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Despite the falling snow

The Isle of Bute doesn’t get much snow usually. This morning it is settled too deep to put the rubbish out. The front steps form a series of steeply undulating curves. The wooded slope to the rear of our house, an enchanted forest.

I last encountered snow like this ten years ago, when I was living in London. Children sledding in Manor Park, the ducks, confined to one small area of an otherwise frozen pond. I remember leaving work early, anxious to reach home before the railway network shut down completely. Pulling out of Shadwell on the DLR, snow gusting against the windows, the stations closing one by one as the train passed through.

I remember when I was small: collecting icicles, storing them in the ice box, they were so huge, so beautiful. I didn’t want them to die. Completing the ‘barefoot challenge’ in a race with my brother: three times around the house, no socks, no shoes.

A fortnight ago, and a drive through the Trossachs: Callander, Loch Katrine, the Duke’s Pass, sere and glorious, a landscape from an epic quest. Snow still lying at the roadside from the last snowfall. A ‘road closed’ sign, which we hesitated over and then ignored, seeing cars running safely through from the opposite side.

The Duke’s Pass this morning would be impassable.

This morning I went barefoot to put the rubbish out, not wanting to drag snow inside the house, or soak my clothes.

Open borders

I cannot think of a more appropriate or timely piece to post this Christmas than Kevin McKenna’s article in today’s Observer about the twenty-four Syrian families who have come to make their home on the Isle of Bute. McKenna is at pains to highlight the ways in which the relationship between the island and the refugees is a reciprocal one: as the Syrian families have found safe harbour here, they in their turn have brought hope to the island, through their integration into the community, through breaking down barriers, through carrying with them a sense of the wider world, through their very presence. Bute needs the Syrian families – and more like them – to grow, to rediscover its energy, to be a part of a modern Scotland, where borders are permeable.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to a showing of The Barbers of Bute, a short film by Joe Steptoe that follows the story of Mounzer Al Darsani, who lost everything in his flight from Syria and who has now begun to rebuild his life – and his career – on the island. The film also focuses on a woman barber from Edinburgh who has similarly found sanctuary here, and the ways in which her story and Mounzer’s are the same. Our only regret was that the film wasn’t longer. The refugees’ stories would be an ideal subject for a full-length documentary and we very much hope that Joe will return to the island to make it.

It has been an enormous year for us. As I stepped off the ferry on Tuesday evening following a lunch with friends in Glasgow, I couldn’t help thinking about the strangeness of it all. A decade ago I was living in London. There is no way I could have predicted that ten years later I would be living on a Scottish island. If anything,, the island lifestyle has proved more compelling and more grounding than I could ever have imagined. The idea of not living on an island now seems downright weird. My frequent journeys to and from Glasgow this past year – to see friends, to participate in events, to catch movies at the GFT – have offered me access to the wider world, even as they have weathered the rhythms of the island more deeply into my system and my thought processes.

We love it here, and that includes the weather. Of course I have ambitions to write about the island, to bring something new to it as it has brought so much to me. Chris has already done so, and his new novel, An American Story, will be published next September. With the Pavilion project now fully underway, new businesses and new islanders and a renewed sense of purpose, this is an auspicious time for Bute. We are thrilled to be a part of it.

It has been impossible, this year as last, not to think about politics, all of the time. Finding the courage and energy to speak and write when both Westminster and Washington seem so divisively and – ultimately – pointlessly hell-bent on turning back the clock to outmoded ways of thinking, of governing and of relating to the world can feel difficult and dispiriting, yet there are fires of hope, even now, and being part of an outward-facing community with a stalwart heart is something to be celebrated indeed.

Happy Christmas everyone, and may our gods keep faith with us.


I started reading Paul McAuley’s Fairyland because I’ve been wanting to catch up with a few more previous Clarke winners. I had no idea, when I began it, that the novel’s brilliant second section takes place in a future Paris. It feels wonderfully appropriate to have read it during my residency here.

