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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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, 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
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.
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.
Not unusually for the 1980s, both my grandmothers were keen knitters. Nana was seldom seen at rest without knitting needles in her hands, and it was Grandma’s main hobby apart from crosswords, swimming at the local baths, or tending her vegetable garden. Although I do remember Grandma knitting leg-warmers for my cousin and Nana knitting the odd skirt, both of them concentrated on jumpers and cardigans.
They each had favourite patterns that they’d either bought (like the slim booklet of Aran patterns pictured above) or ripped out of magazines – Woman’s Weekly in Nana’s case and probably Family Circle in Grandma’s. Of course what with this and hand-me-downs the entire extended family could end up wearing matching pullovers as though we were auditioning to be the smiling family group on the knitting patterns. There might be some variation in colour for other patterns, but Nana always knit Arans in traditional cream (Grandma branched out into navy as I recall), and she usually knit them on the large side. My parents still wear Nana-knit jumpers that are older than me.
Grandma followed trends a bit more than Nana did, and went through a phase of knitting enormous bat-wing jumpers in the eighties for my mum and older cousins. She also bought wooden needles thicker than her thumb, on which she’d produce open, lacy jumpers which wouldn’t even keep the chill off on a summer evening. I was too young for those, I got Rupert Bear’s face on a pale blue background, or a cartoon squirrel, each with a label sewn in that had ‘Hand-knitted by’ and her name next to a stylized ball of wool. My mum even tried knitting when I was little, and the part-finished My Little Pony jumper that I’d grown out of before she got halfway down the front (“It’ll stretch, it’ll be fine”) became the stuff of family legend. When I was in my twenties we persuaded her to throw it out. She never did get to the sleeves.
As I grew Nana would take a jumper off me, unravel it, and knit a bigger version in summer supplemented with an additional ball of yarn. Unfortunately she stopped knitting before I stopped growing and I don’t have any of her jumpers left. I do have an Aran sweater that OneMonkey’s mum knit me about twenty years ago, several sizes bigger than me because that’s the way I like them. It’s burgundy, so I stand out.
J could also have been for jam tarts, Jester badge, jigsaws or jelly and ice cream, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville
After the hellish plague-year that was 2020 I was struggling with reading, particularly fiction. I couldn’t quite muster the necessary concentration to parse words on a page, and there were certainly times when it felt like I had too much going on in my own life to start ferretting around for empathy I could spend on imaginary people. To make my reading year seem less overwhelming, and to allow for the fact I was still doing a big clearout of books with the vague intention of moving house sometime later in the year (which I haven’t done but plans are afoot), I decided to look at it quarterly.
Up to the end of March I’d only read 4 physical books (pictured above) and 3 ebooks but I reviewed most of them at the time. You can find out what I thought of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the Ben Aaronovitch story collection Tales From the Folly in my first review of 2021 (short version: they were ok but didn’t make my heart sing). I wrote at length about Ur of the Chaldees in February, popular archaeology from the 1920s and one for the Time Team fans. In March I shared my enthusiasm for The Bone Ships by RJ Barker, the first volume in a nautical other-world fantasy trilogy. Since then I’ve read volume 2, Call of the Bone Ships (even better) but not dared embark on the final volume as everyone who mentions it on Twitter talks about how much they cried! I reviewed the novella-in-flash Straw Gods for TSS, and you can read that review here.
I re-read Down With Skool! after listening to an episode of the Backlisted podcast about the collected Willans and Searle Molesworth books and it was comforting in its way but I gave up partway through the follow-up Whizz for Atoms as 1950s prep school boys began to seem too far removed from my life to bother with. When I last read the Molesworth books it was the 1980s and my staple reading included The Beano, Just William, Billy Bunter and Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings novels. How times have changed.
As usual I read a few history books this year. Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades is a three-volume set which OneMonkey bought (and part-read) twenty years ago when he had a daily train commute. I enjoyed Volume 1 which, despite being from the 1950s, seemed remarkably even-handed in its treatment of the various parties and he comes across as rightly disgusted by the behaviour of some of the supposedly Christian crusaders. It covers a lot of background and context, whereas Volume 2 (where I stalled about a third of the way through) felt more like a blow by blow account of pitched battles and sieges undertaken by people with frustratingly similar names – way too many people called Baldwin or Ralph. See also The Anarchy by William Dalrymple, which I read in the autumn. I did read that one all the way to the end but I kept getting bogged down in battle detail and similarly-named leaders and generals. It was a fascinating (and horrifying) account of the East India Company’s takeover of a huge chunk of India, which I had only a passing acquaintance with but ought to be taught in British schools.
