The slow life

Another year, another holiday. A fortnight before our wedding, and with a thousand things to organise, Mon and I have taken Dora for a week on Kefalonia in the Greek Ionian islands. Some people thought we were crazy, leaving so soon before the big day, and others thought we’d done exactly the right thing. It’s been wonderful. Our studio was cheap and cheerful, but had stunning views of the sea. The beach at Lourdas was only a few minutes away. We’ve done as much sunbathing as Dora would allow, and spent the rest of the time building bad sandcastles or splashing in the shallows. We visited Melissina cave, where they filmed The Goonies, and drove round onto the Lixouri peninsula to the secluded beach cove of Petanoi, ringed with sheer white cliffs.

panorama 2View from our balcony

Kefalonia is intoxicating. Olive trees spill into the verges, and fig trees grow in long-abandoned lots. The cliff-top hairpins are graffitied with faded communist slogans. Goats dawdle as they cross the road in scraggy herds. Each of their bells is tuned slightly differently, so the goatherd knows where each animal is foraging. When they’re hidden by the pines, the bells sound like secret orchestras, playing just for you. Skinny feral kittens bat at grass stalks and dry leaves. Cacti grow on roadsides. Beehives, painted rainbow bright, cling to precipitous hillsides. After lunch, old men sit in the meagre shade of trees and smoke. All the while, the island is alive with cicadas. They chatter all day in a raucous chorus that never stops, resounding all around in a cacophony of tones and clashing rhythms. After a day or two, I learned to tune it out, but occasionally I’d become suddenly, urgently conscious of the racket, and the world would explode again with sound. In the hour either side of sunset, when the heat was exquisite, the evening air grew heady with jasmine and lemon. The jumble of architecture felt strange and at times a little sad. The global crash hit Greece harder than most, and there are abandoned building sites everywhere. The skeletons of these half-formed houses cling to the hills and wrap themselves in vines. It’s an extraordinary place.

One of my favourite things about going on holiday is having the time to read. I’ve been reading a little more often in the last few months – trying not to work so late, and going to bed with a book instead – but on holiday, I can gorge myself. This time round, I went through The End Of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas, Thursbitch by Alan Garner, Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey by Fat Roland, The Coma by Alex Garland, It’s Lovely To Be Here by James Yorkston, Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel and The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris.

I love Joanne Harris, but struggled to get into The Evil Seed. As Harris explains in her introduction, it was her first novel, and she doesn’t feel she was firing on all cylinders. I found the regular switch of narrators a little jarring, for all that her writing was as wonderful as ever. Harris is a master, but The Evil Seed simply wasn’t for me. I also struggled with The End Of Mr Y. It started well, with a great premise – in a second-hand bookshop, a research student discovers a novel no one has seen in a hundred years. The book is supposed to be cursed – anyone who reads it will die. What a brilliant idea for a novel! Scarlett Thomas is extremely good at explaining the complex scientific theories that underpin the book, but as the plot unfolds, The End Of Mr Y felt increasingly like a collection of philosophical discussions tacked together with incidental actions. It was too disjointed for me – no flow.

I bought The Coma by Alex Garland years ago, and have been saving it until I finished writing The Year Of The Whale – because Garland’s book is also an illustrated novella, which is how I’d like The Whale to appear, if it ever does. It’s another good premise – a man exploring his own coma for meaning about his life – but one that is better managed in Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh or The Bridge by Iain Banks. Using minimal text, Garland brilliantly navigates his way around the dreamworld of the coma, wonderfully abetted by stark, startling woodcuts, but the final sequences became convoluted and disjointed with exposition, breaking an otherwise immersive experience. It was a shame, on finishing the novella, to realise that it came to a little less than the sum of its excellent parts.

Now we come to Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey, the second collection of flash fiction by Fat Roland. Disclaimer: I know and like Fats. I hope that won’t detract from my review of an excellent collection of shorter stories. Fats tends towards the weird in his work – or the really weird, in fact – often working with the mundane to expose the inherent strangeness of this grand and rolling shambles we call life. And he’s extremely good at it, too. Hey Hey Hey is a generally very strong collection, but some of the stories are exceptional: stand-outs for me were The Listener, and Michael Is A Horse, A Beautiful Horse, which rank amongst the best flash pieces I’ve ever read. I preferred Hey Hey Hey to his first collection; although Andropiean Galactic Lego Set Blues is also good, this second collection feels more assured in its use and abuse of the surreal, more convincing. It’s funny, chilling and thrilling, all at once.

