On reading, making worlds, growing up: on survival.

To ease me into writing a piece for the new Dodo Ink anthology, Trauma: Art as a Response to Mental Health (here – out January, 2020: http://www.dodoink.com/blog/2019/2/13/dodo-ink-announces-a-new-anthology) I’ve been looking at my first book, Killing Hapless Ally*. This was an autobiographical novel; breathless, not without challenge to read and less than you’d think to write because it came after the life-changing therapy, not before it while the need was pressing in on me. Or when I was nuts and didn’t know who I was. Seeing literary figures in landscapes. Couldn’t compute at all that my fingers were my own extremity. Not then, after.

Killing Hapless Ally was the story of how a frightened little girl developed self defence strategies through pattern, colour and through a binding association with certain people in the public eye who looked kind, perhaps kick-arse and pretty or with a certain kind of powerful glamour (Frida from Abba,  Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey). These people became imaginary friends when the protagonist (well, she was me, so that’s okay to the people in reviews who didn’t like her!) was tiny; alongside them, a groups of authors and both real and imagined characters from books, or the books’ authors. Thus Albert Camus and, with quite astonishing contrast, Mary Anning the fossil collector of Lyme Regis. As a child and teenager I could see them and hear them: that’s how potent my imagination was. It’s like that now, actually. And, like miniature me, reading is a bedrock. It is has always been there, books consumed as if I’d die without them. Problems solved through the worlds encountered in books and beautiful language there, mouthed, sucked as soother for its mnemonic qualities and to stay alive, calm and in company. Which reminds me, something by me on poetry and mental health here:

https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/971/dedicated-genre-advice/writing-poetry/

Now, my sweet husband says it’s genius, this crazy old imagination of mine. I say, it’s because I was lonely and scared as fuck for years and years. And no-one knew. There was no-one to tell because my mother had so influenced how I saw myself and so shaped how I thought other people saw me, that I was both ashamed and thought I was a mad and bad thing who jolly well should be suffering. I didn’t dare tell anyone what went on. My earliest memory is when I was three and I felt a pop of excitement because it was unseasonably warm, the faces of the celandines were open to the sun and I had on a funny outfit of some sort. A colourful mish-mash. Readers: I am always a colourful mish-mash! It was my birthday. I felt happy, warmth on my back. Then my heart plummeted – the same feeling I get now when people say certain things to me or I am confronted by certain situations – and I was scared again. It was often an amorphous fear. It wasn’t necessarily – remember I was tiny  so I cannot remember it with a detailed veracity –  fear of my mother’s beatings, but more of the dread possibility of something happening and things being said and everyone knowing who or what I was. It has taken me decades to get out from under that woman and, more to the point, to get out from under the belief that I am a nasty little thing and everyone knows it and always will. My father and much older sibling could have done something to alleviate it – it was hardly invisible within the family home. I do remember my father removing my mother from me, handfuls of my hair in her hands; I have no recall of anyone holding me, cuddling me and, as mother of three and carer for two more myself now, I’ve got some pretty strong opinions on that.

Ah – all these difficult feelings. And, do you know, I cannot fully explain it but feeling like bad egg eldritch child led me to develop a sort of alter ego as a more palatable version of myself. Except that it all went a bit wrong and took many years and a lot of therapy to disentangle. That’s the Ally to to my Alison. The killing…well, it’s metaphorical. But let me tell you I took a few other people out at the same time. Actually, when I threw Ally out of a very high window in a site of special psychiatric interest, Albert Camus at my back willing me on with the rest of my long-loved posse, she landed on my mother, whom I’d thrown first. Again, not literal. Sloughing off of the selves, being given permission to do it and God Bless Wiltshire Recovery team because, without them, I’d be dead.

Here’s me, tiny kid.

‘The girl is standing on a soft bank in a spring breeze as the laundry blows high above her there in the orchard. The breeze blows cold, but there are currents of warmth about her legs as the day decides whether it will whip or kiss. She is wearing a long, chunky necklace that she had made of wooden Galt beads, a pink hand-knitted jumper and a pair of knickers. It’s the kind of outfit difficult to carry off once you’re a big girl. But sitting now, legs akimbo on the bank, she sees the faces of the yellow celandines open to the sun, the hedge full of primroses beyond the whirling laundry and she is happy. She knows she can bury her face in the violet patch and lounge there with their sweetness. That is, for a short while, because this child knows that after such delicacy come penalties and consequences.

Dozing now, in the day that is definitely kissing not whipping, the girl feels something against her elbow. She doesn’t open her eyes at first, but now she feels it shuffling towards her cupped palm: it is a thought—insistent; warm; compelling. Here came a voice now and the voice screeched, ‘Alison! Down here now and finish getting dressed! Hopeless dirty little child!’ (That was her mother.)

But also, the thought again, curled up in her palm: ‘Don’t worry, be a Hapless Ally whenever you need to. Make something new: to cover up you!’

The little thought in the palm continues to nuzzle; it won’t give up and so Alison suspends disbelief and decides that there might be an alternative to feeling skin-off vulnerable; unwanted. Now she had a new name to put in her pocket. She didn’t know what ‘hapless’ meant yet, but she figured it sounded clumsy; clunky and less of something―and yet useful. The funny thing was that it came to fit: right, like a well done sum. It was a red letter day: an invisible amorphous thing in the hand had given her a moniker.

 

But back to the things I am going to be writing about in the Dodo Ink anthology. I am thinking about how reading was a source of sustenance to me at an early age; a retreat and a way into new worlds and new possibilities. Even though I did not feel I could access such places, I never gave up hope that I could, one day. And my imagination ran wild, so that I constantly invented stories wherever I went, colouring things in. I was looking at Killing Hapless Ally and really struggled to pick a section because so much of it is about literary worlds. In addition to the books, I had a colour table and miniature books of rules that I had made in order to impose some order, I think, upon my world. I wonder if, looking back, the ruminating thoughts as a child, the phrases I had to repeat for safety and the constant careful settling of the items on the colour table where the roots of OCD for me. I can tell you, I no longer have that. I still have periods of depression but they do not last as long; I still struggle with a kind of hyper-vigilance at night, born in childhood, I would imagine, where I am watchful because I do not feel safe. There was more than one reason for that, too. I also have dissociative episodes which are scary as I don’t always know where I am and feel entirely separate from myself. Those seem to be triggered by events and people which remind me of my worst fears from childhood – largely centred on being sure that I was a terrible thing, a blot on the world: and everybody knows. Oh, but I read and I read. And now, I write too. I could get you a book in six weeks now**, that’s how my imagination is. It took me so long to write a novel – not to write it – I have written all my books in a few weeks; to get round to writing one –  and I was so scared to do it. Well, not any more my bravehearts.

Now, Killing Hapless Ally is on the move; when it lands in a new home, I will tell you about it. And I’ve got loads of books coming and being read and next year is a BUMPER YEAR with two books out and I am ridiculously excited and and and. Shh now, Alison. Here, for you are some extracts from Killing Hapless Ally. An entire scattershot chapter on mis-education. But first this; it’s about my father’s peculiar family; Welsh emigrants, they moved for mining and caving to the Mendips where they isolated themselves and thus we have another weird element of my early life. When my mother died – I was orphaned early – my father’s family turned up and compassionately announced I wouldn’t see them again. Then my brother cut off contact. I have mired in the most profound set in dysfunctions (as well as my deep joys of aunts and uncles and cousins who live colourfully across Wales). Oh – I am okay; ultimately, it has made for great stories and an increasingly low tolerance for people who tell a shitload of lies, upholding them to others’ detriment. And you see, this strange isolated Mendip world had its own beauty because my semi-literate grandparent recited poetry – and it was a formative joy of my life. Here is an account, along with a terrifying picture of paternal grandparents and something which could scare you off pickled eggs for life! It’s about words.

Do write and tell me how it is for you, won’t you? x

Off the dark hallway, seeping red cabbage waited for the hard-knuckled hand and downy arm of Grandmother to scoop and slop and lay down with less than love. No-one here would have even noticed whether Alison was just herself or being the more palatable Hapless Ally; besides which, they hated everyone. It was almost a relief for the child. It didn’t matter who she was, did it?

Here, all the skewering and squishing death-stories were told as gentle reminiscence, horrible endings so comforting over an otherwise silent dinner on the huge table by the old range with the clothes on the Sheila Maid hanging overhead. Frequently, in this exposed position on The Hill, the wind would whip up, Grandpa’s chickens screamed like banshees, timbers creaked and doors quavered and smashed shut: perhaps the unquiet souls of the dead, disliking the cheery retellings of their worldly extinction. Grandpa was nearly blind, but compensated verbally with story after story, determinedly still driving his red Morris Minor van to ‘The Hollow’, the next village along, to go bell ringing with his wall-eyed, big-foreheaded friends: if he killed someone on the road, then clearly they should have known to move and anyway, tolling bells stopped for no man. He was a fine poacher and trout tickler and handy with an axe or chainsaw, with no maiming or fatality up to that point. Had he lived longer, propped up by tales of incompetent oncologists, chiropodists with shaky gin-hands and mental asylums, doubtless he would have expired horribly, like his brothers. Disappointingly, he went quietly, not far from The Hill, in an old people’s home, which smelled overpoweringly of wee, talcum powder and the pungent boiled cabbage smell Alison associated with Terry and Helen’s house. The day he chugged off, the grandfather clock kept going, but the staked dahlias wilted and the cats howled into a place behind the pantry door where a dead grandmother must have lurked as she waited to slop and slap the sludgy umber pickles at future despised grandchildren.

Grandpa had never been able to read very much, but he could recite poems by Tennyson and Arnold and the whole of Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’. Those were the spellbound, golden moments. And it was hard to imagine Arnold’s ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ told with anything other than a broad North Somerset accent, a bit of a dribble and a touch of snuff on the lip and septum. It wouldn’t have made sense, which Alison remembered years later sitting in a tutorial in Corpus Christi College. The esteemed professor declaimed assorted lines and she thought, ‘Wrong! I don’t know what yer saying!’ It should have gone, ‘And firs grey o’ morning filled eeest,/And the fog rose out Oxxxxus streeem’ and not, ‘And the first grey of morning fill’d the east,/And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream’ in received pronunciation. But, however it was said, here’s the thing: words can heal. They can make you soar, whether read or heard. And you cannot take them away once brought into the world. Sometimes they are good even if a bad person said them; because the words can exist independently of the mouth that uttered them or the horrid geography that spawned them. It is magic.

And it is, oh it is! Here, I leave you with a whole chapter on my peculiar education. And I am off to finish my essay.

The mis-education of Alison

So let us tramp more through the forest of ardour later, and
tell now of Alison’s schooldays. There were a few things
worth the re-telling, but these days are really about The
Books and The Ideas, so forgive the story if we keep the
distinctions between Alma Maters necessarily vague. How
can it be that fourteen years of learning and the rest can
give us so little to crystallise on the page? But let us try.
For Alison—especially Alison wanting time and world to be
herself (whatever that was) and not to spend it as Hapless
Ally—the books performed vital functions, curing, as Larkin
had it in ‘A Study of Reading Habits’, most things you might
go through, but not school: school had to be endured.
Nonetheless, the books were always a vital salve and it is
impossible to describe these days without them.

Certain chapters in The Wind in the Willows had, we have
heard, the function of creating home and hearth; Alison was not sated by the pastoral pleasures of ‘The River Bank’
(although the hamper sounded a fine thing), but the tramp
through ‘The Wild Wood’ was read frequently because the
 place where Mole lay down to hide sounded like the crawl
space where Alison communed with Frida. Looking back,
all the favourite bits were the descriptions of safe havens,
burrows and long corridors where Badger shuffled along
with a candle and carpet slippers that were scuffed and very
down at heel. Alison imagined herself in a tartan flannel
dressing gown, rusticating happily by a fire in a sett in winter.
She stepped gingerly through the descent to Mole End from
the open road; the episode prompted by Mole sitting down,
crying and giving way altogether to his emotions, because
he scented home. Alison had no particular sense of how that
would be (although the colour table and the crawl space
in the wood did a pretty good job), but read and re-read
significant chapters, ruminating on place and on the home
and the welcoming hearth.
Alison grew up in a beautiful place, but a sense of safety
and comfortable enclosure were best achieved through the
pages of a book, so she turned to ‘The Wild Wood’ (knowing
that Mole would escape its dangers in a hollow and with the
aid of Ratty with a stout cudgel), the home of Mr Badger and
the snowy journey through the fields in ‘Dulce Domum’. The
chapters on Toad and ‘The Open Road’ were best avoided
because they contained a Fucking Caravan but there was one
chapter which caused a shiver, without a clear understanding
of its cause. It would make her cry and feel helpless and lonely
as a child and yet she wanted to read it again and again: the world of our subject was never tidy in the way that the world
of, say, Heroic Alice might have been (although, of course
as adults we discover we never can tell: for the glossiest girl
might be inwardly crying, ‘Help me! My bespoke underwear
is holding up my soul!’). Alison’s world, with its itchy palm
and its sufferance was messy and confusing and caused
headaches and head banging. And so she would run for
places: for dug outs or soft meadows, whether in real life or
in books.
Once, after lingering on stories from The Wind in the
Willows, Alison canvassed her classmates on their opinions
of the book and thus it was that a peculiarity arose: none of
them remembered a particular chapter—and this caused her to
wonder whether it had been imagined in a dream by day or
night: ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.’ It wasn’t the notion
of the child otter having wandered off, held safe by the great
creature, the friend and helper, and found again by his father,
but rather that it is about mystery: of something deeply felt
but, faintly, inchoately understood.
On hearing the pipes of Pan, Ratty knows he has found
the place of my song dream and when the moment is passed
Mole, ‘…stood still for a moment, held in thought. As one
wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to
recall it, and can recapture nothing but a dim sense of the
beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn,
and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard cold waking and all
its penalties.’

To Alison, it was like Caliban who ‘cried to dream again.’ 

