Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Book review: The Thorn Birds

Nicola Davies reviews The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, published in paperback by Virago

The Thorn Birds has been hailed as the ‘Australian Gone with the Wind’ which filled me with a sense of foreboding. But it was neither longwinded nor overrated, and I was not once tempted to skim through for the good bits. As far as ‘epics’ go it managed to grip me pretty much throughout.

The backdrop is the magnificent Australian outback, and more specifically the great sheep station, Drogheda, home of the Cleary family. Meggie Cleary is only four when we first meet her. Youngest in a clan of boys, and daughter to a withdrawn mother she has to fumble somewhat blindly through the best part of her life. Her ‘guiding star’ is the warm and loving priest Father Ralph de Bricassart, whom Meggie is devoted to from day-one. As she blossoms into a woman, rather inevitably her feelings deepen and translate to lust – and a Lizzie/Mr Darcey style ‘will they or won’t they’ situation ensues for a tantalizing long period. (They nearly do a couple of times and then they actually do.) The author rather cleverly plants the seed of the fallibility of the man of God with the introduction of his flaccid penis early on – from then on he is flesh and blood rather than a sexless priest, and it’s rather inevitable what will eventually happen.

The setting is spectacular – the author manages to capture the sheer scale and magnificence of the outback. Characteristics of nature are cleverly humanized (storms are tantrums, the sky vomits water and bunnies’ tails are like powder puffs) and in turn human emotions/contraptions are likened to elements of nature (suspicion creeps like bark and cars are like hoards of panicked frogs). This blurs the boundaries between man and nature – indicating a way of life so close to the land, and so dependant upon it. Death (of which there is adequate amounts) is described in explicit detail – perhaps less to shock but more to epitomise its matter-of-fact inevitability.

As an atheist I expected to find little in the way of identifying with the devotion of a priest to his God, forsaking everything else – and found it frustratingly futile. I was relieved that Meggie renounces her faith and grows increasingly pissed off with God (quite understandably so). However, I was not convinced by the Thorn Bird moniker – these being birds whose preordained fate is to impale themselves on a thorn, but sing the sweetest song just before they die. Meggie feels she has no control over her destiny – that she will never be able to shake off the hold Father Ralph has over her, and after a while she gives up trying, submitting to her destiny like a thorn bird. I did feel that she could have tried a bit harder.

The Thorn Birds definitely fulfils the ‘epic’ criteria – managing to span decades of Meggie’s life, a world war, and even examines her child’s life as a grown up. The journey is undoubtedly long, harrowing in many places, but is certainly compelling and well worth taking.

Book review: Living with Mother, Right to the Very End

Marian Jane Williams reviews Living with Mother, Right to the Very End by Michele Hanson, published in paperback Virago, £9.99

“What to do with Mother?”

A question which confronts many of us faced with an aged lone parent who cannot continue living on their own. Luckily my mother, who was in hospital at the time, reached this stage just a few weeks before her death. But father- in-law required almost constant care for a year. He refused to go into hospital and to live with family members, so a rota system was set up to check on him without being too obvious about it. Although the situations were different, the stress the family was under in each case was high. Most of us want to do the best for our parents, but there needs to be a balance if you are to enjoy your own life too. Living with Mother is a positive and hilarious account of how one family coped and found that balance.

Michele Hanson writes a delightful, bitter-sweet tribute to her faultfinding, bossy but vibrant, feisty and very funny mother, who moved into Michele’s home for the last ten years of her life, living her daughter, granddaughter and their many friends. Three generations of women under one roof is not an ideal scenario, family relationships are tested to the brink, but I must admit to a feeling of envy for Hanson’s turbulent, hilarious and obviously very loving household.

The book is compiled from her popular Guardian columns with the result that each chapter is very short – just 2 pages - and wonderfully easy to read. There is a short piece, written by Michele’s daughter, which gives another, perhaps sadder, perspective and also illuminates the tumultuous but loving relationship of granddaughter and grandmother.

Michele Hanson writes with endearing honesty and dark wit about the trials and tribulations of coping with an aged parent, and the tragedy of seeing that parent decline from bossy, forthright, lively head of the household to frail, bedridden, yet courageous old lady who still manages to rule the roost, who wants to die, yet who always manages to defy that final leap and who manages to provide a laugh for them all – even at the end. Somewhat akin to my own mother and, I feel, somewhat akin to many readers’ own circumstances. A delightful book.

Book review: Getting Even: Revenge Stories

Laura Wilkinson reviews Getting Even: Revenge Stories, edited by Mitzi Szereto, published in paperback by Serpent’s Tail, £8.99

Getting Even is an anthology of short stories, edited by author and erotic writing workshops pioneer Mitzi Szereto. New writers sit alongside established names like Stella Duffy and Clare Colvin. A mixed bag, there is something here for most women, especially those who have been betrayed by a male lover.

In her entertaining introduction Szereto suggests that the book is not partisan, citing stories about revenge exacted on those who are not men, and pointing out that the collection also contains stories written by men. This is misleading. Of the seventeen stories only two are penned by male authors, and thirteen are tales of women seeking retribution on men.

Perhaps this would not be a problem if the women wreaking their revenge were not, on the whole, such a down-trodden bunch. They may be able to dream up and execute some stomach-churning acts of vengeance, but the reasons why they ended up as the wronged party in the relationships are altogether less empowering. The women come across as bitter man-haters, used and abused by stereotypical, heartless alpha males, though I am sure that this is not what the authors always intended.

However, revenge is a fascinating subject matter to explore, and given its nature it could be that the protagonists, and antagonists, come across so badly precisely because vengeance is such a negative and destructive force. It damages the perpetrator as much as the recipient and this is explored extremely well in Clare Colvin’s artful tale ‘Love and Death in Renaissance Italy’.

Tales of retribution have permeated our culture for centuries, from the Bible through Shakespeare to films like Se7en, and they are at their most powerful when mythical or legendary – when quotidian forces like law and order fade into the distance. Umi Sinha’s ‘Parvati’ works extremely well because of its mythical quality and because it is so beautifully written.

Dark humour flickers throughout – ‘How to Kill an Aries’ by Tony Fennelly and hagsharlotsheroines founder Becky Bradford’s ‘More Than Skin Deep’ are especially good at this - and though I am yet to be convinced a single theme is enough to sustain an anthology (genre, yes), Getting Even: Revenge Stories will make you shudder and chuckle in equal measure.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Evening of Short Stories, Brighton

Short Fuse Stories presents:
Day of the Dead / Dia de los Muertos
Thursday October 18th, Studio Bar (down in the Crypt at Komedia) Doors open 8.30 Entrance £4 / £3 concessions

Now that the nights are drawing in and the trees are moulting so prettily, why not treat yourselves to a warming toddy at the bar and a bevy of spine tingling tales? Listening to October's pick of the creepiest ghost stories, both new and old, will give rise to spooky frissons and melancholic musings guaranteed to make you Grateful not to be Dead.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Harlots' Events

Lectures and workshops by sex educator Deborah Sundahl, London, October 2007

Deborah Sundahl is the leading expert on the G-spot and female ejaculation. She has three groundbreaking videos on this subject, is a workshop leader, and a spokesperson for female sexuality - 22 years helping women to discover their erotic self.

The following dates have been confirmed:
Tuesday, October 9 – a workshop for women, downstairs at the Bridge Bistro and Bar, 388 Wandsworth Road SW8. The downstairs part of this restaurant has been freshly redecorated for parties and workshops. It will be completely sealed off for privacy during the workshop, which will start at 8pm. If you would like to have dinner before, we will reserve a table for women that are attending the workshop to meet each other and chat. The cost of the workshop is £50, the dinner is optional and not included, but the food at the restaurant is cheap and really good.

