Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year!

So here are my three wishes for us all in 2009...

This one's pretty obvious...

And this one is so that you always have someone or somewhere to rest against when needed ...

And this is a velcro jacket - designed so that lonely or bored people can fix themselves to new friends if needed. May you feel you are wearing one of these this year and that many many good things come and stick fast to you ...

I'm in Virginia at the moment, so I'll probably be celebrating new year later than most of you, but a happy, fruitful and peaceful 2009 to you all, x

Monday, December 22, 2008

A very happy Christmas to you....

And here's a game to play....

I'm off until at least the New Year, so may I wish you all a good time and a happy, fruitful and peaceful 2009.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A joke news story too frighteningly true to what could happen. I love Newsbiscuit's daily 'news' snippets:

Village to close after contributing nothing to local Tesco

A 1000 year old Oxfordshire village is to close after it was deemed not to be economically viable to the local Tesco superstore. Villagers received the news at a tense public consultation meeting last night when Councillor Shapley revealed that not a single person from the historic village of Stony Bridgeford shops or works in the Tesco store a few hundred metres away. ‘It’s no good being sentimental about these things. In this modern competitive environment, villages either have to pay their way as far as the supermarkets are concerned or face closure.’

An early Christmas present for you....

No. Not more jokes. Although you want them, don't you? Go on, admit it. You laughed just a little at my last post. What, just a smile? You guys are hard to please.

Anyway, there are some books I want to press on people because I loved them and know others will too. Others I need to hug to myself a little first. This second lot are much more precious because it's like there's a ping button in my brain they set off. Hey, they say, this is what to write next, or how to write it, or even what to write about. Not copying but the opposite. Allowing me to take off in a completely different direction. In her too excellent not to mention again book, The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp talks about the spine of her project. How she can use another structure - myth, picture, story - to lean her own art against but no one would ever guess where the original inspiration came from. This is what these books do for me. It's a door that suddenly opens in my brain - or that's how it feels. Aha, another route has been activated when I thought I was just banging against solid surfaces.

Am I making any sense?

Anyway.... such a book has been Elizabeth Strout's amazing, wonderful, human Olive Kitteridge. A novel in stories. Suddenly, I know what I'm doing in Virginia in January now. Suddenly, I know what I'm going to do with a whole lot of floating ideas - poetry, short stories and possible novel notes - that I was rather despairing of.

I'm so excited - it's like getting a sudden scent and knowing you're on the right track.

So an early Christmas present for me. And I promise if you read this book, then an early Christmas present to you too. It's my book for 2008. And I've hugged it to myself for far too long. I need to start pressing it on people now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Everyone's a cracker....

Who hides in the bakery at Christmas?
A mince spy

Why are chocolate buttons rude?
Because they are Smarties in the nude

Why was Santa's little helper feeling depressed?
He had low elf-esteem

What athlete is warmest in winter?
A long jumper

What's the fastest thing in water?
A motor pike

What's furry and minty?
A polo bear

What is black and white and noisy?
A zebra with a drum kit

What do you call a man who used to be interested in tractors?
An ex-tractor fan

ps even more good cracker jokes here. And here

ps YES they were jokes. Stop whinging and get that paper crown on....

Monday, December 15, 2008

She likes sleeping in the spare room. She cherishes the peace. Loves how books she reads at night come to life in her dreams. Forgotten childhood imaginary friends start emerging from the walls. Only sometimes will she be disturbed. Reminded that not even a shut door can stay slammed forever.

Friday, December 12, 2008

I've been playing...

... recently with the idea of taking a photograph and writing a 50 word story to match. It's a variant of Your Messages. I'll upload some of them here - and if you want to play too, send me your link and I'll put them up.

His mother said witches lived there. We’re lucky, she’d say. A warm home to keep us safe. Nowadays his front door stays shut. He talks to no-one. But on mornings like this, when the mist rises, he imagines those witches sitting by their fires. Wonders just what luck really means.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lists, lists, lists

I'm rather mortified that two people arrived at my blog yesterday after googling 'crap lists for 2008', and only slightly mollified that they didn't really mean me because I haven't published any lists yet.

Hmmm.... time to put that right.

I'm going to wait for the CDs promised in the Great Salway Anti-Giveaway Promotion, (and if you haven't sent me one yet, there's still time...) before I publish my music finds for 2008, although I know any list of my music passions would now have to include the Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. ***

However, I have two other lists I'm currently compiling, and need help on.

Number One is TV detectives with successful love lives. I'm hooked on Wallander, but as soon as I saw Kenneth Brannagh smile during his blind date last Sunday night I knew his new best friend was trouble. It rather spoilt the rest of the programme for me, not least because I couldn't help wondering if sexual frustration is taught at the Detective Plot School. I'd love to be a fly on the wall at that particular Christmas party!

Number Two list contains films fitting the unlikely - apparently official - genre of Transport Horror. It seems it has a section all to itself. So far I've come up with Snakes on Planes, Speed, Alien, but there must be many many more.

Good game, eh? And it involves absolutely no glasses of water in faces. See Alex, I can play nicely when I try.

*** ps I was just enjoying a satisfying few minutes watching both You Tube videos above before I came to a startling conclusion. Maybe I only like musicians with beards? Now that would be a CD compilation I'd like to hear...

