sLINKY SUNDAY – not safe for work

These are the links I’ve enjoyed this week. Thanks to Laura Dron, Amanda Jennings, everyone on facebook and Sarah Watkinson.

Laura Dron’s pictures

hilarious but very rude blog about cooking

why you should support gay marriage – also not safe for work

Tony Harrison on Poetry

this is so beautiful it made me cry – it’s about mushrooms

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Posted in creativity, film, friendship, links, Writing


I enjoyed reading all of these. Thanks to Nic May, Laura Dron and others.

Amazing story about couple who found their baby on the New York subway

What could possibly go wrong? They’ve really thought this one through



Posted in Writing


Here are the links I’ve liked the most this week. I hope you like them too.

wonderful pictures

interesting corrective

Clare Foster, Gardens Editor of House and Garden has a lovely new blog

Polish poetry from Ravensbruck

strange, ingenious, fascinating



great use of an awful song

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Posted in links, Writing


I follow and am ‘friends’ with a lot of writers, and others, on facebook and twitter. I often stumble across links that they post and I think are interesting or uplifting in some way. Sometimes I’m directed to links on the various poetry courses I take. So I’ve decided to put them on this blog every Sunday that I can, in hopes that you too find them useful or uplifting or sometimes even both.

Billy Collins’ interesting and illuminating essay on poems of memory

Seamus Heaney reading his most famous poem on the Poetry Station

Somatosensory Cortex – not strictly about writing but about perception and so beautiful I couldn’t resist

I am down with the kids, even the excessively talented ones

my top favourite funny

I hope you enjoy them.

Cathy x

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Posted in Writing


I’ve written about fear before I think, even if only on twitter.

Fear drives me to the kettle n hundred times a day.

Fear leads me to write poetry instead of my novel. That’s quite a productive use of fear. But it doesn’t get my novel written.

I read a piece by AL Kennedy the other day about how she decided early on to write as well as she could, to give it everything.

The thought of this makes me feel a bit sick (and in fairness to me seems nearly to have killed AL Kennedy).

When I run I constantly worry about trying my hardest and having nothing left, burning out, being unable to continue. I need to keep a little something in reserve for my own security, for peace of mind.

Of course I worry then that the little piece that I leave in reserve is the best bit, the bit that will make the difference between being placed and being an also-ran, between people wanting to read my work and them not wanting to read my work.

Not that I worry that much about people wanting to read my work. I do have a sense of how a reader might respond to what I write. I try not to bore myself or the imaginary (implied?) reader who is reading over my shoulder. But really I want to write something which I think coheres, which hangs together in a satisfying way. It’s quite a modest ambition, but still looks like Everest from where I’m sitting.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether it is fear that keeps me moving at snail’s pace. Maybe I’m just a snail.

I tried to write part of my novel quickly to a deadline which Christmas threatened to eat the other day and it wasn’t good.  Full of errors and things that I didn’t really feel.

Perhaps my work has to be mulched and bedded down a bit on a few dozen furrowed-brow walks when I think to myself I must get on with my novel and I wonder how the protagonist will deal with X or Y.

And I do really like tea.

When you see me advertising my first collection of poetry, you’ll know the fear has won.

[A note on social media. One depressing thing. People are using the ‘like’ function on WordPress blogs to promote their businesses. So now when I see that someone has ‘liked’ my post I don’t know whether they do in fact like it or whether they just want me to buy one of their pictures or whatever. The ‘liking’ and commenting has always had a quasi-reciprocal string attached to it. But it used to be just other bloggers trying to raise their profiles by commenting or ‘liking’, which was sort of innocent as there was only the most indirect or gentle financial link (authors hoping to turn clickers into book-buyers mainly).

