A different perspective on farming and the environment

Up until my late teens I spent a fair amount of time on or around a farm in Cumbria that belonged to a man known to me as Uncle Bob (I have mentioned this before, for instance when I told you about not being allowed to tell people our goats wandered indoors now and then). At one time I imagined I would grow up to work or live on a farm and I retain a more than passing interest in sheep, northern hill-farming, and related matters. I’ve followed with interest the ‘re-wilding’ (for want of a better term) that James Rebanks has been doing on his farm a couple of valleys over from where Uncle Bob was. Knowing that, it’s perhaps less surprising that I received Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm for Christmas, than if you only know me as a writer on almost exclusively non-agricultural topics.

I know very little about Jeremy Clarkson. He was born slightly further south in Yorkshire than I was. He used to present a TV programme about cars. He writes for the Sunday Times about cars. Since I have no interest in cars I only ever hear about him when he’s hit the headlines for saying something dreadful or punching someone. However, I had seen some clips online of his new TV programme about his own farm, and James Rebanks had mentioned him on Twitter as having woken a broad swathe of people up to some farming issues that they probably otherwise wouldn’t run across. I approached the book with an open mind and a certain amount of intrigue.

I believe the book (Diddly Squat: A Year on the Farm) is a collection of newspaper columns he wrote, starting in the first lockdown in Spring 2020 when he couldn’t test-drive cars as usual and therefore needed something else to write about for a while. He had been attempting to manage his own farm in Oxfordshire for a short while by then but he was still very much a beginner. Both from that point of view and the weird historical moment that was the covid pandemic, it’s a unique set of circumstances to be writing in. His writing style can be brusque, he clearly doesn’t care what people think of him, and he repeatedly exaggerates for comic effect. I can see how he manages to wind so many people up. I found some of his humour crass, and some of it surprisingly funny. For the most part I shrugged off his side-swipes at vegetarians, lefties (which covers a bafflingly wide range of people, in his view), Yorkshiremen (after all, he is one himself) and people who voted for Brexit.

I found the book interesting and enjoyable on the whole. I learnt some things about arable farming, and farming in the South, the typical content of Farmer’s Weekly and how easy it is to lose money as a farmer. Bits of it were essentially anecdotes of his comically inept attempts at maintaining social distancing while operating multi-person farm machinery, turning a tractor, planting in a straight line, or penning sheep. The city-dwelling fish out of water, grappling with this countryside lark. I was horrified by the amount of money he spent on useless equipment or ill-advised experiments, but then he is wealthy from broadcasting and journalism and can afford to try things. Mostly when people say you can’t grow that here or you can’t do it that way there’s a good reason, but sometimes it’s out-dated or pure tradition, and without giving it a go you’ll never know, I suppose. Sometimes the ‘tradition’ is far more recent than you might imagine, anyway.

Given that he doesn’t seem keen on environmentalists, he is doing a surprising amount that on another farm, under the guidance of a more palatable farmer, would be seen as the Right Stuff. He keeps bees, and acres of wildflowers, plants trees and changes the course of a beck to help alleviate flooding downstream. I’ve been trying to do my bit for the environment for the last thirty-odd years but I admit that sometimes it’s frustrating how naive and all-or-nothing some of the people on ‘my side’ can be. OneMonkey calls it the Single Metric problem, where blinkered people focus on one measure without looking at the whole picture. Like turning vegan for environmental reasons then drinking almond milk that’s imported from halfway round the world, without considering that might cause its own problems.

The trouble is, lots of things are complicated. Because Clarkson isn’t politically wedded to any of the ‘green’ agenda he can explore the contradictions and talk openly about weighing up costs and efficiency and biodiversity and carbon emissions. It doesn’t mean he’s necessarily giving each argument appropriate weight but it’s important to air the complexity. If you are one of those environmental lefties, like me, then you’re probably worried about affordability of healthy food, food miles (the impact of transporting the food that turns up on your plate), biodiversity and the destruction of natural habitats, water and air pollution, animal welfare, and the list goes on. There isn’t an easy one size fits all solution to all of this at the same time, but I don’t think we talk enough as a nation about what are the best compromises we could make right now and how they might change over time.

whether we like it or not, cheapness is what matters most of all to most people. Yes, everyone here wants to eat British food, but if an Israeli chicken costs 50p less than a chicken reared down the road, the Israeli chicken is going to go in the trolley.

Jeremy Clarkson – Diddly Squat: A Year on the Farm

I don’t agree with everything Jeremy Clarkson has done on his farm, I don’t always agree with how he’s gone about the bits I do agree with, but I appreciate that he’s thinking about it and that he’s presumably causing an unusual audience to think about it too. A man who normally bangs on about high performance cars telling his readers at the end of an article about his wonderful wildflowers that ‘Almost everyone seems to be in agreement on this: we need to put Mother Nature back in the driving seat’ is nothing short of revolutionary. To be encouraged into (some) less destructive ways by someone they recognise rather than the lentil-eating do-gooders on the other side of the political fence can only be a good thing. Most people are a mass of contradictions and I’m sure the Single Metric gang won’t be happy, but I say let’s have as many people as possible doing their imperfect best and take it from there.

If I’ve shocked you by vaguely approving of some of Jeremy Clarkson’s work and you think I need to take it easy for a while you can always buy me a cuppa…


Comfortable shoes and a memorable top

Remember just before Christmas I was longlisted for the Comedy Women in Print short story prize? I’m on the shortlist! Which means my story You Can’t Get There From Here will be in the anthology from Farrago books which is coming out in September. As well as the twelve shortlisted stories I think there will be a couple of stories from comedy writers you might have heard of, but as yet I don’t know who. Rest assured I will keep you posted.

Of course a shortlist implies there will be a winner, and indeed there is an awards do next month in London. Anyone who’s been around here a while (or knows me in the real world, offline) will realise the terror that simple phrase caused. I have spent my life avoiding London whenever possible, which is to say on all but half a dozen days of the last forty-odd years. It is a long train journey away and holds more people than should be possible. As far as I know, there are no sheep. Add to this an actual party – I watched clips of the last one, the amount of people and sequins was astonishing – and suddenly I had plans to become writer in residence on a remote Scottish island with immediate effect.

I bumped into a former member of Ilkley Writers yesterday – technically we are all former members now as it folded three years ago, but she was already a former member by then. I shared the excitement and then, because she knows me and therefore knows how unnaturally an event like this sits in my life, she gave me some advice: wear comfortable shoes and a memorable top. As she put it, ‘they’ve already clocked your work, now they need to clock you’. Which one of my three check/plaid shirts is the most memorable? Or will I need to take her up on the offer to help me trawl the charity shops of Ilkley to find an alternative? Stay tuned to find out…

If you want to fortify me in the meantime you can always buy me a cuppa.


Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays, episode 3

The third episode of my one-woman Yorkshire village sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays was released on Friday. As before, you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. Or you can listen to all the episodes right here in the embedded player:

Lee-Ann had forgotten about the medieval music evening Gina wants to drag her to. Can she come up with a cast-iron way to get out of it?
  1. Episode 4: Early music, early evening
  2. Episode 3: Reorganisation
  3. Episode 2: Book-signing
  4. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

In case you haven’t encountered the podcast yet, Lee-Ann’s been moved on to a four-day week at work and wants to spend more time with her portly black and white cat (Lord Salisbury) and research the history of the village she lives in. Unfortunately her interfering older sister (Gina) doesn’t think those are worthy pursuits, and Fridays are usually spent trying to thwart Gina. Lee-Ann’s Scottish neighbour Douglas isn’t on anyone’s side but his own.

It’s structured like a sitcom, but told as a monologue from Lee-Ann’s point of view. This Friday, Gina’s been inspired to a spot of decluttering and reorganisation, and since she’s still storing some of Lee-Ann’s belongings from her downsizing move a few years ago, those are the first items on the To Go list.

I have nothing against inspirational podcasts, and nothing intrinsically against Gina listening to them, it’s just that what they often inspire in her is an increased desire to interfere in my life.

episode 3, Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays by JY Saville

Research for this month’s episode included jute production at the Dundee Heritage Trust website, which was a fun way to disappear down an industrial history rabbithole. I lived in Fife for a few years and I must have seen some kind of a display about jute which stuck vaguely in my mind and offered itself up in this context – possibly in Kirkcaldy, which I seem to recall was the home of lino. I am much more familiar with the worsted manufacture mentioned in connection with Lee-Ann’s Gran. Both my grandmothers worked in textile mills in the Bradford district, one of them was even a burler and mender, as was Sister Number Two until she was made redundant about twenty years ago. Some of the machinery from her mill ended up at the Bradford Industrial Museum, which is well worth a visit if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

Burling and mending room at Cawthra’s, Dudley Hill in the 1930s, from my Nana’s photo album

One of the themes of the series is the class difference between aspirational older sister Gina and contentedly rooted Lee-Ann. A bit like childhood friends Terry and Bob in the fantastic 1970s sitcom Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, I suppose. Gina has left her working-class upbringing behind now she’s a forty-something lawyer with a solidly middle-class husband; Lee-Ann doesn’t see what there is to be ashamed of. Despite them both having white-collar jobs and living in the same village, they have different outlooks on life.

