Reading and remembering






The son of a close friend of mine is reading anything he can get his hands on, hungry for books that will open his mind. Keen to add to his education, last summer I bought him three to add to his collection: Laurie Lee’s As I walked out one midsummer morning, Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines and Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. The latter because he was on his way to Cuba.

My friend told me he texted to say that he had been visiting all the sites in Our Man in Havana, all places Greene had visited himself during the 1950’s when he spent time in Cuba.  The book coming alive for him in a very real way, just as I hoped it would. A few weeks later his mother called to say it was my fault he had decided to head down to the south of Spain with his guitar over his shoulder, walking some of the way, hoping for a taste of the life he’d read about in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. He had a destination in mind, a music festival near Barcelona, he’s an extremely accomplished classical guitarist, I felt he would thrive in his intentions (he did) but of course she was worried (I would be). But I’m secretly delighted these books have had this effect on him and besides, Spain is a very different country to the one Laurie Lee found back in the 1930’s and my friend’s son knows Spain, has family there, it’s easier to navigate and survive in. He has a mobile phone and travel is easy, he can get back home in an instant if he wants to. I’ve yet to hear how he found the Chatwin, I wonder if he’ll find his way to Australia…

Jeanette Winterson talks about the salvation that can be achieved through reading.  ‘Inside books there is the perfect space,’ she writes in Art Objects, ‘and it is that space which allows the reader to escape from the problems of gravity’.  Reading allows us to exceed our limitations, to escape and retreat into other worlds. ‘Walled inside the little space marked out for me by family and class, it was the limitless world of the imagination that made it possible for me to scale the sheer face of other people’s assumptions’ (Winterson, 1995).

After giving the book to my friend’s son, I dug my old copy of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning and decided to re-read it.  I haven’t read I since I was a teenager myself and back then it was one of those early books that opened the world of reading to me – along with Catcher in the Rye (doesn’t stand up to re-reading), Jane Eyre and The Mayor of Casterbridge (both bear much revisiting). My copy of As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning is still in surprisingly good condition with a price of 30p on the back, that’s how long I’ve had it!  Every page turned reminded me of how much I liked to travel when I was younger, full of hope and curiously in these times of great fear, only excitement. On the back of reading Lee’s book the same friend and I caught a flight to Malaga with no idea of where we were going to stay, carrying one small rucksack each on our backs. Our flight was delayed, we met an amazing woman at the airport who said we could rent one of her holiday apartments for a pittance. It was old-fashioned but clean and was part of a complex with a swimming pool. We rented a tinny red Fiat, found empty beaches, ate fish fresh from the sea and lived off beer and olives in our little apartment with Julio Iglesias singing on a rubbishy old tape player we found in the kitchen. In her concern for her son my friend has forgotten that now, it’s easy to forget. Those were very different times. Books remind you.

I would revisit Spain many times after that, the most recent in 2008 when I stayed with two young children in a small hotel, El Horcajo, converted from a farm near Grazalema in Andalucia.  In my journal written while I was there I find notes on gardens left wild running with limes, zucchini, hens and lizards. ‘Whole days here are spent watching’ I wrote that summer, as I sat beside a cold pool where swallows darted across the surface of the water, ‘the blue belly of the bird reflected on the surface of the water like a small slick of oil’. The journal is important because memory alone cannot be relied on – it must be true because I wrote it down. Must it? I try to filter truth from imagining as I read the words, but it seems to be there is truth both in the facts and the interpretation of them.

What I do remember most about that holiday was the town of Ronda, the deep gorge and the bridge above it from where men, women, children would be thrown to their deaths for disagreeing with the state, sometimes for a crime as slight as the theft of a loaf of bread. During the Spanish Civil War it could barely contain the bodies that were hurled down there and in my notebook I find the beginnings of a story I never finished about someone who remembers being told the story of an ancestor who lived in ‘the wrong place wrong time’ and who was thrown down into this gorge imagining for herself what it must have been like and not be able to find the words to describe it. Sometimes things are beyond words. I never wrote that story.

