Category Archives: Writing

Derek Jarman’s notebooks

I’ve fallen in love… with a notebook…

For years, I’ve been fascinated by the journals, notebooks and commonplace books of the creative and the curious – it’s being able to see the inner steps and vacillations, as worked out in that age-old format, pen and paper. Yesterday I stumbled across the latest publication of Derek Jarman’s notebooks, available from Thames & Hudson in regular and deluxe versions (choose your damage accordingly).

JarmanSketchbooks2_26024 JarmanSketchbooks1_26023Images via

This short trailer takes a closer look at Jarman’s original notebooks, filled with drawings, sketches, pasted images, pressed flowers, scribbles and poetry. It’s stunning, so addictive, and makes you want to grab the nearest notebook and start writing. Now.


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Filed under Creative, Writing

How to survive a long distance relationship

For two years, the Chap and I stuck out a transatlantic relationship. I was on a fellowship in America, he was heading up the growth of a charity in London. Combatting five hours time difference and hundreds of watery, whale-filled miles apart, we got pretty good at coaxing love out of little. And though it wasn’t all tiddly pom, I think in some ways the two years struggling helped answer some of those questions that always come as a new relationship begins to get serious. (And here’s to five years, and counting.)

So I present for you my tips, to keep the “lurve” alive:

Plan out when you want to see each other and stick to it. Share the cost of travel if you can. You don’t want to be arguing about money when you’re only seeing each other four times a year do you?? Talk openly about the costs, practicalities and timings involved with seeing each other.

Skype, call, text, write – communicate! Set up a time to talk that suits you both – particularly important when time zones are involved – and don’t muck this up. If you’re running late, spend that extra money on sending a text to the other side of the world because sitting around waiting for the Skype bell to chime completely sours the eventual appearance of your beloved’s head.

Do the things you would normally do together, together. Like watching a film simultaneously while you stay on the phone (One-two-three-press play. I actually know people who have made this work). Have a glass of wine and pretend you’re on a date. Eat dinner. Exercise (ok maybe not). Talk about the intimate things, even if you don’t actually want to do it on Skype.

Call out of the blue sometimes. Or send an email when you know they’ll be waking up. Surprise them.

Think of each other. Constantly. Don’t worry about ‘building up expectations’. Just throw yourself into the waiting. They may not be the perfect person, but after four months apart, you probably don’t give a damn about their flaws.

Have a blog each. This may sound weird, but seeing your loved one’s activities on a blog like tumblr can somehow stand in for them showing you things. So if images are your thing, take photographs and post them, or share pictures you like. Put up links, comment on their posts. No one need know that you’re creating something for an exclusive readership of one.

Get a decent internet connection. No excuses. Skype can be a saviour of the long distance relationship, but it has gremlins at the best of times. It’s best if the person on the screen actually resembles your girlfriend, and not a green dalek.

Send care packages. Everything can be cheap and light. They don’t have to mean anything special, but getting an unexpected parcel is better than Christmas. Especially when it smells of the right person. And contains Guardian magazines from the last two months. And pork scratchings.

Once you meet up, travel somewhere new. It can be nice to see where your other half is living day-to-day, but it might be that much more memorable if you get out of town. This way you don’t have to sound like a boring tour guide or risk bombarding your visiting partner with all your new friends and acquaintances so that he has to go hoarse explaining who he is and what he’s doing there. Because in a long distance relationship, there’s two extra elements involved – the places you both are – and it’s easy when you then turn up to feel like a third wheel in someone else’s world.

Enjoy the separation! “Longing, they say, because the heart is full of endless distances”, wrote the poet Robert Hass. Longing makes you feel more intensely about someone. It can even prolong that honeymoon feeling for much longer than you would if you’d just shacked up immediately. Use the feeling to write angsty things in your diary, pour out your emotions in a letter or a song, and then laugh (and forget) about it when you’re reunited.

So – and this is really the clincher – make sure you will be reunited. It’s a rare relationship that can survive unending separation, or separation without hope of eventual union. Maybe there’s a time limit on your travels or your study abroad, or the work placement will allow both of you to move together, eventually. But without that crucial bit of hope, the whole thing looks a lot more dire. And, although this isn’t a total condemnation of those couples who live apart for years on end, I can’t help feeling that if neither of you is prepared to change the situation in the near future, perhaps you’d be better off looking closer to home.