One fantastic thing. I’ve started following the poet @George_Szirtes on twitter and he is producing a series of intensely enjoyable and literary tweets about the Doctor and Langoustine. It’s a fantastic use of the medium as it’s non-narrative. Narrative suffers in the maelstrom which is twitter because you won’t generally see every tweet from any particular author. Szirtes seems to understand this and it doesn’t matter if you miss one or ten or twenty of the tweets but they are somehow cumulative, so the more you read the more enjoyable they become. In my view it’s the first self-consciously literary use of twitter that exploits the medium in an intelligent and sophisticated way.]

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Posted in Writing

Andrew Motion and his encouraging gin problem

I went to see Andrew Motion reading his poetry at his alma mater St Anne’s College, Oxford, courtesy of the Oxford University Poetry Society, a few nights ago.

I have seen him read before and he reads beautifully. He also shared some of what he’s learnt about poetry, about his approach to poetry, which I found invaluably encouraging.

His subject, he told us after the reading, is what it means to be a sentient being in time. Luckily for him, he said, this means he feels a greater sense of urgency about writing as he gets older. He’s in his sixties now and wonders how many more springs he will see.

He read movingly about the death of his mother in a lengthy poem about the horse that threw her and caused her death. Some great images of how neglected the horse became, her hooves unshod and taking on the appearance of corrugated cardboard, in contrast to the meticulous grooming to which she was subject during her rider’s life.

It was an interesting and unobvious way into the subject of such a major loss. I’ve taken away a lot to think about. How does the neglect of a horse which accidentally killed his mother relate to his feelings about the loss? Is he expressing his guilt about surviving and enjoying his life, about not remembering her enough? I think so.

How complicated that the last remnant of his mother on the planet seems, or seemed, to have become the four-legged creature which killed her.

He read about his father, a man he seemed to disdain as the kind of Englishman who, when presented with a free few hours, will always suggest going out to kill something; a man who boasted of having read half a book in his whole life. But his poem about his father cutting the lawn and playing cricket with him and his brother, made it clear that his feelings for his father weren’t only critical.

He read about his wife, although, perhaps because she is not dead, this was the least revealing poem. That poem it seemed to me was more about recognising that life, in the trite saying, is not a rehearsal. If you want to go to Holy Island, then now is a better time than the uncertainty of next year.

He talked a bit about being Poet Laureate and how for the ten years he filled the post he was unable to write poetry and thought his poems were gone for good, another loss he grieved. But he said that a few weeks after he stepped down he became aware of a buzzing in his head, like planes waiting to land at Heathrow. He then wrote prolifically for a while. His pace has now slowed to pre-Laureateship levels.

I didn’t quite have the confidence to ask him any questions. I would have asked him about sonics. I would have asked him about the sound of his poetry and how important that is to him. I would have asked him about decorum in poetry. I would have asked him how to know the difference between learning the craft of writing poetry and trying to squish a square peg into a round hole.

A young man asked him how poets can ever know when a poem is finished. He said he thought that when a poem appears in a journal is one marker but that death marks the final edit.

He discussed his process too. He writes first thing in the morning, from about five thirty, when he is still half asleep, and, if I’ve understood him correctly, less likely to censor himself. This is a piece of advice I’ve seen before and have occasionally followed with some personally satisfying results.

For me the most important and exciting thing he said was something that he has apparently said before. He said he wanted his words to be clear, to look like a glass of water, which would only on being drunk reveal itself as full of gin.

This is exactly my ambition for my poetry.

It’s good to know that it’s an ambition that’s recognised as worthy, that I am following in credible, if large, footsteps. Doesn’t make it any easier though.

When I left Sir Andrew and the young man who asked about when a poem is finished were talking. I walked off into the night thinking that it was good someone was encouraging that young man especially when women are currently so dominant in the form.

But I still wondered nervously if his kind of poetry is a boys’ club.

Find Oxford University Poetry Society on facebook too. Before the reading they described themselves as ‘inclusive’ and they seem a friendly bunch.

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Posted in censorship, creativity, life writing, literature, Poetry, Writing


Wasn’t it the Austrian-Jewish-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said ‘whereof you cannot speak, thereof you must be silent’?