She certainly understood cold waking—had many nights of
that, frightened, alone and convinced of appalling sin,
wetting the bed in her fear. Penalties were part of life;
sporadically most of life, and definitely the consequence of
happiness, as she had instinctively known that day in the
orchard, caressed momentarily by deferential celandines and
the warm threads of breeze. Alison would yearn to find this
place and its feeling, of sadness, but also of inscrutability and
throbbing, growing faith. And so into the nearby landscape,
she would run, early and before anyone noticed, to the fields
and the weir. Bounding out so early, unusually chipper and
comical, she might have been Hapless Ally, trying hard for
buoyancy and comedy. But she wasn’t: she was just Alison
and she was looking for something only she could see. Strictly
speaking, running out early was not allowed, but it was
worth the gamble. Yet would she ever find the kindness
of a great creature there? Of a great thing? Hope almost
exhausted, she would lie down in the wet grass and weep
there, knowing that the land retained a memory, sweet and
sad and buried, of something extraordinary there in the sods,
by the pounding of the water. One day. One day.

And so we turn from a tear falling on the grass, to a funny
little girl at school. There, everybody was reading Charlie and
the Chocolate Factory and acting out scenes from it; they were
crazy about it. It didn’t do so much for her. For Alison, the
book added little to her internal inscape but was more use for
the caricature you created to cope: she thought of the nasty, elegant little ballet girls as resembling spoilt, demanding
Veruca Salts. Augustus Gloop was worryingly like Terry
in aspect; Augustus just drank from the river of molten
chocolate rather than imbibing of the multitudinous spotted
dick, tripe and onions and any kind of pie and probably
didn’t watch ‘Countdown’ in a tropically-heated house on
Tyneside. Alison hoped that if she were one of the children,
she’d be Charlie Bucket, a nice kind of kid—and she would
have liked to own a grandparent called Joe. Alison was not
unfamiliar with the concept of relatives who never got out
of bed (although Mad but Nice Andrea tended to wear her
duffel coat in bed, not pyjamas), but for her it would have to
be Frida as your golden ticket companion. Or Helen, before
Cyclamen Terrace, the rain and the short interim before the
brain tumour and bonkers, with the smell of the cabbage
wafting up the stairs, but she was probably being a bit busy
having affairs and smoking in the cool way; sashaying in her
knock-off Chanel suits and cute pillar box hats. Adventures
that never lasted and which they never shared. Alison didn’t
know yet that the bequeathed Albert Camus was the gift that
delivered.
Now, while the peppermint grass in Willy Wonka’s
factory was one to remember as you plucked a blade and
sucked, for her it was a swig of cider in Fantastic Mr. Fox
that provided the correct dosing of comfortable and cosy.
Something about the illustrations of the fox’s lair, with the
table of plenty set out; something about the way Mr and Mrs
Fox were clearly crazy about one another in a truly foxy sort
of way struck a note with her. A note that spoke of hope and possibility. Another from this canon, Danny the Champion of
the World, might be a book for Alison to read securely now
in adulthood and as a mother herself, but as a child the fine
evocation of the joy between father and son was unreadable;
the book scratched and itched, however much you liked the
concept of pheasants being dosed with medicated raisins.
Moreover, they lived in a caravan. And we know about
them. Also, Alison’s father had remarked that Roald Dahl
was known to have disliked children, which placed him on
the same dais as Santa Maria and Alison’s father and she
could never get past the first bit of James and the Giant Peach;
not just because of the ghastly, mutually adoring aunts, but
because of the prefatory blunt description of death. Death, in
Alison’s consciousness, was always a-knocking at the door.
In books she wanted feasts, cosy spaces, secret gardens with
high red walls and gnarled trees; she wanted safe dark rooms
with tall drapes and haven hedgerows of red campion and
honeysuckle. She wanted all that and to be warm, silent and
extremely small. She did not care for a mauling, trampling
or skewering of the parent kind. She could get that at home,
with plenty of gore—particularly over tea at her grandfather’s
house. So what was needed was the comforting detail of
‘Concerning Hobbits’ in The Lord of the Rings (a winter
book), or the straggling but lovely roses of The Secret Garden
(a book to be read in bed, but only when it rained―and in the
autumn).
Back at The Hill (thus interrupting the vital reading
programme) Restless Rhonda, Alison’s cousin, had died mysterious causes while apparently potting on in the shed and
there ensued much shuffling and whispering about the dark,
old house with the creaky gate and the old plum tree that
had been struck again by lightning; at the funeral, no-one
cried, but raised their waxy faces to the altar beyond the waxy
face in the open coffin and sang the hymns quietly through
cold, pinched lips. And in The Place beyond the Sea (which
is to say a corner of South West Wales), cousin Lewis had
died by his own hand, leaving his mother, Mfanwy, turned
inward and mute for decades, looking one way across the old
churchyard where her son lay and the other across the sea
to the islands. The Sound was a place where Alison loved to
be on the boat looking at the whiskered seals, but it became
tinged with the melancholy of a mother, looking out across
the water and thinking of her dead son; local people referred
her to her as ‘Muffled Mfanwy’ as her voice never came
out properly again―for she was stifled by an inexpressible
sorrow. Then Maternal Grandma turned her face to the wall
and Santa Maria responded with an angry bitterness: there
was a late phone call and she said, ‘I am going to watch my
mother die.’
It sounded like a play at the theatre; like Beckett: Theatre of
the Absurd. Alison hadn’t the faintest idea how to comfort her
mother; her carapace was hard and shiny and so hugs would
slide off. Anyway, Alison didn’t really know about hugging;
she saw her relatives extend their hands and brush an arm
stiffly with fingertips, looking into the middle distance. That
must have been their hug. But she saw other people do
something different. Even kiss. To Alison, a kiss was what happened before a man fucked you and what, once, Helen
planted on her forehead, all puffed up with tumour and
morphine in bed.
It had gone like this: ‘Love you, my little one. It could have
been so good, you and me.’
‘Please don’t die, Auntie Helen: what will I do without
you?’
‘You will “lie down”,’ said Helen, between pops of clear
breath, ‘ “where all the ladders start/In the foul rag and bone
shop of the heart”. It’s Yeats, you know. You remember?’
‘I know, Auntie; he’s on our bookshelf, although we
haven’t talked to one another yet.’
‘There will be time, my darling.’
‘It doesn’t sound very good, though. The foul rag and bone
shop bit—and in the heart, too.’
‘Au contraire, my little one. It is where you will begin.
Where you must begin. And you will survive and be happy.’
‘I don’t know if I can do either of those things.’
‘But you can. And take the Camus from the shelf before
it’s chucked in the skip when I’ve shuffled off. Terry doesn’t
read French and I wonder—but I love him; I do love him,
pet—whether he thinks the examined life is one best avoided.
Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’ve got to stay at Cyclamen
Terrace now, so you take Albert. Look: isn’t he handsome,
too? Maybe he can look after you now?’
Helen knew. She knew everything about Alison. And she
gave her the knowing look: the one which said, ‘You will
become the girl who did.’

‘One day,’ thought Alison, ‘perhaps I can begin and do
what she described.’
Helen kissed her.
‘What did you just do? What was that thing?’
‘I kissed you. Because I love you. It’s what we do.’
Home was silent. No kisses. No ladders. For reasons that
weren’t explained, Alison was not allowed to attend Maternal
Grandma’s funeral. That being so, the girl, true to form,
wondered if she was implicated in her grandmother’s death
and that was why she should not attend the funeral. It was
frightening and shaming and Santa Maria spat angry tears
when her daughter tried to help.
‘I want to make you feel better. And I thought, if Muffled
Mfanwy was at the funeral, I could help her feel better too.’
‘The best thing for me is to be nowhere near you. I am
grieving for my mother. Go away, you little fuck-wit. Go to
your crawl space.’
Alison shook and felt cold and sick.
‘You, you…know about the crawl space?’
‘We know everything and if you’re not careful, we will cut
it all down.’
‘Did I…did I hurt Grandma?’
‘Probably. How could you do otherwise?’
Thus it was that Alison turned to her Important
Acquaintance with Mary Anning and her treasures: because
she felt she couldn’t be implicated in anything there and quite
liked digging things up. And who could she hurt on the
beach at Lyme Regis?
Mary Anning was the carpenter’s daughter from Lyme Regis, she who collected many fine fossil specimens and
found the first ichthyosaur. Acquaintances now, but the
friendship was coming along, although Alison was always in
the way on the beach. There were some hitches, though:
Mary had a cunning little Jack Russell called Tray and Alison
hated him for his perspicacity. When Mary wasn’t looking,
Tray became a leering little black dog who said, like the itchy
scratchy sometime thought in the palm, ‘Better watch out. It’s
going to get you Alison. Or are you Hapless Ally? Which is
you? Which is better? Wait and see. Woof ha ha woof!’
Alison was desperately clumsy and could do a lot of
damage when Mary was cleaning off major specimens with
all her little tools and brushes, so there were lovers’ tiffs and
consigning to storerooms to cause less damage. But Mary
behaved as if she were fond of her and when Alison closed
her eyes, she would imagine that she and Mary were walking
along the Jurassic coast, towards Golden Cap or Black Ven.
Mary would tell off her foolish friend for knocking over
the ‘curies’, the abbreviation Mary gave to the curiosities, the
fossils she collected.
‘No not like thaaaat (in her gentle and flavourful Dorset
accent), you are just hapless—and go gently through Father’s
shop. Step away before ‘tis broken.’
There were some fine things, tumbled onto the floor by
her clumsy friend. Things that, ‘Ah! Things that could have
reached a pretty penny with the folk in London, if you hadn’t
have been and knocked them on the floor. Ah! Anyone ever
told you were haaapless, Alison?’
Well, that was ironic.

Mary had extraordinary faith in herself. She didn’t care
whether other people were interested or not; she was just
led by her eye along the beach, knowing what was worth
the collect and what was just beef. She told Alison that her
vigorous way had been formed by—a story many folk in
Lyme Regis knew—being hit by lightning as an infant. She
had been under a tree and three women with her had been
struck dead, while the infant Mary survived, thrived and
bloomed. Alison watched her in awe and thought that, if she
were struck by lightning, it would be more as it was in the
Stevie Smith poem, where a girl contemplates how it would
be nice to get hit by lightning and killed while she was just
walking across a field, not that anyone would be bothered.
Alison, struck, would be fried and dead, or all raggedy and
alive and Santa Maria going, ‘What have you done now, you
little maggot? Haven’t I been punished enough?’
Mary Anning was the first and last person Alison could
imagine was pretty in a grubby bonnet, stained by the blue
lias—and a dirty apron over the plainest of grey dresses. And
her little dog, Tray, skipped joyfully behind her, but growled,
skulked and strolled behind Alison, when Mary bent
suddenly to dig. Mary was light on her feet and she had the
great love of her father. There were men, important men,
who loved her too, later. Or at least that was the gossip Alison
would hear, whispered in the sea breeze on the Jurassic Coast.
She thought she wanted to have Mary’s clear and unwavering
gaze, but instead she fell over the rocks and picked up the
wrong stones. And, in the end, Mary dumped her for the
more sophisticated Miss Philpot and that was that.

She shouted as Alison left the workshop, jars tumbling
behind her, ‘You really are haaaaapless. Ha ha ha! Take
thaaaat! Duck now: ‘tis a bezoar!’
Mary had thrown a bezoar—a coprolite—at her: fossilised
dinosaur shit. Another face and voice to mock.
Her mother had bought her the book and now quoted
Charles Dickens on Mary Anning to her, ‘Look: here’s
something that could never apply to you, hahaha: “The
carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself and has
deserved to win it.” Heroic Alice or Mary Anning you will
never be.’
Alison knew that this was a fair observation, but it felt
pointed and, useless palaeontologist that she was and would
ever surely be, the quotation stung. Now, on the bedroom
shelf, Mary was laughing at her throatily from within the
book and her laughter had been joined by the more sedate
chuckle of Miss Philpot and the laughing, goading raised
eyebrow of Santa Maria. Bitches.
‘I wish I had a coprolite to throw! Santa Maria’s right!’
After this humiliation, Alison put the book Mary Anning’s
Treasures to the back of the shelf, behind the Bible full of God
who was Dead if He ever Existed and went back to spending
more time with Frida in the crawl space, while it lasted. Frida
said, ‘Oh ya, fossils and mud. Not good. I’d like to see her
survive a Swedish winter. Bonnets and aprons? Not not hot.
How about ice skating with me? Björn could meet us. He’s
still mad for you and has written ‘Fernando’ in your honour.
You could borrow my fur muff, if you like. Muffs are hot!’

In addition to the friendships, there were many love affairs
over the years. Sunday afternoons, even as a child, would find
Alison’s mouth full of Porphyro’s marvellous jellies and fruits
from ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. For her, the identification of
the author was a little like that of Pip at the beginning of
Great Expectations, deciphering what his parents might have
looked like from the graphology of the stones. Except Alison
decided who and what John Keats was from the beautiful
ochre leather-covered book, its spine and title pages limned
with fulsome gold. She had a sense of who he was even
before she ventured inside and saw pages featuring the most
winsome picture of John Keats, with a frontispiece of autumn
fruits, putti, roses and waving grasses. The font was
beautifully rounded and the words Keats Poetical Works
looked like they might be edible. Certainly, Keats didn’t look
as if he could build a wall or do anything really manly, but
he was her first blueprint of what a sensitive man might look
like and possibly the first man she fell in love with, aged
ten. Clearly, Alison’s attachment to John Keats (or ‘JK’ as she
liked to call him) was not what you might call a normal first
crush. The shirt was loose at the neck, white and flowing,
and the eyes were intense and sad. There was absolutely
no doubt he would have understood her, unlike her actual
boyfriend Stuart, in school, who touched her chest under a
table in the school library and said, ‘Look your boobies are
developing.’ JK would never have stooped to that. He would
have been too embarrassed and tried euphemism; harked to
The Ancients. But Stuart moved to Barnsley and she went
back to lounging about with Keats and never returned Stuart’s letters. He kept writing, ‘I love you’ and, ‘I bet you’ve
got big boobies now’ and enclosed some black jacks and a
rainbow chew. But what did he know about Greece, urns,
autumn, plants or men in closets with spectacular feasts while
a soft amethyst light was gently falling on their beloved’s
breast? (Or boobie?) But JK wrote, ‘I wish that I were alone
and in your arms or that a thunderbolt would strike me.’
Lines were declaimed with the stroke of a nascent breast
and a hot cheek. They did well to stay hidden while, on
the other side of the sofa, Alison’s parents scowled their way
through ‘Songs of Praise’.
‘Look, dear! Those fuck-wits are miming. Obviously
miming!’
Keats stayed with Alison for some years; her Sunday
afternoon love affair, there by the bookcase, on the scratchy
carpet behind the sofa. Sometimes poor old JK had to stay
entirely in the book because he had something called
consumption and needed his rest and some wet cloths over
his face, but that was part of the romance. Mind you, he
did get a bit demanding, asking her where she had been,
could she alter lines in her letters to him—which she wrote
when she was away in The Fucking Caravan—here and there
so they were warmer and kinder and she got cross once or
twice and told him she wasn’t going to fanny around with
that sort of thing. He would cough and his pupils would
dilate spectacularly and tragically and she would assent to
his requests. Much later on, however, Keats was moved to
the background as someone altogether more manly stepped
forward. Not for this homme a lie down in the afternoon, but a manly growl after lunch, some Gitanes and a Marc.
Step forward Albert Camus and also the story of becoming an
existentialist on a campsite. Not Albert; oh no, no, no: he was
far too cool to be seen in a Fucking Caravan. It was Alison,
trying to translate the world into something that made sense.

