When Less is so much More…

I think my greatest literary (re)discovery of 2010 has to be Muriel Spark. I’d tried a couple of her books years ago but had never taken to the style. Revisiting her writing this past year, with different, more appreciative eyes, has seen me absolutely devouring her work. 

Santa brought me her autobiography, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. In the meantime I’m finishing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and am loving itThankfully I’ve never seen the film which I doubt could ever capture the nuances of her characters.

She has to be the Mistress of Spare Prose, and it is this – plus the dry humour – which does it for me. Her ability to convey the darkest aspects of the human psyche without resorting to ramming a character’s rawness down our throats, without ever really leaving that light and frivolous tone, is sublime. It’s a level of narrative control I’d love to achieve as a writer – almost unbearably tight… but I’m now firmly of a mind that in writing, as perhaps in life, it’s the holding back that evokes emotion, not the bleeding onto a page.

I’ve read lots of books this year, and some real beauties (one that springs to mind is the glorious Divine Farce by Michael S Graziano) but it’s Spark’s work that’s had the biggest impact on me as a writer

So, seven down and another 15 to go… should see me nicely into 2011.

Now, by two-headed Janus…

… nature hath framed strange fellows in her time.

Hurrah… it’s almost my favourite time of year!

The Romans moved the start of the new year to January in 153BC – a month named after Janus, the god of gates, doorways, beginnings, endings and time, who is generally depicted with two heads: one to look back on the past, the other forward into the future.

They believed Janus would, at midnight on 31st December, simultaneously look at both the old and the new years. It became customary to exchange good luck offerings at this time and in an early example of how quickly commercialism evolves around human habit, simple offerings of branches from sacred trees progressed into gifts of coins bearing Janus’s two heads, presumably in the hope of evoking prosperity for the coming year.

This practice of looking back, like Janus, on what’s gone – learning from it and moving forward with enthusiasm – is a human endeavour I’ve always found very cathartic. Essential, for me, in fact. But this year I’m deviating from it. I’ve spent the whole of 2010 in backward glance, gaining me nothing and costing me plenty, and so I shall forego the annual melancholy twixt-Christmas-and-New-Year navel gaze and skip straight into the optimism of another new beginning… a fresh start… a blank and promising page.

I wish a Happy, Prosperous, Optimistic and Productive New Year – when it comes – for you all!

Oh, and here, have an olive branch…


Faith, Sledging and Truth…

The kids and I were supposed to go sledging this morning but the eldest isn’t well and so we are, instead, tucked up warm in front of the woodburner. 

All is peaceful – I writing Christmas cards, eldest playing a computer game, youngest writing a story… when she pipes up why do people believe in God when there’s no proof?

Oh, think I. Nothing quite like a light conversational topic on a cold Monday morning. 

Um, well, perhaps the belief itself is what’s important. 

She doesn’t look convinced. 

Well… if all you have is Faith, it can be anything you want it to be. And perhaps proof would spoil that – prompt too many distracting questions, impose too many restrictions..? 

She’s still not satisfied. Says she’d be quite happy to believe in God… if only she had some proof. 

But can you imagine what would happen? I said. People would then want to know more… what does God look like? what’s she eat for breakfast? what’s his favourite colour? And their faith might start to waver if they find out God likes blue and they like green. They might start to wish they’d never asked… 

My youngest has an uncanny knack of tapping into my current moods. It just so happened I’d been up early working on a poem which dealt with Faith and Truth, though not in a religious context, and her question – my being forced to answer it – clarified the thoughts I’d been struggling with earlier in the day.

Sometimes Faith is more important than Truth. It frees us to be inspired, to move forwards. And Truth is often an immovable wall, which blocks that momentum and destroys our Muse. Truth can leave us with nothing.

Looks like it’s back to the drawing board with the poem… 

Some old lover’s ghost…

Okay, the title is misleading – and merely to test the poetry knowledge of anyone reading this post. The subject isn’t my old lover’s ghost, but more a general observation that Shrewsbury seems to be a seriously haunted town.

I’d noticed a while back how my ordinarily efficient smart phone played up in certain shops and areas of the town. On one occasion it went completely barmy, flashing on and off and refusing to respond to any button pressing. A few minutes later, when trying to pay for some items, the shop till also went odd and wouldn’t work. The sales assistant apologised and I made some jokey comment about my phone being of a similar mind and perhaps the shop was haunted.

At this point he leaned forward and told me, in conspiratorial tone – presumably not wanting to get in trouble for potentially scaring off clients – that the place was, indeed, haunted. He recounted several strange recurring incidents – malfunctioning equipment, lights, and changing room doors which lock themselves after hours – and said staff were convinced the shop was riddled with ghosts.

It, along with many other shops, is built on the site of the old castle walls and I’ve since noticed that all along that stretch my phone is knocked out of working order every time I go into a building.

