Category Archives: goodreads

Six months of 2017 in books

Last year, I published a list of what I had read during the year. I thought that, this year, I’d get it down in two instalments. As before, I should love to know what others are reading. So do comment or talk to me! I don’t have time to review all these, but when I am done with the current fit of writing, I will try to post a few reviews, with a focus, I hope, on the independent presses. Also, I will update this list as I’ll likely forget something!

I read as much as I can and I read quickly. In snatched hours, in the bath, on the train, little bits of time carved out. But mainly, I go to bed earlier than I would naturally do purely so that I can read. I want to be frank about this. It’s how, as a child and growing up, I coped with anxiety and trauma. I went to bed and built a world. I do believe that with books, you can rebuild your mind and, to this day, it’s what I do.

Why?

Because every day is a conscious attempt to stay well and to manage, as best I can, my mental health: it has broken several times. Okay, many times. But I am back. Then there’s the pleasure of it all and the way my imagination is hotly stimulated. The way that reading, for me, leads on to discussion and friendship. As, I’ve discovered, does writing. Why did I ever think otherwise? And by the way, if you are feeling low or really, properly battling, I am not an expert, but I can tell you which books have soothed me, including the very few non-fiction texts I have read about mental health – though I have to preface that with, proceed with caution because, as I said, I’m no expert, but I CAN share. x

In no particular order, my reading over the past six months…

Dickens: The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Finally got round to it. Also, the second book of his Bleak House (a re-read). I also re-read A Christmas Carol because I was teaching it for GCSE. To support my older children I read Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner and  Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree. Now, this I found this an excellent read and was delighted to find a friend had been reading it, too. Cue – memorable and moving discussion en route to the hustings in Swindon, two days before the general election. WHICH REMINDS ME: the same person has left Paul Beatty’s The Sellout (still haven’t read) and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. Summer reads, then. 

At top speed, for GCSE teaching I re-read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Woman in Black. Which led on to my re-reading of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw in one bit, sitting on the floor, because it was next to The Woman in Black on my sitting room bookshelf. I discovered, through the new OCR English Language and Literature spec, the first poetry collection from Jacob Sam La Rose Breaking Silence (Bloodaxe), which led to some wonderful things. Some of his poems prompted me to revisit one of my favourite modern poets, Tony Harrison. There will have been assorted other reading in here too – going over GCSE (and IGCSE) literature and poetry anthologies and the like; reading for A levels in English Literature and English Language and Literature and the EPQ…but it was Jacob Sam La Rose who was my new discovery.

Edith Sitwell: Fanfare for Elizabeth

Ben Myers: The Gallows Pole and Beastings. Shout out for the independent presses – here, Bluemoose. These are wonderful books. Enormously atmospheric. He’s brilliant, I think, on landscape.

On the subject of indies, from And Other Stories (we have a couple of subscriptions at Bookworm Towers), I am currently reading The Gurugu Pledge by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar), which is stunning, and Joanna Walsh’s Worlds from the Word’s End, a series of sharp and funny stories which make me very jealous too: never have I managed to craft one as she does! I’ve just ordered Hold Tight by Jeffrey Boakye – that’s an Influx Press title. Oh, there are so many indpendent presses – but my favourites – that is, of the ones I’ve explored – The Linen Press, Patrician Press, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories, Influx, Comma Press and Bluemoose. I read from all over, but get some of my greatest pleasure from texts published by risk-taking independent presses. That’s not to say risks aren’t taken by bigger concerns. Why not read both?

Dipped into a favourite book on writing (and close reading), Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. This precipitated both editing and reading (I hope she knows how useful she is!) – in this case, going back to Chekhov’s short stories.

I am about to read Jess Butterworth’s Running on the Roof of the World, Jo Barnard’s Hush Little Baby and Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of my Youth. I love Chauduri’s books. Such restraint, so moving and unmistakeably his. I thought his last book, Odysseus Abroad gently broke a few rules (the rules you read about…) including ‘show don’t tell’ (bit bored with this): oh, he tells beautifully, and I felt the book was wonderfully episodic and that some of these epiosdes would have stood as short stories. More on which when I’ve got round to reading the latest one. Jo Barnard is a lovely lady. Very encouraging to others (including me) and a lean, spare writer at the literary end (what do I know? So kill me now if I have this market appraisal wrong!) of commercial fiction and cool in a hot and crowded market. That is a considerable achievement, in my view. I’d recommend her debut, Precocious. Unsettling and very well judged in tone. Jess is an old friend and I am very excited for her and cannot wait to see what she does in this, her debut, a MG set in India and Tibet, subjects close to her heart, as they are to mine.

For book groups I re-read A Tale of Two Cities, read PD James’s Innocent Blood – do you know, I had never read a P.D. James book – and Gilly McMillian’s What She Knew (which, by the way, is the same book as Burnt Paper Sky – hence the odd furious review by folks who bought the same book twice). Regarding the latter, generally speaking, I seem to fail with psychological thrillers. I read the Amazon reviews and those on Goodreads and generally feel like I haven’t read the same book, in that the ‘twists’ seem obvious to me – you know like in Of Mice and Men, when the foreshadowing smacks you round the face so hard – girl with the red dress/mouse/puppy/Candy’s old mutt/Curley’s wife…Lennie gets shot? Never saw that coming! It’s that kind of experience – and I don’t find them nail biting at all. I’ve been told that this sounds sneering, but it’s only my opinion and a statement of what works for me. Apologies if I’ve denigrated Of Mice and Men (quite like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath, though…) but to me Steinbeck is a pygmy compared with giants like…Faulkner and Wolfe. Oh yes: I have an idea. Why not read – although you won’t sleep afterwards – Ali Land’s striking debut novel, Good Me Bad Me before or after Innocent Blood? Some of the same themes rise up. Criminality. The choices that children and young people make in extremis. (Ali was previously a children’s psychiatric nurse and that gave the book a certain heft for me.) What it might mean…not to feel, or to feel unusual things. I don’t want to give more away. Yes. Do that for a book group.

But back to Southern US literature and…

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, which I will re-read in a little while (I want to write something about her), well, that is brilliant. Is all this meandering discussion awful, do you think?

Which brings to me to…

Of Time and the River and (currently reading) The Web and the Rock. Thomas Wolfe. In my view, a genius and we lost him so young.

Patrician Press launched its Anthology of Refugees and Peacekeepers and we had a lovely event at the Essex Book Festival; I read everything in it and that led me on to (two indies here) Refugee Tales from Comma Press.