In the third quarter I read 5 physical books and 3 ebooks. Airedale is a sci-fi police procedural set in Yorkshire, so you can imagine how much I enjoyed it – I even bought a copy for The Nephew for Christmas. I also gave rom com a go and ended up reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which turned out not to be my cup of tea and The Split by Laura Kay which was most enjoyable and quite funny (no coincidence that it’s set in Yorkshire). The Economic Development of France and Germany was dry, old-fashioned history (written between the wars) full of tables of wheat production and steam engines per head of population. When I’m in the right mood I love that stuff, and I learnt so much about the textile industries of France and Germany as compared to Yorkshire (and he does indeed compare them to Yorkshire and sometimes specifically Bradford), and agricultural methods compared to the small amount I know about England. If you like that kind of detail I recommend it.
As well as Maigret I’ve been comfort-reading in the form of children’s books and more Jodi Taylor. Jodi Taylor writes deceptively simple fantasy novels that you can reliably turn to. In The Chronicles of St Mary’s we follow Max (Dr Maxwell) as she does historical research in contemporary time – don’t call her a time-traveller. Someone will probably die, others will be in deadly peril, they’ll visit some famous moments in history, and Max will be inappropriately flippant. It’s usually an enjoyable romp with heart-wrenching moments. This year I read book 5, I’ve got books 6 and 7 on the To Read shelf, there are short stories available too, and she writes other related strands (like Torchwood or the Sarah Jane Adventures are to Doctor Who).
David Almond came to one of the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshops during the summer to talk about his new YA novel Bone Music. Set in the north-east of England (Kielder I think) it’s about a city girl who goes on climate marches but is used to all mod cons. She spends a short time in the tiny village where her mum was born and deepens her connection to nature, helped by a lad of her age who plays an ancient bone flute. It has a great sense of place, some lovely description and plenty to think about.
I was disappointed with both The Nanny State Made Me, and The Northern Question, in part because I had unreasonably high expectations. I’m not a professional historian, but neither are Maconie or Hazeldine and I’ve probably read the same books and articles as they have, for the most part. Other than the anecdotes from interviews, I learnt nothing new from Stuart Maconie’s book, and the history in the Northern Question up to about the 1970s was largely familiar to me as well. I like Stuart Maconie’s affectionately irreverent style but it was not on show in Nanny State, I think the subject matter meant too much to him to step back and treat it even-handedly and it verged on hagiography at times. Consequently, I’m not sure who the book is aimed at; fans of the welfare state will learn little they didn’t already know, and those he’s seeking to persuade will spot the rose-tinted view of the flaws and wonder if he’s also over-egged the upside. Hazeldine’s book was good on the subtle machinations of post-war politics (I mean, it was good at summarising the centuries before that too, but I knew most of that stuff) and made me properly angry at a selection of ministers, not just Mrs Thatcher. I did get annoyed at his use of the term ‘rustbelt’ to refer to the post-industrial north (with friends like these, etc…) but I’d recommend it particularly to left-wingers who are under thirty-five or not from the north of England and don’t quite understand the context for Brexit and the ‘crumbling of the red wall’.
As usual, about two-thirds of my reading this year was fiction but unusually, less than half of that was SFF. I finished fewer books than usual: 31, my lowest annual total since 2006 which was the year I parachuted out of my PhD with my sanity barely intact. However, what doesn’t usually get mentioned in the end-of-year round-up are the books I started but gave up on. As well as the couple I’ve referred to above, I abandoned a book on the geology of England and Wales after about 50 pages; gave up on a book of SJ Parris novellas which I wrote about anyway; I tried a few Maxim Gorki novels inherited from my great-uncle and decided I didn’t like his writing style; there were a couple of Doctor Who novels I just couldn’t get into; a couple of dry old-fashioned history books that somehow didn’t grab me like The Economic Development of France and Germany did. And those are the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I’ve also been darting about this year, instead of only having one book on the go at once (or one fiction and one non-fiction, occasionally) I’m currently partway through two local history books, Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald, and Mordew by Alex Pheby, and I fully intend to finish them all. Just not yet.
Here’s to the new year, may it be kinder to all of us. I hope you find some enjoyable books to read, and if I’ve helped you along in that respect you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville
“You don’t get icicles like you did when I was a girl,” OneMonkey’s mum (born in the 1940s) used to say. The changing climate and rose-tinted hindsight both play their part I’m sure, but I’m starting to agree with her and I was born thirty-odd years later.
I vividly remember my dad driving us through the dusk sometime in 1985, somewhere in Cornwall, and passing a wall of icicles as big as me, covering a cliff face. Admittedly I wasn’t very big at the time but they were still impressive icicles and gave me a considerable Wow moment. Even then I didn’t see icicles very often, despite expecting to be able to build snowmen each winter. They were magical sparkly reminders of fairytales or Narnia or Superman’s hideout in the Christopher Reeve film. Whereas snow could be stomped in and built with, icicles didn’t have a purpose, they just were.