Fat Roland HeySeveral of the stories are about swimming pools, and then I noticed this. Curious, no?

It’s Lovely To Be Here is a collection of James Yorkston’s touring diaries. For those lucky individuals who have still to discover James Yorkston, he sounds like this:

 

…and he’s one of my favourite musicians. I’ve seen him play three times – by accident at The Raigmore Motel in Inverness back in 2001, I think, supported by Malcolm Middleton, though it may have been the other way round; then with his full band at The Brewery a couple of years ago, which is one my all-time top gigs; and then solo at The Dukes in Lancaster last year. He’s brilliant live, and these diaries – witty, honest, funny, poignant and a little sly – give a compelling insight into the flip side of life as a touring musician. I guess it gave me pause to think of the times I’ve approached him (or other musicians) after a gig, gushing praise and wishing well. Especially now I’ve started performing my stories live (nowhere near the same experience, but in the same universe, I suppose), I better appreciate that sometimes that’s the last thing a performer wants – to be inundated with people, and all the psychic tension and expectations they bring with them, when they’d rather go to bed. These diaries are funny and wickedly honest.

I never planned on reading Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I absolutely hated Beyond Black, the only other Mantel novel I’d tried, and I was therefore cynical about the praise heaped on this book and its precedent, Wolf Hall. But when I’d finished all the books I’d brought with me, I had to turn to the graveyard of dog-eared abandoned holiday reads in the hotel. Bring Up The Bodies was the only one I even halfway fancied, though I started reading with reluctance. And do you know what? It’s magnificent. Set in the court of Henry VIII, it plays out the last few months of the life of Anne Boleyn from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the king’s fixer. Bizarrely, Bring Up The Bodies actually gave me what I was expecting, but failed to find, in George R R Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire – thrilling, page-turning intrigue on the price of power and the rise and fall of dynasties. It reads like The Godfather. Mantel’s Cromwell is an absolutely astounding narrator. I’m definitely going to seek out Wolf Hall, now, and I was delighted to see in the author’s note that she has more plans for Cromwell.

Finally, there’s Thursbitch by Alan Garner. I’m relatively new to Garner, off the back of his wonderful collection of British Fairy Tales and his short novel Strandloper, though I probably read The Owl Service when I was a kid. I’m still digesting Thursbitch. It’s profound and important, but it isn’t much fun. Garner creates worlds real enough to touch. His prose is so sparse, his stories so lean, that it often feels like there’s nothing there at all – as though his work is invisible, and his books are slices in time, windows into centuries when the world was young and hungry, and land still mattered. Thursbitch is about an old magic, a northern magic of white hares and white bulls and bees, of toadstools and snakes. It’s almost voodoo. A magic of the stones and the seasons and the night sky and the bog. It’s a magic of balance – of keeping the land and the people in check, pragmatic, without mysticism or spirituality. It’s heady stuff, and I’m still reeling. Like Strandloper, it’s dense, often using language so archaic it feels alien, and Garner gives nothing for free. I’ll read it again in a few years, I think, and see how it’s changed – how I’ve changed.

Back into pre-wedding mania. The garden has bloomed without us. The Black-eyed Susan has climbed to the top of the trellis, and the Russian vine is turning into a triffid. They remind me of the plants that explode everywhere in Kefalonia, wild and reckless in the dust and dirt. It’s strange to come home. Mon and I talk a lot about living abroad. I get depressed by the daily horrors this government continues to inflict on anyone who isn’t already rich, and I harbour visions of growing my own peppers and onions and garlic and chillies. We talk of Spain and France. Of a simpler life, I suppose, where we’re not drowning in screens and SATs. One where I can write and Mon can paint and Dora can chase katydids in the pear trees. There are times it feels like a boy’s dream, to run away, and times it feels like the brightest, broadest road we could take.

