Thursday, 5 December 2013


The beast in fur is in the shadows, testing the light for truth. He wonders if his hands are ludicrous, as they sift through the soil, flake the rotting wood, startle the beetles into movement. He relies on his primeval instincts; he is a shiver looking for a spine to run up. The moon is a bodged circle of light above the trees. Nothing is advantaged beneath it.
There is something radiant about the beast tonight, a salt, or mineral glow, from crashing seas to wild moors: something tremendous, like the wild kiss of a bride.
He is looking for her, drawing her towards him with some novel magic. He senses her resistance, her tantrums, screams and shouts, as he conjures her up. She is mustard on his tongue, brandy in his blood. She is a lost thing biding her time for being found: the moment of her exposure is unravelling. Soon he will offer her his fierce kiss.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Leon's Proposal

Being a tin spoon of a man, I don't promise to be true. I am likely to stir things out of comfort. I am telling you this now, over our glass of shared sherry, so that you may understand something about me, before we broker any deals. I broke my promise and kept its pieces for a good long time in the striped jug. The I made the long journey from there to here. What sort of comfort is there in a life lived in translation? We must have had the trappings of a life, once: baby's slippers, wedding cake, fly-swats. But now the best that I can offer you is a broken shoe and three conkers.
You look wary. Come, lay your head upon my breast. can you hear the beating of the drums? It is my heart sweetly banging. I sometimes think it will go on forever, that it will still be drumming when the birds cease to sing, when the grass withers, when what's tucked under the ledge of your desire swells and threatens to drain the lake of your lust. Let me take you to the house of thirty sombre rooms. The bees have wintered there, sweetening the walls of their lives with their honeying. Come with me one weak white day and I promise we will be happy again.
Being a tin spoon of a man I cannot promise always to be true, to provide you with a bone-white aga, velvet cushions for your head or a patched sail for a bedspread. But I can bang the gong of heaven as it hangs in the sky. And I can ladle out happiness. And I can make something stir in you. Being a tin spoon of a man I have my uses.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Sky's New Season

Indifference to how the wise quicken slows Precious's breath. Eighty one birds fly from the ash tree's pewter chandeliers. The woodpecker draws near, rattling his castanets. Precious wants to turn down the amplification on the garden. They had said it might get loud, those whisperers with their lubricious hearts and their black-braided cloaks. The garden rotates under its frosting of stars, turns on its indifferent axis. Beneath her feet the dead decompose. She conducts the flow of energy through her body. Soil silts up the gaping eyes of the birds. She is afraid of them, afraid of their all-hallows cries and their ghostly flight. She spins again in the eleventh month, summoning them up. Here they come: the salt of the earth, the sky's new seasonings.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Precious Kills a Bird

It is a skimmed milk morning, breath rising through the apple trees, the sunshine beginning to slant through and stripe the world. Precious is down in the orchard, thinking up new ways to retaliate. She is hoping to make a discovery. A crow bounces onto the lawn, pecks for parasites and worms with his tin beak. Precious blinks her black eye, enters the meditative state that is a prelude to the kill. In the time it takes her to reach the bird, five bitter oranges have sweetened on the kitchen tray, the grass has straightened and bent again, and the daylight moon has slipped out from its shadow-shawl of cloud to observe the kerfuffle of feathers and claws. This is good. The day has already brought an improvement to Precious's mood. The wind blows in, aromatic, damp, a potion in the making. Precious lifts the blade to her lips, tests it against her tongue. She is ready now.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Oh the Sisters of Mercy

Winsome stands at the end of the alley, near the Methodist chapel, in a shaft of pure light, as though she is a creature in constant need of repair. She turns in a blizzard of tinsel and writes everything she sees down in her little blood-red notebook. I observe this from my hiding place in the doorway to the butcher's. When she writes I write. I insinuate myself into her mind, bully her thoughts into being conjoined with mine, such is the bond between us. I am the thug and she is the sugar. Still, I believe I love her best of any other living thing in this world. She is my trump card in a life of double-dealing. If I feel competitive, I hide it deep in my suffragette heart, and I kiss her each night just as though I have never wished her dead at all.
Truth, to be understood, must first be believed. I think Voltaire said that. But when I consider how I love my sister, I think that proves him wrong. I love my sister like an old man loves his young mistress. It is humiliating, excessive, exhausting. I love the crinkle in her hair, the threads of blood that surface under her skin as blue seams. I experience loving her as if it were a trauma, my heart falls for her, like a car twirling off a cliff into a sea of oblivion. I long to be with her, to take her from this alley and lead her into the forest. But Winsome is slow. She looks at me, blinks, smiles sweetly as she hands me a jam-jar of fireflies, tipping out its contents, a shower of dancing lit sequins.  She pulls me into the chapel, and we are back where we were, biblical siblings, lost beneath the vast coloured window and the Independent Order of Rechabites and Suffragettes, standing together like the radiant ghosts of ourselves.