I still find snow a magical and wondrous thing, though I dare say I wouldn’t if I had to drive in it. Maybe if I lived in the parts of Canada or Scandinavia where the snow arrives weeks before Christmas and stays till the Spring thaw I’d get used to it, stop noticing its softening magnificence. Here at the edge of the Yorkshire Dales though it’s an occasional visitor that rarely outstays its welcome and I will happily watch descending snowflakes or marvel at fresh-fallen snow the way I did twenty, thirty or forty years ago. Icicles are rarer still and I can’t help taking pictures of any I encounter that are more than about an inch and a half long.
Of course, the fact that I can remember those specific icicles in 1985 suggests they were pretty out of the ordinary. No doubt there were several winters in my childhood where I saw smaller icicles or none at all. Still, I look at the more recent ones and think, They’re just not as good as the icicles when I was a girl.
I could also have been for icing, illness or I believe in Father Christmas but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville
It may look like a shrivelled mouldy potato now, bluish purple with a few streaks of pink, but on the beach, shiny with seawater, it was stone-washed denim with red veins. I shifted other stones in my search for fossils and it caught my eye, caught my heart. I brought it home by train across the county and forgot about it.
I’d like to say I gaze upon it and ponder the vastness of geological time, the insignificance of man in earth’s history, but it’s a stone among stones. It has no special place like the few treasured fossils in the glass-fronted cabinet, handed down the generations, or the ones under the glass dome of the thimble-stand that we found ourselves. It doesn’t even have the status of the plainer ammonites in the glass vase on the hearth. It is a stone in a small basket of stones, picked for its colour and kept for its holiday memories which have now faded with its hue. I can’t tell you when I found it, or if it was in Whitby or Filey. It is overlooked, another piece of clutter.
Holding it now, it feels like a pumice stone, light and pitted. It fits in my hand like an unyielding stress-ball covered in a light film of dust – who dusts their basket of stones? Who has a basket of stones? It is a small piece of the earth which has tumbled down a cliff, rumbled under water. It is a shrunken asteroid, an inhospitable mining planet from 70s sci-fi. If I tasted it would I taste salt and seaweed and fish and chips? Would I get an electric jolt as though it was a 9V battery? Would I convince myself it was a mouldy potato and spit it out? Would I lap up the discarded body parts of tiny long-dead creatures?
Do you miss the sea? Can you hear its shush-shush in your dreams? Do stones dream? Can you hear me? Where does a stone’s soul go when it splinters and crumbles to dust?
I imagine the stone maintains a dignified silence, and then it hits me: on its timescale I am inaudible, a microsecond’s squeak, and even if it did hear, and understand, and choose to reply, it would take aeons for its thought processes to grind together into something resembling words, and by then I would have splintered and crumbled to dust.
This post began as an exercise in the New Writing North How to Start Writing the Climate workshop in July 2021. If you enjoyed it you can always buy me a cuppa…
When you’re a kid you think your family’s normal. It’s the yardstick by which you measure everything else, adjusting as necessary when you discover that no, the rest of the class don’t carry their pet goldfish in a bucket of water when they go on a caravan holiday, nor do they mix an extended family’s worth of Christmas pudding mixture each year in a Victorian baby bath. Nobody else had a Hindu godfather either, not even my Hindu friends.
In the years running up to my birth my mum worked with a man from Sri Lanka and our families became close. Although the Sri Lankan civil war didn’t begin until the early 80s, once the demand had been made for a separate Tamil state in 1975 I’m told life wasn’t particularly comfortable for Tamils like my ‘Uncle S’. He, his wife ‘Aunty G’ and their three children came to Britain; when he was born, Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it then was) was part of the British empire so it was an obvious choice.
I’m not a Christian but as I understand it, it’s quite an honour to be asked to be the godparent of a friend’s baby, and my mum (my dad being an atheist) wasn’t going to let a little thing like religion get in the way. Clearly I can’t remember what happened at the ceremony but I have seen a photo of a beaming Uncle S in the church. He had a big influence on my early life though not on my religion, and he certainly broadened my outlook. He moved to London when he retired, to be near his grandchildren, so I haven’t seen him for a few years. However, I always have a box of the sandalwood incense his house used to smell of and I light some when I want to feel closer to him. If only I also had some of Aunty G’s rosewater-soaked Christmas cake.
H could also have been for Hungry Hippos, hats or hedgehogs but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa at https://ko-fi.com/jysaville
This year after not reading any of Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels for years I’ve read three as ebooks from the library: Maigret and the Man on the Bench, Maigret Takes a Room, and Maigret’s Mistake. I’d forgotten how gently melancholy they could be, as Maigret sits and ponders in cafes or his office, smoking his pipe. Rather than running around chasing people he seems to potter around Paris asking questions, slotting pieces of the puzzle together, occasionally sending his assistant Janvier off to track someone down. When they do corner the villain, Maigret is usually more disappointed than angry, particularly if they are young. I hadn’t picked up on his underlying sadness at never having children, before, but it is mentioned in all three books I think.
