Sunday, 14 June 2015

Isabella (and the Pot of Basil)

Through the generous auspices of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama I have recently had the opportunity to write the libretto for a chamber opera. Anyone who has heard me sing will be relieved to know that the composer Oliver Christophe Leith is entirely responsible for the music, and we have been working together over the past year as part of the Guildhall's new MA in Opera Making and Writing.

Our opera, Isabella, will be performed (along with two other new works) in London between 8 and 13 July.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Things That Float

My short story, 'The Ring', was published at the very end of last year in The Golden Keya bi-annual journal of speculative and literary writing. You can find my own tale along with several other excellent short stories or poems, all beautifully illustrated and edited, in Issue 5: Things That Float.

Happy reading and happy New Year!

(Illustration by the fabulous Priscilla Boatwright. Priscilla received her BFA in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. See more of her artwork at

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Writer in residence: the Manchester Museum

Malachite clock (detail), Manchester Museum
At the very beginning of this year I decided that throughout 2014 I would appoint myself the unofficial writer-in-residence of a variety of establishments. Over the year I have written about five different residencies, placing myself and my notebook inside a dance studio, an office, Sicily, the spotlight, and the North. I have also (and unexpectedly) found myself an official residency, working within the very splendid Manchester Museum. My title there is Researcher in Residence, and early next year I will be leading a series of creative writing and storytelling workshops around the Museum's Siberia: at the Edge of the World exhibition.

Since becoming a student again in September and embarking on a PhD in creative writing, there is a lot in my life that has much more of an official heft to it. Reading about fairy tales and writing and thinking about poetry is now my real workaday-work, and I am still settling into that idea. I'm also thinking about how to keep the official heft out of my creative writing (where it becomes unnecessary ballast), and suspect the fairy tale form has a lot to teach me on that front. Fairy tales are inherently irregular and surprising; they both unnerve and delight, and are prone to shooting off into the realm of the astonishing, the ridiculous, and the surreal. In 2015, that is the land I will travel through with my pen and my notebook, hopefully leaving all scholarly pretensions far behind.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Storytelling in Sverdlovsk

A Urals story teller, citing Bazhov tale 'The Sun-stone' in Sverdlovsk pioneers club in Sverdlovsk, Russia. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images).

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Writer in residence: the North

September was the month I started my residency in the North.  I have followed the path of needles and the path of pins and it has led me to a place far from home.

I arrived by train at Manchester Piccadilly and took a taxi from the station to leafy suburbia, and a street of almost-identical 1930s semi-detached houses. For the first few weeks the letting agent's sign was how I recognised my own home. Now I see the tat in the front window (my worthless ephemera and tragically scrawny pelargonium and pots of pens and paint brushes) and know I have found my way back to a house that finally smells like we belong together. Out back is a field of allotments and then the River Mersey, which I enjoy visiting -- though I hope sincerely that it will never return my calls. We have a garden robin, and a conventicle of magpies, and the gentle susurration of traffic from the M60.

The North is where people go when they seek adventure or to create a little mayhem in their lives. The mayhem I hope to create is with words and pictures. I'm in Manchester to do a PhD in creative writing: to make things on paper and with my voice and my imagination. The path of needles and the path of pins have led me to poetry and Russian fairy tales and landscape and memory. My adventures will mostly be urban and literary ones, although I've also replaced my Weald-worn walking boots in anticipation of some moorland rambling.

So far, we've made two literary pilgrimages: Haworth and Alderly Edge. It feels like I've left Bloomsbury-in-Sussex far behind.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Entitled to have a voice

Fear of ambition, she believes, is something that creates personal glass ceilings for women. “We are taught that good girls are pious and tidy and fit in” — when actually to be an artist you need to be noisy and driven, to have an ego — “at a certain level, though, people who directly make work have to find at the very core of themselves what it is they wish to speak about. That means you have to feel entitled to have a voice.”
~ Jude Kelly interviewed by Liz Hoggard in the London Evening Standard, 5 March 2014.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Writer in residence: in the spotlight

In May I undertook writerly deeds that enticed me away from my desk and out into the spotlight. The world of paper and ink and pencil marks and pen strokes has always consumed me; the barbed Cyrillic alphabet; words, images and ideas. I enjoy watching others perform but never thought I would seek out the spotlight myself.

However, last year the Four Quarters (a collaborative art project I have been involved with since 2009) took off in a new direction. The master storyteller Pat Robson joined us as a fourth member and became our mentor and guide in the art of composing and telling stories. Over the past 12 months we have performed versions of the Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga fairy tales, and stories from the Decameron. Our audiences have been tiny -- around thirty people -- but they have graced us with their attention, laughter, and applause.

