What I’m reading: tales of the 60s, autism, trees, boarding-school, film stars… and more


This is what I’ve been reading so far this year… The 60s novels are research for the book I’m writing at the moment – The Millstone (about single motherhood – the queues in doctor’s waiting rooms haven’t changed…) and Girls in their Married Bliss (woman friends, dodgy/awful men, funny and heartbreaking) – my first time reading Margaret Drabble and Edna O’Brien, appetite whetters both.

I’d already read the Vadim and Robert Evans autobiographies, Bardot, Deneuve, Fonda and The Kid Stays in the Picture; they’re in there for 60s research too. And for the Bob Evans line, ‘fool me once – more fool me, fool me twice – more fool you’, which I love but which is weirdly, tongue-twisterishly hard to get right. And for the scene in Vadim’s memoir where his three ex-wives, Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg and Jane Fonda, plus his ex-lover Catherine Deneuve, all end up by coincidence gathered round looking down at him on set in Paris when he’s floored by a broken shoulder.

Back in February I chaired an event with Jem Lester (Shtum) and Monica Wood (One in a Million Boy) at Dulwich Books – the proof copies of their novels are in the pile. Shtum is a gutsy, gutty, honest and tender portrayal of a single dad’s relationship with his non-verbal autistic son. The red spine is Monica Wood’s heartwarming and quirky One in a Million Boy, about a deadbeat(ish) dad, a superb old lady and a lost boy.

This is Paradise by Will Eaves (who is also a poet) is a finely observed study of a family falling apart and coming (more or less) together. I love a teen boarding-school story, and Friendly Fire is Patrick Gale’s, illustrated by his husband Aidan Hicks (fans of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English and Antonia White’s Frost in May – enjoy). Ali Shaw’s The Trees is a magical account of a quest through a world changed overnight; Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault is an unnerving tale of literary obsession which grips like a thriller and convinces like the truth.

My proof of Maggie O’Farrell’s time-and-space-hopping love story This Must Be The Place, which features a film star heroine turned recluse, would be in the picture, but I lent it to a friend so it’s represented by the invitation to the launch do on top of the pile. Many memorable scenes, including an agonising one with a father and son waiting out a crisis in a dermatology clinic that I will forever think of in association with eczema. Also: brilliant 90s wedding.


Right now, I’m reading Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes. It’s a big, brilliant, sometimes devastating and ultimately uplifting social history of autism. Much of it is shocking – here’s a glimpse of the chapter on ‘The Invention of Toxic Parenting’ (the theory that autism was caused by bad parents).

IMG_2125.JPGIt’s making me very grateful to be the parent of an autistic child here and now… I defy anyone to come to the end of the chapter on ‘What Sister Viktorine knew’ without a lump in the throat.

You can see a bit of discussion about the books on my FB page – especially Margaret Drabble.



Ten reasons why I love the UK

Port Meadow, Oxford

Port Meadow, Oxford

This is a partisan, personal list, and we may disagree on some or all of it – but politely, as if over cups of tea and slightly limp cucumber sandwiches at a summer fete in the country.

1.       TV.

When I was little I lived overseas for a couple of years, and one of my first and most vivid memories of coming back to the UK was of the TV being turned on in the living-room and stuttering into life. Yogi Bear! In English! It was such a treat to see telly in my own language. That’s when I really knew I was home.

And British telly *is* pretty good, no? Special mention here to the BBC – when’s Poldark coming back?

2.       It’s home.

Back in the UK, a six-year-old girl at the beginning of the long summer holidays, I was a little lonely perhaps, but happy: on the swing in the garden, washing and pegging out all my dolls’ clothes, walking along with one foot on the pavement and the other on the road.

I’d like to travel rather more than I have (I haven’t used my passport since 2004, ahem), but I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. Actually, I’d be quite happy to spend the rest of my life in Abingdon. Bury me in a corner of an English field, or rather scatter my ashes, (not yet awhile though please), to paraphrase Rupert Brooke:

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam…


my son walking towards the view at Wittenham Clumps, Oxfordshire

3.       Language, literature, books, the sound of spoken English.

English is a malleable, stretchy, melting-pot language, a glorious mishmash of traces, inventions, leftovers and borrowings, like a falling-down town with ancient stuff buried underneath its foundations and skyscrapers snaking their way up to the light.