Now, for my own current book, Saving Lucia (or even Passerines – depending on who nabs it…), I’ve been re-reading Joyce, so I’ve had Finnegans Wake and Ulysses to hand. Also lesser known Joyce works – Pomes Penyeach. I’ve been reading up on Joyce, Beckett, Mussolini, the history of psychiatric care (I listed some of this stuff in last year’s post and also it’s in my bibliography at the end of Saving Lucia – one for the future, if you be interested); I read Annabel Abbs’s The Joyce Girl and continued to dip into Frances Stonnor Saunders’s exemplary account of Violet Gibson: The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and Carol Loeb Shloss’s Lucia Joyce. To Dance in the Wake. I’ve been reading articles in The Lancet, articles on Queen of the Hysterics, Blanche Wittmann and accounts of Bertha Pappenheim (there’s a need for a bigger study and, I would say, what exists needs to be translated from the German because she is fascinating!); I also looked (in German) at Bertha’s book of prayers – Gebete and found an English translation of her short stories, The Junk Shop and Other Stories and finally read Florence Nightingale’s posthumously published Cassandra – which Virginia Woolf said was more like screaming than writing. I concur. Also, religious texts, archive work (letters and documents) and miscellaneous articles.

And I think we are there!

Two other things on reading and writing. How good it was to see the Authors for Grenfell auction raise so much and I was pleased to be a tiny part of it. I’ve a tea party coming up – and also a tour of Pembrokeshire, visiting all the settings in my second book, The Life of Almost, which comes out in autumn, 2018 with Patrician Press. Also, in September, for the first time, I have a work experience student and I am so excited. I am still a newbie fiction writer (I put pen to paper in mid July 2014, although I’d been a freelance author before and writing is not my day job) and this kind of thing makes it feel…real. We are going to get a writing project off the ground; she’s going to submit work for publication. She may also help me with editing of and suggestions on two anthologies of which I am co-editor and editor, respectively. Said student (she’s in the upper sixth) is reading the manuscript of my third book – which led to her mum reading it too…which led into a date to discuss it. and, I hope, a super-clever new beta reader. Yay.

I’m sorted on my reading for the next few weeks, the manuscript of Saving Lucia goes out again on the 20th of July  – and in the meantime I wait to hear if others are biting…it is a long process and probably a good education for me, seeing as I rush at everything like it’s my last day. (In my defence, it could be: I’ve had a lot of people die on me, some of them very suddenly: another story – some of which is in my first book Killing Hapless Ally, if you are not freaked out by very dark humour. If you are, don’t read the bits of The Life of Almost concerning a love story in a funeral parlour…)

Other booky things: my two Grenfell offers to fulfil in summer and autumn and archive work in St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Northampton.

And reading Horrible Histories in bed when stressed or sad. Oh forgot: I had norovirus so badly I was hospitalised. During that period I read Gren Jenner’s (he’s part of the Horrible Histories telly team) A Million Years in a Day. A jolly diverting read.

AND FINALLY

Quibbles and possible spelling errors spotted in some of the books, above (English teacher forevaaa):

prophesise (prophesy) as verb

disinterested (to mean uninterested) – feel free to argue

past (for passed)

Thursday’s…Friday’s…for simple plurals, not possession

it’s when you mean its (ugh!)

passer bys

me/I/myself I won’t blather on about that because I sound like a twat. BUT in a top selling book for which I’ve shelled out, say, £12, it niggles to see a chapter starting (names changed) “Me and Andrew left France…”

I have been spelling fuchsia wrong my whole life. And cardamom. So I’m a fine one to talk. In my Killing Hapless Ally, Myfanwy twice appeared without the first y. My fault. And I swear as if my life depended on it.

Love,

Anna xxxxx

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The Life of Almost,a breathless Killing Hapless Ally and choosing your ending.

I have written a strange little second book. I suspect I will always write strange books. Big ones and little ones. The first, Killing Hapless Ally, was placed with a small press. As such, it is not, naturally, going to fall into so many hands. And yet and yet…I cannot tell you how rewarding it has been to discuss the book with its readers.

I know it is a challenging book; it is busy and breathless and constantly allusive. It is a work of fiction, but this rush through a history, through a mind, was deliberate. Its publisher understood and supported this; loved its density and fragmenting quality: its form was part of the effect, you might say. But to other readers it will be too busy, appear too dense and poorly edited. I took a risk – and my hope with Killing Hapless Ally was always that this was a long game. What I wanted was to write at least a book a year; to establish a catalogue and, gradually, for more and more people to find it.

But back to the discussion with readers. It has been read by people suffering from mental health problems and those who seek to understand what they might look like – as such, I have had many raw and challenging conversations about the book. It has been read by psychologists and academics – very recently, one who feels it will be instructive in their work, in addition to finding it entertaining. It is, after all, a black comedy! But at the moment the thing I really like is that some of my older students are reading it, which has meant that I felt I should mention to parents the book’s graphic content. It does not flinch in its illustration of depression, anxiety, self harm, suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. I am laying myself bare here, aren’t I? But you see, there is a foreword to the book which reads rather like a mission statement. The book is based on episodes in my own life; to my mind it reads like a memoir, rather than a novel (again, this hybrid will irritate some readers because they do not recognise the novel form in it – more on which another day) and, in telling a/my story, I said that if I were not upfront about the mental health problems I have suffered from repeatedly since childhood, then that would be “to do a disservice to those who are yet to recover or find appropriate help.”

Now, back to that second book. The Life of Almost. Who is he and what is he? Is he alive or dead? What is his purpose? Well I like ambiguity and grey areas. If a book promises a twist at the end, you can bet I’ll have guessed it on page three; I’m that sucky person who shouts out the answers not long after it starts, which is why I am bound to silence when watching films  or telly with my husband. Like a kid at panto. “It’s binary and he’s the ghost!” (Interstellar.) “It’s his sister and I bet Moriarty’s helping her!” (Sherlock Holmes). I’m happy to know the ending or not to have things promised to me. Anyway, The Life of Almost has, at present, two different endings. Casuistry. Pick one. “What do you want? What do you expect?”, to quote Owl Eyes in the library in The Great Gatsby. And also, because the book is also a reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations, the two ending recall what happened with that book, a note of explanation being underneath. I think I can get away with setting text out here. If the book gets commissioned, this bit of the blog post might have to go!

