Monday, 30 June 2014


We went to see England vs Scotland yesterday. They were playing Under-18’s Ladies Hockey and our neice, Lillie had been picked to play for England. She was very good, the beating heart of the team, always available, always finding space.
It is a fast-moving game requiring the ability to run backwards at great speed  while at the same time, watching what is going on all around you. All the goals came from set-pieces, there are not many scored from open play and although it is fast-moving, I did get frustrated by the number of times the [two] referees kept whistling for infringements and stopped the game. Too many rules?
I think we were the only family that didn’t arrive in a Range Rover Evoque. We were definitely the only family without a personalised number plate. The players have to be self-funded and their kit, their sticks, the cost of their travel from match to match all have to be paid for by their families, which makes it a fairly exclusive sport. I don’t often mix with that layer of society so it was interesting to watch how they behaved and spoke. Every woman stick-thin; every woman with designer dark glasses perched on top of her head; everyone in jeans, the dads as well. No brown or black faces. A huge commitment from the families; I left with the impression that Lillie’s mum does this full-time and fits the rest of her life around it.

Friday, 27 June 2014


I read a lot. It’s what I do, read and write. I don’t know any other writers personally but when interviewed, most writers seem to read a lot. You have to. It’s not that you are attempting to nick other writers ideas but other people have different, sometimes better ways of expressing things. Just the basic decisions about structure for example and whether to speak in first or third person are arrived at by what works well for others.

One of my all-time favourite novels is American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. The Guardian called it the best book of the 21st century and I wouldn’t actually disagree with that. It was from that book I decided I would write both Riccarton Junction and Train That Carried the Girl in first person narrative and in linear form. No jumping about; no bringing dramatic scenes forward with which to engage the average jaded reader. This happened and then this happened, then that happened. The end. American Wife is both linear and in first person and from the millions of other possibilities, that was how I decided to tell Kiri’s story.

As a rule, I prefer current literary fiction set in the present and ideally set in contemporary England [or rarely, Scotland]. Never Ireland. I am not anti-American but tend to give current genre American fiction a miss. I will read Australian fiction, Tim Winton is a favourite; great, great writer.

I have just finished reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, a young Australian author. It is currently [June 2014] in the Amazon Top ten so anyone reading this will almost certainly know what it is about, even if they haven’t yet read it. I loved it. Very, very briefly it is about the murder in Iceland in 1827 of two men and the subsequent trial of the two women and one man accused of their murder. One of the women, Agnes, is held for about a year in the isolated home of the District Officer while she is awaiting confirmation of execution for the crime. Agnes’ story is still well-known in Iceland and has been the subject of several books and at least one film.

So the novel is about the tensions in the relationships between the family, the wife, two daughters and a couple of servants and the woman believed to be a double-murderer.

Hannah Kent knows her facts inside out. She spent six months in Iceland researching and then returned for three more months, when she had her first draft. She cleverly switches the narrative voice from Agnes in first-person to the other characters in third person so you get what everyone is thinking contrasted with what Agnes says actually occurred.

The book is full of convincing historical detail, the blood sausage scene for example which is one of many authentic sounding passages that must have taken weeks of research but occupy hardly a paragraph. In fact I think that particular scene is only there to show [not tell!] Agnes’ power within the household. The prose, plotting, historical detail and characterisation are all spot on, in my view. It is an ambitious book; part crime fiction with a did-she-do- it or was-she-framed narrative arc. Part historical fiction; the unbelievably hard and impecunious life that Agnes led in a land where it is dark and freezing for half the year and part social realism, particularly in the sections dealing with the effect she has on the family and the community. Personally, I think Hannah Kent controls it all pretty well although some literary critics disagree.

My own books, Riccarton and Train are similar in that there is more than one narrative arc in play. With Riccarton it is the Keith/crime arc; the archaeology arc entwined with the occult mysticism of Roddy; the passion for Chris arc contrasted with the lack of passion for Sacha and finally, her parents arc and the interior stresses of the marriage. Too many threads? Maybe, but I don’t honestly think that I lose control over them. But that’s for others to decide.

As I say, I think Hannah Kent maintains control over her material. The style is assured. That may come in part from the fact that Burial Rites is based upon a true story and real characters, although I suspect that brings its own problems for a writer. Her range has been criticised and it is true that she has a limited handful of rhetorical devices for expressing Agnes’ interior thoughts; passages where she has no historical texts to guide her because they are Agnes musings to herself. In a rather poor section very near the end, she seems to have exhausted her repertoire of similes for expressing horror.

Overall however I loved it. I loved the little twist at the end . . . seriously great writing . . . in respect of the fire.

The best review I have read is that by Steven Heighton in the New York Times. It quite short, only 700 words and you can read it here.

Monday, 23 June 2014


When we were in Dorset we climbed to the summit of Hod Hill, a Neolithic hill fort described by some archaeologists as the most impressive in Britain. In his text The Ancient Paths, Graham Robb calls Hod Hill an Oppidum, a centre of Druid teaching with ancient paths or 'Pathways to the Sun' radiating from the site. Rather like the Ley Lines at Riccarton Junction except I did not see any vapour trails in the evening sky above me.
The National Trust website describes the views from the top of the hill as the greatest in all of Dorset. I can certainly believe that; they may be the greatest views of anywhere that I have ever been to. But what actually drove us all the way from Northumberland to Dorset [368 miles] by road was the discovery the day before of a fabulous new crop circle.
I cant make up my mind about crop circles. I want to believe but there are so many, too many accounts of crop circle-makers to ignore. Obviously, The Fortean Times remains convinced it is little green men from outer space . . . does anyone still believe in aliens? Time Travellers, Time Travellers, Time Travellers! Get with the program! Either way, the crop circle was simply wonderful. These are our images but there is an arial shot here [copywrited] if you are interested.

Thursday, 19 June 2014


I had never heard of Zero Grazing until I visited ‘Hardy Country’ in Dorset recently. Thomas Hardy called it Wessex when he wrote his novels. What novels? Far From the Madding Crowd; Jude the Obscure and my own favourite, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The landscape remains beautiful with deep green valleys and rolling hills wherever you look but it is empty, almost no grazing animals of any kind, anywhere. Just some fat, luxuriant sheep on Hod Hill that would be exiled off to the high Cheviots near where I live and told to make the best of it. Give us a call at lambing time.
And all of this is the result of Zero Grazing a phenomenon  introduced initially in Wales I think about six years ago and which basically, involves taking the grass to the cows. Not the cows to the grass. Hence empty, lifeless, Hardy Country. Where are the cows? In large sheds. On Industrial Estates.
The justification for this is, ‘pressure from the supermarkets’ who are holding dairy farmers ‘to ransom’ by holding down milk prices to uneconomical levels. Zero grazing effectively means that the farmer utilises all the grass in a field rather than as previously, when using traditional grazing methods the cow would, ’eat a third; trample over a third and slurry the remaining third’. An expert quoted in  states that one of his clients has turned to zero grazing because he ’only’ has 50-acres with which to raise 120 head of cattle. What has this to do with ‘pressure from supermarkets’?  Seems to me that if you only have 50-acres you shouldn’t even be trying to raise 120 cows. Do something else with the land. I cant quite square this statement with ‘pressure from supermarkets’, not that I don’t think there isn’t pressure from supermarkets at various points in the supply-chain but not at this point.
It is my opinion that the intensification of livestock farming has led to pain, misery and oppression for thousands of animals as well as causing environmental problems. Are cows intended to be housed in sheds, on concrete floors? The ‘expert’ quoted above says, ‘they prefer lying down’. This is factory farming by another name.