Category: Writing

Don’t mention Tattenham Corner

My first paid gig as a writer was for BBC Radio 4, as a columnist on Home Truths. This was a programme filled with listeners’ stories, and I sent them a piece that I thought they might feature. It was about the loss of half my Led Zeppelin vinyl collection, when my marriage broke up.

Maria, as she appeared on the Home Truths webpage

The programme producer and I worked to edit the piece to fit their five-minute slot. She cut the first page and a half. On re-reading, I could see that she was right, and I agreed to this. Then there were other suggestions: I would need to cut a reference to the lyric of a Led Zeppelin song. Not everyone was a Led Zeppelin fan, and they wouldn’t get the reference. OK, fair enough. Each editing suggestion was explained, and I agreed to every one, even though the loss of my clever reference to the lyrics of ‘Tangerine’ was a bit of a blow.

Not every editing experience has been so positive. A couple of times, I have held on to the integrity of a piece at the expense of publication.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to submit to an anthology. I sent a story, which the three editors liked, but they said that this alone would not get me a place in the book. They also needed an essay. They gave me a fairly tight deadline to produce this, and a word-count of four to six thousand. I was about to go away, but didn’t want to miss the chance of publication, so I worked on the essay on a Eurostar journey, en route to Bruges, and worked further when I got home. I sent a 6000 word piece, but the editors came back to me wanting it cut by 1500 words. They made suggestions of what they wanted more of, and what they wanted less of. I sighed deeply. It was coming up to Christmas, and life was busy. I felt uneasy about some of the editing suggestions, but came up with a second draft. Days before Christmas, I was sent a version of my essay that the three editors had worked on themselves. I said that I couldn’t look at it until January, and I am glad I didn’t, as it would have ruined the festive season. When I finally read the editors’ cut, the 4500 words I had sent them had been slashed to 1500. A lot of it no longer made sense. Editing by committee does not work. I said I could not agree with their edit, and explained why. I said if they had wanted 1500 words, I would have written 1500 words, but they had asked for 4-6000 words, then 4500 words. Plus it was not acceptable to hack a writer’s work about in the way that they had. The essay was not published, though the story I had sent them found a place in their publication. This was all I had wanted, to have the story published, not to be spending my precious time dancing to the tune of the three editors, who frankly didn’t know what the flip they wanted.

It was a bad experience, which grates to this day. Normally, I am happy to receive a copy of a publication in which I have work, but when the above-mentioned book arrived, I didn’t give it room on the shelf above the desk where I write. Moreover, when I saw events to promote this book advertised on social media, I realised that I had not received an invitation to any of them. I was the one that was seen as awkward, bloody-minded, for holding on to my integrity as a writer.

Today should have seen the online publication of a new story. I would have been sharing it on social media and emailing people with the link. But that will not be happening. I had uneasy feelings about the publisher’s requirements when they accepted my story. There was a heck of a lot of admin attached, a form to fill in, a contract to look at, all of which took time away from my writing. They said that they would be editing for house style, and would send any changes for me to approve. The story is set in the 1970s, with the protagonist working in the kitchens of The Grandstand at Epsom Racecourse. When the edit came to me, they wanted me to remove any specific mention of Epsom, or any reference that might suggest that the story referred to the Epsom racecourse. So ‘the horses hurtling round Tattenham Corner’ should be changed to ‘the horses hurtling round the nearby corner.’ The reasoning behind this? The story referred to poor hygiene in the kitchens at Epsom Racecourse, and could be seen as ‘defamatory’. The price of publication was to make the racecourse and town where it is set ‘generic’, so as not to offend. I would not pay that price.

I suppose the moral of the story, for me, is to trust my instincts. I felt uneasy early on in the process of editing with ‘The Three’ as I have come to call the editors of the anthology, but I did everything they asked, until what they asked was unacceptable. I felt uneasy with the requirements of the publisher of the new story, too, and that instinct turned out to be right.

I now have a story that is still looking for a publisher; but I can also hold onto my integrity as a writer.

All Aboard for Morningtown for the last of the aunties

‘Auntie’ was the honorary title reserved for the closest friends of the family. Children in the 1960s were never allowed to call adults by their first names. Neighbours were Mrs Hubbard, Mrs McLoughlin, Mrs Sullivan, and so on – except for Auntie Joan and Auntie Pam, close friends to my parents, and with children that we played with all the time. It truly was a time when back doors were left unlocked; front doors, too, in warm weather. They were left wide open, so that aunties would just walk in without announcement, the first sign of their visits being a head and shoulders passing the front or back window on their way to the front or back door.

