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writing insights

God, the first has got to be how not to have crappy titles. I’m so bad at naming things, apart from dogs. I can’t do caption competitions or invent slogans. 

We are four weeks into the MA and luckily I’ve not been asked to do any of the above. Everything I’m doing is aimed at finding out what my main character is like (plus family). I realise I’ve been thinking about Frankie, instead of thinking as him.  I’ve written my way into thinking I know him, putting him in different situations and so on, but today Lesley Thomson, my tutor, gave me some great advice: walk the walk. She literally goes to places her protagonist knows and becomes him. She also takes photographs as him. I’m going to do this next week and walk round parts of Portsmouth as Frankie. This should stop everything happening to Frankie: even the author moving him about like a pawn. He should start to dictate the action. Can but hope.

It’s a kind of madness, though, and makes me leap back into the soft arms of erotic writing. I want to do some performance art with the erotica, too, so the plan is to try and do this without ending up in jail for giving inadvertant offence. My next blog may be at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. As it were.



We talked about this on the MA course last week. Greg Mosse asked us what it was and I couldn’t answer. You can’t just say ‘It’s a type of car’, for instance. How to pin it down? It’s definitely dark and mutable.

I was a typical air-headed 16 year old when I first experienced duende. My wonderful Spanish teacher, Kate Hodges, took me to London to hear Pablo Neruda recite his poems. My Spanish was just about at ordering a coffee level so the actual words flew over my head. But, my God, I shuddered with the duende and have never forgotten it.

So what is it? It’s not passion. You can have passion but still lack duende. La Niña de los Peines had it. She began singing professionally at the age of 8 and became probably the most important woman flamenco singer of the 20th century,  admired by Lorca. She said some experts came to hear her one night and she knew they did not desire form but the marrow of form. That is duende.

Lorca wrote a poetic treatise on duende. My favourite thing he said about it is: The duende loves the edge, the wound, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression. He also said that it is power and not a behaviour; it is a struggle and not a concept.

It makes me feel as if I’ve never grown up enough to have it. But I’ll keep trying.

unique books

Diary Kept in Venice

It’s  about time I got round to putting these here. There are loads more but it takes so long to upload them. Anyway, click on an image to enlarge it ( a bit).

ike a grizzle?

Chichester Writing Festival

Writing is like being a manic depressive. Or whatever we’re supposed to call it now. One minute you feel like a god, the pen dripping ambrosia onto tablets of stone or something. The next, plunged in gloom, you see it was only cold rice pudding out of a tin. Thank God for silver-tongued Greg Mosse and the healing balm of West Dean College. If we ignore the bathetic note struck by lectures on Course Units, timetabling and fire safety, the Chichester Writing Festival segued brilliantly into our first day. here’s some things I jotted at the festival:

  • the world’s longest continuous prayer has been prayed for over 150 years
  • a book having ‘content’ means sex & drugs
  • you need to feel an agent might be a friend when you meet
  • all books need latitude – we all like different bits even of accepted classics
  • you must know your book so well that editing can be done seamlessly, staying ‘in story’
  • Five Dials is a great magazine and it’s free
  • you can’t just throw in a nice scenario: show cause …. effect
  • make your work eventful
  • make your work resonant, to go beyond an individual into the wider community (bigger the better)
  • realising something isn’t a plot point. Something has to HAPPEN. Action …consequences, as many times as you like till the realisation is inevitable

Better than all this was getting to talk to authors, editors, agents etc in the bar. I wasn’t a groupie even in the days when tight velvet loons with Nureyev padding were at eye level so I’m not starting now that the velvet has been replaced by corduroy. That’s unfair, but you get my drift. The most generous contributors were the women. Becky Swift from TLC was her usual perceptive, supportive but/and  forthright self. Lorella Belli (agency) cut to the chase with kindness. The person I ended up agreeing with most was Craig Taylor ( There seems to be a fear of youth and the trappings of youth in every generation and it irritates me. Why do we also set up false dichotomies? Perhaps the BBC’s ‘balance’ shows everything in black and then white when in fact the real world is infinitely nuanced. In this case, youth are not PSP’d out zombies with concentration spans of gnats. They love books; they want to create beautiful artefacts that are unique to them. Like everyone, they just don’t want to be bored. So … let’s have printed books, made books, e-books, any bloody books as long as the content is good.

