Thursday, 31 March 2011

Curlews, the March Lion, and a Dilemma

If March comes in like a Lamb, it will go out like a Lion (and vice versa), says the northern proverb. And March is certainly roaring out like a lion at the moment with gale force winds scything down the daffodils and driving horizontal rain past the windows. The usually clear, reflective surface of the weir looks like frosted glass.


But there are signs of spring everywhere here; newborn lambs wobbling around in the fields, the first strange buds of butterbur pushing up through the riverbank, and yesterday, driving across the fell road, a curlew flew low over the bonnet of the car, causing me to brake hard. They are amazing birds - the size of a large seagull, with a big wing span, long, articulated legs, and that curved beak almost equal to the length of their body. Every March they fly up from the Solway Estuary to nest on the fells and moors of the Lake District and their eerie warbling cry is part of the sound-scape of a Cumbrian spring.

Thanks to Betacygni for sharing this on YouTube.

But then there’s the dilemma. I’m madly trying to get my garden and the house and my life sorted in the next 7 days so that I can go out to Italy to see Neil for the Easter vacation. Neil is already back at work in his studio, having flown back from Cambridge last weekend. We both find all this travelling to and fro very disruptive (and expensive!), but we don’t have a home of our own in Italy. This means camping out in borrowed accommodation only available during the winter for a few months. Neil has moved most of his sculpture tools to his studio there, but to move all my books and writers’ paraphernalia would require a pantechnicon, and a more permanent base than we can find. The answer would be to move lock-stock-and-barrel to Italy and make our home there, but with the state of the property market as it is in England, we haven’t been able to sell our house here. So we seem to be trapped in this crazy, unsatisfactory existence. We’re determined not to spend any more of our lives apart, so a solution must be found.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Tuesday Poem: Tomas Transtromer


2 a.m.: moonlight. The train has stopped
out in a field. Far off sparks of light from a town,
flickering coldly on the horizon.

As when a man goes so deep into his dream
he will never remember that he was there
when he returns again to his room.

Or when a person goes so deep into a sickness
that his days all become some flickering sparks, a swarm,
feeble and cold on the horizon.

The train is entirely motionless.
2 o'clock: strong moonlight, few stars.

Tomas Transtromer (trans Robert Bly)

I've just found this poet - who is apparently one of Sweden's greatest and was a candidate for the Nobel laureateship. Why haven't I heard of him before?   Translations don't always work either  - but these do.  Robert Bly, his translator, was a personal friend and I think this closeness has made for really good translations - not just a transcription but the creation of a new poem.   Shelley is very good on this problem.  He wrote 'It were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet.  The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower - and this is the burden of the curse of Babel'.

There are more poems on the BookeyWookey blog.
For more Tuesday Poems go to the Tuesday Poem blog.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Safe Havens for Books

Selwyn quad. Don't walk on the grass!
I’ve had a very interesting few days at Cambridge university. We stayed in student accommodation at Selwyn College, around one of those beautiful quadrangles - Neil in the boys' block and me in the girls'. The rooms are very basic - not exactly Brideshead Revisited, more like boarding school. A single bed (no chance of any clandestine doubling up!), a few bookshelves, a built-in coat cupboard and a wooden desk under the window. But the outside was something else. Beautiful gardens, ancient buildings, a chapel, and a great hall that could have been a set for Harry Potter.  And beyond it, the river Cam where you can go punting, though none of us had time.

 It’s a very privileged environment. Selwyn College was until the 1970s an exclusively male college, but we had dinner in one of the historic women’s colleges Newnham, originally one of only two to admit women - and I thought what it must have been like to have been one of those early women who braved all that prejudice to get an education here - though they weren’t allowed to have a degree like the men, they got only a titular qualification, rudely referred to as a BA-tit.

Dinner at Newnham
 The conference was interesting - Katherine Mansfield experts from all over the world, including some of the finest literary minds. Writers Jacqueline Wilson and Ali Smith were also going to be there. So I was understandably nervous about standing up and talking. I was also the last act on the last day, so lots of time to get nervous. But in the end, because we’d had days to get to know each other, it was more like a conversation with book-loving friends. Afterwards, those of us not rushing off to catch planes and trains, went for a Thai curry and then sat on the floor in someone’s room drinking wine out of plastic tooth mugs like a group of students.

