The Abbey

I visited the awe-inspiring Furness Abbey last week. It’s one of those places that I find very hard to describe, and although I’m going to try, I don’t feel I’ll come close, so I’ll probably keep this fairly short.

The abbey lies in ruins, but the utter majesty of the place remains. Sandstone soars into the sky in towers, even as the wind and rain carve it back down into organic shapes. It’s humbling beyond measure to walk the grounds, to sit in the buttery, to peer up tiny spiral staircases, to measure spans and arches – to walk the same paths the monks would have walked, centuries ago. A watercourse trickles through the ruins, tight with brick and riddled with tunnels and drains, but also dense with willowherb. It makes the abbey seem both antique and feral. There are plants trickling from upper ledges, and swallows nesting in the cells. There are tunnels and alcoves and windows and doors. What survives of the former halls still feels enclosed. Parts of the abbey are completely removed from the main walkways, and it’s unnerving to stand in silence and stillness and reflect on the hundreds of lives to pass through the same space. It’s crawling with ghosts. They’re in every stone, in every blade of grass. The site is surrounded by trees that hush in the wind, and the place is full of whispers. It embodies that sense of threshold I feel so drawn to. There are blind corners, where the space is shut abruptly out and your skin crawls with presence. Gravity weighs more in the abbey. The stones have grown gaunt on life and death and time.

Time. That’s the abbey means. The whole place aches and creaks with a ferocious sense of time. It’s massive. It echoes, it rebounds from the rock, from the moss. Walking the walls brings our few moments in this world into ferocious, ridiculous focus. It’s magnificent. It’s extraordinary. Go and explore it for yourself.

 

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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.

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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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From the dead

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This is amazing: two skeletons have been discovered in Ireland with stones wedged in their mouths. This was supposed to prevent a return from death. In other words, these two were thought to be vampires or revenants. Consider the conviction needed to force a large stone into the mouth of one corpse – and then a second. Imagine the sound of stone on teeth as it was wedged inside. There was no doubt in the minds of whoever buried these bodies that they were coming back.

I wrote a flash story a year or so ago, recalling a lucid dream in which my daughter and I were laid out on slabs with stones in our mouths. I could taste the grain of the stone on my tongue. Reading about these skeletons gave me the shivers. It also, bizarrely, made me hungry for the second series of The Returned…

Full article here, and here’s some Mogwai to keep you sharp. Get your spook on.

Mountains

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I’ve been climbing a mountain of college work, which is why I haven’t blogged for a while. There are a few things to report, though: my first ever panel event, for Waterstones Argyle Street in Glasgow; another open mic for Verbalise in Kendal; and some lovely reviews for The Visitors.

In the weeks beforehand, I made myself quietly terrified of the panel event, though I loved the theme. It was called ‘Islands Are The New Cities’, and brought me together with two other crime writers and a chair to discuss the attraction of islands as story locations. This is something I’ve already explored a little right here, and I was looking forward to discussing it. The terror came from the unknown: I can prepare for a reading, but had no sense of what the panel would involve.

I needn’t have worried. The Argyle Street Waterstones is a glorious bookstore, chair Douglas Skelton was funny and relaxed, and the other writers, Craig Robertson and Alex Gordon, were really engaging and easy to talk to. I was surprised at how far the discussion ranged. From a springboard of introducing our own books, we ending up debating alcohol, Faroese Hell’s Angels, caravan parks, the place of fantasy in crime novels, being a teenager in a small town, our daily working routines, tax deductible research and grandmothers. Douglas kept us on track whenever we wandered too far.

For the record, I think islands are perfect locations. They are miniature worlds, with all their own rules and laws contained within the boundaries of the coast. My friend Ben maintains there are two stories: either ‘boy/girl leaves to seek fortune’, or ‘trouble comes to town’. Islands make that sense of arrival or departure far more tangible, more immediate. The physical space of an island is an entire universe. Anything can happen on an island, and the rest of the world will never know.

