Monday, 27 January 2014

The Tuesday Poem: Bog People

Peat moss, Rannoch Moor, Grant Dixon

I was lucky enough to be a runner up in the recent poetry competition 'Sonnet or Not' for poems of 14 lines.  This one was 'Highly Commended' and published (under a pseudonym) in the new edition of Cannon's Mouth. 

Bog People

Out on the moor, that one time,
our bodies on the drenched heather
braced against the slip and suck
of something more than weather –  
the elemental fibres of the dead peat
threading our selves together in the old way
the rituals of the slain gods, noosed,
thrown, cheating the process of decay
in the brown tincture of the bog
supple and folded as worn leather.
Over and under, we repeat their lives
the belief, the dying, the un-resistable desire
that lays us down among the gorse and whin
eye to eye with roots, the bare sky looking in.

© Kathleen Jones

The Tuesday Poets are back after the Christmas and New Year break - take a look at what they're up to on the Tuesday Poem hub site which you can find here. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Gardens of the Roman World - fabulous pictures from the Getty Museum

The sun is shining here in Italy, after a long period of extreme weather and I have to admit that my gardening fingers are itching!  Then I found this wonderful book 'Gardens of the Roman World' by Patrick Bowe on the Getty site, which you can download, free, as a pdf by clicking here.   There are more wonders on the Getty online library site too - it's a perfect treasure trove of images and information.  Thank you to Bensozia for giving me the link - it's the most amazing, serendipity blog!

Monday, 20 January 2014

A few hours later ..........

A few more hours of torrential rain and the road has continued its progress down into the gorge taking the electricity cables with it.  Power now back on.  The road is going to take much longer.

The dog is big boxer, so gives some idea of the height of the drop.

The trees on the left were once several feet higher up the gorge!
So glad this didn't happen while I was driving over it yesterday morning.  The only way into the village is now by foot through a muddy wood.  

Wild Weather in Italy

I'm currently cat and dog sitting for a friend in a small hilltop hamlet and Neil is back in England sorting out problems at the Mill.  No sooner had I dropped him at the airport than the lovely clear winter weather we've been having disappeared and it began to rain.  And rain. I went out to supper at a friend's house on Friday evening and the roads had turned into rivers making driving difficult.  Saturday morning it was still raining in buckets.  But by Saturday afternoon things changed.  The rain - which had been torrential - intensified and soon there was thunder and lightning as well.
Rain you can't see through

 We lost the power around 5.30pm and in the darkness the rain became quite frightening. The sheer intensity of it is something I've never experienced, even in the monsoon rains of Asia and Africa.  It was like a violent thing trying to pound its way through the roof.  When I opened the door you couldn't even see through it with a torch. It rained all night and the thunder and lightning were horrendous.  I had a cat and a dog in bed with me, shivering under the bedclothes, so at least I was warm! According to the Italian news 300mm of rain fell overnight onto ground already saturated and rivers full.

One very scared little dog.
On Sunday morning I got a phone call telling me I should try to get the car out of the village car park because there was a landslide and the road was unsafe.  I went straight away and drove down, expecting just a part of the road to have slid down the hillside, these mountain roads often crumble a bit at the edges in bad weather.  But when I got there I found that a whole section of the road - more than a car length -  had dropped by about a foot and looked as if it was about to slide even further.
The far end of the section

The other end - the drop is about a foot
 'Molto pericoloso', a neighbour told me.  Did I really want to drive over it, he asked?  I didn't, but I also knew I couldn't do without a car for the several weeks it will take to rebuild the road - things don't happen quickly in Italy.  By the time I'd found somewhere to park further down the hill the emergency crews had arrived and closed the road completely, so I got out just in time.  Heaven knows what the villagers are going to do - we're all going to get more exercise - but there are several elderly and disabled people who can't make the steep uphill walk.

It's still raining, but not so heavily now.  And at least we haven't suffered as much as Genoa or southern France.  What they call 'weather bombs' in New Zealand seem to be part of our lives here now too.  Only one thing to do - open the last bottle of the Christmas Prosecco and drink it by candlelight!!

