Greetings! How very good to see you here. If you're wondering where 'here' is, this is the great terra incognita between getting agent (hurrah!), and getting publisher (fingers crossed). But you are most welcome, whatever your relationship is to books, or words, or writing. I hope you enjoy - and please tell me if you do. POSHTOTTY

Sunday, 14 August 2011



H (bless her - everyone should have an H, whether they are writing or no) has given me permission to start Book No.2 (as opposed to Vol.II), while we wait to see what happens with Book No.1, and anyone who thinks I didn't actually need her permission to start Book No.2 has no idea of the psychological minefield this stage of the writer's life can be.

Whilst I get Book No.2 in a fit state to post some of it up here (and work out how to turn pages into pdfs in order to so post), I have wandered about a couple of shows (see 'FUEL', 21 March) - Mervyn Peake at the BL (link right) and the Vorticists at the Tate (ditto). And then this oddity cropped up in The Sunday Times today.

This is a deeply bizarre tale. A leading British gyno - not the most drama-conscious type, one would hope - has had to resign from his post as Dean at the Uni. of Alberta after the deeply-moving speech he delivered as his own experience was revealed as having been nicked from that of another professor, to whom the deeply-moving events actually happened. Why, for heaven's sake? It's hardly academic plagiarism as the rest of us would understand it. He can't have hoped to get away with this masquerade - the world of international gynaecology ain't that big, and the original speech had even be published on The New Yorker website. Reading the account above, all I could think was that it was the words what done it. The words  - another man's words - seduced the prof, large-style. He wanted those words to be his. He wanted to produce in others the effect those words had produced in him, but with himself positioned as cause. And hey, words can do that. There's a whole profession - the one that currently really needs to shrug off Jeremy Irons - founded on their power to do so.

What has this to do with Mervyn Peake and the Vorticists? Ok, let's start with Merv. The BL show is small, and lovely, and you should absolutely definitely go. The fact that Gormenghast's astounding landscape comes from the plains of the Yellow River is amazing enough to begin with. I had no idea Peake grew up in China (Iceland, I could have bought that), nor that he was so various, nor that he was so intensely disciplined. Everything he produced could not have come from anyone but him - whether his drawings, his fiction, or his verse. (He's also a great example of the 'draw it and you understand it' approach - many of Peake's notebooks are in the show, meaning you can progress from one stage of creation to the next, watching him refine and edit his ideas on his character's appearance, their settings, their clothes.) It's great and inspiring stuff, and it's free. Go.

Vorticists at the Tate also has words, in the form of Wyndham Lewis's BLAST (well, his and a few other peoples'). These are not worked through, edited, or refined, or don't appear to be, at any rate. They look to be from somewhere rather closer to the white-heat 'Words Is All' state of mind of the professor, above. For example:

CURSE the flabby sky that can manufacture NO SNOW
 but can only drop the sea on us in a drizzle
 like a poem by Mr Robert Bridges

Vorticists ain't free, but that alone is worth the price of a ticket to me. Who hasn't felt that, for weeks on end, every English winter? (Later on, in the same page from BLAST we get snow as 'The Ermine of the North'.) I give you more:

Good-For-Nothing Guineveres (where was that phrase, all my life?)

And for good measure:
Blast their weeping whiskers!

Wyndham Lewis, you stand revealed as Victor Meldrew. Go; go to both. Go read words and be seduced - and spare a thought for the poor professor when you are.

(Oh, and Better Book Titles? It's there because it's a hoot.)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Over your shoulder

Sitting on a train into London, and without reading material, my eye falls on the book open on the lap of the commuter next to me. Specifically, it falls on the fact that he is using a neatly folded tissue as a marker, moving it down from line to line as he reads. This seems a rather antiseptic way to read a book, and because of this, I'm expecting to see that the book itself, when my gaze darts to that, is some sort of textbook, and maybe badly printed enough for the ink to come off on a reader's fingers. Not a bit of it. It's a library hardback, and it's an historical romance. A truly dreadful historical romance, by the looks of it; the first words I read are:

Johanna was delighted to learn she would be the first of the princesses to get married.