We have already shared fateful tales of The Fucking Caravan,
of the entrapment between two alder trees and, on the same
trip, tales of two blacksmiths. However, on that same
‘holiday’, parked up by the Seine and sitting under the
willows for days (with her parents somewhere else; they
didn’t say) Alison began a roaring and extraordinary affair
with Camus. It was a reading summer, between the two
sixth form years. All around was the sense that people were
dropping like flies and the deaths of Dad and Santa Maria
must surely be imminent; she just hoped, ever practical, they
didn’t happen when the two were out in the car, or maybe
driving on to the cross-channel ferry, with everyone hooting
furiously behind them. But the reading: for days on end by
the river: Sartre’s Nausea, Genet’s The Thief, and, best of all,
Camus’s The Plague, The Fall, The Outsider and Selected Essays
and Notebooks. Also, at speed on the journey home, Simone
de Beauvoir’s The Force of Circumstance and, cheerily, A Very
Easy Death. When she got home, Alison devoured Gide’s
Straight is the Gate and Fruits of the Earth: ‘Nathaniel—I will
teach you fervour!’ Fervour: Holy Fuck—what was fervour?
What was lust for life? Were those things somewhere in the
unknowable distance, just visible beyond the bacon grease of The Fucking Caravan? She was intoxicated: dislocated
entirely from her surroundings. The dislocation did not
provide a new or unfamiliar sensation, but this kind of
dislocation was one in which she was on fire and in splendid
company.
‘Come. Come away with me now. Tonight,’ said Albert
Camus.
Now, one could dwell on the literary qualities of Sartre
and Simone de Beauvoir, but the most impressive thing for
an adolescent Alison (she whose constant companions to date
had been imaginary Swedes in a crawl space) was the sense
she gained of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s love affair; that they
wrote and argued and shared and, of course, smoked (like
Helen) in the cool way. And when de Beauvoir wrote about
her love affair with Nelson Algren—not to mention sharing
bricks (bricks: Ooh la la!) of raspberry ice cream with
him—Alison had a peculiar light-headed and heavy-hearted
sensation. It was, we would have to say, the first knowledge
of the erotic. And it hurt, because it didn’t exist in any part
of the real world, where there was just getting off and, for
some girls, an early, clumsy, grasping fuck. When Simone
de Beauvoir wrote of their ‘contingent lovers’; of love affairs,
known about by both but clearly allowable and part of
happen-stance rather than a dedication for a lifetime, it
sounded both painful and delicious. How entirely entrancing
for the teenage Alison that de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote and
expressed an intensely creative life to one another. This was
something Alison could never quite get out of her head. And
when she tried and failed to engage something which might look like it, the stone dropped in her heart and she was scared
to open her hand in case the frightening thought was there,
pressed into the palm, waiting to open. And she was scared of
being herself: Just Alison (as Denis the Lusty Blacksmith had
it), while in her heart remained the appalling leaden feeling
and the acute sense of being separate; eldritch-girl, possibly a
killer; not inclined to the magazines and spontaneity of her
female peers: missing the point always. Wrong and Weird Kid.
She willed herself to live on in a way that was meaningful
and hoped that she would find people to discuss these feelings
with; that she could know someone who understood about
absurdity, existence precedes essence or the frightening
experience Sartre’s Roquentin has when, in Nausea, he
touches a door handle and comes face to face with jarring,
sickening anguish: that anguish lived alongside Alison
permanently. At five, it had started somewhere after Saturday
morning cartoons, as the day unfurled; at sixteen it began
after Weetabix and before the first application of lip-gloss.
‘This I understand: it is when the scenery collapses,’ said
Camus.
He made it sound exciting in his low tone. But it wasn’t
in real terms: at least, not yet; instead, it was terrifying and
yet Alison had a timorous sense that from that terror came
only a beginning. That definitely made sense. Good God:
intellectual heat; the erotic in its most subtle form; a notion
of how to live with hope, when God quite clearly does not
exist and we must travel to the frontiers of our anxiety to
understand where to start. Alison was not asking much in a
man, then.

Ah—but one ready day along came Albert, ready for
action. If you have ever read his peculiar, flat, sparkling, cold
story of Meursault in The Outsider, then there is little to
express. But if not, imagine a wandering, solitary individual,
not inclined or feeling the pressure to act as expected. Not
cruel, but mercenary because appetitive; plainly erotic in
responding to his needs as and when they push forward,
articulate of who and what he is and yet without what would
feel like morality to us. He did not cry when his mother
died; he shot a man on the beach and did not express regret,
only annoyance. For the teenage girl, it hit a nerve. The
description Camus had of his protagonist as a solitary and
wandering individual; as somebody entirely alone and on
the edges of society, now, that was the truest description of
her to date. It was—and there is no other way to say this—a
first orgasm. Not only with the plainness of the character
and Camus’s prose, which Alison gamely attempted in both
French and English, but also because of the man. Let us
describe him. Alison had to get over Meursault first, a man
both in love with the world and separate from it. Camus
told her of how his protagonist was inspired by a stubborn
passion, for the absolute and for truth. His truth remained
a negative truth, but it had its own beauty and without it
there could be no adroit comprehension of ourselves and of
the world; no self-containment. Meursault’s life was that of
a foreigner—a stranger—to the society in which he lived,
and he wandered about on the fringe, in the shadows of
others’ lives: plain, but deeply sensual. Such descriptions made
Meursault enormously attractive to Alison and made her fall more for the man who wrote him into being. Such a telling
of the outsider, the wandering foreigner living and breathing
a negative truth, pierced and had a difficult heat for her
because, of course, that was Alison. We could say she was
Weird Kid—plenty did and probably still do—but L’Etrangère
would sound altogether more arousing, non?
Alison had photocopied a picture of Camus: it was of
him, apparently sitting on a rather lopsided sofa, and leaning
forward with his hands tensed, his mouth slightly open, his
eyebrows raised and his trousers showing his socks as he
inclined towards a co-combatant to advance his argument.
He was so fabulously French; so fabulously exotic because he
came from Algeria, that he carried off the sock thing with
élan; socks were not normally a detail of erotic piquancy.
Camus might have been describing how brilliant it was that
William Faulkner had pulled off the language of high
tragedy; that a man from Mississippi could find language
that was simple enough to be our own and lofty enough
to be tragic. Or perhaps he was dictating something for the
Resistance magazine, ‘Combat’, of which he was the Editor
in Chief. But, to a teenage girl, under his spell, he was also
evincing arguments for ‘Come away with me.’
And, ‘Let me show you.’
Or, ‘Let me show you how to live in the face of despair. Sit
on my knee and we will begin.’
And, occasionally, when the Oran sun roused his temper,
‘Come here now. Stand against this wall. I will take you.’
Was this what Helen had meant, in gifting Alison the
Camus as she lay on her Cyclamen Terrace deathbed? It was a jolly long way from a few drunken fumbles in the dark when
they—the boy-kind—mistook her for someone else.
Albert’s cadences were delicious: he was declaiming
phrases of profound, shattering erotic power to Alison’s ear.
And he had enough style to be vulgar, if he wanted. Camus
had a history of manly pursuits, too: goalie for a prominent
Algiers football team; a fine swimmer and athlete. She had
a sense of his being a consummate man. Funny; brave; a
demon in the bedroom—if you ever got that far, because
what are walls, floors and furniture for? And, unlike JK, he
could have built a wall or changed a tyre. On the occasions
when Alison went to other girls’ bedrooms, she saw they had
pictures of The Cure, or Bono, when he was ragged, young
and angry. She, meanwhile, had a picture of Albert Camus
next to her desk. People said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said,
‘My godfather.’ The notion felt entirely, naughtily fitting, for
the Camus books, en français, that Alison possessed had been
bequeathed to her, as you learned earlier, by her godmother
Helen, studying Camus at The Sorbonne. Perhaps Helen had
been similarly intoxicated (which made the Terry the Fat
Controller, the unexamined life, Friday-pie thing even more
depressing). So the honorific chimed as fitting. Plus it felt
like Albert leaned over Alison in a proprietary and manly
style. L’Etranger was inscribed with the words ‘Helen Griffiths,
Paris, le 19 Janviér 1962’ and Alison had always hoped that,
in leaving France for Terry, Mammy’s pie and a new life in
Tyneside, Helen was able to say, like Camus’s protagonist
at the point of death, that she knew she had been happy.

She hoped it was like this for Helen especially when the
morphine gave her respite from pain and the unexamined life
downstairs, punctuated by the sickening puffs of air freshener
from the Cyclamen Terrace plug-ins.
Now, in all their years together it never mattered to Alison
that Camus had been dead ten years before she was born: he
was there on her wall now.
Godfather. Most louche, brilliant, gorgeous godfather.
She saw in his Notebooks that he wrote, ‘I loved my mother
with despair. I have always loved her with despair.’ Albert
even understood the paradox of that! It was exactly how she
felt about Santa Maria. And by God (although He was Dead
if He ever Existed) Albert was brave: he would stand in the
face of despair and say that now he was free.

Ah, the growingupsexthing. Alison had hopeless
expectations, really, for while Camus smouldered away
behind her closed eyes, real life was, shall we say, more
a damp inconsequential thing than a smoulder. There was
Johnny in the barn. Always, ‘Let’s go to the barn,’ a bunk
up against a bale: no use there expecting conversations about
Proust. She asked him about books and he said, ‘Why would
anyone want to read boring books?’ But in school, there was
an important dalliance with D.H. Lawrence. It was Sons and
Lovers and she remembered mostly Paul Morel’s loving: not
the bit which was like a communion (with Miriam) but the
bit which was ‘too near a path’ with rather racier Clara. The
evocation of Paul’s mother, however, as he drifts back to her—and drifts to his own future death (as Lawrence himself
had it in his notes on the text), now that was a theme best
avoided during these delicate years. Besides which, no-one
would have got it because at that time boys just wanted to get
you drunk and feel you up in a dark room when the parents
are away. Only in reality, they were feeling up someone else.
Like Heroic Alice. Oh yeah: Heroic was still around; jiggly
tits, cool-thriving and diving and looking on her hapless
(again, ironic, though note lower case) counterpart with scorn.
She had the best clothes and hair; told the kind of jokes boys
liked. When she moved upstairs, the party moved with her,
while Alison stood downstairs thinking about existentialism
and, ‘I’m a misfit and nobody fancies me.’ Alison was
definitely Weird Kid. Good job she had Albert.
Not long after, Alison discovered Sylvia Plath: now there
was someone with an embolus of fear and an itchy, scratchy
little thought in the palm. Alison would act out scenarios
of meeting Ted, based on the diaries she had read; they
would meet, drunk and—again—smouldering (she liked
smouldering) at each other at a party and she would bite his
cheek. The room would hum harder and all was in a brandy
glass whirl; the blood ran down Ted’s face and along Sylvia’s
arm. And oh Lordy: the poetry and the sex. In class, the girls
would say, ‘Uggh! She is mental.’
But Alison would think, ‘Sylvia: oh my God, you’re
gorgeous! Look at you, rocking your fifties swimsuit, your
twin-set and pillbox hat. But you put your head in the oven
and I am so so sorry. You know, I head bang and cut myself and think all kinds of dangerous things. Your father might be
full fathom five, but my parents? Well, they are pillars of the
community. We are a middle class family and that, Sylvia, is
how they get away with it. Everyone’s looking at me Sylvia:
they’re saying they know what I’m like and that’s why my
parents are dying. You say you tried to rock shut? Well so
did I: when I was fourteen I took a big dose of paracetamol
and I tried so hard to die and come up through clear water as
someone else. It’s crazy, isn’t it? I even made a big mug of tea
to go with it and lay down with no note. I told Santa Maria;
didn’t want her to find me, but she said, “Oh well that’s just
typical of you, you little bitch.” I never went to hospital, but
I survived. I was always sore―but I survived. And it was so so
selfish. I’m sorry that you lost Otto so young and that your
mum didn’t understand you and that life went wrong with
your Ted and that you ended up getting a bit obsessed with
bees and water. The day you died, February the eleventh? I
will always remember you…And I think you were a fucking
genius.’
Alison reflected that Sylvia was the new Frida. She
certainly had some unusual imaginary friends. Frida had been
stylish, cheeky and coolly Nordic; she had always known
how to distract. Sylvia was a bit trickier: she wrote in a frenzy,
declaimed that she was a genius of a poet and made jam in
between times. Her diaries and texts were full of compelling
and weird images—mirrors, bees, foot lampshades,
candlesticks, panzer man, eating men like air, Hiroshima ash,
more jam making. She was both whore and domestic
goddess. She was a roarer of a girl in an immaculate twin-set; at once a plain, resourceful woman and, as Alison’s classmates
had it, mental. This wasn’t going to be tidy—plus Frida wafted
about Sweden, had a house in the woods, did a bit of
painting; was calm and quite the yoga buff. Plath was
unutterably, horribly, by her own hand dead in the gas oven
 and poor handsome Ted was getting a rough time at the
hands of the Plath acolytes. But Sylvia had the uncanny
ability to put into words some thing; some concept or anxiety
that Alison was trying to give shape and form so that it was
less frightening; in this case, the words with the tireless hoof
taps that meet you on the road years later.
‘Oh,’ said Alison, ‘the words. How they pierced and how
they pierce today still. I wish that I had a way of muffling
the words when it hurts me to hear them…But they’re
indefatigable! Always.’
Alison dabbled in Beckett too: Waiting for Godot needed to
bide its time, but Happy Days—Winnie buried up to her waist
in a mound of scorched earth in the first act of the play and
her neck in the second half? We were getting somewhere.
Once, in those days, a boy came up to her in a pub and
said, ‘You’re weird. You dress weird. You’ve got crazy hair
and a big nose. You’re really fucking ugly. Heroic Alice said
you were!’
There was a crowd looking on; no-one said anything
either to disagree or agree, so she was trying hard to think of
Denis the Lusty Blacksmith seeing them off with his tongs.
Or, ‘What would Albert Camus do?’ Of course, he would
laugh, in a hot, derisive, Gallic way and the youths would scatter like thistledown, insubstantial in the presence of A
Man. It didn’t work this time: Alison couldn’t summon him
up for circumstance pressed down too hard; she couldn’t even
summon up the alter ego to laugh, ‘Look here’s Hapless: the
better part of me. You’ll like her.’
 And where was Hapless when you needed her? Somehow,
she couldn’t be called up to adhere. Alison thought only that
she was Winnie, in the second part of Happy Days, except
that, unlike the brave and bellicose Winnie, the only word
Alison could say to the boy and the crowd was, ‘Sorry’,
then leave to sit down and punch and scratch herself with
Hapless Ally, who had now sauntered in, apparently quite
independently, and was energetically egging her on. Alison
realised with a horrible prickly jolt that the latter appeared to
be developing a cheerful autonomy: popping out to do things
separately.
‘It is this way that madness lies?’ asked Alison.
‘Oh yes. And Boo!’ sneered Hapless, now skipping off with
a popular boy who thought her lovely. She had that familiar,
‘I’m about to get off with someone, but how about you?’
look. The one that curled about the lips of the girls that could.
Absurd.
After this painful and pivotal incident, Alison considered
whether a relationship with divas might be more germane:
Dolly Parton and Shirley Bassey—heroes to this very day.
Dolly and Shirley will meet you again, later. They are gently
competitive these two: you’d love them for it. Va va voom!

