creative writing

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 gets roped in by Gina to help get a book signed by the author. It’s hardly Lee-Ann’s fault she’s involved in a minor incident en route.
  1. Episode 2: Book-signing
  2. 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…

Ko-fiButton
Advertisement

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…

Ko-fiButton

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 2: Book-signing Lee-Ann's Spare Fridays

Lee-Ann gets roped in by Gina to help get a book signed by the author. It’s hardly Lee-Ann’s fault she’s involved in a minor incident en route.
  1. Episode 2: Book-signing
  2. 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…

Ko-fiButton

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

Ko-fiButton

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.”


“Carstairs!”


“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.

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

Ko-fiButton

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

Ko-fiButton

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

Ko-fiButton

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

Ko-fiButton

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

Ko-fiButton

J is for Jumpers

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.

One of Nana’s many knitting patterns. I remember my parents wearing all of these.

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.

My dad in one of his Aran jumpers, as Nana holds a newborn me. My mum is dreadful for chopping people off photos.

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

Ko-fiButton

I is for Icicles

“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.

Icicles from my childhood, as photographed by my dad

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.

Icicles at our old place, 2010

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.

Icicles outside the window, 2018

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

Ko-fiButton

Meditation on stone

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…

Ko-fiButton

H is for Hindu godfather

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.

Photo by Elina Sazonova on Pexels.com

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

Ko-fiButton

E is for Environmentalism

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.

For some reason I’ve kept this badge 35 years

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…

Ko-fiButton

Why writing a radio sitcom is a recipe for disappointment

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.

Photo by Skylar Kang on Pexels.com

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…

Ko-fiButton

A is for Alphabites

You don’t get many J’s in a packet of Alphabites and as for a Y, well – forget it. Or at least that was the case in the late 80s when my family first encountered these letter-shaped frozen mashed potato pieces. Back then we still had a deep fat fryer so chips at home meant the proper fried variety. At the static caravan, however (probably the subject of C is for…) we had oven chips, skinny and over-cooked. We were thrilled, therefore, when Walter Willson started stocking Birds Eye waffles and eventually Alphabites. For a slow eater (and bookworm) like me, a plate of moveable type is too distracting to eat. Of course I started to see what I could spell, as though this was an edible version of Scrabble. But before I got onto the proper words I needed my initials: JYS.

The only Jacqueline mug I’ve ever owned. Pretty faded, but I have had it nearly 40 years.

I already knew that Y was hard to come by as an initial letter. Souvenir key-rings, pen-pots, mugs at seaside towns rarely came with a Y on them and never an Yvette. J should have been easier but it didn’t seem to be, and Jacqueline certainly wasn’t a name you often saw on bedroom door plaques or novelty pencils. Which meant that alongside the natural egotism of the baby of the family, I had this constant quest for rarities so whenever I did see a Jacqueline or a Y (I never did see an Yvette) I had to have it. I’d like to say I’ve grown out of it, but I saw a huge wooden J on a market stall a few years ago and OneMonkey knew he’d never hear the end of it if he didn’t buy it for me (in my defence, I’d like to point out that friend T has a flat full of T’s of various sizes, styles and colours).

The wooden J from the market

Back in the caravan c1988, the meal was halted while everyone searched their plates for a J or a Y. I already had an S. My dad dutifully handed over his J. Nobody had spotted a Y. Everyone looked again but a Y had not magically materialised, the Alphabites were now cold and I was disappointed. I don’t recall us having them again.

The holy grail: JY. Took me years to realise the wreath is supposed to make it read ‘joy’.

Other A’s I could have written about include: Animal biscuits, almonds (both sugared and paste), AA Milne, and Auntie Ann Tin Can Copper Kettle Brass Pan. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

Creative non-fiction: letting go of accuracy

Memory is fallible. Revisit the scene of a treasured childhood memory and you might realise it can’t have happened the way you remember: the garden’s too small for it to have taken more than three seconds to cross, you couldn’t have seen the crossroads from the gate, and the tree you’re thinking of is next to the library not the primary school anyway. Memory is also selective. Ask a couple about their last anniversary meal and one remembers everything they ate but not what music was playing in the restaurant, the other recalls the waiter’s Brummie accent but not what they had for dessert.

My degrees are in physics and maths. Every day-job I’ve had since 2007 has involved returning university data to the government or its nominated agencies. It’s safe to say that I have been trained and conditioned to be as accurate as possible. With fiction I picture a scene and do my best to describe it. Creative non-fiction on the other hand, specifically anything involving memories, is way more tricky. Or is it? I still picture a scene and do my best to describe it, the bit that’s different is the other potential witnesses. A fictional creation that exists only in my head can’t be challenged by anyone else, no-one but me has seen it. My words might not capture it fully or do it justice but only I know that. A real event, unless I was the only one there, has other perspectives. Even if the people I shared the moment with have died, there’s always the possibility of someone stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not how I heard it’.

