Friday 27 September 2013


My third blogpost for Gladstone's Library,  written a week back now. 

Almost a fortnight now since Gladfest, and a chance to settle into a working rhythm. After a few days of prowling about like a re-homed cat, trying out this chair, and that, I settled at a desk on the Reading Room balcony and have been based there ever since, surrounded on three sides by Gladstone’s own books, and in front of me, an inspiring view to the balcony beyond, the stone-mullioned windows.  Just to my right is the huge bay window at the end of the building, its wonderful detail.
       Every now and then, as the day breaks through my fictitious world and I surface into this beautiful place, I will get up and stretch, move a few feet, (steady on now!) pull a book off the shelf, and read a little. Sometimes, the book will hold scribblings by the great man himself, comments, squiggles in the margin, all no doubt meaning something to him should he return to the book at a later date. He adds his own indexes at the back, and you wouldn’t do that unless you intended to return, would you? Sometimes, I find he has seduced me away from my work for longer that I intended, but I don’t mind. Time here is precious as much for what it holds as for how long it is.
      I suspect I would have liked Gladstone hugely. I would have enjoyed the company of the man who could read a German theology book in beautiful, strong German typescript -  and write a single word - Humbug - at the top of a page. I found that on one of my first days here, and it set the tone rather well, brought a smile of pleasure. 

 All the books hold their own intrinsic beauty - but  right behind me are three of my favourites:  the three volumes of The Works of William Blake, Poetic Symbolic and Critical, edited by by Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats. The books were published in 1893, and presented to Gladstone the same year by the editors - and come complete with inscription, as so many books do in this library. The inscription, flyleaf, volume one, reads thus:

      The Rt Hon W E Gladstone
Edwin J Ellis.
(P.S. My fellow worker being in Ireland at the moment is not able to sign this with me.)

Have you heard of Edwin J Ellis? No, me neither, so I looked him up. He seems to have disappeared from consciousness, apart from his collaboration with Yeats on these Blake books - and to see his autograph made me sad. So I searched about a bit, and found references to Ellis as a painter, a poet, novelist, described as ‘erratic’ and a ‘failure’. OK, so Edwin was fairly normal then! 
          I carried on looking for Edwin, and found one of his poems - The Land of Many Names - with its passing reference to opium... and I wonder. 
Isn’t it nice to breathe a little life back into writers? Who knows, maybe one day, people might  be kind enough to do it for this erratic one, long after she is gone.

          The first verse alone is rather beautiful, Edwin. Thanks for writing it. The rest... of its time, I suspect. But that first verse is a keeper.  

The Land of Many Names

There is a place where no surprise
is felt at beauty, or true love tried.
Hate cannot find the gate, nor pride.
There do the spring birds learn to sing
and open their hearts as wide
                                                 as the eyes
of the meadows that wake in spring. 

There the clouds of the golden skies
Find their ruby. The white foam free
of the wave lives there in her maiden glee,
and no hand touches her white side, wild.
The winds cannot hold what they see,
                                                             for she flies
like dreams from a waking child.

Dead lovers there, from the days of Troy,
attain the reward our hearts shall keep,
believing for them in twilight sleep,
the while, as maids at a child-birth wait,
we stay till they call us to peep
                                                  at their joy,
and find in their fate, our fate.

There, while wind through the garden sings
gently and low in the long sunbeams,
they sleep between summer and trees and streams,
they love through their sleep from hour to hour,
in beautiful crimson dreams
                                               like the wings
of the peace-giving poppy flower.

The watchman called it a Land of Rest,
the lonely, a Land of Love, they tell, 
the weary, Eden, whence Adam fell.
But the old who wander the downward slope
deem it Youth, knowing well, 
the Land of Eternal Hope. 