The woman gathered in the kitchen for coffee, Maxwell House or Mellow Birds, which my mother preferred. And I would sit on a stool in the corner, trying to be invisible, so I could listen to their talk and try to make sense of it all. What was a ‘prolapse’? What did ‘paying the milkman in kind’ mean? I would puzzle over these things, sometimes making up my own interpretation of the stories told. Eventually my mother would notice that I was there. ‘Little ears are flapping,’ she would say, and send me out to play.

I learned so much in that kitchen, and gathered material for stories and poems I would write thirty, forty and fifty years on. That time, those women, continue to haunt my writing.

Auntie Joan died a couple of years ago, and now Auntie Pam has gone, too. When I learned of Auntie Pam’s death, her daughter asked me and my siblings for any memories that could be retold at the funeral. Looking back through my notebooks and published work, Pam and her husband Uncle Dave featured strongly. In one story a thinly disguised Auntie Pam cuddles a young child whose dog has just been run over by a car, just as Auntie Pam did to me the day our dog died when I was 10 years old. I have a strong memory of my face being held to her bosom, and of the scent she wore. I can remember the colour of her lipstick and, on happier days than that one, her loud, uninhibited laugh.

Click on the image to hear Morningtown Ride by The Seekers

In ‘Rock On’, a performance piece that I debuted at the Confluence Sessions in Rochester, one of Pam and Dave’s parties is described. Pam was showing off the new radiogram and and TV that Dave had won on the TV game show, Take Your Pick. The audience would shout out ‘Open the box!’ or ‘Take the Money!’ to the contestants, and Uncle Dave had opened the box to find he’d won a big prize. The music played on the radiogram on the night of the party ranged from ‘Morningtown Ride’ by The Seekers to The Rolling Stones. It may have been from another party, another year, but I recall Pam in a long, halter neck dress with a drink in her hand, swaying to Demis Roussos, for all the world like Beverley in the Mike Leigh play Abigail’s Party.

Auntie Pam is the last of my childhood ‘aunties’ to go. I don’t have a picture of her, except those that I hold in my memory. Of her dancing at the Irish dances at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. Of her holding up my baby daughter with delight, the first time I brought her ‘home’ to Epsom. Of her showing off the radiogram at her party, singing along to ‘Morningtown Ride.’

Embroidering the truth, fact and fiction in As Long as it Takes

Read individually, these stories might seem modest: each cuts its small piece of cloth and lays it out with truthfulness, understanding and warmth. But characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them.

Susan Wicks on As Long as it Takes by Maria C. McCarthy

This week, I would have been a guest writer at the 25th Irish Writers in London Summer School. My invitation has been postponed by a year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Who knows how long it will be until we can join with others for such literary events? It will take ‘As long as it takes’, as in the title story of my collection.

During lockdown, I have taken up an old habit – patchwork, and have been learning some embroidery stitches to patch together pieces of fabric from the scrap bag, pieces too small to make anything substantial, but too nice to throw away. It has put me in mind of a phrase my mother used to use, ‘Embroidering the truth,’ used in reference to those who exaggerate or add embellishments to a true story.

I am a daughter of Irish migrants, the middle child of five, who lived in a community of Irish people in Epsom. The central family in As Long as it Takes has five children, too, and live in Epsom. This fictional family is not my real family, the stories are not true; except for patches and fragments, half-remembered conversations, items of clothing, pieces of furniture, mirrors and mantelpieces. Stitching those in was like finding just the right slip of fabric to enhance a patchwork cloth, embroidering it into the bigger work, adding in details for colour and texture.

In the story ‘A Long as it Takes’, Joan takes centre stage; she is a peripheral character in some of the other stories. Her story is of multiple late miscarriages, of despairing of ever carrying a baby to full term. Alongside this is the impending loss of her mother, back home in Ireland. The story begins with the smashing of a fireplace by Joan’s husband, Bill. The opening sentence is, ‘The dust took months to settle.’ Bill cannot express in words what the loss of a child means to him, so he takes a sledgehammer to ‘the brown-tiled surround’ and builds a York stone fireplace. He also makes a bonfire of the cot, a symbolic act to mark that the couple have decided that they cannot put themselves through another pregnancy.

The story is set in the 1960s, when few working class households had a phone – certainly no one on the estate where I grew up had one. News to and from Ireland arrives by letter. There is a late delivery by post – a christening gown arrives from Ireland, for a baby that has not survived, and then there is a letter telling Joan that her mother is in poor health. She sets off on the boat train from Euston to Holyhead, telling her husband that she doesn’t know when she will be back: ‘A dying woman takes as long as she takes.’ The plot relies on this, people taking off for as long as they need to, and not being traceable, if they decide to disappear.

