Saturday, 25 February 2012


Here is another of my short, short pieces. I wrote this to be read out at the Brighton Moment, a collection of readings by local authors which took place at the Sussex Arts Club (now sadly no longer with us) in 2007. My career had stalled at the time, and this was a great breakthrough for me. I met several Brighton writers as a result, some of whom are still good friends.

I also discovered that a. I could write short, short pieces for reading aloud, b. I liked reading them and c. people laughed. Conclusion/useful advice nugget: it's worth experimenting with this kind of thing, and reading your work to anyone who will listen.

So here we go....


There’s never any space here.  The wooden benches are crowded with toddlers and relentless uber-mums, scary Brighton dads with professional papooses and glossy students, charming each other over shared strudel.  Behind them, banks of cinematic fruit, waxy lemons, Technicolor strawberries.  Daily menus, indulgently wholesome, chalked up on little black boards. Charred veg with everything.   

Why did I bring the baby here? Just bloody minded, that’s my problem. Jackson is already screwing his face up into a Les Dawson gurn, ready to start screeching for a feed.  Should have gone to Starbucks.  I mean, look at them in their Camper boots and retro-horn rims. Barging into each other, then apologising with attitude. What is it with these women?  Some kind of Boudicca complex?  They act like those three wheeled buggies come with blades attached.

And why do they think breast feeding is an extreme sport? A little modesty wouldn’t go amiss. I tried a bit of stylish suckling myself, once, at a country wedding. Accidentally ended up topless in the family photos. Wrong kind of dress.   Bruised by this experience, I seek out dark corners so I can shove Jackson up my jumper for a furtive slurp.  Even then I’m a magnet for the criminally insane.

Finally, a seat.  One empty chair, opposite a member of the Maternal Majority, breast feeding, naturally, bare naked whammer the size of a football.  Cup of herbal in front of her. She’s wearing a cloche hat enlivened with knitted fruit.

“Is any one sitting here?”

She shakes her head. “Help yourself.”

I collapse in front of her and attach Jackson to my right breast. Her baby is glugging like a lager lout.  We exchange a look, not conspiratorial, exactly. But not hostile.

“How old is yours?” she asks after a while.

“Ten weeks.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy. Jackson.”

She says nothing, as if letting this sink in. Jackson.  My mother wanted me to call him Sebastian.  Boyfriend was all for Wolf. But as he’d left me, his views weren’t very influential.

“Mine’s a girl,” she says.


“Nearly five months.”




We drink our tea in silence.  Divided by a common experience.  Before I had a baby, I dreaded turning into a mum.  And now it turns out I was right. They’re the worst people I’ve ever met. After a bit, she unlatches the baby and winds it on her shoulder, on one of those NCT muslin shawls that you have to keep in a Cath Kidston changing bag.  Then she looks at me.  She has violet eyes, clear and shining with a stab of laughter behind them.

          “Never thought I’d see the day, did you?”

          “Which day?”

          “You know. This…”  Her laugh is like a question mark. “All this babv bollocks.  I was a proper person once.”

          She has three spots on her pointed chin, dark rings under her starry eyes. She’s beautiful.

          Slurp of tea.  I watch her over the rim of my cup.  She takes her stupid hat off, she has cropped yellow hair. Then, I blink madly. The cafĂ© is wavering with tears. Something’s flown into my eye.

          She leans forward.  “Stay still.”

          “It’s okay, it’s nothing…”  I rub my hot eye, my wet cheek.

          Placing Rafaella across her knee, she takes the muslin from her shoulder. “Don’t move.  Don’t…”  She wipes my eye, swift and expert. “”There!  Got it! Tiny fly or something.”

          “Thank you.”  I shake my head, trying to return the world to its familiar shapes. I don’t want to catch her eye again. I put my glasses on.  They’re not modish. They make me look like Ann Widdecombe.

          Now she’s grinning, filling up all the space in my head.

          “Your baby’s called ‘Jackson’, but who are you?”


          “I’m Laura.” She touches my hand.  “We should do this again.” 

