travel

Long Road From Jarrow by Stuart Maconie

I went to see Stuart Maconie talk about this book at last year’s Ilkley Literature Festival, an event which was entertaining and informative, and far too short. I finally got the book out of the library in January and it’s one of those that halfway through, I wished I’d bought it instead.

In October 1936 a couple of hundred unemployed men from Jarrow on the south bank of the Tyne marched to London to hand in a petition to parliament. The background is complex, but after the closure of a shipyard (added to other national problems) there was seventy percent unemployment in the town, and the men were asking for a proposed steelworks to be situated near them to provide new jobs. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful, and they weren’t the only men to march at that time, to highlight unemployment. For some reason, however, possibly to do with embedded journalists, a coincidence of date with the first BBC TV broadcasts, and being accompanied for part of the way by fiery local MP Ellen Wilkinson, the Jarrow Crusade (as it’s usually known) has lingered in the collective memory.

Or it has in some parts of it, at least. Stuart Maconie is something crucial in the Ramblers’ Association, as well as being an author and popular BBC presenter, so looking for a challenging walk in the autumn of 2016 he realised recreating the Jarrow marchers’ route would be perfect, and would allow him to ask people along the way what they knew about the crusade and what it meant to them, eighty years later. Not much, was the most common answer, though he did run across pockets of memory and enthusiasm.

You either like Stuart Maconie’s style or you don’t, and I do – it’s largely chatty and friendly (jovial, even) but there’s a vein of politics running through it (he describes himself as “unashamedly of Attlee’s patriotic leftist strain”) and he does get angry at the state of the country both now and in the time of Jarrow. I got angry too, reading it. There is a chapter for each day of the march, but in among the curry house recommendations and pop culture trivia sparked by towns and villages he passes through, there is enthusiastic historical and geographical information about the route. He also brings in snippets of history or broader context where necessary, and takes the odd bus or taxi detour if there’s somewhere of relevance nearby.

The book is as much about people as places, and he chats to lots of locals in pubs and on Twitter as he’s on the way, and gets their take on the area (and Britain) now as well as their thoughts on the original march. There are also interesting encounters in local museums, with the Dean of Ripon cathedral, and two MPs (Tracy Brabin and Kelvin Hopkins). As all this took place only a few months after the EU referendum, it’s got Brexit running through it. Maconie voted remain, but he shows a good understanding of why so many of his northern neighbours didn’t, and a frustration with the metropolitan elite who still don’t get it.

I don’t agree with all of his analysis (and I certainly don’t agree with all his musical views), but I think this is an interesting, well-meaning book. A worthy successor to JB Priestley’s English Journey in fact, which he mentions a couple of times himself. If you know quite a bit about English working class history, you might not learn any new facts (other than the possible name of the dog accompanying the Jarrow Crusaders, though that seems to be disputed) but by explicitly using the contrast of then and now it makes you think about contemporary events and circumstances in a different light. Aside from that it’s an entertaining travelogue through some less than obvious holiday destinations like Luton, Bedford, Barnsley and Darlington.

Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Paperback of Bush Meat by Mandy Sutter

Mandy Sutter is very good at those little moments of awkwardness that say so much about a character. The small but crucial details of a life, usually presented with dry and distinctly British humour. I was intrigued, therefore, to see what a collection of stories based on a couple of years spent with her (white, English) parents in Nigeria as a child would be like.

Only nine of the twenty stories are actually set in 1960s Nigeria, with others set in England just before or after this period, or later in the life of Sarah, the little girl whose father’s oil-company job takes the family to this strange, hot place, so far away from Nana. Nine stories also happen to be written from Sarah’s point of view, with another four from the perspective of one of her parents, and the rest from an assortment of acquaintances and teachers. Thus, in snapshots from different angles and at different times, we get glimpses of Sarah’s life, and the context of the family’s time abroad.

Seeing Nigeria through Sarah’s eyes as a child, we get a more matter-of-fact view than an adult might give, it’s just one more new thing at an age where many situations and long words are also new. There are still boring lessons, playground games, going to a friend’s house for tea, even if the surroundings have changed, and the etiquette with it. A mild object of interest in Nigeria, Sarah stands out just as much on her return home, where she is referred to at school as Miss Nigeria, after the teacher “had been the first to call Sarah by that name and now everyone did.” At first glance, Sarah seems to blend her English and Nigerian experiences more successfully than the adults, as with her borrowed rituals following a family bereavement, in Seed. Three for the Price of Five, and Mobylette Dreams could be tales of any awkward, unhappy teenager, unsure of her place and using either comfort eating or belligerence as a shield.

For Sarah’s mother the colonial feel of their existence in Nigeria is bothersome: the servants, the behaviour expected of the company wives, the empty days. She seems happier on her return to the English suburbs in Iroko-man, with tamed rubber plants in pots, back to normality (“What made us buy all those coffee tables?”). Sarah’s father, on the other hand, seems to leave part of himself behind on his return to England, never quite settling, with whisky gradually filling the void until eventually God takes its place. Throughout all the stories, Mandy’s eye for detail takes us right there. She conjures up the heat, the vegetation, the out of date kitchen in Nigeria, the unpreparedness of Sarah’s mum and the contrast between staid 1960s England and the slightly chaotic life they have in Nigeria.

I keep referring to this book as a short story collection because I remember Mandy talking about it in those terms a couple of years ago, and three of the chapters have appeared as stand-alone pieces elsewhere. As such I approached it as a collection even though it seems to be being marketed as a novel, and it worked well as linked stories, with the links between some more obvious than others. Someone else who’d also read it expecting a collection of stories said to me, “I’d be disappointed if I was expecting a novel”. I’d at least be confused. Perhaps neither of us reads as many experimental novels as New Welsh Rarebyte have assumed.

As a collection of short stories, however, this is a delight. Although there’s an obvious hook for anyone who’s interested in Nigeria or has been through a similar relocation, like all good writing Bush Meat is universal. It’s about childhood, and what shapes you, the long reach of events in the past, and how the same set of circumstances are experienced and remembered differently by members of the same family. Bush Meat is available now in paperback and ebook, via the publisher New Welsh Rarebyte.

