A New Novel

I have been pondering the new novel with more than a little enthusiasm. I have been trying to get going on something new for far too long and indeed have made many long and involved attempts, only to dislike the resulting chapters so much that I have shelved them and started all over again. Not just one novel, but two (and I don't mean the Corncrake - I mean something completely new.) Anyway - at some point in the last day or so, it all came together, and I saw the whole thing, not just the story, but how it should be written, and whose voice it should be told in, and how he might tell it and for the first time in a very long time I am anxious to get going and find myself scribbling words on odd bits of paper, or waking in the night with an insistent voice in my head, this man who is trying to get his story out. I even dreamed about him.
The problem with this story, which has been lurking at the back of my mind for a very long time, was that although the characters and the situation, the time and place were all there, I couldn't see where it was all going. Well, I could see where it was going, but not how or why it got there. It was a strange and sometimes uncanny feeling for me - I could hear and see these people, three of them - but even when I gradually realised who was telling this tale, I didn't know exactly what had happened to him. I didn't know the why of it all. I knew bits of it, but none of it seemed important enough or powerful enough to explain later events. And then, all of a sudden, as though my narrator had been reluctant to get it out, even to me - as though the character himself had buried it - there it was. It shocked me. Am I tantalising you, or just myself? Watch this space.
I'll let you know how it goes!

The Urban Crow Considers Burns an a' that

This is posted by special request. Here in South Ayrshire, the birthplace of Robert Burns, we have an annual festival called 'Burns an a' that'. It's supposed to be a festival of 'poetry, music and song' celebrating the life and work of our national poet although poetry never looms very large on the official programme. Somebody who works in marketing once said to me 'Burns doesn't sell' and it's all too obvious that our local council is of much the same mind. The 'a' that' usually eclipses any tiny mention of Burns.
The headline act at 'Burns an a' that' this year was Status Quo, and there was a Harley rally as well. Excellent entertainment - but all suggestions of a 'literary' nature as part of the officially funded festival seem to have been turned down flat. Next year, a HUGE anniversary, 250 years since Rantin Rovin Robin was born, looks all set to have the same omissions. Rab would have recognised the attitude. All of which is background.
Here's the poem!

The urban crow watches television through a shop window
and wonders why a band of ageing rockers
called Status Quo are heading up a festival
named for Scotland’s national poet.
The band seem to be wondering the same thing.
The festival director who looks as though poetry is as
foreign to him as ploughing is declaring
how much Rab would have loved the Quo.
The crow is sceptical, reflects on
how folk invariably presume to
know what somebody would have done or wanted
when attempting to defend the indefensible.
The crow knows nothing for sure
although he decides that a poet who celebrated mice
and sheep but not to the crow’s knowledge
corbies - might nevertheless have
liked to go rockin all over the world.

The Urban Crow Worries Woodpigeons

Two doos are sitting on a wire.
Who, they say.
Who was it? Who was it?

It was I, says the crow.
I cannot tell a lie.
It was I.

What did you do?
What did you do?

I killed cock robin
with my bow and arrow
says the crow.

Let us fly,
say the doos
and they go.

Credulous bastards
says the crow.

The Urban Crow Looks for a Job.

There's a swear word in this poem. Apologies in advance to anyone likely to be shocked. I couldn't help it. It has to be there. For overseas readers, you should know that wheelie bins and refuse disposal and the precise regulations for the arrangement of rubbish are a weekly feature of our news in the UK at present. Some poor soul down in England was even threatened with imprisonment over his refusal to pay a fine for infringing the rules.

The city council is advertising for refuse collection operatives.
I could do that, thinks the urban crow.

He goes online and notes that big plastic wheelie bins are
environmentally friendly and convenient and
will be emptied on a weekly basis.
On the day of collection, the wheelie bin
should be placed at the kerbside
so that the handles are towards the street.
After the bin has been emptied, the householder must
ensure the return of the bin to their property
unless some wee nyaff has tipped it in the canal first.

All refuse must be contained within the bin.
Any refuse placed at the side of the bin
will not be collected
Not even dead cats asks the crow?

It is important that no heavy items
are put in the wheelie bin
due to the potential risk of the bin
falling from the vehicle’s lifting gear and
flattening the refuse collection operative
particularly if he is a bird.