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Filed under Adventures, Writing

A partial list of lists I’ve found delicious

Salt, freight trains, lighthouses, whisky, cathedrals, whales, Robert Hass, other lists…

Things I like. I’ve been making lists of this kind since I started writing things down in my Little Black Book. Lists are a great way of starting conversations. They even started the ball rolling between me and my chap. I asked him his five favourite things in the world; he responded: “red wine, the female form, garlic, fire (the non-destructive kind) and the music of Tom Waits”… and the deal was sealed.

Lists feel essential, powerful in their pared-down necessity. They are personal and yet public, leaving large gaps between things. They feel improving, relevant, day-to-day and ambitious. They flex to suit our needs. They are our everyday kind of poetry.

Famously Homer listed a whole fleet of ships in his Book II of the Iliad, but it is often the more personal details that a list can reveal that makes them fascinating to me. I remember visiting friends on the remote island of Oronsay. Two lists sat on the windowsill, one for items from the “local” shop (by which they meant the tiny village stores on the larger island, only accessible twice a day across a tidal strand), and the other entitled “Mainland”. They only travelled that far four times a year.

Lists are also poignant – remnants of a life lived, or a scene remembered and mourned, as in the poetry of Frank O’Hara: “The / really stupid things, I mean / a can of coffee, a 35 c ear / ring, a handful of hair, what / do these things do to us?” (Interior with Jane).

And they can be rich and inclusive, medieval in scope, as Umberto Eco explores so vibrantly and visually in his book The Infinity of Lists.

And lists can be gloriously disjunctive, playful and hilarious in the way they abut one thing with another. For this, see Susan Sontag’s early diary entries in Reborn, and also this partial list of things John Berryman found delicious, where ‘dialogue in Don Quixote’ sits three lines up from ‘the body of a married woman seen in a restaurant’. Because the pleasure of reading such lists is that sometime you chance upon a single item, and the world stops. That one thing comes into focus, and you have to wait and look at it a little bit harder. You forget the other items on the list, the other rungs on the ladder, and it’s like holding your breath with anxiety and pain and anticipation and pleasure and doubt – like catching yourself slipping, and waiting just a little bit before you feel your way down to the next rung.

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Lise Sinclair

When I finished studying, after six years of sitting on my behind, I decided I wanted to do something with my body instead of my mind. I also wanted to be on an island, where I knew certain kinds of activity (e.g. going on the internet) would be limited.

I chose Fair Isle, off the north coast of Scotland, stranded and lonely between the Shetlands and the Orkneys. The island is tiny, measuring only a mile wide and three miles long. The nearest landmass is a good 25 miles away – that’s a two hour boat ride or a once-a-day plane trip, both heavily weather dependent. From the highest peak on the island, Ward Hill, the southern point of the Shetlands can only be sighted on the clearest days. For these reasons, Fair Isle is often referred to as the most remote inhabited island in the UK.

Yet despite – and in fact because of – its smallness, its remoteness, Fair Isle boasts one of the strongest island communities I have encountered. Which makes it all the more profound and sad when one member of that community passes away. On an island where such a person can be teacher, choir conductor, editor of the local paper, resident poet and musician, as well as taking on a whole host of other roles I’m surely unaware of, the loss of someone who can bring life and joy to on so many levels is devastating. I am writing about Lise Sinclair, who passed away last week, in her early forties.

I only knew Lise for two months, but in that time she made an incredible impression. Others have offered more personal tributes based on longer and more intimate acquaintance with her, and it is clear that she was widely loved and regarded. For me, Lise was the energy behind the choir that I joined when I lived there. She tolerated my poor attempt at improvisatory fiddle playing with her family and friends. I listened to her sing on numerous occasions, her gorgeous low voice bringing an astounding character to both traditional and songs of her own she performed. I was more than a little admiring of her beauty – long hair, tall figure and kind eyes. I followed her work after I left the island and felt that in an important way, her music and her writing had become part of the identity of the island that I fell in love with. So I can only urge you to listen to her songs now.