Wednesday, October 10 – a lecture at Coffee, Cake and Kink, 61 Endell Street. Tickets are £30, the price includes a glass of wine when you arrive and coffee, tea and cake at the break. For more information about the coffee shop, see

Thursday, October 11 – a lecture at Sh! The Womens' Erotic Emporium, Britain's first and only sex shop for women, 57 Hoxton Square N1. Tickets are £30, the price includes a glass of wine when you arrive and coffee, tea and cake at the break. For more information about the shop, see

For tickets to any of these events, please call Nikki Anderson on 07793 047 747, or email

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Book Launch - London

Dubravka Ugrešić in conversation with Marina Warner

London Review of Books Bookshop Thursday 4 October at 7PM

Dubravka Ugrešić was born in 1949 in what is now Croatia. Following the outbreak of war in 1991 her trenchant opposition to nationalism, both Serbian and Croatian, made her a controversial figure at home and abroad. In her latest book Nobody’s Home (Telegram) she takes the reader on a kaleidoscopic tour of Europe and America, finding that as the former Eastern bloc throws itself whole-heartedly into Western-style modernisation, the West itself is, ironically, beginning to take on some of the characteristics of the old Soviet state.

She is the author of The Ministry of Pain (2005) and Nobody's Home : The Ministry of Pain was nominated for both the Independent Prize for Foreign Fiction and the International Man Booker Prize. You can find more information on more information on the LRB website:

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Creative Writing Workshops - London, UK

Katherine May, hagsharlotsheroines member and author of Ghosts and their Uses - - is running a workshop for the National Gallery on 6th and 20th October, which looks like fun if anyone wants to come along:

The subject is 'retellings' - using paintings from the gallery's collections to retell stories - some famous, some personal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Book review: The Loudest Sound and Nothing

Laura Wilkinson reviews The Loudest Sound and Nothing by Clare Wigfall, published in paperback by Faber and Faber, £12.99

There is something of the fairy tale around the publication of Clare Wigfall’s collection of short stories – you can read about it on her MySpace site - and so it is gratifying to report that indeed there is magic in her words. If not happy-ever-after endings.

‘Safe’ is a haunting, menacing tale set in present day Britain about the mysterious disappearances of newborn babies and a plague of malevolent rodents, seen from a new mother’s point of view. There are overtures of The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Wigfall cleverly ensures that we are never certain how much of it is the product of a disturbed, or chronically sleep deprived, mind.

In ‘The Party’s Just Getting Started’ Wigfall brings Adam, Eve and Adam’s first wife, Lilith, to modern day LA. ‘Night after Night’ transports us to shabby, post-war Bethnal Green where Joycie’s husband is arrested for a heinous crime. And in ‘The Ocularist’s Wife’ we are taken to a besieged nineteenth century Paris.

The sheer breadth of variety and style on display in The Loudest Sound and Nothing is enough to impress. On top of this striking diversity, you can add plaudits like beautifully crafted, an original voice, erudite and fresh. And this is a debut collection.

All seventeen tales are meritorious, and deliciously surprising. Wigfall packs a mean punch into the shortest of stories - there is no excess flab in her work and she proves beyond any doubt (if you were ever in need of any) that less is most definitely more.

If you like resolution in your tales you won’t find it here. These stories are laced with ambiguity, and their depth and power lies in the silences, the ‘nothings’, which Wigfall leaves to her reader's imagination.

Unforgettable, dark stories covering the prosaic and the extraordinary, often in the same breath. Wigfall is a talent to watch.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Book review: Reading like a Writer

Sarah Tanburn reviews Reading like a Writer, by Francine Prose, published by Harper Perennial (£7.19 on Amazon)

Living on a boat every book you keep has to work its passage. Like any avid reader or writer, I always want to keep every book that might be useful one day, that captured my imagination or had something to teach me.

It is with great relief then, that I am giving away nearly all the how-to-manuals, the guides to structure, plot, characterisation, even dialogue. I plan to keep only two, just two, great books which contain so much wisdom on the challenge of the page.

The Paris Review Interviews Vol 1 (Canongate, 2006, £10.49 on Amazon), collects sixteen of its extraordinary discussions with great writers. Worth it just for Rebecca West's acerbic judgements on her fellows, Billy Wilder's pragmatic assessment of a writer's place and Borges' sly humour, this is inimitable guidance by the greats on keeping on writing - one sentence, one word at a time. They don't all agree with each other of course, but that's part of the fun. One of my favourites is Hemmingway, grumpy but always seeking to say exactly what he means; he contradicts the writing group mantra to 'write what you know', when he likens the work of writing to an iceberg: “Anything you know you can eliminate, and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn't show … [of 'The Old Man and the Sea'] I've seen the marlin mate and know about that. So I leave that out…”.

The other 'how-to' book that's staying on board is Francine Prose's wonderful meditation on learning from great writing. She is a journalist, novelist, teacher and avid reader. Her argument is that we read, if we read at all, too fast, without sufficient attention to language; she wants us to, “read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer ha[s] made. “
That remark alone has made me a more thoughtful writer, more aware of the specifics of punctuation and word choice.

She takes us with her through a series of essays on words, sentences, paragraphs, the fundamental building blocks. From these she talks of narration and character, dialogue, details and gesture. On each of these topics she gives a wealth of examples, and a clear-eyed course in taking your own writing and the writing of others more seriously than you had believed possible. There are so many examples, but one can spend valuable time pondering her comment that, “one mark of bad written dialogue is that it only doing one thing, at most, at a time.”

Or consider her ode to sentences: “beauty in a sentence, is ultimately as difficult to quantify or describe as beauty in a painting or a human face …if you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong, vigorous, energetic and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.”

I was once told in a writing class that the paragraph was the smallest unit of writing that should be considered during revision. I'd always struggled with this, as someone who agonises over each comma and conjunction, so I found Prose's comment most satisfying.

Prose bases her approach on reading good writing. She repeatedly uses examples from Tolstoy, Chekhov, Hemmingway, Woolf. She is not condescending or arrogant about it; she does not assume we are all post-graduate literature students. Indeed, she explicitly hopes we aren't. But she argues that there is always something to learn as a writer from reading the greats.

“The advantage of reading widely, as opposed to trying to formulate a series of general rules, is that we learn there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in the direction in which you might wish to go.”

Thus she cites party scenes from Tolstoy and Joyce to show how to handle such multi-character dialogue. Woolf's opening sentence in her essay 'On Being Ill' is deconstructed with love and attention to point the way lucidity, wit and grace. She makes the excellent point that being influenced by writers such as this is no bad thing. I would not complain if I was writing like Salinger or Hemmingway, Woolf or Rebecca West.

There is great charity and humility in Prose's approach. She devotes a chapter to reading Chekhov's short stories, describing how each time she thought she had given her class a clear piece of advice, she would find a story that contradicted her. Her last chapter 'Reading for Courage' takes us into broader territory, talking about the value of art (a book being the only piece of art you can take on the bus, she reminds us). She cites Babel, shot by Stalin for writing, and reminds that “Art implies a kind of freedom, the freedom of choice, of possibility, of the individual imagination.”

This is quite a challenge, to feel that our own efforts to write, our own lives as readers require us to engage with such matters. Again, I found it moving and inspiring, to be reminded why some books are better than others, what tools will help bolster my own judgement, and how that can feed my own writing and editing.

The book closes with a reading list. It's a little daunting, as I find I've only read half of them and feel motivated to re-read the old friends, closely, one word at a time. I'm pleased to say that quite a few of those that I have read have survived to be kept on the boat, such as Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and Pride and Prejudice. As for the rest, well there's all the space created by giving away the other writing manuals. That'll do nicely.

Book review: Elizabeth and Leicester

Marian Jane Williams reviews Elizabeth and Leicester by Sarah Gristwood, published by Bantam Press, £20

History, for some, is a dry dusty subject to be tolerated at school and immediately forgotten when freed from the grips of education. But history as told by Sarah Gristwood is a most enjoyable and intriguing lesson.

I would guess that many people are familiar with the life and times of Elizabeth I; if not from study at school then certainly from the many film and TV productions which seem to abound, and her story and place in history is assured. But the story of Leicester and his place is less well known. Gristwood’s portrait of these two leading characters of the day is an enthralling account of their shared experiences, their love and respect for one another, and the power they wielded in a time of political intrigue and religious unrest.