I used to read Maigret as a child, probably even before I started on Agatha Christie at eleven or so. My dad borrowed them from the library and before I had my own adult borrower’s card I would read some of them too before he returned them. I dare say the racier themes passed me by but the atmosphere and the central characters stayed with me, and when Michael Gambon starred in the TV adaptation in the early 90s my dad and I watched them together. For years, it was Gambon who portrayed Jules Maigret in my head when I read the books, but this year he was replaced by Rowan Atkinson’s kind paternalism. That change made me realise how wonderfully Atkinson had portrayed Maigret in the ITV adaptations a few years ago. We watched them at the time with OneMonkey’s parents, as I recall, and now OneMonkey’s dad has started reading the novels on my recommendation.
I turned to Maigret as a literary comfort blanket, an easy throwback to childhood without going the full Paddington. It worked on that level but I also enjoyed the story on its own terms, hence returning for more. They’re not cosy crime, the three I’ve read this year date from the 1950s and have sordid and grubby elements, hunger and desperation. It’s Maigret’s attitude, his understanding, that makes them in any way comforting. In these days of paperback door-stoppers the Maigret novels are refreshingly short, a wet weekend read that I can immerse myself in. I’m glad I’ve rediscovered Simenon’s Maigret. Thankfully he wrote more than seventy novels in the series so there are plenty more for me to revisit.
If I’ve helped you find your new favourite detective, you can always buy me a cuppa…
“Don’t tell people we let the goats come in the house!”
This was a familiar wail from my mother during a short section of my childhood. Along with not telling people how much money I had in my purse or the building society, or had received for Christmas, there were a host of other obscure rules that I never quite grasped about what we couldn’t reveal to all and sundry. Particularly the one about not telling people that my sisters were my sisters – Big Brother never really mixed with people who hadn’t known him since childhood so he didn’t pose a problem. I was probably in my teens before I realised that this was because, being technically my cousins and born before my parents got married, it made my mum look like a teenage mother and she was mortified, but of course she never explained this and so I kept on telling everyone I met about my fabulous big sisters. It’s a good job social media wasn’t around when I was a child, is all I can say.
But, you may well be asking, why were there goats in the house in the first place? Well, obviously it’s because they didn’t want to be outside in all weathers, though I doubt it was much warmer in the house than it was in their shelter. We lived in Cornwall at the time in a big house with a small field, on a clifftop. It had two open fires and a range downstairs, and no heating at all upstairs. The wind – often gale-force – howled between the sections of the sash windows. For reasons known only to my late Nana, the kitchen door was often wide open. Hence the goats could wander in when they pleased, up the back stairs to curl up on the bath-mat for an afternoon nap.
Yes, I hear you say with waning patience, but why goats at all, and what are Golden Guernseys? Golden Guernseys are a rare breed of dairy goat: small, coarse-haired and ginger and full of personality. By which I mean, mischievous and destructive. As for why we had a nanny and kid for several months, I’m not sure. They belonged to a couple my parents knew, who I think had a farm or smallholding. We ended up with just over a dozen of their Jacob sheep for a while too. There will have been some practical reason like they were getting a cess pit replaced or having a barn repaired and we had just enough field to help them out, but at the age of six I wasn’t party to the boring grown-up stuff. All I knew was that for a while I almost didn’t mind that we couldn’t spend much time at Uncle Bob’s farm in Cumbria, because I had farm animals right outside my door. And on many a rainy afternoon, inside it as well.
G could also have been for glockenspiel but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…
Christopher Eccleston is probably my favourite Doctor of the revived Doctor Who, but it’s his public anger about the lack of opportunity for working class actors and his willingness to admit to mental health problems that really made me respect him. I watched Lemn Sissay and Christopher Eccleston discuss their memoirs for the Bradford Literature Festival in 2020, just the pair of them in conversation about their vastly different upbringings a few miles apart in what is now Greater Manchester. I honestly can’t remember whether I’d just read My Name Is Why or if I was intending to, but I know that a couple of weeks after that event I was buying an ebook on Kobo and spotted that I Love The Bones Of You was the 99p daily deal so I decided to give it a go. It’s taken me a while to be brave enough to read it because I got the impression it was largely about the effects of his dad’s dementia and my mum’s been suffering for a few years now. Indeed I cried my way through the last couple of chapters which do focus on his dad’s plight but although it’s mentioned earlier – foreshadowed if you like – it’s by no means the core of the book.
