Review: David Jones and Pallant House

Last weekend I went to see the David Jones exhibition at Pallant House in Chichester. At the moment I seem to have the habit of only getting to exhibitions in their last few weeks … but you have until 21st February to visit, and it’s well worth it. The gallery has much more to it than I ever imagined, Chichester is lovely, and the David Jones exhibition is fascinating.

David Jones (1895-1974) is a modernist writer and artist. I first came across his somewhat impenetrable book, In Parenthesis when researching WW1 writing for my dissertation. In Parentheses, for all that some of it is difficult to read, does an amazing job of conveying written trauma, of addressing the impossibility of writing war experience in a linear and coherent way without diminishing the event. Jones has a breakdown after completing the work which was published in 1937.

Some of the exhibition focussed on Jones’ war art, but there was much else. In his early work, which was much more realistic, he depicted homes, people and animals. Some of his later works are fascinating word pictures, mixing Latin and Welsh, scratched crayon or chalk, and different fonts. This one, right, translates as ‘Truth is the best muse’.

Another expression of Jones’ later work is the much less realistic drawings he did. Many of these involve flowers and trees that seem to grow across the canvas, mixing pen, pencil and watercolour in a crazy compilation of images.

The exhibition took us from Jones’ very first drawings – an impressive lion, age seven, through to the end of his life. It was beautifully curated, and everything that I’d hoped for. Had that been all I’d seen I’d have been happy, but we noticed that there was a tour at two o’clock as well. We stayed at the gallery for lunch in the restaurant (£14.95 for two courses, excellent food, and there is also a café. Go there in warmer weather and there is lovely outdoor seating.)

The curator took us round some of the exhibits from Pallant House’s extensive collections, many of which have been donated to the organisation. The majority of works were by British artists from the last century, with some European work.


Cat, by David Jones

There was a gallery of portraits, including a self portrait of Lucien Freud, one of landscapes, and some of late twentieth century works. The person leading the talk knew plenty to keep us interested, and explained how Pallant House has been transformed from grand home to council offices to art gallery, and how in 2006 the large modern extension was built.


Alongside the works by well known and lesser known artists there were works from students and recent graduates from the art degree at Northbrook College. These works drew inspiration from the surroundings. I loved the ceramic hyacinths, placed alongside the hyacinths in the Lucien Freud portrait, and the fabric cushions and bird, inspired by the ostriches at the front of Pallant House.

If you do have a spare day at a weekend or over half term, do try and take the time to visit Pallant House.



Lucien Freud early pencil self portrait

Works by new artists emerging from Northbrook College

One of my favourite pieces, The South East Corner, Jerusalem, by David Bomberg


Find out more about visiting Pallant House.

Strange days indeed #whatimwriting

Writing is often hard. Right now I’m going through a difficult patch. I completed a first draft at the end of last year, and now I’m moving towards a second draft, as I mentioned last week. I have the story outline, and I’m listing scenes and working on what key actions happen in them: do they move the story on and do they really need to be there. I’m also reading for research (on being held hostage, in Africa, AND on the politics of aid and disability, if you have any recommendations.) But it’s strange. I like research, but I’m finding this intangible background searching a struggle. I want to be writing, making visible progress. So I’ve decided I’ll carry on like this through February and March, then in April I will push everything aside and start with my scene guide and a blank page and go for a second draft. In the past I’ve tweaked first drafts, made copious notes, and then stopped, but this will before the first total rewrite. I’m looking forwards to seeing what happens.

Review: Not if I see you first

I don’t generally review YA, but I’m writing about sight loss so couldn’t miss out on the chance to see how another author has dealt with this. Not If I See You First  by Eric Lindstrom tells the story of Parker, a fifteen year old, and her journey as she comes to terms with the loss of her father. So far, so conventional in the genre. The twist is that Parker is blind.

I know something about sight loss, probably more than most people, but it’s because I’ve studied it rather than experienced it. I’ve written a book about it, in fact, Sight Loss: The Essential Guide. I’ve worked with people with sight loss from the age of 15, but I still am not entirely qualified to determine if Lindstrom has  created an authentic piece, I don’t think anyone can truly understand sight loss without personal experience. Parker is, unlike most ‘blind’ people, entirely without sight: her optic nerves were severed in an accident when she was seven. The experience has left her spiky and defensive: she holds her close friends close, but has rules that she, and anyone who wants to be with her, have to live by. The rules run from one to eleven, plus there’s rule infinity.