Elizabeth and Leicester grew up in the turbulent court of Henry VIII with its attendant gossip, scandal and intrigue. Both were imprisoned in the Tower by Elizabeth’s sister Mary and both shared the new Protestant religion. When Elizabeth became Queen her obvious infatuation with the tall, attractive Robert Dudley (as he was then) led to a deepening of their relationship and this scandalised many, at home and abroad, because Dudley was a married man. When, two years later, his wife died in somewhat suspicious circumstances, rumours were rife but it was assumed by most, if not all, that they would marry. Instead they formed a life long working partnership and a mutual affection and dependency which, like most relationships, had its own ups and downs.

Of all the many manoeuvre s and incidents of Elizabeth’s long reign perhaps the two most abiding ones were her love for Leicester and her long imprisonment and eventual beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. But the most intriguing one of all is her relationship to Leicester and the eternal question which was first mooted while they were alive and which has fascinated people ever since. Did they or didn’t they consummate their love? And was she really a Virgin Queen? Here was a passionate and vain woman who was in the unusual position of holding all the instruments of power in their relationship. Of this alone we can be certain.

Gristwoods’ history deals with these questions and others in extraordinary and vivid detail and gives thought-provoking insight into their lives and their desires.
This is a history book that is in turn entertaining and compelling, and brings long dead, wonderful characters to glorious life once again.

Literature News

Agatha Christie Week 9th-16th September 2007

Harper Collins have re-launched the whole Christie series with funky new-look covers - in stores and on amazon now.

The Goddess Guide
The Goddess Guide was THE style bible success of last year. Winning fans such as India Knight and securing a regular 'cool hunter' slot on Richard and Judy for the summer, Gisele has offered advice on everything from finding your own fashion way (and helping you get it right) to discovering all the hidden hip gems of the British Isles and beyond. The gold and black paperback edition of this handbag essential is as luxurious and stylish as the original but with added essential content for 2008.
1st October 2007 £10 Paperback

Monday, July 30, 2007

Nicola Davies reviews A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs

A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs is an enjoyable stroll amidst the tumultuous romantic exploits of prima-ballerina in the making Marigold Savage. However, the epaulees and sissones are left behind after the first few chapters as the ballet world is substituted unceremoniously for society life in Northumberland, when our heroine returns home with a broken foot. This is a bit of a disappointment after being captivated so early on by the gruesome depiction of Marigold dancing both agonizing acts of the ballet Giselle with this injury, although this certainly provides a successful hook.

The eventual backdrop lends itself to the grandiose; in language and expression as well as characters and settings. In fact during Marigold’s train journey before she has even arrived at the destination which is to become her home for the ensuing months, she describes the look on the porter’s face when she gives him a tip as “though I had handed him something phosphorescent with putrefication.”

As the title suggests, this is a humorous take on Marigold’s clumsy attempts to fit in with the Northumberland upper classes and survive her slapstick romantic encounters. Plenty more wordy descriptives are employed, and both the choice of language and the pace of the plot err on the side of taking the scenic route, but it’s certainly an agreeable amble.

It’s frightfully twee throughout, and there’s a lot of mileage in quietly mocking the mother of one potential suitor, who once ferociously shunned an acquaintance for filling her garden with red hot poker plants.

‘”You will inherit my collection of first class Worcester,” said Evelyn, with some emotion.’

An ominous choice of mother in law, and unyielding obstacle in the path of true love.

So how many frogs does one have to kiss in this fictitious world? Although there is a slight sense of the inevitable regarding who will be our heroine’s prince charming, how it will come about and whether it will work out between them is a mystery up until the very (cockle-warming) end, and in the mean time we’re treated to a catastrophic romp (quite literally) along the journey to meet Mr Right. In fact it was when our heroine went beyond kissing that were the undoubted highlights:

“Once he reached the peak of excitement he fairly barked out instructions. He must have been an excellent officer.”

“Rafe tore off my knickers and before I could galvanize myself into enthusiastic action, everything was over much quicker than he had originally proposed.”


A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs by Victoria Clayton, published by HarperCollins, £ 6.99

Marian Jane Williams reviews When Madeline Was Young

Madeline is forever young and beautiful. In her youth she suffered an accident which left her with the body of a beautiful mature woman but the intellect of a child of seven. To Mac, the narrator of the story, she has always been his elder sister who needs both protection and care, but on one of the many summers which his large extended family spend together, his cousin Buddy informs him that Madeline is not his sister but his father’s first wife.

When his father re-married, his second wife (Mac’s mother) had no hesitation in letting Madeline stay within the household being cared for as one of her own children. Through the years the family have gatherings, celebrations and get togethers, but the differences in their political beliefs and social attitudes eventually lead to distance developing between the two branches of the family.

In 2003 when Mac is a middle aged doctor with a family of his own, he attends the funeral of Buddy’s son who has been killed in Iraq. Buddy and Mac symbolize the divisions of the family – Buddy the army careerist and Mac the medical man - the hawk and the dove. But it is at the funeral that they both come to fully appreciate the other’s attitude and life choices.

Jane Hamilton writes an epic family saga in which Madeline is ever present, but it is really Mac’s story and by using first person narrative it reads as a memoir. He grew up in a family with almost saintly patience whilst Buddy’s family was far more earthy and practical. Mac bridges the two branches of the family and through childhood memories, half glimpsed occurrences, not fully understood actions plus his own thoughts and experiences, he tries to piece together and understand his parents’ lives and their boundless love for Madeline and their family. At the same time he also tries to fathom his own shortcomings and the reasons for the family split.

Anybody who has come from a large family where cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents all play their part in the great swell and tide of close family emotions will appreciate Hamilton’s story telling. The small, almost insignificant pleasures and woes, the relationships, tragedies, sacrifices, loyalties and betrayals of family life are keenly observed and make for interesting reading. The differences which can develop from a word here, an action or non action there, and the effect these can have on children growing up within the family are finely drawn, but her true strength is her compassion and understanding of the human heart and the human condition.

When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton, Published by Doubleday, £14.99

Katie Allen reviews Radiance by Shaena Lambert

It is 1952, and World War II is officially over, yet its impact still reverberates across the world. Radiance tells the story of Keiko Kitigawa, an 18-year-old survivor of the Hiroshima bomb, who has arrived in the US to receive regenerative treatment on her scarred face. Her articulacy back in Japan led to her being chosen as a media ‘voice’ of the atrocity in the US, but she is slowly revealed to be not the passive ‘victim’ the oh-so-charitable Americans would like, and the novel becomes a tussle between who is manipulating who. Bound up in Keiko’s story is her ‘host mother’ Daisy Lawrence and husband Walter, whose task it is to look after Keiko during her stay. The young girl’s presence immediately causes ripples of disturbance in their quiet suburban community.

Riverside Meadows is a recently built settlement where ‘Everything seemed new’ and you could still ‘smell the churned dirt’. The newness is a rather desperate grasping for domesticity and security after the horrors of war, yet, perhaps inevitably, the ‘prim boulevards’ are not the safe environs they seem, but an uneasy site of curtain-twitching and mysteries behind the white picket fence, familiar throughout popular culture, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to American Beauty: one outsider observes: ‘there were at least a thousand neuroses skittering like mice through the streets of that suburb.’

This is a place where the neighbours ‘know’ about war veteran and Japanese POW Ed Warburgh’s ‘tingling in his feet, shooting pains that he relieves by soaking them in seltzer. They know he has nightmares’. As for his wife, Fran, ‘Everyone knew that he hit her sometimes.’ Daisy herself is a symbol of the Fifties housewife, who dreams of ‘Walter heading out the door, looking handsome and clever while Daisy fed the baby or vacuumed or even found time to bake bread.’ Yet their relationship never fully recovers from her miscarriage, and Daisy finds that she must repress her grief, which is regarded as ‘something unseemly’ by her husband, and the neighbourhood wives soon ‘grew tired of her sorrow.’

Into this unsteady mix of domestic façade and internal anguish comes Keiko: ‘Daisy felt a pull of guilt, as though what she had started, inviting Keiko, might squirm out of her control and start a brush fire.’ Through her very Otherness, she is both alluring and threatening not only to the residents of Riverside Meadows, but to the US audiences before which she is paraded as a ‘Hiroshima Maiden’. Perhaps most damagingly, she becomes to Daisy a conduit of all the maternal longing she can never express.

