Saturday, 31 October 2015

A Brenda short for Hallowe'en

Visiting Hour at Horkum Asylum, Nr. Whitby

She refers to this place as ‘the notorious’ Horkum Asylum, as if that is its full name. The whole time she is here she is on edge. She’s just waiting for one of the crazed in-mates to dash out of the shadows and do something unspeakable to her.

So I suppose I should be glad that she comes all this way to see me.

We take walks in the snowy grounds, which are quite pretty. There are statues of fabulous creatures, but it’s impossible to tell what they are under the crust of everlasting snow. We totter down the frozen paths and through the terraced gardens and walk the perimeter of the barbed wire fences.

‘You don’t belong in a place like this,’ says my mysterious friend, Effie, almost each time she comes to visit. ‘It’s obvious that you aren’t crackers and that you’re in possession of all your marbles.’

‘Is it?’ I smile at her, glad to hear it.

‘Oh yes,’ she nods, peering up into my face earnestly. ‘You’re still the same Brenda. I’d stake my life on it.’ She sighs heavily, letting out a great plume of icy breath. ‘Though we have both changed a great deal. How could we not be changed by everything we’ve experienced?’ She falls silent for a bit and we trudge through the snow in companionable quiet. I love the crisp sound of our feet in the snow. ‘In my case, of course, all the changes were for the better,’ Effie says, a little simperingly. ‘I marvel that you haven’t commented on the fact of my changes, Brenda. Aren’t you amazed?’

I play along. ‘Oh yes, yes indeed. Very amazed.’ I smiled blandly and a look of crossness shoots across her thin face.

‘Look at me!’ she whispers. ‘Don’t you think it odd? I’ve… somehow gone and… rejuvenated myself. I must have dropped about thirty years. And all just by jumping into this world. Just by hopping through that portal. Why, if word got out about the strange properties of the portals then everyone would start jumping through, I’m sure of it. All those old women we know at home. They’d be going mad. You’d never be able to stop them jumping through.’

Now she’s rambling on, and I’ve no idea what she means. She looks about seventy to me, so what on earth did she look like before? She seems very pleased with herself.

I ask her, ‘And what about me? Am I younger, too?’

She purses her lips, and lines show on her face. ‘Well, erm, not quite. Though recent experiences have changed you a little bit. It’s hard to put my finger on it, exactly, Brenda. But… if I’m honest… you seem even taller. Even broader in the beam. You’re twice the size of me now.’

Oh. So I’m bigger than I was before. I must take her word for it. This woman seems to know all about who I was before, and what I was like. I admit that I do like the sound of being big and strong and tall. It makes me feel braver, and that’s something I believe I am going to have to be.

We sit on a stone bench, once Effie has cleared it of snow. She huddles in her furry cape and we both stare at the view of the tall fences, the woods and the moors beyond.

‘I’m just glad we’re still alive,’ Effie says. ‘After everything we’ve been through. All the changes might be for the better, or they might have been a heck of a lot worse, but I’m just glad that we’re all in one piece.’ She turns to me with a determined expression. ‘And I’m going to get you out of here, ducky. Don’t you ever doubt that. You’re coming home, to Whitby. With me.’


That night I dream about Whitby.

That’s what I assume it is, anyway. The place that Effie says I belong to. I get a strange, confusing blur of images and impressions rushing through my head. I’m sitting in a cosy room, with a small window overlooking a storm-lashed town. I can hear the sea, somewhere not too far away. An endlessly restless noise. The fire crackles in the grate and I’m sipping a very sweet and delicious drink from a tiny glass. The woman called Effie is sitting across the room from me, but goodness – she looks ancient. She’s like a wizened old hag sitting there.

She’s talking about something or other. Cryptic stuff. But I’m used to not being able to follow her these days. It sounds like a lot of nonsense to me. Something about a woman called Sheila and a malign deity known as… Goomba. Effie is talking inbetween sips of sherry… (yes! That’s what the drink is called!) and she’s making plans. Plans of action, of attack. We’re involved in a kind of… yes, adventure. That’s the word. The two of us are talking like the whole world is depending on our working together to foil some evil kind of menace.

