Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Lanny by Max Porter, an extraordinary novel best read in splendid isolation




I’m on the Isles of Scilly with friends, the weather’s been glorious and there’s been lots of walking, paddling in the clear waters and spirited conversation.

But the thing I’ve been most looking forward to, ever since I discovered a cairn at the top of the hill behind the house we’re staying in, is to take myself off for a couple of hours to read in complete solitude. Not just any book, though. The novel is one in which I’ve wanted to immerse myself ever since I ordered it.


After it arrived, it sat on the chest of drawers next to my bed, on top of David Nicholl’s Sweet Sorrow, John Lanchester’s The Wall, and Stephen King’s The Outsider. I’d been given a book token and went a bit mad.

My literary tastes are somewhat eclectic but a good friend tells me the common denominator is the quality of the prose.

‘You like good writing, don’t you?’ she said.

I hadn’t actually thought much about it before but she’s absolutely right. I wince at adverbs (Stephen King hates them) but my heart soars at lyrical prose. Okay, King’s prose is not very lyrical but he writes like a dream – and dispenses invaluable advice to aspiring writers in his memoir, On Writing.

The book I’ve been saving myself for is Lanny by Max Porter.


I’ve not read Grief Is A Thing With Feathers, his first novel which won him the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser and Dunlop young Writer of the Year Award, both in 2016. It’s since been adapted into play with Peaky Blinders star Cillian Murphy.

But I’d read about Max Porter. And when I heard he was coming to BridLit, I knew it was time I ordered Lanny. The style of writing described in the blurb appealed to me. The small stuff, the rural undercurrent that builds into a torrent. Village life, the mundane and magical, the ordinary and the extraordinary.

A bit like Jon McGregor perhaps. (I suggested Reservoir 13 for my book club. I sunk into that novel like the bog I once got stuck in under Lewesdon Hill, while others perhaps just didn’t get it. And McGregor’s If No-one Speaks of Remarkable Things has stayed with me since reading it when it came out in 2002. I can’t tell you much about the plot, just that the writing was like a breath taken and held and exhaled in wonder. If that sounds like I should be in Pseuds Corner, the so be it. I can’t think of any other way to describe it.)

So I was looking forward to Lanny, having convinced myself that Porter would be along the lines of McGregor.

Wrong. But not in a bad way. Oh no. Not in a bad way at all. I don’t think I have read ever read anything quite like it.

Lanny tells the story of an extraordinary little boy in an ordinary little village. And then, one day, Lanny goes missing.

As I sat, spellbound in a cleft in the rocks overlooking the harbour on Tresco, the book just took me over, like a spirit seeping into my soul. There is humour, there is joy, there is beauty, there is magic and a dreamy feel that put me on automatic pilot as I devoured the prose.


The first part was pure Under Milk Wood. The lyrical, poetic rhythm swoops and swirls, as does some of the text (literally) when we hear the overheard lines of conversation from the people who live in Lanny’s village.

The shapeshifting Dead Papa Toothwort, a sort of ancient Green Man-type figure but devious and cruel, haunts the pages as he comes and goes about his business, which centre on the special child that is Lanny.

The tricky middle is taut and full of recriminations and soothing words and this reader just hoped all would turn out well, for the best. For lovely Lanny, a boy as old as time but as young and new as an emerging leaf on a hazel tree.

There is a scene towards the end that I think the Guardian reviewer found too wacky but, believe me, the village hall raffle is staple stuff for any self-respecting rural community. In my village, we’re fully expecting a raffle to be held at the next wake.

And then the ending. There’s no spoiler alert from me but suffice to say, I got up from my cleft in the rock with a sore backside but a rich satisfaction in one of the best hour-and-halves I can honestly say I have ever spent.

Max Porter will be at BridLit on Tuesday 5 November, speaking in the Bull Ballroom at 4pm.

That's about it.

Love Maddie

Sunday, 22 September 2019

A new, creative, Open University year begins

The school holidays have come to an end, with children already hunkered down in the new school year.