Rule #1: Don’t deceive me. Especially using my blindness. Especially in public.

Rule #2 explains how not to touch Parker without warning, rule #3 highlights not to move her stuff, because she needs to be able to find it, rule #4 says, ‘Don’t help me unless I ask.’ and so on. Rule infinity is slightly different: ‘there are NO second chances… betrayal is unforgiveable.’ And this is where things get interesting. Parker’s high school has recently combined forces with another school, throwing her back into contact with kids she hasn’t seen since middle school, including one, Scott, who broke rule #1, and in doing so, smashed rule infinity too. Parker hasn’t spoken to him since.

Parker is quirky, and she’d rather attack than defend: she uses words like weapons, and throughout the book she begins to realise how this can keep more people at arms length than she might intend. She meets a nice guy, Jason, goes on a first date, and rows with her best friend when she starts to doubt how much Sarah is sharing with her. Lindstrom does a good job of tapping into the teenage mind with all its insecurities, adding in a heaping of extra worries that surface when you can’t see what’s going on and rely on other people to fill you in.

The characters are authentic – new girl Molly who buddies with Parker as she shares the same classes, Parker’s cousins Sheila and Petey who have been moved from their home town as Parker’s aunt and uncle move to take care of her. The plot speeds along at the perfect pace as we watch her deal with tensions with Scott, and decide that maybe she had been harsh in cutting him out of her life all together back when they were thirteen.

So, I’d say that this is a good read, with a twist of something different. It could certainly get teen readers to think a bit more about sight loss, while being carried along by a good story. Not If I See You First  costs from £7.99 at time of writing.

PS. Braille! Eric Lindstrom has liaised with the American Braille society in writing this book. There is Braille on the cover and in an end note. I reviewed the eBook, and I suspect that there may be a reason to get the print copy for the full experience. If you have the print copy and have checked out the Braille sections, let me know.

Midwinter writing retreat #whatimwriting

I’ve just spent a fabulous weekend at a writing retreat at the new home of the Sussex House Party.  Hosted by Gilly Smith and Jed Novick, the weekend was a great mix of good food, good company and great inspiration.

We arrived Friday night for a delicious Syrian inspired dinner with home cooked bread, and the chance to get to know the eight writers taking part. Some of us had come from Sussex, others from much further afield. Most people were in the midst of a big project like a novel, memoirs or a set of themed short stories.

Saturday morning I woke to a beautiful view of the frosty Sussex countryside. A pheasant made its way slowly across the lawn, and I could hear Jed and Gilly’s dogs somewhere across the fields. A hot cooked breakfast was followed by an hour and a half of inspiration from Tom Connelly, author of The Spider Truces, a story about a father and son, spiders and growing up in Kent which is now top of my reading list. He spoke about his transition from film maker to writer, his writing successes and failures, and shared his advice to just keep writing.  (Tom reckons it takes him five years per book which helps me keep going!). Tom followed this with one to ones with each author.  He was gently interested in each person’s works and willing to share his own experiences.

I spent the afternoon working in my room, a beautiful white walled room with touches of red and gold. It was a great place to get more deeply into the characters in my current book, which is set in London, West Africa and on the Kent coast. I discovered more about the motivation of the female lead character, what makes her behave the way she does, and what holds her back. I also drafted a couple of tricky scenes which although i wasn’t sure about them at the time have made a helpful contribution to the book as I look at them now.

The evening passed with wine and conversation and Gilly’s delicious cooking: it was a real treat to have someone else plan and prepare meals. We also got the privilege of hearing the first draft of Katie’s song about her father, which was very moving.

Sunday morning we woke up to snow so I went for  a quick walk round, making sure I got some fresh air and movement, however tempted I was to stay in and just write.

As I returned to the house, writer William Shaw was driving up. I’ve written about William’s Breen and Tozer series before, so it was great to get the chance to hear his take on writing. He was very focussed in the one-to-ones. While I might have asked him about his writing, he was clear that he was there to find out about what I was working on. It was reassuring to hear that he thinks I’m on the right track. And over lunch I did get to hear about his new book, The Birdwatcher which is out in May.

The weekend overall was truly special, and right now I’m trying to fend off the come down! Gilly and Jed are great hosts, the authors who came to speak to us were lovely people, and it was fabulous to hear the work and inspiration from the other writers taking part. At the end of the event, the feeling was very much, ‘When can we do this again?’, and I already have plans to meet up with and stay in touch with the supportive group that we formed.


