Necessity – a poem about sleep

I used to have a lot of trouble sleeping and still spend an hour or two in the middle of most nights awake. It’s not that I’m worrying (usually), I just wake up and don’t feel sleepy. I lie there and think about my writing and other things going on in my life.

Sleep historians (yes – they do exist) suggest we used to be in the habit of sleeping in two shifts. This makes a lot of sense to me – I get some of my best thinking done in the middle of the night.

I wrote this poem for a project run by a Shropshire Arts Centre in secondary schools. It’s about someone I love, but it was inspired by a period when I was lying awake worrying in the middle of the night. It’s based on that sense of relief that comes suddenly after the intensity of the worry, just before sleep itself.

Necessity

She wakes up with a sudden start
that may have been a noise
and her body begins to lock itself
with a thousand flowing could-bes.

She’s seized by an implacable fear
in the rare vividness of the night
in a mind more bright and quick
than daylight ever sees.

Holding her breath, she counts intently
the fluttered moments of nothing,
squeezes hard on rigid muscles
as the empty house sighs and creaks.

It is a patient waiting for grace.
For something that loves her very deeply
is slowly discovering the combination
to put her back to sleep.

 

Who are your Inspirational Authors?

Roald Dahl - inspirational authors

I’ve started a new A-Z of authors who have inspired my writing on my Instagram page, using the hashtag #stevegreads.

I’ve just got to D, which was a tough choice between Helen Dunmore, a fantastic author and poet who died sadly last year, Bob Dylan, whose biography Chronicles lived up to his epic career of songwriting, and Roald Dahl.

In the end I had to choose Roald Dahl, whose irreverent, joyful stories were a high point of my childhood reading. And which are now making me happy for a second time, as I read them with my two boys.

Which authors do you keep going back to? Who has inspired you the most?

The Unknown Realms – Taster

Venice

The Unknown Realms is the fifth and final volume in The Secret of the Tirthas. In it, Lizzie faces her most perilous challenges yet as she seeks to stop the demons and their followers from corrupting the power of the tirthas for their own treacherous ends. And worst of all, she must face them alone, as she has lost all hope of reuniting with her friends.

Here’s a short excerpt from the second chapter, The Cannaregio Shrine:

Alessandro’s grandfather, Nazario, told him that the shrine of the Madonna in Cannaregio was the oldest in Venice. When Nazario suffered a stroke that left him bedbound and dumb, Alessandro used his pocket money to buy a tealight each day from Severina’s shop which he would take to the shrine in the wall, light with a match, and pop through the grill. He could just reach through to the bottom ledge if he stood on tiptoes. He would say a prayer to the ivy-shrouded statue of Our Lady, wishing his beloved grandfather would return speedily to good health, so they could laugh again and enjoy a sweet zaleti together in the morning sunshine.

Today, as he was coming down the canal-side street to the corner where the steps led up to the shrine, Alessandro was thinking about his cat, Tito. He was wondering why Tito never ate all of his food, even when it was fish, when he heard an unusual creaking sound ahead. It was followed by a dull thud, and then a cough, a human cough, echoing through the twilit street. He was sure someone must be up by the shrine, perhaps a straggling tourist.

Alessandro cried out in surprise as he turned the corner and came face to face with the person who must have made the noise.

‘Madonna!’ he gasped, seeing the bedraggled, greasy hair, the bony, wrinkled forehead, and above all the large, desolate eyes, eyes full of a sorrow that would haunt him for the rest of his life. ‘Chi sei?’ was all he could think to say, who are you? Although at the same time he was thinking what are you might make more sense.

The awful crone didn’t reply. After holding his gaze for a moment and filling him with a wretched chill that he felt right down to his heels, she barged past him, clutching something tightly against her side. She hurried off in between the tall buildings, alongside the still, green-dark canal.

