Monday, 29 August 2016


by Herman Melville

'Read Classic', an occasional series of posts on 
Kitchen Table Writers

A friend gave me my copy of Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville as a gift, around 15 years ago. It measures 6 1⁄2” by 4” by 1 1⁄2” with 798 gold-edged wafer-thin pages and 135 chapters, a ‘Collector’s Library’ edition, ‘complete and unabridged’.

When I first tried to read it, I got bored quickly. I was 150 pages in and they’d only just gone aboard The Pequod – 200 pages in and we still hadn’t met Ahab…

Steadily, I read less, until the little golden book was forgotten.

Then my reading group, bless them, decided that we should all read a different 19th century American work. I pulled out Moby-Dick, blew off its dust and started again.

Maybe I was in a different place, a different reading mindset. But instantly, I loved it. I dove into the rich, warming narrative – words that go on and on. I swam within them as if they were fish teeming in the Pacific. I’d finished it within the four allotted weeks, and watched the 1956 film, starring Gregory Peck as Ahab, with  a screenplay by Ray Bradbury. At the meeting, I read out the passages I particularly loved…

And then it was, that suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab's leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field.... Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.
 Chapter 41, Moby Dick

Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819 and by the age of 13 was working in a bank. At 18 he completed his education and moved from job to job; school teacher, newspaper reporter, merchant sailor. He went West to (unsuccessfully) seek his fortune. Down on his luck he set sail on a whaler bound for the South Seas, where he spent time in the company of the natives. He detailed his adventures in a series of novels which, in his own lifetime, proved continually more popular than Moby-Dick. 

MOBY-DICK; or THE WHALE, first appeared in 1851, when he was 32. Now, it is considered his seminal work, and having read it, I know it is a masterpiece, a gothic philosophical allegory and a scathing satire on life. 

It is profoundly inventive, intense and ironic, the style and language standing alongside other great experimental novels, from Tristram Shandy  to Ulysses. I loved its soaring voice, which moves from long passages of soliloquy, through pieces of script format, to sharp and dramatic dialogue

…“Look ye! d'ye see this Spanish ounce of gold?"- holding up a broad bright coin to the sun- "it is a sixteen dollar piece, men. D'ye see it? Mr. Starbuck, hand me yon top-maul."
While the mate was getting the hammer, Ahab, without speaking, was slowly rubbing the gold piece against the skirts of his jacket, as if to heighten its lustre, and without using any words was meanwhile lowly humming to himself, producing a sound so strangely muffled and inarticulate that it seemed the mechanical humming of the wheels of his vitality in him.
Receiving the top-maul from Starbuck, he advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming: "Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke- look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!"
"Huzza! huzza!" cried the seamen, as with swinging tarpaulins they hailed the act of nailing the gold to the mast.
"It's a white whale, I say," resumed Ahab, as he threw down the topmaul: "a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out."
All this while Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg had looked on with even more intense interest and surprise than the rest, and at the mention of the wrinkled brow and crooked jaw they had started as if each was separately touched by some specific recollection.
"Captain Ahab," said Tashtego, "that white whale must be the same that some call Moby Dick.” 
Chapter 36, The Quarter-Deck.

Most of the information between the pages is now anachronistic and almost forgotten, but I was fascinated by how  whale blubber was rendered down on board into barrels of oil – how the first steak from a kill would be eaten ceremoniously. And yet, counterpointing all the minutiae and trivia, the ways of Moby Dick remain unknown. Melville (and Ishmael) are sure upon that; the white whale is like God in his Heaven, which makes Ahab a fool for trying to find and outdo him. The result, of course, is futile…and fatal.