Sunday, 12 January 2014

My Writing Process

I was invited to contribute to this ‘Blog Tour’ about that mysterious thing called the Writing Process, by Author’s Electric writer Ann Evans, and, though I’m not usually fond of this kind of baton-passing exercise, the questions seemed so interesting (as well as some of the responses I’ve read) that I couldn’t resist. Thank you Ann! You can find her blog at

The questions Ann passed on to me are:-

1. What am I working on?

I’ve had something of an enforced holiday from fiction recently, because I was commissioned to write a literary biography.  But Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet was published just before Christmas, so I’m now putting the finishing touches to the novel I’ve been writing, on and off, for about 5 years.

The Centauress is just a little bit autobiographical, in that the protagonist is a biographer.  Alex Forbes, 39, recently bereaved in a terrorist attack, has been sent by her agent to Istria - a picturesque part of Croatia that once belonged to Venice.  Alex has been commissioned to write the biography of Zenobia de Braganza, a flamboyant artist who is terminally ill and wants to tell her unusual - and often scandalous - life-story before it’s too late.

Alex goes to the Kastela Visoko and is soon caught up in the complicated relationships and rivalries of family and friends as they all compete to inherit Zenia’s legacy of art and property.  But it is to Alex that Zenia discloses the big tragedy at the centre of her life. Sharing Zenia’s experience helps Alex to heal herself, though that process is threatened when Alex meets Gianfranco, a very attractive Italian jazz musician and Zenia’s favourite cousin. Is he trustworthy?  Or is he, like the others, simply there to inherit her wealth? The story is set against the complicated politics of post-war Croatia in one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Because I’m a poet and biographer, the novels I write tend to contain elements of other genres.  My first novel, The Sun’s Companion, was a historical novel set in the 1930s and 40s, but it was also a family story, and because it was ‘character’ centred, was classified as literary rather than mainstream.  I love language, so I craft sentences carefully, and I’m fascinated by other people’s lives, so my stories are full of characters I’ve observed.

The Centauress is also rooted in fact.  One in 2 thousand babies every year is born with some form of gender anomaly.  Being born ‘inter-sex’ is much more common than people realise and it’s a subject not often talked about.  Zenia’s character is based on 2 people I once knew (both dead) and her story is also based on the life of Herculine Barbin - a 19th century figure who was brought up as a girl and then told as a teenager that she was actually a boy.  She tried for a while to live as both sexes and eventually committed suicide.  Herculine's journals describe how she tried to come to terms with her confusion.  In the novel, I’ve tried to explore what it might feel like not to have any certain gender identity - to be the ‘Third Sex’.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I’ve never tried to answer this question.  I’ve been writing since I was a child - putting down whatever occurred to me - poetry, stories - following interesting pathways through journalism and biography. I’m aware of a fascination with people’s lives and an obsession with words.  Why do I write what I do?  I just do.  Addiction, OCD, call it what you like!

4. How does your writing process work?

The writing process always starts with day-dreaming - allowing the mind to free-wheel for a while until something floats along - a phrase, or an image, and there’s that little tingle along the writing arm. That’s when I get out the notebook and scribble something down.  If the idea has legs then my mind keeps on processing it - running it like a video at the back of my brain.  I try not to write it down too early - but sometimes you miss the moment and the idea vanishes and can’t be recalled.
Darwin's Notebooks
It often takes a while to get from the scribbles in the notebook to a fully fledged draft.  For fiction I buy a special notebook that has some connection to the subject matter - I like colourful notebooks with decorated covers.  Somehow that helps.  I write down fragments - chapter openings, character sketches, conversations - in a glorious muddle, and then, when I’ve filled several notebooks, I try to give the story a bit of structure - find the bones to hang it on.  That’s when I begin to see it as a whole and start balancing the narrative - filling some sections out and trimming others.  When I think it’s finished I print it out and throw it in a box file for several weeks before I get it out again and have an ‘editing’ read.  I read in hard copy and on Kindle because it’s a very different experience and you spot new things.

That’s where I am now with The Centauress, which I hope will be available next month.  And, no, I couldn’t find a publisher to take on such a controversial book, though I’m told by my editor that it’s a very commercial story and beautifully written.  Another rave rejection!  Thank goodness for Indie publishing.