Now, in the growingupdays there were days which, at the
time, gave the promise that they were eternal: these were the
Cambridge days. But the thing with the dreaming spires and
ivory towers is that there are untidy people under the spires
and in the towers. There are archives of beautiful things;
there are, indeed, dreams and the reveries that come with
absorption in something that is brilliant. But there are also
desultory cackles and fingers that point: it is like life and it
is not one thing. Alison always struggled with the question,
‘Did you enjoy university?’ because the answer would have
taken half a day: ‘…well, yes and no and story and anecdote
and dusty shelves and accidentally living in the seventeenth
century so I wasn’t safe crossing the road and oh―the clever
folk and the light on mossy Cambridge stones and college
bells at dusk and exeats and climbing over Magdalene Gate
at three a.m. and suddenly Dad (hereafter Vaguely Dead Dad)
was dead on the bathroom floor at home―and Santa Maria
was blaming me―and bedders and porters and dinner in
hall…and of course some days I unravelled…’
Besides, she had a relationship with three universities in
the end because of the ill-advised research projects that came
in later days. There were Cambridge, Oxford and another
fine institution that we must leave unnamed for reasons of its
name being too painful to write or say aloud and because it
was shit. Life in university days would have been so much
easier if not befuddled by roads less taken and kerfuffle and,
well, very funny turns. The kind of thing where you hear
the beautiful chapel bell ring: it is autumn and dusk. Outside
the city the birds fly low over the fens; there is a faint mist over The Backs. It is fine indeed, but Alison would hear the
mellow tone of the bell and in a second it would be alive and
mocking, pulsing and frightening—as the stones of the old
paths rose up to hit her face and she thought for a moment of
the story called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, by Charlotte Perkins
Gilman, where madness falls to rise as the patterns on the
wallpaper animate and quietly terrify their watcher. In those
times, it felt like there was another figure, watching her from
rooms on the first floor: it was Hapless Ally again, beginning
once more to detach more confidently: doing her own thing
and laughing at her host. When you are not wholly well, the
very ground you walk on can do that too, chanting mockery
and perhaps spitting venom. And all around, the mists and
mellow fruitfulness abound: but not for you; no, not for you.
You don’t know then that things can be different. Alison
didn’t know it for a very long time.
Books and more books were eaten up at speed as she came
face to face with her extraordinary ignorance and the more
she read the less she came to realise she knew. There were
Latin and Greek to try and understand; the whole canon of literature before the seventeenth century, as the mis-education to date had not even touched on it. Alison had spent a fevered summer in a static caravan (oh the irony) in
Pembrokeshire stuffing her face with books when she saw the
course contents for the first year. In tea breaks, Camus would
visit to discuss the reading; on walks, he would pull her by the
hair and bite her lower lip; taking her into a sea cave, when
‘Time was away’ and when it was, happily, somewhere else.
Sometimes, boy-Dylan Thomas was on the beach, on holiday from Carmarthenshire, but still dipping his hand in the fish-
frozen sea and Albert would say, ‘Oof—he has potential. He is not afraid of paroles. Now that is a man I could tangle with.’
Alison countered with, ‘Where were you Albert, when the
boy shrieked of my ugliness in the pub? When Hapless Ally
joined in? You’re my godfather and you’re supposed to be
there.’
‘I was in the desert. I went away from Oran to think and
took only dates and anise.’
Existence precedes essence could be a right selfish bastard if
it so pleased.
Such sojourns aside, and alone again in the caravan, there
had been a solo introduction to Chaucer, Langland, and The
Gawain Poet—a desperate and busy rush to fill in some gaps.
For the first time Alison read Arnold (although she had heard
it declaimed by Grandfather at The Hill) and Tennyson and
felt a wild urge to get started and also the fear that she did
not know very much. She didn’t. And yet the world inside
her head was the only world she fully inhabited, because there
had lived Frida, JK, Mary Anning and Albert. And those days
were heady and frightening. They were a helter skelter rush
from her parents dropping her off and sighing at the pretty
view of the punts on the Cam, a sudden collapse by her
father, groaning on to her bed in his endgame, Santa Maria’s
admiration of everybody else and then suddenly being alone.
Alison felt that she must make a life there while, at home,
everything was dying. There was nothing for it but to buy a
packet of cigarettes and steel herself to it. Start on the rituals: turn around four times, walk three paces, recite the first lines
of The Secret Garden four times. And do it all quickly.
Indeed, Cambridge looked to her a forever place, although
she must also have known that this was not possible. Alison
felt helpless in the face of a crush on Germaine Greer: she
had never seen this kind of confidence before; plus she had
humour and was most definitely clever-hot. The historian
David Starkey would visit: a severe, surprisingly funny and
brilliant uncle—before he became media Don and everyone
started being nasty to him on Twitter
#inthequietdaysbeforesocialmedia. Upstairs in Divinity College
sat Doctor Llewelyn, who always showed the students at his
own college the exam papers the night before they sat them,
although Alison rather gathered that it might not even have
been all of them, but just the acolytes with whom he shared
flagons of gin and possibly a biscuit. He made good tea,
though; his cleverness was incendiary; he once cried while
reading Dante’s Inferno in lectures and introduced students (or
perhaps the shiny happy students, who were everyone but
Alison, and who already knew of such) to Walt Whitman,
William Empson, and counting with utter concentration in
the observance of rhyme and rhythm. Alison was terrified
of him, though: his intelligence laid her bare, both Alison
and Hapless; both suffering from a poor education and, not,
apparently, the intellect to set that right. Alison would sink,
on Friday afternoons, into the big armchair in Dr
Rabbithole’s parlour because he gave the impression that he
was sympathetic to Weird Kid: he listened intently, offered
sherry (while she noted how disarmingly strong his wrists looked, as he poured) and once said, shortly before finals,
‘You’re brilliant but, for the first time you’re lucid: you must
be scared.’
That was the picture in other rooms and across other quads,
‘You’re clever but we can’t disentangle what you are saying
 or who you are! There are no signposts.’
‘Signposts? Ha! How do you have signposts when the
scenery has collapsed: there are no real landmarks: it’s just a
heap of detritus, now.’
Albert Camus on the wall kept a watch on proceedings,
Godfather with her real-time own father very much having
played his endgame after screaming all night. And Alison’s
night was not always very pretty, with its clangings and
jungle sounds and screeches. Albert could not save her from
it: probably, he thought she had to feel the despair to be free.
Her night said, in resonant voice, over the low tones of
Albert, ‘I am you. I have no signposts. My essays have no
signposts. They are all laughing at me. At you. Dante is
consigning me to the lowest rung; Whitman is telling me to
stay away from his Leaves of Grass; not to “loose the stop from
your throat” but to keep it in there: not to speak.’
In her dream, the poets looked at each other, looked at her
and looked at each other again, the corners of their mouths
contracting into a sneer. Santa Maria stood behind them.
Virgil was refusing to be Alison’s guide; Whitman told her he
was not for her as he loafed upon the grass, ‘For what did you,
aberrant, know of how it is to be lyric with self-reliance?’
‘But I know that I contradict myself and that I definitely contain a multitude—friends others can’t see, alter ego and
all.’
William Empson, looking askance, chimed in, ‘What I
wrote: it is beyond you, so give up now. There is no
ambiguity about what I said, so don’t look for it, worm. Now
go.’
Santa Maria nodded in agreement, laughed and barked,
‘Told you so’ and Alison woke up to the cold world. Still,
holding the feeling of the dream in a pocket or in the palm of
her hand where the bad thought would come, Alison carried
on reading and carried on having desperate and unobtainable
crushes; clever men left her aflutter for three years, regardless
of whether they were gay or not. Maybe they could be turned
with a jiggle of tits and a declension or two. Ah—but not by
her, of course: it would have to be a mighty show of Hapless
Ally and even so, trimmed of too much vivacity because its
excess would have made them stare in this socially articulate
world. While she simply did not have the confidence and the
hauteur of the Heroic Alice-like girls from public schools (or
maybe just those who weren’t repeatedly hearing, ‘I should
have left you in a bucket’) it still sometimes felt just like one
long three-year fuck: from time to time an actual coupling,
but generally just a theoretical one. Lexis, rather than praxis,
as Aristotle might have said if he had written about different
sorts of fuck. And I don’t think he did.
The fractured days were, dreams and hard spites withal,
tremendously, scarily exciting. Exams were managed only
after the little rituals had been performed and even then her
large, looping script was punctuated here and there with the tears she tried to stop up. And as for the excitement, Alison,
melancholy sort as she was, judged that to be a symptom of
its very mutability; the prelude to a universal ‘Fuck off!’ But
how about we just focus on Professor Pobble? For a while, he
looked like a keeper in a mutable world. Ah―but as what?

 

  • My first two books are on the move at the moment and so you cannot buy them. I will update you on this soon. In the meantime, I have some original signed stock for sale. You can message me through contact page stuff on this blog x
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Updates: on libraries, my books, edits and apocryphal texts

News.

  1. MY FIRST TWO BOOKS AND LIBRARIES

First of all, I asked for help from The Society of Authors and a flood of information came through. It was about how I could get my first two books stocked in libraries. Two things about that. First, if you go to a local library you will struggle to find books published by small, independent presses. Libraries, under the current government, are cash strapped and you may have seen news on closures. Well, we know how vital a resource they are – and I will write about that at length another time, not least because my favourite person, in a complex situation as a kid, was the school librarian and the library was the only place I felt safe. Ah – what was I saying? Yes, having received helpful information, I am in the process of buying some stock and donating copies to my local libraries and, because the second book is extremely geo-specific and most of my family is there, I am going to do the same with South West Wales.

2. Lookee here

https://twitter.com/NinjaBookBox/status/1046656144389951489

Ooh join in if you can. This is an online book club discussion about my first book, tonight. Killing Hapless Ally (March 2016) is a semi autobiographical novel; a black comedy. I feel compelled to say ‘trigger warnings’ if you are not doing too well, because it contains frank accounts of mental health states, self harm, violence, hospital, depression and dissociative states. Having said that, they belong to me: I am still here and writing this for you. NOLI TIMERE. Do not be afraid.

Killing Hapless Ally

Published March 3rd, 2016

Prices
£4.85 (e-book)
£10.00 (print)

If you want to order from a local independent bookshop – bear in mind that a big chain like Waterstones stocks very few independent presses, but they can always order – then the ISBN is handy.

ISBN
9780993238857 (e-book)
9780993238864 (print)

Anna Vaught

This is a black comedy in which Alison conceived in childhood an alter ego called ‘Hapless Ally’ to present a different, more palatable version of herself to her family and to the world beyond. Ominously, the alter ego began to develop autonomy. Alison deals with this helped by a varied catalogue of imaginary friends. The book is about serious matters: fear, confusion, dark days of depression and breakdowns. It carries a timely message to anyone pole-axed by depression or associated problems — or any reader interested in such things: you can, like Alison, survive and prevail. Ah, if you had to survive — would you kill for it? Now that is an interesting question.

Buy paperback from Patrician Press

SOME REVIEWS:
Latest Goodreads review. Thank you!
Killing Hapless Ally by Anna Vaught is an intense rollercoaster of a read which grips you from the very beginning.

A dark comedy, the plot follows Alison from childhood to womanhood, as she struggles with inner voices and the family around her.

I’ve never read a book like this. I don’t know if there is another book like this. It is heart-breaking, heart-wrenching yet also heart-affirming at the same time. ‘Hapless Ally’ is the alter ego, created as the more presentable self of Alison, to deal with the incredible family and social life surrounding Alison. My goodness, the life of Alison was hard. Unbelievable treatment from her family, and as a reader, you’re there with her, willing her, aching for her to get through it. With the help of her imaginary friends including Frida (the brunette one), Albert, Shirley and Dolly, and various doctors (some more help than others), the reader sees Alison finally get to a place where she can thrive.

I could not put this book down. If you’ve ever had thoughts that you’re going insane, read this book. It’s a wonderful advocate for mental health and the struggles to survive. I loved Muffled Myfanwy, and think she could be the focus of another novel, but then I could say the same for Helen. This was beautifully written; so much so that it felt like Alison was talking only to you, letting you in on secrets. A triumph of a book, and very brave. Therapy to write and therapy to read. Stunning.

3. The Life of Almost is a month old today. Have you seen him? He’s my drowned bard boy, come up to tell you a story!

The Life of Almost

Published August 31st, 2018

Prices

£9.00 (print)

ISBN

9781999703028 (print)

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers.

The poems are the author’s own.