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

My New Years resolution No 1

To hand-write more letters - and here's one of the reasons why...

Doggone, I can't download the video, but it's here.

Yes, we have a winner ...

... or two.

Lynne and I have chosen two writers to get a selection of our books in this November's Your Messages project.

Running the Messages project this year reminded me all over again why I liked working with someone else so much - when it works you can both manage to make the other think in new ways. It's one of the joys of collaboration, you don't get two separate strands - you get a third new one, which spills back to your own process, making it stronger.

And congratulations to Kathryn and Jacqui. Their pieces are very worthy examples of just how strong it can be when you spin off from someone else's words.

The whole project is worth a look though. It's up for a while, although individual authors may remove their pieces to use elsewhere because there are literally hundreds that deserve to be developed and sent off elsewhere.

It's been great fun - and inspirational for Lynne and me too. Thank you everyone from here who took part. And if you miss it, you can always buy the original book for Christmas inspiration!

Character is all...

"I don't have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they
start talking. Then I start to love them. By the time I finish the
book, I love them so much that I want to stay with them." --Joan Didion

I wrote a whole lot of stories last year around the theme of clothes. Each one started with a brilliant idea, the kind of theme I could easily talk about when someone asked what I was writing about. And I did. Everyone told me they sounded great. Some people even got excited. I was starting to feel like a proper writer. With plots and all.

But I knew the stories weren't working. They were dead.

Reading them again over the last week has been hard. I'm putting together a work plan for Virginia and I wanted to see if there was anything in these stories that I could bring back to life. But I've decided they're not coming with me even though, yes, the ideas are great. Really mad and fun and inventive and, yes, quirky.

Trouble is they're much bigger than the characters. In every one, my little fictional people are standing in the middle of their stories, scratching their heads and asking me - the author - what they should do next.

I haven't allowed them even a minute to start talking to me, so they could tell me what they would like to do.

One good thing - it's made me feel not so inadequate when someone asks me what my novels are about and I start to splutter. And I know what to tell them now. They are not about the situation but about the character. Why does it take me so long to realise what other people seem to know instinctively?

Monday, December 08, 2008

A new game, a new game ....

Oh life is good.

Just when my kids have got old enough to tell me that I'm actually the only one in the family who likes races with wind-up toys and they don't want to play with me anymore, the Guardian has come to my rescue.

Here's Deborah Moggach's game:

"We all play the water game, which is the only game where you get punished for getting something right, which I think is a very good corrective to the usual scheme of things. You sit round the table and someone has to think up a topic - makes of cars, British birds - and then think of something from that category that they write on a secret piece of paper - a blue tit for example. You go round the table one by one and people have to guess what it is. The person who gets it right gets the glass of water thrown in their face."

It's got everything I love. Randomness, adrenaline, fun, and even a touch of cruelty thrown in. We did use to play something similar when the kids were small and we had those adult and kids parties when it's always the adults who get a bit, er, over-excited with the games. Here's our version:

An adult would have to sit on a chair at the end of the hall and face everyone else. A child would be positioned directly in front of the chair with a fully loaded watergun and then everyone else would - in turn - ask questions. The only rule was that, although they could be questions about anything, the questioner had to know the answer. Every time the adult in the chair got it wrong, the child would be allowed to shoot the watergun at him or her.

Funnily enough, there were as many screeching takers to be the question answerer as there were for the shooter. The best time was when we had an ex-Scottish rugby captain over to play. Everyone got drenched as we tried to figure out just who had scored what try in obscure games. Although if I remember, when it was his turn in the chair, we flummoxed him with details of fashion design. Actually I seem to remember that by that stage the children had got bored, and it was just the adults playing.

Yep, nothing like a bit of meanness to make Christmas go down well. This is what Deborah Moggach - who I just know would be my best friend if we were ever bored together at a party - says about it:

"The world is divided into two sets of people - those who say what a completely great idea it is and those who look at you as if you are crazy and ask why you would play such a cruel game. Well, life is cruel and it's not that much water anyway."

Oh oh oh but ..... just when I start thinking that the wind-up toy olympics could have had its day and glasses of water thrown in faces sounds more fun, I look at these little fellas, wound up and ready to go and my heart turns over. Don't worry, guys, I won't let you down, and it's just once, well ok twice, yes, yes, three times a year, H & R - and I know you do love it really.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Keeping up with circus friends...

Probably because I'm getting ready to go to America again (VCCA in January), I've been thinking about how blogs make it easy on one hand to keep up with friendships, while on the other, run the risk of substituting for proper contact. Often when I speak to one of my friends who read this blog, they tend to know most of what I've been up to. Or at least what I choose to show publicly. It can make for a rather strange one-sided conversation, and always makes me think that I spend too much time on the internet!

But where blogs are brilliant are when some of those friends are just too far away to meet up with properly. Some of the blogs I love to read are those of artists I met up with in Iowa this summer during the Tiny Circus. They never fail to inspire me, so here they are if you fancy a peep too.

First off, there's Holen's, film-maker and writer...

and then there are Carlos's journeys in the airstream...

Jess from Minneapolis...

... and the marmite queen herself, Grace, who I wish wrote more ...

