Thursday, 25 October 2012

Rafael Contemplates his Fate

Rafael stands dauntless above their heads, balanced on the narrow wire. Behind him the silks of the evening sky lie ripped with defeat. The air is radiant with jasmine or snow. Way below him, the strong man moves in random ways amongst the crowd, unseen by Rafael who leans into the curved air and doffs his top hat. From behind a parapet of dark Alisha's raven flies towards him, a lit cigarette in its beak. He lands on Rafael's head, the chip of molten light dancing.
Rafael drops. The crowd gapes with a capricious longing for blood, but elegance and fate bind him and the cigarette describes a resurrected arc. The strong man breathes out and dips away from the tent. Looking up Electra sees them, bird and man sharing the light. Finally, she thinks, you came true.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Friday, 19 October 2012


She was born with a sense of bravado, a strawberry birthmark over her right eye and all the opulence of the earth's kingdom up to the hilt in hock. She was born to a mother in mourning, born on the very day her granny was to be cremated. The air was bitter, disastrous, framed with snow. The day had lost its focus, the birds refused to sing, and the edge of her granny's coffin was thick with lint, which so distracted her grieving mother she could barely think of anything else.
It was then that she decided that the time to be born was upon her, and she pushed herself into the gaping world in a whoosh of water, to the scent of lilies and the astonished weeping of the family. Like a fish in a net she looked up at the faces of an unfamiliar world.
'Truth, to be understood, must first be believed.' her mother would say later when she told Lena the story of her birth: 'You were wrapped in an ostrich-feather cape', which Lena thought must have prickled, though she would have looked magical. She pictured herself in a black feather nest, shadowed by grief, held in the shallow crook of her father's arm, while the congregation felt both blessed and cheated and commented on the lack or surfeit of taste.
She imagined him looking down at the tomato stain on her brand new face and planting a kiss there, for the wisdom and sheer bravado it took to be born.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Magical Journeys 2013

Join us in 2013 for three more amazing magical writing journeys
Morocco 14th- 21st March 2013:  A week’s retreat in the beguiling 18th
century fishing port of Essaouira - beautiful, mellow and full of vibrant
Turkey 9th-16th May 2013:  A week’s retreat in the heart of Istanbul.
Bursting with story and richly textured with historical and cultural
diversity, Turkey offers a completely unique writing experience.
India 7th-21st October 2013:  Two weeks in the beautiful laid-back Southern
Indian state of Kerala. Cruise the tranquil backwaters in a traditional rice boat,
enjoy the bustling pleasures and antique palaces of Fort Cochin; an inspiring
extended retreat among the waterfront spice warehouses perfumed with
cardamom and sandalwood.

These retreats are designed to be both vibrant and uplifting. If you seek peace,
space and inspiration to rekindle the creative process, they offer a revelatory
time of creative pleasures. Complementing the writing workshops are lazy
lunches, convivial evening meals and visits to local sights. You will have the time
and opportunity to expand your creative life and explore your astounding
imaginative potential. Morning writing workshops are held on roof-terraces, in
pavement cafes and in simple sunlit salons. The rest of the day is free for you to
browse through the markets, soak up the sun, or indulge yourself in a spa. Oneto-
one supervision is available. All sessions are optional so you are free to write
as much or as little as you wish.

"Spices, minarets and silk carpets inspired our writing under the guiding hand of our
wonderful teacher, Claire. Yet again she managed to take us all on a magical journey
from which we were reluctant to return" Helen

“Our trip to Turkey was sensational and how we laughed. We didn't have to worry
about a thing except to be at the appointed place in time to write. And write we did
...We came home with reams and reams of inspired writing... truly a remarkable
writing holiday.” Cath
“It is a taste of renewal in a creative and nurturing atmosphere, where
fun and laughter surrounds the whole group”. Valerie

“My Morocco week was a wonderful exploration of hidden depths and unlocked
for me different styles of writing... and a treasure trove of laughing, talking and
bonding with a bunch of wonderful women. Claire is inspirational.” Mojo
Happiness is a writing holiday with Claire! Claire’s retreats work for anyone,
complete beginners to accomplished writers, she is a ‘magician’ at her craft of
drawing out story. In unique settings that are her second home, there is an easy
friendliness, a sharing, a sense of freedom and real holiday. Debs

A relaxed and thoroughly memorable week in the company of the nicest and
most generous bunch of writers you could wish to meet. Judy P
Claire's knack of sourcing extraordinary "one-off' hotels,
combined with her undoubted ability to draw the personal voice
out of each of us make her magical holidays a must. Lesley

"A magic carpet of a retreat to place of peace and stimulation, a city of
inculcating contrasts, amongst the atmosphere of ancient and
modern, and with a group of ‘write-minded’ souls." Gabby

If you would like more information or to book any of these retreats please
Magical Journeys
Creative writing retreats in the sun 2013


Where it begins is in a concealed garden. A nimbus of insects lit by the sun dances us into being. In the first wilderness an iron bell peals an uncertain matins and calls first him and then me to communion. God's work is done. We can rest. The smell of mud and bladderwrack scents the air. A breeze stipples our skin, pricks out the patterns of chill on our new lives. The wind recalls to us that we are mortal, and blows random maps our way, which we must learn to decipher before we can begin the journey.
Here I work in the hollow of God's land, measuring the Earth's deco curve with every peeling of the fruit (still blissfully unaware of anything fanged or sharp-tongued in the apple tree).The ocean flexes its blue muscle and spreads the cryptic shape of things to come across the shoreline. We salvage what we can, as though somewhere hidden in these signs is the knowledge that we are truly where it all begins.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


Tiger decants himself from the branch on which he has been lying, eases his way through the filigree of light and vines that provide sanctuary to the inhabitants of the garden, and lies in a patch of grass, a perfect halo of buttercups gentling his head. Above him fieldfare and sparrows swoop in and out of his vision, ribboning the sky with their grainy flight. Tiger has a passion for small birds and, in spite of himself, begins to purr. That the day sees fit to offer him the miraculous renewal of delight seems itself a gift. Meadowsweet and wild mint release their perfume in serpentine sockets of bliss. Tiger hums his passionata, deep and low, for these are his glory hours, revealed in the perfect splendour of the inculcate wholeness of the hunt.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Prodigal: Rafael's Broken Hearted Sister Thinks Back