I love that Shakespeare just made up loads of words. Incarnadine? Why not!

Though the greats always look back as well as forwards. Auden’s The Wanderer opens with a homage to Middle English: ‘Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.’

See George Orwell’s essay The Lion and the Unicorn for some brilliant stuff about ‘something distinctive and recognizable in English civilisation’, ‘a culture as individual of that of Spain’: ‘somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes’. OK, so that’s about Englishness in particular and this is not, but he puts the kind of thing I mean a million times better than I could. ‘The suet puddings and the red pillarboxes have entered into your soul. Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.’

4.       Humour and irony.

The Goon Show, ‘Allo ‘Allo!, Blackadder, The Office, The Mighty Boosh, The Day Today, Stewart Lee… take your pick.

Here’s the end of Stevie Smith’s The Hostage:

Well I don’t you know, said the lady, then aware of something comical
Shot him a look that made him feel uncomfortable
Until he remembered she came from the British Isles,
Oh, he said, I’ve heard that’s a place where nobody smiles.
But they do, said the lady, who loved her country, they laugh lke anything
There is no one on earth who laughs so much about everything.

Well I see, said the Father, the case is complicated.
I will pray for you, Daughter, as I pray for all created
Meanwhile, since you want to die and have to, you may go on feeling elated.

5.       Tea and a slap-up fry-up

Ironically (see 4) one of the best slap-up fry-ups I ever had was in New Zealand, and boy, did it remind me of home (see 2.)

6.       Gentleness (especially towards children and animals)

Not for nothing did Dickens, who knew how to work a heart-string, have Oliver Twist ask for more, and Bill Sikes mistreat his rather horrible cur.

Now, I know this point is debatable (like all these points, like any point), especially as, historically, the English in particular had an awful reputation on the Continent for cane-crazed schoolmasters. Our laws on corporal punishment were pretty shonky right up until the 90s, when they were shaken up by the distressing case of an eight-year-old boy who had been beaten by his mother’s partner with a three-foot garden cane. Under UK law this was judged to be ‘reasonable chastisement’. The case went to the good old European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1998 that it wasn’t reasonable after all, and forced a review of UK law. (Here’s the European Convention on Human Rights – a fine list of fundamental freedoms, in my view – including the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.) There was a predictable hoo-ha in the newspapers, which turned the consultation on how best to amend UK law to protect children into a fuss about how the Labour nanny state wanted to criminalise parents for smacking their kids (it didn’t – but never let the facts get in the way of a good story).

I remember this case because I was working for Nursery World at the time and reported on it. There was a potential impact for childminders, in terms of whether they would be allowed to smack children they were looking after (this was finally banned in 2003).

Gentleness. It’s a fine quality. I bet Robin Hood’s sidekick Little John (who of course was not little) was gentle. With animals and children, when not sorting out baddies with his quarterstave.

7.       Music.

Primarily, but not exclusively, of the popular sort.

8.       Individualism, eccentricity, anti-authoritarianism, inventiveness.

I do not think we (we=the residents of the UK, in all our various glory) are instinctively an especially deferential bunch. Perhaps it is the luxury of long-ago Habeas Corpus that gives us the freedom to be relatively unafraid, and to nurture a certain scepticism about the competence of those in positions of authority. Especially when enjoying the freedom to speak our minds, in or out of the privacy of our own homes.

9.       Landscape.

childhood time in the countryside

off to collect eggs with my grandmother in Wales, c. late 1970s

The UK is a big place in a small space. Soft rain on Welsh hills, Cornish palm trees, the vistas of Oxfordshire, the spine of the railway line that rattles you up to Scotland: and London, home to the Mother of all Parliaments.

Here’s the end of Rosemary Tonks’ poem Farewell to Kurdistan:

… Life is large, large!
… I shall lie off your loaf of shadows, London;
I admit it, at the last.