Thankfully it’s not a celebrity memoir either, full of name-dropping and amusing anecdotes. The trouble is, I’m not sure what it is. He does have important things to say about many things such as the stigma attached to mental illness, the assumption that anorexia only happens to girls, and how damaging a traditional northern working class stoicism can be when actually the stronger thing to do would be to ask for help. He also highlights how the opportunities he was afforded as a drama student in the 80s don’t exist for young people starting out now, and how in a precarious job market (like acting, but not only acting) there’s a pressure to conform and to put up with discomfort or bad behaviour. Also, shockingly, that post-breakdown he was seen as an insurance risk which could (and certainly would in a less-established actor) restrict his ability to work, thus encouraging people to cover up problems. I don’t agree with him on everything, but I do agree that sometimes ‘working class chip’ and ‘professional northerner’ are used to lazily dismiss genuine grievances.
There isn’t a simple chronological autobiography here, in fact I felt like I was floundering in a stream of consciousness in the early chapters, confused at times as to what era we were in and if that was before or after some particular event. On the other hand he does go off on short tangents now and then about making this TV series or that film. I appreciated his respect for writers who are trying to inform as they entertain, and I finished the book with a couple of TV series I wanted to watch. I often want to be that kind of writer but aside from Twelve Weeks’ Rest I’m not sure I’ve managed it. There’s an element of catharsis, writing-as-therapy, and I sincerely hope it helped him to explore for instance what masculinity means when you’re northern and working class, particularly in the 70s when he was hitting his teens. I recognised too much of that self-policing mindset that leads to internalised problems that erupt much later. It’s not my story to tell but someone close to me was also suicidally depressed in his fifties and to read Eccleston’s take on his own breakdown was painful.
Things being not your story to tell can hamper memoir, of course, and there’s some of that in I Love The Bones Of You. He has two older brothers and naturally they make the odd appearance but it would have been interesting to know how their getting married and having sons of their own informed his ideas of masculinity or his relationship with them or his dad. I sensed that he wanted to keep their tales private though, and their families are only mentioned in passing with reference to a funeral. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to keep your living family out of the limelight – his dad had been dead for seven years I believe, by the time the book came out in 2019 – but it’s a shame that some interesting angles were therefore left unexplored.
I didn’t give up on it, partly I felt I owed it to him for being so brave as to pour all that onto a page and send it out for strangers to read and judge. There’s a raw openness to it that I admired even as it made me feel uncomfortable. It’s not so much a warts and all portrait as a tight close-up on the warts such that you’re left wondering about the wider view. In summary, I’m glad I read it but I felt scoured out by the end. And for the record, I would watch a BBC Who Do You Think You Are about his farm labourer and factory worker ancestors; I’m from long lines of agricultural labourers, miners and mill-hands myself.
If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…
It was my Nana that instilled a sense of my family’s history in me. When I was about twelve my grandad gave me photocopies of his parents’ marriage and death certificates which helped me get started on proper family history research later, but I don’t remember him or my grandma talking about their childhoods. Nana, on the other hand… When I was little we were inseparable and she was a chatterbox. I spent my pre-school days and then my weekends, evenings and school holidays with her and assorted friends and relations of her generation. Man, could they talk. Sometimes they’d natter away and forget I was there, and I absorbed favourite reminiscences and old gossip. Often though, they’d deliberately tell stories to the wide-eyed child who hadn’t heard them a hundred times before.
Now and then they’d tell me what they remembered, or had been told, about older generations, in fact I mentioned a few years ago some of the family tales and phrases that had been passed down that way. Thus Nana’s cousin Jo Jo described the goalkeeping skills of my great-grandad for the Atherton Codders in the 1920s, eyes shining like he could still see the pitch in front of him. I heard about Nana and Jo Jo being taken on a seaside holiday by their grandparents, and about my great-grandad’s budgies in a walk-in cage in the back garden. Usually they related funny or memorable events from their own youth. Nana’s lifelong friend Alice in particular told hilarious tales absolutely deadpan and was a master of pacing and scene-setting. I can still picture her landing at the feet of a surprised old couple in 1930s Derbyshire when her husband applied the brakes too hard on the tandem after a handlebar mishap.
It had been long enough since the war (forty years or more) that I got the amusing anecdotes about misadventure and misunderstanding: “Bombing at random again?” said my great-grandma, listening to the radio. “There’ll be nobody left there. Where is Random, anyway?”. My Nana’s youngest sister using gravy browning and an eyebrow pencil to mock up seamed stockings on her bare legs. Filling the butter dish with lard to teach a small child not to filch rationed butter from the sideboard. My Royal Marine grandad getting drunk, losing his ship and having to hitch a lift on another one. Nobody talked about the sick fear, the disruption and hardship. What’s the use of dragging all that up again? And yet, even though I was a child I didn’t only get the polite or sugar-coated version of history. Nana was completely open with me about her brother having a different dad who her mum hadn’t been allowed to marry. And about the suicide of her great-grandad about a decade before she was born.
