Sunday, 18 October 2015

a mad god's dream

"But Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream 
Fitful and dark," - Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978): “Edinburgh”

So I travelled to Edinburgh. Every time I visit my capital city, I step up out of Waverley Station and think all this is only two hours away from me, and people travel halfway across the world to see it...

I love Edinburgh, and I particularly love the quote above by Hugh MacDiarmid. It describes Edinburgh perfectly, and I like to tramp about the city, the words curling around in my head, imagining myself walking through some marvellous and bewildering landscape. Despite it being October, the main streets were still full of tourists, and I was glad to escape to Leith, where the doors are guarded by lions and foxes, and ghostly tailors still advertise their wares above modern shops. I soon found my destination, about half-way down Leith Walk, and I was welcomed into the flat by Hope, and a large, white, wolf-like dog. I was offered a glass of beer by Hope's flatmate, Anouk, and sat down to rest my feet and admire the kitchen. There was a big black stove, a window looking out onto the garden, a rocking chair AND a rocking horse. Yes, a proper rocking horse, with real horse-hair, leather straps, and bright paint.  I'm so jealous.

Artistic, imaginative, and more than a little quirky, the flat decor suits both its occupants down to the ground. Hope is a journalist and writer, who is currently working on her first novel, and Anouk crafts fantastically beautiful fabric dolls. I've linked to both their blogs so you can go and see their work for yourself. It was lovely to sit chatting about art, books and creative things, while listening to music and eating plates full of spaghetti, slowly getting sleepier and sleepier. The next morning, (which was lazy and full of croissants, honey and tea) I headed off to a photography exhibition at NMS. On the way, I found this chap setting up the stall for the Edinburgh Tool Library. They can be found at the Leith Walk Police Box on Croall Place, every Saturday, from 9am -1pm.

The idea is that instead of buying expensive tools that will maybe only get used once or twice, groups or individuals can join the library and borrrow the equipment they need. The organisation will also provide training. After a quick chat and a photo, I continued on my way. Entry to "Photography: A Victorian Sensation" cost me £10 and I could go in and out as I pleased from 10am-5pm. Although  (ironically) photography was not allowed in the exhibition, they did have 'selfie spots' where visitors where encouraged to take photos of themselves and tweet them. Despite not having a twitter account, I made FULL use of the dressing-up facilities and spent rather a lot of time posing in front of the mirror. Funnily enough, after removing the heavy Victorian-style skirt, I felt practically undressed going about in my normal clothes. I'd discovered the exhibition through Joan Lennon's post on The History Girls blog. You should go and read her brief review of the exhibition, and see if it inspires you to go too! I studied the history of photography at uni, making the first part of the exhibition an excellent exercise in what I'd remembered...or forgotten. The part I liked best, however, was looking through all the old photos. Cleverly, although the actual photos were on display in the cases as well, the exhibition designers had provided viewing boxes with the digital images, allowing you to zoom in and out of the photos at your leisure.

 Later, I met up with my younger brother,who is studying at Edinburgh, and he took me to Teviot, his student union. Safe to say, it was far better than MY student union, which was a sixties monstrosity. This one has a restaurant in the old library, with all the books still safely behind the original glass cases. There were leather chairs, and nice corners to sit in, and a twisting staircase that looked like something out of Harry Potter. The food to be expected. Cheap and filling, but nothing to write home about. I had pasta - my brother had 'The Balmoral Burger' (which is a venison and haggis burger to the uninitiated...) After lunch, I marched him along to the museum, on discovering that -despite being in Edinburgh for two years- he'd never been. 

Back at the flat, preparations were under way for a 'Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness' autumnal party. Hope made chocolate brownies, measuring ingredients out in bowls; Anouk made a spicy chorizo stew. We started on the wine. Guests arrived, two little children included, who fell on the rocking horse with glee (the youngest one poking at the horse in confusion, saying 'button...button?' to her mummy. It was gently explained that this toy didn't have a button to make it go.) 

I'm not really a party person, but everyone was so friendly, and I found myself talking to illustrator Joanna Robson and doll-artist Crystal, while tucked in a corner beside the music. It was great to eat good food, relax and chat - but my busy day and walking around the city caught up with me, and I crept away to my cosy little bedroom under the stairs. 

