Circling over Shannon

ShannonBrowsing through a variety of websites, looking for Irish words and expressions, I was struck by a couple of things. By the amount of words we have for being drunk. And by the fact that, being drunk apart, there are far more words for bad things than there are for good. Nevertheless, most of these expressions are savage. No, not running round in grass skirts with spears; it means really brilliant.

I noticed another thing this time round. Many of these expressions are so familiar to me that at first I was surprised to discover that they are Irish. I guess because I grew up in an Irish family, albeit in England, I assumed that the words we spoke were the words everybody spoke. Not so. Having ‘a whale of a time’, ‘donkey’s years’, ‘rare as hens teeth’ – these are all Irish. As are ‘bang on’ and ‘earwigging’. Others though, indisputably and gloriously, could have no other source than Holy Ireland. Lets start with the drink – or for those who ‘have the drink taken’, as we would say.

There’s a rich vocabulary to choose from, much of it describing various degrees of inebriation. If you’re rubbered you’re in a fairly jolly and inoffensive state. Someone who is flutered is also a good-natured drunk, though talking a lot of gobshite and not in control of his or her legs. Even when you’re slaughtered you can probably still string two sentences together. If you become twisted, though, you’ll be off your head and need help even to get home. Plastered has become fairly widely used in England – this is another one I hadn’t realised had it’s roots in the old country. Then there’s jarred, stocious, gargled, legless, polluted, blethered, smashed, pickled, lashed, mouldy, banjaxed, soused and ossified. To say nothing of locked, trousered, elephants, transmogrified, mortal and bolloxed.

But my favourite of all time is and still remains – ‘circling over Shannon’. It originates, some years back in the visit to Dublin of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yer man had, as we say ‘the drink taken’. Indeed so much drink had he taken that he was legless and not fit to get off the plane. Which was obliged to circle over the airport while attempts were made to sober him up. Meanwhile the Taoiseach and members of the government waited on the ground – and yet another brilliant expression was added to the Irish vocabulary. Do you have any brilliant expressions to share? They don’t have to be Irish. We’re not the only ones who like a jar or five! Please share in ‘comments’ below.


SuitcaseBearIt started with Twitter. Many good things do. For all the unpleasantness you hear about, my experience of Twitter has been ‘A Good Thing’. I’ve read articles and posts I would almost certainly not have come across in any other way. I’ve met and tweeted with some lovely people. Still do. And Twitter also provides a rich source of topics for blog posts. Like bears.

I love bears. All bears. Live bears and toy bears. I still have my original teddy, Sandy. Boring name I know but I was only small. He sits on the shelf with my very first toy, Panda (equally unimaginative – no clue there that I would become a writer). Both animals are missing eyes and ears and have had much of the stuffing knocked out of them. Bearing this in mind (sorry, hadn’t even realised) you won’t be surprised to hear that when I discovered the pocket bears on Twitter, I just had to follow them. And of course find out about their history.

‘Pocket’ or ‘Mascot’ bears were made around the time of the First World War, most of them by a British company J.K. Farnell. Although accounts differ, there seems to be no doubt that, while originally toys, they soon became very popular with the troops in World War I. Often given as gifts by sweethearts, sisters, spouses or children, they went into the trenches with the soldiers and many perished along with their owners. There are records of bears being found in the pockets of dead soldiers and sent back to the grieving families.

While researching the pocket bears, I came across the story of another bear. A real bear. Wojtek, companion to the Polish 2nd Corps in World War II. Left an orphan after his mother was shot, he was found near Hamadan, Iran, by a local child and later sold to a refugee who donated him to the soldiers. He became their beloved friend and mascot and travelled with them across the Middle East. When the troops sailed for Italy to fight with the British 8th Army, the only way they could take Wojtek too was to enlist him in the Polish army as a private.

