Writing and my Mum



I wanted to reflect a bit on the writing I’ve done this last year, and the people and opportunities that have helped me with it. 2017 was a busy, fruitful year on the writing front. I was lucky enough to be short-listed for the Kelpies Prize for unpublished children’s novels, run by Floris Books. I also wrote Green Knight, a one woman show which I performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, and adapted two short stories as audio dramas for the Shoreline of Infinity Infinitesimals project. I finished the year sketching out the plot and opening chapters of a new Middle Grade novel, doing a really thorough re-edit of the novel which was shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize, and being part of the recording of two Infinitesimals dramas – one adapted by me and one by the talented Jonathan Whiteside.


Last year, though, was just as much about connecting – or keeping connected – with people who supported, improved and inspired me as a writer. There were the readers who kindly gave feedback on my work – most of all the wonderful, talented Jen McGregor, who gave so generously of her time and expertise to dramaturg Green Knight, improving it immeasurably. There were the staff of Floris Books, who welcomed me so warmly between the shortlisting and awards ceremony for the Kelpies Prize, and, even though it didn’t win, offered fantastic advice on taking the novel forward. (If you write children’s fiction set in Scotland, you should be entering the Kelpies Prize – these are fantastic people). Writer Jonathan Whiteside and editor Noel Chidwick provided enthusiasm and momentum for Infinitesimals audio dramas, which will launch formally in 2018. I joined SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and enjoyed workshops, crit group feedback and some lovely socialising with the local branch. And the awesome writers I met when I was part of Story Shop last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival have proved to be a really precious writing tribe, supporting everything I’ve done and inspiring me with the fabulous work they’ve produced. It’s partly down to them, and to SCBWI friends, that I’m now in a productive, daily writing routine.


But I also want to talk a little about my Mum.


While my dad was a bit of a frustrated actor, and probably fuelled that side of me, my mum was very much the writer and reader in our house, putting a wide variety of books in my hands (and never raised an eyebrow when as a teenager I decided to describe the naughty bits of The Thorn Birds to her – although she probably had a good giggle about it afterwards). Good stories were treasure to her, something to be passed on and shared, and that’s very much how I feel about them now. It’s a coincidence, but one that makes me very happy, that this year, before she passed away, I revisited a lot of my favourite childhood books, including Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, my Noel Streatfeild collection, and Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse.


My mum died in 2017, although the mum I knew had drifted away almost before I realised it a few years ago, when her dementia took hold. Before her funeral, I had a chat on the phone to the minister who led the service (and did so very beautifully), but hadn’t known her. I talked through my strongest memories of her: her big smile, her love of music – and her writing. She told me on more than one occasion that she would have liked to have been a journalist, but that it was difficult for women to go into the job when she came out of university in the 1950s. I’m not sure how happy the profession would have made her, in the long run, but who can say; instead she became a very, very good teacher.


However, she still found a way to write – producing lifestyle articles on family life for the local paper. One of my firmest memories of her from my childhood in the 1970s is at the typewriter. It was a noisy machine, and she rapped out her words with fierce determination (this was not an era for secret messaging). This typewriter time was my mum’s alone – she insisted on it, in a life where she was more or less constantly in demand from one or other of us, adopting an unsmiling writing face which clearly warned, ‘Do not approach’. I was enchanted by the typewriter in the way my son now gets hyped up about a new iPad. Here was a machine that fired out words! Even more impressively, these same words would weeks later resurface in the actual pages of the newspaper which tumbled through our letterbox every day. And, although the sheer honour of this seemed sufficient to me, they would even pay you!


As soon as I could, I negotiated time for myself on the typewriter, and started tapping out my own stories – these now provide unintended hilarity for myself and my teenager (they also feature some less than classy illustrations by the author). But I’m so grateful to my mum for the example she provided. That there was a joy in creating, imagining and storytelling. That the time to do this was not something to be sacrificed to a sense of responsibility to others. That writing was also work – in the sense that it could and did lead to publication and payment, but also because it required hard, inky graft and a lot of edits (bear in mind these were the days before we had Tipp-Ex, too).


So, she would have been delighted to see me writing, and to have heard that I’d performed last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival (which she always loved and spent too much at – something else we have in common). She would have adored to be with me at the Kelpies Awards ceremony (also at the Book Festival) in August, and to hear my words read aloud. I can picture her exactly as if she had she been there, quaffing wine and beaming at me through the crowd.


The thought of going into the new year without her hurts, and is bewildering. But I’m also beginning it with stories to tell, goals for my work, and people around me who value writing as she did. And that’s a starting point to be grateful for.


Christmas storytelling

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This week, a storytelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight written and performed by me, and filmed and produced by the fantastic Channel 7a, will play in four 10 minute episodes released daily on YouTube. You can watch the first episode here

The episodes will go out on 22, 23, 24 and 25 December. Chances are you will have other stuff to do on at least the last of these days (Santa is stiff competition) so they’ll remain up for you to watch at your leisure over the Christmas season. 

Please do give it a watch – it’s similar in style to, but not the same as, my one-woman-show Green Knight which played at the Edinburgh Fringe this year (you’ll find more about that on my website here). The episodes going out before Christmas are a straight storytelling, and not a version from the point of view of Lady Bertilak, as the Fringe show was (although Lady Bertilak will definitely be back with her side of the story in 2018!) Also, it’s an armchair version – with a little bit of outdoor storytelling thrown in (recorded in the woods at -5C – next time I will have thermals under that dress).