I love to be on the top deck of a London bus/in a taxi going through London at night/on the South Bank/in a London pub/oh, I could go on and on…

10.   The weather.

In particular, the skies. It’s a good land for clouds.

PS. Not that it’s directly relevant – given that it’s not a referendum about whether you love your country or not – but I’ll be voting for the UK to stay in the European Union. I know a fair few who won’t, though. Fair play. Am not going to get steamed up about it. Most of us want the same things, the world over: peace, decent houses, schools, roads, healthcare and working conditions, and a safety net. As Jo Cox said, more unites us than divides us. We just sometimes disagree about how to get there. Hopefully we’ll muddle through whatever happens, and if not, well, see you in the workhouse, where no doubt we’ll be assembling gismos for multinational corporations.

Maybe one of these days I’ll get round to writing a blog post about why I love Europe. Because I do, even if I haven’t left the UK since 2004. (Just as well I’m happy here.)


drinking hot chocolate in Café Flore in Paris, sometime in the last century

PPS. Probably if you go back far enough almost all of us have a few refugee ancestors. Mine include some French Huguenots who settled in Spitalfields, I believe. It’s all a bit hazy, though.

PPPS. The European Convention on Human Rights took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Eleanor Roosevelt played a huge part in getting drafted and agreed and which Pope John Paul II called ‘one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time’. Eleanor Roosevelt’s legacy also includes one of my favourite quotes, which is commonly attributed to her: ‘A woman is like a tea bag; you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.’

PPPPS. I forgot the NHS!

More about places I love…

The After I Left You tour of places in Oxford I love

Why I love Cornwall

In praise of Alan Garner: First Light

IMG_1960 (2)This beautiful volume is an anthology of tributes and personal responses to the work of Alan Garner, crowdfunded and published by Unbound, with contributions from writers, artists, historians, scientists and storytellers including Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry, Ali Smith, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, to name but a few. It’s full of illuminating things – read on for quotes that got me turning over page corners – and is exactly the right kind of book to dip into when you can’t sleep, or need taking out of yourself.

I got my copy of First Light at an event at Oxford Literary Festival (it was super-Oxfordy – held in the beautiful Divinity Hall). The event was chaired by Erica Wagner, who compiled and edited the book, in conversation with two of the contributors, Richard Ovenden and Neel Mukherjee. Alan Garner was sitting in the front row next to Rowan Williams – no pressure!

  • Find out more about The Blackden Trust – the educational charity set up by Alan and Griselda Garner that First Light will help fund

Margaret Atwood on the perils of the Full Moon Mall

‘“You have been trying on our skins,’ growled the raccoon, ‘and turn about is fair play. So now I will try on yours.”’

Bob Cywinski on the parallel between science and fiction

‘Both author and physicist seek to create an internally consistent model universe that can be poked and prodded with questions of “what if?”, and if our literary and scientific model universes respond in a way that is externally consistent with our observations of the real universe, we claim success.’

[I once gave a presentation on how to write a novel to a couple of software developers who made a similar point: it was, as a process, not all that different to what they did.]

Helen Dunmore on The Owl Service

‘Long before the phrase “post-traumatic stress” was common currency, Alan Garner explored in The Owl Service the way that intense, tragic events affect generations because they go on recurring in flashback, unresolved and invincible… The past must become truly the past, and it can only do so if there is a redemptive alteration of destructive patterns.’

[A true and also practical point, this. I remember being told that every cell in the human body regenerates every seven years or so. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s an encouraging thought. Exposure to certain toxins can indelibly rewrite your genetic code, but – as far as I understand it – even that is a revision of potential and predisposition: it isn’t fate.]

Stephen Fry on being trusted

‘I believe that the first feeling that overwhelmed me was one of being trusted. At no stage did the writer of this story explain to me what I was supposed to feel, or what was the meaning of the story I was reading.’

Neil Gaiman on books that change you

‘There are moments without which we literally would not exist, we would not be ourselves: we would be other people, who would look the same, but with a different inner landscape, with different dreams and hopes and, most importantly, different ways of looking at the world… Reading Elidor was one of those moments for me.’