Halfway through the holiday, there was an insect drowning in the pool. It was my turn to rescue it, so I slipped into the water, swam across and scooped it out on the end of one of Dora’s toys. It was a honeybee. It dried in an instant and flew away, and I swam back to the edge of the pool. Just before I clambered out, I spotted something and stopped. It was a speck, no more than three millimetres long, but it was unmistakably a mantis, intricate and perfect as clockwork. I’d never seen one in the wild. I called Mon across to have a look. Even as we watched, it flexed its killer forelegs, snap snap, and marched across the baking tiles, three millimetres tall and a king of the world. The day before, driving back from the cove at Petanoi, Mon saw a golden eagle.

I love Cumbria, but there’s a splinter in my head that says we could be living cleaner, should be living simpler. Living slow.

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This one book – Henry Sugar

A couple of weeks ago, Daniel Carpenter came up with the idea to blog about a book that changed everything he knew about reading and writing, then pass the baton onto others. He wrote, brilliantly, about The Wasp Factory, then nominated David Hartley and myself to continue the chain. David wrote, promptly and also brilliantly, about Frankenstein, then picked Benjamin Judge and Nija Dalal to follow. Benjamin Judge (seriously: who is Benjamin Judge? I’ve read in Manchester three times, and never met him. He’s either a front, Lawnmower Man, or a ghost) then wrote with intimidating speed and grace about Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, which means I’m late and under pressure.

The brief is to write about a book that changed the way I understood literature – that made me realise “what writing could do”. That’s a tough call. My first instinct was also for The Wasp Factory, which had a massive impact on me. But I think, on reflection, that others that hit me deeper, if not harder, and I can’t come close to Dan’s thoughts on what remains an astonishing book. I’ve spent a lot of time weighing up what to write about instead. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is my biggest recent influence, but that was more like rebalancing my compass. Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines shook me to my core, and Jasper Fforde’s Bookworld series changed the way I thought about stories. Before that, the Harry Potter books got me reading again after a long period of not reading at all.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote 500 words about The Proud Highway by Hunter S. Thompson. The first scintillating volume of his letters was the inspiration that started me blogging while I was backpacking in Australia; that blog taught me to write (albeit like him), which led to a job in magazine journalism, which led to me writing fiction in my words of my own…

I love Hunter S. Thompson. He remains an inspiration for his sheer, indomitable rage against the greed, corruption, insanity and monstrous terror of corporate government. His prose is flawless, and The Proud Highway was the book that definitively led me to becoming a writer.

But – having written 500 words about Thompson and his letters – I stopped short. A book I hadn’t thought about for years swum into my head, and I knew it mattered more. It’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (and Six More) by Roald Dahl. I don’t know when I first read Henry Sugar, but I think it was during the single year I spent in an Edinburgh boarding school while my parents lived in Germany.

I remember almost nothing before the age of 10 or 11, and my time at the boarding school sneaks up on me like spidersilk – fleeting, single strands, flickering with light, then gone. And although I don’t remember exactly, I know that I spent a lot of time in the school library. I know I read King Solomon’s Mines, and all The Hardy Boys books, and a bunch of Stephen Kings. I would have read Dahl’s children’s fiction when I was younger, but I’m pretty sure that was when I stumbled upon his more adult stories.

I rediscovered Dahl when I was in my early twenties. I found all his works in a charity shop in London, and bought the lot. I gorged on them. His stories are consistently excellent, but Henry Sugar is the strongest of many extraordinary collections. The tale of the boy and the turtle, or the mysterious hitchhiker, or the greedy landowner and the treasure hoard, or the title story, all explore the no-man’s-land, the thin threshold between the real and the impossible. They are all perfect stories, delivering just desserts to protagonists and antagonists alike. Another of the pieces, The Swan, haunts me still; Dahl’s tale of bullies brutalising a class loner is gut-wrenching, brilliant, beautiful, devastatingly sad and entirely magical.