If at any time the bin is considered to be overloaded
a sticker will be placed on the lid with appropriate instructions
like your fucking bin’s too full get it sorted.

Although the wheelie bin is made of high quality
environmentally friendly plastic,
corrosive substances should not be placed in it.
If you find you cannot manoevre your bin because of age
or infirmity, (or wings, thinks the crow)
and there is no one available to help you, due to your
thankless family having buggered off to Australia then
please contact the Council for assistance.

The crow decides not to bother.
He’s a pretty mean waste disposal machine
himself but.

Paying the Writer

Last week a journalist acquaintance from the Times phoned me up to ask me what I thought about SPT's (Strathclyde Partnership for Transport) advertisement for a Poet in Residence to write and source poems for the Glasgow Subway. I said - for I could not tell a lie - that I thought the project itself sounded absolutely brilliant, and something I would love to have been involved in myself, but the pay was appalling. They weren't looking for a student or trainee. They wanted an experienced writer with a considerable body of published work to source poems, set up and run a writing and a reading group in a local library and throw in a series of workshops in a primary school for good measure. All this was based on a nominal 40 hours week, for 9 months of which half (ie 20 hours a week) was meant to be spent on the writer's own work. Quite apart from the fact that the job as described would definitely take longer than the 20 hours allowed - workshops demand preparation - the remuneration is £13500. Now if you do the arithmetic, you will see that this comes out at something like the minimum wage.
SPT are looking for an experienced professional consultant, for which they are planning to pay call centre wages. Their executives told the Times that the project would be a 'showcase' for the poet's work. But as the redoubtable Harlan Ellison points out in no uncertain terms such showcasing does little or nothing to help the writer. I've been married to an artist-woodcarver for many years now and if I had a pound for every time somebody has asked him to work for little or nothing 'because it will be a good showcase for you' we would be a wealthy couple. When did you last hear of a time served and experienced electrician being asked to work for the minimum wage 'because it'll be a good advert for your services'? And before anyone tells me that artists and writers are expendable while electricians are not, when did you ever hear of a specialist arts administration consultant working for the minimum wage in order to advertise their services?
Money. I'm hugely well qualified, experienced, committed. When I'm employed, I work hard. In return I expect a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.

The Urban Crow Plays in Traffic

The urban crow sits on some stone hero’s head
watching folk pass below.
He briefly contemplates tweaking off a pair of specs
or alighting on a bald patch or
dicing with death among cars where
a drunk has dropped a takeaway
but decides it would be more prudent to
make for the park where there will be
kids with ice cream cones or popcorn.
He can con popcorn from an infant nae bother
with a wee stare from his beady eye
but he treads carefully.
See they buses, says the urban crow,
they’d run you down as soon as look at you.

Introducing the Urban Crow

So there I was, a few weeks ago, walking about Glasgow, when I spotted a large black bird, wandering in and out of the parked cars, as though deep in thought.
That was the start of it. I came home and wrote a poem called The Urban Crow.
Then - about a week later - I saw the crow (Was it the same crow? Who can say!) sitting with his mate in a cherry tree.
And later still, I spotted my crow perched on one of those big open waste bins, examining the contents.
There are six or seven Urban Crow poems now, with another one coming roughly every week. I'm growing ever more fond of him. He's nothing like his elemental alter ego - Ted Hughes' wonderful, savage and highly intellectual beast - although I'm beginning to think he has certain aspirations in that direction.
No - he's a bit more craven, and equivocal: an urban crow, who casts a wry and beady eye on the goings-on round about him. I've tried out some of these poems at poetry readings and the crow invariably gets his own little round of applause. He seems to appreciate the attention, because (uncannily) I've started to see him all over the place. Only today, I caught a glimpse of him sifting carefully through cut grass outside the Burrell Collection in Pollock Park....
Tune in regularly, to find out what the Urban Crow might be reflecting on next.