Greek holiday – alone in Alonissos

I couldn’t get any internet access while I was in Alonissos. The photo is the view towards the village from my terrace. Eleni made me very welcome, as you’ll see in the blog, which I’ve pasted below. It’s not complete but I was working on the YA  novel, too.


 I feel strange here. Not only because I am alone but because I am in limbo. There is aircon here but I won’t use it.

Eleni is sweet and helpful. She bought me a lettuce in Patitiri this morning. Tonight she gave me 2 maps and said I must visit the old town. Trouble is, the season is now over and buses have gone to one a day from tomorrow and maybe none next week. There is an air of sadness as people pack to leave. The Germans next door said goodbye, though we have not exchanged a word, just looks and smiles. Safe journey in sign language is interesting. I am my mother’s daughter.

The tiny harbour is OK for a snug night but not for a longer stay. I saw a blue boat, Tamsin, tonight and hailed the people onboard. I’m sure I’ve seen her before. They have been in the Med since the early 1990s. They must be mad.

I had Imam Byildi in Tassios tonight, with another monster Greek salad. Why can’t they do small ones? Cost 13 euros, last night’s sort of sardines were 16. I still feel full. The guy who served me was young and pleasant, a bit macho, then became a drivelling fool as a baby was brought in to show him (by her dad) “Aphrodite! Puiss, puiss, Aphrodite,” he kept saying in a silly baby voice. No British bloke would do this. Anyway, the baby Aphrodite was brandished at all the bars and tavernas. I thought what a lucky girl she is to grow up in such a community. Probably.

The water is very clear. Glad I didn’t bring my snorkel, though, because there’s sod all to see. Even I have stopped (abit) worrying about Great Whites because they’d starve long before hitting Steni Vala. The goggles are perfect, especially stopping the glare.

I worry I may go mad this weekend if the day is as dreadful as they say. Kostas says I can go into Patitiri with him but he picks up the bread at 7.30 so that’s pushing it a bit! Not sure that it’s much better there. All you really should do here is relax and bathe, that sort of thing. If there’s no bus I may walk. The British couple I met last night say the walks aren’t well signed, despite what they say. Why does this not surprise me?

The trouble with this notion of coming away to write is that you have to establish routines round yourself, eat and so on. This chair is excruciating, too. Last night was OK because I worked on the timeline – got quite excited in fact. Tonight I tried to be creative and wasn’t. Very humid. (though not at all like Mallorca and Eleni says it’s unusual). If it is horrid tomorrow I shall stay in (I have provisions) and work.

There are odd little shacks with hens and goats in the middle of ‘luxury’ villas and apartments, straggling the road to the next village. Olives, limes, pomegranates, all the usual suspects.  I liked the fact there were clouds today – I moved about more instead of lounging like a lizard. I shall weep if the sea is too rough to swim in. What a waste of money holidays can be but you have to experience one again to remember this. I don’t know how on earth we managed to be on the boat so long. (5 years)  Talk about brain death. Now I’ll have another dose of Tony Blair on the iPod. The papers gave away all the best bits and he doesn’t have a great voice for narration – a little monotone. But I can see why he wouldn’t want an actor doing it – he’s very sensitive to what people think of him, curiously, and shrewd as to what will make him look bad. He has the highest praise for Alastair Campbell. He describes him as a genius.


Feels like a Sunday. I had a lie-in and went to get the bread later this morning, about 9, without swimming. Kostas was there alone and we had a chat. He showed me his latest ms and has my email to send me a copy when it’s published. I watched a lone yachtsman bump against Tamsin. The irascible male owner (not his wife, who I spoke to last night) tugged on one of his lines with ill grace. I sat with a very nice cappuccino (first since Wednesday) and was amused by the antics of polite irritation and inept boatmanship. Richard would have enjoyed it. I wanted to go and help but restrained myself. A small hotchpotch bitch was also watching. Dogs abroad aren’t like mongrels at home: they are Quasimodo dogs, having the worst aspects of several breeds. At least our mutts are usually charming and recognizable.

A sort of orange open lifeboat/fishing boat came next, with a shaggy black dog in the prow, who leapt for the quay. Kostas said that they are his neighbours on Peristera, the island opposite, come to provision and to give him news of his in-laws. He likes it over there – he says Alonissos is too crowded now (!) He likes the fact that there are only 5 houses, no lights, no roads. The shaggy dog was in proportion – I think it’s because he’s the only dog on Peristera so isn’t a mangled mongrel.

