Monday, 22 August 2011

Writers Group

A magical and hilarious last evening for the summer term, writing to the theme of kiss. Writers came looking for some uplift, some unexpected splendour and some opportunities to write beyond their limits. The evening evoked all manner of responses:  we kissed and told, kissed and made up,  we recalled the healing of a mothers kiss, lipstick kisses and hersheys kisses, blowing kisses and first kisses, kisses of betrayal, kisses of passion, chaste kisses, whiskery kisses and kissing games. We commented on how important kissing is in fairystories from frogs to sleeping beauties. And this just barely touched on what was yet to emerge. My thanks to all the writers who have made this year of writing so special and so illuminating.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The secret city

Imagine a city rooted in its own inversions. Or imagine negatives where there ought to be a city. An old girl walks in a dream world. Over the curve of the hill, the sea. A shimmer of light, an intensity, a frequency: the ghost of a possibility. The city stands above its scribbled reflection. Through the maze of streets there are discoveries to be made, friends to be met, stories to be shared, as the spectral city spirals in your imagination. There is the smell of ripe peaches or appletini, like a child's breath through dreaming.

Scaggy Mishkin walks these streets, jubilant in her petticoats and silver. She moves like a chandelier, brazen, blazing and impossibly delicate. Joy hammers in her veins. Tread softly, for although the city is yours, conjured from the white flags of your own imagination, she is about to take up residence.

The house she chooses is built like a secret in the forgotten heart of the city. A spiral of cobbled streets leads to it, so that its discovery is a dizzying surprise. The sun huddles, a  surly convict in his old cave. Curtains and door close as you pass. Do not imagine you can come prepared. Who could prepare themselves for the blaze of yellow when you finally open the door and enter a house whose very breath is sweet and chill, like iced honey? Who could prepare themselves for this hostess in her crinolines, glittery with ash? who could imagine the mended room beneath her outstretched arms? Do you begin to turn, hoping to flee as though in a dream?

Come in, she says, I'll give you shelter from the storm. Just when you thought you could resist, the song catches in your throat and the sound you make is ruinously lovely.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The dream house

I walk for thirty days before I find the dream house, tilting on its axis, sunk in its vault of green. The wooden porch is soft with rot. I prise open the front door and the smell of crabbed apples clamps itself across my mouth, cool as a corpse's hand. Insects drop out of the air and die on the windowsills. I press on. A slim tree is growing up through the chevronned boards of the hall. I rub one of its leaves and release the fragrance of geranium, or crysanthemum, as surprising to me as a fragment of song.

I feel in my pocket for the half bottle of whisky and find with it a key, like the key to a safe. or the key to knowledge. What do I do? Do I unlock the treasure of this house or will I in my turn lose the key and remain as unconvincing as the last or the next finder?

Beyond the blue staircase is a room with the letter M stencilled on it. I push the door and pull it close again quickly. my heart is beating like a live owl in a cage. Behind the door is a lost child. A girl. I push the door again. There she is again. I blink. Too much whisky. Or not enough? She is a puppet child, mimicking grief but not experiencing it. She throws an antique glove in my direction and as I catch it both glove and child vanish, leaving the sweet stink of dead mouse on the air. My mouth is painful. I can taste the family jewels of grief and they are dark: beryl, tourmaline, jet. I close the door, shaken. My steps, footprints in someone else's skin, invite me to walk backwards, back through the hall, past the slim tree, into a porch and out onto a thirty day walk.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011


Midnight: every church across the Lune Valley rolls out the clock. Far beneath the ocean, a ghost ship swings in dark space. In the lowest pools mermaids turn tail and their pulse cools. Below the old ship a dead King lolls in a throne of green seafossil. Tiny fuschia fish swim through the surprised empty clock of his face.

Here on the surface the cracked bell chimes, pumpkins sag in the allotments, tiny mice-men scuffle to their duty beyond the pillars and urns of the Palace Ballroom. The dead King hears the creak of water above him, the swell of tide and time. Tiny bubbles rise from his body to the surface.

