Verbalise at the Brewery

Last night was my third reading in a week, returning to Verbalise in the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal. It was a quieter night, after a couple of busy ones, but I enjoyed it. I read from The Hollows for the first time – a draft piece about exploring something like a haunted house, which was a lot of fun to read. I also brought out a couple of older pieces for the first time. Books Like Grains Of Sand and Tank Trap are both flash stories in Marrow. I’ve never read them before, as I’ve always thought they were too weird, too abstract for performance. But after what happened with Dora and The Sea Tiger this week, I also wanted to draw a line in the sand for myself – to remember that magic and wonder is why I write. I’m not going to be scared of reading those pieces anymore. And in the end, I think they went better than I’d dared to hope. I’ve felt just slightly off the boil with my last few readings, but I enjoyed last night a lot. Dora’s given me courage. 

I also sold three copies of Marrow, which was lovely – I now have fewer than ten copies for sale, so if you want one, get amongst it while you can.

Next gig is at the end of the month in Lancaster – Working Title in The Three Mariners – be great to see some of you hobbitses there.

The Sea Tiger

Dora has a lot of favourite books. We try to keep them on her own wee bookshelf in her room, but as the days and weeks roll on after a big tidy-up, they inevitably gather in a strata by her bed. That teetering stack becomes an archaeology of her favourites. There are all sorts in there, but some books are never far from the top. Where The Wild Things Are. The Gruffalo, Zog, Room On The Broom. We’re Going On a Bear Hunt. The absolutely terrifying Tailypo. Mrs Gaddy & The Ghost. I Want My Hat Back.

Dora’s current favourite is called The Sea Tiger. We spotted it in Waterstones while we were in Scotland last month, and we couldn’t resist. It’s a extraordinarily beautiful book:

The dance

The Sea Tiger is Oscar’s best friend – his only friend. They do everything together. Where the Sea Tiger leads, Oscar follows. They explore, they have adventures, until a point comes where Oscar needs the strength to go alone. It’s a book about being brave.

To celebrate World Book Week, all the children at nursery were asked to bring in their favourite story. Dora chose The Sea Tiger without hesitation. We packed her off for the day, lunchbox and wellies, slippers and book. I didn’t think another thing of it until I came home that night.

‘Did everyone at nursery like The Sea Tiger?’

Dora thought about it, then remembered. Her face clouded over. ‘No. It’s a silly book.’

I was astonished. ‘What? Did someone not like it?’

‘They thought it was silly,’ she said, face scrunched into a frown.

I was dumbstruck. She was repulsed by her favourite book. Why would other kids have disliked it? Too weird? Too odd? Too magical? Compared to what? All the books she loves are weird and odd and magical. Children are weird and odd and magical. All that anarchy, that chaos, exploring and categorising this insane planet for the first time.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. I’ve been absolutely shaken by my daughter’s first true experience of shame. She was ashamed, ashamed of something that she loved. That’s heartbreaking. Three years old, and another step on the long path to adulthood checked off the list.

I read The Sea Tiger again, to myself. It is everything a children’s book should be. Surreal, wild, enchanting, transporting. It’s a book about imagination and courage. It’s a book about finding your own way. I thought of Robin Williams and that little spark of madness we mustn’t lose. I thought about what I write, why I write, seeking out those kernels of magic and madness and paying them whatever meagre tribute I can muster.

Dora wouldn’t even look at the book last night, but this morning I read it to myself until she came to join me. She was as entranced as ever, thrilled and enchanted by Oscar and the tiger and their undersea adventures. That helped, but I feel very much like it was a finger in the dyke, plugging up an overwhelming inundation of the ordinary, the acceptable, the normal. I hope Dora clings to her spark of madness. I hope she never lets it go. For her next years of play, of princesses and pirates, of dinosaurs and monsters and treasure and kittens, it’s up to Mon and I to nourish it, to feed it, to fuel the fires of her imagination. That is our role as parents: curators, not makers. But then will come the homework, the tests, the clothes, the friends and the not-friends anymore, Dad, the cycles of approval and rejection. When she leaves us, she’ll have to feed her own fires.

I know all this is melodramatic. I have always tended towards extremes, especially in my words, but that’s who I am. I hope we can give Dora both the space and the guidance to be whoever she is. And I hope, with every fibre of my soul, that she stays more a tiger than a princess.

Dora’s first story

My daughter is three. This is her first story:

Once we went to steal the treasure from some pirates but they heard we were coming so did they did a big roar and scared us into a barrel. Then they went to our tree house and stole EVERYTHING. And we were stuck in the barrel which had lots of beasties in it. But then the beasties got out and the pirates were scared of the beasties, and they ran away. Then we took back all of our treasure, and all the pirate’s treasure, and we took it back to our tree house and made it tidy, the end.