I admire Fairyland, firstly for its creative ingenuity – rendering fairies as a science fictional conceit is a great idea and McAuley has a lot of fun with it – and secondly for its wealth of ideas: the socially divided, fragmenting Europe in which Fairyland takes place isn’t a million miles from Dave Hutchinson’s fractured Europe series and McAuley set out to explore it twenty years earlier. Its prescience – not of events so much as tone – is remarkable in places, a grubby, post-cyberpunk latent awareness of things to come. The biotech elements have so much potential, and my only gripe with Fairyland is that too much energy is wasted, in the end, on the ho-hum chase-and-find thriller plot. Your mileage may vary, of course – it’ll be no secret to regular readers of this blog that I find most quest plots excruciatingly tedious and much prefer the detective mystery template.

But Fairyland is well worth reading for Part 2 alone – a scintillating piece of writing, a magisterial novella in its own right, showcasing everything science fiction can do and should be.

Nano-fairies undermining Eurodisney. I think they’re already here.


Following the announcement of the Booker Prize on Tuesday, I’ve been thinking again about the decision, made back in 2013, to make American novels (albeit American novels published in the UK) eligible for the prize. I was an agnostic at the time, but now feel less sanguine. With two American winners in a row, we begin to see how our most celebrated literary prize might increasingly come to be dominated by American concerns, an American worldview, and most especially American modes of writing. Looking back at the shortlists these past three years, we see how interesting and diverse they are. We also see how an intangible something has shifted.

It’s not even about the winners and shortlistees, and least of all is it about Paul Beatty and George Saunders, both eminently worthy of winning prizes, both wonderful artists whose inclusive and dedicated approach to writing should be celebrated and promoted. It’s more about what happens further down the food chain, where – because of the necessary new rules restricting even further the numbers of books publishers are allowed to submit, and thereby concentrating submissions still more firmly into the hands of the more powerful players – ever fewer British and Commonwealth writers are going to have a chance to even have their book in contention. This will inevitably affect the texture of the prize, the overall outlook and – I have come to believe – not in a good way. Earlier this week I reread Philip Hensher’s piece for the Guardian, published shortly after the announcement that American novels were to be made eligible. At the time I thought it was a tad hysterical. Now I think that, although the Booker isn’t quite as doomed as Hensher suggests, he makes some pertinent points that are indeed being borne out by experience.

It’s a bit like Brexit, really: someone should have the guts to admit this was a mistake and press the reset button.


As a general rule, I wouldn’t normally be in the right place at the right time to observe an art world scandal as it unfolded but this week, by sheer force of happenstance, I was. Joep van Lieshout’s sculpture Domestikator, rejected by the Louvre on grounds of being a public obscenity, was erected (yup) on Monday in front of the Pompidou Centre instead. Pompidou patrons are more accepting than general strollers in the Tuileries, apparently. Our favourite Guardian arts commentator, Jonathan Jones, has got himself all in a lather about it, insisting that Domestikator is ‘nasty public art’ and that shoving people’s faces in it is an act of bullying. Which is a shame, given that he clearly understands the visual language and intent of the sculpture perfectly well:

“Van Lieshout is making an in-joke about architecture, mocking the Dutch tradition of utopian art and design. In the centenary year of the De Stijl movement, Domestikator resembles a De Stijl design gone badly wrong. It looks as if a socially responsible modernist architect has created a vision of an ideal habitation, only to accidentally make it look like a man penetrating a dog.”