Next morning, I had time for a quick wander around the Out of the Blue Drill Hall, which was running an eco-fair that day. It was full of people: some manning stalls, some enjoying the food at the award-winning cafe, and others standing around chatting - a real buzz in the atmosphere. I particularly liked the selection of locally made artwork available: the drill hall offers studio space, as well as training courses and running a whole hosts of shows and events like this eco-fair. The wall outside was brightly painted too - with these fantastic, shamanic-style murals.

My final stop before catching the train was to grab some refreshments at Artisan Roast on Broughton Street, recommended by barista Anouk, although she wasn't working that day. I ordered a rose petal and black pepper hot chocolate, a blueberry and coconut cake, and headed through to 'the mooch', which is the comfy retreat at the back of the coffee house, with a wood-burning stove (alas, unlit), leather cushioned couches lining the walls, and a guitar hanging up, just in case anyone wanted to play a little music. I found it was easier to write and eat at the same time by sitting on the floor with my back against the couch. No one batted an eyelid. A girl was asleep at the other side of the room. My fellow 'moochers' were a real mix - students, young parents, gently ageing hippies...

In this atmosphere, I managed to write another 500 words of Northspell (which will be appearing soon), demolish the beautifully light and fruit-stuffed cake, and finish ALL of my hot chocolate. I couldn't taste the black pepper as much as I had thought I would, but perhaps it subtly combined with the rose-petal to mellow the richness of the chocolate. All in all - a perfect place to relax, with great sweet treats and hot drinks. I'll definitely be back.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

[Northspell 11] a friend of thieves

Irena dipped a hand into the bucket and scattered a handful of the dry sand. "I didn't do anything. At least...I was hungry, so I ate some berries. He said I was a thief, but I'm not a thief. A thief is..." she turned to look at Gia and Arkel, both of whom were staring at her. Gia had her fists on her hips, and Arkel had his arms folded.

"Did you pay?"

"You ARE a thief!"

Gia and Arkel spoke at the same time, Gia with her lip curled scornfully, and Arkel with something like delight in his voice.

Irena dropped the bucket, the sand spilling out onto the stone floor. "I'm not a thief, or a northwitch, or a gutter-rat or a...a... a chicken."

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

[Northspell 10] Not quite the very best thieves in all of Astia

Gia started to run as well, and Irena was forced into a trot to keep up, her bare feet stumbling in the sandy dirt. She turned a corner and ran straight into the back of Gia, who grabbed hold of her sleeve and pulled her down into a crouch behind some stacked bales of fabric. Just in front of them, the street surface dropped away, with only small wooden platforms and a shaky staircase filling the gap. Hundreds of feet below, the river was like a strip of ragged grey silk, flecked with white. The wooden slats of the staircase were old and worn, and the only handrail was a sagging rope attached at intervals to the wall with rusty metal fixings.

Irena scrambled back from the dizzying sight. "I'm not going down there on that! It doesn't look safe at all," she cried out.

Gia jumped on her, and shoved a hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. Arkel smirked, "Don't worry, we're not going down on the shakeway."

There was a rumbling sound, followed by creaking. He pointed up over his head, "We're going on THAT."

Above them, a last great bale of fabric was being loaded onto a large wooden platform. It began to descend, slowly at first, but gathering more speed as the momentum built up. Arkel got up from the ground and turned to grin at Irena. "Ready?"

Monday, 14 September 2015

[glory brats] moving day

(Gah. Think of this as the writer's equivalent of preliminary sketches. I have a terrible problem with editing as I write, and then taking half an hour to write one sentence, so with this I tried really hard to just let the words stay as they are, constantly chanting to myself: adverbs are shorthand for 'I will fix this in the re-draft, not now, I will fix this later, not now, Tell in the first draft, Show in the re-draft...' -- I'm just messing around with the characters and seeing how they work together for now. But I'm not even supposed to be working on this story; I'm meant to be writing the first draft of Northspell, which I actually have a full plot worked out for. *sigh* Anyway, my new challenge is 500 words a day, so here goes. Which character is your favourite? I'm feeling a bit like Tekla at the moment, to be honest...)


Bee sighed and tried to find Tekla by patting the top of the blanket. It lunged forward and snapped, "Grrr, I'm a wild Outsider fighting dog and I'm going to bite you."

