Scenes from an Italian restaurant

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Photo by Creative Vix on Pexels.com

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.

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

Autumn day, November

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Leaves.  That’s what I think about when I think of November.  Lots of them. Not the book type, the turning over a new one type, I mean the gathering up and composting type. I spent an hour or so gathering them all up yesterday, uncovering moss and mould, upturning rotten apples hidden beneath and making sure the ivy on the back wall stayed in place because I think (I know, I’ve seen them) a family of hedgehogs lives there. I even bought a new rake and this one works.  The cat eyed me cautiously in the damp air then thought better of it and ran in, watched me from the window. I thought to catch the stray light of the sun but it remained hidden, stubborn behind its cloud. Not a place, you would think, to be writing but I did write, in my head.

I worked out a knotty problem to do with a character in my new novel and had her working there beside me in the garden. What would she do? Well she wouldn’t be out here gathering leaves up for a start because she’s an artist and puts her work before everything else, even her family. She’d be looking for something else in them, the colours, the textures and the movement of them refusing to stay put. Imagining I am her in this moment gives me an insight into who she is and how she would react to any of the situations or places I put her in. It’s an invaluable lesson.  And then when I’ve done that I imagine the other main character, the actual narrator of my novel, doing the same thing.  She would do the work that the artist wouldn’t do, she is the character who enables the artist to be who she wants to be but at what cost? That’s the conflict, that’s where the story starts to push its way out from and I’m still finding my way into it.  I know that story starts from character but they have to be so much more than the sum of their parts.  Spending an hour, clearing away the debris of Autumn, I start to enrich my picture of them.  I find myself talking to them and they become present with me in this moment.

When I don’t have time to write or when I’m tied up with other things or when life just crashes into me which it often does, this is what I do. I go somewhere else and write in my head.  It’s better than sitting there staring at a blank screen.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t have a notebook or a pen, I remember the pull of the tough ivy tendrils refusing to budge, the smell of the rotting leaves when you dig down from the crisp and red orange tips of them, the sound and shift of the brush across flagstone as the last of the buddleia is swept away.  This is what I will remember when I come to write about it later.

Finding space for a story

I always think of September into October as the start of the year, November and December the stepping stones to Christmas. The real start of the year, January, has its cold charms of course but September is always, I feel, a time for renewal.  All summer we long for shade and then it comes in swathes punctuated by the cool clear light of an Autumn sun.  The summer stretches back behind me like trail of breadcrumbs and this year more than ever I’m trying to see it as a way to find my way back to the warmth.

For one reason and another, October doesn’t feel so much like a beginning this year and I find that as it’s getting colder I am looking back to the summer through the prism of nostalgia.  Over the summer I went to places one after the other for a few days and then came back, the breaks here and there were small retreats, a space for the writing to sneak itself in. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, how to grab time from no time, how to create a ‘retreat’ in the midst of life. It is, after all, the writer’s constant challenge. You have to find inspiration and space to write where you can.

So, August brought the Edinburgh Festival and we were lucky to have a base in the Stockbridge in Edinburgh from where we could walk into the city.  I was still working on the draft of my mermaid manuscript ‘Of his bones are coral made’ my reimagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ which I’m working on with the artist  Natalie Sirett and I found mermaids still swimming in my head.  Through serendipity I found a monologue, ‘Drenched’, being performed by Dan Frost in the Pleasance Courtyard about one of the stories I’ve been researching, the most famous mermaid in England, the Mermaid of Zennor.  It’s the mermaid’s beautiful voice that captured young Matthew Trewella and he fell in love with her as is the way with mermaids. She lured him into the depths and sang him to his death. It was a really good show, funny and dark by turns, oddly believable and even though we were crammed hugger mugger into a tiny cellar bar, airless and black in the middle of the day, I swear I could hear the waves crashing on the Cornish shore.

I’d been struggling with my story, how to make it believable (because it has to be believable) and then I remembered the seal we saw swimming off the coast of Ardglass in County Down in July at the River Mill retreat, the seals I’ve seen many times off Cardigan Bay in Wales, off the Isle of Mull with the children when they were small.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the origins of stories since starting this collaboration with Natalie, fairy tales and folk tales, where do they start?  They start with seals and sea water and end up being about something else entirely.