Keiko herself is used by the Hiroshima Project as a symbol, of American generosity, of the horrors of war, as an indictment of nuclear weaponry. Yet although her scars and losses are very real, whether the ‘real’ Keiko is ever known, by the committee, by the voyeuristic public, by the yearning Daisy, or indeed by the reader, is a conundrum. When Keiko refuses to return Daisy’s smile, we share Daisy’s indignation that ‘Why should this girl, whom they had brought to New York at such expense, be refusing her smile?’ And yet it is Daisy who champions and supports Keiko as they both realise she is to become an exploited posterchild of the Hiroshima Project. And it is Daisy whom Keiko lets down the most. I found Keiko’s coolly repressed personality difficult to warm to, yet it entwines fittingly in a novel threaded with facades and fakery, reality and repression, in a Fifties environment of McCarthyist suspicion.

Katie Allen reviews Radiance by Shaena Lambert, published by Virago, £12.99

Laura Wilkinson reviews Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan’s first collection of short stories, Antarctica, heralded her as a literary talent to watch. It won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and Keegan has been compared to Raymond Carver and William Trevor. Her second collection of short stories, Walk the Blue Fields, has been eagerly anticipated.

Keegan was raised in county Wicklow and all bar one of the seven tales are set in rural Ireland. But these stories do not speak of a pastoral idyll. The Ireland evoked here is dark and unsettled, the characters dislocated and alone, despite the proximity of others.

All the protagonists in these stories are well formed, despite the brevity of the narratives. She provides glimpses into significant moments in their lives rather than complete explorations and the short story form is perfectly suited to this. Keegan is dedicated to the form, it’s all she really wants to write, and this shines through her work. So though the reader is treated to a mere snapshot of characters’ lives, the impression left is deep and resonant. There is a haunting melancholy to Walk the Blue Fields.

In ‘The Parting Gift’ a young woman articulates her reason for leaving Ireland, and her familial home, for New York. It is a moving and disturbing piece made all the more so by Keegan’s use of the second person point of view. Lonely Martha is unhappily married to the forester, her only joy, her daughter, the result of a brief liaison with a passing rose bush salesman. Tension builds slowly and imperceptibly until everything comes tumbling down.

In the title story, an achingly beautiful piece, a priest marries a young couple and throughout the celebrations he is haunted by the memories of a love affair and the choice he made. When everything begins to close in on him, he leaves the party, and walks and walks. He stumbles upon another alienated character in the region, a Chinese healer and masseur, and his cathartic touch releases the priest from pain. “Why is tenderness so much more disabling than injury?”

The characters do a lot of walking in these tales – across the green fields, along beaches and in all sorts of weather - and it is an indicator of Keegan’s connection to the land, her truthfulness and her deep understanding of human nature. For in times of pain, anger and confusion how many of us have experienced the restorative power of walking?

Keegan is a true wordsmith and her lean, elegant prose has no need of fancy tricks. These tales are dripping in atmosphere and their austere, visceral touch stayed with me for a long time. Bleak though the stories may be the collection is not without humour. A talking dog, strange customs and odd human behaviour add a light comic touch.

‘Night of the Quicken Trees’ borrows from Irish folklore and is a personal favourite of mine. A damaged, barren woman moves into the dead priest’s house, burns all the furniture, makes a habit of urinating outside and embarks upon a strange relationship with the middle-aged bachelor living next door. A delightful, quirky story of love lost and found, magic and mystery. Quintessentially Irish, finely nuanced and unforgettable.

The priest in Walk the Blue Fields reflects on “How strange it is to be alive.” This superb collection captures this observation beautifully.

Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan, published in paperback by Faber and Faber, £10.99

Katie Allen interviews author Kim Harrison

About eight years ago, as fledgling sci fi addicts and social pariahs, my friends and I would occasionally go to Star Wars conventions. We had the requisite levels of geekery to succeed in the quizzes, to know which dressed-up locals had inaccurate costumes, and to argue over who was hotter: Luke or Han? Like Princess Leia, we were probably the only girls in the room.

Since then, things have begun to change. The myriad worlds of sci fi and fantasy flaunt such feisty female heroines as Alien’s Ellen Ripley, Sydney Bristow in Alias and Seline in Underworld. Also, as the massive success of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings proves, elves, wizards and warlocks are no longer trapped inside the nerdy environs of Games Workshop but are out in the mainstream.

Riding high on this sea change in the US is writer Kim Harrison, whose best-selling Rachel Morgan series is currently reaching UK shores with the fifth novel For a Few Demons More. The novels are set in the contemporary US city of Cincinnati (the Hollows), but it is an alternative world, where most of the human population has been wiped out by a bioengineered virus, exposing the communities of vampires, weres, pixies and fairies that have lived beside humanity for centuries. Rachel herself is a white witch and runner, hunting down criminals of all species alongside faithful companion-pixy Jenks and the tortured –‘non-practising’- vampire Ivy.

It is rare for female heroines to emerge in science fiction or fantasy, especially in a genre so dominated by male writers (and readers). So it is all the more refreshing to read about Rachel, a spirited, wise-cracking, leather-clad heroine treading in the same bootsteps as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doctor Who’s Martha Jones. ‘I like to think that there’s been a surge in strong female protagonists simply because women are finding it more socially acceptable to think of themselves in that way,’ Kim says. ‘You don’t have to be dainty or mild to be feminine, you can be strong and noisy and be feminine too.’ I ask Harrison if she considers herself a feminist: ‘Ah no. I would say I’m a woman who does what she wants as long as it doesn’t impact others negatively. I expect to be judged on my work, not my sex, and most times I am.’

She adds: ‘It wasn’t important to me that my protagonist be female… I would have been just as comfortable writing from a man’s point of view, but the book’s free-flowing narrative was far more effective written from a woman’s viewpoint.’

Throughout the first five novels we see Rachel transform from inexperienced rookie to skilled witch – yet she remains the same character who can be clumsy, reckless, foolish and unlucky in love – is never perfectly dressed. ‘I don’t know if I could write a superhero.’ Kim explains. ‘They are kind of boring to me after a while. Real people are far more interesting with their flaws… and their acts of courage which are that more courageous, knowing they might not survive. Mistakes are great when you learn from them, and at this rate, Rachel will be absolutely stupendous when she’s done.’

Rachel may not be a superhero, but I cannot help but wonder whether the soul-tainting demon magic she learns to use is an example of the ‘dark side’ or evil id that often challenges those who take on the mantle of ‘white knight’ rescuer or defender in sci fi/fantasy. Kim disagrees. ‘No, not at all. Rachel’s use of demon magic is more a metaphor for something much more common: our ability to use technology to create wonderful, fantastic things without acknowledging that there is a cost that goes along with it. Toxins, pollutions and poisons are all created from the things we use everyday, and they are going somewhere. Rachel can do wonderful, fantastic things with her demon magic, but she, at least, sees the cost.’

The use of metaphor is a handy way for Harrison to bring ‘darker’ themes into her fast-paced adventures, weaving narratives of addiction, restraint, power and despair around the otherwise sexy and glamorous vampire characters. There are also balancing acts of racial conflict and harmony expressed through the Hollows’ uneasy hierarchy of different species.

Harrison’s love of fantasy and SF began with the books she read as a child, and ‘throw in few thick books of fairy tales and I was a happy girl.’ She adds, ‘I hadn’t a clue that what I was doing was preparing myself for a writing career… it wasn’t until years later that I picked up a pen and wrote a very long, very mistake-ridden manuscript. It was really bad but I fell in love with the writing process, and kept working at it until my skill started to approach my enthusiasm.’ Her literary influences were SF fantasy writers of the 70s and early 80s, such as McCaffrey, Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Jack L Chalker. One of her main inspirations is music, especially alternative rock such as Nine Inch Nails, Garbage and Evanescence, and her website lists all the songs she attributes to each character.

The idiosyncratic Cincinnati of her Rachel Morgan novels is populated with the supernatural creatures of the ‘Inderland’: witches, the undead, trolls, pixies, fairies and elves, hybridizing ancient myths with very modern elements such as nightclubs, car chases, even a ‘dating guide’ for vampires. The novels are in part police drama, part sci fi, part romance: Harrison describes it as: ‘a conglomeration of things I read while I was growing up, wanting to mix my love of fantasy with the easily identifiable characters in popular culture… the fun came when I twisted them a little to make her world unique, and to me, more understandable.’