But you know – this is relevant, I promise! –  I am struggling at the moment: depression, sadness, they have the better of me; I wake, frightened, at night; I start at noise: my mind races, thoughts collide and crash and back come the hauntings of early experience. I cannot bear bright light or loud sound; sometimes, I hear sounds when they are not there, a constant auditory disturbance; sometimes music, often quotation. This has always been a feature. No-one’s experience of depression or mental health problems is quite the same. Mine is jangling and mult-coloured; fast fast slow. But I can do this. I CAN. There is no miracle. I rebuild my mind with books and thought and friends.

I have to say that I can choose an ending here because an ending is also a beginning, isn’t it? As Dorothy Rowe would tell you, “Even the worst day does not last forever.”

Casuistry. Which ending, for Seren and Almost, would you rather? The other person in the text is Catherine, who begins the book. And it is Catherine who begins summer 2016 in a state of welling despair. That is why Almost appears, from the sea-coast, off-world, whatever you like (as I said, I like ambiguity) to begin a bitter magic.

Here.

Pick.

‘The two endings, Catherine. Listen and choose. I begin with a poem. For her. Everything is for her.

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

Why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

But innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

The sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights—

A mermaid Terpsichore, sand-snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheenif I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

Be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider thiswhy should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen—

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

I met her out there. I felt her, thoughts carry: I always knew where she was. I walked beyond St David’s to look at the Blue Lagoon, turned back and walked and walked to Abereidy, then through the bluebell wood, by the mud and stream to the fierce mouth, Abermawr. Skimming stones into the sea, she was. Oh God, aflame. I could hardly stand her beauty. She saw me and walked slowly my way as I cupped a pebble and steadied my thoughts and tried to control my tears.

Seren. Star. Always her. A mermaid I trapped on land and who never forgave me.

She said this: ‘Boy. Always boy.’

I said, “Age does not wither her” though I knew I was lying and I saw I was fresher and new, still.

“Roland is dead. I am…I am different, Almost.”

Oh she wept and howled into and out of a fierce mouth and hurled the rocks across the breakers and I went to her and held her while she told me of her life with him; of the spite that held, the jokes that cracked and broke; resentments, brutal, scorning others just because they had a better boat; a finer cast of house or leg or anything. He hated the world and everyone in it, handsome damned man who had fooled her. I said, ‘I will find him dead and flay him for you, Seren, for you, my love’ and I meant it, brute like daddy, down under the sand in another sea and time. My howl was elemental; perverse. We clung to each other.

He, Roland, touched her wrong; he did not cradle her at night, not understand that her own beautiful scorn was from her pain, sea girl trapped, and if he had, what would it have mattered? He had her to set on his arm and place where he should and that was enough. He used her roughly; cursed her barren; not a mother, nor a soft gentle thing. He cast her out, within her home. I could not stand to hear it all and howled again and she clung and my God I cannot tell you how beautiful she was because it would be like…it would be like trying to beat the heart of a star with a warped broom; like lifting up prayers with dirty hands and biting mouths. That is something like it was.

We walked out through the woods and I gathered bluebells, pressed them upon her in a fever.

“Forgive me, Almost.”

“I already have” I said; I fell on my knees in the stream and mud and the bluebells were crushed with I and her and us together, tremendous.

Her heart was opened then. I saw it.

Afterwards, I took her hand and I knew that there would be no shadow of another parting from her. I thought, also, that one day we might find her garb, as for Derian out at Oystermouth; as for Miss Davies, somewhere in her wild garden, under the fingers of creeping moss and the care of the kind willow. There might, yet, be a way back to the sea. For her and, in growing magic or the charms of the englynion, because poems carry, for me.’

Chapter 17. Or a star dies

‘But then again, is this how it was? Catherine, do you prefer this ending?

I begin, as I often do, with a poem. This one is about endings, when we come to recognise they have arrived, that is.

So,

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff;

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail—

I’d prove to you against our childish tiff

That there was treasure to be found that day—

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand—

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm—

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

I knew where she was. I felt her. I walked there, out beyond St David’s, the lovely harbour at Abereiddy, turquoise of the Blue Lagoon, then through the bluebell woods to Abermawr. She knew I would find her, of course. Out there, hurling stones across the breakers and howling her pain. She did not stop me taking her in my arms, drawing time-stopping kisses from her. Too late, too late, though, Catherine.

For this is what happened.

Everything I said of Roland was true, but when he died, consumed by his own acid and pride, Seren married a quiet local man. Not rich, but comfortable, like, and they lived in a house looking out across Ramsey Sound. This is the road she had taken, my beautiful mermaid girl. And she had a child, too: how could I claim her now? Oh Catherine, do not laugh: she called the boy ‘Nearly’ and he was her joy. I could see that. How could I claim her now? She seemed old, though she was not, and greatly changed and sad.

What could I do? My heart was broken.

I reached down and picked up an auger shell, she cupped it in her hand with tears in her eyes and then she turned, picking her way across the pebble beach to the bluebell wood and she was gone.

And that is the ending, almost. Which ending did you prefer? Which shall we have? And really, all I want to ask you, Catherine is this: did any of this happen? Was any of it true? And am I really here, June two thousand and sixteen, in your kitchen. Now, what do you think?’

Then I wept, cried until I was dry, not comprehending the world. I felt his fingers brush my arm: electric. Then he was gone, too, and had ended his story.

An explanation of the two endings.

‘Because of the mystery and ambiguity of the book, the uncertainty of its endings, or rather that Catherine should have some choice in how it ends (including, I would say, in what she does about her own sorrow after Almost has passed on elsewhere), seemed fitting to me. But there is another reason. Great Expectations is very important to this book for The Life of Almost is at least a partial reworking of it and that book had its ending changed at the last moment. Edward Bulwer Foster, Dickens’s friend and a fellow novelist, had been keen that Pip and Estella were united at the end of the story. The account goes that Dickens felt his friend argued such a good case that he subsequently agreed to make a change. “I resolved…to make the change…I have put in as pretty a little piece of writing as I could and I have no doubt the story will be more acceptable through the alteration.” George Bernard Shaw published an edition of Great Expectations in a limited edition run with his preferred ending: the one Dickens had written first and which he argued was, in fact, “the truly happy ending.” Some have argued that this was a perverse argument, but I prefer the sobriety of the original and find it more fitting for the brooding, disillusioned narrative tone through the book. So,

“I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.”

OR, the former, when Pip, walking along Picadilly, is told a lady in a carriage wishes to speak to him: it is Estella:

“…I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham’s teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be.”