My midnight feet are made of glass, as we struggle back up the shingly beach, lolling in each others arms, back to the matronly seaside, with the whisky-hollowed faces of the men on the street corners, and the gleam of patent leather boots and a flash of transvestite thigh.  The moon shuts her pearl eye and winks. A bare flex runs from my heart to his. The clock strikes its ultimatum. I hold my breath and wait for transformation as I always have. Behind us the sea shucks off its green jewels as we look for an abandoned doorway to kiss in

As the sky lifts its dark skirts the gulls scrawl exciting hieroglyphs across the surface of the day. Slowly under the ocean the ship tilts and the King's arm rises slowly, pointing to noon, to no-one, to a palindrome of timelessness, waving not drowning. The King is dead, long live the King. I sit on the shingle and inspect my bleeding feet. A sumptuous belief in living happily ever after is beckoning

Booker Longlist: Pigeon English

Reading Pigeon English on the kindle is a wholly different experience from reading a paper copy. There are none of the nuanced clues that come from packaging. The book comes through to you, direct, unimpeded by endpapers, blurbs, author biogs...and what I'm loving most is the tenderly emergent relationship between the narrator and the feral pigeon. It was such a welcome surprise, such an elegant and witty idea.

Once again we are in the hands of a teenage narrator, this time a would-be sleuth. And once again it is impossible not to draw comparisons with other debut novels, most notably Catherine O'Flynn's novel What was Lost. There are times when this narrator's voice seems just slightly laboured, when the pigeon English, grates and slips from absolute credibility. But on the whole (and the large part of the book remains to be read) I'm enjoying this novel.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Prodigal

The surprise of the secret city is its lustre. It is bathed in light: its rivers glitter, dark with indistinct lights. Upon its bridges gather the rich, the lazy, the perverted, the curious. An eccentric chill on the early air half blows the fool's flower from his hair. We are all masked, anything can happen now. Under the bridges the water hits the banks with a wet slap. Little blisters of light flare and disappear. How we found ourselves here I will never know. But here we are and we are about to make our mark.

Feathers and glue, fivers and glee. When Alisha came up with the idea of a circus we were all amazed. She clapped her hands in the oily candlelight and announced her plan. We will build ourselves a circus and travel the seven Cs she said: Celebration, corruption, calumny, creativity. These were just the first four cs. My heart quailed.  We will visit the coded, the cracked and the crowned she finished. We will immerse ourselves in a mess of sequins and feathers and live a highwire life of gaudy glories. Nothing will ever look the same again.

I shut my eyes and pretend it is a dream, her dream, and that in a minute she will awaken to the smell of singed feathers and I will be holding a mirror to her mouth.

Alisha sees me, reads my thoughts too easily and smiles.

Come, come, Electra, she promises. We can start living life for kicks, take your nourishment from the mythic fruit, the pomegranate, the shiny apple, go on I dare you...

She has about her the edginess of a horror movie, my mother, with her sooty eyes and her lightness of gaze. My mother is a woman who can look right at you and see you as her next big project. I fear it will be scary work this circus.

Great raspberry-coloured silks go up, hoisted aloft and tied to a golden pole by naughty chimpanzees. Curtains drop over darkened apertures. My mother is a stripteuse of the imagination. She sees our dreams and undresses them.

The tent is strung with little turquoise lights, floored with sawdust and the petals of rejected roses that my father buys for her by the hundred. It smells of wood, silk, lust, something faintly urinous. Oh yes, the circus has a funky smell. She called it our big top and the words sounded ludicrous in her mouth. But she spun at its centre like a whirling dirvish, like a freak or a visionary.

Rafael and I are the aerialists. He steps out across the abyss, the wisdom of the spheres ringing in his head.My talcumned feet bleed each night and she binds them in ribbons of torn-off silk. He follows his bliss. Holes and fissures seem to spring up behind his feet, and he steps lightly. Unlike everyone else he knows, he does not take himself seriously. And far below, Mary in blue, stitches in tiny stitches as she mends the rents. (What she cannot mend is the hole in his soul.) Courage she says, and two tears stand in her eyes. They are the only signs of water in her. In the middle of the rope he stops, stoops and whispers in my ear: To the audience you are already a ghost. If I flinch, I lose my footing. If I fall, I fall like an acrobat. Falling and flying, says Rafael, are almost identical sensations, almost twinned. Only in the very last detail are they differentiated. When we crash, we crash spectacularly.

Booker longlist: A Cupboard Full of Coats

So I finished the Cupboard Full of Coats and have been allowing it to settle with me for a couple of days. It's a searing piece of work. She handles her characters well, and the structure, expecially the transitions between the two time frames. It has a disarming simplicity and there were times when I wasn't completely convinced by the teenage voice of Jinx, but on the whole I believed in everyone enough and cared about them to want to keep reading. Did I feel I was in the hands of a master? no, and in that sense it has to come second to the Carol Birch. But given that it is a debut novel I thought it stood up well against Jane Rogers for example, and also against February, The Room and it far surpasses The Slap (all on last year's long list).