There is no doubt at all that Wojtek was much loved by the soldiers, who treated him as family. Indeed it’s been said that he thought he was a person, not a bear. He remained with them throughout the war and travelled with them to Scotland in 1945 where they were to begin the process of demobilisation. The unit now disbanded, Wojtek ended his days in Edinburgh Zoo. And while it seems he was much loved there too, it was nevertheless a zoo and I don’t like to think of him being behind bars; I hope he was happy.

Maybe we’d do things differently, who knows. However, I am unwilling to judge the past by today’s standards. Those soldiers saved Wojtek, they looked after him and they loved him. That’s the important bit. Anyone who treats animals kindly is a hero in my book. Although we may profess to be more enlightened these days, there’s still massive cruelty in our world. Bears and other animals suffer horribly, every day. Among them the Moon Bears, (and Sun Bears and Brown Bears) imprisoned on bile farms in China, milked for their bile in the most cruel and painful way. Charities such as AnimalsAsia work tirelessly to free them. Please help them if you can. They desperately need your support.

A Good Read

Wanted-CoverThe description ‘page turners’ might have been coined for Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers. I would say that they are the perfect time waster – like cats on the Internet – except that this would be to do them an injustice. Well written, exciting, with a charismatic hero and tension that builds from page to page, they truly are books that you cannot put down.

I’ve read maybe half a dozen, including this one. While I thoroughly enjoyed them all, A Wanted Man has more substance than most of the ones I have read in that the plot is intricate and ingenious. Many layered with convoluted twists and turns. The characters too are more rounded, the old county sheriff, for instance – Sheriff Goodman, who was indeed a good man.

The story begins. A man in a green winter coat goes into a concrete bunker, followed by two men in black suits. There is a short pause. The two men in the black suits come out again. They get into a red car and drive off. The man in the green winter coat doesn’t come out again. Then blood pools out from under the concrete bunkers door.

The scene having been thus set, we now shift to Jack Reacher. Hitchhiking, as is his habit. With very little luck, which is also typical. And then he gets picked up and his luck changes. For the worse.

It seems that this book follows Worth Dying For, which in turn follows 61 Days. I didn’t find this confusing. I did wonder how Reacher’s nose came to be broken. I also wondered why he was trying to get to Virginia. But these were passing thoughts because those events were not part of this story and, unlike some other books I’ve read recently, the author doesn’t attempt to try and cram those past books into this one. There’s no need. The action in A Wanted Man is absorbing enough on its own. No doubt knowing what went before would be interesting. But not knowing took away nothing from my enjoyment.

Lee Child’s simple and laconic prose might not suit every type of book, but it’s perfect for his Jack Reacher books. There’s room for every style of writing and I derive great pleasure simply from reading these beautifully crafted words. Not great literature maybe, but certainly good writing. And a master of tension and suspense. A good read, in every sense of the phrase.

Curate’s egg – good in parts

Certain books should carry the equivalent of a health warning. ‘Do not read this book unless you have read all the books in the series in sequence.’ Having said that, I don’t think it should be necessary. A book should either stand-alone or, if it Wednesdayreferences earlier works, the references need to be woven unobtrusively into the plot. It’s not what happens here. Great chunks of backstory are shoehorned in, getting in the way and adding to the confusion (of which there is a lot.) There seem to be several different plots, going off at tangents. And running through it a sort of ‘comic caper’ involving a Polish plumber and a bath.

I was looking forward to reading Waiting for Wednesday. I was thrilled to discover that there were at least three Nicci French books that I hadn’t read. I’d loved all her other books – The Memory Game, Until it’s Over, What to Do When Someone Dies to name just a few. I’d actually enjoyed the first Frieda Klein story Blue Monday. Maybe I wasn’t reading it critically or perhaps because it was the first in the series it didn’t suffer from the problems I encountered here.

Detail follows detail, adding to our knowledge of the family who live here, while we hold our breath, waiting for the inevitable

Before I talk about these, I want to highlight some of the great things in this book. The opening for a start. It’s brilliant. The first paragraphs describe an ‘ordinary terraced house’, offering numerous small details that subtly build a picture of the type of people who live there. Thus ‘the paved and gravelled garden’, a ‘single trainer with its laces still done up under the window’, ‘a bird table with a few seeds scattered on its flat surface’. This is more than an excellent description. This is crime fiction from a highly skilled and creative writer. So we know we are being set up.