University students are settling into their accommodation before the studying begins, and college kids are getting used to a different routine every morning.

I love autumn and that change in the seasons, from the hurly burly of summer to a more contemplative, meditative time of year.

New beginnings and all that.

For me, that means returning to that wonderful place of learning, The Open University, where I'm just about to start a masters degree in creative writing. At fifty-eight, it was now or never because my eligibility for a student loan runs out at the age of sixty.

As soon as I discovered that, the choice was already made. It was, in an expression I absolutely loathe, a no-brainer.

My degree years with the OU from 2007-2011 were among the most creative I've ever experienced.  The culture of supportive learning was a real tonic and stood me in good stead. I'm hoping for good things from this course, not least the joy of studying with like-minded people.

In the meantime, I've been reading my socks off, immersed in fiction and enjoying it as much as a bath in ethical bubbles from The Body Shop.

This represents some of my summer reading pile:


My copy of Sweet Sorrow by David Nicolls - which left me bereft when I finished reading it because I loved it so much - is currently out on loan to two good ladies from Lush Places, as is Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield. I adored both of these books for different reasons.

Of the pile pictured, Circe by Madeline Miller was particularly superb, and so much better than her The Song of Achilles which I didn't like much at all.

My read of the year has to be Lanny by Max Porter, which I devoured in one sitting on a rock overlooking the harbour at Tresco on The Isles of Scilly. The beauty of the writing and setting stirred me to my bones.




I'm lucky enough to be blogging for this year's Bridport Literary Festival at which both Nicholls and Porter are appearing. I can't wait.

In the meantime, suitably nourished by all these books, I am now all set for my two years of study at The Open University.

Wish me luck.

That's about it

Love Maddie x

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

News from The Shed of Dreams, or words to that effect

On Sunday morning, there are two sheep sauntering in a very confident manner down the street.

Unfazed by the local peloton of cyclists zooming past in formation, the sheep look right, look left and then look right again before crossing the main road, heading in the direction of Lyme Regis.

They'll be corralled in a garden soon, way before they have the chance to place their towels out on the sand or frolic about with buckets and spades. Their adventure will probably be over within minutes.

But they're out there, giving it a go.

I am out here too, with two little girls laden with sweets from the village shop, each one far exceeding their £2 allowance, Young children are canny like that. They knew I'd lose count once the liquorice bootlaces and fried egg candies started going in the basket at speed. There were just too many figures to add up in my head.

Unlike the sheep or indeed their grandmother, who got a grade three CSE in maths three times (even with private tuition), these children are not stupid.

This afternoon, we will be mostly painting pebbles.


It is nearing the end of the school holidays and the children have run out of interesting things to do. They're with me for the weekend and I rashly suggest covering the kitchen table with newspaper and getting out the acrylic paints.

The third girl has now graced us with her presence after being in bed until nearly lunchtime. Well, I tell the others when they wail that it's not fair and shouldn't they wake their sister up, it's what teenagers do. Just as plants need water and light to photosynthesise, teenagers need sleep in order to grow.

'But we need to grow, too, Granny,' the little one says. Which is true and I am unable to counter this argument. These days, what with Brexit shenanigans and age making my brain turn to mush, I've given up arguing and any rational thought. I just go with my heart.

So I distract them by getting out the pebbles I collected when I was last down at the beach.

There is a fight over who has the best-shaped pebble and then a fight over the two paint brushes. The middle sister discovers that painting with fingertips is actually better and another one elects to use a sponge, which leaves a brush for me and the third sister to use.

My own pebble was selected long ago and was used as the sign for my writing shed. It bore the words The Shed of Dreams (if you think it, the writing will come), lovingly crafted in red and purple. Over the months, though, the name has eroded along with my creative writing output. The Shed of Dreams has become The  hed of  reams, then The   ed of   eams before making absolutely no sense at all.


So while the girls are absorbed in their handiwork, I repaint the pebble with new colours and design.