The Intellectuals and the Masses

I've been meaning to read this book for a long time, but finally managed to get my hands on a copy. It is subtitled 'Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880 - 1939'. Having read John Carey's 'What Good Are the Arts?' some time ago, and found myself agreeing with just about everything in it, I wanted to find out what he had made of Lawrence, Woolf and the rest. Now - about half way through - I find that it's one of those rare books that I am reading VERY SLOWLY in an effort to prolong the sheer pleasure. It's witty, sharp, intelligent and full of profoundly disturbing insights - but written in the most elegant prose imaginable. Beware though. You may never feel the same about certain parts of the literary canon again.
Just to give you a flavour of the whole, here's Carey writing about sculptor and designer Eric Gill and others like him who - keener on the cult of the peasant than they were on the great 'mass' of humanity, which they persistently tried to dehumanise - pretended 'to be peasants themselves.' Gill, seemingly, wore a variety of 'peasant' costume, including a 'belted smock and, in winter, loose scarlet silk under drawers.' But all the same, he wasn't too keen on the idea that everyone should be taught to read and 'hoped that a bomb would fall on Selfridges.'
This is a clever and entertaining assault on the founders of modern culture. It was first published (to establishment consternation) in 1992. Wish I'd read it sooner: the kind of book that you want to shout 'Yes!' and applaud after every chapter. Not only that, but I began to see disturbing parallels between this and so much of what passes for commentary on 'mass' culture nowadays. I was amused, though, to find a Louis MacNeice quote, about hospital nurses spending their savings on 'cosmetics, cigarettes and expensive underclothes.' His snobbery and sexism were strangely echoed in a letter which I received only a few years ago from somebody in a position of authority within a major literary organisation. When I had said that I simply couldn't afford the fees (this was nothing less than the truth) he - it had to be a he - accused me of spending my earnings on lunches, cosmetics and the like instead. A true inheritor of MacNeice's prejudices!

Poetry and Other Things

Recently, I've been talking to several other people, artists of all sorts, about collaboration and wondering where all these ideas are coming from. Not that I'm giving the game away about the exact ideas on here - well not just yet, although when any of these potential projects get off the ground then I may well be blogging about the process. But it's the ideas, and the novelty of them that is engaging me right now. I don't necessarily mean originality here, although I do think that at least some of what's in the air for me is original. But I've been meditating about why I've suddenly been possessed by a number of creative ideas that seem to bear little relation to anything I've written for some time.
I think it's partly because I've been working with media studies students and their excitement about their own projects has proved inspirational. I had forgotten how wonderful it could be to engage with a piece of work simply for its own sake.
The best way of explaining it is maybe to relate something that happened to me in the past.
Once upon a time, I studied a long, ancient and mysterious poem, as part of a university course. And no, I'm not saying what it is, because I have a feeling that somewhere down the line, I'm going to want to go back to it! But it's the process that interests me. I laboured over this difficult piece of work for weeks, until I was bleary eyed and confused. And then suddenly, it was as if some strange correspondence between the words, their meaning, and the shape of the poem on the page slotted into place, and I understood it and its implications all at once. It made me dizzy, like looking at an infinite panorama or up into some great dome. And of course, it may simply have been fatigue! But that doesn't invalidate what in retrospect was one of the key experiences of my life.
Well, it faded. Other things took its place. Until recently when some of that excitement seems to have come back. I'm not sure why. Perhaps I've given myself permission to take myself seriously as a writer again. I don't mean that I'm going to write relentlessly joyless stuff - but I do mean that I'm going to try to write with a real sense of experimentation.

On the Need to Invent and Reinvent

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about the process of writing, in a personal sense, of course. I can't make judgements for other people, only myself. And - you know - I increasingly feel that the online world tries to do just that. It's relentlessly judgemental - full of people, often spectacularly unsuccessful themselves - who are all too anxious to make sets of rules for other people to follow. I've been tempted down that route myself from time to time although frankly I've always been a bit of an anarchist.
I spend one day a week helping students with their academic writing but that is completely (and blissfully) different from dictating how people ought to write creatively. With so many years of experience in so many different areas of writing, I can look at a piece of academic work in a discipline I know nothing about and still make helpful suggestions. Often it's because I know very little about the subject under discussion that I can see the wood for the trees, and suggest what seem to me to be minor structural changes which - so people tell me - are often immensely helpful.
But creative writing? Well, I find myself increasingly reluctant to say anything about anybody else's work. I have a handful of writer friends - less than a handful, to be strictly accurate - for whom I do the odd bit of reading - as they do for me. I trust them, I hope they trust me. But I'm never really criticising what they do in the sense of judging it. I may interrogate the work itself and them from time to time, to give them a sense of how what they've written comes across to a friendly reader. I may reinforce their own doubts about certain aspects of the work with the occasional gentle query. (We always have doubts. I was going to say, even seasoned professionals. But I think they -we? - have more doubts than most. We all know enough to know what we don't know!) I will be scrupulously honest and as observant as I can be. And I often find myself praising what is genuinely wonderful in the hope that my feedback will help balance those doubts which do beset all writers from time to time. I like to think that I can be of some help - but I'm too busy wrestling with my own creative angels to be judgemental about anybody else's!
So over the past year, I have spent rather a lot of time thinking about what I write myself, and why. How I feel about it. How I want to feel about it. And why - over the past year - I seem to have ground inexorably to a halt in some aspects of my writing, while in others I am so full of ideas and experiments and insights that I hardly know where to begin. As writers we are naturally inventive. 'Where do you get your ideas from?' is an incomprehensible question to most writers. We are usually full of ideas and we neither know nor care where they come from. That's never the problem. The problem is all too often the translation of those thrilling ideas into words on the page. Because sometimes, you look at them and they seem so pedestrian. What soared in the mind limps along on the page.
Which leads me to the idea of reinvention. But it's late. And I'll save that for another post.