More recently, on 15 May, I read my poetry at an evening in Hove, hosted by Cameron Contemporary Art. I shared the stage with Sian Thomas and Stephen Plaice, and our readings were generously reviewed by the poet Robin Houghton. After a year working as a story-teller-in-training I relished the experience of reading my own work; of lifting the images and characters off the page and feeling them ride into being upon my breath as I spoke the words out loud.

My second excursion into the spotlight this month came a week earlier and took place in a shabby but well-loved studio space over the bus station in Lewes. Organised by Mark Hewitt, the artistic director of Lewes Live Literature, The Itch is a programme of scratch evenings supporting the development of new writing, and on 7 May provided an outing for two brand new works-in-progress. Gus Watcham boldly performed her piece, the witty and discomforting Crush. My own Speaking in Code, was performed by three swell friends: Alison, Mireille and Mia. They did an extraordinary job of lifting my words off the page, and the process of working through the piece with them, hearing my words in three very different voices, was revelatory and exciting. The experience of actually watching the performance was a nervy one. I was so alert and attuned to how each and every person might be receiving my words, it felt like walking through a field of thistles. I wished I had put my boots on, but instead I was wearing sandals.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Writer in residence: Sicily

March is the right month to escape England’s chilly and rainswept shores. And Sicily is an alluring place for someone who loves food, wine and sunshine almost as much as she loves words AND who happens to be researching the myth of Persephone and Demeter. So this month (or at least part of it) the writer was in residence in Noto, Sicily doing what she has rarely done before: having a holiday.

By way of food and wine I ate mightily well and returned home composed largely of the following ingredients: ricotta cheese, wine pressed from the Nero d’Avola grape, gelato, almonds, wild fennel, quail, swordfish, pasta, anchovies, olives, aubergine, blood oranges and campari and soda.

To work up an appetite between meals, and as a backdrop for our daily strolls-while-eating-gelato, there was a sun washed town: Baroque architecture, honey-coloured limestone, people worth watching, a few choice terriers, dramatic cloudscapes, distant glimpses of the turquoise sea. Swifts, house martins and swallows squealed overhead, busily going about their nest building. They arrived the same week we did, on the heels of a thunderstorm rushing in from North Africa, and I squealed with joy to see them.

Not much writing got done, but I read a lot and sketched a bit and thought sun-drenched thoughts about mothers and daughters and goddesses. My Muse enjoyed being left in peace for a few days. Above are some of the fruits of my not labouring...

Friday, 28 February 2014

Writer in residence: the office

Tycho Dreaming

As an artist I am omnivorous, trawling constantly and hungrily for ideas and images. My creative engine is not sticky or churlish. It doesn’t take much to ignite my writing -- any bright, bold spark will do -- but it does take something, and that something cannot be taken for granted.

When I was a teenager I used to hitchhike in and out of the small village where my family lived. Hitchhiking felt risky and sometimes desperate, but I was tired of waiting for buses that might or might not show up. Standing at the bus stop in the rain and fading light, began to seem more desperate than the act of holding out my thumb, stopping a car, and asking for a lift of a complete stranger. In comparison waiting for the bus was passive, maybe pointless, ultimately debilitating.

And so is waiting around for ideas, hoping one may turn up, and that it might be original, and that it might be good or juicy. When buses were in short supply I found people willing to give me a ride. Sometimes they were people who interested and amused me, and quite often they tested and challenged and scared me. Hitchhiking is a nervy and unsettling business -- and so is the creation of art.

For this artist the scarcity of my adult life has been not buses but money. Waiting for my creative work to pay the way has mostly felt as futile a pursuit as waiting for the elusive 252 from Tunbridge Wells to Eastbourne. One day that long dreamt of windfall might sweep through my life: I imagine it appearing unlooked for, like the night bus I once saw as I was walking home on dark country lanes long after midnight. The night was frosty, my head was down, and suddenly I heard a great roar and turned to see the bus sway past, a double-decker all lit up like a galleon on the high seas, and entirely empty except for the driver.

While waiting for the appearance of the unlooked for nightbus, however, I have earned my bread and butter living over the years working in restaurants and offices and teaching. Right now, I am an office person. I have a desk by a window, and a photocopier, and friends I greet each day, and a workaday routine that involves toast and tea at half past ten and a lunchtime walk. And while I am old enough to recognise the joy of routine, I am also young enough to love the fact that my office is tucked away inside a theatre and that for much of the year I am surrounded by the intensely creative and sparky world of opera. The best of many worlds then, when my work day takes me from the office to the rehearsal space and I sit eavesdropping on a new work being hashed out, filling my sketchbook with ideas hoovered up from the ether: mine and not mine; mine and someone else’s but then made mine by the power of my transmogrifying pencil and my trawling, transforming mind.