Sumer is icumin in…


The Wicker Man

…and then it icumined out again. Still, nice when it lasted wasn’t it. I spent most of it (all 1.5 days) lying in my parents’ garden in a bikini reading. In the early evening the sun dropped behind the massive tree dad is always muttering about chopping down, but there was still muted gold light on the hill behind our house so I walked up the Park and sat on the road amongst the sheep. The tarmac had trapped the heat so it was like sitting on a gentle Aga. (Last time I sat on a not so gentle Aga I wound up burning my bottom and it’s not as funny as it sounds.)

SO what was I reading? I know at least one person knows because she asked me to write my blog again which was very gratifying – thank you!

The first was What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. A rather odd but enjoyable collection of stories, some of which left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth like liquorice. (Apart from I bloody hate liquorice.) Then I read Emma Donoghue’s new short story collection, Astray. I think Donoghue is one of the most versatile talented authors on this planet: she writes in different styles depending on her mood/subject and while some people frown on that I think it’s a real art.  When I was sixteen I wrote to an agent who told me that I couldn’t write in different voices and that each author has to have their one recongisable vein or they risk disappointing their reader, but I disagree: I look forward to every book by Donoghue, and you couldn’t find more different novels than, say, Room and Slammerkin.

I’m afraid I also committed my cardinal sin of not-Magnus-Magnussing, and giving up on a book. This was Communion Town, another short story collection: not a bad book at all, just not my style. The stories started going into oddness and parallel-dimension-wise, and this isn’t my cup of tea at all. They were well written but I found myself losing patience with them and besides which I was DESPERATE to open the new Mo Hayder: Poppet.

Mo Hayder is a spine-chilling and very distinct horror writer. You need a strong stomach when you read her stuff (I think Tokyo is the ‘worst’) but you also need a brain, and that’s not always required when reading horror! Poppet was fiercely original, a bit sickening and very more-ish like eating something you shouldn’t. (Reminds me of when I was doing the housework and wound up eating seven – count’em! – marshmallow snowballs in 1 hour.)

I also discovered the author Rupert Thomson. His new novel Secrecy is so lush and rich I didn’t know whether to gobble it up or roll in it. In the end I just read it, which is the proper thing to do with books. It was like a peepshow in which you got to look at 17th century Italy through a rather grimy hole: the story of a young sculpter forced to his home accused of crime he did not commit and landing in even more trouble in Florence. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Finally, I’ve just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. She’s another author who isn’t afraid to write in a different style and this novel echoes her fiercely original and readable debut Behind The Scenes at the Museum. It examines the tiny moments in our lives which act as pivots and how something seemingly slight can drastically alter not just our futures, but those of others as well. The plot stumbles at points, but not enough to put you off; and when it got to the denouement I said “Oh!” out loud which doesn’t happen very often.

I think when a character raps on your mind’s window and goes “Oi!” there’s notlightoftheworld much you can do about it, and if you decide that character/story/idea won’t fit with what people expect of you you risk turning down a gift. Everything I’ve written has not come from me but from that tentative knock, kind of like a bastardised Light of the World (sorry Mr Hunt I do really love that painting). My literary-so-called-life and its rat-a-tat-tats consists of:

– My first ever book written aged 8: Keri Part 1. I never got to part 2. Keri and her elder sister Lucy lived in 1988 but wore crinolines and parasols (I was reading Little Women).

– A cartoon book about a dog called Woody Wellington, a flying spider called Tamoshanta, an owl called Mrs Miggs and a ‘groovy duck’ called Spike. I never got it published but  I made up a copy for Josie Russell, the sole survivor of a hammer attack on her family. The letter I got back from her father is one of my most prized posessions.

My Brother the Hero about Margery and her brother Mike and something to do with a football. I can’t remember why Mike was a hero, but he was.

– Seven Sisters: a 44 (at last count) chapter epic about seven sisters, oddly enough. The first time my naughty side came out. When I’m good, I’m very very good … but when I’m bad, you wouldn’t recognise me.

The Telephone Bird: the first proper book I finished. I got bored during my GCSEs and wrote it. The computer corrupted the file and I had to rewrite the whole thing. At the time I felt like one of my best friends had died, but the rewrite made it better. (Than ever? Well I was 16, what do you think?) I hope it’s not arrogant to occasionally dip into that and go “Man. That girl wasn’t half bad when she was young.”

A Makeless Maiden: the title is bizarre and nothing to do with the story, but it’s the second proper book I finished. I am still terribly fond of my awkward music teacher Elon and the eccentric Parrish family. I entered it for a competition a few years ago and got shortlisted for a bursary. It was very dull compared to all the other entries, I think. They were all about eighteenth-century-surrealism and finding oneself in remote corners of Scotland. Mine was about a guy who played the piano and blushed easily.

Those Are Pearls, which I wrote when I was about 18, about a girl whose mother is dying. I like this. (I like what I wrote not that her mother was dying.)

Tread Softly, Breathe Deeply – a collection of supernatural/odd stories some of which are very disturbing, particularly when you think a couple of them came from my dreams.

Mermaids in Satin – about a girl whose mum is a famous model or actress or something. Just a bit of meaningless tosh; the equivalent of a literary fling. Going nowhere and utterly meaningless, but fun.

That’s without counting other characters, stories and plots I’ve stumbled across, like walking through a ploughed field and turning up a Roman coin. I’m lucky in that I’ve still got 95% of everything I’ve ever written curling in spidery boxes in the garage but that’s where they sit, and whisper ever so often to me. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to dig them out – not because they will be rubbish but because they might be the best I’ll ever do. To quote Yeats:

There is grey in your hair.

Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath

When you are passing*

*They never DID IN THE FIRST PLACE, but it’s an allegory, okay?

Recently I was trying on dresses and worrying that a hemline was too short; that the back was too low; that I’m too old for sequins. Ten years ago (or maybe a few more *ahem*) I’d have been dressing to show off my cleavage, stomach, legs, bottom and back – all the same time if I could. Obviously one cannot dress like that at 33, but I wouldn’t really want to.

But I would like to write like I used to. I would like to get that feeling back of being utterly taken over by writing: when it’s all you think about, all you can do, when you sit at the computer and type without looking at the keyboard or thinking because the words are bypassing your brain and going right down your arm and spilling out through your fingers like quicksilver; because they’re not yours. After a bit you blink and look at the screen and know that what you’re reading is good because you can’t remember writing it.

Perhaps it’s time to let my writing self out again. I don’t know if I dare, any more than I dare wear this undeniably sexy but equally undeniably flashy silver dress hanging in my wardrobe. I’m frightened of looking stupid and being laughed at in both, and ultimately failing. I do think W. C. Fields was right when he said:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.

But perhaps I’ve never really tried in the first place. Perhaps it takes longer than the timescale I set myself when I made a conscious decision to make writing my Thing. I was six when I read Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters; although Ashford published the book as an adult she was eight when she wrote it and I remember thinking “I’ve only got two years left”.

If my six-year-old self could see me now…