Funky, Fun, Feminist and Flippin Hypocritical

Last week's Sunday Times Style Section - which has become utterly cliched, like a send-up of itself - ran a piece titled 'Funky, Fun and Feminist.' Yes, it said, you can wear lipstick and be a feminist. You don't say. Except that a few pages earlier, they were also showing a triple picture of Karren Brady, Lorraine Kelly and Fern Britton all looking pretty gorgeous in low cut dresses. Titled 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' the accompanying snide little paragraph was more or less reinforcing the curious idea that women over a certain age should go about wearing full length sacks. So don't talk to me about new feminists. Never have Western women - mostly at the behest of some of their 'sisters' in the media - been so thoroughly paranoid about their own bodies. And what price any kind of feminism at all when a broadsheet newspaper can still be printing such garbage in the name of journalism?

A Spooky Tale for Christmas

OK, so it doesn't have a wintry setting, but this is the time of year for ghost stories, so here's one I wrote earlier. It was published in a magazine called Ayrshire Life, some time ago. It's called

The renovation had taken time, effort and money but now it was almost complete. Jack had bought the stone cottage in the long village street because he wanted somewhere of his own, a place on which he could lavish a little affection. Originally, the house had been part of a terrace. On the right it was still attached to the row of old weaver’s houses, but on the left there was a neat gap where another cottage had long since been demolished. “Room for possible extension” the estate agent’s schedule had said.
Jack had also acquired the demolished cottage’s wilderness of a garden as part of his own, though as yet he had scarcely done any gardening. He had been much too busy on the house. His neighbour on the right hand side was an elderly widow who lived alone. A friendly pub was within walking distance and for the first time since the sudden death of his wife, a couple of years earlier, he found himself achieving a kind of contentment. He had worked steadily through the winter and now, with the coming of spring, he could look with pleasure on newly sanded and waxed floors, a restored stone fireplace, a white tiled bathroom and a kitchen in fumed oak. He had resisted the temptation to buy an Aga. That had been his wife’s dream, not his, and besides, funds were getting low.
Like all old houses, the cottage had objected to the disturbance, throwing a hundred problems at him. There had been a certain satisfaction in finding solutions. In his more imaginative moments, he thought that he and the house had sized each other up, and grown used to each other. All its nightly noises were familiar now: the creak and rustle of cooling wood, the tap, tap of hot water in the pipes, the occasional mousy scuttering from the loft. There were idiosycracies too: the spare bedroom door that would not stay shut, but swung open without warning; the cool spot at the bend in the stairs. But none of them worried him although his occasional visitors, friends from the city, commented on them. But there was a consistency about them that was reassuring. Now he could begin to think about getting the garden into shape. He anticipated the work involved with real pleasure.
He was a young man and had taken the loss of his wife very badly. They had planned children, later. Now he was torn between sorrow over what might have been and relief that he hadn’t been left alone, to cope with an family. Unable to bear the pain of so many associations in the city where they had been together since graduation, he had asked for a transfer and come to work in a nearby town where there was a smaller, quieter branch of his bank. He didn’t care so much for promotion any more. All his hopes for the future had been shared with Debbie. Now she was gone, he was content to spend all his free time on the house.
“He hasn’t an idle bone in his body” they said of him in the village and that was praise indeed, for they were slow to accept strangers. But they had begun to like him.
The house, however, lacked one finishing touch and at first he was at a loss how to remedy it. At the bend in the stairs and quite high up, there was a round stained glass window, like a small porthole. Or rather there had once been such a window but what was left of it was so cracked and splintered that he had had to seal it with hardboard to keep out the winter draughts until he should decide what to do about it. He was very much afraid that he was going to have to fill the space with clear glass but for some reason the idea disappointed him. He was conscientious about such things, liking the unusual features that characterised the place.
Jack had been discussing the problem one night in the pub with a friend, who had come down from the city to admire the work on the cottage. Billy, the landlord, happened to overhear their conversation, or it may have been that he was listening. At any rate, later on in the evening, he approached Jack. “About that stained glass…”
“I could let you have a window. I didn’t know yours was broken. This one’s just the same.”
Jack was mystified. “You could?”
“Aye. It came from the cottage next door to yours, just before it was demolished. That was before my time, but they took out the glass. So my father said. I suppose someone thought it was too nice to throw away. It’s been up in our loft for years. You’re welcome to it if you can use it.”
“Why was the other cottage demolished?” asked Jack’s friend.
“I wouldn’t know.” Billy shrugged. “It lay empty for years. They couldn’t seem sell it. So the dry rot and the wet rot and the woodworm got to it. The way it nearly got to yours.” He mopped at the bar with a cloth. “They were always a pair those two houses. Built at the same time. But houses in this village weren’t fetching the prices they are today and nobody could be bothered with it.’
‘It’s given me a nice bit of extra land,’ said Jack. ‘I’m going to have my vegetable garden there.’
‘You’re really into all this self sufficiency stuff, aren’t you?’ said his friend, draining his glass.
‘Not really. I’ve always wanted to grow veggies.’
‘Tatties’ said Billy.
‘Potatoes, that’s what you have to grow in the first year. Cleans the ground. You’ll need seed potatoes.’
‘Will I?‘
‘You will. And since you’ve got the land you may as well have the window.”