In my notes I find things I’d forgotten, an account of the old town of Ronda with its ‘cobbled streets with white houses and black wrought iron where at one point we found a student from the Music Academy playing guitar in a tiny square draped in bougainvillea’. I’d forgotten that but I remember it now and see the student sitting there on a low wall, the sound sweet and thin in the heat of the square. I think of my friend’s son making his way to Barcelona with his guitar. I learned classical guitar myself when I was younger and reading about it now in my journal, remembering the sound of it in that place taps in even now to a deep sense of longing, of things forgotten and things waiting to be rediscovered. If I close my eyes now I can hear it again. But if I hadn’t made notes about it I wonder if I would remember it at all?

Or is memory something else?  I’m thinking of my friend’s son and his journey to Cuba and to Spain and of the way we remember places we’ve forgotten when we hear about them through someone else’s memories and how they come alive again, as we discover them anew. And I’m thinking about the healing power of art, of music, of writing. It’s different for each one of us.  This healing power ‘cuts through noise and hurt, opens the wound to clean it, and then gradually teaches it to heal itself. Wounds need to be taught to heal themselves’ (Winterson, 1995).

Winterson, J. (1995) Art Objects. Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, London: Vintage

A walk along the tideline: November


I’m working on two pieces of writing at the moment, both set in or around the Sefton coast. I’ve written about this beach a lot, it was a place of adventure when I was a child a place of secrets as a teenager and now it has become a place of solace and solitude. It’s also a place where today I need answers.  In one piece of writing I’m dealing with dialogue so I have my ear to the ground hoping to catch snatches of conversation caught in the wind.  The other piece is a new novel so I’m trying to do November novel writing month NaNoWriMo and so far (half way through the month it’s working) but today I hit a wall and the beach is my refuge.


It’s the calmest I’ve seen it in months, cold and brittle but also quietly at ease with itself, the tide just inching out leaving eddies and twists of water in its wake. Sometimes we get these tides here, quiet flat water where the silence is a thing of exceptional beauty and today is one of those days.  The bay which stretches out and round and down into the Irish Sea is peppered with wind turbines arcing their graceful arms across the water, the slant of sunlight making them seem like giants who know their place, feet planted low in the water and faces tilted to the sun. A horse makes its way slowly across the slants of sunlight on the sand as a murmuration of starlings hurls itself up and down, twisting and turning beneath them, nature in harmony with technology, a ballet in silence just for me.

The writing I’m doing is about the sand and what it gives and takes away round here. There are myths of course, urban myths about horses and carriages in the 1800’s that vanished in their race across the bay. And it’s easy to get cut off here as the seawater tricks you.  You head out to the sea across the sand as far as you dare and then when you look back you see that something is stopping you and panic sets in easily and quickly and suddenly your link to the land has gone. I remember doing this once, on a winter’s day walking a dog who had no fear of the water and I have a photograph to prove it. I’m smiling in my ruined red leather boots which were my pride and joy.  You can see the rime around the leather, icy seasalt and sand preserved forever in colours which are fading now as fast as the years that frame them.

Beachcombing, I find a bottle at my feet, not glass, green plastic, no label, it glints emerald in the sunlight, scarred by the turbulence of the waves that brought it here.  Beside it in the clumps of seaweed I see spools of blue fishing line, a scrap of red nylon and shells, hundreds of them. At certain times of the year, you see starfish but this is too late in the year. Nothing looks like itself, the detritus of people’s lives washed up here becomes something other. The jumble of objects becomes a modernist painting, the brush strokes rough and textured the colours muted and dark wrapped up in the sand from the mud banks.