Eleni has brought me in a huge plastic bag full of her grapes. They are so small and sweet that bees eat them.

Kostas says that Clive Something (the MI5 bloke who brought down the Thatcher Govt) has lived on the island for years. Nice bloke, apparently. It’s funny that I’m treated as one of the island’s authors.

The walk to Agios Dimitrios was twice as far as I went yesterday. The road winds and turns; goes up high into drizzle and down to the parched coast again. I passed the shack where I saw the goats yesterday. They were cleaning up and no goats were there. I upset myself, imagining that they had all been slaughtered instead of milked as I reckoned the day before. A few hens pecked about and so I got upset again thinking of ours. I am a fool.

I wouldn’t do this sort of holiday if I lived alone. It’s reasonable fun, knowing I have a husband at home waiting for me and normality over there. I feel an oddity, though, so I’d go walking or something in a group. Tomorrow I shall go upstairs and look at one of the apartments, in case we ever come back together. I think an occasional burst of sun and swimming is good and a week would be fine: I think R might enjoy that long. We could get a scooter or something and visit the old town and generally explore more than I’ve done.

I like the way I knew I was in Agios Dimitrios because the road ended. It became rough concrete down to the actual beach and a stony track up to a distant house. The beach looked very Italian, with blue sun loungers and (folded) parasols. I wonder why the Italians come here? I found a small beach bar and had a mineral water from the fridge. I sat watching a grey sea and sky while they shouted at each other. They may have been rowing, they may have been having fun. It’s awful not knowing any Greek. I felt invisible, or like one of the dozens of small cats that prowl about the place. A few cars passed me on the way home and they looked at me as if I was mad. I was hot by the time I got there, so showered and had tea on the terrace (bit drizzly) with bread and Eleni’s jam, which she calls marmalade. It was good.

I wrote over 1000 words today and can think more clearly here, which is good. There is more perspective. You can be more analytical in silence. I can also read bits aloud without upsetting the dogs, another plus.

I remembered on the walk how futile life is away from home, how piffling, as it was on the boat. You pretend getting a fresh loaf is Really Important. A walk to the next beach becomes a major expedition, as though that gives it value. I make the best of things, looking hard at everything I pass and trying to lay it down, though I know I won’t. I value the dragonflies and butterflies, bees and lizards; the small bright blue sailing boats and warm breeze (even today). I also value the lack of health and safety culture. A man without a helmet passed me today. He steered his moped with one hand and smoked a big cigar with the other. Yesterday a fat man urged his motorbike uphill. It laboured because his enormous wife was riding side-saddle at the rear. She was holding the week’s shopping in 4 large plastic bags.

Oh good grief. Eleni has gone out in the car so now I’m totally alone in the whole building!

It’s odd how sunshine is its own rationale. Torpor becomes essential and the gaining of a tan a justifiable aim. If you have one, it’s like wearing a suit of armour. It protects you from seeming truly weird; it’s an amulet, like having sex makes you feel that nothing can harm you now.

I shall attempt to open my bottle of wine. Lids have been a particular challenge. I had to resort to the ‘boiling water on metal lid’ ruse. I’ll make myself a tuna salad (if I can get the lid off the jar of tuna.) The one thing that’s good about being alone is that you’re reminded how capable you can be. And less shy, oddly, because you have to be. I march up to complete strangers and get talking. It’s OK, though I wouldn’t miss much if Richard were here and we didn’t talk to them, to be honest. At least it has so far stopped me from talking to myself. Supper time.


 I worry that I have become a messy eater, as I wipe mayonnaise off my chin. This is all a deadly warning of how very awful life would be alone. As Windfinder said, at a quarter to 9 the rain started hammering. By 10 it was a monsoon. All the windows leaked, not just the weather side. I had the shutters closed already but I bolted them and that helped. Then the thunder cracked overhead – lights went off. I had a candle lit (thank God I’m such a bore about making a little home wherever I go).  I went to bed about 11 and hugged Gwladys (velour elephant). Eleni had returned from her brother’s early so I wouldn’t worry about being alone in the storm: kind. (I didn’t know this till this morning, though, so it wasn’t a huge comfort last night).