Billy brought it round the next day. It was wrapped neatly in yellowing newspaper. Jack took it out and set it carefully on the floor, sidetracked for a moment by the old advertisements for corsetry and tricycles. He folded the newspaper carefully. Worth keeping, he thought. he could see that the window was a fine piece of work. The glass was clear red with an intricate little chain of flowers and leaves as a border. Afraid of damaging it, he contracted a local glazier to set it in and was pleased to notice how the afternoon sun cast a rosy glow through the red glass, shedding a beam of light over his stairs.
The window fascinated him. Every time he passed through his hallway, he found himself pausing to admire it. Next morning, a fine spring Sunday, he took a bowl of warm water up to his landing, stood on a stepladder, and began to clean the old glass, carefully sponging away the dirt of years, and the traces of putty left by the glazier. Presently however, he found his attention focussed on the patch of garden he could see outside. The stone walls of his house were very thick and blinkered his view. Also the glass itself had a flaw in it that slightly blurred his vision but, leaning a little to the left of his window, he found that he was looking down at what seemed to be a small cherry tree. He could just make out a blurr of blossom, as well as a patch of grass with scattered petals beneath. Somebody was sitting there. The warp in the glass prevented him from seeing clearly but it seemed to be a young woman, dressed in light clothing, her head bent over her lap. She might be reading, or even sewing. He screwed up his eyes. It occurred to him that he must be looking into next door’s garden: the one to the right of his own house. The window must have somehow funnelled his vision.
The old lady had visitors; a grand-daughter perhaps. There was a suggestion of long dark hair, a slim frame beneath. He stopped in his work of cleaning, his hand poised over the glass. A young man had come up and slipped his arms around the girl from behind. Jack saw a pale shirt, pink in the light from the glass, though he guessed it must be white. A loose shirt, dark trousers. The girl reached up her hands to grasp his. The man bent over and kissed the top of her head. Then she half rose, and they were in each others arms, embracing passionately in the sunlight.

Jack was embarrassed. He felt himself beginning to blush. It was as though he had intruded on their sudden moment of intimacy, although they could not know it. He took himself downstairs so that he shouldn’t be tempted to spy on the couple from the bedroom window. He was a good natured young man, and felt as though it wasn’t quite honest to watch them like this.
But the stained glass held its own attraction. The morning wore on towards lunch time. Whenever he had reason to pass through the hall, going out to the shop for the Sunday papers, or carrying a mug of coffee from kitchen to sitting room, he found his eyes straying towards it. It made him uncomfortable.
At last, he went out into the garden, on the pretext of making some plans for new borders and his vegetable patch. To his right, the old hedge between his own land and his neighbour’s garden next door, was high and thick, a tangle of rosa rugosa and privet and juniper. Much further down the garden it thinned out a bit and it was there that he usually looked over it, and held friendly conversations with the old lady, as she pottered about among her roses. He had given her his phone number. ‘If you need anything, just give me a call’ he had told her, promising to come through and do some weeding for her later in the spring.
But he could see nothing from this end, close to the house. He stood outside his back door for a long time, listening, but he could hear only birdsong, and the usual Sunday village sounds: a distant lawnmower, an occasional car, the excited mooing of cows let out to grass at last, the lazy drone of a small plane, practising aerobatics, high above. Nothing else. No voices at all. Were they still kissing?
Unable to withstand his own gnawing curiosity he went back upstairs to the window, stood on the ladder, and peered out again. He felt extraordinarily furtive, seeing without being seen. The couple were still together. There was a desperation about their caresses that he found both moving and distressing. Thoroughly ashamed of himself, he was about to descend and leave them to it, when he noticed a sudden quick movement, just at the edge of the glass.
A third figure had come within the compass of his vision, another man he thought, from the general size and bearing. The newcomer was standing just behind the tree trunk, in an attitude uncomfortably suggestive of extreme tension. Indeed the figure seemed at once furtive and yet poised as if ready to spring. As Jack watched, he saw the man raise a hand, a whole arm. But it was too long, too strong. He was holding something. What was it? A stick? Worse, an axe? He was stretching it up and out with a terrible tension about all his movements, a prelude to violence. It was the only interpretation Jack could place upon the gesture.
In an instant he had jumped from the ladder, and was running down the stairs, out of the back door and into his own garden, shouting ‘Hey!’ foolishly. ‘Hey! Stop that! Stop that!’
But even before he reached the part of his garden where the hedge ran low enough to see over, he felt that something was wrong. Feeling foolish, he parted the leaves and peered back along the length of the old lady’s garden. It was quite empty. A well tended lawn gave way to a newly dug vegetable patch. Jack remembered that she had told him her son was coming round to do it for her. There was a little group of apple trees bunched up at the far end. It was as he had remembered. She had no cherry tree. No trees at all.
He turned slowly back to his own garden, looking towards his cottage seeking some explanation, but it too was basking innocently in the spring sunshine. ‘How stupid to live in a place for six months and not to remember ….’ , he thought, confused. His gaze slid across neglected flowerbeds to the rotting stumps of the old fence posts that had once marked the border between the two gardens, his own, and the demolished cottage. There was no cherry tree in the garden of his own cottage. The cherry stood fair and square in the middle of what had once been the lawn of the house next door. He could see it now, quite far away, with a pool of pink petals shed on the lengthening grass beneath. He glanced up to his little round window. Not easy to see that garden from up there. Particularly if you were standing to the left of it. Impossible to see the cherry tree. Completely impossible. The words dinned into his mind. His legs moved reluctantly as he retraced his steps back up to the window and peered out. The patch of grass beneath the cherry tree was quite empty now, the red glass turning the shed petals a vivid shade of crimson.

