Flights of Fancy

WellingtonRetreatThere’s a great deal of cruelty in the news right now. It’s one of the reasons behind my Lenten retreat from social media. Still I can’t escape it altogether. A dear friend has been deeply affected by a child murder close to where she lives. Reality insists on being seen – so why on earth do I chose to write fantasy, to make impossible things up? Continue reading

Before the Dawn

I tried to have a nostalgic wallow – a warm sound-bath of memories from the 70s onwards. We had the snacks, we had the beer and we watched two hours of Kate Bush on BBC4 – her career and her performances.

It turned out quite differently.


That voice split open my carapace. The notes burrowed somewhere behind the centre of my ribs and gave my heart room to swell. How could I have forgotten how much those songs meant to me? The words gave me no chance to appreciate their cleverness in some filtered way – they swooped in and demanded to be loved again.


I wonder, does it hurt hermit crabs to creep out of their too-small homes? It hurt me to be excavated like that but – ‘what a lovely feeling!’ 

Those songs draw me into other worlds I desire to experience – so many lyrics I have learned by heart. And they dance in my mouth, they move me literally. Her passionate vulnerability rouses mine. Like dry moss in a downpour, it twists, stretches, grows green and fresh again.

Exuberance is Beauty – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell, 1790 – 1793

She sought her voice in her first recordings, tried out all manner of characters – and adolescent me went along for the ride. Alone in my attic bedroom, my shadow was Kate’s. It spread long fingers over the postcards of Pre-Raphaelite beauties on the sloping walls, and swirled amongst the incense trail and cobwebs. It became the woman in The Warm Room, clawed at Heathcliff or flew off In Search of Peter Pan.


Kate Bush’s songs are full of narrative; poetic, sometimes impressionistic, but still they tell stories or fragments of them. I recall that in one of her rare interviews she echoed this sentiment from one of my favourite writers:

I am far more interested in other people than in talking about myself – Joanne Harris

They both want to give the stories themselves a voice – I admire that so much.  I am in very good company: Jeanette Winterson, Neil Gaiman and Stephen Fry are amongst the writers who treasure that literary spirit. How could I not adore a singer whose first hit was based on Emily Brontë?

My adult self does not wish to be her, but I’ll have a shot of that engaging weirdness. I’ll knock back a tincture of esoteric flavoured by a dash of out there and infused with the dark and ethereal.


I rejoice that her songs and voice and their meanings have deepened over time. It takes more musical power to crack open scar tissue and release that spinning, yearning girl of the Seventies. So many moments of pleasure, jugsful that refresh and sometimes chill the jaw with a rush of pain.

I will take long inspiring gulps on Tuesday, even if my eye-teeth howl like banshees – and there will be no barriers between us if I can help it.


I will be at the Hammersmith Apollo on Tuesday 26th August. Please do say hello.
[Heaven help anyone whose I-Pad, phone or any other gizmo gets in my way, though!]




Last post …of 2013

It’s the time of year to review what happened over the previous twelve months. Part of me wants to just put the past behind me and look forward without reflection – but the history-lover in me recoils. How can you know how far you’ve travelled if you don’t know where you’ve been?

Don't look back. You're not going that way.

So here it is – a collection of events and thoughts about this writing year.

  • January – the launch of the Golden Egg Academy in Bath. Such enthusiasm for the world of writing for young people. Inspiring – and smashing to be in at the beginning.
  • February – first Chi-SCBWI event at the Fountain Inn in Chichester. Reminded me what a talented and kind bunch of writing pals I have locally.
  • March – Book Mapping Weekend at the Golden Egg Academy. So wonderful to have someone professional taking me and my work seriously – and some pretty challenging things to think about.

An antique lamp in Chichester

  • April – Major structural revisions to  my Georgian lamp-lit novel. I found the saggy middle the worst – radical surgery left a lot of bagginess.
  • May – Scoobies’ retreat. Inspired by Lucy Christopher to deepen my story. Encouraged by mad and lovely friends to get even more involved in SCBWI (British Isles).
  • June – up to Newcastle for difficult and very worthwhile pitching workshop courtesy of Mslexia.  (I did get to dance with David Almond’s daughter at the Kathryn Tickell gig the night before. though.)Then speed-date-the-agent event in Foyles. Exhilarating, fun and apparently successful: 5 agents and 1 editor interested in my selkie story. No takers though.

Sad-looking seal on a beach.

  • July – a stay in Devon at Deborah Dooley’s Retreats for You. Partly for my writing, partly for industrial espionage as I want writers to come here to Sussex-by-the-sea. Little details and thoughtfulness can make a big difference.
  • August – Arvon, Lumb Bank. Glorious – it felt like coming home, the other writers were great and I gained a great deal of insight from Steve Voake and N. M. Browne doing a brilliant good cop, bad cop routine. Also the Magical Books exhibition at the Bodleian Library – who knew Alan Garner had such distinctive and beautiful handwriting? And Phillip Pullman and Neil Gaiman in conversation at the Oxford Playhouse. Definitely a great deal of wannabe moments there.

black and white photograph of Neil Gaiman

  • September – brief sojourn in Devon again – but this time with Charlie of Urban Writers’ Retreats. Lovely venue – much to enjoy – but also gained the inevitable realisation that cannot escape yourself. Bum on seat, fingers on keyboard and crack on – the only way that works.
  • October Spain – glories of the Alhambra followed by the shooting star of my writers’ retreat dream plunging into a cold ocean. The house we wanted was sold to someone else. Remind me never to share my hopes far and wide. On the other hand, attended thoughtful and stimulating talk with Susan Cooper, Chris Priestley, Geraldine  McCaughrean and Sally Gardner on Halloween. Resulted in my best/most popular blog post yet.
  • November – NaNoWriMo: 55k of a first draft done. I proved to myself I could do 2k or more every day for 21 days non-stop .  I found sometimes I could outrun the inner critic – and I ended up exhausted with a grubby house. Scwbi-con was fun – met brilliant people and somehow found the chutzpah to read short story out in front of the utterly smart  and encouraging Malorie Blackman.
  • December – so disappointed not be long-listed for Undiscovered Voices. Got back in the saddle and sought editorial help from Golden Egg Academy with new funds (thank you Father Christmas for coming early). Full circle, eh?