He took the first cut: stood on the edge of the stage and sliced the enchanted air with his sword. Three of us flinched in unison. He cut me a poem from a leprochaun's lime-lined jacket, bent my ear to the zinc-clink of rain in a metal bucket, tuning the day for our delight. Warm blood scrolled from the tip of his blade. The first cut is the unseen one, making the line clear behind it, energised in red. The rain perfumed the air with possibility. A dandelion clock teased time beyond where we thought we would be. He took the first cut, like charity itself, a chink in his armour, and he was, just for the moment, mine.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Diana and Actaeon: The Hunt

The air above him shimmers with an untranslateable portent. It is midday, the sun pouring its equal light onto both halves of the land. Actaeon stands in the rapefield's chrome, and holds a feather into the air. The rocks glitter at his feet. Today he will take his chance to shine. His eyes are bright and jittery, his soul murderous. He replenishes his quiver and the dogs at his feet shake with joy. Here he is, about to visit maelstrom upon the natural world. Here he is, Actaeon, for all the world like something grand and good.

In the copse of willow, the roe deer breathes in the ephemeral light. There is a beacon burning in her heart. Her life mystically replenishes itself each day, and she scents the air with practice and grace.

It is tumult at first sight. His eye locks with hers. He draws his bow, she startles into motion, but leaps to her death in jittery arcs of pain. His feathers fill up with her blood, and catch at her breast in jagged flags and darts. Again and again Actaeon pulls the bow, feels it bright and good, celebrates his potency with a cheer, gulps in the mineral smell of blood, and something like peaches on the air.

When the sun is a copper disc he turns for home. Looking up to see the ripped and stained canopy of Heaven he licks the blood from his knife. Since his sister had been buried he had longed for blood. The consolations of its taste and texture on his tongue. Pehaps that is what was meant when the hunters called him bloodthirsty. He had killed the wrong man. Certainly. He had killed twenty wrong men.

Through the sordid forest he crashes, blood in his heart and in his mouth. So he fails to notice the dark pond with the vision of Earth's Goddess bathing until it is too late. Of course he shouldn't look. Of course he is obsessed with looking. He feels his heart's cold bird rise up singing. Gone are the shatter patterns in his heart. He leans in, breathless to see more. The pool is dark, blistered with lights. She pours the water over herself in streams of silver. Beacons of bones collapse in Actaeon's heart. It is as though his sister lives, and laughs.

But Diana turns. She sees him. Locks her eyes on his, draws the bow of her mouth into a line. He startles into motion. She flings a veil of water at him, drenches him with its shine. Three stones arrange themselves across his body in an Orion's belt of agony. His head bursts into stag. He is his true self beneath a crown of horns.

Owls mark the night landscape as Actaeon turns. He runs flashing like zinc in the moonlight. The power in his legs is profligate. Speed flushes kill-thrill though his veins. Tears roll down the face that is not his. Beyond the forest his dogs lift an innocent scent on their muzzles, translate it into  fear, a secret lake of bewilderment, the buzzing flying biting illusion of freedom. They are suddenly mad with lust. He cannot meet their flashing eyes, but as they bring down the broken line of his back, as they tear the veil of muscle from his lethal frame, pull out the skinned peach of his heart, his eyes glaze, take on the silky sheen of death, and the light in them deteriorates.

The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele

Sunday, 20 May 2012

The Penelope Letters

Letter from a waking dream, Ulysses. I move slowly through my days, like the idea of exile, like a wise virgin husbanding her oil. The silence of the house is brimming over. I walk barefoot across your floors, fancying I feel the swell of the sea beneath my feet.

There must be a last time for everything, I think. I just never recognised ours when it came. If I'd known then as I to waved you from the quayside glittering with fish, how many days would slip under themselves, would I have made more of it? Would I have noticed the crashing silence of it, would I have seen the slow-motion disaster? Would I have felt it stop my heart right then and there?

Instead after a perfectly ordinary kiss, I turned back and so I  never saw an entire future blurred by tears,  did not feel a sense of a thread lost, a footing missed, the sudden drench of knowing that nothing would ever be the same. These things came to me much later, in my dreams, as I tried in vain to recapture the moment before you left to see what else I could have done.

The suitors have taken to telling tales about you to keep me company, your intelligence and your consummate strength. This is what the past can do, reform you, reinvent you, retrieve you from the vast sea of forgetting, collecting just enough story for a funeral breakfast.

Each day the day dawns again.  Each day I shake off the waking dreams of your boat. I tell myself, as I am telling you, there is progress. It is provisional. Each day we are moving towards each other, making our way home.


The copyright of this blog belongs to Claire Steele

Electra's Bouquet

Three shoddy mull jonquils hastily pinned to her breast. Hardly a basket of flowers, but three being better than two it will have to do. Electra pulls a long face in the foxed mirror, views herself like an astronomer, one eye at a time. Behind each eyelid, the stars come out. Hope is painted in a gracious arc of blue above each eye. She makes her mouth luscious and robust and spins before the reflective oval, longing to meet the gumptious day, to get out where the sky is the exact chalky blue of an Easter Sunday. But hoping and longing aside, first she must pull on her dim cloak, the red boots , the misremembered dress with all the little blades sewn into its hem.
Hunting seems to be my thing, she thinks, as she follows her nose past the kitchen, where cook is measuring knives against her wrist. Past the horrific kettle of eels she goes, the cauldron of jellied pigs' feet, past the birdcage window and out onto the street, where the rain falls in halos and arcs, and down to the quayside, strewn with improbable storm-wrecked blooms.
Tell me, says the voice of Rafael in her head, what it is you plan to do now with your one wild and precious life

The copyright of this blog belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Prodigal: The Clothes She Stood Up in