Alessandro stood still, feeling sad, in need of his mother, in need of God, but most of all just confused. After a moment, he realised the sharp edge of metal that his thumb was flicking in his pocket was today’s tealight. Before running back home, he would at least light that, to remember his grandfather’s health, and the hope and mystery of the Madonna.

He turned the corner and began to climb the small, white-washed steps to the shrine, which was set a couple of metres up in the wall and covered in a fine ivy that was turning red with the autumn.

Then he stopped again, and watched something happen that simply did not make sense.

Dropping from the shrine, from its opened grate, was a person – a girl with a pony tail, older than him – with the Madonna statue clutched in one hand. No sooner had the girl landed on the pavement than she was followed by another, much larger, figure – a woman, no, a man, thought Alessandro, and then he thought, no, un mostro, a monster!

The second figure was huge, only just able to squeeze out through the small opening in the wall, clad in black, with the most terrible features, a giant, reddish face, teeth like a bear’s, a brutal, snubby snout, and thick dark hair.

Diavolo!’ gasped Alessandro, as the creature straightened and placed a hand on the shoulder of the girl, who was looking down the steps at him with a clear, steadfast gaze.

And then his eight-year-old imagination kicked in, a clear connection was made, and he realised what he must be seeing. A woman wearing a mask, of course! But then he thought: why, when it wasn’t carnival season?

The girl said something to him then. She spoke in a language he didn’t understand, but her eyes were kind and her voice reassuring, so he felt the fear in him subside. Then she looked up at her strange companion and said something to her. The masked woman replied, in an urgent voice that sounded to Alessandro like Darth Vader from Star Wars. Was something wrong with her? he wondered. The woman stepped aside and, standing on tiptoes, the girl quickly replaced the statue of Mary in the shrine and pushed the protective grill back into place.

Next moment, the woman with the demonic mask was striding down the steps towards Alessandro, pulling the girl along behind her.

‘Togliti di mezzo!’ the woman said to him, and he stepped sideways to pin himself to the wall as they came past, clearly in a hurry.

There were many things Alessandro would never forget from that night – the crone, the foul, factory-like smell of the devil-masked woman, the deathly, unbearable wail that shook Venice a short while later and made everyone think their decadent city had finally reached the End of Days.

But the one thing he would remember above all were the eyes of the girl as she came past him on the steps.

The eyes of a girl who understood more than any other girl. A gaze that held so much, and that made him think one day, years later when he was an apprentice glass maker in Murano, that this must be what the gaze of a saint would be like.

A gaze full of compassion and understanding.

And trapped by Fate.

The Unknown Realms will be out in June.

Where do you belong?

Kenilworth castle

Last week I had a short break with my family in Kenilworth, a small town in Warwickshire. I was born in Eastbourne but moved to the Midlands when I was very young, and spent most of my childhood there. Despite not having lived in Kenilworth for 20 years, I was surprised at the deep connection I still felt with the place.

We rented a small cottage near the ruined but impressive Kenilworth castle. The castle was owned in its prime by Robert Dudley, the probable love interest of Queen Elizabeth I. They had been friends ever since they met as prisoners in the Tower of London. We spent a day in the castle, stomping up rickety, often rotten-looking stairways, taking in the magnificent views from the keep and the stately wing that Dudley built for the queen.

We spent a long time at the nearby flooded ford. With a small crowd, we cheered those cars that went for it and booed those that didn’t. (At least until our youngest, ignoring pleas to step back from the railings, was soaked by an SUV.)

We visited Leamington Spa, where the highlight for the boys was not the lovely Georgian Parade but a new rotor-blade swing in Victoria Park. We spent a sunny day in Stratford-on-Avon where the river had flooded its banks. Finally we visited splendid Warwick Castle, which unlike Kenilworth survived the ravages of the English Civil War.

Warwick castle

I was excited to be back in the area I grew up. But I hadn’t expected the depth of connection I felt, run through by the precious seams of so many good – and some not-so-good – memories. I realised that, despite the length of time away, this still felt like my place. I love where I am now, and I’ve loved being in Scotland and London. But these small, Warwickshire towns, and especially Kenilworth, are where I was formed.

