Thursday, March 29, 2018

On writing, voices, stars and sinuses

I've just finished reading Heartburn by Nora Ephron and I feel sad. 

(I'm also sad because I succumbed to a second breakfast. I've been dieting successfully but I was in the local shop yesterday and saw hot cross buns on the shelf and thought - Oh dear, I shan't be able to have a hot cross bun because of the diet, and then I noticed a packet of 4 reduced to 50p because of the best before date, so how could I not bring them home?  And now I've had one for my first breakfast and one for my second. Hey ho. I shall give the other two to the birds.)

I felt sad when I'd finished reading The Lie, too, but it was the story that made me sad, not the fact that I'd finished reading it. 

The odd thing is that when I'd finished The Lie I wished so much I could write like Helen Dunmore, and today when I finished Heartburn I wished I could write like Nora Ephron, and yet their writer's voices are so very different.

Ephron comes out with sentences like this...

"'Now you can sing these songs to Sam' was part of the disgusting inscription, and I can't begin to tell you how it sent me up the wall, the idea of my two-year-old child, my baby, involved in some dopey inscriptive way in this affair between my husband, a fairly short person, and Thelma Rice, a fairly tall person with a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb and you should see her legs, never mind her feet, which are sort of splayed."

Even the punctuation is a joy.

And here is a passage from The Lie:

"There is a long silence, or you could call it silence although it's full of noises. I hear the gulls as they wheel out over the sea. The close drowsy burring of a bee. Farther off, a buzzard's cat-like cry. All the while the stirring of wind and water."

and another very different one:

"I can feel him smile against my arm. I know why he's smiling. It's because I'm talking like me, not like him. Not like any of those books in the Dennis library either. I hold him as close as I can and rock him, hardly moving him because I don't want to hurt his leg. I rock him in the same way the blood rocks inside the body without showing on the surface, on and on. All the while I'm opening inside myself, the way I have never been before, I don't know even what there is inside me. Darkness, maybe, more and more of it, velvety and not raw the way it is when you stare into the night, full of the dread of morning. I rock Frederick even more gently. We're neither of us moving now."

I feel sad when I read a two star review of one of my books, too, and then I look at reviews of books by Dunmore and Ephron - two brilliant and widely acclaimed writers - and find they have two star reviews as well, written by people who just don't 'get' the books, people who have a fixed, formal idea of what a novel should be and behave like, that they should all have a beginning, a middle and an end and a strong narrative in between, people who don't share the sensibilities of Dunmore or the sense of humour of Ephron, people who damn their books online because of it.

If they didn't enjoy the books, fair enough. But their non-enjoyment of a book does not mean it is not a good book. I hope none of these two-star reviewers above gets hold of my next book, because I can tell you now, they ain't gonna like it, even though it does have a beginning, a middle and an end.

On a completely different tack....

I've been writing a new Celtic blessing. It's not nearly finished yet, but it contains the following lines:

May your sweet peas always bloom
May your sinuses always be clear
May someone else be happy to clean the bathroom
And may you never get a two star review. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


If I was the kind of person who started my sentences with "So" I'd be saying "So, the Spring has finally arrived and my head is too thick with cold to enjoy it."

To deconstruct the picture, those daffs are ones I picked from the garden because the heavy snow had broken their stems; there are two tissue boxes because one's for fresh and one's for used; the bedspread is my sunset quilt; and the book is Heartburn. I've read it before but Nora Ephron is always cheering, and I needed some light relief after finishing The Lie

Chrissie has been sending me newsy emails so I don't feel utterly cut off, and yesterday, as if my crazy friend in NYC knew I was in need of a laugh, I received in the post these Taste of Streep stickers. 

I need to get up and get busy today. I've been watching so many episodes of Call the Midwife that I'm developing a crush on Jenny Agutter/Sister Julienne, and considering a career as a nun. The good thing about steeping myself in 1960 culture is that I can see the social progress we've made since then, for example in attitudes to gay people, and this engenders hope. I just wish the Tories' austerity programme wasn't taking us back to Victorian times. Food banks are well-established, so their next plan must be to bring back the workhouse. 

Enough! It's 3.20 and I'm done with being up and busy and I'm back in bed with Sister Julienne.

Monday, March 26, 2018

At last there is hope

As you know, I go to Colorado twice a year to see my family. I'm going again in April. In all the times I've visited America, I've never seen a gun held by a person not in uniform and I'm thankful for that. I never think about guns when I'm over there.

