Sex and Sensibility

Writing advice I’ve seen or made up: “When something blocks you, don’t go around the hurdle. Instead, take it on. Write into the block.”

Might Sally Rooney’s hurdle be less of “I am famous and fame chains me”, and more of “How do I justify writing individual lives, love and sex – a novel, in short – when real issues are social, political and planetary?” Rooney’s characters debate this second question on the page. As we know from all the interviews and articles that apparently depress Rooney, she was a champion debater. And yet … do these sound like literary and moral quandaries that readers queue up overnight to get their hands on?

I love the idea of pop-up shops to create, I mean meet, demand. Dawn queues to engage with exchanges about capitalism in the 21st century. Me personally, I moved this novel to the top of my tbr pile. And so I sincerely mean the baking metaphors and the dietary question: Why does her fiction go down so delicious and smooth?

Maybe because Beautiful World Where Are You? leavens the philosophy with the youthful yearning that made Normal People such a confection – intellectually seasoned passion, a bit like Call Me By Your Name but with different proportions of sex to sensibility. (Not irrelevant: both translated to films that embody desire and the desirable.)

Another ingredient in the Rooney cuisine: change over time. Rooney novels, it seems to me, rise and fall in waves rather than (obviously) arcing. The lonely schoolgirl dork blossoms (again) in young adulthood as the popular intellectual. No paths run smooth. Relationships morph. Characters wait a decade or more to recognise longings and then these shift again. It’s unsettled fiction and yet (and so?) it goes down easy.

Flaming Bodies

Impressions after a slow read: itemised wealth and pageantry of 18th century empire; the foregrounded fortunes of a maimed soldier and his seer beloved, book-ended by flaming bodies of the Inquisition. The human cost of building the palace of Mafra. Parades, processions, convoys – the royal entourage, bleeding barefoot novices, press-ganged artisans marched to Mafra, marble slabs of unthinkable dimensions and the hundreds of yoked oxen to cart them inch by painful inch, and stone saint statuary sized by holiness.

An extraordinary evocation of a sweep of history – Portuguese and Catholic in particular, imperial in general. And from below.

Did I think about this as I was reading? Somewhat. But paragraph by paragraph what held me to the page was, for instance, Blimunda hiding in the dark of a ruined convent from a friar intent on raping her. The anecdotes – like Canterbury Tales – that the workers tell each other on the journey. A walk on from history by Domenico Scarlatti. The flying machine, the Passarola, that resembles a giant bird. And the authorial voice, conversational, ironic, irreverent.

What’s the non-gendered, non-abusive term for “masterful”?

Also of course there’s flight – part magical realism, part from historical record, part allegorical – the view from cloud level over a country and epoch.

As a reading experience, this was far from the short sharp frisk of the modern literary fiction I’ve been reading lately. After Kevin Barry, for instance, I had to shift gears for the extensive paragraphs. Lengthy ropes of unattributed dialogue. Lists. The vista is a Bayeux tapestry, a Brueghel canvas, flattened and panoramic, but the camera follows the lives of the “lowliest” characters and the narrator makes confidential asides in your ear.

The Gorgeous Grisly


Kevin Barry: Night Boat to Tangier, Canongate Books, 2020 (2019)

Some novels, you think (improbably), “I could’ve written this.” But Night Boat to Tangier? Never. Neither the what nor the how of it.

Gorgeous phrases, grisly world. Every line charged, explosive with danger, humour, menace, pain. The narrative swerving against expectation. A master class in dialogue and character. One figure intensely absent, but alive through tangents that ricochet off others, like a shape never drawn directly but instead emerging crosshatched, the hot heart of the story.

And Irish. Just saying. Anna Burns. Sebastian Barry. Colm Toibin. Sue Rainsford. Just pointing out.

No longer SO modern


Malcolm Bradbury (ed): The Penguin Book of Modern Short Stories, 1987

“Modern” in anthology titles is asking for trouble, if you ask me – like “final” in document file names.