The thunder rolled round the hills. Part of me wanted to go and stand in the deluge and watch the lightning on the sea but I knew it was dreadful out there and that I wouldn’t be able to dry my hair. Would Shelley have worried about his long hair? Think not. I lay in bed, high on my wooden platform, knowing there is an apartment above me and 2 floors below me and feeling pretty snug. Poor Eleni hardly slept. None of the locals did because it was so severe and so unusual. Ignorance is bliss. They knew how a high spine runs through the centre of Alonissos and this makes it worse than the other islands that are mostly flat. I must say that at 3am when the storm was at its height (impossibly high) I did wonder about land slip. Sure enough, some of the road I walked yesterday has disappeared under mud. The track up to the road has vanished so I will have to carry my bags up to meet the taxi on Wednesday. There was minor damage, like the beach hut blowing right over to the rocks and all cafe chairs breaking.

The worst thing happened to Kostas and family.  The details are vague  as he was still in shock and very tired. I think his son set off for Peristera in the boat at around 8pm (when the rain started). Or maybe from Peristera. Anyway, he knew at once there was a problem with the engine. It failed and then later the storm struck and put all instruments out of action as well as the radio. Kostas wanted to dash out to help but it was too dreadful and they had no clue where his son was, anyway. Agonised hours passed and the storm got worse and worse. (I know.) They really thought he must be dead. Anyway, just after 3 am either he got to Steni Vala or back to Peristera, either way they knew he was safe. I got up there about 10am  and all the family were asleep except Kostas, who had done the bread run (late).

I wish I knew Greek. One of the old villagers came in and he and Kostas were at it hammer and tongs about events and consequences of the storm. I sat there looking simple, sipping my coffee.  I set off to get bread but Eleni wouldn’t hear of it (rightly – it wouldn’t have been there, as we now know). She sat me in the kitchen while cataracts of water fell off her roof, spilling into the kitchen where 5 very wet cats and several kittens were sheltering. She made toast in a strange contraption that cost 200 euros. It was a big round glass bowl with a sort of ladies’ hairdryer thing on top. It’s a form of grill.  Anyway, she made 4 bits of toast and I had her ‘marmalade’, the delicious apricot jam.  She cut some pieces of local cheese and urged me to try it– combined, delicious. But I had a very Greek coffee. Really thick, nutty, sweet, like an electric shock. She has hers with one of her roll-up black cheroots. I felt very English, asking for a cup of tea, then I thought ‘to hell with it!’

The book’s going reasonably well, thanks to the weather. Eleni brought me up 2 rugs, so this room is nice and homely. Two of the cats settled on them as soon as they were down, while she cleaned and I wrote. I didn’t know that I’m not supposed to put anything down the loo. That will be charming. I went upstairs to look at both apartments.

 I had 2 lovely swims as soon as the clouds parted. The sea hadn’t changed temperature at all, which surprised me with those winds. The water wasn’t as clear, of course, and there was quite an underwater swell. The goggles help a lot, though the marks on my face last for ages. I’m so pleased I got them – just in a little back street in Skiathos. I looked up at my favourite villa. It’s pale, pale peach, with several terraces and balconies, all with different and interesting seating arrangements and furniture. Very modern. I lay on the beach, feeling stones dig into my legs and pubic bone. It was like being 12 again, at Southsea. I could almost smell the Boots Cooltan and struck matches, hot pebbles and cigarettes. So I must have looked a sight with rats tail hair; rings round my eyes; red spots of stone pressure; sea bootees and hung about with goggles and towel. Of course I had to meet the only Italian family left in the whole of Greece. The men smirked and the women ignored me. I passed through our gate nonchalantly, trying to look as though it was my private villa. It pretty much is. Eleni was off at her other brother’s today. Anyway, order is restored and I sat on my terrace with a glass of wine and bowl of nuts watching a pipistrelle and several dragonflies do an air display.


Where did yesterday go? Mostly reading Kosta’s book. I felt honoured that he’d chosen me to be critic and, since I had the jitters about the return journey (God knows why, I’m calmer tonight) it was nice that I had something to do.

I had a low patch of sadness and something indefinable mid-afternoon (in fact, I took Rescue Remedy). I went out onto the terrace and at once saw a chevron of dolphins. Another miracle and it worked as usual.