We are. Next we meet the cat. We follow it through the cat flap and around the house. It takes its time (it’s a cat). The tension racks up (this is first class writing). Detail follows detail, adding to our knowledge of the family who live here, while we hold our breath, waiting for the inevitable. We’re not disappointed. I won’t go into any more detail, except to say that this book is actually worth reading for this first chapter alone. There’s more to be enjoyed too. Her portrayal of the teenagers is spot on. There are small, realistic and insightful touches such as Fearby, the old journalist who visits a bird sanctuary for comfort after having left the oppressive prison. His character is well drawn and believable, as is the victim’s sister, the rather obnoxious Louise.

In contrast the main player, Frieda, is not plausible. Maybe for a fairly stereotyped portrayal of a psychotherapist but not for someone who would be let within a mile of a police investigation. Not in a million years. She’s irrational. Dysfunctional. In fact altogether a bit of a mess. This would be OK if there was anything endearing about her. There isn’t. I just didn’t care. I wanted to. I began the book in that frame of mind. However I became so irritated by her that once or twice I nearly abandoned the book. And for me to abandon a Nicci French book is something I would have said was unthinkable.

The various plot seem to have nothing much to do with each other, the only common denominator being their overall implausibility and the exasperating Ms Klein.

I didn’t enjoy this book. I was too annoyed. The beautifully written passages and sparkling, lively descriptions are far outweighed by clunky sections referring to previous events. These are only partly successful as they still leave many questions unanswered. The various plots seem to have nothing much to do with each other, the only common denominator being their overall implausibility and the exasperating Ms Klein. The introduction of her lover/former lover/close friend/who knows in the form of a letter tacked on to the end of the first chapter is abrupt. The builders Josef and Stefan are comedy stereotypes, along with Reuben whom I initially thought was a builder too. He turned out to be a psychotherapist. The whole tangled skein of her hinted-at involvement with the detective Karlsson, the appearance of her stalker and her antagonistic relationship with Bradshaw, yet another psychotherapist, makes little sense without having read Tuesday’s Gone.

Altogether, a huge disappointment. I hate it when this happens. I don’t like giving writers less than glowing reviews. Especially a favourite crime novelist who’s given me so much pleasure in the past. This won’t stop me reading more Nicci French books but I think I’ll steer clear of Ms Klein and stick to the stand-alones in future.

Up-Goer Five – a brilliant, and often hilarious, lesson in precise description

Copyright: www.xkcd.comMy latest discovery, via Twitter, that wonderful source of mind food, is the splendid Mental Floss. It’s stuffed with amazing, informative and fascinating facts and articles. Among them these delightful examples of up-goer five speak. What on God’s good earth is up-goer five speak? I’ll explain. Up-goer five speak was inspired by Randall Munroe of the webcomic xkcd, who published a description of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English Language. Thus restricted, the rocket was called ‘up-goer five’. This  prompted Theo Anderson, a geneticist, who believes science should be accessible, to create a text editor that would force the user to write using only those 1,000 words. In their turn, two geologists, Anne Jefferson and Chris Rowan, created the Tumblr Ten Hundred Words of Science’, a collection of scientific texts that had been turned into up-goer five speak. The Mental Floss site has 18 examples from 18 different fields. I’ve taken some more from the Tumblr site as well. There’s only room here for a few, but I urge you to explore both sites and read them all. Especially the original ‘Up-Goer Five’. Incidentally, if you are a writer, a copywriter or need to write texts of whatever nature, this is a valuable exercise. Not specifically in précis or summary, though it’s that too. It’s primarily an exercise in clarity and precision. And in my opinion the world needs as much clarity and precision as it can get.