When I am here at home and there's news of yet another mass shooting, and afterwards a massive outcry, I try not to pay it much attention. This is not because I don't care. It's because there is nothing I can do about it - nothing. I despair that there are so many gun-crazy people in the US who would rather give up anything than their right under the constitution to bear arms. It makes me boiling mad that because of this love of guns, my grandchildren are at risk. 

Here they are, setting off for spring break with their parents.

I have never had even a smidgeon of hope that gun laws in America would change until yesterday when I heard some of the speeches at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington. If you depend upon the BBC for your news, you may not have heard any of these speeches: the BBC has peculiar priorities (she said mildly.)

The speeches were made by young people and were moving and powerful. They were an inspiration. The first one I heard was by 17 year old Emma Gonzales, who was in the Florida school when her classmates were shot a month ago. She's one of the leaders of the March for our Lives movement. Her speech is 7 minutes long. Click here to listen. Stick with it.

The other speech I commend to you was made by 11 year old Naomi Wadler from Virginia. Click here. The speech is 3 minutes long.

Now I have hope that things will change. The gun laws in Florida have already changed as a result of campaigning by young people there. Much more needs to be done, but a start has been made.

Seeing and hearing these young people gives me hope - not just that gun laws will change, but hope in the future generally. These are dark times, and I am desperately in need of hope. Let's celebrate, encourage and support our young people. They are our future.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Dark and light

Sometimes, sitting in bed with my first Yorkshire tea of the day, I can see buzzards flying high above our garden. They're not there today.

I woke up with a head full of cold that I've been fighting off since Thursday. Instead of starting in on the Saturday papers, I finished reading Helen Dunmore's The Lie about a man suffering PTSD in the aftermath of the first world war. The ending reduced me to tears. 

Dunmore's writing is beautiful - simple, straightforward and yet so evocative, including sensual details the way she does. The fact she was a poet as well as a novelist shines through her prose, as it does for Sebastian Barry, also a novelist and poet. I love Helen Dunmore's novels, although not The Greatcoat. And I thought Birdcage Walk was disappointing. But The Lie is the most powerful book I have read since reading Barry's A long, long way - also about WW1. The epigraph at the beginning of The Lie is a quote from Rudyard Kipling:

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

On a lighter note, I've recently been watching Call the Midwife every night on Netflix. I've never seen it before. Now I am in awe of both Jenny Agutter and Sister Julienne, but I find the character Jenny Lee unappealing. She's so prim. 

I like the way they have snatches of contemporaneous popular music in the soundtrack but it's meant that one song in particular has lodged in my brain and been on repeat for days. I love the words and the tune and can't resist getting Alexa to play it when I'm busy in the kitchen. Carly Simon's rendition is my favourite as it's the tempo I like and has a tasty bit of sax in the middle. The song is I only have eyes for you. The words are so romantic, and I love the tune.

Do you suppose anyone ever said to someone else 'I only have eyes for you'?

No-one has ever said anything like that to me, even when I was worth looking at. I remember 35 years ago when I was going to give a presentation of research findings to a large group of people and spent some time beforehand deciding what to wear and putting on make-up, to give myself more confidence. 

I said to Dave: 'Do I look OK to stand up in front of a lot of people I don't know?' and he said 'How far away are they going to be?'

This week I put on my new Sainsbury's leggings to go cycling in and we had a similar interchange.

Me: 'Do you think I look all right in these?'
Him: 'You look fine.' Pause. 'Anyway, you'll be going fast.'

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

what happened next

The trip to Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club with two family members had been booked for a couple of months and I didn't want to miss it. I'm a sax player, and I've never been to Ronnie Scott's. But the mini beast-from-the-east was coming and I knew our lane would be waist-high in snow drifts again and I might not get back for a meeting on Monday.

So I spent from waking up on Saturday until 2 p.m. trying to decide whether or not to go. Dave couldn't stand the tension and retreated to the freezing cold shed to make more kumiko. 

At two o clock I decided YES! and half an hour later, we set off to Chesterfield station. Once in London I had a pleasant evening with the friend who'd so kindly offered me a bed. I have never been in a colder London, so was pleased to start the next day with porridge, date syrup and walnuts. Yum.

We were going to a lunchtime gig at Ronnie Scott's - music plus lunch in an informal night-club type setting. (Photos will follow later, which is why you're having to make do with one of porridge.)The jazz singer was superb and the musicians inspirational. Unfortunately that particular combo didn't have a sax player, but I learned a lot from the improvs by the guitarist.  It was such a treat, and now I'm hungry for more, and flicking through the programme to choose another gig.