I took these facts as they were given, crucial pieces of the story that I wouldn’t find written down anywhere, but nothing shocking. It’s only looking back now I’m older that I’m amazed, thinking about how in the 1980s we still referred to children ‘born out of wedlock’, and how much stigma is even now attached to suicide which was – lest we forget – illegal until the 1960s. Not only did my Nana happily pass this information on to me when I was still at primary school, but she knew it in the first place! Her mum got married during the first world war and openly brought with her the son she’d had with a previous boyfriend in another village. No passing him off as her little brother or an orphaned nephew, or leaving him to be brought up by someone else while she got on with her new life as many others did. And as for the story about Nana’s great-grandad, she got that from her grandma Emily whose father it was.
It was passed to me as I imagine it was passed to Nana, with sadness but no shame or condemnation. Emily found her father’s body and understood what had driven him to desperation. Perhaps the village doctor understood too, because the death certificate uses fancy medical terms for ‘died of old age’ whereas it must have been obvious what had happened. Emily clearly loved him and didn’t want the truth to be forgotten. Thus, even though Emily died nearly forty years before I was born I feel a connection with her, and thanks to the passed-down story I know that her dad had his troubles but did his best. Which I’m sure she would appreciate.
F could also have been for Ford Fiesta, fireworks, fish and chips, but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…
Last year I was clearing out a box and flicked through my (sadly incomplete) Garfield sticker book before it went in the bin. Eleven-year-old me had diligently written my favourite foods and pastimes on the relevant pages, and where it asked me to fill in what I wanted to do when I grew up, it said I wanted to save the planet. There in black and white (or blue and pale orange) was evidence of an early interest in the environment.
It shocked me when I saw it, because I would have said my interest in recycling and eco-responsibility came later. I know that when I was in my teens we had the energy-saving bulbs that took ages to get bright, but that was because my dad knew they were cheaper to run. I also remember when I first went to university I had a cardboard box for clean recycling, which Big Brother took home when he came to visit. At the time, I only had access to paper recycling on campus but at home we had a wheely bin for paper, cans, and certain types of plastic. I couldn’t bring myself to throw all those tuna tins in the bin. Dolphin-friendly tuna, naturally.
I’ve always loved animals: I grew up around cats, dogs, goldfish, goats, sheep, horses and ponies. We even lived somewhere temporarily where the neighbour’s donkey used to stick its head through the living room window whenever it was open. I mentioned a few posts ago the time we spent appreciating the Cumbrian outdoors, and I had the I-Spy books of British Birds and British Wildlife. Having said all that the thing that’s stuck in my mind, the thing I think might have made the difference between me being a nature-loving rambler and me being concerned about what we were doing to the planet, is a giftbox of soaps.
It was a colourful box the size of a shallow shoebox, and it was a present from my mum’s childhood friend, one of those people I knew as Aunty. The Body Shop (famous back in the late 80s as being the one that didn’t do animal testing) and Friends of the Earth as I recall, had joined forces and here were soaps shaped like a whale, a panda, a turtle maybe and a couple of others I’ve forgotten. There was a badge and a poster explaining why they were endangered and what we could do about it. It horrified me. Also, the soaps were too nice to use so the box hung around in the bathroom for a good decade proclaiming its earnest message, probably until Nana died and we worked our way through the stash of every nice soap she’d been bought for the last twenty years. So don’t dismiss the seemingly inconsequential, the marketing campaigns and the greenwash. They might not be game-changing in the grand scheme of things, but maybe they’ll make one kid think really hard about the world and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
E could also have been for elevenses or Earl Grey. Until I manage to get that Twinings sponsorship, you can always buy me a cuppa…
Lesbian rom-com, mostly set in Yorkshire and includes a cat. What’s not to love? I mentioned in September that I’d bought The Split after seeing Laura Kay at a Stay-at-Home litfest session on romantic comedy novels but hadn’t read it yet. Well, now I have and it was great.
Unemployed teacher Ally’s been ditched by the love of her life in London, so she packs a change of clothes and the cat and crawls home to her dad in Sheffield. Much as she’d love to wallow while she waits for Emily to realise how much she misses the cat (and hopefully Ally), her dad’s not about to let that happen. It seems her childhood friend Jeremy’s crawled back home after heartbreak too and their respective parents figure they might cheer each other up as well as get each other out of the house. Reluctant at first, they soon fall back into their old groove and of course Ally’s going to sign up for the half-marathon in solidarity when Jeremy decides that’s the way to get his boyfriend back. Happily, though the training might well kill her, Ally’s at least found an attractive young running coach but she’s probably straight. Isn’t she?