What’s dated and what still shines? I relished the stories by V.S. Pritchett, Angus Wilson, Muriel Spark and Rose Tremain. Unexamined sexism and othering repel the reader (well, this one anyway) and here go unexcused by any exceptional literary value. I am sympathetic to the blunter feminist fables but they don’t make for thrilling fiction. And otherwise, the Jean Rhys story is grim, bitter, not quite tangible; Angela Carter’s aches with vulnerability; Martin Amis’ is masterful, memorable and /but (as my friend Julian – not-Barnes – said many years ago) nasty fiction.

A couple of quotes:

“You must – what is that expression in shooting? – you must aim off. You must aim off for truth, I think.”

Julian Barnes, “One of a Kind”, a story about novelists

“I should like to like Schumann’s music better than I do; I daresay I could make myself like it better if I tried: but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying …”

Samuel Butler, quoted on the back cover

This comes under the category of second-hand-bookshop finds in a non-English-speaking country. Thanks to Eduarda at Bookshop Bivar.

Volcanic Chill


In Reykjavik in the 1960s, Hekla, named for a volcano, is driven to write. But she hasn’t told her lover the poet that she writes and so she can’t get up from his bed to record the sentences that come to her in the night.

I try to fix my gaze on the moon through the skylight, I ask the sentences to leave, I ask them to stay, I need to get up to write, so they won’t vanish.

Hekla is a chilly presence on the page, almost affectless in the way she declares and describes. Very occasionally, she laughs, or another character reports that she was seen laughing. I felt as I read that her sentences were clipped but now, flipping back through the pages, I see that the point isn’t that they’re short sentences but rather that they’re wonders of pruning. Miss Iceland is fiction by a poet and it shows, in the best way.

There’s much to wonder at: dialogue, characters (few, odd, perfect), the landscape and weather, her chapter headings, the letters by other people that carry Hekla and the story. Exhilaratingly for writers and readers, historical fiction can be this way. Whoever guided me towards this novel, thank you.

#thebookonmytable Brief book reviews, notes to self and others, tendency to enthuse.

The Maker of Swans


I chose this novel purely because the author is hilarious on Twitter and I was, dear reader, sore in need of amusement just then. But we’re each of us a cast of disparate selves and the Paraic O’Donnell who pens the novel is a different scribe from the card who taps out the tweets @paraicodonnell. (Although they’re equally erudite.) I admit that I read the first few chapters with some resentment, waiting impatiently for the man who calls himself “an incorrigible trollop,” praises other authors for producing “a weapons-grade banger” and, watching the Met gala ‘camp’ red carpet, swears: “Jesus Christ, Sontag must be turning in her slave-built disco mausoleum”. (Whatever that means. Tweets selected this morning at random.)

Reasons to keep Twitter on the mobile even when the news is Too Much: Paraic O’Donnell. mutablejoe. everjoicewin. Yelling for southeastern to please hold the 11:32 to St Pancras so you can make the connection.

Anyway, I got over myself and read the book as is rather than the wit as sought, and it turns out that I can in fact love an elaborate gothic mystery. This one spins allegories of creativity and power. Sports cars and pistols feature, but so do dank Dickensian quays. A gentle gangster is rescued from the maze only to be disembowelled, an Oxbridge don leads a secret society and a glamorous soprano saunters through the library of all wisdom.

I had reservations – discerning the wood from the trees, unnecessary withholding, too many lost girls – but it turns out that someone else (Tim Clare) had already expressed these in a pithy and astute review in The Guardian.

The language though. O’Donnell’s prose is glorious and at the same time highly cinematic, a screenplay in waiting. In a scene on the riverfront – despair, fog, stench, depravity – our protagonist drags himself through an abandoned building:

“He lit a match, when he had collected himself, and cradled it as he looked about the room. The walls were streaked with filth. At their margins, mould bloomed in dark profusion. … Derelict – that was the word. He was derelict or would be soon. He would stand night and day in the unseen weather, sheltering nothing living. … He went last to the room whose light had first drawn him in. … the wallpaper survived in mottled swatches … Behind him, the bulb flared and dimmed.”

Paraic O’Donnell has a new title out this month – The House on Vesper Sands – and I’ll be devouring that, first chance I get. And meanwhile, you know, snorting as I scroll through his feed.

Follow Me to Ground


Provocative. Chilling. So smart.

