Earlier this year we had a garden man come to assess the wall that was falling down, which if it did fall down, would let the ground that holds up our house fall away. We were less than keen on this happening.

“The problem really is that it has no foundations,” he said, “so we’ll need to dig down and cement some in. Or rebuild from scratch.”

(You can draw your own metaphors for this part of the conversation – it’s not the part I’m telling you about, because it’s really far too obvious. I mean, if you’re in need of a solid foundation gardening metaphor please go right ahead and take whatever you need from it, but just know that’s not where I was headed. If  you want to call it a bonus, that’s good with me.)

So we dealt with the solid, practical aspect of stopping the earth drifting way and taking my kitchen with it, and moved on to the nebulous area of planting. I come adrift when it comes to planting. I realise that not all plants thrive in all situations (please, use this one too if you need it), and I’ve collated the relevant facts in my head, as I think a real gardener would: faces east, absolutely bugger all sunshine on that side, not ever, clay soil, very claggy, undulating lawn. And I have no idea what to do with these facts, because now I have to marry them to the very arbitrary likes and dislikes I have formed about the plant world, based on nothing more than whether I like looking at them.

Twelve years ago we rented a flat that had a little garden, and I threw myself into ‘gardening’. I went to garden centres and bought cordylines, and heucheras, and hostas, and watched, sadly, as, almost without exception, they died or were eaten.

Last year, our first in our new house, I limited myself to growing some tomatoes, mindful of this past history, and was overjoyed to find it worked. (Nature! Who knew?) We also built a deck, so we could sit out and drink wine and eat sausages. This also worked, not least in driving out the panic of ‘oh god why have we moved into this house because we can’t even fix it?’ days. A good sausage and a cool drink can do wonders.

But this year, I knew that if I spent the second summer in the garden without attempting to claim it in some way I’d not even have the solace of the deck. And so this is what the garden man said.

He said, “So what you can do is come with me to my nursery and we’ll walk around and look at things and you tell me what you like and I’ll tell you whether or not they’ll work in your garden. No money wasted, and no plants you don’t like.”

And I thought ‘this is the best service ever.’

And I thought ‘I do this with words, so maybe it doesn’t matter if I can’t do it with plants.’

It’s much better this way. I like the garden, and I like being in it, but I don’t want to be Monty Don. Mostly I want to look at pretty things and eat sausages. It’s the same with owning a car – nice to get from here to there, but I really don’t want to get into a boiler suit and take a wrench to it. This is why there are gardeners, and mechanics. They do these things because they’re interested in them, and they’re much better at retaining the specialist knowledge these jobs need, because they’re interested in them, and they have the attention to detail because they’re interested in them.

The way I grew up (fairly bloody poor), you did everything yourself, and absolutely did not pay someone to do things, because that would be a waste of money that could otherwise have bought tins of soup and electricity. Now we’re in the halfway house of having some spare cash, but not mountains of it, the idea of using some of it to get things done, by someone who knows what they’re doing already, is appealing but still feels uncomfortable. Is it a betrayal of our past? Is it profligate? Is it lazy?

In the end we did it. The house falling down thing swung it, to be fair. They came in and built a wall, and some steps, and dug out flower beds, and built a new shed, and we went and bought plants, and it was, if not the miracle experience I expected, much better than bumbling about for months trying to do it myself. And even better, because we simply did not have the money to fill the entire garden with plants I have space to gradually add to it for the next however many years. I do not feel in the slightest bit guilty or lazy for having had help.

I don’t need to be an expert in everything, or even want to do everything. I just need to do the things I’m interested in.

Broken Things

The day before I was due to pack up the car and leave Hay, I went browsing in a little shop I love. I’ve been going in for years, and have bought lots of lovely things. I was very aware of the enormous rucksack on my back, and trying not to break things by spinning round too fast.

So instead I dropped a small ceramic pot and lid straight out of my hands, onto the floor, where the lid snapped cleanly, sharply in two.

broken thing

The nice shop man came up the stairs to see what had happened, and I promised to pay for it, and he said no problem, and I should still look around, and so I did. I had a little cry while I was at it, because of the shock I thought, but then I went down to pay, and started to weep. I cried so much that the nice shop man wondered if he should offer me a cwtch, and I paid, and he wrapped it up, and I continued to cry, and I took the bag from the shop and walked to a bench outside the library, and I continued to cry.

For half an hour.

For half a fucking hour.

I wept on a bench, with my broken thing in the bag next to me.

I’d say I’m not given to weeping but that’s a bit of a massive fib.

This was something else though. This last year has had its fair share of stresses, and my week away was something just for me; the other me that does the being, and noticing, and thinking. Not the me that does the laundry and the wiping and the paying of bills. I would be free of everything but myself for one week. I chose my events, I packed all the shoe types, I mistakenly wiped my playlists off my phone so the car journey wasn’t as fun as it could have been.

Anyway. Like one of those mystical things I don’t have much truck with, all the talks I went to, the books I was drawn to, the people I spoke to, the book I read daily (A.L.Kennedy, On Writing), everything and everyone seemed to be bringing me back to the same things: kindness, generosity, openness. Love.