I look down at her freckled fingers, waiting for my next breath to come.

“Old married women, meeting up for tea,” she says, stroking her sleeping baby.  “That’s what passes for excitement now.”

          Jackson has fallen off my breast. A trail of milk drools over the side of his face, and his little alien hands jerk upwards, as if to save himself from falling.

(Painting: Two women in a cafe by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, May 6, 1880 - Jun 15, 1938)

Tuesday, 21 February 2012


Have decided to go off-grid, or at least off-Facebook, for the period of Lent. Not because I am particularly religious, though too much exposure to Richard Dawkins can make me feel curiously pious for an atheist, but because I am fed up with having part of my cerebral cortex (or something) leeching into the keyboard of an evening.

I need all of the bits of my brain for writing, and all of my energy for fighting the good fight to transform what I am writing into Actual Books, via the medium of people in publishing. I have no brain power or energy resources available to process other people's restaurant choices, or be told what Guardian features they are reading, or check out their holiday snaps. One of the unsung skills of writing is working out what is cultural inspiration, and what is white noise.

The blogging, however, will continue, never fear.

Monday, 20 February 2012


Tiny bit of a joke in the title because there are people (my kids, my mother, most people I used to know before I caught the writing bug) who think that novelists are no fun at all.

Cue classic clip from 'Sideways' (Apologies for the redaction of 'fuck' by someone squeamish in YouTubeland.)

The line 'Don't go to the dark side' is now a family joke, as this is where I like to spend most of my time, in a V.Woolf sort of way. And I am just as keen on red wine as Miles/Paul Giamatti, though significantly less discriminating. (Ever wondered what kind of internet user Ms Woolf would have been? Or perhaps this is another example of my being a tiny bit weird.)

Of course, Miles is Unpublished, and the general assumption is that failure has a detrimental effect on the human personality, and success a beneficial one. I am Published, and looking at my character overall, I would say that on balance I am more of a pain in the arse now than I was before I got that corrupting glimpse of life on the other side of the portals of Penguin's HQ in the Strand.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Lilith Smiles in the Garden of Eden

So Lilith said to the Serpent: “Get thee behind me, Satan, I want a proper look at Number Two.”  And the Serpent moved pretty quickly.
            “Hi,” said Lilith.  “I’m Lilith.”
            “Hi,” said Eve.  She was combing her long hair. It was pale and wavy, prone to frizz in the rain. But she was proud of it.
            “Nice breasts,” said Lilith.
            “Thanks.” Eve had the disposition of a cat sprawled in a square of sunlight.
            Lilith didn’t say anything for a minute.  She was contemplating this naked girl, the mother of the human race, and her ever-so-slightly smug expression.

            “Shame about the belly,” said Lilith.
            “The – what?”
            Eve looked down.  She had a rounded, peachy stomach.  Adam loved it, and used to wake her every morning by softly kissing her navel, though why she had one God only knows.
            “I don’t understand,” said Eve.
            “Ever thought of working out?” said Lilith.  “You can do crunches for that.  Or the one where you lie on your back and lower your legs really slowly.  It’s agony but it does the business.” Lilith smiled.
            Eve smiled back. Her pale blue eyes widened.  She lifted a finger, sensing a shift in the quality of the air.  It had chilled a fraction, for Lilith had just made the first bitchy comment in the history of the planet.  Just the tiniest in-breath of its peaceable languor had gone for good.

            “Now, now,” said the Serpent, over its neat coils. “There’s no need for that.”
            “Need?” Lilith’s smile spasmed away. “Need?  What did Adam need? We were perfectly happy as we were.”
            “But we are perfectly happy as we are,” said Eve.
            “Is that so?”
            Lilith saw the apple before the Serpent did. She reached up and plucked it from the tree.  It was all russets and earth reds, a cool natural sphere.  She stroked it. 
            “This is where I come in,” said the Serpent.
            “Only in the versions men wrote down,” said Lilith. “While the women were dying in childbirth and cleaning behind the fridge.”
            She offered it to Eve.  “Why don’t you see if Adam is hungry?”

