The Silent Traveller in the Yorkshire Dales

I bought this book a few weeks ago in the big Oxfam Bookshop in Byres Road in Glasgow. This is a shop - I must confess- that I don't wholeheartedly approve of. I don't approve of the fact that it sells large quantities of almost new books at quite high prices, by writers who reap no benefits whatsoever from the transaction. But that is, I suppose, beside the point. I still browse their shelves when I'm in the area, and comfort myself with the thought that I usually buy books which are well out of print, like this one.
It was written in 1940 in English, by a Chinese traveller, poet and artist called Chiang Yee. It consists of little chapters about various places he has visited, interspersed with poems in Chinese and English, and the most beautiful delicate illustrations very much in the Chinese style, and yet they are of recognisably Yorkshire beauty spots, many of which I visited with my parents when I was a little girl and we lived in Leeds. My Polish father was an enthusiastic hill walker and rambler. Most weekends we would go somewhere within striking distance of the city (usually by bus - we didn't have the luxury of a car in those days) to walk and picnic.
Everything about this book is enchanting. He has captured the quality of being 'in the moment' so that he is describing what he sees and how he feels about it even as he is seeing it. His observations are perceptive, quiet, full of minor epiphanies and little words of wisdom. You read it and feel peace seep into your soul. I doubt if it would ever find a publisher nowadays.
I was enjoying it in bed this morning, while I drank a large mug of tea, and forgot that I also had a pen in my hand, since I was planning to take some notes. But I got so completely lost in the 'now' of the book (Chiang Yee would have been delighted!) that I forgot where I was, and that the pen was open. It was one of those 'gel' ink pens, and it leaked black blotches all over my nice white duvet cover. I had to get up and change the bed. Which is as good an illustration as any of the benefits of being wholly in the moment and something which this wonderful poet would almost certainly have recommended.

Moving On

After Christmas - as any regular visitors to this blog (there are some!) will know - I experimented with blogging a novel called The Corncrake. I wasn't looking for feedback on the writing, because I knew that whatever happened, I wasn't going to be rewriting it unless at the request of a publisher - preferably one bearing cash. Hell, I've been at this game for more years than I care to admit to and I have what a senior academic recently told me was a 'distinguished cv'. My initial reaction to this assessment was the usual 'who? me?' before it struck me that he was right. I just hadn't thought about it like that before.
Which is not in any way to say that I'm above criticism. But I'm selective about the advice I heed. I listen to my agent, whose observations are always helpful and very much to the point, a handful of writer friends who I can trust to tell me the absolute truth, but whose own work I like and respect, a few perceptive editors and excellent directors - and my sister in law, who isn't a writer, but is a voracious reader. She often proof reads for me, I can count on her to be sympathetic, but full of insights too.
So what has this to do with The Corncrake? Well - it was an experiment, so it was probably worth doing. I wanted to see how easy it was for people to read, if they would return to the blog, and so on. What I think I hadn't bargained for was that I myself fell out of love with the process, albeit not the novel. I got bored, the medium wasn't right, I wanted to blog about other things, short things, ideas, observations. And it suddenly struck me that blogging a novel in this was was sending out entirely the wrong message about me, about what I write, about the way I write now. It was, I now realise, a question of professionalism.
Somebody pointed out the risks back at the start and now I think that she was absolutely right. Because I've moved on too and started to remember who and what I am, started to rediscover my own potential as a writer - as the possessor of that 'distinguished cv'. I want to explore, experiment, push the boundaries, take the odd leap into the dark. It's what I used to do all the time when I was young and enthralled by words and ideas and their possibilities. Now, for some reason, that excitement has returned to me, a flurry of projects and proposals. Which is why I've deleted the Corncrake completely from this blog, making room for something new. Moving on....

What I love about Glasgow

You can read my latest piece for the Financial Times on 'what I love about Glasgow' here.
Bit 'rosy' maybe, but I really do love the city, and sometimes feel that it has a peculiarly bad press - one that our east coast friends do little to counter, perhaps lest the media should start to focus on their own problem areas a bit more closely!