Why the rest of his piece had to be so po-faced and self-righteous, I have no idea. Claiming that he believes van Lieshout’s statement to be ‘elitist’ is just Jones trying to position himself on the right side of the barricades. The sculpture is so abstracted it’s difficult to see how it could offend anyone unless – like Jones – they were deliberately setting out to be offended. Van Lieshout said on Monday that he was ‘disappointed’ by the Louvre’s decision to offload the sculpture. Well, he needn’t be. People at the Pompidou have been enjoying, chatting about and clustering excitedly around the piece all week. Dare I suggest they seem to have taken it to their hearts? It’s certainly getting a lot more attention than it would have done if the Louvre had simply put it up where it was originally supposed to be and kept stumm about it. As for Jonathan Jones, going on past form, he’ll no doubt pop up again in ten years’ time to tell us why Domestikator is actually the greatest piece of public artwork ever.


On Monday evening I took part in an event at La Maison de la Poesie, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of my French publisher, Editions Tristram. The honour of being onstage in such a venue cannot be overstated. As part of my segment of the evening, Tristram’s co-director, Sylvie Martigny read a short extract from the French edition of The Race, and it was brought home to me just what a marvellous translator Bernard Sigaud is. The words were in French, yet the weight and rhythm of the sentences, the emotional range and tone were inalienably mine. A small miracle had been performed, and it is precisely this kind of small miracle that the art of translation is all about. Once again, the privilege of having such passionate, committed, creative people working on my behalf cannot be overstated. Thank you, Tristrams. Thank you, Bernard.

Thought for the day

“An intellectual is someone who challenges binary oppositions, bridges cultural gaps, has the cognitive flexibility to connect various disciplines and passionately defends a nuanced way of thinking.

Intellectuals should be bold and loud and yes, offensive. It is high time to stop denigrating the term. At least out of respect for those people who pay a heavy price in other parts of the world just to be a public intellectual.”

(Elif Safak on the Denigration of the Public Intellectual.)

Thought for today

“Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them. Living in the west, however you define it, being western, provides no guarantee that you will care about western civilisation. The values European humanists like to espouse belong just as easily to an African or an Asian who takes them up with enthusiasm as to a European. By that very logic, of course, they do not belong to a European who has not taken the trouble to understand and absorb them. The same, of course, is true in the other direction. The story of the golden nugget suggests that we cannot help caring about the traditions of “the west” because they are ours: in fact, the opposite is true. They are only ours if we care about them. A culture of liberty, tolerance, and rational inquiry: that would be a good idea. But these values represent choices to make, not tracks laid down by a western destiny.”

(Taken from the 2016 BBC Reith Lecture, ‘Culture‘, by Kwame Anthony Appiah.)

Thought for the day

“What the west sadly lacks is the humility to accept that it’s actually not in our power to sort out immensely complicated problems in the world. The only thing that we have the power to do, given that we lack a political class of wisdom and grace, is to make the situation worse by destroying infrastructure, by killing and maiming the citizens of a country that we don’t understand in the least, and radicalising and angering people more than they are already.”

Michel Faber, on sending The Book of Strange New Things to David Cameron to help with the war effort.

More brief updates…

I have so many things on the go at the moment that once again I’ve not had time to put together anything substantial for the blog, though hopefully this situation will be put to rights before too long. In the meantime, I can tell you that in terms of non-fiction writing I’m already preparing some posts for the weird fiction reading project/challenge/whatever I’m planning for 2016 (more on that soon), plus this week alone I’ve been drafting another review for Strange Horizons, as well as my Time Pieces column for the January issue of Interzone.

What is it about the end-of-year that always leaves me feeling as if I need a thirteenth month to get everything finished?

Work on The Rift is…exciting. It’s interesting and strange, that moment when a piece of writing begins to feel like a thing in its own right, something that exists apart from you and with its own agenda. There’s still enough new stuff happening in this draft to make it feel risky though, and surprising, to me most of all. Bizarrely, I seem to be enjoying myself.  The third draft is at the halfway mark, give or take a thousand words or so.

Listening to: Joanna Newsom, all the albums including the new one but especially my absolute favourite Ys, which I think may be one of the greatest song-sets ever written. It won’t come as any surprise to anyone, I’m sure, to learn how much I adore Newsom’s sprawling lyrics, which appear loose and anarchic but which are in fact supremely disciplined, supremely composed. Open-ended but intentionally so.