And I am very pleased with it, particularly the little fluffy clouds.


Until one of them says: 'Those clouds look just like sheep, Granny. And what's a Srea of Dreams?'

Oh dear, back to the drawing board.

That's about it.

Love Maddie

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

We're going on a book hunt

I'm back in my old haunts, up on the hill, dog walking when I make an interesting discovery.

I haven't been up here for months but I vow to thee my country that I'll get back to my old routine and do this early morning walk at least three times every week. At 28 kilos, Arty certainly needs the exercise. And me, at ahem I prefer not to mention but said quickly in imperial measures is at least a stone too heavy, well, I need to exercise too.

It's late summer and the children are still on holiday but ready to go back to school soon, with new uniforms, shoes backpacks, sandwich boxes and pencil cases all to shop for this week. 

(It always irritated me immensely that high street stores insisted on 'Back to School' displays as soon as the children broke up for the summer. How dare these commercial types spoil the magic of holiday time. Talk about pressure.)

This morning, it's quiet on the hill until the rain starts dropping in ever increasingly large splats on the beech leaves, after a beautifully hot bank holiday weekend when the world and his wife came to Dorset to have fun.

Fortunately, Lush Places generally slips underneath the tourists' radar so that this time of year it's best to stay put to enjoy the delights of village picnics, neighbour's parties, Mr Grigg's strawberry milkshakes, the children's playground and the annual flower show. This is what country life if all about.




Up here on the hill today, the rain is refreshing after the heat and almost good enough to dance in. 

I flit around the ramparts, pretending to be an ancient Briton, a Roman or Vilia the witch of the wood. Frankly, she is more my style.

There are squirrels darting around, pigeons coo-ing, earth balls nestling under the trees, and brown leaves underfoot. There is a new swing up here.





And then I find what looks like someone's school project propped up against a tree. 


Only it is isn't.

It's We're Going on a Bear Hunt, which has been hidden by Ryan and Lewis and needs to be read and then re-hidden as part of Dorset Hidden Books.

I get rather a strange look from a cow as I make my way down the hill with the book under my arm.


And then I find another book.  


There's yet another book outside the village shop.

And I discover that more were found on the children's play area over the weekend.

Ryan and Lewis have been busy. 

Two of the books are destined for my two littlest Dorset grandchildren, who will read them with me and then hide them again. I left the third one for someone else to find.

What a great idea.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

All the fun of the fete

It's the height of fete time here in France, with the weirdest, wildest, wackiest festivals you could ever imagine.

Most of them involve eating and drinking, which is perfectly fine if you're into that sort of thing. Luckily, I am.

I think I'm going native.


August is the time to have fun with friends. However old or young you are.



I could be here for some time.


This one involved rows of mussels in soaked paper and then straw put on the top and set alight.

Seems rather a convoluted way of cooking mussels en masse, but ho hum, why keep things simple?




Later this week we'll be enjoying an omelette made with two and a half thousand eggs.

Porquoi?

Porquoi pas.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x


Wednesday, 17 July 2019

I see the moon, the moon sees me

So there we were, enjoying France at its liveliest when someone pointed to the sky.

The moon.

There was a great chunk missing from it, as if it were made from fromage and someone - or some thing - had taken a bite. A clanger maybe. (I love The Clangers. Here they are on my windowsill at home, courtesy of the good knitters of Lush Places WI).


We sitting outside at a village marche gourmand when we witnessed a partial lunar eclipse. What made it even more exciting was that we'd had no prior knowledge it was going to happen. This is because I've stopped listening to the news, too depressed by the whole Brexit debacle, the state of the world in general and the idiots who run it.

It's almost fifty years to the day that Neil Armstrong took that one small step and a giant leap for mankind. Back then, I was coming up to nine years old. The moon landing filled me with awe and hope, hope for the bright future that surely lay ahead of all of us.  I still love the idea of space travel, science fiction and astronomy, gazing at the night sky and inwardly soaking up those glorious constellations.