I have these dreams several nights on the trot. They are populated by terrifying beings. Dark-eyed blood-suckers and the spirits of flesh-eating sirens. They’re all crowding in for my attention, along with other, friendlier faces. Concerned faces. Calling my name, peering into my eyes.

I wake up in cold sweats. Calling out, some nights. My bellowing hullaballoos echo down the stone corridors of Horkum Asylum. I could almost feel ashamed of waking everyone up in the dead of night and bringing the guards running. They unlock my door and come dashing in. They slap me awake. They inject me with something to bring my heart rate down and the visions in my head go still.

Mostly, they go still. Some are still frozen on my mind’s eye.

I do see some terrible things when they leave me lying here on my own.

Some nights they’ve even strapped me to my cot so I don’t thrash about so much. I think they’re scared that, possessed by my nocturnal visions, I’ll go rampant and break down the door. Sometimes I feel strong enough to do that. I could run amok in this place. Go on a rampage in my starched nightgown. I could crack skulls together and kick down the doors that keep me trapped in this place. Sometimes the blood courses so thickly through my veins and it fizzes in my temples with diabolical urgency and I feel like I could do anything.

I really need to calm down.

It’s no good for me to get too worked up.

I might do myself a proper mischief. Getting all in a tizz like that, I could burst my heart. I could pop all the blood vessels that supply my brain. I could drop dead in an instant.

I must be more careful and not lose my rag. I must try not to let my dreams send me doo-lally. It’s all for my own good.

That’s what my personal physician says, anyhow.

And he’s a very caring, considerate man. He has a lovely, solicitous, considerate, bedside manner. Such a cultivated voice. Almost a purr. He comes to see me most mornings, very early and puts on a gentle tone. He admonishes me softly.

‘Ah, Brenda. What have you been dreaming about now? What have you been up to?’

Sometimes there are broken chairs and other bits of rough furniture lying about the cell. Smithereens. Smashed up bits. Everything that came to hand during my nighttime tantrum. Sometimes the leather straps from the bed have been snapped straight through.

‘You can’t carry on getting yourself all upset like this, my dear.’ He sighs heavily and I stare up at him from my bed, where I lie exhausted after all the ructions. I lie there admiring his shiny black hair and his spotless complexion. His immaculate manners. ‘How are we ever going to calm that savage breast of yours, eh?’ And he smiles at me winningly.

‘I don’t know,’ I mumble. ‘I just wish I could be calmer. I wish I could be content. It’s just… the dreams. The dreams get me all stirred up again.’

He glances sharply at his clipboard and makes a swift note with his silver pencil. ‘Your dreams seem to be at their most potent on nights following visits made by your friend. Effryggia Jacobs. Have you realized this?’

I think for a moment or two. ‘I suppose… I suppose that’s right…’

He taps his pencil against his perfectly white teeth. ‘In that case, I think we should think very seriously about whether her visits ought not to be discouraged in future. This person seems to be undermining your recovery, Brenda. She is spoiling your chances of ever being happy.’

My physician stands up to go.

‘Do you think so?’ I ask him, wishing he could stay longer. But he has his rounds to do. He has all the loonies here to consider. I have already taken up too much of his precious time.

‘Oh yes,’ he says, frowning. ‘I think Effie is doing you more harm than good, Brenda. Perhaps we should put a stop to her.’

Then he’s turning on his heel and waving me goodbye. His attendant nurses go with him. He always has about five with him. They’re different to the regular nursing staff. Queer, short women who don’t speak English.

‘T-thank you,’ I call after him. ‘Thank you, Doctor Danby.’


Friday, 30 October 2015

The Lovely Levy Colouring Book - available now!

Something fun I’ve been working on in recent months has been ‘The Lovely Levy Colouring Book’. It’s just gone on sale and I’m pretty proud of my work in a genre that’s brand new to me!