She wears the perspective we wanted, but at an unpredicable slant, throwing her weight behind the day's open-ended hours, knowing that back at home cook would be licking the blood off the edges of the knives. As Alisha strides down to the harbour in her paisley liberty bodice, her horsehair petticoat and her red shoes with the hand-painted soles, the day winces and the piano on the quayside tilts dangerously, She has her damask donkeybag rivetted and double-laced, a bag that snaps shut just as easily and firmly as her jaw, forbidding the slightest intrusion.
Scenting malice on the morning's breath, Rex has retreated to the farside of the harbour, behind the clinking masts of the boats. Never one to wear his expected gender, today he is corsetted and ballgowned, as unexpected as a gloire de dijon rose amongst the quayside debris. But there is no hiding from Alisha; she hails him, reels him in. Today's capricious spoirit is calling her to play. As trouble comes in threes, he walks a curious waltz towards his wife, ready for whatever games she has in mind. He steps out across the apron of the harbour, falling for sequinned light. The cracked fountain flows across the stones, and as he leans in for her kiss, darkness comes down like an empty glass.

The copyright for this blog belongs to Claire Steele

The Prodigal: A Gumptious Day

A gumptious day Alisha cries, flinging open the windows. The sun bares his burnished chest, the peartree dips its blossoms, a crow flaps a languid wingspan from the fence to the chimney. Alisha takes hold of the morning at both corners and shakes it out like a clean sheet.
High in the attic, Rex is spinning something luscious out of yesterday's horrific news. When I put my head around the door he looks up at me, dismay or despair suddenly wintering his gaze. I go to him and lay my head upoin his hands. He spreads my hair across the Bible and recites the words of Deuteronomy, the text of which is painted in delicate script along the eaves of the attic. When he is done, he pops a jonquil into my collar and hopes my day is perfect.
The house of sleep turns over and moans softly.
I creep back down to the bipartite kitchen, split between the realms of kettle and cauldron. There is the familiar smell of cordite and gas as I light the sharp blue flame beneath the pot. Soon I will begin the journey, take myself out upon the surface of the precious mile,  begin the day again, fully formed, immaculate.

The copyright for this blog belongs to Claire Steele

The Penelope Letters


just to let you know, I have devised a plan. It's a child of necessity, but I know how tales get twisted out of recognition on the high winds and I wouldn't want you to hear of this one backwards. The cat is on the roof and won't come down. That is to say, I am weaving a shroud for Laertes. But grieve not, though you have been away for so long (nearly twenty years Ulysses – you should be coming into your prime, but you have squandered my prettiest years) he's not dead yet, though he will not come and see me. He tends all the trees of his kingdom and grows old Ulysses. Time does not wait for any of us. Anyway I am weaving him a funeral cloth. Each day I sit and play the loom as though it were a lyre. Each night, Ulysses, I unravel the threads of this sad garment as though I could turn back time. I have stalled the suitors for the time being, saying that as soon as the cloth is finished I shall take one of them as husband. (It will be the one I spoke of.  I could bear no other unless you come back to me soon).

The story of this shroud would take several tellings. I laugh to myself.

I wonder whether you dream of home, or whether early on you decided that you no longer had a proper language for it. Will you recognise the coastline when you arrive?, what will you make of this falling land, clipped by salt, and atop the cliff? your kingdom with its dusty squares and its forlorn flagpole, ever ready to salute a new regime.

The maids are all busy making love to the suitors. Our marble halls are silted with sand and dry leaves. Today the sky is in a shawl of grey salt, and the house is grown dingy for lack of love. Telemachus scuffs his feet and demands a great feast. I shall have to talk to cook.

Are you wandering through the arcades of amnesia? Do you suffer the weight that throbs off the unfamiliar angles and the acoustics of the sea? Bear with me Ulysses I am trying to imagine what it is like for you. My name is faithfulness (and how I wish it weren't to be so bitterly tested). I can only get through this by virtue of the most stupendous act of imagination. I conjure you up in your little boat. Beneath the clouds and the stone, there is one green bottle balanced on the wall. Nothing stirs to confirm or deny my assertion that you are on your way. It conjures nostalgia, the ghost of hope.

Well this cloth is a textile of longing. It would warm the body of the dead, but I hope it will not have to. My dearest wish is that you will return to make a nonsense of it all.

Until then,
my love

The copywrite for this post and all posts on this blog belongs to Claire Steele

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Penelope Letters

Ulysses, how far am I from you today? It is my waking thought. A blunt guess at the distance between us: miles. Our psychic distance, the emotional distance between our hearts, or our souls, contracts and expands the physical space. We vibrate at different frequencies, and that too explains distance. Our lives hum in different keys.
I imagine you slipping through the present as smoothly as a fish in its skin. I am ekeing out the past and shoring myself up against the future Ulysses. Time has slipped its moorings and I don't know where I am.
What is distant? What is near? I draw you to me by means of what mild magic I possess. I practice the ancient fragrances (call it art) of seduction. Draw near while I am still far off and make me whole. I offer you my splintered, fragmented life and hold its pieces out for you to do with as you will. Please, cover the distance between us. I want every speck of distance to dissolve into closeness. Distance is the economy of space that confers value upon us. What I hope is that the further I am from you the more you regard me.
Cook says distance makes the heart grow fonder, as she brings the blade of the knife down cleanly upon the lamb's leg. I am struggling to define myself without you. What does she mean by fonder? Madder? Softer? Think of my poor soft heart beating is buttery beat in my breast, furred with desire. Does this distance between us make your heart grow more desirous, Ulysses?
I am in the grip of desire and it attaches to what it can find. My dreams are peopled with lovers not all of whom are kind. His mouth covers mine and we fall backwards into the dream - it is as much as I can do now, to get this letter written – and I waken both beset and bested by lusts and prey to anxieties beyond my understanding. Distance would come as some relief from all this. It would be observed as a kind of respite. A possibility of gaining renewed fortification against the onslaught of the craziness of missing you.
Distance is a sea between us that cannot be crossed. Its waters are now sparkling under the sun, and inviting. Come in Penelope, the water's lovely. But this is a mirage, a chimera. Because when I climb down to the sea, to try and meet you, the waves grow green and turbulent and I am tumbled beyond the perameters of sense, arms flailing, eyes blinded by the force of this distance.
Distance is a melody played on a far harp. It is enticing. It invites you to close the gap, to lie down under the magic of its music. But the notes are carried away on a warm breeze, and it leaves in its void a peculiar nostalgia for closeness. It is a plucked string vibrating in an empty church.
I am beyond comprehension now. I am without hope for closeness. My body longs for your shadow but I am living my life out in the unflinching light of distance. I have longed for you so long I hardly know what longing is now. And yet, Ulysses, it is as vivid as a scratch upon your cheek. Does that seem uncommonly close? Let me tell you, distance has this habit of falling away at those moments when we least expect it. There are times when I find your presence disconcertingly close. So close I still can't see you properly. I have no perspective on this. Your bulk diminishes me. I am back in your presence again.
Perhaps this is how love stows its gifts away, in little slices of silence, as when the wind just curls away to nothing and even the everyday waves of the sea fizzle onto the shore.
Come and claim them again, I beg of you
Or I must ask the gods to intercede on your behalf
At this moment I am
Still your loving and virtuous