Gina said the word was ‘anything’, not ‘owt’, ‘Honestly Lee-Ann, you don’t live in a terraced house in a mill town now.’ Strictly speaking Upper Wheatley had a mill long before Bingley ever did. And technically the building in which my over-priced attic conversion sits is a house sandwiched between two other houses, which sounds a lot like a terrace to me.

episode 3, Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays by JY Saville

While Bingley is a real place (I lived there for a short while in my twenties), Upper Wheatley is not. However, I have used Addingham to inform its size and appearance in my mind, so if you want to form a mental image of its buildings and surroundings you could do worse than use that as a starting point, while bearing in mind that Upper Wheatley as a place is not at all like Addingham – it has a station for a start, whereas Addingham’s closed in 1965.

If you’ve enjoyed any of Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and want to support me as I make episode four, you can always buy me a cuppa…


I may need to start reading full-time

I mentioned last month when I did a quick summary of what I was planning to read next, at the end of my 2022 round-up, that the few books pictured there (2 fiction, 5 non-fiction) would probably take me till March to read. As I noted here three years ago, I only read 479 books in the decade 2010-19, so say 48 books a year. Obviously it depends what else is going on, and how thick the books are, but go with 48 for now. That’s 4 complete books per month. Let’s gloss over the fact that I only completed one book in January and pretend I’m on course to 48 this year. Now where have I seen that number recently?

I keep a handy list on my phone, of books I’d like to read. Whenever I see an interesting review or a recommendation on Twitter, or someone suggests a book they think I might like, it goes on the list. The idea being that if I’m in a shop or library, or OneMonkey asks what I want for Christmas, these are the books that get bought or borrowed. In fact, thirteen of them I now own, but obviously haven’t got round to reading. The trouble is, there are 48 books on that list at the time of writing – a year’s worth of reading – and I add to it faster than I remove entries from it. And there are at least 16 books that I own and intend to read soon, that weren’t on the list in the first place.

When I finish a book and I’m looking for the next to read, I’m not always in the mood for one of the physical books sitting on the To Read shelf in my study. So I pick up the kobo and while it’s charging up I have a quick look on the library’s BorrowBox app to see if any of the books on my list are available. Typically they won’t be, but after fifteen minutes’ browsing I’ll add two more books to the list and start reading the one I’ve borrowed that I hadn’t heard of before then. The kobo goes back on the shelf till next time.

I used to commute to work. While I disliked it intensely, it did give me an hour a day on a train, when reading was the obvious and best way of filling the time. I’d often fit in a chapter or two at lunchtime too. I haven’t had a daily commute since mid-March 2020, which is fantastic in almost every way, but means I don’t have a habitual reading time. Books are always competing with cat-entertaining, housework, Twitter, online articles, the daily walk, podcasts, and writing.

I had a conversation last weekend with my two oldest friends (most long-standing, I mean. Or possibly long-suffering is more appropriate), about books we were reading now and next. Their To Read piles are sizeable but, I felt, manageable. Mine is out of control. Friend T is reading a book I like the sound of, she says she’ll pass it on when I’ve made progress on my To Read pile. I fear it will never come my way.

If you want to encourage me to sit down and read, you can always buy me a cuppa…


I made it to podcast episode 2

An awful lot of podcasters apparently give up after the first episode. Tried it and didn’t like it, perhaps, or became discouraged by the tumbleweed that greeted their first offering. Well, because I like to be different, I’ve persevered to make the second episode of my sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays. It was released on Friday and as before, you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. And if I’ve embedded it properly, you can listen to both episodes right here:

Lee-Ann had forgotten about the medieval music evening Gina wants to drag her to. Can she come up with a cast-iron way to get out of it?
  1. Episode 4: Early music, early evening
  2. Episode 3: Reorganisation
  3. Episode 2: Book-signing
  4. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

Before you listen, you may want to know what this podcast is about. It’s about Lee-Ann who’s been moved on to a four-day week and wants to spend more time with her cat and research the history of the Yorkshire village she lives in. Unfortunately she has the sort of interfering and organised older sister (Gina) who doesn’t think those are worthy enough pursuits, and she spends most of Friday trying to get Gina off her case. She also has a dry, laid-back Scottish neighbour called Douglas, and a portly black and white cat named Lord Salisbury. It’s structured like a sitcom, but told as a monologue from Lee-Ann’s point of view. I’m not saying you’re going to learn anything from Lee-Ann, but she does drop real history in now and then (like sourdough bread being around in ancient Egypt).

Lord Salisbury leapt on to Douglas’s knee to show Gina that he’s not standoffish, he just doesn’t like her. Douglas said he was sure he’d regret asking, but why was my cat called Lord Salisbury?

episode 2, Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays by JY Saville

Lord Salisbury (as I’m sure you all know) was a Tory prime minister of the late nineteenth century, and according to HCG Matthew in my Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, ‘the last Prime Minister to wear a beard’. There is no deep meaning behind my choosing the name, it is simply an improbable name for a cat (and turned out not to be the name of a cat who used to live round the corner from me, but that’s another story).

Richard Oastler, who gets a mention in episode two, was another nineteenth-century Tory, this time from Yorkshire. Best known for being instrumental in the Ten Hour Act (1847) which limited the amount of time in a day that children could work, there is a statue in Bradford of him accompanied by sorry-looking children. It’s not that far from the statue to William Forster (not a Tory), whose 1870 Education Act gets a passing mention.

Robert Owen, also mentioned in the second episode, was a Welsh mill-owner and famous socialist. Similar to Titus Salt in Yorkshire or the Cadbury family in the Midlands, he had a village for his workers at New Lanark in Scotland and was attempting to improve their health, morals, and general wellbeing. We learnt about him at school, and then presumably because it was a lot closer to get to, went for a day trip to Quarry Bank mill instead.

As a bonus historical fun fact, pilates (which crops up in both episodes, actually) was called Contrology until its inventor (Mr Pilates) died in 1967. I have a feeling if it was still called that, Lee-Ann wouldn’t be quite so set against it.

If you enjoyed either episode of Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and want to support me as I make episode three, you can always buy me a cuppa…


My reading list for 2022 was eclectic

I read more books in 2022 than I had in a few years, which is good. I also read or re-read huge chunks of books as background for my Hexham book festival commission, but they don’t count in my list because it’s only complete books.

A few of the books I read in 2022

I read a lot of ebooks, and some I borrowed from the Library of Mum & Dad, and some I’ve given to charity shops since, so the picture’s a bit sparse but I think you’ll agree it’s wide-ranging. If we add in the fact that I read a couple of Celia Imrie novels, some local history and Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty, it becomes even more so. I wrote about Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald (good for dipping a toe into nature topics) and The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald (excellent slice of noir, borrowed from my dad) in January but nothing since, leaving it looking like I was only planning to review authors named Macdonald and ran out of steam. I had computer problems that stopped the blog for a few months and then I was too busy getting back into reading after a patchy couple of years to stop and write reviews of anything. I did mention The Ladies’ Paradise by Emile Zola and GM Trevelyan’s Illustrated English Social History in a post about historical echoes. I’ll try and rattle through a few recommendations now.

Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain by Pen Vogler was interesting and I enjoyed it but I was left wanting more (despite it being a hefty book). Rather than chronological, the book is arranged by topic. What you get therefore is effectively an article about a meal or foodstuff, which is loosely related to the other articles in that section, with little room for depth or cross-referencing. I learnt lots of fascinating things, but I think I’ll have to delve into the extensive bibliography to answer all the follow-up questions I was left with.

Farmer’s Glory by AG Street must have been mentioned by Cumbrian farmer-author James Rebanks at some point (in fact he wrote the introduction to the edition I’ve got). The author worked on his father’s farm somewhere in the south of England in the early years of the twentieth century, then went to work on a Canadian farm in 1911. If you’re interested in man’s changing relationship with nature, or the history of farming itself, it’s a sad but enjoyable comparison of two very different farms, and also the pre- and post-war farm in England.

Into the Tangled Bank by Lev Parikian I highly recommend if you’ve dipped a toe with Helen Macdonald and you’re eager for more of the nature stuff. He writes some of the Country Diary for the Guardian, and judging by both the humour and the use of footnotes in this book, is probably a reader of Douglas Adams and/or Terry Pratchett. He has a Bill Bryson-ish air of being interested but not an expert (even though he knows an awful lot about birds) and his enthusiasm is contagious – he’s also worth following on twitter. It is a book about nature, but also about how the average Briton (whoever that may be) experiences nature, so there are urban street/park/garden excursions as well as the grounds of museums, and nature reserves and the like. From memory, there is nowhere he visits that isn’t accessible to the general public, though that does include an isolated holiday destination on an island of birds.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is extremely long but quite readable and it didn’t take me that long to get through. To be honest I think a massive chunk of it is graphs (which take up a lot of space) and end-notes (which I didn’t read because the BorrowBox app didn’t seem to allow easy return to where you were reading). I found it really interesting but a) I’m pretty left-wing so I’m predisposed to e.g. recommendations of wealth tax, and b) though I’m not really up on economics, I do enjoy reading economic histories full of coal production graphs. For reference, I have never read Das Kapital which sounded incredibly dull. I think if you’re interested in how we got in this mess (2008 financial crisis etc) and how tax and wealth have been handled in a few of the major economies in the last couple of centuries, it’s worth a try. I think it’s designed to be dippable, or at least skippable if you don’t want the detail.