Christmas is a perfect time for storytelling. However, I’ve always particularly wanted to put a version of this story out at Christmas time as it’s during the Yuletide festival that the Green Knight bursts into the feast at Camelot and Gawain’s quest begins. Most of the rest of the story then plays out during the following Christmas and new year season. But the connection runs deeper than that, because the theme of the passing of time and the brevity of mortal life, which is such an undercurrent in the fourteenth-century poem on which this is based, always seems to me to recall the short, hard, bright days of mid-winter. And every day this month when I’ve been out and about in bitter cold under the glorious winter skies, it’s struck me how winter captures the life described by the Gawain-poet – hardship and beauty, a freezing burst of colour.

Of course, there’s also some serious feasting and partying – which you’ll hear about in episode one of the storytelling. 

This is our first of what we hope will be a regular streamed series of storytellings in 2018. The awesome Sandy from Channel 7a and I worked together on trailers for Green Knight in the summer, and he approached me with this idea for online storytelling after we’d recovered from the Edinburgh Fringe. We’re both very excited about this project. It immediately brought back lots of happy memories for me of Jackanory in my youth – and of a particularly brilliant telling of the story of Odysseus by Tony Robinson on children’s TV back in the day. So we have lots to inspire us and to aspire to. 

If you’d like to read more about the medieval poem on which this telling is based, the description on the website of the British Library, who hold the only surviving manuscript, is a good starting-point. Michael Smith of Mythical Britain, who’s publishing a new translation of the poem with beautiful linocut prints in 2018, has written some really excellent blog posts about it. The poet Simon Armitage made a fantastic documentary with the BBC about the poem a few years ago, and his modern translation is wonderful.

So, pull up a comfy chair, tuck into a mince pie and tune in to our broadcasts. We hope you enjoy.

Writing Green Knight


With less than a week to go until Green Knight premieres at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, I thought it would be worthwhile popping up a blog-post about what led me to write the play.  This is partly because it’s something a few people have asked about, and partly because it’s an interesting thing for me to reflect on now I’m in the final throes of preparation!

The first, most obvious answer is the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight on which the show is based. It’s an Arthurian romance, one of a series of stories popular in the period about King Arthur and the knights of his Round Table, and their adventures both on strange and marvellous quests, and in love. The poem survives in only one manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, and we don’t know who composed it – the poet is generally referred to as the Gawain-poet or Pearl-poet, after one of the other three poems in the manuscript. All four poems are thought to come from the same poet, and they share the same north-west Midlands dialect (although this may come from the scribe who copied out the manuscript rather than the poet).

You can see digitised pages from the manuscript, including some beautiful illustrated pages, at http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2012/08/sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight-online.html courtesy of the British Library and University of Calgary.

I read the poem first when I was seventeen years old, and about to head off to my first year at university. I can remember clearly the shock I felt when I opened the text for the first time and realised that I could understand only around one in every five words! If this was typical of what was coming then university was going to be really hard!

I decided to try and read it in small chunks over two weeks. I was agonisingly slow at it. But at the same time, despite the temptations of summer, friends, and dodgy 1980s pop, I couldn’t leave it alone. There was the cracking adventure it told: the interruption of the new year feast at Camelot by a strange green knight issuing a beheading challenge, a challenge which is taken up by Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, who is famed for his courteous manners and religious purity. It was pretty obvious to me that he was heading for a fall. The language, even if it was odd and challenging, was at the same time rugged and beautiful – and northern! And the characters, young and lively and gorgeous, were simultaneously painfully human and flawed. It tuned in perfectly with my sense of where I was at seventeen, about to leave home and live independently for the first time, testing myself in the world, bubbling with arrogance on one hand and simultaneously terrified I wasn’t up to the job. The poem’s combination of the strange and the familiar, the ideal and otherworldly and the messily, dirtily real, was irresistible – actually I’ve never quite got over that. It led me on to specialising in medieval literature, and then a D.Phil in medieval studies, and I’m still drawn to anything related to the Middle Ages.

When I came back, nearly thirty years later, to thinking about a story to adapt for a one-woman show, I wanted something that fed my medieval obsession – and Gawain was an obvious choice. I started to feel curious about the woman at the heart of the poem. Arguably any power she has in her world is very limited – and while she speaks a lot in the main section of the poem in which she appears, the words may have been fed to her by others. But her ambiguous motivation (in my head, at least), and the ingenious flirtatious skirmishing she enjoys with Gawain, made her irresistible. I began to wonder about what could have brought her to this point in her life, and how she felt about it. What was going on in her head, and if she could tell us her side of the story, what would she want us to know? So, I started writing framing pieces for the main adventure story, in which my lady spoke about her life, and to shade the storytelling of Gawain’s challenge to express her perspective.

Writing the story from the lady’s point of view brought to the fore of my mind the shortage of female voices in medieval literature. When I’d worked on my D.Phil, I’d looked at the problem of ordinary people who might want to be remembered by future generations and how that might be achieved – in the research I was doing, this included town clerks (male, of course) who exploited their control of city records and the gift of literacy to insert information about themselves into those records. In particular, I was struck by an early town clerk of London, Andrew Horn, who commemorated a son, lost at an early age, with a brief but poignant listing in one of London’s civic books. For women, making their voices heard, ensuring they would be remembered, was an even bigger challenge. So, I started to explore the idea of my lady, seized by an urgency to tell her story before time ran out for her.

And lots of other reasons! But what’s here will begin to give you an idea of what inspired me. More soon!