Of Water Horses and Other Worlds

The Kelpies: photo copyright C. Czerkawska

Many people have heard of kelpies, mostly because of these spectacularly beautiful statues near Falkirk. What most people don't know though is that kelpies could be reasonably - albeit certainly not always - benign, or at least able to be controlled.

Back when I was very young, I briefly attended Brownies and among the sixers that pranced around the big plastic toadstool in the church hall were kelpies. I was a pixie. 'Here we are the jolly pixies, helping people when in fixes.' we sang. I think the kelpies were 'ready helpers'. A demonic and notoriously male water creature was perhaps not the best role model for little girls. Maybe that was why I ran away, hopped on the bus home and never went back. However, that's a story for another day.

Later on, I did a masters degree in Folk Life Studies and learned a bit more.

Essentially, the kelpie is a shape shifting 'water horse' inhabiting Scottish rivers and burns. They may seek human companionship, assuming the shape of an attractive black horse when out of the water, but you have to be wary of them, because they can also carry you to your death, if you're not careful!

The kelpie might be caught and harnessed, using a halter with the sign of the cross on it. As a last resort, 'cold iron' could kill it - as it could be the downfall of many other problematic supernatural creatures.

Occasionally, the kelpie might appear in the shape of a human being, but this is where the beliefs in these otherworldly creatures become confused and confusing, because while the kelpie can have a certain impish quality, the creature that you should never under any circumstances mess with, is the true water horse - the each uisge.

He is perilous indeed, this fiercest and most dangerous of the water horses. He lives in lochs or in the sea. He too may appear as a horse, on land, but will carry you off to the deepest part of the loch if once you so much as touch his mane. Even more dangerously, he can and all too often does appear in the shape of a handsome young man but when he rests his head in your lap, you'll find that he has sand in his hair. All in all, the each uisge does not get a good press.

But then, you come across old, old songs like this extraordinarily beautiful piece sung by Julie Fowlis: Dh’èirich mi moch, b' fheàrr nach do dh’èirich  in which the water horse turns out to be not so much the villain of the piece as the ... well, what is he? The abandoned lover? The heartbroken father? By any standards it's a deeply mysterious song, and I like things like that - things that challenge my view of the world.

It made me think.

Late last October I did an event in Tarbert with my new book, A Proper Person to be Detained and while we were there, I also listened to an excellent talk about overland cycling, and remote bothies. It struck me that for a woman alone, staying in such places might involve at least a frisson of nerves. It would for me, anyway, even though I have friends who would be absolutely fine with it. After that, we headed for the Isle of Skye to visit friends there, and one day, I clambered up by myself to a well preserved Broch. It was a wild, lonely, evocative place, and that too made me think.

Sometimes people ask me 'where do you get your ideas from?' This is where I get my ideas from. All kinds of places, all kinds of experiences that somehow slot together into a piece of fiction. I don't know how it works, but some stories just have to be written.

When we got home, in the dreich space between the onset of winter and Christmas, all these threads somehow wove themselves together in my head, and I wrote a long story - so long that it almost became a novella - called Rewilding

At 17000 words, it was a bit too long for a a short story, but too short for a novel. It presented itself to me in diary form, in the voice of a young woman, who has a perilous encounter in a wild place.

Or does she?

Well, you can decide for yourself. It's free on Kindle for five days, from 25th July till 29th July. If you're too late for the bargain, it still isn't expensive. So give it a go. One of these days, I might write the sequel that's lurking in my head, like the water horse, only just out of sight.
But it might have to wait till winter.

On 21st July 1796, Robert Burns Died in Dumfries.

Very early on the morning of 21st July, she had been dozing in a chair, so far advanced in her pregnancy that she could not comfortably fall asleep. The child was kicking and tumbling inside her, as it did whenever she rested. Jessie had come in with his medicine and tried to hold the cup to his chapped lips, tried to rouse him a little, but he pushed it away. His face was so thin now that he looked all unlike himself. Even his nose seemed to have become finer, sharper.
     Jean got up, steadying herself on the arm of the chair, and took the cup from Jessie. 'Rab, my dear, you need to take your medicine. It'll do you some good, ease the pain, if you can only try to swallow it.'
    She sat on the edge of the bed, stroked his forehead gently, stroked the dark hair shot through with grey. Suddenly she had the strangest feeling, as though this was all unreal, as though there might be some magical place where she could turn back time, make it all different, if only she could get to it, if only she could reach it. There, he would be as she had known him at first: her strong, young lover, her husband, her man.
    He woke at the sound of her voice, or perhaps her familiar touch, gazed at her, raised his head and drank a mouthful of the cordial, coughing at the bitter taste of it. He tried to say her name, recognition in his eyes for an instant, reached out his arms to her and then fell back on the bed.
    'Oh Jeany,' said Jessie Lewars. 'Oh dear Jeany, I think he's gone.'
    She was right.

On this day, 21st July, in 1796, Robert Burns died, probably from acute endocarditis, of which he had all the symptoms. 

You can read more about Rab and his dear Jean in my novel The Jewel of which the above is an extract. 

At Brow Well on the Solway

At Brow Well on the Solway, you walk to the very edge of the land and almost tumble into a mass of thrift, clumps of pink flowers fringing the shore, like some wild garden. They face the sea, looking outwards and when the wind blows through them, they tremble with a dry, feathery sound.

At all times of the year, the wind blows unhindered across these mudflats. There is nothing to stop it, down here, on the Solway. The sky is dazzling: high and bright with the glitter of a sun half hidden behind clouds. It is a place of endings, of dizzying infinities. A place where long horizontals constantly carry the eye outwards and beyond.

In June, when the thrift is still in bloom, it is as restful as it will ever be. There are wild roses in the hedgerows, white, pale and dark pink. There is a froth of bramble flowers with the promise of fruit to come. Oystercatchers and peewits patrol the mud. There are whaups bubbling in the peaty wastes. And you can hear the laverock, climbing higher and higher, to the very edges of sound and tumbling through the skies in an ecstasy of movement. Down there, in front of you, a burn meanders through the mud, fresh water meeting salt, while beyond that again is more mud and silver water, cloud shadows and the misty hills of another country. But it is still the loneliest sight you will ever see.

On the third of July in the year 1796, Robert Burns left his home in Dumfries and travelled to Brow Well on the Solway. It was, essentially, a poor man’s spa. There was a chalybeate or mineral spring with a stone tank built to house it and not much else. One Doctor Maxwell had diagnosed a wholly fictional malady called Flying Gout, and advised him to drink the waters in an effort to alleviate his symptoms. He was thin, he was weak, he could barely eat and he was in constant pain. He stayed in a cottage close by. He ate a little thin porridge, and drank some porter with milk in it. When the porter bottle was empty, he told his landlady that the ‘muckle black deil’ had got into his wallet, and asked her if she would accept his personal seal as payment but she refused it and brought him the porter anyway. 

