Wednesday, November 30, 2005


'Central heating's kaput.' Hodmandod Senior remarked cheerfully as I was dragging myself into the kitchen this morning. Hodmandod Senior claims to be as much an owl as I am but really I think he is a lark in owl's feathers.

It was freezing. I sat all morning warming myself by the light of my computer monitor doing nothing waiting for the service engineer to call. Very, very bleak. Happiness quest all but forgotten. Zilch writing. Zilch anything. I phoned my parents and told them what was happening. 'If you can't come tomorrow, don't worry, it'll be all right.' my mother lied sweetly.

The engineer failed to phone back but arrived in person mid-afternoon. He politely ignored the mess. The spider webs are weighed down by dust. I am waiting to see how long they go before breaking.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cards For Charity

Just at the moment it seems like unhappiness has attached itself like a ball to my ankle and is following me around wherever I go. So many dreadful things - teenagers killed in car accidents, young men blanking out and falling to their deaths down mountains, the diseases of people I know getting worse... My friend Irene says it is always like this at Christmas it is just that this year I am noticing it more.

I tried to get rid of it by going to buy my Christmas cards in my usual place - the Methodist Church in Chester - because they have a good selection and a large proportion of the money goes to charity. But it didn't work. The woman selling them there seemed very interested in some charity I'd never heard of - she told me in great detail about the suffering of children afflicted with some fatal condition for which there was no cure. She only stopped when she saw my face. Enough, enough, enough. I bought my packets of cards and made a swift departure. Now I have them at home and wonder how I am going to face writing them.

The Perils of Happiness

The Quest is not going well: having overdone the aerobics my ankle is on the verge of giving up; I am unable to concentrate on my writing for more than a few minutes at a time; and I have driven both Hodmandod senior and junior almost mad with repeated renditions of Welsh Rugby supporters singing.

Maybe things will improve when my hair turns purple eight days from now.

However I can report one success in the quest - a friend rang today and we exchanged a few jokes about our shared desperately bleak taste in writing...which cheered me enormously.

I remember my grandmother gave me a particularly dark little Victorian number called A PEEP BEHIND THE SCENES by Mrs O. F. Walton. She had been so impressed with its effect on my mother as a child that she made sure I had a copy too.

I see it is now freely downloadable from Project Gutenberg so a new generation of little girls have the opportunity to share this exquisite misery - it really is a very powerful form of eye-irrigation.

The first couple of paragraphs give a good indication of the tone...

"Rain, rain, rain! How mercilessly it fell on the Fair-field that Sunday afternoon! Every moment the pools increased and the mud became thicker. How dismal the fair looked then! On Saturday evening it had been brilliantly lighted with rows of flaring naphtha-lights; and the grand shows, in the most aristocratic part of the field, had been illuminated with crosses, stars, anchors, and all manner of devices.

"But there were no lights now; there was nothing to cast a halo round the dirty, weather-stained tents and the dingy caravans..."

I actually find this quite enticing even now. I feel like delving in and reading this again for old time's sake. Someone stop me...nah, don't think I'll bother - eye-irrigation must be the last thing I need right now.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau sung at Cardiff Arms Park.

I had forgotten about music. I just found this. It is just the spectators of a rugby match singing the Welsh national anthem - but I think it is stirring and joyous and makes me want to join in.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Total failure in the happiness quest. I'm hoping tomorrow will be better.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Going Purple

I have just booked to have my hair dyed purple and another colour of my hairdresser's own choosing - I did suggest green but apparently they don't have that. I have also booked a hotel room and a train to go to a party in London. I have been wondering whether or not to go - but then remembered my search for happiness...

I love parties and the anticipation of going to one is almost as pleasurable as being there. I can't remember when I last went to one - I think maybe it was this time last year.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


Ha, spinnin' today and there were so many there that Ali gave up her bike and had to motivate us from the ground...and the steps... and then the balcony - her voice suddenly came at us all from on high. 'I can see your gears from up here! Another notch, Jill. Nice legs. You're looking good." Such lies, we tell each other.

