Sandbox Games and the Non-Linear Story

There's a fascinating post on my son's blog at passion4games which is all to do with those games that have nonlinear stories - as he says, writing for such games is difficult, because they have 'numerous branching storylines' - the player enters the world of the game, but doesn't follow the story through in a linear fashion - instead the player explores a whole new world. As he says, this is an experience that other media can't provide - not even the book - although the potential for such interactive books may be there in the future, with the advent of e-readers.
On the other hand, would such books have any appeal to most readers? Or is such a structure very much something which is better realised through this new and fascinating medium of the complex and intensely creative world of video games - a world which is, moreover, developing all the time.
And isn't this something that - sooner or later - we as writers are going to have to address, a new medium that we ignore at our peril. It seems to me that most people of a certain age still assume that video games are the province of geeks who sit alone in their rooms writing code. But the new games are nothing less than artforms in their own right. And if we want to see video games developing in even more creative ways in the future, then as writers, we surely have to get involved.

Brow Well on the Solway

I've a longish piece about Brow Well on the Solway in this week's Scottish Review. It's an evocation of the place - and its connection with the last few weeks in the life of Robert Burns. It's a little visited site, but one I've always loved. This online magazine, incidentally, goes from strength to strength and has a superb, elegantly acidic piece about the Swine Flu panic by editor Kenneth Roy. Sign up to have regular issues delivered into your mailbox.

The Boy was Back in Town

Went up to Glasgow last week, to the King's Theatre to see Marti Pellow in the Witches of Eastwick. We were a mixed and hilarious bunch of friends, twelve of us, all ages, the youngest only seventeen - women, of course. In fact, the audience was predominantly female, although with a fair scattering of the weaker sex who had obviously been encouraged there by their better halves. The ushers had that bemused look that young men assume when confronted by large groups of ultra confident women intent on enjoying themselves - trying for faintly superior but achieving faintly scared.
It was completely brilliant: cast and production both - which is no mean feat when the songs themselves are not madly memorable. It didn't seem to matter because the whole show is hugely entertaining - and as thoroughly naughty as anything you're likely to see.
It was a polished production in every sense, not least because the boy was back in town in the shape of Clydebank born Marti Pellow, sexy as ever - and not just singing like an angel, but acting up a storm as well. I knew what he was capable of, having seen a clip of his fine Billy Flynn in Chicago, but I suspect it still came as a surprise to some of the audience. They came because he's well loved here - but they left, blown away by admiration for the performance as well as the man.
Funniest part of the whole night was when devilish Daryl Van Horn kisses one of the 'witches'. There arose from somewhere in the front rows, a loud cry that was something between envy, anguish, and despair, a fierce amalgam of all three. It was funny because it so accurately reflected what most of us were feeling!
Nicest part of the night was the applause at the end and the genuine smile on Pellow's face. The boy was back in town, and the affection was palpable.