I can’t remember the detail of most novels I read last year, like Hestia by CJ Cherryh or Ayala’s Angel by Anthony Trollope but The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley has stuck with me. It’s a wonderful blend of nineteenth-century adventure story and fantasy novel, set in (from memory) the 1860s and following a chap from Cornwall to Peru in the footsteps of his grandfather. Thinking about it, there’s another connection to my nature-reading here – the core of it is about collecting specimens of exotic trees, but there’s a lot about the properties of trees, and rock, and landscape, and it’s richly described (I can still picture various locations or scenes, months after reading it). I reviewed her novel The Watchmaker of Filigree Street a few years ago and a character from that book also makes a cameo appearance, as it were.

Even more nature-related was The Woodcock by Richard Smyth, which I recommended on Twitter after reading, as follows: If you like novels set in Yorkshire and/or the 1920s and would like to be deeply immersed in a fictional coastal town such that you feel you could become a visitor guide I recommend The Woodcock by @RSmythFreelance. Lots of bird & rockpool action, plus love, philosophy & sadness. Not to mention a theatrical American with a vision of Coney Island adjacent to the North Sea.

When I was really struggling to read anything and I just wanted something to immerse myself in, I turned to the library app on my phone and flicked through any available novels that weren’t crime or thriller. It didn’t leave a lot of choice and I ended up with Not Quite Nice, and Sail Away, both by Celia Imrie. I’m not going to claim they were literary triumphs, and yes they probably wouldn’t have been published if she wasn’t already famous, but the name helped me choose from the list and they made me laugh and they were easy to follow. And they obviously sparked something because they did get me back on a reading track, and I continued with a couple more random library ebooks before I went back to my To Read shelf.

One of them was Bunny by Mona Awad which was about friendship, belonging and loneliness, at its heart. It involved a small group of young women studying creative writing at a prestigious American university, and the cliques and bitchiness and rivalry. But, it also had a weird layer of gothic fairytale (and some gory bits so bear that in mind if you’re squeamish like me). I loved it, and I’d never have read it if I’d read a review or run across it in a bookshop. Sometimes a bit of randomness is just what your reading list needs.

I also read a Guardian article about non-Eurocentric fantasy novels, which added a few books to my To Read list, two of which I read towards the end of 2022. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard mainly involves fallen angels in an alternative Paris; they live in rival Houses and there are long-running intrigues and complex goings-on, lots of celestial politics behind the scenes. However, one of the characters caught up in the events of the novel is originally from Vietnam and has a whole different framework of magic and religion to draw on, which brings a different perspective. The other one I read was The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin and good grief it’s good. It’s about the end of the world, but beyond that there’s not much to say without spoilers. I loved the conversational narrative voice, the fact that one strand is written in second person, the way the world feels whole and different (like Dune or similar). Just read it if you like epic fantasy, you’ll thank me later.

Books I’m reading now and next

In a break from tradition I’ll end with a look ahead. I suspect 2023 is going to be an equally weird mix. I’m reading The Obelisk Gate (the sequel to The Fifth Season) at the moment, and then there’s book 3 The Stone Sky. However I’m also reading Counting Sheep by Philip Walling, about British sheep breeds and their impact on history, and I was given Jeremy Clarkson’s book about his farm (Diddly Squat) for Christmas. I must say I’m intrigued to know how a man like Clarkson got along with farming, I think James Rebanks said he had at least got a conversation going among people who wouldn’t normally care about agriculture. My dad has pressed Never Had It So Good by Dominic Sandbrook on me – it’s two inches thick in this paperback edition and covers a seven-year period so I think it might take me a bit of a run-up. Northerners by Brian Groom and Black Gold by Jeremy Paxman were my post-Christmas treats. That lot will probably take me till March and that’s without adding any new books into the mix (or the Vaseem Khan novel that’s waiting on my kobo).

Feel free to tell me what you’ve been reading or are looking forward to reading, either in the comments or on Twitter @JYSaville.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…


Longlisted for the CWIP short story prize!

My entry to the inaugural Comedy Women in Print short story prize has made the longlist! There are no links to anyone’s websites or social media (yet) so we can’t all check out their work but I do recognise a couple of names on there and I’m happy to be in such company.

JY Saville author photo
Author photo of a comedy woman in print

Sadly you don’t get to read my highly amusing longlisted story, You Can’t Get There From Here, but here are a few other things I’ve written in the last couple of years that are intended to make you laugh:

  • Episode 1 of my one-woman (+1 cat) sitcom Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays is available wherever you get your podcasts (listen-in-browser or find the appropriate links here)
  • I Could Murder a Custard Cream, a short film by Slackline Productions starring Susannah May and directed by Callie Nestleroth is available here
  • Or if you prefer something to read, Silver-Topped Cane is a short story at Funny Pearls

If you enjoy any of them, you can always buy me a cuppa. Excuse me while I go off and dance…


How I made my first podcast

In case any of you are either curious, or thinking of setting up a podcast yourself, I thought I’d go through a few of the practicalities from making mine; I already wrote about the background to my sitcom podcast.

Recording, editing and mixing

It’s worth investing in a decent microphone – mine was second-hand from ebay a few years ago and I also got a Scarlett Solo which has a USB connection. If you plug the microphone into the Scarlett Solo with an audio cable you can record straight to the computer. I haven’t had much luck with built-in microphones on phone/tablet/laptop, and I heard a professional film-maker say last year that he’s now happy to make short films on a phone, but only if the audio’s recorded separately (i.e. the video capability of phones is more advanced than the audio). I had the microphone sat in a cradle on top of a box, with a pop shield (a fine metal mesh) clamped to the desk and fencing the microphone off from my mouth. I also had a thick piece of packing foam behind the microphone to stop reflected sound from the box. I’m lucky to live in a pretty quiet street, but I did make sure both my cats were asleep before I got going.

I’ve been recording stories to put on Chirbit for a few years (that’s why I got the microphone in the first place) and I’ve read on stage and radio a fair few times. It still took me nearly an hour to record a 26-minute episode – fluffed lines, wrong emphasis, someone slams a car door outside – and I counted that as a really efficient recording session. I’ve taken longer than that to be happy with a ten-minute piece before.

I used to use Audacity, which is brilliant and free. This time I used GarageBand which is free in the Apple system (I mentioned a few months back I got a second-hand Mac). Either way you can record your voice (or sound effects) directly into it via the Scarlett Solo, in separate tracks if necessary. You can then delete or move sections, add filters, fade in or out, mute tracks etc. Both have nice visual interfaces, but I found noise-reduction and fine control easier in Audacity – possibly I just haven’t found the right way to do it in GarageBand. GarageBand has drag-and-drop for moving sections around, I can’t remember if Audacity did.

It took about an hour to do the basic editing, by which I mean cutting out the fluffed lines, stitching in the better versions I recorded ten minutes later when I decided that after all, I wasn’t happy with how I’d read that paragraph. It then took at least as long again to add the sound effects, music, and do any necessary fades in or out. Mostly I was listening on headphones (cans not in-ear) to try and pick up small details. OneMonkey (Andrew Woods as mentioned in the podcast credits) did the noise reduction on my sound effects because I couldn’t work out how to do it and he has more experience than me in GarageBand.

The aesthetic

Once I’d got the words recorded I had to make design decisions – what is the vibe of the podcast? The cover art, fonts, theme music etc can all work towards conveying that vibe to the audience, but it’s easier said than done – this is why people hire designers who do that kind of thing for a living. Fonts, artwork, music and sound effects are where licensing and rights come in, so it’s fairly easy to either end up spending a lot of money or get into trouble for using something you don’t have the rights for.

Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays is a sitcom so quirky ought to be ok, but it’s not at the ‘zany’ end so nothing too clown-like. It’s about a history-buff who doesn’t fully inhabit the modern world – she uses archaic terminology, she’s very late to the smartphone party and is clueless on contemporary culture – so old-fashioned, maybe Victorian would work. On the other hand it’s set in the present day so I didn’t want anything too historical-looking that might lead the audience to expect a historical sitcom.

I had a vague calendar-based design idea for the cover but thankfully OneMonkey took that bit out of my hands and made a proper job of it, incorporating books and cats as Lee-Ann’s favourite things. He’s done websites and book or comic covers for us and our friends before, and he used public domain elements from https://openclipart.org/ then put the cover art together in Inkscape because that’s what we happen to have and are used to using (it’s free open-source software). I spent at least half an hour working my way down the list of fonts to get one that looked right – I was determined I wanted one with large and small capitals, but that’s not what I ended up using. Flexibility and being open to new ideas was very important in all of this.