He had the window removed, the very next day. He gave it back to Billy with his thanks, explaining that it made his hallway too dark.
“I’ll just get some plain glass” he said.
With what may be considered a remarkable lack of curiosity, Jack made no enquiries at all in the village as to the history of the demolished house next door to his own. He liked his cottage far too much for that. Better not to know what had happened. When that year’s flowering was over he had the cherry tree chopped down. “It only covers the lawn with dead petals” he said, by way of explanation. Some of the villagers thought it was a shame. Others, older people for the most part, did not.
Catherine Czerkawska

The Saturday Play

What, in the name of all that's holy, possessed the powers that be at BBC Radio 4 to schedule a dark psycho-sexual drama as the afternoon play on the saturday before Christmas, for God's sake. So there I am standing in the kitchen, mixing a (late) Christmas pudding and slapping white icing on my cake - a big snowball, as usual, don't go for the fancy stuff. I love my kitchen at this time of year. It smells of oranges and vanilla and coffee and the light gleams off the ancient oak press cupboard that has swallowed everything from bread flour to salted peanuts in preparation for the entertaining ahead. He always comes into his own at Christmas - the cupboard I mean. He goes by the name of George, because I have the distinct feeling that he was made for somebody of that name, almost 400 years ago. A marriage piece, and one of the initials is G. I found myself giving him a therapeutic polish this morning as I so very often do. He pays for polishing and whenever you open one of the cupboard doors the fabulous smell of old beeswax floods out.
Yes folks, I'm in love with my cupboard.
But there I was, working away, and I switched on the radio expecting, ooh, I don't know, something Christmassy, or at the very least something spooky, to find myself being warned about the psycho sexual content of a worthy play about Melanie Klein. The effect it had on me was the one my old radio drama producer used to call the 'Shit Click' effect. You know. When you listen for a couple of minutes, say 'Shit!' and reach for the off button.
I put on some music instead, and stirred up my pudding with a will. But has Radio 4 taken leave of its senses, or what?

Work in Progress

In between trying to get ready for Christmas and fighting off some kind of bug (have you noticed how, even though you have the flu jab, which as an asthmatic I always do, you can still find yourself feeling distinctly under the weather and as though your immune system is working overtime to combat some invader? It remains to be seen who wins this particular battle!) - anyway, in between all this, I've been finishing off a draft of the Physic Garden. Today, I sent it to my agent, all 86,000 words of it! I know she won't read it till January, probably late January, but I still felt I needed to send it before Christmas. It's a psychological thing. I've printed out yet another copy of it, and filed it away in a desk drawer.It still needs a bit of work, even though it has already been through many drafts. Chiefly, there seems to be a wee 'dip' in the middle, which I've struggled to address. But I don't think I'm quite there yet. Distance will lend perspective. But the urge to fiddle around the edges is very strong. So I'm attempting to put it out of my reach so that I can move on with something else in the meantime. There are other things I want to do now - a plan for a new novel, a drastic revision of an old one turning it (I hope) into a different book. And a fairly bizarre collection of short stories which have been flitting around my mind like so many bats, these many months past. I intend to get going on those over Christmas. I do love this wintry hiatus in the year. Even when I don't do as much writing as I would like, it is still a time when I catch up with reading and thinking, and I don't seem to have enough time for either of these in my normal working week!

The Dog Ate My Homework, Miss!