When writing the story, I got to a certain point and abandoned it. Joan suffers a breakdown after her mother’s death, gets as far as Limerick, where she is due to catch a boat train to Dun Laoghaire to return to England, and gets stuck. She can go neither forwards nor backwards. She cannot go home and face up to her loss, neither can she go back to the town where she was raised. So she stays, working in a cafe in Limerick, sleeping in a small rented room with a narrow bed and a crucifix on the wall.

Poor Joan; I didn’t know what to do with her. I worried about her from time to time, but did not know where to take the story. Like Joan, I was stuck. I waited longer than Joan did to resolve things, a full year I left it, before writing the ending. Joan, as it transpired, spent only a summer in her liminal state. Shaken out of it by a woman she met on the crossing to Ireland, now returning with her young family in time for the Autumn term. In the last scene, Joan boards the boat back to England, and drops the christening gown, which she had earlier tried to return to her mother, into the sea.

So, where do fact and fiction intertwine? Joan was the name of my mother’s best friend. She lived on the same council estate as our family, in a house with an identical layout to ours. All the houses looked like this, though some of the interiors were mirror images of their neighbour’s. All the houses had brown-tiled fireplaces to begin with, though some tenants took sledgehammers to theirs and enhanced their rooms with York stone fireplaces. When writing Joan’s story, I saw the woman I called ‘Auntie Joan’ as her physical embodiment. Fictional Joan looked like real Joan. Fictional Joan’s house was Auntie Joan’s real house. But the real Auntie Joan’s story was not one of multiple late miscarriages, of childlessness. The fact was in the physical details, the embroidering in of remembered conversations, of the fireplace in Auntie Joan’s house, of the mirror that hung in my own house. And the opening line of the story, ‘The dust took months to settle’, came from the experience of knocking out a similar fireplace in a house I came to own, in my adult life. ‘Every time I polished the furniture, it was covered again within a couple of hours, like salt sprinkled on an icy path.’

Joan’s bus journey to Limerick after her mother’s death was drawn from a bus journey I took as a child, with one of my sisters, as there was not enough room in the taxi that took the rest of the family on from Limerick to my mother’s home town in County Clare. The night crossing from Holyhead is from memories of crowded decks each summer of my childhood, ‘mothers with four, five, six children, luggage, coats and cardigans, and no men around to help.’ I remember a lone traveller, like Joan, helping my mother out on one such crossing. A stranger. I woke with my head on this woman’s lap, as she held me as I slept. The room that Joan rents in Limerick comes from a photo of a young Muriel Spark, draped across a narrow bed with a crucifix on the wall above it. Spark looks like Joan, the real Joan as I remember her in the 60s, with black hair, smoking a cigarette, an open handbag and a gaping cigarette packet on the bed.

Susan Wicks, who wrote the above endorsement for As Long as it Takes, was my tutor on the creative writing MA at the University of Kent. She looked over an early draft of the title story, and asked why Joan was so desperate to have a child? I needed to let the reader know. I thought it was obvious; it was to me. Joan was an Irish Catholic working class woman. Women like her were expected to have children, lots of them. But what was obvious to someone of my background would not be to all readers. How would I weave this in? I recalled a conversation with my mother-in-law (not Irish, but rather old-fashioned in her views). She could not understand why a woman would choose not to have children. She, like Joan, had suffered miscarriages, and her longed-for babies where very precious to her. I put my mother-in-law’s words from that conversation into the mouth of Joan’s dying mother, as Joan tries to return the christening gown, tries to tell her mother that there will be no more pregnancies.

‘I’ve brought the gown back,’ I said.

‘Ah, you’ll be needing it soon enough.’

‘No mother, I won’t.’ […]

‘Don’t be talking like that,’ she said. ‘You’ll keep trying’

‘No, Mother. Bill and I just have to accept… We can’t go through all that again.’ […]

‘You can and you will.’ […]

‘It’s a woman’s life. What else will you do if you don’t have children?’

The last line of dialogue is my mother-in-law’s paraphrased words, and perhaps the worst thing that Joan’s mother could say to her daughter, to a woman grieving for her lost babies, and about to lose her mother.

I thought that my Auntie Joan had a life that was very different from the fictional Joan’s story. She had two children and never took a leave of absence from her life in England. At Auntie Joan’s funeral in 2018, I learned that she, too, had problems with pregnancies. After her son was born, she was warned not to become pregnant again, that it would be too dangerous, to settle for the one child. But she went ahead with a second pregnancy, a girl, who became my childhood best friend. I wonder now whether I overheard something about this as a child. I had a habit of sitting with the women in the kitchen as they talked, I thought I could make myself invisible if I sat on a certain stool in the corner and stayed quiet, so the women would chat as though I wasn’t there. Like the unnamed narrator in another of my stories.