I need to forget the reasons why I don’t have time to write and remember why I started this business of writing in the first place and why it matters.  Maybe that’s my September ‘beginning’ this year, slipping through October and into November on the coat tails of a fairy tale, a storytelling month if ever there was one.  Stories are why it matters. So that’s my challenge to myself, as Philip Pullman says in ‘Daemon Voices’, ‘So: where are you going to start? and what are you going to say?’  Let’s see…

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An October sea on the Sefton coast

Writing a way through the landscape – The Clockhouse writer’s retreat, Clun, Shropshire, September

The first time I came to Writers Retreat at the Clockhouse in Shropshire run by the Arvon Foundation was two years ago.  This is my third time.  That first time I walked through the rain battling mud and stones on a forest track with giant redwoods towering above, their trunks like the coat of a horse, slightly coarse, tough and soft at the same time, a surprise in an English forest. They’re still here, growing taller in silence.  In the dappled sunshine they seem more benign, their trunks softer, I place my hand against them and find them warm.

I’m very lucky to have been on two writing retreats this year. For years, for the whole of my life really, I never went on any and then, like buses, two come along at the same time.  Why would a writer need a retreat people ask me, why can’t you work at home burning the midnight oil, getting up at dawn to cram a few words in here and there?  Well I do that too but this break from ‘life’ is something that can help you find your way into a project, to kick start something that can keep you going all year when life steps back in and takes over.  It’s my holiday. I get looks of pure confusion, pity even, when I say this is my holiday – why, people ask aren’t you sitting near a pool in the South of France or Spain. Each to their own I say.

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I’m thinking about Virginia Woolf’s question in her polemic on female creativity, A Room of One’s Own: ‘What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?’ For me and many other writers like me whose work and family lives are complex and demanding, this is it.   Most of us, we work with the conditions we’re given.  Normally I write at a kitchen table, or in a café, or on the sofa with the laptop on my knee. I don’t have an office but I have a cupboard under the stairs which stores my files.  Sometimes I feel like Harry Potter.  This is the norm for most writers.  At The Clockhouse I have a study the size of the entire downstairs of my house, a desk and a sofa and a view over the Shropshire hills.  If I want to I can work downstairs in another study or outside on a bench with a herb garden at my feet.  This summer, I want this to go on.  I’ve written more in these few days, and earlier at the Rivermill, than I have all year.  I have been envying writers who have sheds at the bottom of their gardens.  Deborah Levy rented a shed from Adrian Mitchell’s widow Celia.  ‘It was not a posh shed,’ she writes, ‘but it did have four windows looking out on to the garden, a writing desk that had belonged to Adrian with a green  leather top’.  The legacy of another writer imprinted into the leather surface, I can imagine it, passed down one writer to another.  I sit at this desk and look out at the fields which even in the space of a week have moved from yellow to gold.  Who has sat here before me?  ‘Everyone deserves a guardian angel like Celia’ she writes in The Cost of Living. I’m still looking for mine.

It doesn’t have to be a room though. I’ve brought Kathleen Jamie’s Findings with me, through which she uses journeys in the natural world to explore what it means to write by conveying what she feels and sees in words which are alive to the world she walks in.  Reading Jamie’s work I feel she uses the natural world as a kind of shed, doing the work in her head so that when she comes to put the words down on paper, the images are already almost fully formed.  Being out in the world, walking in countryside or city the effect is the same.  It connects you to the visceral image in a way that remembering or imagining a walk later does not.  Once, I remember asking some first year university students to write down an account of the journey they’d just done to get to the seminar room in which we were now working on their writing.  They wrote and then I sent them out to do that same journey – it was mostly just from their halls to the seminar room and this time to notice what they were actually seeing, smelling, hearing.  Then they rewrote the piece using these details.  The difference was astounding but only by doing it did they appreciate what a difference it makes to a writer who wants their reader to see their world as they do, feel it as their characters do.

So, I walk and I write here and when I come back to my study I write about what I’ve seen. One of our lovely fellow writers at the house says we are like flâneurs and we do feel like that even though it is nature we’re observing and not society.  On the last day, we take a three hour walk through the woods and instead of going down into the Clun Valley, we go up from where we can see across the valley in all directions. It’s hard going, up and up, we pass through hazel twigged corridors where blackberries at the end of their lives reach out and beg to be picked.  We pass a sheep’s skull on a post which could be threatening but feels instead to be telling us we’re heading the right way.