©Theo Sanderson

©Theo Sanderson

Olfactory Biology “I watch boy flies try to do it with girl flies to see if they really like to do it, or they like boys flies more. This happens when they can’t smell something the girl flies have that makes them want to do it with girl flies or something the boy flies have that makes them not want to do it with boy flies.” Jennifer Wang, research technician in a lab studying fruit fly olfactory behavior  

Web Development “Computers are used to share pictures, words, and movies (usually of cats) with other computers. The computers need to show the cats on boxes with tiny lights in them, but don’t know how. People like me tell the computer many words so that it knows how to change the tiny lights to look like a cat. We try to make the lights change very fast so that you don’t have to wait for your cats. Some days the lights are all wrong, and we have to tell the computer more words to make them look like cats again.” Brandon Jones, Google Chrome GPU Team

Political Economy “I try to see if bad people with power let bad people in business do bad things for easy money. Also I try to see if this hurts good people and their money.” Warren Durrett, political economist

Biological Anthropology “I study old human stuff. We look at the old stuff to see when and where humans came from and why we look and act so funny instead of acting like other animals.” Meagan Sobel, Biological Anthropology student

Circadian Rhythm Biology “Little flying animals can tell time of day. Little flying animals can tell time of year. It’s all in their heads.” Bora Zivkovic

Robotic Surgery “When people get sick they are fixed by doctors. Sometimes this is hard because doctors need to get into your body using small things moved by computers. I study how to make this better for the sick person so that everything is safer. Lorenzo Grespan. Studying patient safety in robotic surgery

Computer Simulation “Some people learn by trying things out. Some people learn by thinking very hard. I make a world inside a computer the way people think the world works, and then try things out, to see if we are thinking right.”Lots of scientists still don’t understand the value of this. Matthew Hoyles.


There we all were. Sitting on the bus. Minding our own business. More or less. As less as you can be in these days of mobile phones. The woman seated directly behind me was sharing her complicated love life with everyone within earshot. A Tractor1man at the very back was bellowing into his phone, which was to all intents and purposes redundant. Tinny, discordant sounds were leaking very loudly from the earphones of a pie-faced youth at least three rows away. In other words, just a normal, everyday journey on a London bus.

The bus stopped. As they do. And more people got on. Including a yummy mummy, her progeny and her fancy tractor. When my nieces and nephews were babies and toddlers, pushchairs were small, light and could fold up so that they resembled something akin to an extra large, particularly unwieldy umbrella. It wasn’t easy. Trying to fold the chair with one hand with a wriggling, squalling baby clamped under your arm while attempting to disentangle small fingers from the mechanism. Simultaneously clutching a couple of splitting plastic bags and hanging onto the collar of a toddler with a death wish. No it wasn’t easy but that was how it was. Everybody managed.

I’m not suggesting that those folding pushchairs were ideal but we’ve gone far too far the other way. By all means have a sturdier type of chair. But theres no call to take the piss. I mean, really! The modern pushchair seems to be a hybrid of a small car, an off road vehicle and a tractor, judging by the wheels alone. Unnecessarily large, completely antisocial, these engines of Beelzebub have no place on a bus. Literally. There is no room for them. Modern buses allow up to two pushchairs; one of these monstrosities causes enough problems on its own.

They protrude into the aisle, making it impossible to get past unless you are thin Pushchairand agile, and even then it’s a squeeze. God forbid you should be on crutches, a bit shaky on your pins or somewhat overweight. No chance. The bus is effectively cut in two with people crammed on either side of the obstruction. Bags and clothes get snagged on the handles, shins get scraped and yummy mummy herself adds to the problem as she blocks the passageway, impervious to the glares of the other passengers. No spatial awareness to speak of. But she wouldn’t care anyway.

There’s a whole class of mums these days that believe they have a divine right. I have a friend who calls them ‘Putney mothers’, the sort of mothers with these antisocial pushchairs, who cluster on pavements with their progeny, forcing others to walk in the road. They let their children take up seats on the bus when there are older people standing. Of course they’re not confined to Putney, nor are they all yummy mummys. They come in all shapes and sizes and types. The thing that puzzles me is why they are on the bus at all.