Friday, 27 April 2012

The Penelope Letters

Ulysses, absent husband, I am writing to you from the forgotten kingdom, the hidden harbour of Ithaca.

I live in an age of beauty, but it's a passing age, and you have been gone a long time. It's hard to hold it all in your head. All the different ways there are of enjoying your life. Or not enjoying it. Behind me the mountains reflect the dark colour-scheme of the Gods. The tree in our bedroom grows green and full, then sheds its leaves. Each year it bears less fruit. Come home Ulysses.

I think of you out there, pitting your strength against the high seas, or the low churning pitch of the oceans, making your heroic way. I see the salt in your eyebrows. Ulysses, believe me when I tell you I taste it on your lower lip. Meanwhile I rest here; I am left to ravel our lives, feel the slub, the warp and weft of their different textures. All around me the suitors are waiting for their moment. They play cards, roll dice for their fortune. Your old dog nibbles his flank for fleas, thumps his tail weakly. Our body and your wealth are being torn from you.

They are growing unruly these suitors, drinking your fine wines, stealing a stroke of my back now, as they bend to enquire as to my well-being. And have I news of you? The moon grows full and bruised, and looks in at my window to see how I am doing. She sees you too, on your boat. I am usually sure of it. I think of you now, lying out on the salty deck, below the implacable moon, your skin like white marble in this light. Like white stone. You are like a piece of the moon yourself.

The cook says she will do baked figs in honey to sweeten the tempers of the suitors. I hear their voices soaring almost in song as they grow wilder and surer of their deserts. Some of them have carved their initials into the bark of our tree. When I saw this I wept tears as sticky with grief as the beads of resin wept by the cut tree herself.

I am fond of this tree Ulysses. I stroke her, and she comforts me in unfathomable ways. I ask myself: is she Daphne, transformed by the lusts of others into a form unlike her own? If so, the tree and I share something more than simply space here.

What does it mean to wait for you? I cover the space of our domestic lives with my footprints, with the palm of my hand. I am in the threadbare mood of waiting. I count the hours as though it is possible to hoard them, to be as profligate with them as any other form of gold. The light leans in at my bedroom window and lies blocks of gold upon the floorboards. The air itself is aromatic here. I have gold stolen from the hoards of Hesperus. Come home Ulysses. There is treasure enough.

I long for you. I imagine you next to me and my heart cracks in my poor breast to think of you. What can I mean? My heart has no thoughts. It simply does its patient work. It beats its rhythms into my life. My life pulses with the fourfold beat of missing you. I am thickening under this accretion of longing.

Where is the sense in it? Let me tell you each of its senses. It has a bitter taste, this longing. Like the pith of a pomegranate. It is gall in my mouth; it has a low sound, like the deep melancholy boom of the whale, sunk to abysmal depths; it feels as chill and as dear as the kiss of a beloved ghost. I ache for the ghost of Ulysses to come and cover me with your briny kisses, but my moribund body holds me in this palace and I can no more reach you than you can me.

It looks like rain on the distant mountains. A clinging veil of abstracted light, falling slant against the earth's back.I am turned inside out with longing for you Ulysses.  I am beyond recall. Come home. It is time.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Bluebeard's Last Wife

His touch nettles her skin into forgetting, memories she cannot make out flap like faded flags. When he speaks to her, dense shadows bruise her face. She fits his words carefully to her understanding. She tries hard to be a good wife to him, to concentrate on his finer qualities. She strives to ignore his cold potency, the fact that he has a flair for injury.
He steps like a hero from his portrait, to tell her he must leave. He is going away for a few days. In the time it takes her to roll over in bed, Bluebeard has disappeared and she has already begun to imagine the next move. Stars prickle the window, like iron filings, patterning the sky with motive.
What does she see when she opens the door? A little room filled with the mystery of colour, blood pooling and staining its dark maps into the floor. The open-mouthed dead are floating in grotesque pools of light, hanging in sorrow on the walls, slumped in disbelief on the floor. As she stands in the room it is as though  she has entered a sealed tomb in her heart. She is trapped. She knows that love can be a cryptic force, but this time, she doesn't think she can unravel its puzzle.
Fumbling to turn back time she drops the key into the sump of blood at her feet. Snatching it up she bursts out of the door and flies back down the unfamiliar corridors to her own life, her heart pumping pure terror.
But the key, of course, is ruined, marked indelibly with the curse of curiosity. At night she frets about this key, more than she worries about the room. Try as she might she cannot make the thing mean anything other than itself.
Morning will come, and with it, the return of Bluebeard. Morning will come and the key will shriek its own story to its master.
His embrace is an aggression of assessment. Come back to me, my fierce loving heart, she begs of herself. Come back and shine like crazy now. Instead, inside her breast her heart flops like a tiny unkissed frog.
It is so then, thinks Bluebeard. And knows what will happen next.