I am the wren and Lusome is the alligator. Sometimes she terrifies me, but she tells me she loves me best of all, as she hands me a sugar basket dripping with the thrown out bits from the butchers. She is devoted to curios and I am her most curious of curiosities. We lie together under the apple tree, in the white light of the full moon and I like to look up and see an apple and a moon hanging there together in the dark sky. The she loves me most fiercely. But the bond between us is volatile, electric, given to stammering passages of on-offness. She whispers into my ear: where is mother? and her hot breath sets fear twisting in my heart like the knotted ribbons of ballet pumps stained with blood. I want to scream then, to stifle the nonsense noises of her: now she is whistling, now she is yawning, now she is imitating the cuckoos lament. She hands me the torn out pages of books with all the words blacked out except for her promises: I promise to return; I promise never to return; I promise to be faithful; I promise to visit. Each time she passes me one I feel more afraid, and the pain in my chest is like a broken memory, with its irreparable shards, its spilled sequins, its alley of blood.
She begs me to dance. We are at the jackal's wedding, she moans into my neck, and  I fall into the pond of her longing and am covered in toads. She drags me, dripping to the pristine table, which is set with jam and silver spoons. Luscious jewel colours, plum and peach and nectarine. The guests are all laughing silently. She sits me in the golden chair, hands me her tattered fan, which I open and let fly a storm of wasps. I scoop the jam into my gaping mouth, as though I were a magpie, flipping the buckles on the rabbit's back, opening his red corset and bloodying the jewel of his heart. Sometimes I even terrify myself.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Rafael Entertains the Priest.

In the hollow spaces between joy and pure, there is faith.
Ha. Faith you say. Faith. It begins below the heart. It begins in scar tissue.
We all suffer. Where is it? Your scar tissue. Tell me how you came by it.
What would you know about it?
You are a failed suicide and I am a priest. There are things I know that you won't dream of. And I've no doubt there are things you know that I won't dream of.
Won't or can't? Do you want to know what I dream of? I dream of tits. Oh yes. I dream of girls in pieces. Impromptu visions in my head. Like pornography. But better.
I'm sure you do. Let me ask you. Can you love without faith?
Ah Father. So often the searching gaze conceals the thing it is looking for. You and me for instance. I come here and you interrogate me on matters of faith, with precision and yes, I concede, a true curiosity. Which I admire. But what you seek eludes us both. You recite a catechism I cannot hold to. The truth is surreptitious. It resides in the flickering gas-lit parlour of the imagination. We'll not see it clear again. It is a relic of a time that is lost now.
Maybe so. If faith were tangible what would it be?
A stone between the ribs? perhaps. Something illicitly sustaining. I would test it like a blade against the wrist.
What would it make you feel?
Masterful. Compelling.
Is that so? What would faith not countenance?
A still mouth. A wreath burned to thorns, a wafer subsituting for nourishment.
The priest's eyes crinkled. And there and then, in the weak light, his smile broke. He looked around the cell. Held his hands open.
What do you miss?
I miss the green garden. I miss my father singing to his cat in French. I miss who keeps faith with whom. I miss love, like a marksman misses the target. And until I don't, I have nothing. Absolutely nothing. To declare.
Let me ask you again. Where does faith begin.
It begins below the heart, Father, it begins in scar tissue.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Monday, 9 September 2013

Cosmo's dream

Salt on the cold air, black feathers and a dark bed. Cosmo is dreaming of his second wife, he is drawing on her flank with his knife. Islands well up behind him: Britain, Madagascar, Santorini and Nightingale. Now you are my whole world, he dream-whispers, one of these days I shall love you to the moon and back.
Night wraps its heavy silk about them. Tonight there is no moon. His dreams come to him as wifely-interrogators, bleeding and pleading:
Where are my roses? yellow for unrequited love, orange for passion?
They are behind the door he answers
What colour's the door?
It's the colour of rotting pears
Who lives there?
We live there: An old married man and his loves
What colour's the door?
It's the colour of pale toad
How will I know it?
It's in two halves
Where are my roses?
They're here, of course they're here. There is no door.
And he flourishes for her a bouquet of stems, astonishingly green, their leaves and thorns reaching for their lost heads, because he loves her. He tells her. Yes, he does.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The Angels watch over Rain Baby

Rain Baby sits in the damp cafe and consults her copy of War and Peace, attuning herself to its unusual frequencies: The seagull's cry of loss, the fall of blossom in the abandoned garden, the low hum of the bluebottle feasting on the carrion. Her copy of the novel is beloved, a well-thumbed treasure, annotated and diaried. She uses it for daily practice, consulting Tolstoy before making any decision. That is how she has come to be in this cafe, in this land. She is in her Russian period. Before Tolstoy it had been Chekhov and she had yearned for her three sisters, and to know the precise provenance of her father's silver topped cane. She had longed for Moscow.
Today, as the rain exhausts the cafe window, she taps out the rhythm of the book with her fingertips, drumming against the yellow vinyl of the table, not even knowing she is waiting for him to come in. When he arrives he is a stranger to her. He is dressed like an exclamation mark in surplice and trainers. He inclines his grave head by means of greeting, and lies down across two chairs, like a sword. His halo is as true as a gold coin. In spite of herself Rain Baby is interested. She walks round to his side of the table and stares boldly at him.
The stranger is asleep. Perhaps he has come to lie down, for nothing more than the simple mercy afforded by the cafe of somewhere warm. Nonetheless Rain Baby is offended. She perceives his eccentric sleep as a mockery of her patient waiting and her long journey. She beseeches the red-faced barman with her eyes, but he is polishing cups with a grey cloth, and is unprepared to intervene. She thinks, he probably doesn't care who does what so long as they're quiet. And the still guy in the vicar's outfit, he is quiet.
Rain Baby goes over to the stranger and places her hand on his frocked leg. The faint scent of cashews rises from him. He opens his eyes and sits, simply upright.  He hands her the envelope from his breast pocket, and she comprehends that his archness is merely a part of the message.
Far above them, the angels in their glass bottomed boats are peering down from the clouds and sending their blessing of rain on folded grey wings.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Friday, 30 August 2013