For the theme music I was looking for something old, preferably public-domain, probably a brass band as it’s set in Yorkshire. The incidental music had been composed by OneMonkey using the French Horn setting in GarageBand but again that’s not what I ended up using. First I found Silverman Sound which is one man writing (free) theme music for every eventuality and has so many great pieces of music but none of them were brass. Then I tried the Free Music Archive and searched for historic and instrumental to see what they had. I clicked on one to see how the interface worked, and it wasn’t brass but I quite liked it. The more I searched, the more I kept coming back to Naughty Marietta by the Victor Herbert Orchestra from 1911, and that became the theme music. While I was listening to the track there was a repeating section that sounded like it might lend itself to scene breaks, so I edited that down to be incidental music.

I happened to record my own sound effects this time (one of my cats mewing, an alarm clock, and an outdated phone ring tone), but in the past I’m fairly sure I’ve sourced them from https://freesound.org/

Choosing a host, and distributing

From all the mention of free, open-source, and public domain above you’ll understand that I wasn’t about to sign up to a podcast host that cost twenty quid a month, certainly not for my first attempt when I was dipping a toe in the water and not guaranteed to carry on long-term. I did have a scout around though, and even within that price bracket there seemed a huge variation in what you got for your money so that while some of them didn’t seem worth it for me and my immediate needs, some of them just plain didn’t seem worth it. I opted for Anchor in the end because it’s free but still (as far as I could tell from the vague advert on the site) gave you a fair bit in terms of how many episodes you could have up, how many downloads they could have, and where your podcast could be found. Also, as part of Spotify it seemed unlikely to disappear suddenly. It didn’t give much information about requirements before signing up, but as it was free I thought it was easier to sign up and then change my mind than try to find all the info first. There is apparently a way to monetise your podcast via Anchor but I wasn’t interested in that so didn’t investigate.

I of course was uploading both audio and cover art but there are facilities to record and edit, plus make your own cover on the site. Uploading was quick and easy, and without doing anything further it was available both at my newly-created Anchor page and on Spotify. When I went to a podcast-making workshop last year they said in the UK 70% of podcasts were listened to via Apple, and 25% via Spotify, so at the very least I also needed this to be available on Apple podcasts.

Now, here’s the bit they don’t tell you – for that, you need the site to generate an RSS feed which includes your email address embedded in the code. I had signed up for Anchor using my usual personal email address, which I didn’t want to be publicly available. So, I set up a new (free) email address at GMX, very easily changed the email associated with my Anchor account to the GMX one, and then generated the RSS feed. I then had to create an Apple Podcasts Connect account (free) and give it the RSS feed, so that it picked everything up from Anchor (I might have had to choose categories by hand). My podcast had been verified and was available on Apple within a couple of hours, but I’ve heard it can take up to a week so it may have helped that I did all this from a Mac where I was already signed in with my Apple ID.

In conclusion

If you include all the time spent choosing a podcast host, choosing fonts, listening to music and sound effects I didn’t use, as well as the writing, recording, editing etc then this 26 minutes of audio took me at least a couple of weeks’ full-time work to make. Episode 2 should take less time of course because I’ve already got the cover art and theme music, I’ve got the distribution set up, but it will still take a while to write and I may need different sound effects.

It didn’t cost me any money, but only because I’d already bought audio equipment and I used public domain clip art and music. And got assistance from my other half with the design and production.

If you’d like to listen to the results, it’s Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays – you can listen in the browser at Anchor and it has buttons there to take you to Spotify or Apple if you prefer. If you enjoy it, you can always buy me a cuppa…


So, I wrote a sitcom podcast

Remember how I did James Cary‘s sitcom course last year? And then realised that writing a radio sitcom was a daft idea because you’re either competing for Radio 4 or you have to do your own podcast? Well, I’ve done my own podcast. It’s called Lee-Ann’s Spare Fridays and you can listen to it on Spotify or Apple podcasts, or at https://anchor.fm/jysaville where you should be able to play it in a browser without logging in to anything. And if I’ve embedded it properly, you can listen right here:

Episode 4: Early music, early evening Lee-Ann's Spare Fridays

Lee-Ann had forgotten about the medieval music evening Gina wants to drag her to. Can she come up with a cast-iron way to get out of it?
  1. Episode 4: Early music, early evening
  2. Episode 3: Reorganisation
  3. Episode 2: Book-signing
  4. Episode 1: Sourdough Starter

I had a pilot script for a sitcom that I was working on during the course (until I got diverted by an idea for a historical sitcom, which I still can’t quite get right). It was about a woman who’s been moved on to a four-day week and wants to spend more time with her cat and research local history – can you tell she’s partly inspired by me? Unfortunately she has the sort of interfering and organised older sister* who doesn’t think those are worthy enough pursuits, and she spends her entire Friday trying to get her sister off her case so she can have a free Friday.

*I should point out that although I have two older sisters, neither of them are remotely like Gina. Though Sister Number One did once say that I spent too much time reading about life instead of experiencing it, and she’s not that keen on cats either.

I wasn’t sure I’d quite got the script right – I remember having a conversation with James about how to ensure Lee-Ann wasn’t simply reacting to her sister Gina, and how to make her a funny character in her own right (I hope I solved that one in the end). Even after the diversion into the historical sitcom though, I kept coming back to Lee-Ann. I liked the entangled but antagonistic relationship with Gina, and I liked her dry, laid-back neighbour Douglas. Was it likely to bump Ed Reardon from a Radio 4 slot? Probably not. Did I want to make it? Of course I did. I wasn’t owed any favours by actors though, so I shelved the podcast idea.

And then I remembered how much I enjoyed reading my stories aloud, and how I’d written well-received comedy monologues before. I set about adapting the script to be told entirely from Lee-Ann’s point of view, but still with the odd scene-setting sound effect, and with scene-breaks. So it has the length and structure of a half-hour radio sitcom episode, but it’s all in one voice (except for Lord Salisbury the cat who is expertly played by Parkin, one of my cats).

So if a monologue sitcom about two sisters needling each other in a Yorkshire village sounds like it might be your bag, scroll back up and give it a go. If you enjoy it, subscribe so you hear about episode 2 then tell your friends, and if you’re grabbed by the Christmas spirit you could even buy me a cuppa…


Amazing what you find when you’re clearing out

Photo by Giallo on Pexels.com

Ten years ago I entered a Sherlock Holmes-inspired flash fiction competition. I forget the exact criteria but I didn’t get anywhere, and never knew what to do with the resulting short tale about the impossibility of time travel. Having finally mothballed my decaying laptop I’m tidying up the file structure on the new (second-hand) desktop and stumbling across forgotten stories, including that one. It’s less than 500 words long, so if you fancy a small piece of Victorian-set SF, read on, and if you enjoy it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


When you’ve eliminated the impossible…

“Carstairs, you simply must come,” insisted young Fotherington. “How could you miss the chance to use a time machine?”

Professor Carstairs sighed. In twenty minutes of argument his delightful cousin’s foolish husband had failed to take on board the basic principle that such a machine was a physical impossibility. It was all the fault of that bounder Wells and his sensational literature. If only more people had read Conan Doyle’s excellent stories in The Strand instead.

“How indeed?” Carstairs said. Fotherington beamed at this apparent capitulation, and set about writing to the friend who had invited them for the weekend.

By the time they boarded the train on Friday, the professor was looking forward to the trip. Since the machine couldn’t really transport anyone through time, he wanted to ascertain whether the perception was created through physical or psychological means. In short, did the experience involve the administration of drugs or a subtle blend of auditory stimuli and the power of suggestion.

They had almost arrived when Fotherington said, “I knew you’d come round in the end, Carstairs.”

“Fotherington, you do understand that the supposed inventor of this machine, your friend’s new acquaintance, is either a fraud or a fool? Or both.”


“There are laws of physics which absolutely forbid -“

“Wasn’t it once a law of physics that the sun went round the earth?” asked Fotherington, his smile suggesting his clever friend had been caught out.

“That wasn’t a law of physics, it was a piece of dogma which has since been overthrown.”


The breathless Fotherington found Professor Carstairs prowling their host’s library later that afternoon.

“Carstairs, it was marvellous. I threw back a lever and fetched up in Elizabethan times, I could hear feasting.”

“Hear?” Carstairs raised an eyebrow. This hinted at the drug-free theory of subtle suggestion.

“Yes,” said Fotherington. “The chap said stay in the shadows and don’t interact with anyone.”

Carstairs smiled and followed Fotherington to the contraption which had been built into a closet. He shook hands with the inventor and settled himself inside, nudging the lever gently forwards. There was a prolonged mechanical whirring, a flash of light, and then silence. Carstairs opened the closet door expecting Fotherington, but found an empty room. The light seemed different and he cursed himself – the handshake must have been a means of transferring an hallucinogenic substance.

“…doesn’t matter what I saw on Friday, I’m not convinced, Fotherington.”