“An exhilarating, exuberantly poetic book with such a wonderful cast of characters, I couldn’t bear for it to end! Like a song, a myth, a fairy tale – by a spellbinding writer.” Heidi James

“In The Life of Almost Anna Vaught has conjured a dark wonder. She writes a distinctive, thrillingly precarious prose, making and breaking its own rules as it glides between voices and stories and worlds with giddy pleasure and incalculable cunning. This short, concentrated novel certainly delights in the fantastic, but it is always rooted in the glorious thicknesses of language and landscape, the ripenesses of a blackberry hedge, the trembling density of a jellyfish.” Anthony Trevelyan

See Storgy review here: https://storgy.com/2018/07/19/book-review-the-life-of-almost-by-anna-vaught/

The first chapter of the book was published by the New Welsh Reader in May 2018. Here is the online edition: https://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=2241

The Life of Almost, although not published until 31st August 2108, was nominated and voted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in July 2108. It received a great review from baldoukie:

“Poetic, comedic, a reworking of Great Expectations set in Pembrokeshire, this is a reading delight. A smorgasbord, satisfying at all levels. The child Almost, raised by sister Perfection, lives in an underworld of the dead, with their stories from the past, and with the living. Segueing between both, an interweaving of prose and poetry is the story of his life. The Llewhellin family (my favourite is Muffled Myfanwy Llewhellin), alive and dead, with Miss Davies and her adopted daughter Seren, with mermaids Nerys and Dilys, with the convict Derian Llewhellin, and many more.”

Here is the latest review from the inimitable Jackie Law:

https://neverimitate.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/book-review-the-life-of-almost/

4. And finally. I seem to have worked quickly, in that I’d placed my third book and my fourth was out on submission before I’d published my second. I am soooooo happy that Saving Lucia will be published by Bluemoose in early 2020 and will write separately on that. I cannot tell you details on the book that’s been out and about – where it has been and so on – but I can say that it’s The Revelations of Celia Masters and you can read about it on my last blog post. Anyway, one of my tasks this morning is to work on the letters and accounts that are referred to in the book and which intercut its first person narrative (I’m gambling on this – it’s hard to pull off); some are also referred to in its footnotes. There is, here, an intermingling of truth and…untruth. You must decide. A selection.

Bess Masters: Upon My Sacred Mother (1663)

Virginia Dare: manuscript of These Living Sheltered Days (found 1650)

Anna Constable Lee: A Discourse on Witchery (1647)

Sir William Berkeley. A Treatise on New Britain. Two Volumes. (1645 and 1660)

King James I. An Adjunct to Daemonologie (1597) on The Last Witch (1625)

A Brief Account of The Indian Girl (Anonymous). An account of Pocahontas in London (1617).

 

 

 

 

EDITING SERVICES. TAKE A LOOK! FOUR FREE READS A YEAR TOO, SO KEEP AN EYE ON TWITTER FOR THAT.

Have you written a story, novella or novella and you’d appreciate someone else’s opinion on how you might improve it? I should love to help with that.

edison

 

Let me read, ponder and provide an objective critique of your work. I will look at voice, language, plot, structure and style. I will also look VERY closely (and several times) at your manuscript for spelling and grammatical errors, missing words – because we all miss those in our own work and, err, editors miss them too.

OR to put it all another way…

We can work on proofing  – checking for errors of all kinds. You might be amazed at how many words are missing or how many typos or misspellings have found their way into your manuscript. Top of the tree are those pesky homophones: words that sound the same but…you get the idea. There/they’re/their; passed/past; who’s/whose. Funny little things, too; like ‘to all intensive purposes’, ‘upmost’, ‘hairy fairy’ (a personal favourite that) and ‘passer bys’ – not to mention all those poor apostrophes which appear when they don’t need to and don’t when they should definitely be there! You can ignore me if you think I’m a pedant too far. Insisting that ‘disinterested’ means not having a dog or a stake in the fight, rather than being ‘uninterested’.  You get the picture.

Line editing – where we look at the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level and focus on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Gosh, you will read a lot about this. Culling your adverbs, for example. Showing not telling…

Structural editing (you might also hear this called developmental editing or substantive editing) and it is really the most complex and time-consuming stage of the editorial process. It means that you evaluate the manuscript as a whole and analyse for its author how well its constituent parts cohere. In other words, the big question is, ‘Does this work as a book?’ To make the matter more complex, not everyone agrees on what, err, does make a book. There are plenty of algorithms about on the structure of a successful novel BUT there are plenty of texts that defy those; there are many texts that are genre defying and experimental work. We can talk about that, because I also want to say that your work is your work.

I will also guide, encourage and do my utmost to help you grow in confidence; I will share what I have learned and I won’t pretend to know something that I don’t. I may also recommend someone else if I feel I am not right for you. We will have a good discussion before anything happens!

(Actual picture of me in book and author cheer-leading pose with my favourite pompom)

cheerleader

Details and prices below, but you could DM me through twitter for an initial contact

here https://twitter.com/BookwormVaught

Or you can call, text or whatsapp on my mobile 07814954063 or on my landline, 01225 866488. I apologise in advance: no answerphone because I bought one of those retro 70s style ones and they won’t connect. My email address is annavaughttuition@gmail.com Obviously there’s no charge for that chat. If you are in my area, West Wiltshire, it may be that we can meet face to face. I am based in the Bath area but am also frequently in South and West Wales. That could work too. Or we can do the whole thing online: you might be anywhere in the world!

So, costs…

Novel extract (up to 5000 words) and synopsis: £50

Short story (up to 5000 words): £50

Longer extract or longer short story (up to 10,000 words): £100

How about a submission package, to included detailed feedback on your cover letter, synopsis and first three opening chapters (or fifty pages – dependent on what you are being asked for at submission)? I am happy to  read an agent submission or one which is going directly to a small press. £120

writing

Full novel read (up to 100,000 words) plus your synopsis: £500

Longer novel read – you may have written a stunning and vast work of fantasy or historical fiction – £600 approximately, but we might need to have a chat because HOW LONG ARE WE TALKING HERE?

I will send your critique back to you within 4 weeks of receiving your manuscript and you are then welcome to have a follow-up phone call with me. Sound good? You may wish to send me a paper manuscript but a PDF, Word or a googledoc share are preferred. Either way, you’ll get a report from me plus all my little comments on the manuscript itself. You will know it has been read and loved and more than once.

ALSO THERE IS ONE FREE READ A YEAR UNDER MY FABIAN BURSARY. HERE https://annavaughtwrites.com/the-fabian-bursary-announcing/ You can ask me about that.

Ah yes, who am I?

*I am a novelist, short and flash fiction writer, editor, reviewer, poet and essayist. Killing Hapless Ally and The Life of Almost (2016 and 2018), Saving Lucia (Bluemoose, 2020), my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters is on submission at the moment, my fifth, a book of short stories, is published next year too – THERE WILL BE A SEPTEMBER ANNOUNCEMENT ABOUT THAT!- I have a second short story collection on submission and I’ve just completed a novella called The Zebra and Lord Jones. My short fiction, poetry and critical work is widely published online and in print. I’m BA and MA in English Literature and hoping to start a PhD in published work (focus on memory and trauma) when the multiple offspring are a bit older. I am represented by Kate Johnson of Mackenzie Wolf Literary Agency in New York.

*I am an experienced proofreader, copy editor and copywriter. For literary and business texts.

*Now, you may or may not think this relevant, but I am also an English teacher and tutor and former examiner. This means I am a grammar geek, a spelling whizz and dedicated to preventing crimes against apostrophes. I am a nerd on the deepest level and actually get excited when I see homophone errors or an it’s which should be an its. That might sound a bit weird.

*I am a mentor and advocate – meaning that a joy of my life is to help people – sometimes in very difficult circumstances – improve their confidence and skills. In other words, let me cheerlead you and encourage you to make the mental leap, if you need it, that allows you to say I AM A WRITER.

cropped-writing-heals2.jpg

 

*I read about three books a week. May I add yours?

The Life of Almost. My new book’s out

Welcome to the world, The Life of Almost. Out 31st August with Patrician Press; launch this week at the wonderful Mr B’s Bookshop in Bath. If you would like to come, dm me on twitter @bookwormvaught or annavaughttuition@gmail.com! Or here: https://mrbsemporium.com/events/2018/05/anna-vaught/

The Life of Almost

So welcome to the world, my bard boy, my heart’s song. Novella, The Life of Almost, was published on Friday. News on forthcoming books follows soon; I’ve a lot happening!

The Life of Almost, by Anna Vaughtkha 

(How about you take a look at my first book, too; it’s an autobiographical. A very black comedy about mental illness.)

But back to Almost….

Published August 31st, 2018

Prices: £9.00 (print). The ISBN is 9781999703028 (print) for book ordering and library use and the kindle edition is now up on Amazon, too. If you do buy from Amazon, note that owing to demand outstripping supply – BOO AND YAY – you can still buy there from Amazon affiliated sites such as The Great British Bookshop. AND there’s any number of wonderful independent bookshops. If they don’t stock it, they can order. Here’s a lovely spot – where I’ll be having my launch this week.

https://mrbsemporium.com/shop/books/the-life-of-almost/

https://mrbsemporium.com/

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers.

The poems are the author’s own.

“An exhilarating, exuberantly poetic book with such a wonderful cast of characters, I couldn’t bear for it to end! Like a song, a myth, a fairy tale – by a spellbinding writer.” Heidi James

“In The Life of Almost Anna Vaught has conjured a dark wonder. She writes a distinctive, thrillingly precarious prose, making and breaking its own rules as it glides between voices and stories and worlds with giddy pleasure and incalculable cunning. This short, concentrated novel certainly delights in the fantastic, but it is always rooted in the glorious thicknesses of language and landscape, the ripenesses of a blackberry hedge, the trembling density of a jellyfish.” Anthony Trevelyan

See Storgy review here: https://storgy.com/2018/07/19/book-review-the-life-of-almost-by-anna-vaught/

The first chapter of the book was published by the New Welsh Reader in May 2018. Here is the online edition: https://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=2241

The Life of Almost, although not published until 31st August 2108, was nominated and voted for in The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize in July 2108. It received a great review from baldoukie:

“Poetic, comedic, a reworking of Great Expectations set in Pembrokeshire, this is a reading delight. A smorgasbord, satisfying at all levels. The child Almost, raised by sister Perfection, lives in an underworld of the dead, with their stories from the past, and with the living. Segueing between both, an interweaving of prose and poetry is the story of his life. The Llewhellin family (my favourite is Muffled Myfanwy Llewhellin), alive and dead, with Miss Davies and her adopted daughter Seren, with mermaids Nerys and Dilys, with the convict Derian Llewhellin, and many more.”

Here is the latest review from the inimitable Jackie Law:

https://neverimitate.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/book-review-the-life-of-almost/

The Life of Almost is a short novel and the second title published by Patrician Press. The first was Killing Hapless Ally, a novel about mental health.

AND IN A WEEK’S TIME, I will also hold a stock of copies, signed and dispatched in 24 hours. Get ’em quickly. £11.50 including postage.

https://patricianpress.com/book/the-life-of-almost/

Depending on dinner

Here is something I wrote for submission to a journal, and which was not subsequently accepted. It’s about horror; in the everyday: at mealtimes, in fact. If you’ve read my first book, Killing Hapless Ally, you will have seen that I was sometimes terrified by food as a child. Because of the spirit in which it was cooked and the hands which served it. Sometimes that food was plain terrifying – as in my paternal grandmother’s pickles in the pantry. She disliked most people, had very big hands and once burned all my father’s books; parents think kids don’t notice or overhear, but they do: I was scared of the big hands and the eyeball pickled eggs because I knew those hands were book burning tools. At home, the most beautiful cakes; but the hands that made them were brutal as well as pretty.

Don’t think I’m frightened of food. I’m not. I cook a great deal and for lots of people; I might eat out. But then sometimes up comes a thought – eros, thanatos, trifle, we’ll call it. And yes, it’s scary.

Have a look at this strange little piece and tell me what you think about its content.

cherry

Depending on Dinner

‘What an awful thing life is, isn’t it? It’s like soup with lots of hairs floating on the surface. You have to eat it nonetheless.’

Gustave Flaubert

Boy-child went out for dinner with Mother; a bonding exercise. Childhoods don’t come around every day, though gluttony does and he thought of that like a disease; like something his family couldn’t help. Shovelling it in; nibbling and tasting. He remembered his parents holding mangoes up to the light, comparing the (what was it?) Dussehri mango with the Sindhri. Are they ripe, just so. Oh darling, let me cut you off a sliver.

Ugh. She fed it to him, that amber worm.

Oh. Perfect.

The boy had been repelled as he heard them snaffling and laughing like reptiles in the undergrowth for bugs. Or city foxes tearing at the bins and triumphant over a carcass.

Imperfect. Disgusting.

Now he read to her. Flaubert. Darling, listen. Large platters of cream, that trembled at the slightest jarring of the table. Oh yes, oh yes. Do you remember our wedding feast, my own Madame Bovary. He heard them making that reptile or city fox noise again, though it sounded this time as though they were on the floor.

So.

His parents were disgusting. They were good people. But they were disgusting. So were his grandparents. All gluttons, Shovelling it in. Salivating and all gross in their delight.

Now here he was, out with Mother on a gustatory bonding exercise. It was said to be a cosy little place. Novel, Thai Tapas they called it. Which meant small portions of Thai food. Novel. But  the boy was not excited to go in. He was scared, too. He’d not tried Thai food and thought tapas sounded Spanish and, he recalled now, all his experience of Spanish food was an omelette heavy with vegetables and a slice of manchego cheese that his turophile grandmother had made him try with olives. Now, the hybrid seemed mysterious, if not just a touch menacing. Menacing began to overtake mysterious and the boy quaked.

But still, brave boy, a glimmer of courage in there, too. Thank you Mother.

But what could there be to lose? Memories, now vaunting, were uncomfortable.

            At Grandmother’s house, as the affineur had swept forward bearing an old wooden board with little bits on it, he’d worried. That was because Grandmother expected him to try and he didn’t always want to; he didn’t want to disappoint her. The olives he’d liked; the cheese tasted of saddle and the hair of beasts in heat. He shuddered at this memory. Now how, he wondered, have they combined such things with Thai food? Thai food, Mother had explained, was sweet and sour and you couldn’t taste the anchovies in the fish sauce, but you did get whacked by a deep savoury flavour. And there was a smack of chillies. It was a flavour which could quickly become addictive. On, she went, as mothers do, about the aniseed taste of Thai basil and the lovely lemony smack you got too. And the boy’s anxiety began, surely and slowly, to increase. With it, a sense that he was becoming a man, or something, big and old too soon. His childhood slipping from him with smacks of rude taste.

