Friday 13 November 2020

Reading on Planet Lockdown - Discovering Quebec with Louise Penny,

Shielding in lockdown has been like landing on a different planet. For me one consequence of exploring this new Planet Lockdown is the deepening and strengthening my lifelong habit (obsession with?) of reading and writing – all of which started when I was about seven. Reading has always been my escape from a dark and difficult world, furnishing me with an almost magical doorway into a sensate, fulfilling life. And now in recent months on Planet Lockdown this deep reading habit has allowed me to escape the sense of dark confinement and deprivation and find a (possibly eccentric) way of living to the full. 

And now I have found many different pathways on this planet. One of my reading pathways has involved   revisiting lifelong favourites. Then I got to thinking that I have possibly outgrown some old favourites; perhaps I even overrated these works in those early readings. But sometimes it happens that I find new layers of meaning in such older works which tell me something about the life we have to live now.

Another pathway here on the planet has been finding new works. I have relished a great pleasure in discovering new writers and stories which inspire me to explore new rivers and climb new mountains – to open up my confined world. So in these lockdown days new territories are opening up for me:  territories which would not have opened up for me, which I would not have foreseen, without this unique reading retreat which is Planet Lockdown

Some of the best of these has influenced me not just as a reader but more crucially as a writer.  One of these - a recent discovery - has been the work of the Canadian writer Louise Penny.

I can’t remember just how I first discovered this writer. However, having read one book, I found myself looking for others and, using an old habit – again started in childhood – of discovering a writer by reading a series of their novels. In this way I can cultivate and incorporate into my reading/writing map this writer’s approach to the storytelling task, to their worldview, to their creation of characters; I could learn from them their deep apprehension of climate and the natural world. I recognised these elements which combine uniquely in each writer and constitute what we call their style.

I feel first developed this series approach to reading generations ago, when I was doing my French and German A-levels. To back up my curriculum studies I hunted down the novels by Honoré de Balzac, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant and Heinrich Boll, and the plays of Goethe. (We did read whole books in those days in the original language. I believe things are different nowadays.)

Back to reading on Planet Lockdown – Louise Penny’s novels which might be loosely labelled murder mystery stories,  showcase her high literary skills and her clever storytelling skills.  The novels are bedded in the historical and cultural identity of French Canada. The history of the British colonisation of this original French province lies there in layers, underneath the contemporary stories. Penny’s storytelling is complex and sometimes surprising - threaded through with philosophical insight and an acute sense of the ‘other’. I learnt a lot in reading these novels – isn’t there a certain pleasure in absorbing information in the context of a story?

The settings for Penny’s novels is French-speaking urban and rural Québec; the central characters are urban and rural Québécois with a sprinkling of English speakers – called Anglos here - historically top dogs in the province but now at one level down: first nation Canadians such as the Cree nation also play a small part here.

As well as relishing the stories, in reading this succession of Penny’s novels I have learnt a great deal about the unique history of this part of the North American continent. And I have developed further my knowledge of the human dilemma – the politics of family, the forming and destruction of friendships, the nature of betrayal, the intertwining of love and hate.

I have been thinking that this is part of what we explore through reading – finding new pathways, new tracks, and ways to interpret what is essentially a very foreign environment to an English reader. This is so even if - like me – you flatter yourself that have a good sense of the world and its history.

Penny’s novels explore a series of widely ranging mysteries held together by the leading character, a Québécois policeman, Chief Inspector Armand Ganache, of the Sûreté de Quebec, his intellectual wife Reine Marie by his side. These two are at the centre of an extraordinary caucus of characters who live in a tiny village deep in the forests and mountains of rural Québec, some miles away from Montréal.

One great attraction for me of these novels is the secondary and tertiary characters who reappear in further novels.  This includes a complicated ancient poet called Ruth whose constant companion is a duck called Rosa. Another attraction is the way the writer renders for us the extremities of the distinctive seasons and the landscape of this part of Canada to the degree that, as well as forming a background for the narrative, they become part of the characterisation of the whole novel.