When winning might cost more than losing

I wrote a post a few months ago about cost being a barrier to pursuing writing beyond a hobby, and since Kit de Waal* tweeted a link to it (let’s just pause for a moment together to let that sink in) there’s been a surge of interest in it this weekend. It seemed like a superb moment to talk about two writing competitions I nearly didn’t enter this week because of the cost of the prize.

Train waiting to take us back to Ravenglass

Any excuse for a photo of a steam train and/or Cumbria

When I say the cost of the prize, I really mean the cost of train travel and accommodation. I’m not naming names because I don’t want to make them feel bad, it is after all my decision to enter and for everyone who lives closer to the area in question it isn’t a problem. However, both the competitions had definite kudos value, it would be quite a thing even to be longlisted, but both had some or all of the main prizes involving going somewhere to do a thing (course fees paid, or free festival tickets).

One was free to enter but shortlisted entrants are expected to ‘make every effort to attend’ the award ceremony, and while the first prize includes cash, second and third are writing courses/retreats which it would cost nearly as much to travel to as to pay for a similar course nearer to home. You will note that I haven’t just gone on a similar course nearer to home, because they cost a lot of money.

The other cost £2 to enter, not a high enough fee to discourage me in itself, but none of the prizes involve cash, first and second prizes are tickets to a festival which it would be great to go to, but train fare would cost a packet and then there’s the B&B as well. You do get plenty of warning though so at least you get a chance to book the cheapest train tickets. Shortlisted authors for this one are invited to a do, but it doesn’t sound like there’s any pressure to attend.

I ended up entering both, hoping for a place on the longlist (to point to with pride) but equally hoping that I didn’t win (or not the non-cash prizes, anyway), which seems ridiculous. It’s worth pointing out that I’m voluntarily in this position (having quit my job at the end of October after squirrelling away enough money in the preceding months to let us manage for a while on that and OneMonkey’s income) and not remotely what I’d call poor, but if I’m thinking twice about entering, how many talented writers are being put off altogether because they can’t afford to be shortlisted?

*Kit de Waal has spent time and money raising awareness and helping writers from disadvantaged backgrounds get a leg up. I had heard about the Birkbeck scholarship, but hadn’t read until yesterday this New Statesman article from last April. She also wrote for the Bridport Prize blog this week about the importance of entering writing competitions, acknowledging that it can get pretty expensive.

A writer praises the North

Since I know you don’t get enough of me writing about the North, and writing, and northern writing, there’s an article of mine over at Women Writers School about that very thing.

Rusting anchor on stony beach

An anchor I saw in Cumbria, not the one that tethers me to the north

You’ll recognise it by the photo above, and my unbridled enthusiasm. And the mention of Luddites. Some of the other writers that Laurie Garrison has invited to add to her Literature and Place theme have covered exotic places like San Francisco and Bhutan so you can be an international jet-setter from the comfort of your armchair.

As ever, thoughts welcome. Do you love all my references to northern this, that and the other or do you sigh every time it comes up? Does fiction set in a place that’s familiar to you have an additional hook, or do you like reading yourself into places you’ll never visit? If you’re a writer too, is there somewhere that has that magic for you?

Living in a Cultural Void, or Whither Public Transport?

Looking at job listings on the Arts Council website the other day, I was struck by how many were in London. To save time wading through all those distant vacancies I thought about filtering so that only Yorkshire listings were shown, then I saw jobs in Hull and Rotherham (East and South Yorkshire respectively, whereas I’m in West) and I wondered if I needed to look at North West as well, since Manchester is probably easier for me (no car) to get to than either of those. Lucky Londoners, I thought, all those theatres, museums, galleries and the like right on their doorstep. Then I remembered a friend who used to live in Enfield (about 10 miles north of where I as an outsider think of as London, all those famous buildings by the Thames) saying he rarely went in to the city itself as it was quite a trek, and decided maybe I was doing many Londoners a disservice. They might be in no better position than I am, ten minutes’ walk from a train station, not so far from Bradford and Leeds. Armed with the measuring function on Google maps, and the journey planners for National Rail, Transport for London, and West Yorkshire Metro I had a bit of a look.

Starting with London, Enfield is about 8.5-12 miles as the crow flies from places I recognise on a map as having venues you’d want to visit for concerts, theatre, exhibitions etc. Because of London’s joined-up public transport system (particularly the Underground) that means it takes about 20 minutes to cover the 10 miles to the Tate Modern art gallery, half an hour to the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Barbican, and about 40 minutes to the distant Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a gig venue that’s stuck in my mind from many lists of tour dates I’ve heard read out on the radio over the years.

I’m lucky to live on the outskirts of a small town with its own literature festival, and we get the odd national tour in our concert hall too (Billy Bragg was here last year). Beyond that though, it’s about 6 miles (as the crow flies from my local station, half an hour on the train) to the Hockney gallery at Saltaire, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and worth a visit anyway. Then you’re into the same sort of distances as from Enfield to central London: 9 miles to Bradford (theatres, galleries, the National Media Museum, the Bradford literature festival) or to Haworth for the Bronte pilgrimage, 11.5 miles to Harrogate for the Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. Here’s where we differ though, it takes half an hour by train into the centre of Bradford, then easily another quarter of an hour to walk to the Alhambra or Media Museum, or to the university venues for the literature festival. Haworth has a railway station, but only for steam trains so from here you’d have to get a bus, and the journey planner reckons on just over an hour. Harrogate also has a station, but from here you have to go into Leeds and back out again so it’s marginally quicker by bus, again about an hour.

It’s not all bad news though because Leeds, 13.5 miles as the crow flies, is only half an hour away by train. Of course you’ve then got a 15-20 minute walk to the Royal Armouries, the Tetley, the West Yorkshire Playhouse or the Grand Theatre, and many Leeds-based events actually happen in the student-dominated area of Headingley (just less than 12 miles from here, but as you have to go into Leeds and back out again by train, it’s quicker by bus. 50 minutes this time) but it still counts as our nearest big cultural centre. It’s where we go to gigs, anyway.