Henry Sugar is ferocious. But how does it redefine my idea of what books can do? It didn’t have that impact on me as a child, certainly, because I had no concept of books doing anything other than taking me away – I simply read and read. But in my twenties, on rereading Henry Sugar, the ghost of it flooded back – the sad magic of The Swan sluiced through me, and it was utterly transporting. Where Sarah Waters holds back from explicit fantasy, and Neil Gaiman commits to it completely, The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar perfectly inhabits that edgeland between reality and fantasy. This is important because I see, now, how I’m drawn to that same space in my own work. I don’t want to write like Roald Dahl – I couldn’t – but I’m trying to walk that same tightrope between two places. And in that sense, no other book has so changed the way I think about books – about writing – about reading – about living.

So that’s me. I’m going to nominate Iain Maloney and Ali Shaw to continue the series, though I haven’t asked them yet.

The Year of the Whale

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Last night, with slightly more than an hour to go before the deadline of the MMU Novella Competition, I finally finished my novella The Year of the Whale. The image above is a randomised cloud of the most common words in the manuscript, which is a really satisfying way to look back on what I’ve made.

I started writing it in 2009, and it has spent entire years untouched, waiting for attention in the dusty recesses of my hard drive. It’s written in first person with a very particular voice, and it’s been strange to return to it so sporadically over the years, and take up the mantle of that voice again. I’ve wanted to finish it for a long time – it was one of my New Year’s resolutions, no less – and I’m thankful to the competition for giving me the spark to get it done. I don’t expect anything to come of it – that way madness lies – but I’m thrilled to have wrapped it up last.

The Year of the Whale is the story of a man called Henry Cowx. He is a fisherman and walking guide in Morecambe Bay, riddled with arthritis and wracked with guilt. His story explores that guilt, and gives some quiet thought to what it means to remember. It’s about walking and place and ghosts and folk tales, and our connections with the land. It’s at the heart of my obsession with threshold spaces. It’s a meditative, elegiac story, and a long way from where I’d like to develop my work – but Henry has never been far from my mind, and I’m glad to give him closure at last.

I discussed some of the genesis of the story in my Thievery post for Kirsty Logan.

I’m working my way through some film jobs at the moment, but it’s almost time to get back into The Hollows.

The Sprint Mill Sessions

I love this: my friend Dom has been filming the grassroots Cumbrian folk scene. Last summer he gathered dozens of people for a campfire session at Sprint Mill, and this was the result – young musicians, sharing their songs by firelight. The sessions so far can be found right here, but I’ll leave you with Paddy Rogan and The Way You Used To Do…

Slamming

After a wild and wonderful night in Manchester, I’m bowled over to report that I somehow managed to win the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam. It’s still sinking in, but I’m delighted.

It was something of a journey – we left Dora with her grandparents, and drove down from Cumbria in the afternoon. Mon and I met friends Steve and Clare in the Northern Quarter, ate in the revelation that is V Revolution, then headed across the road to Gullivers to scope the venue: a brilliant space of worn floorboards and ornate plaster ceilings. The stage was bathed in blue and red light, creating corners from which the writers would prowl to read their stories. For the first round, competitors were paired off at random, with names plucked from a bowl and a coin toss to decide who read first. Once each writer had performed their story, the audience voted blue or red to decide a victor, and that writer continued to the next round.

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It started ferociously, with the amazing Joy France reading an intimidatingly strong story about cleanliness (and willies). Her opponent was good, but that story would have annihilated all comers. I was very, very glad I hadn’t been drawn against her. She was duly voted through, and set the bar for the rest of the night. The stories were consistently excellent. Hand on heart, there wasn’t a bum note. Mark Mace Smith and Mark Powell, Joe Daly, Abi Hynes, Sarah Stuart, Geraint Thomas, Trisha Starbrook, Thomas Jennings and Ailish Breen all read absolute belters.

My name was drawn in the fourth bout. I read a piece called What I’ll Do To Be In Love With You, about a boy who turns into a harmonica. I was anxious, as always, but I’d been practicing, and I made myself take the time to enjoy it. My opponent was Thomas Jennings, who read a brilliant piece about the end of the world as experienced through last orders in a MacDonalds. It was a funny and affecting story, and I would have been happy to lose to it; but I scraped through into round two, where I was paired off with Mark Mace Smith. Mark is a vivacious slam poet who often performs under the name Citizen Mace – check out his stuff here – and he made for another tough competitor. I was up first, with a story called Charlie Loved The Circus. This is a 200-word nasty about why you shouldn’t be mean to clowns. Mark’s piece was a sweet wee story about a man falling – literally – for a girl. Another close vote, but I made it to the third round.