The Prodigal: Electra Considers the Queer Idea of Family

It is so because it is written. Five hearts tattooed in blue upon his wrist: one for each of us. Mother sits beneath the open sky embroidering children onto the soiled household linen. The day drenches her in a sudden light. I watch her pulling threads, quiet as breath, as she fastens another smile to an infant's face. Rex traces his hearts with a calloused finger and leans back against the trunk of the apple tree regarding his wife.  Rex, the husband of hearts. He has married a woman utterly addicted to the quality of light in his shadow. He stands just five breaths away from her. His heart beats to a distant drum,. His spheres turn to a darker music. Mother unspools another twist of thread and murmurs her prayers, calling him in. One breath for love, two for an open heart, three for each child, four for an angel's effigy. Five is the magic breath, the breath that will close the space between them in an embrace, as Rex falls towards her, helpless. I watch as he leans in for her kiss, momentarily extinguishing the light in her face. And I think: they have chosen to be lost.

The King Pays a Surprise Visit

She wears the mourning jewel, black loops of jet about her throat, its indistinct lights purling between hope and sleep. She unhooks her wings, shakes down her shoulders. He watches her reflection in the long mirror. Her spine is a string of pearls as she bends to her task and his jealous ghost leans in stupidly to get a better look. Is it his imagination or does she glance up at him now, facing the wild? A prickle of joy knits one purls one cable across his back. They are the pearly king and queen turning over the odd reliquaries of the world between them. He comes to her now, in the odd months of the year, those months when the wind blows him backwards, inverting all his desires. To kiss is sick. He longs to eat but all she can offer him is tea. Come to me she whispers, smiling a smile full of bright necklace, a smile full of crumbling opulence. Come to me. And he has no idea of his desire to punish her until he hears the soft snip of recognition as she takes out her pearl-handled knife and cuts the heart out of the possible.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Booker Longlist: The Luminaries: Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton's second novel is as suggestive, diverting and mesmerising as its title would have us hope. Set in Victorian New Zealand, it is a masterpiece of plotting and revelation. Conspiracy, secrecy, purloined letters (there is more than a nod to Poe here) revelation and fortune circle each other in the stories of the cast of twelve characters which intersect and interrupt each other for the unpacking of the central mystery.
For sheer reading pleasure Catton's novel is an out and out success. We are reminded throughout the novel that we are being told a story, and we are as captivated as children by the telling of it. The headers for each chapter which begin by dropping little clues, and end by usurping the content of the chapter are themselves beguiling. The evocation of place is compelling, the language precisely of its period. Her sense for the vernacular is spot on, her characters vivid and endearing.
Even if one were to appraise the novel simply in terms of its architecture, it is a thing of beauty, wondrously structured so that the form fully underpins the content. Catton's decision to use astrology as the frame for her story is a stroke of genius: astrology, the ever-changing patterns of the stars which men use to find purpose and pattern in their lives and motivations. The novel is structured in twelves, so it has a mathematical as well as literary pleasure to it.
Fortune is the currency of the novel, both in terms of chance and in terms of gold. We are asked to consider what is of value and then shown what desire costs.  There is an alchemical beauty in Catton's novel. Everyone is transformed, some are transfigured. Paulo Coelho says that alchemy exists so that the world becomes a better place, so that we can transform our leaden lives into gold. Catton has done something even more luminous: she has turned the world of words into something fine and precious, rare and valuable. If this isn't a contender for the prize I don't know what is.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Prodigal: Electra takes a Walk

Electra walks in the shadow, her face smudged with black light-out. Tonight she is walking with uncommon purpose. She is walking to heal her broken heart. Love for Rafael has dragged her through the graveyards and eelhouses of her ordinary life and brought her finally to this walking world, defined by vast, unboundaried ways. The moon slips out from a veil of cloud and illumines Electra making her cautious way down the broken street. She feels the chill of Rafael breathing down her neck, but when she turns there is no-one, only a cat which slinks behind a dustbin and disappears, like a magician's coin, into a sleeve of darkness.
Because he has vanished, she believes she will find her way by following her handedness. She tends towards the left. It is not much to go on, but it is something.
She follows the cracked map of her hand to find her way through the city and stands back against a nightclub wall as a gaggle of girls, clinging to each other, tip themselves into the street. It is the night of the breakneck bodice and high-heels. Somewhere a clock tolls and a neon light above her flickers on and off in red. Look out, there she goes, walking through the rat's nest of the city, still trying to find her way back to him.

