Tag Archives: London

London trip (+a reminder)


At the Geffrye Museum of the Home


I’m back from my second London trip – and what a trip it was. On Saturday I came into London to beautiful summery skies and a sense of possibility. The photo above shows where I ate my lunch before heading to be interviewed for the Paperchain Podcast with fellow writer and alumna of the University of Glasgow’s CW PhD Gillian Best (author of The Last Wave). We sat in Fabrique, where you can get cardamom buns, in good strong light and shadow, watching hipsters come and go with their coffees. The podcast featuring us will go up in a couple of months I think, when the second season of the podcast begins (links when that happens, though you can enjoy yourself now with the entirety of season one, and I recommend it!). The Paperchain Podcast is interesting in that each guest has to write a piece exclusively for their interview, based on a prompt from another guest. Gillian had ‘Cake Flamenco’ (provided by the last guest of last season) while I worked from hers – Jeff Goldblum. I did indeed write a story based on the man, myth and legend.


After the interview the day was free – so I met up with C, who was kindly hosting me. We took an easy night of it in her lovely, plant filled flat in North London but at around 11.30pm the news hit of the terror attack at London Bridge. C checked around with her friends, while I didn’t even think to check in with others – sorry if I frightened anyone. We stayed up late, listening, submitting to the scrolling 24 hour news, the mis-reported bits, the vagueness. The night wore into Sunday.


Wincing slightly, I made my way with C through London. Some snapshots of the strange, uplifting things we found:



Snowman House, on Abbey Road (where the studios are)



This clown was just down from Snowman House – don’t be alarmed! He said hello, and was quite cheery. He was sitting outside of a party supply shop, and just down from that, a man was stuffing an improbably number of inflated balloons into his small red car. I wondered briefly if it makes it any lighter. C pointed out it would probably be hard to see properly while driving. We carried on our way, stopping in a Japanese supermarket for snacks for later, and in Tiger, which is one of my favourite ‘everything’ shops. It’s like a cross between Ikea and Woolworths (RIP).  Then it was off to a video interview with Naomi Frisby, of the amazing The Writes of Women blog. The whole blog is great, but especially worth a visit for her monthly roundup of notable articles, interviews and essays by women. Gillian Best was being interviewed too, but separately this time. I for one had a grand time with it, and thought Naomi’s questions were really insightful and incisive. When the interviews go up, I’ll post links here.


After that, Gillian and I wandered around London. The streets were busy, the air a little cooler. We wandered into bookshops, had dinner with C, and then the three of us headed for The Barley Mow, a Shoreditch pub, for the Listen Softly London event. We heard readings from poets who explored urban landscapes, bad relationships, the language of flowers, and poignant thoughts of the stars that are overhead always through even city light pollution.

A print bought at the Moomin shop


On Monday I had the day to myself before the flight home, so I wandered London, going into bookshops, an all-gluten-free bakery called beyond bread, and the Moomin shop (it was everything I hoped for) and meeting with my friend J, before almost missing my flight home after the train to Stansted was stopped (a fire alarm at the airport) and my bags were double searched (a misplaced aerosol can) and my bag burst. But I made it!


Today the rain is falling steadily and I have work to catch up on. What a weekend to have lived through. Thanks to everyone who hosted me, palled about, offered me an interview, answered my bookish queries, bought my novel, came to hear me read and generally made this trip so great.


Lastly – a reminder in case you’ve missed it or not entered yet, Freight is giving away two copies of Flesh of the Peach on Goodreads. You have until the 13th to enter (it’s free and very straightforward). The giveaway is open to residents of the UK, Canada, US and Australia. If you’re not a fan of risk and would like to read it, the novel is available on Book Depository for a tenner with free shipping.



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Endless Reads Review: NW by Zadie Smith



In the midst of moving out of our flat and into our friend A’s place, I sit in a chaos of belongings, writing this review. It seems fitting for this novel – the idea of fragments strewn everywhere, or neat in bags, waiting to be zipped up to some conclusion.


I first began NW on a sleeper train to London, having got the book at its first availability at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August last year. My copy is signed by Smith, and I wrote about the talk she delivered here. Why the long wait between then and now? I lent the book to G, in London and two weeks ago we met up in Glasgow and she gave it back to me. It is a well-traveled object.