In July, the thrift would have been dying. As well as instructing him to drink the foul tasting waters, the doctors had recommended that Robert should try seabathing. They were only following the fashion of the time. In the south of England there would have been snug bathing machines and separate beaches for men and women to indulge in the novelty of salt water against skin. One month’s bathing in January was thought to be more efficacious than six months in summer. But perhaps there was a sense of urgency in the poet’s case. No time to wait for winter.

He was, no doubt, in that state of desperation where you will try anything. He would have gone struggling and staggering and wading into the sea, half a mile every day, far enough for the water to reach up to his waist, because that’s what the doctors had advised. Did they know how shallow these waters were? How far he would have to walk? How bitter the struggle for desperate mind over failing flesh? His landlady would have gone flounder trampling when she was a lassie, kilting her skirts up and wading out into the firth, feeling for the fishes with her toes. Did he feel the Solway flounders slithering away beneath his unsteady feet? It was his last chance of a cure and he was full of fear. Fear for his wife who was heavily pregnant. Fear of debt. Fear of death.

Nearby is the village of Ruthwell. In the church, there is an Anglo Saxon Cross. It is so tall that the floor has been dug out to make room for it. Because it was judged an idolatrous monument with its intricate carving, its runic inscriptions, which must have seemed suspiciously pagan, it was smashed into pieces on the orders of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. That was in 1664, but it lay where it fell for many years and the good folk of Ruthwell used the stone blocks as benches to sit upon, while they yawned their way through interminable sermons. They had to destroy it where it stood, because the cross was there long before the kirk, which was built around it, an irony which seems to have been lost on these stone killers, as they were sometimes called. They would light fires beneath the stone and pour cold water on the cracks until they split apart.

Later the pieces were removed into the churchyard, which was where the poet may have seen them. In 1818, one Henry Duncan gathered the fragments together and restored the whole. The runes are a quotation from a powerful Anglo Saxon poem called The Dream of the Rood. It is a poem in two voices – the dreamer who relates his dream and the voice of the cross itself, telling how he – or perhaps she, for there is a certain sexual element in the poem - was cut down in the forest, how the young hero was sacrificed, struggling in blood and pain upon the body of the tree, both of them victims of a savage betrayal. Rod wæs ic aræred. Ahof ic ricne cyning. A cross I was raised. I lifted the mighty king on high. The poet’s voice calls to us down the years but only if we are willing to listen.

The seawater would have done some good only in that it numbed the pain. In July at Brow Well on the Solway, you can still hear how the laverocks climb to the very edges of sound while at his feet there would be the silvery meander of a burn finally finally

It would have been his last chance. 

He had been a week at the salt water and had secret fears that this business would be dangerous if not fatal. No flesh or fish could he swallow. Porridge and milk and porter were the only things he could taste. And how could he attempt horseriding, which the doctors had also ordered, when he could not so much as drag himself up into the saddle?

‘God help my wife and children if I am taken from their head with Jean eight months gone’ he wrote. He sent letters to his father-in-law, James Armour, begging him to ask Jean’s mother come to Dumfries, but Mary Armour was visiting relatives in Fife and there was only silence from Mauchline. His correspondence reeks of desperation.

From the middle of the month, the tides were unsuitable for bathing, so he went home, borrowing a gig from a farmer named John Clark, in Locharwoods. When he got back to Dumfries, he was too weak to walk up the Mill Vennel, let alone climb the stairs to his bed. 

Poor Burns had almost run his course. Still, he must struggle with the stream, till some chopping squall overset the silly vessel at last. Love swells like the Solway but ebbs like the tide. Life too. And all the sweet waters flowing by, the bonnie banks and green braes, all the soft flesh, pressed close, all these things come only to love and he was a poet who wrote of love.

It is not hard to see these things, here at Brow Well, on the Solway. He walks to the sea, and comes to the edge of the land and almost falls into a great mass of thrift, clumps of pink, fringing the shore like some wild garden. But it is already dying. You can picture him. You can see him in your mind's eye, as he goes struggling and staggering and wading through the water. It is July. The wind blows unhindered across the mudflats.

You come to the edge of the land. The thrift fringes the shore like some wild garden. But it is already fading to brown. When the wind blows through the flowers , they tremble, with a dry, feathery sound. You walk to the sea and there are laverocks singing. Who knows where sky ends and sea begins or where sea dissolves into sand? This is a place of endings, a place of infinities. He, who always sang of rivers and streams, is coming, at last, to the sea.

Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean

You can buy a copy of the Jewel here

The Jewel - Some Discussion Questions about Jean Armour and Robert Burns

With the anniversary of the poet's death coming up on 21st July, I've been thinking about some discussion prompts and questions for book  or reading groups. I know that many of my friends have been taking part in online discussion groups during lockdown, and I think it's possible that people in particular may decide to carry on with at least some of these get-togethers in the 'new normal' - even though nothing quite beats personal interaction and debate.

Anyway, here are a few questions that you might like to ponder, either for a group discussion, or even if you want to think about what you've read and perhaps do your own research in the future.

1 In her 1930 biographical novel about Burns, Catherine Carswell described Jean as a ‘homely and hearty' and 'a heifer’. Do you think she was right? How did your view of Jean (if you had one) change as you read the novel?

2 Why do you think that a pregnant Jean felt that she must go to Paisley when her parents forced her? What was it like for women at the time? What kind of resources would she have had?

3 Why do you think Burns got so very angry with Jean for her supposed ‘betrayal’ of him. What does that tell us about his feelings for her and his mental state at the time?

4 The so called ‘horse litter scene’ is very controversial now, especially given that Burns wrote about it quite graphically to a male friend afterwards. It was very hard to tackle in the book. What did you feel about it, and were you able to imagine yourself back to that time? Did you believe his subsequent bragging, or do you think he was feeling guilty about it and trying to justify himself?

5 The poet was, by all accounts, a ‘hands on’ and loving father. It is clear that a great many babies in rural Scotland were born out of wedlock at that time, and that the Kirk’s main aim was to get fathers to acknowledge and support their babies – a kind of social control that was actually quite good for mothers and children. Why do you think all this changed during the Industrial Revolution, so that for working women, pregnancy outside marriage was seen as disastrous?

6 When the Mauchline minister ‘Daddie Auld’ wrote that it is ‘aye the poor who maintain the poor in this parish’ what do you think he meant? What does it tell us about him? What do you think the author felt about him?