As readers of this blog will know, 2015 has been my ‘Year of Drawing’, which saw me determined to teach myself to draw all over again. After a childhood of drawing compulsively and teenage years which saw me decide on writing as a career (as the more likely option – ha!), and the subsequent sidelining of any kind of artwork in my life… I decided to devote a little part of each day to producing something visual. Something I could finish. Even just a little scribble. But something that I was happy with.

Very early on in 2015 I found myself braving the weather and getting out and about in Levenshulme, where we live, and drawing local scenes. Inside cafes looking at patrons and looking out of windows. Street scenes and shops. I even sat amongst window displays in florists and on the cosy settees of hair salons. I sat sweltering beside the local swimming pool with my water colours.

I realized I was making up a visual record of our little bit of Manchester, bit by bit. Levenshulme is a kind of inner city village, a little bit shabby but thoroughly loved by most who live here. It’s a jigsaw of all kinds of cultures and histories, and it’s changing every day. The more I looked at and the more I drew – even after ten years of living here – the more I was finding out. I went to hunt out The Secret Lake and found an arcadian wilderness behind the council tip. I sat in the Market on chilly Saturday mornings and drew all the dogs who led the owners round the fancy stalls. And I started getting commissions for original paintings. I have found myself specializing in portraying exaggeratedly large cats sitting in streets and outside their owners’ houses.

Anyhow – along came the idea for the Lovely Levy Colouring Book, some time in late summer. Of course, I’d seen the Colouring Books in the bookshops and newsagents and WH Smith’s on the platform at Piccadilly Station. They looked impressive and all a bit abstract to me. They were a bit like those Magic Eye pictures of years ago – fractal stuff that you could lose yourself in… Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to have books to colour that had pictures of places you actually knew? A place where you actually lived..?

So I ended up redrawing many of my favourite views of Levenshulme. And when I talked about the project on our local Facebook group there was a lot of interest in the idea… Every time I mentioned what I was working on there were people wanting to order it right away.

It was all very intricate to draw and took ages. And then I had to find the right printer, and the right way to do it…

Anyhow, it all got done, and yesterday we picked up boxes of the finished book from the printers – and it’s all come out lovely! It’s on sale in our local café bar, and will be given as fancy dress prizes at the night market celebrating Hallowe’en, and I’ll have a pop-up shop during the Levy Festival on November the 7th

I really thought it would just be of interest to people in Levy. But almost straight away I was getting enquiries from people further afield. People who weren’t in Manchester, and even people outside the UK..!

So we’ll see how it goes! I’ve been vaguely promising to create a Whitby Coloring Book next…!

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

'Welcome Home, Bernard Socks' available for pre-order!


By Paul Magrs

Published by Obverse Books, December 2015

The Official Sequel to 'The Story of Fester Cat.'

Fester Cat returns us to his favourite place in the world, and casts a wry but compassionate eye over events in the house on Chestnut Avenue. In the months following his death Fester watches his hapless housemates Paul and Jeremy cope with living in a quiet, catless house, and gradually come to the decision that they must adopt a new friend. It is at the eccentric cat rescue / charity shop THARG where they first meet the robust and sproingy young Bernard Socks – the black and white cat who is destined to inherit Fester’s place in their home and garden down beside the railway tracks.

But things are never simple and straightforward in this family, and there follow months of excitement, adventures and downright palavers. Bernard Socks escapes and discovers a ghostly cat parade that happens every Midsummer Night’s Eve in Levenshulme. He helps the boys through the sudden death of a close friend. He gradually settles into his new life on Chestnut Avenue and everything seems fine, as Autumn draws near.

But then the men from the roofing company arrive and set up scaffolding all over the terrace and pretty soon all the ceilings are falling in and it seems that the three boys’ precious home is never going to be the same again. By the end of the year everything feels as if it’s in jeopardy – even the health of Bernard Socks himself. But what can Fester Cat do to help, watching all of these disastrous events unfold? How can that tough little, much-missed companion still make his voice heard by the humans that he loves?

