Fabulous Places: Salt, Castle and Lake

I’ve been wordy for a while. It’s time I took a back seat and shared with you some fabulous places.


“Mankind has inhabited the Arctic landscape for ten thousand years. Arctic nomads wandered with the ice, taking advantage of available resources from coastal areas and a mountainous countryside. Their concern for and close relationship to nature means that archaeologists are able to find few remnants of their culture.” – from the Salt website

Salt - an Arctic beach hut“For thousands of years people have followed the movement of animals and the seasonal rhythms in the Arctic landscape. Footprints are few. SALT is inspired by and moves in that same Arctic landscape with care and respect.”


“In the heart of Puisaye, in Yonne, Burgundy, a team of fifty people have taken on an extraordinary feat: to build a castle using the same techniques and materials used in the Middle Ages.

“Guédelon is a field of experimental archaeology – a kind of open-air laboratory.

“The aim is to recreate … the construction processes that might have existed on an early 13th century building site. Unlike traditional archaeology, which is concerned with cataloguing, excavating and analysing an existing structure, experimental archaeology puts this process into reverse. A structure is built from start to finish in order to obtain, following experiments and observations, a set of conclusive results.

“Guédelon is a back-to-front archaeological dig.”



“Dive into the mysterious world of farmers, fishermen, and brass founders of the Stone Age 6000 years ago, and be a witness to the lifestyle of the Bronze Age 3000 years ago.”

“Lake dwellings, known as pole or pile dwellings, have been in existence at the shores of all large lakes in the Prealps, Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany. Lake dwellings have also been discovered at some lakes in Italy, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania, Spain, at the Laibacher Moor, and the Federsee Moor in Upper Swabia. According to the latest data, this era constitutes the life form of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age between approximately 4300 BC and 800 BCE.”

Many years ago a friend and I visited a temporary museum in Switzerland where the curators had built stilt-houses out over the lake.

A family of boar were penned up in one building, little stripy piglets (boarlets? boarings?) suckling their massive bristly mother. Strange sheep, surprisingly clear-eyed and mischievous, with wide curving horns and tight fleece, almost daring us to race up the nearest Alp.

Archery, metalsmithing, skinning and tanning, weaving, presented in separate huts with guides to help you try for yourself.

The trip was memorable for many reasons, not least the bottle of Bronze Age style beer we bought with our last few Swiss Francs and drank as we dipped our naked, travel-weary feet into the clear lake waters.

That night we slept in the railway station in Bern, awaiting our morning departure for Calais and the ferry home, the last of our funds depleted but a wealth of memories in their stead.


Every Witch Needs A Garden

Since I was a teenager, I’ve created food from the wild.The sage beneath the sage

When I settled down in my thirties, I took up allotment gardening with the fervour of a vegetarian who loves vegetables, as well as one who needed the exercise. Even a small allotment garden provides more food than one hungry veggie can cope with, so out came the jam jars again.

I’ve made jam since I was a child.

Memories abound of standing in a gentle Scots rain while midges irritated under my plastic mac, and the odour of wet blackcurrants. The delight does not end there, of course, because once you’ve picked enough you go indoors to dry off, have a cup of tea and then top-n-tail the little blighters.

I don’t even like blackcurrants.

Since I moved to my current home, I’ve had an allotment which I gave up for being way too large. Who needs to eat spuds every day? Especially when there’s beans to be had, and tomatoes and garlic and onions? And as anyone who’s ever had an allotment will tell you, runner beans and courgettes become a public menace.

Anyhow, circumstances conspired. I’ve turned the back garden into a food hole. And I add to that bounty with Nature’s resources, when appropriate.

My early gardening attempts are lost in the mists of time and that same Scots rain that brought out the midges amongst the blackcurrants.


Perhaps, like my early writings, I should view them as seedlings which failed to prosper, but taught me the value of perseverance, learning and persistence.

Published in: on September 10, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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I Can Haz Steamjunk!

Bargain of the 21st Century!

My local charity shop had this on sale for a tenner. Steampunk! Retro! Eee!

TypewriterI learned to type on a machine much, much older than this one. See there, the crest on the right-hand side?

Typewriter Crest

“By Appointment, Typewriter Manufacturers to the late King George.”

(That’s probably George VI of stammering fame, the father of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.)

My first typewriter, by contrast, was an ancient Underwood. More likely produced under Victoria than Elizabeth. One of those magnificent, gnarly machines that weighed a ton and bristled with polished chrome levers.

As a family we somehow managed to pick up a couple more at jumble sales, along with a fearsome Allen scythe I wouldn’t go near. I remember a powder-blue Olivetti compact, and a slim grey machine found in a skip.

Vintage Typewriter with caseRemarkable how the old skills came back, though. Feeding the ribbon correctly through the guides. Setting – and releasing – the tabs.

Only one problem with this little beauty, though.