The tagline was, ‘The laugh-out-loud read we all need right now’. I don’t normally trust ‘laugh out loud…’ quotes, in fact it’s often enough to put me off, but I genuinely did laugh out loud a fair few times. This was the easy-to-read rom com I was looking for all those weeks ago. It was much more me than The Cornish Cream Tea Bus and not only because I’m bisexual and not very feminine. It was full of normal people who work in shops, schools, a call centre, and go to old man pubs and chip shops. They regularly travel by bus, and when Ally leaves London she does so by train not car, in fact it’s mentioned later that she can’t drive. Training for a half-marathon doesn’t magically make them fit, slim, healthy and happy. And of course it’s set in Yorkshire.
The one downside is that Ally turns out to be an irresponsible cat-owner, which has put OneMonkey off reading it. On the whole though I zipped through and really enjoyed it. More than anything, it was a real affirmation of friendship.
If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…
For such a tiresomely Northern writer I have a startling confession to make: I spent nearly five years living Down South. In my defence I was not quite three when we decamped to the East Midlands and just gone seven when we returned to Drighlington having fit in a miserable eighteen months in North Cornwall in the meantime (don’t ask).
I don’t remember that much about it, and certainly if I look at a map of England now I’ll struggle to find the places we lived. Other than a lovely pool of floating lights for diwali in Leicester, what I mainly remember are differences in language. Not long after we moved to a village near Loughborough in the summer of 1981 we had a workman in one day and he called my Nana ‘mi duck’ whereas she of course called him ‘love’. Over his teabreak they had a good long chat about the different dialect words they used, and I listened with fascination. It was the first time I remember realising that there were different regional English varieties.
I knew there was BBC English (the proper one) and American English (a bad habit picked up from watching films) but without knowing the word ‘colloquial’ at that age I thought the way we spoke at home was what colloquial English sounded like all over the country. I don’t remember being an object of interest at school, however, until we moved to Cornwall.
Cornwall is as far away as you can get from West Yorkshire and still be in England. I had the unfortunate combination of being an intruder in established friendship groups, and having a noticeably different accent and unfamiliar vocabulary. I learnt to avoid the troublesome old-fashioned bits that were still current in Yorkshire but apparently not down there: thee and thou, the dost tha and hast tha constructions, saying five-and-twenty-past when telling the time (though I’ve reclaimed that one recently, I never stopped saying it that way in my head). The East Midlands workman notwithstanding, I was baffled as to why my classmates would pick up some of my perfectly normal utterances as catchphrases and use them out of context.
It took me years to untangle which bits of my ‘not proper’ vocabulary were general UK slang and which were Yorkshire dialect, in fact I went to university unaware that some of the words I used wouldn’t generally be understood. Which led to interesting conversations with Geordie OneMonkey when we first met, but that’s another story.
D could also have been for dogs, Drighlington, dancing, or detective stories but if you enjoyed this one you can always buy me a cuppa…
Around about 1960 my mum’s parents acquired a touring caravan. After several years of annual trips to a Blackpool boarding house they could instead explore Scotland and the Lake District, going where they pleased and making their own eating arrangements. Which they did for a few years until apparently they found a place they particularly liked and by the time I came along in the late 70s, the family had a second-hand static caravan alongside about a dozen other static caravans in a farmer’s field in Cumbria. Throughout my childhood we went as often as we could afford the petrol.
It’s been said many times that there’s something peculiarly pointless about a static caravan. All the flimsy construction and inconvenience of the touring kind without the freedom and variety of the open road. My dad’s parents had their own static caravan near Morecambe until they gave it up in the early 80s to spend the money on a self-catering holiday in Spain for the coldest couple of months each year. Aunty D lived permanently in one at a windswept location above Huddersfield. Her daughter’s now retired to one near Hull. Oh the glamour of our metal and fibreglass boxes on their wedged-in-place wheels. And yet we loved it.
Until my mum got a mobile phone for work in the mid-90s, there was no phone and no TV. We went for walks up fells and round lakes, where my dad pointed out wildflowers and birds, and once in a while we’d see deer or red squirrels. We had picnics – usually the traditional British sort where you park in a layby and eat hard boiled eggs in the car. In the evenings we read books, listened to the radio or Hancock’s Half Hour tapes, did jigsaws or crafts, played Scrabble – or Monopoly if Big Brother was around. In short it felt like an escape from real life where we did wholesome, boring, old-fashioned things together. I wavered for a while in my teens, but once it had gone I missed those excursions into a quieter existence, and even now I find the sound of rain on a metal roof surprisingly soothing.
C could also have been for cardigan, continental quilt, chip shop, or custard. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…
This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about sitcoms. I mentioned a while ago I’d been working through a sitcom-writing course from James Cary which has been really helpful, not least because it made me realise I’d sent a comedy-drama to the BBC Galton and Simpson Bursary by accident. However, it’s also made me realise a few other things which are giving me pause. To be honest, they’ve given me some ‘what the hell is the point of writing this?’ moments.
