A few years ago, a poetry class I was in was challenged to write a seasonal poem.  This was my attempt, inspired by a news item about a Dark Skies Park in Galloway.  It was published in Acumen No. 68, in September 2010.


In these northern latitudes, the light is sparse
and winter bares its white and weathered fist
against the fastnesses of night.

We decorate the darkness, cannot stand
its plain finality.  Daub it with tinsel
dress it in baubles, switch on season’s greetings
in the streets.  Perhaps God is dead;
perhaps the shortest day
will dwindle into black.

The brilliant gift-wrapped sacrifice
is not far away now.  Pause a while.
Let your eyes become accustomed
to  these dark skies; perhaps they hold the light
of a billion stars.


The Next (but one) Big Thing

There has been this meme going round lately – I’m told it is called a “blog-hop” in which writers answer ten questions about the book they are working on, and then tag their writer friends to do the same the following week.  Susanna Jones, one of our Creative Writing lecturers at Royal Holloway, has several published books already, and was kind enough to tag me for this week, so here goes:

1.       What is the working title of your next first book?

I was planning to call it ‘The Gift of Artemis’, which sounds a bit pompous, but ‘Artemis’ Gift’ has a tricky possessive apostrophe, and if I switched the goddess’ name to ‘Diana’, all the Daily Express readers would get over-excited. So, the short answer is, I’m not quite sure. What do you think?

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

People say ‘write what you know’ and I spent twenty years in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, so that seemed like a good place to start.  Also, I was incensed by John Le Carré’s portrayal of pharma companies as nasty, unethical exploiters of African patients in The Constant Gardener, so I wondered if I could redress the balance a little.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction? Cerebral thriller? Medical Mystery Tour?

4. What actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie rendition?

Well, the female protagonist, Sarah, is a researcher in Chemistry at Oxford University.  In my mind’s eye she looks like a woman I was an undergraduate with many years ago.  She has a few Bridget Jonesey qualities, so Renee Zellweger might be an obvious choice, or maybe Rosamund Pike or Jessica Hynes. Helping her is Ben, a rather flippant and cynical young man who works for a biotech start-up company. That’s a job for someone like James McEvoy or Matthew Macfadyen, perhaps.

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Scientists uncover the story of a plant with healing properties, and go in search of it. But they find they are not the only people interested…

6. Is your book represented by an agency?

My agent is Anna Power at Johnson & Alcock.  She signed me up on the basis of my poetry, but I’ve shown Anna a draft of the first chapter and she said she would like to read some more.  So I had better write some more… (I’m writing this to shame myself into getting re-started)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

You are asking that in the wrong tense.  I’m still working on the first draft.  I’ve had 15,000 words written since 2005. Corporate life and poetry have been in the way ever since. There’s nothing but Facebook, Twitter and housework stopping me now.

8. What other books would you compare this to within your genre?

I’m re-reading A.S.Byatt’s Possession at the moment, for inspiration.  I love the way she weaves in such a huge amount of detail, some fact, some fiction, to make a tale of literary research so intriguing. I also aspire to write like Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mr Le Carré, as mentioned above.  Plus, I was snoozing in bed one morning and heard a report on the Today programme about the Pringle Archive, which is a real and mysterious collection of medical correspondence collected by an 18th Century Scottish physician. For many years this archive was kept unopened due to a provision in Pringle’s will, but a court case in 2004 overturned this wish, and the bequest was opened up to researchers. I wrote to the Royal College of Physicians of Scotland in Edinburgh, and they let me go and take a look at it. That’s where the trail starts.

10. What else about this book might pique the reader’s interest?

I’m putting in all sorts of detail about ancient medicine and magic, biblical arcana, botanically-based drugs, and the history of science in general from Paracelsus to the Patent Office.

I’ve tagged several writers to tell you about their Next big Thing next Wednesday:

Alexandra Clare is a novelist and short story writer who writes on her long commute by train. Her work is at

Sarah McEvoy is a writer of science fiction and fantasy.  Her facebook page is here.

Kate Noakes is an accomplished poet with three published collections and another one almost ready.  She is working on her first novel and you will find the details here.

Susie Campbell writes poetry and prose, and had just embarked on the MSt course in Oxford. Her blog is here.

Laura Johnson is a friend of Sarah McEvoy’s and asked to be tagged.  I’m looking forward to hearing about her book!


A week is a long time in poetry

This time last week I braved the floods to go to Hull for the Lightship Literary awards, where I was a runner up with one of my London poems, which is now in the Lightship’s gorgeous anthology.

I met some lovely fellow-writers, including some who had travelled from America and Australia to attend the awards, and had a chance to take a good look around Hull – a city I had never been to before – well, it’s not really on the way to anywhere else. The refurbished marina was quite splendid, and I loved The Deep – a beautiful building housing a spectacular aquarium. And here, in Larkin’s words, is the place ‘where Lincolnshire, and sky and water meet’.

Then on Monday night, it was a great pleasure to go along to the venerable Troubadour coffee house in West Brompton, to read one of my poems as a finalist in their annual poetry awards, curated by Anne-Marie Fyfe, and judged by Jane Draycott and Bernard O’Donoghue, who read 3,300 competition entries in five weeks.  It was good to meet Vanessa Gebbie, the over all winner, who is a friend of a friend on facebook, and Judy Brown, whose poetry collection, Loudness, I recently bought from Seren. Our smiling faces, and our poems, are all shown here.

Last night, a few of us from the new Poetry Society Reading Stanza group went along to a Christmas reading at Reading University. Jeff Hilson and Tim Atkins explained their own personal poetics and each read from three collections.  They are definitely on the more experimental end of the poetry spectrum. Atkins said he rejects lyricism, and also tries to steer clear of metaphor and simile.  I was glad of the explanations behind the poems, which helped me make sense of them.  I wonder how well I would have got on without those explanations! But certainly I’m going to look up more of their work.