Judging from the size and opulence of the pushchairs, they’re not short of a bob or two. I’m pretty sure they all have cars. So why don’t they drive them? Of course there’s the obvious fact that the engine of Beelzebub may not fit in the boot of an urban hatchback. Making mummy a bit stupid as well as selfish. However, most of them drive enormous cars that wouldn’t be out of place in Texas – all bulging cattle bars and Humvee tyres – so the Xtra-Xtra large pushchairs should be no problem. I’m not saying I want them to drive. I don’t. However, if you are going to use public transport have a thought for others. Don’t try and fit the pushchair equivalent of a tractor on a bus. Since many of these mothers persist in doing so, with the pushchairs getting ever larger and more antisocial, I can only assume it’s an extreme case of showing off. The female equivalent of a small penis.

A different moon

OceanThis is the first Neil Gaiman book I have read and I was looking forward to it immensely. Glancing through other reviews I could see that others felt it isn’t his best book. Though plenty didn’t agree. However, having nothing to compare it to I felt I was lucky as I couldn’t be disappointed. But I was. A little. At first. 

It was the title that drew me to this book. ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’. Posssibly sparked by something I had misheard on the radio, my imagination conjoured up magical images. The lane was a short lane leading from a suburban street of unremarkable, respectable houses. And the ocean was a real ocean. Vast. Unexpected. Just a few steps from this rather boring road. So eager had I been to start the book that I missed the page just before the Prologue. So my imagined faery scene remained intact. 

I read the first few pages with happy anticipation. I somehow glossed over the fact that the setting was rural, not suburban. I think I too became seven again. “I walked into the farmyard. I went past the chicken coop, past the old barn and along the edge of the field …” I too picked a handful of green nuts and put them in my pocket. Then I turned the corner and found the pond.

Not an ocean. Not vast. Not unexpected. Just a pond in a farmyard. Not magical at all. A pond that a small girl had called an ocean. At that stage I felt that this was going to be a different book from the one I had expected. That was when I felt the twinge of disapppointment. Nevertheless, I was already appreciating the quality of the writing. Neil Gaiman’s ability to create a scene in just a few words. “I wore a black suit and a white shirt, a black tie and black shoes, all polished and shiny … I was wearing the right clothes for a hard day.” So I read on.

Image piles on image. Weird images, scary images. The nightmare that isn’t. The terrifying, shudderingly icky worm – this is perhaps the thing that scared me most.

Then, “Nobody came to my seventh birthday party.” I was hooked. It’s fair to say that I gobbled this book up. I raced through it. I am now reading books with a pencil and notebook on the bed beside me, but I hadn’t started to do that at that point. So I am having to go back to it to remind myself of the details. And there’s so much detail. So many images. The birthday cake that has a book drawn on it and tells so much about this small boy. The tiny little yellow washbasin in the bedroom “at the top of the stairs”. The white mini stuck on the verge, the green toothbrush with toilet paper wrapped round the top.

Image piles on image. Weird images, scary images. The nightmare that isn’t. The terrifying, shudderingly icky worm – this is perhaps the thing that scared me most but I can’t say more without spoilng it. The everyday world where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted, not even your parents. I was no longer disappointed. I was and am enthralled. Nevertheless, I’m finding it hard to review this book. I don’t want to stick labels on it. There’s a real world. That pleases me. There’s a fantastical, other worldly world of monsters and orange skies and a sinister, shape shifting babysitter. That delights me. (Ursula Monkton. What a splendid perfect name, both normal and menacing). 

That enchanted place where there’s a different moon on the other side of the house, where the past can be snipped away with a pair of scissors

At least one reviewer has said that this book is childhood. It is. It’s that strange and wonderful world that only a child can imagine. A child or someone who is still a child in spirit. Someone who in some part of them has not really ever grown up. Who can journey back to that enchanted place where there’s a different moon on the other side of the house, where the past can be snipped away with a pair of scissors, where people live in the present and the past simultaneously. Where there are no limits to dreams and imaginings. Where children can ‘creep beneath the the rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.” And in the spaces between the fences lies a world of horror where a dead man walks “in a frilly white shirt and a black bow tie”, where the hunger birds have sharp beaks and faceless flapping things loom menacingly. 