The latest draft of the new novel is nearly finished. Last week, in an effort to concentrate my mind, I emailed my agent and told her that I would definitely be sending her a copy of it by tuesday. Er, today. Except that I haven't done it yet. No, the dog didn't eat my homework. But here's what happened. I had been working on a printout, making changes and corrections, and was beginning to be reasonably pleased with the results. All novels get to that stage where you are much too close to them to be able to make sound judgements. You need somebody else to read them - but even more importantly, you need a break of weeks so that you can return with fresh eyes. The plan was, and still is, to send the book to Sarah in the knowledge that she wouldn't be able to get back to me about it until the New Year. Which would give me space to stand back from the whole project. I had also just bought a big new book about the period in question and wanted time to read it, just in case I had got something very wrong.
Last week, I was browsing through our local branch of Waterstones, looking for Christmas presents for various people when my eye alighted on another enticing non fiction paperback which didn't just cover the period in question but was a mine of information about the very specific area covered by the novel. I bought it with a mixture of excitement and the sinking feeling you get when you suspect that you may have got something important very very wrong. As it turned out, I hadn't got it wrong at all. But this wonderful book not only confirmed one of my major plot points, but added to it, giving me yet another interesting reason why things would not go according to plan for my main character. This in turn involved a few important rewrites. Hence the delay. I'm still sitting here with a marked up manuscript, all 86,000 words of it - and I promise that I will get the corrections typed up this week!
There are so many excellent historical books out there that it's always going to be a problem knowing when to stop researching and I have to remind myself that I'm working on a piece of fiction. As long as it's accurate enough, it doesn't really have to be a manual on early nineteenth century gardening. As long as something theoretically 'could' happen, as long as there is a modicum of truth about it all, then that's fine.
But I know that when I'm reading historical fiction myself, nothing yanks me out of my suspension of disbelief more quickly than a sudden howler. I don't mean small inaccuracies. I mean the really big stuff. And I know we all make compromises and you can't write in archaisms, but if an eighteenth century character says 'OK' - and this happens in films all the time, God knows why nobody spots it - it definitely jars.
On the other hand I well remember an (English) editor querying every single Scotticism in one of my manuscripts as 'anachronistic'. These included my phrase 'ghostly gear' to describe a dead 18th century woman's possessions. She was thinking Liverpool, 1960s. I was thinking of a very old Scots word for goods or wealth. I had to send her the dictionary reference. There is an excellent piece about just this problem here.
Meanwhile, The Physic Garden will be landing in my agent's inbox before the weekend is out. I promise. I really really do.

Primary Sources

Last week, I finally managed to have a good look at a book which plays a significant part in my new novel and which I had so far only seen online. Online was good but seeing something in reality is infinitely better. It's a very rare book which is housed on the twelfth floor of Glasgow University Library. Just getting there involved filling in a small succession of forms for a string of helpful assistants, one to get a day pass, two to find out where the book might be, three to request sight of it in the quiet reading room on the top floor. Even that assumed the nature of a pilgrimage with the lift getting progressively less and less busy until there was only me and a disembodied voice for company.

The book which was brought to me was not the original, which is too valuable to be handled except under controlled conditions, but a very early facsimile. The assistant rested the book, a large folio consisting of anatomical drawings with commentary, on a foam book rest and asked me to take notes in pencil. I hadn't actually thought that I was going to take notes, because the main point of the visit was to see the illustrations rather than reading the commentary, which was available elsewhere. I was acutely conscious that I was looking at a rare book, and - to handle it with due care - had to stand up to get a proper perspective on the pictures. In the event the illustrations were so moving, and aroused such strange feelings in me that I took out my notebook, borrowed a pencil from the helpful librarian and wrote several pages of impressions, missing my lunch, and almost missing another appointment in the process.
The book figures throughout my novel, and is a key part of the story, but there is a chapter which - after this visit - will most certainly have to be rewritten.

All of which, got me thinking. A writers' forum of which I'm a member has recently been discussing a Scottish historical novel by a writer who had better remain nameless. I haven't read it myself, so I perhaps shouldn't be commenting, but the consensus was that it was a 'good' book in the sense of being enjoyable, although the writer had confessedly never been to Scotland, and the novel had many 'howlers' in the historical sense. Many people thought that this didn't matter, but I know that it would spoil my enjoyment. The odd inaccuracy I can live with. But there comes a moment, I suppose, when no matter how evocative or interesting the writing, a real failure of research challenges your 'willing suspension of disbelief' to the point where you can't carry on reading.

On the other hand, a regular cop-out for beginning writers is to say 'but it really happened like that' when some piece of writing isn't quite working. Because of course fiction isn't the same as fact. We aim for truth, but we also aim for make-believe. We try to shape events and perceptions so that the reader will say 'yes, life is like that' without at the same time constantly tripping over hurdles of realism or research so cliched or banal that they get in the way of our journey through a novel or story or play.

No wonder we have problems.

Ructions at the Beeb

I've never understood quite what it is about Jonathan Ross that merits 18 million pounds of licence payers money, but I always assumed I wasn't 'getting it' - whatever it was he had. In the current interesting difficulties, it's hard not to indulge in a measure of schadenfreude.
I've a softer spot for Brand's irreverent idiocy than Ross's carefully calculated performances. Davina McCall called them 'silly boys' today. Well Brand may be but it's a very long time since Ross could be called a boy. And beside them both, the incomparably funny Ricky Gervais, emphatically NOT commenting on it all last night, looked like a model of wit and wisdom.
What did surprise me, just at first, was that - as I know from bitter experience - even the word 'Christ' when used in a radio play, has to be 'referred up' as the expression goes, for permission to use it. So how in God's name did they get away with it? And then it struck me that the whole BBC structure allows certain people to become so powerful that nobody in immediate authority dares to question them .
Still, I suspect the furore isn't so much shock as a kind of generalised outrage that public cash should be draining down this particular black hole, cash which, moreover, is so frequently collected with menaces from a cross section of increasingly hard up souls. And I do mean menaces. I am the frequent recipient of communications from the TV licensing authority sent to a television-free holiday house which I look after for some friends. And they are outrageous. If I were to pursue somebody for money - especially somebody who didn't actually OWE me that money - in the inflammatory terms employed by the television licensing authority, I reckon I'd have been taken to court long ago.