7 Highland Mary was much lauded by the Victorians. Why? Some of this still spills over into the present day, yet the evidence is that she wasn’t quite as saintly as later commentators and the poet himself made her out to be. What was it that was so appealing about her?

8 How do you think Jean contributed to Burns’s work, and do you feel this comes over in the book?

9 Did you get angry with Burns while reading the novel, or did you manage to maintain a soft spot for him? Did you understand why Jean fell for him? Do you think that if you were an 18th century woman, you would have felt the same? Were you aware of his charm across all these years?

10 Jean continued to lead a very full and contented life for many years after the poet’s death. She even had tea with Clarinda. She had several offers of marriage. Why do you think she turned them all down?

You can buy a copy of The Jewel here.

Willie's Mill, at Tarbolton, where Jean spent part of her second pregnancy.

Bird of Passage, A Labour of Love, Shame and Sympathy

My novel Bird of Passage is on special offer on Kindle this week. It's a big, chunky read, and it's going cheap, so it will see you through a few more days of lockdown!

When I was posting about this on Facebook recently, various people told me how much they love this book. The group included a professor of English Literature, which should tell me something. Not least that I have some lovely discerning friends. 

Somebody asked me if I thought that the potentially controversial subject matter had put publishers off since this is a book that has never been traditionally published. Well it could be so but the truth is that I've found it almost impossible to get publishers to read it. And that's in spite of many of my books being traditionally published by publishers I like and respect. So it hasn't been rejected for any intrinsic faults. It has just, somehow, along with another novel called The Amber Heart that I've been editing during lockdown, slipped through the net.  

I'm never sure why. One of the problems may not lie in the controversial nature of the subject matter but in the fact that it is a kind of 'homage' to Wuthering Heights, which I love, albeit with a (fictional) Scottish island setting. This seems to be problematic, perhaps because people think it's a retelling, when it's not. How would I dare? But it certainly is, as one reviewer says, a re-imagining of the novel in a modern setting. The novel explores the terrible effects of institutional childhood abuse; it is about what people have to do to survive, and how that in turn affects those around them. It is also an exploration of the destructive nature of obsessive love. 

The background to Bird of Passage involves an issue or indeed a set of issues that are difficult to write about, problematic, sickening and to some extent neglected or even suppressed. My second major professional stage play, Wormwood, was a piece of ‘issue based’ drama so I know all about the problems and pitfalls. I’ve even run workshops on it for the Traverse in Edinburgh. 

But Bird of Passage is – and feels – very different.

A lot has been written about the notorious Magdalene Laundries but not so much about the Industrial Schools to which youngsters were committed by the Irish state over a long period of time and – it has to be said – long after the UK had decided that treating vulnerable children in this way was a Bad Thing. The schools were run by religious organisations, and there was a capitation payment: a sum of money for each child removed from an ‘unsatisfactory’ parent or guardian and incarcerated.

These were vulnerable children, treated as young criminals. Sometimes they were the sons and daughters of the women sent to those Magdalene Laundries on the flimsiest of accusations. They might be orphans. Or seen to be 'out of control’ (which could cover a multitude of small crimes). Or just plain poor. Single parents and their offspring seem to have been fair game.

Once they hit sixteen, of course, the payments stopped, so they were effectively shown the door. But even then they were not free. Thoroughly institutionalised, they would be sent to work on farms for low pay, under the impression that they must stay where they were sent. In some cases, the police were alleged to have conspired in this belief, returning escapees to the forced labour they were trying to escape. Eventually they would realise that they were free to go.

Industrial schools continued in Ireland until the 1970s.

The extreme physical abuse was at least as appalling as the sexual abuse but really it was all part of a regime of unrelenting cruelty and almost unbelievable sadism. One of the survivors has pointed out that it was the absolute randomness of the physical cruelty that was so horrific. There was seldom any connection between the beatings and any misdemeanour. All of this is documented in various accounts as the survivors, even now, struggle to be heard and struggle for redress - although as I say, it's not widely publicised.

Some of them, unsurprisingly, turned to alcohol to drown out the pain. Some survived and made a good life for themselves against all the odds. Some – with few skills, because the ‘schools’ provided little in the way of real education – came to mainland Britain and worked as unskilled labourers until they grew too old and too troubled to function properly.

In Bird of Passage, Finn and his friend Francis are placed in the Industrial School system in 1960s Ireland. In the way of characters – well, the characters I write about – Finn and Francis took shape and form as I wrote. I didn’t set out to ‘make’ them victims of a regime of appalling cruelty so much as discover the truth about them. It seemed like a process of interrogation. Why were they as they were? Eventually they told me.

I read a number of accounts of the experiences of boys and girls in these 'schools' that were more like prisons and was moved to tears by them. I hope some of that horror and pity found its way into the novel. Of course, the novel is about much more (and also much less) than that. It’s a love story of a kind. It’s a story of obsession and damage and the destructive power of passion.

But the background is so appalling that I find it hard to write about it in any kind of promotion for the novel. It’s as though the fact that it is 'interesting' in the sense that these things should be known and discussed and brought out into the light of day feels somehow shameful. I’m invariably seized with a feeling akin to embarrassment. Within the novel – that’s one thing. It seemed all right and even desirable to write about it there. I have an Irish background on my mother's side, and have written about the truth of that elsewhere. The characters felt real, and I felt the most profound sympathy for them as I wrote about them. Finn's story moves me - as I hope it moves the reader.

It’s when it comes to writing about the story that I shy away from saying too much. Perhaps it isn’t my story to tell. But then, there’s a part of me that knows these stories must and should be told. And sometimes writers have to try to speak for those who don’t always have a voice.

Beware of Advice

From Wormwood, about Chernobyl, at the Traverse, 1979

While chatting on a professional Zoom meeting the other day, I found myself suddenly articulating something that has been growing on me for a number of years.

Looking back over a long switchback of a career as a novelist, non-fiction writer and playwright, I can now see that almost every piece of advice I've been given about what to write and how to write it has been wrong.

Let me clarify. I don't mean editing. In particular, I don't mean the intense editing that looks at style and structure. As a playwright and prose writer, I've had some wonderful directors, publishers and editors. (I've had a few appalling experiences too, but that's another story!)

We all need a fresh eye when we are too close to a project to see the wood for the trees. But the best of them shared a quality in common.

None of them told me exactly what to do.

Instead, they asked a series of tricky questions. They invariably honed in on aspects of a project where I felt uneasily that something wasn't right. 'What did you mean by this?' they would ask. And 'Can you clarify here?' and 'This seems somehow clumsy' and 'Can you look again at the structure here?'

In addressing these issues I always felt that I had made the piece of work better and I was grateful to them.