I see the moon, the moon sees me, 
God bless the moon, and God bless me. 
God let the light that shines on me, 
shine on the one I love.

Mr Grigg has just bought me a telescope as an early birthday present. I should have used it last night to get a close-up view of the moon, but we were too busy enjoying what the French do best - sitting outside in the evening sun and eating and drinking.


Food stalls circled the car park, like wagons stopping overnight on the pioneer trail, protecting row upon row of people-filled tables. There was beef, lamb and duck, prawns and pate and salad and truffle ice cream, along with two stalls selling crystals. Gorgeous.


Lots of smiling, three kisses, deep joy and short sleeves.

The week had already kicked off in grand style on Sunday with fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. As my French friend from Lush Places said when I posted the video on Facebook, Allons enfants de l'Europe!!



And, later,  as we sat gazing up at the moon, surrounded by French and Brits, once again it crossed my mind that we have more in common than that which divides us.

Vive la revolution!

And today I have dreadful wind.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x


Friday, 12 July 2019

Horrible handbags at the ready


There is a welcome breeze in the French air today, after more than a week of sweltering temperatures. It's warm but not as crazily hot as the last two weeks.

A day without sweating is a day to be savoured, as are the early types of fruit from the purple-leafed plum trees encircling the village. In the garden, there is a Mirabelle and the fruits are delicious lightly stewed and served with ice cream.

In the markets, the fruit and vegetables are equally fresh. It’s a joy to wander around, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the rural French way of life.





In the supermarkets E Leclerc and Carrefour, the fruit and veg sections groan under the array of melons, lettuce by the yard and apricots, lots of lovely apricots, and nectarines.

The fish counters are works of art and the cheese section has me salivating at the choice laid out before us. Prices are not cheap – this is not Spain – but the quality and freshness is most excellent.

There is a promotion on in Leclerc at the moment for Tupperware. Collect enough stamps and you can purchase an abundance of items for which plastic was made for.

Remembering the parents of friends' Tupperware parties of my childhood, the prospect of getting my mains on one these containers begins to excite me until I remember we’re in the age in which the love of plastic is akin to devil worship.

At the till, our trolley groaning with products, we are offered stamps for the latest promotion. Hey, Tupperware, lead us not into temptation.

But then I don’t have to resist it, as the cashier tells me the Tupperware promotion is over and gives me a brochure detailing the latest offer.

I leaf through to see UP TO SIXTY FIVE PERCENT OFF handbags and purses, apparently designed by sisters Kendall and Kylie Jenner. (I have recently learned these two young women are famous for being famous.)

Their faces peer out at me from the pages, like two vacant, vapid sex dolls, with lips parted and pouting a la mode, and eyes that wish they were somewhere else . They stand together, in an incestuous, slightly girl-on-girl pose, the brunette holding the blonde one’s jeans together and the blonde one's hand on her sister’s tummy.


The blonde one looks very uncomfortable, as if she is about to break wind and is worried the button of her jeans is going to blow off in the process. The brunette appears to be saying through gritted pout: 'Just wait for the photo to be taken and then you can go to the toilet.'

I have no interest in celebrity culture and only know the two of them are Kardashian relatives after watching the television series about OJ Simpson in which Friends star David Schwimmer played the lawyer with the Mallen streak.

I looked up his character on the internet (I’m a Google and Wikipedia junkie in my search for useless bits of information, which will never be of any value apart for winning the trivia category in the village quiz), and discovered the Kardashian and Jenner cult of which, up until that point, I had not been aware. 

I don’t get out much. Tabloids pass me by, along with glossy magazines. The things inside them are mostly hateful, pointless or made up.

So, anyway, I leaf through this brochure with the sex dolls - sorry, the Jenner sisters - to find the most hideous merchandise I have ever seen with their names plastered all over them. Why would anyone collect vouchers for this crap, let alone pay full price for it?