But now, if you wouldn’t mind making tea and trimming up some Welshcakes but without a recipe and with one hand only, I shall offer you my last. Do you know that, sometimes, stories have two endings? Of course you do. In old books, sometimes the author wrote an ending that was too sad and his publisher demanded it more palatable; a triumph. Triumph is sometimes untrue, of course, but what would you like? What do you expect and how may I help?

Almost Derian Llewhellin, all time a room in which to roam.’

Anna Vaught, Wiltshire, two thousand and sixteen.

A New Writers’ Group (Bath area) NOTE NEW DATE!

A NEW WRITERS’ GROUP!

Okay then. New Writers’ group – meeting at Vaught Towers initially. Bath area and DM me for details!

Friday the 17th of February,
7.30.

Do you write or want to write fiction? It may be that you have already had a book or books published; it may be that you are just starting out and aiming to work towards publication. And by publication, I mean with a publisher, agented with a publisher or working as a self publisher. The aim of this group is that, in a supportive environment, we share ideas on one anothers’ work, offer constructive criticism and help each other along.You’d need, I think, to be happy to read your work aloud and to circulate it and to have the confidence (or fake it; I do) to offer comment and to receive it. And you’d need a ms in its initial stages or a slew of ideas for the best use of everyone’s time. I’m not thinking that there is any particular genre for us, but that this group might be best suited to writers of fiction for adults, as opposed to early readers, MG and YA.

Would you like to come along? Might be just the prompt you need to carry on carrying on and I am sure it would help me. Although I have been doing the odd bit of freelance journalism for some years, I didn’t start writing full length fiction until 2014 and then my first novel was published by a small press in March of last year. My second novel is currently under consideration with an agent (I think I may be a hybrid author) and I have begun my third (and fourth: I do know this sounds a bit mad) in addition to a poetry pamphlet and a non fiction book; I’ve also published various articles and poems over the past ten months. I am just starting out and gradually getting over feeling like an imposter. Writing is not my day job! Here’s what I read over 2016, too.

https://annavaughtwrites.com/…/…/01/my-2016-in-books-so-far/

Tea; cake; cosy chairs: writing, sharing information and opinion and encouraging each other in what can be a lonely pursuit sometimes.

Like to come? We could aim for once a month or so.
Anna.
@bookwormvaught on twitter
annavaughttuition@gmail.com

(PS – the pink and purple picture: insprired by Flickr and Instagram I once colour-coordinated my books – and there are thousands of them. Don’t do it. Led to a very ugly mutiny in our household and I couldn’t find a thing.)

The Life of Almost

Ah, I struggle with a synopsis, but here you go. THE NEXT (alongside the other stuff).

This is for you, Alex Campbell. x

Anna Vaught

The Life of Almost

or,

A Life Of Very Little Expectation

A synopsis

The Life of Almost is a re-working of the story in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, shifting its setting to a wild, mysterious and comical rural South West Wales, the West Country and the suburbs of London. Some characters are based on those found in its stimulus, but others are original such as Evans the Bodies, keeper of the mortuary and devoted to his Dead Dears. And Muffled Mfanwy, who works with him and with whom Evans has been in love his entire life; their story in startling surroundings is a counterpoint to other love stories in the book, such as that between Almost and the cruel Seren, adopted daughter of the claw-handed spinster Miss Davies, at Clandestine House off the sea coast on the Cleddau Estuary.

Almost is a boy with poor beginnings, who begins his life shrouded by bereavement, the struggling, the bitter and those on the run from the law and from life; he is also surrounded by the hauntings of the undead of his family and the cliff-top communities around him. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, like Pip, sings into the sea and likes to tell storiesand telling stories is a key theme of the book. Many strands of the narrative I took not from Dickens but from the oral tradition of my large Pembrokeshire family, such as accounts of poltergeists throwing furniture and vases from the fireplace, gibbering dead and moss that caught your foot and sucked at you if you didn’t move quickly enough; things that enthralled and terrified me as a small child. The drownings, skewerings and disappearances that have always rattled in my imagination find form in The Life of Almost.

Almost is dragged up by his sister Perfection, both of them kept in their place from beyond the grave by their mother and grandmother. Almost cries with the name his late mother gave him because he feels he will never amount to much, but gradually he begins to realise that, by calling to the world around him and by telling stories, extraordinary things begin to happen. For Almost is, really, an extraordinary boy.

Almost has, like Pip, a secret benefactor and a true love; he has his own convict and a cruel sister, but this re-working of the story adds more spectral, supernatural elements and more comedy in that Almost, through his story-telling develops the gift of moving through time and through form so as to come and rescue others from suffering, hardship and the loneliness of loss. It is at this point, at the beginning of the book, where we meet him, when as he appears to Catherine who begins the story, sitting, lost and stifled “in the squalid summer of 2016”.

Almost is supported by his devoted mermaids, Dilys and Nerys, who follow him, changing form (I have drawn on extensive mermaid lore in my research for the book), and by a number of friends in different locations. But readers of Great Expectations, would recognise adaptations of characters, such as Pip’s friend, Herbert Pocket, Miss Havisham, Estella and Jaggers (the latter, for example, recast as a lugubrious but prosperous journeyman, basking in his gold and quoting Jonson’s Volpone from his gated community a long way from Almost’s Pembrokeshire!).

I have allowed some risk-taking with the novel’s form in its use of original poems as epigraphs, all of which key in to the themes in the novel, as they describe the dark vagaries of the Welsh landscape, which is itself a key character in the book, living and breathing and casting penumbra and surrounded by the sea. I have also offered two endings to the love story in my book because I wanted to bring to mind how Great Expectations might have been radically altered in its reception, had Dickens been encouraged to use his original ending, far more melancholy that that which replaced it.

Not The Booker Prize 2016

Super short post this! I was just reading the information on this:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/18/not-the-booker-prize-2016-vote-for-your-favourite-book-of-the-year

And here is a wonderful thing, now in its eighth year. I am just about to place my nomination and I wonder: if you have read Killing Hapless Ally, my debut novel, and you liked it and it meant something to you, do nominate that, if you like!

Every year, the list gives you some brilliant reading. Say, a book that we might not otherwise have heard of and which turns out to be outstanding. Oh – there are a lot of writers out there. (Not to mention a lot of small but exceptional presses.)

Have a look? The picture featured is of the lovely mug that a writer might win!

 

 

Anna

The Life of Almost – and an invitation, if you’re local, like.

An invitation if you are a local-ish writer or reader and would like to come for some reading and discussion of the first few chapters of the book I am working on, my follow up to Killing Hapless Ally (March, 2016, Patrician Press).