The poet Jean Sprackland who knows this coast well wrote in her book ‘Strands, A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ * that: ‘Here on the beach, the usual significances are lost, the ordinary object is stripped of context and the familiar things made strange.’ And that’s what it looks like I think, watching the water watching the sand.  The only sounds are those one overhears, a snatch of conversation, a line out of place. I’m working on a script for radio so I eat them hungrily like the magpie all writers are. ‘My grandmother was from Oldham,’ one woman says and another says ‘What’s he like?’ and another ‘I’m not going to make it’ even though the beach is only yards away. I see a woman improbably wheeling a suitcase, the kind you see on trains, her friend has a bag of blankets and at the edge of the beach a family are lining the wooden gantry eating sandwiches and sipping hot chocolate in a merry row like seagulls watching the sea. The sun shines down on all of us even though the temperature is little more than five degrees.

I get home and open my notebook.  I write down the sounds and the smells and the glimpses into the gaps in people’s lives and they become something other.  Just over a week and fifteen thousand words into my novel, some lines of dialogue and an idea for the lot that was eluding me, and tomorrow seems a brighter day for writing.

* Jean Sprackland, Strands, A Year on discoveries on the beach (2012) London: Jonathan Cape

Waiting for a story, Robin Hood’s Bay


The end of summer brought a week of walks in Robin Hood’s Bay through to Whitby and Ravenscar and further, the length as far as we could manage (but not all 131 miles) of the Cleveland Way.  The word ‘retreat’ implies solitude but this isn’t always the case.  A retreat is simply an escape from the ordinary and the hum drum where you take a step out of your regular life into another.  These walks remind me of this.  A retreat means in one breath ‘removal’ from familiarity to something new, an opportunity to be someone else, to do something else.  After all, we do things on holiday we’d never do at home, like buying liqueurs which taste sublime in the heat of a Spanish sunset but pale in the damp of an English Autumn. I remember dragging a flask of fresh sweet coconut water all the way back from Trinidad which tasted sour and bitter by the time we landed in Heathrow less than twenty four hours later.  The point of being away, I realized, was to enjoy being there and not try to bring it back or replicate it – my friend did warn me but did I listen? I can still taste that sweet cold water, I only have to close my eyes.

Noticing the small things, that’s the trick to remembering.  For a writer it’s about being ‘mindful’ and ‘wakeful’ to the vibrant world around you, wherever you are.  So when we walked the old railway track on the Cleveland Way towards Ravenscar up the cinder track and back down the tumbling rocky coast to Robin Hoods Bay through the old alum works, it wasn’t hard to imagine the industry churned out here in the shadows and ghosts of the men left behind. The distant sound of a hammer on stone in the quarry was a whisper in the wind, the silent frenzy of wings from the hundreds and hundreds of Painted Lady butterflies carrying the story of their journey across thousands of miles from the deserts of North Africa to land here on a ragged Yorkshire coastline in view of the cold and blue North Sea.

Halfway, we stopped for ham rolls on the cliff edge, a flat plain safe from the sheer drop and I looked up at the clouds and the butterflies and listened to the chatter of the walkers passing by, heard their feet treading the ancient way each one of us adding to the footsteps from the past. On the way back we went down to the beach, my poor feet cooled in the freezing water in rock pools so numerous on the slate flats they looked like tiny craters poking out of the sea.

For once, I didn’t write. I read and I read and I read but in my head I wrote, I built ideas and pictures and stories and I know they will make their way out into the world eventually.   In a café in Robin Hood’s Bay I found a Storytelling Chair which was worn and scuffed and lived in and waiting for a story to tell.  A story without a teller, now there’s a challenge.

August – a story of wolves and starlight

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We make the decision to climb up to Montchavin after dinner.  The path is dark; it runs straight up through the trees, a narrow passage carving its way through the night.  The ground is difficult going, rocky, uneven but in the winter it will be covered with snow making it flat and even.  This is ski territory, with purpose built villages perched on the mountains likes the houses of dolls which, in the snow, look like they belong here, but in the summer, in this 30 degree heat, fool us with their veneers as though – like a cutout saloon in a Western they would fall down around at the slightest breath.  These Alpine houses are built in layers of wood over concrete, heart-shaped holes and balconies of bold geraniums and bougainvillea vivid in their bright dresses adding to the effect of  kitsch and make-believe, but I love them all the same.    I am happy to be duped.  In the winter these narrow streets will become blankets of snow and icicles will hang from window sills like bitter teardrops.  We take comfort where we can.