In ‘A Tea Party,’ a young child tries to make sense of things that she sees, or overhears, including seeing the character Joan burying her face in a pair of child’s shorts while helping the child’s mother with the ironing.

‘Some people have lots of babies and some have none at all, even though they like them a lot. I don’t know why God won’t let Auntie Joan have a baby. She holds Brendan really tight sometimes, and she likes to cuddle the new baby. Mum doesn’t look very happy if she holds them for too long.’

Perhaps my fiction was closer to fact than I realised.

As Long as it Takes by Maria C. McCarthy is available from Cultured Llama Publishing all the usual online stockists. It is also available as an ebook

Sew it goes, embracing wonkiness

When I began these posts in the theme of Little Big Steps, little did I know how small my steps would become, how small the majority of our steps would be. A few days before lockdown, I took the risk of going to my oldest friend’s funeral. The advice on social distancing, at that time, was less stringent. And the sorrow we all felt at losing one of the kindest, loveliest people I have ever known led to grabs of hands, consoling hugs. Then, within days, a brother fell ill, then my husband, then me. Nearly 5 weeks into (probable) COVID-19, little steps are all I can take, still plagued by breathlessness and fatigue caused by the virus piling an extra bag of sticks onto the heavy bundle I always carry due to twenty years of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

This is the longest thing I have written in five weeks. I have had little energy and little desire to write. Some days, all I have written in my journal is the day and the date, trying to keep track of some measure of normality, to know where I am.

My creativity has gone in another direction, towards sewing, a little bit at a time, using remnants given to me just before lockdown, stored in a box that I received from my eldest daughter for Mother’s Day, when we went for a socially-distanced walk along the banks of the River Medway. My last proper outing before self-isolating.

I didn’t learn sewing at home. My mother was a furious knitter, clicking at speed in her armchair whilst simultaneously watching telly. I never got the hang of it, the tension either too loose or too tight, stitches dropped, wonky ‘squares’ abandoned on the needles. But I did like sewing, beginning with cross stitch on those stiff oblongs of fabric with large holes in them, at primary school, appliquéing a felt seahorse onto fabric that became a swimming bag when I was in top class.

Grammar school knocked some of the enjoyment of sewing out of me. Excellence, striving for perfection, that was how it was, for all topics, and I soon learned that you only got help with things if you were already really good at them. Why support the girl who was struggling with sewing in straight lines, the girl who managed to stitch the skirt she was making to the skirt she was wearing? Why help me when there was the brilliant sewer who was performing miracles with an embroidered, ruched bodice and puffed sleeves? That other girl could get an A in O-Level Needlework, whilst I would have the subject removed from my school timetable as exam year approached, along with Music, which I also loved. I would do much better in languages, was forced to do Latin to help with my French and German. After all, at Rosebery County Grammar School for Girls results were everything.

Whilst I had no help at school, rather stern looks and disappointment from the teacher, I took a full-length skirt I was making to Mrs Field, my church choir mistress, who lived in a ‘big house’ and not only had a sewing machine but a sewing room! Mrs Field and her daughter Rosemary spent hours with me, showing me how to convert yards and yards of material into a ruffle to go on the bottom of my maxi-skirt. Long stitches and careful and even gathering made a floor-sweeping triumph when I wore it to the next Irish dance at Surbiton Assembly Rooms. They had patience with me, gave me one-to-one attention, and never made me feel inept and stupid, like I did in Mrs Whatshername’s class at school.

I took up sewing again when my daughters were small. I left them in a crèche at South Greenwich Adult Education Institute whilst I joined a sewing class. I was in my early twenties, and most of the other women were in their forties, fifties and upwards. I learned a lot about the menopause in that class. But, mostly, I learned how to make clothes for my children, complicated soft toys (my Mickey Mouse was a great success, once I unpicked the tail I had mistakenly sewn on his front and placed it on his bum) and made patchwork panels, which were added to quilts that were raffled at the end of each term, a panel or two by each class member stitched together.

Sewing became my sanity and insanity. After the girls were in bed, I would work on ‘just one more square’ of a patchwork bedspread, which led to another, and saw me sitting up into the night. I still have that bedspread, some 35 years on, now a picnic blanket.

These days, my sewing has taken on a free-form aspect. From the years of accurate pattern-following and precision-cutting and stitching of formal patchwork, I have discovered crazy patchwork (quick and easy by machine) and folded patchwork (takes longer by hand, but it is forgiving to inaccuracy and mistakes).

