Suburban Alembic

My grandma has peach sheets.
With arms weather-beaten as a sailor’s
she hoists them high
where they billow and flap
across Eastbourne’s sandy bric-a-brac,
the cool, evening pebble-blue sky.

Coming out from the side passage
the golden dog
spots the sheets
bounces into the bungalow garden
snaps like a puppy
at the dark fuzz of lawn.

Joy. She canters
dives and rolls
into the slap
drop
and leap of the sheets.

She twists and sits up
and barks
and barks again:

the dog knows –
the dog knows!

This

This

I hope when they arrive they see this first.
The red-and-white lighthouse
tied to the cliff-top,
the Channel slipping away to reveal
a ribbed parchment of sand
weed-streaked rocks
and space for three men,
an arching fishing rod.

They will not see a horizon.
Rather sea, sky, morning in union,
a relaxing of green and grey,
suffused with childhood blue.

It is beautiful and warm.
I hope this is where they come.
I hope this is what they see.

 

Eastbourne, April 2017

Polesden Lacey – English Country House inspiration for my next book

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, the forthcoming book in The Secret of the Tirthas, takes place in a fabulous country house based on Polesden Lacey, a property near Dorking that was almost bequeathed to the Queen but ended up in the hands of the National Trust.

My wife and I take our boys there on a regular basis, as they love amongst other things getting their hands on old stuff, grandfather clocks, the chickens when they’re not away on holidays, and, appropriately, the stone griffins. Plus the grounds are huge, and beautiful, so there’s plenty of space to run around.

I always wanted the series to be very diverse, with equal parts mystery and action, and a strong contrast between the exotic and well-known. After Lizzie’s harrowing ordeal in the Cameroonian jungle in The Dreamer Falls, I decided to revert to a gentler setting, with the emphasis once again on mystery and intriguing characters.

After watching an excellent BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and then reading the no-less-brilliant book) I knew Lizzie’s story leant itself to the same kind of set-up. So I did some research and took a lot of photos of the building, uncovering more of the absorbing story of Margaret Greville, who bought the house with her McEwan’s inheritance (‘I’d rather be a beeress than an heiress’), and who held regular country parties for socialites from London and the wider Empire.

Portrait of Margaret Greville, Polesden Lacey

Margaret Greville collected ‘people with the unerring eye of a stamp-collector’ according to the Evening Standard, and her guests included European Ambassadors, Earls and Countesses, writers and poets – and Maharajahs. A perfect mix for an intense and suspenseful story, in which Lizzie is left wondering whether guests are who they say they are – or whether they are demons in disguise, come searching for a lost Artefact of Power.

The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask will be out in the early summer. The final book in the series (currently with numerous working titles!) will be out early next year.

Margaret loved her dogs, all of whom ended up in Polesden’s famous pet cemetery.

‘She being dead yet speaketh’

This poem was inspired by an inscription on a gravestone in Warwickshire:

‘She Being Dead Yet Speaketh’

just before I wake or when the dog
looks up suddenly from cracking its bone.
When my name sung by her voice
seeps through the wood in the house.
When I run to the phone,
thinking that it’s her.
Behind the confusion
of a stranger’s piped words.

In the blaze of the baby’s hair
as she sprawls beneath blue bay windows
I hear her still speaking
telling me always, telling me nothing,
making me feel, before it bursts,
like light.

Please, stop sending the cards.
She is still talking.
I am all right.

This was one of several poems I had published in the Belmont Art Centre’s Poetry File programme for secondary schools in Shropshire.

World Book Day & the ‘Magic of Children’

I’ve just spent the last two days being reminded of the magic of children.

Yesterday I attended a ‘Better Start’ conference in Blackpool, looking at the role the whole community plays in bringing up healthy children. There were some inspirational speakers, including Trevor Hopkins who spoke about all the things that make people feel safe and happy. His long list ended in spirituality, religion and magic. Remarking on how many in academic spheres often criticise him for adding magic he stated (here I paraphrase): ‘Well, you all know children. Children are magic.’

Today is World Book Day, and I was given an opportunity to see again the magic of children when I undertook my first Author Visit to Class 3 of North Wheatley Primary School. I did a short reading, after which I was preparing myself for blank faces – only to experience quite the opposite. For the next half hour – and then again after break – I was answering dozens of interesting and intriguing questions from these bright and lively pupils. Should Lizzie have gone through the portal? Would I have gone through the portal? (And then I was caught out by ‘what’s your favourite song’!) I was bowled over by the depth of thought that the children applied to their reading.

The morning finished with the children writing storylines for adventures through their own portals, and once again I was massively impressed by their imagination and creativity. Thanks to the Head teacher, Joanna Hall, for inviting me and special thanks to the class teacher, Kate Bailey, whose preparation made the session a real pleasure.

The Old Man

I used to do a lot of hill walking when I lived in the right places, principally Stirling, where I went up into the Highlands, and Cardiff, where I used to drive to the Brecon Beacons. The Surrey Hills, where I live now, are good – but they’re not quite the same. There’s nothing like proper mountains for a sense of freedom.

The old man in this short poem is the the Old Man of Coniston. Those who know that fine mountain in the English Lake District will also know that this photo is not taken there, as I don’t have any digital photos from that walk, which was done a long time ago. (It’s in the Brecon Beacons, near Pen y Fan).

The Old Man first appeared in Orbis poetry magazine, no.88.

The Old Man

In stride pale valleys grow before us,
smoothed between slumbering beasts,
and exciting strange pools of thoughts;
after roaming the Old Man and returning
like water we fall together
by a crumbling river and you sing,
a silly song, into my ear
as I rest my thoughtless head in your lap.