Happy Endings

Is it me, as Wogan says, most mornings, and yes, most of the time I'm a Tog, with occasional gloomy aberrations into Radio 4 territory - is it me, or are the endings of books profoundly unsatisfactory these days? I'm not about to name names, because I'm not in the business of slagging off my fellow professionals, but I have read several interesting, entertaining and well written novels over the past year... until the last few pages, whereupon I was left with a feeling of profound disappointment. A sort of 'oh, is that all it was?' moment. Sometimes the book just peters out, as though the writer got bored. Sometimes the ending is much too neat. Sometimes there's an unlikely twist, which is dropped in without any preamble.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I read a superb novel called One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson. The whole book is exceptional, but one of the most satisfying things about it is the ending, which is a wee stroke of genius. I turned the page and my jaw literally dropped. But it wasn't just the unexpected twist. It was the fact that all the clues had been there, subtly, carefully planted. So even while you were thinking 'My God!' you were also starting to think 'But of course that's what happened! Of course it did!' Quite the best ending of any novel I have read for a very long time. Read it and learn.

Ten Ways to Irritate a Writer

Here are ten things to say to your writer friends, to drive them mad. This is the result of years of dedicated research!
1 My life would make a book.
2 I'll let you write my story, provided you don't publish it till I'm dead.
3 Where do you get your ideas from?
4 Nice little hobby you've got there.
5 If I had the time, I'd write a book.
6 Are you still writing?
7 Oh no, there's no money in the kitty to pay you, but think of the free publicity!
8 Have you ever had anything published then?
9 You must be rolling in it, look at J K Rowling.
10 I've written a book as well, but I've never bothered to have it published.

All additional suggestions welcome!

Worthy of Hire?

Harlan Ellison has a wonderful rant on You Tube about Paying the Writer. Watch it and weep, though it could be with laughter or tears. He is so right. But it applies to other branches of the arts as well. My husband, as a woodcarver, was always being asked to demonstrate for the 'publicity' it would give him, no matter that he would waste hours and sometimes days of his time getting to and from the venue, not to mention the expense of staying overnight. After a while he put his foot down and started asking for payment and you know what? Most of them paid up without a murmur.
All writers will have had the experience of being phoned up and asked to do something for nothing. It has happened to me more than once, and I've blogged about it elsewhere on here. Most of us don't mind doing something for nothing when nobody is being paid - but doing something for nothing for rich organisations is another matter entirely. I vividly remember being asked to go to a script meeting by the BBC in Edinburgh - a three hour journey by any mode of transport. But there was 'no money in the pot for expenses.' And this from an organisation that sees fit to pay Jonathan Ross how much? Now I know I may not merit that sort of money. But which employee of the Beeb would be prepared to travel for six hours on BBC business without any kind of expenses?

Poetry Reading

This weekend, I did my first poetry reading in about thirty years. It was to mark International Women's Day, it was in Edinburgh, and I read to my husband, the organiser, and one more heroic individual. Actually, it was quite enjoyable. And it allowed me to try out a few things with absolutely no pressure. The publicity for the venue had omitted to mention that readings would be starting at one o'clock rather than two. But frankly, I don't think there were going to be vast audiences for the two o'clock reading either. Family and friends would have come if asked, but I don't have very many of those in Edinburgh any more. Fortunately, I was spending a weekend in Edinburgh anyway, and since the venue was on the Royal Mile, I fitted it in between the Queens Gallery (stunning Flemish Art) and Holyrood Palace. Then we went to the pub. I do think, though, that to entice people to listen to poetry these days - which is, when you think about it, a highly unnatural activity - you have to stage these events in bars or cafes. If people are sitting with wine, beer, or even coffee and cake, they will respond much more favourably to a little light poetry than when you expect them to sit in rows and listen. That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

On poetry, inspiration and other things.