On the walk we meet no one and as it darkens and we begin, for the first time, to feel we don’t actually know where we are (even though we have a map) we start to follow our instincts and we head down through the path that seems to head back where we started. We emerge into a clearing and see The Hurst in the distance as though we could just jump in one leap and be there. We pass the sheep’s skull on the post, the path starts to descend, the sun finally disappears and with relief we find ourselves lead off the estate and down towards the Clockhouse where the evening awaits us.  20180901_162907

I will carry the way we feel on this walk with me.  I’ve been working on my new novel whilst I’ve been here, a novel where the landscape is completely the opposite of this. My new novel is set in a seaside town, a battered and forgotten town along a flat coastline, but it doesn’t matter. Like Jamie, I use what I know, what I see, to bring authority to my story I hope.  ‘When we write about the places we know intimately, our fiction is fuller on every level’ Lee Martin writes in his excellent essay on setting ‘Writing the Landscape’ and writing about every walk I do, allows me to practice this and that’s what I take away from my retreat.

Sources:

Jamie, K. (2005) Findings, London: Sort Of Books

Levy, D. (2018) The Cost of Living, London: Hamish Hamilton

Martin, L. (2007) ‘Writing the Landscape’ in Steel, J. (ed) Wordsmithery London: Palgrave

Woolf, V. (2004) A Room of One’s Own, London: Penguin

A summer retreat

River Mill Diary

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43, a green, grey-blue gate, a week writing at the Rivermill retreat near Downpatrick. Much-needed silence broken only here and there by wood pigeons, cattle and blackbirds, breaks for coffee and magnificent dinners and views from the mezzanine across the countryside. The millstone from the mill in the centre of the beautiful landscaped garden leading down to the river, bone-dry in the recent drought but still a place of cool and sanctuary from this endless heat.

The first morning, I sit on the bench carved with: ‘The garden chimes with light; prisms of it’. And that’s the kind of day it is, slants of light, a breeze and sunshine. Just the other side of the singing brook I can hear cows. They trundle down, curious at first then indifferent, looking at me through the gap in the fence on my bench in the damp morning air and decide I’m not worth the effort. Here are some more though, thirsty seeking fresh water. And then one on her own comes right up to the fence, nonchalant, watching me for a few minutes before paddling off and away she goes. I’ve seen blackbirds, sparrows; I’m waiting for a kingfisher but I know that he needs faster rivers, wider plains. I’ve seen vultures in the mountains of Spain and sea eagles on the Isle of Mull but I’ve never seen the flash of blue and orange, dip-down tail into the water, a kingfisher.

Reading Deborah Levy’s second wonderful volume of her living memoir ‘The Cost of Living’ and trying to draft and redraft the prose poem I’m working on for the new collaboration with my friend, the artist Natalie Sirett. Thinking about what Levy says that: ‘All writing is about looking and listening and paying attention to the world’. I’m writing a version of a fairy tale so where does the world fit in? The story is a version of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and when I first started it I had no idea that mermaids would be everywhere this year but no matter. At the same time I’m writing something about the traditions of story telling, fairy tales for me the obvious starting point, so the two projects are going to collide somewhere. The world feeds stories back to us and we take from them what suits us. Mermaid sightings have been common on our coasts for hundreds of years and later in the week we drive out to Ardglass, trek across the ancient golf course looking for a coastal path (which turns out not to exist) and have to settle for scrambling across rocks before we spy a seal out to sea dipping and diving, tracking our progress along the rocks, hanging around the people sea-fishing on the shore. Very like a mermaid.

The story is becoming one of invisibility and shape shifting silence, mermaids on land who have no voice, taken away from them in exchange for a chance at love. The challenge for both of us is to make it fresh, to make it ours and not the story everyone knows. It will change and shift as we work together and I’m excited to see where it goes.

After our trip to Ardglass, we head along the coast and catch sight of the Mountains of Mourne easy in the distance across the bay. Then Coney Island and music from Van Morrison in our heads and out of our mouths on the way back, stopping off at all the places in the song, missing the pickled herrings before dinner but catching a glimpse of St John’s Point Lighthouse at Killough before heading home.

A heron on a rock watches us. Tomorrow I will be miles away from here and, no doubt, he will still be here.