New readables

My short story, Cremating Imelda, is the featured story in this month’s Animal Literary Magazine. When Imelda’s 440lb body overwhelms a crematorium’s ventilation system, the newspapers are equally horrified and amused. But Imelda had a life before her cremation, and a secret talent only her parish priest was privy to.

Also out soon in the Pre-Raphaelite Society Review is my article ‘In Defence of Walter Deverell’. Sometimes referred to as the ‘lost’ Pre-Raphaelite, Deverell died before his talent could truly take off. What happened to his family – and how they kept Walter’s place in PRB history alive – was interesting and poignant to research. Some typically bitchy Victorian letter-writing, too, with what appears to be the use of some rather sneaky pseudonyms.

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A Sense of Place

I find I’m writing more and more about a sense of place. I’m moving house this week, and all my notes are about waterways, familiar food, and the colour of soil.

I was born on the Rock of Gibraltar. My Dad was stationed at the Navy base there, and I spent the first two years of my life beautifully oblivious to the existence of England and drizzle and Margaret Thatcher. I went back last month, not for the first time. As usual, didn’t want to return.

As a Forces child, going wherever the MOD tells you to while the head of your family sweats in a minesweeper’s engine room somewhere far-off and unpronounceable, you’re left feeling like you belong nowhere. Family interactions take place via satellite phone, friendships are brief, and your birthday plans depend on what Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Miloševic have in store for June. Though I left Gibraltar in the late ’80s, the place always meant more to me than anywhere that followed. Two years after Gib, we were on a godawful submarine base in Scotland. Our allotted house had been arsoned a few months previously. Shards of glass, all over the garden.

The Rock was stable, I was safe there, and it was mine. Nulli Expugnabilis Hosti.


plane hibiscusskull

Gib is dusty and colourful and intimate and huge, and every time I get off the plane and crane my neck to see the gulls wheeling around the harsh green crags of the upper Rock, I wonder why I ever let myself get mired in the flat Fens – though I love those, too.

It’s the abundance of light and water.



Plus, you can buy a litre of vodka for £3.99. If that were the case in Britain, you’d be stepping over mounds of poisoned teenagers, but the closest I got to an encounter with a drunk was a sober gentleman carrying an easel, wanting to tell me something important:

“You’ve changed your dress. You were wearing black this morning. I saw you, wearing black. I had a demon inside me for fourteen years. But I met a man from Birmingham, and he made it come out of my neck, like whoosh.”






I find it’s only after you leave a place that you begin to feel it inside you.

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Pre-Raphaelite Poetry II

My sonnet ‘Kelmscott’ has been published today in The Pre-Raphaelite Society’s annual poetry competition anthology.

“Collected in this book are the entries to the second Pre-Raphaelite Society Poetry Competition. The poems offer a myriad of pleasantly surprising responses to the Pre-Raphaelites, their successors, paintings, poetry and lives.”

Copies are £3.99 from


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Leaping into the new year

A belated happy new year to you all. 2013 brought new friends, new skills, and new publications, but I’d be fibbing if I said I wasn’t ready to leap into 2014.

I’ve made headway on a new, inevitably Victorian novel. This was aided in part by my summer experience at the Isle of Wight steam railway, getting to grips with the challenges of hopping on and off steam engines in a crinoline during the hottest weekend of the year. There’s nothing like primary research.


Getting intimate with a new narrator is part joy, part daunting challenge. Emma Darwin’s post, 19 Questions To Ask (and ask again) On Voice, has been a helpful point of focus as I reign in the material of the woolly winter months.

“Yes, Voice, overall, is one of the archetypal writerly things that you can’t, completely, make happen by sheer force of will. But as I was discussing here, it’s a mistake to assume that the only good decisions are those which come from that mysterious place we call instinct and intuition. A bit of clear thinking and precise focus can make things clear for your intuition to recognise. And besides, there are always times in your writing life – the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments – when intuition fails you. But even then, you can always ask practical, technical questions about language and grammar, and – as I was exploring here – so often when you do get practical and technical, you’re led back to the strange, instinctive stuff of our imagined worlds.”

I spent the Christmas break reading Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend and goggling at her masterful world-building. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but, 500 pages later, I feel I know something of its dreary gorgeousness and savagery. “Oh man, you are starting with the wrong Donna Tartt novel,” says just about everyone I mention it to. If that’s Tartt at her worst, I’m intimidated by the possibility of her best.

Which brings me to my resolution. I don’t usually make resolutions. I find myself struggling to think of a suitably righteous goal and become distracted by bizarre Victorian greetings cards encouraging the recipient to fire a pig out of a cannon for luck.

nyepigBut, because I’m feeling disgustingly optimistic at present, my 2014 resolution is to keep striving, keep learning, and above all, as always, keep writing. Rossetti had a lifelong habit of trying to accomplish ‘something in some branch of work’ every day, whether that meant poetry, painting, translation or illustration, and when he wasn’t working – or when he was depressed and unable to work – he was reading, observing, taking things in. As I said on Literary Rejections, experience accumulates. I want to be more conscious of that this year. The practical, technical stuff as well as the strange and instinctive.

Failing that, during ‘the depressed moments, the hungover and lack-of-sleep moments’, I can fall back on my secondary resolution: wear more hats.

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Literary Rejections

I’m on Literary Rejections, talking about my experience of the agent querying process.

Read Beehive or No Beehive.

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I just learned that A.C. Crispin died of cancer last month.