It is a mixture that clearly appeals. Kim describes her fan base as ‘very wide’, from ‘military men and women, moms with kids reading at football games, and single guys and gals at school or working their first job.’ Although she agrees that the current popularity of sci fi and fantasy is due to people seeking ‘escapism’, she attributes the success of the Rachel Morgan books to ‘the characters, not the subject... There is likely going to be someone in the Hollows that just about anyone can relate to. I enjoy ‘working’ there, and that joy filters through to the reader. We’re both saying: ‘just one more page’.’

The next novel in the series will be The Outlaw Demon Wails, scheduled to be published in March 2008, with a Hollows novella entitled Holidays are Hell released in November of this year. Kim is already working on book eight, with a rough draft of book seven already completed. Such exciting and visually imaginative books, in my mind, are begging to be filmed, although Kim is cautious about getting too excited. She is definite on one matter though: ‘I do have some daydreams though... involving either Sting or Johnny Depp.’ Don’t we all...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

From Herstory to Ourstory: the Feminist Library by Anne Welsh, with thanks to Gail Chester

In a recent blog comment on the local elections, author Anne Brooke made the point, “Whenever I feel the urge not to get out there and vote, I think of Mrs Pankhurst and get my coat on! What that woman went through (and all of the suffragettes indeed) to get us the vote doesn't bear thinking about!”[1] While this is a sentiment shared by most women, how many of us spare a thought for the achievements of the second wave women’s movement of the 1970s? Once we had the vote in the early 20th century, what else were we fighting for?

The Autumn 2005 issue of StopGap, the journal of the Fawcett Society, points out that the thirty-year-olds of 2005 were the first women to enjoy equal opportunities their whole lives:
Before the [Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay] Acts were enforced, women could be sexually harassed in the workplace, be denied a job because they were pregnant and be paid less than men doing the same job just because they were female. Women could be sacked from their jobs if they got married or became pregnant and men were not allowed to work as midwives.[3]

The passing of the Acts did not mean that equal rights were mainstream:

As the BBC reported: “The Act[s] came as a culture shock to many in a society where some venues still barred women. Many commentators said the combined Acts were too radical.”

And remember, this news report was broadcast in 1975.

The mid-1970s was a significant period for the Fawcett Society. While the law was changing due to pressure from Fawcett members and a whole range of other feminists, the society was itself under pressure to find a home for its library collection of women’s history. We know now that City of London Polytechnic took it in, the Poly going on to become London Metropolitan University and the Fawcett growing to become the Women’s Library, a world-class archive, library and exhibition space.

However, in 1975, the Fawcett Library’s future was far from certain. In this climate, a group of women, mostly academics, who wanted to ensure the survival of the history of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) came together to found the Women’s Research and Resources Centre (WRRC).

Originally a small collection of contemporary material, it has grown to become “the largest library of contemporary feminist material in the UK … [with] approximately 10,000 books, 1500 periodicals, 1200 articles [and] more than 2000 pamphlets and ephemera.”
[5] Now known as the Feminist Library, it provides access to a range of material produced by or directly pertaining to the study of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and international material allowing it to be contextualized beyond the British Isles.

Significantly, around a third of the collection is fiction and poetry, which is unusual for a library based round a political movement. Many of the books and pamphlets, both fiction and poetry and non-fiction, were self-published, reflecting the ethos of the Library and of the whole WLM. As writer, activist and book historian Gail Chester explains:

In the women’s movement of the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of opposition to the ‘star system’, which singled out the achievements of individual women. The idea was that thousands of women – known and unknown – were able to access the material we were making available.

From a writer’s point of view, this cuts straight to the heart of the ‘Liberation’ offered by the WLM. A generation previously, Virginia Woolf had advocated “a room of one’s own” in which creativity and particularly writing could take place. One aim of the Feminist Library was to provide that space for every woman, or every woman that wanted it. By providing campaigning and factual information for anyone who wanted it, the Library created a climate for women to write, research, and publish, to draw confidence from the thousands of books by women writers lining the shelves and the group of people using and running the Library.

In 1975, Gail Chester was part of the collective producing Women’s Report, a self-published news magazine. She herself went on to write numerous articles and book chapters as well as co-editing In Other Words: Writing as a Feminist, while the Library’s staff included Ruth Harris and Zoe Fairbairns. Indeed, Fairbairns was the Library’s first paid employee,
[7] working, according to Gail Chester, in “a small basement room in North Gower Street surrounded by books.”

This collection of books has been assembled as a consciously feminist act, which is what makes the library unique. As with many special collections, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and while it could be argued that the better-known books are also held by the Women’s Library and that certainly all the mainstream titles are in the British Library, the difficulty in accessing specialist subject areas in massive collections like the BL’s is finding them in the first place. If you know the author or title, it’s fine, but subject searches will often return hundreds or even thousands of items, many of them not specific enough to meet your needs.

Searching the Feminist Library catalogue or browsing its shelves, you’re searching only women’s movement material, so your chance of finding exactly what you want is higher. And, at 32 years old, the collection is ripe for academic study; though continuing to add to the collection is high on the management group’s list of priorities. With the growth of undergraduate and postgraduate courses on gender studies, women’s studies and women’s history, more and more people are writing theses on an aspect of the WLM, and several of them have gratefully used the Library.

But, it’s not all about academia. The Library provides a fantastic resource for anyone writing fiction set in the women’s movement. Anyone who enjoyed Big Women (Fay Weldon’s novel about the growth of a women’s press) will find ample inspiration here.

The proportion of self-published titles – many of them by authors who were in writing and groups and decided to self-publish, and are well-known today – tells its own story of the challenges faced by women trying to find a publisher in the 1970s and 80s. The ideal described by Gail Chester still holds true – standing in the Feminist Library surrounded by 10,000 books, it’s impossible not to think if they could do it then, I can certainly do it now.

Every female writer or aspiring writer should visit the Women’s Library and the Feminist Library for the inspiration to be found there. And yet, these guardians of our heritage have suffered very different fates. While the Women’s Library is part of an academic institution and has found external funding for world-leading collection development, promotion and exhibitions, the Feminist Library has remained autonomous – autonomous and poor. Run by an honorary Management Committee and a team of volunteers, this year is the Library’s last push to remain independent. If funding cannot be found, it will cease to exist as an entity in 2008, and in all likelihood, be broken up and absorbed into a disparate range of collections – each with their own priorities and their own valid reasons to want only part of the collection.

Ironically, it is the fiction and poetry, described by Gail Chester as “the jewel in the crown” of the Library that is the hardest to place. Normal library procedures on taking in a new collection is to ‘de-duplicate’ – that is to add to stock only those items that are not already in the existing collection. De-duplication will almost certainly be the fate of the Feminist Library’s fiction and poetry, whichever larger libraries were to take it in.

I asked Gail Chester what Hags readers could do to help. The answer was clear and simple – “Stand by your pens. Send an email to us now at saying you want to be kept informed of what happens: numbers count when we’re looking for funds. Add to your myspace friends for the same reason.” So, whether or not your feminist guilt persuaded you to vote at the last elections, open up your email and drop the Feminist Library a line. After all, its 10,000 books and 1200 articles can give us courage, and certainly bear witness to the power of the woman writer’s pen.

[1] Brooke, Anne (2007) comment on Elections? What elections? 2 May, accessed 23/05/2007).
[2] Bell, Rachel (2005) First born. StopGap, Autumn: 8-9, accessed 23/05/2007.
[3] Hanman, Natalie (2005) Caught in the Act StopGap, Autumn: 6-7, accessed 23/05/2007.
[4] Hanman, Natalie Ibid.
[5] Hobson, Charlotte et al. (2007) Where now for the Feminist Library?: a discussion document for meeting, 24 February 2007.
[6] Interview with Gail Chester, 21 May 2007.
[7] (2005) The Feminist Library Newsletter, March: 3,

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Moving from the epitome of urbanity to an eco-centre in rural Wales, Hannah Davey continues her diary

Weeks 8-12

Just as I think I’ve gone off on a tangent with this column, meandering down some recent recollection or other, I realise that it’s all right and I can pluck the experience straight out of real life and plant it on the page. On a long walk at the weekend, a friend and I followed a river, found a quarry, a tunnel, a gorge and a wind turbine – without even trying.

