Tag Archives: Ali Smith

In the deep midwinter

It doesn’t feel like winter really gets going until the end of January. December is too jolly, and often too warm. It’s the last week in January that I start to feel winter seeping into my soul.

By February, we’ve had three months of getting up before dawn and heading home after dark. At our rickety office, we huddle around the convector heater, drink tea and eat biscuits to keep warm. This morning, as I gazed out of the window hoping for some kind of inspiration from the same old view of a leafless tree and a street lamp, snow started its soft fall, a teasing flurry that drifted away like a dream.

20171210_093625.jpgI have three survival strategies for winter: books, food and friends. Christmas brought a windfall of the first of these, books to curl up with, food to lay down hibernation layers. I supplemented Ali Smith’s wonderfully strange novel Winter, with Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles – a beguiling melting pot of recipes for the coldest days, traditions, folklore and musings. I also devoured Edd Kimber’s Patisserie Made Simple, dreaming of a day when I could whip up the lightest of French fancies at the drop of an egg. True to form, the first thing I made from Patisserie Made Simple was a short story about lemon tart.

Life outdoors doesn’t stop, however. I took a glorious walk along the Chelsea Embankment one coldly sunny day in January, striding out to keep warm in the icy wind. There’s even work to do in the garden, keeping down the weeds, turning the compost and planning for spring planting.

We dug a few knobbly Jerusalem artichokes from the iron-hard earth in the community garden, turning pink with effort, then walked the beds, deciding – tomatoes did well here last year, runner beans didn’t get enough sun there. We made plans, imagined healthy leafy plants, ripening fruit, untouched by slugs and blight. Last year, we planted tomato seeds on windowsills, on a snowy day in February. Almost time to make that leap of faith again. I notice my autumn-planted broad beans have sprouted – and a day later, that something has started to eat them.

Late last year, I started writing what I hoped might be a novel. Prematurely, I realise – the roots were shallow, I’d spent too little time ruminating, feeding the idea, getting to know the characters. It needs composting with research, turning in my mind, to put out feelers in the dark before it emerges, blinking, in the light of the laptop.

Some of that mulling happened over tea, cake, wine and cheese, at the Battleaxe Brigade’s winter writing retreat. This year we headed for a picturesque cottage in Sussex, with white clapboarding and a log fire. We shared work in progress, enjoyed a few writing sprints, talked until we were all talked out and laughed till our bellies hurt.

Good food (and wine), a log fire, writing and reading, and friends. If anyone has a better survival plan for proper winter, I’d like to hear it.



Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Out of Town, Writing

Listening to Refugee Tales


Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.


Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.


Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.


Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.


Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, London Life, Writing

Five books I loved in 2015

P1040035The list is a little shorter this year. I don’t know why exactly – I certainly read as much as usual, but only a few really stayed with me. So a drum roll please for (in no particular order):

1: Station Eleven. I first heard of this novel at an authors’ event at Dulwich Books. Emily St John Mandel read from the work, and described it as a ‘love song for civilisation’. Many dystopian novels seem a bit misanthropic, almost gleeful in their destruction of the enormous technological power we have in the 21st century. This post-plague novel brought home forcefully what we have to lose. It made me relish again the miracle of flying thousands of miles to visit friends, the wonder of being able to pick up the phone to talk to family, the extraordinary security in which so many of us in the West enjoy our day to day lives. Despite its bleakness, it’s an optimistic novel, holding out the prospect of rebuilding.

2: Case Histories. I’m late to the party here, but I’d never read any of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries. I discovered them on my mother’s bookshelf and was so gripped I couldn’t stop until I’d read the entire series. They offer the joy of a good, gripping thriller, written in crisp, satisfying prose, with lashings of dark humour and pathos. The long-suffering Brodie, a private eye with a history of disastrous relationships, is utterly beguiling. Please, can we have some more?

3: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. In the absence of the next Thomas Cromwell novel, this collection of dark and discomfiting tales from Hilary Mantel was the next best thing. No-one does mordant humour like her. They’ll be with me for a while; something nasty lurking in the bookshelf.

4: How to be both. ‘Ho, this is a mighty twisting thing,’ begins my copy of Ali Smith’s dazzling novel. But maybe not your copy, because the two interwoven stories were printed half with one story first, half the other. The invention, in language and imagery, as well as plot and structure, took my breath away. It became the novel I pressed on people this year, trying (and failing) to explain its extraordinary achievement. It’s full of the joy of being alive, and creating.

5: Black Country. Another bookshop evening, this time at the London Review Bookshop, where Liz Berry enchanted me with readings from her funny, magical and tearful collection of poems. I heard her again on the radio this morning, reading the bittersweet elegy to her mother, Homing, on Cerys Matthew’s Sunday morning Radio6 Music show. Listening to her sweet voice is the best way to hear her poems, but the second best is reading them, savouring each for their original and rough music.

Next year I’m planning on reading a lot of non-fiction, starting with Diana Athill, Edmund De Waal and something by 2015 Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. I’m looking for wisdom. If you have recommendations, please share them here.


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Reviews

Write like a man

writing-ministry-3-type-writerWhose stories do we tell? The choices we make at the start of a story – narrator, protagonist, first or third person, point of view – all flow from this initial decision. The default throughout most of history has been to tell the man’s story, or the story of men.