And last but not least, there's Greta, who I didn't actually meet but wish I had (and feel I did somehow through internet contact!)

Of course, the circus squirrels don't have their blog yet, but it can only be a matter of time. Look how big, and obviously intelligent...

Saturday, December 06, 2008

I'm off to the library ....

Actually I am. But I'm also stopping at the Chocolate Library today too.

"A world where chocolate and words collide..." And plus, of course, Scotland. What's not to like?

Friday, December 05, 2008


I've been thinking about blurbs recently, not least because I've just done one for Caroline Smailes's Black Boxes and two people I've mentioned this to have asked me whether I'd read it.


I'm not sure why I've put that in caps apart from the fact that I really really can't understand the idea that you might put your name and recommendation on a book that you didn't love. But much much more than that ... why on earth, as an author, would you want someone's name on YOUR book who didn't love it. Or, worse, hadn't actually read it.

I know there's a cynical attitude 'out there' that blurbing is just done as an act of croneyism but this hasn't been my experience or that of anyone I've talked to. Maybe I've just been lucky but I don't think so. Most writers aren't stupid. What will having your name on a book you don't think is all that good say about you? It's worrying to have to read a book by someone you've become friends with - if you don't like their writing, will you still like them?

But the other side of the coin is becoming friends with someone after you've fallen in love with their book. I've 'met' lots of the writers I am proud to call my friends now first through their words, and I can't understand why people think it's some kind of plot when writers become friends with each other and go out of their way to champion each other's books - even by giving reviews on Amazon. We are readers too.

And it makes me sad that I have to think twice about asking these friends to 'blurb' my books, or to agree to 'blurb' theirs, in case we get accused of not meaning it. It isn't a plot to keep other writers out of the in-gang, as some journalists seem to think, because there's nothing better than finding new writing friends.

I take the privilege of people agreeing to put their names on my books extremely seriously. When The ABCs of Love came out in the US, the publishers sent it out to various writers for quotes, and I made sure that I read something by everyone who had been kind enough to say something. Equally when I got sent Kate Long's book to read, and was proud to give a quote, I knew I'd found a writing soulmate when she contacted me to discuss my writing too.

The good thing is that this isn't unusual. It is a compliment to be asked to give a blurb for someone, and, from my experience, it's enormously frightening to have to ask for one. So I hate the idea that we might become cynical about it.

And so, for the record, I have read Black Boxes and I absolutely loved it and I recommend that you read it too.

Sorry, I'm not sure why this has turned into some kind of rant, and of course, asking people you like and respect for quotes can produce some stunners. Here's Neil's first attempt, and the one I wish I'd been brave enough to use! Maybe I will one day...

"Sarah Salway is the Madonna of writing books. The dancing one, not the Mother of Jesus one. Except she's younger and has had less plastic surgery. Sarah Salway that is. Also she writes really well."

The only thing I'd add to that is that I've had NO plastic surgery, not just less... I do love yoga though. And dancing. Perhaps that's the next stage of blurbing - the qualifiers.

This is the best book ever by the best writer ever!!! Blurber

(ps Actually Shakespeare is much better, Author)

No wonder we normally leave getting blurbs up to our publishers!

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How much are you worth?

I'm just asking you that because I'm putting this blog up for auction, and I KNOW WHAT I'M WORTH... well, ok, since you ask, thousands and thousands of dollars.

Any takers?

Nope, I thought not. I'll settle for a tenner. You can find out your value too - here (and thanks to VP for the link!)

My blog is worth $22,017.06.
How much is your blog worth?

Here and now, now and here....

I enjoyed one of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon yesterday - engrossed in books at the British Library. Afterwards coming out blinking from the 16th century to the 21st, I went to a nearby cafe and got a sandwich.

'Are you eating it here, or taking it out?' the woman asked. I was still blinking. I really had no idea. 'Take your time,' she said. I checked to see if she was sneering at me, but she wasn't. 'We get people like you all the time,' she said then.

And indeed there was someone behind me, frozen in front of the range of sandwiches available. He was also blinking, and I wondered what period or subject he still had half a foot in. Of course, I quickly came out of the trance - the Euston Road takes no prisoners - but for the rest of the evening the idea that something magical had happened to me still kept floating in front of my mind. And every time I realised it was what I had been reading in the library, it felt even more magical.

I'd been looking at the letters of Thomas Tresham, as part of a presentation I'm giving today for my garden history course into Lyveden New Bield.

The house and garden were built in Elizabethan times by Thomas Tresham, and left incomplete after his death. But it's the history behind it that's equally fascinating, because TT was a Catholic and spent the ten years before work on the garden started in prison. He directed most of the work by letters and it was these I was looking at. A parcel of his letters and papers dating from 1576 to November 1605 were found by accident sealed up at Ruston Hall in 1828. It is thought they were walled up in a state of emergency after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, as his son Francis was one of the ‘plotters’.

Yep, the story really does have everything, but it's the idea of someone planning a garden so elaborately while they are in prison that makes it so special for me. A garden that they might never have seen. And of course, more and more of the Catholic symbolism Tresham implanted into the garden plans is still being uncovered. Gardening as a secret language. I love it.