Christmas decoration with joy written on it.

So there you go – I hope I didn’t bore you too much. It was a useful exercise for me at least. I now know three things;

  1. I will  carry on writing throughout 2014, published, agented or not .
  2. My fellow writers mean so much to me.
  3. I still haven’t given up on the writers’ retreat idea!

Finally, to quote Peter Sinfield:

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear


I hope to see you in 2014.

Constantly whistling

My title this week comes from an article in the Guardian about the artist Eric Ravilious, famous for his watercolours of the Sourh Downs. I went to see an exhibition of his more commercial works on Wednesday 16th October  at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. (It’s on until 8th December, well worth a look – and that section of the gallery is free.)

The night before I’d been to see Neil Gaiman read Fortunately the Milk in London.  he  was asked by tweet where he gets his creative energy from. I’m paraphrasing so it’s not exact but his response was that he enjoys creating.

I should have expected that. It comes over in his exuberance and his mad hair.

Now for the connection with a somewhat obscure artist of the 1930s, whose work is instantly recognisable, distinct and for me a source of delight.

In the exhibition, you can see how  Eric Ravilious made little everyday things like letter heads cheerful. His playfulness comes through in the artwork.

And it isn’t just appealing subjects like arcades.

He gives even life in submarines a certain jauntiness. Some of that stems perhaps from his personality – see The Guardian article – yet I suspect something more than just lightness of touch.

There’s more to why he engages contemporary viewers. A sense of ‘interestedness’ in his work. That he took time to observe and delight in the particular. To see specific details in almost anything that set it apart.

An example might make what I mean clearer.

He produced the delightful illustrations in 1938 for ‘High Street’ – a book for children about shops.(A plea to Mainstone Press who publish lovely books including collections of Ravilious’s work – please could they redo this one in a format a poor writer can afford!)

They are in some ways generic – typical of all shop fronts. I would guess a woman from Kyoto could look at them and see something recognisable. Yet they each have exact and carefully rendered differences apart from the obvious names and articles for sale. He hasn’t done a visual copy-and-paste. He’s looked for interesting bits to put in.

I would imagine they come from lots of sketchbooks – and that the finished works  are a mixture rather than an exact reproduction of any one real scene.

I see that as a metaphor for good, enjoyable writing. We look for the specific and the interesting to give life to our work. We get a buzz from observing and then assembling all these snippets and sketches in pleasing forms. Same as any creator, I suppose.

And I think of the era in which he was creating. Of how he was lost at sea near Iceland in September 1942. He wasn’t making superficially jolly work in easy circumstances.

A Ravilious woodcut showing the Long Man of Wilmington – and Taurus.

That’s what the best of creativity does: it finds and produces beauty wherever we are. It brings hope.That has to be a source of joy.

Riches beyond the dreams of Avarice

Wednesday 21st August 2013 found me in Oxford. I had come for an event at Oxford Playhouse – of which more later – and decided to make much more of a trip of it by adding in two museums.

My head and my heart are now stuffed with treasure.

First off, I went to the Magical Books exhibition at the Old Bodleian library. For me this was akin to the veneration of saints’ relics: I found it deeply emotional to be in the same space as work by writers and artists I love.

For example, there was Tolkien’s lovingly created Fragments from the Book of Mazarbul {That’s the burnt bits the Company find in the mines of Moria which tells them of Balin’s fate for those non-Tolkien geeks reading}. You could see the marks his pipe had made.

There were maps by C.S. Lewis and folio sheets of Alan Garner’s beautiful handwriting. I thrilled to see Pauline Baynes’ exquisite artwork, and manuscripts by Susan Cooper and Philip Pullman.

Perhaps I hoped some of their magic would rub off on me?

Whatever the truth of that emotion, it reconfirmed that fantasy and magical realms are my first love, Faerie is where my Muse comes from.

So I was more than happy to see some of the artefacts that had stimulated my literary heroes. Ancient magical texts and arcane objects imbued with mystical power starred in the glass cases. Objects associated with alchemists, witches and magicians always fascinate.

In the evening I had a glorious writerly overload: Neil Gaiman talking to Philip Pullman at Oxford Playhouse. Despite both of them avowing atheism, it was interesting to note a perhaps spiritual element in their discussions about the Narrator. Whether literal or figurative, there was a definite mystical aspect to their talk.

So to today.

The Pitt Rivers Museum.


Pitt Rivers Museum 09

If you ever short of ideas, just go there. The juxtaposition of objects from cultures from all over the world makes a wealth of extraordinary starting points.

Try these:

  • light-bulbs turned into oil lamps – in contemporary city slums
  • the tip of a tongue preserved to make a charm– in  the English countryside
  • a light waterproof cape fashioned from seal innards by Arctic people

Imagine who made these astonishing things and what their life was like.

If nothing else, the Victorian displays create an inspiring ambiance. And there are display cards with information about rituals and practices. Mash-up one with another and you have instant context for a drama.

I managed to spend four hours in there and only touched on the downstairs. There are two more galleries to go at.

I had to stop. My imaginative well was brimming and plashing down its moss- covered sides. Now that’s truly magical, whatever your beliefs.

Witch flask from Sussex

Where do you go for a top-up?