I don't mean practical advice either. We need to know about being self employed, using business bank accounts, budgeting, sorting out our taxes and a hundred other things.

So what kind of advice do I mean?

I mean advice about what to write. What to do and what not to do with that writing. How to shape a career. The sad thing is that writing is a lonely job. So we crave help and advice. I'm craving it now. We never learn. We expect too much. As William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade,  'Nobody knows anything.'

Many years ago, I had some success in a particular area of writing with what turned out to be a groundbreaking piece of work. And on the strength of it, I was approached by somebody in a related field, who wanted me to pick up that piece of work and run with it. Hesitant, suffering from imposter syndrome, I consulted a more senior colleague, who told me that it wasn't a good idea, pointing out all the drawbacks.

I took the advice and turned down the proposal. In retrospect, I can see that turning it down was entirely the wrong decision for me at that time. I was just too young and too easily swayed to see it.

I can think of many other occasions where professional people have confidently told me that 'nobody wants' this or that subject or theme or medium. They turned out to be not just wrong for me, but wrong in general too.

One of the very best things about the late, much missed David McLennan when he ran his A Play, a Pie and a Pint seasons at Glasgow's Oran Mor - and for whom I wrote three plays - was the way he responded to so many ideas with cheerful positivity. He would point out that success would be great, but failure would be OK too.

It was the trying, the experimenting, the exploration that mattered.

What Next? Poland On My Mind.

Juliusz Kossak
By Juliusz Kossak, Karol's grandfather.

I've spent a large part of lockdown prevaricating. Mind you, I've been doing a lot of writing, struggling with an ongoing short project that I must - and will - finish, editing a ridiculously long novel into something more manageable, killing a few darlings along the way. 

But I realised the other day that I've been indulging in all kinds of distractions to avoid the thing that life, the universe and everything is telling me that I really have to write - the story of my grandfather, my great uncle, and my dad's Polish family. A hundred little nudges and reminders seem to have come my way. 

This, they whisper. This is what you need to do.

No photo description available.The other day, I posted this little sketch on Facebook, and lots of people responded. That's me, very young, in a droshky. My famous great uncle, Polish artist Karol Kossak, sketched it when  I was visiting him and my great aunt, back in the early 70s. And come to think of it, that's a story all by itself, of a time when I went travelling across Europe by train, through the GDR with its terrifying borders, its guards with their big guns and bigger dogs. Karol was in his eighties by that time and his sight was failing, but you can still see the artist he once was - a fine watercolourist, specialising in equine studies, the last of a line of distinguished painters who worked on a grand scale, like his grandfather Juliusz, above.

Some time last year, I wrote myself a note. It said, when you are looking for the box with all the Polish historical paperwork in it, it's under the bed, you fool. Now, I've lost the note, but because I wrote it, I remembered where the box was. I got it out the other day. Two boxes to be precise. One contains an old green folder with a sheaf of Kossak sketches, many of them dedicated to me, some of them funny little caricatures of wealthy 'party members' who were visiting the spa town where he and Aunt Wanda lived. He would draw them for me on paper napkins, in the cafes where we went for coffee and cognac in the afternoons.

The other is a box full of words. At least some of them were written down for me by my dad, before he died, descriptions of his childhood in a place called Dziedzilow, now Didyliv in the Ukraine. There are maps and a few photographs as well, although now - incredibly to me - I can put Didyliv into Google maps, look at street view, and take myself along the road through the village, passing the service bus that has stopped to pick up a few people, passing the tantalisingly impassable side roads that I may not go down. I always find myself wondering if dad would have been able to bring himself to do it. Maybe, maybe not. 

I dragged them out the other day, both boxes. I dusted them. And there they sit, accusingly, enticingly. Go on, they say. You know you want to do it. 

I do. 

Almost four months of lockdown and I might finally be sure of what I'm going to write next. 

Great Uncle Karol 

Monologues and Stuff

Ken O'Hara WAS Rab in The Price of a Fish Supper

I've been thinking about The Archers on Radio 4 recently, because after a small hiatus when they repeated some of the older episodes - but not, alas, the divine Nelson Gabriel - they have resumed in monologue form, taking account of the need for social distancing. Challenging for all concerned. Except that it's not really monologue form at all. And therein, I think, lies the problem.

I know a lot about radio writing. It's where I started out, and I have more than 100 hours of produced radio drama to my name, both adaptations, original plays and series. You can read a bit about all that here.

 I've written a couple of stage plays that are monologues. But it's not a format for beginners - even though beginners tend to think that it'll be easy.  The most successful was probably the Price of a Fish Supper which started out as a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, was produced on BBC R4, and then  directed very successfully by Isi Nimmo, with Ken O'Hara in the role of Rab - a production that toured to full houses throughout Ayrshire. It's a 50 minute monologue and what's known as a 'big learn' and a demanding one, for any actor. Ken was outstanding.

I've refrained from commenting on the long threads of discussions about the Archers on Facebook for a couple of reasons. One is that the community is fairly evenly divided between those who dislike the new format intensely, and those who love it and I'm not about to wade in. I've given it a good go, and I have to say that, personally, I'm not a fan. But at the same time, I know that those people who are asking 'how hard can it be to record some kind of dialogue online' are blissfully unaware of all the technical difficulties and complexities. So my sympathies tend to be with the makers: the writers, actors and producers who are struggling to please everyone in uniquely difficult circumstances.

All the same, I think I know why these episodes aren't working as well as they might for many people.

Monologues only really work properly when the audience becomes so involved that they forget they are listening to one person. They are there, within the drama, the other side of a conversation if you like. It's a hugely demanding form for writer and actor alike.  But the new format Archers, in an effort to satisfy everyone, intercuts one very short monologue with another. And sometimes - disastrously, I think - they even have terrible one sided conversations online or on the phone, with people the audience doesn't hear. 

Given the demands of the time and the relatively short length of each slot - why not be brave? Why not give each main actor a shot at a genuine monologue - something for actor, writer and audience to get our collective 'teeth' into?

The monologue form par excellence was, of course, Alan Bennett's Talking Heads. Everything else seems like a pale imitation. But the Archers' writers are by no means beginners. So it might have been good to seize the day and give them free rein to have a go.

Mightn't it?

What Your Bookshelves Say About You

I don't even know what my bookshelves say about me, but it seemed like a good title, especially in the light of those lockdown interviews, in which the celebrity or politician is carefully positioned in front of a shelf full of significant books.

Here are some of mine, even though I haven't done any interviews. The room where I'm lucky enough to work is full of books, and there is very little rhyme or reason to their arrangement - but I more or less know where everything is.