Snakes and Ladders

I have often thought that a writing career is like a lifelong game of snakes and ladders. Sometimes an unexpected ladder gives you a leg up to the next stage. Sometimes - sadly - you land on the square with that horrible long snake that carries you right down to the bottom again. Sometimes both things can happen within the same short space of time. It's been one of those weeks.
A couple of years ago a friend pointed me in the direction of a horoscope site here. Now I normally read my horoscope for fun, without believing any of it, but this lady often seems to be uncannily accurate. Here's what she said: 'As you begin April, Mars will still be in your home sector (fourth house), but will move very close to Uranus until these two planets make an exact conjunction on April 15. On this day, you need to expect the unexpected. What will surface could easily rock you, but there won't be much time to think, for an instant response will be required from you. Uranus rules all things that we would never anticipate - even things that are a bit weird or off the grid.'
I read it at the time, shrugged my shoulders, thought 'que sera sera' and promptly forgot all about it until I arrived home one day last week, checked my emails and found that my agent no longer wanted to be my agent. What she said, among many other extremely nice things about me and my work - with regard to the Physic Garden - was that ' I think it will take real conviction and passion to find the right position for this book, and to guide you forward with your work, and I think that means we will have to part company.' Much later, having picked myself up off the floor, dusted myself down and drunk several large glasses of wine, I checked the date -it was April 15th.
So here I am, looking at my options all over again. I've spoken to lots of writer friends and had conflicting advice. I've had lots of splendid support from the closest of them (writer friends are as essential as breathing - they understand exactly how it feels because it or something very like it, has happened to most of them at some time!)
Oddly - and after I got over the initial shock - it's quite exhilarating. I feel a bit like a kite that has been cut adrift.
But now I have two complete books to sell - The Summer Visitor, and The Physic Garden and my problem is - I think - that they are somewhat different animals. One is 'contemporary women's fiction' I suppose while the Physic Garden is a fairly literary historical novel. My ex agent didn't think it was 'experimental' enough to be literary, but perhaps our criteria of what constitutes literary are different. I've recently placed stories in New Writing Scotland, The Edinburgh Review and with Scottish PEN and all of them have been judged to be 'literary' enough. The Physic Garden is no different, I like to think it's an accurate, intelligent, accessible historical novel - but it is very Scottish.
I can't say I blame my agent much. I might have done the same thing in similar circumstances - and there has been no big falling out. But I do rather wish that she had made up her mind about this some months ago, when I would have been able to remain with the old agency, who even had an agent allocated to me, instead of waiting until her own circumstances - with a number of new and starry clients - forced her to rationalise her list. So at the moment, I'm pausing for thought and considering my options. Since I have recently had some enormously positive responses to my writing here in Scotland, I will almost certainly be looking for another agent. It would be lovely to be able to find a Scottish agent, but I'm aware they are somewhat thin on the ground.
At the same time, however, I'll be sending out the books on my own behalf and letting them take their chances. If the experiences of the last few months have taught me anything it's that treading water is no longer an option.
Meanwhile, the proof copy of my Edinburgh Review story 'Civil Rights' dropped into my inbox - it will be published in May. And I spent a very happy hour or so in Glasgow with lovely producer Turan Ali of Bona Broadcasting recording my story 'The Sleigh'. It was a pleasure to get back into a radio studio after some time, and even more of a pleasure to find that I remembered how to do it - to read with an audience in mind, to manage the technology, and to thoroughly enjoy it as well!
One long snake, two small ladders. Here we go again.

Long Interlude.

Apologies to anyone following this blog - and I know there are some! - for the long silence. I'm currently working at the University of the West of Scotland on a Royal Literary Fund fellowship, and dissertation deadlines are looming - which means that I have been inundated with students seeking appointments for a bit of help and advice. The really heartening thing has been what a lovely bunch of young people they are. I've seen lots of final year education students over the past few weeks and - quite honestly - I would be absolutely delighted if any of them were teaching a child (or should that now be grandchild?) of mine. They are conscientious, polite, committed, imaginative, idealistic - fabulous young people, and a credit to the Scottish education system which has produced them - or perhaps simply a credit to themselves and their parents as well. I've kept up to my own writing - but blogging has rather fallen by the wayside.

Next week, I'm away to Glasgow, to record a short story called The Sleigh for a 'Homecoming' CD for Scottish PEN.

Meanwhile, out of the blue, a theatre company has contacted me - and wants to stage a production of my play The Locker Room. I sent this out a couple of years ago, but had more or less given up on it. When I would occasionally go back to it and reread it, I thought it was a good play. But sometimes you write something which people either love or hate, with nothing in between and this was one such piece of work. The responses to it were completely polarised. I submitted it to the Traverse a long time ago, but the artistic director hated it. He very kindly told me that their reader - on the other hand - loved it, raved about it. I submitted it to the Playwright's Workshop in Glasgow and got an independent reading of such monumental negativity that even I (insecure as I am) could see that another agenda was at work. They apologised and submitted it to another reader - who thought it was the best thing since sliced bread! So it goes. I suspect it has something to do with the subject matter, which is about abuse in sports coaching. Not a bundle of laughs. And something to do with the way it is written which is - I reckon - quite experimental. Written as I would write a poem. I find myself doing a lot of that these days. The Sleigh too is written very much as I would write a poem, and with just as much care, just as much polish and attention to detail.