A couple of months ago, I found a book in Oxfam, The Coats Book of Embroidery, from 1978. This is where I discovered folded patchwork, and I am learning new embroidery stitches, techniques like whipping and interlacing, adding different colours to the base stitches. I look at the diagrams, skim-read instructions, make my own wonky way, deciding on what I am making and how to make it, with what, long after I join the first two pieces of fabric. It is a lot like the way I write, never plotting or planning, not knowing how it will end. But it’s a heck of a lot less frustrating than writing. There are no abandoned drafts, though there has been some unpicking and restitching, much like editing a piece of writing. I now feel I can just enjoy sewing without Mrs Whatshername looking down her long nose, over the top of her glasses, when I was in Class 3M at Rosebery. As for making an embroidered, ruched bodice, I don’t care for it, actually. I am making a folded patchwork rainbow with wonky embroidery and experimenting with inlay appliqué, thank you very much. No-one will be marking it or inspecting it for faults. It will soon be hanging in my front window, along with the other rainbows and hearts in the street.

Do Less in 2020

New Year’s resolutions, made at the darkest time of the year, are usually about depriving yourself (of food, drink etc) or pushing yourself to work harder at something. Gym memberships rise in January, causing regular gym-goers to pray for February when their usual haunts will be empty again, and those NY-resolution-makers will be lighter of pocket, having signed up for something they can’t keep up.

How about making DO LESS your resolution for 2020? As part of my Little Big Steps project, celebrating small steps as achievements in themselves, or on the road to bigger things, this is my suggestion. I got the idea after reading an article by Mia Gallagher in The Stinging Fly, Issue 41, ‘Practice, Process, Product’, from a lecture delivered at the Bray Literary Festival in September 2019. Gallagher writes:

I’m often asked by people for feedback on how they should complete a book or other Thing they are making. I usually ask them how long they’ve been working on it, how much time they intend to spend every week or every day going forward, and for how long. When they tell me their targets, I nearly always suggest they do less […] Don’t put in four hours a day. Put in one, or if that’s too much, thirty minutes. Or twenty minutes, three times a week. Each time you turn up, you build up energy. It’s the decision to be there that feeds the flame, not how long you stay once you’ve arrived.

Unless you are contractually obliged to complete a piece of work, in any discipline, and to a deadline, this is advice well worth taking.

Challenges that feel like competitions

I am declaring myself against National Novel Writing Month, when writers commit to writing a novel in a month; I am also ambivalent about the Write a Poem a Day months. I have only tried the latter, rarely get beyond five poems drafted, and hardly ever write them on consecutive days. I have given up feeling a failure, as I drop out on the second week, and instead work up those few poems I have drafted, preparing them for submission. I don’t do challenges that feel competitive, though I do set challenges for myself.

Changing habits

Habits are good, as long as they don’t stifle you. Like football fans wearing the same lucky socks to matches, we writers can become stuck in our habits, superstitious about notebooks, pens, times of day to write. I used to write only in A5 spiral-bound notebooks, using a pencil. I used to write only in notebooks that were given to me. The two notebooks I am using at present – A5 spiral-bound for general journalling; A4 for planning and research – are working perfectly well, even though I bought them for myself. Several gifted notebooks, that are neither A5 nor spiral-bound, lie on my bookshelves, full of my words. I recently picked up a cartridge pen, which I had not used in a while. The ink had dried up. It took some time to change the cartridge and scribble until the ink flowed freely. I now use it every day, instead of writing in pencil. I don’t need to stop to sharpen it, and even writing a few lines a day keeps the ink flowing. I see this as a good metaphor for writing habits, or for any creative pursuit: keep going, even a little at a time, or it will take you a while to get moving again.

Discipline needn’t be daunting

Discipline is a good thing if you have a long project to complete, but the project need not take over your life. I had a conversation with John O’Donoghue, about his method for writing his award-winning memoir, Sectioned: A Life Interrupted. I was daunted by attempting to write my own memoir; it seemed like such a massive thing to work on. John told me that he looked on his memoir as writing 15 separate stories. As he finished each story, he mentally pinned it up alongside the others, like pegging washing on the line. He worked at producing 500 good words, three times a week. This seemed achievable for me, and I did produce over 20,000 words working in this way. My memoir is now abandoned, for complicated reasons, and I am not working on a long writing project at present. But the process and practice remain a good lesson for me, plus there will be parts of the longer work that I can repurpose, in time, as poetry, as fiction. Working in small chunks of time, of output, is far more effective than bashing away until exhausted, then needing to cut away most of the words from the first draft.