Another Small Radio Grumble

Yesterday, my play the Price of a Fish Supper was repeated on BBC Radio 4. And a couple of unsolicited appreciative emails from complete strangers came my way immediately afterwards. Which was nice. Unfortunately, on the same day, the producer to whom I had sent a couple of ideas, also emailed me to say that they had been comprehensively turned down. She had decided (rightly I think) to send a round robin email on this occasion, just so that we could all see that we were not alone in our misery! The Beeb had turned down a whole tranche of submissions from a group of experienced writers.
With more than 200 hours of radio drama to my name, and a couple of major awards for plays, I cannot get a radio commission for love nor money these days. I've said it before on this blog, and I'll say it again. I've moved on, do plenty of other things. And yes, it was probably time anyway. But I can't pretend it isn't hurtful and irritating, because it is. Especially when the odd piece that does somehow manage to squeeze under the wire is so well received. I'm convinced that Fish Supper only managed to be made because the reviews of the stage play had been so wonderful that it would have looked very odd if they had turned it down.
Actually, I believe the key word here is money. The way the fee structure works at the Beeb is that they pay more, quite a lot more, for experienced writers. As a playwright, I can see how this works, since producer/directors have to do a considerable amount of work with new writers. As an aside here, I should also mention that I can see no reason why the same tiered fee structure should apply to short stories. Either a story is good enough to be broadcast or it isn't. The editing involved is minimal and there's no reason - except one of economy - why a beginning writer should receive less than an experienced writer for a story.
Many years ago, when John Birt introduced 'producer choice' (which meant exactly the opposite) and the internal market, a great many experienced producers left the BBC and went independent, since so many dramas were being commissioned from outside the Beeb. The workings of that internal market were so crazy that I can remember being called up by continuity announcers asking how to pronounce my name. The Pronunciation Unit used to deal with such matters, but during Birt's reign, all such enquiries were charged to programme budgets, and it was easier and cheaper to phone me.
Then the whole climate changed again and the indies were left high and dry. Which perhaps serves to explain why so many of the dramas you will currently hear are barely dramatic at all. They are stories with bits of additional dialogue, and nobody in the building appears to know how to remedy it.
I keep thinking I'll give up entirely on radio, and I probably have. But just occasionally an idea comes along that seems to be wholly suitable for radio, (and I should know!) So I'm tempted to waste my time trying all over again. From the evidence of the round robin email - and that's only one producer - there are a lot of us out there.

Still Living LIfe Backwards

Recently, a friend presented me with an old copy of a book called Identities, an anthology of West of Scotland poetry, prose and drama, edited by Geddes Thomson and published by Heinemann in 1981. She had been flicking through it and my name had jumped out at her, three times to be precise. There were two longish prose extracts and a poem. The book is in front of me now and when I read the extracts, the prose in particular, I'm reasonably impressed with my own style, not least because the extracts were from contributions to another book and I wrote them when I was in my early twenties.
As so often now, I read things that I wrote way back when and remember the person I was way back then, so full of hopes and ambitions and interests - and wonder what happened to me?
Well I'm still full of hopes and ambitions and interests . But more and more these days I get the impression that I was a better and far more honest writer then, when all my thoughts were focussed on the writing itself and not on the business of trying to make a living out of it.
I think I fell into a trap of trying to please too many people, and not pleasing myself enough. In fact 'please yourself' has become something of a mantra for me. Not, 'please yourself' in the selfish sense, ie satisfying yourself at the expense of others - but making sure that whatever you do in a creative sense pleases you first and foremost and that you don't waste too much time trying to conform to the demands of a dozen other people who have all kinds of ideas as to what you should be writing about and how you should be writing it.
And if it was a problem for me, how much worse now when the internet has spawned a thousand websites where the blind can lead the blind in the shape of a million opinionated amateurs presuming to give advice to their fellow writers? Me too, but at least I'm speaking from a certain baseline of experience. And I'm a member of a wonderful online group (you know who you are!) which contains many writers of all kinds who are generous with time and support, but equally cautious about giving direct advice, knowing that it can be tricky, only offering it where it is requested. Experience makes you wise, makes you very reluctant indeed to offer hard and fast advice. Rather, you tend to go along with William Goldman's dictum that 'Nobody knows anything'. You find yourself asking questions, trying to tease out of people the way they really want to go but never never telling them what they ought to do.
Meanwhile, reading things I wrote years ago fills me with a retrospective sadness because I seem to have come all round the houses and found myself back where I started. Only seeing it through more experienced eyes of course. And maybe that's the trick. Maybe it's what we all have to do: trying to find a way of avoiding cynicism, of fusing the getting of wisdom with the freshness we once had, when everything was exciting and full of potential, of pleasing ourselves as much as we possibly can.