As for the book itself, I started back mid-stream, finding that I could remember much of what had happened to the characters. The multitude was engaging and fresh. One of Smith’s great skills is dialogue, and in fact I felt that this whole thing could be made into a radio play quite easily. Londoner phrases I’d never heard and some I knew from my friends, like to ‘bell you’ for phone, ‘gotta chip’ for have to leave now, sprung out. The differences in accents and grammar across different social classes and immigrant groups were also smartly recorded and subtly held up to the reader’s eye, though I have to admit I didn’t get it all – London being its own country, threaded and intersected in complex ways by all these Englishes. Smith, however, gets it.


Or almost all: The scenes with Annie, the ballet dancer aristocratic junkie stood out as a little tin thread amongst the seamlessness of the whole. She sounded like someone who only existed in a play, and only then a monologue, and only then a monologue at some basement showing during the Edinburgh festival, put on to an audience of three.


But that was the only off part about dialogue, at least, as far as it was apparent to a non-Londoner like me. There was maybe too much of it, but since it was so good, and since Smith’s writing doesn’t favour scenic descriptions (leaving the city ‘grey’ to me, a lot of the time – a system of tube stops and street names) it added a vividness that would otherwise have been missing.


So I swooped through this book, once I had it again, and was greatly enjoying it. Until the din of voices calmed to that of predominantly a single character, Natasha Blake. Who was in her own right not as interesting as I’d have hoped. A character can be unlikeable as anything, or as charmingly good as Bit Stone in Arcadia. But to be boring is a crime. She was dully married, dully seeking affairs online, dully wrecked everything, wondered if she had a self and felt dryly at a loss when the answer she judged was no. The last part of the novel, in which she walks away from all devastation and ‘becomes walking’, and brushes with a suicidal impulse, was also dull. It felt like the writer taking the plot out for one last walk before bed. I know that impulse myself, but if it had been new, or if Smith had been able to make the London Blake travels through come alive, then I would have devoured it like I had the rest.


Instead I read to read, to be done. There was a lot to love and admire in this – the effortless weaving of so many voices, the clever scattered pieces here and there – but in the end NW was not enough of a destination, too much a cul-de-sac street.

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Working and blurring

goddess iris


This statue is of the Ancient Greek Goddess Iris. Iris was the messenger of the gods, and linked the heavens and the earth – she was also the goddess of the rainbow. I love how the sculptor carved her dress as if rippling in the winds. And how this creation, even after hundreds of years and lacking a head, limbs or wings (she is often depicted as a winged figure), is still elegant and powerful, suggestive of great speeds –


And so I’m using the image as motivator. January has been a slow, creeping month in terms of writing. I have been tackling a long essay – which I will talk about more later if and when it is accepted where I hope it will be – and also on Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts. Editing is a painstaking business sometimes. A few hundred words here or there. A handful of pages. Keep going! Keep chipping at it until the text ripples with motion but still has weight. My reading has slowed as I attempt Beckett’s Molloy, which itself requires a patience, as if reading occurs with my head underwater, and I must resurface, catch my breath. Even thinking of its flash-fiction like intensity makes me take big gulps of air.


I put great spaces in everything. I take my time, picking over the surface. But I’m happy doing so. Focused, even if frustrated.


What are you tackling? What keeps you on a steady keel?


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More of London, snow

Le Grande Foyles

Le Grande Foyles


Some fragments – a journey is never really complete when retold.


But here they are, gathered a bit.


A trip to London wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of its fine bookshops, and Foyles was the perfect place for a wander on a gnawing cold day. I picked up Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet, her essays/pieces on love in Classical and other literatures, but didn’t buy it then. I’m blessed at the moment with an abundance of books to read. Some old – The Twelve Chairs, which I mentioned a while back, The Polyglots by William Gerhardie, kindly sent by Melville House Publishing when I was stricken with a chest cold – and some new –Errantry by Elizabeth Hand is burning in my TBR pile.


The dim unheated grandeur of Westminster Hall

The dim unheated grandeur of Westminster Hall


On our third day, D and I went to the UK Parliament, and were lucky enough to be admitted to watch Question Time, that day on the subject of Education. We saw Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education (in the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government), snidely and blandly shoot down questions from the opposition and obsequiously respond to the ‘aren’t we great?’ questions from his own side. Education is a devolved issue – meaning that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for how the system is run here, so it was quite hard to care too much about school district issues South of the border.


