Tuesday, 30 January 2018


This blog has been taken over, by words. You may have noticed, in fact I'm sure you will have, that because I'm now studying writing what I write about has changed. Now mostly what I write about is reading. This week I have two things to say about reading, and writing, or maybe three, at the moment it's three, but by the time I press the 'publish' button it might be more because by then I will have read more and probably want to write about it.


Wednesday evening I saw Nicol(a) B(a)rker talking about her new book H(A)PPY (she says you're not allowed to call it Happy, by the way, it has to be H-(A)-P-P-Y). It just won the Goldsmiths Prize -"fiction at its most novel". Irish writer Kevin Barry says "She takes the vapid discourse of social media blather, with its 'likes' and 'favourites', and extrapolates madly to make a language for an utterly believable future world, a world enslaved by the blandness of its technology." It's also been described as "a vision of a dystopian future which defies narrative and typographic convention." Yeah, I know, me neither. A lot of her words are printed in colour, apparently, at vast expense.


I haven't actually read it yet. I might never read it because my list of books to read is epic, but it was interesting listening to her talk about it. One of the interesting things she said was that happiness comes from misery. I think that's true. Later in the same talk she said they're actually the same thing, happiness and misery, but I don't think that is true, although I do think suffering has its benefits. If you've ever been hurt or traumatised in some way, as many of the authors I've met on this M.A. course have been, you might not walk as tall as you did before, your pain might stay with you forever, visible somewhere behind the eyes to anyone who cares to look hard enough, but if you're a writer you'll probably be a better one for it. For a writer misery has an upside: it's a driver.


Speaking of Misery, I was recently reading Stephen King On Writing, A Memoir Of The Craft and he has some great observations about what writing is. He has a description which ends with him asking the reader to think of a rabbit in a cage with a number eight on its back, he says -

"Not a six, not a four, not a nineteen-point-five. It's an eight. This is what we're looking at, and we all see it. I didn't tell you. You didn't ask me. I never opened my mouth and you never opened yours. We're not even in the same year together [the book was published in 2000, possibly written in the year before], let alone in the same room... except we are together. We're close. We're having a meeting of minds."

It's a clever way of putting it, I thought.


Later that same day I was reading something else (Alice Munro, Selected Short Stories) when Youngest came into my office and accused me of being a try-hard.

"What?" I said. "Because I'm reading?" 

"Yeah," he said. 

I told him it's good to read, he should read. "Have you started reading It yet?" I asked. (I gave him It by Stephen King for Christmas because he liked the movie of it.) 

"No," he said. 

I told him if you want to do something creative in life books can be your food. "You can steal things from other writers," I said. "A bit here, a bit there, and reading stimulates the imagination."

"I have an imagination already," he said.

Perhaps It is too weighty, I thought (it's 1,166 pages). So I went off to look for something else for him to read. I found The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness in one of the other boys' bedrooms (incidentally I met Patrick Ness once and he was lovely). I left it on his bedside table next to It. Sadly, I think he's yet to read a word of it.

Love E x


P.S. I'd like to introduce my friend Amir Darwish to you. He certainly knows a thing a two about misery, and has written some wonderful things because of it. I hope that lately he's become acquainted with some happiness, if only a little.


Tuesday, 23 January 2018


The best things about student life are the writing and the students - and the writing by the students - and the worst things are the rucksack and Southern Rail. 

Southern Rail.

Some months ago, on the first few occasions I marched down to the station carrying my heavy rucksack to catch the direct 09.03 to London Bridge, stopping at New Cross Gate, I thought it was a breeze. "It's a breeze," I told all my family and friends. "There's a direct train that gets me there in plenty of time and it's always empty and peaceful so I can work on the way." Since then I've caught the 09.03 direct to London Bridge about four times because it's nearly always cancelled. The other day five Epsom-bound trains were cancelled in a row and mine was delayed and delayed and delayed and when it finally arrived there was an announcement to say it wasn't going to stop at New Cross Gate at all. Last week I gave up and got the tube to London Bridge and a taxi from there, which didn't feel very studenty.

The Rucksack.