Short Stories

I seem to be leading my professional life backwards these days. Having gone back to writing poetry, I now seem to want to go back to writing short stories as well. But it isn't so very strange because I do think that poems and short stories seem to come from the same source of inspiration. Occasionally something will present itself as an idea for a poem but then you find that you need considerably more elbow room and it somehow turns itself into a short story. I reviewed William Trevor's recent volume of short stories, Cheating at Canasta, for the FT last year and it seemed to me as though his stories had the quality of poems - so densely layered that although they were a wonderful read they were a somewhat uncomfortable read as well. It was like throwing a pebble into a still pool, watching the ever widening rings and uneasily wondering exactly what has been stirred up there.
Then last week I went to a reading by Bernard MacLaverty who reminds me of Trevor, and not because both are Irish writers. Bernard's stories are quite different from Trevor's and very much in his own voice, but there is a quality of observation, of wisdom, of a deceptive simplicity with profound depths beneath, that is shared by both writers and which makes them both wonderfully readable.
Somebody in the audience asked him for advice about writing and he said 'Yes. Don't trust anybody who gives you advice about writing.' But he also suggested that - in pursuing your own unique voice - it is no bad thing to imitate those writers whose work you love. I agree. Too much prescriptive criticism from people who don't actually know that much about writing themselves can be very destructive to the creative impulses. But that's quite a different matter from using a fine writer like a pair of stabilisers on a bike - before you know it, you're off, peddling furiously all on your own.

What's in a Name?

After all these years, I am seriously thinking of changing my name. Actually, I probably don't need to do that. All I need to do is use my other name, the one I acquired when I got married. Lees. Catherine Lees. Easy to say, spell and remember.
Except that when I did get married, my then agent said 'you're not changing your name are you?' and I said 'no'. But maybe back then, it would have been a good thing.
I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because for all that I've spent the past twenty five years or so as a reasonably successful full time freelance writer, earning my living that way (a pretty precarious living, but still!) with awards and fellowships and plays and publications to boot, nobody up here in the small pond that is Scottish literature ever remembers who I am and - much more important - what it is I do.
So what has prompted this cry from the heart? Or should that be howl of protest? Partly it was because, for some unknown reason, I was prompted to join a Facebook group called Wannabee a Writer. Still don't quite remember why I did it. Anyway, I finally saw the light and thought, I've got an agent, a substantial body of published and produced work, and even, God help me, a play as recommended reading on the Scottish Higher Drama syllabus. If I'm not a writer now, I never will be. And like a small pebble starting a landslide, that caused me to question my whole writing persona.
Partly it's my own fault of course because I've chopped and changed a lot, working - variously - on radio drama, television, theatre, stories, novels, non fiction and poetry, with a bit of journalism thrown in for good measure, but then I'm not alone in this. Most writers find that they have to have a portfolio of work to keep them going.
Catherine, I said to myself, You are no longer a wannabee. (You can tell that I give myself some very good advice, though I very seldom follow it.)
But all writers, I think, find it hard to see themselves as professionals partly because a writing career generally evolves over a long period and we learn and change all the time. So we tend to retain that feeling of being an apprentice long after other professionals have taken full advantage of their experienced status. And guess what - that's how people tend to treat us. They take us at our own valuation and tell us that it's a nice little hobby we have there, and ask us what it is that we actually do for a living?
Mind you, I find that many male writers, particularly here in Scotland, do tend to be much more full of confidence in themselves and their abilities than the females. They know what they want to write and how they want to write it, they go ahead and do it - and once more, people take them at their own valuation. In promotional terms, whatever they do, they seem to start out with a very clear idea of their own branding.
So maybe that's the answer. Maybe I need to rebrand myself. Reposition myself in the market place. Invent a new me. Give myself a new name. And I think I need to start pleasing myself more. By which I don't mean selfishly ignoring the needs of others, but actively trying to ask myself what - in a professional sense - might make me happy. Pleasing myself. It's a simple enough concept but in the context of what I do for a living, it seems frighteningly revolutionary.
I think I need to go and lie down in a darkened room and think about it some more!

Back to the Drawing Board

or back to the PC at least, from an all too brief holiday in the South of France where -unlike Scotland, for most of the time this summer - the sun was shining and it was warm. Have spent the days since our return trying to catch up on mainly writing associated tasks including drafting out a piece for the Financial Times weekend supplement about the beautiful mediaeval city of Carcassonne. Mind you - as anyone who has read Kate Mosse's Labyrinth will know, Carcassonne has a very checkered and somewhat brutal past. I knew about the place years before I saw it (for the first time, last year) because when I read Mediaeval Studies at Edinburgh University I had a friend who was obsessed with everything to do with the Cathars, the Albigensian Crusade and so on. She would bend the ear of anyone who would listen with stories of that time, and the horrific cruelties inflicted on the Cathars by the establishment, and all in the name of Christianity. It was fascinating and ever since, whenever the subject of Templars, Cathars etc has come up - quite often, since the Da Vinci code phenomenon - I have thought of Dorothy, sitting in our flat, clutching a glass of wine and regaling us with tales of mediaeval savagery. The last time I saw her, she was heading for Venice with all her worldly goods in an assortment of carrier bags. We stuffed her into a railway compartment with them - and never heard from her again.
I'm busy revising The Physic Garden which seems good in parts - and about to try to build on my recent commissions for the FT by trying to place more - many more - freelance articles. I seem to have discovered an unexpected talent for travel writing although I'm aware that it is a heavily over subscribed market. The other thing I know about and can write about in a popular way is, of course antiques and most particularly 'women's things' for want of a better term - textiles, embroidery, vintage and antique clothes, dolls, teddies, perfumes, jewellery. What really fascinates me is that whole area which antique dealers call 'provenance': the tales which are embedded in objects from the past. It's a fruitful source of inspiration for writing and I intend to try to tap into my own knowledge over the coming year.