The turbine was like a great white angel, it roared as it turned and was really quite frightening, especially when the shadow, the dark version of itself, swooped over us. I know that wind turbines represent a sustainable future, but the sheer scale of it made the cogs of my imagination turn; would it fly off into the sky? or morph into a beast to get me? We whiffled through a tulgy wood to get there, and rested by a tumtum (well, oak) tree to have some conversation whilst waiting out the rain. I imagined people lived in the wood, beneath the turbine, or inside it and that Norah Fleex, the protagonist in my novel, would stay there on her travels.

It’s been raining for about two or three weeks now. But we still get slashes of sunshine that cut through the grey and make for the most crazy, weird skies I think I’ve ever seen. There is a lot of wind too, it blows loudly in and out of different trees like a symphony, like there’s someone conducting the weather. When the sun comes out, which despite the rain happens several times a day, there is a moment of bright clear blue and we get this amazing filtered light that is the most beautiful thing. It goes all gloomy-bright – and we all look like we’re in a film.

Of course, we very much needed the rain, our reservoir was very shallow and that’s where all our water comes from. A sauna shed sits on the edge of the reservoir and through its windows you can watch the lowest branches of the trees dip its leaves in and out of the moonlit water. I break the norm by refusing to be naked inside, so have ‘repressed saunas’ in my bikini. The sauna is much-loved by all, used several times a day sometimes, and the oil drum it is made of is showing it. The flue that’s soldered on, and the drum itself are worn right through in parts, its small patchy holes show the fire leaping inside.

The reservoir is great to take you off the boil. The water is so cold that your body thinks its dying, all the blood rushes to your organs, leaving your limbs helpless and flailing and your lungs gasping - none of which is much good for swimming. But then when you get out you’re a big ball of adrenaline, icy skinned and hot inside – not to mention gloriously lightheaded. And the sleep you get afterwards! Well it’s wonderful, and the morning sees you glowing and refreshed and about as relaxed as a person can be.

I have a scene in my novel-in-progress where Norah Fleex dives into a lake, led by Benjamin Ambigraph she goes deeper and deeper and passes through a submarine tunnel and ultimately emerges on an underground shore. My first draft is pretty weak on physicals, but now I know what it feels like, so I think I can translate it better. I guess it leaves me wondering whether I will ever have an experience again that I don’t use to inform my writing.

Now that I’ve settled down, I’ve been able to branch out. I have been to other places. At Cae Mabon , a small retreat in an oak forest up north, I stayed in a round log cabin with bluebells on the roof. As Eric Maddern, the storyteller who created Cae Mabon says, “it’s like sleeping with the arms of the wood around you.” The walls are built with smooth, strong, interlocking logs. I built fences by day and sang-along to Eric’s guitaring round a fire by night. And weirdly, I felt quite comfortable. I expected it to be too ‘far-out’ for me, but all my cynicism snuck out of me on the walk down through fields of bluebells. It’s a beautiful place, very peaceful and calm and little wonder that groups go there to bond and learn.

Another weekend, a friend and I went to Oxford on whim. Quite the opposite experience. We caught a lift, or as she said, a prearranged hitch, with a man who had just completed a Solar installation course at CAT. He said they could take us as far as Banbury. “Banbury Cross?” I said, and the guy drove us via the statue of the fine lady upon a white horse. As he dropped us at the train station I caught sight of myself in the sliding doors – oh my gosh! When I had left CAT, I looked completely normal. Now, I looked like a hippy-chick-traveller. I felt totally incongruous amongst all the shiny hard floors and the glass slide-doors and the people with slapped-arse faces and no talking and no laughing and drab grey. And money! People were using it! (I haven’t used it in absolutely ages, don’t need to here, because I pay subs instead, then we order food as a community). I used some ‘money’ to buy tickets to Oxford from a ‘machine’ and then off we went. It was accidental research again, for my heroine Norah Fleex, who makes a similar journey, back to the city… a scene played out fresh for me, in reality. On that platform, I felt self-conscious and like I was breathing in smog, and the ground was too hard and the earth too far away, and she will feel exactly the same! Interestingly, I didn’t think of that at the time and it’s only through writing this, that I’ve connected these feelings to Norah.

In Oxford, I unexpectedly performed in a Samba band
[1] on a stage in a university college. But not before I’d painted octopi on a community garden mural, whilst half listening to a workshop on permaculture. To remember Samba rhythms, you say funny sentences in your head,

It’s not about grammar, it’s about the beat man! And (get this) in the toilets after the gig, one of my fellow samba-ists, heard some Oxford kids say “That Samba band, they were amazing!” ah yeah! Ever since Oxford, I’ve been hearing rhythms in everything.

Perhaps loveliest thing this month was a visit from my London photographer friend. She inspired and revitalised me, reminded me how important and special it is to be with people who you’ve known for ages, and how much I love this place I live in. By day we laid-down in fields for funny pictures, ate cake, worried and wondered, and laughed till our sides ached. I found a bike for her to borrow and we zoomed around the pitch-black night-time countryside with matching straw hats, neon jackets and torches on our heads. We trampolined at a tipi party and bounced the night away while the others raved. I don’t think Norah Fleex would do any of this, but perhaps some things are just for me.

Until next month,

Happy Hannah x

P.S. In case you were wondering. We had to send the cockerel back. And that was even harder than the catching. It took the whole of site community and several friends to trap him. We rigged up a cargo net, propped it with sticks and tried to lure him with grain; we tried to feed him grain soaked in vodka
[2], to make him easier to catch. We tried to lasso him, to catch his foot in a loop and then hoik him up. We tried to ambush him it at dusk, when he’d gone blind, but he just flapped about in the rhododendrons. We caught him in the end, with the foot-in-a-noose technique. So he’s back at the other side of site now, where he’s one of many cockerels and unlikely to even get a look in (wink wink, nudge nudge). I wanted to keep him here, but then, I wasn’t the one he was waking up every morning.

[1] Oxford’s "Breach of the Peace" samba band, is part of the Rhythms of Resistance network of anti-capitalist Samba Drum Bands. Right on!
[2] When I say ‘we’, I don’t mean me, I was not a party to this particular tactic!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Another Take on Women in Art

Excerpt of Guerilla Girls Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz presenting on activism / race / geopolitics for The Feminist Future: Theory and Practice in the Visual Arts Symposium at the Museum of Modern Art, January 27 2007)

If you're not familiar with the Guerrilla Girls' work, you can see some of their early posters on display online and at the Tate and / or watch a webcast of their July 2006 Tate performance on the Tate website.

How do we as female writers feel about the publishing industry? Do we get a better deal than visual artists? Or is there still a long way to go?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

A Day in the Life

... of Meg Cabot.

Typical of a full-time writing life? Those of us with 9-5 jobs need to know.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

AnyBody Zine

AnyBody is looking for contributions to its new zine - see their website for more details.

AnyBody is "a website giving women a voice to challenge the limited physical representation of females in contemporary society" (homepage, accessed 5 June 2007)

Monday, June 04, 2007

Women in Art

"500 years of female portraits in Western Art"

This is mesmerising and disturbing in equal measure ...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

From city to country, a writer's diary by Hannah Davey, Weeks 4-8

I sometimes battle with my conscience: should I be putting my skills to better use?

I’m a fairly experienced copy-writer and I’m putting the vast majority of my efforts into fiction. When I first got here, and listened to a lecture on Contraction and Convergence1. My first thought (after my scrambled brain had reconfigured itself) was: what the hell am I doing wasting my time on this novel? I ought to be copy-writing to raise awareness of climate change and cutting carbon emissions, or creating a big eco-fable at the very least: ‘Lily’s Army’, was the title that sprang to mind, because my (half-viking) baby niece Lily, will be about 30 by the time it all starts kicking off (should we fail to reduce our carbon emissions in time). In my head, ‘Lily’s Army’ fights off climate refugees from the now heavily fortified island of Britain. They’d have come up from the Southern Hemisphere, seeking dry land and fuel, having been driven out of their now submarine homelands. Lily would have to be ruthless. Sounds like Mad Max, or Waterworld doesn’t it? Well, turns out, that’s about the size of it.