Mind you, I struggled with some of the language and spelling of the letters until - ping! - a lightbulb went off. I read it as if it was a text from one of the teenagers I hear from regularly - a mixture of shorthand and predictive text - and immediately it all made sense.

See what I mean? Here and now, now and here ...!

Here's one of the letters from his wife:

26th September 1597, Artlingborough
Lady Tresame to her husband:

“Jesu Marye. Good Tres. the wake a state of hore besbeloved sestar this barar can addres you, yf remedys wyll serve no dote bothe for honesty and cylle (skill?) I make no dote bot she shall hafe thame. Wavysar and hylton ware at london on saturda last bytymes and tomoro the fotmane shalle be wythe you at hely. God grant we ma shortely hafe you at russon, thys barer makes hast tharfor my many harty commendacyons to you, I hand (end) the 26 of sebtember 1657 from hartalynboro your hobedyend and lovying wife m. Tresame.” *

There was something else very identifiable in this particular letter too. A note attached said that on the front of the paper it was addressed to: “To my very besbeloved husband ser tomas Tresame knight at hely (Ely) give these.”

While on the back, it’s recorded that there are: ‘Numerical calculations by Sir Thomas of a mystical character in which the words Crux, Maria and Christus appear.’

Hmmm... I'm not making a sexist point here about distracted men because it sounds awfully like me. I've found notes about stories I've scribbled on whatever is at hand too - however personal and precious. Let me tell you that this blog knows ALL about obsession. And distraction.

(*Reference: Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on manuscripts in various collections, Volume III, London 1904. Manuscripts of T B Clarke-Thornhill, Esq of Rushton Hall)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A quick dose...

These little bottles are from an exhibition by Mads Hagstroem we recently went to in Copenhagen. I can't help thinking what they would taste like...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

If you don't ask, you don't get ....

One of my many pleasures of 2008 has listening again and again to mixed CDs made by friends (at least three of whom I know sometimes check in on this blog). They've introduced me to new music, reminded me of old, and have been instrumental in denting my bank balance as I've gone out and bought other CDs and downloads as a result.

BUT, being completely shameless, I WANT MORE.

This January, I'm going back to the wonderful, magical, everyone-should-go VCCA for a residency and I want to take good music with me. There are two gaps on my ipod that need filling ...

a) Alice and I are driving to Virginia from New York just before New Year, so we're looking for Writerly Road Trip music, or

b) Songs I can write with when I'm in my little cabin in the woods and hopefully not being as homesick as last time but quite probably so.

And in return for your CD, I will let you have first-read of the piece I write along to your musical soundtrack. Fair deal?

Friday, November 28, 2008

This chocolate has my name on it it...

Well, except it doesn't, of course, because I'm actually called Sarah but you know what I mean. Oh fuck it, where's that chocolate....

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Growing geese

I've been asked more than a few times why I'm doing a garden history course. For me, the answer is simple - it's not just because I love gardens, or because it's an interest I shared with my mother, or I think gardens are a way to help us understand wider social and economic themes. No, it's because of all the stories and the characters I can find and enjoy.

Yesterday's class threw up a great example of this. We were looking at Gerard's 16th century Herbal.

One of the plants recorded is a tree that had branches that opened to reveal .... er .... geese.

Gerard wrote: "...there is a small llande in Lancashire called the Pile of Foulders...whereon is found a certaine spume or froth, that in time breedeth unto certaine shels." These mussel-shaped shells would grow until they split open, revealing "the legs of the Birde hanging out...til at length it is all come foorth." The bird would hang by its bill until fully mature, then would drop into the sea "where it gathereth feathers, and groweth to a foule, bigger than a Mallard, and lesser than a Goose."

The myth had apparently been uncovered as a falsehood many years before, but our tutor said that one of the arguments as to why it might have remained in Gerard's herbal is that if geese were thought to be from a plant, then they could be eaten on days when meat shouldn't be consumed.

So there you are. If you hate brussell sprouts you can enjoy your Christmas goose instead, after all one vegetable is just the same as another vegetable!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Putting it all in proportion

OK, OK, all this fuss I'm making over where I fit into memories and then I read this* ... it's a statement by Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of cosmology and astrophysics at Cambridge when asked what single idea he wished was more generally understood:

I'd like to widen people's awareness of the tremendous timespan lying ahead - for our planet and for life itself. Most educated people are aware that we're the outcome of nearly 4bn years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun's demise, 6bn years from now. Any creatures that then exist will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.

I'm strangely comforted. And surprised because, yes, of course this is true. We really aren't that important.

*Also in Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of. I've been a bit obsessed by this book recently, to the extent that when I looked at my blog the other day to answer a comment, I clicked off thinking I'd got on to Julian Barnes's blog by mistake. It was the fact I put up a larger picture of him than me, I suppose. Mind you, at least I'm not like the ever-watchful Debi Alper who flagged her own blog up for objectionable content by mistake. Thats still making me laugh.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Reasons why the tube isn't quite so bad ... there's a man in Japan who has just been arrested for releasing hundreds of live worms near female passengers.


"I wanted to see women get scared and shake their legs," police quoted 35-year-old Manabu Mizuta as saying.

I'm exaggerating now so you'll get to know me faster.
Amy Hempel

Still remembering...