Now commenced Pigeon English. A theme seems to be emerging amongst this years list, of disaffected teenage voices....

Friday, 12 August 2011

The Prodigal

Alisha says: Play in the Jereboam Winter is an icy enterprise. I peer through the skeleton forest, watch Electra practise her wise manouevres, a raven flip, winged in the colours of the storm, she performs perfect dark circles until Rafael interrupts her play and crowns her with celandines stolen from the river's mouth. She sinks beneath the warm veil of his kiss, and I am hollowed out with pride and longing. My rough rouged cheeks pinched  a sudden red but maybe that's the cold. He bends his mouth to her ear. Her reply is a masterpiece of silent cinema, with both of them laughing and mouthing words into the air, making language visible, high vaulted with desire. I nurse my rookish passion for them both, a mad maternal instinct from this nursery-rimed cradle in the trees. My legs are crooked stiff. The dead are etched into the living. I am as clear as a piece of glass.  And I ask you: Who'd be a mother to such ingrate innocence?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Prodigal

Electra sits at her morning mirror and sees the world in translation, reading from right to left. Her brisk mouth purses a thought, but won't share it. Behind her the room is in arrears, the rumpled bed with Rafael still lying across it. When Rafael falls asleep he puts on a suit of lead. The smell of old blood on an easterly wind draws him down. No woman ever felt so alone as one who spent a whole night with Rafael. Not even Electra with her rainy, tie-dye prayers, her shivering heart, her abundant, pristine wisdom. Not even Electra had the key that would unlock his isolatory spirit.

A bleak sun is spooled across the distant morning. In the street below a car of pearls stutters into the gutter and disappears. Everything she has remnounced will now take on life. Electra at her morning mirror with her mouth of snow and her fan made of the gull's wing. Electra sits at her morning mirror and sees the lost world, in translation, reading backwards from right to left.

Booker Longlist: A Cupboard Full of Coats

Have commenced A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards. It's early days but it has a gritty energy that is appealing. The characters are compelling (with names like Jinx, Lemon and Red) and I'm intrigued to see how they develop. Edwards is one of the four writers whose debut novel has made it to the longlist. I suppose comparisons will be drawn between her and Andrea Levy or Monica Ali. I wonder if she will make it to the pantheon of post-colonial British novelists...

Writers Group

We rocked the ages last night, took a holiday from our sensible selves and time-travelled through some hilarious pieces of writing - lit by electric fires, nourished on lemon puffs and cream crackers. A wild variety of characters emerged amongst whom were Hugo with his fear of full rainbows, Fifi with her plastic heart and her secret wish that her mother was a porcelain doll. The room was lively with laughter and creativity, an astonishment at what could be kindled from a few words and numbers. We swam through oceans of deep-sea(ted) desires, and the room swam through our tears of laughter. We were buoyant, reborn, exhilerated and full of the visceral joy of writing together.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Booker longlist: The Testament of Jesse Lamb

Finished The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which never really lifted itself off the ground for me. I couldn't quite believe in Jessie, and was irritated that she was the sacrificial Lamb.  The different worlds of the activist groups were blurry and insufficiently well differentiated, and the most credible of the relationships was that between Jessie and her father, though even that seemed clunky. I could understand why he resorted to desperate measures but couldn't believe in the level of brutality. I didn't see the point of the brutality given their relationship. So, the overall impression is that it was all a bit disappointing, and I was particularly disappointed because I wanted it to be so much better than I thought it was. Maybe it will last, linger in the mind, insinuate itself into my daily internal meanderings and I will think perhaps it had something deeper and more powerful than on first impressions.

Also, it is one thing to be reading a book from choice and another to be reading it because it is part of a list, which although it is an annual treat for me, you cannot help but draw comparisons rather than reading each book on its own merit.

Oh well, onwards brave hearts, a whole list awaits our generous attention....

Monday, 8 August 2011

Aunt Hope

She was an undiscovered treasure, an unclaimed jewel, her mother had always said, stroking her cheek, so who could have imagined she would, at the age of sixty-four, find herself in the magical city of Istanbul, a city of minarets and mosques, circled with a bright ring of water; the Bosphorus shimmered in her mind's eye with the bright sails of a thousand yachts. Istanbul: even the word conjured up in her a strange mixture of exhileration and terror, like life or a fairytale. Black swans on the surface of the sea, glittering fountains fashioned from lead crystal brought in the vaults of antique boats from Europe. It was a city full of grace and photographers.