Hot beasts in heat.

Crumbly white cheese.

Some sort of omelette.

Things lemony that whacked you and things that could be addictive

Aniseed. Wasn’t that like liquorice?

Another horrid memory. He felt ill, poor boy, but who to tell? His father had been cooking steak, waiting on his mother. He had a book open and read as he fried. The boy could smell the tang of black peppercorns and he knew the blood would be seeping soon onto the plates. Darling. Barthes on steak. Do you remember Mythologies from university? Rare steak is said to be saignant (when it calls the arterial flow from the animal’s throat. Oh yes, I remember. You read it over a steak dinner then. Steak tartare. My first time. I was a tartare virgin and you’d showed me the way. Oh. The clash of the pan had subsided. Yes my love. The germinating states of matter…a magic spell he says. The blood mash and the glair of eggs.

They were on the floor again. Thrashing. Beasts in heat.

He tried to think of bland foods. A boiled egg, Porridge and a banana. Plain toast.

Thai Tapas. The boy was trembling, but he was compelled to plod on.

Mash. Glair. Sweet. Sour. A sauce made of old fish but they’d disguised the fish because you could always taste fish and surely that was not trustworthy? It was a deception. What else was in there that added flavour, but which you couldn’t clearly identify? His other (slightly kinder) grandmother spoke sometimes about her love of offal, which disgusted him. Wobbly things; glands; greasy things. Hearts with the ends of tubes still visible; things you weed through. Stuff that boiled and fried and fugged up your kitchen with animal stench. Was it all chopped up, or milked and puréed and added to the Thai Tapas? Tripe like a wet blanket you could do nothing but die screaming in.

They tried squid.

Little prawn toasts.

Wriggling, once alive things.

I feel ill. There is something seriously wrong with me and no-one will come.

Things like ammonites. No more fossil collecting. Now that is disgusting too.

This restaurant. Very expensive for tiny things no bigger than the smallest paper bag of pocket money sweets you could imbibe for seventy pence, but costing six pounds and more, He felt he had to eat. The squid: texture of shoe. The prawn toast: where it hadn’t crackled in the frying, there was bread mush, looking like his baby sister’s fat toe skins after bath: mushy baby toes. He wanted to cry out. Boiled skin; flayed stuff. Jesus lashed. Mary crying. How? Why? And no-one will come.

Now he remembered the nightimes. Sometimes I am afraid to close my eyes at night for fear of falling. I shall fall and fall and not get up and it must be like dying or not dying and everyone thinking you had but you could not say. If I swallow, I can die. And I will fall. I’ve seen the pipes and the tubes of a human body and they are not well organised and choking could happen to anybody because nobody always knows what to do. A madness, a laughing illness could happen to you, however brave or clever or so well that you defeated a big illness. But he must not show his mother. And what if all this got back to Grandmother? She would be disappointed and trace it back to the wooden board when she had swept in, Maître Fromager, and make me tell her I did not like the manchego cheese.

He thought again of bloody steak, mango slivers, rolling parents. Laughing, oblivious, quoting.. And on and on. And when the pad thai came, again in tapas portions, he ate a mouthful and went rigid, aghast also at the thought he might expectorate six pounds eighty’s worth of noodles. Time was money and money was time, his dad said.

I need to go home.

Why? Don’t be ridiculous. Also people are looking.

I am going to choke.

You’ll be fine.

What if I die?

Of course you won’t die.

Why not? People definitely die of choking or it wouldn’t be on the telly.

Well…

So you can’t say it never happens.

Listen darling you must stop being so odd and understand that food is one of the great pleasures of life. A normal thing. What on earth has made you so uptight? You’re really not like anyone else in the family. I just don’t understand.

And he was also thinking, Take me back, I want to stay a child. Please let me. And, I hate you. You don’t see it, rolling on the floor and frying and slavering and your horrid mango slivers like a yellow corpse slip up to the light. I hate you. You don’t, you cannot understand me and you won’t try.

            More food came.

            And what is in here? In the Spanish-Thai muddle? All the things they might have mixed in or used to flavour it. Spanish omelette and heart and that nasty cheese that’s like beasts in heat and melting straw and rotting things and you said there were anchovies in it and things that tasted of lemon, but you didn’t say they were lemon. I can’t trust any of it.

And the boy ran.

Mother caught him, as mothers do. Admonishing, saying she simply could not see what the problem was. It wasn’t as though he was ill. Sighed and paid the bill, apologising to the manager. Over forty pounds for tiny things and indistinguishables and babies’ bath toes and bits of organ and weird cheese. And the memory of his grandmother looking disappointed in that way she had. He wasn’t like her friend’s grandson who would try anything and like it, too. Dear, dear. Boys today and I blame the mothers and if she had been my daughter I would have taught her how to raise a braver son.

And on and on. Crying into the storm all the journey home. Frightened to sleep for a death crevasse, all littered with manchego and nasty odoriferous hauntings, which opened beneath his feet with each falling to sleep jump. Rigid then until overcome, at four a.m. and too tired, too immutable with fright, to go to school the next day. And still scrambled egg arrived. This will make you strong. Like hell it will, viscous nasty thing made by the hands of beasts in heat.

Keep it quiet. Keep the house battened down. It’s hard to explain, this multi-layered suffering. If you took a food metaphor to deconstruct it—and you may know that planked or slated deconstructed food is all the rage just now—you could envision it like a trifle. On the bottom, there’s the sponge and that’s feeling guilty about being born and being a burden to your mother; the sherry soaked into the sponge is the shame drenched on you by (worst) grandmother because you’re not brave, not a trier, not pleasing or (alongside it) masculine enough like other grandsons. Then you’ve fruit. The fruit, first of all, depends on your poshness. Posh folk add kiwi fruit; the chavs, tinned strawberries—that’s what he’d heard them say about other people’s parents—no matter, though, the metaphor works either way: the pieces of fruit are the odds and ends of bad dreams and chunks of scorn and the lumber of certain failures, past and to come. The custard: cannot get out from the fruit: it’s viscous, like aortic blood in a bloody steak, or the gloop they drain out from the corpses before they flush; it’s death, being trapped. Ah, the cream, now what is that? It’s claustrophobia. You’re in a classroom, with the popular kids, and they’re pelting you on the back of your neck with the contents of their pencil cases and you don’t turn round. You’re told this won’t last forever, but you’re not sure because you were also reassured that choking wouldn’t happen and it did to that man on the telly and you know your mum was bullied in school and she still hates the school run with your primary age brother because of the cool girls she isn’t. So the cream. Gloop. Look, a swamp. It’s going to get you. Or is it quicksand, or the worst sort of snow or pus and infection and it’s seeping into you and you’re boy in bits but no-one knows. And there, in bed at night, or in the classroom being pelted on the back of the neck with fine-liners and protractors and somebody’s foul tooth-marked mouth-guard, that’s all there is.

Trifle kills. So do Thai Tapas. And Grandma, affineur, with her hateful tidbits. And when you fall to sleep, there’s the crevasse. And that’s what loss is. Going mad. Disease. Eventually disease will make you ill. And then there’s stuff you’re clawing at; can’t catch. Abhorrent  taste in your mouth all the while.

The boy sat sat rigid all night, for two nights: didn’t go to school. The doctor was called, but the boy wasn’t an emergency just yet. He gagged on egg and full fat carbonated and little tiny bites and even milky things that Mother was taught to get into him, somehow. And on the third day, overcome again by the tiredness, he slept and slept all day and half the night and when, at last he woke, he sipped with a straw and would never thereafter eat anything. Though he drank and gagged, but drank because he had to. No good toast, or pizza or roast or pasta things. Just fluid, with his straw, under control and bland, so no beasts on heat and that was that. And he wasn’t a child any more, though he looked like one.

His parents weren’t letting up on their own feasts.

Darling, look. Let’s make a salad. Do you remember Dido in The Aeneid? Yes, how could I forget? You were the one who read it to me, lulled me to sleep. She spoke about the lettuce and the long huge-bellied gourd. They were laughing as they crushed the foul garlic in the pestle and mortar, wrenching parsley from the ground and foul red onions. Laughing.

And on. And on. Slurp. Sip. What is wrong with him? Wrong until he was taller man-boy, then old man, being pumped and drained, too late to chew or bite; all gone. Anyway, childhood gone; all swallowed up by the fear-thing. The fear-thing you see out of the corner of your eye. That you try not to see. So you have a bun; a consoling cup of tea; a chat. And you hope it all, life—like this tale, really—is a metaphor for something greater, then discover it isn’t.

Yes, there were cups of tea, he could manage tea, but still he went toes up. Ill, mad, eyes not seeing and no-one came. He wasn’t dry for lack of fluid but his gums were violet and teeth pretty for lack of use; deep gorges around his lips for sucking life through straws.

At the wake, the glacé cherries winked from the top of the trifle, adorning the cream, custard, fruit and sherry-soaked sponge; a late addition for festivity’s sake. It wasn’t a kind wink. For cherries are little ruby fucker-devils; you could suffocate in a sponge; if the gin-poor had had more money, they’d have been expunged by sherry; custard and cream: get your foot wrong, and slurp, like a swamp and you’re under.

That poor boy.

Oh well, we tried, said his even older mother to his even older father. But he was nothing like us, was he? In the end, it was like a disease in our family, so I had to turn away, for my own preservation. Your own sweet preservation, darling. I must say—and I’m quoting Kierkegaard though obviously you’d know that—that it’s a shame how some men’s lusts are dull and sluggish, their passions sleepy. Oh I know, my love. That was him.

Now parcel up the rest of the food. You and I will have a midnight feast.

Raising Sparks: an interview with Ariel Kahn about his debut novel

 Here is an interview with Dr Ariel Kahn. His book, Raising Sparks, published with Bluemoose yesterday. I read a proof copy some time and loved it. I’ve asked quite a range of questions here – not too many spoilers – and you’ll see that I’ve also asked him a little about the publisher and about indie presses. Both are close to my heart because over the past few years I’ve taken so much delight in making much of my own reading from small presses and writing for them. Also, my third novel, Saving Lucia, will be published by Bluemoose in 2020.  And my goodness they are doing well: amongst other things, author Ben Myers just won the Sir Walter Scott prize for The Gallows Pole. (Read now; the press bookshop is on the website listed at bottom!)

But back to you, Ariel. Congratulations and on with the questions.

Malka Sabbatto is a young woman who flees the confines of her traditional family in Jerusalem, followed by Moshe, a Russian immigrant and her father’s top student. After falling in with a sinister cult in Safed she escapes to Jaffa, where she starts to build a new life under the wing of an Arab chef. When she feels she has finally found contentment, a family tragedy forces her to return to Jerusalem.

RAISING SPARKS reveals the hidden worlds, shared histories and unknown stories of the modern Middle East. (From the publisher.)

raising sparks

For those who are about to read your book, tell me about its title and the beautiful illustration on the cover. It’s a tree which looks to be reflected and also part blooming, part aflame.

Hi Anna! Thanks for these very leading questions. So Raising Sparks is a concept in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, which really resonated with me. It comes from an alternative creation myth expounded by Isaac Luria, the 13th century “Lion of Safed” from who I’m descended. The sections of my novel correspond to the stages that Luria describes, and articulate the journey of my protagonist. He argued that when the world was created, God held back to allow it to form – contraction, withdrawal – “Tzimtzum” in Hebrew. Divine light then poured into creation, but the vessels that were meant to hold that light shattered, scattering fragments of light throughout creation. This stage is known as “Shevirat Hakelim”, or the breaking of the vessels. Rather than a pessimistic portrayal of a flawed creation, Luria’s myth suggests that humanity are co-creators with the Divine – we are responsible for the Raising of the Sparks, and for healing of the shattered world, known as “Tikkun”. How? As one of my characters puts it:

“There is a spark hidden inside everything and everyone in the world – every encounter, every experience, and every sensation. If you can be really present in the moment, you can set a spark free and return it to its source.”

The Tree on the gorgeous cover (designed by Stuart Brill) is the Tree of Life, a key symbol in Kabbalistic texts of the connection between the human and Divine. This always made sense to me, as trees are extraordinary beings, making food out of light, with their roots in the earth and their branches reaching up to heaven. The tree is sometimes portrayed upside down, with its roots in heaven, reaching down to earth – suggesting that the trees we see are mirror or reflections of the Divine reaching down to us, or through us. So on the back cover of Raising Sparks, the tree is inverted.

Malka, my protagonist, is a young female kabbalist in contemporary Israel. She experiences this tree at several points in the novel, and it is bound up with her identity. As she changes, so does her perspective on the tree. Her own abilities initially terrify her, and the flame suggests the power of the repressed rage and sense of entrapment she has felt. Working through that, she reaches a more whole place, effecting “Tikkun” in herself and others. She flowers.

Malka; Moshe. Is there any significance to those names? And what about the black cat that leads one to the other and to the room and to the tree?

Indeed there is! Malka means queen in Hebrew – her full name is Malka Sabbatto, or the Sabbath Queen. An aspect of Kabbalistic writing that really resonated with me was the notion that the reason the world is in such a state is because the Shekhina, the female aspect of the Divine is in hiding, in exile – when we raise the sparks, we help return her to her Beloved.  Another One of Luria’s followers, Solomon Alkabetz, penned a deeply erotic poem to the Sabbath Queen which is still sung on Friday nights in synagogues around the world to welcome the Sabbath. Malka channels this feminist Divine energy, and challenges and disrupts the patriarchal structures she encounters.

Moshe, Malka’s would-be lover, is the Hebrew name for the biblical Moses – though it is fact an Egyptian name, given to him by the princess who pulls him out of the Nile. Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s house, and then must flee when he kills a slave driver after identifying with the Hebrew slaves on whom their wealth was based.  So the name is bound up with saving, being saved, and the challenges of displacement and loss. My character is a Russian immigrant to Israel, who has come with his mother after the breakdown of their family, the effect of a tragic loss which Moshe believes he is implicated in. Like his namesake, water plays an important part in his story.