I'm reading Julian Barnes's book, Nothing to be Frightened Of at the moment. It's a mostly fascinating meditation about death and dying, and I'm realising how little I think of death compared to, obviously, some people. BUT I'm also interested in what Julian Barnes writes about memories.

I went to an academic conference about autobiographical writing a couple of years ago, and heard a brother and sister presenting their life story. They compared the process of coming up with shared memories to archeology. I like this image, making completely sure of understanding one layer of memory before delving down into the next. And also not taking anything for granted. Evidence is needed for every memory.

IN this book, Barnes compares his childhood memories often with his brother, only to find - surprise surprise - they have different takes on the same incident. Often the brother will have forgotten something that supposedly happened to him, an incident Barnes claims total recall of, but then Barnes is the younger brother. I remember things about my siblings too that they have forgotten simply because to be the youngest is to often take the role of watcher. Absorbing information is our special power. My sister and two brothers were like wondrous beings to me, doing things that, maybe one day, way in the future, I might get to do too. So of course I watched closely. And of course they saw it differently. In their view I got to do everything far too early, and far too easily. Or that's how I remember their complaints, anyway!

Here are some of Barnes's thoughts about memory:

Memory in childhood - at least, as I remember it - is rarely a problem. Not just because of the briefer time span between the event and its evocation, but because of the nature of memories then: they appear to the young brain as exact simulacra, rather than processed and coloured-in versions of what has happened. Adulthood brings approximation, fluidity and doubt: and we keep the doubt at bay by retelling that familiar story, with pauses and periods of a calculated effect, pretending that the solidity of narrative is a proof of truth. But the child or adolescent rarely doubts the veracity and precision of the bright, lucid chunks of the past it possesses and celebrates. So at that age it seems logical to think of our memories as sorted in some left-luggage office, available for retrieval when we produce the necessary ticket ... We know to expect the seeming paradox of old age, when we shall start to recall lost segments of our early years, which then become more vivid than our middle ones. But this only seems to confirm that it's all really up there, in some orderly cerebral storage unit, whether we can access it or not.

Later though, Barnes talks about the differences between characters in fiction and real life people. No real person, he says, can be as whole as a fictional character simply because we do not see them from all sides, inside and outside. "In novels (my own included)," writes Barnes, "human beings are represented as having an essentially graspable, if sometimes slippery, character and motivations which are identifiable - to us, if not necessarly to them."

I wonder if this is also part of why our childhood memories are so clear. We see our childhood selves as fictional characters, made partly through retelling our memories, and also looking at photographs - 'ah, that's who I WAS', and also through being told stories too. So what's left in the 'storage unit' hasn't been forgotten but taken down and polished often over the years. Whereas the middle aged us just blunders on, not really wanting to clarify the line between middle age and old age because the end of that narrative takes us somewhere we don't want to go, unlike that between childhood and adulthood.

And there's something else Barnes writes that makes me wonder too about why our memories are so strong of childhood, a time, after all, for creating who we WILL be. He says:

Memory is identity. I have believed this since - oh, since I can remember. You are what you have done; what you have done is in your memory; what you remember defines who you are; when you forget your life you cease to be, even before your death.

I'm not sure why I find this so frightening. I have never forgotten reading a French neurological study of a woman identified only as 'Madame I'. She'd lost her memory and had to keep touching herself continually to prove she still existed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Keeping memories

There's a paragraph in Scientific American Mind I can't stop thinking about. It's an interview with the neuroscientist Eric Kangel and the last question is: If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
And the answer:

I would like to know how some memories persist forever. How do you remember your first love experience for the rest of your life. Neuroscientist Kausik Si, then a postdoctoral fellow in my lab, and I discovered a protein called CPEB that has the very interesting characteristic of self-perpetuation. That might be a clue to how memory is sustained over long periods. But we don't know for sure yet.

It reminds me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, one of my favourite films. I'm thinking now of a story about controlling memories. A character pressing his head every time he wants to remember something. The only trouble is, if he gets it wrong, he'll never be able to forget.

Only in England...

I love this sign - somehow I always imagine Mary Poppins as the nanny. Mind you, it was taken in Chelsea so I should think they have nannies just as perfect there, and they don't let the kids climb on rockeries either.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I love your messages ....

If you haven't already, do take a minute to whizz over to the Your Messages website and have a look at some of the responses that are going up. I think they are really really good, and how Lynne and I are going to pick just one, I just don't know. Luckily she normally agrees with everything I say (hahahahaha)....

Meet our latest addition

So the latest on the bull story. Last Friday, I went to Carlisle to meet my Edinburgh accomplice and we went to see our very own bull. This started last year when we bid at a charity auction for some pedigree bull semen - well, the dinner out for two had gone. Anyway, we're not stupid, we negotiated the birth of the bull as well, and because it was for Cystic Fibrosis, the wonderful Alasdair Houston offered us the chance to come and pick which bull we wanted. This will eventually be sold and all profits will also go to the charity but in the meantime we're calling him ours and are planning to watch him grow up, which is all probably much more more than Alasdair bargained for when he offered the prize to the proper farmers there!

Now the surprising truth is Alison and I don't know much about bulls, apart from how to pose in front of them...