The Physic Garden - Drafting out a Novel

I have (three cheers!) finished the first full draft of my new novel, The Physic Garden. But there's an odd phenomenon with this one and I remember it happening before with - I think - The Curiosity Cabinet. Normally my advice to any writer embarking on a full length novel for the first time would be to write at length and then set about pruning and polishing. It's invariably easier to cut than it is to 'pad things out' - a process which is generally deemed to be inadvisable. On the whole, I agree. However - in this instance, something else has happened and I think I would compare it to the way in which an artist 'blocks out' a picture. I have written about 70,000 words, but I suspect that the finished novel will be a good deal longer, at perhaps 85,000 or even more.
Somebody on a Writers' Message Board of which I'm a member, was asking about recommended novel length the other day. She had been told that 100,000 words, no more, no less was the recommended word count, which seems a mite prescriptive to me. The consensus was that it tended to be 'horses for courses'. If you are Penny Vincenzi you can get away with writing at extreme length (and she does it so very well.) But most of the published novelists among us tended to think that anything between 80,000 and 100,000 was about right with some genres demanding fewer and some demanding more.
And yes, normally, it's much better to write at length and then make your cuts.
But sometimes there needs to be another stage in the process and I think that's the one I've just completed. I needed to gallop through the whole thing for various reasons. One was to get to know my characters and try to understand what seems to me to be quite a complicated set of relationships. Another was to see if the plot actually hung together. And a third reason (this being a historical novel set in Glasgow in the early 1800s) was to find out what I didn't know. Quite a lot as it turned out. One of the pitfalls of writing historical fiction is that the research tends to dominate - you become so fond of your discoveries that they become an end in themselves and the result is heavy handed fictionalised history. Paradoxically, one way of avoiding this is to tell the story and find out what you (and the reader) really need to know. The result is often that you know more than you need to about some things and less than you need to about others. But once the story is blocked out, you can see exactly what you need to know to push the story forward.
All of which goes to explain why this first draft is a wee bit shorter than I would have expected. I can almost guarantee that the next draft will run to about 100,000 words. And then it will be pruned down quite drastically.
Which sounds like a lot of work - but for me, this is the really enjoyable bit. I like revising much more than getting that first draft down. It's like having a framework to hang onto while you venture out into the unknown and I love it!
More as it happens.

A Sad Little Urban Crow Poem

Here's another one - this time without an illustration. It would, I fear, be a bit harrowing!


The urban crow, more used to coping
with other birds, their wings a single
forlorn sail in the road, the occasional
mangled cat or flattened hedgehog,
is strangely moved by the sight of a deer
beside the motorway, none too big,
a baby, hardly begun muses the crow
but thrown clear by some careless boy racer.
The crow knows it is always men
who put their foot down hard
and never the female of the species.

Now the creature sprawls on the verge
elegant, even in death.
which is not to say that
the crow is not tempted by such
unexpected plenty and
vaguely outfaced by it as well.
Poor bambi.
But it must have made quite a
dent in his paintwork, thinks the crow
with a certain satisfaction.

Catherine Czerkawska

Writers in Residence - a bit of a rant!

