Sunday, 27 November 2011

A Short Intermission

Thoroughly enjoyed the reading yesterday with Martin Malone and the party afterwards with friends.  Thank you everyone who came on a really terrible Lake District day with howling winds and horizontal rain.

Now wrapping Christmas presents, hoovering the carpets and packing the suitcase to start traveling back to Italy.  So I won't be posting anything for a few days.  Looking forward to getting back to the sun and the peace and quiet - this visit has been very hectic.  Haven't read a book or had any peaceful writing time for three weeks! But there is an exciting new project brewing.......    

Looking forward to seeing Neil again  - he's flying back from Cambodia on Wednesday.  And I'll be posting later in the week as soon as I get the suitcase unpacked.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Night Before Nerves

Just getting myself together for the northern launch of 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' at the Wordsworth Trust tomorrow.  Trying to decide what poems to read .......    trying to decide what to wear ........   Taking along a few bottles of wine for the patient supporters who are (reportedly) coming (and a bit of dutch courage for myself!).   Have a repeated nightmare where I go along to a reading and I've come to the wrong place and there's no one there - another one is not being able to find the pages I'm supposed to be reading from.    Some writers really enjoy performing, but I've begun to realise I'm not one of them  -   I'm the hide-in-the-closet and write kind of writer!

Oh - and just discovered that Wendy Robertson has done a lovely review of the poems on her blog at
Thank you Wendy!

Book available from

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Talking about Biography and Fiction

Just been back to Lancaster University, where I was Royal Literary Fund Fellow last year, to meet this year's fellow Philip Caveney   who writes scarey books for young adults.   We'd been invited to give a joint seminar - actually just a posh way of saying that we gave a talk about our own writing to the university staff and whoever else wanted to come along.

Philip started out writing thrillers for grown ups but moved to young adult when his ten year old daughter asked why he wouldn't let her read any of them.  The first YA was written for her and since then he's been very successful.  He read from his latest WIP about a young boy who falls through the floor in a museum in Edinburgh and finds himself back in time and face to face with an infamous Plague Doctor during the time of the Black Death.  It was wonderfully entertaining.

I couldn't compete with that!  So tried to give some insights into how I write and the different approaches to writing biography and fiction and the fact that biography hasn't always been valued as much as fiction - biographers have been vilified as hearse chasers, vultures picking over the bones of the dead, purveyors of literary lace curtain twitching, and upmarket tabloid journalism.  Like a kind of literary Burke and Hare we sell other people's lives and live off the proceeds.

Virginia Woolf said that biography neglected the imagination and worked 'at a lower level' than the sublime art of fiction.  But why should it do that?  I've always thought of biography as a 'found' novel, where you are given the plot, the characters and some of the dialogue and you have to create a riveting story that brings it all to life for the reader.  A novel on the other hand, could be thought of as a fictional biography.

Jane Eyre, a literary fraud
Because I write across both genres I spend a lot of time thinking about the differences between them and how one can feed into the other -  using the techniques of one genre to solve problems in the other.  I've also been puzzled by the recent debate about fake memoirs.  It seems that if a novel is discovered to be autobiographical it isn't a crime, but if a memoir turns out to be a work of fiction this is a sackable offence for an author.  Very strange, since one of the most famous novels of all time began life as the autobiography of a governess, edited by Currer Bell. 

These days, Jane Eyre would never have made it to the shops, the book tour would have been cancelled and the author blacklisted.  Because this is what happened to Love and Consequences published by Penguin USA.  It was, according to the sales team, a riveting, un-put-downable read, but as soon as it was discovered to be (mainly) fictional, it was unreadable and the author guilty of 'a huge personal and professional betrayal'.


Monday, 21 November 2011

Tuesday Poem: Tim Jones

And Not to Yield

Leave home, and your ego
blooms as the square of distance. Return
is a necessary corrective,

a diminuendo of corridors,
anxious crowds, missed messages.
Fretting at the baggage claim:

did they even put your cases on the plane?
And the knowledge that, not far away,
an angry wife is pacing.