OK, so now today I’m well into the ‘last’ syndrome, as in ‘last swim’ ‘last tea on the terrace’ ‘last shower’; I’ve even had a twinge at the ‘last washing up’, for God’s sake. Yet all the time I’m singing and whistling about going home. I see what my cousins value about this place and I expect it’s incremental, too. Kostas adores it and the ancient Greeks (I now know from his book) called it the ‘cure of the soul’ – specifically the Northern Sporades – which he concludes is due to their ‘wildness and calm’. I’d certainly like to explore the other islands and see true wildness. Poisonous snakes!

The only outstanding problem, now that storms are over and mobile signals restored, is that one of the things I most look forward to with a ‘hot’ holiday is that ‘waking up to another beautiful day’ feeling. There’s so much that I agonize over at home and now here I’ve been looking at every speck of cloud or second longer of drying time to conclude what the next day will bring. I don’t want worry: I’ve paid to be bored. Now I’m a bit fraught that the taxi bloke won’t turn up, for various reasons. I already know he’s going to rip me off 20 euros instead of 15 but Eleni couldn’t phone round for another taxi because of the strange phone line problem today.

I’m not a born traveller. The being here is fine but getting here and going home a real trial, even with Richard with me (though it’s easier). I’m sad that soon the gnarled face of the guy who was at it hammer and tongs with Kostas will have slipped from my mind; sadder that will also be true of Kostas. There were two death’s head moths in my cardigan. Things are vivid and assume an importance in a fairly empty day but will only be remembered when I read this record. It’s the only writing I’ve managed today. It was all so unsettling not being able to text.

My last swim was as glorious as the first: the water was turquoise silk and clear again. I swam out to Lion Rock and dived a bit but still not much down there. A young woman lay on the beach, with only very brief bathers on. Where was she when I was swimming in torrential rain (the other thing I did on Monday)? Wimp.  It was bouncing off the surface and I couldn’t see the shore. Anyway, she had a superb, brown, lithe body of the sort that I’d still like to have when I grow up. I bet she was Italian. I stagger out of the water, stumbling a bit on raised rocks, goggles steamed, while she glides to the shore, to wring out her long brunette hair with a careless hand. I proceed to give myself a brisk rub down with the cheap towel I bought that leaves yellow fluff all over my white body. She lies down in one quick, supple movement, letting the droplets adorn her bronzed body. Of course she isn’t wearing bootees. My only comfort is that the sun will ravage and wrinkle her lovely skin and the pounds will pile on until she looks like her mama.

Bed. I’ve set the alarm and we can only hope it goes off and that Spiros turns up and I don’t twist an ankle in the post-storm ravine and I get onto the boat and the flight isn’t delayed. Not much to hope for, then.

crime in translation

A friend has just read the first Henning Mankell in French. (Faceless Killers in English). I don’t even know the title in French. We can’t compare our impressions of the book because neither of us can read Swedish and I’m not good enough at French to know if the translation is ‘better’ than the English. What does this mean, anyway? Jan loves reading in French despite being English and she felt that the book was more truly ‘foreign’ in another language than one’s own. This may or may not be true but my point is, how can you tell what’s good? What makes it good? To be truthful and exact or brilliantly find a literary analogue?

I enjoy watching Wallander in Swedish with subtitles. It seems to me that both languages have a similar time span of diction: i.e. there is one precise word to convey meaning (after a while you vaguely know what they’re saying). In some other languages, especially French and Italian, there is a highspeed volubility from the actors, translated curtly and baldly, e.g. “Come back tomorrow.” Que? Have layers of subtlety been edited? Is it the way we tell them?

I suppose the answer is that I should have tried harder at school. Isn’t that always the conclusion?

The Slap

This will not only be the first Booker book to be left in hotel bedrooms (Guardian Books) but the first to be read there with one hand. The first three chapters evoked the same reaction in me as I had as a teenager when some spotty youth would grab my hand and press it against his blue-jeaned erection. He, idiotically proud. Me, baffled and oddly upset. The book gets better but I don’t think having a change of character for each chapter is a successful device. Tsolkias does side-step the danger of narrative stagnation (playing the same incident over and over in each chapter) by pushing on with the fall-out from the initial slap.  However, this leaves some large gaps in any chronological understanding and just as you begin to get interested in a character and want to know what happens next, you’re whisked off to another time, place and set of emotions.

The best character in the book never appears. He’s dead. The Connie chapter includes one of his letters to the other best character, his sister and Connie’s aunt, Tasha. (Who doesn’t get a chapter to herself, either.) Mind you, if Connie’s dad had taken a starring role it would have turned into Priscilla Queen of the Desert.