That’s how you write short stories…



J’ai cueilli ce brin de bruyère
L’automne est morte souviens-t’en
Nous ne nous verrons plus sur terre
Odeur du temps Brin de bruyère
Et souviens-toi que je t’attends

(Guillaume Apollinaire)

Diary, 8.30 am

,,,red campion, fool’s parsley, hogweed, rough chervil, common evening primrose, foxglove (winding down now), convolvulus (first of the season), tufted vetch, meadow buttercup, leopard’s bane, broad-leaved willowherb…

These are all super-common native plant species of the kind most people call weeds, but for me there are few more thrilling avenues to explore in natural history than these widespread British wildflowers. Of course there are many more spectacular and scientifically interesting species found elsewhere in the world, but none that better define the landscapes I write about, the landscapes I grew up in and that trigger my most immediate, honest response as a writer and as a human being.

The sight of red campion in the hedgerow (at its peak, a couple of weeks ago, it was breathtaking in its profusion) can set my heart racing. The Devon hedgerows themselves, which this spring I’ve been able to watch daily as they’ve thickened and quickened, are so bounteous, so diverse in composition, so vast you could spend most of a day just looking at one small stretch of one, identifying, photographing and cataloguing the plants on display. These hedgerows and the fields beyond form what can rightly be called a Fowlesian landscape, a landscape that is somehow so deeply rooted in many of us Britons that it is instantly recognisable at a level that has more to do with the gut than with the eye, instantly home, even for those who live in the city.

On Tuesday I wandered down a lane that led to a bridleway that led to a meadow bursting with clover and singing with bees. SO many bees here, bees all around us, up first thing in the morning and already about their business.

In that same meadow a pheasant broke cover just yards from my feet. At the end of last week I spotted on one of our garden shrubs a bronze shield bug. Haven’t seen one in years. These things too I find thrilling.

Although my bookshelves contain an ever increasing number of books on natural history (bear in mind that this is someone who requested – and received – W. S. Bristowe’s The World of Spiders for her twelfth birthday and still has that same copy) and though I rejoice in the current upsurge in popularity of nature writing by the likes of Robert Macfarlane and Helen Macdonald and Melissa Harrison, Marianne Taylor, Richard Kerridge, Patrick Barkham and Dave Goulson, I find it practically impossible to write about these landscapes except through fiction. The experience is too intimate, too revealing of self. There is the ever-present danger of slipping into a mode of expression that sounds like sentimentality, when what one wants to express is fierceness. Fierceness and passion and urgent necessity.Cow parsley 20 05 15

I’ve probably just inadvertently listed another ten reasons why I love Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border so much. I could say sorry for harping on this book all the time, but I’m not going to.

The village oak

The oak tree that stands at the centre of our village is more than four hundred years old. It is a magnificent tree. Standing beside it gives you the most extraordinary feeling of being just the very latest point in an ongoing time continuum. I’ve read that the village oak was mentioned in certain accounts of the English Civil War. The tree is a living story, a powerful organic presence a single human being at a single moment in time can only dimly grasp the meaning of.

I lived in Exeter for the better part of twenty years. Throughout that period I worked as a music buyer for an independent chain of record stores, and three or four times each year I would take the Tarka Line train up to Barnstaple to do a stock check at the North Devon branch. I would always gaze out at the stations towards the middle of the route – Morchard Road, Eggesford, King’s Nympton – and think how wonderful it would be to leave the train at one of them, to step out into that landscape of forests and fields and farming hamlets and have somewhere to go.

Travelling home from Exeter after lunch with a friend, this is now exactly what I do. One of the profoundest and most fortuitous instances of deja vu I have ever experienced.

And this is where I go running:

It is remarkable, how swiftly and how entirely we have adapted.