So - the Locker Room will be produced in Glasgow later on this year. The Sleigh will be available on a CD. And meanwhile - I'm still looking for a publisher for The Physic Garden! Which is Scottish, historical, unashamedly literary - but also, I hope, a damn good story.

Success! Well, kind of...

I have managed to place three different short stories in three different publications over the past month or so - one in a literary magazine, one in a literary anthology, and one for a project involving readings and recordings about which I'll no doubt be writing in due course. I am chuffed to bits, but more than that, I'm heartened by the fact that all of the above were experimental pieces, nothing to do with writing for any particular 'market' but just writing for the love of it and because I wanted to explore certain themes and ideas.
Which ought to tell me something ...
Today, in the middle of a slightly disturbing conversation about pensions (or lack of them), somebody said to me 'when you decide to retire...'
'But I can't imagine ever retiring from writing. Why would I want to? It's what I do! I would never willingly want to give it up.' My own alarm at the very thought alarmed me.
'But you might decide that you want to stop, do different things. Nicer things.'
I have thought about that conversation on and off, all day. And it strikes me that it isn't just what I do, it's what I am. There is - literally - nothing I would rather be doing. And when I'm doing other things, I'm usually thinking about writing. Sometimes even when I'm sleeping.
Which is a bit disturbing really, isn't it?
A friend remarked recently that people are always telling her (with a certain amount of disapproval) that she 'lives in her head too much' -
'But it's what I do' she said. 'I'm happiest there.'
We're friends because we recognise some similarity in each other. In fact most of my closest friends are the same - and when we talk, we start from that basic assumption. We all start from some shared perception about what we do and why we do it. Artists and writers and probably musicians too.
It doesn't seem at all strange to me. We don't even make decisions about it because really, we can't. We may decide to give up, but it, whatever it is, won't give up on us. We are what we do and we do what we are, and when the world intervenes too much, and we can't get back to that still small centre of ourselves, for however short a time, we get angry with everything and everyone.

Red Road and Pirates

Watched two completely contrasting - and equally enthralling - films over the weekend, both of them because I was lazily channel flicking late at night and discovered them quite by chance. The first was Red Road which I knew about but had never seen. It was late, I had had a hard day and I was tired but it drew me in, relentlessly and I simply couldn't stop watching it. It finished at one o'clock in the morning and I staggered up to bed, marvelling how what could have been a trite story had been turned into this epic and brilliant tale of redemption by the sheer quality of the writing and the direction - both by Andrea Arnold. I suppose as I playwright, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about how easy it would have been to ruin it, to tell too much, to say too much, to explain too much. Instead, the pace of it allowed a tragic mystery to unfold before our eyes, much as the CCTV pictures - and the main character's response to them - unfolded. She seems to have a gift for showing that peculiar, claustrophobic, bleary eyed atmosphere of night in the city - a sense of alienation that is palpable.

The following night, I was doing a little late channel flicking again when I came upon an Australian version of The Pirates of Penzance, being broadcast on Sky Arts, an increasingly interesting channel. It was enchanting - this sexy combination of singing, dancing, burlesque, and raw energy and that was just the Pirate King. Seriously, best night's entertainment I've had in some time. The purists probably hated it, but I suspect it comes pretty close to the intentions of the original. Sadly, I've been googling for the DVD but it only seems to be available in the American version. Hope Sky repeats it soon!