Pity Odysseus. Penelope
(the suitors done and dusted)
is on the surface calm

but furious beneath: all that crap
he put her through! She lets it out
in flechettes of resentment.

Odysseus learns to dodge or hide.
All he wants is a quiet life,
a place to write his memoirs,

but she keeps inventing tasks for him.
"I'm not bloody Hercules," he says, and,
"Didn't I tell you there could be delays?"

Tim Jones, from 'Men Briefly Explained'.

This newly released collection from Tim is excellent. There are some very impressive poems in it, but I also liked the way the collection framed them - the flow of the narrative through it. I was very happy to review the book and Tim quotes a paragraph on the back cover.

"Tim Jones writes about how it feels to be a man, of male relationships – father, son, brother, friend, lover, husband – exploring territory that men traditionally don’t talk about, saying what is often unsaid, confronting stereotypes, and genetic imperatives. He writes with a blend of economy, humour and compassion that is rare in poetry, often finding the unexpected phrase - ‘a diminuendo of corridors’ - or an unusual, but exact, image - ‘mountains piled like thunderheads’ - to surprise and illuminate. This poetry is how New Women want their New Men to be – strong, sensitive and empathetic."  Penelope would probably have preferred Odysseus to be like that too.  Living with (or more often without) a hero is hard work!   Odysseus also features in the Derek Walcott poem posted by Mary McCallum this week.

For more Tuesday Poems please visit the website at

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Creative Cafe Project

My story 'Jazz Cafe' is on the menu at the Cafe Lit Creative Cafe Project site today as a Mango Smoothie.  If you love scribbling at cafe tables with a cappuccino on the side, and haven't found the Cafe Lit site yet, please check it out - there's some great work and some very good stuff for writers.

Friday, 18 November 2011

New Use for a Kindle

Neil is on an island, far out in the Gulf of Thailand, where it meets the South China Sea.   There's no electricity, no mobile phone signal and no wi-fi.  But he's discovered that if he walks along the beach at one end of the island he can get a signal on his Kindle - not good enough for email, since it comes and goes - but enough for Twitter.  And, yes, you can  Tweet on a Kindle.  So my entire relationship now consists of a series of Tweets - an affair in 140 characters.   Plot for a novel?

As for me - I'm twittering from the John Rylands Library in Manchester where I'm doing some more research.  And I'm being followed by three very lively authors from America who want to come and visit me in Italy!  Sounds like fun.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Dark Satanic Mills

The poetry festival was held in one of Arkwright’s old cotton mills - Masson Mill at Matlock Bath -  which has been preserved, partly as a shopping centre and partly as a museum.  Unlike many museums, this is not a reconstruction. The machines have been preserved just as they were when they stopped working and the mill has the eerie feeling that you might have just walked in while the workers have knocked off for a coffee break.  Not that they had many of those.  They worked long hours and conditions were terrible.

My great grandfather came from northern Ireland to work the cotton mills of northern England, beginning at 12 as a cleaner, crawling under the machinery to remove the build-up of lint.  It was very dangerous as the looms travelled backwards and forwards on rails, constantly moving.
some very pink lint

Then he became a loom operator and eventually a pattern maker, putting holes in the card that programmed the loom.
A pattern punching machine

The pattern is hung in the front.

I had the whole place to myself and it was a very moving experience to wander through what would have been his working environment - it made it all very real to me and made me feel that I should write about it.  He died, like many mill workers, of emphesema.  

It was great to be able to just wander around.  The machines were complex and fascinating and the workshops were wonderful - at least to someone odd enough to love rooting about in hardware shops and ironmongers.  They looked like my father’s toolshed on the farm - utterly chaotic - and they had that unmistakable smell of iron rust and old machine oil! 
Raw Cotton

first stage spun cotton

A bobbin machine

It was all very dark, so difficult to take photographs even though it was one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever been to.  Every corner, every basket of bobbins, every strange machine was just posing to be photographed.  And in the dying vats there were cubby holes of dyed cotton in every colour you could imagine.