So, after some dramatic days of what is the point? I remembered that my novel does actually have a pretty strong message; and some of it is about the environment. And although there is a hefty dose of speculative fiction buoying it up, it is metaphorical. It’s also one woman’s journey of self-discovery with a spike of horror. And, the ‘plot’ (say I, if you can call its current jumbled strings of story such a thing), is inspired by my own journey; what lead me to this eco-centre.
I have learned and absorbed so much about sustainability and renewable energy and eco-building and other green things here: reduce, reuse, recycle. But it’s sort of like the more I learn, the less I feel like I know. I do find it difficult to imagine as well, how I could maintain this level of eco-responsibility in the city. I mean it’s all well and good being holier than thou in the middle of an eco-centre where your organic food is bought communally from a local co-op2 and everyone is greener than a Welsh valley and even the local town has no real consumerism to speak of (remember, when I say this, that I came from London).

With my writing, I have progressed in a way and also slowed, I am doing it everyday still. Norah Fleex now has a pencilled in end-of-the-road-destination, in terms of her plotted fictional life. Pretty monumental really. The ‘end’ came to me one night, lying in my hay-loft bed having a quick pretend-to-be-Heidi before I fell asleep. And I had to reach to switch on the light, and then scribble it down in my notebook. And then in the morning I sketched it out, then I fleshed it out the next day, etcetera, etcetera. But now, I am stuck with the arduous task of filling in the holes en-route, and that’s not so exciting as making the story! I am a bit stuck to be honest and the birds tweeting and the sun up on the bank that leads to the reservoir, well they are calling me.

This last month, what with the gorgeous weather, Stove has fallen out of the limelight. Just as I got the hang of it too! But the writing is still, simmering away on the back boiler – so what’s got in the way of me and my words? Basically, it’s Spring time.

Spring time has meant new things to see and learn, and free no effort heat, off of the big ball of fire in the sky. My house has become a place to sleep and I have taken to the great outdoors. Spring’s brought lambs and chicks and birds that I never saw before. With the aid of a new book and some binoculars, I have identified nuthatches, treecreepers, chaffinches, robins (these last two I already knew) and a very pretty yellowhammer.

The swallows have come home to roost in the last few days, they are charming; they chatter and squeak like nothing else and swoop erratically like mentalists. The trees and shrubs have positively exploded in every shade of green and it’s sunny all the time – it has rained for only a couple of days in the last six-ish weeks, nice but not so nice if you look at the bigger picture. In amongst the new birth and green shoots and blossom, I saw the darker side too: a dead lamb in a field that made me cry and contemplate life; and a tiny half-sized chick which, could only fall over in the face of food, while its siblings pecked away happily. It ‘disappeared’ on its second day - I suspect fowl play (sorry).

And I’ve gotten all crafty, with a new hobby: willow weaving. Now I was quietly confident about being able to weave willow, which I think stems from having grown up on a farm in Sussex and spending much time making treehouses with planks and bailer twine. I have a farmer dad and a mother who is art personified, I think this is what caused my corn-dolly-gene. I realise I am blowing my own trumpet especially considering how wonky my basket is, but I am oh so proud of it. And it’s made me fall in love with this place all over again. I mean you can’t just weave a wicker basket, or a dream catcher in your garden in the middle of Shoreditch, because you would be lucky to even have a garden for starters, and where would the willow grow?
I have also done some dodgy calligraphy; looked into some environmental activism; attended a debate3; had a ‘repressed’ sauna (freakishly wearing a bikini instead of being naked like everyone else); built a fence; a bench; swam in a reservoir; a lake; done gardening; found a cave; a tunnel; and a whole heap of other extra-curricular activities. And, I am getting up later too, because I have gone and made friends and been all sociable until after 10pm. That of course, has a knock on effect on my get-up time. So Norah Fleex has been tapping her toe impatiently at the end of her road, not knowing how she got there. I don’t want to miss these real-life opportunities, for the sake of my fictional characters (I actually have pangs of guilt for writing this!); but to reiterate, I am still writing each day, just not for so long. But as Confucius said, "It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop."

Remember last month I briefly mentioned our transgender-hen? Well, she was clucking very loudly, acting like a total cock, because that is apparently what they do. When there is no cockerel in a chicken tribe, one of the hens will take on the role themselves.

So, Mrs Henman, has been clucking loudly, in the mornings and henpecking her contemporaries and generally being a bossy boots, telling them where to lay and stuff. She wasn’t fooling any of us with her cock-a-doodle-don’ts. What’s more, because there’s no real man, there’s no chance of chicks. So, we set about getting ourselves a nice, fancy looking cockerel for our little tribe. Over the other side of site there is another tribe of chickens with a plethora of cockerels, and we caught ourselves one and brought him over. Ha! I say this like it was an easy task!!4
Now, a very handsome cockerel heads up a little harem here, he’s ruling a roost of five pretty hot chicks. We don’t know if they’ve done the deed yet. Although, I did see him leap upon an unsuspecting brunette lady hen and peck her on the back of the head whilst flapping (I think this is chicken sex) AND, I saw him coming out of the compost loo with a different hen, a sort of speckled grey lady. They are making some alarming noises. At first the hens didn’t let him sleep in their tree - did you know that chickens go blind at dusk? But now, a week or so later, he’s up there with them every night and strutting about all day like he owns the place. So fingers crossed we’ll have some chicks soon.

Turns out there is a slightly macabre twist though: our chickens are a tad inbred and the ones down this end have extra toes. So, we may have some double-headed mutant inbred chicks or something weird like that. There’s science fiction everywhere here, but it’s ok because apparently they taste the same – all good story fodder eh!

Homestead Hannah x

1 Contraction and Convergence is the global framework for the negotiation and management of climate change. It supports the idea of global equity - carbon credits. i.e. everyone in the world has an equal quota of carbon they are allowed to emit and when, for example, you buy fuel, you pay with cash money as usual and also with your carbon card/chit/voucher. If you use green/renewable energy instead, which is carbon neutral you could sell your credits on the market, or to your carbon guzzling neighbour. Obviously this is only it in a nutshell!

2 Suma, if anyone’s interested – a worker’s co-op

3 The debate was between - a parody which hilariously highlights the idiocy of carbon offsetting - here you can offset your infidelity by paying to sponsor a person to remain celebate or faithful thereby not contributing to the overall heartache in the world. The opposition was" , a leading carbon offset company. So you can do what you like and offset your guilt. As George Monbiot points out;

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Make a Difference: the Feminist Library

Considering I'm both a feminist and a librarian, I feel a little slow off the bat with this one, my only excuse being that February and March disappeared in a haze of conference-speaking and hard-nosed study of first-hand drug accounts ...

The Feminist Library, based on Westminster Bridge Road has been under threat of closure since 2003, and at a meeting in February the management committee called for volunteers in a final push to keep it going. (Press release, 25 February 2007, accessed 19 April 2007). describes the collection thus:

The collection, started in 1975, includes a large archive from the Women’s Liberation Movement, with lots of second-wave material from the late 1960s to 1970s. With more than 5,000 non-fiction works, 2,500 fiction works from all over the world and 1,500 periodicals dating from 1900, the collection is particularly strong in the arts (the poetry collection contains lesser-known and self-published female poets as well as better known works), politics, women's history, and mental and physical health – the Feminist Library recently acquired the collection of the Women's Health Library, as well as already holding the Matriarchy Collection, and the Marie Stopes/Birth Control Collection.
(Local voice: Feminist Library Appeal,, 4 March 2007, accessed 19 April 2007)

You can visit on Saturdays 11am - 5pm or volunteer to help with the Saturday opening or "regular weeknight cataloguing sessions" (Feminist Library: new opening hours, new management team, Managing Information, 13 April 2007, accessed 19 April 2007).