Saturday, 14 April 2012


His origins are obscure, his lineage doubtful. They say he was born in the year of the child, in the time of revised spells. These days, he sits in smoky inns and dreams of winters. He has teeth in the back of his head, and a reputation as large as a plate of raw meat, and as appalling. Nevertheless he believes that no-one has a heart more susceptible to love. But still, Bluebeard is as shunned as a six-legged calf. Every day he prowls the hedgerows and streets looking for someone to love.
Every Sunday, in his dark blue Sunday suit he ends up at the Red Lion down by the canal, sinking his dark-blue Sunday kiss into a pint of bitter, leaving behind him a trail of trampled loosestrife and campion. From his seat by the grimy window he can see the sour, pockmarked canal. He can imagine the soft slap of water as it hits the dark stone. In his pocket he fingers the tiny key to the red room.
One Sunday, it is a Sunday just such as this, he sees her, standing at the water's edge. She is as pale as a cracked bride. The gentleness of graveyards is upon her. She tilts at gawkiness, hesitates on the edge of grace. His eyes glitter with recognition, and something stirs in his throat.
Just as he is wondering whether to leave the public house and make some sort of introduction, the dark door flies open and there she stands, for all the world like the knife-thrower's girl welcoming the dangerous bouquet of blades as they fly to towards her.
It is not so. It has not been so and it never will be so. But just for this moment, it is so.
'Come with me' he says, bending his mouth to her ear,  'to my palace in the fields and I will show you a place where the early hyacinths sweeten the air, where cowslips and the wild clover grow. I will open your nostrils to the strange perfume of the trees coming into their green.'
No-one, he imagines, will have ever spoken like this to this girl. Understanding less and less, he takes her by the hand and leads her up the winding nursery hill to his private kingdom. Flowering nettles gather spit in their throats as the two of them stagger past. Behind them the short afternoon empties of air, light, logic, and fills with the bruising compulsion of evening. When at last they reach the castle, he leads her up the stone steps and hands her the iron key laying it across her palm like a challenge. 'Put it in.' he commands her. 'Put it in.'
All the time, he is dreaming up new ways to kill her.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Minotaur

If I could unflinch, I would stand straight. I would lift my great head and meet you eye to eye.

Eat, sleep, stretch, bellow. My life in the labyrinth shrinks to unimaginable dimensions, mythically proportioned. My father, the king, uses me as a threat to Athens. My massive frame, cooped under metal and wet stone, perpetuates their distant nightmares. My hooves trample their dreams. Every year fourteen new virgins are paraded down the labyrinthine stairs in sacrificial stupor, as I get hungrier and angrier. Why am I grown so brutal? In bitter mud I stamp my skittish heart, as if I could see the print of an answer there.What do I see? I am black of eye. My ear is pierced in gold. My body is the pewter colour of sea under a storm.

At dusk, I am allowed out, and I emerge from this place, blinking and wondering if it has been this beautiful all day. The briar rose is spilled perfume across the entrance to my cave. I lift up my hands to the sky and my nails are the colour of hyacinth bulbs. I turn my hands over and marvel at them. It seems to me they are the hands of a king. They should be gloved and jewelled, but they are bruised and derelict. My misshapen life is too heavy for my shoulders, I can barely lift my head to look at the emerging moon. Above us scrolls the mighty wheel of signs and portents. Feathers fly through the air. The angels, or something very like them, have been here. My bull eyes roll backwards and fear licks the back of my throat.

Now they will bring a citizen for my sport. Let the killing time begin,  behind me somewhere, the monstrous royal is baying for blood. My eye sharpens you into movement as though you feel the flick of it upon you. I am the sound of distant thunder. I am the taste of bile. Very soon, all that's left is the thick scent of blood and the whole burly ritual will be over for another day.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Daedalus Describes the Maze to King Minos

The bull is a herd animal, Your Majesty. To contain him successfully we need to bear this in mind. Isolated and taunted, he will go mad with fury and solitude. Therefore,  built into this maze will be a series of reflective surfaces: mirrors, polished stones, broken glass, and the like. These will fragment and multiply the monstrous image. It will be at once belittling and enraging.
The bull is a herbivore, with carnal longings. We will plant those herbs that speak to us of meat: mustard seed, thyme, mint and garlic. He will eat of these and his own flesh will be fragrant and mad for wine or blood.
We will undermine your monster. Let there be great pits. His bellows will echo piteously, and hearing his own cry amplified will give him cause to fill his lungs and low for more or less of what he cannot have.
Let your bull-man have space, Your Majesty, but not enough Just as he can feel his shoulders start to uncramp, we will construct a lid, studded with broken stars and a pale moon-curve of light on which to bang his unlovely head. Let's spin your bull into a circle, a bull ring at the centre. Let the capes of invention flicker and tempt him to madness. We will devise the picadors of desire, let nymphs dance in the shadows and disappear when he rushes them.
This maze will encode the seven circles of hell for your monstrous bull-child. The first circle will be appetite, the second image. The third, freedom proffered and snatched away. In the fourth circle let us place temptation of a spiritual sort. He is kin to all the bull-gods of antiquity. We live in modern times my Lord, but let us not forget the potency of the old religions. In the fifth circle let us suggest peace. We will plant it with daisies and pipe in the smells of milk and green grass. Your bull will sense the trickery but not be able to put his hoof upon it. Six, of course, means reversal. The whole thing inverted and played again. How will he know it's for real? he won't until he enters the seventh circle, where he meets the very shape of his terror, for here at the very heart of it, the maze is adorned with the god-like novelty of man. In the end, let him lock horns with those who dare. Perhaps the sword will strike its own reflection in the shield. Perhaps this bull's peripheral vision will be his saving grace and not his downfall. Perhaps it will fall to chance in the adrenalin-scented evening. But just perhaps, let's say, it will more likely fall to the cunning devices of the labyrinth.
Applause unfolds inside King Minos' heart. He nods. And Daedelus gets the job.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Prodigal: Origins