But the bulls we were choosing from are part of the award winning Charalais herd and, let me tell you just in case you ever doubted, they were BEAUTIFUL...

How to choose just one? After five minutes I was seriously contemplating going into cattle breeding...

But luckily we had brought our official advisers with us, who had lists of sensible questions and proper experience...

Also the ability to say a firm NO when I was determined to have one called 'Dracula' because - cue spooky music - that's the book I'm reading at the moment with my book club.

And so meet the handsome Deday. We won't know how he'll turn out for a while but hopefully he'll grow up big and strong and carry on making money for Cystic Fibrosis for many years to come.

We're going back to visit him in three months time so I'll keep you posted. I have to say I've learnt a lot about bulls and breeding over the last few days. Not least NOT to share it all with strangers on trains!

And because we were in Gretna Green, here's a video of the famous starlings just starting to mass. It was just like this. Around five o'clock we could see them coming from all directions and apparently some nights the sky really does turn black.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Paper friends

I have never got over the oddness of loving people on paper and yet knowing I never want to meet them in person. My new stalking object, Hugo Rifkind is like this. I don't know how I know we wouldn't get on, but we wouldn't. Trust me.

Still, I laughed out loud - twice - on the train to Carlisle this weekend as I read his diary column in the Times. The man next to me had already put his newspaper firmly up between us after he'd asked why I was going North and I told him - in less detail than I could have done - about the bull semen. Then a text conversation with Garden Monkey had me giggling too, so in all in all I had a lovely train journey, whereas my poor companion's newspaper trembled away as he wished he had met me on paper only so he could put me down as soon as possible. His destination of Preston must have seemed like a long long way away.

Anyway, here's one of the bits from Hugo Rifkind's diary that had me chuckling...

This is what you might call a generational divide. On the older side we have the vast swaths of the population who don't really know how to work their mobile phones. On the younger we have everybody else, and they have to spend huge swaths of their lives telling the first half how to use their mobile phones, often over the medium of said mobile phones, even though they know that the other half aren't really listening, and are still going to send them a voicemail saying 'hello? Are you there?' on every second day and a text message saying 'HBgUO%?' every third.

Painfully true. Not least because I'm somewhere in the middle as far as technology goes. I feel like a bright young thing every time my dad asks for help with his laptop, but on the other hand, I need a teenager standing close if I am going to watch a DVD these days without crying. We have FOUR remote controls. Give me one good reason I need more than one please, and then I'll stop getting quite so emotionally involved.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beware the backlash...

Recently I've read several pieces of journalism, blog posts and emails cheering on the end of the 'misery-memoir'. I wonder about this, because, despite the fact that they are so easy to mock, the best-seller shelves in the airport bookshop were still heaving with 'the saddest story you'll read this year' the last time I looked.

Now, I'm not a big fan because I am concerned about the parts of me that find these books curiously addictive. Mostly I flick through in bookshops, looking at the back page blurb and then the end because it's the happy ending I want to read. The triumph over tragedy. But of course you don't get the triumph in these books without the pages and pages of tragedy before. Tragedy that's been expertly marketed.

A small child's face, a teddy bear and the hint of handkerchief seem to be the most popular images for the cover, although knees pay a large part too.

But here I go too.... easy easy to mock.

And that's why I say 'beware the backlash.' Because in dismissing the misery-memoir, many of the writers I've read have been lumping all memoirs into the same category.

As if writing about your own life results in a lesser book somehow than either fiction or biography.

Whereas I find sitting down with a well-crafted memoir such as Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments about her relationship with her mother, or The Bromley Boys: The True Story of Supporting the Worst Football Team in Britain by Dave Roberts (now there's a book you should read if you want to know something about pain!) about the most pleasurable reading experience I can have. These are expert books, well crafted and shaped. Often the structure the memoir writer chooses leaves me breathless with admiration because life, as we all know, isn't well shaped at all. Most of us haven't got a clue what's going on. (Well, OK, I'm speaking for myself here.)

In her book, The Situation and the Story - the art of personal narrative, Vivian Gornick writes about how you need to find a 'teller' even for your own story. A part of you, I suppose, that has a distinctive character, but is still engaged with and absorbed into the rest of you. Maureen Lipman described this perfectly on the radio last night when she was talking about the impetus of writing her book, Past Notes. She was telling an anecdote to a group of friends, she said, and watching them laugh, while at the same time thinking about whether this was right because she was also a grieving widow. Should widows make people laugh? It's the watching here that's important - the edge that makes her a successful writer. She's immensely interested in herself, as well as what's going on, and so - most of the time - we get interested too. In fact, most successful memoirs are written by expert watchers - was anyone more closely examined than David Sedaris by David Sedaris, for instance?

In an interview in the new Glimmer Train, Colum McCann discusses the differences between biographical fiction and biography. He says:

Ingmar Bergman said something along the lines that, 'Sometimes I must console myself with the notion that he who tells a lie loves the truth'. In a strange way, you're not talking about the absolute facts of somebody's life, but you're talking more about the texture and feel of somebody's life. ... In Dancer, I wanted to give the feeling that the reader was actually there, on the street with the person.

