Sunday, 4 November 2018

"The Worst Enemy to Creativity is Self Doubt"

Well I have done it, at last. I have started sending my poems to magazines again.

When I was younger I was regularly published in  magazines, including South West Review, The Rialto, Aquarius, Pennine Platform, and others. I was probably on the point of getting my first collection, but something happened.

I lost confidence. I have since discovered, this is not uncommon among women poets. Jo Bell and Jane Commane write about it in their excellent book How to be a Poet  And I had a similar conversation about the issue with Briony Bax (editor of Ambit) at the Poetry Book Fair.  My loss of confidence was ridiculous really. I had two great poets saying I was good (Michael Horovitz, Philip Larkin) and still I gave up submitting.

There were some mitigating circumstances I suppose. Looking back I was struggling with depression, something neither I nor my husband really confronted. My way of dealing it was to stop being a full-time mum and taking on a demanding job, which meant I was balancing motherhood, career and poetry. Poetry was what suffered. It was not so much the writing, but the promotion that was the hard part for me and the easiest to give up. My poetry was increasingly taking the form of long sequences or indeed long poems and so not exactly suited to magazine submission, and I used that as an excuse for doing nothing. Then of course the longer I left submitting poems, the harder it was to get back into doing so.

But that is behind me now. I have restarted submitting poems and already in a just a month I have had three poems shortlisted for publication, so that is good for my confidence. Fingers crossed the poems make it to publication.

In case you are wondering about the quote in the title of this post - it is from Sylvia Plath.

Friday, 12 October 2018

The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk by Kate Davis

This review first appeared on my magic realism books blog.

"We never speak of it, but here we know the land
can t be trusted"

The debut collection from Cumbrian poet Kate Davis tells a personal narrative of contracting polio as a young girl, her subsequent disability and slow rehabilitation. A book of things known and not known, of untrustworthy ground and unsteady bodies, The Girl Who Forgets How to Walk finds comfort in the ancient limestone of her home county as she teaches herself to move again along its hills and coastlines. Inspiring, funny and deeply personal, with this book Davis creates her own map to navigate the wild landscape, demonstrating a unique connection to the earth beneath us.
Amazon description

After 278 posts, the vast majority of them reviews of magic realist books, I have rather run out of steam as evidenced by the low number of reviews this year. I don't want to stop posting on this blog, as I get great pleasure from sharing with you. But I have decided I need to make some changes - one is a bit of a break from reviewing novels. I will still review a magic realist novel when I read one, but I want to diversify. I have already reviewed an exhibition and a theatrical production, but there is one literary form which I have yet to review and yet it is ideally suited to inclusion in this blog and that is poetry. Of course this will require me to gain new skills and approaches, but then I need something new. I just ask that you bear with me as I find my way. 

The back cover of Kate Davis' poetry collection states Kate Davis writes magical realist poems, born of the hills, marshes and coastal edgelands of south Cumbria. And she does so wonderfully. 

The suite of poems The Girl Who Forgets How To Walk is the central section of the collection. It focuses on the story of the girl with polio. The beginning and concluding sections are made up of poems which complement it, being more focused on the landscape, its history and archaeology of Cumbria. These poems, while providing a setting to the girl's story (before and after her illness), do so much more.The girl's body afflicted by polio and the landscape mirror each other - 
We never speak of it, but here we know the land can't be trusted.

But the relationship between the Cumbrian landscape and the girl is a complex one. She wants to find the footpaths for herself. When she is shown geological maps she sees what is inside herself instead of seeing what is in the earth. In one of my favourite poems the members of the family are described as different rocks - 
Our mother was a stony outcrop,
our father a cobble chucked in a pond
and sunk.

A few poems, such as the one where she sees people floating in mid-air, are very obviously magic realist. But as I have written so many times magic realism is a sensibility and nearly all these poems share it. 

One of the joys of this work is that while Kate David deals with a highly personal and difficult issue she does so in a way that is joyous and even at times humourous. 

I recommend this collection to you.

Monday, 1 October 2018


(To my unborn son)

Refracted by water
like a silver fish,
not pausing beneath sounds,
turning which way.
Through darkness,
through warm waters,
and the constant beat of my heart,
you flash fast.

We’ve a wriggler here,”
she said,
seeking you out
like a shoal of cod.