"No you're not," said Bee. "You're a four year old girl called Tekla."

Tekla peered out from under the blankets and made a face, "Now I'm baring my teeth at you. You're supposed to scream and run away," she added helpfully. "And then I can chase you."

"But I'm not scared of you," Bee said, drawing her hand back in confusion.

It was Tekla's turn to sigh. "It's a GAME, silly."

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

[glory brats] sparrow crumbs

A handful of scattered writing crumbs for you to peck at...

The Sparrow looked down on the city from the rooftops. It had rained in the night, leaving pools of water everywhere that were slowly shrinking in the sun. The empty streets lay out before her like a school-book map. She put a hand over one eye and traced the route with an outstretched finger of her free hand. She talked quietly to herself.

'There. That's the way we want to go.'

It was quiet. Zed was used to silence, but this was too quiet. He lay on his bunk staring at the white ceiling, counting all the cracks in the paint before he realised what was missing. The hum was gone. Now that he'd noticed, the emptiness seemed to fill his ears. He propped himself up on his elbow and shifted his legs to hang over the side of the bed, his feet hovering just above the floor. He slid off, using his hand to steady himself. Something about the door was wrong, like the silence was wrong.

Bett cleared the table and took two cups from a shelf at the back of the room. They were fragile looking things, with a thin, wavering rim and a pattern of painted flowers under the network of cracks that spread across the glaze. Mirren picked one up while the Outsider woman was busy at the stove. It was chipped and uneven in form, the pattern worn down by years of use and cleaning. The base was criss-crossed with scratches and marks. She tapped it with her fingernail. It gave a dull ‘ting’ that ended abruptly as she set it down on the table. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

blog link up, beautiful people, sparrow jones


Say hello to Sparrow Jones, the nine year old leader of the Glory Brats. Sparrow lives in Garden City - a bright, idyllic, leafy place, where children can walk home safely from school, and hardly anyone gets sick. But then Sparrow's mum gets suddenly re-called to Central, war breaks out, and her dad goes missing from his job on the construction site. She and her little sister Tekla run away from the authorities, and accidentally get left behind when the city is evacuated. They meet up with another group of abandoned kids, and at first they have fun exploring the empty city. But the war catches up with them, and they need to take to the road to find a place of safety...

1. What is their secret desire?

Secretly, she wants to be a little kid again. She's fed up of being the leader but won't let anyone know because she feels that being in charge is the only thing she has left.

2. What is the best and brightest moment they experience during the story?

Just before the Glory Brats have to leave Garden City - they've got a massive bonfire, have raided the abandoned depot for the quarantined food, and everyone is wrapped up in blankets and eiderdowns, just sitting around talking and laughing, and picking at the remains of the food. Sparrow feels that they have all they need, and life is good, for the moment.

3. What are the emotional places your characters are afraid to go to?

Sparrow doesn't think about her mum or dad, and doesn't like it when her little sister Tekla talks about them.

4. Is there a place/city/room where they will never go? Why?

There's a strip of forest surrounding Garden City, and no one ever goes there. Ostensibly the trees were planted to improve the air quality, but urban legend says that there's a dark secret involving underground bunkers and skeletons. But that's just kids' tales, right?

5. If they were permanently leaving town, what would they easily throw out? What would they refuse to part with? (Why?)

She gets rid of all her 'trophies' collected from the abandoned apartments - toys, forks (she just likes forks, OK?), books. But she keeps her scrap book of all the identity photos, because it's her only way of remembering EVERYONE who got taken away.

6. What do they want (consciously and tangibly)?

She wants the Glory Brats to stick together, so that they can get to a safe place where they can do whatever they want. More immediately, she wants medicine from the clinic in Exchange to make Tekla better. And she wants Kayzee to stop crying right now.

7. On the other hand: what do they need (on the emotional, subconscious level)?

A feeling of security. To be able to play, without having to worry about how to feed the others and look after them all the time.

8. If they could change one thing about themselves, what would it be?

When she was at school before the evacuation started, it would have been to change her status from Red to Green. Now she'd like to be bigger and older, so that people would give her more respect.