I have to say that these are no ordinary mystery novels. Apart from the complex and attractive character of Ganache himself, the stories of are bedded into a whole range of world issues played out against the linked histories of France and Québec. These involve murder, drug addiction, the joys, the warmth and this occasional toxic nature of family. We get to know the worlds of painting and fine art, the danger of enclosed monastic life, the dark nature of political and police corruption, And in each novel the exploration of good and evil and the dark and the light of characters and cultures is intelligent and satisfying. This writer assumes her readers are intelligent and not afraid of ideas.

Being a great Francophile the setting of one of my favourite novels in this series moves away from Québec and is set in Paris, where the historical French cultural identity of the Québécois is embedded in the narrative and is a key to the mystery at its core. As readers we get to walk the streets of Paris with Armand Ganache and his clever wife Reine Marie. I enjoy the way the Rodin Museum and the tale of the Burghers of Calais plays its part in the narrative.

The detective Armand Ganache is a deceptively clever man. He is a thinker:  a quiet, thoughtful soul who wields authority and leadership like a  magician's wand. We spend a lot of time inside his mind.  In this Paris novel as in the others, he  uses  literary and philosophical analogies with a free hand, always adding depth and significance to the  story,

One – it seems to me – very attractive and original aspect of all the novels is the attention they pay to the French influence on the daily life and of the food of the Quebec province. This is described  described with relish and serves to reflect the intimacy of the relationships and the authenticity of the stories as they unfold.

Looking at all this,  I am now thinking that it might make the novels sound fact-heavy and complicated. But not so! The passion informing the research and the literary skills of this writer makes each novel a compelling - even an easy - read.

 And there are surprises. Each novel is different to the others – these are not patently similar mystery stories. They are handcrafted novels which - apart from anything else - enhance our understanding of the human condition and cultural identity. They explore the dark and the light, the good and the evil embedded in the human drama. The dark side of some individuals and their motivation towards evil is deeply and sometimes shockingly present but not - as in some mystery novels – wanton and unjustified. 

So I suppose have to admit that the confinement and the long days of lockdown have been transformed into a gift  - for me, the time and the space and time to learn -  in this case about Québec, and  to become acquainted with the very special Armand Gamache in discovering  the novels of Louise Penny.

Happy reading!

Here Are Some of The Novels:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace / Dead Cold
The Cruellest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick Of The Light

The Beautiful Mystery
How The Light Gets In
The Long Way Home
The Nature Of The Beast
A Great Reckoning
Glass Houses
Kingdom Of The Blind
A Better Man
All The Devils Are Here



Saturday 17 October 2020

From My Lockdown Notebook: Outsiderness,


I often say to writers that the only place for a writer is on the outside of everything. These days more than ever we are on the outside – of any aspiration to normal life. So it is no wonder that the following has emerged from a starting point in my notebook.

In this prolonged period of isolation my notebook is my best friend. In it I have scrawled impressions, thoughts, and feelings which turn up in an almost random fashion. Occasionally I turn the pages, pick up an idea and work on it in a more focused fashion. Working and moulding this into something more distinct and possibly distinctive is a writer’s active pleasure.




Being the third child of four

I was bred to be an outsider.

Being the new child from a far town

I was labelled outsider.


Talking with the wrong tone

I was seen as a verbal outsider.

Being the cleverest child in class

made me an outsider.


Working alongside men

I was the female outsider.

Telling stories made me

a mendacious outsider.


Living with a man who doesn’t see

I have become an invisible outsider. –

Learning to make myself comfortable

In this ultimate containment.


Now, living through to old age

I am an intimate outsider, even

the ultimate outsider,

to others on the planet..

So anyway  now I relish 

my role as outsider 

at the centre of my own world.



Also see my novel  The Bad Child 

which emerged from these same feelings of Outsiderness some years ago.