Who are you to me?
Dreaming child, self-absorbed,
before eroded thoughtways
you sing the possibility of freedom.

Scarecrow

This poem, written one winter when I was doing a lot of outdoor work, first appeared in Envoi magazine, no. 127. I was reading quite a lot of Ted Hughes at the time, too, and the great Welsh priest-poet, R. S. Thomas.

Scarecrow

The crow is not itself
just as I am not myself alone –
some of me is stolen
by that shrewd, wheeling eye.

What do I look like in crow?
Dumb, slow, stumbler on a field
of plenty, just trouble enough
to keep an eye on.

It sits there on my fencepost,
careless that it contravenes the good of me.
Watching me, utterly
unafraid of me.
Watching me, my enemy.

Watching me as I pierce
the slopping, inert earth with my cross
and dress its stick arms with shredded sacks.
And it doesn’t caw or blink
as I settle on the upright pole a pumpkin
and on that a black, shapeless hat.

The light on the winter field fails.
The crow’s wings stretch out,
pass up through me
as I walk, unsteadily, home.

Leaving my scarecrow in the field.
Alone with the crow.

The Wandle Geese

The Wandle Geese

Bright brown, white, and black
straining, swift
against the uppermost limits
of the river-channel’s air
honking
and half-honking

come the throat-stretched geese,
nature regenerate,
unmade,
singing the quality
that flies ahead of itself

roll-calling the bounty
of the nettle-thick banks

stamping their mark
on the ducks and the coots

championing the ever-ready

and demanding renewed assault
on the beauty and mystery
grown over within.

My Top 10 Books of 2016

What a year 2016 has been!

Thankfully, there are books to keep us happy. So here’s a round up of my favourite reads from the year:

  1. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

To think, I wasn’t even going to buy this. I needed a third book in a 3 for 2 at Waterstones, I was in a hurry, and this was being promoted. A piece of good fortune, and proof that we should always challenge our reading habits.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips.


2. The Crossing, by Andrew Miller

This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times.

3. Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty

A great adventure mystery story for middle grade / young teens, set in the rambling Biltmore estate and the dark woods surrounding it.

4. The Music of Chance, by Paul Auster

I read Moon Palace by Paul Auster many years ago and didn’t get on well with it. Then last year my wife bought a secondhand copy of The Book of Illusion in a lovely little bookshop in Alfriston. I read it and was an immediate convert (even re-reading Moon Palace, which I enjoyed much more this time).

Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review of The Music of Chance:

Don’t expect any answers. This story of two unlikely companions being undone through a game of cards with two equally unlikely partners just gets darker and darker…. Nashe, the hero, is a rationalist, but his burning of two wooden figures of the guys who beat him and Pozzi and inflict the ‘punishment’ of building a wall on them opens up all possible explanations, even supernatural. I loved this gripping book, although in the face of so much deftly handled ambiguity, the ending felt like too easy a way out.

5. And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

A lot of my reading is inspired by what I’m going to write next. I’m currently drafting the fourth book of The Secret of the Tirthas, The Lady in the Moon Moth Mask, set in a country house. The novel has a strong mystery element, so I thought it was time to read my first ever Agatha Christie novel.

My only criticism of this fantastic book is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless.

6. The Magician, by W. Somerset Maugham

Again for inspiration in my current writing, I reread this classic by Somerset Maugham. It’s an absorbing gothic tale of the tragedy that overtakes young lovers when they come across a vain, malicious and darkly ambitious Occultist in 1920s Paris.

7. Rilke’s Book of Hours, tr. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Reread over the Christmas period. It’s the one period in the year most of us get (at least some) time to reflect on life. I haven’t read any of Rilke’s other poetry, and I normally struggle with poems that are totally abstract – but I was struck by how some of the images in these poems relate to the need for an observer to shape the world. I read The New Scientist magazine and, as the universe gets increasingly weird and less likely the more we discover about it, I like how poetry written a hundred and fifty years ago can still resonate with current theories.

8. Wild Swans, by Jung Chang

I finally got around to reading this amazing book. Here’s my Goodreads review:

This is a whirlwind story, focusing around the tragedy of China throughout much of the last century through three generations of women. The greatest havoc is wrought by Mao Zedong and his wife, particularly through his Cultural Revolution in which young people are pitched against teachers, intellectuals and artists in a highly successful attempt to divide and rule. It’s like Lord of the Flies meets real life. Read this book, especially if you don’t know much about China – it’s an education.

9. The Siege of Krishnapur, by J.G. Farrell

I loved this book about a siege that reflects the physical and metaphysical crumbling of the British Empire in India. As the residents of the compound try to maintain their routines under increasingly desperate circumstances it’s darkly humorous, at times reminiscent of Carry On Up The Khyber.

10. Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris

I haven’t read a Doctor Who book since I was about 10 years old, but was glad to return to them with this one. Having written my first novel about India, I couldn’t resist this title when I saw it in a secondhand bookshop. Here’s an excerpt from my Goodreads review:

India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end.

That’s my top ten from 2016. Let’s hope 2017 proves a good one – or at least a little bit less tumultuous than 2016.

Happy New Year!

Rise

Rise

The vegetation, air is damp.
Branches move slightly
and the sky is grey.
Christmas is coming,
feel the mind rise.

A blackbird silhouette
jumping under the laurel.
The cut log stained black
with age and rain.
The robin around,
quick with his feathers.
Christmas is…
…the mind rise.

The river swells, gloomy grey,
and a fox, ears high,
lopes to a sibling,
fidgeting in a daytime dream.
Christmas…
…rise.