9. What is the most humiliating event of their life?

Life before the evacuation? When everyone else in her class got their green badges presented after their second blood tests, but she had to stay in her seat in front of the whole school because her test came back positive for infection. As a Glory Brat - when they all get transferred to Central, and put in quarantine lock-down. All her clothes are burnt, and she has to wear a hospital tunic, and they cut her hair really short.

10. What things do they turn to when they need a bit of hope?

Sparrow doesn't really have hope, but she gets a kind of comfort from two things: Fire, and books. Two completely contrasting things - but Sparrow is made up of contradictions. Fire makes her feel warm, and safe, and powerful. She's the only one of the Glory Brats that is allowed to keep and use the fire-starter. Books - she's the only one of the Glory Brats who can read, so it's a power thing again, but also she's only ever come across factual books before, so she's fascinated by the idea of story books, and reads them whenever she feels the need to escape.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

from the bookshelf: H is for Hawk + The Wake

I sleep surrounded by books. They are stacked in papery towers on the floor, jammed two deep on the shelves, and even hold my bedside lamp up. They have covers of every colour; they are hardback, paperback; old books, new books; slipcase and  dust-jacket. Occasionally I'll pull one out to re-read a favourite chapter, leave it lying, and it will start a new tower of its own. In some ways it reminds me of the second-hand bookshop in Otago Lane - where the books are in teetering, tottering piles all around you, and the proprietor is hidden behind a stack of yellowing old periodicals.

My collection is added to in dribs and drabs - a birthday present here, a charity shop find there. Once a month there's an antiques fair in town with a particularly good  dangerous bookstall - I rarely come away without a book or three. And while I love the way old books look and feel, there is also something nice about a properly new book. I don't get them very often, maybe that's something to do with it.

I want to talk about two books that I've read in December and only got around to writing about now recently: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Judging by covers, they should have been very different - one a work of fiction telling the story of a man whose world was torn apart by war and invasion; the other part-biography of T. H. White, part-memoir detailing stages of grief, depression and acceptance after the loss of a father.

As I read, however, I began to see parallels between the two books. The main character in The Wake -Buccmaster- and the personality of T. H. White revealed by Macdonald share similarities. Both take to the woods and wild spaces - White as a self-imposed exile, and Buccmaster through the loss of his lands and status; an actual exile.  Both are cruel, and selfish, and concerned with subjugating others, be they human, beast or bird. Neither man really learns from his experiences, but instead continues blindly, painfully, through their existence in a world that they no longer seem to have a place in (although White did eventually become a good falconer).

By contrast, Helen Macdonald's own story is one of gradually re-learning how to function after her father's death. Like White, she describes her training of the goshawk with a kind of clarity-of-madness, that this -this- is the only way to cope with her world right now,  through taming this fierce,wild "person who was not human, but a bird".

Macdonald's writing also echoes that of White's - whether consciously or unconsciously. Compare this description of summer, "When the rain stopped the heat began. Dogs panted flat in the black shade under the limes, and the lawns in front of the house paled and burned to hay..." with White's portrayal of the hay-making in The Sword in the Stone: "Half of the right-hand field was fenced off for hay [...]The dogs moved about with their tongues hanging out, or lay panting in bits of shade."

For me, little moments jump out of the printed page and become sharp reality - such as when she takes her copy of White's The Goshawk off the shelf ("Red cloth. Silver-lettered spine.") and I realise that I have the same copy. When she goes to the doctor and finally says that she thinks she might be depressed, she says to herself, "It doesn't sound convincing." and I find myself nodding because I too, have sat in a doctor's office, my face scrunched up with tears and thought, 'Why am I here? I can't have depression, not really, I'm just pretending, aren't I?'

The main difference between Macdonald and White is in the way they view their respective goshawks. For White, Gos is something savage to be tamed; something to be conquered as early explorers conquered mountains. Macdonald  comes to view her training of Mabel as a form of partnership - accepting and embracing the goshawk's wildness, whereas White is frustrated and confused by his inability to tame Gos.

Macdonald, attempting to describe her searing grief, resorts to Old English (my reason for pointing this out will become clear later on): " 'Bereaved. Bereft. It's from the Old English bereafian, meaning 'to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.' " She sees her grief as wounds that will not heal, that she can't imagine ever healing. Yet at the end of the book she returns to her earlier metaphor, and turns it on its head, seeing scars on her hands - cuts that have at last healed over.