  I find I am nothing if not consistent.


'As her life begins to unravel Dee tells us her own story - how she begins to rescue herself  from her own life. But she’s not alone on her journey. Travelling with her is a woman who throws pots and a dog called Rufus. Then there are Dee's drawing books and the characters she's met in the stories she has read…'

Sunday 4 October 2020

Reading for Writers During Lockdown: The Irish Voice. Niall Williams


 Reading for Writers During Lockdown:

 The Irish Voice: Niall Williams 


“Don’t you think there’s something wonderful about the Irish voice?”

So said the actress Ann Peacock who herself has narrated – beautifully – some of my novels in audio. She is an expert on the voice, having narrated many hundreds of novels. See her here:  and

I am ntrigued by Anne’s comment about how good the Irish voice is to the English ear. I have long thought this. The power of the Irish voice emerges clearly in recordings on BBC Sounds for instance, and the voices of narrators of novels delivered on Audible. But more importantly it emerges very clearly through the words written on the page, where the vocabulary, syntax and rented landscape sing out to the ear in a very particular way.

These thoughts crystallised for me when I read on Audio a novel by writer

Niall Williams  (a visionary writer – a new find new find for me!) His novel This Is Happiness, is set in a village in West Cork, and is narrated narrated by Irish actor Dermot Crowley. Crowley’s voice is perfect for Williams’ prose. Brilliant.

This Is Happiness explores the human minutiae of daily living in a village West Cork, seen through the fresh eyes of a boy “Noe” visiting his grandparents –“Ganga” and “Dodie”- from the city, in his school holidays. 

It seems to me that all life is here on these pages: the layers of human experience in a village with a traditional, stoical, hard way of living, stubbornly adhered to by people confident of their own identity and rightness in their world.  In the story this taken-for-granted reality is invaded by the arrival of “the electricity”.  Among many rich characterisations, the image of the awful man in charge of this electrifying process is a masterly piece of writing. But as well as this each element of the novel resonates through the literary talent of this Irish writer. 


Unsentimental in tone - although the novel treats great themes, like identity, community, hierarchy, love and the sense of a unique place - it is a very easy read. This, I feel, is because the story is voiced through the young boy’s perception of this almost vanished world. A powerful thread running through the story is the saga of Noe’s relationship with Christy – a wonderful rendering of a relationship between a boy and man - interweaving Noe’s story with Christy’s lifelong doomed love affair with woman, now elderly in the village. 


The authorial voice of the storyteller – Noe in old age - occasionally brings us back to the present, reminding us of how much the world has changed since Noe was a boy.


Despite its inherent complexity This Is Happiness is also an easy read because its embedded lyricism embraces the ancient custom of stories embedded in other stories which reaches back to the pre-literate tradition of oral storytelling. This novel springs straight off the page into my ear through the medium of Dermot Crowley’s narration. 


Thinking on about the novel and Anne Peacock’s observation about the Irish voice made me think further about the way that the Irish voice has dominated the nature of so-called English Literature. It also made me think further about the 19th century migration Wales Scotland and - of course – Ireland,  into the newly flourishing coalmining area of south-west Durham – another tapestry of small villages with similar storytelling customs. My own family was part of this migration separate branches coming from Wales and Scotland. I also had one idiosyncratic grandma who, I think, came from Ireland. She worked as a domestic in a lunatic asylum and once told me of the courtship with my grandfather who was an attendant, ‘He chased me round the table till I caught him.’


Such a background is of course very inspirational for any writer and in my case can be can be traced in several of my novels. One of the stories actually begins with my Welsh heroine coming North on a train from Bagillt in Wales to Spennymoor in County Durham. In the story she is travelling under the seat because her father could only afford tickets for four of the children and she was the fifth and the smallest. That introduction to the novel is a true glimpse of my own grandmother’s journey at the turn of the last century when her own language was Welsh. This is one of the many stories I heard  from my mother and her sisters whose family history was a lapidary ediface of stories true and not so true that was a crucial part of their identity


My own novel is certainly not a biography but inevitably I have in my head in my heart the stories within the stories as with Niall Williams. They are part of my South Durham literary heritage  and the foundation of my inspiration whether the stories are set in South Durham or not.