Sea Silks

Have a look at textile artist Alison Bell's wonderful blog here. This is three dimensional (or perhaps even four dimensional!) textile art, currently on show in North Uist. Beautiful, moving, engaging, enthralling - actually adjectives are superfluous when it comes to describing this amazing work. Best just to recommend that you look at the pictures and read the blog and think about it. The only response to it would have to be in poetry I think, and I haven't quite got there with it yet. You don't write poetry or stories to 'illustrate' other artforms - why would you? But they do sometimes inspire you to write - and Alison's work inspires all kinds of feelings in me that sooner or later want to translate themselves into words.
Was thinking yesterday that one difference between (some) academics and (most) creative writers and artists is that the writers and artists are often struggling with very difficult, complex, profound ideas - trying to simplify them - and as Alison says, to communicate them.
It does sometimes seem as though academics are struggling to over-complicate really quite simple concepts! To obscure them with language itself. Or is that just the view of a slightly cynical creative writer? Comments please!

Happy Valentine's Day!

And here's a love poem of sorts, well, a piece of advice really, for those who fancy themselves in love. It's called....


Twenty years later, clearing out a cupboard,
she comes across a plastic bag containing
the remains of a sweater she had been knitting,
fair-isle, tricky, half a dozen yarns carried forward
and woven into a complex textile which was
she remembers - she has never done it since -
a task requiring the utmost concentration.

She pulls it out, unfolding a back,
a single spiralled sleeve, an unfinished front
still on the needles and barely past the rib
with holes here and there where moths
have eaten their way in, feasting on her work
and at the bottom of the bag a few
skeins of wool, their colours dulled
and inexplicably tangled by time.

When did she lose the thread,
the will to see it through to the bitter end?
Was it after she and its intended recipient had
unravelled or was it even earlier?
Was it, she now sees, always beyond her skills -
a garment too difficult to be contrived by human hand
let alone worn?

She peers into the bag wondering what if anything
can be salvaged but the dust lodged
deep in the fibres brings a tear to her eyes
and makes her sneeze.
Bless you she says and throws it in the bin.

Anarchists Rule OK

Last September, returning from a ten day break with my sister and brother in law in their nice wee flat in the South of France, I realised that I was feeling more than usually well rested and up-beat about life in general. I'm sure a large part of that was down to good food, good company and excellent wine. They have the sense to have a flat right above the village's wine, fruit and veg shop where you can take large plastic bottles to be filled with the mellow red from the owner's vineyards at a few euros a pop. While you're at it, you can buy bags of uneven but tasty tomatoes, local apricots, anchovies, olives and all kinds of other delights. The weather helps as well. And a large intake of oily fish in the shape of barbecued sardines at the annual 'sardinade'. In fact we were doing all the right things. But the other factor, I realised, was that we hadn't watched television, we hadn't even listened to the radio, and we certainly hadn't bought an English newspaper. It wasn't so much the lack of news. It was the lack of fear and guilt that had turned us into shiny happy people.
I realised - almost as soon as I got back and turned on the TV - that I am completely, utterly and heartily sick of being told what to do. Or what not to do. Or what hideous dangers we face, at every twist and turn of our miserable lives.
I am so sick of being threatened with doom, death and destruction. I am sick of the presumption of people who think it is any of their business what I eat, what I drink, how many children I have, and what light bulbs I use. I am sick and tired of a hundred so called 'experts' who turn out to be boyish or girlish recent graduates who are not really expert in anything other than how to be an expert, giving me the benefit of their considerable naivety. I am sick of health and safety legislation that seems happy to go for soft targets, with sets of rules that used to be called 'common sense' (my husband gave up demonstrating woodcarving at public events when he had to do complicated risk assessments in case somebody nicked one of his chisels and cut themselves on it) all the while allowing some of the worst abuses to go unchallenged and unpunished.
I am sick of government agencies spending my money on immensely threatening 'we know where you are' adverts warning me about blocked up arteries, road tax, income tax and television licences. And while I'm on the subject, I am very very sick of picking up letters from that same TV licensing authority threatening apocalyptic retribution on a friend who isn't in the country and doesn't even have a TV to watch.
I've come to the sad conclusion that most of the people now working in the media seem to be blissfully ignorant of history in any area of life whatsoever. This results in presenters who are so naive that they allow politicians and others to pull the wool over their eyes. I object to the lies that are told with statistics by people who don't understand them and who also mistake theory for proven fact. I object to the ways in which we are browbeaten into believing impossible things before breakfast.
We read about the strangehold of the kirk over life in eighteenth century Scotland. Or at least, I've been reading quite a bit about it myself, of late. And from this distance in time, we view it as untenable that any single body should be able to dictate the way lives are lived. But hold on a minute. Rules and regulations, doom laden pronouncements about this or that risk, fear and panic, control and harrassment, threats of all hell breaking out and the constant snooping of those who sincerely believe they have our best interests at heart? Isn't there something remarkably familiar about all that?
I'm practising a little anarchy. I'm a nice, cheerful, polite person really, (well most of the time, anyway) but I think my ambition is to become an exceedingly grumpy old lady. I'll have to start now though. Do it bit by bit. Work hard at it. That way, when I'm very old and the young, fresh faced and infinitely patronising reporter comes to ask me about 'how I'm coping with the cold weather' speaking slowly and loudly as if to a recalcitrant dog, I'll be able to tell him to go and ask somebody else, unless he's brought a bottle of good malt, a box of chocolates and a fat cheque with him.