In the final, I read against Mark Powell and Joe Daly. Both are stalwarts of the Manchester literary scene – Mark runs Tales Of Whatever, and Joe is one half of Bad Language – and their stories were excellent. I was last to read, and went with a story called The Jubilee Best Bake Competition. I always planned to read this with an accent, but bottled it at Verbalise. So I bought a frumpy hat onstage. It’s made of green wicker, has a broad brim and is covered with flowers. Once I’d donned the hat, I couldn’t back down from the accent; and so I launched into my idea of what happens when the village baking competition takes a turn for the worse. The audience (joined, at this late point, by three exceedingly stocious men who thought they’d come to a boxing match) kindly gave me some laughs, and that helped me relax into the story. The hat helped, too.

The vote was tight again, but I sneaked it. I’m still thrilled, delighted and surprised – as well as humbled and happy to have shared my stories with such an amazing crowd. We stayed for a couple of hours after the slam, happily chatting away with the Flashtaggers, audience and contestants. It made me wish, once again, that I’d made more of the astoundingly vibrant Manchester literary scene when I actually lived there; then again, I’d barely started writing when we lived in Withington.

It was after 11 when we left Manchester, and we drove a deserted motorway in the dark. The journey gave me time to think. I’m over the moon to have won, but there are two things that burn brighter. Firstly, I won’t forget the sense of community I experienced at the slam; it’s a real thrill to share my love of stories with friends and strangers, and events like the slam are a howl of affirmation that stories are alive and people are hungry to share them.

Secondly, and quite honestly, I would have been proud to have been knocked out at any point, from round one onwards. This is because, for the first time, I read my stories the way I want them read. I used to gabble or murmur my way through a reading. A year or so ago, I set out to be better. I haven’t shaken the nerves, but I’m learning to manage them, and I’m coming to trust my stories. I’m not a confident person, but running a gauntlet of open mics has given me some confidence in my work.

Back at home in Cumbria, I tiptoed in to see my daughter. She snuffled in her sleep, and buried herself in the blanket. All journeys, no matter how big, are measured in stages and steps. For all the things I would change about myself – to write more often, to be more focused, to perform better – I wouldn’t change a step of the path I’ve taken to where I stand now.

Here’s a picture of me with a cheesy grin and my cheque for £1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I’ll be cashing this tomorrow, Flashtag – if there’s any trouble at the Post Office, I’ll be back with my bat.

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A sealskin coat

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Painting by Jessica Shirley http://jessicashirley.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/selkie-girl.html

The Visitors is a little bit about selkies. Selkies are seals, and they are also people. They have a fur coat that allows them to take the form of a seal. When they step out of the coat, they become human. Selkies can be men or women, but they are always extraordinarily beautiful.

There are a multitude of selkie stories, but the most common starts with a selkie woman removing her coat and dancing on the shore. A young man – usually a fisherman or crofter – spies her dancing, and steals the coat. With her fur held hostage, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. They live together for a while, but then the selkie finds her skin and escapes back into the sea. The man is left to nurse a broken heart. Often, the couple have children. In some stories, it is a child that finds the coat, and returns it to the mother. Sometimes the selkie takes her children back into the ocean, and sometimes they are left behind. In that version of the story, the mother and children meet in the surf to play.

In the other typical selkie story, an island woman cries seven tears into the sea to attract a selkie mate. Selkie men give children to barren women.

db44_SelkieI love the idea of selkies, but I struggle with some aspects of these traditional stories. They crush female independence. In the first, the selkie is kidnapped and loses years of her life to captivity. The man takes what he wants, and is punished only by the accident of her escape. In the second story, the male selkie is a god, and the woman summons him on bended knee. Either human men dominate supernatural women, or supernatural men dominate human women. Both men and women mean more to me than that. When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted something different from selkie stories. I wanted equality. That’s been my guiding light for the novel, from start to finish. John and Izzy share traditional tales, but Ailsa and Flora question the validity of that tradition, and take a closer look at what it means to be a selkie.