Woke up this morning, and switched on the radio to hear a Labour politician pontificating in the teeth of the 10p Income Tax row. This - for those of you who may be reading this blog from elsewhere - involves our Labour Government which is supposed to look out for those on low incomes (one of the reasons why I, for one, voted for them) suddenly deciding to hit a significant cross section of low earners with increased taxes, while handing a few hundred pounds a year more to those who don't really need it. It has caused predictable ructions among back benchers. What really struck me about the interview though, was its uncanny similarity to a whole series of interviews with Tory politicians before their eventual debacle all those years ago. I remember them well. Not only would they never admit to being wrong, but in those peculiarly plumptious, moralising and deeply enraging tones which politicians always assume when they have become blinkered by power, they would tell us that we simply didn't understand what they were trying to do, ie we were thick, they knew best and if they could only speak slowly, loudly and clearly, so that we could get our poor little heads around it, we would be persuaded that they had been right all along.
This morning it was Labour's turn to assume that familiar, condescending, hectoring tone. I'm sure I heard somebody saying not that they might have got this one wrong (they sure have) but that they needed to 'explain their policies more clearly to the electorate'. Or some such guff.
Well here's some news. We don't need an explanation. We understand all too well, just as we understood back then. It may come as a surprise, but we just don't agree with you. You can explain till you're blue in the face, but it won't make a blind bit of difference. And - this being a democracy - you know what follows, fellows.

Journalists versus Creative Writers

Not, of course, that there is - on the whole - that much difference between us. Most so called 'creative writers' I know have done, still do some journalism- as I do myself. Many novelists began their working lives as journalists. Many journalists become novelists, write stories or poems. But having just spent an interesting, and pleasurable day in the company of a group of full time journalists, I found myself realising that there is a big (and perhaps growing) difference between the ways in which our minds work.
My fellows on what was an informative and busy trip, aimed at allowing us to gather information about a particular event and write about it afterwards, were a mixed group of 7 or 8 more or less full time journalists from the US, London, Ireland and Germany. Several were involved in online magazines (in a couple of cases their own ventures). And at some point in the day it struck me that they have a completely different attitude from those friends and colleagues who are wholly involved in creative writing. It's more than confidence. I think they expect to be treated as valued professionals and guess what? Everyone round about them seems to live up to those expectations. I had to keep mentally pinching myself. I was with a group of writers who were discussing a booming business, and not how awful things were!
It got me thinking about how so often we, at the creative end, devalue ourselves. We constantly 'talk' failure, and don't seem to have the confidence of our own professionalism. Just as an example, last year, when I was commissioned to write about the wonderful Drovers' Inn on Loch Lomondside for a magazine, it never even occurred to me to tell the management what I was doing. Any of these (in some cases much younger) people would have set the whole thing up in advance, been well treated, and paid out not a bean. And why not, if they are going to be using their expertise in the service of one business to promote another? Consultants, even in the strapped for cash arts, get very handsomely rewarded for their services!
I know of course that many forms of writing are undertaken purely for pleasure, or in a spirit of exploration, and those are never going to pay well. But - perhaps because we spend so much of our time on those aspects of our work - we forget that there is a business end of the market. And when we are involved in it, we forget or perhaps are too timid to value ourselves and what we do, so it should come as no surprise when other people take us at our own valuation, and treat us accordingly. Some years ago, I was asked to attend a script meeting about a BBC radio production, in Edinburgh. There was, said the producer, 'no money in the kitty' to pay for travel expenses. So I went at my own expense. Any one of those young journalists would have said 'sorry, but no money, no meeting'. Not only would they have been right, but you can bet that the cash would have miraculously appeared from somewhere. It is high time that we changed our perspectives.