Aunt Hope carried her key on a silver chain around her waist and could feel it press into her soft old flesh as she walked up and down the cobbled streets of tthe old harbour. Behind the wall the sea turns over in its bed and will not settle. A herring wind whips up and reinvents her, as herself, once a young woman, in love. She feels suddenly free in her cold clothes which are the strange uneven colours if tan old moon, or raw potato. Love. That was grace. That was beauty. That was where her real life should have been lived.

She tilts her chin to the ribboning wind and narrowly avoids a misshapen embrace with a street vendor selling soup from a large tureen he is wheeling in front of him, balanced in an old pram. They stand in the almost shock of missed collision, a static of confusion crackling between them. Until he smiles and a halo of longing lights up around him, and Aunt Hope remembers how hungry she has been.

Istanbul impromptu improvisation

Yesterday, straw was the flavour of happiness. Something golden, gilt-edged, like the first beer on a royal afternoon. The Captain and the Queen had executions to arrange. I know because the sound of the axe falling echoed through the turquoise corridors, and the Mr Whippy flags, rainclotted in the gutters, had the forlorn pale scent of solitude.

Agatha turned a pearl upon her finger and cut the silken cord to bring the bachara chandelier crashing to the ballroom floor. The King, out fishing on the Bosphorous, looked up to the dark clouds. A crescent moon slid out from behind the clouds and briefly illuminated the last monarch jumping into the waves that connected East and West forever.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Booker Longlist

So now I am embarking upon Jane Rogers' The Testament of Jessie Lamb which, although it will be quite a different flavour, I am looking forward to because she is one of the few writers on the list I have read before. I enjoyed Mr Wroe's Virgins, Promised Lands and The Ice is Singing. And I once went on an Arvon Foundation Writing course where she was one of the tutors. So she is the only writer on this year's longlist who I can claim to have met....

Initial thoughts: it's intriguing, but to begin with it seems like quite a blunt instrument. She's occupying some fiercely contested territory, of course, and while comparisons are odious (as the man says) it's impossible not to draw comparisons with novels like Oryx and Crake and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Her chronology is slightly disturbing, layered, dissonant: set somewhere in the near future, it nevertheless is shot through with nostalgia for a time perhaps forty years ago, and this gives the novel an interesting edginess. Well, early days in terms of both this novel and the longlist as a whole. For me, she has yet to beat Mr Wroe's Virgins.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Where we begin

Where we begin may be a concealed paradise; verdant, hydrant, saltant. Were we lain by a solitary God beneath the leaves, among the blades of early gardens. Or were we born of water? Carried on the plume of  a wave, shipwrecked among the sea-traffic of mermaids and serpent-sirens. Did you roll in saltant joy towards me on the sea-bed? Were you given to me to satisfy my loneliness?
Well wherever we began, here we are. Let the stars shiver in the nervous sky. It is blogging time, time to doodle, spool and play.
Finished Jamrach's Menagerie. She very cleverly draws on our island/seafaring fantasies to scour out what is meant by character. The last section of the novel is patchier and less robustly worked than the first two sections: did she get tired? or is it something about the endgame of a novel that makes it always somehow troubling? It's a novel full of men, her female charactes are so scantily drawn as to be almost lacking in credibility, but this is more than compensated for by her main male characters. On the whole I loved it. Had it been on last year's list i think I would have wanted it to win - I certainly vastly preferred it to The Finkler Question, which I considered a very mealymouthed, self aggrandising novel.

And so on to the next in line...

Friday, 5 August 2011

Learning all the time. Today's blog appears idiosyncratically as two comments on yesterday's blog, and this is an unlooked for addendum attesting to the newness of the process. Jaffy continues to use language that is not quite congruent with his character, but still it's a mesmerising story. The silver lining to the cloud of shame that overshadows how few of this year's Booker longlist I had heard of, let alone read, is that there are undiscovered gems to be clasped to the bosom and made one's own. Lovely long moments in the sunshine with new friends, laughing and crying and adventuring on the high seas of someone else's imagination. Carol Birch has written nine other novels and I'll be making my way towards them in the Autumn.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Welcome to the 21st century prodigal blogger! I shall be blogging daily (ha) about books, writing, creative prompts, creative retreats and workshops. Right now I am reading the Booker longlist, starting with Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie, and I'm loving it. It's a bit like Rose Tremain meets Yann Martell, though Birch has her own distinctive voice, and for me she follows Tim Winton's Cloudstreet which is a hard book to follow, so I'm hoping she will make it onto the Booker shortlist.

Here endeth the first blog...