I value precision but I also recognise where it isn’t feasible – it’s no good recording a measurement to two decimal places when your instrument’s not capable of that fine a grain. I have finally recognised that precision in memoir-based writing is not feasible. You won’t remember everything accurately even if some aspects are so sharp they could have happened this morning. You will remember it from a different perspective, using different prioritising filters, from your parents or siblings, your date that night, the guy sat behind you on the bus. You may have misinterpreted motives or causes at the time. You will certainly bring your own history, upbringing, fears and biases into the mix as you do whenever you read, watch or listen. You probably cull some details and emphasise others every time you recount an anecdote, perhaps you also truncate time or distance to make the narrative clearer, more focused, punchier. It doesn’t make it untrue.

What matters, I think, is intent and potential consequences. Does it matter if I really wore my new wool coat with the blue velvet collar to an aunt’s funeral in 1985? Maybe I’m conflating two family gatherings and I wore the wool coat to someone’s 90th birthday the following month. Maybe I never had a wool coat with a velvet collar, I just saw it in Lewis’s in Leeds and wished I owned it, and I’ve superimposed it on my memories from that year. It’s a nice detail, it helps a reader picture the scene the way I’m picturing it, and if I went back in a time machine and realised it was a warm autumn day and I was in a cardigan I wouldn’t care that much. It would, however, matter if I said her younger sister wasn’t at the funeral when I know I can’t be definitive, because that would make readers think badly of her (she didn’t attend her own sister’s funeral!). Even worse if I said it deliberately to make people think badly of her. Better to say that I don’t remember her being there, or I remember it as though it was only my siblings, my mum and her cousin but it can’t have been (my Nana would have been there, for a start).

Thus I feel able to present an A-Z of my childhood, every two weeks for a year, starting next week. I will still be blogging about writing and books, but every other week you’ll get something short prompted by my formative years. It might be funny, poignant, or plain odd, but I hope it’ll be enjoyable. There will be no malicious intent but I am guaranteed to present a unique version so if you were there and remember it differently please feel free to respond in the comments. I mean, feel free to respond in the comments even if you’ve never met me, that’s what the facility is there for. Some of the pieces were written in response to the Mslexia quarterly alphabet prompt, I even sent a couple of them in (never selected, sadly) so thanks to Mslexia for kicking this off, and thanks to my family for giving me plenty to write about.

If you enjoy any of my ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

Do you know more than you think about garden birds?

Last summer when lockdown had apparently made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more, I wrote a light essay about the birds in my garden. I wanted to braid past and present together and show that, almost by accident, I now knew far more than I thought about birds. I forget exactly why, but I’d started listing things I’d learnt from nearly a decade of watching our wildlife garden from an upstairs window, and I kept remembering another thing, and another and finally realised the list was longer than I expected. It made me think of the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, where Michael Palin starts listing their weapons, remembering another, and has to settle for a vague statement (‘Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise…Our two weapons are fear and surprise, and…Amongst our weaponry…I’ll come in again’). Hence I called it ‘Among the things I know about birds’.

I couldn’t quite get the form of it right last summer and I put it away for a while then had another go after I’d read the admirably accessible An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth. When I’d finally got it in a state I was happy with, I sent it out to a couple of magazines. It was accepted almost immediately by ThereAfter, and finally appeared online this week. Richard Smyth’s read it and he liked my descriptions, if that’s an incentive.

I saw a woodpigeon on its too-small nest in the yew tree last Spring, looking like a parent with a well-cushioned backside trying to sit on a primary school chair, and I didn’t have to look it up. The beefier, more consistently-coloured cousin of the city centre pigeon, I’ve watched its kind crash onto the bird table, snap flimsy sapling branches and make its clod-hopping way around our garden for years. I could no more mistake it now for the elegant mushroom-coloured collared dove with its black torque than I could mistake a magpie for a jay.

from Among the things I know about birds, by JY Saville
Collared doves in our garden

I partly wrote this essay in wonder at my accidental education, but also as encouragement to other suburban (or even urban, if there’s any greenery nearby) nature enthusiasts who consider themselves clueless about the wildlife around them. You probably know more than you think you do. And if you don’t yet, then you can almost certainly learn gradually and painlessly by watching, with occasional looking things up in books or online. Ultimately, it’s not a race and it’s about enjoyment and appreciation rather than accumulating knowledge. I learnt recently that the sound like a rusty pump handle that I’ve noticed for the last few years is the call of a great tit, but I can’t recognise any other birdsong. Except the cloth-tearing sound of a jay, of course. And the squabbling jackdaws. And the tawny owl that sits on the roof sometimes. Hang on, let me come in again.

If Among the things I know about birds made you look at your surroundings differently, you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton

New weird fiction: Brought to bed with a good book

I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.

It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.

I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.

It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.

If you’d like to read Brought to bed with a good book, you can find it at https://www.janusliterary.com/2021/06/30/jacqueline-saville-brought-to-bed-with-a-good-book/ and I recommend you explore the rest of the issue as it’s full of good stuff for varied tastes. Max Hipp’s Dream Baby has a similarly odd and unsettling vibe, if that’s your bag.

Like many online mags, Janus Literary is all done for the love of it so no money changes hands. If you enjoyed Brought to bed with a good book you can always buy me a cuppa…

Ko-fiButton