Now, there's a difference between memoir and biographical fiction but I think the 'texture and feel' is what I'm after in a memoir too. I want to be on the street with the writer, or at least the persona they're using to tell the story. With most misery-memoirs, I never feel I'm in the cellar or the forest - I'm looking in, poking the embers of the misery with a stick to get it to flare up again. And why shouldn't I? It's been packaged for me to do just that. There's a gloss to much of the writing that allows me to feel I'm safely behind glass and therefore don't have to do, feel, anything real.

Which just makes me think, all over again, how wonderful the best memoirs are, particularly when they make us cry real tears.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On bulls and not trusting writers....

So, this weekend I'm going back to Edinburgh, my almost home. Two exciting events planned, as well as seeing my more than spectacular god-children.

The first is proving harder to explain that I thought. I tried in an email to the normally reliable Garden Monkey. 'Last year I brought some bull semen at an auction,' I wrote, to which s/he suggested that wasn't the best opening line, before offering me a bench book if I did actually dare to try it with strangers. I haven't yet - not even for a book about benches - but if I tell you guys the story, then maybe it will become easier.

So last year, I brought some bull semen at an auction. Along with it I got the loan of a cow and bovine maternity care. So now, on my way up to Edinburgh I'm stopping off at Gretna Green to see my bull (now born). It will look just like one of these - look...

(I'm not sounding peculiar btw, am I? You would let me know.)

And then after lunch with the bull daddy himself I'm hopping back on the train (sans bull which will be sold for charity but I'll take some pics to show you) and on Saturday, I'm reading for the Stolen Stories anthology.

I LOVE the idea behind this anthology. Here's the publicity blurb:

Never, ever trust a writer. They cluck and nod and listen and then three months later they splash your tragedy/foolishness/very embarrassing incident involving a raspberry jelly and a pair of warm curling tongs over the tawdry pages of a literary quarterly. We feel there is no shame in this. Quite the opposite: we believe this ugly fact deserves to be celebrated with all the pomp and hullaballoo we can possibly muster. Therefore we are compiled an anthology of the finest stolen stories, the anecdotes and overheard conversations that simply demand to be told. We feel that it is time to be honest. This is where our ideas come from.

Every story in the book will have a little introduction from the writer about how it first came about. It's going to be so good for teaching - seeing just how different writers gets ideas, and then how they explore them further in the actual stories. My contribution, 'I Would Never Eat a Tapir', felt to me very stolen. I wrote it for Caroline, who was then running Borders books (no pressure then) after Scott gave me five words or phrases I had to include - tapir, tutu, Stockholm, 'look at the sky' and sushi (hmmm....easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Absolutely no pressure then). It was strange to write because these words obviously had meaning for her, but none for me. That was probably why it started off feeling very 'stolen' as I wondered if I was using them in the right context, but eventually the story took over. What was amazing was how those words ended up fitting in, taking the story to new places, but never, hopefully, sticking out. You will see how cleverly I inserted one into the title, for example.

I'm a great believer in limits for writers - Twyla Tharp says 'Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they give unlimited resources'. It's an interesting idea.

Anyway, if you are in Edinburgh, do come and see me ...

Saturday November 15th:

Elvis and Shakespeare - 2pm
347 Leith Walk, Edinburgh

Lindsay Bower - frequent contributor to many magazines.
Sarah Salway - novelist with Random House.
Jo Swingler - longlisted for the Bridport Prize and Cinnamon Press First Collection Award.
Nick Holdstock - his work has recently appeared in Stand and the Edinburgh Review.

* live music from Withered Hand – honest, intense, eccentric, bittersweet and very wry anti-folk.
Complimentary Exploading Car Beer!

(I'm particularly liking the idea of 'Withered Hand')

or you can buy the book here.

And if you want some bull semen, er, perhaps don't get in touch... oh no, I'm imagining the google searches already.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

A fisheye view of Tunbridge Wells ...

here and here and here and here ...

I know they're the same link, I'm just throwing you in a goldfish impression for free

... and here...

Friday, November 07, 2008

Some kind of wonderful...

See me, I'm a friend of the band these days.

No, really.

And not just any band either. We're talking about the Blow Monkeys here. I can't tell you how many hours Dr Robert and I spent together in the 80's. It was either him or the Pet Shop Boys. What can I say - once an eighties girl, always capable of raising eyebrows.

Anyway, when I heard the Blow Monkeys were looking for donations for their new album, I was first in line. I knew I'd been right to keep those shoulder pads. And now I have it in my hand ...

Signed by the boys....

And with my name printed somewhere amongst the other dedicated fans. Look at us having a little metaphorical crowd moment here ...

I love it.

Not least because it might mean I finally finally get to make my dreams come true and dance up on stage with the band. Sarah, the rock chick goddess....

Or, as Neil puts it so sweetly ....

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Warning, writer at large...

I used to be a freelancer for the Catholic newspaper, The Universe. Most of the jobs were wonderful, never let it be said that the Catholics don't know how to throw a party, and I got to meet many extraordinary people. My funniest moment though was when I went up to get a quote from a visiting Cardinal. 'I'm Sarah from the Universe', I said and he just stood there looking at me. 'So are we all, dear,' he said eventually. 'So are we all.'

It was clear that he'd never heard of the newspaper and thought I was just announcing my general presence in the world. Ho hum.