No bell.

I think I’ll have to get the Imperial screwdriver set out and see if I can’t find the problem. If I don’t, I’ll have to keep typing until

my words

fall off

the end

of the paper…

Published in: on September 3, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Messages To The Future

Recently I had a look through my old posts on this blog and came across some surprises.

I’d forgotten about The Thrill of Being Published, and how I got caught up with Diversions.

And how many of the 7 places to find ebooks without selling your soul have endured these last three years?

Three years.

Seems a lot longer. I’m working on a ten-year plan, with a five year plan to add a bit of an impetus in the short term.

My aim, as I’ve said before, is a body of work. And with that in mind, I found some interesting echoes in books I’ve read recently.

After the push to get Shadowbox out, I wanted to kick back and relax. Refill the well. So I picked up a couple of favourite stories for re-reading, authors I admire, who have a body of work with which I’m very familiar.

The first of these was Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley.

He’s known more for Brave New World, but Crome Yellow was his first novel. I was surprised to find, buried in his story of a dinner party in 1921, the seed of his later fame and the major premise of Brave New World: the notion that in future societies, babies would be raised in glass jars. (I was also surprised to find Crome Yellow at Project Gutenberg, but hey, it’s 2014).

The other story was The Stress Of Her Regard by Tim Powers.

A complex novel, two inches thick in mass-market paperback, the book heaves with elements of his later works: the Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, supernatural beings of stone (most prominent in his much later novel Declare), vampires as in Bury Me Among The Graves.Helen Campbell, first wireless operator of National League for Women's Service, USA, May 1917

Finding elements of later stories within early ones is a good sign of a body of work. There’s an essential core of ideas which filter through each writer’s storytelling, as clear as a writer’s voice, as indicative as the “fist” of a telegraph operator tapping Morse code down a signal wire.

Messages to the future.

P.S. Here’s Margaret Atwood’s essay on Aldous Huxley, “Everybody is happy now“, on the Guardian from 2007.

Published in: on August 27, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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My Favourite Anubis

While I was writing the month-long series of posts about my novel, SHADOWBOX, I came across the marvellous online archive at the Griffith Institute, part of Oxford University.

Significant among the archives is Howard Carter’s complete excavation records for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact…’ – Howard Carter’s telegram to Lord Carnarvon on 5 November 1922

The treasures Carter uncovered during that excavation need no introduction. They’ve toured the world in exhibitions everywhere, including the current Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Countless reproductions and imitations made out of everything from tatty plastic to solid gold are available online and in the street markets of Luxor. The treasures of Tutankhamun inspired whole movements in art and architecture, film and fiction and fashion.

That influence haunts us yet.

Besides the golden sarcophagi and jewelled collars, the life-size statues, the mummified husks of his stillborn children, the ceremonial ostrich-feather fans, the evidence of his early life as Tutankhaten, one item stood out for me as I browsed the online archive of Harry Burton’s photographs:

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884

Niche containing recumbent figure of Anubis; Burton photograph: p0884; © Copyright Griffith Institute, 2000-2014

More so than the little statues of Nephthys and Selqet and Isis and Neith which stood guarding the corners of the sarcophagus, this little statue of the god Anubis has a charm that reaches out across the centuries.

Wrapped in linen, tucked carefully into a niche in the tomb wall, the statue was placed by a member of Tutankhamen’s funerary gathering in 1323 BCE the way you’d tuck a child’s favourite teddy under his quilt as he fell asleep.

Harry Burton’s photograph shows us that moment frozen in time.


Just as I wrote about the earliest photographs in First Light On Paris, the photograph is an artefact in itself.

Look closer. See the crack?

Curving from top to bottom, just to the right of the statuette’s hind quarters, a black line showing where the original glass negative has been broken. And parallel to this black line, as straight as tram-lines in Cairo, twin edges showing where sticky-tape held the glass together.

Layers of time, overlapping, each of which tells a story of its own.

Don’t you wonder who dropped Harry Burton’s glass negative – and stuck it back together with tape?

And don’t you wonder what the person thought who placed that statuette there, 3337 years ago?

Don’t you wonder who they were, he or she, who wrapped the statue of Anubis so carefully in linen as though it were a charmed memento, to accompany the tragically-young pharaoh into the afterlife?

I certainly do.It’s why many people are drawn to archaeology as a profession – to tell the stories of other people, long ago, from the remnants they leave behind.

But only fiction can give us the answer.

Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  
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Building A Cathedral, One Word At A Time

Far away in a bookA friend of mine, a voracious reader, recently said she will read the same books over and over because she wants to be with those people, to spend her life with them, and not here in the real world with all its harshness and doubt.

As a novelist I’m aiming to write books with that sort of magnetism, that glamour, whenever I sit down to write.

Those secret threads tug at my hands on the keyboard as firmly as the words of others, elusive wisps of other worlds which are harder to paint with text than with pencil or brush.