I feel ashamed to learn this belatedly. Earlier today, I’d been raving about her Han Solo trilogy, how they excited me as a young reader, how they shaped my tastes and aspirations.

The_Paradise_SnareI was a nerdy sci-fi-loving pre-teen when I found The Paradise Snare in – I think – London’s Science Museum, back when a £4.99 paperback presented a considerable investment for your weekly 50p pocket money. A vivid memory: standing on the Circle line, a plastic carrier bag swaying on my wrist, unable to shut this book.

Here were gunfights, aliens, drug-fuelled religious cults and a love story with teeth. It was funny and dangerous and probably not appropriate for a child, but when these things are smuggled in genre fiction they end up in kids’ bedrooms, and why not?

My Star Wars obsession was the kind of love you can only sustain during the 12-16 age gap. When you lived in Suffolk, never more than six feet from a tractor, escapism wasn’t so much a pastime as an essential coping mechanism, and I must have read and re-read those books scores of times. I may even have loved them – whisper it – more than the films.

Unlike Brian Daley’s high-camp Solo novels published in the ’70s (featuring a droid called Bollux – oh dear), Crispin peeled back the swashbuckling to provide a compelling, surprising backstory for this character who started off as a wisecracking space cowboy played by a painter and decorator. “You can write this shit, George, but you sure as Hell can’t say it”.

This was pre-Internet, at least in my house. I didn’t know who A.C. Crispin was, let alone whether this was a man or a woman. I only knew this was someone whose imagination excited me, and perhaps that’s how it ought to be.

The bacta tank - for healthy happiness

The bacta tank – for healthy happiness

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1997, if you wanted to even begin to experience the kind of shared fandom excitement you take for granted now on Tumblr, you had to get someone’s dad to drive you to a seaside shack in Clacton for the delight of being breathed on by lonely men in all-too-form-fitting Starfleet uniforms. (Actual experience, let’s not dwell on it). Fan fiction was something you stored on a floppy disc and kept to yourself. In the acknowledgements of the final book in the trilogy, Rebel Dawn, Crispin thanked ‘The Star Ladies and all my on-line friends’. Whoa. There were people online like me? Female people? Who get thanked by authors?

I’d been putting together little handwritten books since I was small, but reading Ann Carol Crispin’s Star Wars tie-ins made twelve-year-old me realise the adventures in your head were something you could write down for other people and therefor make real. All these years later, I haven’t forgotten how her books made me feel. And I’ve never stopped writing.

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“A great Italian tormented in the Inferno of London”

Ruskin, there, being a bit over-the-top.


As it’s Mr Rossetti’s 185th birthday, I celebrated with poems and pie in the park. It’s what the tormented old rhinoceros would have wanted.

So, news. It’s been a productive spring. After being longlisted for the Pageturner Prize, I sent my novel to The Literary Consultancy, who I can’t recommend highly enough. If you’re lost in your one-hundred-thousand-word forest, unable to find your way home, an honest critique, plus no-nonsense business advice, is invaluable. Having slogged through the rewrites and given it a good trimming, I’m about to pass it on to some friends to read. It’s a vertiginous feeling, but I remain optimistic.

In other writing news, I’m in the next edition of The Pre-Raphaelite Society Review, talking about A Pre-Raphaelite Journey: The Art of Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale. If you’ve ever wondered what a Pre-Raphaelite tackling early 20th century airborne warfare looks like, Eleanor’s your woman.

Happy birthday, DGR. Pie?

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“You will have seen Bernie…”

Read my short story, ‘Bernie’, in the latest edition of The Puffin Review.

Cambridge, The Roman Empire, and Co-Op carrier bags. Have you ever stared from a bus window and wondered what someone’s story was?

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Contraindications – now on Kindle


I’m pleased to say that my chapbook of six poems, Contraindications, is now available for Amazon Kindle. It will still be available here as a PDF, so readers have a choice of formats to suit their devices, and the option to print. We will also be publishing on other platforms, like Kobo, shortly.

Thanks go to Gabriel May for the hours he spent grappling with code, formatting and converting the files by hand. It was a laborious process; one I couldn’t have managed without his patience and technical expertise. If you need your own ebook converted, Gabriel is considering offering his services to more writers – so get in touch.

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It’s been one of those summers.

I took a short writing holiday at the end of last month. There were graphs and coloured pens and a real teapot. Strictly no gin, and no Internet – serious stuff. During those four days, I rediscovered the immense mental health benefits of just knuckling down and doing the one thing in life you truly want to do. Surprisingly, I also came to appreciate how the everyday commitments that keep you from writing can be useful. The frustration steels your determination. There must be a proverb to that effect floating around. Probably by Hafiz.

The result is that the novel is so much closer to completion and I’m so much more buoyant about life in general. And also petrified. I’m human.

On the subject of terror and joy, today is exactly one month away from my visit to the Tate’s Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. How am I going to contain myself in the gift shop? What am I going to wear? How am I going to stop myself from standing in front of a minor sketch with my hand clamped over my mouth, whimpering “isn’t it just the most wonderful thing in the world?” like I did to some poor man at the Fitzwilliam who was just trying to be friendly by pointing out the extra piece of paper Rossetti had glued on to extend Alexa Wilding a few inches.

“[Rossetti] did not sleep, and neither did he compose himself to rest, though the lamps of the carriage were darkened by their shades. During the greater part of the night he sat up in an attitude of waiting, wearing overcoat and hat and gloves, as if our journey were to end at the next stopping place.” – Hall Caine, Recollections of Rossetti.

You and me both, DGR. See you in London!

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