Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Reading List: Pure: Andrew Miller

Darkly beautiful and full of unsettling insights into how we view death and sacred spaces, Andrew Miller's Pure, which won the Costa last week, is a ghoulish delight, taking us into the dark days and murky evenings of pre-revolutionary Paris. The novel shimmers with tension, as though something earth-shattering is about to happen (and of course it is, though the revolution happens outside the remit of this novel). The central premise of the novel, the dismantling of the church of les Innocents and its cemetery, painstakingly uncovers for us the troubling question of the relationship between the past and the present: Is the past sacrosanct, a place that must be left undefiled by ideas of progress or does it taint everything we strive for with its own disturbing perfume? How we respond to this central question will affect how we react to the novel.

Miller's characterisation is typically superb: Jean-Baptise Baratte, the central character,  a man who trades his worthy suit - inheritance from his father - for a beguiling but  impractical pistachio-green suit, captures the heart of the reader from the very beginning.  He is a man who is and remains an outsider, both in his home town and in Paris, and though the connections he makes with the other characters are compassionate and clear, they seem nevertheless to remain glancing and distant. We view him from the perspective of our contemporary world, and his integrity and ignorance of what is to come make us tender towards him.Other memorable characters include Pere Colbert the mad priest and Armand, the eccentric organist for a Church with no organ.

Ideas about corruption and clarity are at the heart of this novel. Situated on the cusp of the revolution, an historic moment fuelled by Voltaire's Enlightenment call to Reason, and Robespierre's call to Arms, the impelling drive of the novel is a moral drive. The dismembering of the cemetery has as much to do with the construction of modernity as it has to do with contagion.

This is a novel which extends our ideas of what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, what it is to live well. It has passages of lyrical beauty and it resonates on so many different levels. A very satisfying winner of Costa's Book of the Year Award.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Place

The place is like a blessing, like rain, awaiting no more acknowledgement than a goat bleating, or a wife waving him goodbye as he takes his dark body out onto the moor. Come with me now, to Lamper Knott. We will climb the stake road, past the high white stones through a storm of memories. And it will be like snow falling like snow. When the raging winds tear the clouds into flakes. Grief lodges its stone in his throat. He flicks through his memories as though he were watching a film of dust. It is soft and slow past Stonethwaite Fell, along the thick side of the valley, away from the sea. A blizzard is wandering the fields, and he looks up and asks himself: 'Why do you want this?' Light pierces the cloud and his soul bursts into the open, a brief flash of diamond. The waterfall is just beside him, mineral sweet. He has forsaken the marital quarter of his life, to experience something else, something fallow, cold and sweet.
The sky is blunt and soft when he stumbles upon her, stone coloured now, with snow drifting into her nose and ears and defacing her dead body. Her eyes, perfectly round, see nothing, see it wide.
He folds himself into a perfect half and lies down by the dead girl, awaiting no more acknowledgement than the rain, than a blessing in this place.

Magical Journeys

Magical Journeys: Creative Writing Retreats in the Sun 2012
Join us in 2012 for two more amazing magical writing journeys

Morocco 20th-27th March 2012: A week’s retreat in the beguiling 18th
century fishing port of Essaouira - beautiful, mellow and full of vibrant
Turkey 3rd-10th May 2012: A week’s retreat in the heart of Istanbul.
Bursting with story and richly textured with historical and cultural
diversity, Turkey offers a completely unique writing experience.

These retreats offer a revelatory week of creative pleasures. If you
seek peace, space and some inspiration to rekindle the creative
process, these retreats are designed to be both vibrant and uplifting.
Complementing the writing workshops are lazy lunches in the cafes
and squares, convivial evening meals in a variety of restaurants, and
visits to local sights. You will have the time and opportunity to expand
your creative life and explore your astounding imaginative potential.
Morning writing workshops are held on roof-terraces, in pavement cafes
and in simple sunlit salons. The rest of the day is free for you to browse
through the markets, soak up the sun, or indulge yourself in a spa. One-to-one supervision is available throughout the week. All sessions are
optional so you are free to write as much or as little as you wish.