The Life of Almost is a re-working of Great Expectations, with its protagonist, Almost, roughly modelled on Pip. It has a predominantly Welsh setting, much of it being in Pembrokeshire. As such, it draws on the stories I have been listening to my whole life and so I have adapted these for the book. Stories of sailors, the strange dangers of the sea and those who love in it and on it; dark events at steam fairs; predicaments at village shows; kelp, barnacles, tough salty men, the cree of the curlew and the dead across the estuary and of how gentry moved in and spoiled all. Stories of beatings known about but hidden in plain sight; curses and vendettas; strange harpists, madness, mutism; poltergeists who threw pictures from walls and plants from windowsills and vases from above the fireplace. People who went away and never came back: stories, stories, stories. Shootings, hangings, disappearances. My idea of a picnic could still revolve around sitting by graves describing the dreadful manner in which relatives died, except I desist because I’m the mother of three young boys and I think my upbringing was definitely weird and I’m sure the kids think I’m quite peculiar, already.

So, you know roughly the story arc if you know Great Expectations, I’ve told you a little of the settings, but there’s more to it. Because, as Almost takes you through stories of his world – as he tells them to Catherine, who opens the first chapter, so tired of life – you come to realise that he is not entirely of this world and not entirely of this time: he is something more protean and unconfined; a storyteller who can shift substance in an extraordinary way and who is not compromised by, shall we say, temporal and ordinal rules…I hope, when it finds its home, that you will find the book darkly funny, maybe a bit shocking in places and that you’ll enjoy what I have done with my favourite book, Great Expectations, such as reworked Jaggers into a nasty (Ben Jonson’s) ‘Volpone’, basking in his gold somewhere off a great motorway and given you many elements of the supernatural. I did something a bit radical the other day and incorporated, euphemistically, some of the Brexit scoundrels – they are part of why Catherine, who begins the book, is so jaded and sad and thus why she has Almost come to visit. And, you know, one might question: is Almost really there at all? Or is he created by others when….they need him. Oooohhhh.

Because I stand by this and know it to be true: a story can save your life.

Like a copy of Killing Hapless Ally? Order from Waterstones, your local bookshop (Ex Libris and Mr B’s have copies in our area), the Patrician Press website or Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Killing-Hapless-Ally-Anna-Vaught-ebook/dp/B01CA5F21Y/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1468239225&sr=1-1

 

 

 

A fine new anthology to come

 

Patrician Press Anthology of Poems and Short Stories

Patrician Press Anthology of Poems and Short Stories, by Anna Johnson, EditorPublished February 1st, 2017

Prices
£3.99 (e-book)
£8.00 (print)

ISBN
9780993494543 (e-book)
9780993494567 (print)

By Anna Johnson, Editor

This anthology of poems and short stories is the result of short-listed works from a competition Patrician Press ran in 2016 on the themes of Refugees and Peace-Seekers. The entries were judged by Joceline Bury, Anna Johnson, Emma Kittle-Pey and Petra McQueen.

The selected works are now included in the anthology. Further contributions from Patrician Press and other authors are as follows: Emma Kittle-Pey, Petra McQueen, Suzy Norman, Robert Ronsson, Sara Elena Rossetti, Anna Vaught, Kenneth Steven and more. Some of the latter works are much more loosely connected to the original themes.

The collection is edited by Anna Johnson who has also written the introduction.

My 2016 in books so far…

Updated. I think that’s probably it for 2016 with the books I’ve just ordered or bought…

A sixth form student asked me which books I’d read so far this year and could I list them  for her – so here you go. Hope I’ve not forgotten anything. The list comprises fiction and non fiction I have read since new year and doesn’t include things that I have needed to read or re-read for English teaching, such as novels, poems, short stories, non-fiction texts, web texts, articles, essays and reviews – or blog posts, poems, magazines, journals and papers that I have read outside of this. And the list doesn’t include my own novel, published on 3rd March this year or the series of features I have written this year – or the poems or the bits of research I’ve been doing for the next book or the books I’ve read to or shared with the kids! Actually, all that adds up to a lot, now I think about it! But here’s the list you asked for, Sasha. And it’s fun to see what people read: you’ll see there are a couple of Horrible Histories in there. I love Horrible Histories. x

No reviews here: haven’t quite had time, what with writing the second book, the day job, the litter of boys, the MH stuff, the PTA…anyway, I think this is it, so far…

The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley

Galaxy: Explore the Universe, Planets and Stars (Collins). I pinched this from one of the kids and plan to read a great deal more on the subject now that I’m clear what a neutron star is…

1.2 Billion: Mahesh Rao (short stories)

It’s All in Your Head: Suzanne O’ Sullivan.  I thought this was fascinating and compassionate and I also trawled through many reviews, which were fascinating in themselves: she has had many detractors for her observations on ME, in particular.

Reasons to Stay Alive: Matt Haig. It was nice to meet him at an event in Toppings Bookshop, too. I thought he spoke with humour and compassion; I was also aware that some members of his audience were acutely anxious about situations in their own lives or in those of their loved ones. Conversations were had; questions were asked. I have struggled with mental health problems since I was a child. I wondered if, in writing the book, he had subsequently felt burdened by others’ concerns and by their sadness.

The Seven Storey Mountain: Thomas Merton

The Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen

Playthings: Alex Pheby

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing: Eimear McBride

Horrible HistoriesHenry VIII and his Wicked Wives and Cut-throat Celts

The Outsider: Colin Wilson

Orlando: Virginia Woolf

Duff: Suzy Norman

A Country Road. A Tree: Jo Barker

In Her Wake: Amanda Jennings

Armadillos: P.K. Lynch.

Local Girl Missing: Claire Douglas.

Middlemarch: George Eliot. (This was a re-read. I hadn’t looked at it  properly for years and, of course, I was glad I did.)

The Last Act of Love: Cathy Rentzenbrink

Cloud Nine: Alex Campbell

Depression: The Way Out Of Your Prison: Dorothy Rowe (read for the third time!)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: Karen Joy Fowler

Our Mutual Friend: Charles Dickens (second reading) and Great Expectations (a third)

The Story of Blanche and Marie: Per Olov Enquist

This Book is Gay and Mind Your Head: Juno Dawson. I do think these are excellent books on sexuality and identity and on mental health for young people. Juno is a YA novelist too and used to be a PSHE teacher.

The Bell Jar: Sylvia Plath (second reading)

Crap Towns. The 50 Worst Places to Live In The UK (ed. Sam Jordison and Dan Kieran).