They are the places where I will always, to some degree, belong. Where do you belong?

 

The real City of Light: Varanasi, the most sacred city in India

Kashi - The City of Light Kashi – The City of Light

The city that Lizzie discovers through the portal in her garden in the first book of The Secret of the Tirthas is based on a real city in India.

Kashi is one of the oldest cities in the world. Some estimates put it at up 2,000 years old! It has had several names, including Benares, also spelt Banaras, but it is most commonly known as Varanasi. The meaning of Kashi is the ‘City of Light’. It’s the holiest city of Shiva, the Hindu god responsible for destruction. But Shiva destroys things with a purpose, to ensure there’s space in the world for creation and new life.

Kashi has hundreds of temples and stone steps (‘ghats‘) on its waterfront, leading down into the sacred River Ganges. Hindus believe that pilgrims who die in Kashi are enlightened and achieve instant moksha – that is, escape from the endless cycle of life and birth. Many are cremated at the famous Manikarnika ghat, and their ashes are thrown into the swirling river.

Shiva and the Ganges

The Ganges flowing down from Shiva’s hair

Hindus also believe that Kashi is the centre of all ‘tirthas‘ – sacred crossing places – where the gods come down on to earth and where pilgrims can be transported instantaneously from one holy shrine to another. Now there’s an idea…

Kashi was the first place I visited on a three-month trip to India when I was in my twenties. I remember my first morning, taking a boat out to watch how the early morning sun made the honey-coloured ghats glow. It felt like I’d entered the landscape of a fantasy novel. I realised that there is little need to create imaginary worlds. You just have to visit places and cultures you’ve never been to before.

For more photos and extracts from my journal about the day I arrived in Kashi click here.

 

 

 

Wedding Song – a poem for newlyweds

Weddings open new doors

I wrote this poem to read at the service of a friend’s wedding. Weddings are a unique joy, the perfect time to remember that doors are always opening, that every moment offers a new beginning. But weddings fly by too fast. So I wanted to capture that sense of freshness and love, not only for the newlyweds themselves but for everyone who had come to witness and celebrate their marriage.

Wedding Song

And as they came out into the gladbright day
the light sprang up in their eyes
for all the crowd to see
that they were sunmade –

and the day danced
danced through the eyes of the lovers
danced because there is never
anything except beginning
and never is it known more
than on this day –

and we all would follow
swept up like the spangled leaves
of glorious trees,
savouring their sunshine

and they came out singing
and they came out dancing
and they came out thinking
that they’d never been like this before –

and we would all be
blown gaily through the gorgeous day
as if time were nothing but air –

unless we were now
to stop
for just this one moment
and think each of ourselves
all here now
in our hearts

alive

and real as love.

 

The poem I wrote for my wife on my own wedding day is here.

St Paul’s School Book Club visit… and The City of Light Cake!

The City of Light book cover cake #cakestagram

It’s not every day you get a cake made of your book…

Thank you so much to the readers of St Paul’s school Year 6 book club for their enthusiasm and fantastic questions yesterday. It was great to talk to them about the inspiration for my books, from a Herefordshire garden, to trips to India, Africa and Disneyland.

And particular thanks to the two members who baked cakes, including this one inspired by the The City of Light!

For more pics, visit the school blog here.

Land of Mine: life as a Prisoner of War

I’ve just watched the harrowing Danish / German war film, Land of Mine. It’s about a group of German Prisoners of War who, contrary to the Geneva Convention, are made to find and defuse 45,000 land mines along a short stretch of brilliant white coastline. That’s 45,000 out of the 2.2 million mines that were laid along the Danish coast, more than the rest of Europe altogether. This is where the Führer thought the invasion would come.

