Monthly Archives: August 2008

restlessly in limbo

It’s an odd time, the time between books. Having sent off Paradise Red, I need not to dwell but to move on, so that by the time my editor’s comments arrive my mind is fresh – new water for the flowers as it were. I’m going to use the time to forget about domestic things and concentrate instead on filling up a few more of the literary and historical gaping holes that seem to increase year by year, as well as grasping more firmly the ideas floating for new stuff. That old cliche, ‘the more you know the more you realise you don’t know’ is really beating me over the head at the moment.

The best thing I’ve done this week is to make a resolution with a friend to read a poem a day. So easy – can be done whilst making coffee, speaking to dullards on the telephone, waiting for the spin cycle to finish. If only I’d made this resolution sooner I’d have got through the whole Norton anthology by now and how useful would that be! I’m always in awe of the poet’s economy. It seems rather clumsy to have to use 72,000 words when 72 might do.

This is yesterday’s, written by Michael Schmidt, now Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University. The idea came from another poem written by an unknown Irish monk aeons ago. Michael’s poem was deemed not a poem by the Queen’s English Society. There was a jolly row.

Pangur Ban (you probably already know that this means White Cat)


Jerome has his enormous dozy lion.
Myself, I have a cat, my Pangur Ban.

What did Jerome feed up his lion with?
Always he’s fat and fleecy, always sleeping

As if after a meal. Perhaps a Christian?
Perhaps a lamb, or a fish, or a loaf of bread.

His lion’s always smiling, chin on paw,
What looks like purring rippling his face

And there on Jerome’s escritoire by the quill and ink pot
The long black thorn he drew from the lion’s paw.

Look, Pangur, at the picture of the lion –
Not a mouser like you, not lean, not ever

Chasing a quill as it flutters over parchment
Leaving its trail that is the word of God.

Pangur, you are so trim beside the lion.
– Unlike Jerome in the mouth of his desert cave

Wrapped in a wardrobe of robes despite the heat,
I in this Irish winter, Pangur Ban,

Am cold, without so much as your pillow case
Of fur, white, with ginger tips on ears and tail.


My name is neither here nor there, I am employed
By Colum Cille who will be a saint

Because of me and how I have set down
The word of God. He pays. He goes to heaven.

I stay on earth, in this cell with the high empty window,
The long light in summer, the winter stars.

I work with my quill and colours, bent and blinder
Each season, colder, but the pages fill.

Just when I started work the cat arrived
Sleek and sharp at my elbow, out of nowhere;

I dipped my pen. He settled in with me.
He listened and replied. He kept my counsel.


Here in the margin, Pangur, I inscribe you.
Almost Amen. Prowl out of now and go down

Into time’s garden, wary with your tip-toe hearing.
You’ll live well enough on mice and shrews till you find

The next scriptorium, a bowl of milk. Some scribe
Will recognise you, Pangur Ban, and feed you;

You’ll find your way to him as you did to me
From nowhere (but you sniffed out your Jerome).

Stay by him, too, until his Gospel’s done.
(I linger over John, the closing verses,

You’re restless, won’t be touched. I’m old. The solstice.)
Amen, dear Pangur Ban. Amen. Be sly.

from The Resurrection of the Body, Michael Schmidt 2007
Smith/Doorstop Books

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pressing the button

The send button on a computer should be red, although if it was, I wonder if I would ever send anything at all? It feels red today, though, because I’ve just sent off the first draft of Paradise Red, the last of the Perfect Fire Trilogy. It should be thrilling, shouldn’t it, finishing another trilogy, and it is in its way. But the thrill is a slowburn thing, not like the instant thrill of an Olympic medal, because hot on the tail of the thrill begins the anxiety. I’ve only got to look at the send button to want to change something.

These alterations, mostly tiny, although I have deleted 7,000 words since last Thursday – yes, that’s 7,000 in a quick series of roller-coaster moments – zoom out of a clear blue sky. I think my mind is miles from the book, then suddenly I get a dagger-prick, right in the gut, and have to rush back to page 112 to change one word. Or I’m in Tesco’s, and am stopped, stricken in my tracks. ‘Where’s Unbent when Raimon’s stranded in the room-within-a-room?’ The checkout girl looks nervous. Unbent is Raimon’s sword. You can’t buy a sword in Tesco. I might as well give up on the shopping then.