Spring in the gardens
 I’m very ambivalent about the growth of academic literary criticism. I think writers write books for readers to read and enjoy, not to create material for the university industry to torture students with. But that industry exists and, as a writer, it’s necessary to have a dialogue with it. It is also very seductive - this world of books and book talk - and I know I could easily be swallowed by it.

These beautiful Cambridge colleges with their atmosphere of reverence for The Book, seem very safe havens from what is currently a very rocky world for both publishers and writers. But in the end, more than anything else, I know that I want to write them, not de-construct them.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Fictional Mansfield

So, Thursday afternoon and Neil and I are on a train to Cambridge. This weekend there’s an international conference, at the university, on Katherine Mansfield and her contemporaries. It seems a good place to promote the new biography, which is why I’ve agreed to give a short lecture about KM.. This is also rather scary, since I’m a writer, not an academic and we have very different approaches to the same material. At the moment I feel rather like a goat who is about to wander nonchalantly into a pride of lions, hoping they won’t notice I’m a different species!

I’ve decided to talk about the different authors who’ve used Katherine Mansfield as a fictional character - there are at least 16 novels about her, which seems something of a record for any author - unless someone out there can tell me otherwise. Two of her lovers wrote her into novels, using actual letters and diary entries, then her husband John Middleton Murry wrote 3 novels with KM as the central female character; then D.H. Lawrence cast her as Gudrun in Women in Love and Christopher Isherwood used her as Elizabeth in The World in the Evening.

Since 1940 there has been a further trickle of novels - American novelist Nelia White’s Daughter of Time, C.K. Stead’s Mansfield, Janice Kulyck Keefer’s Thieves, Linda Lappin’s Katherine’s Wish and Joanna Kirkpatrick’s In Pursuit.

Why this fascination? That’s what I’ve been trying to explore. What makes fiction writers choose one character rather than another? Isherwood said that KM’s life conformed to the ancient pattern of narrative tradition - paradise lost, paradise regained. But I also wonder whether it was KM’s enigmatic personality, her fascination with masks, and multiple identities, that intrigued all those authors who set out to explore who she was.

I’m looking forward to staying in Cambridge, which is such a beautiful city - the train is on time, the sun is shining and there are lambs frisking in the fields beside the railway line.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Tuesday Poem: The Naming of Parts


To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.

This is a poem by the second world war poet Henry Reed and I've always found it incredibly moving. He manages through the accumulation of detail and observation to convey the horror of war.

For more Tuesday Poets go to

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Biggest Moon

Just been watching what is supposed to be the largest full moon I will probably ever see.  The moon is at its closest to the earth at the moment.   I despaired of catching a glimpse through the thick cloud ceiling we've had for days here, but at about 11pm the clouds parted and it shone through.  Not as big as those bloated  harvest moons hovering like helium balloons over the horizon, but big and bright all the same, creating a long, shining wake on the river.

I wondered how the inhabitants of Libya were feeling about it - not a romantic symbol there, but a night-light for war machines.  It creates a kind of ache in the stomach.   Now, after the relief of the UN intervention - the feeling that at last someone was going to do something -  there is only uneasiness about death and destruction caused by our own missiles and wariness about the supposedly altruistic motives that are behind them.  The best summing up of the case is given by the arab journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent.  Well worth reading for its honest analysis of the moral issues.

Photo Bryan Jones

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Next Big Author

I've turned into a news junkie recently - rather ashamed of my addiction to the rolling 24 hour news of war and disaster.  Technology is extraordinary - to be able to watch events on the other side of the world in real time.  But it's also frustrating - because you can watch, but you can't do anything to help other suffering human beings.