Selkies are special. I watched the seals hunting in the bay at Grogport, and saw them bask and splash in Portnahaven harbour. There is life and knowledge in their eyes. When you look at them, they look back. On Kintyre, we walked the coast around Skipness on a grey, steely day, and we were followed by a seal. For half a mile or more, as we skirted the coast, the seal stayed twenty or thirty yards away from us. It seemed to move without locomotion, so that dark snub head simply kept pace with us, looking towards the shore. We sat on old stones to eat our lunch, and the seal bobbed and ducked at one end of the headland. It didn’t move away until we struck back inland, and then it vanished in a wink. I looked back to seek it out, but the seal had gone.

I asked my friends about seals and selkies, and they swamped me with stories. Chris gave his first pocket money to Save The Seals. Tom talked to the seals in a sealife centre, and the seals talked back. Dan’s friend confused swallows for seals in a dream, so he drew her a picture of a swallow with a seal’s head. Kirstin’s father whistled to the seals in Shetland, and they popped to the surface to see what all the fuss was about. Jon was kissed by a sealion. Sakina can’t shake the tale of the seal maiden. Ross works in Copenhagen, and daydreams that commuters with sealskin coats are modern-day selkies. Amy holidayed on Mull when she was seven, and spent the summer playing with a selkie called Della.

Why do we give seals such humanity? They are manifestly foreign to us, but the connection is overwhelming.

When I was 25 or 26, I spent a year working and backpacking in Australia. I remember snorkelling on Ningaloo Reef, diving as far down as I could go. I looked up exactly as the sun dropped behind a cloud. The water turned suddenly cold and pressed against me, and I felt very afraid, scared of the deep and the dark and the cold and the blue. When I think of selkies, they are underwater, floating with perfect neutral buoyancy, and shafts of sunlight sway woozy on the surface above. The darkness drops away behind them, and the selkie exists in two places: as a seal, utterly unafraid, and as a human, drawn against the current, compelled to the surface. Selkies live in thresholds. The selkie woman, when she escapes, returns to embrace her children in the surf. The shoreline, changing always with the tide, is where seals and people meet as selkies. It is a nowhere place, and yet it is all they have.

Faroese_stamp_580_the_seal_womanA hunter doesn’t know his wife is a selkie. While hunting, he sees her as a seal, and harpoons her. She becomes human, and dies in his arms.

The crofter is left heartbroken on the shore, and his selkie wife returns by stealth to see her children.

This selkie is allowed only one night of the year to be human.

Two lovers share a single skin, so that they can never be together in the same form; always one as a seal, and one as a human.

Selkies are born from the souls of drowned sailors.

Selkies are cousins to the muc-sheilche, the kelpie, the nokken, the finfolk. Those creatures are killers and enemies to men. So what makes the seal a victim? A romance? A tragedy?

When we visited Islay, we drove out to Portnhaven. We clambered across the rocks to the weedy edge of the harbour, and we watched the seals. Half a stone’s throw across the water, they gathered to sunbathe by the dozen. They winked as though the Atlantic was a hot tub. They flickered in the water, phantoms bound in straps of kelp. They came so close that I found myself laughing aloud – laughing in wonder, joy and disbelief.

When I started writing The Visitors, I wanted to explore that connection with the seals, that projection of knowledge, and emotion, and empathy. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I’ve fallen more in love with seals and selkies.

My wife found this picture of a seal. It was taken in California, rather than Coll, but it’s the way I see a selkie. Curious and cautious, incredibly close, and impossibly distant.

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A Song In My Own Language

On Friday night, Fred Versonnen performed ‘The Elephant Story’ at Dreamfired, and it was magnificent. The open mic night was as interesting as ever, but one of the scheduled performers couldn’t make it – and so Fred agreed to do another 10-minute spot before the interval. Fred is Belgian. He started by apologising for his (obviously excellent) English, and then announced that he was going to sing a nursery rhyme – ‘A song in my own language,’ he said, which is a phrase I’ve been unable to shift. And then he sang.