Now, I write historical fiction, so I feel I have that much of a stake in what such writing can and should be, and this, as a line, is wong in ways that annoy me so much I start labelling them - 1) it's flat, it's reported emotion, it's not Johanna, God help the girl, leaping around in delight at cocking a snook at her sister-princesses, assuming such they be, and sticking her be-coiffed head out her casement to shout 'I'm getting married before you! Ner-ner-ner-nerner!' (If she did, that's a book I'd read with pleasure.) 2) The name. Princesses are not called Johanna. I remember watching a Hammer House of Horror years ago, with a character in it called 'Senorita Yvonne'. She was eaten by a werewolf, and frankly, with a name as anachronistic and sloppily unimaginative as that, deserved no better. Why go to the bother of creating a character - albeit in the case of Johanna, one flat as an uncooked gingerbread-man - and not come up with an imaginative and interest-snagging name for them? I went to the Mervyn Peake show at the BL recently (of which more anon) - now, if you want a master-class in the creation of fabulous names, read him. 3) So on two counts now, the author of this book has insulted me, as a reader, setting before me a bit of dead shorthand as oppposed to a bit of lively action, and misnaming a character so badly (and names you can't pronounce are another hatred of mine - how am I supposed to get carried along by the fact that you've fallen over a cliff/discovered a lost tribe of headhunters/are about to save the life of an infant during a fire at sea/ if every time my eye hits your name on the page, my reading mind is tripped up by it?).

Yet I keep reading. I race that folded tissue to the bottom of the page, maddened that it obscures the paragraph to come, despite the fact that with every line the writing seems to be getting worse in more and more predictable ways. So what is it? What is this thing about stolen words, other people's reading, that makes what they have in front of them so irresistible?

Is it simply because the words belong to someone else? (As children, my brother and I used to fight for the cereal packet with the best copy on it to read at the breakfast table - much to my mother's ire.) Is it curiosity as to what another is reading? In which case, once I've seen what it is, and judged it truly awful, why isn't my curiosity satisfied? Or is it that awakened hunger for words - any words, for an escape - on a dull commuter train? Sometimes I find myself reading some other poor soul's book, and trying to work out what the book might be - is it a Stephen King? John Grisham? Maeve Binchy? I've never to my knowledge read a word of Grisham or Binchy except for over other peoples' shoulders, yet I can spot their style at once. So is this just a spot of mental gum-chewing? What?

My own relationship to over-the shoulder reading baffles me. How about this - if  the shoulder and the words should ever be yours, close up your book and ask me what I'm doing. Maybe we can both get an answer.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Many a writer takes the plunge and tries to bring music into their writing - to re-create in words the experience of listening to, or playing, or otherwise being transported by a melody; to bridge the gap between notes and words. I think this gap has already been bridged, but the other way about - writing into music - and it's been done by the Blues.

Forgive me, this is the zeal of the newly converted, I know it. But one thing music and writing do have in common is the fact that they find you, rather than you finding them, and just as some wonderful new book (for me, most recently, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), beating you about the head with its covers, will have you extolling it to all your friends, so breathtaking music will have you doing the same. Welcome to the Chicago Blues Fest 2011. Yup, you've all known about the Blues for years, like you all read Jacob de Zoet already. I'm playing catch-up here.

I never knew I had been listening to the Blues before, but of course I have, all my life. Listen to it for 3 days solid (mouth open in wonderment the while) and you realise you have been hearing, and do still hear it, in everything. Frank Sinatra (duh, of course), Ry Cooder's Trouble, hiding behind his tree. Culture Club - 'Black Money'. My nephew, who can get a tune out of a bagpipe - out of a bag, in all probability - says that if two musicians who have never met before want to play together, they play the Blues. It's a universal language, he says.

You're telling me. The lyrics of the Blues, the story of the song, is in the music - a hoochy-coochy stripper, chickens scratching in a yard, a train going off into the night. The wail of the abandonned, the sobs of the lost, the contempt of the heartless, the creepy conviction of the utterly mad - they're all there in the guitar, the piano, the mouth-organ (or Mississipi saxaphone, as I learned with joy it is called). The thump to the beat of the Blues is like the prose in the King James' bible, insistent. Corpuscular, teeming, organic. There's something inescapable about it, and relentless too, it's big music. Sit on the grass before the stage and you feel it bumping up through your tailbone, not weaving its strands round your head. It's merciless too, big enough to be threatening - people get killed in the Blues (and even then, sometimes they come back); nothing is ever forgotten. A proud boast from the stage - 'my daddy played this, my graddaddy too'. Shemekia Copeland was crowned the new 'Queen of the Blues' on stage on Sunday, now there's inheritance for you; when Eddie Clearwater played it was as if one shimmer of the air, one little zone-out, and back you would be kicking along a dirt-road, 80 years ago.