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August 12, 2013 · 1:50 pm

Beginning, middle and end

Is anyone not trying to write a story?! Why we labour to write is hard to understand for those who do not feel this compulsion. Why ruin our leisure time with such whimsy? Why live for fantasy? Why bother when there’s so much rubbish on the market anyway, and your material will never see the light of day? Why create when the world will self-destruct in X number of years? And so the demons of lethargy call to us.  And yet, most of us will have had a moment when we thought: that would make a good story – and further, I am the one to tell it.

I’ve been a card-carrying believer in stories all my life – nothing unusual there. It is so rewarding to find the story at the heart of so much cultural and social research – from literary criticism to psychoanalysis. For me, studying the Middle Ages elevated the power of story as a world view. For the medievals, the world was a book written by the ultimate author, God. Our place within it was as reader, glossator, explainer, commentator, and, in very exceptional circumstances, author. Stories to assess, even construct, reality. Metaphors to live by.

So when we say ‘I write’, we could mean the mere act of living, remembering and sharing ourselves. We all have our favourite words for ourselves, our preferred ways of telling certain episodes, and indeed our fantasies – ambitions – of where we see ourselves when we imagine something other than our present. These are all stories we write. But we can also of course mean the novels, short stories, emails, projects, greetings cards, blog posts, graffiti, to do lists, and reminders.

And it’s this kind of writing I’m celebrating. After six months of wrestling, and a handful of sessions with a writing group, I have an outline for the story I’ve been trying to tell for three or four years. Beginning, middle and end. Boom.

Next step? Well this programme from BBC Radio 4 – The Sins of Literature – certainly gave me some tasks. I’m particularly intrigued by Deborah Moggach’s practice of inhabiting her character for 3-4 days before she starts writing. This could be fun to try with a full time job! (*Imagines how obsessive, reclusive convicted sex-offender would go about my cycling commute and email responses.)

Have you ever tried to inhabit characters before writing them down? Any funny experiences, or good lessons learnt?

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Meditations at Lagunitas

I don’t think you can get poetry better than this, from Robert Hass.

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

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How to write a mission statement (for your blog)

Jenny of Dinner, A Love Story, wrote this piece: her rules of blogging. Lesson 2: write your mission. Work out exactly what your blog is going to deliver, write it down, include it in your ‘About’ section, and it will help not only you, the writer, in determining your content, but also your readers, helping them to navigate and understand your content better.

So I started brainstorming what I wanted for this blog, which is not something I’ve really thoughts about, as my current content (at the grand total of 24 posts! whoop! yeah! writing prizes for me! ha) probably shows.

This blog was started just to get me writing. It was to help me overcome the sheer embarrassment of seeing my words OUT THERE. It was to help me practice a craft. Publicly. Like doing squat jumps in front of fifty apartment windows on a Sunday. It was meant to be a kick up the bum. It wasn’t meant to be for readers.

So why do it publicly? Good question. Well, it does have a bit of the exhibitionist about it. But I know that if I write something on my computer, or in a notebook, I leave it in draft. I never work at it. I never have the pressure of a readership. Online, getting noticed big time is the hard part, but getting a few readers here and there? Not that hard. I even started getting the odd comment, the odd ‘like’. You mean someone bothered to read though my stuff and click ‘like’? Wow. That makes me want to get better.

So I did want a readership. Of sorts.

I also knew I remembered things better when I wrote about them – hence my recent posts about theatre performances I went to: In the beginning was the end and The Great Gatsby. But they weren’t very popular. They were too long and, to be honest, a bit poncey. And who was I, to mouth off or delineate in prosy ways the merits and faults of works of art that actually made it onto a stage?

Right then. What is this blog for? A meandering account of me, in London, being interested in “culture” and going to a few things when I could afford them? Hardly the stuff of dreams.

So, today I started thinking about how I could make this blog a bit special, a bit different. Objectively I tried to find out whether I was interesting enough to support this by thinking of things that maybe I knew a bit more about than everyone else (inspired by Jeff Goins’ blog advice: be a resource). Then I tried to think of the things that people marvel at when I bring them up in conversation, when they say “Gosh that’s so interesting”. (This sometimes happens, even to me!) Then I tried to remember the things I was good at. And I started to make a list…

But…! This post has already wittered on enough about me (I’m truly sorry for that, another bad blogging indicator). So the list is going to wait a day or two.

And you? Have you determined a mission for your blog? Was that the whole point for you? Or did you just start writing hoping something would turn up? Can you list the things you know about easily? Let me know!


Filed under Work, Writing