Literary Envy

We are all, let's face it, prone to a bit of envy. In the writing business particularly. Even once you are sure that you have a certain amount of competence and talent - some well reviewed publications and productions under your belt - you still sometimes find yourself subject to bouts of thinking 'why him or her and not me?'
I was mulling this over in the wee small hours because I had been having a discussion with some friends about a certain wildly successful writer - and no I don't mean JK. We all like JK very much, think she's a brilliant storyteller and appreciate all the hard work that went into the books. So although we certainly envy her the cash, we don't envy her the success. Most writers of my acquaintance think it's very well deserved. And curiously enough, although we don't exactly applaud the phenomenon of 'celebrity' publishing, we don't reserve our most bitter complaints for the 'brand' writers - the Poshes and Cheryls and Madonnas of the world. If you've got a brand like that, you're going to exploit it and nobody in their right mind would pretend that the results are great works of literature.
But just occasionally somebody comes along who seems to make it big, really really big, gushing reviews and all, for no very obvious reason . The writer in question, who had better remain nameless, has no claim to fame except the work itself - and the work itself is - dire. There is no other word for it. You try to read it and are reduced to gobsmacked astonishment. Not only that, but I'm reliably informed that this particular writer has a fine sense of his or her own importance and is content to slag off other writers.
I thought it was just me, but then somebody pointed out the reviews on Amazon, and the majority of them said much the same thing, citing reasons. And no, they weren't the kind of moronic, let's-slag-somebody-off reviews you sometimes find. They were sensible, readable, thoughtful reviews. Infinitely better written than the books in question.
You're left wondering how it could happen. Why did nobody point out that the king or queen didn't have a stitch on, not the least little vestige of anything remotely resembling a garment? But then somebody must be buying the stuff or the publishers wouldn't carry on publishing it, would they?
As the incomparable Bridget Jones (whom I genuinely adore) is so fond of saying 'why? why?'


Earlier this week I sent another revised draft of the Physic Garden to my agent. There is more to be done to it, and more to be researched. There are all kinds of facts and settings and other books to be checked - another month's work or more, including trips to Glasgow, Edinburgh, and elsewhere. All the same, the novelty of it - that sense of investigating a new world with new people in it - is gone. Well maybe. Except that it's a long, long process and I suspect there may be several more drafts to go. Or do I hope so?
As a writer, the world you create can seem much more real than the world in which you are attempting to live and function. Consequently, switching between the two is very hard and although you look forward enormously to the relief of clicking the 'send' button - once that manuscript it on its way you also feel quite bereft. The only answer is a new project. And I most certainly have one or two in mind.