The book teems with ideas, imagery and emotion, but between these subtleties lie those hard facts.  Melville makes use of his first-hand descriptions of whaling alongside an encyclopaedic knowledge of the nature of the whale…

The Forty-barrel-bull schools are larger than the harem schools. Like a mob of young collegians, they are full of fight, fun, and wickedness, tumbling round the world at such a reckless, rollicking rate, that no prudent underwriter would insure them any more than he would a riotous lad at Yale or Harvard. They soon relinquish this turbulence though, and when about three-fourths grown, break up, and separately go about in quest of settlements, that is, harems.
Another point of difference between the male and female schools is still more characteristic of the sexes. Say you strike a Forty-barrel-bull- poor devil! all his comrades quit him. But strike a member of the harem school, and her companions swim around her with every token of concern, sometimes lingering so near her and so long, as themselves to fall a prey.
Chapter 88, Schools and Schoolmasters

The book is chocked with symbolic motifs which develop and inform the text’s major themes, and I enjoyed spotting them. The first one is the colour white, which Ishmael, finds threatening; white waves albinos, whale spout…

It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea…
Chapter 51, The Spirit-Spout

Then there is the coffin, which symbolizes life and death. When Ishmael’s friend, the harpooner Queequeg, falls ill, he asks the carpenter to build him a coffin, but survives and stores his belongings in it. When the Pequod sinks, the coffin becomes Ishmael’s lifeboat.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago -- never mind how long precisely -- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Chapter 1, Loomings 

And the themes themselves are grand. Like the heroes of Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, Ahab suffers from a single fatal flaw. He is obsessed, monomaniacal, believing that, like a god, he will remain immune to the forces of nature while pursuing the White Whale…it’s his inescapable fate to destroy this evil.

The Pequod represents the world…its crew, all of humanity’s fears, frailties and faiths are acted out. It is a symbol of doom, painted black and covered in whale teeth and bones, mementos of their violent death. The name was taken from a Native American tribe made extinct by the white invaders. 

But despite the wanderings of both book and ship, there is a plot, and it uses causality, something I love in a story. From the beginning, Ishmael notes Ahab’s eccentricity and madness getting worse, until, The Pequod encounters the whaling ship Rachel, imploring help to search for the missing whaling-crew, including the captain's son. But as soon as Ahab learns that the crew disappeared while tangling with Moby-Dick he refuses the call to aid – something unheard of in whaling tradition – and goes off to hunt the White Whale. After The Pequod goes down, Ishmael, in his coffin, is ironically rescued by the Rachel which has continued to search for its missing crew.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Summer Poems

from Nina Milton

The Scent of Honey  

In whirls, whorls and slender smells, this scent of honey

In tantalizing whiffs, this scent of honey.

We’re walking by the little brook when it pervades,
Your hand curled over mine, this scent of honey.

Traced by our noses, we search like pigs for truffles
I have the trail you say, this scent of honey.

You tug me up the wooded rise, our faces red,
Air hot with August bakes this taste of honey,

Saplings propel like ski poles, our sandals grind with soil,
When we sniff, it’s growing strong, this scent of honey,

We dream of buzzing meadows, queen bee hives;
Waggle-dances, combs dripping this scent of honey

You lift me, hands huge upon my waist, over the wall.

Not a bee in sight, but still, this scent of honey.

It overwhelms us now, like love, like mystery,
We walk across the grass, breathing this scent of honey,  

See, you say, see that tree, the one shaped like a heart?
That’s the source, the centre of this scent of honey,

 Leaves of bottle-green and corrugated bark,
Limes; golden in our minds, this scent of honey,

The scent we craved, we sought, is here, inside the lime,
The aphids make this smell, this scent of honey

Microscopic eggs beneath the leaves, you laugh.
You say my Nina-lips taste like this scent of honey

Spanish Song

 Heat virgin olive oil in a heavy pan,
Chop onion and gently fry
Crush garlic, but add later in case it might burn.
Heat the grill for the sweet peppers to sear…

 To sear in thirty degrees, 
Lay out the tropical towels 
Smear with factor ten in case we might burn
Add four thin bodies to the heat swirled beach.

Add four thin pork boneless steaks to the pan.
Seal juices while peeling red peppers
Once they have blistered. Slice finely. 
Grind in black pepper, oregano seasoning…

Season for the murmurs of summer, 
For the glitter of the wide sea,
The screech and splash as the children leap,
For the sleepy Spanish tongue; those sun-dried sounds…

Drain and slice a jar of sun-dried tomatoes
Toss into pan the tomatoes and the peppers. 
Cover and simmer for twenty minutes
After which add twenty olives to salt the dish…

Salt in your hair and the feel of sand
Where the bar of your flip-flops grinds between your toes
Coming up the hill from the beach, stepping over wild thyme
Under the acacia trees into the marble chill of Los Arcos.

