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.