            And so God created the Ex Wife, and he saw that she was bad.

(Picture courtesy of Georgia O'Reilly, 2004)

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

10 top tips for getting published

·       Write the best possible book – and keep writing.

·       Buy the Writers’ and Artists’ Year book – every year.

·       Be proactive and network both online and with real human beings.

·       Keep up-to-date with new developments in agencies and publishing houses. Get free emails from The Bookseller

·       Set up your own blog, Facebook page and Twitter account. Connect with other blogs, comment and share useful information.

·       Go to conferences and festivals and find out what is going on, particularly in the small presses and new agencies. Example: Winchester Writers' Conference.

·       Enter short story completions, first novel awards etc. Submit work to the literary press, both online and in paper format.

·       Agents are useful in a crowded market, and invaluable when it comes to deal making. So try and get one, both by getting known and approaching agencies direct.

·       If you can’t, make the small press your next target. Again, keep up to date with new appointments, new lists etc. Example: Myriad Editions in Brighton.

·       Consider self-publishing – but don’t make this your life’s work. Useful websites: and Grosvenor House Publishing

Thursday, 9 February 2012


One of the great joys of writing is that fiction thrives on misery. As someone said to me recently: "Everybody wants to be happy, but no one wants to read a happy story." Happy endings are fine; happy beginnings are perfectly acceptable, but I have yet to read a gripping story which has a happy middle. And it's a short step from unhappy stories to unhappy authors. Writers as diverse as Dickens, Hemingway, Woolf and Orwell mined their own misery for stories and ideas. The naturally sunny and well adjusted person is - generally speaking - less inclined to write obsessively, committing the seat of the pants to the chair for the necessary hours, weeks, months and years.

We live in a society which undervalues gloom. There is a noble tradition of writing which draws on melancholy for its inspiration - more or less the entire Romantic movement, for a start. The art of staring out of the window thinking bleak thoughts and then writing some of them down is still with us. And thank God for this in society which seems to see happiness as an entitlement.

I'm writing this during Mental Health Awareness Week. I don't want to trivialise the real suffering and debility that serious mental ill health causes, but I do believe that in setting impossible ideals for our emotional well-being, many  of us are putting ourselves  under undue pressure to be 'normal' and 'happy'. To me, this is the psychological equivalent of looking at anorexic adolescents in magazines and hating your own flesh. A certain degree of mental unease and anxiety is positively useful for writers. (Although too much can stop us writing altogether as Virginia Woolf knew only too well - you can sense her scribbling to keep insanity at bay in the almost manic wisdom of her notebooks.)

Even so, fiction would be much the poorer without the functioning neurotic. And speaking from experience, I know that writing fiction can help us find a sort of equilibrium even if it is only partial and temporary.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

10 reasons to love Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is, as if you didn't know, 200 years old today. So - Happy Birthday, Mr Dickens.  I have dragged myself from my convalescent sick bed (wisdom tooth extraction + general anaesthetic = miasmic weirdness) in order to write something about what I like about this man.  In fact, 10 things:

1. He did not calm down, get over himself, stop banging on, or "chill".
2. His characters burst out of his stories like rabbits out of a sack.
3. His plots were insane and no one cares.
4. He was the king of day jobs: reporter, actor, writer, editor, philanthropist and pater familias.
5. He looked like a cross between Rasputin and Father Christmas.

6. People still love his books: In  The Big Read carried out by the BBC in 2003, five of Dickens's books were named in the Top 100. A Tale of Two Cities has sold more than 200 million copies since it was published in 1859.
7. He sent proper written invitations to "fallen women" to come to his college to be educated.
8. He put the City of London on acid.
9. He didn't want to be buried in Poet's Corner but asked to be buried  in Rochester Cathedral "in an inexpensive, unostentatious, and strictly private manner".

10. This description:

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds."
Bleak House, Chapter One, In Chancery

Whatever it is, this thing we writer people are trying to do when we are sitting there, trying to do it, this is the thing.