Review: 712 more things to write about

He’s still here. Still here. Still, lying in bed, but asleep, not dead.

Is your New Year’s resolution to write more? Or do you just want to get started with writing? I’ve found that regular writing, whether you do Julia Cameron’s Daily Pages from The Artist’s Way, or pick some other way to write every day, is the best was to clear writers block and get through to what you really want to write about.

This Christmas, my daughter gave me 712 More Things to Write About , a book full of prompts to inspire you to write. It is packed with ideas, and there is a fairly small space-from a quarter page to a whole page – for you to fill in with your writing. There are so many ideas that I have found it easy to open the book at random and pick one that appeals most days this year, even when the children were on holiday. The small space allowed means that you can fill it in a few minutes, so perfect for a commute, a lunch break or while you are waiting. the book itself is lovely quality, which I think adds to the inspiration.

Below, I have include an example of a prompt, and my response:

A woman travels continents and oceans to be at her dying father’s bedside and when he doesn’t die, even though she loves him, she’s disappointed. Why?

You’re still here. Still here. Still, lying in bed, but asleep, not dead.

I told you I loved you, over and over, when they said there was no hope. Somehow it seems that  you’re going to pull through, this time. Yet I don’t feel joy, just resignation, maybe even disappointment . This is going to happen again, I can see now. It’s the perfect way to make me put everything on hold and focus on you, exclusively, just like you always wanted.

I stand up, touch your hand, and say, “Goodbye Dad!”

 Sometimes I could do with more space, and in filling the slot feel that I have only just started a story, so if you had time this would be a good way to take the ideas that seem fruitful and expand on them. So, if you have had some book vouchers for Christmas, or simply want to invest in your writing, I’d very much recommend 712 More Things to Write About which is £12.99 at time of writing.

Review: The Life-changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k

First, there was The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. Then, in an excellent example of action and reaction, came The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k. It’s the second book that I’m reviewing – although perhaps I should have read Marie Kondo’s book on decluttering your life first.

It’s that time of year where, if you’re anything like me, you clear out the clutter. By my front door today, there are bags of clothes I don’t wear, and boxes of books that I’m not going to read again, all lined up and ready to go to the charity shop. I’ve read enough about The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying that even my underwear drawer is tidy now, but what about the other, bigger drains on your life. A tidy home is of little benefit if you never get time to relax in it. In The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k Sarah Knight takes a wry look at how to declutter your life from things – and people – who drain your time, energy and money.

I think I’m fairly good at choosing what I care about and not being driven by other people’s opinions but if you find yourself saying yes then regretting it, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k is the book for you. I do sometimes say yes to invitations and regret it later, and in this book Sarah Knight encouraged you to weigh up the emotional and time costs of saying yes, as well as the financial costs.  She uses examples such as drinks with co-workers, expensive weddings and hen nights. Writing in terms of fucks given (and this is not a book for you if you flinch at the use of the word fuck), she suggests we all have a limited fuck budget and need to say yes to only the things we really care about. In the book Knight suggests how to do this without upsetting those we care about, and how to prioritise our own needs in a good way.

The book is humorous,  not endorsed in any way by Marie Kondo, and an easy read. If you’re the sort of person who is frustrated by being told to tidy, but perhaps you feel you have too many obligations and not enough time, this could be the book for you.

Christmas Fiction

“So you’re Mary?” Mrs Landers’ smile was wide as the doorway. “Come on in and get yourself warm.” She glanced through the open door. “Looks like there’s snow in those clouds. It’d be nice to have a white Christmas, wouldn’t it?”

“’M warm enough.” Mary slouched into the room, carrier bag in her hand. “S’not exactly the Ritz in here is it?”

“Don’t be rude, Mary,” Angela said, shuffling through her papers. “Beggars can’t be choosers, and if you will run away on Christmas Eve, well, it’s not like we can put you on the next bus home. Even if we trusted you not to get off at the first stop. You’ll be warm and safe here, until we can get your dad to collect you.”

Mary slumped on the chair, letting her lank mouse blond hair fall over her face. “He won’t bother. I told you not to try calling him. He’s been on at me since I …” She glanced down at her stomach, a curved dome bursting out from her anorak. “Never mind.” She picked at her nail, wishing she was different, smarter, older. She looked around the room. No point trying to run, she was too slow now. She’d let them think she was staying and work out how to find him later.