Anne Peacock, who, I found, comes from this same region, told me, ‘In my family’s case it was migrating from the Welsh coal mining industry to the Durham one I have to thank, for my lifelong love affair with music and poetry and language in its many forms.


I have often tried to pin down the attraction to me of soft underlying rhythms and syntax of the South Durham way of speaking and I think this is where it lies - in the life stories and songs brought into my region by families from villages in Wales and Scotland and Ireland, whose life experiences chime together into a particular kind of music. This perhaps is why the literature coming out of Ireland and surfacing in the English literary canon holds particular appeal for people like myself and Anne Peacock.

Spurred on by these thoughts about Anne Peacock, Niall Williams and the Irish voice, I decided to check my shelves and see just how much Irish writing has been so bedded down in my writer’s consciousness to the point of actually buying the books. I recognise that in many cases the the works of these writers have been colonised and incorporated into the so called English Canon, but the Irish identity is clearly there in the work of these artists.

These days I am seen as a pretty ancient reader and write so there are very many books on my shelves. And, sharpened by my thoughts about Niall Williams and Anne Peacock I notice so many books which are the work of   Irish writers.

I made a list. And even I was surprised to find just how many there are. Here you go. Happy reading!

West Cork
John Banville (born 1945)/ Sebastian Barry (born 1955)/ Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)/ Brendan Behan (1923–1964)/ Maeve Binchy (1940–2012)/ Dermot Bolger (born 1959)/ John Boyne (born 1971) / Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973)/ Frank Delaney (born 1942)/ Roddy Doyle (born 1958)/ Ann Enright (born 1962)/  Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774)/ Jennifer Johnston (born 1930)/ Neil Jordan (born 1950)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/ Frank Delaney (born 1942)/  Roddy Doyle (born 1958)/ Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849)/ Ann Enright (born 1962)/ Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774)/ Jennifer Johnston (born 1930)/ Neil Jordan (born 1950)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/ John B. Keane (1928–2002)/ Molly Keane (1904–1996, writing as M.J. Farrell)/ Marian Keyes (born 1963)/ C. S. Lewis (1899–1963)/ Frank McCourt (1930–2009)/ John McGahern (1934–2006)/ Iris Murdoch (1919–1999)/ Edna O'Brien (born c. 1932)/ Joseph O'Connor (born 1963)/ Brian O'Nolan (1912–1966, writing as Flann O'Brien and Myles na gCopaleen)/  Somerville and Ross: (Edith Somerville, 1858–1949, and Violet Florence Martin, 1862–1915)/ Bram Stoker (1847–1912)/ Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)/ Colm Tóibín (born 1955)/ William Trevor (born 1928)/ Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)/ Niall Williams (born 1958)/ Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)/ Brendan Behan (1923–1964)/ Cecil Day-Lewis (1904–1972)/ Seamus Heaney (1939–2013)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/  Patrick Kavanagh (1904–1967)/ C. S. Lewis (1899–1963)/ Michael Longley (born 1939)/  Paul Muldoon (born 1951)/ Tom Paulin (born 1949)/ Jonathan Swift (1667–1745)/  Oscar Wilde (1845–1900)/ W. B. Yeats (1865–1939)/ Samuel Beckett (1906–1989)/ Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973)/ Clare Boylan (1948–2006)/ Joyce Cary (1888–1957)/ Brian Friel (born 1929)/ Neil Jordan (born 1950)/ James Joyce (1882–1941)/ Walter Macken (1915–1967)/ Bernard MacLaverty (born 1942)/ John McGahern (1934–2006)/ Edna O'Brien (born 1932)/ Frank O'Connor (1903–1966)/ Colm Tóibín (born 1955)/ William Trevor (born 1928)/ Oscar Wilde (1854–1900).