Chill the wine in the marble cooler,
As you lay out the ceramic you bought in Valencia.
Sweet pepper skins lift; gift-wrapped in scarlet tissue 
Spoon out the cerdo espanol and fluff up the rice

Long evenings, filled with fast guitars,
Smells of ceno from the next apartamento 
Twirl round the table to Flamenco,
Fast guitars and Spanish song.


Morning glories bloom
 early now,
before the the pollen sneezes start
and ice cream sweet-melts on the tongue. 
Strawberries are red as lover’s kisses,
the roses are in thrall to their own perfume,
And on the hornbeam, a chaffinch
sings out his power.

It is honeysuckle hot,
butterflies flirt and foxgloves
charm bees to enter,
opening like willing virgins. 

Bats flit as the summer night calms,
still half-lit with long sun. 
Under the hornbeams,
the beckoning grass is cool…tall…

Faro Island, Algarve.

She said; 
It’s a long road, straight, you can’t miss it once you’ve turned the roundabout.
She said;
Go over the bridge. That’s what makes it an island. 
 She said;
You’ll see where to park. You can buy an ice cream.
She said; 
 No one stays long.

She didn’t say;
Walk along the leeward side, facing the mainland, you won’t see a soul all the way.
She didn’t say; 
Climb over the brackeny dunes and stroll the beach, the Atlantic wind in your hair.
She didn’t say;
The moored boats are like jewels and the birds are wishes that can fly.
She didn’t say; 
You’ll think the little houses are shuttered against the winter until someone cries ‘Carlos! Comida!’

 She said to tell her what we thought of Faro island.
 We told her we liked the ice cream.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Juggling with Story

I’m personally hopeless at juggling. Can’t keep balls in the air, let alone knives or chainsaws. But juggling words – characters – plots – themes – settings – the entire extent of storyland…that comes more easily. Maybe there really is a ‘storyland’ where lost and lonely characters are searching for the right setting, theme and plot. What writers need to become are  dating agencies, who juggle their clients, mixing and introducing until they get the perfect match.

So, what happens when this clearly isn’t happening in the story you’ve just begun, or the story you’ve been plugging away at for some time? Recently, a student wrote a personal observation of their writing, which they’ve been kind enough to allow me to pass on…

“I’m not very good at getting back into my writing after a break and this seems to happen frequently at the moment. So this story acted as a sort of warm up session tomy main one. I think this was a really important part of the process for me; that one story evolved into another. I always start writing my stories in a sketch book. Writing with a pen always feels more comfortable and I just try to write down as much as I can before I start thinking too much about characters or plot. I have tried it the other way around but it usually slows me down. I start putting the story onto the computer sometimes before I’ve got to the end and this seems to spark off more ideas. I then seem to go between the two – sometimes when my head is full of the story, I’ll jot a line or two down in my book – sometimes I’ll sit and tap away.”

I was rather impressed when I read these words. For a start, the student is writing down how she feels about the writing process. This is something I always recommend, but I know from personal experience that it is hard to ‘write about writing’ and this often it takes a back seat. However, writing in this way often gets to the nub of some of the hardest things about becoming a writer. For a start, watching and reflecting how one’s own psychology ‘works’ is extremely effective and can often break through problems like ‘creating a routine’, ‘gaining the confidence to write’ and ‘facing the blank page’. But actually recording these thoughts, as part of your writing life not only prevents you from forgetting them, but actually helps consolidate them and implant them in your mind and allows you to work on them.

What the student has done here, is observe herself writing a story that didn’t work, allowing that conclusion to be drawn (always a very hard one), then picking out of the ‘non-workable story’ the themes, emotions, characters and ideas that could still be used (or reused), and creating something new and more successful with them.