The goshawk's world that Macdonald describes is a visual, visceral one - peppered with gut-wrenching descriptions of hunting with the hawk: "Now the rabbit is dead...blood upwells as she breaks into its chest, and I cannot stop watching it."

The landscape descriptions are such that you can smell the rain and feel the uncomfortable prickle of twigs, whether it's a hard, flinty, pine-studded forest, or a field in the cool dampness of the early morning. You know that this is an author writing about places she loves, with an eye for small details.

Read this book if you've ever read The Sword in the Stone, or The Goshawk, or if you like falconry, or nature books. It's about a hawk called Mabel, what's not to like?


The rich, intensity of the natural world is also present in Kingsnorth's The Wake. But it's a world that is separated from the reader by a language barrier (now here's where the significance of the Old English comes in). The Wake is written in what Kingsnorth calls "a shadow tongue" - a synthetic version of Old English updated so that it's not (completely) incomprehensible to the reader. I realise that this may put many people off before they've even started. But in a way, that doesn't matter, because the book has been published by 'Unbound - a sort of fundraiser for books that authors want published, and that readers want to read. A 21st century form of 18th century subscription writing. So over 390 people pledged to buy this book before it was even written, and their names are included at the end of the book, along with a description of how Unbound works. I hadn't heard of the website before I read the book, and I was fascinated by the idea - I'm a big fan of webcomics, and many webcomic artists employ similar methods to publish hardcopies of their work, and I'd often wondered why no one seemed to be providing a place for writers to do the same.

I'm a bit of a word geek, and I love language, so I had no problems with tackling a book that is allergic to capitals, has a severe dislike of punctuation, and that starts like this: 'the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still'.

Fear not, there is a glossary at the back, although really the best way to tackle this is just to keep reading (reading aloud helps immensely) and let the words sort of swim around in your head until your perception changes and it makes sense. Some of the words are impossible to guess at, it's true, but most of the time everything sounds familiar, but different, if that makes sense. Kingsnorth has also included a note at the end, explaining how he set about developing the language he used.

This use of a language that is both "alien and familiar" (Kingsnorth is here referring to the landscape of the novel, but it works equally well for commenting on the text) allows us to really get into the head of the narrator - Buccmaster. Buccmaster is a 'socman' - a free farmer, with four oxen, around 60 acres of land, and two tenant farmers to work for him - as he constantly keeps reminding the reader. He has a seat on the local wapentac (shire court), a wife whose only fault is that of not always listening, and two fine sons. He inherited a sword from his grandfather, and something else too - a belief in the old gods, who sleep in a deep, dark pool of water hidden in the forest.

1066 - Battle of Hastings. It rattles off the tongue: Normans, Harald with an arrow in his eye, the Bayeux Tapestry...Bang, start of English history. But what was it like? And what happened afterwards? Kingsnorth's book gives us an idea of what life might have been like: confusing, scary and brutal. There's no way around it - Buccmaster is a brute: he beats his wife (although not as much as other husbands, he claims), he's proud, cruel, capricious and stubborn. I can't actually think of a single redeeming quality. Yet despite this, I couldn't stop reading. Once I got used to the language, it made me feel like I'd torn my way through a veil into this other world with my fingernails, and everything was very bright, and strange, and vivid. It's not an easy book to read, but it is worth reading, especially for passages like this one, where Buccmaster is remembering a time in his childhood when his grandfather took him to see the place of the old gods: 

'what is this grandfather i saes what is this holt under the water what world is this. i was thincan many things that afeart me then i was thincan this was the land where aelfs cums from or that ents or dweorgs or even that it was the hall under the mere in what grendel was lifan and that his mother was cuman for me under my lytel boat.'

The old gods, his grandfather tells him, are gods of the trees and the water - they are found in the forests and the fens. And it's these places, and these old gods, that Buccmaster turns to when his world collapses. A conquering army is ravaging through the land, and Buccmaster fiercely rebels against...everything, it feels like. I was prepared to feel sorry for Buccmaster, despite his (many) flaws, but he'd probably call me a 'fuccan ingenga' before slitting my throat and stealing my food. What becomes of Buccmaster? Well, you'll have to take a trip to Norman occupied England to find out.