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At the top of the path we emerge on to cobbled, carless streets, bustling and inviting.  We pass a window of stuffed animals – foxes, marmosets, partridges, a wild boar and in the corner, watching them all with teeth bared, a wolf.  No one else stops to look at them but I feel, for a moment, afraid of these wild things.  At the end of the 1800’s there were between ten and twenty thousand wolves in France, wiped out altogether by the end of the 1930’s but now I’ve read that there are around 300 wolves back in France. There was a confirmed sighting of a wolf in the Alpes Maritime very recently, so I can feel them, watching us as we walk, tracking our tread with steady steps tripping leaves and branches, twigs and air.  It is said, where the butterflies are, there the wolves will be, the pretty creatures feasting on shit to stay alive and in the daytime I notice the butterflies follow us, tiny blue souls trapped in cages of cloud.  Butterflies are said to be the souls of the dead but they are here, out in daylight where the living are and I feel them protecting us.

At night you can’t see the mountains, but you can hear them.  Their shadows dart in and out of the dots and collections of lights pockmarking the slopes.  In the daytime even in summer, the mountains are a jagged ridge, covered in cloud banks, the snow-fringed slope of Mont Blanc teasing you with winter promise as you descend the roads – now here, now there, now gone but tonight the only wolves we see are in the sky.  The yellow eye of the wolf is in Lupus, the constellation that is friends with Scorpius, Normus, Circinus, Centaurus and Libra.  And somewhere, over there – the mountains of Italy….from where the wolves came to France, slipping in unnoticed under the cover of night, of this collection of stars, to bring a balance to the bite, a measured existence.

Of course we have to walk back through the darkness which in this part of the world is never quite as dark as it should be at this summer time of year.  We hold the torches of our mobile phones to guide us, candle-like and then we hear them… the wolves. Or am I the only one? They are far away but with each howl they seem to come nearer even though they must be miles, hundreds of them, away from us. They sound so close they could be whispering in our ears. If one should come out of the forest now, what would we do?

‘At night, the eyes of wolves shine like candle flames’ Angela Carter wrote in ‘The Company of Wolves’ and if perchance the unwitting traveller should spy those eyes watching from the undergrowth ‘then he knows he must run’ she says.  We stop for a moment and the others think they hear something too, a dog barking? ‘They will be like shadows, they will be like wraiths’ Carter wrote and this is what it feels like as we stumble, moving more quickly down the mountain and laugh for fear of the things we cannot see. When we reach the house and warmth and light, the sounds all but vanish into the night. The wolves are on the outside and we are safe. For now.

I take up my pen thinking: this is where stories begin…


Scenes from an Italian restaurant

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Photo by Creative Vix on

So this is an odd sort of retreat – an Italian restaurant in the middle of a city I know and love well – Carluccio’s since you ask, but not the city, that’s my secret. It’s one of my favourite places this restaurant but it is a retreat, a writer’s retreat, because here I am sitting and writing.

And I’m not alone.  There are four of us, round the edges, three women and one man, laptops and notebooks and reading books open to make us feel less conspicuous, safer in our space. It’s wonderful really. I don’t know how they feel but I feel calm; I’m on retreat because no one (and I mean no one) knows I am here. And isn’t that a true retreat? Where you run away and tell no one where you are? I wish….