Some quotes from early readers:

“A lovely book, moving but unsentimental.” Lesley Cookman

You owe me some more mascara! I have cried, then laughed, then cried again…” Elaine Bateman

“Feels like a return visit to old friends: it’s just as vivid, warm and compulsively readable.” Roy Gill

“It's a simply lovely book, full of magic, whimsy and most of all: love.” Matthew Bright
This is the first time I've ever finished a book and felt like crying, although I definitely laughed along the way as well.” Townsend Shoulders

The Story of Fester Cat  has taken its place on the bookshelves (permanent collection!) of everyone who cherishes their connections with pets, lovers, music, books, and family. Now make room on the shelf for Welcome Home, Bernard Socks.”  Nina Sankovitch

Pre-order direct from -

(provisional cover.)

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson

I came by this book in the old-fashioned way. I hadn’t heard anything about it until I was in an indy comics shop in Manchester and there it was, out on display. I flicked and read, browsed further down the shelf, then returned and read some more… and eventually bought it in hardback, without knowing anything about the author or reading any of the reviews.

Must admit, I don’t keep up much with what’s new in Graphic novels. I grew up obsessed with Marvel comics, but so much of what comes out nowadays seems a little grim and portentous if it’s aimed at non-comics fans, or a bit silly, butch and warlike if it’s aimed at readers within that rarefied world. All I’ve read that I’ve really loved – in comics form – in recent years is the comic strip version of Adventure Time. ‘Space Dumplins’ seems to have a touch of the Adventure Time spirit about it – the same bandy, bendy figures in bright, action-figure colours and a similar kind of wild inventiveness and free-wheeling spontaneity and genre-aware cleverness in the story-telling. Also, it’s just about as ludicrously silly.

Thompson’s huge, heavy, three-hundred page novel also reminded me of the early Marvel Star Wars comics – the adventures set straight after the first movie. The ones created by comics people massively enthusiastic about space operas – completely unencumbered by the po-faced reverence and canon-fever than has weighed down Star Warsy stuff ever since. In 1977 I was thrilled by six feet tall, blaster-wielding green rabbits and worlds that were nothing but seas for space age pirate ships to plunder. I think ‘Space Dumplins’ has that same feeling for surrealism and adventure – with its space-faring whales and their toxic bum troubles, space-labs disguised as giant lobsters, mad scientist chickens, loony fashion designers and a ragbag collection of wobbly, misguided, untrustworthy and supremely lovable cast of characters.

It’s about a little girl called Violet who is separated from her home and parents, who must team up with two other kids – one of them a neurotic and cowardly chicken, the other a hot-tempered bright orange doglike sausagelike Lumpkin thing from a rubbish dump. Together they’ve got to rescue a baby space whale to stop the universe going to hell in a welter of glowing green shit.

It’s endless, unstoppable, touching and hilarious. It might get a bit gooey over the daddy and mummy and baby stuff… but it’s got enough freaks and oddbods to appease a reader like me.

And how lovely to read a Graphic Novel for once! And revel in the beautiful details and all the jokes tucked away in the corners of frames. All those sharply painted lines taking the place of all the endless, tedious DESCRIPTION we get in normal novels. Just cutting to the dialogue! Cutting to the chase! It’s like taking a glorious long weekend in outer space.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Kingdom and the Cave by Joan Aiken

My recent reading has been less spooky than I expected it to be. I took out all of those old ghost anthologies and I read a bunch of stories… but I don’t think I’m in the mood for horror, overall. I want something brighter and more optimistic, even if it is Halloween this week…

Over the weekend I read two wonderful volumes – both new out.

