so beautiful on every shore were my prison bars. Horizons were my tormenting borders. I envied the pelican, I envied the crow - with wings they could fly easy from this place to rest in some other."

That perfectly encapsulates how I felt here in the East Neuk as a fifteen-year-old.  I shared Gilbert's fury at being trapped in the wrong place, and harboured a longing to sprout wings and fly off with those wild geese. Why was I here, in the midst of ploughed fields, where Nothing Ever Happened? In plot terms, that's an important moment - it's a point at which the protagonist longs to escape the Ordinary World, as Martha Alderson the Plot Whisperer describes it, so that the story may begin.

It's strange how things work out - within a year I had indeed flown 300 miles south to Birmingham and then a series of other cities in which I have played out my adult days so far. Yet I've returned here often in my imagination; I've written it out of my system over and over again in my novel, but the longing for this place remains like an itch of sand against the skin. So now I'm back, like the American tourists tracing their heritage, or the swifts and swallows who return to the same fields each summer with their young.

It's a mark of the strength of Andrea Levy's writing that at the end of her novel,  I wondered if Gilbert and Hortense ever returned to Jamaica. Perhaps in old age. And I hoped they did.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Thankyou letter/Alan Garner

Dear Aunty Bridget,

I hope this letter finds you well. I appreciate that 31 years is quite a long time to wait for a thankyou letter, but nonetheless, here it is. I just wanted to let you know that the three novels you sent me for Christmas 1980 - Elidor, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service - became three of the most read books on my childhood bookshelf. They introduced me to the thrill of scary writing, and left me with an abiding fear of underground tunnels. They were also the first books that showed me the power of mixing myth, legend and a strong sense of place. One of the ideas I've been exploring in my own (heavily revised, not yet to see the light of day) novel is how a sense of place can be made up of layers of stories from the past. And I wouldn't be doing that without the seed that those books sowed in me all those years ago. So thankyou.

I didn't realise until the other day when I read this blog post that you were a Cheshire neighbour of the author, Alan Garner. It jogged my memory back to my childhood bookshelf, and to your kind gift. You may already know that Mr Garner was recently awarded an honorary degree by my employer, the University of Salford. Next time I take the kids to Jodrell Bank, perhaps we could come to visit you, and combine it with a trip to Alan Garner's home, Blackden, which is now a creative and educational centre. He really has created an amazing legacy.

You have always been a strong, purposeful person, who insists that there is a right way of doing things, and who demonstrates to others what that is. I hope you will forgive my tardiness with this thankyou letter (yours are always written by December 29th at the latest, I'm sure). And I hope you are pleased that the books you gave me took root in me and helped give me a sense of purpose too.


Your niece

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Reading and writing/eating and cooking

I've been to a couple of author events recently where audience members asked the writer variations on this question: "I felt sad to leave characters behind when I reached the end of your book - did you feel that too, when you finished writing?" The answer from both authors was a resounding no.

That made me smile because it illustrates the wonderful difference between reading and writing.

It's like the difference between eating and cooking. Eating is fun. You salivate, savour, taste, try, enjoy, share. (Hell, even spit out if you really don't like it.) The plate is set in front of you, and you experience what's on it. Cooking is also fun, but it's an entirely different pleasure. It's about anticipating what will create good taste sensations in the person who will be doing the eating. You need some basic skill - to follow a recipe - but also you need to know that certain combinations will produce a certain effect: cooked apple tastes even better with a pinch of cinnamon. A squeeze of lemon lifts grilled chicken. And so on.

It's a lot easier to be a good cook if you enjoy eating, because each time you eat something good you store away a memory of that experience, and perhaps one day you will strive to reproduce it (the golden patches on that perfect omelette, the melting quality of an amazing loaf of sourdough).

It's the same with writing. I think you have to enjoy reading (and do a lot of it) to be a good writer. Because that's how we find out how to achieve the effects we want our readers to experience. Whether it's tension and suspense, surprise, humour, a multi layered plot or whatever, it can all be found in someone else's writing.

And by the time you've read plenty, and figured out how to create a character your readers will fall in love with, and written it, and rewritten it, and rewritten about a hundred times more, it's not surprising once you've finished and are sending your book out into the world, that all you want to say to the character is: "Thanks, good luck and goodbye." The author is ready for an amicable divorce, just as the readers, fingers crossed, are going to fall in love.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

Ingrid Bergman plays a nun

Despite all evidence to the contrary last week, things are looking up in north Manchester: there are now two literary salons within striking distance. Unfortunately, like buses, they've both come along at once.

So on Monday, 12 September, lovers of literature may choose either Bury Literary Salon which presents The Abbreviated Day at Bury Library - performed by poet and artist Joseph Minta, and friends. 7.30pm, £3/£2 Details to follow on Bury Library's facebook page.