This isn’t the truth of course, that I’m running away. I’m here for work, teaching writing even though tonight I’m hiding. So far, in my notebook I’ve started a short story, drafted an idea for a radio play and listened into several fascinating conversations which (as any writer worth her salt will do) I’ve written dutifully in my notebook for future reference.  I’m taking my own advice on writing dialogue and opening my eyes and my ears to what I find around me. I listen in to one conversation about Italy, a holiday just returned from and a story about a boat trip and a beach and it brings back a memory…

I was staying with friends in the south of Italy one summer quite a long time ago near the town of Scilla not far from Reggio Calabria.  Known as the site where the Scylla, the great sea monster, thwarted Odysseus’s passage home from the Trojan War in Homer’s great epic poem ‘The Odyssey’.  Scilla boasts a rocky promontory which juts out under the sea into the Strait of Messina. My friends were sailors and had sailed through the Strait many times. The trick, they told me, was to stay in the centre of the Strait which had strong currents which pulled boats into the rocks, dashing the hull into pieces.  The currents could also throw them off track, upturn a boat trying to navigate its way through.  This had happened to them once, their boat was ruined.  Odysseus had to make a choice at this point in his journey – just like my friends: trust that they could navigate their way through the swirling pull of the vortex, the Charybdis, or be eaten by the Scylla which would reach down from the rocks and take every last man on the boat.   Between a rock and a hard place.  The myth taken from the reality. This was one of the first times I became aware of the way stories can turn into something else, but that somewhere, somehow, they hide the truth.

At the moment I’m thinking of fairy tales with my friend the artist, Natalie Sirett, for a collaboration on story telling: she’s seeing what I’m hearing and what we’re both searching for is where the truth begins. We’ll keep you posted.

February, whispers from the past

20190225_113243Winter is fading today in the blush of an unseasonally warm February. As I write I’m sitting in a café in Norwich Cathedral the sun blazing in through the windows, the stained glass casting rich patterns across the cobbled and uneven surfaces.  Norwich is a beautiful city.  I lived here once, back in the day when I was just beginning to explore words and the craft of writing, the start in many ways of my journey as a writer. I never came to this cathedral though and wonder now how I came to miss this place of peace and sanctuary.

I was born in a city with two cathedrals so they have always loomed large in my imagination. I remember being taken round the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool when it was still being built. I had a bag of small sweets in my pocket with a hole in, that scattered a trail through the aisles which I followed all the way back to the entrance with its strange bronze cast doorway with its abstracts shapes and sculptures.  Sometimes I like the vast swagger of a cathedral, their grand proclamations with history their ceilings of vaulted gold reaching up to the heavens.  In others I like the silence of the side chapels, the ones tucked away, a corner turned and a calm descends, the candles lit and something folds you in its arms.  It’s like theatre, the moment the lights go down and you think – what is going to happen now.

For a writer, these are rich pickings – the names on the tombs, barely readable blur into a past you can only imagine.  You run a finger along a name, along a well-polished marble edge and start to make up who they might be and what their stories might have been as barely heard voices whisper when you pass, ‘pick me, pick me, I have a story you can tell. Listen to me…’

I came here early today, killing time; the cloisters were flooded with sunlight, the voices of the past even more insistent in the silence. And if I listen carefully I feel I can hear them, the tap of a hammer on stone as the foundation stone is laid, the mumbled prayers of the monks making their way through the corridors towards the chapel at each of the holy hours of the day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline.  I imagine their February was colder than this one all those hundreds of years ago, I see the snow whirling through the stone arches, the figures hunched up against the cold, the poverty of monastic life, the daily grind of it, the corruption of it too.

On the way in, I came across an exhibition by the Norfolk artist, James Kessell, ‘Gethsemane’. A small but immensely powerful exhibition in diverse media from print to digital to charcoal and coal on paper, the artist creating the work as the public wander about him.  Images from Aberfan, which reminded me of my own griefs as no doubt it is meant to, the prayer from Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane ‘Thy will be done’, projected in broken words on the bare brick wall reminding me that I can’t change what will happen to me, what has happened. I just have to accept it.  The exhibition is only here for a week, I’m glad I caught it. This week marks a new beginning for me, one I thought would never come.