The  first thing I remember is the smell: turpentine, chrysm, ash; These are the smells of the self in the act of creation.
I come from the Isle of Yearn. My birth was hard and easy at the same time. Pushkin, kin push and here I was. All of me. I tumbled from her body into the nettle-ditch of her embrace and when I was red and howling for love, she fashioned  for me a tiny perfect babygrow of dock-leaves. After that we never looked back. We belonged together like the fret and the sea.
In my earliest memory, Alisha is in her vast attic, painting and I am in my corner, keeping watch. It doesn't matter because she is oblivious to the world. She has returned once again to the white painting, is busy reinventing its lethal purity. She fans herself with the torn off wing of a gull. We all remember that, of course. A cathedral of perfume arches over her, lofty, sprung with incense and air, the subtle salts of dead bird and sea-heather.
Outside on the windows, ice forms and melts. My mother is lost in the act of self-obliteration. Old clinkers fall from the sky, as though the stars have twirled too vigorously in their sockets, and I can hear the angels beat their mighty wings. Her brush releases its wild perfume. She breathes in light. As she paints she glows. She is inhabiting the continuous present, begrudging the future its moment. She paints the shivered dream, the heart's grace, the guilt she feels, bright as a fixed star. If it was unwatchable then it is unbearable now. I close my eyes. How could I have forgotten?

This is my mother, painting us all into being.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Prodigal: Many Happy Returns

Open it, Alisha invites him. It won't matter how beautiful your guess is.
It is October, Rafael's seventh birthday, and Alisha has filled the room with pomegranates, blurs of rouge in the foxed  mirrors.
Show me where it is written this year.
Alisha unpeels her shirt and turns to show him the length of her back tattooed in purple: All I ever wanted was a seven year old boy.
The air around Rafael rings with his happiness, and he tears open his present. Layers of newsprint stream around him until a length of wood is revealed. A plank. And a padlock, the exact size of a boy's heart. It's perfect. It's what I always wanted.
Look, Alisha unfurls the last gift. She has made him a train, a long cape of feathers in the pink and peacock colours of the aurora borealis. He ties it to his child's waist and struts the perimeter of his plank like a demi-god.
Later, we go down into the orchard, a rowdy cavalcade of party-goers. Alisha pokes sparklers into our headbands and sets us alight - make a wish - and Rex runs with us through the pear trees in the dropping light, whooping and triumphing us into exhaustion.
When the moon appears Alisha tucks us into our beds, and I hear her whispering into Rafael's ear: The stars have climbed into their constellations, in the barn the cats are licking the mice to sleep and you are seven. And we are so safe.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The Prodigal: The Graveyard

"How will I know it" Electra wondered as she wandered through the cemetary with its rotting gravestones and ivy paths. She had arrived here as though by accident, but in retrospect it had been a kind of treasure hunt. First there had been the mirror reflecting a reclaimed wilderness, foxgloves and clover in reverse. It had intrigued her, and she had pushed past the broken pink chair and stepped right in. The cold air settled between her shoulderblades like the chill palm of a hand. Then she had seen the necklace hanging from the warped apple tree. It looked astonishing from a distance, a necklace of moon clippings. But when she reached for it, she withdrew her hand quickly, repelled. It was made entirely of broken fingernails.
She had felt then a kind of giddyness which, combined with the icy dazzle of the day, had made her blink and breathe. "Blink" she had said. "And breathe."

Last of all she had seen the body, and it was not at all what she had been expecting. It was the body of a boy, beautiful. Maybe an almost man. He was printed with letters, as though someone had written poetry all over him and sealed it in in salt tears and amber oils. His flank was a blue tattoo: your mouth here and here and here, in the blue of very good dark plums. Along his jawline she read I smile my feral smile. She reached out and turned up his palms. There are two words. Pity and Love. And she heard a faraway voice in her head ask "Why are you telling me this?"

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Prodigal: The Precise Geometry of the Circus

"From now on, I'm only allowed one thought a day" Alisha declares.

While she has been working on the white painting the house has been quietly garnering its grime, has grown darker, chameleon-like, in an attempt to absorb more heat. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are snowed under. The white painting has dominated their days for weeks. As always, Alisha is absorbed in the act of seeing. She carefully layers the different whites in interesecting orbs and globes. A sweeping arc of chalk-white over emulsion; less simple and less popular are the lethal heavy metals: lead white, zinc, titanium. The kremnitz shrinks from the emulsion and will not dry.

"Today my thought is about circles and circuses, such as the fact that all circles share a happy similarity but every unhappy circus is unhappy in its own way."

Electra, standing on the circumference of this expressed thought, simply folds herself in two. She folds herself gently, softly, like she might have folded sugar into beaten egg whites so as not to knock out the air. She thinks of the folding as resistance work, flexing her curves against Alisha's overarching theories of irrationality and transcendence.

Head down, she can taste something mineral and derelict upon the air, as though the house has iced over in Rafael's absence, as though they are all skating full-blown moons upon the surface of the day.

"I wonder" Alisha asks, breaking her own rules of anti-flamboyance, "Why it is so very hard to look at him?"

As always her gaze has circled back to Rafael. It is like a mathematical constant, like pi, which implies, amongst other things, that there is no end to it.

"I wonder why it is that so often the searching gaze conceals the very thing it is looking for?"

Alisha has a frame by its outer edge and is squinting through it at the room, trying to sqaure the empty circle, sectioning us all off.

"Would love have looked different if we'd have done it differently? If we'd taken a different view of geometry say, or some other form of mathematics. Might it all have added up differently in the end?"

"Yes" Rex chips in, "and I could have worked for the King, collecting and inventorying scrap metal."

"Is inventorying a real word? Electra asks, straightening up. And there and then, in the small hours, at last, Alisha's smile breaks.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Reading List: The Book of Revelation: Rupert Thomson

Rupert Thomson is a master storyteller. The Book of Revelation makes for a grim but mesmerising read. It tells the story of a young male dancer who is abducted from the street one day by three women who mortify him for their own sexual gratification for eighteen days before releasing him back into a world that can no longer provide any security. The erotic tension between distancing and empathy saves the novel from slipping into the murky realm of pornography or cheap titillation. And the muscular elegance of Thomson's prose ensures that the dancer’s predicament, although graphically described, is always more powerfully disturbing than it is arousing.