There's a loose subject matter theme to it all, and for a particular project, I'll gather lots of books together. So for a while, researching A Proper Person to be Detained, I was sitting among heaps of books and maps about nineteenth century Leeds, while the picture below shows the shelves that held - and still do hold - all the books about Robert Burns that I gradually amassed while I was researching The Jewel.
Burns among others.

On the rare occasions when I've been persuaded to sort everything out, I've needed a particular book almost immediately, gone looking for it in the old place and realised that I didn't have a scoobie where it was. So now, I weed out books I don't mind recycling, but I try to leave the rest more or less as they are.

All the same, the books don't stay in one place. They migrate. In fact I'm pretty sure they breed. So there are art and craft and antique books in my husband's office/studio, where I also keep most of my antique textiles (well out of the way of the paint), there's a shelf of novels in the living room, cookery books in the kitchen and heaps of our son's books in his room that has gradually become a comfortable spare room, although visitors are still treated to large tomes on Game Design and Discrete Mathematics.

Two things surprised me a bit about the celebrity books on display. One involved shelves full of 'colour coded' books that I'm told is an interior design thing. But no reader, surely, would do this? How on earth could you colour code a thousand books. Oh wait - most people don't have a thousand books.

I mostly read fiction on my Kindle now. I read in bed, in the dark, and I'm there, in the world of the book. But if I really love a book, or if it's written by a friend, I will often buy a paper copy as well.

The other thing that surprised me was people scoffing at writers actually having their own books on their shelves. Here are some of mine. Generally, nobody sees them but me. This is, after all, my workspace and few people are ever invited into it.

But why should people be surprised at writers having copies of their own books? Would you be surprised at Monty Don or Alan Titchmarsh having a garden? The fact is that on publication, we are given a handful of author copies. We give some away to close family or to people who have been helpful, but we generally have a few copies left. Then we often buy our own books to sell at various events because that's one of the ways in which we make our income. We may even sell signed copies online.

Also, on those days when we wonder why the hell we are doing this, we can at least look at them and figure that it might not have been a terrible waste of time. Most books are the product of many months of hard work and sleepless nights. We like to think that it hasn't all been in vain. Having something tangible is a good way of countering imposter syndrome. 

Happy Birthday to My Lovely Alien Dad

Last year, when my new book A Proper Person to be Detained was published by Saraband, and when I began to do various book events I realised that as many people were asking me questions about my Polish dad and how he came to Britain, as about the Leeds Irish side of the family, which is mostly what the book is about. My refugee father came to Yorkshire at the end of the war, via Monte Cassino, having lost most of his family and almost his own life. There was nowhere to go back to.

In that book, I wrote: 'Dad was an alien. It says so on his papers. I have them still, stored in a box in the room where I write. I've been sifting through them more than once, recently, in the hope of reinstating the Polish nationality I acquired at birth, by blood rather than location, and then lost again. ... * When I was born, dad's status made me half-alien too. Actually, it made me three quarters alien, given that my mother was half Irish. As soon as she married him, my mother acquired her husband's nationality as well as her own. So there we were, aliens by virtue of birth or assimilation in this brave new post-war world. The borders had arbitrarily shifted and my father's home wasn't even in Poland any more.' 

Today would have been dad's 94th birthday. He died in 1995 with my mum following three years later, and I still miss them. Earlier today I took a little posy of garden flowers up to the cemetery outside the village: aquilegia mostly in shades of pink, blue and purple, because we're between seasons now, in that time between spring and early summer, when winter is still capable of putting in the odd appearance, even in May. It was a chilly, blustery day and I was in my winter woollies and padded jacket, but it was a good walk, past sweet scented may blossom, cow parsley, pink campion in the hedgerows and an accompaniment of birdsong all the way. Dad would have approved. He loved the countryside and made me love it too.

It's been a funny old day. We're in lockdown here in Scotland, but the county is in turmoil with - not to mince matters - a regular shitshow of a government at Westminster. I've spent half the day in a rage, and half of it remembering my warm, wise dad. But Dad, who knew a fascist when he saw one, always cautioned that totalitarianism could happen anywhere and at any time if conditions were right. After all, Stalin was responsible for his father's death, while the Nazis saw off most of the rest. Dad was not at all bitter. He had, I think, taken a conscious decision to live his life with love rather than hate. But injustice - that was a different matter. I never once saw him lose his temper at home. He was the most generous and kind hearted of men. But injustice, greed, cruelty and bullying: those were things that he found intolerable.

I've been thinking about him a lot today.

If you want to read the story of my Irish family history, but of so much more - you can buy the paperback of a Proper Person to be Detained from the publisher, Saraband, or download the Kindle version, here.

Dad and his grandson at a very happy time.

* I regained my Polish nationality last year.

Wuthering Heights Again - Well Why Not?

Not Wuthering Heights, but not a million miles away either!

Readers, especially female readers, seem to fall into two camps: those who love Wuthering Heights and those who loathe it. It is the veritable Marmite of novels and there seldom seem to be any half measures. I've discussed this phenomenon elsewhere on this blog, but for various reasons, I find myself writing about it again - so here we go!

A little while ago, I discovered that a good friend had never read it, so I bought her a copy. I honestly don't know if she will like it or not, and I really don't mind. I'll still love her even if she hates it, because we all bring different things to fiction, and one woman's meat and drink is definitely another's poison. But when I was looking online for a nice copy of the book, I noticed one or two reviews that were essentially saying, Heathcliff is not my idea of a romantic hero - and I wanted to reply, look, Heathcliff isn't even Emily's idea of a romantic hero, if she ever had one, which is debatable.

But I know why they are saying that. Because they've read Jane Eyre as well, and they keep comparing Heathcliff unfavourably with Mr Rochester, and the million romantic tales that came after. 

I reread Wuthering Heights every year, and never tire of it. I've been aware of it since I was a child. It was my late mother's favourite novel, we lived in Leeds, and even when I was very young, we would take the bus out to the moors, including to Haworth itself. So the landscape of the novel feels familiar, part of something very dear to me. But from the time when I could first read it - when I was really too young to understand it - I think I realised that it was an extraordinary book.

Yesterday, in renewed Wuthering Heights mood, I posted on Facebook a link to a most excellent episode of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time in which various experts discuss the novel. And if you've never read it, can I recommend that you listen to this first, if only to manage your expectations. They don't pull any punches. This is not a romantic novel in any accepted sense of the word. It is hardly even a love story, although there is a kind of love at the heart of it. But just what kind of love?

This is a story about obsession, passion, cruelty, revenge and downright sadism. It's as harsh and unremitting as the landscape in which it is set. As the academics are at pains to point out in Bragg's  programme, it hits you hard with disturbing and often physically brutal events on just about every page. It's not a cosy or comfortable book at all. It was shocking back when Emily wrote it, and it's shocking now.