For that job in Rotherham (just under 40 miles away) it would take me about 2 hours on the train. On the plus side Hull, UK City of Culture 2017, is also 2 hours away by train even though it’s just over 60 miles from here. Wakefield, for the Hepworth gallery, is just over 20 miles away and an hour by train. York (National Railway Museum, theatres and concerts, as well as general historical loveliness) is nearly 30 miles away but only an hour and a quarter by train, not much different from Manchester with its various galleries and museums at a distance of 35 miles (hour and a half by train). Newcastle, more than 70 miles away, begins to seem reasonable at two and a quarter hours by train plus a bit of a walk to the Theatre Royal, the Sage, the Baltic, the Laing Art Gallery and various museums. I’m still not tempted by the bargain time of three and a quarter hours for the 180 miles from here to the British Library though, and I wouldn’t live in London for the world.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t looked at costs for any of these journeys, though national rail travel is likely to be more expensive than local bus or (at a guess) London Underground. Buses will take longer than the timetable says, some days are worse than others, and if you start feeling sick after more than about half an hour on a bus (like OneMonkey or I) you’re even more limited. I took midweek, 9.30am onwards, as my sample, and I haven’t considered that for some of the places you might want to visit there are only 2 or 3 trains a day, or no public transport in the evening (which might be a pain if you’re trying to get to the theatre).

Budget airline luggage charges are nothing new

Researching something else entirely in local newspapers online, I was distracted by a legal case from August 1858. In the County Court at Keighley a Mr Busfeild was attempting to claw back his unfair fee from the Midland Railway after it had decreed that his child’s pram did not constitute ordinary luggage and therefore they had no obligation to carry it without charging him. The railway company did not dispute that the pram was within the size and weight limits they set out for luggage.

Busfeild v. The Midland Railway Company. Are Perambulators Luggage?

The judge retired to think about it, and his verdict was delivered the following day and reported under the headline above in The Leeds Mercury. He went around the houses a bit, and eventually decided that since luggage was ‘clothing and such articles as a traveller usually carries with him for his present convenience’, a pram was not luggage. The judge did not think that a family trip to the seaside ‘usually’ involved a pram and therefore the railway company were within their rights to charge an extra fee for carrying it. The general manager of the Midland Railway, a Mr Newcombe, claimed that if you started allowing prams as luggage, next thing people would be wanting small basket pony carriages on trains! With a slight updating of the specific items in question I can imagine spokesmen for budget airlines coming out with similar justifications today. Interesting to think they’re part of such a long tradition.

Northern Rail Odyssey part 3: East and North Yorkshire

Having a rover ticket instead of the usual brace of singles at fixed times was remarkably liberating (more so than I’d expected). There was one journey where I planned a fixed itinerary because the services are infrequent and we had particular places we needed to get to, but on the final day we weren’t even entirely sure where to go until we set off. It’s wonderful to be able to admit after half an hour that you’ve run out of things to do in this town, or it’s not to your taste, and march back up to the station just in time for a train to somewhere else. No putting a brave face on it, no tramping round getting colder and wetter as the clock ticks extra-slowly through the five hours to the train you’re booked on. Timetables permitting, you can follow a hunch, visit one landmark you’ve always been curious about, or just see where the line goes. If you find yourself chugging through a post-industrial wasteland, you can always read a book (when did every station acquire a neighbouring Tesco? Seamer has a Morrisons instead, which at least serves as a landmark. Hull and Workington, and no doubt various other places I’ve forgotten, present industrial estates to the inbound traveller for a couple of minutes prior to the station, which is hardly an enticement to disembark).

Thanks to the sunshine we plumped for a circuitous route to the East coast. OneMonkey misses the coast, and while nowhere else is quite like the North Tyneside of his youth, sometimes any stretch of sea will suffice to reinvigorate his soul. Rather than the usual Leeds to Scarborough and change, we opted for Leeds to Hull. We almost (almost) walked out of Hull station into the city itself, but the old ‘from Hell, Hull and Halifax may the Good Lord deliver us’ trumped the more recent winning of the UK city of culture bid, and we settled for changing trains and heading to Beverley (sorry Hull, maybe someday. Probably in 2017).

Beverley, which neither of us had visited before, is tiny (like a compressed York) and yet has 2 branches of Caffe Nero, which I found shocking (having said that, Leeds city centre has at least 3 in a similar sized patch). It also, rather marvellously, has a WHSmith bookshop (separate from the general WHSmith further down the street) next to its Oxfam bookshop, as though the people of Beverley are insatiable book-buyers, and the usual-sized book sections of newsagents or charity shops simply can’t cater for their needs.

vaulted ceiling, Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster

Beverley Minster was a revelation, I can’t believe we’ve never visited before (for a pair of unbelievers we spend a lot of our holidays visiting churches…) – light and airy, full of medieval carvings, and with the most welcoming bunch of guides (vicars? At least one was wearing a gown like an old-fashioned headmaster) who were happy to chat to us about the building and its history. Hexham Abbey (which was advertised here as another must-see destination on a church-lover’s tour of Saxon Northumbria) faded from my memory instantly as I stepped outside, but Beverley Minster will stay with me for a while I think, just as Wells cathedral has for over ten years.

Carving in Beverley Minster

Carving in Beverley Minster

From Beverley we headed north-east to Bridlington, a first for OneMonkey who wanted to visit simply because we were passing and it’s on the coast. I had it filed away in hazy childhood memories as a place of donkey rides and amusement arcades, in other words just another seaside town that probably looks a bit shabby on a Monday when the kids are still at school. It did look a bit shabby, and it smelt strongly of fish and seaweed, seemingly more so than any other coastal town I’ve visited. The strong breeze was blowing sand along the beach in interesting patterns, and there were clusters of gulls gathered here and there, but Bridlington was largely devoid of interest.