Well I never fully understood Wittgenstein beyond loving his idea that we can prove the existence of other people by the existence of language.

For those who didn’t do first year metaphysics like me, almost all that I garnered from the whole year was that Rene Descartes started it with this breakthrough: the plain fact that he thought proved that he was. He could not, however, prove the existence of anyone else except with an unsatisfactory (to me) appeal to God (who wouldn’t lie to him).

Humanity had to wait for the twentieth century for Wittgenstein to point out that language is in its nature social. Language therefore proves the existence of other people. The idea of a language spoken by one person is senseless, dying if not dead already. Language needs to be spoken between people or it is just grunting.

(Note: I might have got this wrong.)

A couple of blog posts I wrote a few months ago have come back to life and triggered some debate about limits.

There is discussion of what you can say and what you can’t say in a public space.

I had a dream, a naive belief really, that a poetry class was a place where anything and everything is up for discussion. And I suppose if you try to nail down the definitions of poetry – excellent speech, the best words in the best order, powerful words – then violent, anatomical and disgusting words are certainly not excluded.

But starting a discussion with challenging words may not lead to a productive outcome. It may just horrify the people you want to speak to.  It may silence them or send them running from you.

A friend has a dog who finds other dogs frightening. So her dog goes on the attack. She’s been retraining the dog to approach other dogs politely, with a wagging tail and pricked up ears, to approach them, in other words, in a friendly, non-confrontational way.

I think I need to be retrained.

I think I have been if I’m honest. The experience I had in poetry class taught me once and for all that the social aspects of a situation cannot be neglected whatever the formal rules. Social stuff should perhaps be the focus, at least initially.

In other words the limits I experienced arose out of a social context, not out of the words per se. Or do I mean that it’s just futile to think that words can be divorced from their social context? And isn’t this where Wittgenstein comes in.

It’s all a bit hazy.

I don’t know if there’s a link here to the current furore about Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore’s remark about transgender Brazilian women. There is definitely something here about limits, though, and social contexts.

I feel for Suzanne. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what she said, I’ve definitely experienced many moments when for some people what I’ve said in all innocence has been offensive to them. Then they’ve used their superior knowledge or education to shut me down, to block me having any discussion of the issue at all. I’ve often wanted to say to them but I’m a good person, doesn’t that cut me any slack?

The hard left at university were the most aggressive about this, although the entitled rich kids could be just as silencing in subtler ways. And yes I have often felt like I was in a constant rerun of the Ronnie Corbett/John Cleese sketch about class.

The writer Stella Duffy wrote a wonderful blog post about what’s happened to Moore. I didn’t understand all of it as I haven’t either had first-hand experience of all the issues raised, or educated myself about them. But I think she was calling for reasonableness and speaking against easy harshness.

The fear that she expresses about contributing to the debate at all I found sobering. It’s as if the hatred that is now regularly thrown around social media, especially twitter, often at women, is like the hand of all the witch-burners reaching out from history to assert their malevolent continuance.

Her words put me in mind of John Rawls, an American philosopher, who called (among other things) for us as a society to accept that we have a basic concept fairness. He wanted philosophers to stop trying to define fairness to the nth degree in long and complicated (highly excluding) terms and get on with the business of making a fairer society.

I’m not going to paraphrase Stella Duffy, you can read her words for yourself, but a big part of what she’s saying seems to me to be that we know what Suzanne meant. It might be appropriate for some people say how her words hurt them, but not in terms of such hatred.

So yes we have to be careful of other people’s feelings. But we should be able to say what we want once we’ve established trust.

I think that’s where I am too, with limits. I think.

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Posted in censorship, criticism, feminism, literature, Poetry, women, Writing

Banned words

I REMEMBER my brother as a seven-year-old leaning over our garden fence and shouting ‘Bum, bum, willy, willy’ at the new neighbours. From the lofty heights of my eight years I explained that this was just a ‘phrase’ he was going through.

We carry on going through phrases all of our lives it seems to me. ‘We’ as a society, I mean.