I’m sure some dry, sensible geologist type, or architect, or whatever, will be able to explain rationally why certain areas of Shrewsbury interfere with mobile phones, despite the rest of the town offering glorious network coverage (the likes of which I was denied during six years of rural living, hence the gushing). But I don’t want to hear those rational explanations. I like the thought that this beautiful old medieval town is rampant with mischievous ghosts.

The sales assistant in the haunted shop said he’d been on the Guided Haunted Walk and how fantastic this tour is. I’ve yet to do it myself, but am looking forward to it. Shrewsbury at night is even more gorgeous than in the daytime and, with or without ghosts, many of the tiny cobbled alleyways are so evocative of their past, it’s like stepping back in time just to walk down them and imagine what life (and death) they’ve seen over the centuries.

The poem, incidentally, is beautiful and called Love’s Deity, by John Donne. Today just before I got into the hairdresser’s, a rather unkind email arrived on my phone. The hairdresser’s is built upon the old castle walls and one of those mischievous ghosts decided – wisely, I thought, on reflection – to erase that email from my phone. So, I dedicate the poem to that thoughtful spirit and thank him/her for not interfering with the scissors during my haircut.

A sort of pestering spirit…

I have a perfectly snug space in which to write (whilst pondering the acquisition of a future Shed), but am not always able to settle and work in that spot. Sometimes a change of scene is required in order that the Muse be adequately prompted.

Last night I took myself off to a newly discovered gem of Shrewsbury: Mad Jack’s – a delightful restaurant/bar, just a two minute walk up the hill (and five minute meandering stagger down again later).

It has a wonderful courtyard, with canopy, heaters and leather sofas. And it serves decent wine. In large glasses.

It’s named after one Mad ‘Jack’ Mytton – a reckless Shropshire squire, described affectionately in his Wiki entry as “a notable British eccentric and Regency rake”. Mytton followed family tradition to become MP for Shropshire – his seat secured through paying constituents £10 each to vote for him – but he found he hated politics and instead pursued a debauched life, squandering his family’s fortune and courting death in a bizarre litany of deliberate misadventure. He died at 38, penniless and in debtor’s prison – a round shouldered, tottering old-young man bloated by drink. Worn out by too much foolishness, too much wretchedness and too much brandy.

His close friend, Charles James Apperley, wrote a biography with the barking mad title: The Memoirs of the Life of the Late John Mytton, Esquire, of Halston, Shropshire, formerly MP for Shrewsbury, High Sheriff for the Counties of Salop & Merioneth, Major of the North Shropshire Yeomanry Cavalry; with Notices of his Hunting, Shooting and Driving. I reckon it’d be a challenge to get that one past an editor these days.

In this biography Apperley mused over whether Mytton enjoyed life and came to the conclusion, No. He lacked the art of enjoyment. He was bored and unhappy. There was that about him which resembled the restlessness of the hyena. A sort of pestering spirit egged him on.

I’d quite like that last sentence on my gravestone: A sort of pestering spirit egged her on. It’d be a glorious epitaph.


… a thing is so powerful it can only be destroyed. Sometimes you just have to break a thing before it consumes you. As you do it you’re not sure, you’re not at all sure, the breaking feels wrong yet the drive to keep hacking is there, strong, unavoidable. Once you’ve started you must carry on. Do the job properly. A half-broken thing cannot be fixed and yet can tempt with dangerous possibility. The trick is to destroy it fully and never glance back, or wonder, or question, just move on. It is done. It is broken. It cannot now hurt you.
I look at people who are content with their lot and wonder could that have been me? Was there a point, one solitary moment in time, where I too had the choice of growing into that person? The person who is content? If there was – if at some crucial point I stepped fractionally the wrong way – then I missed it completely. I can’t possibly trace it now. I will never know where and when it was.
I do not know why I left Spencer.
I do not know why I would have broken something so beautiful.
I do not know.
Though I always assumed him dead, I must also have contemplated him alive because many times I’ve pictured a point when he and I would meet. When we would reconnect. But I always knew each imagined conversation could never then happen – had been cursed by that very imagining. These scenarios we dream can never materialise. There are no prophecies. I should have learned over the years to pre-empt conversations I do not want to have by way of this method. Negate them completely by the mere act of scripting them myself, alone, in my head before they can happen for real.
But we don’t. We daydream desires not fears.
There’s a lot I’ve failed to learn. This is but one small thing.


A string of coloured bulbs lights a safe path round the harbour in darkness, its sharp hues too brash for the faded woodwork of the boats below. The shadows cast make the small seem big, distort the familiar into the strange, bleed colour out of the world. Once again I’m struck by the oddity of hating silence but loving the dark.

But it is not silent yet. The night is still young in relative terms, and this is the best time of the day. 

Pubs and restaurants compete for the lucrative summer trade with colourful chalkboard menus offering home-cooking, casket ales, families welcome, and the air is rich with the smell of cooling seaweed, beer, food. Doors open periodically; laughter, music and cheerful goodbyes emitting from the yellow glow; a cacophony of accents of those well-fed and softened by alcohol. Car doors slam, engines rev and behind it all the rhythmic beat of the retreating tide breaking gently against the outer harbour walls.