I rang Dave from St Pancras before catching the train home. He said our lane was impassable with drifts, and he couldn't get the car out to collect me from Chesterfield station, so the plan was to carry on to Sheffield and get a taxi to Zoe's house. 

I have never before had so much fun on a train journey. Two women sitting next to me entertained me with hilarious conversation all the way to Derby. Thank you D.J. and Pippa! Such excellent copy. They may well make an appearance in a future novel. 

I stayed at Zoe's that night and the next morning the thaw had started, so I got back on the bus to Bakewell for my meeting, and home on another bus afterwards.

I made it: me and my bus pass.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Writing and weather

It's come to a pretty pass when you find yourself mending socks in the daytime. And when was the last time you turned a collar? No, I can't remember either. It's been raining a lot this week, and I've been waiting for my writer friend Chrissie to finish reading and critiquing my work-in-progress. 

My other two readers enjoyed it, though one had misgivings about the beginning. Feedback from a writer is different. It's not just about whether she enjoyed reading it, she's been through the text line by line, marking things that need attention or need deleting, tightening things up, questioning things - basically, doing everything a good editor does. And she's been looking at the structure. 

She has doubts about the structure, but as the other two readers did not have a problem with it, I'm sticking with it. However, the beginning of the novel isn't working and needs attention. Both she and I find writing the first twenty pages of a novel hard. You have to establish the theme, the tone, introduce the characters, launch the story and hook the reader. When the structure is unusual it makes it ten times harder.

Meanwhile, I am supposed to be going to London at teatime on the train. I've always wanted to go to Ronnie Scott's jazz club and someone invited me to go tomorrow for a Sunday lunchtime gig. Whoopee!  

Except not whoopee. The Met office has given amber warnings of snow and ice in the Peak District where we live, and also in London, and though I might be able to get down to London today, getting home tomorrow looks decidedly iffy. Even if the train reaches my local station in the evening, Dave won't be able to drive through drifts to pick me up. And I need to be in Bakewell for a meeting on Monday morning. It's all too uncertain, and I am gutted.

But at least I have the book to work on while we're sheltering from the weather. I love making all the tiny tweaks to the text because I know it's making it sharper and better. The problem of the beginning will need a lot of mulling and composting and lying awake in the early morning waiting for the solution to come to me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Telling someone that I shy away from reading non-fiction feels a bit like admitting I prefer Cadbury's Dairy Milk to that 70% cocoa mass stuff, and that I prefer cinema to theatre. All are true.

Obviously I've had to read non-fiction in the past: you can't get two degrees in psychology by reading novels. But nowadays the only non-fiction I read avidly are books about how to write.

Last year I read a review of this book in the paper -

It sounded enticing, and my lovely brother gave it to me for my birthday.  I began to read it. The chapters are very short - typically 6 or 7 pages, and they are packed with fascinating details that are new to me, and would probably be new to you as well. So why is the book sitting on my bedside table with a bookmark a third of the way in? Because I've been neglecting it in order to read a pile of novels. Stories about human beings are always more alluring to me than facts. It's why I've never watched an Attenborough series on the telly. (I can hear your sharp intakes of breath from here. Yes, I know it's about the photography as well. Add it to the list of unmentionables in my first paragraph.)

The other problem with non-fiction these days is that I can't retain the facts, no matter how delectable they are. I begin to tell Dave something fascinating about trees and then I dry up because the details have slipped from my memory. ( I commend to you this Billy Collins poem called Forgetfulness.)

I'm between novels at the moment, so this morning I decided I would commit to reading one chapter a day of the tree book and writing down in pencil at the end of the chapter the three most interesting points I've just read. We'll see how long I manage to keep that up. 

Back to fiction - do you have any suggestions? Has anyone read Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine?  Did you enjoy it?

A propos of nothing - Spring came to our lane today - our very first daffodils opened.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The bad and the good and the hopeful

What do you hope to read when you come to my blog?

1/ domestic stuff?

2/ progress on the new novel?

3/ opinions about news you weren't aware of?

4/ reading recommendations?

5/ lovely photographs of the Peak District, where I live?

6/ something to make you think?

7/ you don't care what it is as long as it makes you laugh?

The reason I ask is this: I just read the news on waking, and it depressed me so much I decided I'd blog about that. How during a housing crisis this bloody government left unspent a sum of £817,000,000 which had been allocated for affordable housing; how millions of families on the brink of poverty face yet more deep benefit cuts; how a man who emigrated here as a child 40 years ago and who has worked here all his life is being denied cancer treatment because he doesn't have the right citizenship documentation. Yesterday it was the new batch of arms sales to Saudi Arabia enabling them to inflict yet more suffering on countries like Yemen. 