Kings, heroes, warriors, statesmen – men had all the best parts. It took the witty and wise female writers Jane Austen, George Elliot, the Bronte sisters and Mrs Gaskell to make the case for depicting women’s lives in fiction. And despite this, it seems, books about women are still taken less seriously than books about men.

This does seem extraordinary. Women writers often – perhaps by default – write about women. And we have many fine women writers, writing across the whole spectrum of literature. Yet to be a ‘proper’ writer, to be in with a shout of the Booker or a Pulitzer, do you need to write like a man? Which means writing about public life, big themes, and – above all – about a man. The domestic scene might be interesting to us girls, the implication goes, but out there in the big world, men have more serious matters to think about.

Well, more fool them. I’ve just finished Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, a fizzing feat of invention and mischief that plays with gender, time and language, spanning the centuries. History, high art, low cunning and the intricacies of the domestic sphere jostle for space. Trust a woman author to remind you how many eggs it takes to make a 14th century fresco. And before that I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, a heady love story in which the heroine’s difficulties begin with heavy housework in the post-war, post-servant era, and end as excruciating moral dilemmas against the backdrop of an Old Bailey murder trial. Domestic, yes, trivial, no. I’m also loving Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories detective series, in which private eye Jackson Brodie (yes, a bloke) is shunted around the country at the bequest of unpredictable, justice-seeking, headstrong women – who, if he’s very lucky, might just save him from himself.

All of which made me think about the choices I make when I write. My novel (latest draft finally off to the agent) has a female protagonist, and it’s her story. But there are three other point of view characters, all male. I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of writing men. When I wrote my short story Conservation, it was a conscious decision to write from a male perspective. I wanted to write about a man from a traditional society, displaced into a harsh modern world where the only job he could find was as a cleaner, doing work he had never thought to do before. Perhaps I was using a man to illuminate the humble work which otherwise would go unnoticed. A male cleaner can be seen as an interesting and tragic figure; a female cleaner is just a cleaner.

I noticed that all of the other stories short-listed for the Mslexia Short Story Competition had female protagonists – which probably reflects the opportunity for women writers entering a women’s competition to highlight the female experience. And their themes – motherhood, bereavement, sexual exploitation, growing up in a man’s world – are important and under-explored in literature. Does that mean I should leave the men to the male writers and write like a woman? Not a bit of it.

Like Ali Smith, I want to be both. I love the freedom of pulling on a fictional pair of breeches, to try to understand what assumptions and privileges make up the male mindset (or rather, the mindset of the individual male I am writing). I want to read more books by women and men that challenge expectations of gender, that accept its fluidity and shifting boundaries. Let’s have more self-assured, capable, tough heroines, more heroes who pick up the kids from school. Let’s have a novel where a woman wins a major prize for writing a book about a woman. Or is that really too far-fetched, even for fiction?

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Writing

In praise of difficult books

There was a chorus of outrage at last week’s Birkbeck novel writing class.

‘Unreadable!’ ‘Unbearable!’ ‘So irritating!’ ‘I hated it!’

No, we hadn’t got carried away criticising some poor soul’s latest writing exercise. We were venting our feelings about the set book we’d been asked to read for this week’s session, Ali Smith’s novel The Accidental. As you can perhaps tell, it’s not an easy read.

The tutor was dismayed – not by the reactions, but by the numbers of people who hadn’t read the book, or who had read only the first handful of pages before tossing it aside in exasperation. When one student protested that we hadn’t read it because we didn’t like it, she was scornful. ‘Do you only read books you like?’ she asked.

Good question. I was glad that I had persisted with The Accidental, despite loathing the first chapter of whining, stream-of-consciousness adolescent cleverness. It is a deliberately clever book, making few concessions to my preference for likeable characters, twisting plot lines and witty, articulate prose.

One of the difficulties we all face as novice writers is creating appropriate narrative voices, constructing interlinking plot lines and handling point of view. There was an enormous amount to be learned about all of these in The Accidental. It’s stylistically ambitious, insisting on carrying you inside the heads of some pretty unsympathetic characters and forcing you to see life from their perspective. It succeeds breathtakingly well. It’s not an easy ride.

It also made me realise how little I’d challenged myself with my reading in recent years. Thinking back to university days, I remember groaning my way through the interminable Don Quixote, being baffled by Chaucer’s Middle English, feeling lost in Blake’s labyrinthine mythology, driven to despair by the twists and false turns of Tristram Shandy. Later, fed up with the cleverness of men, I refused James Joyce and turned instead to Virginia Woolf, and side-stepped The Wasteland (since rediscovered, and one of my favourite poems) to read Sylvia Plath.

But the point was I had been frogmarched through the development of Western literature, learning along the way about the development of narrative, the evolution of English from its many sources, the influence of religion and mythology on stories and the creation of whole worlds. Part way through my course, I remember thinking that history was much more useful. I wondered how it could ever benefit the world for me to express my thoughts about Jane Austen, or Shakespeare, when so many much more intelligent people seemed to have sewn it up long ago. I didn’t realise at the time that this was purely for my benefit, not the benefit of the world.

There are two things a writer must do, we are constantly told: write a lot, and read a lot. I’d add, read a lot of everything, not just what you like. Challenge yourself. Read stuff you hate, that makes you feel like you’re back at school, that makes you yawn or throw the book across the room. I once ripped up a Martin Amis book, out of sheer rage. What did I learn from it? That you can move people to intense emotion through writing. Better to hate a book than shrug and feel as if you might have read it before.

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Writing