As I said happy reading!

Friday 25 September 2020

Reading as a Writer. Lockdown inspiration. My comment on Roberto Bolaño's novel The Savage Detectives


Reading as a  Writer - Lockdown Inspiration.

The themes of identity and poetry, anarchy and politics flow through the voices of the men and women in The Savage Detectives by Chilean writer  Roberto Bolano.  Throughout the novel a sense irony, melancholy, madness, regret and paranoia all emerge through the stories told by his characters We encounter unfamiliar labels: ‘visceral realism’  ‘stridentist’ are scattered around like raisins in a rich pudding.

And there are arresting phrases:

‘We talked about poetry, bullfighters, politicians.’

‘… up to my ears in ghosts.’

‘You have to love your life that’s all there is to it. Literature is crap.’

‘There’s a hired killer after every publisher.’

 ‘The shadows that face all editors in the end.’

 ‘That was the end of everything.’

In Bolano's novel the widely varied characters speak directly to the reader, as though he or she is sitting with a group of friends or acquaintances. The time switches confidently backwards and forwards between the 1960s to the 1970s just as the stories embedded in it swing across the world.  The novel sings hymns to the identity and history of Mexico and the greater South American world. We hear of stories set in Barcelona and Paris, in Vienna and Santiago.

This is a novel about time passing.  It’s a novel about books and poetry. It’s about travelling. It’s about dancing. It’s about political activism, about drinking and about sex. At its centre is a passion for books. (One character steals books from bookshops in a range of cities). The novel explores the nature of writing and editing, and the philosophy of existence.

We learn this through the mysterious illuminations of character through the stories they tell and through the filter of wide range of characters – both men and women - in a language that appears simple. But it is only superficially simple expressed as it is in sophisticated and poetically worked short sentences.

Much of the philosophising is kind of barter between individuals. A linking element is an old man who is his stories to some boys. In the middle of the story he will address them directly from time to time in.

In the very last story he, the storyteller, lists all the characters in the stories, reminding one of the mythic storytellers of Greece.

A Note: I discovered the work of Bolaño through an article by Francine Prose* whose enthusiasm made me seek out his work. Boleño has also been described by the magisterial Susan Sontag as “the real thing and the rarest”.

*Francine Prose: What To Read and What To Write.


Tuesday 18 August 2020

My Big Sister Boudicca


      I have been locked down and shielding nearly six months now. I have the evidence of this extraordinary isolation in my rather untidy notebook.

 These conditions, for good or ill, lead to excess introspection – a detailed examination of the present, future and - particularly if you are my age – the past.

 So was that one day my late sister took residence in my imagination. I loved her deeply and for a long time she was my heroine.  So one day, notebook on knee,  shielding myself beneath my trees, I started talk to her about the hard times of our growing up, which we faced in very different ways.


           Big Sister

Your hair is the colour of a bright penny

much admired by  everyone.

 Mam - also red-haired -says,

“Like Boudicca and the first Elizabeth.

great women, both.”


At first you wear your hair in long plaits,

hooked up with green ribbons. One day

I sit on the stairs listening to them row

when – school looming - she insists

on cutting off those long plaits;


My own hair – curly and tangled, mostly unkempt -

means that eventually I’m christened Medusa

by cruel boys at school, where clever does not count

and  I’m never picked for teams and am ignored

by you in corridors. Unhappy times.


And each day with my tangled hair

and slipshod ways I walk ten paces

behind you  on our way to school.

You do not turn. And I feel   

 I am not here.


But with your clever mind and bright penny hair  

you find your place among the racy girls

who admire your dancing style and love

those green shoes with four-inch heels –  

that Mam has bought  for you on credit .


At school your friends - too cool to study –

hold you back,  drag you down,

and stop you showing your clever brain.