The suddenly you are still
and stand clear
upon the screen
a small child
with head and flickering heart.

We measure the circumference
of your skull,
your femur and spine.

It is not time yet
to draw you in,
into this cold airbound world.

This poem was first published in The Rialto

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Czech fox

I have just submitted my poem Midday Fox for possible inclusion in an anthology. 

I have often blogged about my local fox in my Czech blog. I will see our local fox making its way across the fields as I walk up from the bus or down from the woods. And I have come to associate it with creativity. One of my favourite poems is Ted Hughes' Thought Fox, which is for my money the best poem about the writing process I know. 

As some readers of this blog will be aware one important reason why I bought my Czech home is that I needed somewhere to write. It is so to speak my den, my dark hole, built into the hillside, a hill called Fox's Lair. Over the last year I have indeed started to write again, and not just this blog, and superstitiously I have partly put it down to my fox companion. Even when I do not see him, I hear him in the woods above the house, tormenting the village dogs. "Ha!" he seems to be saying, "You have sold your freedom for a bowl of meat. I have the woods, all the roots and dark places as my kingdom." And at this the village dogs go mad with vain barking.

I have put his face on my door in the form of a brass knocker, he hangs on the wall as one of a set of horse brasses, I have drawn him in oil pastels. And the more I find out about him and his place in folklore and superstition, the more I think I have found the right familiar. A month or so ago I was telling my husband about this, and how strangely although I had been writing almost continuously, my fox had kept out of sight. My husband stopped me at this point "Look, look," he said. There in broad daylight no more than a metre away from the window my fox was strolling across the grass in the direction of the neighbours' chickens.

Thursday, 10 May 2018



Through the walls
my neighbours
make love.
Her cries
like the trail of snails
upon the kitchen floor,
clear, transparent,
hard to brush off,
as I lie
empty in the night.

This poem was first published in Joe Soap's Canoe and was included in the Grandchildren of Albion anthology. It was performed on BBC Radio 4 for which I received a cheque for less than £10. I didn't cash it, but kept it as a souvenir to show my grandchildren.

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Stone Book

This review first appeared on my magic realism books blog.

A classic work of rural magic realism from one of Britain’s greatest children’s novelists.
Through four interconnected fables of a way of living in rural England that has now disappeared, Alan Garner vividly brings to life a landscape situated on the outskirts of industrial Manchester.
Smiths and chandlers, steeplejacks and quarrymen, labourers and artisans: they all live and work hand in hand with the seasons, the elements and the land. There is a mutual respect and a knowledge of the magical here that has somehow, somewhere been lost to us. These fables beautifully recapture and restore that lost world in simple, searching prose.

When I was a teenager I remember arguing that Alan Garner was a better writer than Tolkien. Now over forty years later I still think that there is a case to be made. At first it might seem ridiculous when one looks at the slim volume of this book (made up four short stories), but then the economy of Garner's writing is one of its strengths. He never overwrites, is never self indulgent, and yet he always writes enough to create complex layers. There is so much in this book that it is impossible for me to do it justice in this short blog post. If you are a reader who likes the writer to make life simple for you, who doesn't like having to think about what you are reading, then you probably will not appreciate Alan Garner's books. I found myself thinking about The Stone Book Quartet for weeks after reading it, which is partly why it has taken me so long to write this review.

The Stone Book Quartet is set around a specific area of Britain, a part of the county of Cheshire called Alderley Edge. It has been home for Alan Garner's family for time immemorial  and it is where he still lives.  The Stone Book Quartet is to some extent based on four generations of his family. Each quartet focuses on one young person from each generation - all are finding themselves and their place in a world that is changing. The first book in many ways is a benediction to a way of life that had not changed for centuries, but the good stone which generations of men in the family had hewn and worked is now running out. Masons of course have long been associated with secret rituals and in this quartet the central character, Mary, is initiated into a family secret, a rite of passage, in which she sees the hand of generations past. 

One reason I love Garner's writing so much is the way history pervades his work. His is an understanding of history, I might say a intuitive feeling for history, that chimes with mine. It is ever present and acts as a recurring theme, not in a doomed way (as is the case in Garner's novels The Owl Service and Red Shift) but in a no less profound way. 