Writing - Five Ways to Get Started

By which I mean 'get started in the morning or afternoon or evening' - whenever you write, in fact. But I don't mean 'get started' in general. To write, you really have to want to write. You have to have ideas, to live with people and places milling about your head, to see as a writer sees and hear as a writer hears, and have that essential desire to communicate. But all the same, sometimes it can be hard just to 'get going'. The blank screen is as bad as the blank page in that respect. You can spend plenty of time planning and plotting, even more time researching - particularly now that you can browse online. But sooner or later, you have to get down to it, and write something. And in my years of experience of running workshops, that can be the most difficult thing for people to do. It's a problem I have myself sometimes - now for instance - although for me it comes and goes a bit. And sooner or later, I know that I can bite the bullet and get down to it. But here are some of my own favourite ways to get started. All reasonable contributions welcome!
1 - Post to a blog. There is something about blogging that - for me at any rate - primes the pump, gets the words flowing. To be used with care though. All too easy to think that - having posted to your blog - you've actually achieved something. Well you have. You've achieved a blog post.
2 - Drink a mug of strong - real - coffee. Alcohol makes me think that I can write all kinds of brilliant things. I no longer believe it. Not, you understand, that I'm against it in principle. Just that it's deceptive. If you write under the influence of any mind altering substance, you'll soon realise that when you read back what you've written you'll be doomed to disappointment. But strong coffee - that always works for me.
3 - Stop while you are in mid creative flow. This is a really useful piece of advice and I can't remember who first gave it to me, so if I'm infringing anyone's copyright I apologise in advance, and will post a proper attribution! Do not stop at the end of a scene, or chapter. If you can bring yourself to do it, stop while you still want to go on rather than when you feel you are winding down. That way there's a chance that some of the magic will still be there when you resume the following day.
4 - Go for a long walk first. Not always possible I know, and not advice which I follow half enough myself, but there is something inspirational about walking, something that seems to lift the pressure and make you want to get started.
5 - Fall in love. I owe this rather startling piece of advice to Scottish poet Robert Burns who in a letter to Maria Riddell said that he had to be in love himself before he could write a really good love poem - or words to that effect. He had, let's face it, another agenda. But he was right in this as in so much else. Being in love - as I remember it - can be pretty inspirational - so long as you can control a certain disastrous tendency to write only about the object of your affections.