As usual there was no let up. I am very happy about this - no time to think, just concentrate on pedalling and imagine myself riding up the slope of a mountain and far below me monks in terracotta-coloured villages chiming bells or turning prayer wheels.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005


I have decided to start again from scratch on my novel. I have spent most of the day choosing photographs and pinning them on my wall with an outline of character above each one. I was going to use the voice of a man but the eyes of a woman are glaring at me with such intensity - it is as if she is willing me to tell her tale.

I guess this is contentment if not happiness. I have been so utterly absorbed in my task that I have not noticed the darkness replacing the light outside.

And I heard news today that a friend has passed her PhD viva - so congratulations Dr Yvonne Siddle. That made me feel happy too.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Search for Happiness

I have decided to search for happiness. I am going to use this blog to list all the things that make me happy each day, and by concentrating on those things lift my spirits.

Today I went to aerobics. Although I am not in the least bit sporty or athletic - here is the woman who had to pace herself in order to run 100 metres at school, and was always the last, or last-but-one to be picked for teams (I didn't mind - I knew I was useless) - I decided to take myself in hand about eight years ago and acquaint myself with the mysterious building in the centre of town known as the 'Northgate Arena' - the council-run sports centre.

Eventually I came across a class called 'Hi-Energy'. This turned out to be Ali Hollindale's aerobics class. The first time I did it I could hardly get though her warm-up routine, but after a while I came to love it. A couple of years later she started something called spinnin' too - a room full of exercise bikes which I fondly regard as the torture chamber because Ali's routine on that is equally if not more energetic.

Anyway, back to happiness...The thing that made me happy today was the 'digging' session at the end. To the uninitiated this is a kind of fast lurch to the side across the room. When I do this it generally makes me feel glad to be alive and I don't really know why. And today one of the men 'accidentally' crashed into Ali and had to be helped up and this made me laugh.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The man on the train

There was a young man on the train to my parents' place - a wispy beard, a lop-sided walk and a voice too loud. He greeted everyone around him, asking question after question: 'What's your name?' 'Where are you going?' 'Are you married?' 'We could be brothers, we could...' Then back to the beginning again.
'You asked me that.' said the silver-haired man sitting opposite him. 'I've told you. You tell me.'
Andy, it transpired, lived in a care home. He carried his belongings in a black plastic bag - a dustbin liner - and he was going to the same town as me.
As the train drew into the station I told Andy that he could come along with me. But the silver-haired man helped him to the door and just before the train stopped slipped him a ten pound note. I hung my head, hoped no one would notice me and blinked to make the world become clear again. Sometimes kindness from a stranger is so poignant it smarts.

On the platform Andy slipped his arm through mine and said that he loved me and we lurched along, a four-legged unsteady animal, dragging my bag and his, into the lift and then across the bridge.

On the next platform Andy produced a pouch of tobacco and a packet of Rizzlas and begged a man to roll up a cigarette. On the next train he begged for another roll-up even though he hadn't smoked the first and after a long conversation he abandoned me and his plastic bag to sit in the toilet compartment. He was still there when the train stopped at his destination. By this time I felt partly responsible for him so I told the guard there was someone who needed help to leave the train. And that was how I left him. I am still wondering if he was persuaded off the train or if the guards gave up and let him stay, and he still travelling somewhere on a train with no intention of ever arriving anywhere.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The non-linearity of time

Tescos supermarket. Apparently the company has the turnover and affluence of a small country. We needed food and so my husband took the afternoon off to take me shopping. Except for the train journeys it is the first time I have been out since Huw died. It seems a long time since he went now, but it is less than a week. Time has slowed, every hour drawn out, everything is hard and almost too much effort.