I want to write so many things, have so many ideas but some speak louder than others. I have an idea for something, it’s been in mind for the longest time and today in this space, it inches forward from the mist of thinking into the act of writing. From the stones and the names long forgotten on the tombstones, from the faces in James Kessell’s extraordinary drawings, the slant light across lapis lazuli windows and rubied glass, something is starting to emerge…

December, Christmas Eve stories


When my children were young, when the three of us were left on our own, I tried to put some ritual into our lives to ground us.  On a Sunday evening I would dutifully polish two pairs of small black shoes ready for Monday.  The basket with the polishes in was falling apart, bits of it fell away from it gradually as the years wore on, and every Sunday I’d do this all over again, the basket disappearing into itself bit by bit.  The children were very young, the world I had to navigate on my own with them suddenly felt very large, too large for me.  This small thing, an insignificant act which really made no difference to them, grounded me in those days when I felt as though I was falling apart too.  It anchored me to a present that I had to get through and, because I knew I would do it again next Sunday and the week after, it gave me something to move towards.  Week by week, month by slow month.

Over the weeks, the months that followed I would keep doing it and add other things building ritual into our lives, making a shape to it.  At the end of every summer term we’d have an outing somewhere, to the Lake District or to Knowsley Safari Park for a picnic with wasps and rain and other people’s mewling children.  I would mark parts of the year by hiding Easter eggs in the garden of my parents’ home where we had come to live, or, at Christmas, by going to the film with live music at the Liverpool Philharmonic: Peter and the Wolf, The Wizard of Oz, The Snowman, visiting the towering and magical Christmas trees in the Anglican Cathedral before heading home.  I never did anything like this myself as a child, but it felt important to build this into their lives for them, creating them anew.  Every Christmas Eve I read them ‘The Night Before Christmas’, the three of us huddled together, listening for a toe tap, a reindeer step on the cold roof of the house and downstairs the sherry and the carrot would be waiting.  One year I bought them reindeer food from Manchester Christmas market, all sparkles and oatcake, it spilled everywhere and the cat sneezed trying to eat it.  Then I would spend an hour with my father wrapping their presents, he with an Ardbeg whisky, me with a Baileys and wait, and wait, until we were sure they were asleep, to deliver them.

Christmas makes those of us who balance uneasily in our lives feel unsteady on our feet and as Christmas is now only days away, with it the pressure increases.  I can feel it.

The rituals in our lives have changed and the stories have moved on but still at Christmas it’s the stories that root them. Different stories it’s true, but ones that grow with us.  A Christmas Carol with The Muppets and Michael Caine of course, and always The Polar Express which has traded places with The Night before Christmas because we all want to believe just a little bit don’t we? My children are young adults but the magic of story remains and this is the most precious thing I could have given them. My son’s favourite Christmas film is Gremlins the Lord of Misrule living on and my daughter’s I think is one of the Harry Potter films, maybe the The Goblet of Fire because Christmas is central and the Yule Ball is magical, and me? I fall somewhere in between.  The stories I want to believe are that people can change like Ebeneezer Scrooge and, sometimes, they do.  But more often I find myself thinking of the Mistletoe Bride on her wedding night on Christmas Eve trapped in the great oak trunk, unable to get out, listening to her husband’s deceit that has sealed her fate forever.  I see her lift the lid of the chest a little bit, peep out and wait for him to find her but he never does and then the lid slams shut and she hears him with someone else in the room but they don’t know she’s there.  I like Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of this story best of all, it’s visceral and doesn’t shy away from its horror.   On better years I step up to the plate like Sir Gawain and accept the Green Knights challenge, go for it, lop his head off and then spend the next year searching for him thinking why did I do that?  2019 feels like it might be a Sir Gawain year…

So all those years ago, long after we packed a van, myself and the children, and moved north, started again, in fact just a few days ago, I found the basket of shoe polish.  Still falling apart, the polish cracked and dried, my shoe shining days long gone.  It was found as my children arrived home for Christmas, the shoes in the hall too big, too independent now to be polished unless in secret they are whisked away by an elf for a shoemaker…  The tree is up, the pudding made, carols on the radio, mince pies are cooling, that’s all we need and, maybe, tonight we might start to tell a new story.


Mince pies dancing in the window. Oxford Street, London, Christmas 2018