Bridlington beach

Bridlington

Filey was a good one to end on. Stuck firmly in some halcyon past that may not have existed outside this small North Yorkshire town, Filey should be prescribed to the stressed. It probably was, in the 1930s. It was surprisingly busy (more so than Brid), but the beach is big and flat enough for no-one to be within striking distance (and no-one’s dog to be a nuisance). There were fossils, rock pools, dangerous-looking cliffs, gentler sand-eddies than at Brid (and next to no gulls), and the constant roar and shush of the sea. Tired and happy at tea-time (though still a few hours from tea) we stood in the shed that purports to be Filey station, and started planning the next bout of rail-roving.

Northern Rail Odyssey part 2: the North East

We start the day with a look at the rail map and the weather forecast. Though it’s not bad with us, there are claims of heavy rain along the Tyne during the morning and we briefly wonder whether to change our plan. That would be a shame, I say – I quite fancied walking in the footsteps of OneMonkey’s Haltwhistle ancestors who moved to Hexham for a while before ending up in North Shields 150 years ago. He points to another circle on the rail map. You’ve got another strand of ancestors there, I say, so that’ll do. Or we could go there, he says, tracing his finger over the glossy paper. That’s ok, you have ancestors from there too. Exasperated, he asks where else we could go that some dead relative of his has already settled in, and I point to Windermere, Kendal, Whitby, Northallerton, Darlington, Sunderland, Newcastle. Oh yes, and Hull. Unlike me and my smallish swathe of Yorkshire, you don’t have to go far back in OneMonkey’s family tree to get pins in a map all over the North. He looks at the map for a moment. We stick with our original journey.

By the time we arrive in Hexham the worst of the rain is over, though evidence of its earlier ferocity is abundant. This is particularly true in the park, where some kind of Spring fair is underway. We join hosts of other determined souls in wellies and walking boots, wax jackets, cagoules and parkas, and trudge round dripping stalls selling candles and stained glass, jewellery, local cheese. There are human traffic jams on the paths as despite the boots, no-one quite wants to squelch onto the churned-up grass to get by. Small children plod up and down a fifty-yard stretch, perched on placid ponies. I feel mildly guilty for not buying anything as the stallholders are clearly cold and wet, but I tell myself we could come back after we’ve been round the abbey (we don’t).

Door at Hexham Abbey

Hexham abbey

Hexham is the sort of small town that’s dotted with art galleries, and before we even reach the town proper from the station we’re lured into a couple. One is the sort that’s nice to look at but is all original canvases for hundreds or thousands of pounds. Unfortunately, though there’s no indication from outside it turns out to be the artist’s house, and we spend a strained ten minutes making smalltalk (something neither of us is good at. Remember, we both have physics degrees) before sneaking out as soon as he leaves the room to attend to his jazz CD. The second is a mixture of originals, prints, cards, sculptures, glass paperweights. This one contains an artist too, but he doesn’t seem to have invited us into his house (though he may live upstairs for all I know) and not everything on show is his own work. I feel I can mutter criticism to OneMonkey about the odd modern canvas. There are paintings of the ghosts of shipyard workers streaming through the streets of Wallsend (another OneMonkey family connection) which I particularly like, and we dive back in an hour later so I can buy a card of one on the way to not quite missing the train.

Strung out between Newcastle and Carlisle, this train line is like stepping through a door to the countryside. A sudden hop from the Metro Centre surrounded by Primark bags and young couples, to being sandwiched between the river and a stretch of fields, and the further along the valley we travel the more remote from city life it feels. As we venture slowly through some remote cutting I look at the violets and primroses dotting the embankment. Elsewhere there are great walls of orangey-yellow gorse, but due to the non-opening windows on this train I have to imagine the soft coconut smell that this weak sunshine might be coaxing forth. I also imagine (though of course don’t see) kingfishers diving in this stretch of South Tyne, and drink in the colours of the woodland, spot the half-hidden waterfalls. It makes me wonder why OneMonkey’s ancestors would want to leave.

Haltwhistle is closed when we get there. Possibly everyone has decamped to Hexham for the Spring fair. A walk to Hadrian’s Wall is suggested and dismissed, as we don’t want the possibility of missing the train – we’re more than a couple of miles away from the wall at this point. That leaves a visit to OneMonkey’s ancestors, in a churchyard that seems to grow as we walk through it, and then we race back down to the deserted station. I thought Haltwhistle was supposed to be the centre of Britain, I say as the train putters into view. You’d think they’d have a plaque or something. OneMonkey looks at me – you were stood on it, he says, remember when we looked at the map to see where the church was? Oh, I say. Maybe I should have taken a photo.

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Haltwhistle Holy Cross church

Northern Rail Odyssey part 1: The West Cumbrian Coast

Most of the way from Carnforth to Maryport, the train line is never far from water. At the southern end, around Arnside and Grange-over-sands it’s all flat fractured fields, land and sea tangled together with grassy spits, and muddy fingers of water encroaching in each other’s element. Further up, there are wild rocks, crashing waves, and rows of regimented black seabirds that I’m fairly sure are cormorants. There are pebbled beaches, harbours and marinas, working coast, leisure coast, deserted coast. I could spend days travelling up and down that line in rain, sun and mist to see how different it looks. I may, someday.

Coast between Carnforth and Ravenglass

Between Carnforth and Ravenglass

This time, however, we stopped off at Ravenglass, where 3 rivers drain into the sea and the MOD does artillery tests (don’t go on the beach when the red flag’s flying…). It’s famous for its narrow-gauge railway, which used to carry ore to the sea and now carries walkers, rail enthusiasts and excited children the seven miles between Ravenglass and Boot. OneMonkey was bemused by my eagerness to venture on a small steam train with proportionate carriages, but while I wouldn’t say he was converted by the time we’d been to the other end of the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway, he did concede that it was a nice way to see the countryside. You clatter through woodland, past sheep, cows and pheasants, and unfold yourself from the miniature carriage into one of the most peaceful and picturesque valleys I’ve ever seen. Being hemmed in by the towering fells, then returning to the wide, flat estuary at Ravenglass is quite a contrast. We couldn’t spend long in Eskdale, however, as the nature of a whistlestop tour is that you don’t have long anywhere, just enough to form an impression, soak up some vibes, and leg it back to a station.

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Walking towards Boot from Dalegarth station

Steam train in woodland

Ravenglass and Eskdale railway

One thing I hadn’t come across in a while, which featured on both the steam railway and the main line, was request stops. Because our tickets didn’t specify a destination, every time we boarded a train on the coast line and showed our tickets, the conductor asked where we were heading, and as it happened we only used the scheduled stations. It made me wonder how request stops work the other way (when you’re on the platform and want the train to pick you up). Do you stick your hand out as though it was a bus (how long does it take a train to brake to a halt)? Or is there some more sophisticated system involving the signalman’s phone? I never asked, in case of mundanity – I prefer to picture walkers on remote platforms hopping up and down waving scarves like demented football fans, desperate not to be left for the night.

On any jaunt that doesn’t qualify as a city-break there is the perennial problem of where does a vegetarian eat in this small town/even smaller village. There are three home-made varieties of Cumberland sausage, lamb this, beef that. All very traditional and fitting to the surroundings, but the death of a pet lamb thirty years ago (marauding badger) turned me off the idea of eating sheep, and gradually I relinquished as food all the remaining animals I ate but was fond of(by which I mean pigs and cows, in that order. Chickens, vile, vicious pecking creatures, I still ate occasionally for a further ten years). I would always prefer to eat in a country pub or independent cafe (I was genuinely disappointed to notice Wetherspoons, Costa, Subway in Whitehaven) but they don’t always want to encourage me. It was a delightful surprise to find the Ratty Arms at Ravenglass (right on the railway platform, though no trains went past while we were eating) had an actual selection of vegetarian meals. Cue crippling indecision, naturally, but when I did make up my mind I had a most enjoyable dinner (shame about the beer – where’s a Jennings pub when you want one?).

Boats at Ravenglass

On the beach at Ravenglass

Old building on Whitehaven harbour

Whitehaven harbour

As a complete contrast to the tiny laid-back estuary-nestling village of Ravenglass, the following morning we chugged up the coast to Whitehaven. OneMonkey was looking through the opposite window, and missed the blot on the landscape that is Sellafield – if you do that, simply turn your back on it, you can remain immersed in coastal beauty and you need never know it’s there. There’s a definite inkling as you push north on the coastal line that this is Cumbria, not the Lake District – a little less loved, a little less visited (though clearly we were visiting, and I have loved these places since childhood). Whitehaven, from one angle, is a colourful Georgian port with a busy harbour and bustling shops. From another, it’s one more northern town that got left behind, faded grandeur fronted with bingo halls, and a boarded-up art deco bus station. I hadn’t been to Whitehaven for at least eighteen years and I was disappointed not to recognise anything much, whereas every time I go to Carlisle (not very often, and it’s a place I’ve visited much less than Whitehaven) there’s a certain corner I turn and get hit with overlayed locational memories of a whole stack of years at once. Then we walked near the multi-storey car park just as a gull screeched nearby, and I could feel the smooth bricks on the car park stairwell and my dad’s huge hand around mine, and I was peppered with childhood memories. Thinking about it, I do associate the sound of the seabirds with Whitehaven, more than anywhere else – having visited a few other coastal towns and villages on this trip, they do all sound (and smell) different.

Finally, a quick stop in Maryport, where the rain that was a nuisance in Whitehaven became a stinging impenetrable curtain, and we abandoned all plans. If Whitehaven got left behind, what can you say about Maryport? It has the longest row of independent shops I’ve seen in years, and has barely changed since my last visit (again, at least eighteen years ago) but I’m not sure everyone would see that as a good thing. It mostly felt empty, though that could just have been the rain, the only signs of life a huddled figure leaping from the chip shop to a waiting car.

Northern English Journey

My recent whistlestop tour of Northern England by train put me in mind of the wonderful English Journey by JB Priestley. Modesty (and indeed accuracy) forbids me from making a direct comparison between that book and any humble scribblings of my own, though I’m sure I’m equally liable to offend some residents (never intentionally).

Platform one sign, Carnforth station

What have I learnt? Not much, probably. Don’t rely on dry weather to the west of the Pennines (but really I knew that already). Not all staffed stations have toilets, so even if you find the swaying and jolting of the train off-putting, you might not have much alternative – go easy on the flask of tea.

What have I seen? Loads, and I’ll try and share a bit of it with you over the next week or so.

Starting in West Yorkshire, over the course of a week or so I visited Lancashire, Cumbria, Northumbria, East and North Yorkshire, and passed through Tyne and Wear and County Durham. I revisited childhood haunts and went to places I’d never been before. I stood at the East and West coasts in a variety of weather and mused on the difference of beaches. I watched from train windows as we skirted rivers, estuaries and the sea, seeming to hang over the water – there’s a couple of places I wouldn’t fancy travelling on a windy winter day.

If there’s going to be a Northern Powerhouse (which I picture at the moment as a sort of Heath Robinson generator contraption in a tumbledown stone barn on a moor) and it’s going to be based in Manchester (which I’m sure in Westminster minds is as solidly Northern as you can get, but dismissed as ‘the Midlands at best’ by Geordie OneMonkey, and even I see it as borderline North) then the rail rules will have to change: Northern Rail’s North Country Rover ticket doesn’t allow travel to Manchester. Too far south.

How I write, why I write, what I write

Disembark here for the next stop on the My Writing Process blog tour. Tearoom at the rear. Please exit via the gift shop…

As mentioned a few days ago Kelvin Knight passed me (and Judith Allnatt, and Stephen May) the responsibility of continuing this blog tour, so whether you like it or not I’m going to give you a little insight into my writing life. If you haven’t called off here before, it might act as some kind of introduction and (hopefully) an inducement to stick around. You could even sign the visitors’ book (or ‘leave a comment’ if you want to be prosaic).

First up, what am I working on?
Lots of things. Too much. Not the stuff I should be. This is the problem with having a butterfly mind and an overactive imagination, when you actually come up against the fact that writing a complete piece (even if it’s 500 words long) requires focus and a bit of (whisper it) work. I’ve had a crime story on the go for months. I was mightily pleased with the idea and I don’t want to rush it and fail to do it justice, but I’m in danger of letting it hang around too long.

There are two larger projects on the go. One is the sci-fi noir novel I began during NaNoWriMo 2013 and finished the first draft of in January this year – Sunrise Over Centrified City. I’d written it longhand as I’d hurt my back and wasn’t carrying my dinky little notebook computer around (and since then I’ve done more damage so I’m still not typing when I’m out and about), so it’s taken me until the end of August to find the time to type it all up so that I could start redrafting. The other is a collection of speculative fiction which I’m hoping to put out fairly soon. It’ll be roughly half and half published and unpublished work, a mix of science fiction, fantasy and things between.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I write in so many genres (butterfly mind), I’m not sure how to answer this one. OneMonkey has claimed my science fiction is like Alan Bennett in space (if only! But I’m not sure it was meant as a compliment). I’ve had a recent story in Romance Magazine and my first novel (Wasted Years) has been described as a romantic tale, but I don’t usually read fiction labelled as romance, and I absolutely don’t write anything mushy or soppy (I really hope I don’t. Please tell me if I do). My comic fantasy isn’t always as funny as others in the genre (hence it doesn’t tend to get out into the world. Except All the Room in the World) and my other fantasy doesn’t tend to involve elves and royalty and magic artefacts. There is often (but not universally) a core of northern-ness (northernity?) to my stories, with all that might entail (grit, rain, tea, taciturn characters). And probably an undercurrent of socialism where you least expect it (Wasted Years might be romantic in places, but I still see it as a cautionary tale about the shallow emptiness of greed-is-good consumer capitalism and ruthless ambition. But don’t let that put you off…)

Why do I write what I do?
I can’t not, is the simple answer. If I didn’t write it down it would stay swirling round my head and eventually I’d explode. All writers are a product of their reading, so from Paddington Bear to Anthony Trollope’s finest novels via John Wyndham, Terry Pratchett and Philip K Dick, I select my subconscious ingredients and distil them into something (I hope) unique. I write in many genres because I read in many genres, as you can probably tell from my book reviews and end of year summaries.

And finally, how does my writing process work?
Hmm, most of the time it clearly doesn’t, or I’d get more stuff finished. I don’t have a writing routine (though I went through a long phase of writing during my lunchbreak, when I was carrying my pencil-case sized computer around) or even a fixed way of approaching a story (whole plot sketched first? just an ending, a beginning, a setting, a character?). Chaotic, maybe, but I like to think it leaves me open to chance thoughts and melding of ideas. It could just be poor planning.

I have a TeX file (hangover from years of physics) which I’ve gradually been adding to for the last few (nine?) years, divided into character names, good lines, snippets, titles, characters, and ideas. Anything that I jot down during the day on a paracetamol packet, the back of an agenda or even in a writing notebook (it does happen), gets thrown in there as soon as possible. I’ll do writing exercises in the snippets section to see if I come out with anything usable. Vague half-baked thoughts of ‘what if..?’ go in the ideas section, and even Stuart Maconie caused an entry in the names section a few years back when he tried to say Michael Jackson on the radio and it came out Maxl Jaggle (which I’ve yet to use for a sci-fi character, but someday I will). Every now and then (when I’m in full-on procrastination mode) I trawl through the file and join a title with an idea, a name with a snippet, or just pick one item and go off on a flight of fantasy with it (like in March 2012 when I tried writing a story a day this way). Occasionally, an idea is sparked directly and I just start writing without it ever going in the file.

Sometimes I write one story till I’m finished. Sometimes I get bored, or have a better idea partway through, and I get sidetracked. I have been known to put something aside for a number of years, only to come back to it and finish it in a matter of hours. There are some things I’ve written from start to finish without correcting any of what came before (Sunrise Over Centrified City, for instance). Others have been rewritten continually as I go along, so the first paragraph’s been through seventeen drafts and the last has been through two. Crime stories need meticulous planning so that they hang together (clues and methods and detection and such); that’ll be why I rarely manage to finish them (The Dovedale Affair being a notable exception).

Some days I get lost in the story and bang out a thousand words without trying, other days I sharpen a lot of pencils and tidy my inbox. Or write a blog post.

So there you have it, me as a writer, in a nutshell. If your appetite for my fiction has been whetted (admit it, it has a little bit), check my About (& Publications) page where you can follow links to all the ones that are available for free, then if you like, proceed to the ones you have to pay for…

Time to hand you over to some other creative folks:
Jo Tiddy is a member of the Telegraph Short Story Club, and although she has contributed guest posts there, she doesn’t have a blog of her own and will therefore be a most welcome guest right here.

Mary Colson mainly writes non-fiction for children, but she has fun with fiction as part of Ilkley Writers and will be appearing at the Ilkley Literature Festival Fringe in October. Regular readers (or those that know me well) will understand why I particularly appreciated a recent extract in which a cat called Clash belonged to a guitarist named Strummer…

World Book Day. Kind of.

It’s World Book Day, apparently. But only in the UK. And though various book-related twitter accounts are asking everyone what they’re reading (In Pale Battalions by Robert Goddard, since you ask), the event itself seems to be aimed at children and to be run through schools. Though most of the parents I’ve spoken to today (not that many, admittedly) have children who weren’t taking part.

Nonetheless, any encouragement to read, particularly for children who are bombarded by the competing distractions of the modern world (cue the headshake and ‘it weren’t like that in my day’) has to be a good thing. Niche as it seems to be, there is no reason not to take World Book Day at something more like face value and use it as an excuse to read a book from a different country. It could be in translation (or, if you’re multilingual, in a foreign language) or you could dive into the world of English language books from other places like Canada, New Zealand, Ireland.

I have to admit, I don’t always know (or indeed care) where the author hails from, when I read a book. If it’s set in the south of England, like In Pale Battalions, I’ll probably assume the author’s English (having just looked it up, Goddard is indeed from the south of England), and maybe it’s the setting that’s the key, not the author’s nationality. You can go anywhere in the pages of a book, experience other cultures and viewpoints, other priorities and ways of whiling away the day. You could go around the world in 80 books. Maybe that could be an aim for the next World Book Day.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

To say how huge and influential Neil Gaiman is, he hasn’t written many novels (not true of comics of course or, latterly, children’s books). I enjoyed Good Omens, which is how I first discovered Neil Gaiman as a teenage Terry Pratchett fan in the early 90s, and in the last 10 years I’ve read Stardust and Anansi Boys (a particular favourite) but somehow not got round to American Gods, despite there being not much else to go at in the way of prose.

Turns out it was worth the wait. One of those total immersion novels where you completely believe in the world that’s created. And belief, when it comes down to it, is what the book is all about.

Shadow is in his early thirties, he’s about to be released early from prison and he’s looking forward to seeing his wife again. In the event, he’s released a few days earlier than he was expecting, so he can make it to her funeral in time. Three years of aching to be back with the person you love most, and she dies in a car crash before you can get to her. You’d be lost, wouldn’t you? Directionless. Ripe for being swept up into events beyond your control or comprehension. Something like, say, a war between gods.

It’s a road trip, it’s small town America, it’s mythic and epic and reverent and irreverent at the same time. It’s almost like Stephen King read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, let it stew at the back of his mind for a few years then wrote a book haunted by it. Except it’s also unmistakably Neil Gaiman. There are coin tricks and cons, magic that’s misdirection and sleight of hand, and magic that is real and a lot less showy. It’s about love, loyalty, remembering and believing – be it in religion or yourself or your family, and it’s about what happens when the world moves on.

I very much doubt I’ll be waiting a dozen years to read the new one, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Commuters in wellingtons

Snow has come to town this last week, and so far it has stayed. Looking out of my window is like looking into a fairytale; the trees are caked and bowed, the distinction between path and flower-bed lost. There is a frisson of excitement to the morning commute. Will I get to the station in good time, without falling? Will the train be delayed? Will it run at all? Will a passing van going too fast on the main road splash me from waist to ankle with brown slush?

Routine is turned upside down. People are getting the bus because they can’t get the car safely to the main road. Or they’re driving to work because the train’s cancelled. Walking the kids to school because the school bus can’t get through. Hiking boots are called upon, and jumpers not usually considered fit for work are brought into play. Men turn up for meetings in suits, ties, and green wellingtons.

It is at these frayed edges of everyday behaviour that stories form. They crystallise like the winter ice and are just as delicate. Gaze upon them, admire them, memorise their shape. Paint pictures with words and share that frisson of excitement around.

Waterfall icicles

To Edinburgh, with towel

Somehow I’d entirely failed to hear about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tour. The one with (mostly) the original radio cast. The one where Neil Gaiman will be the voice of the Book for one night only. Even he only mentioned it as an afterthought at the end of a longish post on his journal, but thankfully I spotted it, and in a moment of blinding insight into the state of my soul, my inner teenager reared up screaming Buy tickets now! So I did (listen to your inner teenager, sometimes it knows you better than the outer grown-up does) and now I’m eagerly awaiting a weekend in Edinburgh in which my Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman strands will collide in what I hope will be an evening of pure joy. It should be, at the very least, a unique experience.

Freedom to rock

This is a time-travel post, written earlier in the week so I didn’t forget to blog in the excitement (or extended follow-up sleep) of the long-awaited trip to see Iron Maiden at Newcastle Arena (OneMonkey, myself, and the nephew have had tickets since November). The title of the post came from an Alice Cooper song, which took me back to an Alice Cooper gig in Newcastle in July 1997 after which, for some reason that entirely escapes me now, I got on a late-night coach to be collected by my indulgent parents at a Yorkshire bus station in the early hours. Long distance journeys on late-night coaches certainly seem to be part of what freedom’s about, at least if all the American films are to be believed.

I’ve been glancing through the WordPress daily posts and came across a recent one asking What does freedom mean? Funnily enough, on a hot day last week when I was in sandals and loose cotton I bumped into a fully suited and tied male colleague and the phrase ‘freedom is never having to wear a suit’ popped into my head. Freedom is also, in the words Janis Joplin keeps singing in my head, another word for nothing left to lose – there is definitely some truth in that. From a writing perspective, acknowledging you’ve missed your deadline, or your target wordcount, or can’t think of how to tie the story that wants to come out in with the theme you’re trying to write about, completely frees you up for creativity. It takes away the performance anxiety and the narrow focus, and lets you roam.

So, wearing a suit or not, go away and free your mind. I can’t guarantee the results will rock your world, but you won’t know till you try.

In search of lost travels

If you could pick 3 places to go this year, where would they be? If we’re imagining I’ve come into money, got over all my fears and neuroses related to travel, and can find suitable vegetarian food wherever I might choose to go, the scope is widened beyond the UK.

Books can shape your life – I would hope that if you’re reading this blog you already know that. They can shape your dreams too, particularly if they’re long, dreamy, rambling books like A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust. I’ve mentioned before how it made me want to visit Venice. More than just visit, I wanted to take an apartment in a former palace for a month or more (preferably in the late 19th century, but since there are no cars even now, the timing may not matter so much), sketch in the city’s squares, stroll beside canals and meet interesting fellow-travellers.

The fact that I haven’t been to Venice yet, and if I did it wouldn’t be as I’d imagined it, doesn’t stop me dreaming of going to other literary settings – real, historical or entirely fictional. Reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, where certain people are able to jump into fiction, does make me envious sometimes. I could go to Venice as Proust described it. Or borrow a certain book from Arthur Dent and hitch-hike my way to adventure. Experience for myself a genuinely Kafkaesque situation (as long as I was sure I could leave at any time!). Set up my own writing retreat in a forgotten room of Gormenghast castle.

Writing is partly visiting the places our imagination takes us to. Maybe part of the trick is visiting a Raymond Chandler novel, standing quietly in a corner while Marlowe’s being sapped, then noticing movement out of the window, sneaking down the fire escape and discovering a whole other story going on in a neighbouring street.

Where would you visit (or live?) given the hypothetical chance? Real or fictional, any time period. Surprise me.

To Kindle or not to Kindle?

Over my long, busy yet somehow unproductive festive break I was introduced to my first e-reader. A friend had received a Kindle for Christmas and was just getting to grips with its features. Up to now I’ve been sceptical about e-readers, from the practical considerations of battery life and screen brightness to the aesthetics of a coverless book with no smell of musty paper. I am by no means converted and I still don’t see myself rushing out to buy one, but some of my biggest objections were overcome: it kind of ‘writes’ the page then switches off, so if you’re lingering on one page for ages, apparently you’re not using the battery, and there was no discernible shine so it didn’t feel like reading a screen. It’s not that comfortable to hold though – if you’re a ‘tea in one hand, book in the other’ reader like me, what you really want is something with a notch that mimics the v-shape of paperback pages that you rest your thumb between. Or a handle so you can hold it like a lorgnette, maybe.

The other big objection I had was that I love books as well as the stuff that goes in them, it’s the same objection I’ve had to digital-only music. But that’s sort of when I had my moment of revelation: there are some albums I must own on vinyl, they are a total sensory experience in themselves, but there are quite a few that I used to have on tape and it didn’t bother me because I only wanted to be able to listen to the content. When I was a teenager I had a personal cassette player (I’m not going to call it a walkman because it wasn’t, I think it was a Panasonic though that may have been OneMonkey’s), so I decided before I set out how many and which tapes I needed, and had to lug them around with me, and if a tape chewed or my mood had changed or I got stuck on a bus in a traffic jam and ran out of tapes I was annoyed. These days I have an MP3 player and I can carry more albums than my strength or rucksack would have allowed back then in something about a third the size of a cassette, and I don’t worry about the lack of sleeve notes or cover art because the ones I’m properly bothered about I just listen to on vinyl at home. How many times have I misjudged the number of books I needed on a long train journey and either cursed myself for carrying too many, or run out before journey’s end?

However, what about the thrill of the chase – hunting down the last book of the series second-hand? What about second-hand books at all, and the joy of swopping, passing on or passing down (I have a novel which belonged to my 3xgreat grandma and a whole host of my great-uncle’s books), feeling the history in the weight of the cover, owning samples of ancestral handwriting in the name written inside or the dedication ‘to mother on her birthday’? It just doesn’t seem the same to tell someone you think they’d like this book, they should go spend money and download it themselves – one of the great things about lending a friend a book on the offchance they’ll enjoy it is that if you’ve misjudged it they haven’t wasted any money and can only curse you for the half-hour they spent wrangling with the first couple of chapters. How long would books be available digitally, would they still go ‘out of print’ or would they persist somewhere? As at least some of my ancestors were almost certainly Luddites (by which I mean machine-breakers trying to protect their livelihoods, not whatever twisted definition people seem to use for Luddite these days) I feel I should also hold back on the grounds that the people who work at the printer, distribution company, bookshop, paper mill etc would be out of a job if we all went digital.

I’ll be sticking to books for the foreseeable future, the same way I stick to vinyl – for the full sensory experience. But don’t rule out spotting me on a train with an e-reader in a year or two.

Mystery on a train

My capacity for story-telling goes into overdrive on a long train journey. I start by harmlessly reading a book, then at some point I look up to glance out of the window and I’m hooked. A solitary cottage or ruined barn make obvious settings, places to describe in detail as they are now or as I imagine them to have been. Burnt-out buildings and boarded-up shops beg for their stories to be told. The real killers though, the ones that set the creative juices flowing faster than I can bottle them, are the half-glimpsed follies of a bygone age.

One that sticks in my memory is a viaduct that stopped abruptly and very neatly in the middle of a field (unless it was an illusion, the rest obscured by trees, but I don’t think so) – I only saw it for a second as the train rushed past, but within minutes I’d woven a story around it, and within weeks I’d written about someone coming across it and finding out the story for themselves. I’ve seen turretted houses, a cottage which appears to have a small medieval castle in the garden, tree-shrouded pillars and Grecian monuments. Every one triggers a tale, rarely the same one twice – even familiar journeys provide fresh inspiration. If I was ever in danger of running out of ideas, all I’d need is a day-rover.

Travels through a small island

William Cobbett, as I recall, said you should make sure you know your own country intimately before you start trying to learn about anyone else’s. I’ve never got to grips with any other countries, so maybe it’s not quite as bad that I know so little of England. Last week I spent several hours on a train pressing steadily south through counties I couldn’t name without a map in front of me. It was amazing just how different it was; thatched cottages really do exist outside of jigsaw puzzles. Ploughed fields looked like wildflower meadows from their vibrant pinkish-red soil, a far cry from the rich dark brown I’m used to. And the weather was like being abroad.

As well as a hundred and eighty photos, a sunburnt nose and some scrappy notes that I’ll probably never follow up on, I came back with these questions:

  1. Is there really a wider variety of flora and fauna in Cornwall, or do I just not look closely enough at home?
  2. Why do small English towns, even in tourist areas, close down on Bank Holidays when so many people want to go out and do things (assuming they haven’t fallen foul of the Sunday-service buses)?
  3. Why are the buses on Sunday service on Bank Holidays when people want to go out and do things?
  4. Why am I always so rubbish at judging the right number of books for a train journey, either weighing myself down unnecessarily or leaving myself with three boring hours of watching the gradually darkening industrial landscape on the way home, unable to write because of the jolting?
  5. Why can’t I rent a picturesque rural cottage to write in for six months, as seemed to be so fashionable, and apparently so easy, in the past?

Answers on a postcard…