Not one thing in isolation but all of those things at once. After a year of holding everything together so tightly, every day gave me another hint, a nudge that now was the time to let it go, and open up again.

Yes, I know how it sounds.

But I also know how it feels, and you can’t write anything worth reading while you’re bound up like a golf ball.

What am I writing for anyway? To step into the mind of another person, to transmit my idea of what it’s like to be a walking, breathing, feeling human directly into someone else’s mind. How do I do that? I pretend to be inside the mind of another, made-up person. I try to understand the things they do and why they do them, why some things matter, and others don’t, why, how and what it is like to love, or be rejected, to be lonely, to lose, to win, to survive. But why do I want to do it? Why make this effort? Because in doing that, if we do it well, we’ve said to our reader, “I’m here. I know what it’s like. We’re not alone.”

I’m fending off my own loneliness.

I’m fending off yours.

It’s what all art is an attempt to do. Send out little tendrils of pure human experience, hope that they touch someone else, and make that connection. We feel the same. We love the same. We hurt the same. It’s the best we have, however we feel driven to express it – words, pictures, song. Spending a week opening up that part of me that is capable of attempting this connection to all you other humans was bound to end in tears, if only because it reminded me how lonely it is when you stop trying.

And so I wept. I’d wept the day before over my book. I wept over broken things. I wept later on that same day at Amanda Palmer, singing about art. I wasn’t sad. I was less alone.

Campfires against the dark

The snow came at the weekend, tucked us into winter nicely. And despite the fact that we know it will be cold and wet we cannot resist going out in it, throwing the stuff around, and rolling it into balls of various sizes. One of my favourite sounds is the creak of a good boot compacting freshly laid snow, when all other sounds are being absorbed and muffled. It’s compelling stuff, snow.

And then we come home, and we want a fire to keep us warm, to ease the sting of the cold out of our cheeks and thighs, and just maybe, we think we could stare into the flames, and let our minds wander, let stories rise up and be told the way they would have done a thousand or several thousand years ago.

The flames ward off the dark, you see, but it’s the stories that bind us together, and keep us safe.

You can have that thousand year old experience, if you make the effort to get out there. If you’ve never been to see a gifted storyteller, you have missed something alchemical. It truly makes you understand why travelling minstrels were prized and rewarded so well. It is absolutely nothing like being read to, and it is absolutely nothing like watching a play. It is everything like being taken deep into your own imagination, by someone who knows the way better than you.

I’ve decided to shoehorn ‘seeing more storytelling’ into the do more category of my resolutions, and as I live in London this won’t be as hard as it would be elsewhere. I could do worse than start with the Crick Crack Club, one of the foremost collectors and promoters of storytelling performers. I’ve seen several of their performers over the last few years and loved it every single time, and their what’s on page lists upcoming shows around the country, not just in London. There are other story telling nights around London obviously, including a regular evening at the Torriano in North London, and upcoming events by individual storytellers like Vanessa Woolf, or collaborations like seriouskitchen, who can and do travel further afield. A google will show you the way.

In my googling for this post I came across the Society for Storytellers, and wouldn’t you know it? National Storytelling Week runs from 26th Jan to 2nd Feb. Sometimes you know that the universe is trying to tell you something.


I think the second must really be the first day of the new year. On the first everyone is too busy negotiating hangovers, or visitors, or fractious children who’ve been too long without routine. In Scotland they’re all still languishing with their extra bank holiday but across the border we’re all secretly relieved to get back to normality sooner rather than later.

Are you resoluting? I say I don’t, but I make them every year. Vague notions that rattle around my head, globulous, slippery things that amount to whispering “be better” repeatedly. Why do we consider ourselves to be failing so consistently, so catastrophically, that we try to amend ourselves every year?



This year I’ve decided to focus on what I’m lacking in my life, things I miss, things I would like more of. Tangibly this comes down to more reading, more cinema, more theatre. This past year I have berated myself as worthless for not reading even half the books I would have liked to, and it’s not so much a problem with personality, as having forgotten how to clear out some space for these things.

I am also skint though, as we all are, so I’m having to be creative about it. I do have a fair number of books bought in a frenzy at past Hay Festivals, which could be read, and there are untold numbers of classics available for free on Kindle. I also have a couple of unlistened to audiobooks (the rediscovery of audiobooks was a highlight of last year, and made painting 37 spindles a lot easier). We have a few months left of a cut price lovefilm subscription, and I have friends who will happily lend me dvds. My only stumbling block is theatre, but there’s always the Globe for a fiver, and hopefully the summer season at the National with cheap seats. It’s not impossible to absorb more words and more art, but it is going to take some planning.

The plan then, is to finish a book & watch a movie every week of 2013. It will be harder than it sounds, I know, but here goes.

Henry V, Shakespeare and the metamorphosis of English.

A couple of weeks ago I finally took myself to the Globe. I stood as a groundling, rain jacket tucked under my arm, and waited for Jamie Parker to transport me the the fields of Agincourt.