Or they may head in the opposite direction to Waterstones, Deansgate, to the second Bookmarked Literary Salon, hosted by the talented and energetic Simon Savidge of his eponymous blog. He's in conversation with queen of crime, Val McDermid. 7pm, £5/£3

For those who have to wash their hair that night, the good news is that Manchester Literary Festival returns in October for thirteen whole days of book-packed action. There's a lot to choose from, including local lass Emma Jane Unsworth, whose novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything I have written about before, and the legend that is Allan Hollinghurst. For some reason, I also particularly like the sound of a performance of Sarah Dunant's historic novel Sacred Hearts in Manchester Cathedral on October 16th. It's the promise of singing nuns, I think. Gets me every time.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


I woke up this morning with one word on my mind: carnival. Which was peculiar as last night was anything but – young people on the streets of my city and many others, smashing up shops, burning down properties. 

Riot. The word strikes fear into people’s hearts. The Prime Minister has authorised the use of plastic bullets.  People are calling for the return of the death penalty, for people wearing hoodies to be arrested on sight, and vigilantes have been patrolling the streets looking to give the rioters a good kicking. Even the liberal-minded Independent newspaper bears a headline “The end of civilisation as we British know it”.

Yesterday I met a young guy with a weatherbeaten face in the street. He was wearing a hoodie and hurrying towards the sound of a police helicopter and assorted sirens in the direction of Salford Precinct. My colleague was carrying a large cardboard box full of first aid kits for an adjacent office block. The guy in the hoodie grinned. “Did you get them from the Precinct?” he said. And he bounded on up the road. For him, the opportunity for a bit of rioting was clearly a break from the norm, a chance to get up to some mischief, to do something he’d perhaps thought about but never dared: to help himself to goods from shops. There was a gleam in his eye. He was hurrying because he knew there was a limited window of opportunity.

That’s what I suggest this rioting is all about. It’s not the end of civilisation. It’s a temporary suspension of the norm. It's a carnival (though I know that might sound shocking when people’s livelihoods have been destroyed, and people have been injured and even died.) But that’s how some of the great thinkers and writers of the last century would have described the last few days. During carnival people can do all kinds of things they don’t normally do: challenge authority, smash things up. It functions as a kind of safety valve. Last night was a kind of carnival, when teenagers, kids, young people did some of the things they’d never normally do. And because there weren’t enough police on the streets, not initially anyway, they could. Today, or tomorrow, the window of opportunity will have shut.

Society may be just the same after this period of carnival, or it may change, particularly for those young people, and hopefully for the better. For more about carnival theory, in relation to a Curious George story, read this fantastic blog post.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Tour de France/how to be fabulously successful

Although it's early August, I'm still suffering withdrawal from the Tour de France. If it wasn't cruelly inhuman for the riders, wouldn't it be wonderful as a two month race? Ah, the fields of sunflowers. Oooh, those glorious mountains. Eeek, the men in lycra. To recapture some of that Tour feeling, this week I read Ned Boulting's How I won the yellow jumper. He's a sports reporter who has worked on the Tour since 2003, and the book is witty and readable.

Yet the idea that jumped out at me was in a description of British cycling legend Chris Boardman.

"Chris has a habit of applying an aggregation of marginal gains to almost everything he turns his hand to," writes Ned. What a fabulous way to describe how a succesful person gets that way. He likes to do everything a little bit better than average, or perhaps a little bit better than other people. And he makes a habit of it.

After a week, a month, or a lifetime of doing everything just a little bit better than others two things probably ensue: a) you might piss some folk off and b) you will end up sitting on some good successes. Assuming you can sort a) out, you may well end up with a track record along the lines of Chris Boardman: Olympic gold medalist, world record holder, yellow jersey winner.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

One Day/contemporary love stories

A teacher of mine once said that a good love story always needs a reason the lovers can’t be together, otherwise it’s not a story. That’s why it’s hard to write powerful love stories set in the contemporary west. If a boy and a girl like each other, they just go to bed, right? End of story. Writers have to be inventive to create interesting love stories these days. Like Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife where one of the lovers keeps disappearing into a loophole in time – clearly a barrier to any romance.

This week I read David Nicholls' One Day. It’s a great contemporary love story, and I’m so glad I neglected my kids (sorry kids) to read it this week. Most of my reactions are similar to this review at Savidge Reads

As a writer, I admire this book because at first glance there isn’t such an insurmountable barrier between the would-be lovers. Yet there is a real struggle towards love for both of them, which makes a compelling read. The barrier between them isn’t so much physical – the novel starts with them in bed together, shortly after they’ve met, but the real story is about how (and if) they will ever stumble towards a real relationship, when they seem to want different things and inhabit different worlds. 

Nicholls’ story examines how they develop and change, how the balance of power delicately tilts between them and truly illustrates William Faulkner’s belief that good writing can only be based on “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself”. Go read it.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sherlock Holmes/Bridesmaids

This week I watched the BBC's fabulous Sherlock. The TV adaptation sent me straight back to A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle's first Sherlock Holmes story, a novella, and to my Sherlock Holmes Complete Short Stories, an edition of all 56 stories first printed in Strand magazine. Would the originals feel as pacey, witty and engaging as the version I'd just watched by talented writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss?

I am not, I confess, a huge fan of the short story form, but all of these more than hold their own because 1) Sherlock is such a fantastic character, and 2) they have clear and engaging plots.