You wake up one morning and everyone’s on it or across it. I mean, what’s that about? Or every mother in the playground suddenly announces she doesn’t do maths, cooking or even, in one case, people.

OMG is probably the most ubiquitous. This seems to have transcended its origins (Was it that episode in Friends where Chandler’s girlfriend says it all the time?) and become normalised. It’s even got the coolio twist of zOMG which is based on a common typo, demonstrating the impact of texting and tweeting.

If I’d been paying attention I could probably trace where more of them came from. Often it’s popular TV shows and films.

In the US they try to ban some of the worst. This year they’re banishing fiscal cliff and spoiler alert among others. I can’t seem to find any comparable UK lists.

That doesn’t mean they don’t exist of course. Every student of poetry soon learns that it’s much worse than swearing to use the words shard, gossamer, rainbow or dream, and that the moon must be handled with care, while abstract concepts anger, love, grief etc must be shown, or described in concrete terms, rather than named.

In prose adverbs can be used only very, very sparingly. You shouldn’t use passive verbs either.

As the US list is published in the name of the Queen’s English, this looks like a case of our friends across the pond trying to be more English than we are. Or maybe it’s irony. (Contrary to popular wisdom, all my American friends do irony.)

I love the way language changes and grows. I have no truck with pedants who, just because they have learned about split infinitives and gerunds, want to inflict them willy-nilly on the rest of us. This is simply the elite keeping watch at their gates and in a very boring way. There’s no excuse for it in conversation and even in print it’s of limited guidance.

I particularly enjoy the way America often throws up vigorous new phrases which make me see the world in a slightly different way. I consistently find American neologisms very useful.

One friend from Los Angeles used to dismiss people she disliked with ‘she’s not on my grid’. Don’t you just know what that means without having it explained? It’s so expressive.. There’s no bitchiness there. It’s just they had no co-ordinates in common.

The same friend, when I complained about another mother whose bragging about her children left me feeling inadequate and furious, explained, ‘She’s just your toxic baby-friend.’

So that was alright then.

But when everyone’s saying the same thing something else is going on. It’s not just the joy of language. It’s people wanting in on something. Something they feel is cool or powerful.

Guard was the first word I can remember taking the playground of my own childhood by storm. Suddenly everyone was saying it. Oh guard!

We didn’t have a telly so I wasn’t exposed to Starsky and Hutch or The Dukes of Hazard or whatever it was that everyone was watching and aping. It took me a long time to work out that this was a US pronunciation of ‘God’.

Our appropriation of Americanisms persists despite the irritating anti-American shtick that I meet occasionally. (Could everyone in Britain just grow up about this? They won their independence, they’re bigger, more powerful and richer than we are. Suck it up. You’re making yourselves look like poor losers. And I’m not even mentioning the wars.)

Guard was quickly superceded by wicked, probably the first case in my lifetime that I noticed  the language of gangs, or the street more broadly, being taken up. Because it’s really cool to have guns and drugs, yeah? And today we have sick or at least we do here in the provinces. In London it’s probably something else by now and Manhattan will have moved on even earlier.

People don’t just choose their vocabulary to look cool, obvs (how cool is that though? ‘Obvs’?). I can remember one excruciating moment at a dinner party where I was chatting to the host about this sort of stuff and talking about how the word scary was suddenly everywhere (this was back in the day).

I suggested that this was because people wanted to create an impression of themselves as artlessly child-like and sweet and that as such it was an unbearable affectation. As I finished the sentence further down the table the hostess used the word in a conversation she was having with another guest. ‘More wine?’ said the host. zOMG.

Why didn’t I just stick to ‘bum bum willy willy’? No one wants to fall out with the man. Or his wife.



Posted in Writing

In which I win Blog of the Year Award

I have to thank Tonya Cannariato, a writer, editor and reviewer I know solely from twitter and other social media (especially Triberr) for thinking of me.