When did the public get sucked into all of this rubbish? And when did the sex pout become fashionable? And why? I swear in thirty years' time, kids will be looking back at their parents and grandparents' photos and laughing like drains.

So I politely decline the stamps we are about to pick up with our shopping and resolve to make a point of shopping in the street market next time we need anything.

Handbags at dawn, anyone?

That's about it.

Love Maddie x

Friday, 5 July 2019

Tales from a French heatwave: the Boris who came to tea



It’s morning and the sun is streaming through the windows. It’s early but it’s light as anything out there and in here. And cool, at least for for the moment.

We both wake at the same time, the disturbed look on Mr Grigg's face reflecting exactly how I am feeling at this moment. I’ve just had a very strange dream.

Remember, we are in south west France in the middle of a heatwave.

Oddly and as if on cue, he says: “I had a really funny dream last night. We were hosting a dinner party. But it was a disaster.”

“That’s odd,” say I, barely able to lift my head from the pillow it was so hot last night. “So did I.”

 “Really? Well, I dreamt I’d invited someone you really didn’t want there as a guest.”

“An ex-wife?”

“No, worse than that.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Give me a clue.”

And he tousles his hair and makes an idiot face.

“Not Boorish Johnson?” I am intrigued.

“Exactly him.”

I sigh with affront and turn over to look at Mr Grigg as he goes into great detail.

“It was terrible” he says. “It was obvious you were really angry I’d asked him to dinner, because you were refusing to serve him.”

Actually, I’m steaming just thinking about it.

“What about your dream?” Mr Grigg asks.

“Well, I was catering for lots of people, almost feeding the five thousand. And I had so many helpers dishing up the food, we were getting in each other’s way. And  I'd overcooked the roast pork so much it was carved up into thin sheets of steel accompanied by metallic gravy.

“And then I brushed past one of the diners with my backpack as I presented his with his meal, cutting off some of the fronds of his broccoli. He was furious.

“It was someone from the public health department who in real life a year or so ago interviewed me for that job I didn’t get because. well, you know I interview so badly.

“In the dream, the nightmare dinner was so awful I flounced off out into an adjoining atrium where I sat on the floor and had a nervous breakdown.”

“That’s dreadful,” Mr Grigg says. “Do you know what Boris did in my dream?”

I imagine Boris Johnson lifting the lid off a silver dish to see the disembodied head of the United Kingdom in map form with a poisoned apple in its mouth.

Or hurdling over huge Irish borders placed between the place settings.

Mr Grigg is clearly upset about what Boris did next.

“He got up on the table. He got up on the table.”

“Not the lovely walnut table we picked up for a song at the auction and then paid rather more to have expertly restored?”

“The same one entirely.”

“He didn’t dance on it, did he?” I can feel myself sweating, and it wasn’t even my dream. “You're telling me that Boris Johnson danced on our antique table?”

If I’d been angry at hosting a dinner party to which the country’s prime minister-in-waiting had been invited without my knowledge, I’m incandescent at the thought of Boris Johnson’s trotters plonking up and down on our beautiful piece of furniture.

“No, he didn’t dance on it,” Mr Grigg says. “He got up on it and prayed.”

Prayed?

“I asked him what he thought he was doing and he said he just wanted to say a few prayers at the table.”

At that point, a bird in the garden cries out “cuckoo, cuckoo” in French. Which is rather appropriate, really.

That’s about it.

Love Maddie x


Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Baking in the French sun as the Brexit temperature rises

It was the bagpipes that did it.

I was feeling pretty emotional in any case, as the cavalcade trundled by, its Europeans theme reflected in some of the floats and marching bands.

It was a balmy summer’s night in a small town in France, the swallows flitting overhead, laughing at and weaving in and out of the tremendous shifting shapes of sparrows roosting in the trees.

A hound on a lead was howling like it belonged to the Family Baskerville. People dangled their feet in a fountain. It was gone ten-thirty and the bridge over the Aveyron was still too hot to sit on.