Next week, on the 20th January, the blog-baton passes to three more fiction authors, all very different from each other.

Wendy Robertson 
Having taught history and art in schools, and education in teaching college, Wendy Robertson has published many novels, both historical and contemporary, and two short story collections in addition to a short memoir of her writing life. Her best-selling novels include 'Land of my Possession', 'Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker', and 'An Englishwoman in France'.  She blogs at 'A Life Twice Tasted', where you can find information about all her books.

Elizabeth Stott Elizabeth Stott writes fiction and poetry, with no set agenda other than to take the form where it takes her. Her most recent story 'Touch me with your cold hard fingers', was published as a Chapbook by Nightjar Press.  She also has a collection 'This Heat' available on Amazon Kindle. Elizabeth blogs on: ‘To Blog or Not’ - and tweets from @ElizabethStott1

Debbie Bennett - Debbie writes both dark thrillers and young adult fantasy. She’s won several competitions over the years and was long-listed for the Crime Writers' Association Debut Dagger Award. Her excuse is that the voices made her do it….   Her recent trilogy is available from Amazon and all good bookshops:  'Hamelin's Child', 'Calling the Tune' and 'Paying the Piper'.  You can find her blog at

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Wanted - Pied Piper with CRB Certificate (oh and an electrician......)

I returned to the Mill late on Tuesday night to find that over the Christmas period it had turned into Hamelin!  The river has been constantly high for weeks and the rats outside in the river bank and the garden have been driven indoors.  They had climbed up from the mill race and chewed their way through a wall (and the electricity cable) to gain access to more comfortable winter quarters.

My first instincts (after thinking 'I bet this doesn't happen to Joanna Trollope') were to scream and flee the premises never to return - but I settled for a good cry.  I'm a farmer's daughter - farm rats were a part of our lives throughout my childhood.  And anyway, I'm a WRITER dammit!!

When you think of the internal demons of our darkest imagination which, as writers, we confront daily, what is a paltry rat by comparison?

The following day I headed for town and returned armed with 3 different kinds of poison and several sonic repellants are arriving by post, so hopefully Mr and Mrs R. are either turning up their toes or moving house (please!) at this very moment.

Could definitely do with a piper though - pied or otherwise, though I think, given his record with children, he'd better come properly vetted with the appropriate certificate from the Criminal Records Bureau - if writers have to have to them, pied pipers most definitely should!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Happy Birthday, Norman Nicholson! 100 years old today.

Norman Nicholson would have been one hundred years old today.  Born in Millom, Cumbria on the 8th January 1914, at No 14 St. George's Terrace he lived in the same house for the whole of his life, writing some of his most beautiful poetry in the attic room he used as his bedroom.

Walking along the old sea wall at Hodbarrow, Millom, looking at the scarred landscape where the iron ore mines and the iron works used to be,  I wrote this poem for Norman, who also used to walk this way.  He wrote a poem about the Bee Orchid that grows here, as well as other wild life and the estuary view also features in many of his most famous poems.  Happy Birthday Norman!

Revisiting the Bee Orchid

(for Norman Nicholson)

The marram grass seethes along the dunes
and the bee orchid (intent on repro-
duction) does not remember the poet.
It is rooted in silica, slag, iron,
particles of radioactive dust
(deeper and more of it than he knew)
drifting in against a spine of ore,
a fractured red, pointing the seam,
out to sea.
The poisoned sand*
looks clean, rinsed by the long, Atlantic
tides.  My feet are electrified
in the shallows and small phosphorescent
crabs glow in the shadow of the rock that
Norman based his life on, rooted in the cracks.

The magnetic ore swings in my pocket
like a pendulum and estuary sand
makes a desert of the sea’s horizon.
Land and water, water and land repeat
where past and future meet at a margin
neither human nor divine.  His whole belief
was in the cycles of creation, and an order -
not a random universe where evolution’s
joker calls the tricks
and every species
has to thrive and breed, except himself.
Observer; lacking healthy lungs to breathe the salt
air, stranger to passion, isolated in his attic room,
the window framing glimpses of the universe
it closed out, the unclimbable bulk of Black Combe.