Already I have seen my brother's ghost. It happens everytime someone I know is lost - they appear to me in the faces of strangers, in the movement of a hand, the turn of a head - little parts of them reminding me of the person who has gone. Then, as we reached the main street there was a busker playing an electric violin. It was such a sad tune, one I recognised, one that Huw once played, that it drew away all my energy and left me numb, as though I'd been placed in a jar, not quite in the world any more.

Normally I walk fast. Normally people complain that they can't keep up, but today, after I heard that violin, I seemed to be wading - down the road and into the supermarket, my husband picking things off shelves while I leaned on the handles too tired to care. He says it is shock, quite normal, but I hate being like this. Everyone is telling me to stop and try to recover but I keep on trying to keep going and not sleeping much at all.

It will get better, everyone tells me, it just takes time. But I am frantic to continue, afraid I have done too little. Eighteen months writing and rewriting and I have got nowhere.

The Snail in Winter

My friend Sandra Johnson just sent me this picture. He is a fine specimen. I shall call him Roland.

Roland and his friends are hiding away from the cold now. They curl away deep inside their shells and close the door and then they sleep. They do not have to go out to Tescos and their houses are the self-clean sort.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Huw Thomas Jenkins

When my brother Huw was born I kicked the wall. Since I already had one brother I thought another was surplus to requirements. However when it became apparent that my mother was not going to oblige by providing me with a sister I decided to make do. He was a quiet little thing, compliant, easy to boss around: Huw soon became ‘baby’ in my games and he would bawl and chortle on cue, much better than any doll. It didn’t last long of course - pretty soon he was charging around in khaki with a friend pretending to be an IRA terrorist, and I left him to it.

My brother had brown curly hair that one summer inexplicably grew so tightly curled it looked afro - something I regarded with envy. And brown-hazel eyes, but last time I saw them they looked green. I taught him to play the recorder. We used to kneel side by side playing duets. Soon he graduated onto the violin which he played with much talent, sweeping through grades until he was invited to join the National Youth Orchestra. He learnt the flute and piano and there seemed to be no stopping him. I thought that was what he would do, what he loved, join a great orchestra and travel but instead he followed my other brother into medical college and for a year everything was fine.

Seven years ago, at the age of 34 he married Yasmin after converting to Islam. Huw became officially Hussein and he said he had never been happier. He was still my friend, from time to time he would ring and we would talk and talk about our lives.

I cannot get used to the idea that he is not at the end of the phone any more. I thought he would always be there; he was, after all, younger than me. It is as though there is a big black hole at the corner of my eye. I am not looking but I know it is there.

I am writing this because when I googled his name nothing of him appeared and now something will.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

My brother

Early Friday morning my younger brother died. I am giving the blogging a rest for a while.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

SUMMIT AVENUE and Mary Sharratt

The meeting in Liverpool library turned out to be well worth while because apart from meeting writers I already knew like Margaret Murphy and David Evans I also met a few new ones. Mary Sharratt is the successful author of two novels SUMMIT AVENUE and THE REAL MINERVA. She is also a creative writing teacher and the editor of an anthology of fiction which features a woman as a strong anti-hero in the style of Lady Macbeth. I shall blog about that later.

The review of SUMMIT AVENUE is immediately below, and the interview follows next to the photograph.

SUMMIT AVENUE is an absorbing book, the sort you can’t bear to put down and keep picking up again almost in spite of yourself. The best thing I find, in those circumstances, if you can, is to submit, put life on hold for a while and enjoy... and I did, all the way through. The book is based in a period before, during and just after the first world war in Minneapolis. The time and place are very well evoked, not only in the descriptions but also in the minds of people that live there. It is very interesting to see the world through the eyes of a girl based in the US looking back at Europe, especially during a time when her home country, Germany, is at war with just about everyone else. She sees the reports and propaganda which demonise her own country and we learn about her reactions. In fact a lot of information about the era is incorporated in a skilful and entertaining way - not just about the first world war but also about the life of people struggling to find their way in early twentieth century America.