The rucksack is huge. Filled with books and a laptop it's incredibly heavy. By the time I carry it from home to station to catch the mostly mythical 09.03 my back is hurting, a lot, and there's roughly ten more hours of lugging it to go (interspersed with dropping it at my feet in a seminar or lecture). By the way, the rucksack here doesn't represent anything, it's not a metaphor or a symbol. That's been done, to death. If one more writer or film-maker should try using abandoning luggage as a metaphor for emotional growth and renewal they should be immediately struck off, not that a writer or film-maker can be struck off (unless it's Woody Allen) because it's not a proper job, but you know what I mean.

On Wednesday, when I'm given additional items to put in my rucksack - twelve heavy sets of creative writing - I decide to hold them in my arms in a folder for the rest of the day rather than add them to my already over-loaded rucksack. This might be inconvenient, I think, but it might also make me look more studenty, like Sandy out of Grease, perhaps, except hideously deformed by age. 

The rest of the day passes in this pleasantly deluded manner, carrying a rucksack and folder, pretending I look like Sandy out of Grease. I have a seminar, eat lunch, work in the library, attend an awards ceremony then go to the pub with new student friends. We take part in the pub quiz (again) which we win (again). At the end of the evening we contemplate our various routes home. "I could stand on a cold and windy platform at New Cross Gate waiting for a mostly mythical train," I say. "Or I could just get an Uber."

"I live in East Dulwich," says one of my new student friends. "Why don't we share an Uber?" So we do.

Next morning, when I rise, I go looking for the folder I was carrying, Sandy-like, all the day before and can't find it. I must have put it down somewhere in the university or the pub. I WhatsApp my new student friends. "I lost my folder with all the work in it!" Not long after there's a reply from the friend I shared the Uber with, emailing me copies of nearly everything I lost.

Love E x


P.S. He also suggested I check lost property, which I did, and it was there.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Read in tooth and claw.

I recently read The Child That Books Built by lovely Francis Spufford, one of our lecturers at Goldsmiths and also winner of the Costa first novel award for Golden Hillwhich I've also read and heartily recommend. And this got me thinking about which books have meant a lot to me over the years and which have, in some small way, made me what I am, particularly the children's books. 


In his book, Francis mentions visiting his town library a lot when he was a boy, in Keele, where he grew up, and by coincidence one of the lovely old people I chat to on the phone (I'm a telephone friend for Age UK) told me yesterday how important her local library was to her when she was a girl because the house she grew up in didn't have any books. I was lucky. I grew up in a house full of books, with a mother who loved to read to us and who continued to do so long after my brother and I were able to read to ourselves. I particularly remember The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit and later a book called A Likely Lad by Gillian Avery. We used to rush home from school for that, then sit either side of her on the sofa as she read. I know my brother was about eight so I must have been about eleven which is embarrassingly old, but there you have it. So, here's my life in books, Francis Spufford-style, except without his wonderful narrative, or beautiful prose, or intelligent analysis, or heart-wrenching ending. So nothing like his, in fact, just a random list of books.


I remember The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aitken, The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett, The Ghost of Thomas Kemp by Penelope Lively and particularly The Witch's Daughter by Nina Bawden, one of the first books I read to myself. I don't remember anything about the plot of The Witch's Daughter, I just remember the cover sitting there on my bedside table and that at the end of the story there was a cave, I think. I do remember the atmosphere, how it made me feel, that I could escape to another world where no one would be able to find me, which is the joy of reading. I'm still there a lot of the time. I also remember Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh which is set in New York and which I read in Canada. Harriet was a role model, a girl-hero who writes a notebook/diary and spies on people. I really wanted to be her.



The teen years are so important for laying down a reading foundation. In my early teens I read everything by Somerset Maugham and H.E. Bates plus lots of historical/hysterical fiction. I particularly remember Katherine by Anya Seton, also the usual stuff - The Bell Jar, Little Women, Gone with the Wind, then Frankenstein, which sparked a gothic craze so I read The Monk, which is very long and The Castle of Otrantowhich is very short. Then there was a Nancy Mitford phase, an Evelyn Waugh phase, an E.M. Forster phase, then George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan - all made a big impression. Also kitchen sink stuff, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Alan Sillitoe), A Kind of Loving (Stan Barstow) then James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (such a beautiful book) and of course everything by Jane Austen and the Brontes, as well as those foreign fellas I've mentioned before, Tolstoy and Flaubert. 