The Stone Book Quartet is in part a celebration of handicraft. In the second book Mary's son turns his back on working stone and becomes a blacksmith. But there is still the sense of work well done, of hands mastering the world (and the elements) around them. It is a world that is constantly changing and yet is continuous. In the final book William, Mary's great-grandchild, is made a sledge by his blacksmith father. The sledge is formed from the handles of the forge bellows (the smith is retiring), from forged iron, and from some old wood which came from a hand loom used by Mary's uncle in a craft that was dying out even when Mary was a girl. The book ends with William sledging:

He set off. It had not been imagined. He was not alone on the sledge. There was a line and he could feel it. It was a line through hand and eye, block, forge and loom to the hill. He owned them all: and they owned him.

Of course the story of the family's craftsmanship does not end with William, Alan Garner is part of that story and, as I said in my first paragraph, you will not find a better master of the writer's craft. The stone book in the title is a book crafted for Mary with great love by her father from a stone. Mary's stone book was a prayer book and so might have been considered blasphemous, but it wasn't. For me Garner's Stone Book Quartet is a very spiritual and mystical book and I am reminded of the Victorian church in Vauxhall, London, where I used to work. Although it was a church full of beautiful craftsmanship, it was a church for the poor working class people of the neighbourhood. Everywhere, in the stone and wood carvings, the mosaics, the embroidered vestments and banners, the church celebrated the sacrament of working with your hands. "Remember," it said, "Jesus was a carpenter, a working man like you."

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

This review first appeared on my Magic Realism Books blog.

Jorge Luis Borges declared The Invention of Morel a masterpiece of plotting, comparable to The Turn of the Screw and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Set on a mysterious island, Bioy's novella is a story of suspense and exploration, as well as a wonderfully unlikely romance, in which every detail is at once crystal clear and deeply mysterious. 

Inspired by Bioy Casares's fascination with the movie star Louise Brooks, The Invention of Morel has gone on to live a secret life of its own. Greatly admired by Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, and Octavio Paz, the novella helped to usher in Latin American fiction's now famous postwar boom. As the model for Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Last Year in Marienbad, it also changed the history of film.

Goodreads description

The Invention of Morel is one of those books which exist on the boundary of genres - magic realism, science fiction, philosophical fiction. But that does not matter, so often the best books are the most uncategorisable.  This is an amazing book:  only 100 pages long and yet so full of ideas, published in 1940 and yet so modern, indeed it is prescient in some of the ideas and themes, and as for the plot, well all I can say is Borges was right, this is a masterpiece. 

The book is written as a journal by a fugitive from the law, who in order to escape his punishment comes to an island that has the reputation of being a place of death, where everything, including anyone who visits, is dying. What crime the fugitive has committed (if any) is not made clear. Bioy Casares' approach is a class example of "less is more" in writing. A lesser writer might have been tempted to create a backstory, but by not doing so Bioy Casares not only keeps the story lean and to the point, but also introduces doubt and allows us to project our ideas on to the story. 

One day the fugitive sees a group of people in the villa, known as the museum, on the hill that overlooks the island. Among these newcomers is a beautiful woman, Faustine, with whom the fugitive falls in love from a distance. As detailed in the Goodreads description, Faustine was inspired by the author's obsession with the silent movie star Louise Brooks. 

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares—to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).
The fugitive's account has a nightmare quality. He is both terrified that he will be discovered -  indeed that the whole thing is a cruel trick on him by his pursuers - and unable to interact with Faustine and the others. He watches them from behind curtains, inside giant urns and as he realises that they cannot or will not see him. Then there are strange occurences - people appear and disappear, scenes are re-enacted, there are two suns in the sky, objects reappear in exactly the same place as a week earlier. And then there is the constant sense of death and decay - dead fish in the swimming pool, flowers wilting, etc.  We and the fugitive begin to wonder what is real. Bioy Casares introduces some footnotes by a fictional editor  just to add another level of uncertainty.

The most complete and total perception not only of the unreality of the world but of our own unreality: not only do we traverse a realm of shadows, we ourselves are shadows.

There is a reason for these strange occurences and that is the invention of Morel (Morel organised the group's island trip). More than that I cannot tell you without spoiling the book, although knowing will not prevent me from reading the book again. However I will read it with a different eye, seeing, I am sure, the brilliantly plotted clues that I missed or misread the first time, and enjoying the development  of philosophical themes. 

I commend this book to you.