Before I go any further with these adjectives, I have to come out as a devotee of narrative. For instance, I avoided Keri Hulme’s Bone People for a decade (more fool me) because reviewers described it as ‘lyrical’. Follow Me to Ground, I can tell you, woke me up the morning after with layer upon layer of teasing association and, yes, ideas … but also (crucially for me) the novel had kept me page-turning for the duration, hand-over-hand along the guide rope of story line.

Non-spoiler alert: I’m giving away nothing here about what happens – that deserves discovery. What we have, though, is in part a Cathy and Heathcliff situation. Not out on the windswept moors though. More interior, deeper.

Realist narrative strings us along on the quest for motivation. Sue Rainsford sees us motivation but then raises the stakes. In an era of artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation, plus the latest iteration of savage Othering, the novel asks: What is human? What is society? In this modern fable, cars pull up at Ada and her father’s house, but we find ourselves in a timeless, locationless setting beyond the outskirts of town. We leave, with Ada, only a few times via a truck into the woods.

Reading fiction – good, satisfying reading – is like writing fiction in that we’re immersed in another world. (As per Karen M, writer and editor, @highveldstudios.) My own image for this is snorkelling in Lake Malawi – fighting the apparatus for a few gulps and then drifting into a new world. Life above disappears. Brilliant shoals of fish flick direction in unison. Breath turns sonar. Shafts of light stripe through water.

This novel immersed me, but not in water. Rainsford did it; she had me follow her to ground.


You might want to read reviews here and here …

The art of instruction

How to Be a Person? Who shall I be? How ought I to live?

Art is full of questions – answers are for other, more didactic domains. Really? On a spring day at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft I met the typographical prints of Sister Corita Kent, and you could call hers the art of instruction – moral, political, creative.

Corita Kent made and taught art at Immaculate Heart Art College in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s, until the gulf widened too far between her political subjects and the Catholic authorities, at which point she left the convent. (Hie thee from a nunnery.) I learned this from an exchange of letters on display at the Ditchling exhibition: various bishops concerned about Sister Corita’s interpretations of scripture and faith, and by return post the Mother Superior wringing her hands over the moral dilemma: ought she – dare she – stifle Corita’s God-given talents?

How Should a Nun Be?

So: the context in a vitrine. And on the walls, the artist’s pathway. No juvenilia though, no early sketches or tentative watercolours of youth – bang! directly into the prints.



for freedom demands infinitely more care and devotion than any other political system. A. Stevenson




Hard to know if the tiny prints you’re looking at on a phone or computer screen can convey the exhilaration of seeing these works full on, full size and bold – the bleed (as my friend Jane said) of the ink on the paper. What Can Typography Do? Here are answers in colour, form, poetry, slogan, challenge.

How should a (moral) person be? I won’t try to summarise her answers – you need to see them by her own hand. Sister Corita had suggestions, provocations, new icons for the movement. She made work of her moment, of her time and resonant with ours.


We murmured and exclaimed, my friend Jane and I, and we clicked our phone cameras so we could take Corita Kent home with us. Outside, a green Sussex day called us through the museum windows. But first, Jane (an artist and print maker) needed to examine a display of printing presses, forms and trays. So I found the screening room and watched videos of Sister Corita teaching art students, closing the circle: the art of instruction – instruction in making art.

  • She speaks about discipline as related to ‘disciple’.
  • She instructs her students to choose and clip four images for visual content and then find the relationships that emerge. She tells the camera that an assignment frees them, that it’s good to get them to work from the outside rather than in the rut of their own imaginations, until they find their own structures.
  • Do a hundred things, she says. You’ll make twenty that you already have in mind. The next twenty where you don’t know what you’re doing. Then do more.
  • An artist, she says, speaking of beauty, can sing well, think well. But also he can really feel – pain, ugliness, dejection. The fact that he can feel them is a beautiful thing. The ability to feel is a beautiful thing.
  • There is no win or fail; there is only make.

“We have no art. We do things as well as we can.” Sister Corita Kent


How Should an Artist Be? Some answers here.




Siren, by the sea

A pair of speakers whirs on a stand in a forest of such stands, at different heights, humming at different electronic pitches under the high cupola. Otherworldly.