(Even so, you still go on into the world

and rise to the top. )


With Mam working at the factory

your cool friends visit  our tiny house,

roll back the rug, put Bill Haley

on our Dansette player – also bought on credit –

and start to dance


But I am here, lying on the sofa, half asleep -

these days playing truant seems to be my only option.

“Hey lass!” says the coolest girl. “Are you off school again?”

But you just stand there before the mirror, back-combing

your bright penny hair into a bouffant style.


Wednesday 10 June 2020

Sirens - we face the uniformed wall

  As I’ve mentioned here before my Lockdown project is diving into fifty years of notebooks to see what pearls I come up with. Anyway in a 2017 notebook I found this poem called Sentinels. I have spent some time polishing it a bit, ready to join in new collection to be called With Such Caution.

And this week I’ve also been looking with some sympathy at the reportage around the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country and around the world. 

One account which touched me very deeply was a demonstrator’s account of her experience  of what is, apparentlycalled ‘Kettling’ (such a deceptively domestic term!) This is a really terrifying police strategy for controlling and containing demonstrators. 

I have said here before of my novels, that writing  fiction has allowed me to see through space and time.  This happens more through accident than design.

Looking at this poem  I see  that I was morphing into  the feelings I have now, years later,  when I am seeing the images of the police in action controlling the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.


They  stand there, the sirens -
short hair, muscular demeanour -
bluff, pragmatic - family men
here on the wrong planet perhaps.
‘I thought you were illegal.’

So much standing, waiting - .
suiting  standing, bristling types.
My Remegel and Ventolyn
are briefly challenged -
stupid me, still keeping  them in my bag

We face the uniformed wall with its 
 bullet-proof screens, which gives them  
an illusion of security -  
a sense of enclosure -
 without prioritising our safety.

                                                        Written 2017 Polished 2020

Lockdown Notebook Project

Monday 1 June 2020

Writing In Lockdown – The Stone Circle

Living in Lockdown is very much like living in a dark perpetual present with the feeling of death all around. But in this state I find my mind wandering back to other ‘presents’ which – I realise now - were to prove to be the roots of a whole range of novels. This is been hammered home to me in the last year as I worked on the stories in the Kaleidoscope collection - each fictional story set at some point in my 50 year past and rendered in the telling as the present. On reflection all my novels emerge from a sense of the present in the past: rendering the past as though it were the urgent, vibrant present. (The fictional stories in Kaleidoscope are  full of these urgent allusions. See right.)
And recently I have discovered -  in deep-diving into my 50 years of notebooks - how much my own present is bedded significantly in my own past. As well as this I am struck by how much an enduring sense of place has always featured in my writing.

I am not unique. I know that many writers clearly operate in the past in the present. And they add meaning to their fiction by their deep sense of place.  There are eminent examples of this – for instance we have Pat Barker bringing to present, urgent life the time of the Trojan wars and Hilary Mantel reliving for us turbulent Tudor times which have so many parallels in the present day.  

Anyway  the deep dive into my notebooks (from about 2008) I have discovered my poem called The Stone Circle. And now it occurs to me that in these stones crafted by human hands the present lives of the makers thousands of years ago still endure and add meaning to our contemporary lives. Certainly they have to mine.

 The Stone Circle

This stone circle was  formed 
by the chip chipping of men with skilful fingers.
And now it survives although though
 their string has withered  and their chalk 
has crumpled

Its original purpose was for,
 people coming  from miles around, to meet
at moon-rising to exchange their goods - 
and cream the profit from  
their surplus.

They sit here still, ghostly,  
in this green place surrounded by hills.
It mirrors the sun, which burns
  up there, not  acknowledging
 its puny planets.

ps. In writing this now I am reminded of lunchtimes in my Northern working class school when I escaped the pressures of the schoolyard and wandered around nearby graveyard making up stories in my head about the people whose names I read on the stones. I was nine years old and knew then I would be a writer. A working class writer, It seems they are trending now...


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