“Right, I’m off. Mrs Landers will show you your room.” Angela pulled her fluffy white coat round her as she left.

Mrs Landers’ cheerful voice filled the silence. “So we’re quiet here, this Christmas, just you and me and Bruno.”

“Thought you only took girls, that’s what she said.”

“Bruno, well, I don’t think Angela’s ever really taken to him. She says I should keep him out the back in his kennel when I’ve got visitors, but you don’t mind dogs, do you?”

Mary raise her head a fraction, glancing at Mrs Landers through her long fringe. It was just another day, another place to stay, and all she had to do was get through Christmas. “S’pose. Don’t have much choice, do I?”

“He was going to be put down, too big for most homes they said at Battersea. And I’m a pushover for waifs and strays.” She flushed, her cheeks matching the rose of her jumper. “Not that you’re … come and see your room, lovey.”


Mary sat, sullen and quiet, through dinner. “Not really hungry,” she’d said when it was served up, but she cleared her plate, first good meal she’d had, she thought back, since it all blew up, since she couldn’t hide it any more. Bruno lay beside her all the way through the meal, and she didn’t think Mrs Landers noticed when she slipped him some of her chicken.

She watched the television without a word, though Mrs Landers chatted the whole way through the EastEnders special. The big dog lay sprawled at Mary’s feet on the rug that used to be cream with pink flowers but was now tired and grey.

“Ah,” Mrs Landers said as it finished and the news came on. “We won’t watch that. All a bit gloomy, isn’t it. Now it’s time to turn in, lovey. You going to come upstairs?”

Mary shifted in the big armchair with the tattered floral covers. “Dunno. In a bit.” She needed time to herself, time to find a way to contact Joe.

“Come on. You need to get your sleep in before the baby comes.”

Mary let herself be chivvied upstairs. She didn’t get changed. She lay down, waiting, but she couldn’t get comfortable on the single bed, and her body ached. Too long sitting on the bus to London, she thought, and all to no avail. It was the police who’d picked her up, right outside the bus station, hadn’t believed her when she said she was sixteen already, took her phone off her, delivered her straight to social services.

She gave up trying to get comfortable, and slipped out onto the landing. She knew his phone number, and Mrs Landers looked like the sort to still have an old fashioned home phone. She paused outside the woman’s bedroom door. It was ajar, and she could hear slow, steady breaths, so she carried on downstairs. She hadn’t seen a phone in the living room, so she went through to the kitchen. As she passed through the doorway she had to grip the frame as a shard of pain ran through her.

Shouldn’t have eaten so much, she thought, drawing in breath to try and ease the stabbing. Bruno nuzzled round her feet, his shoulders level with her thighs, and she was glad she wasn’t alone. She wouldn’t be alone, wouldn’t be here for much longer if she could get hold of Joe. He’d come and get her, and by morning they’d be gone, and by tomorrow no-one would be able to drag her back home. Her gaze alighted on the old cream plastic phone. She listened for a second, then picked it up and dialled.

“Joe? It’s me. … I know. Brixton. 17 Lansdowne Way. I know it’s miles. … Great! I’ll wait down here.”

Maybe she should have gone back up for a bit, it would take him more an hour to get there from Enfield, but her stomach was cramping, her back ached, and she didn’t want to have to go up, just to come down again. She couldn’t put the telly on, it might wake Mrs Landers, so instead she paced up and down, stopping every few minutes as another cramp grabbed her. Bruno followed, back and forth round the small living room, his big brown eyes watching her.

“Come on, Joe,” she said, voice low. She gripped the back of an armchair. The pains were getting worse, and she was starting to get an inkling that it wasn’t the chicken pie. She just needed to hang on until Joe got there.

Finally, an engine roared to a halt outside the house, the sound cut out, then there was a tap on the door. She waited until the contraction slowed then opened it and flung her arms round the lanky young man.

As they separated she said, “It’s snowing!”

“I had to go slow, nearly came off the bike a couple of times. Where’ve you been, Mary? I waited and waited at Victoria station but you never showed, never answered you phone. I thought you’d changed your mind.”

“Doesn’t matter. We need to go. Oh!” She leaned on him as her womb clenched.

“What’s up?”

“The baby. We need to go home, now.”

Joe turned, scanning the whitening street. “We can’t, Mary. You can’t go on the bike like this. What if the baby came on the way back?”

“What’s all this?” Mrs Landers had come down the stairs, pink dressing gown wrapped round her, “Come in off the doorstep and I’ll put the gas fire on. Now who are you, young man?”