‘The freight of fantasy is the freight of the unrevealed. When it is at its most powerful, it shows us the world we know through another’s eyes, in a way that we can never unsee.’

Elizabeth Garner on being born alongside a book

‘The first evidence of my existence is not the usual photograph of mother and baby, cocooned in a hospital bed. Instead it is a series of numbers in the margins of a manuscript. My mother’s contraction times, set beside the emerging words of my father’s novel The Stone Book. I was on the page before I was in the world. But that’s just the start of the story.’

Joseph Garner on Othering

‘The internal conflict of Othering comes from the fear of being severed from our roots. Thus to come through the experience of Othering with a new sense of self, we have to go back to our roots and find a way to make peace, and to reconnect our new selves.’

Andrew Hodges on Alan Garner and Alan Turing

‘The meeting of the two Alans arose in 1951, simply as fellow amateur runners, rare in those days, spotting each other on the road… they found a meeting point in equal distances and speed over the Cheshire lanes.’

Bel Mooney on contradiction

‘He knows that Death is the electric current that animates all things.’

Neel Mukherjee on roots, anchoring and land

‘Here is something that I would come to recognise retrospectively as one of the great lessons of writing: there is nothing more universal than the particular, that the local is the world.’

Philip Pullman on Alan Garner on craftsmanship

‘There are traditions in every craft, by which the knowledge gained by our forebears is passed on – knowledge not just of how to hold a plane or sharpen a saw, but of how to evaluate the work and give it the attention it deserves. Garner’s grandfather, for example, a whitesmith, passed on that kind of wisdom to the young Alan.

He uttered two precepts. They are absolutes. The first was: “Always take as long as the job tells you, because it’ll be here when you’re not, and you don’t want folk saying, ‘What fool made this codge?’”

The second was worse: “If the other feller can do it, let him.” That is: seek until you find that within you that is your unique quality, and, having found it, pursue it to the exclusion of all else and without thought of cost.¹’

[¹Alan Garner, ‘Aback of Beyond’, in The Voice That Thunders. Daunting and rigorous, yes, but as good and fundamental advice for a writer as any you’ll find.]

Ali Smith on The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Alderley Edge

‘The edge of things is the natural habitat of the story.’

More about books, reading and writing

Patrick Gale and Polly Samson: seduction, loss, land and longing

A short list of books to turn to when you’re stressed

The writer as psychic: on twins and Sisterland

Benjamin Britten and three lessons in creativity


Writing my next novel

IMG_0175I’ll be hard at work on my new novel over the next few months, so I won’t be posting on this blog for a while. I’ll be back in the spring, by which time the grapevine will look like this.

I love blogging – it’s great to have the freedom to write about whatever catches your fancy – and I look forward to getting back to it in due course. Thank you all so much for reading and so long for now. xx

What I read in 2015: Ferrante, Patrick Gale and plenty more…

Patrick Gale

with Patrick Gale at North Cornwall Book Festival. Photo: Dan Hall

2015 was my year of reading Patrick Gale. I read a few more of his novels as prep for interviewing him at North Cornwall Book Festival (lucky me): Little Bits of Baby, Rough Music and A Perfectly Good Man. I also looked back over his 2015 bestseller A Place Called Winter and was knocked out by it a second time, having first read a proof copy last year (yup – lucky me again).

Patrick Gale's novels

This was also the year I caught Ferrante fever – I read the first of the Neapolitan novels and know I’m in for a treat with the rest. Like Ferrante’s legions of other fans, I was drawn in and hooked fast by her brilliant depiction of the novel’s central female friendship, in all its ambiguous tenderness and competitiveness.


It’s been a year for going along to literary events and coming back with books. I stocked up at North Cornwall Book Festival, which has dominated my reading in recent months – the tent may be down, the sand long since shaken out of our suitcases, but NCBF lives on… It was great to see Jenny Balfour Paul, Patricia Duncker and M J Carter speaking about their books, and an even more lasting pleasure to read them (Deeper than Indigo, Sophie and the Sibyl and The Strangler Vine, which I’m reading at the moment. All brilliant.)

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

Another star of the festival was Neel Mukherjee, whose novel The Lives of Others I read last year, when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. (Here’s what I read in 2014.)