For a lover of history, it was a fantastic experience and has given me a lot to write about -my notebook is crammed!

Monday, 14 November 2011

Poetry this Way

It's not often you get the opportunity to wallow in poetry for three days, listening to it, reading it, talking to other poets, but that's what I've just had.   The Derwent Poetry Festival is small as festivals go but intimate in a way that  some of the bigger ones aren't.

Templar have a reputation for producing beautiful books and, as one of the three winning Straid poets, I was very pleased with the look of mine - as were Martin Malone and Susanne Ehrhardt with theirs.  I'd met Martin before, but it was the first time I'd met Sue, who is a doctor and has worked for Oxfam in a number of third world countries and is a very good poet and really interesting person.    Martin's also had a pretty diverse life, working as a rock musician, sound engineer and teacher, in Saudi Arabia and finally in Cumbria.  He currently plays in Simon Armitage's band, Scaremongers and works as a special needs teacher.

Also reading at the festival were Jane Weir, talking about Walking the Block, her biography in poetry and image of the textile artists Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher.   Another poet new to me was Christopher James whose pamphlet The Manly Art of Knitting was also being launched.

Stayed in a lovely B and B in Matlock Bath - B & Bs aren't what they used to be - mine was furnished and kitted out like a five star hotel - everything you might possibly wish for from a mini-bar to a tooth-brush (and it turned out to have free wi-fi too!).  And towels twisted into swans on the bed and the most amazing display of fresh fruit for breakfast.  Not to mention the fact that the owner rescued me from a disaster with public transport and drove me to the poetry festival.  There are still nice people in the world.  Thank you Roger!

Now back at the Mill for a few days before going off to do some research in Manchester for a new book proposal.  It's colder than Italy and very misty, grey and autumnal.  I miss the light. 

Friday, 11 November 2011

It's finally launched!

It’s finally going to be out!!!   So forgive the outbreak of exclamation marks!   This weekend is the launch of my new collection from Templar Poetry at the Derwent Poetry Festival.    The books aren’t on the Templar bookshop website yet, but we’re assured that the web update is on its way and any books ordered online (£8.99) will be delivered asap, just  e-mail    Should also be on sometime next week.  I’m reading with several other Templar poets as well as my co-award winners, Martin Malone and Suzanne Ehrhardt at the Arkwright Suite, Masson Mills, Matlock Bath if anyone's in the Derby area over the weekend.  Mimi Kalvati is the guest poet reading on Saturday night and there are lots of others.  It sounds good fun and I’m really looking forward to it.  Won’t be able to blog from there, as the B&B I’m staying in doesn’t have wi-fi.   And no, I don’t have a smart phone, or a Blackberry.   But I’ll take lots of pictures and hope to do an update once I’m back home on Monday.

I write poetry very slowly - so much of the creative energy gets used up by writing prose in order to pay the bills.  It’s ten years since I last had a collection out - an exhibition of poetry and photographs (called Secret Eden)  to celebrate Visual Arts Year.  Before that it was a small pamphlet called ‘Unwritten Lives’.   So this collection has been a long time coming.  But whatever I write in order to make a living, poetry is where I start from, where I feel most comfortable, my natural voice,  and I can’t tell you what it feels like to have the poems out there to share with others. 

It may seem odd, but it means more to have one small poetry collection published than all the biographies put together.   This really is the blood on the page, rather than simply describing someone else’s blood on the page.  This is my chance to show that I can do what the people in my other books do.  Does this make sense?   I’d argue with anyone that biography is an art form, a found novel, a creative act, but deep in my bones, there’s a car sticker slogan or two lurking in the back window - ‘Biographers do it second hand’.  ‘If you can’t write, write about people who can’.

Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 is about journeys - departures and arrivals.  I seem to have been waving goodbye to people at airports and train stations all my life - I once counted up that I’d had 27 addresses in three different countries by the time I was 25.   The poems are also about different kinds of goodbye - the failure of relationships, the deaths of close relatives.   It contains a few of the most popular poems in the earlier pamphlets  (what the Pri-mate calls ‘Kathy’s greatest hits’!).   But there are a lot of new ones gathered together from little magazines that have published individual poems over the last few years, some that are too new to have been published anywhere, and a few more from E-zines such as the Tuesday Poem blog site.

I have a few review copies to give away - if anyone would like one please leave a comment or email me on

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Travelling and Plagiarism Scandals!

I'm off to the UK  for the launch of 'Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21' at the Derwent Poetry Festival.  By an odd coincidence I've just waved goodbye to Neil who is off to Cambodia via Milan and I'm not looking forward to the next 3 weeks on my own.

Interesting story unfolding in Book World - Q.R. Markham's much hyped spy fiction 'Assassin of Secrets' released only a few days ago has been withdrawn after a tip-off that passages had been 'lifted' from classic spy novels.   Amazon described  the book (pre-revelation) as   'a narrative hall of mirrors in which nothing and no one are as they seem'.  It proved to be absolutely prophetic!

Red faces and big losses for Little Brown and Hodder who have withdrawn all copies -  end of career for author who didn't include the quotation marks.   According to the list on the Huffington Post and a number of blogs, this isn't just the odd phrase picked up and unconsciously repeated,  the book seems to have been a patchwork of other people's novels including classics such as Ian Fleming.  Even Markham's interviews were quotes from someone else.   How can this happen?   Do editors no longer read?  Don't they check for plagiarism?  Apparently the Huff Post compiled their list by putting phrases into Google and seeing what came up.  Shouldn't the publishers have done that?  I have to do it with my student's work to check for originality.

Rain still causing chaos in Italy.  Neil managed a couple of shots from the train as he passed through the Cinque Terre.  At Vernazza you can see the huge mound of rocks, mud and debris that's still being bulldozed from the streets.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tuesday Poem: Christina Rossetti

A Pause

They made the chamber sweet with flowers and leaves,
     And the bed sweet with flowers on which I lay;
     While my soul, love-bound, loitered on its way.
I did not hear the birds about the eaves,
Nor hear the reapers talk among the sheaves:
     Only my soul kept watch from day to day,
     My thirsty soul kept watch for one away:-
Perhaps he loves, I thought, remembers, grieves.
At length there came the step upon the stair,
     Upon the lock the old familiar hand:
Then first my spirit seemed to scent the air
     Of Paradise; then first the tardy sand
Of time ran golden; and I felt my hair
     Put on a glory, and my soul expand.

Christina Rossetti,  written circa 1853

Christina 1848 by her brother Dante Gabriel

Christina Rossetti's father was an Italian political refugee and poet.  Her mother was the daughter of another Italian writer, Gaetano Polidori.  Christina's uncle was John Polidori who accompanied Byron and Shelley to the continent and wrote The Vampyre.  Although she was born in London and spent most of her life there, Christina was very Italian in temperament - which didn't fit very well with English Victorian notions of womanhood.   She and her brother Dante Gabriel were known as the 'two storms' but while he was allowed to go his own bohemian way, Christina had to conform and she found it difficult to subdue her rebellious disposition.   Much of Christina's poetry is about loss, loneliness and renunciation - themes that mirror her own life.  She broke off two engagements to men she loved  passionately because of religious differences (one was a Catholic, one an aetheist).   She seems to have regretted both decisions in later life.   Her mother was deeply, inflexibly, religious, an older sister became a protestant nun, and Christina's life under their influence was very restricted.  She was always very shy and spent most of her life at home, avoiding social contact,  writing poetry - some of which was erotic and passionate.  Her most famous poems are 'A Birthday',  'In the Bleak Midwinter', which was set to music by Holst, and 'Goblin Market' - one of the most erotic poems in the English language.   The poem above, A Pause, was written at a time when she had just broken off her engagement to the Pre-Raphaelite painter James Collinson who had converted to Roman Catholicism.  