‘Writing is not the only thing you do’

On my desk, I have a weekly planner, where I note down all sorts of ‘things to do’ from household tasks, birthday cards to buy and send, to writing projects. I used to have a separate mind map for writing, but now all my life tasks are together. In On Writing, Stephen King says: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’ The most helpful thing said to me last year, just after I had abandoned writing my memoir and was floundering over what to write, was by my osteopath. ‘Writing is not the only thing you do,’ he said. I was  furious, at first. How could he not understand that I am a writer? But it’s not the only thing I do. By just living, looking around me, I slowly, slowly started on a new poem, about my neighbour’s garden, from short notes written over a week or so, on a notepad by my bed. Just a minute or so at a time, until the poem formed. By doing less, I began to do more.

 

Little Big Steps, taking the first step

Since my last post, I have come up with a name for my project, which celebrates small achievements as good things in themselves, or as steps on the road to bigger things. The name is Little Big Steps – so far so good.

I had thought that this could become a book, or that I could start a new blog – something big. But the whole idea is to celebrate the small. So I am choosing not to follow one of the habits of highly effective people, as outlined by Steven Covey: ‘Begin with the end in mind’. (From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Starting with something big in mind might mean that you never get started at all. It all becomes too daunting.

I have been thinking about how I get started on my writing, how I got started in the first place, nearly 20 years ago, when I was very ill and had severely limited energy. It started with a notebook, a gift from a friend. I wrote a little poetry in the notebook each day, typed it up the next day, edited it another day. Twenty minutes at a time was all I could manage. The writing was enough in itself, without thinking where it might lead to.

There are Boats on the Orchard, my latest publication, was not the result of starting with the end in mind. I was living in a house that backed onto a disused orchard, in a village that had been a major fruit-growing area; the orchards now disappearing or in decline. I had finished a story collection, which I had been writing for five years (also not started with a book in mind – a pair of stories sharing characters, which accidentally grew). I was not sure what to do with myself. I had a quote pinned above my desk, about when you finish a long writing project, it is as if you are falling from a tree, hitting off every branch as you come down.

It was a kind of bereavement, after living with those characters for so long. And after a bereavement, you have to carry on every day, putting one foot in front of the other. Putting new words on the page, even if they seem slight, even if it seems they won’t lead anywhere. So I wrote about what I could see from the window of my writing shed, and things I noticed as I walked the local orchards. Over time, those poems grew into something bigger – a commission for Wandering Words followed, and eventually a pamphlet, working with Sara Fletcher to produce images to illustrate the poems. It had long been an ambition of mine, to collaborate with an artist, and all this grew from seemingly slight scribblings in a notebook.

I guess the point of this is, you don’t have to begin with the end in mind. Just take a step and see where it leads you. For the time being, I have a name – Little Big Steps – and I have begun a new notebook, one that I have been saving for a while. I am jotting ideas, copying quotations from books and articles, and I have already asked a guest writer if she would like to share a poem of hers on this website, which fits the theme. More soon…

On stealing shiny words and walking into gunpowder smoke


I have two conditions that force me into solitude – one is chronic illness, and the other is being a writer. I don’t want to push the tortured artist thing, or the tortured sick person thing, but I do spend a lot of time alone. I don’t have consumption and live in a garret – it’s a comfy 1960s semi, actually, and my husband is often upstairs in his study in the smallest bedroom, and would come to my aid if I needed company or help, often summoned by the magic of WhatsApp if I’m too tired to climb the stairs.

Oare Gunpowder Works: a bridge beneath which only Borrowers could pass

I have been brought out of solitude by working on collaborative projects. The first was being one of a group of artists chronicling a year in the life of Rainham Community Orchard. We mostly worked alone, making our visits to the orchard: sketching, taking photographs, writing down lines of poetry, but some of my visits were with Sara E. Fletcher, who was to work on ceramics, some of which ended up with the words from my poems on them, and those of Stephy Stanton. Sara and I also met away from the orchard, to spark ideas off one another, which changed my words and inspired her work. During our walks in the orchard – on a windy February day, and again in September on one of the pick-your-own-apples days – I noticed things that I would not have done so if walking alone, and Sara could always be relied upon to identify plants and wildlife. The weeds I called ‘tall yellow flowers’ were Oxford ragwort, and both definitions ended up in a poem.

Walking with someone you have not walked with before, even in a familiar place, brings new insights. I did so with Anna Bell, ‘Anna Outdoors’, when she asked me to write a poem for children about Oare Gunpowder Works, near Faversham. For eight years, I lived close to the woods in which the ruins of the gunpowder works stand. I walked there alone, I walked with my husband, I was an ‘Artist in the Woods’, at their annual event, for a couple of years. And yet, with Anna, new revelations came to light – a low bridge over a leat (a waterway built to transport goods around the site, on powder punts), which Anna said would only allow Borrowers to pass beneath; the scribblings of bark beetles on a moss-covered log; the two-tone moan of industry from the other side of the road that borders the woods.