From The Bookman, September, 1894 

Edwin John Ellis was born in 1848, the son of Dr Alexander John Ellis, a Scottish linguist and natural scientist. When in his late teens, Edwin Ellis met John Butler Yeats at Heatherley's art school and the two became good friends, sharing a studio. With John Trivett Nettleship and Sidney Hall the two formed 'The Brotherhood', an informal group of artists working under the influence of William Blake. Along with William Butler Yeats, John Butler Yeats' son, Ellis edited a three-volume edition of The works of William Blake, poetic, symbolic and critical, which was published in 1893. His association with W.B. Yeats also extended to their participation in the Rhymers' Club, with Ellis contributing four poems to The Book of the Rhymers' Club (1892) and six to The Second Book of the Rhymers' Club (1894). He also published several volumes of poetry, including Fate in Arcadia (1892) and Seen in Three Days (1893); the novel The Man of Seven Offers (1895); and the verse drama Sancan the Bard (1895), which served as partial inspiration for Yeats' The King's Threshold (1904). Books illustrated by Ellis include Shakespeare's sonnets, nursery rhymes compiled by his father, and his own works. Ellis died in 1916 at Seeheim, Germany, the birthplace of his wife.

Thursday 19 September 2013

PELT AND OTHER STORIES by Catherine McNamara

I am delighted to welcome Catherine McNamara to the blog, with her short story collection 'Pelt'.  Over to you, me dear!

I had a gallery in Africa. It was tiny. As big as a garage no more. With Nigerian sculptures and Kuba cloth and silver jewellery from Ethiopia. It was a fun thing – I’m no fine arts graduate – and I confess I overpriced the sculptures I liked most so I could pay them off and make them mine.
I earned some money, which went out the window to buy more sculptures, cloth and jewellery, but I was queen of my art garage, looking out of my little window onto the street, with a huge rusted ship’s anchor parked on the hot concrete outside. On rough nights at the bar we ran next door I used to lay out a rug from Mali and fall asleep.
Many years later I came back to Europe (I live in Italy) and found I was writing story after story set in Ghana where I had lived. A pregnant Ghanaian woman tries to keep her German lover when his estranged wife comes to town. A failed doctor comes home to see his mother treat his dying step-sister with disgust. A village boy is aroused by classy French photographs. Even a sex worker – poor Janet in ‘Janet and the Angry Trees’ – is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents!
What to do? I’m not an African (just the mother of one) and most of the stories are set along the seams between worlds, between ‘the world of tin and the world of glass’ (‘Infection’, Pelt and Other Stories). They speak of the cross-over between modern African and European cultures, the long arm of historical exploitation and the residue from this in terms of migration, displacement, new structures of exploitation. Young men with brittle prospects. Young women with a savvy knowledge of the world who might do unsavoury things.
How to write of all of this without being a crafty traveller, a further exploiter of a continent that is not yours? 
Among the first questions I knew I would be asked, this is the one that makes me feel a little queasy. I know I can talk all I want about the rusty ship’s anchor outside my shop and the way the doctor never came when I was having my baby (getting oily palm nut soup after birth wasn’t my idea of champagne but the plantain afterwards was good), but I remain a suburban chick from Sydney who grew up on The Monkees and Gilligan’s Island. I can try, I can borrow, I can mimic. It’s a little scary. What I do know is that my efforts in telling a tale from the interior land of someone else’s nation – even if I called it home – must transcend place and nail the idea of story on the head. 
Tricky Vanessa has also asked me to provide you readers with a treat. Vanessa has asked that I think of a scene within the book, and think of a painter who could possibly paint it. Well, Vanessa doesn’t know that I used to run a gallery, that my walls are crammed with paintings and masks, and that I have been walking about the house for a good while now trying to connect my stories to my d├ęcor. It is driving me nuts. But here goes.

There is a swimming pool scene. It is rather saucy but I would love it explained with David Hockney flatness, although I would ask a Ghanaian painter friend (Kofi Agorsor) to do the deed. A young pregnant Ghanaian woman is breast-stroking down the pool towards the palms. There, with his big feet and his printed drawstring trousers, is her German lover Rolfe, who is canoodling with his estranged wife Karina, come to town to reclaim her man. The swimming girl is like a big swollen frog jerking in the water, insecure and embarrassed, approaching the Europeans. I can see Rolfe’s very big feet, sketched with Lucian Freud abandon. 