Carstairs heard a familiar voice and two sets of footsteps approaching. As the door to the room opened, he came face to face with himself wearing a look of abject horror.

What makes a satisfying biography?

I was listening to Gideon Coe’s BBC6Music programme on BBCSounds, as I do most days, only for a change I actually listened to the Late Night Book Club segment which he includes from time to time. With apologies to Mr Coe and his no doubt fascinating guests, I generally skip past it because they’re discussing a book about a topic I’m not that bothered about (a band I was never that into, or the Northern Soul scene in Macclesfield one memorable Spring) and I’m there for the music, man. This time, however, it was a biography of an artist I have reasonable familiarity with (including, crucially, some of the bad bits) but have never been what you might call a big fan of, just an occasional listener. In other words I had enough of an interest to listen to the discussion but nothing to lose if there were revelations ahead that would put me off. I’m not going to say who it was (it’s no longer available on Sounds anyway) because I mean no disrespect to the biographer, but you could hear the shine in their eyes as they talked about their subject. It made me wonder what makes someone write a biography, and then I started thinking about why people read biographies (and autobiographies, and memoirs) and why I almost never do.

In my late teens I read biographies of Che Guevara, Billy Bragg, and The Clash, which I’m sure you could have guessed, and I’ve read the odd rock star autobiography since (Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde both of which I wrote about a few years ago, and Bruce Dickinson as pictured above), not to mention Anthony Trollope’s, but the only other biography I can think of that I’ve read is the Richard Ingrams book about William Cobbett. I admired William Cobbett from the little I knew about him at that time, and maybe with him and Che Guevara I already felt there was enough of importance or interest in the work they’d done, that their being revealed as useless fathers for instance couldn’t take away from that. The biography added new information and different perspectives, without diminishing the achievements I already knew about.

So why would you write a biography? Because you’re a shining-eyed fanboy. Because you have an axe to grind or want to prove a point. Because you think other people will be interested and therefore there’s a market for it, but you have no particular stake in the subject yourself. There are problems with all of those approaches, I think, or there can be.

Bias is everywhere, it’s hard to get away from. I’m reading a history at the moment which has reached the Middle Ages and the author seems unduly lenient with the Mongols, justifying every wholesale slaughter of a town’s inhabitants while (rightly) condemning similar behaviour from Crusaders. The partisan biography can be similarly unsatisfying to a reader who doesn’t share their enthusiasm, skating over or playing down dubious behaviour and unpleasant traits. On the other hand the frank portrayal of them can be disappointing if it downgrades a reader’s view of a hero, or off-putting to someone who wasn’t expecting them and didn’t intend to sit down and read the detailed chronicle of a selfish alcoholic or serial adulterer. The selective evidence of the biography attempting to portray its subject as a pioneer in something we hadn’t previously thought of them as being involved in starts to feel strained quite quickly (Frederica Bloggs was fifty years ahead of her time, look, if you squint it sort of looks like she was a precursor to this trend she’d never heard of), and the hurried cash-in on a newly-famous person doesn’t have time to be particularly in depth.

Which brings us, I suppose, to why would you read a biography? Celebrity gossip, a hard-backed Hello magazine? To find out how a favourite artist/musician/writer ticks? To recognise a commonality with them, or to look for evidence of greatness, difference at an early age? As a window onto a particular time or place? With a biography, unless it’s written with a lot of input from the subject or their closest associates, there’s going to be an element of guessing or interpretation; if the subject is dead they have no opportunity to correct any misapprehensions. Most people aren’t saints, and everyone has boring bits. At some point I realised I’m rarely interested enough to read about someone’s early years, while also being detached enough to not be disappointed by the unsavoury revelations. With great figures from history I often want the author to go follow some other person for a while rather than concentrating on a single person’s views, achievements and activities, as they’re not necessarily the most interesting person in every situation.

In the last few years I’ve read a few memoirs, including the sort of nature-writing that’s very author-focused. It’s in the author’s own words, it’s selective so unless it’s actually about their bad behaviour or ill health you probably don’t have to wade through all that, and it’s focused. My life as a birdwatcher. My childhood in the Yorkshire Dales in the late nineteenth century. In search of my sea-faring ancestors. Some were by famous people, some I hadn’t heard of but were released by one of the big publishers, others were small-circulation books for a local audience that I’ve picked up second-hand. Maybe what I’m saying is that I don’t find the entire story of a person that interesting and what I actually find satisfying in a biography is…it not being a biography.

Ifyou have thoughts on what makes good life-writing, let me know in the comments, and if you enjoyed mine you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


While opinionated celebrities carry on, it’s reasoned debate that’s in danger of cancellation

Cries of ‘cancel culture’ from loud-mouthed celebrities who have more outlets than ever for their opinions might be misplaced, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on. Quick judgements and condemnation on social media mean the thoughtful, the people who don’t want to be misconstrued and would hate to think they’d genuinely upset anyone, say nothing rather than risk public flaming. What’s that one about evil triumphing when good men do (or say) nothing?

Writers know the importance of rewriting, but even writers don’t spend weeks crafting a tweet or rehearsing a TikTok video. They’re produced quickly, on the move or while half-distracted by something else, and often as an immediate reaction. Yes, there are some people (including some well-known writers) who know exactly what they’re saying, and they really mean it, and it’s not pleasant. But there are plenty who have reacted in good faith to something they’ve misunderstood, or changed their minds about later after reflecting or learning more about it. There’re the hot-headed responses to something that caught a person at a bad time, which they may well apologise for later on. And there’s the stuff that doesn’t quite mean what you meant it to mean. All of us use clumsy wording sometimes, from the unintended double entendre to saying ‘drat, the bulb’s died’ in front of a bereaved friend. Among friends, colleagues, or anyone with empathy who’s willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, it gets laughed off, hugged away, or reworded in a second attempt a moment later. The trouble with social media is, you’re not always in a comparable situation.

It’s sometimes said that there are always people waiting to be offended. While there are the odd few that take everything personally and filter the conversation through the worst possible meanings of the words, there are many more who are looking for scandal and don’t really care what the intention was as long as it causes a stir. Whether gossips or a certain sort of journalist, they pounce on anything that could be used against someone. One of the more innocuous examples of recent weeks is Liz Truss supposedly being greeted by the king with ‘Back again? Dear oh dear.’ Mildly amusing but if you watch the clip it looks an awful lot like he’s just making social noise because he’s not quite sure what’s expected while the cameras are rolling and he can’t start the ‘real’ conversation yet. It was, a BBC correspondent notes, only a couple of hours since he’d last seen her. It all reminds me of primary school where someone might comment that the teacher smells of strawberries today and immediately the troublemaker shoots their hand up, shouting ‘Miss, Miss, she said you smell’.

There are an awful lot of complex issues around and Twitter, even at the increased character limit, isn’t the best place to discuss them. They get oversimplified and mixed together, and the confidently loud tell me that if I think X then I also agree with Y (the implication being that I am therefore a monster). No, there’s more than one reason to think X and some of them might mean you agree with Y, definitely not in my case. The wonderful thing about people is that they’re a mass of contradictions and perfectly capable of holding apparently opposing views at the same time. If it was all so obviously black and white there wouldn’t be so much bickering. No doubt my Twitter followers get a strange sense of my priorities, but I tend not to comment on anything I think would require a few hours’ reflection and an essay to gather my thoughts on, and only weigh in on the simpler issues where I know where I stand and can sum it up in a couple of sentences.

Even keeping out of it doesn’t seem to be an option for everyone at the moment though. People in the public eye (which includes anyone who gets noticed on social media) can’t win. If they say they have nothing to add, haven’t been following the argument, or don’t have a fully-formulated view, both sides see them as the enemy. They failed to condemn the one position and failed to defend the other. Nuance is no longer allowed. You can’t say you disagree with the way someone’s presented an argument and some of their conclusions but you do agree with a kernel of their premise and maybe we should be having a grown-up discussion about it – all that will get out is that you ‘agree with’ them.

I’m pretty left-wing and I think of myself in those terms because I’m interested in politics. Most ordinary people are not, and don’t think much in terms of left and right. They think in terms of the things that bother them and the politicians that promise to listen or to do something about it. Hence the shock of the crumbling of the red wall – it’s not that most of the urban north was committedly left-wing it’s that Labour spoke to their priorities for many years, and then Brexit came along and Labour shied away from talking about the underlying concerns so the voters turned to someone who professed to care. Many on the left forget, or perhaps don’t even believe, that ordinary people who feel silenced, who are told they’re wrong even to question the liberal media view, and that if they think that then they must also think this other awful thing, will eventually turn to the loudmouths who don’t care who they offend because, ‘at least they’re not afraid to talk about it’. And that, I think, should worry us all.

I’ll leave you with this post I wrote at the end of 2016 but never posted, which I’d titled Closed questions, closed minds?

Which camp do you fall in, The Beatles or The Stones? It’s still a question that gets asked, though for a while when I was a teenager the equivalent was the synthetic rivalry between Blur and Oasis. Ironically, given the recent move to add non-binary as a response to gender questions, we seem to be in an increasingly binary mode.