Going to university to read English very nearly killed my reading completely, it certainly killed my writing for a long time. It made me feel completely inadequate. I should have done a degree in creative writing instead but there was no such thing back then. It took me years to realise it's okay to be an okay writer. I can be very obstinate and if someone tells me I must do something I tend not to want to do it, but I read what I had to, I just stopped enjoying it. And I don't care what anyone says, I still can't stand Henry James.


After I left university I slowly began to enjoy reading again. I remember Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians. I discovered  Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster - I've read everything Margaret Forster wrote. If you're out there struggling with an ageing parent I highly recommend Have The Men Had Enough?. MF is brilliant on family life. Not as brilliant as Anne Tyler, though, who I discovered more recently. I love everything by Anne Tyler as well, particularly The Accidental Tourist


I've already written about the profound effect reading Birdsong (by Sebastian Faulks) had on me when I read it days after giving birth to Middle One. 


Straight after that I read Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Everyone should read these books before they die, along with Testament of Youth, Wild Swans and Schindler's Listall of them real and tragic tales that ooze empathy. Beyond these, the books that pop into my head straightaway are Small Island by Andrea Levy, The Poisonwood Bibleby Barbara Kingsolver, Wolf Hall (obvs) anything by Kate Atkinson (she comes from York, you know) or Nick Hornby (I think he may have briefly lived in the same village I lived in as a child in North Yorkshire, small world) and if you live in south London and have secondary school-age kids you really must read May Contain Nuts by John O'Farrell. 

More recently

A few years ago I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. It's not a particularly well-written book but sometimes a book comes along that touches a nerve, this did this for me. I was just so envious of her journey (she walks from one end of the Pacific Crest Trail in the United States to the other). After reading it I wanted to pull on my walking boots and set off on the PCT myself, alone. It's immensely difficult for women to go off and walk in the wild by themselves, they're simply more vulnerable than men. Read Dark Chapter by Goldsmiths alumnus Winnie Li to learn just how vulnerable.



I really fell for Samuel Pepys when I read The Unequalled Self by Claire Tomalin. A brilliant book. What a wonderful,
lovable, clever, candid, witty, flawed person he was. I recommended it to Middle One's history teacher who amazingly hadn't read it but then did, and mentioned it back to me next time I saw her. She had loved it, of course. It's one of those books you will never forget. Probably the best historical biography I've read.

There are so many more books I could mention here but the hour I set aside each week to write this blog is up and I've yet to find photographs and links to put with this. Happy reading and see you next week.

Love E x


P.S. I just finished Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Very sad.


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Some reasons to be cheerful.

Feel like going back to bed for the rest of the winter with a giant bar of Toblerone and watching something on Netflix on your laptop? Black Mirror, perhaps? I know I do. But January's not all bad, there are some reasons not to do this, to actually be a bit cheerful at this time of year. So let's turn to Ian Dury for inspiration because he wrote a song about that and because I have a dissertation to get on with. Here's the list of things that make him cheerful.

Getting back into bed - okay, covered that. Of course. Bed is great. Sleep is awesome. I once read that Jamie Oliver's dad got him out of bed early every day when he was a lad by telling him people die in bed and he shouldn't waste time in it. I suppose Jamie Oliver has done fairly well out of it, but I reckon having a lie-in is a million times better than getting up early to roll a pork loin in fennel seeds.

Summer - Yes! Summer is also great, but if it were summer all year round we wouldn't appreciate it. As I said to a friend the other day, the good thing about being in the middle of the worst bit of the year is that we're getting it over with now.

Buddy Holly - Well alright, we all love Buddy Holly. Well, I do. Everyday. All that tapping. Play it now. It will make you feel more cheerful. Guaranteed.

Good Golly Miss Molly - Then play this. Money in the bank.

Boats - Boats? Bit random. Arthur Ransome. The Wind in the Willows. Three Men in a BoatTitanic. Okay, maybe not Titanic. Book a trip on a boat, read about a boat, build a boat. Whatever floats your boat.

Hammersmith Palais - I don't know about the Palais but I was up the Shepherd's Bush Empire the other week to watch Bill Bailey and he was funny. Go and see a comedian. My boys like Tim Vine. The Pun Slinger. Good clean fun. He's on in the spring. Maybe catch him in Dorking. We have tickets for that, and for Flight of the Conchords. I know! They were like gold dust. Middle One sat on his laptop in a queue for two hours.