Anyhow – off it has gone and, for the moment, my Perfect Fire notebook, once so pristine and tidy but now scuffed, chaotic and bedecked with bits of grass for some reason, is shut. I await the verdict of my editor much as I waited for the results of my university finals – with a stiff drink to hand.

For those who have so kindly enquired: no, we’re still not all repaired from our flood. Oh, it was cruel how close we came last week! The carpet fitters arrived – and left. Apparently our floors need attention. I draw a veil …

Oh, and something else. For all those being very careful when they meet me, all is well! A Chinese whisper has grown round my family’s decanting from our house when the BBC made their film Fiona’s Story (to be shown on BBC1 next Sunday, August 31st, at 9 p.m.) From our decanted flat I rang a friend and left a message to the effect that I was not living at home at present, so could she return the call on another number. Can’t think how I phrased it, but it was soon common knowledge that I’d been kicked out by my husband (he seemed such a nice man, too) and had joined the ranks of wives abandoned. All very Cranford, and, as in Cranford, all a concatenation of misunderstandings. We’re together! We’re happy! We’re going on holiday next week, deus volente, which, of course, he may not.

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fine thoughts are fine but a plumber’s better

I love my husband, yet although it’s wonderful to discuss whether Henry James really was responsible for Constance Fenimore Woolston’s death or whether Tracey Emin’s work is complete junk (never having seen it, of course, but since when did that stop us?) in my next life I’m going to marry a plumber, or maybe an electrician or a decorator – at any rate somebody who can actually DO something.

You see, we’re still stuck in post flood mode and there is nothing, nothing at all, more enervating than waiting for workmen. Will they, won’t they turn up? Will they, won’t they shake their heads and pronounce the house ‘too old’ for their tools? Will they, won’t they make more mess than the mess they came to sort? These questions hover and haunt even as I am trying to finish book 3 of the Perfect Fire trilogy. It’s one of the few times I really wished I lived at Castelneuf in 1242 and not in Glasgow in 2008, although, come to think of it, Aimery of Amouroix also has to sort out his castle after a great fire (see Book 2, White Heat, just out in the UK) so I suppose he must have had his moments. Aimery at least had a nice sword with which to prod. Don’t think that would go down well here. Still, I can dream.

Lesson to be learned: if you rent out your house to film-makers, insist on portaloos and lock yours up tighter than a medieval wife’s chastity belt.

Yesterday I appeared for the first time as an author at the Edinburgh Book Festival and it was quite an experience. It felt very grand to have an author pass and I must say, the whole thing is beautifully organised and civilised, quite a feat when, in this most dismal of summers, the rain has dumped down and then dumped down some more. But book folk are patient and well behaved, at least physically. The real nutters reserve their fire for questions/long rambling opinions in philosophy events. I think facilitators would also find swords quite handy, not to wound, just to swish with intent.

So – the writing. Well, the blog silence has not just been flood related. I’ve been so deep in the Amouroix, so involved with Raimon and Yolanda that I’ve scarcely emerged. Their story is more complex than that of Will and Ellie and Hosanna, and none the worse, I think, for that. In the Occitan, loyalties were divided not just in half, but often into fragments and in Paradise Red, Raimon and Yolanda have something to face that nearly floors them both. I thought long and hard about it, but it was absolutely right for the story. I shall be interested to learn whether readers agree.

I always like a fast-moving plot, but in these books I have also explored slow-burning change. Sir Hugh des Arcis, for example, who set out as one thing, is transformed into another through falling in love with Yolanda. I watched him. He couldn’t help it. I simply faithfully recorded it in a way I had not anticipated.

I’m often asked if it’s hard writing about times so far passed and I would have to say yes, but not in quite the way the questioner means. It’s hard sometimes not to be almost paralysed by the sad fact of decreasing attention spans. Were T. H. White to send in The Once and Future King to an agent today, he would be told to cut out all the bits I find so magical – when, for example, the Wart is turned into a goose. Of what use is that to the story? But it’s such great writing, it turns you into a wild goose too. Writing good historical novels involves meat as well as gravy, double cream as well as gossamer froth. You just have to hope that the reader is prepared to settle down with knife and fork and not just snatch and graze.

Myself? Today I’d settle for a book on drains even above Violet Needham’s The Black Riders. Creating the past is a splendid thing but really, sometimes I’d be happy just to know which end of the plunger is the business end.


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