As I write I’m increasingly conscious of the fact that no review of mine can do justice to this bewitching, charming, spellbinding story. You just have to read it. “I love my ocean,” says Lettie Hemstock. And I love it too.

The Sixth of March


The Sixth of March, which is to be published a bit later than The Eighteenth of November also takes as its subject another avoidable disaster. The sinking of MV The Herald of Free Enterprise on the night of 6th March, 1987. A tragedy caused once more by negligence and where, if anything, the ‘disease of sloppiness’ was even easier to trace back to the boardroom. The book tells the story of Ben, who as a small child, experiences the trauma of the shipwreck and the loss of his family.

Salvaging the Herald

This is a moving little video recording the visit of the friends and families of the victims to pay tribute and the difficult and dangerous righting of the Herald of Free Enterprise, a month after she capsized. The soundtrack is poignant – the hymn Eternal Father Strong to Save, known throughout the world as the mariners hymn. It has the refrain ‘for those in peril on the sea’.

To know all is to understand all … sort of

David Crystal's lovely book

David Crystal’s lovely book


One of my Christmas presents this year was a splendid book about the history of English spelling. Browsing through it I found a chapter on the differences between the way we say and spell things over here and the way it’s done in the USA. The book is about spelling, rather than usage. So while I don’t think I’ll ever be happy about ‘different than’ as opposed to ‘different to’ or ‘different from’, this wonderful book does throw light on why we write ‘humour’ and they write ‘humor’. Why the American’s plow their fields, while our ‘ploughman homeward plods ….’

The book is stuffed with fascinating and little known facts. Did you know that, initially, the American way of spelling many common words was a deliberate, political act? I had thought it had just happened, that the different spelling had just evolved. Not so. It’s all Webster’s fault. Yes, that Websterthe one of the dictionary. The one in the Johnny Mercer song.

Noah Webster, he of the dictionary, was a schoolteacher in Connecticut in the late eighteenth century. He wasn’t too happy with the teaching materials of the time; he didn’t feel they reflected the ethos of what he called the ‘new nation’. So he did something about it.  In 1783, the year the American War of Independence ended, he published a textbook called The American Spelling Book. The date of publication was, therefore, significant and tied in with his views on the ‘new nation’.

Here comes the political bit. Six years after he’d produced his spelling book, Webster published a dissertation promoting an American standard of English. Asserting that it was a matter of honour  ‘as an independent nation … to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.’ He went on to advocate that spelling reform play a major role in this aspiration. He saw the difference between English spelling and American as ‘an object of vast political consequence.’

It didn’t all happen at once. And thankfully some of it never happened at all. At one time Webster preferred nebor to neighbour, hiz for his, ruf for rough and even bed to bead, a change that might have led to all manner of hilarious mix-ups and misunderstandings.  As to the changes that did take place, there was, inevitably, a fierce reaction over on our side of the pond. One Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, fulminated “at the process of deterioration which our Queen’s English has undergone at the hands of the Americans.” He wasn’t the only one. And there are plenty more Henry Alford’s around today.

There’s so much in this book – material for a plethora of blog posts. I’ll certainly return to it in the future. In the meantime I do urge everyone to go out and buy Spell it Out’. It’s a treasure trove of fascination. David Crystal writes with humour and clarity. He makes what many might think of as a dry, esoteric subject totally accessible. Some feat.  It’s well researched and erudite, certainly: it’s also a very good read. It’s a ‘dip into’ book – though I warn you, once you’ve dipped you may find yourself indulging in a long and pleasurable wallow.