© Kathleen Jones

* This coast was the scene of one of the world's biggest nuclear accidents in 1957 when the Windscale reactor caught fire. Norman wrote a poem to mark the event. 

Norman Nicholson:  The Whispering Poet is on offer at Amazon for the week of the poet's birthday.  £1.99 Kindle edition, £8.50 paper edition. 

Monday, 6 January 2014

La Befana - the Italian Witch of Epiphany

On the Twelfth day of Christmas.....  came the Witch!
It's Epiphany today - the 12th night of Christmas.  In Italy on Epifania, it's the night the witch flies. She's called La Befana and she brings sweets to good children and leaves charcoal for the naughty ones!  In most of the villages they still have a Befana ceremony, a small party for the children, and they sing the Befana song, which has a haunting, eastern european sound to it.  Much of it has to be pagan in origin, perhaps Baba Yaga fused with the three kings who came on the 6th of Jan bearing gifts.

Today, in Pieve, the little village below us, the Befana came with two of her friends and two ponies loaded with gifts in wicker panniers.  The three witches danced and handed out biscuits, oranges and sweets to the children.

The Befana choir and musicians
The village choir and church musicians played the Befana tune on the steps of the church.

It was all great fun, but marks the end of Christmas.  They've had a competition in town to see who could decorate the best tree with rubbish.  The winner was beautifully hung with bells and streamers made from blue and white plastic bottles, all painted intricately in blue, white and silver.  Very pretty, and a good idea for next year!

Tonight at 3am this particular witch is on a Ryanair flight to London, then on about 5 trains to the north of England, for Norman Nicholson's 100th birthday party in Carlisle Library.  The weather forecast is terrible over there - hope I make it in time!

Saturday, 4 January 2014

New Year Thoughts

I don't do New Year Resolutions, but pinning up a new calendar seems to generate a bit of reflection automatically.  The first few days of the new year always find me doing a bit of summing up - school report time. What were the high points of last year?  What didn’t go so well?  What do I need to do better?

Walking the dog at Peralta
I’ve just had a blissful Christmas and New Year in Italy, in a borrowed house, with two of my daughters, one son-in-law and five grandchildren.  We cooked, talked, had a few (well, maybe more than a few!) glasses of wine, Skyped absent members of the family, took turns to jiggle the baby, watched children’s movies and played lots of classic games like Snakes and Ladders and Cluedo.  The weather outside was either gloriously sunny or raining for Noah. There were days at the beach and days in front of the fire.  I didn’t get any writing done and haven’t spent much time on the internet.  It was a rare and precious family holiday.

Now I’ve got to get back to work.  There’s a book partially loaded onto Create Space that still needs some editing before we press the button, and I need to write a talk for a Library event in England on Wednesday.  Next week is the centenary of the Lakeland poet Norman Nicholson’s birth and there are a number of events to celebrate.  On Sunday, 5th January at 4.30pm, BBC Radio 4 are broadcasting a documentary called ‘Provincial Pleasures’, narrated by Eric Robson (moonlighting from Gardener’s Question Time) and involving Melvyn Bragg, fellow biographer Grevel Lindop and myself.  So I will be logging onto BBC i-player to listen in.  Hopefully a few people will buy my biography of Norman if they enjoy the programme, especially as it’s available at a reduced price for his birthday week. Fingers crossed!!  There’s a lovely review of it on Amazon by Sandra Horn.

Best bits of 2013?  Visiting my daughter in New Zealand in January.

Spending a week at an eco-writers’ retreat in the wilds of Northern Scotland, where I made so many new friends.

The birth of Lydia-Maya in October.

And publishing Norman Nicholson: The Whispering Poet.

Thoughts for 2014?  Write more poetry. Finish the collection of Italian short stories I’m working on. Find the money to go to Canada to finish the research into the islands of the Haida Gwaii. Oh, and eat less chocolate, drink less wine and exercise more. And because I don't do New Year Resolutions, I don't have to feel guilty if I don't manage any of them!