(Note from V: Will you look at this guy's work... isn't it fab?

Lust and dirt from a world of places

Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s discarded wife. A sex worker is enlisted to care for her Italian lover’s elderly parents. Hit by a car in Brussels, a young woman returns to her doctor boyfriend. And in Berlin, Celeste visits her suicidal brother Ray and his partner for the very last time.
Pelt and Other Stories lingers on the cusp between Europe and Africa, between ancient sentiments and modern disquiet.

Thanks so much for having me Vanessa and good luck with your new project!
‘Pelt and Other Stories’ may be ordered directly from the Indigo Dreams Bookshop, or on Amazon or from the Book Depository. Or from Waterstones or your local independent bookshop.

Catherine McNamara grew up in Sydney and has lived in France, Italy, Belgium, Somalia and Ghana.  Her collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’, semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize, was published in September 2013. Her stories have been published in Wasafiri, Short Fiction, ‘Wild Cards’ a Virago Anthology, A Tale of Three Cities, Tears in the Fence, The View from Here, Pretext and Ether Books.

Thursday 12 September 2013


Friday 6th - Sunday 8th September 2013

The Gladfest buzz started in the middle of last week, when things began to happen not just behind the scenes, but in front. The arrival of two marquees for the lawns in front of the Library, teams of men to erect them. Tantalising... what was going to happen in those? A gardener hard at work in the shape of Jean, visiting Chaplain, and her intrepid voyage of discovery, uprooting and replanting an overgrown rockery and flowerbed. (I am convinced there is a layer  of metaphor below that last sentence. However, the duties of Writer in Residence should include a period of gardening - for no reason other than this: I discovered in my paltry hour or so helping out, that it is rather brilliant for cracking previously insurmountable problems with the oeuvre.) 

On Friday, the Library doors were flung open in more ways than one, and the invasion of the chairs began. The arrival of a stage borrowed from the primary school. Sound system. Lighting. And if anyone was thinking this was an ‘exclusive’ event in all senses of the word, the frequent signs exhorting visitors not only to queue here, but also to tweet @gladlib and #gladfest,  to facebook, and to instagram  photos and comments soon put an end to that.  (Is ‘to instagram’ a verb? Note to self, look that up.) Other signs that something was about to happen: more trays of glasses than normal in the Gladstone Room, bottles of Hendrick’s gin, slices of cucumber and bowls of ice cubes. The arrival of taxi after taxi, the trundle of suitcases on the path. The beehive-like hum in the kitchen. 

Held breath. Would it go well? The first literary festival at Gladstone’s Library.  

Friday, 6.00 pm. Lift-off, and I can tell you that elderflower goes very nicely with Hendrick’s and tonic. The Hendrick’s is thanks to the presence of the wonderful force that is Damian Barr, and it helped a great welcome party get under way for everyone who wished to come, whether writer or non writer, resident or non-resident, staff member or not. 
       Later, in the Theology Room (Actually, in the Library, for those who don’t know) Damian was interviewed by Peter Frances about his wonderful, funny, poignant memoir, Maggie and Me (Bloomsbury). (Yes, I know that should be ‘and I’. However, the narrator is the boy, growing up in Glasgow in the reign of Thatcher, and this title works stupendously well. That was to curtail any pedantry.) Looking back, this event, warm, generous, interesting, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking, set the tone superbly for the whole weekend. 

By Saturday lunchtime, if anyone didn’t know what bibliotherapy was before, they did now.  Ella Berthoud, resplendent in white coat and stethoscope, bibliotherapist extraordinaire (she might even have invented the word...)  let a packed audience in on a diagnosis session, with Mr Barr acting as patient. How fascinating - an analysis of reading habits going back to childhood, likes and dislikes, and reading ‘ailments’ (oh I have so many of those...) culminating in a prescription - a list of guess what - more novels to read as a cure! But novels that the patient, well-read as he is, had not yet read. Ella, whose terrific book The Novel Cure (Canongate)has just been published to great acclaim, was inundated with requests for her ‘surgery’ sessions over the weekend, and was soon sold out. 