The first is a new Virago reprint of the first novel Joan Aiken wrote, when she was just seventeen. (Virago have been picking out some good additions to their Modern Library in recent times – I’ve enjoyed Stella Gibbons, Angela Thirkell and PL Travers this year, all in fancy new covers.) ‘The Kingdom and the Cave’ is a kind of fairy tale involving young prince Michael, who learns to speak several animal languages and goes off to save his kingdom from the terrible folk who live Underneath… It’s a book that takes a little while to get going, I think, but there are lots of thoroughly charming incidents and characters – earthworms and eels, a friendly horse and a rather feckless wizard - and the cats, in particular, are very funny.

It seems like an essential book, to me, for any real Joan Aiken enthusiast (it was first and last published in 1960.) Now I’m really looking forward to ‘The Serial Garden’ – a single volume collecting up the linked stories about the Armitage family. I’ve read several of these, sprinkled through anthologies over more years than I can even count – so I’m looking forward to reading them all together.

The other book I enjoyed this weekend – almost more than any other this year – I’ll wait to tell you about next time.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Fox at the Manger by P L Travers

I love P L Travers’ ‘Mary Poppins’ books. I never read them as a kid, I wasn’t really aware of them. I guess the ten year old me would have thought of them (dismissively, wistfully) as ‘girl’s books.’ But they are strange, knotty, magical books – with a dash of Edith Nesbit and a pagan whiff of Worzel Gummidge about them.

‘The Fox at the Manger’ – which is republished early next month by good old Virago – is a handsome gift-sized hardback containing one short Christmas story by Travers (and several very handsome Thomas Bewick animal engravings. If you ever come across it, do read Jenny Uglow’s book on Bewick!)

(I wish every writer I love had a Christmas story of their own. One that could be published in its own little stocking-sized hardback. My favourite of all must be Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory’ – which is such a clichéd, obvious choice that it’s hardly worth bringing up, really. Though I do love it.)

Travers’ book is an altogether rarer and more obscure tale. It has a feeling of being brought out of the past – out of a post-war Britain, in which the bells of St Pauls (as we are told at the start) are ringing for the first time following the hostilities. It’s a world in which mothers tell their children the story of the nativity on Christmas Eve. A world that seems quaint now and faraway, somehow.

The nub of this tale (and can you believe I’m reading Christmas stories already, when we’re still a week short of Hallowe’en..?) is an innocent question about the nativity, and why all the animals at the manger in the stable in Bethlehem were all domestic animals? Weren’t there any wild animals present, offering gifts?

And so the mother sits down and tells them a story – she extemporizes a tale. Or is she possessed by some kind of benign, Christmassy spirit? And the tale she tells of the fox has about it some of the outdoorsy wildness of the Mary Poppins stories – with their pagan gods and personifcations of abstractions, living stars and wild beings from across the galaxy – all of whom are in thrall to Mary.

In this new nativity tale the fox comes creeping into the manger and it’s all about what gift he will bring to the Baby Jesus. How pleased with themselves all the other animals and visitors seem when they talk about what they’ve donated. The fox’s gift – I won’t spoil it here – is actually quite touching. The bit where the baby sits up and starts talking – that’s a bit creepy, I think.

It’s a nice little book, like something fallen down the back of an old aunty’s shelves. A funny little present from the past. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Some recent pet commissions

I love doing these paintings of people's pets. Often I haven't even met the cat or dog or gecko in question. But I still like getting the personality of the animal to come through.

Drop me a line if you want to commission something from me!

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Two London Paintings

Two of my favourite - and very bookish places - in London. Russell Square, right in the middle of Bloosmbury - and the book stalls on the South Bank, by Waterloo. It was beautifully sunny last weekend and I hope I've managed to bring that out a bit.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

My Hallowe'en Book Bag

It's October! The other day I mentioned organising my Hallowe'en book bag, and that's what I'm going to do. I want to read a range of proper Hallowe'eny books. 

I'm picking out five or six from each kind of spooky book - a schlocky, slightly cheesy scary novel, a classic children's author's collection of ghost tales, a vintage themed anthology of old and new stories, a true life account of a haunting, etc etc. 

The photo is of my choices so far... Some of them have been waiting patiently for this October for ages! Why not dig out some selections of your own and join me reading and 
recommending through October?