The Prodigal: Rafael Dreams of Being Free

I insert myself into a landscape stitched in semi-precious stones: this edge of Rombald's Moor. It was so, it is so and it will always be so. The rocks glitter. Crows nest in the beacons of the firs, as the late sun sets a match to a sky crossed with vapour trails. I stand on the precipice, like Rombald, like something grand raised out of the rubble. In the valley a car stitches a red thread to Low Holden. Here is the place where the heart's cold bird rises up in an ugly imitation of flight. Here is the place where the shrew disappears into the skeletal heath.  I am among them, I am among this family of wild things. The nervous gorse releases its kissing perfume. I open my eyes and it is all gone in the beat of a lash. The walls here are the same splotchy white as an owl's egg. Carefully I come back to this room.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Booker Longlist: Unexploded: Alison MacLeod

Set in Brighton in 1940, Alison MacLeod's novel Unexploded has a pleasingly persuasive period cadence. The style is oddly formal, point of view shunts between characters, an omniscient narrator drops us into different character's heads and experiences without warning, and MacLeod has an unfashionable fondness for adverbs, all of which combine to situate the novel precisely in its time. MacLeod is at her best deftly undermining our expectations of the characters. No-one is quite as they seem and the novel's title, suggestive of the combustible energies between the characters, suggests the care with which they have to conduct their relationships.
The novel is not simply a period piece though. It deals with themes that are absolutely contemporary: allegiance, race, cultural misunderstanding, and terror. It suggests that what remained unexploded after the second world war, remains a persistent threat. And it achieves this with rather more grace and elegance than the tale it uses as a vehicle, for the story itself suffers at times from a curious ennui, notably during the Virginia Woolf lecture. It is a shame that this moment didn't quite come off as the character of Evelyn owes much to Woolf's writing, and it was a nice acknowledgement of that to have Woolf make a cameo appearance.
Notwithstanding minor quibbles, MacLeod has a distinct and original voice. She writes with powerful intensity about relationships and desire, most vividly of all the tragic desire to be loved which so often in this novel goes awry, with devastating consequences.
Unexploded is a novel to be admired for its intricate plotting, its psychological acuity and above all for the elegance with which MacLeod intersplices the devastating into the mundane, such that neither lose their impact.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Booker Longlist: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman: Eve Harris

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is Eve Harris's debut novel, set in the Charedi Jewish community of North London. Harris's sympathy for her characters is clear and compelling, but their voices are all very similar, which means that we never fully engage with any of them. The novel shifts perspective and time periods, and sometimes  these shifts are clunky and disrupt the narrative flow. The structure of the novel intertwines the story-lines of three separate relationships: the central one between Chani and Baruch, that between Rabbi Chaim Zilberman and his wife Rivka, and the brief and thwarted relationship between their son Avromi and his fellow law-student Shola. Of these the most interesting relationship is that between Chaim and Rivka. This relationship is the one which most powerfully ignites our sympathy and interest, so it is a shame that this storyline was not given more presence and moment in the novel. It is here that we see most fully how life in a religious community informs the life of the individual.
Underpinning all the relationships is the question of how far faith can sustain us or restrict us in the ways in which we explore what it means to love. Harris is disappointingly one-sided in her examination of this, which makes the novel seem slighter than it need have been. The themes of the novel could be thrillingly pertinent in a society which is struggling to define the role of religion, but the treatment of the themes was too often frustratingly facile.
I was surprised to find this long-listed for the Booker. I shall be even more surprised if it makes it to the shortlist.


The priest sits against the stone wall. He lives on the border of mystery and faith, way behind the frequencies of time and truth that operate their tyrannies over his daily life. The pagan signs are daubed upon the walls, but he no longer reads them. Behind him the ripped ballgown of the evening sky sheds shreds of light into the church and across the gravestones. Soon the early moon will settle in its autumn cradle, and the bell will toll him back indoors. He creaks to his feet, performs the last of his duties with a touching courtesy.
He sweeps the leaves, collects the broken skeletons of the dead birds, goes into the church and lights the evening candles against the grim shutting sky. He has reached the moment when every impulse is quietened, every jumping nerve stilled. He is certain there is a great Plan, unknown to him but nevertheless a Plan with him in mind. His duties complete he kneels, about halfway down the church, and prays for the community of the dead. He recognises them.Thinks he's almost there already. And when he has listed all those known to him privately in his heart, he returns to the outside evening and a landscape that briefly links the randomness of road, church and man in the evening. It is, he thinks, his lucky day.