We wander into St Mary-in-the-Castle in silence, as instructed. Guide ropes mark out where we can and can’t walk in the space. Giant tripods hold their thin rod-arms outstretched, doing yoga, ready for ballet. We gaze around at the circular galleries and up at the eye of daylight in the cupola’s peak. Then two men get busy, straight-backed and unsmiling. One twists a screwdriver (perhaps) in the workings on one tripod. Tiny speakers at each end hum their note, each under a pinprick of red light. The men cock their ears, make adjustments, nod to each other when satisfied, patrol off on soft rubber soles to the next station. For some, they have to crouch down, for others they climb step ladders. The arms circle slowly, later more quickly, humming a hypnotic blend of harmony and anxiety, the sound rising and falling when I walk between them but also when I keep still.

The two men stride silently, ever active. They remind me, in their felted grey suits, of electronic musicians performing in the 1990s. I may remember them most clearly of all, their performance of doing art, paying attention, modulating the notes.



The house lights fade, leaving us in a dark heaven of slow-circling red stars that speed up over time, as one with the sound.


I loved all of Siren, for its wondrous self and also because the experience seems to me like the essence of living in Hastings – a faint tang of sea air in the room, exhilarating performance within a few yards of an amusement arcade, all of that, yes, but more personally the unexpected depth and pleasure of what may seem simple, staying in one place, paying attention. Sound and light. Focus.

Composed and performed by Ray LeeSiren featured on the 2017 Coastal Currents programme.

When We Speak of Nothing

The book on my table …

Published 3 July 2017 and refusing to take its place in any to-be-read sequence, Olumide Popoola’s new novel bursts out from line one, just as its gorgeous cover promises.

This isn’t a review or even a preview – more a shout-out of enthusiasm and congratulations.

For a powerful taste of the novel, listen to an excerpt on video, voiced by a young man.

You can find out more about the novel from:

  • the publisher, Cassava Republic
  • Olumide Popoola’s website
  • reviews like this one (some spoilers), or this one, or just google it – there’ll be plenty of new ones
  • interviews with Olu, such as this one
  • events including the launch party in Shoreditch, London, 16 July 2017, 6 – 9 pm

Best of all, open a copy and enter Karl and Abu’s world. Kings Cross. 2011 …

Remembering the Calais Jungle

When I visited the refugee camp in Calais with Olumide Popoola – conducting research for our book, breach – I imagined a day when the place named the “Jungle” would no longer exist. We’d all prefer, wouldn’t we? that those forced to flee their own countries receive protection, safe passage and opportunities to build new lives. With none of these assured, however, the camp has been demolished. At least for now, the Jungle in Calais is no more.

Along with hardship, violence and uncertainty, the Jungle also offered some kind of community. Keeping in contact with under-age refugees scattered across France, Professor Sue Clayton noted that many of them wished they could return to Calais. Sue was presenting clips from her new films at Calais Stories, hosted by Goldsmiths University’s Centre for Feminist Research and the Migration Research Network. At the same event, where I read excerpts from breach and discussed representation, two colleagues from the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, Drs Aura Lounasmaa and Cigdem Esin, described how they have engaged with and supported refugees to tell their own stories.

Using real names, appearing in photographs: these are freighted ethical concerns for refugees and for those of us seeking to convey their experiences. They remain issues even once someone has been granted asylum: does she or he want to be identified with this period, internet-archived, for the rest of their lives?

I’m a dedicated camera-phone snapper. Some might say over-enthusiastic. But I restrained myself in Calais – it was difficult to take a photograph that didn’t show someone’s face. But I did want a few images to jog my memory later. After the Goldsmiths event, I revisited my file of Jungle photographs and realised that several of the moments I’d captured (not particularly well) are associated with specific stories in breach. If you’ve read the stories, you might recognise them. And if you spent time in the Jungle, you probably have similar images and memories of your own.


  1. “the fierce white fences that line the railway tracks and the road to the ferries”

* see below for the story title and page number


2. “one of those absurdly riotous sunsets … crimson streaking into fuchsia”


3. “a playing card on the newly laid white gravel of the pathway. The Joker.”


4. ” ‘Always fires, so easy here.’ ”


5. “The camp feels a lot less like a music festival this morning.”


