Category Archives: Paintings

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.

Every Bird is Singing


A while back, whilst posting about the influence of painting on my poetry, I mentioned the artist Jocelyn Merivale who died two years ago, far too young.

Below is a sequence of short poems I wrote after visiting an exhibition of Jocelyn’s held at her home in Merton. I’ve included a few photos of her paintings, although I’m afraid they’re not the exact same ones that inspired the poems – but they give a good flavour of her talent. I would put all her paintings up here, they’re fabulous.

And a small point of clarification – these titles and sub-titles are my own, not those of the paintings.

Every Bird is Singing

I watch the painting
with its thousand yellow birds
all edged in black

and only some time later notice
that all their beaks are open,

that every bird
is singing –


Green Ghost Girl at No. 9

Who is this green limned girl
stood at No. 9’s red door?

Won’t they let her in? Are there
bundles of garlic
splashes of holy water
sprigs of wolfsbane round the frame?

Does some sudden memory
paralyse the will of the dead?

Or perhaps she rehearses her performance,
how with just the right moment and angle
she might make forever good her intent,

push her teetering target
over the edge
of a measureless chasm of fear.

Or maybe she just doesn’t have the power
to walk through.

After all there is only so much
the dead can do.


The Sea

is everywhere. We are made to think
of our edges, our rocks and shingle beaches
bee-sting Victorian lighthouses –
of hulls on tossed waters
whose fate is to break.

But the sea is also amongst us
dull green with algae host
sitting, seeping around buildings –

an urge to circumscription
we can entertain, or not.



– This is my favourite
he tells me, it reminds me
of the girl I fell in love with.

A beautiful, everything girl
full of treetop song –

with splashes of red
falling down gold beside her



And, found behind the portrait of the baby,
a mental hospital, rain, billowing trees
in iron-dark grey



St George and the Dragon

Looking At It Now
– Saint George and the Dragon, Paolo Uccello, 1460. National Gallery

Knight, you’ve hit your target
wounded the beast, unruly child, diseased id
with your long, straight, storm-driven pole.
Brow forward, on prancing stead,
your deed is done –

the translucent lipless Princess saved.

But look how she’s joined in,
used her girdle to leash the beast
and thwart its fun –

in those Rottweiler eyes
you can see
the final froth of madness
as the horizon recedes –

claws dig into neat turf
wings splay diminished targets
as the poor-dog beast succumbs
between the armoured Nazi Knight
and his Ice Maiden, Nazi wife.


Self Portrait

This poem was inspired by a Van Gogh self-portrait. I’ve always found looking at paintings a great source of inspiration for writing poems. I’ll post a few more poems from paintings in weeks to come, including some based on work by the only painter I’ve ever known, Jocelyn Merivale.

Jocelyn died a year ago, far too young, but she made a big impression on me. As well as being a great artist and a fabulous host, she was also a teacher, and one night she gave me some significant advice on writing for teenagers. Not too dark, she told me, there has to be hope.

A message she embodied throughout her generous and inspirational life.

She was also a big fan of Van Gogh.

Self Portrait

His face is alive with stitching,
and all the colours under the sun.
Like a wheat field scored by a gusting wind,
or a closing pride of unseen predators.
And from somewhere in the field –
white and green.

The face a ginger cat-monster’s face,
a knitting of beauty and beast.
The stitched lips unable to utter
something in the mind made true.
And leaping from the apparition’s glare –
grey and blue.

Or the face that of a crash victim,
weak flesh mended by a Frankenstein –
the blood still congealed,
the beard red, from the knife’s touch.
And somewhere on the ear, near the top –
a little more red.

From his face he’s made his own straw doll,
set it in motion on the canvas
with a thousand frenzied strokes.
So now it’s alive, alive with stitches,
a witch’s doll, and he’s pierced it
with those smooth, colourless eyes.


Self Portrait first appeared in Staple no.48