Friday, 16 August 2013

King Lear

Bill Buckhurst’s touring production of King Lear, currently showing at the Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury is both intimate and passionate. Starkly staged, in a simple Elizabethan style structure, the production demonstrates an elegant economy, with just eight actors playing all the parts. This enables the production's emphasis upon identity and autonomy to be subtly explored as the characters shift their allegiances and the actors shift their parts.
Joseph Marcell brings enormous power to the role of Lear, being equally convincing as a vain and arrogant king at the beginning of the play to the pitiful lost monarch at the end. If his fury with Cordelia in the opening scene seems disproportionate and unnerving, his subsequent cursing of Goneril is truly frightening, and his ultimate grief for Cordelia is profoundly affecting, moving the audience to tears.
Bethan Cuillane, who plays both Cordelia and the Fool brings warmth to both parts, though she is markedly better in the Fool's role than as Cordelia. As the Fool she illuminates and counterpoints Lear, enabling us to feel affection for him throughout his tribulations and fragmentations. As his political and mental integrity is fractured, our sympathies for the King are almost entirely directed by the tenderness and sad wisdom with which the Fool conducts her relationship with him.
The production has impressive energy and pace, but this is not without its costs, not least the forfeit of Gloucester's tragic blinding, the horror of which somehow gets lost. This is an important and powerful moment in the play and this production curiously disinvests it of its potency, leading the audience to laugh (albeit rather uncomfortably) at the bloodless plucking of the second eye. That this lost moment does not derail the production is a mark of just how superb the rest of the play is.
A rolling red storm scene is deeply chilling, and the economy of the staging is at its superb best here. Also brilliant is the scene where Gloucester 'falls' from the cliff, no longer sure which way is up or down, and we are left in no doubt that all our moral certainties have been dreadfully compromised. The music, the lighting and the choreography all contribute to the overall intimacy of the production. The lights are left up throughout the performance, a gesture towards the open-air experience of the Globe. This also has the effect of drawing the audience into the production, collapsing the distance between the audience and the stage, and making us complicit in the production's exposure of the vanity, greed and violence which undermine the political and personal relationships around which this play revolves.
Buckhurst's production is compelling and inventive, and his actors step up to give some thrilling performances.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Booker Longlist: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

It amounts to no more than 100 pages, but Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary is rich with spiritual, emotional and imaginative insights. Mariology has been an important player in the construction of femininity in our society. The figure of the Virgin Mary, the human mother of the divine child, is the model of loving obedience to a higher power. In his novel Toibin imagines a more fully human Mary, a woman whose role in the life of Jesus is as much informed by doubt as it is by belief, a woman made 'wild' by the violence she has to witness.
The novel is told in Mary's voice, and it is a voice as troubling as it is beguiling. She recounts her story of the miracles and death of Jesus to her "guardians": ominous, irritable men who seem more like jailers, but who we are led to believe are the gospel writers, the founders of a new religion. From the beginning we are aware of a story that is emerging in spite of the control exerted over it by a constituency who wish a particular version of events to be confirmed. They are the Gospel writers. Here is Mary's oral account of the events.
Like the Magnificat, Mary's testimony moves to the soothing rhythms of the scriptures. The language is kept simple, tender and dark. In her account we recognise the familiar stories: the wedding at Cana, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but they are given new and more disturbing form. She tells the story of Lazarus with stark clarity, tells how his body moves uncertainly from the grave back to life. Its occurrence is indisputable, but its proof of divinity is debatable. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, but he is not restored. He can barely eat soaked bread. His golden beauty is tainted by what he knows of the grave. Yes he prefigures the resurrection of Christ but in Mary's story we are prompted to consider the folly of desiring immortality, the profound impact it might have on what it means to be human.
Toibin does something brave and profound with the scattering of information we have about Mary and the amplification of this into the figure of The Virgin Mary who has been such an exalted part of Catholic Christian doctrine. In some ways Toibin's Mary still operates as a divine mediator. She extends mercy. But she does so by reminding us of what it is to be human, what it is to fail those we love. Above all The Testament of Mary sees Mary as embodying the troubled relationship between mother and son, experiencing the grief of a mother whose son will not acknowledge her 'What are you to me?', and the agony of a mother who helplessly watches her son being crucified and then abandons him to save herself.
In Toibin's crucifixion the frailty of the body is still central to the story, but it is as much Mary's body as it is Christ's: he is flesh of her flesh, his 'heart having grown from [her] heart', yet she abandons him to save her own skin, because going to him, to hold his broken body, to bury him, 'would have made no difference.' Toibin's Mary is unflinching in the grief -stricken knowledge that she could do nothing except save herself. The drama of her experience of the crucifixion re-imagines it again for us with the authentic clarity of a lived experience. 'I was there...I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.'
And finally Toibin offers us her ascension, and he does so in the simplest and loveliest of terms: a dwindling light, a soft path, a silence. 'The world has loosened...And I am whispering the words, knowing that words matter, and smiling as I say them to the shadows of the gods of this place, who linger in the air to watch me and hear me.'
The Testament of Mary is an act of immense imaginative grace and chutzpah. It takes some nerve to tackle the underpinning stories of our culture and find in them something miraculous. But Colm Toibin brings to the task such a willingness to see what is original and true that we are all by far the better for it.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Booker Longlist: Harvest by Jim Crace

I have long been a fan of Jim Crace's writing, so I'm starting the Booker longlist marginally ahead of the game, having read Harvest earlier this year. In all his previous novels Crace has revealed himself to be a fan of the Dark Age and this novel is no exception, and here too the dark Age becomes a political metaphor for the age we live in. Harvest tells the story of the erosion of belonging, the dismantling of community, the autocratic ease of disenfranchisement: we reap what we sow – this is a tale of environmental profligacy of Biblical proportions.
The central narrator of Harvest is Walter Thirsk, a man who is himself an outsider, never quite present in the events he describes. The arrival of the mapmaker, Mr Quill is an early indicator of unease. He arrives to chart the landscape, parcel it, shape it, mark out its boundaries. Suddenly the boundaries are not natural but negotiable. Suddenly belonging becomes that bit more uncertain, that bit more contested. And with that uncertainty, Walter Thirsk's alliances are thrown into sharp relief, as though the starkness of the stubble-cut land has just revealed him in an unfamiliar way. 
Community is important to Crace. It is one of the ways in which his character's inhabit their identities. The Village, a small enclosure of fewer than 60 homes, is never named, and yet is fully differentiated and authentic. We believe in the Village, we recognise it, it is almost our own. But the Village is a community in transition, and its characters all have their identities winnowed in the cropping that is the central event of the novel. It behoves us to be alert. To attend our own fields. The harvest, Crace suggests, takes place everywhere and nowhere. This is a novel which is both mythical and topical. 
Crace's prose is extraordinary and mesmerising. His evocations of the English pastoral are nostalgically bucolic, giving the novel the timeless quality of a fable, something both familiar and urgent. Harvest is an elegantly structured novel and one which is deeply satisfying.  If this doesn't make its way onto the shortlist, in my view the shortlist will be very much the poorer. 

the copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

A Horse called Blessing

Ignite my tired wings, Senestra, my horse falters on this outcrop. The cliffs are pierced by the winds and the salt into a tracery of stone, as though the sea's answer to any question is to throw water on it. Rains scatter the ashes of yesterday's hearth, and there are no fortunes to be told except in mud. Even the lees of the beaujolais only point to half-truths and blunt endings.
I hope the escape is worth the wait Senestra. I clung to my perch for so long, I felt the coldness of Andromeda chill me. I was cast among the lesser stars of the universe, trailing a silver track behind me. The fruits of the day were dark. Still the rain drifts in shifts. Drench is one inside the other.
Have mercy upon me Senestra, prophetess. For what more profit can there be than to come together, to sing, to pray, to ignite the lights of companionship. Ignite me. Let us flow together.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Songs and Books

The journey begins when love takes over. You walked into the room, weighing inspiration and patience, one in each hand, and I was lost. These are the missing moments in our lives, perfect, unblemished by memory. Come with me: you bent your mouth to my ear. Come with me. A cough of dust floated down a blade of sun. Come. You held the door ajar and out I stepped into a shoal of light, shimmering with possibilities.
We moved through landscapes rich in tristesse. You carried lilies, of course, and I held the Liars Gospel close to my heart. We lay upon the raft you fashioned out of sheer enthusiasm and an entire antique forest, and watched the stars rearrange themselves into constellations we baptised Thrush and the Punch Bowl. You, pilgrim, with your cockeyed sense of direction and your disregard of maps. Did you think I would follow you forever. Did you really think you could lead me to a place of greater safety? You took me to the jilted city where the angels wept for my despond. We did not restrict ourselves to a single tear. Our crying was operatic, histrionic, gold-plated. I always believed in your soul.
Love me do, I begged in my silent movie, but your heart was a flint stone and I could not move you.
So, here we are. You in your lipstick and your flowered dress, just like in all the family photographs. And me, dreaming of a house rich in oranges, wondering after all our inward-outward journeyings where on earth we ended up.

The Prodigal: Electra's Blues

Burden's birdcages swing in the memory's empty windows. I make myself lie down on the surface of the lake, where the heads of the chrysanthemums are floating like burnt golden globes. The lake house ripples in indigo: so many bedrooms, so many doorways. Somewhere he is practising his saxophone, adjusting the feather flock of his wings and blowing each low note of his heart. I feel the disturbances on the air, a crumpling, as though I were recovering from one of my tantrums.
Is he there in his gaudy get-ups? his lime and peacock waistcoats? His bruises of purple and canary yellow? Do you see him?
I am composing a novel for you. Yes. I thought that would make you jump. It is a work of incomparable complexity. Venetian in its dark waterways and arches. It staggers towards becoming robust. I am writing it all in my own blood.
I want to step away now. I'm ready to turn my back. If you care to, you can touch me.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

New facebook page for Magical Journeys

I have opened a new facebook page for the creative writing workshops and retreats: Magical Journeys. The page will advertise the retreats and workshops, post albums from previous retreats and generally encourage anyone curious about their creative lives to come and explore something amazing. Weekly workshops will also be posted on the site. Please come and like the page. Many thanks x

Monday, 1 July 2013

The House

Our house is plumbed with darkness, its windows curtained with cow parsley's old lace. We improvise where we can, and in general we are pleased with the way the light percolates in and lays itself in shifting patterns across the furniture and floors. Bananas soften on the side and turn dark and sweet. Ghosts slip in on an angled breeze, doors bang behind them. They leave their sincere fragrances, deep as beeswax, sharp as gorgonzola.
Delirium lives here with us, in her crinoline dresses, her perfect cheekbones and her crinkled lavender corsets. She is big on treason and on theft but  she cannot keep a secret. Her throat is so translucent each mouthful of swallowed wine shows through. There are tell-tale tissues in every bin. She invites us to her burlesque parties, throwing grand gestures in our direction. I suppose in every house there is room for improvement.
We ransack the house looking for clues. Open her drawers: here is the French handkerchief, a relic from the last war, here is the lost key. Here are the three wedding rings. When I see them I crack the full length of my heart, and the house turns, folds in upon itself, with all the inscrutable origami of a dream. Now it is castle, horror, love. When I look up there is Delirium's face flickering in the mirror. The word adultery settles on my heart like a piece of corroded metal, but she didn't say that. She said 'Stop shivering or I might have to kill you.' And the house whispers in response: 'I am sorry. Here are my lupins, my red hot pokers, my roses. Let there always be bouquets from now on.' And I wave to her, as I turn and see the whole thing again, from a different angle.