"Spices, minarets and silk carpets inspired our writing under the
guiding hand of our wonderful teacher, Claire. Yet again she managed
to take us all on a magical journey from which we were reluctant to
return" Helen
“Our trip to Turkey was sensational and how we laughed. Claire
planned every detail. We didn't have to worry about a thing except to
be at the appointed place in time to write. And write we did - for she
even carried a surplus of pens and laughter in her bag. We came
home with reams and reams of inspired writing. It truly was a remarkable
writing holiday.” Cath
“What a creative, fabulous, relaxing, happy time we had.” Mary
“Inspired creative teaching full of vigour,touching undiscovered talents
and opening new doors. It was a sensual, exotic and breathtaking
injection of Arabic warmth, a cradle for new friendships formed and old
ones affirmed. This is a journey which truly beckons your return...as
soon as possible!” Lesley
“It is a taste of renewal in a creative and nurturing atmosphere, where
fun and laughter surrounds the whole group”. Valerie
If you are would like to book either of these weeks please contact me at

Creativity is the defeat of habit
by originality
writing is a
journey of startling discovery

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Prodigal: Christmas Past

Behind me, in the mirror, he lifts the ends of my hair with all the gentleness of a child handling a fledgling.
'How would you like it cut?'
'Well,' I said: 'I have a wedding to stop.'
'A wedding?' The sense of my words filters through a beat too late and he cannot disguise the pleasure in his voice. He flushes from his neck upwards.
'Any Christmas parties?'
'We don't do Christmas in my family.'
'What? not even when you were little?'
I think back to the memories of Christmas eves when Rafael and I were little. How he would push me further and further up the iron bed. We did have Christmas then. Of course we did. We must have.
I do remember being told to pray. Having my hands pressed together between Rex's massive fists, and Julia burning white sage to purify the air. And I won't forget the day I discovered him in the hedge, with a Bible pressed to his breast, reciting the words of Judges or Deuteronomy with the helicopter blades chopping the air into quarters.
The nights were scented with gas and tangerines. Frost ferned its foliage up the windows, and Julia would clap her hands with delight and call the frost Jack. No names for sun and wind in our house. The bare floorboards under our bare feet were a dustmap of our running wild. And yes, the tree.
In the vast room with its black walls, we did have a Christmas tree, in bright pink tinsel, which Julia lit with real candles. There were tiny glass trumpets which Rafael and I fought over, and broke, and suffered one of those sudden shifts from beauty to disgrace that marked our childhood.
Because Julia was a woman with a narrow eye, Christmas was kaleidoscopic. Bright and shifting , always on the point of falling away. We went up under the crag and cracked ice in the stream, and ate our Christmas picnic in the pink air. And Rex's kiss was perfumed with brandy and cold water, when I gave him his present, a tie I'd knit and purled from his favourite jumper. I saw the start of alarm in his eyes and mistook it for delight.
Then, like magicians, my parents brought out our presents. Impossible to guess from the wrapping: newspaper painted over. The very size and shape of a shelf. With all the heft of something magnificent. Which they were. It was the year of the stilts. Home-made, of course. By Rex.
Wild with delight we stalked the landscape of the Christmas day, as Julia learned to dive into the river on the valley bottom, bracing her flimsy heart with new definitions of courage.
By the time I look up, he has cut out all the split ends, feathered and frilled my hair into implausible curls.
'There now,' he says, bouncing my new hair in his palms.
'That should be enough to stop any wedding.'

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Owl Lady

We have come to see the Owl Lady, and Jane, and my legs are rubbed red inside my wellington boots. I don't like Jane, who has buck teeth, and wears a dead fox around her shoulders, and is a year younger than I am but behaves as if she were two years older.
Down by the canal they live, in a darkened house under the elms. Past the gasworks with its puddles full of melted rainbows and silica sludge. The house has its back to the East and an impermanent circling halo of rooks.
The Owl Lady has thick glasses that make her eyes loom like palest blue globes. I dare not meet her gaze. The rook on her shoulder is called Bobby and he plucks the cigarette from her mouth and stuffs it under his wing before dropping it with an unseemly triumphalist caw. A cat decants itself from the shelf and tidies itself out of the door. Upon the table is a green velvet cloth with tassle fringing and a teapot with crazed pink roses. I swing my legs from the chair and count the distance between my shoes and the floor. I long to be outside with my brother who is under the dripping elms seeking Mayflies.
'Can I go to the toilet?'
'You'll need this.'
The Owl Lady hands me a rounders bat.
'It's for the owl,' she says 'but I doubt you'll need it.'
The toilet is down the cellar steps, which we call the cat-steps because they glitter with the mica of old coal dust. A dead rat is as flat as an old sock in the corner.
Everything about this day terrifies me.