You aren't meant to like most of these people.

Perhaps most important of all, you should remember that Emily, genius Emily, writes it in the voice of two somewhat unreliable narrators: poor, polite Mr Lockwood who, as one of those on the programme remarks, thinks he's in a Jane Austen story and soon finds that he isn't; and Nelly Dean, working for the family since girlhood, who relates the events as factually and vividly as she experienced them at first hand, but - like most of us - still can't entirely comprehend the nature of that experience. There is a third narrator, of course: Catherine Earnshaw, whose words we read in the early part of the novel, and whose words we hear later on. She, who betrays her own heart and soul and destroys herself in the process, may still be the most reliable narrator of the lot, perhaps the only genuinely reliable narrator of the whole book, even allowing for the fact that she deceives herself.

I find myself trying to explain the nature of this book from time to time, because when you love something as much as I love it, you want other people to love it too. And I always go back to the scene where Catherine, now married to Edgar Linton, tries to warn her sister-in-law, Isabella, about the true nature of the returned Heathcliff.

It is Isabella who first makes the dreadful mistake of imagining that Heathcliff is a rugged Byronic hero, a wounded but misunderstood older man, (a bit like Mr Rochester) who can be redeemed only by the love of a good woman. She fondly imagines that 'he has an honourable soul and a true one'.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Cathy tells her so in no uncertain terms. 'Nelly, help me to convince her of her madness' she says. 'Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation: an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. Pray, don't imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He's not a rough diamond - a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he's a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man.'

Emily too could not be clearer. He's as hard as stone, a changeling, the 'beast' of fairytale, but one who will never be transformed by love to live happily ever after. Nelly uses the words 'ghoul', 'goblin' and 'vampire' to describe him. 'Where did he come from, the little dark thing, harboured by a good man to his bane?' she asks, aware, even as she thinks it, that it is a 'superstition' that does not sit well with her religious beliefs.

Heathcliff and Cathy, who together might make one less dangerous whole, are torn apart, through force of circumstance and - let's face it - by their own actions, especially those of Cathy herself. Heathcliff tells her, relentlessly and on the point of her death, 'because misery and degradation and death and nothing that God or Satan could inflict could have parted us, you of your own will did it. I have not broken your heart - you have broken it and in breaking it, you have broken mine.'

Whether or not you believe he has a heart to be broken, the central truth of the novel lies, I think, somewhere in the constant - wonderful - references to the landscape. An ailing Cathy, describing a lost time with Heathcliff, remembers the natural rather than the human world: the lapwing: 'bonny bird, wheeling over our heads in the middle of the moor. It wanted to get to its nest, for the clouds had touched the swells and it felt rain coming.' And again, yearning for her old home at Wuthering Heights: 'that wind sounding in the firs by the lattice. Do let me feel it - it comes straight down the moor - do let me have one breath!'

The schism at the heart of the book most closely resembles some terrible, destructive physical event. 'I'm sure I should be myself were I once among the heather on those hills' says Cathy, 'exiled' as she terms it, in Thrushcross Grange. And later, Nelly describes the couple as making 'a strange and fearful picture. Well might Catherine deem that heaven would be a land of exile to her unless with her mortal body she cast away her mortal character also.'

At the very end of the novel, even as Joseph sees 'the two on em, looking out of his chamber window, on every rainy night since his death' or the small boy cries because he can see 'Heathcliff and a woman yonder under t' Nab' and the poor little scrap dare not pass them (as who would?) soft hearted but prosaic Mr Lockwood gazes at the graves and wonders how anyone could imagine 'unquiet slumbers' for them.

You can't help thinking that perhaps all these things can be true at once. Peace can only be restored with the death of the main protagonists and their reunion beyond the grave, just as balance is restored in the next generation by the ordinary (and by now very welcome) humanity of young Catherine and Hareton.

Some time ago, I wrote a novel called Bird of Passage. It is, I suppose, my own homage to Wuthering Heights and came about as a result of my obsession with that novel. I couldn't help but write it. It is by no means a rewriting of that book - how could it be? How would I dare? But it is definitely inspired by the novel, or as one reviewer points out, it is 'a dialogue with the older novel'. It is a story of cruelty, loss and enduring love. Although again, what the nature of that love might be, and how desirable it might ultimately be, I'll leave you to decide for yourselves. 

Losing It

Meanwhile, our old cherry,
that we thought was dead, is flowering. 

I lost it with Woman's Hour this morning. Got so angry that I could have put my foot through the radio.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, we are on lockdown and have been for some weeks, we are worried about our loved ones and our finances, our media are pumping out news of death and despair every hour of every day, and all while we are bombarded with ill informed speculation from a hundred unscientific sources on social media - the more confident the assertions, the less reliable the data.

Then, while I was attending to some correspondence this morning, I switched on BBC R4's Woman's Hour.

Oh great. A programme all about death.

Even I, as a playwright, find it hard to imagine the online planning meeting they must have had about this one. But I'll try.

Gosh, somebody would have said. What can we do to cheer people up? What can we do to improve their mental health? How can we show them that there might be some light at the end of the tunnel that isn't an oncoming train?

I know. Let's talk about death. That'll do the trick. That'll give them the kick up the backside they need. I mean it's not as if it's on people's minds right now, is it? Not as if it's something they've even considered. Not now. Too busy enjoying themselves - you know, trying to find food and bog roll while avoiding other people, trying to entertain and educate their kids and wash everything that comes into the house. They must be loving it so much that we'd better give them a counterbalance to all that thoughtless pleasure.

Honestly. I practically fell over my feet in the rush to switch the buggers off. It was a prime example of what my dear late radio drama producer Hamish Wilson used to call 'the shit click effect'. When the listener says 'shit' and reaches for the off switch.

Which I did.

But in the current situation, when lockdown is really beginning to bite, when many people are fighting their own private battles with depression and fear, and yet showing a brave face to the rest of the world - how unforgivable was this in a national broadcaster?

Don't get me wrong. There is a time and a place for these conversations.
But that time is not now.
Here's some beautiful guitar music instead.

An Empty Planner, Easter Anyway and a New Book

Easter is happening anyway

If you haven't heard from me for a while, it's because we've been having internet problems and it's still not sorted. Part of the problem is that in this very rural area, lots more people than usual are working from home - or kids are online during the day. Can't complain about that at all, but it puts a strain on a not very adequate system. Now, our landline has gone wonky. I have spent a couple of days galloping about like a mad thing, up and down stairs too,  plugging and unplugging connectors on the instructions of our broadband and landline provider - fair play to EE who answered the phone within seconds which at any time would be good, but in the current difficult situation is outstanding!