Friday, 31 May 2013


I'm a coaster not a roller he announced, peering at us through his fish eye lens.
And I'm a jester not a joker, Annie replied, quick as a silverfish in her sequinned jodphurs and faded cheesecloth.
Aha, a spar! he aimed an imaginary lance in her direction, dropping his monocle as he did. Let the scales fall from mine eyes: he flourished a tawdry bouquet from his sleeve; I see you are a queen in our midst
Adjust your scales - Annie was getting into her stride - Not queen but mermaid. She twirled and her jodphured legs were suddenly skinned in a gleaming lurex tail.
So that explains the fishy smell.
She looked at me, as if fishing for a clue, some information that would tickle her trouty imagination. I could furnish you with poisonous spines, she offered; You could be urchin, or anemone. Don't say it! She wheeled sternly back to our interpreter: Who needs friends like a fish needs a etc etc. She leaned in and plucked a coin from behind his ear. Sailor's gold, or pirates? She wondered, holding his beard tight in her left hand. Which fleet do you belong to?
The fleet of maritime magicians, miladymermaid. Can I invite you to our Friday supper?
Hunger gulped a silver globe in my belly
You can invite me!
It's the feast of the seven fishes: A travesty of turbot, followed by a pyramid of poached puffas; ictheus sorbet, shock of shark with jus of clam and lime, anchovy - the gentleman's relish, fish, chips and mushy peas and to round it off jellyfish and icecream. Shall we go?
And he linked an arm under each of our finnys and swam us up the bright staircase to the dining car.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

The Fall

Icarus flies or falls through burnt out skies. He spins out of orbit, elemental, breathing in a diminishing collections of breaths, sharp as salt crystals. The gold of his breath is a sunburst, a serrated key to another world, with its harsh cries, its strange textures. Risk: it doesn't exist. The sun is not a crystal ball, it is the scratched lens from his father's magnifier, which passes from sky to sea like a magician's invisible coin. Breathe now, Icarus. Burn your weeping eyes. Here are the endless layerings of things, gifts from the mind's inventions, palmistry, the swift descending geometry of the soul. The sun unzips your wings, pierces your side. The sky is a ruined canvas.Pity us Icarus. Now we will never fly.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Electra's Gift

Electra unfurls the roll of condensed light, tears through the plastic blisters to reveal the day's present, unwraps her drugs, her shadows, her one true gift. What day of the week is normal? Emotions fall like jewels onto her lap. She folds each tear in a wrap of rain, wraps the stamping feet, the ones that don't bring anger in. She is in the rat house, breathing tarnish into the silverware. The fact that she has neither  house nor  car in Sodsville is of no consequence now.
Come to me boatman, she says under her breath, whisper to me, tell me, when was the last time you made love on the circle line?
I  should wrap you in repulsion you old fraudster, break all your bones, leave your sense of sentiment handstitched to the place where your heart should be, embroidered with your own perfect name. Il faut cultiver le jardin. Let the trellis of obscene roses buckle beneath its own weight. May all your mushrooms rot in hell.
Electra peers through the roll of bubblewrap, distorting her down and out world. She halves her wishbone with a shy snap
Ah precious! she says Come closer, let me confess. None of this sheer bliss has happened yet. We are two people, one old, one young, just holding each other.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

My own true North

How does luck descend? like two gold coins falling in a box, like a flock of starlings, dark filings swirling the sky, none of them coming to rest.
 We are not what we were when we commenced this journey. If I think of you now I see you crying in the silent film, and the two halves of my heart fly apart. The hackles of the moon are rising, illuminating the rotting brocade of the path before me.
The quest leads me down to the foundry of dreams. Is there some potion that will indemnify me against them? No. All that remains is the faintly accusatory mushroom scent of sperm on the air. I am living in the jilted realm of grief. Now I am naked, now I am cloaked in the red light of evening.
What will happen when the light goes out, when the day is already crossed with its own demise? Then I will whisper to you your own fish-name for who isn't driven to swim up the estuaries of another's body to spawn close to the soul?
I am coming back, lucky or luckless, my passion for you bit between my teeth like old coins. As the birds follow their magnetic maps to cross skies loaded with spent jet fuel to find their true North I am coming. Belive me. At last I am on my way.

Friday, 1 February 2013

A Day in the Life

Edwin Bragg, the undertaker, has a low, slow voice, a voice without echo, immune to sorrow. It is a voice that fits itself to the silence of death.
On Tuesday he lays her out for washing, lifts her blunt hand in his and lets it fall, disowned now. He carefully soaps and dries this woman, flumps powder down the burly trunk of her back. He anoints her body for the last time before it is encased in grey wicker and then sunk into the earth. Her face is naked now, but he will paint it, add ashes of roses to the cheeks, make them seem plumper, more receptive to the last kiss of her son, as he tucks a sentimental locket under her chin.
Her family are comforted by Bragg's quiet manner. Although he is no thief for grief, they leave his dim shop less broken than they entered it, as though the artistry of his respects has relieved them momentarily of the burden of grieving.
Soon she will be in the earth's dark treacle. The earth will open its heart to her and she will sink into its embrace. Tiny insects will marvel at his paintwork as it begins to flake and crumble. But above ground the litanies of wind-addicted birds will continue to haunt the unechoing voice of undertaker Edwin Bragg as he inclines his head sadly to the next mourner and extends his cool hand in greeting.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Guitar Man