The film is heart-wrenching. The soldiers are all in their teens, clearly out of their depth, carrying all the burden of a situation that was not of their making. They are harassed and abused by their guards. It’s understandable, but hard to watch when they are crying and having to loudly deny that they are missing their homes, or their family, or even crying in the first place. This is grim. It is only a matter of time before, starving and sick from eating stolen animal meal, the expected happens.

My grandfather was a German Prisoner of War, which was one of the reasons I watched the film. I wanted to try to get some insight into what he must have experienced, being little more than a boy during this period of seismic upheaval. He died when I was 10, but I still remember sitting at his feet and pestering him for war stories whilst he sat in his favourite armchair in his Eastbourne semi, smoking Golden Virginia rollies. He didn’t like talking about the war, but over the years I got several stories from him.

He told me how he was at the launch of one of the first V2 rockets, which went straight up in the sky and came straight back down on the launch site, leaving the soldiers scrambling for cover. He told me how he was captured at the Battle of Caen, aiming a Panzerfaust at a British tank and being spotted by the tank commander who fired his machine gun at him. My grandfather’s stick grenade was hit and exploded, wounding him from head to foot on one side and blowing to pieces his friend who was loading behind him. My grandfather was saved by the Red Cross, sent to Canada – ‘the bears used to raid the bins every night’ – then to Scotland, and finally to Eastbourne, which is where he met my grandmother.

His experience of growing up is incomparable to mine; that’s why I was interested in seeing Land of Mine. In those young, proud, frightened German boys I was able to imagine some of the barely suppressed, frequently overt hatred he must have experienced from those who saw him as no more than a representative of the evil that had taken away their loved ones in the war.

Being one-quarter German, I am painfully aware that both my great-grandparents and my grandparents effectively tried to kill each other in two of the most horrific wars the world has ever seen. My parents and my generation have been spared – thanks in no small part to the European Union, winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, which has helped forge the longest period of peace in Europe since Roman times. But the lesson of history is never to become complacent. We must do all we can to keep our children’s generation free from such ruin.

German grandfather (former Prisoner of War) and English grandmotherMy German grandfather, Egon Korn, and English grandmother, Pamela (nee Guy)

Ugandan Bestiary – poems and photos from a wildlife safari

In 2007, my wife took a volunteer position with a charity in Kampala in Uganda. When the post finished, I joined her for a fortnight. We hired a driver and went around the country, seeing some impressive landscapes and wildlife. We saw tree-climbing lions, a huge spider in our bedroom (which next day our driver told us we should not have left alone – ‘very dangerous’), a cobra, crocodiles, chimpanzees, elephants, gorillas and hippos. I drew on much of this experience for The Dreamer Falls, and wrote some short poems along the way. Here are the poems, with photos that inspired them.

Elephant with birds

Elephant

Skin blackened and slackened by age
tusks long gone
he is outcast on a lonely spit
surrounded by white grebe –
and deathly marabou stork

 

Nile crocodile

Nile Crocodile

Time
and lazy river heat
lift our traps as we dream
in the certainty of a shape
that lasts forever

 

Rothschild giraffe

Rothschild Giraffe

Orange and brown
untested like young aristos
we rub our [slightly-shorter] necks
on acacia bark and
against each others –

 

Ugandan Cob

Ugandan Cob

The golden year-ringed horn I’ve lost
proves that
though we’re slight
we too can fight –
amongst ourselves

 

Submerged Hippo

Hippo

We watch
from the top of the river
eyes deep, in ridges of pink –
just beware
there is a mountain under here

 

Zebra

Zebra

Swishing its tail
to keep the flies off its rump
the eyes saying
please don’t fill me up again
with terror

 

One I didn’t get a photo for, it was too fast:

Cobra

Sometimes you will see one
crossing the track
and see one we did
a black line drawn by God
and a hunger for rats

 

And finally, one about the beautiful national bird of Uganda:

Great Crested Crane with Zebra

Great Crested Crane

Red, yellow, black
I am the Ugandan colour bird
and I call out for life
in the golden straw
of her savannah