I could write the news headlines myself - just imagine the worst that could happen in a particular area of national life and governance and write that story.


The good news is that we walked out in a soggy landscape yesterday afternoon and immediately encountered round the corner of our lane a starling murmuration. I tried and tried to get a picture and this is all I could manage. It's of only a small proportion of them and for some reason the photo quality has been reduced in transit:

Entranced, we watched them for a good twenty minutes - taking off and landing - before they flew off into the distance.

The other good news is that Cece has finally plucked up sufficient courage to ride on an animal that goes up and down on the Carousel of Happiness:

And so she's not left out, here's Lux, who has never had a problem:

Lux has entered a colouring competition run by the local toyshop and is hoping to win $20 dollars to spend in the store, and one of Cece's two front teeth is wobbly. I know this because they facetimed us yesterday. If those girls only knew the joy they bring me not only in telling us their news, but in the very fact that they ask to do it - 'Mom, can we facetime Sue and Dave?'

And the final burst of quiet happiness came in the form of an email yesterday afternoon from a friend who's been reading the third draft of my work in progress. She enjoyed it, and she said that once she had started it, she wanted to keep reading and reading. She had three criticisms - two I agreed with and can easily fix, and one I am still thinking about: she thought the circumstances that led to one scene were a little contrived. Hmmm. Now I am waiting for Chrissie to finish reading and give me feedback, and in the meantime I'm working on that one page synopsis for literary agents. 

The thing's not like a synopsis for an academic paper i.e. a simple summary. No. It has to be written in engaging prose, which also gives a flavour of the prose in the novel itself. And to make prose engaging, one of the things you need is vivid detail, and there is not much space for vivid detail on just one page, when you're trying to cover what happens in the 88,000 words of the novel.

Did I tell you the title? It's FRIENDS, LOVERS AND TREES.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

This and that

Last week we had a waist high snowdrift across the front gate and over the lane. 

The first two days were fun. The next two were like wet playtime in an infants school: I was bad tempered and restless, with a bad case of cabin fever. When the snow finally melted enough to take the car out, Dave was as pleased to say goodbye to me at Chesterfield station as I was to be heading off to the fleshpots of London for two days of debauchery and fun i.e. a show and an exhibition with my good friend H.

I recommend them both. Everybody's talking about Jamie was fun and touching and made me think. All Too Human at Tate Britain was stimulating, enriching and educational. Lucien Freud's portraits are stunning, but I'm soooo glad Francis Bacon never asked to paint my portrait.

Back home the sweet peas are making headway.

It's Thursday and we've woken up to snow again. It looks like the temporary variety, which is a good job, as I have to drive to my sax lesson and then to Sheffield to 'babysit' my 11 year old grandson.

I'm still waiting for feedback from two friends on the latest draft of the novel, though a third has got back to me saying she really enjoyed it and only had one or two criticisms. I'm on my way! 

This means I have to start the worst of all tasks - trying to squeeze a novel of 88,000 words into a one page synopsis - because that's what literary agents want, bless their little cotton socks.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Work of all kinds

This was last night's sunset, across the field opposite our house. We are snowed in, and it's pretty nice. 

I had hoped to go to the cinema later, but that was always a long shot. The plan now is to stay in bed and write.

I feel sorry for Dave, though. He's in the middle of an exciting woodwork project and the shed is so cold he can only go out there for twenty minutes at a time before his fingers are numb. He has told me that if I die before him he plans to turn the sitting room into an indoor workshop. 

Oh-oh. He's just shouted up to ask if I mind if he woodworks in the kitchen. No, Dave, that's fine, as long as I can get to the kettle. 

This week I came across a powerful poem that moved me so much I wanted to share it with you, so I emailed the poet, Alison Luterman, to ask her permission. She generously said yes. Thank you, Alison.

Invisible Work
Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don't mean these poems only
but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work.
About the young mother on Welfare
I interviewed years ago,
who said, "It's hard.
You bring him to the park,
run rings around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner,
and there's no one
to say what a good job you're doing,
how you were patient and loving
for the thousandth time even though you had a headache."
And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself
because I am lonely,
when all the while,
as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon.
There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us
long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean
a moment, against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world's heart.
There is no other art.
Alison Luterman

This poem can be found in Alison's book The Largest Possible Life (Cleveland State University Poetry Press). Alison's website is