I don’t know a word of Belgian, but in that minute, or maybe two, Fred managed to generate genuine laughter and even a sense of the bittersweet, entirely through action, expression and body language. It was remarkable. I later discovered the song was about the birth of seven cats – six big and one very small – and all the mice running away.

He then performed a story I’d heard before, about a young monk who goes out into the world, tasked with discovering the meaning of life. Although I’d come across it before, Fred piled farce upon farce on the poor monk, earning howls of laughter from the audience – again using expression, the shape of his body, and most especially – pauses. (I’ll have a lot more to say about Fred, and pauses, and Fred’s pauses, when I’ve finished thinking about them, but that’s for another post.)

After the interval came The Elephant Story. This was my first experience of storytelling that did not have conventional myth or fairytale at its core; from Emily Parrish performing Loki, to Peter Chand’s Punjabi Grimm tales, to Kat Quatermass and her queer fairytale city, all the amazing storytellers I’ve witnessed have drawn at least a little something from our shared bank of generational stories – the lexicon of myth that has been passed around firesides and whispered over cribs for centuries.

Fred’s story was different. His background is in clowning and the circus, and the story was a love letter to a way of life long gone. Set at the start of the 20th Century, the story follows a little boy called George ‘Slim’ Louis, who falls in love with elephants and runs away to join the travelling circus. Over the years, he experiences cruelty and compassion, cutthroats and camaraderie. His story is remarkable, but made amazing by the way Fred ties it to the stories of the elephants themselves – anecdotes of their strength, and intelligence, and suffering, and occasional violence. There are moments of unbearable barbarity and tragedy, and moments of hysterical joy. The Elephant Story is a parable of all animals in captivity and a truly exceptional show.

Fred is a very physical storyteller. I don’t mean that he moves around a lot, but rather that his movements are measured and completely organic in developing, exploring and reinforcing the power of the story. His ability to hold a neutral expression conveys extraordinary meaning to his words, and that gives an audience space to reflect, savour, empathise and drown – in sadness, in humour, in understanding.

The next day, I attended Fred’s clowning workshop. It was held a hall in Arnside. By some dumb coincidence, there were elephants in the windows. I learned a great deal in the workshop, though I also found it very challenging. I’m going to write about that another time, because I’m still making sense of the things I learned, still processing some of the questions it raised. For now, here’s a picture of a boy and a circus elephant.

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A year in the life

I’ve just realised that my blog is one year old. I had no idea when I wrote my first post, about Quitting Writing, that I’d be blogging so often. It’s become the space in which I organise my thoughts, and rationalise this topsy-turvy journey to publication. A year ago, I had an agent and the first draft of a manuscript called Riptide Heart. A year later, the novel is called The Visitors. I’ve completed multiple marathon redrafts, worked myself into exhaustion on insane strings of 11pm finishes, and spent hundreds of hours thinking about the book. Looking back, finishing the first draft feels like one of the smallest steps on a road that doesn’t truly finish – once the book is out there, it will continue the journey without me.

The proof copies should be going out any day, which is terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Because my day job remains so frantic, my experience of publishing tends to occur to milestones. I’ve been incredibly lucky, but I sometimes wish I had more space to enjoy it. It feels like I lurch from one deadline to the next, and seldom savour the completion of a job. The blog has therefore become essential to me personally: in sharing and formalising the milestones, I’ve created my own map of the voyage. Thanks to everyone who’s visited.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing some of the sights along the way. Of all the things I’ve posted to the blog, I think this is the one that’s stuck with me the most. Enjoy:

Borderlines & The Writers Quarter

I’m delighted to share the news that Brindley Hallam Dennis has decided to organise a festival of writing in locations throughout Carlisle this September. Rather than traditional book festivals, which sustain the celebrity of authorship, Borderlines will celebrate writing itself, using workshops, readings and guerrilla flash fiction to connect reading and writing.

Given the location, this is especially exciting for Cumbrian, Scottish, Northumberland and Lancashire writers. I’d love to take part – I like the idea of celebrating writing for writing’s sake.

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