Trees pool in floods of colour, prickle against sight, cluster together beneath the wind. The guitar maker narrows his eyes, a fugitive from the business of creativity. He has come to this big-bellied forest to pick his beloved, a tree that will bear his image. A tree that will build the finest guitar that jazz has ever met. The taste of orange oil floods his mouth with pleasure, reflexive, certain, unattainable. Cedar shapes begin to emerge in his mind. He sees curves. The wind is a wet loop. He is caught in a dream of music. In this forest is the key to impossible living. He alone must find the right note, unlock it, uncover its delicate one-ness, its splendid identity,. How he loves this moment. This time before time runs out, when all is possible, before he makes the first cut.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Downfall of Icarus

Icarus is busy making plans in an effort to offset his fear of becoming invisible. He believes, these days, that transparency is furtive, unworthy. He is melding high thoughts with hopes of eternity gilding his veins. In short, because nothing is ever the shape it suggests, he has persuaded his father into building them some wings.
Daedalus writes down the formulas for flight in a secret script of broken mathematics. He sends Icarus out to rob the bees nests for honey and wax. Under a teal sky at evening time, Icarus returns home, following the cold scent of melon on the air, to find his father constructing the vast angelic wings. They grin which gives them both the understanding that there is no business between them but the grave business of living. It is so because they believe it is so. But Daedalus is uneasy. He knows his son, extracts from him the promise not to go too high. These structions of wax and keratin cannot hold for long, he says, and Icarus nods, greedy to get on with it. He'd be patient if he had more time.
The morning dawns with a soft light. At last Icarus stands framed in the doorway and hooks his arms through his bright wings. He moves out, launches himself into the fabric of the air. Balloons of nectar billow beneath his wings. He is moving through a miraculously perfumed light in sweet cold disobedience. The sun calls him into the scarred sky. Tiny cracks, hairlines, barely visible, begin to appear in his wings. The day is pitched too high and the dials in his glass heart are flickering chaotically as he begins his spiralling fall, and suddenly Daedalus is alone, knee deep in shivered feather and the broken body of his boy and the whole world vibrating with grief.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Message in a Bottle

Make it all your own, then share it out. Velvet Blake carved the words into the piece of driftwood she had found that morning and pinned them above the door to the tiny room with its big bed. She was living the good life, a born-again pig farmer in the commune of good-lifers in the sleepy village of little Winchendon. Mostly she was glad. She liked the pigs. She especially liked the the large white sow called Violet, who would lay her vast bulk down before her in every inconvenient place and wait to be tickled.
She also liked the boy who bottled mineral water, called Martin, though it made her laugh to think of anyone mad-fool enough to think of paying for water. Still, she was thinking that moment of inviting him to sleep with her in the very high featherbed. It was cool. Whatever he decided, it would be cool.
She followed the staircase of horseshoes up to the room. The door was open and the fire was burning in the grate. Baby Hoof was in his crib, his blue face dark as a wet stone beneath her gaze. Velvet Blake feeds him hoof jelly, boiling up the hooves of lame fairies to pacify his colic. Which is nice of her, she thinks, and a mark of how far she has come in the way of communal living.
She only notices the bottle when she straightens the Jilly Cooper novels on the windowsill, squares them up against Dick Francis and The Hobbit. It is one of Martin's, corked with a single message  inside it written on a rizla paper. Tenderly she unrolls it. Baby Hoof is utterly still, quiet as the dead. The message reads: Can I warm my hands by your fire?
And she turns, whips round before the fist sized scar above her heart has time to ache and sees him, Martin, a half-smile on his face, waiting for her response. She closes his eyes with her one hand and leads him under her new sign: Make it your own, then share it out.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Purposes of Spoon

I belong to you, Beloved. In the darkened After Noah time of forever I give you my burnished heart. I come to your lips like a fish rising in scales of pewter and gold. I scroll to you like a peppershake of birds, iron filings in a magnetic sky. The air about me is like mica, ancient with bitter flecks, the slenderest of separations.
I belong in the drawer of twisted maple, with the filigree knives and all things capable of drawing or catching blood. I am loved especially, as surprising to the palate as silverfoil in jam. My purposes are symmetrical, smooth and pleasing. I will not serve lemons or lychees or any delicate thing. Unburden me of practicality, no childhood medicinal doses. I will pour divine syrups into their mouths, sumptuous magic will slide in from me to them and they will lap it up.
When I am full of maverick light I glow like a celestial bowl. I lay upon the table, baring my fullness to your gaze. I reflect all your desires, invert them, console them with silver lustre. You hope to see the birds fly back at dawn. I offer you the lace pattern of sunlight through leaves and the chill shadow of twilight.  Fullness becomes me. It makes me alive to what is and what might be. I am full of moving reflections, as stark as a hospital room, as chastely miraculous as a win on the lottery. When I am full, chagrin and dismay fall away and I brim with pleasure and plenitude.