I can tell you’ve read the proof version of my novel, as the cat changes colour and becomes a smoky grey in the final version. Thereby hangs a tale. When my wife was pregnant with our second child, we went to a cottage in Suffolk for a few days to write. A black cat walked along the wall, and suddenly I had the image of a young girl pursuing this cat through the crowded food market in the Christian Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. My wonderful editor at Bluemoose, Lin Webb, is a cat lover, and realised that there wouldn’t be a black cat in Jerusalem. So something was gained in transplantation.

What can you tell me about how this book came to publication? I have to say a few things first. One (and I haven’t told Ariel this yet) I was already aware of the book through a piece drawn from its manuscript which appeared in ‘The Arab Israeli Book Review blog’ and two that my own third book will be published by Bluemoose in 2020 and so we will be in the same stable.

The journey of Raising Sparks to publication had some surprising twists. I wrote it as part of a PhD in Creative Writing at Roehampton, where I teach, supervised by the wonderful writer Leone Ross. Then I had lots of rejections by agents. I was just ready to give up and put it away in a drawer, when Leone posted on Facebook that there was a competition for debut novelists based on Pop Idol. Called Pulp Idol, it was run by Wowfest, based in Liverpool, and had heats in cities all over the country. The heats were all on Saturdays, which as an Observant Jew, meant I couldn’t attend one. Then I saw on their website that if you were not able to make the heats, you could record a short YouTube video instead, reading a few minutes of the opening chapter and answering a series of questions. My kids were not yet up, so I sat down, recorded the video, sent it, and forgot about it. A few weeks later, Wowfest got in touch to say that I’d been put through the heats and was one of the national finalists for the final in Liverpool. A was more than delighted. All ten finalists would have our first chapters edited and collected in a hard copy which would be sent around agents and publisher, so I already felt like a winner. The local Jewish community hosted me for meals, and the the Wowfest team led by Mike Morris made me feel at home. The final was in the Black-E, a converted church now a theatre space on the edge of Chinatown. We were each meant to read from our first chapters, before a panel of judges and a live audience. I read first, and Kevin Duffy, now my publisher, was one of the judges. I came runner-up out of the ten (writers, publishers, agents do check out the other finalists in Pulp Idol 2018, available as an ebook and in hard copy – they were all amazing). He liked what he heard, and asked me to send a hard copy to Lin, his editor. She liked it too, and on my birthday last year, Kevin wrote to say they were publishing me. I danced.

I love the rich evocative detail of the book. The pizza, water, tea, the cooking of fish, the doughnuts for the street boys and the layered sensual elements of the way in which you describe the bakery. Not just the smells, but the textures, processes, the pantry…Tell me about food in the book. Why there is so much emphasis on it? I was very taken with the glass of water which Moshe offers Malka so early on because it seemed so much more than the sum of its parts. With the bowl of peas remembered by Mahmoud that carries such resonance and recalls, for him, both beauty and intense pain. I’d quite like a recipe, too. How about something mentioned in the book?

Delighted that this sensory element speaks to you. One of the few written teachings of Isaac Luria is to do with raising sparks through cooking and eating, that this too can be a spiritual experience, which led to mystic pizza in my novel! I think cooking is an everyday kind of creativity, which we can do either mindfully or mindlessly. It feels very akin to writing in the way we combine ingredients which can become something more than the sum of their parts. Food encodes personal and cultural histories, and their mingling and development. Helen Goldrein, a friend of mine is a food blogger, and interviewed me about this element of the novel. At the risk of quoting myself, here is what I said:

“Food creates community. It’s a brilliant bridge builder. You can connect to other people through food because it resonates with everyone. In the book, the characters use food to communicate and open up to one another and forge relationships. A lot of that comes from my own experiences, here in the UK and also living in Israel.”

For more on food in the novel, see the full interview at: https://family-friends-food.com/raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

I’m so glad you connected to the glass of water, and the “Middle Eastern Peas” in Mahmoud’s coming-out story. I think our relationship to food is symbolic of how we see ourselves, and is full of personal symbolism. Both of these very simple foods have layers of meaning, both for the characters, and hopefully, in the novel. Much of the first draft was written in notebooks while sitting in a garden hammock, overlooking the hills of Jerusalem, right next to the herb garden belonging to Yotam Ottolenghi’s parents.  I love his food and approach to cultural connection in his restaurants, set up with his Palestinian Business partner, Sami Tamimi. I’m hoping the reader of Raising Sparks will experience the way words and foods combine in my novel to similarly transformative effect.

You asked for a recipe, something mentioned in the book. How about this? A brief extract from Raising Sparks about Jerusalem Kugel, then my translation of a recipe for it from Sherry Ansky’s brilliant cookbook, Food, which we often use at home (my wife Noga is Israeli and a brilliant cook – how people feel about food is an indicator for me about how they are about people too, and she’s the biggest-hearted person I know).

‘What was your favourite food as a kid?’

‘Jerusalem Kugel,’ Malka said without hesitation. ‘I loved the contrast between sweet caramelised noodles and fiery black pepper. Everyone else bought theirs, but my mother made ours, every week. What’s that got to do with it?’

‘Well, kugel is the taste of home for you, isn’t it? I bet no-one here has ever eaten it.’

From Raising Sparks p.247 Copyright Bluemoose Books

Jerusalem Kugel from Sherry Ansky’s Food, Keter, Jerusalem 2003, p. 144

Translated by Ariel Kahn

Ansky always tells a personal story about each of her recipes. Here she writes:

One of my sweet childhood memories is the kugel which I would eat on Shabbat morning at synagogue. Close to the end of prayers, an Ultra-orthodox woman would appear at the corner of the road, pushing an old baby buggy at great speed, almost running. It contained aluminium pots full of giant kugel, covered in wool blankets, which she would distribute in the synagogues of the city. I would push through the congregants and watch in amazement how her giant pots were upended over trays, and with the help of string, cut into slices. The caramelised kugel was sweet and oily, but crucially, spicy.   In one hand I would hold Kugel, in the other a pickled cucumber, chewing, sweating from the pain of the spiciness, and from the pleasure of the taste. From the silence that prevailed in those sweet moments in the synagogue there arose only the cries of pleasure from the kugel devourers.

Recipe:

Serves 8-12

Ingredients:

½ Kg of straight egg noodles, 2mm thick

One cup of corn or sunflower oil

One cup sugar

6 eggs

Three teaspoons of ground black pepper

Salt

Baking parchment

Method:

  1. Cook the noodles in boiling salted water until they are soft, but not too soft, around 3-4 minutes.
  2. Heat the oil and sugar in a deep pot. Cook over a low heat, tipping the pot gently from side to side without stirring it, until the sugar melts and caramelises (around 10 minutes). Immediately, but with great care, add the cooked noodles and stir. Don’t worry if some of the caramelised sugar hardens into granules.
  3. Crack the eggs and add them, together with the black pepper, and stir until you see that the pepper has been fully mixed in. Taste, and add a little salt if necessary.
  4. Heat the oven to 90-100 C. Heat a little oil in a medium lidded pot which can go in the oven, pour the noodle mixture into it, flatten with the aid of a spoon, and cover with baking parchment cut into a circle at the mouth of the pot (without the parchment the kugel will dry out and burn). Pour a little oil onto the parchment, then cover the pot with its lid. It I advisable to wrap the pot in a large sheet of foil. Put in the preheated oven. Cook for 7-10 hours. If you think the kugel is too dry and getting burnt, add a little water to the pot. If you cover the pot properly, it won’t happen.  Eat with pickled cucumbers.

Tell me about the significance of the sea and of water more broadly in the book? Even the title of the restaurant where Malka comes to work is of the sea – ‘The Leviathan’ (which you can also comment on if you like!)

When I was studying to be a Rabbi I was in an all-male bubble six days a week, studying from early morning to late evening. So on Fridays, which is the day off in Israel, I would head for the Tel Aviv beach whenever I could. Only an hour away by bus from Jerusalem, but a different world. The contrast was eye-watering. Then I started to notice little rituals in this supposedly secular space, and thought that maybe Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv were not so far apart. I loved the sea, and found its rhythm, colour and scent magical. Malka longs for water – she’s grown up in arid Jerusalem – while Moshe, with his traumatic history involving the sea, fears it. Water is also a bridge between them – he offers her a glass of water when they first meet, and she uses an ice cube in a key scene in the novel too. The Leviathan is my adaptation of a real restaurant in Tel Aviv called Lilith (after the mythic story of Adam’s first wife – there are two creation stories in the Bible – in the first man and woman are created equal, in the second Eve is subservient. The first woman becomes Lilith in Jewish folklore, challenges Adam, and becomes a kind of femme fatale for the rabbinic tradition – the dangerous, empowered woman  –  this fed into Malka’s identity too)  which trains street kids of all faiths and ethnicities to work in the restaurant trade, a lot like Jamie Oliver’s place in Devon. I decided to combine this with my love of Ottolenghi – only flip it so I had a Palestinian chef and an Israeli backer. The Leviathan is of course the great sea beast mentioned in the Bible, and Malka has some striking experiences in and around the sea. It is also the medium through which Moshe confronts his fears. Water is an agent of “Tikkun” or healing in the novel.

Now, do you have anything you could share on specific stimuli for events in the text or inspiration for any of the characters? If you would like, do explain for readers the significance of the book’s inscription?

Well, I’ve spoken about the black cat that inspired the opening sequence in the novel. After I had this image, I wanted to find out more about who this girl was. I was wrestling with the nature of Malka’s character and gifts. Growing up in a patriarchal family with four sisters, I was fascinated by the thought-experiment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister as talented as he was. While staying in my sister in law’s home in Nataf near Jerusalem, I had a dream in which I was Malka, in which she goes down to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, now a bit of a political football. In the dream, all of the prayers which people write and press into the cracks between the stones started to pulse like hearts, or sea anemones, and cry aloud the words written on them.  Malka could hear them. She could hear the music behind speech, the longing that underpins it. She would understand the language of silence. I realised Malka would be a mystic, a kabbalist, someone who could release these charged presences to powerful effect.

As well as a space to question and explore a feminist spirituality, Raising Sparks is also an act of remembrance. When I trained to be a rabbi in Israel, I discovered a love of mystical texts such as the Zohar. I up a writing group in yeshiva (theological seminary) with Matt Eisenfeld, my chavruta (study partner – texts are learned together, through discussion, to tease out their multiplicity of voices). Matt and his Fiancé Sara Duker were tragically killed in a bus bombing during the first intifada. This tragedy had a traumatic effect on me, and made me realise I didn’t want to be a rabbi. I came back to the UK and looked for answers in literature instead, gradually growing towards a different kind of engagement with my faith, one which stressed the more universal, mystical elements, while seeing ritual as a kind of embodied poetry, waiting to be filled with personal meaning, a way of expanding my experience of the other. If each person or situation I encountered contained a spark of light, how might I liberate that? The ultimate other is the Divine, which means so many different things to each of us through our lives. I wanted to write a novel that explored the nature and meaning of faith in the modern world, from a range of perspectives, something I had often discussed with Matt. I was determined that the love and vision Matt and Sara shared would not perish with them. Their relationship is the seed of the love story in my novel. It was also behind the formation of the Arab Israeli Book Club, which I set up in London, on the basis thatthat fiction is an empathy machine, enabling us to experience all kinds of “Other” without fear or prejudice, and wanting readers to have the opportunity to go deeper than the headlines. The Guardian called it “a roaring success”. Brief plug: This book club is relaunching as The Middle Eastern Book Review at Daunt Books Hampstead on September 28th, when I will be interviewed about Raising Sparks by Ian Black, the Guardian Middle East Editor. All are welcome!

The epigraph, taken from Job, is all about the way these sparks sometimes seem like trouble and distress, but are often the inciting incident to a different, deeper life. Job is also a great questioner of God, like Abraham and Moses –which is why God calls him his true servant. Faith is never about certainty. It is about asking the right questions, challenging authority.

While the book does not shy away from pain, unpleasant events, intolerance, brutality and violence, please will you talk a little about the ways in which it is a resolutely hopeful book? I do believe it is. I’ve told you that at a difficult time in my life, I have personally found it consoling and inspiring.

That’s moving to hear. Books have always been a consolation and a tool for engaging more deeply with myself and others, for feeling the things which connect rather than divide us. Faith is all about doubt for me, not in a debilitating way, but in a way that constantly enlarges our frame of reference and understanding, something which good fiction and art in general do too. Malka is a deeply optimistic person, despite everything she goes through. She believes in a shared humanity, in the ways in which all of us are connected. She tries to use her gifts as a tool for positive change, standing up to the forces of oppression and domination which seek to limit and define her. She questions received truths, and suggests that it is precisely by listening to the silenced other within and around us that we become most fully ourselves. She is a wise person but at the same time extremely naïve due to her sheltered upbringing – the modern world crashes in on her full force, so she uses religious myth to critique and engage with it, and create a new, personal kind of fusion/integration between them in the process.

Hard one. Define magical realism. You’ve used it about your book so go on then…

I’ve always loved the kinds of book crammed in under this label, from Rushdie and Marquez to Borges and Bashevis Singer. For me, it means books that enclose multiple ways of seeing, from the mythic to the modern, side by side, and often show how congruent they are. We live by myths – the challenge is to make them the best ones we can, open, fluid and welcoming.

Do you – and I appreciate this might be hard because you made it – have a favourite part of the book?

That is a tough one. I like the hard-earned moment of rest Malka has on the beach in Jaffa-Tel Aviv. That quiet moment was one in which she reached a new self-understanding and accommodation. It feels like a turning point in the story, and the challenge for me, as for Malka, is to make these quieter moments speak as powerfully as the more dramatic ones. I hope I’ve succeeded.

Beyond the book: where next for Dr Ariel Kahn?

Well, I love teaching, cooking, and writing, so hoping to do more of all of those. I’ve got the seed of a new novel with a historical strand calling to me – looking forward to having the headspace to heed that call.

Independent presses have had a stunning few days, haven’t they? Three prizes for three brilliant authors. Might you comment on this in any way? 

With significant recognition like the Walter Scott Prize for Ben Myers outstanding The Gallows Pole, Bluemoose and the Indie scene are having a renaissance. They publish edgy and interesting things mainstream presses are wary of. They work together, in constructive groups like the Northern Alliance of publishers. Bluemoose have a close, nurturing relationship with their authors – Kevin talks about the Bluemoose family, (note from Anna: as you know, Ariel, my own third book, Saving Lucia, is going to be with Bluemoose and Kevin sent me a note when I signed my contract: it said, ‘Welcome to the Bluemoose family’: loved that) and it is more than a phrase, it is something I’ve experienced, with the way other authors within the imprint support one another. As a debut author, the care and attention to detail Bluemoose have lavished on my book, and my inclusion in every aspect of the process including choosing the cover have made this an empowering and pleasurable experience.