The Bolshoi Ballet - Only here because it rhymes. But sure, ballet is good. I like ballet. Something to go with your classical music. Like having a biscuit with tea. 

Jump back in the alley
- In Yorkshire we call them snickets. 

Nanny goats - Nope. 

Eighteen wheeler Scammells - WTF?

Dominica camels - Ditto.

All other mammals - Animals! Yes! We all like animals. Pets are good for us, slow the heart rate. I looked after Archie over Christmas (friend's dog) and he was gorgeous. But you have to walk dogs twice a day and worry about what happens to them when you go on holiday, which I reckon increases the heart rate.

Equal votes - Of course. Sad it's here at all.

Seeing Piccadilly - Not what it used to be. Could make you feel miserable. Mind you, The Picture House Central is near there, where we saw the new Paddington Bear movie, which definitely made us feel cheerful.

Fanny Smith and Willie - Not sure what this means.

Being rather silly - Got that covered.

Porridge oats - Also good for the heart. Going through a muesli phase at the moment.

A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it - Life.

Yellow socks - Makes me think of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. I saw Tamsin Grieg playing him at the National last year. That definitely was a reason to be cheerful.

Too short to be haughty - That's me.

Too nutty to be naughty - Also me.

Going on forty, no electric shocks - Sure, be cheerful you've never had an electric shock. I once made an film about the dangers of electricity. A young mother died stepping into a bath. Check your wiring.

The juice of a carrot - Really? Not actually that nice in my experience. 

The smile of a parrot - Can parrots smile?

A little drop of claret - Ah yes! Lots of people do dry January, tho, so if you're doing dry January maybe skip this one. Personally I'm back on the booze after 31 days off. I think January is absolutely the last month to give up drinking. 

Anything that rocks - Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! To quote from When Harry Met Sally. Go to a gig, or just dance round your kitchen, guaranteed to cheer you up.

Elvis and Scotty - Love a bit of guitar, and Elvis, obviously. He once featured quite heavily in a story I wrote.

The days when I ain't spotty - N/A

Sitting on a potty - Also N/A

Curing smallpox - Not something we can easily relate to. Perhaps he means be cheerful that we live in an age when there isn't any? Someone once asked historian Lucy Worsley (I love Luthy Worthley) what age she would come back in if she could choose and she said anytime after the invention of antibiotics. Sensible lady.

Health service glasses - Are there any nowadays? I had to pay twenty quid for Middle One's NHS frames. 

Gigolos and brasses - ?

Round or skinny bottoms - I wouldn't mind getting to the bottom of this list.

Take your mum to Paris, lighting up a chalice - Lazy rhyming.

Wee Willie Harris - I looked him up. I Hear You Knocking. Yeah, oh dear, he may not have stood the test of time. Play it anyway.

Bantu Steven Biko - We had a Steve Biko room at my uni (the first one). Here he is in case you never heard of him -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Biko

Listening to Rico - ?

Harpo Groucho Chico - Indeed, and all films. We watched Baby Driver over Christmas. Great soundtrack. 

Cheddar cheese and pickle - More of a smoked salmon and cream cheese girl myself.

A Vincent motorsickle - Like the silly rhyme.

Slap and tickle - Obviously.

Woody Allen, Dali, Domitrie and Pascale - Nice list. Woody Allen used to make us cheerful, before he got creepy.

Balla, balla, balla and Volare - ?

Something nice to study - Yes! Off to do that in a mo.

Phoning up a buddy - Nice. Actually we don't do this much anymore. It's all texting. 

Being in my nuddy - Does being in the nuddy make us cheerful? Depends who we're with. On the one hand naked bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, on the other hand we're British. In the sauna at my gym I sit in my swimming costume.

Love E x


P.S. Got bored. Hope you don't mind if I go off to find something nice to study now and leave you with the rest...

Saying okey-dokey 
Sing-a-long a Smokie
Coming out of chokie
John Coltrane's soprano
Adie Celentano
Beuno Colino
Yes, yes, dear, dear
Perhaps next year
Or maybe even now
In which case
Woody Allan, Dali, Domitrie and Pascale
John Coltrane's soprano, Adie Celentano
Beuno Colino