Time Management for Writers - The Reality and the Dream

I have realised over the past few years that this is not my forte but I seem to have grown infinitely worse as time has gone by and I'm not sure why. Maybe it's just that life has grown ever more complicated. I don't remember having quite this trouble when I was young and madly excited by whatever I happened to be working on at the time. Now there's the added complication of earning a living, doing that mysteriously expanding thing known as 'paperwork' and trying to help maintain a house and garden in something like full working order. I can perfectly well understand why certain writers have a dedicated office where they go 'out to work' every morning.
Once or twice I have assessed what exactly it is that distracts me from flat out work, and the list goes something like this -
Coax self out of bed about 7.30 (mornings are not my best time) and drink copious quantities of tea. Shower, dress, dry hair. Best ideas always occur in shower. Make some notes. Make bed. Sometimes change bed and sling washing in machine.
Check online business, The Scottish Home (antiques - our bread and butter these days) answer questions about listed items, send invoices where appropriate, etc. Sort out stock to list later on today, usually in the evening.
Field and answer various emails, often to do with writing of one kind or another. Promise self that will not check emails compulsively through the day in case amazing offer from publisher or preferably film maker is lurking in inbox.
Post has arrived. Mostly junk. Some bills. Visualise bills as cheques (Yes, I've read The Secret too!)
Wrap and address anything that has been sold. In the case of textiles this involves tissue paper, pretty stickers, nice postcards and envelopes. Presentation is important in this business.
Take packages to post office.
Do some PC maintenance. In extreme cases (like last Sunday for instance) this took up most of the day while I tried to restore elderly and sick PC to factory settings and then couldn't get printer to work. No disk. Found HP disk for other machine. Tried it. It worked. Miracle.
Make very large cafetiere of very strong coffee. Drink very large mug of said coffee.
Spend a little while blogging - make resolution not to spend too much time on this, but it does seem to prime the writing pump.
Do a bit of online research for latest project.
Read dissertations which students have sent via email. (Do one day a week on RLF fellowship at local university)
Sun is shining. Notice that all plants in conservatory are panting and wilting in heat. Water them. Drink second mug of coffee.
Husband says 'Can you just....' Could be anything from ordering paint and canvas to invoicing somebody. Remember that have not done any online banking for ages and everyday working account is probably overdrawn. Not disastrous since agreed overdraft, but should do it now. Am slightly horrified by falling balances and rising bills.
Ring at doorbell. Could be friends or relatives popping in for morning coffee, man to read electricity, oil or coal delivery etc etc etc.
Phone rings. Cannot ignore phone. May be publisher or film maker with unrepeatable offer. It is invariably somebody asking personal questions in an effort to sell me something. Either that, or friends, or relatives. Occasionally it's work. Always delighted when it is agent. Last week it was an American offering to sell us shares in an oil company. You must be joking, I said, and put the phone down. (Query, why do these people who have, after all, phoned you up always get quite shirty when you won't play ball?)
By now it's lunch time. Drink tea, eat large bowl of yoghurt. Will write this afternoon.
Sun is shining. Garden is a mess. Do garden and feel guilty about writing. Or do writing and feel equally guilty about garden.
Phone rings. Kwikfit offering to renew car insurance at reduced rate if I do it now. Decide to save time by doing it now. Answer questions about self and car. Have to go upstairs to find car documents.
Do photo session for listings later this evening while light is good.
Write. Bliss. Room is quiet. Radio is off.
Notice that there is a heap of bills, invoices, receipts waiting to be filed. File them.
Eat meal cooked by husband. Sometimes cook meal. Drink some wine. Government says women must not drink wine under pain of assorted apocalyptic disasters. Drink another glass in a spirit of anarchy.
Upload pics to PC and tweak them. Do some listings. This involves a lot of descriptive writing since bulk of antiques are textiles, vintage clothes etc. And measuring. And laundry. Finish blog post from this morning. Check emails and reply. Waste time on Facebook. Restrain self from looking at son's Facebook page. Must not spy on grown up offspring.
Watch an hour or so's TV.
Friend phones for a catch-up.
Make tea.
An hour later check online listings that are coming to an end and send out invoices.
Go to bed anytime between twelve and one and read for however long I can stay awake - sometimes an hour or more, sometimes ten minutes.
None of this - of course - includes shopping, buying antiques at auction, designing and ordering postcards for online business, ordering office supplies, putting in the washing, stacking the dishwasher, stain removing and laundering the old textiles, car booting, going to meetings, really doing the garden, dusting, baking and cleaning the loo. Husband always does more than his fair share. He even irons the textiles (much better at it than me.) It does not include having my hair cut and my teeth fixed and browsing bookshops and doing an art history course and looking at handbags in TK Maxx. Nor does it include my all time favourite occupation which is sitting in Caffe Nero, preferably very early in the morning, with cool music playing, drinking a very large capuccino (without chocolate on top.) and making notes for poems in the back of the little diary I always carry with me. Three cheers for Caffe Nero. I would actually be quite happy to spend all day working in there if they would keep me supplied with coffee. Would they like a writer in residence? It could be me.
My dream - I'm working on it - is to have a small studio flat, preferably in Glasgow's Merchant City (a quiet street of course, somewhere high up and at the back of a building, quite close to Caffe Nero would be good) with few distractions - a nice desk, a laptop, a comfortable bed, a shower room a small kitchen area and very little else. I would spend three or four days a week there with occasional sorties for coffee and probably get more done in those three days than I ever do in a week of trying hard at home. Plus my husband would be glad to see me when I came back. I would, of course, tell very few people where it was, lest shoppers should decide to pop in unannounced and leave carrier bags with me. But in any case I could pretend that I wasn't there. Paradise. If anyone out there is reading this and wants a tame writer to flat sit on an occasional basis, just let me know!

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.