Anna, like Sara, knows things about nature. Her experience added to my inspiration, her words became mine in the poem (poets are magpies, we steal shiny things and claim them as our own). Anna talked of the ‘chattering of bats’, and that phrase was too good to let go.

As a child, I spent a lot of time on Epsom Common. I was a member of ‘The Red Pea Club’, named after the berries of the hawthorn tree in the alleyway near to our house. We had a club song, ‘Acorn’s the Word’, and a tree that we claimed as our own, The Dragon, which had branches that were wings and a tail, and a ‘cockpit’ from which to steer the dragon’s flight. I couldn’t tell you what sort of tree the dragon was, nor could I have named a hawthorn. I knew the ferns, the blackberries, and the wild golden rod that flourished on the Common, and the lilies of the valley that grew in our garden, but that was the limit of my knowledge of the names of plants and trees. Lost Words? I never knew them.

Back to the walk in the woods with Anna. She was keen for me to emphasise the sensory details in my poem, both of the Gunpowder Works as they are now, and as they were when the site was a factory, producing the black powder for the munitions industry. A friend told me that someone we both know has a licence to make gunpowder, so Anna and I visited Dave Lamberton at his Faversham home, where he fired a pistol in his garden, so I could experience the smell of gunpowder smoke. I stepped out from his kitchen to the garden, walked into the cloud of smoke – nothing at first, then in the nose, then down the back of the throat and onto the tongue, a bitter tang. The smell hung in my hair for the rest of the day. And all for one word in my poem, ‘The Gunpowder Spell’.

So, what have I learned? Writing is not just sitting alone with a notebook. It’s about walking and talking with others, with those whose experience is different from yours, and it’s about stealing – taking shiny words, storing them in your nest, then sharing them with others.

More about Anna Bell here: Anna Outdoors 

More about Oare Gunpowder Works.

More about Rainham Community Orchard.

Anatomised – a life changed forever by Lyme Disease

A few years ago, I heard Andrew McGuinness read a story at the University of Kent. It was a funny tale, and his delivery owed much to stand-up comedy. McGuinness taught creative writing at the university, and at Christchurch, the other university in Canterbury. I saw him at many events, reading his own work, interviewing writers and hosting panels. And then I didn’t.

Anatomised coverLike Jack Mann (a stand-up comedian and the protagonist of Andrew McGuinness’s new novel, Anatomised), Andrew McGuinness was struck with a mysterious illness. I don’t like to assume that all of Jack Mann’s experiences reflect those of Andrew McGuinness. This is a work of fiction. However, my guess is that the research that has gone into Anatomised is borne of hard personal experience. The medical details, the intricacies of test results, and the psychological effects of having a life-changing illness that no-one can explain. Jack Mann is thrown from a comfortable life (albeit with family and bereavement issues in his background), having just relocated to the Kent coast, to a Kafkaesque nightmare of weird symptoms, hospital admissions and doctors who can’t see beyond their own specialties – stroke, MS – to alternative therapists who advocate positive thinking when the tinctures they give Mann don’t work.

I nearly stopped reading Anatomised, as Jack Mann’s experiences reflect some of my own as a person misdiagnosed, mistreated, disbelieved and ignored, both in the early days of my own chronic illness, and even several years on. The falling away of friends and relatives, the isolation, the unexplainedness of it all, the grief, the suicidal thoughts. Jack Mann, in a darkly comic scene, fails to throw himself on the right railway track, watching the train (which he has timed from hearing it pass at the end of his garden) speed past on the opposite track as he lays there, awaiting oblivion. My own (lack of) attempts were less dramatic. I walked by the river Medway several times a week, past some steps that descended into the water. I imagined stepping down and down to a watery grave. I never even took the first step down, but my dreams, when they came amidst years of barely sleeping, were of drowning, then a hand pulling me out at the last moment.

This isn’t a review. More of a reflection on lives that once were, altered forever – mine, Jack Mann’s, and Andrew McGuinness’s. And how writers can process their experience through fiction rather than memoir. McGuinness’s novel is not perfect – I felt the author’s anger at his mistreatment channelled through Jack Mann and his wife Alice. It was a little too noticeable at times. Would a reader who doesn’t know McGuinness’s story notice this as much as I did? Or a reader who hasn’t been through that kind of anger themselves, sometimes channelling it through poems and stories, which would have been better left until some of that anger had subsided? Perhaps a fictionalised account is the best one can do, given the closeness of the material, the pain. It gives the writer a distance from the awfulness of it all.