Mirror mirror

Earlier today, my heart broke. I’ve been working on my second novel, The Hollows, for almost exactly a year – I started it on Christmas Eve 2013, though I couldn’t write for half the year. I’m now 30,000 words into my first draft. It’s excruciatingly hard to write this, but I’m about to change it all. The reason is the best-selling author Kate Mosse, who appears to have written my book already. I haven’t read it, but her latest novel, The Taxidermist’s Daughter, explores the same themes of memory – suppressed, regressed and rediscovered – as The Hollows. Her novel revolves around a father-daughter dynamic, like The Hollows. Her novel is set in a huge marsh, like The Hollows. I could handle all of that. I’d guess that was true of lots of novels. But today, I also discovered that the lead character of The Taxidermist’s Daughter has no early memories after a traumatic childhood experience; that a modern crime begins to unlock those hidden memories; and that the unlocking of those memories reopens the wounds of an old injustice. That was basically the plot of The Hollows. I’m heartbroken, because I was finally beginning to gain some traction. It was finally starting to move, but I can’t stomach those similarities. It’s too close. It’s no good.

I’m not going to start again, because I’ve written some good stuff. But I am going to change it radically. That means significant cuts – again – and it means the whole enterprise will take longer than I’d hoped, and that’s devastating. I was almost halfway through, and now I’m back to the beginning. I can’t just get hold of The Taxidermist’s Daughter, read it, and rewrite around it; no story is built from omission, and the thought of it makes me sick. But it does mean revisiting the crossroads I discussed last week, and taking another path. It hurts, and I’ll set out with heavy heart, but I know, with every fibre of my being, that I’m nourishing the kernel of a good story, and I’m not going to let it go.

Whales, mandolins and singing bottles… and once again, I find myself staggered at how my stories hurt me.

Team Sneck

I’m delighted to share this article in the Inverness Courier about Not The Booker. It’s very weird to have read the Courier twice a week throughout my teenage years, and now to read this.

I took this picture in 2005, from the back garden of our house in Inverness, some time around midsummer, slightly after midnight.



Here Be Monsters

My amazing partner Monica brought this to my attention today: The Monster Engine, a series of children’s nightmares made ferociously lifelike by talented DC comics artist Dave Devries. His skill as an illustrator makes the imagination of these kids all the more fantastical, and all the more frightening. These are just astonishing – and their naivety, their anatomical awkwardness, makes them so sinister. This is true horror:



You can see more of The Monster Engine here. I’m going to try and get the book.

These images resonate very strongly with me, because I don’t remember much of my dreams or my childhood. I remember virtually nothing before the age of ten – just scraps of memories, like the time I snapped a penknife shut on my finger, and the time I didn’t realise I was standing in an ants’ nest. I do remember some of my nightmares, though I can’t attach them to any sense of how old I was, or where. I remember watching the shadow of a man stalking up the stairs towards me, infinitely slowly – even though the door was closed and there was no way I could see the stairs. I remember a white face watching from a mezzanine. I remember lying in bed, early one morning, frozen with fear while a fog boiled from the bottom of my cupboard.

This sounds daft, but I sometimes wonder if I write precisely because I don’t recall my dreams.

If dreams are how we interpret the world and remember events, perhaps we need access to that process of recording and interpretation, just to be reassured that we have been alive despite it all. That access comes from remembering dreams, or scraps of dreams. I don’t remember mine, and so I’ve found another way to interpret my life. It probably doesn’t work so simply, but writing, for me, is the wax crayon drawing of things that might have happened. Reading is what makes them spring to life, and growl from underneath the bed.


Won’t You Marry Me?


We don’t have a TV aerial in our house, so when we watch anything, it tends to be on DVD. One of the films we sometimes watch with Dora is a frankly astonishing 1980s compilation of classic nursery rhymes. The rhymes are sung by a raft of top folk singers like Martin Carthy, while the stories are acted out in a combination of puppets, animation, or against nascent green screen technology. Taken in one sitting, it’s like Alice is having a nightmare. WHILE in Wonderland. The whole collection swings between the trippy and terrifying, but there are a few surprisingly haunting songs in there. One in particular has stuck with me; it’s an old song, but I don’t think I’d heard it before watching the film. It’s called ‘Soldier Soldier, Won’t You Marry Me?’. It’s a duet between a young lass and a soldier, and it goes a bit like this:

 “Oh soldier, soldier; won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum.”
“Oh no sweet maid, I cannot marry you,
For I have no boots to put on.”
So off she went to her grandfather’s chest
And brought him some boots of the very very best
And the soldier put them on. 
“Oh soldier, soldier; won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum.”
“Oh no sweet maid, I cannot marry you,
For I have no coat to put on.”
So off she went to her grandfather’s chest
And brought him a coat of the very very best
And the soldier put it on. 
“Oh soldier, soldier; won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum.”
“Oh no sweet maid, I cannot marry you,
For I have no hat to put on.”
So off she went to her grandfather’s chest
And brought him a hat of the very very best
And the soldier put it on. 
“Oh soldier, soldier; won’t you marry me?
With your musket, fife and drum.”
“Oh no sweet maid, I cannot marry you,

For I have a wife of own…”

It’s really sad, isn’t it? It reminds me of Alan Garner. I sing it to Dora every now and then – it’s one of the few songs she doesn’t try to sing along with. She prefers to listen. It feels curiously grave. And what happens next? Does the sweet maid pine after the soldier, or pick herself up and find another man? I feel like she needs vengeance. I’ve been imagining another verse:

So off she went to her grandfather’s chest
And fetched out a pistol of the very very best

And the sweet maid shot him down…..

It doesn’t make the song any happier, of course, but the soldier needs comeuppance.I haven’t yet decided whether I can sing it to my daughter.