Later on, the big hitters appeared. PM David Cameron made a statement on the Algeria hostage situation, and Ed Milliband, opposition leader, said a few things too. I played ‘spot the politician I recognise’ which was a fairly short game, sadly. Little of any real heft was said, but when I read the newspapers later and found it interesting to see the various interpretations of the puff. Overall, I was very glad to have gone, but the pomp and ceremony does not feel like it belongs to me. The divisions between the nations are there, and though we have a lot in common, I will always hope for Scotland to go its own way. Come the 2014 referendum or later.


tower of london


This, if you are unfamiliar with London, the famous Tower of-. We passed it every day before crossing Tower Bridge, but never went in. There was an element of resistance in this – in both our minds, growing up, the tower of London had been – well – a tower. Tall and menacing, with rooks circling the heights, dank cells lining the circular walls. I suppose the Shard filled that imaginative space. You can see it jutting in the background of the picture.


regents canal 1


This is Regent’s Canal where it runs through Shoreditch. D and I went walking along it with London transplant, G. Later we would spend the day inside a cosy pub with her and C (who I’ve also talked about before), to hide from hours of snowfall. I took a fair number of pictures here, the unnatural beauty (I almost said natural, as if anything in London is natural) of the canal highlighted by the wooly skies and frosting of snow. But I’ll save those for another day.


The last image I’d like to leave you with is of the English countryside seen from the train North. At times we had white-out conditions, something I have not seen much of, and so still seems magical. A ghosting landscape, seen in passing and without name. That’s what I like about traveling, when you move so fast you cannot commit much to memory, just the flittery glimpses. The other side of that is when you stay so long in a place that every paving stone is mapped out – but that’s Edinburgh, for me. More pictures of that city when the cold and dark release their grip.


england in the snow 2




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Back from the South

sunny snow day London


D and I have returned from a Christmas present trip to London. London snowbound and prettier for it, but harder to get around. In fact, one day we spent most of our time in a pub in Hoxton with friends, watching the snow blanket the streets. I’m still weary from our long train journey back up, and from walking on the icy streets, and seeing so much and so much. Lots of photos to share, so this will probably be a two parter. The first thing we did after dropping off our bag was to head to the familiar but wonderful British Museum to see all the lovely bought, looted, relics of Empires old and modern:


The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone


The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon

The Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon


Ancient Egyptian Ram God resting his head on a king

Ancient Egyptian Ram God resting his head on a king


Beyond the Museum, D and I wandered the cold streets taking in the distinctive architecture:


The colourfully named The Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub

The colourfully named The Hung, Drawn and Quartered Pub



A street south of the river, with the ghostly Shard Building above

A street south of the river, with the ghostly Shard Building above



The Shard at night

The Shard at night


One of the running discussions of our trip was the Shard building itself, which we saw every morning and every evening as we walked back to our hotel. It’s probably been said elsewhere, but whoever designed that building was clearly going for ‘evil megacorp lair and/or inter-dimensional space portal’. It looms, it glows malevolently at the heavens.


But aside from awe-inspiring solitary buildings, the city as a whole impresses upon the viewer with its hard, dull edge. It’s a city worn into shape over hundreds and hundreds of years. Londinium. In the right light, it itself glows in its own gloom.


Northwards across the Thames, with the Tower of London to the right

Northwards across the Thames, with the Tower of London to the right


More to follow, when I’ve recovered a little more.



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Endless reads review: Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

Nights at the Circus


Suitably grainy I hope, for this book – the story of end-of-the-19th-century aerialiste Sophie Fevvers, the ‘Cockney Venus’ and a woman apparently endowed with six-foot wings. A freak or a con artist – Jack Walser, all-American reporter, is out to uncover the sordid truth. Call it ‘Interview with the Valkyrie’. Nights at the Circus was recently named best ever winner of the James Tait Award – the oldest literary prize in the UK. The book came out in 1984, making it slightly younger than me, but the prose has an exuberant, antique style that will be familiar to you if you’ve ever read The Bloody Chamber (my review on Goodreads here).