The work of the dancer is work that both reveals and conceals the self. Audiences must be prepared to interpret and witness the body. Thomson uses this to haunting effect in this novel,  which is all about uncovering in one way or another. Uncovering the truth about what has happened; uncovering the body; uncovering the motivations for art and self-expression. There is a dark, dream-like quality to the novel, but it is a cogent dream, a dream full of narrative satisfaction. The novel is beautifully written and utterly compelling, but it does leave you feeling rather ashen. The revelations it uncovers are insights we flinch from, as though we cannot deserve what is truly beautiful.

The novel is constructed in three parts, with the middle section which details the imprisonment written in the third person, a technique which exemplifies the emotional reality of the dancer, a man profoundly and increasingly psychologically distanced from himself. This is an intriguing artistic decison which places the reader at a slight distance, so that we are encouraged to see the dancer as his captors do, as an object to be used. The dancer is no longer a person with agency and direction. For this section of the novel  he is at the mercy of someone else's vision. He perceives the world, and himself, in fragments. His challenge for the rest of the novel, will be to reassemble a version of wholeness that will work.

In A Book of Revelation, Thomson prompts some profoundly unsettling questions about the nature of power, identity and society, and these are concerns that fuel all his novels.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Reading List: A Summer of Drowning: John Burnside

John Burnside's novel A Summer of Drowning is mesmeric in its intensity. Set in a dream-like artic landscape of  Norway the novel bristles with gothic imagery: ghosts, malevolent spirits from Norse mythology, spectrally cool houses with corridors leading nowhere. Burnside takes us to the furthest realm of beyond the pale, this is a novel which is luminescent with icy light, and which sheds that light on some of Burnside's enduring themes: being an outsider, art, disappearance and belonging.
The Summer of Drowning begins with the drowning of two brothers and ends with another even more troubling disappearance, but the title also alludes to the deluged interior life of its main character, Liv, whose perception of things becomes so submerged that she appears to be living in a kind of bathysphere.
Perception, and its moral twin, witness, are at the heart of this novel. Liv's observations of the world are largely Burnside's own: she sees the deeply astonishing beauty of the smallest particular. Our attention is drawn to the silvery light of the lichens on the wall, the changing light of the sea, a summer where everything is lit with the paradoxical light of the midnight sun. But for all this unremitting light, we still cannot bring into focus quite what it is we are seeing. With Liv, we see, or perhaps we just just miss seeing,  the uncanny disappearances of two men. With Liv, we see, or think we see, the Huldra, the bewitching Norse Goddess for the seductress she is, but might we revise that to see an isolated misfit, almost the mirror image of Liv herself? The conclusions we are invited to draw are disturbingly fleeting, almost grasped, before they unravel into the unbelievable truth. We are left with the feeling of having experienced rather than read this novel. And the reason for that is that this is a novel which makes it its business to identify the gaping flaws in the fabric of rationality. There may well be a rational explanation for all the events of the novel but, Burnside suggests, it would devastatingly fail to account for the things which this novel values: inspiration, beauty, love and art.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Reading List: Pure: Andrew Miller

Darkly beautiful and full of unsettling insights into how we view death and sacred spaces, Andrew Miller's Pure, which won the Costa last week, is a ghoulish delight, taking us into the dark days and murky evenings of pre-revolutionary Paris. The novel shimmers with tension, as though something earth-shattering is about to happen (and of course it is, though the revolution happens outside the remit of this novel). The central premise of the novel, the dismantling of the church of les Innocents and its cemetery, painstakingly uncovers for us the troubling question of the relationship between the past and the present: Is the past sacrosanct, a place that must be left undefiled by ideas of progress or does it taint everything we strive for with its own disturbing perfume? How we respond to this central question will affect how we react to the novel.

Miller's characterisation is typically superb: Jean-Baptise Baratte, the central character,  a man who trades his worthy suit - inheritance from his father - for a beguiling but  impractical pistachio-green suit, captures the heart of the reader from the very beginning.  He is a man who is and remains an outsider, both in his home town and in Paris, and though the connections he makes with the other characters are compassionate and clear, they seem nevertheless to remain glancing and distant. We view him from the perspective of our contemporary world, and his integrity and ignorance of what is to come make us tender towards him.Other memorable characters include Pere Colbert the mad priest and Armand, the eccentric organist for a Church with no organ.

Ideas about corruption and clarity are at the heart of this novel. Situated on the cusp of the revolution, an historic moment fuelled by Voltaire's Enlightenment call to Reason, and Robespierre's call to Arms, the impelling drive of the novel is a moral drive. The dismembering of the cemetery has as much to do with the construction of modernity as it has to do with contagion.

This is a novel which extends our ideas of what it is to be human, what it is to be alive, what it is to live well. It has passages of lyrical beauty and it resonates on so many different levels. A very satisfying winner of Costa's Book of the Year Award.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Place

The place is like a blessing, like rain, awaiting no more acknowledgement than a goat bleating, or a wife waving him goodbye as he takes his dark body out onto the moor. Come with me now, to Lamper Knott. We will climb the stake road, past the high white stones through a storm of memories. And it will be like snow falling like snow. When the raging winds tear the clouds into flakes. Grief lodges its stone in his throat. He flicks through his memories as though he were watching a film of dust. It is soft and slow past Stonethwaite Fell, along the thick side of the valley, away from the sea. A blizzard is wandering the fields, and he looks up and asks himself: 'Why do you want this?' Light pierces the cloud and his soul bursts into the open, a brief flash of diamond. The waterfall is just beside him, mineral sweet. He has forsaken the marital quarter of his life, to experience something else, something fallow, cold and sweet.
The sky is blunt and soft when he stumbles upon her, stone coloured now, with snow drifting into her nose and ears and defacing her dead body. Her eyes, perfectly round, see nothing, see it wide.
He folds himself into a perfect half and lies down by the dead girl, awaiting no more acknowledgement than the rain, than a blessing in this place.