But now I'm very proud to say that I really am roaming the universe through my new position as Editor at Large for the very wonderful Canadian style pair, Carrie and Danielle. I want to write more about what they do later because it's very clever and I believe in it, but for now, do look at their website - It's full of good information on personal development, creativity and, well, just being human and having fun really. One of my first articles is up here - it's part of a series of creative writing exercises I'm planning. If you write something from it that you'd like to share, then do leave it in the comments over there. Or indeed here. I'd like to see it.

And it seems like this is my day, because an article I wrote for Pyschologies magazine is on the shelves today. It's about the 29 day giving challenge I took part on earlier in the year. It makes me feel a bit guilty because I actually got far more from the challenge than I think I gave, but if you want to try your own, you can find out more here.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


It should now of course be President Elect Barack Obama.

Thank you, America.

And another advantage of the election is my daughter and I have discovered a new game. It started when we were watching CNN - lots of shrieking, flashing banners, people rushing round, chances to save the world etc etc - and then turned over to the BBC News. A new Winnie the Pooh drawing had been found. A books expert, so shy he could hardly look up, was being interviewed - very, very slowly, and then the presenter went for a walk in Ashdown Forest. Slowly. We burst out laughing. It was almost as the television was working at half-speed. We switched back to CNN - different people were now still gesturing wildly, piecharts were flying in from every angle, quickquick talking - back to BBC and yep, still walking in Ashdown Forest.

We've tried it several times since and it's works whatever the news. It makes us laugh every time (although I've noticed we both prefer the more peaceful British version. What can I say, we're sssslllllooooowwwww.)

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

On the edge

It feels strange to be a non-American watching the US election today, doesn't it? Rather like we've been reduced to childhood all over again. All we can do is to sit back and wait while others get on with the decision-making, and yet there's no doubt that the result will have an effect on us too. Anyway, I'm wishing hard. In fact, I have everything crossed - although I have to admit I did vote in the Summer, albeit with a corn kernel at the Iowa State Fair (see above). May the result be the same as that one in which Barack Obama's jam jars were filling up nicely.

I don't think I've ever felt so jealous of a country though as I did during Bill Clinton's inauguration when I watched Maya Angelou read the poem she'd been asked to write. At that moment it felt like America had suddenly become fresh again. Hopeful.

Now, I'm just wishing I can feel as jealous again. I spent this lunchtime reading poetry, wondering who Barack Obama might pick, dreading who John McCain might choose - I know it will do no good, it's even a bit melodramatic of me which is perhaps why I kept coming back to this particular poem by the American poet, Kaylin Haught. I love its playfulness and the feeling of acceptance it offers.

God Says Yes to Me
Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

Saturday, November 01, 2008

So what else is happening in November....

Just in case you are not going to spend the WHOLE month counting words - 30 or 300 - on your fingers, there is lots happening with my fellow Bookarazzi members, see here.

Your messages ....

So we start today. Come and play.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Oh Oh Oh...

Beautiful vowels

It took seven years to write Eunoia

Eunoia is the shortest word in English containing all five vowels - and it means "beautiful thinking". It is also the title of Canadian poet Christian Bok's book of fiction in which each chapter uses only one vowel.

Mr Bok believes his book proves that each vowel has its own personality, and demonstrates the flexibility of the English language. Below are extracts from each chapter.

More here, and I see some commenters are asking 'why?', to which I can only say, Christian Bok, marry me...

How things have changed ....

In my file of potentially useful things to hold against the children should it become necessary (what? You expect me to believe you don't have one? All parents should...) I have my son's first published piece of work. Along with a drawing of him looking like Edward Scissorhands for some reason, all hair and fingers, there's this:
I came to school and I haud no curectshens and then we went down the hill to get the bus but it wasn't theyr it had brocen down then we went to maisieq the firer (nope, I don't know what this mean either - probably involved some sort of snack. They seemed to snack a lot in Edinburgh. Anyway it all adds to the narrative tension I think he's achieved perfectly because look what happens next ... ) then we came bac and we went up the hill.

And now I have just received his latest published piece of work. A little different maybe, not least because I can understand every word. I bet he still had no curectshens... And that's the end of the proud mother alert, apart from the fact this isn't going in the potentially embarrasing file - although I have a dreadful feeling he might be keeping one on me now and this blog post is so going in there!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Pitch me a story ... quick!

Lots of good stuff in Catherine Ann Jones's book, The Way of Story, but I particularly liked this anecdote of the origin of word, 'pitching', for selling a story.

According to Jones, during the Spanish Inquisition, Torquemada would tell imprisoned playwrights that if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If not, they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Another day another garden

To the Chelsea Physic Garden recently of which much more later but because this blog likes chocolate (oh yes it does) here's some more proof gathered, if needed, of the scientific botanical evidence that chocolate is good for you ...

From Pepys .. the cure for a hangover ...

Hans Sloane, obviously a man of taste even if he is the patron saint of flowery head-scarves ...

And lastly, in the spirit of scientific experiments, I've been testing just how calm this makes me (although a friend did suggest wine might be quicker)...

And here's Hans Sloane himself, although, look, someone's just stolen his bar of chocolate from his hand. Bloody typical behaviour of those sloane rangers...