The Devil's Footprints

I'm currently reading a novel called The Devil's Footprints by Scottish poet, novelist and general all round good guy John Burnside and am enjoying it more than I can say, although perhaps enjoy isn't quite the right word. It's a story with a peculiarly Scottish quality - I was trying to describe it to somebody this morning and found myself searching for the right word. There's a sense of darkness about it that is hard to define but is certainly encapsulated by the title itself. This is a literary novel, for sure, and yet not one that is in any way hard to read. The prose, elegant, beautiful, slides down like honey. Things take you by surprise. And then you find yourself stopping and thinking, what was that? What did he just say? Hell's teeth, what did he just say? In short I love it. But it got me thinking because in order to read it, I had abandoned a much bigger, and much more commercial novel which I had better not name here. Besides, there are so many like it that it would be unfair to victimise any one writer. It was a good enough story, and for a while I was enjoying it, particularly for that late night reading when you want to forge on through a chapter or two before going to sleep. But then I found myself slowly but surely getting bored. Why were the characters so two dimensional? Why was the plot so unnecessarily convoluted? Why was something that was meant to be commercial becoming so much hard work? So I found myself doing something that is a sure sign of losing it with a novel - I skimmed the upcoming pages, not as sometimes happens because I couldn't bear not to know what happened next - but really because I couldn't bear to waste any more time ploughing through the plot to get to the story.
And then I turned to The Devil's Footprints, and was captivated. Which should, I suppose, teach me something about perceptions of the difference between literary and commercial fiction. We sometimes assume that because the former will be reasonably demanding and the latter reasonably easy to access, our levels of engagement will reflect that difference. This isn't always, or even often the case. And just because the whole publishing industry seems to engage in the 'fiction' that there is a great divide between literary and commercial writing, I don't think we as readers - or even as writers - should subscribe to it.

The Scottish Review

You can now subscribe online to The Scottish Review, a Scottish current affairs magazine where you will find some of the best journalism about Scotland being written to day - and that includes a number of newspapers with supposedly broadsheet credentials. Kenneth Roy is a journalist and writer of many years' experience, with a prose style that is so concise, so elegant and so easy to read that he almost makes you forget the wonderfully incisive mind behind it, until you find yourself agreeing with just about everything he writes.
'It is no longer enough that the BBC's journalists and presenters report the news' he tells us, in the most recent issue 'they must also manufacture it.' It's the kind of piece that seems deceptively simple, but it highlights, analyses and enlarges on an issue that most of us - if we take the trouble to think about what we are seeing and hearing - notice every single day. Why in God's name have they spent a large chunk of a bulletin on some 'issue' which isn't news at all, but which seems to be solely the invention of a presenter with a sound bite to fill?
Why not sign up for the Scottish Review and see for yourself?