My problem with short stories? When you start reading a work of fiction, you take a leap of faith into an unknown world. The 'getting-to-know-you, am-I-going-to-like-you-stage' is so fragile and tentative, so much like a first date - the stakes are so high, I suppose - that it's my least favourite part of reading. With a good thick novel, I leap in, and once I'm committed, the pay-off is being immersed in another world for a week or two. A long term love affair. With a short story, I leap in, I commit, and it's all over in five minutes. Then I have to start again with another one. It's a series of one night stands. Same effort in, less result.

Yes, the reason I'm not all that keen on the short story form boils down to laziness. But the Sherlock Holmes stories get round the problem by taking me back to the same world each time.

Last night I went to see Bridesmaids. Whatever anyone says, it's just another rom com. It's also the reason why my discussion of the short story above has descended into a sexual metaphor.

Going to a film turned into a late night: I'm tired today. Kids and husband are off at grandma's, so for the rest of this afternoon here's my plan: go to bed with Sherlock Holmes. My guilty pleasure.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

News International/Vanity Fair

As murk and more murk are exposed by the News International scandal, it strikes me that the story so far wouldn’t be out of place in a good thick novel. The phone messages of a murdered 13-year-old girl are hacked. A hapless editor is scapegoated. Tongues wag. A more glamourous red headed editor is arrested. Characters from the criminal underbelly of the media sit in pubs and count their pay. The chief of police resigns. We get rapidly, via resignations and arrests, to a system that is rotten at the very heart of its institutions. And the cause, apart from human vanity? The single minded rise from obscurity of a self-made antipodean man. It’s Dickens' territory, or Trollope, or Thackeray ( Vanity Fair, of course). So who will transform all this murk and scandal into an 800-page doorstop? Someone to do for 2010s London what Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities did for 1980s New York. Who will be the writer that steps up to the plate?

Friday, 15 July 2011

Hungry, the Stars and Everything/The Thirteenth Tale

I just read Hungry, the Stars and Everything, by Emma Jane Unsworth, having heard the author at Bury Literary Salon last month. I was intrigued by a question someone asked: why does the novel reference Jane Eyre? More specifically, why does a main character eat pages from that book when he’s finished reading them? Emma replied simply that it was a book that everyone knew.

Very true, so when Jane Eyre popped up in another book I was also reading - The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield – I shouldn’t have been surprised. The two novels couldn’t be more different – Hungry is a coming-of-age story that turns into a romance with a feisty anti-heroine and a dash of magic realism; The Thirteenth Tale is an ambitious attempt to recreate a classic nineteenth century novel – think Jane Eyre with a dash of Wuthering Heights, a pinch of The Woman in White and a good few others in the mix. Jane Eyre is there physically – a page from the novel is amongst a character’s most prized possessions – and in the structure of the novel. (Both Hungry and The Thirteenth Tale are first novels, and I should say I would be proud to have written either.)

Jane Eyre is of course, a literary beacon which adds a little sparkle to these two novels and many more: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea are the two most obvious examples. 

Perhaps there's a literary game here - the literary equivalent of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. How many degrees of separation are there between the novel you are reading (or writing) and Jane Eyre?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Glamour mag/Puss in Boots

A piece in Glamour magazine (July issue) caught my eye as I stood in the overheated spectators' area of our local pool, watching my daughter struggling to complete a width without armbands.  GAFFs – “guys after fame and fortune” are a new phenomenon, the article claimed - these are men looking for riches and success by having a relationship with a female celebrity. Think Jesus Luz, Madonna's ex. These men have spotted a fresh way to become rich and famous: they are prepared to reinvent themselves to get their woman, to lie and deceive, to twist the truth to their own advantage, in short to make a great deal out of not very much, all to win their girl and the lifestyle that goes with her.

After the swimming lesson was over, my daughter picked a story from the box of battered books in the corner of the spectators’ area: Puss in Boots

Straight after the Glamour article, Puss in Boots shines out as a blueprint for how to social climb and get rich by hooking the right girl. Perhaps men have been marrying into wealth and status for a lot longer than Glamour imagines. 

Puss's endgame is the same as the GAFF's: to gain influence, status and riches for a poor nobody - the youngest son of a miller.  And he's hugely succesful - the King's daughter falls in love with the miller's son (possibly after she sees him naked in a river - having a buff body helps), and unlike Jesus and Madonna, they live happily ever after. 

Would-be GAFFs would do well to read this tale before devising their gameplan.


Thursday, 7 July 2011


It's rude to jump right in, I think. So hello and welcome to you, and thankyou for hovering on this page. What's this blog about? Well. I am a writer with a fairly full life. Ideas have to sneak into my consciousness as I'm usually doing other stuff: the day job, being a mum, and the rest. So I read, I listen to the radio, eavesdrop on conversations in the course of my day and inspiration comes when two ideas collide. This blog is a place to share some of those inspirations. I believe that to be human is to tell stories, to make patterns out of our seemingly random experiences. I want to explore how putting two disparate items together can lead to a pattern, a picture, perhaps even ... a story. Enjoy.