There is something magical about that theatre. I can’t for the life of me recall why I’ve never been, other than the idiocy of trying to book tickets with other people and not being able to co-ordinate diaries. Perhaps it was serendipitous that my first play there should be Henry V, with its mention of the Wooden O, so obviously the Globe itself when you’re standing in it, and the chorus who exhorts the audience to use their imaginations and project castles, armies, and battlefields onto the limited wooden stage. It’s a play of obvious conspiracy between audience and actors, which of course all theatre is, but all the more exciting when your actors can see you, interact with you, and incite you to follow him into battle (and all he had to do was ask and we would have gone, all of us).

Before that damp Friday evening I’d never seen the play. Never seen the Branagh film, never seen either of the Henry IV’s, and only had a vague idea of Prince Hal as a swaggering sort of fella. Richard II I know inside and out (A level text, plus a transformative performance by Derek Jacobi in Newcastle) so at least I had that on my side. But should you go and see a Shakespeare play if you don’t know it? What if you can’t follow what is going on? Isn’t the language a bit dense?

The misconception that Shakespeare is incoherent comes about because we first come across him at our school desks, wearing scratchy uniforms and dreaming of the boy with the curly hair three school years ahead, who is never going to look at you once let alone twice. You are told that Will is the greatest playwright ever, that his powers of language and storytelling surpass all others. You fight your way through the text, dry as dust on the page, wade through the York notes, with the teacher determined to wring every last inch of meaning from every word.

You stumble, you fall, you fail to undersand.

And this is not your fault.

Because you have to see it.

You have to live through it, the words lifted and given breath by talented actors. It’s their job to interpret for you, to bring feeling, humour and humanity. This is what Shakespeare was all about – he was an actor as well as a writer – and I’m sure he never imagined that anyone would be sitting reading his plays in silence. They were always an interaction for him. And if you have good enough interpreters then those 400 years between the writer and you just melt away, because, honestly, things haven’t changed that much.

Henry V has weather jokes. It has a turn on the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman joke. It has a comedic and touching wooing scene. It has the biggest blunderbuss of all Shakespeare speeches. There are rude jokes (a smutty sense of humour has been part of our culture for centuries).  It has hopelessness on the eve of war, the spirit of the underdog, kingship, undertaken by a mere mortal.

English has changed, obviously. Our rhythms are different, we’ve dropped a pronoun (thou, equivalent to the French ‘tu’), added a few words, lost a few words, but it isn’t a million miles away. (If you want incoherence in your literature have a peep at Chaucer.) Feel what Shakespeare is telling us. Don’t worry about catching every last word, understanding exactly who is who. You don’t need to.

Pay your fiver and take part in the conspiracy.

(Henry V runs until the end of August, and you can still get tickets. And you should, if you can. It’s really very good.)


I finally got around to watching Shame at the weekend.

You’ll notice now that Michael Fassbender is everywhere, but if you’d wanted to know who would be the next big thing, you should have listened to my mate Will. A couple of years ago when trying to convey the essence of the protagonist of his novel Will told me I should think of Michael Fassbender. ‘Who?’ I asked.

We should probably gloss over that exchange.

Shame is a British film, made by artist turned film maker Steve McQueen. Fassbender plays Brandon, who has a carefully planned and orchestrated life, constructed so that he can submit to his sex addiction without too much disturbance. His sister Sissy (played beautifully by Carey Mulligan) barges her way into his flat and his life for who knows how long, distorting his life and routines, and driving him crazy.

They are damaged by the same past (hinted at but never revealed), but have responded in different ways as adults. Brandon is on a knife edge, kept sane only by locking his feelings deep within himself, and losing himself in the meaningless physicality of sex without intimacy, without which he is a time bomb of anger. Sissy craves intimacy, hunts it down dramatically, gives herself to anyone immediately. Where Brandon rages, she weeps, but she has the advantage over him in being able to feel. Through the whole film she was the only one to sport anything of colour -a bright red hat, playfully transferred onto her brother’s head, a symbol that she could, in fact, help him heal, despite the damage they both suffer from.

She opens enough cracks for us to see what is going on behind his facade. The man is in despair, a prisoner of his addiction, his inability to form attachments. Brandon goes on one date with a co-worker, and you sense that he is actually enjoying himself, conversing, trying to connect, but is so unpractised at intimacy that he doesn’t even know how to kiss the woman goodnight. It is one of the saddest things I have seen on film.

When Shame came out, much was made of the sex and nudity it contains, because the natural response to sex and nudity on film is that it will be raunchy, rude or just plain pornographic. That this overshadows everything else is a shame in itself, because there is nothing remotely titillating about the sex in the film. It is all sadness and despair.

For several hours after watching I felt crushed by the experience, yet uplifted, because I’d been in the presence of artists who’d connected me to what it was like for this person to be living with this awful compulsion, that core of emptiness. As hard as it is to watch, it is so rewarding to see something that assumes I can think. In a way, McQueen reminds me of Terence Malick, and I’m full of anticipation for his next project (Twelve Years a Slave), which promises to be just as challenging.

Gird yourself and try to see it. To persuade you, here they both are talking about the film:

McQueen & Fassbender interviewed together on Shame and working together 

(Warning: contains a little bit of a swear.)