The Lives of Others

On a blazing autumn day in October I went to see Patrick Gale and Polly Samson in conversation at Henley Literary Festival – a startlingly steamy event (for an afternoon in a sedate town hall.) Polly’s new book, The Kindness, is a cleverly constructed tale of love, deception and thwarted paternity, due out in paperback in March.


Back in June, I spent a gloriously sunny evening in the courtyard garden of Mostly Books in Abingdon, listening to Laura Barnett talk about her twisty-turny, three-layered what-if narrative The Versions of Us. I also went along to see honorary Abingdon author Rebecca Wait (The Followers – a vivid and terrifying account of life as a teen inside a cult) at a panel event at Blackwell’s Oxford discussing whether novels can teach empathy.

In April, I went to Chipping Norton Literary Festival, where I missed out on Lee Child’s event but spotted him looking conspicuously tall and charismatic outside Jaffe and Neale. I saw Matt Haig (Reasons to Stay Alive – advice and insights on recovering from depression) in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink (The Last Act of Love – a memoir about her brother, who was left in a permanent vegetative state after a car accident, and the impact this had on the family: an unsparingly honest book that is as warm and tender as it is painful). I also saw Hannah Beckerman, Clare Mackintosh and Rowan Coleman speaking about mothers in fiction – and Richard and Judy!


This was the year I discovered Molesworth, which I have been dipping into from time to time over the festive season. Whether you’re looking for eternal verities or merely hunting for something to cheer you up before you go back to work, you may find what you seek in the comprehensively misspelled collected works of this 1950s schoolboy… Turn to Gerald Scarfe’s illustrations of types of teacher and parent, or the sketch of a manager, and you’ll see what I mean.

Also, if you’re in need of amusement and haven’t yet discovered Nina Stibbe, it’s time to get your hands on Love, Nina and Man at the Helm. (You will never see turkey mince in the same way again.) I am very much looking forward to seeing Love, Nina on the telly (Nick Hornby has adapted it – Helena Bonham-Carter is in it). I’ll also be looking out for Patrick Gale’s two-part TV drama, Man in an Orange Shirt in 2016. (And when is Poldark back on? Really really soon I hope. January is loooooong.)


I’ve read proof copies of two novels that are due out in 2016 (lucky me again): Sarah Duguid’s debut Look At Me, a sharp and suspenseful tale of sibling rivalry, and Monica Wood’s big-hearted One in a Million Boy. This is about an elderly woman trying to survive her way into the record books, a jobbing musician trying to compensate for his failings as a father, and the charming and unusual boy of the title, whose sudden disappearance draws together those he has left behind. Two to look out for!

IMG_1315    IMG_1720

So what will I be reading in 2016? Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes is waiting, along with Patrick Gale’s A Sweet Obscurity and Friendly Fire, and I’d like to read more Penelope Fitzgerald – this year I read Offshore and as I’m working my way through in chronological order it’ll be Human Voices next.


Also, I’ve lined up the autobiographies of Bob Evans and Roger Vadim (research – I’ve read both before), along with Eve Chase’s Black Rabbit Hall and the first of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. Also on my wishlist: Patricia Duncker’s Hallucinating Foucault.


I expect (and hope) I’ll discover many more new books and new authors. There are always surprises in the book store…

A big thank you to all the readers of this blog – here’s to happy reading and good times in 2016!


At North Cornwall Book Festival. Photo: Dan Hall

What I read in 2015… the list

So here’s that rather long list of what I read in 2015, in approximately reverse order.

One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood

Deeper than Indigo by Jenny Balfour Paul

Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

Look at Me by Sarah Duguid

Rough Music, A Perfectly Good Man, Little Bits of Baby by Patrick Gale

The Kindness by Polly Samson

The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink (‘I know I’m damaged. As I’ve walked through fire, bits of me have burnt off – but I accept that.’)

Diana by R F Delderfield (not for the first time!)