A..S Byatt
Courtesy of

“A good short story knows its ending before it is begun, it is always working towards its end”…so said A.S. Byatt recently in the Sunday Times Culture section. This may sound impossible to live up to, but she softens the blow a little… “A good short story establishes its own rhythm at its very beginning, and the reader has a sense of the rhythm reaching ahead, towards the end”…

Byatt suggests that we should ‘know’ when the rhythms of a story aren’t working…when, however much hard work we put into it, never come right, that is, “work towards its own end”. My student cleverly understood this – that you didn’t have to write ‘the perfect story’ first time round. Sometimes an embarrassingly fruitless version has to be ‘hatched’ first. I’m trying to think of an analogy that would fit this process – the only thing that springs to mind at the moment is that it’s like ‘creating’ a caterpillar, then allowing it to become a chrysalis and reform over days, weeks, months…before emerging as, yes, cheesy I know…a beautiful butterfly.

An awful lot of professional writers create their stories (for children and adults) with this try/miss/hit method. Many a successful novel started life as an unpublishable short story or metamorphosed from a play into a piece of crime fiction…or whatever. Many a colourful character began life as something very different, almost as if they were waiting for the right story to be part of. Famously, Tolkien’s Strider began life as a kind of hobbit. Tolkien had written the first draft of ‘Fellowship’ all the way to the Prancing Pony at Bree without actually knowing that Frodo and pals would meet any kind of king there. But once Strider stopped being a hobbit and became Aragorn, the way ahead must have been clear; the rhythm of the story assured.

Good systems include asking ‘what if’ after the struggle with the first draft is over (as well as before it begins) as well as ‘which bits’ and even ‘which story’? Moving, slotting, juggling and slicing chunks of story are also common strategies, along with ditching. Ditching, for the writer, is not a farming pursuit alongside hedging…it’s the heartbreaking knowledge that something must go. The first chapter is often the part that has to be ditched, because all it does is explain things too quickly, too openly. The great ‘dinner party tale’ of writers is that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by dozens of publishers until one actually read past the first chapter and told him they would take the book if he omitted it. Not many people have ever caught a glimpse of that first chapter.

Luckily, it’s almost never too late to come to these realizations. Even when you’ve finished a story and put it away (especially if you’ve finished a story and put it away because no one has wanted to publish it) you can return afresh and ask these questions of it:

• Does it know its own ending?

• Does it have a satisfying internal rhythm?

• Does it relentlessly moved towards the conclusion?

• Have you asked ‘what if’ in the right way?

• Would it work if you swapped the beginning, end and middle around?

• Would it work if you ditched the first paragraph, or even the first page?

• Are the characters still in search of the right story for them?

• Can you ‘talk’ to yourself about this story – writing down a reflection of what is wrong with it, as if you are your own mentor or tutor?

I'm one of the Bristol Women Writers
who contributed to this collection of
great stories.
I think this has to do with the 90% perspiration part of writing. The ‘brilliant idea’ does not flow out of even established writers like an endless, muse-controlled fountain. The secret trick that allows someone to finally come up with the ‘brilliant idea’ is knowing how to utilize what you’ve got – to look, think, go away and cogitate, then look again. I don’t think I am quite saying that every idea you have for a story is usable in some formt - that all you’ve got to do is search and find it - but I do believe that it’s worth trying, just in case.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard, starring Emily Watson

Louse Doughty in London. Photo: Andrew Crowley, The Telegraph

I love it when a favourite read of mine is set to become a film or TV drama because I can bore everyone to pieces by droning on about how the book is so much better than the film, while secretly enjoying the story all over again.

I recently reviewed Susanna Clarke's book, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell in this way, and now can’t wait to watch
Faber & Faber UK
Farrar Straus & Giroux US
Apple Tree Yard
the steamy psychological thriller by Louise Doughty, on BBC telly. I call this a thriller, but Doughty herself says…the weird thing is, I don’t think I’m writing thrillers, but quite a lot of other people seem to. I thought Apple Tree Yard was a feminist indictment of criminal  justice…
Emily Watson, one of my favourite actors, will play Yvonne Carmichael, a middle-aged woman who falls heavily in lust…I am both relishing and daunted by the prospect of taking on this role…she’s already been quoted as saying…it’s grown up, steamy and of queasy moral complexity

Watson in Gosford Park
Photo by
If you’re not already familiar with Watson’s work, try her early films. I first saw her as Maggie, in the TV adaptation of Mill on the Floss, but then caught Hilary and Jackie, in which she plays the cellist Jacqueline du Pre. She was brilliant in the star-studded film Gosford Park, and most recently, she was wonderful in The Theory of Everything, the film about Stephen Hawkin. 