So now I'm trying to get back to writing again.   And discovered that the peer critique site You Write On, has launched something called 'The Next Big Author'.  The challenge is to write the opening chapter/s of a novel in May and submit them for peer criticism  - the highest rated chapters will be viewed by publishers.  It sounds fun.  I tried out You Write On when it was launched and although initially cynical, it was a useful experience.  You have to review someone else's work in order to get a credit to have yours reviewed.  You request a chapter and have the option to reject the one you're sent if you don't feel you can do it justice.
I enjoyed most of the work I read and the reviewing is good experience for your own editing.  I also found the feedback I got on the 3 chapters I submitted was really useful and I made lots of changes as a result.
They've also had a big success in a novel called The Legacy, which has had lots of good reviews and been listed for prizes, so this really is a legitimate enterprise that can launch authors who've been overlooked by the big publishers.   The author of the Legacy had already written 7 unpublished novels before she hit the jackpot with this one and, looking through the lists of authors queuing up for review on this site, she isn't the only one.
How this site is going to differ from You Write On, I'm not sure.  But it does stipulate that it has to be new work - YWO allows you to submit anything you've ever written.   The really good thing about these sites is that they get people to focus on editing - you have to listen to your readers and think about their feedback.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Tuesday Poem: Snowdrop


A pale and pining girl, head bowed, heart gnawed,
whose figure nods and shivers in a shawl
of fine white wool, has suddenly appeared
in the damp woods, as mild and mute as snowfall.
She may not last. She has no strength at all,
but stoops and shakes as if she’d stood all night
on one bare foot, confiding with the moonlight.

One among several hundred clear-eyed ghosts
who get up in the cold and blink and turn
into these trembling emblems of night frosts .........

Alice Oswald*

Snowdrops are usually seen as a sign of hope - the harbingers of spring in the UK, pushing up out of the ground when nothing else seems to be growing at all. The riverbank has been white with them for several weeks now. Alice Oswald is one of the UK’s most acclaimed poets, but I haven’t always found her work sympathetic. It was poetry I admired, but didn’t necessarily ‘feel’. Then I won this collection - Weeds and Wild Flowers - on DoveGreyReader’s book blog. It’s a combination of beautiful grey-scale etchings by Jessica Greenman and poems featuring a variety of wild flowers including some unusual choices such as ‘Bastard Toadflax’, ‘Pale Persicaria’ and ‘Bargeman’s Cabbage’. I was won over by Oswald’s fine observations and startling imagery and her strong control of structure.

‘Snow drop’ has always been one of my favourites. I had chosen this poem to post before the Japanese quake, but already in a rather sad frame of mind following the Christchurch quake and events in the middle east. And then I was reminded that ‘Snowdrop’ is the Russian slang for the bodies of the dead revealed every spring when the winter snow retreats. The poem suddenly took on a more macabre sense - snowdrop not just as a symbol of hope and survival, but also a reminder of the frailty of humanity in the natural world.

The poem ends on an upward swing, with a stress on the snowdrops’ ability to survive the long, hard winter.

‘But what a beauty, what a mighty power
of patience kept intact is now in flower.’

For more Tuesday Poems go to

 * I don’t have official permission to quote the whole poem, so can only quote extracts ‘for the purposes of review and comment’.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Week at Words by the Water

It’s been a busy week at the Lit Fest as well as trying to keep up with my university job and daily life.

I love the Words by the Water event, not just because of the beautiful location, but also because there’s always a friendly atmosphere and you never know who you might bump into over lunch in the Green Room. This year one was likely to trip over Lesley Garrett, Melvyn Bragg, Maureen Lipman, Claire Tomalin, and a host of television journalists and philosophers - including A.C. Grayling. Several of the promised journalists were missing, due to the situation in Libya, but replacements were being ordered.

I was booked to give a couple of creative writing sessions in the Sky Arts Den, which was fun, though there isn’t much you can do in 45 minutes. I hoped just to give people a taste of writing and perhaps get them started on something they might want to finish later.

One of the nice things about the festival is getting a pass to other authors’ events. I went to listen to Cate Haste talk about her new book on Sheila Fell - a painter from Cumbria who was one of the youngest artists (and one of the few women) to be admitted to the Royal Academy. She was incredibly beautiful, a protege of L.S. Lowry, and  died tragically at a very young age. It was a fantastic talk with good images.  Of course I'm slightly biased  -  Sheila Fell was an Old Girl from  my school and she spent her short life painting the landscape I love. 