The heroine is a young poor emigrant and at first it is a heart-warming tale of success. A fairy tale is introduced early on and this haunts the narration as a recurring motif in a very satisfying way. In fact the writing, which although rooted in reality, also has an otherworldliness feel which adds to an impression of a fairy tale. For instance, here is how the book starts: ‘I was born in a forest even darker and more tangled than this one - in the Scwarzwald with its valleys, deep as scars. My valley was so steep and narrow , we called it Höllental, valley of hell. Enclosed by precipitous hills, it got very little sunlight. Bruised clouds shrouded the sun in morning....’

The characters are all very well drawn and the first book (of the three making up the novel) describes an unusual coming-of-age story. The sex scenes are particularly well done. The plot then takes unusual and unexpected directions and the ending is moving and satisfying, leaving the reader with a sense of hope.

SUMMIT AVENUE was published by the small press Coffeehouse Press and it has become one of its biggest sellers. It is now in its third reprint. The author, Mary Sharratt, is now published by Houghton Mifflin with a new book, THE VANISHING POINT coming out in 2006. She has kindly agreed to answer a few questions:

An INTERVIEW with Mary Sharratt

First some specific questions about SUMMIT AVENUE

C.D: Where did you write the book -in Germany or the United States - do you think this has any bearing on how the book was written?
M.S: I wrote the first draft of SUMMIT AVENUE when I was living in Innsbruck, Austria, where I was teaching English at a Catholic girls' boarding school as part of a Fulbright Fellowship. It was winter in the Alps and my room was barely heated. Every night after work, I'd huddle under the covers and write longhand into a spiral notebook. I didn't have television and I'd run out of books to read. This was how I relaxed in my spare time. The squalor of my accommodations (there was mildew on the walls) was the inspiration for John's room in the novel.
I continued writing after I moved to Munich the following year. Nearly a decade later, when the book was accepted for publication, the editor remarked that my English sentences seemed to betray a very German syntax. I do think those years of being submerged in a very different culture allowed me to get under the skin of my German protagonist, Kathrin.
C.D: Was there a particular reason why you chose to write about a German immigrant?
M.S: Writing about a German immigrant in Minnesota in the early 20th century was almost an autobiography in reverse--as though I were writing in a dark, inverted mirror. In fact, I was a Minnesota-born expat living in Germany in the late 20th century, pouring my sense of transcultural alienation and wondering where "home" really was into Kathrin's story. In my day to day life, I was the foreigner with the funny accent.
C.D: Which part of the book did you find easiest to write?
M.S: The fairy tales, because they came from the folk tradition. They helped inspire much of the plot and gave it a depth and haunting quality that would be lacking if I had left them out.

C.D: Which the hardest?
M.S: The scenes of violence.
C.D: You have a very interesting bibliography at the back. What research did you have to do for the book?
M.S: I did a great deal of research over the decade I spent writing the book. I visited the historical milling district of Minneapolis and walked up and down Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I visited antique stores to physically hold the sort of objects my characters would have had in their homes. I interviewed my husband's Flemish grandmother about her experience of the First World War. For a while, I collected WWI era postcards.
 C.D: I would think that your book is of special appeal to women (this woman liked it very much any way!). Do you write specifically for women?
Has a man ever read your book? If so, what was his reaction?
M.S: When I sit down to write, I don't think, "This is just for women." Or, "This is for men." I write the story that longs to be told. Interestingly, the acquiring editor for SUMMIT AVENUE was a man and I've received enthusiastic fan mail from men.
I don't hide my feminism and I don't flinch from the "truth-telling" side of fiction, ie delving into difficult subjects such as family violence, for fear of alienating male readers. I tell the truth about my characters' lives.
I believe it's both misleading and patronising to assume that fiction centred on women and their experience is for women only, whereas male-centric stories are somehow universal.
C.D: I very much liked the way the motif of the fairy story ran all through the book. Is this an authentic fairy story? What were your motivations in choosing this particular one?
M.S: There are three fairy tales that form the scaffolding of the book and all are authentic tales from the folk tradition.
First, there is "Wassalissa the Beautiful," a Russian tale about the maiden who dares to fetch fire from the fearsome sorceress, Baba Yaga. Second is "Frau Holle," a tale from the Brothers Grimm collection about a downtrodden girl who leaps down a well after her bloodied spindle, emerges in a land of unparalleled beauty ruled by a fierce-looking but gracious old woman. The maiden works hard for her new mistress, then comes home showered in gold. However, her greedy sister is showered in filth. The third tale is an obscure Flemish story called "The Three Mirrors of the Sorceress," and is about bringing the dead back to life.
All three tales revolve around powerful female figures who are halfway between witches and goddesses. Once the maiden confronts the witch, she will never be the same again. She is utterly transformed. She comes into her true powers. As these tales weave themselves into the fabric of Kathrin's life, she claims her powers and true identity.
And now the seven questions about you...