Magical Journeys

Magical Journeys: Creative Writing Retreats in the Sun 2012
Join us in 2012 for two more amazing magical writing journeys

Morocco 20th-27th March 2012: A week’s retreat in the beguiling 18th
century fishing port of Essaouira - beautiful, mellow and full of vibrant
Turkey 3rd-10th May 2012: A week’s retreat in the heart of Istanbul.
Bursting with story and richly textured with historical and cultural
diversity, Turkey offers a completely unique writing experience.

These retreats offer a revelatory week of creative pleasures. If you
seek peace, space and some inspiration to rekindle the creative
process, these retreats are designed to be both vibrant and uplifting.
Complementing the writing workshops are lazy lunches in the cafes
and squares, convivial evening meals in a variety of restaurants, and
visits to local sights. You will have the time and opportunity to expand
your creative life and explore your astounding imaginative potential.
Morning writing workshops are held on roof-terraces, in pavement cafes
and in simple sunlit salons. The rest of the day is free for you to browse
through the markets, soak up the sun, or indulge yourself in a spa. One-to-one supervision is available throughout the week. All sessions are
optional so you are free to write as much or as little as you wish.

"Spices, minarets and silk carpets inspired our writing under the
guiding hand of our wonderful teacher, Claire. Yet again she managed
to take us all on a magical journey from which we were reluctant to
return" Helen
“Our trip to Turkey was sensational and how we laughed. Claire
planned every detail. We didn't have to worry about a thing except to
be at the appointed place in time to write. And write we did - for she
even carried a surplus of pens and laughter in her bag. We came
home with reams and reams of inspired writing. It truly was a remarkable
writing holiday.” Cath
“What a creative, fabulous, relaxing, happy time we had.” Mary
“Inspired creative teaching full of vigour,touching undiscovered talents
and opening new doors. It was a sensual, exotic and breathtaking
injection of Arabic warmth, a cradle for new friendships formed and old
ones affirmed. This is a journey which truly beckons your
soon as possible!” Lesley
“It is a taste of renewal in a creative and nurturing atmosphere, where
fun and laughter surrounds the whole group”. Valerie
If you are would like to book either of these weeks please contact me at

Creativity is the defeat of habit
by originality
writing is a
journey of startling discovery

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Prodigal: Christmas Past

Behind me, in the mirror, he lifts the ends of my hair with all the gentleness of a child handling a fledgling.
'How would you like it cut?'
'Well,' I said: 'I have a wedding to stop.'
'A wedding?' The sense of my words filters through a beat too late and he cannot disguise the pleasure in his voice. He flushes from his neck upwards.
'Any Christmas parties?'
'We don't do Christmas in my family.'
'What? not even when you were little?'
I think back to the memories of Christmas eves when Rafael and I were little. How he would push me further and further up the iron bed. We did have Christmas then. Of course we did. We must have.
I do remember being told to pray. Having my hands pressed together between Rex's massive fists, and Julia burning white sage to purify the air. And I won't forget the day I discovered him in the hedge, with a Bible pressed to his breast, reciting the words of Judges or Deuteronomy with the helicopter blades chopping the air into quarters.
The nights were scented with gas and tangerines. Frost ferned its foliage up the windows, and Julia would clap her hands with delight and call the frost Jack. No names for sun and wind in our house. The bare floorboards under our bare feet were a dustmap of our running wild. And yes, the tree.
In the vast room with its black walls, we did have a Christmas tree, in bright pink tinsel, which Julia lit with real candles. There were tiny glass trumpets which Rafael and I fought over, and broke, and suffered one of those sudden shifts from beauty to disgrace that marked our childhood.
Because Julia was a woman with a narrow eye, Christmas was kaleidoscopic. Bright and shifting , always on the point of falling away. We went up under the crag and cracked ice in the stream, and ate our Christmas picnic in the pink air. And Rex's kiss was perfumed with brandy and cold water, when I gave him his present, a tie I'd knit and purled from his favourite jumper. I saw the start of alarm in his eyes and mistook it for delight.
Then, like magicians, my parents brought out our presents. Impossible to guess from the wrapping: newspaper painted over. The very size and shape of a shelf. With all the heft of something magnificent. Which they were. It was the year of the stilts. Home-made, of course. By Rex.
Wild with delight we stalked the landscape of the Christmas day, as Julia learned to dive into the river on the valley bottom, bracing her flimsy heart with new definitions of courage.
By the time I look up, he has cut out all the split ends, feathered and frilled my hair into implausible curls.
'There now,' he says, bouncing my new hair in his palms.
'That should be enough to stop any wedding.'

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Owl Lady

We have come to see the Owl Lady, and Jane, and my legs are rubbed red inside my wellington boots. I don't like Jane, who has buck teeth, and wears a dead fox around her shoulders, and is a year younger than I am but behaves as if she were two years older.
Down by the canal they live, in a darkened house under the elms. Past the gasworks with its puddles full of melted rainbows and silica sludge. The house has its back to the East and an impermanent circling halo of rooks.
The Owl Lady has thick glasses that make her eyes loom like palest blue globes. I dare not meet her gaze. The rook on her shoulder is called Bobby and he plucks the cigarette from her mouth and stuffs it under his wing before dropping it with an unseemly triumphalist caw. A cat decants itself from the shelf and tidies itself out of the door. Upon the table is a green velvet cloth with tassle fringing and a teapot with crazed pink roses. I swing my legs from the chair and count the distance between my shoes and the floor. I long to be outside with my brother who is under the dripping elms seeking Mayflies.
'Can I go to the toilet?'
'You'll need this.'
The Owl Lady hands me a rounders bat.
'It's for the owl,' she says 'but I doubt you'll need it.'
The toilet is down the cellar steps, which we call the cat-steps because they glitter with the mica of old coal dust. A dead rat is as flat as an old sock in the corner.
Everything about this day terrifies me.