The words, by contrast - the lyrics - are so compressed, so multi-layered, they're what you have to tease apart into different lines and staves of meaning. Here's an idea; take a line of a Blues lyric 'I still love you baby, 'cos you don't know what it's all about', and write the story that led up to it. How much sad knowledge is in those 13 words? You have conversations with everything in the Blues - trouble and misfortune, rapture and joy, death, despair, love, infatuation, madness, the black snake in your room, the Blues themselves, as they walk up to your front door It's a mostly one-sided conversation, it's true - even with your darling, we have to take your word for it about that real good feeling you get talking on the phone, but by the time you're growling 'TALK to me baby,' at the end of the song, and doing that kick Blues players do, like they have to stamp on the song to keep it under any control at all, we all know what you're really talking about. Oh, I get the Blues. I SO get them!

Sunday, 22 May 2011


What a phrase, eh? Volume II. Enough having fun with blogs, and background research, and James Bond moment with new characters in life; time to get back to the very serious business of writing. I've kept my fingers supple, kept the writing muscle limber, put (as my trainer at the gym used to say) 'the miles in my legs'. Now there's a thing. Is that why writing and running complement each other so well - each word a step, each step an exploration of a thought? It would be good to ask that question of Richard Long.

And that was a shameless digression. Back to Volume II.

Volume II is there, but now I look at it with proper close attention, it seems to be corralled behind a fence. It has a title (and we all know how essential that is), Volume II will be called The Dead Men, but I need to build a gate, I need to build a way in.

The trick that works most often for me in finding that way in is to forget I'm writing a book, but rather to view an opening or otherwise tricky or with-a-lot-riding-on-it scene as if I were directing a film. Where would I put my camera? Whose eye would my camera be? What would it shoot, to start with? Close-up? Panning out? Or zoom down in, from high above?

I see Volume II starting with a child's fingers, scrabbling to loosen something from the rubble of a fallen wall. I can feel the shards of mortar, and chunks of pulverised brick and stone. There's a little grass growing near the fingers - this wall fell some time ago. There are shadows round the fingers, the edge of a skirt and petticoat in frame, shadows beneath, around her feet - sun in the sky. The child is female, a little girl, and something sparkles there in the dirt, that's what she after. Something sparkling, and coloured - gold, red, green -

An embroidered ribbon round a cuff. She pulls the cuff. The sleeve comes up. The bony arm and hand within it, too. We don't see her reaction - we're left thinking, maybe this has happened too many times before for her to have one. What happens instead is there's a shout - another child's voice, but older, male, her brother, and the little girl stands up, we see her whole, for the first time, and looks at where her brother is pointing - and the whole world changes for them both.

I write to music. Cue John Lennon, 'Here comes old flat-top.'

There. I didn't know any of that was going to prove the way in. Now I will write it (and post it), and see where the camera goes next.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


A fellow writer set me a challenge: 'Blog me the genesis of your book. Where did it come from, and where were you when it did?'

I was in a town called Nordlingen. This is Nordlingen, in the district of Donau-Ries, in Bavaria.

Pretty, huh? Note the almost faultlessly preserved within-the-town-walls circular shape.  The view below is also Nordlingen. Note the almost too-perfectly-preserved buildings. There is a reason for this. Not, for once, in this part of Germany, that the whole place was flattened by the RAF in 1944, and lovingly rebuilt after, no. Everything you see in Nordlingen is absolutely genuinely genuine. Nordlingen is a true Thirty-Years-War survivor, and what you see here is close enough to what the last soldiers saw, when they marched out in 1648, for any such soldier to be still able to find his way around the town today. Blindfold, if need be.

The reason for which, is, Nordlingen gambled, in the Thirty Years War, and lost. When the war ended (in 1648), Nordlingen was left with such a heap of debt it took it two centuries (TWO CENTURIES!!!) to pay it off. The Age of  Reason passed it by - there was no money in Nordlingen to pay to replace those geometric C16th facades with neo-Classical porches and stoops, because Nordlingen was still paying off the amount it had to borrow to stop General Tilly burning the place to the ground. The Age of the Railways arrived, 100 years later - no, Nordlingen had no money for that either, still paying off its debts from when the Swedish juggernaut heaved into town, in Tilly's defeated wake. The world moved on. Nordlingen, beggared beyond belief, was left behind.

I pitched up in Nordlingen in 1998. I was in company with my mate Joyce Hackett, she of the award-winning Disturbance of the Inner Ear, which I most heartily recommend to you, and Cara, one of the loveliest mutts I have ever had the pleasure to know. For Cara's evening walk, we walked Nordlingen's still-intact town walls. Watchtower to watchtower. We had supper at the Sun Inn, whose vistor's book kicks off in 1450. In the morning, we walked around the town, barely able to believe we hadn't suffered some time-slip overnight. Want to know what wattle and daub walls feel like? Run your fingertips along this. Want to understand how doomed you would feel, watching an army advance toward you, trapped within your little walled town? Lean out of watchtower, half-close your eyes, and in your imagination, fill that plain beyond with the rise and fall of marching troops, advancing on you like a sea. Want to know what it would sound like, hearing your own footsteps pounding down an alley so narrow that your shoulders barely fit between the walls, as you run for your life? Here you go. Be my guest.