The BBC describes Apple Tree Yard as…a provocative, audacious thriller that puts women’s lives at the heart of a gripping, insightful story about the values we live by and the choices we makeBut what I recall most vividly about the story is how quickly I was hooked. Doughty shows Yvonne Carmichael's well-ordered life plummeting into the ground. At the outset, Yvonne is a happily-married, eminent geneticist who, after giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee, meets Mark (who’ll be played by Ben Chaplin) on her way out of the House of Commons. Her fall to earth begins as they indulge in raunchy sex in a crypt chapel. 

Yvonne thinks she can keep her marriage and her red-hot affair in separate compartments, but, from the start of the book, we know she is on a downward spiral because we’ve already caught a glimpse of her future – and it’s not good. Or, as Hilary Mantel says…there can’t be a woman alive who hasn’t once realised, in a moment of panic, that she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man…A compelling and bravely written book

Something I always relish in a novel is the use of place to bring the right atmosphere to the writing. This almost always involves good descriptive skills…the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft in the Palace of Westminster beneath the drowned saints and the roasted saints and saints in every state of torture

I read the book after it was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association Steel Dagger (for best thriller), in 2014.  Like most readers, I was gripped, not just by the heat of the read, but also by the varied styles Doughty uses. Yvonne has sex with Mark in seedy locations; a broom cupboard, a disabled toilet, the secretive doorways and back alleys of London. In between these scenes, written in the difficult and arresting 2nd person point of view…I don’t know it yet, but the man is you…Yvonne writes long letters to Mark which deepen our emotional connection to her, which she hides on her computer in a file marked VATquery3. Every so often, we return to the trial. The two of them are in the dock at the high court. All that illicit passion, betrayal and deceit has led to murder. A perfect story for a four-part television drama, in other words.

Before reading the book, I knew Doughty had already written, between her other novels, a book called A Novel in a Year, originally a series of articles in the Telegraph. Writing a book in a year isn’t necessarily a good thing. The writer may end up with something less than perfect, too hurried. But on the other hand, knowing you are going to write every day for 52 weeks
(a chapter a week, perhaps, or a first draft in 6th months, leaving half the time for research and revision), concentrates a writer’s mind wonderfully. I read A Novel in a Year in 2015 because I was about to do just that. The third of my Shaman Mystery Series Beneath the Tor was delivered to the publishers precisely one year after I’d agree the contract date, and I used the Nanowrimo method, to kick-start the process –

Louise Doughty has already managed that…My first, Crazy Paving…took me 18 months. By the time it came to writing my second, I was theatre critic for a Sunday newspaper, which meant I had all day to write before going to the theatre in the evenings: as day-jobs go, it was a corker. Dance With Me was written in seven months. Honey-Dew… about a girl who murders her parents…was written in eight months while I was sick with exhaustion…

Doughty’s most recent book, Black Water (Faber & Faber UK, Farrar Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books US) was published a full 3 years after its predecessor, Apple Tree Yard, but it is very different, with a new direction again. She’d gone to Bali, where the book is set, for a literary festive, and came back with the seeds of an idea.

I was lying awake…and a really strong image came to me of a man lying awake at night in a hut in Indonesia, mortally afraid. Why is he so afraid? In the opening pages, he decides that men with machetes are going to come and kill him. But I didn’t actually know who he was, I didn’t know how old he was, I didn’t know why he was there. But what I did know about him was that what he was afraid of wasn’t what was going to happen; he was afraid of something that he himself had done…Of course, he’s a metaphor for Indonesia itself. Because a military dictator came to power in 1965, there was never any truth and reconciliation, there was never any coming to terms with this massacre.

Likened to a John LeCarre, and described by The Bookseller as…a meditation on guilt and responsibility…I can’t wait to get my teeth into a new Doughty story, while I’m waiting for Apple Tree Yard to appear on the small screen.