The net result is that an engineer is coming to do some (outdoor) work next week. Even though their simple line test indicated that the line was fine, it clearly wasn't, since the woman at the other end could hear the hisses and crackles even while she was talking to me! Meanwhile, with all our phones unplugged, the internet is - just - accessible. And although I have a mobile, the signal here is equally dodgy, so any phonecalls have to be taken at the back of the house. Not quite hanging out of an upstairs window, but it's heading that way ...

Hope lockdown is being kind to you. We feel lucky - and acknowledge this every single day - to be living in a supportive rural community, and to have the blessing of a village shop, a garden and good neighbours. We miss our friends and of course we worry terribly about our son on even more strict lockdown in Barcelona. Although at least he too can work from home so the time passes quickly.

But even without visitors, Easter is happening anyway - and this is still my favourite time of year. The view from the window of the room where I work changes a little every single day, with a haze of green over the trees growing in intensity. My hay fever is growing too, but that's beside the point!

I've another reason to count my blessings. For writers, sitting at home working is a normal condition. And since I've been married to a self employed artist for thirty five years, we're used to working in the same house and avoiding each other if we need to - so to a great extent we're getting on with things and I'm finding the empty year planner quite liberating albeit financially worrying!.

A new novel seems to be underway. Filling my head, at least. More about it in due course. It's the one - contrary to my own expectations - that lots of people have asked me about.

Radio Drama: In Memory of Hamish Wilson

Hamish, second from the right: 'Running Before the Wind.'

My career as a writer began with radio drama. And one of the finest, funniest, most intelligent and creative producers I ever had the good fortune to work with, died last week. For his family, of course, he is irreplaceable. But the outpouring of sadness from so many people who worked with him over the years, both as a producer/director (in radio the jobs are conflated) and as an actor too, is genuine and heartfelt.

Quite simply, Hamish was one of the good guys.

Courtesy of the excellent Nigel Deacon who runs the Diversity website , keeping track of and celebrating radio drama, I acquired a list of all the productions I have ever done. My first radio production was in 1975 (I was pretty young!) and my last radio production was - incredibly, because it doesn't seem so long ago - in 2007, although of course the odd repeat crops up on R4 Extra. I felt tired just looking at it. I'm in the habit of saying that I have about 100 hours of produced radio to my name, including original plays and series, dramatizations, abridgments, readings and talks, but seeing the actual titles, the episodes, the actors and directors I had the good fortune to work with, the sheer time and effort involved in all of it, gave me pause for thought.

The majority of my work - albeit not all of it - was produced by two excellent producer/directors: Marilyn Imrie and Hamish Wilson. I began by working with another fine producer, Gordon Emslie, who died tragically young. Then I worked very happily with Marilyn on productions as diverse as Kidnapped and Catriona, and (perhaps my favourite of everything I wrote at that time) an original play called Bright as a Lamp, Simple as a Ring. But when she moved away from Scotland, I was 'passed on' to Hamish, who had moved to the BBC from Radio Clyde, where he had been making award winning radio drama, back when commercial stations still did that kind of thing.

We got on. And we immediately discovered that we shared a fascination for Scottish history, tradition and music. Of the various productions we worked on together, including several dramatizations of other work, the ones that chiefly stay in my memory are three original serials with very Scottish themes: The Peggers and the Creelers, about families of Ayrshire bootmakers and fisherfolk, and Running Before the Wind, about a fictional family of Clyde Coast yachtbuilders and the Curiosity Cabinet, which I eventually wrote as a novel. It's unusual for the drama to precede the book, but that's the way it was!

Hamish was a joy to work with. He was imaginative, perceptive and generous. He always understood your intentions as a writer. When you sent him a first draft of a script, he wouldn't change things. He would just ask you a series of extremely tricky questions - often about just those parts of the script that you had been unsure about yourself - and in finding the answers to them, you would make the whole thing better.

Hugely experienced in radio, he would never ever allow you to take the easy path of - for example - introducing superfluous narrators, to make things easier for yourself. 'Dramatise, Catherine!' he would say. 'Find a way to dramatise!' - which is advice I have carried with me ever since, even now that I'm writing fiction.

He loved his family and his pride in them was always obvious. He was a raconteur and his tales were funny. He was fascinated by all things historical, but military history in particular, and he would occasionally come out with the most bizarre anecdotes that always turned out to be true. Studio time is invariably limited and you are often 'imprisoned' in small spaces for hours at a time when you're making radio drama. Writers are expected to be able to edit on the hoof. Tempers can fray, but Hamish was adept at running a tight ship, while dispersing professional tensions by making people laugh. It was a gift, one that Marilyn Imrie possessed too.

He was kind to actors, giving them space to work their magic, and he was respectful to the technical staff without whom he knew that nothing good could happen. All drama is collaborative, and he was a consummate professional. The results were obvious in a string of fine productions. This was a producer who had won many awards and indeed had been a juror and jury chairman in the Prix Italia, Prix Futura Berlin and the Prix Europa - but he wore his distinction lightly.

In 1996, we worked on a play about the writing of Robert Burns's epic poem Tam O' Shanter, to mark the 200th anniversary of the poet's death. This was followed by a trio of dramatizations of Ray Bradbury short stories, matched by another trio dramatised by Brian Sibley, first broadcast in 1997, I think. Ray himself topped and tailed the recordings. We were honoured to be asked.

I was married and living in Ayrshire, trekking through to Edinburgh for script meetings and productions, working in theatre as well. But we always had plans for future work simmering away. One of those plans involved a series of Scottish plays based around traditional occupations and social change. After all, we were both fans of Ewan MacColl, both keen on folksong too.

So what happened? Well, suffice to say, John Birt in London happened, and one of the BBC's finest Scottish talents quite suddenly became surplus to requirements. After that, I did some more productions with Marilyn, who was working in London as an independent producer, including fulfilling our long held desire to dramatise Tove Jansson's Summer Book. I also dramatised Ben Hur with the late, great Glyn Dearman who wanted to work with me and had the clout to ask for me.

But all too soon, I realised that for me too, it was time to go. It was sad, but it provided the push I needed to get back to writing fiction, which is mostly what I do today, still with a profound interest in Scottish history and tradition. For Hamish it meant a return to acting, and appearances in many popular shows. I saw him and his wife briefly at the Wigtown book festival last year, but had a meeting arranged and couldn't linger. Before that, when I had been invited to the town to talk about my novel, The Jewel, all about Robert Burns's wife, Jean Armour, we had tea and cakes and reminisced about radio, and about the way in which the research for Tam O' Shanter had first triggered my desire to write about Jean.