The Beckoning Silence: Joe Simpson

Very British Problems. Rob Temple.

How Novels Work: John Mullan

Lost at Sea. The Jon Ronson Mysteries: Jon Ronson

Talking About It Only Makes It Worse: David Mitchell

The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro

Dear Stranger: Various (Penguin/Mind – and this was a re-read).

I tend to dip into recipes and food writing a lot and my two favourite cookbooks so far this year are Mamushka: Recipes From Ukraine and Beyond: Olia Hercules; My Kitchen Year: Ruth Reichl.

Sometimes a River Song: Avril Joy (read twice). This is a haunting book. It is quiet, but in capturing the voice – of the river; of the White River Arkansas  communities in the 1930s – Avril has done something ambitious.

Great Expectations (read multiple times before; it is still, probably, my favourite book).

Bleak House: Charles Dickens. This is my husband’s favourite Dickens and so it’s a sort of shared project, this.

More Dickens: I had never read The Mystery of Edwin Drood or Master Humphrey’s Clock. Have now. Genius.

Solar Bones: Mike McCormack. Boy does this deserve the plaudits it has been getting.

As I Lay Dying: William Faulkner. Again, a re-read. I love Faulkner and he is my husband’s favourite author. So, again, things to talk about here.

Feeding Time: Adam BilesNow, I am reading my way through the Galley Beggar catalogue, as I am for a number of smaller presses, and this was a signed copy sent to me as a friend of Galley Beggar

Also, because of this,  I have the proof of Paul Stanbridge: Forbidden Line. Yes, it is brilliant. Currently reading this.

Just pre-ordered Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land (which is out in February) and Kate Armstrong’s The Storyteller is at the ready. Because it was in The Guardian’s Book Club, I have just bought Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and also – I do love it when this happens – a student I am currently supporting told me it was one of his favourite films and so we agreed that we would both read it and compare notes. That’s a new buy, as is Jessie Greengrass’s  short story collection, An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It, which would get my prize for favourite title of the year and I do love a short story

I also…read through the draft of Patrician Press Anthology of Peacekeepers and Refugees (out January, 2017) and my poem ‘Emigre’ is in this; ditto The Emma Press Anthology of The Sea, where you would find my funny little poem, ‘Cast Out My Broken Comrades’ – set in Pembrokeshire and inspired partly by Homer’s Odyssey (from which its title comes). This is one beautiful anthology from an innovative and hard working press.

Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion for a book group.

And, ALWAYS, I am dipping into all my poetry books and short stories (John Donne and Isaac Azimov got a lot of time this year and I read a few of last year’s listed short stories in the Galley Beggar story competition). I spent an evening reading Donne’s Collected Sermons too, as one does.

And back to what I was saying about texts I haven’t included, now that would be a quick re-read of ‘An Inspector Calls’, ‘Macbeth’ – you know – GCSE texts, plus things for IGCSE, A level English Literature and the anthologies for A Level Language and Literature. And, for example, a romp through The Great Gatsby, in which I always find new things.

And

I have been learning Welsh (which feels right with my heritage) and beginning, in such faltering terms, to attempt poems in it. Thus I turned to Gwynn Williams’s Welsh Poems, which has long been on my shelf and  I have also been reading The Mabinogion.

Oh – and a side project: reading Thomas Wolfe at bedtime with my Georgia-born husband. We began with Look Homeward Angel – note the gorgeous paradox of this review on Goodreads – This book is a masterpiece that I wouldn’t recommended to my worst enemy. It is dense, repetitive, overly descriptive to the nth degree, filled with page after page of infuriating, hard-to-like characters, and more or less moves like molasses. It also is possibly the most beautifully written, poetic and longing book I’ve read. And I have been reading The Web and The Rock. Or rather he has been reading it to me. That’s how we met, you know. He asked me for directions, did Georgia Boy, on a street in Kolkata, then read to me in a hammock on a roof. He says he thinks my writing is like Faulkner or Wolfe, which probably means I should keep the day job. But oh.

Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

This bold, unique novel is a first-rate example of the innovative and original approach exemplifying the contemporary small press scene.

Source: Darkly Funny and Courageous: Killing Hapless Ally

Thalassa-Môr – seventeen draft poems and a finished one

These eighteen poems are, excepting the first one (which is already accepted for publication), in very draft form and are the basis of a poetry pamphlet I am currently calling Thalassa-Môr. It gets its title because, although it’s about countryside I know, difficult things that have happened, my family and other much loved people and events, I have also threaded through it elements from Greek literature and from Welsh. The title of the first poem is from The Odyssey; ‘Rhiannon’ lower down refers, albeit obliquely, to characters in the Mabinogion. I have also woven in stories from my grandmother and from other elderly storytellers whose auspices and provenance I couldn’t grasp as a child. Was I related to them? I wasn’t and am not exactly sure. The storyteller was the important thing. Anyway, these poems (plus some others) in a much more polished form will be going in different directions in the summer – so fingers crossed. NB: the layout that pops up on wordpress is not how they are set out in my ms, so some of the verses aren’t quite preserved and the left spine is uneven. This is an anomaly I haven’t fixed yet.

Do feel free to comment on the drafts at the bottom of the text. Anna x


1

‘Cast out, my broken comrades’

St Justinian at dawn; the boat,
Its clenched hull scowling,
As braced against the swell,
Collected errant figures – all
Adrift, so lost on land, and sad.
We reached out, emptied souls,
To Ramsey Sound; the island
Siren-called us, brought us home
To sea: to stay afloat a while
And find our shipwrecked selves.

It wasn’t in the landing of our craft,
Against the crashing deck of shore,
But somewhere in between the rock
And rock, that melancholy came to rest –

And tumbled down through navy depths

And we were free, unbroken: still.

This poem is published in Anthology of the Sea by The Emma Press, October, 2016.

 

2

‘My heart unbroken, then, by fish- frozen sea.’

 

‘Oh never fill your heart with trawlermen!’

My Nanny told, then told: ‘You want
a man with both feet on the ground –
a man with roughened nails, from
dirt and labour on the land,

not brined and drenched through by the Sea.’
But Nanny never knew the sound
of oilskin slipped on clover bank;
of danger in the stolen hull,
of silver, limned above your head,
while thwart hands toiled through the night,
and washed me up and brought me home.