Pat and I used to love hanging round this part of town on Friday nights. Before Spencer. Before we were old enough – or nearly old enough – to be in that yellow glow ourselves. We’d sit on the edge of the harbour wall, dangling our legs and listening to the slow chug of cars down the narrow streets, live music drifting on the summer breeze, tourists calling out loudly – as though everyone were on holiday, as though none need rise at dawn to face a working day – whilst locals sighed, took the money, tolerated the intrusion.

We both liked and despised them. The visitors. We were never really sure.

When Pat was around I didn’t fear silence, though it was rarely present. There wasn’t a topic we didn’t discuss, at some point, over those years. At least that’s how I remember it, though the individual conversations themselves are gone. I remember fragments more than anything, and the sense that they represented the norm. We talked. It’s what we did.

“What are you thinking about?” Fen asks.

I laugh, though the question irritates. I can see the imbalance clearly at these moments. I know he would like me to stay.

“Nothing really. Just someone I knew when I was here.”

“And his name?”

I laugh again.

But his question makes me think about Spencer and I don’t want to do that. I want to think about Pat. To work myself up to the point where I can perhaps walk up the lane to the lifeboat house. Can perhaps go where I know I must eventually go.

Though not yet. I’m not ready.

But thinking about one invariably conjures up the other. It isn’t fair to blame Fen.

“She. Pat. A friend.”

“Ah. Does she still live round here?”

This is how it goes. The start of destruction. I will tell him about Pat – I need to tell someone about her – and he, in turn, will tell me things I want to know but shouldn’t. We will explore the depths, the most intimate secrets; will pick each other to the bones. And then we will realise there is nothing. And I will feel this first, because I am expecting it.

But it matters not. I’m leaving anyway.

It’s funny but I’ve never told Mervyn anything. Thirty four years and nothing. And he’s never asked. Maybe I always knew he was for keeps, in some form or another, and so was worth the effort of discretion. But, as I say, our edges are irregular and he too practical a man; solving problems when all that is needed is an ear. He would have tried to find Pat, at a point when I did not want her found.

But I want her found now.

Fen is a practical man too. So I tell him. I explain how life is when you love and hate in equal measure and with a passion that destroys everything it touches. How the aftermath of such intensity is endless. How this is obviously my interpretation. This is what I see. What I feel. This is neither true nor false – it is perception; a photographer’s view of the world.

And I tell him what I think Pat did. Jumped. Flew. Whichever.

The silence is tangible.

“She must have died,” he says, eventually. “You realise that?”

We walk to the beach. It’s darker there, although the moon is almost full and the sky clear. I know if I was here alone, in silence, more of the past would be audible; that it would help recover the Something Else. But equally I need Fen to keep talking. I don’t know why. I wonder what forgotten thing is waiting for me – what it is that I just cannot reach out and touch. Did I push Pat? Is that the horror I can’t now recall?

“Do you think I might have pushed her?”

He squeezes my hand. “I don’t know, but I can find out.”

Ahead we see a large shape on the beach, a piece of driftwood, in silhouette against the shine of the sea. Fen says it looks like a person climbing out of the sand, one arm raised, pulling on an invisible rope. I say it looks like someone sinking into the earth and waving in desperation, hoping anyone passing – maybe us – will hurry forwards and grab its hand. Then we walk another twenty paces or so and it no longer looks like either.

~ The Sky is Not Blue

For a dark hour or twain…

I’m sitting here in almost-darkness, with a house that’s cooling rapidly – our third power cut this week, each lasting several hours. Power failure is supposed to be one of those rural pastimes we gave up when we moved to town.

I do usually enjoy power cuts. Being isolated from the virtual world, for one thing, can be very restful. And I love sitting by candlelight in front of the fire, in silent contemplation – in fact I can happily daydream hours away watching flames.  

But it’s Sunday evening. There are school uniforms to be ironed, children to be bathed, their hair needs washing… I need washing! And I have work to do, for which I need a laptop on mains supply and not its ludicrously ineffective battery back up.

Added to this is the fact that we’ve run out of logs and can’t get a car out of the driveway to replenish the stock because the gate is electric with no manual override. So… no cosy fire, only one candle left, laptop battery almost dead, work stacking up and children dishevelled and grubby for school tomorrow. It’s not good.

Power cuts in town are different too. Not as seemingly expansive or silent as those in the country. When we lived just outside a village, I’d look out of the window and see absolutely nothing. There was something lovely and soothing about that. Here, I look across the river and see that the town centre is lit up (a sensible person might just grab her purse, in fact, and head to the nearest warm wine bar). And in the country, a power cut meant silence – but here, house alarms are triggered (a lot of them!) which in turn sets off the neighbourhood dogs and none of that noise stops until the power comes back on.

So, no. Power cuts in town are Not A Good Thing.

Think I’ll throw my smelly children into bed and head for the wine bar…