6. This image does not feature directly in any of the breach stories but I won’t forget it. Sunlight streaks into a smokey canvas shelter where I am sitting with Olu and a group of refugees round a fire. We’re drinking tea, laughing and talking. Someone drops his bicycle on the sand outside and ducks under the tent flap to join us.

Thank you, kind strangers and new friends, for your hospitality.

* Story titles and page numbers:

  1. “Oranges in the River”, page 127
  2. “The Terrier”, page 44
  3. “Paradise”, page 81
  4. “Lineage”, page 123
  5. “Paradise”, page 77

Talking Italian

As editor and co-author of breach, Meike Ziervogel and I presented at the Babel Festival of Literature in Translation, held in the galleried Teatro Sociale of Bellinzona, Switzerland in September 2016.

Like its print offspring, Specimen Press, Babel is the creation of director and poet Vanni Bianconi. In London as a Second Language, Vanni walks the reader through the vocabulary and philosophy of  a life in translation, text juxtaposed with photos by Xiaolu Guo. This year’s festival theme – Greater London, appropriately – gathered poets, fiction writers, photographers and publishers: Ma JianXiaolu GuoLinton Kwesi JohnsonNadifa MohamedSulaiman and Saleh AdonisSpecimen and Adania ShibliDon PatersonChloe AridjisAlessandro Leogrande and Alganesh Fessaha.


The Babel team translated a section of the breach story “Ghosts” into Italian – my first (delightful) experience of hearing my own scenes and characters read aloud in that language. The audience had questions about Calais, migrants, commissioned fiction and the process of sparking imagination from experience. Olumide Popoola couldn’t be there and we missed her.


breach is not (yet!) available in Italian, but people bought respectable numbers of the English version and brought them for signing and discussion.



A good festival feeds one’s spirits – engaging with people who care about books and the world. Babel gave us the Alps as well as bonhomie, literary passion and lots of wine. (Read Meike’s blog for more from this angle.)

The next day, after plenty of good coffee, a group of us walked the hillsides and castles circling the town.

I still can’t say anything new in Italian – but grazie mille from the bottom of my heart – and arrivederci.



“breach” launch in Piccadilly

So, this happened on 5 October 2016 in Waterstones‘ Piccadilly store. Lucy Popescu chaired a discussion with publisher-editor Meike Ziervogel, co-author Olumide Popoola and me. Thanks to friends, supporters and interested readers for filling the 3rd floor events section, and special thanks to Wien de Smet for photographs, mic expertise and general splendidness.


Beautiful bookshop


Olu, Annie




Fabulous co-author and friend, Olu


Excellent cover – thanks to brilliant designer, Sacha Davison Lunt!


Thanks for great questions!


Thanks, Brian Chikwava!


Thanks, Lucy!

And if you’re disappointed to have missed the launch, don’t despair. On 3 December 2016, Peirene Press’s winter salon features Olu, me and breach. 

You can buy breach from your favourite online or physical bookshop, or from Peirene direct.

All photos: (c) Wien de Smet, 2016

London launch of breach – 5 October

Please join Olumide Popoola and me, in conversation with our publisher-editor Meike Ziervogel, chaired by Lucy Popescu, at 7 pm on Wednesday 5 October 2016 at Waterstones, Piccadilly, to launch our collection of short fiction inspired by interviews and experiences of the refugee camp in Calais.

If you can make it – and we hope you can! – RSVP to as they’d appreciate a sense of the numbers.

breach was reviewed in The GuardianThe Herald Scotland and by several literary bloggers.

Our “narrative panache”

breach and art

Woke up on 29 July to find ours was Book of the Day on The Guardian website.

I cannot recommend this too highly as a happy-making start to a Friday.

Co-author Olumide Popoola and I were on blog tour last week with our publisher, Meike Ziervogel, and now Peirene Press is posting links to lit blogs and reviews as they come in.

Monday 1 August 2016 is publication day. Pre-ordered copies of breach are already in the hands of readers including Lesley Ruda in San Francisco – that’s her photo above. This stage in the journey – what do readers make of our stories? – is scary, fascinating and, so far, most pleasing.

Easily one of the strongest works of fiction I have read this year. INWORDSANDINK

Fine, suspenseful fiction springing from human lives in extremis … rich with ambiguity. Kapka Kassabova

photo by Lesley Ruda