Find out more from the Library's myspace site or by expressing interest and support to

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Moving from the epitome of urbanity to an eco-centre in rural Wales - A Writer's Diary

When I first talked to Laura Wilkinson about writing a regular column on: Moving from the epitome of urbanity (central London), to an eco-centre in rural Wales; I said that my main concern about coming to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)1 in Machynlleth, Powys, was that the idyllic countryside and utopian lifestyle could prevent me from writing. Laura pointed out that that was an interesting idea in itself, because essentially it's like I'm off to spend six months in the environment of a writer's retreat: something most would expect to bear the most fruitful of prose. But I find that a lot of my work has been angst driven: a blatant escapism from the urban trappings and excesses of a typical London lifestyle.

I have come to CAT as a Long Term Volunteer (LTV), working 9-5 in their Publications Department. In London, I worked as the Publications Office for the Nursing and Midwifery Council, editing their quarterly magazine; a job I may well return to at the end of this six months. I have been lucky to get one of the few sought after LTV places on site. So I'm living as part of the intentional community, which represents the origins of CAT (in the seventies, a few crazy pioneers2 came up to this abandoned slate quarry, did up the tumbledown miners cottages, and started what is now the largest eco-centre in Europe). I live in what's known as The Bath House, the smallest and most basic cottage. There are 12 other people that live on site, all ages, one of them just six. We eat together twice weekly and pay subs for our food which is delivered three times a week; all as local, vegetarian and organic as it can be. We garden and grow, recycle, compost, are about to build a new communal building out of straw bales and timber, and we use minimal electrical appliances (no toasters, electric kettles or coffee machines). We live as sustainable a lifestyle as possible, as an ongoing experiment and to my mind, as an example that it can be done.

MAN is it different to my shared flat in Bethnal Green! But I knew it would be, and that's why I chose to come. In terms of getting in touch with my resources, I shall never, ever just be able to twist up a radiator without appreciating it again. Also, we have our own water supply here, completely off the mains, and it tastes absolutely delicious; there're compost loos (which don't smell at all, although it is still coldish) with the rest rainwater flushable; a brisk walk to the shower, or a jump in the icy reservoir if you're braver than me; and of course, there's the ever-fluctuating power.

The Diary - Weeks 1-4
Roaring in its metal box is my little heat creature. I light its belly each morning and evening, and it belches black smoke at me; its hinges squeak as latch shut the phoenix-embossed iron door and often it grows so hot that I have to open the window and let some air out. When it rains it sounds different: not just rain falling on concrete, like London rain, the rain I knew; but rain falling on soft things, leaves, round twigs, the earth roof of my house, running off gutters and falling on piles of slate: wetter somehow, damp, refreshing sounds that treble against the bass of the fiery belly of my stove. And then there's always the tapping of these keys, my subconscious heavy hits where the 'r' and the 'd' have started to stick; making me feel like the handicapped writer in Stephen King's Misery. But always, at the heart of the sounds, is an enthusiastic purr, reminding me that before Stove came along, Laptop was my favourite mechanical thing.
These past few weeks, as a newby at the CAT, have seen my writing, as I expected, take something of a back seat. But not for the reasons I anticipated: it's because my little heat creature, Stove, takes alot of looking after. He is a gobbly little greedbag. He needs more attention than I ever had to give anything. I imagine that having a woodburning stove is not dissimilar to having a baby, and like a mother loves her baby: I love my stove. When he's too quiet I worry and check on him; is he still breathing? Sometimes, after a quiet spell of neglect, I look inside his hot belly and am dismayed to see his heart has died to a rich embery glow; but now (after four weeks of solid experience) with just a few dry splits of wood and a gentle well-positioned blow, his flames lick up to life again and I shut the door and he roars away happily.
Stove and I have a fairly good relationship now: it initially started off with some distrust from me (will he burn down my small, wooden, house-on-stilts down while I sleep above him in my thin Heidi-style mezzanine bed?) he repaid my mistrust by refusing to light, belching out copious amounts black smoke and then suddenly becoming ridiculously hot. The latter was my fault. I the inexperienced was stacking him up to sauna-heat-levels. Now, Stove lights up in minutes and is quite well behaved - unless of course I have a guest, and then he shows off and resolutely keeps his cool.

So Stove has dominated my life here. I get up as early, as I did in London, at about 6.30am, in order to write. But instead of the ongoing Adventures of Norah Fleex (my novel-in-progress), week one was taken up with the diary led: Adventures of Hannah Davey. It cathartically archives my initial grapple with many new faces, a very rural life, a non-hierarchical working environment, communal living and whole heap of culture shock. But from week two until now (week four) I have been able to write fiction again, but in a desultory fashion, which, to be fair, has seen me complete two shorts - so I can't beat myself up too much. But these small fictional victories are overshadowed by the nagging fact that Norah Fleex has been laying next to her lover Benjamin Ambigraph, in a treehouse, for close to a month now. She needs to move on.
It has struck me, since being here, quite why people used to have servants. I have read my fair share of historical fiction: countless Jean Plaidy 'and' Victoria Holt3 books; some Catherine Cookson; Philippa Gregory; the Brontës; Kathleen Winsor; Jean Rhys; Sarah Waters; Suzanna Clarke4; and of course, fairy tales unnumbered. I have never been able to get enough of bygone days when women stitched by candlelight; stoked fires; dipped curtseys, and men strode about in britches and rode wildly through the moors. When everybody had hardships and heartache and broke cultural taboos with their illegitimate children, witchcraft and whatnot. As a girl, I was often caught looking wistfully into the middle distance, imagining I was Cinderella or the Little Princess. What I am trying to illustrate is that my imagination is steeped in the romance of a bygone age: and through living on site at CAT I have inadvertently fulfilled each and every one of those historical heroine leanings. It's bloody brilliant!

As most Hags members will know, there are a lot of servant characters in historical fiction. After all, they made up a good proportion of the population and were often more interesting than the noble-born. I have had a glimmer of an insight into the life of, or at least the reason for hiring, a servant. Sometimes, I even have a smudge of soot on my cheek for goodness' sake. And I always have sooty knees and hands and all my clothes smell of wood smoke. In London, when all my clothes smelt of smoke, it meant I had hung around in some dingy bar for too long. Of course, I can only imagine what it was like to manage a household of fires; and bedpans; and fetching and carrying; and cleaning; all in a corset and mob cap. My little house is leaning towards the grubby side of clean, but it does look kind of like a hovel. Besides, I don't have any hot water. So really, this experience hugely facilitates me being Cinderella; Heidi; pic-a-Vicky-Holt-heroine; Little Two Eyes, etc. I like it. And I also think that's why I'm more into my whimsy short stories, as opposed to the marginally more developed and contemporary Norah Fleex and company.
Living here for six months, I know, is going to be, and is already, an experience not to be missed and if Norah has to lay next to Benjamin for another month while short stories trip out of my head instead, and Stove and I get to know each other even better - then so be it.
There are quite a lot of things I could talk about next month, and there's bound to be more things that haven't happened yet; or I can just tell it as it comes. To give you an idea of other miscellanea I could blather on about, here are some of the things I haven't mentioned:
Climate change: the biggie, this could include what CAT is doing with its Alternative Energy Strategy; sustainable living and other eco-stuff - but don't expect a very technical response, it's all about enthusiasm.

Our transgender hen phenomena: she thinks she's a cockerel, but her loud clucks don't sound nothing like a cock-a-doodle-do to me.
The sauna: which sits on the edge of the reservoir and they say is traditionally used naked! I am being proper prudish on this one.
The quarry: an amazing suntrap dell of wildlife, which has been officially closed since the mouth of the tunnel fell in on the unfortunate foreman back in the 1920s, a couple of hundred yards from my front door. There are steep paths in, or beautiful walks round the edge of it.
Or I could field questions! So please do feel free to ask me some.
Until next month!

Hannah in the hills

1. - have a look, it’s an amazing place, its mission: to inspire, inform and enable people to live a more responsible, sustainable lifestyle. From building your own wind turbine to identifying wild flowers, organic gardening and why you shouldn’t leave electrical appliances on standby, it’s ALL here. If anyone finds themselves on the west coast of Wales, Powys, do come and say hello!
2. There’s a book for sale called Crazy Pioneers that explains all
3. Jean and Vic being one and the same, along with Philippa Carr.
4. I just finished Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell – if anyone fancies an incredible detailed and therefore thoroughly believable account of the flamboyant return of English Magic in the 1800s and its aid of Wellington in the Napoleonic wars.