It can be a little irritating at first to slip on Carter’s cloak of furs and whalebone – all those adverbs, and exclamation marks, and the word ‘surmise’ every few pages or so. She breaks about every writing rule on any of the fine puritan lists there are out there. She throws big words at you like confetti, allusions to philosophy and politics and feminism and theories of language bubble up through the velvet soup.


So too, do the biases of empire (this is very much a book of old empire, of the magic of acquisition, manor-houses, the dreamy, rotten, lost glamour of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg, the Shamanic Siberian wastes of a richly English imagination. Native Americans are alluded to as scalp-stealing barbarians. People of Mongolian heritage and Chinese-made automata alike are ‘inscrutable’. The Kentucky Colonel ringmaster is straight out a child’s colouring book of stereotypes.


But for all these faults, this is one of those books that attempts to both tell a story and truly bewitch you. Invites you in and will, if you let it, sweep you into a magical world that might just be frayed tapestry and candlelight and incense – but with the curtains shut tight, and your eyes locked in to the rhythm, it seems churlish to reject it altogether. Nights at the Circus is, in this way, a perfect book for Winter, for reading over hot chocolate, as the wind howls or the snow falls, and midnight strikes three times in one night, just for you.



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The London writeup part three

Onwards, to Camden!




I’d tired myself out walking, so thought I’d give a rest to my legs and take the way of the future – the underground!



Camden at lunchtime was colourful and bustled with hungry young people. The markets on Inverness St stuffed with hundreds of tee shirts printed with the ubiquitous ‘Keep calm do X’ slogans, Camden High Street lined with knock off headphones and heart shaped sunglasses.




Unfortunately, I was going the wrong way – I had taken the wrong spoke of the roads that cross the canal. An easy thing to do, my friend G later told me. Camden is tricky if you don’t know the lay of the streets.




But if I hadn’t got lost, I wouldn’t have seen how lovely it was in the sunshine.




Eventually I turned around, and worked out where I was to meet my agent. After a coffee underneath an overhead tube line (possibly a bad idea, shaking me every few minutes) and another read of NW, this time actually in an NW postal code area, I headed to the pub for our meeting.




And what news did I hear there? Well, the future for Kilea is uncertain. Drea is still supporting it, and had some suggestions. I am so grateful to her for her dedication and hard work with my quiet literary novel. It slinks like seagull above the clouds, keeering. Cross your fingers that one day it will find the right place to roost.


However! Progress with the second novel, Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts is underway, with two extracts of it out or forthcoming in online literary journals, and submissions planned later, when more work has been done on it. That shall be the effort of the next few months – editing the novel, deepening it, firming it up. The best sort of hard work, and with Drea’s support (and that of D, my first reader),  I hope to produce something that will be watertight and compelling, that will, crucially, find its way into the wider world.


I feel touched too to have readers, here, who are following my progress. It’s been a long year of hoping and struggling along, and nothing is ever certain. Some days are spent burrowing down into the work, others in combing my emails for news, for some breakthrough. Your comments are like fairy lights, warming in the dark.


I know other writers are right now, at various stages in their careers, chipping away at the same coalface. Pushing their skills forward, trying to be ambitious in their writing, though their life circumstances are not always the most favourable for fostering imaginary worlds or the careful construction of sentences. For art, for storytelling.


Solidarity has helped me along. Excellent role models are everywhere. You know who you are, and that you have my admiration, my love for your words and your painstaking skill with them, and your honesty and necessary lies that illuminate the truth.


And to the rest of my day in London? Spent in meeting friends – fellow writers, storytellers too: C, G and J, in that order. A trip to the Barbican building with C, to stare out at the fountains in the lowering dark, discussing C’s adventures past and present. Out for Vietnamese food in Shoreditch with G, who is fighting the man and planning her novel, which I’ve had the privilege of reading in early draft – when things happen there, I shall direct you to her site, with her permission.  A drink of juice in a pub with J, to whom strange and unbelievable things happen as a matter of course.


And then to the tube station, and then to Euston, and the sleeper. My tiny berth with only me in it (the other passenger lost somewhere in the big city), and me falling into an exhausted semi-sleep, dreaming my way North again.



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