Sweet or savoury? Dogs or cats? Tea or coffee? X Factor or The Voice? In a world of short attention span and Buzzfeed lists it’s as though we only have the capacity for quick decisions, comparisons between two options. Never do we get the idea that it might be acceptable to like both (or indeed neither).

Most families I know who have either a dog or cat have had both at some point. Most people I know who drink tea or coffee will happily drink either, even if they veer more to one than the other. Admittedly my coffee-loving eldest sister is an exception – to my knowledge she has never tasted tea, but she does have an interesting phobia of teabags and I’ve never met anyone else quite like her.

Human beings are complex individuals, still (thankfully) capable of holding contradictory positions and of having nuanced responses to anything from pets to politics. The media presents us with false dichotomies and we react to them. Clinton or Trump, for instance, even when Sanders was still in the running. Until late October from my sheltered position in the UK I had no idea there were more than two parties fielding candidates in the US presidential elections.

We can blame mainstream media for this binary view of the world, where everything is black or white and if you’re not with us you’re against us. Or more often, if you’re not fully opposed to something in an ostentatiously vocal manner, you must be a supporter – witness the ‘terrorist sympathiser’ slurs against certain politicians. We also need to take some responsibility ourselves. Think about our own views and reflect on where the contradictions lie. Consider the shocking possibility that someone could have voted to leave the EU on anticapitalist grounds and is appalled by fellow leave-voters’ racism, and that equally it is possible to be anti-immigration to a racist extent and yet have voted to remain in the EU on economic grounds. At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair, we need to recognise that most of the time there is a third way.

My own answer to The Beatles or The Stones? The Kinks, naturally.

If I’ve made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip

It’s fair to say none of us were expecting the Queen to die last week. From radio and TV schedules to sporting fixtures and parliamentary debates, there’s been a flurry of last-minute cancellations and rearrangements as people either have unexpected tasks (like the PM and the BBC) or don’t want to look disrespectful. Incidentally, there’s a side-note here about nobody quite knowing where the borders of disrespectful are because social expectations around death and mourning have completely changed in the UK in the 70 years since we last had to negotiate this, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

I was listening to a 6Music programme on BBC Sounds (i.e. listen-again) this morning. It had been broadcast last Monday, and included a trailer for live coverage of the Mercury Music Prize which would begin at 7pm on Thursday evening. I haven’t checked, but I’d be willing to bet large sums that the BBC did not in fact switch across to the Mercury Music Prize half an hour after the Queen’s death had been announced to the nation. If, indeed, the prize event went ahead as planned. It made me think of the posters in darkened shop windows at Easter 2020, advertising events in March that never happened because of the national lockdown for the pandemic. That gap between plans and reality, that’s where the stories can be found.

Photo by Jess Bailey Designs on Pexels.com

If you run across a flyer for gigs at a particular venue in November 1995 you probably assume without a second thought that they all went ahead. Likewise past newspaper announcements of forthcoming sales, talks, events. When I’m researching family history the reading of banns, noted in the parish register, is usually enough for me to say that my ancestors got married the following month. But what about the ones that didn’t? It’s not you, Obadiah, it’s me. It’s both a cautionary note about making assumptions in research, and a good starting point for writing a story.

  • Weddings are a category all to themselves. The invites were sent and various plans made, but the wedding didn’t go ahead. Did one of the pair get cold feet and not turn up on the day? Did they have a row (or a heartfelt but amicable talk) and call it off in advance? Was there an illness or accident that threw a spanner in the works? Did the couple get sick of the fuss their families were imposing, and run off for a quiet wedding? Did the reading of the banns turn up someone with objections? Was the church hit by lightning the night before?
  • Anything else that requires an invite and advanced planning can also get scuppered by illness or accident, the venue being unavailable, or a change of heart: christenings, birthday or anniversary parties, graduations. The silver wedding couple decide to get divorced. The soon-to-be-fifty-year-old has a wobble about reaching the half-century. A lorry takes the corner badly and puts the bar out of action for a few weeks.
  • There’s a related category of unused tickets: train, plane, theatre, concert. As above, there’s the possibility of illness, accident, change of heart or unavailable venue, plus a few more besides. Bad weather or strikes mean the transport’s not running (this goes for events as well as train tickets actually – I once bought a theatre ticket I couldn’t use because of train disruption). The local authorities have banned the concert (those infamous Sex Pistols gigs) or the band have split up partway through the tour. There was a terrorist incident the day before and now the ticket-holder daren’t go. Maybe they just got a better offer on the day, bumped into an old friend or a new love. As well as the reasons for not using the ticket, there’s also the possibility that it is kept, in the story – they run across it twenty years later and the memories flood in, or someone else finds it – and why they kept it. What does it mean to them? Or did it get forgotten as a bookmark in an abandoned novel, and the person who finds it reads more significance into it than really exists?
  • These stories can be contemporary, historical, set in other worlds, and there will be specific circumstances that suggest themselves based on the setting. A scientific demonstration in the 17th century might be blockaded by a group from the local church who consider it blasphemy. Anything high-profile in the 1910s is ripe for suffragette disruption. A wormhole collapses unexpectedly, meaning someone can’t travel across the galaxy as planned. An apprentice wizards’ convention blows up the venue as they’re setting up, or accidentally sends the only person who can let them in into a nearby painting.

The possibilities are endless and what’s more, relatable – we’ve all experienced messed-up plans, whether mildly frustrating or heartrendingly tragic. There’s an awful lot of stories lurking in those gaps.

If I’ve given you some inspiration you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


Echoes of history

I read a lot of history and historical fiction, and I also read novels that were right up to the minute at the time but were written long ago. Sometimes the whole thing seems wonderfully alien or exotic (the past is a foreign country, etc) but now and then there are such chimes with the present that it makes you glad you read the thing now and not, say, fifteen years ago.

Cover of Illustrated English Social History 2 by GM Trevelyan

I had two such moments in the last few weeks, reading a fabulous social history and also a nineteenth-century French novel.

GM Trevelyan’s illustrated English Social History is well worth digging out, incidentally, if you like Ian Mortimer’s Time Traveller’s Guides and could stand a more formal and detailed version. Originally from the early 1940s, I believe, the illustrated edition was put together a few years later (I’ve got the 1960s paperbacks in 4 volumes). It is crammed with maps, paintings, woodcuts and manuscripts from the time in question, plus photographs of surviving artefacts and architecture that might help to make the point. Unfortunately the pictures are all black and white except on the cover, but they do help you imagine the period.

Anyway, the point in question in Trevelyan volume 2 was about what you might call levelling up, and the disproportionate amount of land used for raising livestock for meat. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603) passed laws dictating Fish Days – days when you couldn’t eat meat and were encouraged to eat fish instead. It sounds superficially Catholic but Elizabeth was very much anti-Catholic and it was in fact to give a boost to fishermen, revive ‘decayed coast towns’ and ‘prevent the too great consumption of beef and mutton which resulted in the conversion of arable into pasture’. She was particularly reliant on the Royal Navy which her father had set up, and the sailors usually came from fishing communities so it makes sense that she wanted a ready supply, which she wouldn’t get if everyone gave up on fishing. It was the revival of coastal towns and the limiting of meat livestock that struck me though.

We actually have a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the UK government at the moment, and as well as the north-south divide one of the problems I think it’s supposed to be addressing is coastal towns, which have tended to be left out and left behind. I’m not clear on why they were decaying in the last Elizabethan period but back then it can’t have been anything to do with cheap package holidays luring holiday-makers abroad. Likewise the limiting of meat wasn’t related to the present-day concerns of climate change and deforestation but the realisation that you could feed more people using the land for growing crops than grazing animals does echo modern thinking (George Monbiot wrote an article decrying beef and lamb only last week). Recent campaigns to reduce the consumption of red meat would be familiar to Elizabethans even if the idea of veganism wouldn’t. I’m not suggesting the government starts decreeing Fish Days but it’s interesting to note that there’s a Golden Age they could hark back to when state intervention to prop up a faltering but necessary industry or address a problem with national implications was acceptable.

The other book I’ve been reading was The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola (Au Bonheur des Dames was the title in the original French), first published in 1883 but set in the 1870s as far as I’m aware. I’d written it on my To Read list a few months ago after reading about it somewhere, but by the time I came to read it I couldn’t remember why. Once I got going I wondered if it had come up online in a discussion about Amazon, and other giants of retail.

The novel itself has a romantic tale at its core that sometimes seems a bit of an afterthought (it was apparently adapted for TV by the BBC about 10 years ago, as The Paradise). However, the main business of the book is the owner, the staff, and the running of the Parisian department store The Ladies Paradise, and the effect it has on the shops and shop-owners in the neighbourhood. As the business grows, it stops specialising in dress fabric and broadens its interest into lace, haberdashery, hosiery, even umbrellas and gloves – anything a woman of fashion (or her children) might want. Consequently the local shops, each with its own niche that has been replaced by a department in The Ladies Paradise, are closing down and leaving an impoverished neighbourhood and less choice.