There was a great moment before the event kicked off. I’d just met Alex, who is a veteran sports writer turned novelist. Breaking the ice, I pointed out that he, I, Craig and Douglas were all wearing shirts in shades of white or blue. I suggested that we should sit in a row from lightest to darkest, ha ha ha. He fixed me with a piercing eye.

‘What kind of a mind even thinks like that, man?’ he said.

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On to Verbalise. It was packed out for headlining act George Wallace, pictured above. George is an award-winning beat poet on a busman’s holiday from his residency in the Walt Whitman Centre. I was delighted to find my friends Joy France, BigCharlie Poet and Harriet Fraser at the open mic – I don’t see them as often as I’d like, and it was grand to catch up.

Almost until the moment I walked onstage, I was umming and aahing over which story to do. I’d settled on either The Matador, which is an old piece about a Spitfire pilot, or new story Cuts Like A. I’d already decided that if I did the second piece, I was going to read without notes. My dilemma was that the story was brand new – only a few weeks old – and I didn’t feel I’d quite yet come to know it. During the first interval, I raced off to scribble it from memory in my notebook, writing from start to finish without breaks. I hit everything important, as well as adding a few things in, and that gave me confidence to gamble on the new piece rather than the safety of the old.

It went well. I loved performing the story, using my hands and face and eyes to invest in my characters. I’m coming to feel more and more that this is how to read a story live. (David Hartley is right.) Writers read best when they’re committed. Cuts Like A is about a drunken knife thrower, and I enjoyed being able to mime the knives, and mime the rotating disc to which his wife is cuffed – to make those actions part of the story. I simply couldn’t have done that with paper in my hand. It felt even better than the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, and it’s good to think I’m still making some progress on my reading. I’ll never be a professional performance storyteller, but that’s the sort of place I’d like to move towards.

Cuts Like A is here, if you’d like to read it.

The other open mic acts were very good. I’ve always found Verbalise to be consistently strong. Harriet, Joy and BigCharlie were brilliant as ever, and I enjoyed the work of those writers I haven’t yet met. After the second interval, George Wallace took the stage by storm. The next half hour was like being inside a Tom Waits album. I especially loved his first poem, I Want To Go Where The Garbage Men Go, a beat epic about pre-dawn New York. You can (and should) read it here.

Finally, the reviews are still coming in for The Visitors. Everyone so far has been really kind. It’s humbling to think that people are enjoying the book. I’m keeping a round-up of press articles on The Visitors page, and there are more reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

If you’ve read the book, please do leave a review. After spending so long inside my own head while writing the novel, it’s simultaneously petrifying, compelling and rewarding to discover what people think of Flora, Ailsa, Izzy and the island of Bancree.

I’m going to sign off with Joy France and her mesmerising poem Home Truths. This is important:

 

Detonation

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These are extraordinary – German photographer Martin Klimas drops these statuettes, and rigs his camera to trigger at the sound of their impact. In doing so, he creates a threshold: giving these porcelain figurines an explosive moment of life at the exact point of their death. His website has more of these amazing images, as well as other high-speed photographs. Mesmerising work.

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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.

Thievery

I’m honoured and delighted to have contributed a post to Kirsty Logan‘s long-running series of story inspirations, Thievery. It’s entirely possible to drown yourself in the wealth of stories Kirsty has curated, and I thoroughly recommend you do.

For my post, I confessed about a novel I abandoned at 50,000 words, because I no longer knew what it was about. One day, it will be reborn as The Year Of The Whale.

Here’s the story so far: Northern Lights / The Year Of The Whale.

Islands

Islands are everything. Each of us lives on an island, and moves between them constantly. Your island might be called London, or Northumberland, or Withington. Or it might called the office, the supermarket, the bus. For a little while, your island might be as big as a cinema screen, and the population is the audience around you. Sometimes, it’s an island of three – my wife, and my daughter and me, drinking tea by the stove. Sometimes it’s an island of one, contained within the covers of a book. You know the shores of your island entirely, and you look beyond them often. All of life is an archipelago.

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