It's impossible to exaggerate the positive influence he had over my work.
And it's sad to think of him not being there, even though we had stopped working together so many years earlier. As the actor friend who told me the news said, 'it's our Hamish.'
Hamish, wherever you are, here's to you. You were and remain one of the best.

Don't Come To The Highlands - Read This Instead!

Dun Beag Broch, Skye

My spooky little novella, Rewilding, is currently free on Amazon Kindle, and will be till the end of the week, so download it now, even if you don't want to read it till later.

I wrote this late last year, after a trip to visit friends who live on the beautiful Isle of Skye. We've been talking on the phone now, lamenting the fact that we won't see each other for a little while.

The cover picture is of the amazing Dun Beag Broch on that island, although that isn't where this particular story is set - but it was certainly one of the things that inspired it. The other was this extraordinary song by Julie Fowlis - not just beautiful, but very unusual because it is sung from the point of view of the 'water horse', (not the kelpie who is a little more benign) pining for the woman who has deserted him, when this creature is usually portrayed as one of the most dangerous of supernatural creatures.

This long short story that I called Rewilding, hardly long enough to be called a novella, but certainly too long for a short story - seemed to arrive all of a piece, the way things sometimes do. I could see it so vividly in my mind's eye that it was almost like taking dictation. It's a theme I may well go back to later - something that intrigues me. After all, I have a Masters degree in Folklore, and every now and then my fascination with these things rears its head all over again.

Some years ago, when we were driving back from the Isle of Gigha, on one of those sunny, cloudy, gorgeous days that you so often get in this part of the world, we were heading down the side of Loch Fyne. As anyone who has driven along this stretch of road knows, there's a range of high hills on the opposite side of the loch, treeless and smooth. As we rounded one of the many bends, we were more or less facing these hills, where intermittent cloud shadows and sunshine chased each other.
And then ...
'Are you seeing what I'm seeing?' I asked my husband, who was driving.
''Yes,' he said. 'And I can't stop anywhere.'
He couldn't of course, and he had to keep his eyes on the road. So there are no pictures.
But briefly, straight ahead of us, the cloud shadows had formed a clear image, like a sharp projection on the hillside, of two huge horses, rearing up, black horses, manes flying in an unseen wind.
It was uncanny. I have never seen anything like it before or since. And it faded as quickly as it had come.

I think that experience too fed into the writing of this story. In my head, there's a sequel. Maybe I'll write it.

Meanwhile - please, please, please don't go to rural areas, thinking to 'escape the virus'. All you do is endanger those of us who live here. But you could escape into a story instead!

Like a Puck to the Head: Ice Hockey Memories - and Ice Dancing

Village in the Snow,
by Alan Lees
I've just edited, polished and republished a new edition of a novel called Ice Dancing for Kindle - and there will be a paperback available before too long.

It's a story about Scottish village life. It's a very grown up love story with a heroine who is almost ten years older than the man she loves. (Why is that so unusual?) There's a dark side to it. But it's also a story about the beauty and skill and poetry of a sport that I've loved for a very long time.

There's a Canadian hockey song that talks about love being like a 'frozen puck to the head.' If you've never seen a hockey game, and never felt the size, weight and speed of a frozen ice hockey puck, that won't mean much to you. But once felt, never forgotten. Even when the puck occasionally flies over the protective plexi glass and connects with a spectator, it can be painful, and people are advised to keep their eye on it at all times. So not a bad way of describing the kind of love that comes out of nowhere and strikes like a bolt of lightning.

My own love affair with ice hockey began many years ago when I was a young woman teaching English to adults in Tampere, in Finland. I spent two very happy years there, and one of the first things we learned was that if you wanted to get the young engineers and other techies talking - which was our job, after all - you had only to ask them about ice hockey. We would have long conversations about the rules of the game and the state of play of the local teams. It was hard not to become involved, especially when these 'students' - who were essentially the same age as we were - invited us out to hockey games so that we could see just what they were talking about!

Cue forward some years and the UK saw a renaissance of interest in professional ice hockey, with the setting up of the so-called Superleague, involving several high calibre teams. This was a bit controversial in that these teams employed many ‘imported’, particularly Canadian, players, but it undeniably raised the standards of play for the spectators who had the privilege of watching some world class hockey on home ice. Plus the standard of coaching for young, aspiring British players, my own son included, was excellent and inspirational.

Although there are still teams throughout the UK, playing excellent, entertaining hockey, the Superleague lasted only from 1995 to 2003, after which it was disbanded and replaced with the Elite Hockey League. My own seasons spent as a ‘UK hockey mom’ inspired at least some of the background to the novel, a time I remember with a great deal of affection, not least because of the off-ice chat and laughter. Hockey was and remains a very inclusive sport. 

When I was writing Ice Dancing, though, it was another occasion I remembered. I had taken my son and his friend to a public skating session at our local ice arena, when a young man, casually dressed in jeans and a fleece, started moving gently over the ice in time to the music. Except that it was like no dancing on ice I had ever seen before. I never found out who he was, but I remember thinking that he might have been a hockey player, because most of them have the same grace as ice dancers and there was something about his movements that suggested hockey. Of course I wrote it as fiction.

'In the control box, someone had put on Too Lost In You, and lowered the lights just a little. It was strange. Other people were still skating, but he made them look clumsy. He skated gently and deftly around them and among them, not bothering them at all, making patterns on the ice in time to the music. He skated like a dream. He was showing off now. I knew fine he was showing off for me and everyone else, unable to resist the temptation of that music and those sexy words. After a while, people went to the side, just so they could watch him. The stewards stood with their arms folded, defensive and a bit jealous. Players didn’t usually do this. They normally kept themselves to themselves. But here was Joe, putting on a display for free. It wasn’t done.

And what Joe was doing, it wasn’t exactly dancing, but it was rhythmic and fluid and sometimes it was acrobatic. A man sitting behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Now you know why they call him Sky Napier. Good, isn’t he?’ And I nodded but he was more than good. He was utterly and completely beautiful out there on the ice. The music was part of the magic, sensual and insistent. He seemed like nothing but movement. I could have watched him all day. A creature of ice and fire. Bright and enticing.'

Ice Dancing is entirely fictional, but there is a darker side of the sport - of all sports  - that is a part of the fabric of the novel. And on another topic, the wartime internment of Italians who had made their homes in Scotland for many years is a matter of shameful fact. Given the more recent experiences of the Windrush generation, it is one that has by no means been consigned to history.

All the same - this is mainly a book about an unexpected physical and mental attraction, the sheer, overwhelming joy of falling unwisely in love - and the sheer joy of ice hockey too! 

Picture by Skeeze on Pixabay