I already had, in my head, the first dozen or so characters of my novel. I knew they all somehow related, I knew they fitted into the same jigsaw, but it was only in Nordlingen that I began to see how. This is Yosha, the Jewish merchant. This is the world he trades with, but can never belong to. This is Mungo Sant, the Scottish privateer. This is the world he trades with, but will never trust. And this here - this is my hero, Jack. He stands here, in Nordlingen, the terror of everything he sees; and here in his head are his scars, his griefs, his losses. Here is his story. This is what made him as he is. One man. Thirty years of war.

Saturday, 7 May 2011


I have this character - J, let's call them. I've lived with J a long, long time. I know what J wants, I know J's opinions, I can make a pretty good guess how J would react to just about anything life throws in J's path. I know J's secrets.We're tight.

I've spent a good deal of time crafting a plot for J, and I test new developments in this plot very carefully indeed. I know where J is going, and I excise without mercy anything that don't fit in with that. It's what J would want me to do.

Or so I thought.

I now have this new character in J's life. Came waltzing in without so much as a by-your-leave. Somewhere back there, despite all the care we've been taking, J 'n me, we must have left a door or a window open, a sentence without a stop, maybe, and all of a sudden we look up and there's this new shape in the room. No idea what they think they are doing there, and they, of course, are still so new it's probably an equal surprise to them.

We are going to call this new character M.

M seems to have come from another type of book entirely, which honestly could hardly be more different to the one he finds himself in now. Does this faze him? Not that I can see - nothing like as much as it has thrown me, that's for sure. You hear of this kind of thing happening, and in fact what you hear is that this is what it's all about, what you should be aiming for - the story reaching the kind of critical mass where it makes itself. Where, in effect, as a writer, you have come as close as you can to creating life - with all its whacky unpredictability, and its gleeful pooh-poohing of anything you might call plot for what you can only call the mash-up. Where this sort of curve-ball has been hurled at me, as reader, I've pooh-poohed it - oh, for goodness sake, I've said, how totally unbelievable. That would never happen.

There are words you write and now, apparently, there are words you eat. The writer, this writer, elbowed unceremoniously out of the way, too agog even to remember her nail-file, is now there as reader, and in the nicest place that life, or writing, can put you in: craning forward, all agog, asking 'What's going to happen next?'

Sunday, 1 May 2011


Damn it is so annoying. Where does it go? One minute you're steaming forward, all four engines thumping away and everything you come across is fuel, the next -

Run aground. Run dry.

It's real life, hurling itself into your path. It's the pram in the hall (or the pile in the in-tray). It's a fork in the road, and no bottle to spin, to help you out. It's a headcold. It's a trip.

People comment. Sometimes these are people whose opinions matter. It's a spur. It's a goad.

It's a bummer, the whole thing.

I did take a trip, I was up in Northamptonshire, staying in this tiny cottage so overgrown with ivy and roses that the outside and the inside mix whenever you open a door or a window. Snails silver the doorstep, baby froglets look up at you from the kitchen floor. Roses poke their heads in through the drawing room window and drop petals on the carpet; a fledgling blackbird, yellow mouth agape with terror, must be collected like a palpitating dust-ball from the corner of the porch, and restored to the garden. And there were bees. Great fat black-befurred bees, as big as the top joint of your thumb, half-snoring, half droning their dodgem-ish way round the flowerheads on the creeper outside my bedroom window, and inevitably, bumbling their way in through the window as well. The noise the one made that did this was loud enough to wake me from my sleep. Bang against the glass, BANG against the glass, with the drone deepening in annoyance with every head-on collision between it and window-pane. What's a girl to do? But (barely more awake than the bee) stumble out of bed, locate latch and open the window.

Bee bangs against glass a few more times, does a pratfall to the edge of the frame, walks about a bit, no doubt going 'Ow, my bastard head' to itself, and then miraculously wakes up to the fact that there is no glass, no net curtain ahead of it, and that it's free.

One happy bee.

Writer in pyjamas, still half asleep herself, has thought. There, she thinks. That's what its like. The words are there, banging away at the front of your brain. You open the window - and they're gone.