26 Winters is Open

26WintersChocolatesI wrote a while ago about being asked to be part of the 26 Winters exhibition, which is being held this autumn and winter at the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh.

The exhibition itself now open, with the online advent calendar revealing our objects from the collection from the 1 December onwards. My ‘object’ was in fact several – sugary, Christmassy treats from times past (indeed, some with white bloom, as my visit to the Museum over the summer to visit my objects revealed).

My blog about writing my sestude (a work of 62 words) is on the Museum’s website, and here:

I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth. So when I found about my objects – Christmas chocolates and other sugary treats – my first reaction was to laugh out loud.

I followed that first reaction in trying to come up with my idea. I thought of over-indulgence and consumption. Eating too much, expressing love and gratitude through sugar.

Bah humbug.

Then I started to think about where all the ingredients for Christmas treats travel from. The Three Kings, and their journey to Bethlehem, bearing rich gifts from the east. That line from T S Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ about the ‘silken girls bringing sherbet’. The long and sometimes very unpleasant colonial history of sugar and cocoa, the pathways of the goods, and the slaves.

Again, not terribly cheery.

So one light summer evening, I put on some Christmas music, and remembered lines from a different poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’:

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.

Straightaway, a different vision: a frothy, chocolatey Strictly Come Dancing. The sweets swirling merrily across the dance floor, light-hearted and fun.

But still, a little South American darkness crept in…

Calais: in the warm embrace…

The borders of Europe are in crisis, we are told. People are moving en masse, escaping war, persecution, and – in a least-worst scenario – appalling poverty. The particular focus for the British media is the thousands of migrants in Calais’s ‘Jungle’, who are attempting to come to the UK via the Channel Tunnel, risking horrific injury, or death.

Some of our politicians (including those in power), and parts of the media, have taken to using language to describe the migrants that is entirely dehumanising. In so doing, the people of the ‘swarm’ are robbed of their individuality, their histories, and their narratives. We are robbed of our compassion, and our understanding of our privileged place in the world. And they, and we, are robbed of our common humanity.

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais

A much higher number of migrants is currently arriving on other, poorer European shores: Greece, and Italy. The UK concentration on Calais in itself betrays a limited worldview, forgetting the greater contribution others in the EU are making to homing asylum seekers. Yet for this ‘crisis’ to be happening in Calais is, for me, of particular resonance.

My father is English, my mother French. Every summer holiday when we were children, for several weeks (my parents both being school teachers) we’d pack the bags, the car, feed the cassette player, and head south. It was a few hours journey from Lincolnshire to Dover, then the ferry – where the sun would always start to shine – and, after a little queuing to get off the ferry and into France – onto the smooth and (relatively) empty autoroutes. We’d stop off overnight with relatives in Paris, and head further south the next morning, braving the hectic traffic on the Peripherique. Further south still, we’d reach the watershed, where the water divides across France – to the west coast or the south. Then finally, several sticky, argumentative hours later, to my grandparents’ flat.

We’d stay for four weeks or so, sometimes heading off on a holiday within a holiday, to Provence, or the Alps. We’d spend days reading, swimming, sunbathing, playing cards, watching the August meteor showers… the same ‘etoiles filantes’ which are currently raining down over our heads.

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BooksfromScotland.com extract

BooksfromScotland.comBooks From Scotland has just relaunched its website, which showcases the work of writers and publishers from Scotland.

The first issue of the new website, which will be updated monthly, includes an extract from my work in progress. To read more, head over to the BooksfromScotland.com website. Thanks to the team for including some of my work!

There’s also an extract on this website, over on the Writing page.

Have you put full stops at the end of sentences?

Some weeks ago, I received a letter from my parents. Included within it were some probing questions from my dad about the book I’m writing.

As it’s Father’s Day, I thought it would be an appropriate moment to share these. (Dad is not a writer, by the way, though his letters can be rather good.)

So here, for any of you writers out there, are the questions you should be asking yourselves:

  1. In your bookHave you put full stops at the end of sentences?
  2. Have you not mixed up tenses in sentences?
  3. Have you used your Scottish/English Dictionary to good effect?
  4. Have you used the right font?
  5. Have you left a cliffhanger so you can start on book No.2?

It’s a tongue-in-cheek list, but actually it’s pretty useful.

So how am I doing? I’m fairly sure I’ve managed 1, 2 and 4. Number 3 needs some work. And 5… hmm. Watch this space!


Judging Women

TSaltireBookshe writer Nicola Griffith has recently published the results of quantifying the success – or largely otherwise – of books by women and books about women in a number of major literary awards.

Predictably, this makes for depressing reading. Books by women are less likely to win than those by men, and books about women (whether by women or men) are also less likely recipients of awards than books about men. From such statistics it would seem that we do not value female writers as much as male, and female protagonists (or topics, whatever that might mean – commentary hovers around the ‘domestic’) as much as male.

This is an all-too familiar account, which the introduction of the Orange (now Baileys) Women’s Prize for Fiction in 1996 sought to overcome, after a year in which no women were shortlisted at all for the Booker. Twenty years on, and we don’t seem to have moved that far forwards.

In my book Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain, I wrote a set of case studies of bestselling, more or less literary novels. One of the books (or, in this example, series of books), was Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy. The final novel, The Ghost Road, won the Booker in 1995. My analysis ran along the following lines: that Barker came to prominence – in both critical and commercial terms – after moving from the feminist press Virago to be published by Viking/Penguin. She had also switched her subject matter from ‘”gritty feminist sagas”‘ set in the north of England to a focus on the first world war, with a cast of predominantly male characters. This shift occasioned some interesting comment, including one from a (female) Booker judge of that year. The judge stated that she would never have guessed that Barker’s book was written by a woman. Her reasoning was based on stylistic grounds, rather than its subject matter (which, as it happened, had questions of gender and sexuality at its heart).

The publication of Griffiths’ data presents an opportunity for me to reflect on my own practice, as a scholar who studies literary prizes, a literary prize judge, and a feminist. (I’m also currently writing a children’s book in which the female protagonist spends most of the plot dressed up as a boy, but that’s a different story…)

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26 Winters

musuem-of-childhoodI’ve just heard that I’m going to be involved in an exciting project, which will take me both from summer into winter, and adulthood into childhood.

The writers’ collective 26 recently put out a call for contributors to a project in collaboration with Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. 26 writers will each be allocated an object from the Museum’s collections, and asked to write a ‘sestude’ about it – a work consisting of 62 words. The objects – and our sestudes – will then be revealed in an online advent calendar in the lead-up to Christmas. This, alongside an exhibition in the museum, will raise money for the charity It’s Good 2 Give.

I’m already wondering about my object: will it be skittles? A hula hoop? Something more seasonal – a pair of ice skates?

And are hyphenated words counted as one word or two? By my reckoning, this blog is already nearly 150 words long, so I’m hoping a bit of hyphenation might help me sneak in an extra word or two. I expect our editors will be very strict, though, and something unpleasant* from the School Days section of the Museum will be used on me if I cheat.

You can follow what we’re getting up to on Twitter using the #26Winters hashtag.

*Apparently they have a cane and leather tawses.