At times I wish I had more artistic skills. My hands are suited for brutish endeavours – hammering metal, sawing timber, shaping stone. The finesse of the fine artist eludes me.

Perhaps it’s the patience I lack.

Which makes writing novels even more of a mystery. Why spend months working on a story when a poem can move the same emotions in an hour’s preparation?

Perhaps it’s the grandeur I crave.

The satisfaction of a well-crafted poem is akin to a tiny tattoo. Sometimes only you and your beloved know of its existence.

The charm of a short story lies in its structure, in surprise, in a breathless rush like an afternoon’s concert enjoyed before the last train home to family, or to an evening job with no soul.

A novel contains more theatre than a short story, more hand-waving, more depth.

A sweeping panorama unveiled, word by word, from the mind of the writer to the reader beyond.

A snowdrift of ideas. An eiderdown when the world is cold; a welcome, when the world is harsh; a sanctuary to hold you safe until the story’s over.

A novel is a tapestry.

Many threads weave through a novel, layers and colours and textures, each adding their part to a story which can spread across space like a handshake. When one’s complete, the finished piece adds to the body of work in the same way each stonemason’s carvings add to a Gothic cathedral.

That’s the work of years, not hours.

Interior of a Gothic Cathedral, 1612, Paul Vredeman de Vries (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA)

Interior of a Gothic Cathedral, 1612, Paul Vredeman de Vries (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA)

Published in: on August 13, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Been A Busy Bee

Bee on a white oregano flower

I have been a busy little bee since my last post.

Editing continues on the current project. I aim to have this finished by the end of August.

In the meantime, just before the weather broke, I got out early in the morning to pick brambles. Not normally a mornings person, I realised that instead of lying in bed wide awake waiting for the alarm clock, if I got up I could pick a kilo or so before I had to go to the Day Job.

So I did.

And then I did this:

Home made bramble jelly, August 2014

Home made bramble jelly, August 2014

 According to folk legend* you’re supposed to pick blackberries before the end of September, when the Devil spits on them.


But now I am feeling somewhat smug, with two kilos of bramble jelly (seedless jam) in my store cupboard, wobbly and purple and slightly sharp, ready for the onset of winter.

Youse can all spit on the blackberries now, whenever y’like.

And while waking early and then getting up removes the possibility of roaming that lovely half-asleep state where stories seem to spring from the imagination, you can’t spread dreams on buttered toast.

*[mentioned in my jam recipe book and also in Crafts From The Countryside by Patricia de Menezes, which I encountered some months ago in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-On-Wye (although I first read it in Smethwick Library, IIRC)]

Published in: on August 6, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Free Fiction: Reply To All

As is usual (by now) for the last Wednesday of the month, here’s a short piece of flash fiction for free. It will come down at the end of the week, so enjoy it while it lasts.


Published in: on July 30, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Heatwave Hiatus

Yep, there’s a heatwave in the UK at the moment. I blame that for my lack of progress editing my next novel.Far away in a book

Wait, I hear you say. Haven’t you just finished editing – and publishing – a novel?

Yes, yes. SHADOWBOX and all that. Drove me temporarily 1832-nuts, and it’s still not over as the Goodreads Giveaway ends on 31 July.

However, last year was the year I wrote three novels.

I published one last year (the Vita Tugwell authored Boom Town) and so far this year I’ve edited and published Shadowbox.

That leaves the third one I wrote last year.

Ideally I’d have published it before I even began writing Shadowbox but, d’you know what? I just wanted to get on with the writing.

Now I’ve had a look – a proper, in-depth look – at the remaining work to be done on this third one, I reckon I might just get it finished and published before the Autumnal Equinox.

If I get my skates on.

And like the procrastination that delayed the publication of Shadowbox, I only have myself to blame if it’s late.

Heatwave or not.

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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Procrastination II

I don’t know if he has a specific name for the phenomenon, but Jasper fforde at Crimefest 2014 mentioned something about the possibilities of time travel to muck about with the present. I’ll get to details in a minute, but I think he’s onto something.

His premise, if I remember correctly, is that something – anything – you might imagine, will be invented some time in the future, along with the aforementioned time travel.Why must edits be so easy to put off?

And all you have to do is imagine using the thing you’ve imagined, knowing that someone in the future will invent it, and will go back in time to share this invention with history.

It’s a peculiar sort of logic that only works within Mr fforde’s particular Universe.

But I think many of us who write novels have a similar sort of logic going on with a Work In Progress…

We can imagine the finished work, shining/matte cover and gilded spine (or perfectly-formatted ebook). And because we can imagine what the novel will be like, we forget that there’s a lot of work involved before we get to that hold-it-in-your-hand moment.

I am having something of an episode of this phenomenon at the moment…

I blame the macaroons.

Published in: on July 16, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments (4)  

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