Things blurred after that, glow of the gas fire warm on her face as she knelt on the carpet, pain seizing her body. She could hear Mrs Landers, anxious voiced, on the phone, “No, I see. I know. As soon as you can.”

“It’s coming, Joe. It’s coming and we haven’t gone home yet.” Joe’s hand was warm on her back, Bruno beside her.

“It’s okay, Mary. We’ll be fine. You should see the place I’ve got. It’s small, but it’ll be enough for you and me and …”

Another pain seized her and his words were lost as she gripped his hand.

“I’ve called the ambulance, lovey, but they say the roads are getting worse. Can you hang in there?”

“Don’t, … think … I … can …”

She could feel it, tearing, burning as the head crowned.


“Just a bit more, lovey, I’ve got a towel ready when he comes.”

She pushed, kept pushing until, with a sense of relief, the baby slipped out of her body.

“There you go, lovey. You hold him now.”

Mary smiled as she put the baby in her arms. Joe leaned over and put his arm round her. “That’s my girl,” he said.

Mrs Landers went to the window and pulled back the curtain. Mary could see the flakes falling thicker and faster now.

“Going to take a while for the ambulance, lovey.”

“It doesn’t matter now. She’s here, we’ve got our little girl.”

“I don’t know what that Angela is going to say. And your parents!”

“It doesn’t matter.” She looked at Joe. “What time is it?”

He checked his phone and grinned. “Just gone midnight. Happy birthday, Mary.”


Review: The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen  is the sort of book that makes me want to give up writing. It cleverly interweaves the diverse topics of squirrels and traumatic brain injury, love and family relationships, along with a Norwegian economist to make a strong story that keeps you reading all the way though. Veblen is a 30 year old temporary medical secretary when she meets Paul, a research doctor. She is creative and alternative: having grown up with hippy parents, Paul wants to live life by the rules. Veblen queries twenty first century materialism: Paul embraces it. Despite this, they fall in love and plan to marry, but of course, being a book, the path is far from straightforward. Their quirky families and conflicting beliefs cause problems, but these are multiplied as Paul wrangles with big pharma to try to develop a new medical device that could save soldiers lives when they experience traumatic brain injury in the battlefield. Readable literary fiction, this book mixes humour with intelligence, and keeps you reading to the end.
The Portable Veblen is around £12.99 at time of writing.


Review: The Novel: a survival skill by Tim Parks

I’m not sure.

I was beginning to get irritated by the subjectivity of the first chapter of The Novel: A Survival Skill: The Literary Agenda, and the start of the second where the author talks about meeting JM Coetzee, but then he starts to dissect the biographical fallacy, and I wonder if he is intentionally writing in a personal and subjective manner, sprinkling ‘I’ throughout the pages. Biographical fallacy: we shouldn’t interpret literature in relation to the author’s personal life. Parks writes, “Imagination works on material that is available.”  As an author, and particularly since writing more creative works of fiction, I re-read my work wondering just how much of me it exposes.

And Parks’ book weaves in and out of the personal: a chapter about Joyce is followed by a chapter where, ‘The publisher  of this book has asked me to include a section on my own writing, to put myself in the picture. I do this with reluctance.’ The penultimate chapter on Dickens is possibly one of the most interesting parts of the book, full of details about Dickens’ personal life, and possible drivers for his plots. Parks concludes that we cannot judge a book or provide any ‘pecking order of writers’ because, as readers, our reactions are conditioned by our backgrounds too.

I’m still unsure. This is a book that is good in parts.

Review: Grief is the thing with Feathers by Max Porter

What I know now.

  1. I cried. How can one not cry all the way through a book about two small boys whose mother has died?
  2. Grief shifts. It is different every time and still the same, over and over again, through centuries and nations. We all feel grief, it seems never ending, and yet we travel through its depths until it becomes less consuming, still present. We move on, we are never the same.
  3. I don’t know enough about Ted Hughes. Or crows. Or Ted Hughes and Crow.
  4. That Grief is the Thing with Feathers is a gut wrenching, understated, sideways examination of loss.
  5. And I want to know what Max Porter is going to write next. Because the thing about throwing out conventions and sneaking up on story so it builds and twines between pages from different points of view, is that it is a hard thing to follow.

Buy Grief is the Thing with Feathers for around £7 … or do the sensible thing that Amazon suggests and invest in Ted Hughes’ Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow too.