The Lake House and Sources of Inspiration

Stayed up to watch the Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves last night and consequently went to bed in a (pink) fog of romance. Quite apart from his sheer physical beauty there is something lovable about Keanu that defies any criticism of his acting abilities. He's constantly slated for being 'wooden' but actually in the Lake House he looks rather relaxed. I always think he's only 'wooden' in the way that big, beautiful sportsmen have that strangely massive quality - he was once an ice hockey goalie and it shows.
This week I discovered that Andrew Collins, the Radio Times film critic - somewhat unexpectedly - shares my views . He's written a piece about 'why it's impossible not to like Keanu Reeves' which you can read here.
From the 'excellent' Bill and Ted onwards, through brilliant successes (Speed, Point Break) and the occasional dubious undertaking (the last Matrix film, what the hell was all that about?) I've followed Keanu's career and have to admit that from time to time he has provided me with inspiration for a character. Many writers do sometimes use actors as sources of inspiration. Occasionally it's as though they've envisaged a whole film, cast and all. The Bridges of Madison County is a good example - who can read that and not see it as a film with Clint Eastwood in the part?
It can help to have pictures to pin up around the desk, help to watch an actor working and to imagine them as your characters - even if you don't actually describe those characters in too much detail because you're leaving room for your reader's imagination.
I've found myself doing it in The Physic Garden with - oddly enough - one main character, but not the others. The 'I' of the story is an old man reflecting on events of his youth, and I found myself from time to time 'seeing' him as a particular Scottish actor. I doubt very much if anyone reading it could guess who, because the character doesn't really describe himself and the actor in question is just that - an actor rather than a 'star' who is different in every single role. All the same, it helped me to envisage this particular actor creating the part. But then I've spent a lot of my working life watching the miraculous way in which good actors can gradually bring characters to life.
The other main characters in the novel were wholly invented. Or were they? Don't we always take bits of this or that person, this or that event and weave them into something new? Which I suppose is what the actors themselves do. What a fascinating business this is!


I usually find myself watching Saturday Kitchen (BBC's cookery programme) often while cooking myself. It's quite soothing, chopping things and half heartedly watching somebody else doing the same thing only much more efficiently. Occasionally though - it happened this morning - the linguistic quirks peculiar to chefs really get to me. It's the phrasal verbs - boil off, reduce down, why use one perfectly good word when two will do? - that irritate - as well as all those peculiar usages such as 'pan fry' (what other way is there to fry something? Well, I suppose you might count frying eggs on shovels or bacon on the boiler plates of engines.) and then there's the use of spurious words like 'jus' when there's a perfectly good English word available in 'gravy'.
And while I'm at it, there are other conventions. Meat is always described as 'rare' when any normal diner might label it 'raw' with the blood oozing onto the plate. Sprouts (of which I'm quite fond) are so undercooked that you just know it will be like chewing a mouthful of marbles. I've only seen one chef over all my years of watching cookery programmes admitting that he actually liked slightly overcooked sprouts - not, of course, boiled to within an inch of their lives but buttery rather than crunchy. Brave man. And while I'm in complaining mode, why does Masterchef have to show us the appalling sight of those two middle aged guys stuffing food into their mouths and chewing, in deeply nasty close-up. Yeuch. But I'm straying well away from literary territory here and into visual horrors.
Gary Rhodes. He's the best. He could make anything, even raw meat, seem madly appetising.

Playing About

Because I have a part time fellowship at a Scottish University, I work with a number of students who are doing creative writing courses of one kind or another - in this case it's mostly people who are writing plays or film scripts. I know there's a great deal of discussion about the validity or otherwise of so called 'creative practice' degrees and it's a debate I don't really want to get into here. Or should that be a can of worms I'm not too anxious to open? On the one hand I have reservations. On the other hand, if such a course had been available when I was starting out, I would probably have done it and enjoyed it and found it useful. But there is one element in all this that both intrigues and worries me and a conversation with an artist friend last week only confirmed my reservations. We both realised that we had found ourselves saying exactly the same thing to students - about scripts and about artworks. 'Play about. Enjoy it. Play with the ideas in it and see what happens!'
That word 'play' is so important to the creative process. You come up with an idea, you work on it and then you play about with it, question it, experiment with it, see where it takes you. Above all, you enjoy the process. You never just see it as a means to an end. The process of getting there is at least as important as the end product; the absolute absorption in the moment that is one of the joys of all creative activities.
But all of that seems to be in conflict with the aims of modern university courses which are mostly to do with getting somewhere, getting something, and ultimately getting a job, rather than learning for its own sake.
Which is all very well, I suppose, for vocational courses: accountancy, dentistry, medicine.
But creative writing? Art?
So when confronted with an anxious student who is agonising over a script I find myself wondering how to reconcile this idea of creative play with the demands of modules and courses.
I suspect there is no real resolution. More of this later.

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.