There are arguments in the book about progress and modernisation, about the convenience and cheap prices for customers, about no small shop ‘deserving’ to stay – they need to adapt or die. All of this is so familiar, particularly in the realm of bookshops but also any small shops that have been struggling in the past couple of years as people speed up their move to online buying or stick to the big superstores rather than use several local shops. It was fascinating in its detail of the day to day running of the department store, but when you read about the 35 clerks employed to work out sales commission (replaced by a spreadsheet or small database now?), the 350 messengers (replaced by phones and then email), the stable hands for the 145 horses for the delivery vans (done away with entirely), you realise that every phase of progress is the future until it isn’t. Books from today will no doubt be just as familiar-but-different to readers in 150 years, living through an era we can’t imagine.

If I’ve helped you find a good book to read, or made you think, you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


Walking the Wall: now in audio

Having brought you all up to speed on what I’ve been writing this year, I’ve now recorded me reading the almost half-hour journey through time along Hadrian’s Wall that is Walking the Wall (new writing commissioned by Hexham Book Festival this year). You can listen to it at: https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4

It occurred to me that not all of you will be familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, or Northumberland. If you want a bit of scenic inspiration you could try this short video on YouTube which zooms over an iconic rural section of The Wall, and try and picture Sabinus in 122AD stuck somewhere not too different, in the drizzle. I had a look on the North East Film Archive and unfortunately people tend to film Hadrian’s Wall in amongst other landmarks and tourist attractions, but there’s some nice footage about 16 minutes into this fab old documentary.

I don’t mention many places specifically, because I used a bit of artistic licence and blurred nearby places together. Places I do mention are Corbridge (the capital of Northumbria by the late 8th century, burnt down by Robert Bruce in 1312), the Carlisle-Newcastle turnpike (which I think is now the B6318 where I was thinking of), Kielder forest, Heddon on the Wall, Benwell (including the temple), Killingworth, Newcastle upon Tyne (including the Swing Bridge and the university), Wallsend and the fort of Segedunum, Tynemouth priory, and the rivers Tyne, North Tyne, South Tyne. I did have general areas in mind when I was writing the historical fiction elements and the successive flash fictions move eastwards along Hadrian’s Wall. And of course once we’re in modern Wallsend and Richard’s been to the Segedunum museum he heads off to Tynemouth priory to have an ice cream and gaze out to sea.

The mouth of the Tyne from Tynemouth priory, taken by JY Saville

I was inspired along the way by: an actual account of a wren’s nest being found in a skull, though this was in an abandoned chapel not at a battle site; farmhouses built from Hadrian’s Wall stones; the Tyne Flood of November 1771 when ‘coffins were torn out of the ground, and the living and the dead were swirled away in the torrent’; Syrian archers at a fort near Birdoswald; Frenchmen’s Row in Heddon on the Wall which had housed ‘French royalist priests’ who fled the revolution; a Roman hoard dug up near Killingworth in 1811, a couple of years before George Stephenson built his first locomotive there; the battle of Otterburn and other border skirmishes; and twenty-odd years of brief visits to Tynemouth and Wallsend.

If all this has intrigued you, you can either listen to me reading Walking the Wall at https://chirb.it/dz5Hp4 or read it for yourself at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8c710378-92c6-4194-8186-cbd38fa87397 and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


Long time no waffle

You may have noticed – possibly to your relief – that it’s been a bit quiet around here. I managed one excited post about my Hexham Book Festival commission, but that was typed laboriously on my phone (yes, I got a smartphone. Wonders will never cease). Manageable in a fix, but not something I’d choose to do. The problem is, I make do. I make things last, get my money’s worth (and beyond), and my laptop having already given up on video, got so that it couldn’t handle the new WordPress interface. I remember having a conversation 5 years ago at the Penguin WriteNow day about my laptop and its tendency to colour everything cyan unless you got the angle of the screen spot on, and how I’d have to shell out for a new one soon. Its long goodbye is reminiscent of those aunts that spend longer perched on the arm of the settee with their coat on, turning down offers of further refreshment with ‘no, I must go’, than they do sat comfortably in the armchair. It’s still here, with its intermittent wi-fi and preference for cyan, but I’ve also been given a desktop computer that has a passing familiarity with the modern world. I mean, it’s about the same age as my laptop but it’s a higher spec and has lasted better so I’m back on WordPress without one-fingered typing on a tiny screen. Did you miss me?

You may well have missed the Hexham commission, so let me put that right. Hexham Book Festival commissioned 3 writers and an illustrator to celebrate “the diverse and fascinating county of Northumberland, its inhabitants, its agricultural Heritage and historical connections with particular emphasis on Hadrian’s Wall and its upcoming celebration of 1900 years”. Beyond that, we all developed our work in isolation and yet when we got together in June we realised there were common themes: the colour red, thin patches in time, modern-day walkers alongside the Wall. You can read the patchwork pieces from me (Walking the Wall) and Bridget Hamilton (This Next Hill), the children’s story from Garry Lyons (Lupa, inspired by a mountain rescue dog who was present at our reading in June) and the illustrated booklet from Deborah Snell at https://www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk/writing-commissions. My favourite of Deborah’s illustrations is the stoat at the end (I think it’s a stoat. As my dad always says, Weasels are weasely recognised whereas stoats are stoatally different).

Deborah Snell, JY Saville, Susie Troup, Garry Lyons, Bridget Hamilton at Hexham Book Festival June 2022

Months and months ago I mentioned in passing that I was a winner in the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020, but obviously there was a delay in recording the programmes due to the small matter of the pandemic. Well, this Spring they finally got made and made well. It was such a thrill to hear the finished recording of mine (Playing With My Heart), it had been so long since I wrote it that it almost felt like it was by someone else. The theme of the competition was ‘vision’ and it was supposed to be on the radio in January 2021 so I set it in January as someone’s putting their Christmas decorations back in the loft. You will notice that the title refers to the theme song by the Eurythmics, which refers to the subject matter (angels playing with your heart). It’s got time-slips in again, like Walking the Wall. Chapel FM put out an interesting programme about the making of the four winning dramas, in which each of them was played out in full (they were each less than 10 minutes long), but if you want to go directly to listen to mine you can hear it on Soundcloud at https://soundcloud.com/user-803061228/playing-with-my-heart (promise me you’ll go listen to the others when you have time though, they’re good).

For the first time in a long time I’ve also had flash fiction out there. A dreamy little flash called Hair Spread Like Sea Fronds is free to read at Ellipsis Zine: “The way she remembers it can’t be the way it happened, but it’s the way it creeps into her dreams, soundless and in filtered blue-green light…” It mentions an Indian silver anklet of elephants, which was inspired by my mum’s constant wearing of jangly silver anklets, though I don’t remember if any had elephants on.

I’d love to know what you thought of this year’s writing so far, and as ever if you enjoyed any of it you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


Dreaming about Northumberland

Just before Christmas I applied to Hexham book festival for a writing commission for this summer’s festival, and in January I read the acceptance email with a mixture of shock and excitement. This is the first time I’ve had new fiction commissioned, rather than writing something and sending it off to people in the hope they’d like it enough to publish it and maybe, if I was really lucky, also pay me. For a while the thought that this needed to be special, and somehow worthy of the fee, froze my creativity. Until OneMonkey helpfully pointed out that: I’ve written loads of stuff that people have liked before; I had sent writing samples with my application which they must have thought were good; I’ve successfully blended fiction and non-fiction a few times at live events, like at York Festival of Ideas.

The festival is taking place in the context of the Hadrian 1900 celebration of 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall began to be built, and what I’d promised was this:

To create several connected short prose pieces, a blend of fiction and creative non-fiction aimed at adults but accessible to older children. Highlighting continuity and illustrating change, the fluidity of time slip fiction interspersed with a celebration of the natural world – a dreamlike exploration of Northumberland focused along the Wall.

My first ports of call

If you’ve seen photos of my bookshelves you’ll know I had plenty of resources to get me started, and I immediately pulled a likely pile from the shelves, including the wonderful Northumberland volume of the King’s England series of county guides. I also went to the Internet Archive and found eighteenth and early nineteenth century books on the natural history, history, agriculture and songs of the northern English counties. I read about fish and butterflies, archaeological investigations, battles and ballads, inquisitive antiquarians, and sheep-breeding. You won’t be surprised to know I went down a few rabbit holes that had little to do with the matter in hand, but it all adds to the mix. I ended up with pages of scribbled notes of interesting places and odd facts, and then I had to decide on a structure and a thread. I wrote a list of all the bits of history that I might be interested in touching on, and picked six time-periods that weren’t too cramped together, to meld into five pieces of flash fiction.

Blame my fascination with local and family history, but sometimes I become acutely aware of the crisscrossing paths layered in time, all the people who’ve been at a particular location before me. I liked the idea of somehow all the points in history being there at once, in key places along the Wall, and occasional seepage from one time into another. The thread became a student in a red cagoule who’s walking the Hadrian’s Wall path from west to east, experiencing weird time-slips along the way, although he thinks it’s the isolation making him see things.