These hallowed corridors were filled with people, young and old(er). The dining room overflowed with people grabbing coffees and snacks between events. Some started to relax in the Gladstone Room with the paper then realised there was something more interesting happening, and rushed out to catch whatever it was - including the poetry slam. 
           Leah Edge and Jeanette Wooden from The Reader Organisation ran ‘Make Friends With A Book!’ for children aged between 6 and 10 twice, such was the demand. And Andrew Tate, Senior Lecturer at Lancaster, had the Theology Room spellbound for his talk on Twenty-First Century Gospels - Jesus in Contemporary Fiction. Pullman, Crace, Alderman, Beard, Toibin... (I loved Jim Crace’s Quarantine. I didn’t love Pullman’s Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, but there you are. Chacun a son gout.) 

Waterstones had set up a pop-up store, and was doing a roaring trade, by this point. Books were bought. Books were browsed. Books were signed. The marquees were home to craft stalls, to food stalls. 

Sarah Perry’s lecture, Gladstone, Tennyson, Hallam, was a mesmerising exploration of Victorian friendship, and if there wasn’t an audience member who didn’t mourn the loss of such friendships when she had finished, I’d be surprised. Conversations flowed, afterwards, over gin, wine, coffee. Even on facebook!
         Theatre, radio and television script-writer Shelley Silas’s Scriptwriting workshop was a sell-out. Crime writer Martin Edwards and his cast of thespians, acting out a Victorian crime for the audience to hone their skills as detectives, was a hoot. 
          Stella Duffy’s sparkling talk Wearing Many Hats, left us all inspired, moved, fizzing with energy! (Not easy for a lazy chair-loving animal like moi...) Deborah Wynne, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at Chester, spoke about the history of Browns of Chester. Performance poet Martin Daws led an interactive poetry workshop for young people. And  Emma Rees, Senior Lecturer in English at Chester - a packed audience hung on her every word as she explored the issue of talking about the female body in Western culture. 

I will have such wonderful memories of this weekend, and am full of gratitude that it took place during my residency. (Yes, I had an event too, but that’s not the point!) It was very special to be able to spend time with other writers here, two of whom had also been writers in residence, and were so delighted to be back ‘home’. Stella Duffy, Sarah Perry. And when people ask, ‘What was your favourite event?’ I won’t be able to answer. 
        People say Gladstone’s Library feeds you, in many many ways, and that is truer than I can explain. Maybe then, a better question is what fed me the most, as well as giving me pure enjoyment?  To which the answer is, Don Cupitt’s event, in conversation with Peter Francis. Sara Perry’s lecture, as it turned out to have a direct bearing on my novel-in-progress. And then, Wendy Cope’s reading, with Lachlan Mackinnon, for different reasons.

So why the silly title, Breakfast with Wendy Cope, which sounds as if it could be a poem by the lady herself? Gladfest was, as I said above, non-exclusive. Open to all. Something of interest for all. And all came. I met such terrific people, had such great natters over snatched coffees. I spent time with writers, published and not yet.  I also spent time with writers who are far far more experienced than I am or will ever be, probably. There is no Green Room, separating the ‘greats’ from the merely ‘good’ and the ‘hoping to be goods’.  At Gladfest, the writers on the stage do not scuttle away after their events, as if they and the rest can not mix, oil and water. 

They mix at Gladfest. It makes quite a good cocktail, actually - Hendrick’s take note. I did have breakfast with Wendy Cope, and I’m not going to tell you what she ate. So there. 

Gladfest was terrific. Congratulations and thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make it so. I am awarding it, and all of you, a medal which looks a little like an exclamation mark. 


(This is the text of my third blog post for Gladstone's Library.)

And finally.