I had an interesting conversation with a friend at the weekend about MONEY. A thorny topic. Although the details are not relevant, she was pointing out to me the discrepancy between my attitude, and that of certain friends in the (ahem) legal profession. She had been bemoaning the relative paltriness of payment which she was receiving for a week's consultancy work as a seasoned professional in her particular area of expertise. I had done a quick tally and found that it was roughly equivalent to the sum that writers are paid for a week's tutoring at the Arvon Foundation, and which is considered to be pretty reasonable remuneration. 'I'd do it!' I told her. It was, incidentally, roughly equivalent to the sum that most writers - other than a favoured few - are paid as an advance for books which have taken/may well take several years to write. But hey, we are all volunteers and mustn't grumble.
What was amusing was that she then had the same conversation with a group of lawyers who pointed out that nobody could be expected to work for such rubbish money. Which possibly serves to explain why we are still such a divided society!
However, the point of this posting lies elsewhere. Some weeks ago a friendly journalist asked me what I thought about a recent advertisement for a poet in residence and I had, somewhat rashly perhaps, agreed to be quoted in that I thought the sum of money on offer was paltry. So did every other experienced writer of my acquaintance, although this is possibly because most of us have been made cynical by age and poverty.
The residency purported to pay for a 40 hour week for 9 months, for £13500 (pro rata)
But while £18000 per annum is a reasonable starting salary for a graduate, it is not a full year's salary these days for anyone with even a limited amount of professional expertise and experience and yet that was what they were advertising for - somebody with a substantial body of work.
I pointed out that shelf stacking would be a better option. A colleague, more in sorrow than in anger, pointed out that the residency was much better paid than that - but I'm not so sure. So called 'replenishment managers' (wonderful term!) for Tesco can command £22,000 with all kinds of extra benefits. And they don't need to be seasoned professionals with a substantial body of published work either.
Now I love poetry, and I'm by no means averse to working for very little or even for free when everyone is in the same boat and when it's in a worthy cause. I've done it countless times. But many years of struggling to earn a living have also taught me that the commercial sector tends to take us at our own valuation.
Now all of us would have been delighted to work for a fixed 2.5 days per week for the sum of money on offer. I do it myself for another organisation, helping students with their academic English, and thinking myself very lucky indeed to have the job. It's generous, it's challenging and enjoyable, but it doesn't expand outside those very fixed part time boundaries. What I do with the rest of the week is my business. In fact - mostly - I write! For hours and hours!
So the problem, I think, lies in the pretence that this is a sum of money which covers a full week's work of 40 hours. It isn't and it doesn't. But the result of pretending that it does, is that the boundaries all too easily become blurred. And quite soon, the work for the host organisation somehow seems to expand to fill more and more of those 40 hours.
Sadly, the general consensus about so called full time creative writing fellowships (and this from a cross section of experienced writers including myself who have worked in them over a number of years) is that few of us have ever managed to do much worthwhile writing while engaged on them, partly because too much creative energy is involved elsewhere but mostly because such fellowships invariably expand to fill just about the whole week.
I'm sure whoever has got the job will find it a stimulating experience but they would have to be youngish and mortgage free, or retired or with some other means of support, ie a non freelance husband or wife. I think many administrators don't get to hear this side of things, because writers tend to keep it to themselves, or moan about it in online groups. But the feeling is very general and is one of the reasons why so many of us feel that the whole concept of writers in residence needs to be revamped. It would be infinitely better for the writers if they functioned more along the lines of the few fellowships that are content to pay only for the time devoted to the organisation. A fair day's work for a fair day's pay, and no pretence made that the fees involved can begin to cover a full working week. Host organisations would just have to get used to treating writers like any other professional consultant, and forego the warm glow of feeling that they were giving something away. A business arrangement, not a charity. The whole concept needs drastic revision.

Whoops Amazon

Have just gone to the Amazon page where my book God's Islanders is listed to find the following 'sponsored links'

2008 God's Final Witness : Unprecedented destruction will come in 2008, leading to America's fall.
King Jesus and Queen Miriam: The Love Story of Jesus & Magdalene
Free Christian Lessons: Got problems? Need help? Study the Bible. Start Fresh. Be Happy.

This is presumably because of the word 'God' in the title, although the book is a well researched history of a Hebridean Island and bears no relation to any of the links listed. It leads me to wonder if I might find links to Home Improvement manuals on the Bleak House listing. Or how about Aviary Construction in connection with The Birds. The possibilities for cyber idiocy are endless.
There's a chapter about the history of the Kirk of Scotland on the island but the God of the title may have more pagan than Christian connotations. Nor, I'm willing to bet, would anyone who might be remotely interested in reading God's Islanders, be equally interested in any of these links.
Sometimes the internet has its drawbacks. Among which is the ability of software to make moronic connections. No finer demonstration is required of the 'garbage in garbage out' maxim.
I'll retire to bedlam.

The Urban Crow Studies Archaeology

The crow is getting a little serious here. But there you go. He can't be funny all the time. I saw him in town today. He gave me this beady glance, as if to say 'get a move on, you've been neglecting me' which is true. I've been down south. Where I saw very few crows, urban or otherwise, but quite a lot of skeletons, come to think of it.

Somewhere in the city
Archaeologists are uncovering burials.
The crow notes how they gloat
over skeletons, brittle with age,
here a clavicle, and there a skull.

He’s surprised by
their lack of respect in dealing
with the remnants of their fellows,
perplexed by the way time
confounds these humans.

He has seen the frequent
ceremony of interment,
heard them mourning mortality
heard their censure
of his own carrion habits.

Now, watching them scrabble
after a few bones,
he wonders how they can
so casually rob graves
in the name of science.

The Urban Crow Receives a Threatening Letter

I have a television license, honest, but I have friends who don't have a television, and are constantly receiving horrible letters from an authority that doesn't believe that anyone could get along without one. In fact over the past few years, here in the UK, all kinds of government sponsored advertising (mostly on TV!) has undergone a profoundly irritating change. They used to be content with patronising us. Now they assume an increasingly threatening tone. Big Brother - about twenty four years too late - is well and truly in charge.

We have reason to believe
says the letter
that yours is the only house in the street
without a television license.

That would be about right thinks the crow.

We have passed your details
to our Enforcement Officers
who will shortly be in your area
says the letter.

Bring them on, says the crow.

We will not tolerate abuse of our officials
adds the letter, loud with intimidating
phrases like

The crow, well aware of the law,
knows that they would have to catch him
watching the television he doesn’t possess,
to find him with his non existent
remote control in his claw.

Cor says the crow and shreds their message.

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.