Christina Rossetti:   Learning not to be First, originally published by Oxford University Press,  is available as a Kindle book on Amazon for £2.86.

For more Tuesday Poems, please go to the hub on

For a review of  contemporary American poet Stanley Plumly's collection 'Now that my father lies down beside me' , go to my book review site .

Monday, 7 November 2011

Signs of Change in Book World?

What could be nicer than books and chocolate? The Galaxy Book Awards are rapidly upstaging the Booker prize, which has taken a knock lately after arguments about the need for readability which supposedly clashes with perceptions of literary value  (are the two things irreconcilable?).

Alan Hollinghurst won the Author of the Year award - after having been left off the Booker shortlist - for his novel 'The Stranger's Child'.   A lot of people will be pleased to see an award going to Sarah Winman's debut novel  'When God was a Rabbit',  and an old-fashioned literary biography won the non-fiction prize ahead of the much hyped celebrity bios.

Apparently there's been a reader's revolt against the trend towards (often publisher generated) celebrity memoirs/biogs  and Claire Tomalin's 'Dickens' is doing much better than anyone (even Claire herself) predicted.  Hurray!!!!

Nothing for poets this time though.

Interesting post by Elizabeth Baines over at Fiction Bitch, about the experience of re-reading books you loved as a child.    It's called 'What do we read, when we read?'

Galaxy Award Results:- 

Waterstone's UK Author of the Year: The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (Picador)

Specsavers popular fiction book of the year: A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French (Penguin)

More4 popular non-fiction book of the year: How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (Ebury Press)

Crime and thriller of the year (available on iBookstore): Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson (Doubleday)

Daily Telegraph biography of the year: Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin (Viking)

International author of the year: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Corsair)

Food and drink book of the year: The Good Cook by Simon Hopkinson (BBC Books)

WHSmith paperback of the year: Room by Emma Donoghue (Picador)

National Book Tokens children's book of the year: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Walker Books) audiobook of the year: My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, read by Dan Stevens (HarperAudio)

Galaxy new writer of the year: When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline Review)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Christina Rossetti re-issued

Today I'm posting over on the Authors Electric blog site, about the re-issue of my Christina Rossetti biography as an E-book.

We have a huge storm here at the moment - just watching it from the sitting room.  We've spent two days at Peralta trying to pick as many olives as we could before the storm arrived - four of us picked 243 kilos!  Now have very bad back, but at least the olives are at the press.  Genoa, sadly, is afloat with a flash flood generated by this storm.  Italy does seem to be suffering from severe weather this year - meteorological as well as economic.


Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fright Night - my Halloween date!

For Halloween we went to a fund raising event at the Croce Verde (Green Cross).   In Italy a lot of the emergency services (eg Misericordia ambulances) are run by charities, rather than government run as in the UK.  The Croce Verde has been much involved with the rescue effort in Monterosso and Vernazza, so particularly in need of support at the moment.  We paid 15 euros for a gigantic portion of meat and chips, with wine, followed by a very sticky cake - estimated at about 1000 calories per slice!   It was fancy dress, though not everyone managed it.  Neil rather stole the show with a home made mask downloaded from the internet and a borrowed wig.

Here is my Pri-mate for the evening;

Today and tomorrow are public holidays here - All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  Everyone visits the cemetery to tidy graves and place flowers and remember the absent members of their families.  In even older times it was Samhain, when people believed that the fabric of the universe was at its thinnest and the spirits of the dead could communicate with the living.

So, in Italian fashion,  I've been remembering absent members of my own family - my Italian grandfather Thomas, my lively grandmother Annie who loved to party, my story-telling Irish father and long suffering Geordie mother (I still miss them a lot) and two little grandsons, Alfie and Taliesin who died at birth, but are still very much part of our family.