You can’t go to everything though - there just isn’t time. Apparently Rachel Hewitt was fascinating on the history of the Ordnance Survey map, and I would have loved to hear poet Jackie Kay talk about her Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter.

I did manage to go to a forum on the short story. A new small press called Nightjar is bringing out Chapbooks of limited edition short stories and there seems to be a general revival of interest in the short story form - it was all very encouraging. The editor prints a maximum run of 2-300 and sells them via the internet and a few sympathetic independent bookshops. He aims to break even after printing and editing costs. There’s no money in the short story, which is presumably why so few of the big publishers are producing collections. Literary presses such as Salt are very short of money, but they need to exist if published writing isn’t to be restricted to a choice of predictable commercial fiction and the work of a few celebrity authors.

I’m always nervous appearing at big festivals like this - I much prefer small intimate venues where you can engage with the audience. But my own events seemed to go well - I had a good audience for the Katherine Mansfield talk - part of which was filmed - and they all seemed to enjoy themselves. Some of them even bought books!

And the following day we all had a lovely afternoon, with a sumptuous tea, at Greta Hall - the historic home of Coleridge and Southey - imagining what it must have been like to live there - though not with Coleridge who was, according to Southey, ‘murderous to all domestic comfort’ after the copious consumption of opiates and brandy.
Greta Hall, Keswick

Those who took part in the writers’ workshop early in the afternoon even had the opportunity to sit and write in some of the historic rooms - Coleridge’s study, Sarah’s bedroom, Southey’s parlour, Hartley’s parlour - and soak up the atmosphere. My favourite part of the house is the hallway, remembering the description of the line of clogs (there were 11 children not to mention all the adults) arranged in order of size all the way from the front door to the kitchen - which still has the original dresser and wood fired range. The current owners have kept all the original features and with 7 children running around, and fires burning in the grates, it feels very much as I imagine it must have done 200 years ago.

And now home to start work on the talks for the next two events I’m booked to do this month, but utterly distracted by the tragic events on the other side of the world. I can hardly bear to switch on the TV to confront the suffering in Libya and now in Japan.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The Writers' First Aid Kit

It's the annual Words by the Water literature festival in Keswick, beginning this weekend.  I'm always excited by this event, because it's the only big literature festival that happens in Cumbria and it brings a lot of writers and media celebrities to this remote part of  England - people you might only get to see if you live in the south east, or one of the big cities.  The festival is held at the Theatre by the Lake with spectacular views over Derwentwater.
This year I'm taking part in several events myself -   on Sunday I'm doing a creative writing workshop in the Sky Arts Den at 4.30pm.  Then a talk on Katherine Mansfield at 12 on Monday.  Then on Tuesday, an afternoon talk on the  Coleridge and Southey women who lived  with the poets at Greta Hall, followed by a creative writing workshop on memory and imagination.

I enjoy doing workshops, because the people who come are always enthusiastic and it gives you a chance to share some of the things you've learned by (sometimes hard!) experience.  Some might call them 'the tricks of the trade'!

One of the things that always helps me is what I call 'The Writers' First Aid Kit'.  It's a kind of thumbnail plot finder, but it also works when you're stuck and haven't a clue what will happen next.  It's just a series of seven questions you have to ask yourself.


- and most important of all WHAT IF?

The answer to WHO is the character, WHAT is the situation/ the action/the event/the object. WHERE is the setting. WHEN is the time line. HOW refers to the basic mechanics of who is going to do what, where and when. WHY is the motivation; why does the character feel as s/he does? why does s/he act like that? etc.

WHAT IF, is the really significant one. You have to ask yourself, what if this or that happened? what if I make this character do something else? what if I change the character? The what-ifs you can ask are endless and the answers sometimes change the entire trajectory of the story.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Cornflower Books

Just found a really good book blog that I'd like to recommend.  It's called Cornflower Books and there's also an online reading group as well.
You can find it at:

Happy World Book Day!