I breakfasted with Wendy Cope - 
How ever did I dare?

I dared because right next to her
there was a vacant chair. 

I breakfasted with Wendy Cope 
on toast, and jam, and tea.

I’m wondering now how Wendy coped
when sitting next to me.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

DOT DOT DOT...a game of digital consequences...Part II

And here we go - the second para in the terrific Dot dot dot, New Writing South's buzzy brainchild of a crowd sourced  story, kicked off by who else, Peter James. You can hear him read his opening para here:

and here's the second!

Dot dot dot...II

Right now, Jonas had to hide. 

Vermillion day-glo skin-tight shorts and gold lame vest weren’t Jonas’s usual attire, but this was Brighton Pride, the city’s most colourful event, and where better to hide than in a crowd? 

Even better, a parade. He let himself be hugged, kissed, he even sang. He let himself be swept along the sea front by the mass, closer and closer to the old West Pier, where, he knew, whoever had written him that anon email would be waiting.

Pics from here:

Tuesday 3 September 2013

A week learning Welsh at Gladstone's Library

This is the text of my first blog post for Gladstone's Library. 

A week learning Welsh

Not content with a whole month in this lovely place, I decided to have a week here busily engaged in learning Welsh, before my residency officially began. Thus it was that the intrepid Mr Gebbie and I joined eight other would-be Welsh speakers on Monday 25th August for a week packed to busting with lessons, games and exercises.  Our tutor was to be Julie Brake, Senior Lecturer in Welsh at Glyndwr University. The details of the course can be found here:

A varied bunch we were too.  At one end of the spectrum were those who knew some Welsh, perhaps those who had spoken Welsh as children, and at the other end, those who had had no exposure to the language at all. Ages ranged from (I’m guessing here...) mid- thirties to mid-eighties. 

I fitted somewhere in the middle on most counts. I have Welsh parents and grandparents, and my elders would often drop into Welsh when I was around - I can’t think why. I was at school in Dolgellau for five years from 13 to 18 - formative years - and every Tuesday, morning assembly was conducted in Welsh. We sang Welsh hymns and recited prayers in Welsh. Trouble was, those who didn’t understand Welsh were never told what the words meant... what a missed trick.  The intrepid Mr Gebbie also has Welsh grandparents. It’s our shared heritage.

Julie Brake is simply a gem of a teacher - focussed, engaging and not unwilling to make us work hard! And all with more than a sprinkling of humour. We were incredibly lucky. This was a very practical experience. Our journey focussed on spoken Welsh, and the grammar behind it for those who wanted to know. We worked together in the tutorials for eight and a half-hours per day, between 9.30 am and 9.00 at night, except for Thursday, when we had a much-needed afternoon off.  Julie took us all from 0 to 60 (metaphorically speaking)  in those five and a half days - we who struggled to say our names on  day one (Vanessa ydw i) were soon happily exploring the mysteries of soft and nasal mutation.  We who knew very little if anything were soon tackling a group translation of the history of St David (Dewi Sant).  We who had struggled to say ‘It’s sunny today’ (Mae hi’n heulog heddiw) on day one soon found ourselves telling each other simple stories, using not just the present tense but past and future. On Day six we introduced ourselves as different characters with amazingly inventive backgrounds. And finally, we were brave enough to ask for the words of both Sospan Fach and the other more beautiful national anthem of Wales, and sing! 

Mr Gebbie and I had such a good week. It was worth every penny, and more. Excellent company, unforgettable surroundings, and everyone had a strong sense of achievement at the end. 

It was a real boon to be here, to find my feet in the place I will be living for the next month. I waved goodbye to Mr Gebbie last Sunday, on his way to Chester railway station and the train back to Sussex, and after he’d gone I padded round Gladstone’s Library feeling excited, not a little daunted, and oddly, rather proprietorial. I wonder what ‘proprietorial’  is, in Welsh?

Next year, I hear they are doing Hebrew...

(I hope the Welsh is correct. If not, blame my retention skills...)