I keep hearing that we’re in a golden age of TV, the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime are commissioning British writers as well as the BBC, Channel 4, ITV or the various production companies that make programmes for them. Those of you who’ve been around here a while may know that I haven’t had a TV since March 2002, and though I’ve watched stuff when we’ve visited OneMonkey’s parents, and we used to watch the odd thing on the iplayer before the BBC realised non-licence-payers like me probably oughtn’t to be allowed access to the website, it’s not the same as watching telly and getting a feel for what’s popular and where things sit in the schedules. Consequently, though there are many TV sitcoms I know and love, I don’t want to (and wouldn’t feel equipped to) write one. No, idiot that I am, I want to write for radio.
I know I can write passable radio drama, on a good day. I was one of the winners of the Script Yorkshire radio drama competition 2020 (production delayed due to the pandemic but fingers crossed it’s coming soon) and I co-wrote a well-received drama for a community radio station in 2018 (you can listen to it here). Comedy’s a different matter though, and as I said in a post about gatekeepers a while ago just because you’re confident about your script doesn’t mean it’s good, so it’d be nice to get someone else wanting to produce one of my scripts rather than, say, making it as a podcast.
However, while confidence doesn’t imply ability, I don’t agree with the idea that repeated rejection necessarily implies lack of ability. In a recent discussion about self-production of sitcom pilots, James suggested that if a script isn’t getting anywhere it’s not a good script and thus not worth trying to make your own version of. In many cases this will be true, but it did get me thinking, and we’re back to gatekeepers again.
The only place I can think of that would pay a writer for a radio sitcom is the BBC. To be precise, BBC Radio 4. So whether you’re entering BBC competitions or sending your radio script to Pozzitive or a freelance producer, you’re ultimately aiming to bag one of the few sitcom slots on Radio 4 (possibly via a stint at writing for someone else’s). And so is every other radio comedy writer, including the long-established ones. If you’re a Radio 4 executive, do you give up one of those few slots to a new but promising writer, or do you put series six of a previous ratings triumph in there? Because the reality is, it’s either or. There isn’t room for everyone and it’s no good consistently being top 20 in the pile when they can only take three scripts forward. It would be like a novelist having to either be picked up by Penguin or self-publish. Oh, and Penguin could only publish a dozen novels that year and they’d have to bump one of their bestsellers to let you in. I’m not saying the big publishers never pick up new novelists (and note there that they are publishers plural) but it wouldn’t universally be seen as a failure if your debut novel didn’t get on their lists. And yet it is with a radio script because there are no alternatives.
With a novel there are many smaller publishers you could try, and it may well be that some indie with its own niche is particularly suited to what you’re trying to do. With radio… As far as I know, there are no commercial radio stations in the UK that want scripted programmes, whether comedy or drama. BBC local radio doesn’t seem to either. So we’re down to community radio stations like the fabulous Chapel FM who help people make what they like, or making your own podcast. In both cases there’s only as much budget as you’re willing or able to fork out, you won’t get paid, you have to drum up your own audience, and the available actors probably rely on who you know and who’ll do you a favour. To write a sitcom well takes a lot of time and effort. Then add more time, effort and possibly money to make it yourself. To sink that much into a hobby takes dedication, an understanding household, and a bit of financial cushion, which naturally limits who can manage it. It might lead to a producer’s interest, if you can send them a link to a sitcom you’ve already made, but see above for scarcity of slots in the radio schedules and I think we all know what the reality will be.
Incidentally, during the discussion James also mentioned in passing the Radio 4 demographic, and it hit me in a way that it hasn’t before, just how limiting that is. For TV sitcom in the UK, people know what you mean when you say it’s more suited to ITV than BBC, or it’s a bit Channel 4. They’re aiming at different audiences. Radio 4 is one station, with one target audience. They can be a bit flexible in the hope that they draw in some younger listeners for a particular programme but they won’t want to alienate their core. Which means there are some sitcoms that can be as well-written as you like, they’re never going to be broadcast on that station. And that, in terms of nurturing a diverse bunch of writers (particularly younger writers) is really sad.
I am confident that I can write a decent novel (Wasted Years has been enjoyed by the few who’ve read it). With the aid of a sharp-eyed editor I could write a better one that might do OK. But I don’t imagine I’d ever trouble the Sunday Times bestseller list. Most authors don’t. In the same way, I reckon if I work hard I can write a decent sitcom script but I don’t imagine I’d ever be in the top five of several thousand entries to the Galton and Simpson, or make a Radio 4 executive pass up the opportunity for another series of Conversations from a Long Marriage or Ed Reardon’s Week. And while that would be fine if I had other avenues to explore with it, I don’t so it isn’t. I can either stop writing radio scripts (never going to happen, I’ve been at it on and off for 35 years) or I can make sure I write ones I can make into a podcast. Better start saving up to hire some actors.
If you want to help in that direction, you can always buy me a cuppa…