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. (‘Lila no. To go out with her on Sunday became a permanent point of tension. If someone looked at her she returned the look’)

Man at the Helm by Nina Stibbe. (‘All those brave people who seem to do things solo actually have people in the background who love them or at least like them’)

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

The Followers by Rebecca Wait

How to be Both by Ali Smith

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (along with er 478,884 others, or thereabouts)

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Runaway Wife by Rowan Coleman

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Eloise by Judy Finnigan

Chocolate Wishes by Trisha Ashley

The Story of You by Katy Regan

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

A Gathering Storm by Rachel Hore

The Butterfly Box by Santa Montefiore

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

Her by Harriet Lane (a wonderfully effective and chilling conjuring up of pure malice)

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (warmly discussed at my work book club – my daughter was also a fan)

The Love of My Life by Louise Douglas


Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

Daughter by Jane Shemilt

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Travelling to Infinity by Jane Hawking


Kramer vs Kramer by Avery Corman

Kramer vs Kramer

And also in 2015…

I taught my first creative writing workshop (at North Cornwall Book Festival).


Photo: Dan Hall

I wrote… More to follow in 2016…




Off-grid: Greg Rook’s paintings of a post-apocalyptic Good Life

Off-grid paintings by Greg Rook

What would life look like stripped of technology, in a possible post-disaster future? That’s the question posed by Greg Rook in his atmospheric and rather ominous Off-grid series of paintings, which you can see at the Aldridge theatre in Farnham till 10 December.

One of Greg’s inspirations for these paintings was The Good Life, first broadcast in 1975, which seemed to embody the ideals of making-do and self-reliance, and suggest a possible future in which these values would triumph. Or would it? He describes the Off-grid series as ‘mock heroic paintings of our past potential futures’. They’re a reinvention of 1970s ideas of what might lie ahead, but also draw on off-grid movements and communes of today and of the past.

Apparently prepping stores (where you can get everything you need to survive an apocalypse) are commonplace in the US and are on their way over here. Is this the kind of future their client base is imagining?

Greg Rook's Off-grid paintings

Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will remember that I once went to an earlier exhibition of Greg’s work on this theme – his Survivors paintings. I asked him what he thought he might end up doing if he lived in the kind of commune he had portrayed. He said he thought he’d probably be a terrible survivor, and went on to predict that men in particular would fall prey to strange new post-apocalyptic schools of thought: ‘I worry about men’s tendency to get lost in beliefs and self-importance and I predict that women would carry the burden of providing following a collapse. I imagine factions, sects, conspiracies and theories occupying the men’s time.’

The good life, by Greg Rook

So would the people pictured in these paintings survive? ‘Ultimately we are adaptable and our happiness is relative to our circumstances. If our expectations become limited then our aspirations shrink to fit, and what we require to survive adapts accordingly.’

Here’s my Q&A about Greg’s work, covering influences, process (what does he listen to?) and research – and what it is that ‘makes his hands itch with wanting to paint’.

You can find out more from Greg’s website.


Regular readers of this blog will know that at the end of October I went to North Cornwall Book Festival and was put up with a number of authors in a farmhouse at St Endellion. If apocalypse had struck and left us stranded there, who knows, we might have all had to turn our hands to agrarian living…

At least we’d have had Patrick Gale to teach us about farming. And perhaps Neel Mukherjee’s experience of scything would have had a practical application in addition to its literary effectiveness (it was undertaken as research for the brilliant scene where Supratik, the revolutionary in The Lives of Others, struggles to learn the technique and keep going in the brutal heat. As Neel explained in conversation with Patricia Duncker at NCBF, he found it extraordinarily difficult and exhausting too…)

My time at North Cornwall Book Festival: a feast of books, music, conversation… and cake

Photo: Dan Hall

Photo: Dan Hall

I usually go to litfests to sit in the audience, not on the stage, so my recent trip to North Cornwall Book Festival was a little nerve-racking – though as it turned out there was nothing to fear, and everything to enjoy. I was involved in two events: first off I talked about my books to bestselling novelist and tirelessly hospitable festival host Patrick Gale, and then I hosted his talk about his latest book, A Place Called Winter. I also taught my first ever creative writing workshop.