C.D: Do you have any connection with snails?
M.S: I have a very cordial relationship with those snails who elect to stay far, far away from my garden.

C.D: What is your proudest moment?
M.S: When the very first review of my first novel, SUMMIT AVENUE, was a starred review in Publisher's Weekly. At that moment, my ten years of writing in obscurity were validated.

C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
 M.S: When I was 21, I went to study in Freiburg, Germany for a year. I did this alone and independently, without the aid of a "study abroad" programme. I had to pass a written and oral exam to prove that my German was good enough. I had to find my own accommodation in a city with a shortage of affordable housing. I didn't know a soul in that country. Then, by the end of the academic year, I had lots of friends from all over the world and I spoke very fluent German. I'd also spent the spring holidays backpacking through Ireland and Britain. In a youth hostel in Stow on the Wold, I met the man I would later marry. After that, I decided I would stay in Europe and, apart from a brief interlude in California in 2001, I have lived all of my adult, post-university life on this side of the Atlantic.

C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
M.S: Every day the news is full of horrendous events. It's hard to choose one. I think the torture and other human rights violations being committed by U.S. soldiers in Iraq are sad and shaming in the extreme.

C.D: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
M.S: I wish I'd had a chance to learn horse riding as a child. I started learning to ride at the age of 39, which has been one of the most incredible experiences. I am awed by the gentleness and power of horses and the horse-human bond. Now I can't imagine my life without the weekly trip to the stable. When I look back on all those horseless years, I feel regret that I didn't start a lot earlier.

C.D: What is happiness?
M.S: It's allowing yourself to be yourself, but your best self. Allowing your dreams and talents to take you where you are meant to go. Finding your true purpose and seeking to fulfill it.

C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
M.S: Make coffee. I am an addict.

Ah yes, obviously a soul-mate... What is life without coffee? ... And chocolate... and wine...?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Tiger Heron

The editor of the website Tiger Heron emailed today to say he has selected ONE DAY THE ICE WILL REVEAL ALL ITS DEAD (WEGENER'S JIGSAW outside the US) as one of his selected picks. This is kind of him, and much appreciated.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Bonfire Night

Since Hodmandod senior is a research chemist and spent his youth in his garden shed endeavouring, with some success, to make explosives, he anticipates bonfire night with relish. Every year a box of fireworks is brought home with some celebration and we eagerly inspect the selection: Siberian Snowfall, Subarctic Blizzard, Vesuvius Spring.

I imagine there must be a firework designer somewhere - 'blue sparks on a background of white flame punctuated by showers of red' he might write and then choose and pack the chemicals accordingly. I imagine them in layers inside the cardboard tube like different coloured sand from the Isle of Wight. Then I think of all the experiments and demonstrations I used to do with my pupils and students - the magnesium burning with the intense white flame and the beautiful green and blue of the burning copper salt. Some colours are easy to get, some are impossible.