Undoubtedly an influence but I didn’t dip back in

So much for the fiction. What about the creative non-fiction? I took my inspiration from the events I’ve done with Alice Courvoisier at the York Festival of Ideas among other places, where we’ve interspersed fiction and non-fiction to tell a patchwork story or explore a theme. Sandwiched between each pair of flash fictions is a flash CNF, on birds, forests, farming, and the Tyne. They connect to the surrounding fiction by image or theme – a circling bird, a darting deer, a discussion on eighteenth century agricultural improvement…

Surprise inspiration in the form of venison pasties

Once I’d started writing, my reading kept feeding in and I changed tack completely here and there. So many things I wanted to include I didn’t have room for, and so many fabulous things I found out that I want to use somewhere in future but were never going to be relevant here (take this as advance notice of future stories and local history articles about Northumberland).

When I applied for the commission, I fully expected to have moved to Hexham by June and to be strolling down the road to the New Writing event to read my piece. Nearly six months on, circumstances have changed so we’re going to be staying in West Yorkshire for a while longer. So apart from being great fun to research and write, Walking the Wall will stand as a reminder of That Time I Was About To Move To Hexham.

If you’re in the vicinity of Hexham on June 11th, you can book a free ticket to the festival event at which I’ll be reading a ten minute extract (roughly a third) of Walking the Wall.

K is for Kellogg’s Variety Pack

For one week of each summer holiday when I was a kid, I was allowed a Kellogg’s variety pack: 8 small boxes of unfamiliar cereal at an inflated price. There was the one that was supposed to make exciting noises when you poured the milk on, the one so chocolatey it turned the milk brown, the boring plain cornflakes, and some others I’ve forgotten. I’d have had more consistently tasty (and cheaper) breakfasts if I had a normal size box of Coco Pops but that wasn’t the point. Those miniature cereal boxes and the delight of choosing which order to eat them in made the whole week feel special and even now I think of long, lazy summer days when I see a variety pack.

Photo by Lucas on Pexels.com

Every so often a bunch of working class writers start chatting on Twitter and the food reminiscences come up. Some people find it tiresome – surely we’re past Angel Delight as a big Sunday treat – but there’s a reason Proust kicks off the enormous Remembrance of Things Past with a mouthful of cake and not, say, as he puts on a favourite pair of shoes or picks up his hairbrush. Food, and particularly the food of childhood treats, takes us right back in an instant. Other things I was allowed now and then during the holidays included tinned hot dog sausages (I didn’t stop eating meat till I was a teenager), miniature Hovis wholemeal loaves, and mint choc chip ice cream. All of which still seem like the height of wild abandon.

Tinned pears currently in my kitchen

Tinned pears, on the other hand, were what we got whenever we ate with my dad’s parents, usually with one of those bricks of vanilla ice cream wrapped in card. Not an everyday item but not once a year either. I could have tinned pears every day now if I wanted to, but I don’t because then they wouldn’t feel special and transporting. I have them now and then, same as I do with buttered malt loaf or a salt and vinegar crisp sandwich. I can taste each one of these as I write, and they drop the flood defences and let memories wash over me, mostly from childhood but now overlaid with more recent times too, just like Proust’s madeleine. I wonder what Proust would have got out of a whole variety pack.

K could also have been for Keswick, knitting or kitchen sink, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald

I’d seen Helen Macdonald give a reading at one of the festivals that had gone online in 2020 or ’21, from the title essay of this book, and I decided to buy it with my birthday money. Vesper Flights is one of the longer pieces in the book and contains some enchanting imagery related to swifts and their flight. Many of the essays feature birds, as you might expect from someone who is known for a book called H is for Hawk, but there are also fungi, deer, a wild boar and a fair few people.

I started reading it a couple of days before Christmas, thinking it would be just the thing for the six or seven hours’ return train journey to see OneMonkey’s dad. It’s a little less than three-quarters of an inch thick, about 260 pages, but what with my slowed-down reading speed and pauses to look out at the scenery of North Yorkshire and County Durham or ponder what I’d read, I only got halfway through. The other half then took me another three weeks, an essay or short musing slipped in between work and tea or washing up and bed.

The book is one that might be referred to as not really a nature book, in Richard Smyth’s 2017 essay on the limitations of nature writing. All the pieces except one (The Student’s Tale) contain ‘nature’ if you like – observations on a species or habitat, information about a study carried out in the distant past, an account of a trip to a nature reserve – but few of them are solely about the species or habitat in question, though the paperback says ‘nature writing’ on the back cover next to the price. Many of the pieces put me in mind of the kind of article I might read in the weekend edition of a newspaper, not because the topic particularly interested me but because I was idly browsing and the first paragraph caught my attention. Indeed, I believe a lot of them were written for The New York Times Magazine and New Statesman, i.e. for a general readership.

This is a book then for the curious non-specialist. Someone with a passing interest in nature, perhaps, eager to read descriptions of it by someone more deeply immersed – a casual dipper, willing to be drawn in. Or someone like me who shies away from Latin names and technical terms (despite being a trained scientist who has studied Latin) but is keen to learn more about the wondrous things they see while out walking, or watching from an upstairs window while working from home. And Macdonald does talk of wondrous things, and of the need for both science and a dash of magic, of awe.

In my experience if you go out hoping for revelation you will merely get rained upon.

Helen Macdonald, The Numinous Ordinary in Vesper Flights

One of the aspects I enjoyed was the accessibility of most of the experiences in Vesper Flights. Sometimes it feels as though nature writing is all about wealthy chaps communing in the wilderness (see Richard Smyth’s other delightful essay, The State of Nature). Although there is a trip to South America and to the Empire State Building in Vesper Flights, for the most part these are urban and suburban adventures in the UK. Watching peregrine falcons on the other side of a metal fence at a disused power station, or a small flock of migrating birds outside a shopping centre, doesn’t feel like the preserve of a particular strata of society. However, that the author is middle-class and Cambridge educated does come forcibly to the fore in Birds, Tabled which is mainly about caged songbirds kept by ‘the working classes’, and which I found patronising and slightly offensive. It reminded me that authors assume a shared understanding of the world with their readers, and when that isn’t the case the reader can feel excluded at best. It’s also good evidence for why the recent push for working class nature writers isn’t as daft as some people seem to think.

Because this is nature-based writing for a general readership, Macdonald often weaves topics together to make the reader look at the world differently. For instance, migrating birds and migrating people, or the onset of migraines and the onset of climate catastrophe. One theme that recurs is how our cultural context shapes our interpretation of animal behaviour, which was interesting. Current affairs naturally creep in (the dates of each piece for context would have been nice, but I say that about most collections) and you can spot recurring fears and preoccupations like Brexit, the plight of refugees, Donald Trump – if you’re not centre-left some of it will start to irritate you, I imagine. I found The Student’s Tale jarringly out of place: a nicely written piece but I bought this book as ‘nature writing’ and couldn’t understand why an account of an epidemiology student seeking asylum in the UK had been included.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I learnt some scientific and historical facts, I looked at a few things differently, and on the way I enjoyed some lovely, atmospheric descriptions of animals and places, that were at times quite magical. I haven’t read many books that would be classed as nature writing and purists might dismiss this collection but if it encourages a wider readership to take notice of their surroundings and the effects of their choices as homeowners or consumers then that has to be a good thing.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville


The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald

I’ve read a fair few of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels over the past 10 years courtesy of the Library of Mum and Dad but I think I’ve only reviewed one (The Barbarous Coast) so it felt like it was about time I recommended another. The Way Some People Die is an excellent slice of hard-boiled noir from 1951 featuring juvenile delinquents, drugs and exploited women, with the bodies piling up as Archer drives up and down the Californian coast getting confused and misled. It starts, as many do, with a missing girl…

As with Philip Marlowe, there is a chivalry at the core of Lew Archer that gets him into trouble. Also like Marlowe, I would say Archer is a cynical optimist – while he’s painfully aware that many people would sell their own grandmother for half an hour’s excitement, he believes that most (definitely not all) people are worth saving, if he can. It’s that blend of gunning for the truly bad guys while trying to save the others from themselves that makes Archer worth spending time with. There’s double-crossing aplenty, the odd wisecrack, and some lovely description.

I’ve written before about the sense of place in detective novels, and this is no exception. The landscape, weather, and particularly the sea play a large part in the atmosphere of the book. He doesn’t have Raymond Chandler’s terse style but he can conjure a nice image nevertheless, from driving ‘under the smothering gray sky’ to meeting someone with grey hair ‘like iron filings tempted by a magnet’ to this description of Pacific Point: ‘It rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory’. When Archer mentions how recently some small town was bare desert it hit me how fast-changing that whole area was, and I wondered if some of it would seem as exotic to a local now as it does to me 5,000 miles away.

If you’re looking for happy endings this isn’t the place to find them, but if you like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett I can heartily recommend both this novel and Ross Macdonald in general. I believe he wrote a couple of dozen novels between the 1940s and 1970s though not all of them are Lew Archer cases.

If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville