Short stories: ‘Long Distance’ and ‘Last Trumpet’

My short story, Long Distance, was featured online by Litro this month. You can read it here. It’s about fast food, friendships and life-choice indecision (maybe). Thank you to Rajni George for the impetus, SJ Bradley and Martin Cornwell for the comments, and Barney Walsh from Litro for picking it out. It feels good to release this one into the world…

Also, back in March, the kind folks at Disclaimer magazine published my story, Last Trumpet. It’s about ice skating and bungalows (not really).

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Short stories: ‘Artefacts’ and ‘Hi’

My short story, Artefacts, was published by Disclaimer Magazine in August, and you can read it here.

This was a story that I’d had lying around for several years. I was able to edit it into a publishable state thanks to the excellent Comma Press short story workshop course that I signed up for this year.

I also wrote a brand new story based on one of the workshop prompts. It’s called ‘Hi’ and you can read it in the workshop anthology, Tyto Alba, available as an e-book for the bargain price of 99p.

 

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Book reviews, 2014 – 15

Around 2014 and 2015 I wrote book reviews for the website, Quadrapheme, which now seems to have disappeared into the ether. So, I am re-posting them here for posterity.

Brick Mother, SJ Bradley (Dead Ink); Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Rebecca Solnit (Granta); A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday); Kauthar – Meike Zeirvogel (Salt);  Harvest – Jim Crace (Picador); Girl at War – Sara Novic (Little, Brown)

Brick Mother, SJ Bradley (Dead Ink)

Last year SJ Bradley was featured in the independent publisher Dead Ink’s anthology LS13, which showcased twenty Leeds writers under the age of forty.  Her debut novel Brick Mother is one of the first two print novels now published by Dead Ink Books and focuses on the lives of staff and patients at Cedar Hospital Healthley, a private secure mental hospital in a fictionalised part of West Yorkshire.

Bradley herself has a background in mental health work, from which she brings us a sense of the humdrum pressures of working in overstretched services: the constant awareness of time, a background of dormant threat, and a crushingly unsupportive atmosphere between members of staff who dislike, disagree with, or simply don’t know each other.  We meet Barney, a heroically avuncular social worker, Donna, a nursing assistant who lives on the estate at the end of the bus route with her school-age son, and Neriste, a burned-out art therapist who is relegated to a leaky portakabin outside the main building.  We also get to know patients like Nathan, who has committed terrible crimes but appears to be making progress, and Andy, who is both violent and vulnerable.  However, since our knowledge of these patients is always filtered by staff observations and clinical discussions, we ultimately don’t know what’s going on inside their heads; we don’t know who can be trusted.  This narrative strategy generates mounting tensions that make the novel a real page turner.

The pace is also helped along by Bradley’s prose style, which is perhaps deliberately un-showy but still leaves room for moments of austere beauty.  As Donna walks back to the hospital with Nathan after a carefully pre-planned visit to the local newsagents, we see this image of the institution that defines his life:

Roofs shone bright between patches of clear sky. The hospital showed itself in glimpses as they came up the hill.  A chimney between trellises; the stern brick walls between privets.  Donna thought she saw a rainbow for a moment.  And then the hospital again, with its strong lines, its high hard windows.  A firm red behind the leaves.  It grew bigger the closer they came.

An impressive feature of this novel is the way Bradley’s simplicity of style contrasts with the complexity of the questions she is raising about our mental health care services:  what does it mean to have a certain diagnosis? Is it right to lock people up indefinitely on mental health grounds?  How and why do we institutionalise people?  What are the boundaries between being sick and being well?  Who gets to decide what counts as rehabilitation or recovery?  What happens when the system fails or wrong judgements are made?  What toll does this work take on the staff?  There are no straightforward answers here.  Instead, in the style of much good social realism, Bradley lets us see people dealing with moral complexity, tough choices, and their unintended consequences.

So, while Brick Mother is not a political polemic, it does provide glimpses of a mental health system that many believe to be in crisis. Bradley focuses, importantly, on characters and locations that are not always visible to the metropolitan elites, showing us a picture of ‘hardworking people’ ground down by the conditions in underfunded semi-privatised services in unglamorous parts of the UK.  Her story takes us past bus stations, housing offices, bleakly beautiful moors and uninspiring high streets full of pound shops and arcades.  And it shows us vulnerable people whose needs are not always met by the systems designed to care for them.  However, despite the grim subject matter, Bradley writes with an obvious affection for her characters, balancing empathy for their situations with a wry and perhaps distinctively northern humour.  A man let down repeatedly by the social care system jokes that housing associations are ‘never knowingly prompt.’  A harried doctor is ‘the kind of woman who uses her handbag instead of a bin.’  An imperious patient sits smugly ‘like a company director waiting to be brought biscuits’.  It is this combination of warmth, insight, and good old fashioned suspense that makes this debut novel a success and its author one to watch.

Wanderlust: A History of Walking – Rebecca Solnit (Granta)

At one point during her singular yet expansive History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit tells us that she has worked out that the text of her previous book laid out end-to-end would have been four miles long.  First published in 2000 and then updated in 2006, this new imprint of Wanderlust arrives, courtesy of Granta Books, at a time when many more miles’ worth musings on the meaning of walking have been added, most recently by Frédéric Gros, whose French bestseller A Philosophy of Walking has just been published by Verso.   Midway through her own survey of walking literature, Solnit wearily notes that “to hear about walking from someone whose only claim on our attention is to have walked far is like getting one’s advice on food from people whose only credentials come from winning pie eating contests.”  Fortunately, though Solnit has certainly covered some miles, her claims on our attention are many.  Interweaving beautifully detailed stories of her own walks across far flung and familiar landscapes, she leads us on a meandering but thoroughly invigorating tour around the various social, political, cultural, religious or sexual meanings that have attached themselves to the basic act of putting one foot in front of the other.

While the pleasures of the solitary stroll are well-documented here, there’s a huge cast of characters to be found striding across the pages of Wanderlust.  We amble alongside philosophical and literary heavyweights such as Kierkegaard, Rousseau and Wordsworth, cross paths with countercultural notables like Gary Snyder, Patti Smith and David Wojnarowicz, and happen upon many other lesser-known pilgrims, protesters, ramblers, revolutionaries, street-walkers, mountaineers and trail-blazers along the way.  Solnit also covers a potentially exhausting range of topics, from theories of bipedalism (or why humans walk on two legs), to the Buddhist circumambulation of mountains, to conceptual art and the insurrectionary parties of Reclaim the Streets.  Thankfully though, while the book is strikingly well-researched, Solnit’s writing is never weighed down by the volume of her source material.  In fact, one of her most enviable talents is her ability to tell vividly detailed and diversely populated stories about large scale cultural metamorphoses or shifts, illuminating the “specific cultural ancestry” of facets of life that could easily go unexamined.

A case in point is her chapter ‘The Path Out of the Garden,’ which explores how increasing numbers of people came to view walking in the countryside as an aesthetic experience rather than just a means to an end or a danger best avoided.  Beginning with an examination of changing fashions in country house architecture and garden design in eighteenth-century England, it’s full of the kind of cultural miscellany that has been keeping academics in PhD topics for decades but seems unlikely to demand wider attention.  However, as Solnit builds her narrative, taking in the Romantic poets, the industrial revolution, the growth of walking clubs and battles over land rights and access, we start to see how “the [initially aristocratic] taste for walking and landscape became a kind of Trojan horse that would eventually democratize many arenas and in the twentieth century literally bring down the barriers around aristocratic estates.”

Solnit is thus at her best when her knack for spotting the surprises or ironies of the everyday aligns with her radical streak.  In a superbly-titled chapter ‘Aerobic Sisyphus and the Suburbanized Psyche’ she fails to walk around the suburbs of her native southern California, takes a wry look at the history of the treadmill (first dreamed up in the early nineteenth century, we’re told, for the physical and moral subjugation of prisoners), and casts walking as a social and cultural “indicator species for various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies”.  From this she speculates about what kind of psychological possibilities are curtailed when options for walking freely in public spaces are closed down, whether by car-dominated urban planning, the creeping privatisation of public space, restrictive gender expectations, or other encroachments on civil liberties.

If there are criticisms to be levelled at Wanderlust, one is perhaps that in her most high-flown moments Solnit can be seen to gesture towards a generality of experience that may not ring true for everyone.  If the walker is “one of the most compelling and universal images of what it mean to be human,” it would be interesting to see her take one further detour and consider a disability rights angle on all of this.  However, hers is, as she says of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, “a scholarship of evocation rather than definition”—this is a history, not ‘The.  What she evokes so successfully here is something intangible and emotive about the relationships between moving on foot, thinking, and writing—all ways in which people expend efforts in trying to make sense of the world and invest places with meaning.  Most fundamentally intrigued by the relationship between walking and the mind, Solnit challenges us to explore what kind of insights and experiences might be nurtured if we start slowing down and damn well noticing things:  “I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour.  If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

If this was so when Wanderlust was first published in 2000, Solnit’s warning seems yet more prescient now as the temptations of online immediacy encroach ever further on our lives (as she so perceptively ruminates upon in a recent article in the London Review of Books).  That said, we shouldn’t mistake her argument for a simple ‘let’s get back to nature’ polemic.  Wanderlust’s concluding chapter sees Solnit walking down the Las Vegas strip, offering a surprisingly hopeful celebration of the area’s resurgent pedestrianism, its architectural ironies, and the potentially subversive power latent in the act of walking in public.  She suggests that “what is often taken as the pleasure of another place may simply be that of the different sense of time, space and sensory stimulation available anywhere one goes slowly,” inviting us to revel in our own open-ended psychological wanderings when we set out on foot—wherever we may be, wherever we are going.

 

A God in Ruins – Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

Towards the end of Kate Atkinson’s last novel, Life after Life, Teddy Todd is resurrected.  A pilot shot down in a bombing raid over Germany in 1943, he was presumed dead by his family.  Teddy’s return is a redemptive moment at the end of a novel structured around the multiple resurrections of his older sister Ursula who lives, loves, and dies (or doesn’t) in various increasingly disorienting  permutations against the backdrop of two World Wars.

A God in Ruins has been cast as a ‘companion’ rather than a sequel, welcoming back a cast of familiar characters and introducing us to their descendants.  Atkinson revisits some of the ambiguous plot points of her previous novel, fixing certain outcomes while also suggesting yet more alternate versions.  Fans will no doubt enjoy doing some narrative detective work here.  However, readers who found Life after Life’s tricksiness and repetition difficult to swallow may find respite in the slightly more forgiving structure of its follow up.

That’s not to say A God in Ruins isn’t very cleverly put together. Atkinson’s masterful non-linear storytelling gradually pieces together a mosaic of Teddy’s life—a life that he never expected to have: “he had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day.”  She brings us different characters’ perspectives not only on Teddy story but on nearly a century of changes in British culture. We see Teddy and his granddaughter watching the Queen’s sodden Jubilee flotilla on the Thames.  A mid-century kitchen sink drama is played out as Teddy suspects his wife Nancy of infidelity.  We see mad old aristocrats in a crumbling stately home, visit a commune in the 1980s and, poignantly, hear tales of Teddy’s wartime heroics set against his moves to a series of care homes.

It is in many ways a deeply sad novel. Teddy has resolved to be kind and to try to live a good life but in reality his story is marked by small disappointments and life-changing tragedies. His daughter Viola and her partner Dominic are self-obsessed baby boomers who wreak havoc in the lives of their children.  If this is Atkinson’s comment on the post-war generations, it is a bleak one.  But A God in Ruins also shares many of the features that make Atkinson’s novels such a joy:  her vivid depictions of homes and family life; her capricious sense of history; her sprinklings of literary quotation; her trademark jocular humour; and her ability to handle deep philosophical quandaries with a deceptively light touch.

“What if we had the chance to do it again and again … until we finally get it right?”  This was Life after Life’s central question.  A God in Ruins insists instead that we do only have one life and that the question of how we live it is profound and worthy of serious reflection.  Atkinson makes this assertion in the context of massive and systematic loss of life in the Second World War.  Having catalogued the visceral horror of the Blitz in Life after Life, show now brings us a richly detailed and terrifying account of the sacrifices of Bomber Command, whilst also reflecting with sensitivity on complex moral questions about the destruction wrought on civilian populations: “across the world millions of lives are altered by the absence of the dead.”  And then, as the narrative zeroes in on Teddy’s final flight, Atkinson delivers a literary volte-face that calls to mind McEwan’s Atonement, packing an emotional punch while also tempting us to think more abstract thoughts about truth and fiction.

In some respects, Atkinson’s most recent two books have returned to the playfulness of form that marked out her earlier works like Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet from her later series of Jackson Brodie crime novels.  Atkinson appears to both acknowledge and reject this distinction by having her author-character Viola back out of a debate at a literary festival: ‘Popular versus literary- a false divide?’ If this is a question worth asking in relation to Atkinson’s oeuvre, A God in Ruins seems to answer with an emphatic yes: it’s a beautifully written, multi-faceted novel that asks big questions, and is sure to be very popular indeed.

Kauthar – Meike Zeirvogel (Salt)

On page one of Meike Ziervogel’s latest novel, a suicide bomber blows herself up at a US army checkpoint in Baghdad. ‘It’s the English woman,’ we’re told. This bold and provocative opening premise resonates sharply with current debates about radicalisation: who is this English woman and why has she done this?

In seeking to answer these questions, Ziervogel skips forwards and backwards across a period of twenty years, accumulating episodes in the life of Lydia, who renames herself Kauthar when she converts to Islam.  On one level it’s a plausibly familiar tale: a woman finds religion at a low point in life.  Lydia’s affair with a married man has collapsed in distressing circumstances; her career has stalled; she’s been slipping into problem-drinking.  Then she meets Rabia and is drawn to her Muslim faith: ‘a beautiful routine of submission, prayer and praise.’  When she marries Rafiq, she finds coherence and stability: ‘I have found my way, my religion, my husband, my life.’  But their relationship is tested by the events of 9/11, which ultimately lead Rafiq back to his native Iraq to work as a doctor during the war.  Here, the story takes a darker turn as Kauthar is unable to accept how the perfect rules of her new religion can become entangled in the messiness of culture and politics.

It’s a hugely ambitious novel and there are clearly risks involved in asking the reader to accept such a profound transformation—and one with such hot-button political relevance—in less than 150 pages. Kauthar in some ways reads more like a short story where all extraneous detail has been cut away, allowing a series of insightful moments to do the work of longer character development.  Sometimes this is strikingly successful.  In a perfectly pitched little scene, precocious young Lydia challenges a vicar who fudges answers to difficult questions about her upcoming confirmation: ‘All you have to say is that you believe in God.  That’s enough.’  There’s also a lovely thread running through about Lydia’s father’s not-quite-successful-enough career as a gymnast, and Lydia’s childhood desire to please him by becoming the next Nadia Comaneci.  And there are some beautiful and almost sensuous descriptions of religious rituals: we see newly married Rafiq and Kauthar praying together, mingling romantic love and religious fervour in powerful ways that, for Kauthar, will begin sliding into destructive obsession.

However, the narrative can feel over-condensed in places.  Kauthar’s relationship with Rabia—so central to her religious conversion—is quite thinly sketched.  At one point they seem to be rattling through a series of FAQs for the benefit of a western readership: ‘Isn’t Islam misogynistic?’ and ‘Why do Muslim women cover themselves?’  Then we later discover that Rabia has died of cancer ‘two years ago’ but Ziervogel doesn’t stop to explore the details or implications, leaving poor Rabia as a sort of abandoned plot device. And, as events lead us back to the moment the novel began, some of the plot twists and coincidences do seem a little too quick and neat.

That said, the novel makes numerous meaningful attempts at cross-cultural translation which are, in many ways, more interesting than its ‘ripped from the headlines’ framing device about the suicide bombing.  Ziervogel moved from her native Germany to study Arabic in London and the novel is speckled with historical, cultural and religious detail.  We hear about how it feels to write in Arabic, which is ‘not only a foreign language like German or French. It’s a different script, an unfamiliar way of thinking, another religion and culture, new laws and rules that [Lydia] would have to learn like a newborn.’  Ziervogel evokes the attraction for Lydia of abandoning cherished western versions of individual freedom.  She also asks us to think about why there are so many people in Kauthar’s life who perceive there to be something inherently suspect about a western woman choosing to adopt the Muslim faith: from her mother’s almost comic request that she not wear her hijab out in her home village, to vague mistrust by her colleagues, to abuse from strangers in the street.

Such episodes point to an unresolved tension at the heart of Kauthar.  So much of the novel seeks to challenge stereotypes about Muslims in Britain, but the story arc is structured around a suicide bombing—the most contentious stereotype of all.  The ‘whydunnit’ set- up also imbues Kauthar’s path to violence with a sense of inevitability, which in some respects is a bit troubling.  However, the fact that Ziervogel manages to tease out so many complexities over such a short novel says much about the piercing clarity of her writing.  While displaying a rare talent for brevity, she also makes important space for listening to challenging perspectives and worldviews that are not often heard in mainstream debates, and arguably need to be.

Harvest – Jim Crace (Picador)

Surrounded by ‘the land’ and closed off from an indeterminate ‘elsewhere,’ the inhabitants of ‘the village’ are accustomed to beating their children’s heads against the merestones that mark the edge of their existence.  In doing so, they seemingly ascribe to their paternalistic Master’s dictum: ‘If we stay within our bounds, there are no bounds to stay us.’  But all is not well in their world.  An unsettling visitor, nicknamed Mr Quill, is mapping the village. Not only this, three strangers have set up camp in the outlying forest, lighting fires to assert their right to settle on common land. That same night, Master Kent’s dove loft is burned down. Although we know the culprits are really some disgruntled local lads high on ‘fairy caps,’ a pitchforked mob sets out the next day to hold the outsiders to account, setting in motion a string of events that will see the village changed forever over the course of just seven days.

Jim Crace’s new novel Harvest takes place at an unspecified time, in an unspecified location, but is overtly a story about place, identity, and historical forces of social and economic change. We are presumably in England, presumably sometime between Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, in the midst of a widely repeated narrative that will see notions of ‘common wealth’ replaced by private ownership and profit motives.  Through the eyes, ears and speculations of villager Walter Thirsk, we witness the cynicism by which a powerful new landowner, Master Jordan, engineers the social disintegration of the village in order to enclose the land and make way for his sheep.

Crucially, Walter himself is a relative newcomer to the village: ‘not a product of these commons but just a visitor who stayed.’ A middle-aged, brown-haired widower, he has lived amongst the village’s long-established blonde families for a mere twelve years after marrying a local woman. He doesn’t truly belong, but he’s been resident long enough to know the place and its people. When the harvest has been gathered, Walter can tell from the length and angle of the scrub which person has cut each swath of wheat.  And, through Walters’s deep awareness of his surroundings, Crace treats us to some wonderfully sensuous nature writing. Here is Walter navigating the village during a midnight storm:

I pick up smells I can name. The master’s byres of course. The sweating of his silage heaps.  But other gentler odours too.  The acrid smell – exaggerated by the rain – of elder trees.  The bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood.  The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees.

However, Crace’s depiction of rural life is neither twee nor nostalgic: ‘the countryside is argumentative.  It wants to pick a fight with you.’ The community subsists in a mutually beneficial way for the most part, but we are introduced to a cast of characters who are ‘daily nervous for the crop.’ They regularly experience hunger, injury and loss, as well as any number of small indignities and rustic pleasures arising from life in an isolated agrarian setting. The novel also contains more than a few moments of startling violence: an asphyxiated man has his legs chewed off by roaming pigs; another is knifed in a fight and ends up with a ‘freshly carved gargoyle face.’

And, for all Walter’s sense of kinship with the landscape and desire to belong, he is conscious of the bounds and limitations of village life in a way that others are not.  Deprived of his closest connection to the other villagers by the loss of his wife, he also feels an emotional affinity with the outsiders who have by now been subjected to some harsh and arbitrary punishments. Fortunately, this makes Walter an exhilarating narrator, constantly trying different perspectives, seeking out higher ground, wider views, and even hallucinatory visions (those pesky fairy caps again). From our twenty-first-century vantage point, here he sounds almost prophetic:

This land … has always been much older than ourselves. … Not anymore. … This ancient place would soon be new. … We are used to looking out and seeing what’s preceded us, and what will outlive us.  Now we have to contemplate a land bare of both. … We’ll look across these fields and say, ‘This land is so much younger than ourselves.’

When he is chosen to accompany Mr Quill on his survey of the village, Walter is initially ambivalent about these map-making endeavours and yet he is drawn to the strange and alluring abstractions that result:

The land is effortless: a lie.  He hasn’t captured time: how long a walk might take; how long a piece of work might take; how long the seasons or the nights last.  No man has ever seen this view.  But it is beautiful, nevertheless.

He is beginning to understand the revolutionary consequences of this new way of looking at ‘our little world,’ a realisation that leaves him feeling ‘oddly breathless.’  He also knows that the supposedly malevolent outsiders are themselves refugees from enclosures elsewhere.  But he doesn’t share his inklings about the changes afoot with the other villagers.  Instead, he tentatively collaborates with the change-makers in the vain hope he may be able to intervene.  So, as things go wrong and accusations of ‘witchery’ and devilment start flying around, Walter himself is increasingly viewed as suspect and the ‘we’ of his opening narrative gradually becomes an ‘I.’ Just as insidiously, we can see that before the interference of Master Jordan, the community already contains the seeds of its own undoing—a short sighted fear of outsiders; a propensity for violence against women—that are fruitfully manipulated by those who are quite happy to see the have-nots turning against each other.

Although the course of these events is suffused with a sense of near-mythical inevitability, the story never feels predictable.  Both economical and detailed, Crace’s novel is supremely well crafted.  His narrative is tightly bound to its seven day timespan, to the vividly realised geography of the village, and to the significant objects that drive the plot forward: a moonball fungus, a shawl, a log, a stone.  In a world where everything is linked to landscape and labour, even the vellum upon which Mr Quill will draw his game-changing map comes from a calf slaughtered to celebrate the harvest.  Indeed, Crace spends a long time showing us how Walter stretches and treats the skin while preparing a writing surface.  Crace’s careful plotting, his clever use of perspectives, and his unswerving eye for both naturalistic and psychological detail all make for a nuanced and unsentimental exploration of individual and collective relationships to land, the environment, work and community.  Harvest is also a poignant cautionary tale about what happens when the complex ties binding these things together start to come loose.  From his generalised historical setting, Crace conjures a concrete and tangible world, while the implications of the novel’s events resonate far and wide, calling to mind many other stories about the displacement of people across time and space.

 

Girl at War – Sara Novic (Little, Brown)

In an incisive article on war reporting in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sara Novic says that “in this era of widespread unrest, the answers to critical ethical questions about the way wars are to be fought depend on the developed world’s understanding of life during wartime.” Her debut novel Girl at War begins with a sustained and increasingly terrifying depiction of just that.

We begin in Zagreb in the summer of 1991.  A summer holiday has been cancelled because “the Serbs had blocked the roads to the sea, or at least that’s what everyone was saying.” Ten-year-old Ana is on an errand for a family friend when a familiar shopkeeper confusingly asks her to choose between Serbian and Croatian cigarettes.  As war encroaches on daily life, Novic uses Ana’s child’s eye view to skillfully drip-feed the background context while creating an increasingly disturbing sense of altered normality. Ana and her friends play in bomb sites and air raid shelters. They overhear snippets of adult conversation and catch glimpses of news footage. They witness the arrival of haunted-looking refugees, one of whom talks of a man with a necklace strung with human ears.  This sense of mounting threat builds across the first third of the book to a truly harrowing denouement that will leave Ana alone in a warzone.

At this point Novic shifts us forward ten years and we find Ana studying literature in New York. It would be hard for the novel to maintain its intensity after such an opening but the change in time and location in fact brings a new kind of urgency.  We don’t yet know how Ana has made it to the United States and what has become of the people she left behind.  However, in the intervening years, she has learned that people don’t really want to hear the truth about her wartime experiences. So, while outwardly “passing as an American”, Ana is plagued by traumatic memories and struggles to understand what she has been through and where she belongs.  Here, Novic’s clever use of flashbacks not only reflects Ana’s state of mind, it also makes for incredibly compelling reading. Like our narrator, we want know what has happened and why, questions that drive the plot forward and culminate for Ana in a return to Croatia doesn’t so much tie up loose ends as tease out their frayed edges.

Girl at War is in one sense a coming-of-age novel, albeit one that is painfully attuned to the wider politics of its storytelling. Ana is warned when she gets back to Zagreb that “you don’t get to claim the war as your personal tragedy. Not here.” It is also a novel about exile and alienation. A returning emigrant, Ana finds herself already distanced from political realities in Croatia, which are recounted, perhaps with a weary cynicism, by someone who stayed:

‘To be considered for [EU] membership we’ve got to do all sorts of stuff to provide we’re ‘committed to peace.’ The cops had to turn in their guns. And we have to give up our war criminals.’

‘We have war criminals?’

‘So they say.’

‘So who says? The Cetniks?’

‘The UN. … And we’re not supposed to say Cetniks now. It’s derogatory.’

Such exposition hints that Novic is not expecting all her readers to be overly familiar with the historical background or contemporary political implications of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, but that’s not to say she’s willing to let her audience off the hook for not knowing either. She is scrupulously careful to allow space for different interpretations of events: “in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.” Nevertheless, this is a novel that clearly wants its western readers to interrogate their relationships to this specific conflict and to distant conflicts more generally.  At various points Ana rages against stereotypical views of the Balkans as “just inherently violent” and makes scathing criticisms of the EU, NATO and the UN during and after the war (“They videotaped Srebrenica”).  Novic also highlights how Ana, who is living in New York in September 2001, experiences the attacks on the World Trade Centre and their aftermath differently to her university classmates:

The country was at war, but for most people the war was more an idea than an experience, and I felt something between anger and shame that Americans—that I—could sometimes ignore its impact for days at a time. … What war meant in America was so incongruous with what had happened in Croatia—with what must have been happening in Afghanistan—that it almost seemed a misuse of the word.

Thus, Novic adds a further voice to the growing collection of ‘post 9/11’ novels using contemporary US immigrant experiences to raise thorny questions about how, when and why the international ‘powers that be’ intervene, or fail to intervene, in conflicts across the world. But, for all its acute awareness of the bigger picture and its deft handling of historical and geographical scope, Girl at War is primarily a beautifully written and powerful personal story about family and friendship, loss and recovery.  It is simultaneously full of despair and hope, anger and generosity.  To have written such a novel at any age is a major achievement and to have published it at the age of twenty six, as Novic has, is little short of astonishing. She has woven together a stunningly impressive debut and, perhaps most importantly, she has given us a novel that reads like it needed to be written.

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On the Pembrokeshire Coast Path: July 2016

Tuesday 5 July – From Leeds to Fishguard by car, then by train to Milford Haven

Having dropped my car in the long-stay after a six hour trip from Leeds, I waited on the platform at the deserted Fishguard Harbour, looking across the dead-end railway line to the cliff opposite and feeling very far from home. At intervals all along the platform were automatic doors leading into a shuttered up café and waiting areas for the ferries to Ireland. Bunting dangled, as it does in many non-celebratory settings nowadays, but the port was empty. It was only when I spotted a National Rail departure board, with its reassuring orange display, that I felt any confidence in the idea of a train arriving here.

20160705_182628Even still, the place seemed to be operating on its own, not-quite-discernible logic. Fishguard Harbour station, for example, is really in Goodwick. An old man cycled up the platform. Each of the automatic doors swooshed open as he passed and then swooshed closed again. About five minutes later, he cycled back in the other direction, setting off another chain of swooshes. He wore shorts and a smock, both in weathered blue. He was tanned and bald on top but had bright grey hair, still quite long at the sides, which fluttered as he rode. After a bit, the train arrived. Three men got off and it seemed like no one else was joining except me. Through the train windows, I watched the old man on the bike go up and back again while I waited to leave. All the automatic doors opened and closed again. Then the three other men got back on the train, and when the train left, the man on the bike raced it all the way back down the port’s approach road. It wasn’t long before we left him behind, but he gave it his best shot.

The train stopped at a station called Clarbeston Road. There was a group already on the platform, but they were heading in the other direction for Swansea. I crossed to the other side, and waited, soon alone again, for my request stop train to Milford Haven. 20160705_193928There is something odd about putting your arm out for a train. I suppose we are always taught to keep outstretched limbs well away from oncoming rail traffic. But anyway, the train did stop, and there were people on it, and we all took what was from there a very ordinary journey onwards through Haverfordwest—I like the way that name runs together—down to Milford, where the train stopped by a big supermarket and a roundabout.

Tim was already ensconced in our Air BnB when I arrived. He hobbled down the fire escape staircase to open the gate, in a way that made me worry a little about what I was letting myself in for. He had already spent three days walking 68 miles from the start of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path at Amroth before I arrived. The plan was that we would hike back to Fishguard together, 85 miles or so, before I would leave him to finish the final stretch to Cardigan on his own. Inside the apartment he was drying his tent and sleeping bag after a previous day battling residual moisture on overhanging undergrowth (this was to become an emerging theme over the next four days). Having noted this, I took particular pre-emptive joy in the host’s well-chosen extras: smooth, high quality sheets; real coffee; a nice shower.

Wednesday 6 July: Day one (Tim’s day four): Milford Haven to Marloes

We set off the next morning, weaving our way around the bungalows and semis to get out of town. We ducked under pipelines, with the gas towers and pylons of Pembroke Dock dominating the eastern horizon. But soon the promised scenery started to deliver in the form of coves and headlands of various shapes and sizes. Our first obstacle was crossing the inlet at Sandy Haven Pill. A walkway appears two hours either side of low tide and was nowhere to be seen when we arrived around 11.30am. There was an EU Regional Development Fund logo on the footpath signpost, alongside the soon-to-be-familiar acorn symbol of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, so we knew were in the right place.

20160706_105930Tim headed out across the mudflats to inspect the tide line. I sat and nibbled some sour cream and chive ‘crack pretzels’ that I’d dispensed into a ziploc bag after (unusually for me given their addicting qualities) failing to eat them all on the car journey down.  I decided to go and join Tim at the water’s edge to try and locate the stepping stones. The alternative was a four mile detour inland which we were keen to avoid given that we were already aiming to walk 20+ miles that day. But before long we started to see a disturbance in the water that indicated stones below. Then Tim said, ‘I think that seagull’s got your pretzels.’ Sure enough, the bird had delved into the open-topped pouch of my backpack. I assume they were lost but Tim, veteran of fox/flapjack incidents on the Cornish Coast Path, dashed back across the mud and chased it off. Happily, the gull had failed to peck through the bag and so the pretzels lived to fight another day. Before long, the EU-funded walkway appeared and we were on our way again, skirting the coast and making tracks via Musselwick and another low-tide crossing at The Gann, towards the village of Dale. Here we stopped for a nice beachside lunch (me: local crab sandwich platter; Tim: chicken, bacon, cheese and chips and a cream tea).

Following a coastal path is nothing if not circuitous, and rounding St Anne’s Head at the mouth of Milford Haven amounts to an almost circular walk. It was worth the detour, though. There’s a Landmark Trust site, old military installations, pillboxes, and a weeded-over airfield. One of the many memorial benches we saw was dedicated to a Brigadier who apparently said that he early years of service at Dale in the 1930s were some of the best in his life. I tried to picture life then—the refineries of Pembroke Dock that still loomed large at certain angles would have been unimaginable, but may other parts of this view would have been pretty similar. It would have been rough, for sure. It can’t have been easy landing an early twentieth-century plane on that airfield in windy conditions. The guide book would tell us of a huge storm that destroyed houses and sank a boat laden with freshly-mined slate.

The weather was, as we say in our family, “clagging in” and there really is no escape from wind and rain when you’re on an exposed coastline. We propelled ourselves past beaches and round the westerly tip of the Marloes peninsula, before delving down into Martin’s Haven, on the south side of St Bride’s Bay. There are five more ‘havens’ within this fourteen mile stretch: St Bride’s Haven, Little Haven, Broad Haven, Druidston Haven and Nolton Haven. We would learn how aptly named these little places are—how the shelter from the wind suddenly cups hands around your ears and whispers that everything is going to be, if not ok, then at least a little gentler for the time being.

There was a mildly tempting campsite at Martin’s Haven but we decided to press on a couple of miles to the next one, lured by the promise of a pub. We detoured a mile off trail to find the Lobster Pot Inn and then tried to find the most secluded table so we could take off our shoes and air out our wrinkly feet. But it was Wales v. Portugal in the World Cup that night so the pub was packed. I tucked into lamb shank and basically ignored it all, snaffling a few new potatoes into one of my ziploc bags for breakfast the next morning. They were good.

The tree-lined campsite was good too and the smell of wet grass and cold concrete in the shower block conjured up paradoxically warm memories of family holidays at our grandparents’ caravan park in Cornwall. But, shower notwithstanding, the night was not too restful owing to the sensible trade-off we made between daytime and sleep-time comfort i.e. reduce pack weight by scrimping on double layered, solidly ground-sheeted tents and full length sleeping mats. I confessed to Tim that I had packed a heretical travel pillow, but he let me off and still agreed to continue carrying the tent the next day. It was a very lightweight tent, after all.

Thursday 7 July: Day two (Tim’s day five): Marloes to Solva

As we retraced that mile detour back to the coast path the next morning, we were stymied by long grass, which had evidently been collecting all of the dawn’s drizzle with the express purpose of dumping it straight into our trainers. Although the slug population was clearly loving it, for us this was to be a day of learning to tolerate the weather. The promise of better things to come played some part in keeping our morale up, as did a few well-placed cafés. The other thing was just trying to adjust the way you experience and appreciate a landscape. Sure, all the guide books show the sweeping bays and sharp cliff edges bathed in sunshine, with deep blue skies and azure green seas. But today it was all about shades of grey. We experienced similar guidebook/reality dissonance when visiting the west coast of Vancouver Island in the summer of 2011. The rainforest flowed over the beach edges around the Pacific Rim, with great trees partially secluded by vapours and mists, like shy figures lurking in the shadows. Like then, I came to see something calming and, in its own way, beautiful in those views. There are far, far fewer people about on such days for one thing, so much so that you can feel something like kinship with the few folks you do encounter. One day, it could have been this one, we looked down at a couple walking a bright red Vizsla on a beach in the wet and shining sand—it might have been Mum, Dad and our dog Anca. They’d been on holiday in Pembrokeshire when Anca was much younger and had taken an odd photo of her where the sea spray made her look partially transparent. Like a ghost dog.  And one evening, I can’t remember which now, the sun did cut through the dapples of grey and sent a rippling silver sheen across the whole of a bay. We looked down on it from above, like celestial beings with ringside seats.

20160708_171540That said, we covered some arduous miles that rainy morning, eventually arriving at the long beach at Broad Haven. We scoped out the various cafes and settled on one that turned out to do a passable toastie and salad combo. Then, we soldiered on for another few hours—some forecasts indicated the rain was due to stop, others not so much—and we made it to Newgale where some hardy souls were surfing the pounding rollers. We watched these waves from a parallel angle as we traversed a little headland, then dropped down to the beach and faced them head on. At another excellent café we drank loads of tea and ate some restorative tiffin. The rain had promised to stop by then but the cars outside were still using their wipers so we waited a little longer—long enough to get on the wifi and see the post-referendum Tory leadership contest become Gove-free two horse race. The radio played Design for Life by Manic Street Preachers, just one of a few you-don’t-hear-that-very-often 90s rock tunes we heard on Pembrokeshire radio, and which took me briefly back to other times and places.

Eventually, the rain eased off and we took a short, sharp ascent back up to the cliff tops. Although there aren’t really any long hard climbs on the coast path, the guidebook would have you believe that the accumulation of these short sharp climbs amounts to an ascent of Everest across the whole 186 miles. At this point, we were en route to Solva, said to be one of the prettiest villages on the trail. There, we ate another satisfying pub tea, this time at The Ship, and debated the tempting Vacancies sign in the B&B next door. But, the weather was supposed to clear in advance of a dry day tomorrow so, after juggling pros and cons and the relative reliability of various forecasts, we ultimately decided to tough it out.

Our courage was not rewarded: the campsite at Nine Wells was slightly further away than the book indicated; it rained progressively harder on the way; and the place appeared pretty bleak on arrival—but then, what campsite on the side of a hill doesn’t look bleak though drizzle and half-light? I envied the static caravans occupying all the best sheltered spots near the hedges. We hurled up our tent and dove inside for a damp night. I’m not sure if I slept better or worse than before.

Friday 8 July – Day three (Tim’s day six): Solva to Trefin

20160708_113713To wake up and see waves of blue in the sky was a sight indeed. I’d had to sacrifice my waterproof jacket to the elements last night rather than bring it soaking into the tent and this morning I disentangled the claggy bundle and hung it on a fence post to drip while we stuffed the soggy tent in to its bag. We would stand with it billowing on a cliff top to dry later, like marooned sailors signalling, or perhaps just celebrating.

We were hiking some of the most spectacular parts of the trail, around St David’s Head and the ‘Heritage Coast.’ Not surprisingly, there were more people out and about today and we passed couples and groups, although not many seemed to be overnighting. We stopped in the beautiful harbour at Porth Clais, which dates back to the 12th Century and now as has a crucial kiosk selling flapjacks and coffee. Also, there were public toilets with this curious sign: In the interests of health and safety, no changing of wetsuits in the toilets. I struggled to imagine what health and safety interests could be ill-served by wetsuit changing, but there you are.  Further along, we found a lifeboat station at St Justinian’s with spectacular views of Ramsey Island. We started to look for seals but so far no luck. As we curved around the approach to St Justinian’s, the guidebook indicated that the café in Whitesands bay would stop doing food in an hour. I found a sudden surge of strength in my legs despite the accumulation of some 50 miles so far. We pegged it around another headland and were rewarded first with another view of Atlantic breakers rolling across shining wet sands. This time a black horse was being ridden in charging loops around the beach, leaving spirographs of hoof-prints across its expanse. ‘That looks fun,’ I said. We pressed on. Our second reward came in the form of the best café yet (me: baked potato with tuna; Tim: panini, salad, cheesy chips, icecream). They had the same health and safety wetsuit warnings in the toilets.

That day we also saw groups of school kids in lifejackets and helmets being taken coasteering, which sounds like a perilous sport (surely more dangerous than changing into/out of your wetsuit in a public toilet), particularly if it involves jumping in the water, which had looked deathly cold for the most part. This precipitated a general conversation about risk and the blame culture we have ‘these days.’ I recalled going on some kind of management skills course where the trainer described a negative organisational cycle thus: crisis, firefight, witch hunt, amnesia. It tickled me at the time but Tim said it was a pretty accurate depiction of military life. We continued to discuss the ins and outs of this while clambering up and over Carn Llidi and, amid the panoramic views, it was interesting to hear a bit more about what Tim actually does on a day-to-day basis. I should also mention that by this point it was ACTUALLY SUNNY. Ponies were grazing around the rocky outcrops; the sea was glistening; it was everything the guide book had promised, and more. We stopped to sit on a flat rock overlooking a deep cove and took our shoes and socks off to allow our still-wet feet to finally dry out. It was glorious. Further along we walked beside fields of wheat that looked soft and velvety close up and then, in the distance, seemed to shimmer in the wind.

20160708_184750Our target that night was the village of Trefin, home to another pub called The Ship. There was an attractive harbour at Porthgain, with old mine buildings and lime kilns like big white bee hives still perched amongst the bracken on the high ground above it. By this point it was pushing 7pm and the skies were clouding over again. We knew that the weather for the next day was forecast to be bad so we pushed on past Porthgain’s inviting and vaguely hipster-looking restaurant and took the long way round a headland to Trefin.
We knew we’d be grateful of the shorter walk back to the coast path the next morning, but we were slightly discouraged to note the overhanging vegetation which was bound to soak us as we retraced out steps the next day. Some of the Pembrokeshire Coast path is really well mown, other bits, not so much. However, the campsite at Trefin was well tended. The sign in these toilets read something like: The Management accepts no liability for anything whatsoever. Please take care and enjoy your holiday. We put up the tent and headed to the pub, taking our stinking seats as far away from others as possible.

At The Ship, we let ourselves off talking to each other for a bit while staring at our phones to catch up on the latest political comings and goings (honestly, being out of wifi contact for hours at a time was a good place to been in July 2016; at least we had time to draw breath before the next bombshell). Me: luxury fish pie and a local blonde ale; Tim: Welsh faggots and orange juice. Both: excellent mashed potatoes.  With this, we steeled ourselves for a wet day ahead, planning to finish the 20-odd miles left to Goodwick, where we had had the foresight, two days ago, to book into a hotel. I would be lying if I said I was really looking forward to those 20 miles. As we walked back from the pub, I enjoyed the feeling of my dry trainers then spent a long time in the hot shower before drying myself all over with the (kindly provided) hairdryer. It was as though by making myself as warm and dry as possible that night, I might be able to store up some warmth and dryness for the day ahead.

Saturday 9 July: Day four (Tim’s day seven): Trefin to Goodwick/Fishguard

20160709_101234After waking up to find my inflatable half-length mat all but floating, I raced to the toilet block to change and did not want to leave it again. Bursts of rain were being wrung from the sky and clattering onto the corrugated roof with fearsome intensity. I pulled my damp walking trousers from their carrier bag and treated myself, pointlessly, to a fresh pair of socks. I also changed into a fresh T-shirt for the first time. You need these little boosts, really. By the time I had gathered myself, Tim had already dismantled the tent. We sheltered together in the gents while eating some cereal bars and checking the map. We knew that we needed to walk 20 miles and that there were no villages or cafes on the way—just a Youth Hostel at the 9.5 mile point. When we set off back through Trefin and out onto the trail, I had zero expectations of an enjoyable day. I would keep putting one foot in front of the other until we got to the hotel. I kept doing mental calculations: three miles per hour means we reach the Youth Hostel by noon. We could finish by 4pm. Etcetera.

And yet, there were times when the sheer majesty of the landscape turned my mind outwards, when the greens still looked bright and the wildflowers pinged like cheerful sparks. On Aber Mawr beach, all the slate grey stones shone with their different shades in the slick of the rain. The beach, the sea and the sky formed horizontal swatches, like a muted Rothko painting. But it was tough going as the path took in higher, rougher ground around Garn Fawr, the most significant summit on the route. 20160709_105002Sometimes my only sense of the sea—always so close—was the vague smell of brine and the slight taste of salt on my lips as we trudged on: heads down, hood up, tunnel vision. Then a voice came booming out of the fog:

‘Dr Livingstone, I presume!’

This was slightly spooky. For some years our family had lived in the village of Pirbright, where Henry Morton Stanley, who spoke those words, is buried. But in this case it was two jolly old men out for a ramble. They asked where we’d come from.

‘Oh Trefin! Did you go to The Ship? —Yes? Good! And where are you going?’

—Fishguard

‘How? On the bus?’

—No, walking.

‘Walking! Oh to have young legs again…’

They laughed and ambled on. This buoyed me. I had felt physically good all trip. My feet were getting mushed but were staying blister-free (unlike Tim who was growing a sixth). My fourth consecutive 20 mile day was going ok; the distances felt do-able. Onwards we went, and reached YHA Pwll Deri. The hostel was bright white and we stumbled in as the staff were dealing with the day’s laundry. They kindly let us take shelter for lunch and showed us, wet and muddy, into the sparkly clean dining room, which had an enormous window in place of one wall. I bet it sometimes looks amazing out of there. I ate cereal bars and a few of those surviving pretzels. Then I wrung out my socks. We had ten miles to go.

As we carried on we dared ourselves to notice that it was ‘brightening up.’ This was a phrase I kept repeating hopefully—and sometimes sarcastically—throughout the trip. But it actually was this time. It wasn’t really raining and the sun made a half-hearted and very fleeting cameo. The next landmark was Strumble Head with its big white lighthouse. We stopped to dry the tent and the wind was so strong that, had it slipped from our grasp, we’d never have seen that tent again.

By the time the miles remaining were in single figures, I started to feel ever so slightly sad that the adventure was coming to an end, while simultaneously continuing to count down the projected hours. Tim and I were coasting through conversations: what exactly I do all day at work; whether it’s ok to invest in rental property during a housing crisis; camping strategies for Tim and Kaylene’s upcoming trip to Greenland. It’s the best way to help the miles pass.

As we started to encounter dog walkers—the usual sign of a settlement or car park close at hand—we looked down into a rocky cove at Aber Felin bay and saw seals. Seals! We’d been looking for them the whole time and had briefly spotted one before, alongside many mistaken buoys and bits of sea debris, but here were twelve all together, or fourteen, or even sixteen, Tim counted. We stood for a while and watched them lolling on rocks, using the tide to wiggle on and off them, bobbing, swimming, occasionally fighting. It was an amazing sight: another world down there below us. Further along, there’s a monument on Caregwastad Point commemorating the ‘last invasion of Britain’, when French conscripts were repelled in 1797 by locals with pitchforks, including one Jemima Nicholas, who was said to have single handedly rounded up twelve soldiers and locked them in a church. What a bad-ass.

It wasn’t long after that when we hit the outskirts of Goodwick. Walking on road often feels weird after the give of paths and tracks and it was really windy as we walked down a street of terraces. In comparison to the many holiday homes we saw, these seemed to be places where people really lived. Some of the houses had carefully tended gardens, but others were scruffy and in the drizzle it all looked glum. From here the road descended sharply before a footpath sent us on switchbacks down a steep wooded bank. Extreme downhills are a challenge with tired legs but Tim taught me a great technique: just walk like a penguin. It works.

We came out on a road above the port and took a caged metal footbridge over the road and the railway line. Here we could see back to where I’d left my car a few days earlier and where, happily, it still remained. It felt surreal. The Sea View Hotel was at the other end of the seafront and we stopped off for snacks in the little Tesco along the way. I bought carrot sticks, hummus and a copy of the Guardian (never let it be said that I am not demographically predictable). We discovered that the hotel did food (me: Pembrokeshire ham, egg and chips. Tim: soup, burger and chips) and knew that we wouldn’t be going anywhere else that day. When you re-enter the ‘real world’ after a challenge, everyday comforts like real beds, electrical sockets and halfway decent showers feel like outrageous luxuries. I was calling it a day here, as planned, but Tim was continuing on for another 28 miles in order to complete the full walk from Amroth to Cardigan. The next day promised more rain, and he hoped to make a 3pm train home.

Sunday 10 July: Time to go home / Tim’s day 8   
After a full Welsh breakfast, I set out to walk along The Parrog, or seafront, back to the long stay carpark. The seascape and breakwater threw up intersecting shades of grey. I’d spent the previous four days staring at sea and sky, interpreting these shades, enjoying the breaks of blue when they came, but mostly guessing at the prospect of rain coming or ending.  20160708_182838By this point I was feeling like something of an expert—not just in anticipating but also, in a funny way, appreciating the gradations of wet and cloudy weather. Tim had taught me that when you look out across a misty sea, a lighter area on the surface can often signal rain. Rather than casting shadows, the splashing of the raindrops on the water catches the light.

The path led me back towards the orderly lines of the port: metal railings, chain link fences, those parallel queueing lines laid out for the vehicles on the road, the railway line too.  We had spent so much time snaking around clifftops, inlets and headlands, it felt strange to walk in a long straight line. I stopped to send a text message and sat on the harbour wall, making some comfortable indoor plans to see a friend. Over to the east, the headland rises and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path weaves up through some greenery towards the prettier town of Fishguard proper. I ran my eyes along the line of the path, remembering how all that overhanging greenery looked close up. Ponies graze the trail to encourage biodiversity—it seemed to be doing pretty well already from what I could tell. Wildflowers of yellow, orange, pink, purple and blue: honeysuckle, foxgloves, clover, cow parsley, wild sage. We also saw voles, frogs, a toad, a lizard, and so many slugs. All these little lives hidden about the place. But now I could only see general green, and the blonde cut of the path mown into the hillside. I was filled with a sense of gratitude for the preceding four days—for having the time and strength to do this, for the beauty of the place, for my ability to withstand the distance and the weather. And for my brother and the time we were able to spend together, which comes round less often these days. I looked out for a speck of him on the headland—the blue hoody or beige rainproof he’d been wearing the whole trip. But, by the time I’d seen the path, I’d walked far enough that he must had already rounded the headland.

When I reached the car—so often a welcome sight at the end of a walk—I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave. It felt like the days in between had been somehow magical, or if not that then at least special in some way. But there wasn’t much more to hang around for, so I set off on the road back up north, pressing the accelerator pedal, listening to Cate Le Bon, soaking up the off-kilter euphoria in her happy/sad songs. It took me about half an hour to reach Cardigan. It would take Tim all day. This hardly seemed fair. Although he told me later that the rainy forecast had turned out to be wrong. He’d had clear skies most of the day and made his train, so I didn’t feel too bad about it, although I did wonder why he hadn’t used his meteorological good-luck charm a little sooner.

I scribbled most of what I’ve written down here in a notebook shortly after getting home, and I am now typing it up some six months later, cross-referencing with maps and guidebooks. Since this trip, I’ve enjoyed reading The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, which drew my attention to the idea of the ‘coastline paradox’: it isn’t possible to accurately measure the length of a coastline, because of its fractal properties, as Liptrot puts it, ‘breaking into ever smaller inlets and cracks and promontories and bumps, from hundreds of miles to millimetres.’ At one point this little travelogue kept getting longer, as more details came back, but I’m going to end it here. I suppose what’s left to say is that I’m glad of those scribbles now, and of taking the time to map them out more fully here. It’s been a way to re-cover some ground, exploring all these memories buried in coves and spread out across beaches.20160708_182559

For my brother, Tim, who is usually so much better at recording things.

Posted in Ramblings, The Museum of 2016, This really happened | Leave a comment

The Museum of 2016

I went to a thought-provoking session at the University of Leeds Student Education Conference on Friday called The Museum of Me. It got me thinking about all the ways we curate ourselves, purposefully or accidentally, online and offline. It’s something that I used to do a lot more often, say ten years ago, than I do now (this neglected blog is a case in point). Part of that lull in self-curation maybe has to do with a feeling that the years all start blurring into one once you join the 9-5 world. That maybe there is something a bit less special about these years compared to those teenage or student days that felt so significant, even at the time, and by extension important to capture and preserve. Being a contrary person when it comes to technology, I think there’s also something about the ease of capturing and sharing things now that somehow makes me less inclined to bother. There’s always the threat of narcissism, or of spending so much time recording life that you forget to experience it. And I would say this isn’t simply because of smartphones and things (although obviously these invidious little gadgets have a lot to answer for). I remember walking around my adopted hometown in the American Midwest circa 2004, seeing new things and concurrrently composing the letters I would handwrite to my friends back in Leeds. All this said, the conference presentation made me resolve to make a little bit more effort to record what I’ve been thinking, seeing and doing. Because maybe all the years are only blurring into one because I haven’t stopped to give them their own space. I really enjoyed my good friend SJ Bradley’s blog post 2016: A Year in Pictures (and not just becuase of the mad props she gave my mug cakes at Fictions of Every Kind) and I am going to attempt a series of posts here that will form my own Museum of 2016. My more forward-looking resolutions include: finally releasing the Invisible Cities album; attending the aforementioned SJ Bradley’s Short Story Course; running the Edinburgh Marathon; and starting a bullet journal, so hopefully there will be plenty of fodder for the Museum of 2017 whenever or if-ever that materialises.

Posted in The Museum of 2016 | Leave a comment

Short story: No Wake

My story – No Wake – is published this month in Long Story, Short.

I wouldn’t like to admit how long it took me to write this (hint: I was referring to this story in my post Library Find in 2013), but it was definitely inspired by an impulse to understand my reaction to a place – South Florida – where I spent a bit of time over consecutive years, but really struggled to get my head around. This book by Michael Grunwald helped: The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. Of course, my story is largely about much smaller scale concerns, about how friendships change over time, and how places influences the choices we make, or don’t.

I was grateful for some editing help from esteemed writer friends including SJ Bradley, Linda Anne Baker and Rajni George, and also for Jennifer Matthews, who runs Long Story, Short as a labour of love.

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Cloud Inversion: Great Langdale

It was a clear bright day in the English Lakes. One walk in ten’s like this said a man on the top of Bowfell. We were walking down from the summit—Tim, Dad and me—towards Great Langdale where we would camp for the night. Later we would go for tea at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel and Dad said it looked like the Climbers Bar had barely been dusted since he used to go there with his mates from Liverpool University’s climbing club in the 1970s. There was great climbing in the Lakes, Dad said as we walked, but a lot of the best places were hard to get to. You had to carry your gear a long way up the steep fells. He pointed out Gimmer Crag across the valley and I imagined long scrambles up there with ropes slung over shoulders and metal jangling from belts. And legs much stronger than mine. We were walking slowly. My knees were giving in after two days heaving up and over Dale Head and Great Gable. That morning Tim had carried my backpack and his for the last few hundred metres up Scafell. It was a hard slog to the top. The Bob Graham Round map we were loosely following notes without exaggeration that There are NO easy ways out of Wasdale!  But it was worth it to see everywhere we’d been and would go and the sea on three sides of us. And now we were on our way down The Band from Bowfell. Dad told us about a time in 1973 or 1974, he thought, when he’d been with a group staying at the climbers hut in Langdale. They were hoping to get some routes ticked off but when the morning came the whole valley was full of mist and rain. Most people, he said, rolled over in their sleeping bags.  There would be no climbing that day.  But a few of them decided to go for a walk up the well-marked and well-trodden path out of Langdale.  They trudged up The Band through the morning mist and rain, Dad said, in the hope of salvaging their weekend.  They would have been quick, I thought, without all the ropes and gadgets weighing them down.  Some minutes earlier I’d heard a discussion from a few feet back about whether Tim-now would have kept up with Dad-then—or vice versa—and I thought about Dad-then walking up briskly in the morning mist and rain and us-now walking down slowly in the early evening sunlight.  And then, Dad said, when we were nearly at the top of Bowfell we stepped out into blue skies.  All the valleys were full of cloud but you could see the tops of the highest fells poking out like islands.  It was, he said, spectacular: a classic cloud inversion.  Of course, he said, I didn’t have a camera then.  So he would have stood up there in the clear bright present with so much concealed all around—including the thought that in forty years’ time he would remember this story and tell it to his grown-up children in this same place and one of them would walk down The Band thinking very clearly about him walking up it all those years ago and then think to write all of these things down.

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My ‘Creating Writing’ Trip to Scarborough

Some of these may or may not be poems.  I don’t normally write poems, but I was feeling bad about not doing any ‘creative writing’ on my creative writing trip.

  Remains

HERE

LIE THE REMA

AN E   BR

D   GHTER

EVD      F

Incumbent of Haworth Yorkshire

She Died Aged

MAY 28TH 1849

“The text contains one error”

says the Brontë Society in 2011

“Anne Brontë was aged 29 when she died.”

 

Fleeting thoughts while swimming in the sea that I couldn’t post online straight away, and probably didn’t need to post online now—

Ooh it’s lovely once you’re in.  There are cold spots and warm spots.

But you can’t get away from the obnoxious bay-wide whine of a single jet ski.

Two girls are trying to keep up. They say I’m fast. I say it’s the tide.

Dogs are only allowed on one side of a line, which means nothing to them.

It’s coming in quicker now. Where is the beach going?

There is a man swimming in a collared shirt.  He seems to be having fun.

I asked a couple to mind my bag and they did.

People are okay really.

 

Things I thought about buying but did not buy—

A fridge magnet with a sheep in front of a red phone box.

‘Lads on Tour’ passport holder for Jeff.

Some discount fleece-lined tights (for winter).

Things I did buy—

Map of North Yorkshire fridge magnet.

Coconut pirate head for Jeff.

Two ice creams.

Things I might have taken a photo of if I owned a smartphone—

Angry sign outside The Newcastle Packet pub:

NO DRINKING OUTSIDE NO PRAMS

This:

scarborough

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Freddie Gilroy and the Belsen Stragglers: North Bay, Scarborough, 26th July 2014

 

The big bowl of the bay

holding water and waves

and lives all reaching

for ice creams,

melting away.

The big bowl of the bay and its

old man watching the waves

and these weeds

brown and green

straggling east.

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Various ramblings about places, times, going on holiday, walking round Leeds, and how much I like Rebecca Solnit’s writing

I have recently been re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking to review its re-release in the online magazine Quadrapheme.   I first picked up a copy of this book at Richard Long’s 2009 Tate Britain exhibition, Heaven and Earth. As I discovered, Solnit discusses Long in her book, alongside other artists who have made conceptual works based on the idea, reality or record of a walk. It also seemed apt to discover both Solnit and Long together during an epic first-time visit to Europe by a friend from the States. That trip, as I recall, we walked miles through the streets of London and Paris and through the gardens of stately homes, all of which Solnit discusses extensively in Wanderlust.

Since then, I have explored a good amount of Solnit’s other writing, and have always been struck by her capacity to describe certain emotional states, perceptions, or ways of looking at the world, that make me go Yes! That’s why that thing makes me feel that way! At various times, I have also experienced serendipitous and almost eerily-timed connections with what she has to say. Just this weekend, having finished my Wanderlust review and started writing this piece, I headed down to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, as I generally do at least a couple of times a year, only to discover works by Richard Long on display again as part of the YSP’s review of British Land Art of the 1960s and 70s, Uncommon Ground.

Last summer I packed Solnit’s Field Guide to Getting Lost on a trip to Michigan, visiting my boyfriend’s family and thinking about if or when we might ever re-locate to their side of the Atlantic. One section of the book contains Solnit’s reflections on decay and identity after she had visited a butterfly hatchery. I too had just felt a funny knot of sadness while sitting in the Mackinac Island Butterfly House, a feeling that seemed at odds with the simple pleasures of watching butterflies dance around among the flowers but made perfect sense when I read this: “people thrown into other cultures go through something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life cycle… The process of transformation consists mostly of decay and then of this crisis when emergence from what came before must be total and abrupt.”

How coincidental, then, to also find Solnit pondering the meaning of urban ruins elsewhere in the same book. Earlier in the holiday we had taken a somewhat clichéd look round the empty shells of some downtown Detroit buildings before stopping to eat ribs and drink IPA in the half-block of fledgling-gentrification overlooking the ruins of Michigan Central Station. It had been a good day and I had felt inspired by our visit to The Heidelberg Project in the north east of the city—where we saw the fruit of Tyree Guyton’s joyful, provocative and inclusive endeavours to turn abandoned houses into artworks—and by the local volunteers working to keep the plants and greenhouses of the beautiful Belle Isle Conservatory open to visitors. Contrary to the dark images of urban decay sometimes attached to Detroit, the whole place was verdant with grass and trees on that August day. Solnit’s book doesn’t reference Detroit specifically but it didn’t surprise me to later discover that she has written a 2007 article in Harper’s called Detroit Arcadia that captures the hints of possibility latent in its admittedly dire economic predicament. Reading this description from Field Guide during the trip also seemed to evoke some of the meaning I’d sensed but couldn’t yet articulate in what we’d seen:

“A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped. … An urban ruin is a place that has fallen outside the economic life of the city, and it is in some way an ideal home for the art that also falls outside the ordinary production and consumption of the city.”

This was an apt description of the Heidelberg Project too. To find only a few months later that the artworks had been subject to a devastating string of arson attacks was shocking and sad, but I still re-visit our day exploring the city in my mind, and think about the sense of possibility and hope it engendered, something the people behind the project are clearly tapping into as they work to rebuild what was lost.

Holidays for me, whether they involve distant travel or not, are often a time of slowing down and taking stock, reading and thinking, getting into the work-free headspace where I can try to figure out where I’m headed and if I really want to go there. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the privilege of visiting faraway place can jog the mind out of its usual day-to-day ruts. But Solnit makes observations in Wanderlust about the ruminative power of walking anywhere that certainly holds true for me:

“What is often taken as the pleasure of another place may simply be that of the different sense of time, space and sensory stimulation available anywhere one goes slowly.”

“I like walking because it is slow, and I suspect the mind, like the feet, works at about three miles an hour. If this is so, then modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, or thoughtfulness.”

I noticed this recently when I left my phone behind for the day and therefore couldn’t call the usual taxi to take me home from my evening class on Leeds Met University’s Beckett Park campus. It was a beautiful evening—one of the best of the year so far—so I decided to walk back to Armley. Cordoned off from the other side of the Kirkstall valley by the River Aire, the railway lines and the Leeds Liverpool canal, Armley is only accessible via certain bridges when approached from the north-easterly direction where I began. I could have walked around the expanse of Beckett Park to pick up the taxi route I knew, but this was a winding course and I felt certain there would be another more direct way. I dimly remembered some sort of cut-through to Queenswood Drive from the bottom of the park from a jogging route years earlier, but I was worried about getting caught against the backs of people’s gardens and having to retrace my steps a considerable distance.

As it turned out, it was easy and unexpectedly exhilarating to find my way through new bits of familiar parts of my home city on one of those first everlastingly light evenings when everything is starting to bloom. How is it that the length of these evenings appears as such a miraculous surprise every year? I was down south a few weeks before where all the spring growth was further on and driving back up the M1 to the still-spiky trees of the North felt like going back in time. A few weeks later, the night of my walk, the trees of Leeds were green and blossoming. I found that path through Beckett Park to a road (a sleepy residential one that didn’t seem on its way to anywhere in particular) and then spotted some street lamps signalling a footpath heading between two gardens. This path led through some overgrown and miscellaneous land where a big graffiti smile peaked through from a fence and then hit Queenswood Drive, as I’d expected. I was oriented again; I knew I could follow this down to Kirkstall Lane and be back on a familiar route. But, then I saw what looked like a more enticing footpath around some playing fields so I stomped across some newly mown and sticky grass to meet it.

A fox was trotting down the path I was aiming for. We both stopped. Then I carried on, picking up a well walked but unofficial trail around the pitches. The fox moved on and then stopped again. I stood still too, watching him. I make a point these days of stopping to study urban wildlife when I can and my weekday walks to work along the canal have revealed herons, hedgehogs, pike and tadpoles. It’s funny to spot passers-by trying to see what you’re seeing without stopping and admitting their curiosity. Just then, another woman came down an intersecting path right by the fox and this time she did stop to look at me and what I was looking at, and so she saw the fox, which saw her and legged it, leaving the woman and I just standing there looking at each other across the field. I chuckled and nodded and carried on towards the edge of the playing field, yielding to an impulse not to take the tarmac path I could see just delving now between fences down to a road. Instead I took a dirt path to the left going alongside some allotments I didn’t know were there. There was billowing greenery all around me, and I felt curiously elevated, despite there being no real vantage point to speak of. It soon became clear that the choice had paid off: here was Headingley Station. I ducked under the tracks and followed the hill up to Kirkstall Lane from a direction I’d never approached it before. How many times I’d been up and down that road! The satisfaction of making my way here was out of all proportion to the mundane task of taking a navigational gamble in search of a shortcut. I breathed in the view across to Bramley and felt very clearly that I love where I live.

As I carried on down one side of the valley and up the other to my house, I hit upon a plan: to walk to each of the places I’ve slept in in Leeds. The thought appealed to me especially after soaking up my second reading of Wanderlust, buzzing off the simple pleasure of my own mini urban ramble, and because this year, for various reasons personal and professional, I’ve been thinking a lot about if and when I might leave Leeds. From previous comings and goings I recognised the brightening sense of attachment you can feel to a place you think you might be leaving. At the same time, I’ve been working on the University campus, in a sort of full circle back to the institution that brought me to Leeds in the first place in September 2001. At work we talk a lot about how to help students feel ‘engaged with the community’ using various initiatives and information channels. It makes me wonder what is it that makes you feel part of a place, and makes places part of you. The more adventurous part of me concurs with Solnit when she says that ‘to reside in comfort can be to have fallen by the wayside.’ But I also know that feeling part of a place is sensing yourself tangled between the threads of a shifting tapestry woven from the familiar, the newly discovered, and the yet-to-be-found.

Continuing my plan as I strode up the other side of the valley to my house, I made vague mental notes of the route I would take; whether it would be chronological or based on what made most sense on the map; whether I would take photos and with what—a disposable camera with real film seemed appropriate to the times I would be revisiting; what songs I would listen to and whether I could find an old Walkman to resurrect some contemporaneous mixtapes. Ever the incorrigible nostalgic, I started to anticipate the memories I might encounter along the way, and how I might write about the whole thing afterwards and whether the whole idea was not in fact horribly self-indulgent.

Either way, as with many great plans, it hasn’t been put into action yet. But, in a striking coincidence, I found myself only a little more than one week later standing outside a house that I had felt most wary of re-visiting. Part of my current job is to carry out inspections of students’ rented properties, trying to make sure they have safe and secure homes to live in. My professional focus on housing is to some extent the product of happenstance—threads of opportunity can flow from one arbitrary employment decision—but I have always had an interest in the idea of ‘home’ too. As is happened, the house in question today was that of an old boyfriend, the memories of the place not uniformly clear or happy. It seemed almost too neat a coincidence to have been planning my nostalgia walk only the week before, but this new development served to remind me again that when you’ve been in a place for a while, these connections and coincidences are everywhere—they are what make you feel part of a place, and make places part of you.

I asked they landlord how long he had owned the house. ‘Bout ten years’ he said. ‘Was in a right state when we got it. The people before were basically squatters.’ This sounded about right but the renovation was so wholesale that I started to wonder if it was indeed the same house. Rooms had changed use and location, with smooth white walls, extra bathrooms, LED spotlights, flat screen TVs on brackets over each double bed—all the accoutrements of a wildly different student letting landscape to the one I’d inhabited only ten years earlier.

Looking in other people’s bedrooms always feels strange and intrusive, perhaps especially so when they belong to people in their early twenties whose books, photos, posters and knickknacks often seem to coalesce into shrines to their emergent identities and independence. Still, I felt a particular sense of unease as the landlord fumbled over the lock on the front attic bedroom. It wasn’t even so much the memories themselves, long since reconciled with, but the distances travelled since then. Would the person I was when I last stood in that bedroom recognise the person that stood there now, clipboard in hand, checking for smoke alarms and fire door self-closing devices? Another thing on the checklist is that ‘windows let in sufficient light’—as if somehow such a subjective measurement were possible. In any event, the space was bright and airy, dislodging my mental picture of both this room and my own dingy basement flat of the same year, both suffused in my recollections with the gloom of that relationship. I ticked the box.

As I left the house, its inspection complete, I felt vaguely weird and writing about these introspective things has helped me to think about why. I also wondered how Rebecca Solnit would describe and account for this feeling and found this explanation that I’d underlined in her Field Guide to Getting Lost the previous summer:

“The places in which any significant event occurred become embedded with some of that emotion, and so to recover the memory of the place is to recover the emotion, and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion. Every love has its landscape. Thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you’re present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination with all the atmospheric effect and association of a powerful emotion. The places inside matter as much as the ones outside. It is as though in the way places stay with you and that you long for them they become deities—a lot of religions have local deities, presiding spirits, geniuses of place.”

This excerpt is taken from a chapter where Solnit is discussing driving around listening to “songs of being young and at the beginning of the world, full of a sense of your own potential.” Standing in that house had taken me back to a time when that potential had seemed limitless—a scary feeling to revisit a decade later when the risk of squandering that remembered sense of possibility sometimes feels very real. Again, Solnit nudges me to live life more fully (we’re back at the butterfly hatchery here):

“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, and old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an out-grown garment. And some people travel more than others. There are those who receive as birthright an adequate sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.”

Maybe I will still go on the walk I planned, and listen to those old songs, and maybe something about doing so will recapture that elusive ‘sense of … potential’ or, better still, make me act on it.

Maybe this is the subject of another bout of ramblings, but there are many songs that fit Solnit’s description for me, and I often like to listen to them on trains. If walking encourages that slow, personal connection, train travel reflects an altogether different perspective on our relationship to place and time—there is something nostalgic in the distance between the observer and the landscape flashing by out of the windows. After first discovering Wanderlust, I would later read Solnit’s Motion Studies, about (among many other things) how the development of photography, cinema and train travel in the nineteenth century began to fundamentally alter human beings’ perception of time and space. Again I would find her nailing something I hadn’t yet been able to articulate about my own emotional perspectives on life. I think now about a train journey I took away from Leeds on the day I’d walked away from that house, feeling at the time that there was something final about it, and I suppose in many ways there was (but for this recent coda). But as we’re about to see I’m bad with endings, preferring those kinds of vague statements that have just enough resonance to anchor them to some aspect of concrete experience. So, I’m going to imagine that on that day I would have recalled the end of one my long-time favourite poems, The Whitsun Weddings, as I do now when its 50th anniversary and this year’s Whitsun approaches, and as I often do when sitting on the Leeds train approaches King’s Cross, with music in my ears:

… and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

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Library Find

I’ve been thinking about a story I’ve been working on, mainly about how much the characters will reveal about themselves to each other.  I want to make something out of the idea that characters are consciously or unconsciously failing to reveal their whole selves to each other and by showing how this happens I will eventually reveal their relationship to the reader.  But the whole thing is written in the first person and the narrator is reluctant to reveal or admit everything to herself (and therefore to the reader too).  So it’s tricky to figure out how to write this this in a way that still gets the reader to believe that the characters have sufficient depth–that they are whole selves and that there is something in the gaps between what they are willing to reveal.  I’m nervous of merely writing something a bit vague and ambiguous and just hoping that readers will care enough about the characters to want to know more about them, and to keep reading.

Here’s something I found completely by accident in Leeds City Library today.  I picked up Writing in the Dark by David Grossman, opened random page, and came across this description of something messy and complicated and (to me anyway) true.  DG expresses the kind of tension I’m talking about in a much more eloquent way than I can:

“…in many ways, we humans–social creatures known for our warmth and empathy toward our families, friends, and communities–are not only efficiently protected and fortressed against our enemies, but in some ways also protected–meaning, we protect ourselves–from any Other.  From the projection of the Other’s internality onto ourselves; from the way this internality is demandingly and constantly thrown at us; from something that I will call “the chaos within the Other.”

“Hell is other people,” said Sartre, and perhaps our fear of the hell that exists in others is the reason that the paper-thin layer of skin that envelops us and separates us from others is sometimes as impervious as any fortified wall or border.

…Even in the deepest, longest, most loyal friendships, a thin barrier is sometimes detectable—a refusal to know everything, a form of protection, transparent but solid, from that unseen darkness within our best friend.

…Perhaps the unwillingness–the fear?–to be exposed to the complexities of people close to us should not be so surprising, for experience teaches us that people are rarely eager to be truly exposed even to what exists within themselves.  Perhaps our attempt to avoid being fully exposed to the Other is not so different from the efforts we make–almost inadvertently–to resist being tempted by all the varied “others” within each of us.  To keep from crumbling into all the options of existence and the internal temptations, all the forking paths within us.  Who can measure the vast efforts we make to maintain these rigid internal frameworks, to preserve the bands that grasp–sometimes shackle–our many-faceted, oft-deceptive souls?

I will add that I often feel that writing has shown me the enormous effort I continually make, often unconsciously, to resist falling apart into all the possibilities, all the many characters and entities, all the qualities and urges and instincts that act within me, well supressed yet still pulling me constantly in all directions.”

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