(Don’t forget to go to his website and discover many more lexicographic delights)

An accident waiting to happen

There have been countless shipwrecks down the years, both in war and in peacetime. Each one is shocking in itself as well as being a personal tragedy for those involved. While there is no hierarchy in disaster, one life is as precious as any other, those that happen close to home, to people who are just going about their daily business, feel especially poignant. How many of us have taken the tube through King’s Cross, travelled by train, taken a trip on a cross channel ferry? The fact that disaster can strike so suddenly, in perfectly normal circumstances inspired me to write The Sixth of March but that was not my only motivation. I wanted to show the appalling effects that a culture of corporate negligence could have on the life of just one child.

The Herald of Free Enterprise sank on the evening of 6th March, 1987, just as she left the harbour at Zeebrugge. She was laden with day trippers on their way back from an excursion. The ship collapsed within sight of the harbour; one hundred and ninety three passengers and crew lost their lives. The injured were counted in excess of 200, but accounting for everyone was difficult since not only were the passenger registration procedures virtually non existent, there were discrepancies between the accounting procedures of the Belgians and the British. Add to that the fact that the embarkation forms were somewhere in the purser‘s office, by then under water. It is not known to this day just how many passengers were on board when the Herald left Zeebrugge.

Why did the ship sink? The reason was obvious even before the vessel left harbour and way before the public enquiry, led by Sir Barry Sheen, came to the same conclusion.  The ship capsized because it left harbour with its bow doors open. Other factors contributed to the disaster but this was the irrefutable first cause. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, and it wasn’t to be the last. Fingers were pointed, scapegoats were singled out but the plain fact is that, once again, people lost their lives due to corporate negligence, in this case taking the form of “a disease of sloppiness” and negligence at every level of the corporation’s hierarchy.

How it all began

When I started the novel writing element of my MA at Sheffield Hallam I hadn’t decided on a subject for the book. I only knew that I wanted to do something completely different from anything I’d done before. In common with many writers I have a ‘sandpile’ –people give it different names but in essence it’s a file, folder or just a drawer full of jotted ideas, articles and press cuttings. Things that have caught our attention but which don’t fit into the piece we’re working on at the moment, things we want to go back to at some stage.

Everyone else in my group had decided on their theme and time was moving on. So I did what I always do, went through the sandpile. I found some notes I’d scribbled years before, about the Kings Cross tube fire. The train for Sheffield leaves from London’s St Pancras station, which is adjacent to King’s Cross. This plus the sheer romance of the old Midland Grand Hotel inspired me. (The building was by then called St Pancras Chambers and had yet to be restored – the shiny new St Pancras International Station and the posh hotel and loft appartments were still some years ahead.)

I went to the British Library’s newspaper archive and to the main library too and read everything I could find about it, including the Fennell report into the causes of the fire.  I discovered that the fire was yet another example of corporate negligence. This is something that both interests me and enrages me. I’m all to well aware of the devastating effects a culture of negligence can have on individuals and families, with the people in the firing line often blamed for something that eminates from the boardroom. I also discovered that apart from the many life changing injuries, the fire killed 31 people and that one poor person was still unidentified (he remained unidentified for a further seventeen years). That was the starting point.

During our train journey up to Sheffield, we often discussed our writing, exchanged ideas, tried out plots on one another. I told the group about the fire and the unidentified person, at which one of my friends remarked that she had always thought that the unidentified man was an ethereal spirit, not flesh and blood at all. It was a wonderful concept and it became my starting point.

That was how Fabriel was born. Then some magical things happened – the baby just arrived and the baby led to Alice and so on. Mr Aitchison appeared briefly early on, though I had a feeling that he’d play a larger role, which he did. Later, as I was trying to get to grips with Fabriel’s character, Mr Aitchison suddenly took on more importance. Fabriel’s status changed several times during the writing, but Alice’s character was set from the beginning.. The elemental also came out of the blue. As the work progressed, the fire became simply the catalyst, with the story of Fabriel and Alice going somewhere else entirely.

Thought provoking and powerful



AppleTreeThere are books that leave you feeling a little bereaved when you have finished them. ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is one of those books.  There are books that, however good they are, leave you unsatisfied by the way they are concluded.  ‘Apple Tree Yard’ is not one of those books. It gripped me from the perfectly paced prologue to the very end.