Anatomised has stayed with me, and given me a great deal of cause for thought. I read a lot, but needed a week before beginning another book, to process Jack Mann’s story, Andrew McGuinness’s personal story, and my own. I thought of it as I walked with my husband Bob on a recent holiday. Bob has only known me with my illness, as we met when I was some seven years into it. On this holiday, as I do in my daily life, I could only manage a couple of hours out everyday, then I slept and rested for the remainder of the day. ‘I’d understand if you wanted a wife who could walk further,’ I said, as I took Bob’s arm, struggling to walk back to the house where we were staying. ‘Nah,’ he said, ‘Think of all the bother of divorcing you.’ We laughed, but I thought of how holidays used to be, before all these years of illness; a third of my life lived like this.

I’m glad I didn’t take that walk down the steps into the river, because life is good, in spite of my limitations. I’m glad that Andrew McGuinness was able to recover enough, to fight enough, to give us Anatomised. It is lyrical and thought-provoking. I would particularly recommend the last few chapters, where … but I don’t want to give the game away.

Anatomised by A.F. McGuinness is published by  Red Sail Press and costs £12.99. A proportion of income from sales of the book will go to Lyme Disease charities.

 

The river lies north

The past twelve months have been full of change, disruption and uncertainty. Writing has not come easily, and there have been times when words have deserted me. Writing is the one thing that keeps me sane, and deprived of that outlet, things have been hard.

What has been different from other bad spells, when I carried on writing through the worst of times, and about the worst of times, is the shifting of the very walls and ground that hold me, like a slow earthquake, with cracks developing beneath my feet, and dust from the tremors falling all around. Of late, these cracks, this dust, moved from metaphor to reality, as we moved to a new house, and channels were gouged into the walls to run wiring to replace that which had been in the house since it was first built, in the early 1960s. Phenomenal dust rose, settled, was wiped away, then more settling and wiping in a cycle that seemed to last forever. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock, so my damp cloth worked each day, only to see more thick grey deposits the next morning.

It is hard to think, to write, to give space to creative thoughts when living with dust, noise and builders; with your precious things still packed in boxes; when the walls around you and the roof above you are not those you have lived with; when the view from your window is not the one you have woken to for the previous eight years. And when the certainties of your life for the same number of years have been shaken: a dear cat companion declining and dying; a husband rushed to a cardiac unit in an ambulance, sirens blaring; financial difficulties forcing a move of house.

Writing and publishing is a long game, however, and there have been cheering moments when poems and stories have been published several months after submission, and an even longer time after they were written. Reminders that you can write words that others want to read, that the one thing that keeps you well is still below the surface.

This summer will see the publication of an illustrated pamphlet of my poems, There are Boats on the Orchard. These were some seven years in the writing, and for the past six months I have seen the orchards and poems recast in wonderful drawings by Sara Fletcher. It’s a bittersweet project, since I no longer write in a shed overlooking an orchard. In fact I had no permanent place to write for a couple of months, when one house was sold and another had not yet been secured. Then the struggle to find a space amongst dust, builders, and too-much-stuff that fitted in the old house but not in the new. But now I have a desk and a space in the house to write.

P1000072 cropped smallInstead of an orchard, I now have a view of the River Medway from my bedroom window, plus a view over the dips and rises of hilly Gillingham. There is a road, houses, and a factory that makes Jubilee clips. In the middle of the river there is a strip of land, Hoo Marshes, and on the other bank I can see the spire of the church at Hoo St Werburgh. It’s a moving landscape, as the tide comes in and goes out on the estuary, and small boats pass – sometimes larger shipping. The lights of the factory come on at 6.00, and people arrive by bicycle, in cars and vans, and on foot. The traffic climbs and descends Danes Hill all day. The landscape moves, and I remain still, as the floors and walls beneath me settle and stay.

Beneath the floorboards, raised by Dan the Sparks and John the kitchen fitter, there were packages and a yellow cash tin, hidden by the previous owner of the house, who lived here for 46 years. Amongst the documents and mementoes was a compass in a brass case. I opened the case and oriented myself in the house: the river to the north; the front of the house facing east; the back facing west.

Returning to the house after a week away, I first went to the bedroom to look at the river, my constant north. When my three-year-old granddaughter visits, it’s where she heads, too, calling to everyone, ‘Do you want to see a river?’ She dashes to the other rooms, to see if there is ‘another river’, but there is only one.

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

IMG_0390

Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Galty mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

WordPress Themes