I wouldn’t learn: I dreamed of pearls, full fathom five;

I sang of gales, the tang of salt,
the storied depths of sea and sea –
limb-frozen journeys, far from home
With yellow light on midnight crests.
But Nanny told, then told, ‘You want
a man with bone-dry shoes, inland;
your sailors leave you high and dry,
they catch and throw and pack in ice
the keenest heart that you can toss.’
But Nanny never knew the song
of siren journeys way out there,
Of labour stoked by heat and loss –

She didn’t feel the azure pull,

the mermaid kiss, the tongues that spoke;
she died a desiccated
ideath, in clod
that choked, while primrose mocked.
Still, out at sea, I rocked and bobbed:
we drew the finest catch that day.

 

3

Madonna of the Cleddau

 

The sea coast was too far for you;

To keep inland was your advice,

Away from Jack Tar, foreign folk:

Stay cloistered on this estuary.

Madonna of the Cleddau, come:

Square jaw, dark eyes and, counterpoint,

Retroussé  nose and powdered cheeks:

And born of earth, not briny downs.

You birthed eleven, stood back up,

With apron on and sleeves rolled high,

Delivered livestock, lipstick on,

With plaintive songs of field delight.

But, round the wall, the sea began,

Spoke not to you: you had no thought

To jump and best a warmer wave;

A voyage out was lost on you.

What did you care for them or theirs?

Madonna’s night world of the quay

Had supernatural force: the owls,

The rustle of the hawk, black elms,

The screech and call and elsewhere sound.

Such pale wings drew on navy sky

As you looked out across the flats

And thought that this was world enough,

The kelp, the wrack was only stench.

I’ve seen it now, your home; your hearth:

The summer quay was bunting dressed,

The village pub all polished up,

No gossip, snarling by the bar;

A ‘Country Living’ August snap,

All cleansed of snuff or pewter cup,

Sent gentry, as you might have said.

And rag and bone man, gone to dust.

Madonna of the Cleddau, mine:

I sing to you from farther shores:

I wish that you had gone to sea –

We could have basked there, you and I.

It never changed, waves’ thunderous moods

Could not be altered, made anew.

I look at Cresswell now and wish

The sea would roar and cry and break

The weeded walls, the altered beds,

Bring wrack and shells to grace the stones

Where mortar tidily restrains.

4

When did I

I went out early, tiger-clad, for bravery’s sake

To try the sea. Its bite was worse than mine –

It told harsh words and mumbles spat a briny sound

Of fury’s heart. And I was spent, so roared no more.

5

Returns a sea echo

Had I not been mute, still yet, as Milton might,

I should have cried to miss a mirror in every mind –

Not to have glimpsed the swallow, bright,

Such cresting clarion call and bravest hunter’s horn.

I might, I say, have wished to be alone,

Caressing so the dampening blossom now –

Finger tipped to velvet wings at dusk,

Unbound by duty, or amaranthine depths

To sit on quiet rosy evenings, darkness settling by

In bowing woods, with harebells pealing close.

For stillness made replete what things I saw –

And bosom sentiment was only that

Such contemplation of this hour was wasted not:

The honour was replete.

But very now, then up the churchyard path

A fox came, sharp; the beech tree whispered thanks

Thus honour was in being quiet,

Reverent in this storied landscape, still.

6

Myfanwy, I loved

Mfanwy, as you were: bay window, a side light and a black background.

Then as you were again: middle room – direct front light. I was specific.

Mfanwy – I was precise; exacting with the fall of dark and bright: I wrote it down.

Mfanwy, as I hoped you were. But you smiled and sailed away, sassy girl.

I sat for hours as the shadows fell, knowing what night must still portend: my craft.

I drew a nail across a pane and scratched your name, invisible to others as

the evening settled in. I knew that morning brought a monogram in window frost

for you to see and I to know: I showed you how its feathered lines and confidence

spoke truth to us – that you could stay. The frost had crept along the span

to show you how this foolish clot had said the most that could be said

and then I spoke – and ruined all. A foolish joke: my love; my word –

Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, do not sail away.

I tried to draw another length to keep you here: pellucid worlds for us to share,

yet how I knew what I had done. You cared not yet for crystal casts,

the shapes recorded day by day. The metaphor for heavenly plan

was lost for you in my thwart hands – and so I scratched and tried to show

a simple script, its blazon – you. I fell and fell and no-one knew.

Oh sassy girl, why should you stay or want a watcher of the skies,

a gabbling fool, like me? Why, no.

Mfanwy, stay. Mfanwy, do not sail away.

7

County Town

If I should fall, then say to me the reason clouds form as they are,

why ice should seed along a scratch, why I should love my six point star.

I do not know or care to see the smiles that fall in brazen line,

but innocence and clearest eye embolden me to make her mine.

I speak of love and quiet worlds, the county town on winter nights:

the sweets of honey bees, a view of ruby sky and amber lights –

of unctuous syrup mixed with snow, auroras made of rosy glow,

My Borealis blood-red sheen – if I should fall, then make me know.

When I am not and you are here, beholden to this dusty room,

be gentle with the tenuous forms of memory; do not grieve too soon.

Consider this – why should we be, ephemeral and urgent? How?

And speak to me with confidence, declaim for me on cliff or prow.

In nature’s fragile frame I see a world that lives beyond the hill,

Beyond the log pile, salt and shed; behind our eyes when we lie still.

And when I fall, then say to me you read its language, pure and keen –

And set my records on my desk and light my lamp: make them be seen.

8

‘Always there were uncles’ (Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales)

I longed not to talk to him, the schoolmaster;

He was always old, even as a boy, Llewhellin.

His eyes blorted thick, his voice rasped:

Never a pretty thing was he.

But I misses him now, you see, that old man

Cresting the corners of the foxgloved lanes –

Standing at Walton West, scowling at the tankers

Bound for Milford from great bright places

He hadn’t seen and didn’t want.

And I misses the silent pouring of tea

And the picking of apples from his headland-wizened trees;

the storied estuary, century feuds and nodding campion.

And I cry when I scent, alone, the violet patch, dug up,

Where I found him. And he was gone, eyes closed and young.

9

Walton West

In this drear place, I see my family loved

In celandines and mugwort garlands drawn;

I do not not know what tears or mossy lies

They fought so hard to keep from being said

Llewhellins, thick and fast and tired and gone,

Their stories drawn in stone or footstep sand.

10

Still to be sad

In the old shop on the harbour walk I saw a note: ‘Be Mine:

were you that girl I saw on the sand, turning to face me

against the gale? I think you saw me and I want to know.’

It was there for weeks, that note, rusting in the sun,

And brushed by arms of the boys running from the beach

for ice cream and the papers for bored parents.