I’m left with a blur of impressions: a marqueeful of primary school children laughing themselves silly at Christopher William Hill; sitting round the table at the farmhouse where most of us authors were staying, eating the most delicious poached pears; the moon rising over St Endellion Church, where we gathered for evening music of surprising and non-ecclesiastical kinds; lounging round in sudden sunlight on Sunday lunchtime when my workshop was done (you can see a photo of me with Patrick Gale and Neel Mukherjee at this point in this blog post about NCBF by BD Hawkey.)

There was a super-speedy blogging team from Falmouth Uni headquartered in the farmhouse – they wrote lots of great posts about the various author events and I’ve linked to several of them below – their NCBF blog is a really good whistle-stop tour of the whole experience.  There are also loads more brilliant pics (thank you Dan Hall) on the NCBF FB page.


bloggers @charlottemsabin and @beakheads

North Cornwall Book Festival: authors and music galore

Moray Laing busy booksigning Photo: Dan Hall

Moray Laing signing autographs
Photo: Dan Hall

These are the events I went to:

At my event, I learned that Patrick Gale and I are both childhood fans of Mary Stewart, and talked about genre (one of the themes of the weekend) – here’s a bit more about it. As for Patrick, well, he must be the world’s easiest interviewee.

Patrick Gale

Patrick Gale
Photo: Dan Hall

The music at St Endellion Church was a revelation. I had to work seriously hard not to blub when Tom Hickox sang The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face (a song with associations and let’s face it, it’s a weep-inducer.)


St Endellion Church

Wild Willy Barrett’s French Connection was irresistibly foot-tapping and got me in the mood for a hoedown. Missed my old cowgirl hat…


My workshop: handling romance in fiction

At my workshop we talked about the archetype of the hero’s journey, with Cinderella as an example.

the hero(ine)'s journey

We also looked at three key scenes from stories about love, and discussed how love stories are always also about something else: whatever it is that is coming between the lovers and creating dramatic tension in the story (and is the reason for the story to exist). These are the novels we looked at:

  • Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale

Photo: Dan Hall

These are the books I recommended on storytelling, writing and becoming a writer:

  • The Writer’s Journey – Christopher Vogler
  • Negotiating with the Dead – Margaret Atwood
  • On Writing – Stephen King
  • On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
  • The Writer’s Voice – Al Alvarez
  • Wild Mary – Patrick Marnham

And here are some of the characters and places we came up with for our meet cute exercise, just in case someone wants to give it a go (five minutes, take two characters and a place and write their meeting). It’s amazing what it’s possible to come up with in such a short space of time and reading what you’ve written out loud is always useful (turns out Patrick Gale does this a lot when he’s working on a new book).


  • Lottery winner
  • Someone who missed last train
  • Ex-boyfriend
  • Single parent on benefits
  • Soldier with PTSD
  • Coffee barista
  • Dog
  • Santa (someone dressed as)
  • Ex-vicar
  • Bailiff
  • Make-up artist
  • Policewoman
  • Depressed Hollywood star
  • Antiques dealer
  • American yoga teacher
  • Bank robber
  • Weather forecaster


  • Fancy dress party
  • Camping site in the rain
  • Traffic jam
  • The moor at dawn
  • Edge of a cliff
  • Therapist’s waiting room
  • Manhattan rooftop
  • Village pub
  • Launderette
  • Smoking shelter
  • Ferry to a Greek island
  • Billiard table (full-size)
  • Purgatory

All good things must come to an end (till next time), and come Monday morning I was spirited away from the magic of NCBF to the much more familiar (but suddenly novel) magic of home. It was lovely to get back and have a big group hug, but the festival has stayed with me and so it will remain through the winter as this treasure trove sees me through the dark, the fog and the gloom:

books from North Cornwall Book Festival

If you’re in Cornwall next October half-term – do go! It will set you up for the winter. Oh, and did I mention the pasties and the cakes? No? A terrible omission. NCBF is a feast of all kinds, as you’ll see when you get there.

Thanks to the festival team for exemplary organisation, Patrick Gale for inviting me and Neel Mukherjee for suggesting me.


the flowers in each author’s room

Litfest events I have loved