Blog of the Year Award 1 star jpeg

A lot of other bloggers have won this too. But I am very grateful nonetheless because I rate Tonya. Besides think of the alternative.

These awards are the way we bloggers wave at each other and cheer each other on. I do sometimes get nominations and then in the hurly-burly of life forget to do them. Sorry, sorry, sorry to anyone who has had this experience with me. I am grateful to you for the awards and will, if prompted, do them.

I’ve nicked this next bit off Tonya.

The “Blog of the Year” award is a little different from some other awards, because you accumulate stars.

Here are the ‘rules’ for this award:

1 Select the blog(s) you think deserve the ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award

2 Write a blog post and tell us about the blog(s) you have chosen – there’s no minimum or maximum number of blogs required – and ‘present’ them with their award.

3 Please include a link back to this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award – and include these ‘rules’ in your post (please don’t alter the rules or the badges!)

4 Let the blog(s) you have chosen know that you have given them this award and share the ‘rules’ with them.

5 You can now also join our Facebook group – click ‘like’ on this page ‘Blog of the Year 2012’ Award Facebook group and then you can share your blog with an even wider audience.

6 As a winner of the award – please add a link back to the blog that presented you with the award – and then proudly display the award on your blog and sidebar … and start collecting stars…


For more information check the FAQ on The Thought Palette.

This is Tonya’s blog. Erm, I don’t know how to display the badge on my sidebar. I have tried to ‘like’ the facebook page but I’m not sure it worked. I have competence issues. So sorry.

The blogs I’m going to mention are ones that I read regularly and enjoy.

I might think of others and add to this list so apologies if I haven’t included you.

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Posted in Writing

Milking the maggots

Not to milk the maggots — although what a gift they were — but I did get some interesting responses to my post.

Some readers were kind enough to comment on the post right here on the blog, and that’s always good for the soul of a blogger. I am grateful to you all.

Others chose to comment to me privately. If any of you are reading this, don’t worry, I will always respect your privacy. But I wish I could share your comments. Some people are grappling with situations that are extreme, confronting a variety of demons of varying ferocity. Yet these people were kind enough to say that what I wrote gave them some light relief. It’s what I dream of, of course.

Their comments did make me really feel what I already knew which is that maggots are not a problem. Not when they’re gift-wrapped,  dead and come with Christmas wishes. I felt a bit embarrassed for even mentioning them, although I know that wasn’t how these people intended me to feel.

The comments did make me think though. I wanted to offer some kind of comfort. But I know I can’t. Words aren’t always enough and they can seem hollow.

But I did reach an end-of-year conclusion for this blog.

It is that we always have tomorrow.

No, I’m not being brisk. It’s just a fact. Tomorrow is coming up as fast as the planet turns.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed.

In the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara, heroine, or perhaps anti-heroine, of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind: “I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

This is a fantastic ending because it concludes everything, but leaves enough open to let our imaginations play out our own final conclusion. In this it has something in common with Ian McEwan’s Atonement. He famously ends his novel with a choice of endings, although he is clearly more invested in one ending than the other. It’s interesting to me that Mitchell leaves this implicit. Half a century or so later McEwan wants to talk about it, it seems to me. He’s challenging us to think about the way in which we use stories with happy endings to comfort ourselves even when we know the truth is grim, is not happy.

These days a rollicking good story isn’t enough for literary writers. It’s all got to be meta.

McEwan also narrows our choices. One ending is unbearably sad, the other artificially cheery. Mitchell leaves us with the whole world of tomorrows to arrange as we please.

And tomorrow can be the beginning of a new story or at least a new plot development. New characters can arrive and established ones leave. Sometimes we get to try new settings. Things can change. Or our view of things can change.

Even when tomorrow is all we have, it’s a lot it seems to me. It’s opportunity. Tomorrow our tomorrow is a whole new year.

It’s maggot-free so far.

Happy 2013.

Cathy x

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Posted in characters, creativity, ethics, feedback, friendship, life writing, Writing

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