And weeks more it hung, unnoticed, torn;

down in shreds it was, a girl would never see.

But a girl had never seen. She’d been looking instead

over the shoulder of the keen bright boy

to the man who broke her heart: a challenge –

find me, save me. Do not let me now walk out into the sea.

But in the keening of the wind and

the straining of the gale, all turned away

And she was gone and the slips of note removed,

for something clean and tidy and not sad.

11

Druidstone Haven. A sonnet

We climbed the downward spiral of the trail

To best the shedding fingers of the cliff,

I’d promised you, oh love, I could not fail

I’d prove to you against our lovers’ tiff,

That there was treasure to be found that day –

Albescent moons to cradle in your hand –

Sea urchins fine, a little world to say:

Echinocardium, wanting to be grand.

But my world was not yours, you did not care

To hold the little lanterns in your palm –

The hollow globe within the greatest fair,

You did not care if such should come to harm.

So cracked the sea potato on the tide:

I knew, although I smiled, my love had died.

12

Grave bag

‘Girl, get the grave bag from by the back door!’

‘I’m doing it now, in a minute!’

‘But have you got there the water in the milk bottle,

the scrubber and the cloth and the scissors,

they’re rusty but will do to trim?’

‘Yes, yes, I see them now.’

‘But have you got them, have you? We musn’t forget

and mustn’t leave the bag at home and mustn’t take it

to the graves half full, is it done now, is it all and are you sure?’

‘Yes, I am sure.’

The bag was bundled and the car was roared and the dead were glad

of a well-kept stone and the brambles trimmed and no-one cursed,

like they did, all did, in life, and the door was keyed and the grave bag was refilled

and sat just as it should, and the life was endless not altered,

even in this loud new world.

                                                                  13 

                                                                 Cariad.

                   Rounding the headland at St Brides and sighting the small churchyard,

Cariad, you were aware, weren’t you now, that things were changed that day?

You saw us with the girl, cousin by marriage, I think she was,

And all was well because she was not you. You were, weren’t you now,

The same age and the same beauty and the same dimension, even, roughly now,

And all so different because she was not you. And daddy said, I know he did,

‘Ah, my lovely girl, my cariad, look at your lovely golden hair

And your blue eyes and the light foot and a tumble of a laugh’ –

But that was not for you, but for your cousin, by marriage I think she was,

And she was fair and pretty and you with your welter of a laugh

And your thin voice and your pinched nose and you my shameless,

shameful little girl, mine but not mine and yapping now

as we rounded the headland at St Brides. Sing to the sailors, girl,

cry for the mermaids if you see them there, but in this dark world

where cliffs heap up and the boy drowns and the wrack fills,

think always that none of this cares for you, but for her, cariad.

 

14

Lewis, who went away

When I was a kid, Lewis took his own life.

I heard them say he took it, but where it went,

I couldn’t say or wasn’t told. Perhaps it had

been drained, in the sloop, with all his pints,

or thrown gladly off Stack Rocks with a shout

that he married well and was a man they liked,

but I don’t know. For once, though I was very young,

I saw a look from out the corner of his eye as he shipped

off, went laughing with the pot boys and his girl:

that look it said, I think, that Lewis wanted rescuing,

but no-one came, as the sea foam danced in Cardigan Bay.

 

15

Auger

The Auger shell, unbroken, in the palm,

still yet, such tenor of this hour upon this tide,

I wait at Nolton, looking out to sea:

you do not come. I nurse the shell,

its whorls and tidy chambers tell

of secrets and of things I cannot know;

the grains of sand, or filament of carapace

swept up inside its little maze,

its rooms, its tidy cap, once came from elsewhere,

elsewhere on this tide, I’ll never know. And you,

I wait for, still, looking out to sea. I hear you laugh

and cannot say from where it came, but seabirds circle low.

I throw the shell where anemone and spider crab

have made their home – more life reclaims it now,

as your laugh is lost to me, in warm thrift and gorse

and the tenor of this hour upon the tide.

16

Rhiannon

My mother taught at Wiston school,

Her hands were lithe, her mind so sharp,

Her friend Rhiannon worshipped her

And plucked her name upon the harp

Which sat all gold, in sight of all,

Rhiannon’s talons told mother’s fall –

She plucked a death upon the strings,

Her dainty nails scratched their goal:

‘Your mother will have feet, not wings

And with their clay, they’ll crush her soul –

Oh read The Mabinogion, dear,

You pretty pretty little child –

For you shall be my daughter fair,

my son Avaggdu’s ugly – wild –

the thick and thwart upon his brow

why should she have while I’ve not got?

Your mother taught at Wiston school

and so I tell you, she shall not.’

She plucked and plucked and screamed her rage

now mother’s clad in primrose dell,

But I can’t go and see her now,

Rhiannon keeps me in a cage

And sings to me of dulcet love

And all the things I cannot gauge:

Avaggdu cries for he’s not loved

And spits upon upon sweet mother’s grave.

17

The Famished House

Around here, the trees suck air and, at night,

when the last shriek of the plump and pretty-breasted curlew

s drawn from its throat, and when the strand-line treasure

is dulled and shredded against the rock, even in fair weather,

well then: that is the time that the houses take their fill.’

‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘ Oh yes. Around here, when the moss

spawns bad, it creeps across your foot if you slowly move,

so be sure to move quite fast, when the twilight stalks,

then that is the time that the houses take their fill.’

‘Nanny, is it true?’ ‘Oh yes. When the jewel sky

and the lapping wing, have beat their very blood

into the hour, take heed; the tidiest stones

we built such with, will stretch up so to bark at silly men,

the silliest from away, for we shall know

what is to come, as groaning, crafted stone leans in

to kiss a sleeping face and staunch, in wild rebellion, dear,

the men that wrest it proudly from the ground.’

18

Slebech Forest

Today we will go inland dear, to see the rhododendron bloom,

Away from sea scent, sunset shell; away from me, away from you.’

We travelled for hours on little tracks, their way being marked with showy prime,

It was, at first, of some delight, but then my love spoke of his crime:

‘So stay here, love, forever held, unless you scent the estuary,

And I fly high, to England bold, away from you, away from me.’

Ah dear, you underestimate my knowledge of this mazèd land,

You did not hear the laughing breeze, dead mammy’s come and with her hand

She’ll pen you up, beside the Rhos, and I will run forever free,

I’ll not stay here, forever held, not stay with you but live for me –

An orient boat will rescue me, blown on dead daddy’s pretty curse

And rhododendron casket blooms will strip your life and end my verse.