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.