I've had Robert Burns on my mind for the past few weeks, mainly because I've been working on a sequence of new poems with a Burns theme. I've always loved the poet and his work, or perhaps that should read the poet in his work. When we first moved up here, when I was a thirteen year old romantic, before age and cynicism got to me, we lived not too far away from Burns Cottage in Alloway, the poet's birthplace. I used to walk there on fine saturday mornings and loiter in the cottage, hoping for a sight of a ghost who remained all too elusive. Sometimes I would vary it by wandering along the nearby banks and braes o' Bonnie Doon, or across the auld brig, over which Tam O' Shanter's grey mare Meg leapt and 'brought off her master hale but left behind her ain grey tail.' It was all grist to my own poetic mill which was grinding fast and furious back then. Later, I persuaded my father to drive me out to Mauchline, Mossgiel and further afield to Ellisland in Dumfriesshire.
Later, I had a couple of collections published, as I have related elsewhere on this blog, and even won Arts Council awards for them. I was on my way. My head was as full of potential poems as an egg is full of meat. I loved doing readings, never minded standing up and speaking in public (still don't) although I was also writing for radio, so envisaged myself being a poet and a playwright for ever and ever and exploring a million ideas.
Then, about thirty years ago (yes, I can be that precise about it - and I was still quite young!) I stopped writing poetry altogether. I wrote plays, lots of them, and books of various kinds, fiction and non fiction, stories, articles, reviews, all sorts of things. Was reasonably successful. But it's hard to describe the feeling I had whenever I tried to write a poem. Actually, most of the time, I didn't even try. Whenever I attempt to analyse it myself, even now, I - who love to describe things - find it almost impossible to relate what happened. The nearest I can come to it is to say that a door slammed shut in my head. I was going through a bad patch, that's for sure. I was in a sense, fighting for my survival, and I think now that my mind, spirit, what you will, had to throw out baby and bathwater together, as a way of preserving my sanity! Something had to go, some sensitivity - and the poetry went with it. And it worked, because I was fine.
It was, I suppose, like a door to a garden. Or something wilder than a garden, a landscape, something complex and enticing and uncircumscribed. It was out there. A place of endless possibilities. But like Alice, grown large and clumsy, I could no longer go there. I knew it still existed, remembered it with nostalgia, and a certain amount of impatience, but it was quite beyond my power to access it.
Over the years though, I found that I was becoming less and less happy with a great deal of what I was writing. I wrote several plays where my inclination was increasingly to pare down, weaving images and meanings together. Line endings mattered. The rhythm of the words mattered. I didn't want to tell everything. Didn't want to be obvious. Sometimes people would 'get' it and sometimes they wouldn't. But I think it was something in me that very slowly, very surely, was nudging me back towards that door, that key, that old beloved landscape.
Last year it came back. Why? Well, I could give you a million possible reasons, to do with the stars, and a certain holy well, and a resolution of some kind and sources of inspiration and muses. But in reality, I think it was just time, and all it needed was a trigger, and eventually, inevitably, it came.
Since then I've been writing poems. Lots of them. Some are - obviously - better than others. I have a lot of catching up to do.
But the most fruitful source of inspiration at the moment, has been Burns himself. My last stage play was called Burns on the Solway. It had mixed reviews, ranging from ecstatic to appalled. (I favour the ecstatic ones myself!) But I was aware, even as I was writing it, that it wasn't saying all that I wanted to say - nor was it saying it in the words I wanted to use.
The voice that was consistently in my head was Jean Armour, not Rab. She had always been in my head, ever since those childhood days at Ellisland. And even more, later, when I had read scholarly accounts of her 'unsuitability' to be the wife of such a man. Burns scholars (particularly men) have always been more attracted to the likes of Highland Mary who loved him and then conveniently died. Never underestimate how engrained is this fantasy in certain male psyches - the tragic mistress who either kills herself, or dies horribly, like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary - a sad memory who need never trouble her lover with her lingering, ageing presence. And then of course, there's Clarinda, beautiful, teasing, ultimately unavailable so not his problem. Ae fond kiss and then we sever. Nothing becomes a woman like the leaving of her.
But a wife - one who got children, got untidy, got tired, got fat, got wrinkles, who loved him and understood him all too horribly well, who was helplessly, physically attracted to him but not above laying about her with a ladle - oh that would never do for the scholars. And yet, and yet - I have always been fascinated by Jean, admiring her to the point of obsession.
So although my new poems began, like my play, with Burns on the Solway - and unashamedly borrowed some of my own imagery - the more I have written, the more I have found myself writing in Jean's voice with little excursions elsewhere - when, for instance, Nancy McLehose herself, and latterly Jessy Lewars had something to say. The picture that is emerging is beginning to intrigue even me. I may post the odd poem on here, but they are very much works in progress at the moment. More as it happens.