This canacule (my newest French word) was going on for far too long. It was time the heatwave turned to dust before we did. The day before, I had melted in forty-two degrees.

The carnival queen and her attendants were ultra cool, though, dancing on their tiny float and surrounded by the flags of Europe, including our own Union Flag, all fluttering alongside each other.


And then there were funky trumpet bands from Eastern Europe and lots of excited jigging around. Poland and Slovakia were out there in the intense heat, which showed no sign of abating even at this time of the evening.

And then the pipes began to call and the kilt-wearing members of the City of Bristol Pipes and Drums made their way up the street, stopping right in front of us with a rendition of ‘Sailing’.

It was too stirring, too haunting, too beautiful. The tears welled up in my eyes.

Here in south west France, I feel desperately sad that we seem to be careering out of Europe in a handcart pushed by incompetent clowns. I bloody love Europe. The union has its faults but we should be fighting from within, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater just to honour the decision of a small majority of those that voted in a referendum three years ago, which has been shown to be embroiled in the lies of careerist politicians and charlatans.

And then the pipes moved on, wailing up the street, to be replaced by a jostling brass band from Limoges, closely followed by a giant Tintin, Snowy and a rocket, grown up majorettes, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a massive white cat with pink ears, a Lego castle and, finally and inexplicably and much to my delight, Homer and Marge Simpson bringing up the rear.


That's about it.

Love, Maddie x

Friday, 31 May 2019

A funny thing happened on my way around the hill

Up on the hill early one morning this week, I was walking quietly around, minding my own business, when I noticed a billycan hanging from a tree trunk.

'Ooh, that's nice,' I thought. 'Someone's been up here with the children during half term and had a barbecue. But they've forgotten to take their rubbish home with them.'

I was just about unhook it off the tree when I turned the corner and noticed a tent in the shadows. And then a solitary, male figure emerged from inside, stretching his arms up to the sky as if he'd just got up.

I'd only that moment been thinking about an idea for a short story which had come to me after its fantastic title was kindly provided by the dictation facility on my phone's WhatsApp. This had completely misheard me when I said 'cattle escaped'. I'm not going to tell you what it typed, as I don't want you to use that as as the title for a short story which goes on to be the basis of a bestselling novel. That would never do.

Anyway, I was just thinking of how the story might progress when I saw the billycan, tent and then the stranger.

And it felt like one of those moments in a scary film where you just know that the next thing your leading character does will start the engine of the plot.

Don't do it, you say in your head. Don't be curious, don't stop to find out what it's all about.

But the characters in the scary drama - and they're often a lone woman - decide they must do just that, while you, the viewer, are shrieking inwardly turn around, don't do it! as you grip the edge of the sofa and hide behind a cushion.

And this action is the pivotal part of the whole plot. If the character didn't stop to find out more, there wouldn't be a story. You wouldn't be watching it. Because nothing would happen.

So what did I do?

I turned around and legged it with the dog.

That's about it.

Love Maddie x


Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Blue sky thinking


The sky is as blue as a sailor's trousers this morning. You could make hundreds - no, thousands - of pairs, if only you had the right scissors to cut through the heavens.

And you'd need a magic sewing machine. But there probably isn't thread that blue anywhere in the world.

All this blue sky gets me thinking. It's a bright, cobalt blue. It's absolutely stunning.

There are white, wispy angel wings hovering in the blue, too. They'll soon be dispersed by the vapour trails of aeroplanes heading here, there and everywhere.

Me, I'm heading for the hill, where the only way is up. Grey squirrels scamper up the trees as soon as they see the dog. The bluebells and the beech trees and the grass still look glorious, the morning light making the colours sing.


I make for the fir trees, just as I always do, to see if the sea is still out there, beyond Langdon Wood and Golden Cap to the south.

I can see the sea.

That's about it.

Love, Maddie x

Lanny by Max Porter, an extraordinary novel best read in splendid isolation

I’m on the Isles of Scilly with friends, the weather’s been glorious and there’s been lots of walking, paddling in the clear wat...