Alongside the ground fireworks there are always a good few rockets (a particular passion), and always, my favourite, a Catherine wheel. I came across the origin of the Catherine wheel in a rather excellent novel I have spent the entire day reading - SUMMIT AVENUE by Mary Sharratt. Although today's Catherine wheels are named after the wheel upon which St Catherine was martyred, original Catherine wheels were part of a pagan rite. On the longest day the sun was worshipped by sending burning wheels down a hillsidet into the mill stream below.

We always round things off with sparklers - writing our names in the air.

Friday, November 04, 2005


This is what I did today...


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Halloween Haikus

My haiku has come second in the Vanderworld Halloween Hiaku competition. This is definitely the best thing that has happened to me recently. I am stupidly delighted.

Though I have to admit a few of the others would have got my vote - the thought of Luis Rodrigues's little numbers makes me smile even now.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Randolph Caldecott

A few months ago we went on a literary walk around Chester. It was funny. The guide had obviously tried very hard but there are just not many literary links to Chester.

Charles Kingsley resided here for a few months as a clergyman and even though his house looked over the river I doubt that it inspired him to write The Water Babies - which was one of my favourite books when I was young.

Apart from that the guide had to resort to things like - 'Dorothy Wordsworth once wrote in her diary "We started south on the Friday, stopping at an Inn at CHESTER on our way to Shrewsbury..."' while standing outside a possible 'Inn at Chester' contender.

However there was one thing he pointed out that was interesting - a small plaque on what everyone calls 'the dark row' because it is one of our upper level streets without many shops or passers-by. It commemorates the birth place of the artist Randolph Caldecott - better know in the United States than he is here - and remembered each year with the Caldecott medal to 'the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children that year'.

In the UK the equivalent is the Kate Greenaway Medal .

Well, Randolph Caldecott was born here, in this an inauspicious-looking place (the second house along with the yellow door - you can just see the plaque on the wall). It seems to be just a home now, not converted to offices or shops - a convenient and unusal place to live right in the middle of town, but quiet. His father was an affluent man and he married twice and so had a large brood of children. Perhaps that's why they moved twice, once to Crook Street (a good name) and then outside the city to Boughton and then onto Whitchurch. There is an interesting biography on the website of the a Randolph Caldecott Society UK. Apparently two of his admirers were Gaugin and Van Gogh, and judging from the links to pictures he was a talented artist from a young age. His first published illustration of the Queen's Hotel on fire is impressive - this was something he drew just after leaving school. After that he illustrated many children's books and became famous.

It seems that it was only by accident that he died in the United States and therefore, presumably, was adopted there. He suffered from ill-health and toured warm climates in an effort to improve his condition. He was just touring the east coast of the US when he was caught out by a particularly cold snap in St Augustine in Florida and died there aged not quite forty.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Redundant Words.

Does everyone feel like this? Like they don’t really belong, that they are somehow out of step, that there is something they should know, if only someone would tell them? I remember the first time I felt it. I was at school and someone said I should read out the passage in the concert. There was something strange about the way I read, apparently, something that made people listen. I had, I learnt later, an accent that was different from everyone else’s around me. I was a stranger - and I don’t think the feeling has ever left me. I have always felt out of place as if I don’t belong. I would declare my Otherness stridently, proudly, even thought the accent soon faded. For a time I went back to this place where I came from. I taught for a few years in an Other school. I thought I’d feel at home but I didn’t. 'That’s not how you say it, Miss..'. It was too late by then of course. My accent had changed to something else. Like a sound-chameleon my voice adapts, but the heart of me takes longer.

I've just worked out I have written more than 26 000 words this week. Of course most of them are rubbish. I started with this and then forgot I'd got it. I just came across it now on my desk top now and thought I'd post it up here. What else are blogs for?