And finally…tell me about your reading. Any recently published books you’d particularly like to recommend, say? Or could you name a few favourite authors or books?

I love David Grossman. He’s been a huge inspiration, as a novelist and a deeply ethical person engaging with his own trauma, the loss of his son, while remaining present and powerful in his use of writing as an empathy machine. Given my love of trees and their significance, I’m thoroughly enjoying The Overstory by Richard Powers (Heinemann), which looks at humanity from the perspective of nature on a compelling and moving way. I love comics and graphic novels – the way they blend the visual and the verbal fees deeply true to my experience of the world, and stimulates my own prose, which often starts with a visual image. Recently, I’ve enjoyed two amazing graphic novels. Tumult by John Dunning and Michael Kennedy (Selfmade Hero) is a deeply unsettling noir about a woman with multiple personalities, beautifully rendered, subtle and teasing. My Favourite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) is a tour de force – ostensibly a journal by a young girl who sees herself as a monster and investigate the strange death of an upstairs neighbour, it expands into a mediation on the saving power of art, human resilience in the face of tragedy, and the long shadow of World War Two. Finally, as I mentioned my wife writes YA. She introduced me to the amazing writer Philip Reeve, who writes Steampunk SF and is an incredible world-builder.  He writes strong feisty heroines which you root for, and a fascinating engagement with the meaning of technology and culture for our individual and collective identity. I’ve just finished his Railhead trilogy, a future where people travel between galaxies on sentient trains. It is also a moving love story and a meditation on difference and choice. The first novel in his Mortal Engines series is being released a film shortly and that should bring him tons of well-deserved new fans.

MOOSEKETEERS! Thank you Ariel, and I hope you take a good deal of pleasure in interacting with readers of your book over the coming weeks and months and good luck with Raising Sparks events.

Here are some first reviews. .

https://www.thejc.com/culture/books/book-review-raising-sparks-1.466439

http://www.skylightrain.com/book-review-raising-sparks-ariel-kahn/

And an event you might like to go to in August (launch was in Waterstones Islington)

https://www.waterstones.com/events/raising-sparks-book-launch-with-ariel-kahn/liverpool

This is the Daunt Books event Ariel mentioned above: https://www.dauntbooks.co.uk/product/ariel-kahn/

And you might like to read this, too. Ariel’s book is part of this survey.

https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/sneak-preview-independent-publishers-top-reads-for-2018-1.3357461

https://bluemoosebooks.com/

Follow Ariel Kahn on twitter http.//www.twitter.com/ArielKahn2 and the press http://www.twitter.com/ofmooseandmen

 

Five, twelve, fourteen. The day after the brexit vote

FIVE, TWELVE, FOURTEEN

June 24th 2016. The day after the Brexit vote.

Here is how it went.

I had my first texts very early and a phone call from a friend in tears. I’d thought, as she, that the vote would be close but the other way round. The previous day, we’d looked, together, at the ‘Vote Leave’ balloons strewn about in the centre of our small town and thought, ‘Ha’— but still I was restive and feeling depressed; the atmosphere did not feel good. In the week before the vote, I had felt miserable and angry that many people in my own extended family were posting union jacks on Facebook with a ‘Remain’ shout. I was furious that people, some of whom I knew pretty well, did not appear to understand where some of the funding for new building had come from in the places where they lived.

What have they ever done for us?’ I heard someone say in Merthyr; in Newport, ‘It isn’t fair that these immigrants come over and are immediately given a council house!’ and I began to argue but was told I was soft and it was alright for me. I am not having a pop at Wales here; it’s where my people are from and I speak of it only because this is where I was in the pre-Brexit week; I rounded off this week in an idyllic valley in the Black Mountains and heard talk of how it was too crowded shortly before I walked a mile and half up the valley to the next house to deliver a get well card. On the way I saw only a dead badger. And then in a local town, I heard the word ‘darkie’. It is not that these sentiments are not thought or exchanged, just that it made me tremble to hear such things expressed more openly and with such vigour. When I got home I was so rattled by some of the papers’ coverage that, topping up with petrol just down the road from home, I turned the offenders round. It was not my place to be a censor, but I couldn’t help it, with all that inflammatory talk.

Yes, that Pre-Brexit week was a tough one. You remember the bus? The Bus. The Bus that Couldn’t Do Maths? I hated that bus. Where is it now and what do you suppose it says? ‘It’s what THEY WANT you to think! But seven is NOT a prime number!’

I had listened, as The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths chugged on, to people talking about British sovereignty and purity which enraged me with its confident stupidity. ‘I hate it when you can’t hear any bloody English being spoken!’ said one. That was in Asda. WHAT IS MORE it was Asda in West Wiltshire, which is not exactly heavingly multi cultural. I was very close to doing the thing called Having a Go. I was minded to be right in there with words on celebrating the polyglot, the verbal texture, the joy, the fun, the life; to speak about howthe same person was also talking about preserving the English language—the English we speak was not suddenly born—Pop! Huzzah! It is English! It is a pretty, pure thing for local people only!—and added to with cultural reference and dialect; that it was, instead and like us, a series of graftings: Anglo Saxon words, Latin, Norman French; you know. I was about to go for it with other words: with jamborees and bungalows and pyjamas and…you get the picture. But I didn’t. I was too upset. And also, I did understand the importance of the vote for people. Because many of those people felt disenfranchised and that their voices were not heard by those in power, by a perceived ruling elite. It was only the other day that MP Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of how one problem in government was that there weren’t enough Etonians. Meanwhile, a house nearby had pages of statistics pasted on its windows: the costs of the EU. This fellow had also helpfully pasted up statistics on immigration with lists of dubious figures on their cost. Like teaching them to speak a language that everybody understood, say. We racked up loads in costs for language courses and teaching them English customs and gifting them five bed council houses because Johnny Foreigner has loads of children.

But back to Brexit the morning after.

The early texts. Miserable. I’m moving away from this wretched place. I’m moving to America (almost funny in retrospect; should add that I am married to an American); I am buying an island as far away as possible. There was one two plane rides away from Fiji for twelve grand apparently. I’ve searched it up.

The school run.

I have three boys, then five, twelve and fourteen. Smallest too small to grasp; Twelve thought the whole thing was just appalling (although one of his friends said the result was good because it meant we kept the pound) and Fourteen, I think, thought it was just typical of these grown ups to be not particularly watchful about something and then grouse. Or wail, in my case.

I left the house to take Five to school and two minutes down the road there was a triumphant woman assailing me. “It’s Independence Day!”

‘What does that funny lady mean?’ said Five. I tried to explain and he said, ‘But France is very nice and especially the train you put your car on.’

‘We got our country back!’ she hollered. Alarmingly similar in wording to Donald Trump’s comments in Scotland later that day, when congratulating them on voting for Brexit…

The rest of the run (I was snivelling by now) was full of moribund parents and I knew it was going to be a long day. It wasn’t even the voters I was cross with. It was, after all, their right to vote and, as I said above, I was entirely mindful of how opinions may have born of feeling eclipsed by a bossy elite. Maybe by bossy Oxbridgey Guardian readers like me, although I like to point out that I am actually very common and come from Welsh farming and mining stock for absolutely forever. Where the fact I have written novels is always going to be eclipsed by the size of Dai’s barbecue and the fact he is now a connoisseur of meat as well as a fan of Cameron, who GOT THE COUNTRY BACK ON ITS FEET. I did point out—that,you know, I’d hardly been head girl at Roedean; I was a bunker offer and swore with a passion—a couple of times in those early hours and days; for example, when someone called me a bad loser and said it was alright for me in my poncey house. I said, ‘I bought that as a semi derelict and washed up in the bath for four years and I am common. Yes, a right Chav. Yeah, okay I read all the time but…’ and I thought, ‘What nonsense am I even saying?’ and stopped in mid flight. My co-combatant smirked at me and, yes, I was a bad loser. I had conversations and made comments I should not have; that were divisive and snarky. I’m worrying I’m doing it now. Also, you saw my comments, above, about novels and the size of your barbecue. I realise that I am sliding more towards an exegesis of a dysfunctional family, but to tell you the truth, the familial schisms and the lies and the crazy rattling stuff that have gone on for decades, well now, they were melding that morning with Brexit ranting and Farage’s frog face and Boris’s snuffle-waffle-heffalump sounds. It was awful to feel so at odds with people who had been there a whole life, love them as I did, as I do. A beloved auntie just told me about how Theresa May is just what the country needs; my father in law is a Trump voter. God: WHAT A YEAR. How has that ‘renewal’ thing been going for you? Maybe TM will be out by the time this has published; I’d bet more on Trump, but I digress.

Around me, it felthad been feeling for a whilelike one great collective breakdown, that squalid summer. I wasn’t sure if I was actually okay. If anything was. Yet, I felt that I should not be smug about why I thought the vote was wrong. I had a secure home and had enough to keep me, us, safe and warm and it is plain as day that this is not the case for many, too many in our country. In some places and for some people, this will have inspired their choice of vote. You can’t go round jeering at others’ opinions when you have not walked in their shoes or heard of what was in their hearts. But I had read and thought a great deal and could not see any pressing reason to pursue Brexit. And as I said, it was those whom I felt had played fast and loose with facts and sums and hugely emotive topics that I was mad at. Well, and the Jingo woman on the school run.

And the fucking Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths.

24th June. Why did it have to be sports day? I felt it would be too sad to watch 421 primary age pupils while wondering how a decision we had made would impact on them. Fortunately, I didn’t see the Independence Day hullabaloo lady again, or I really would have done some very sweary public things, but when we were lining up, just after lunch, oh—people were miserable. Disconsolately dishing out squash for the kids and finding out where their eight year old was currently racing. All that week (I teach at secondary level) I went on to listen to angry teenagers, just not quite old enough to vote, bemoan the idiocy of what happened as more information and non-information came out; as Farage dismissed his endorsement of the facts on The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths. It wasn’t that anyone was saying the EU had covered itself in glory, but mostly we were just confused, sad and, sometimes, a bit frightenedmostly, in my experience, because we witnessed a sense of empowerment from those holding views we found repellent: on the them and the us; the them you can’t trust; who take from us. I do realise I am simplifying, but I think that sense of witnessing loathing and suspicion and long held resentments coming to the fore was terrifying for people not used to dealing with it regularly. I should add that it is all very well for me to say; white; moreorless middle class enclave. Now I had to learn just a little of the kind of resilience that others are compelled to build every day.

Others. Yes. But us. We. Society is, should be, a we. Not us and (tick) other. Shouldn’t it be so? There I go again, worrying about semantic fields. But the words you use are important.

On Facebook ranting and hand wringing went on, as you’d expect. I blocked Independence Day lady. I should have known. She’d previously been posting that egregious thing about how we should be giving our funds to injured servicemen rather than the immigrants. That was a feature of those weeks. A sort of relegation to the back row of any sort of maths that made sense. If we don’t give the Polish bloke who runs the deli and works 100 hours a week a leg up, lazy sponger that he is, we will have funds for our lads. It’s The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths, isn’t it? End our involvement in the EU and it is perfectly clear: straight swap with NHS funds and let’s get to Granny’s hip op and an end to the postcode lottery on, say, Tamoxifen. Anyway, the person with the sums was also joking about how she was playing ‘Spot the Brit’ while in the supermarket and titillating herself with the hilarity of someone asking the ‘foreign couple’ in front if they wanted help with packing their bags. HAHAHA I THOUGHT WE’D ALREADY TOLD THEM TO DO THIS.

Me: block. Pull plug. I cannot look. Oh look, though: she’s a good person because she’s put up another poster about hospices. Julie Burchill once wrote that shallow people cry very easily. Like at Bambi when mother deer gets it. I’ve found that racists do too and that they often like puppies and sick kids and doing their bit. I’ve always thought this is a bit like the Krays: they were ON IT when old ladies had their bags snatched or someone was mean to a defenceless kitten—and they probably contributed handsomely to the whist drivebut they still ran the firm and I wouldn’t have trusted them with my bread knife. There it is: I sound like a smug Guardian reader, I bet.

But back to sports day. Five smiled and waved and then up came the big cry. It was because I was thinking about what we might have taken from these children in terms of friendships made and bonds created; in terms of possibilities for living and studying and understanding. And I felt a dark and clawing sense of enclosure; of things drawing in around me. So I went into the toilets (I had to crouch down, obviously, because these things are built for small people) and I did the ugly cry, up from my toes. I probably wasn’t the only one.

It has been a strange year, summer 2016 to 2017, oh yes. My greatest cheer has come from the emboldening and charity of the young people I work with. The tears we have shared, even. I do believe we are seeing a generation becoming more alive to change and possibility and to the merits of political activism. And as I am fond of saying, it’s the parents you have to worry about. So thank you, thank you so much to all of you. But I worry about the young people and the children, of course. Mine; yours. I do not believe, as so many doand they are broadcasting it on social media that the world is now a terrible place; I don’t believe that. Or rather I believe that it has always been full of terrible things, but that I am optimistic, believe in the kindness of strangers and, to quote J. B. Priestly, that we ‘are one body’.

But we didn’t live in Merrie England until the spring of last year. Or at any time in the past. Speaking to some and listening to many, you’d think that’s what we were after. A return to a golden age; an Arcadia. Perhaps many Elizabethans may have had a whale of a time on all those junkets and national holidays; in gadding about round the maypole and sucking up mead in the days before twitter trolls and pesky plurality, but I’d argue it didn’t compensate for wars, poverty, pestilence and losing lots of your children. Perhaps The Bus That Couldn’t Do Maths needed a twin: The Bus That Made Up History. Well, something like that.

I do feel that, at this point in time, we, even we who perceive ourselves to be the original inhabitants of Albion (I am sorry; that was definitely a bit snarky of me), are tempest tossed and I hope, for all our children, that wedo you know, I am struggling with the word ‘we’ here; fretting that it is ethnocentric—are beginning to take stock and that, with clear thinking, proper information untainted by angry cant or prejudice born of sadness in these ‘alternate (sic) reality’ and ‘post truth’ times, with kindness and imagination we can make it to dry land. Off this rough journey out. You know, for the children.

For Five, Twelve, Fourteen.

Or should I say now, Six, Thirteen, Fifteen.