When I say perfectly paced prologue I mean just that. The tension builds in the book just as it is doing in the courtroom. We follow the line of questioning without knowing what the protagonists are charged with.  Unlike the jury we are totally in the dark. We just know there are two accused – the female narrator and another. At that stage we don’t even know for sure whether it’s a male or female, unless we have read a bit about the book, as I had.

Unlike the jury we are totally in the dark. We just know there are two accused – the female narrator and another.

The courtroom is described by referring to small details and observations, as are the jury, judge and other players. This is skilful writing. I am familiar with courts and the judicial system and felt I was there.

The book is beautifully written by someone who has mastered the craft. We get show, not tell. We get small details and observations that paint pictures of places, people, emotions. The first violent twist in this story literally took my breath away. I felt as if I’d been punched. I can’t say more without spoiling the book for others; suffice to say that the hatred was palpable and the violence only too real. I didn’t see it coming just as I didn’t anticipate the other twists and turns.

Some reviewers find the characters unsympathetic and their actions incomprehensible, particularly the main character and narrator, Yvonne. Given her lifestyle and background I too found Yvonne’ actions hard to justify. And then I think I romanticised the whole thing so as to be able to justify it to myself. Only to be brought back to earth with a crashing jolt as the courtroom drama unfolded. But that’s another strength, for this is much more than a literary thriller. It’s a thoroughly engaging but disturbing book that forces you to think, to examine your own attitudes and prejudices. It also examines not just attitudes against women, especially older women, in mainstream society but also in the justice system.


A novel for our times


Feral2Not all books grab you from the start. Feral Youth does. And it does much more. Many authors, even famous and respected ones, cannot always achieve a satisfactory ending. It’s extremely difficult to keep up the momentum, not just throughout the book but right to the last chapter. So I am quite often left disappointed when a great read doesn’t quite make it to the end.

This wasn’t the case with Feral Youth. The tension is sustained throughout, and there were quite a few instances, especially from the middle onwards, where I found myself muttering ‘please, please don’t do that’ or ‘please Alesha, don’t go there.’ Indeed at times I almost held my breath fearing what the next twist would be. Like most readers, I had my own views on how I wanted it to end.

We really do get into Alesha’s head and see the world through her eyes.

Alesha’s attitude and life experience wasn’t the eye opener for me that it may have been for some readers because I worked as a social worker in a deprived borough many years ago. I know that the swagger and apparent indifference is a mask. Nevertheless it is a mask that is extremely hard to penetrate even, and maybe especially, for professionals. We are after all ‘the other side’, we’re ‘authority’, we don’t’ understand.

What Polly Courtney has done is penetrate that mask, allowing us to see both the vulnerable and the hardened person underneath the defiance. She has talked, worked alongside and mentored young people who are in a similar position to Alesha. She’s canvassed their views, learnt their language and this has more than paid off. It shows the way it should, not in a shouty or obvious way, but in the authenticity of the characters and in the atmosphere and tone.

What Polly Courtney has done is penetrate that mask, allowing us to see both the vulnerable and the hardened person underneath the defiance.

We see the world through Alesha’s eyes. Character descriptions are sparely written and all the more powerful as a result. Miss Merfield, the teacher, comes alive mostly through her actions, her attitudes and her dress – revealing someone ‘on the other side’ who is in turns caring, vulnerable, foolish and sensible. Other minor yet important characters are a perfect demonstration of how ‘less is more’. Mr Slick with his red socks, slicked hair and false smile. Blowsy Beth, bursting out of her red dress. The woman in the care home asking all the ‘right’ questions but with no insight at all. The journalist, Alison, way out of her depth despite her cool braids and piercings. I could go on and on. Spare writing, vivid portraits.

This short(ish) review cannot possibly do justice to the richness of this book. We really do get into Alesha’s head and see the world through her eyes – not comfortable but definitely enlightening. There are so many small scenes, snippets of dialogue, glancing references that take us into her world. What’s even more important this is a book that makes us stop and think. And continue to think after we have come to the end.