Author Archives: Catherine

Sunday Morning Coming Down

I’m doing a session at the Hay Festival this weekend. I’m on at 9am on Sunday – a bracing slot that will surely sort the sheep from the goats – something my RE teacher used to say every single lesson whilst handing out another fun Bible quiz. I was never sure which creature we were supposed to aspire to, neither seemed in possession of towering intellects, but then again neither did my RE teacher.

Anyway to compensate for the early hour, there is Jonathan Coe – who will be funny, thoughtful and lucid – and a free advance copy of his forthcoming novel Expo 58.

In the goat corner (I think I’ve worked it out now) will be me – less funny, thoughtful and lucid – and a free advance copy of my forthcoming novel Mr Lynch’s Holiday.

Is it just me that finds something slightly desperate sounding about the programme notes?

‘read them before the reviewers do!’

It’s the exclamation mark. It never inspires confidence.

No fun

I spent part of today in a playground. It was a fairly worthy variation – everything made of timber, bark chippings underfoot, National Trust parents closely chaperoning their children’s every move. ‘National Trust parents’ isn’t intended as some class-based slur – the playground was at a National Trust property – though I guess the term does capture something of that characteristic blend of perceived hearty good fun, anxiety and awkwardness.

Anyway, I was watching my daughter perform laborious circuits of some kind of fortified slide/viewing platform and it struck me how much more enjoyment she seemed to be getting from the whole playground experience than I ever did.

As a child I saw playgrounds primarily as the places where my chances of being beaten up were at their highest. This wasn’t paranoia, mean kids loved hanging out in parks: kids who went to other schools and would throw stones at me, or try and bounce me off the end of the seesaw, or hijack me on the roundabout spinning me faster and faster until I threw up. But even when the playground was empty, or when I had my mom with me the experience was never really joyful, because nothing there was that much fun.

I suppose the slide was the best. A straightforward ascent, a small whoosh on the descent. By the age of 6 or 7 though this had palled a little. Sometimes the slide didn’t even work – some combination of anorak nylon and damp metal would put the brakes on the descent and I’d find myself shuffling rather than flying downwards. I was conscious also that by then I should have developed some more advanced slide tricks. I suspected that using a slide when you were 7 was only really acceptable if you went head first and this was something I could not do. I would stand at the top of the ladder, trying to pluck up courage to pivot over the apex on my tummy but all I saw was my body flying off the end of the metal chute, my face skidding along the tarmac, the raw flesh providing perfect sticky purchase for a mask of grit. Inevitably I’d give up and perform the ungainly manoevre of bringing my legs underneath me, sitting on my bottom and sliding down, experiencing none of the old thrill just a mild sense of shame and defeat.

Swings were less fun. I could at least use a slide unaided, but I was unable to get a swing moving by my own momentum. I knew the theory. My mom would give me a few pushes to start me off and tell me to keep my legs tucked back as I went back and then straight out in front of me as I swung forward. What she never emphasised was that it was the transition between these two that really mattered, the energy injected into the kick back or forward that cranked the swing higher and higher. I thought position was everything, carefully tucking my legs beneath me and then gently, gracefully extending them out in front of me, all the while feeling the arcs diminish. I’d grind to a halt, my mom would look at me, I’d ask her to explain it again.

Climbing frames had a lure for me as a child similar to the lure of a window pane to a fly. I was powerless to resist their pull, sensing happiness within my grasp, only to find myself minutes later clinging to the bars, trapped and confused. Climbing frames fooled me every time by presenting their friendly face first. A ladder leading up – what could be more simple? What could be more enticing? I’d skitter across the tarmac, pull myself up by the rungs and up and up and …then that familiar sense that things were going wrong again.

What I never really grasped as a child was that a climbing frame in which you only climbed up wasn’t really feasible. What I wanted was an infinity ladder with a giant slide or hovering helicopter at the top to return me to earth. What I got instead was the nightmarish prospect of having at some point to climb sideways or downwards.

Climbing frames of the 1970s came in various shapes and sizes. There were neat 3D grids; strange igloo-like structures with shiny sides and poles down the middle; multicoloured activity centres with footholes in sheets of metal; the most basic and prevalent though was the simple arced ladder – semi-circle of steel with both ends anchored in the ground as if the circle continued under the tarmac. Whenever I think of climbing frames it is always this structure and more specifically an image of me paralysed on the fourth rung that comes to mind. As the frame curved around I would consider my options. I could continue forward over the hump of the summit and then find myself somehow having to negotiate the descent head first. I could attempt to perform the dangerous manoevre of turning around whilst at the very summit of the structure, where a fall would cause the gravest injury. Or I could attempt to somehow get from the outside to the inside of the frame and negotiate the top rungs hanging beneath the bars, before presumably having to climb back to the outside to finish the descent. Aside from fear and embarrassment my overriding feeling was of simply being in the wrong place: I was facing forwards and I should be facing backwards, I was on the outside and I should be on the inside. I thought there must be a solution. I realise now that there wasn’t. I was trying to battle geometry and I would never win. The angles would always beat the child.

Short Stories Aloud

I’m looking forward to attending the next Short Stories Aloud in Oxford on April 30th. One of my short stories will be read by an actor, which I think will be an enjoyably odd sensation. For me anyway. Hopefully not too odd for the audience.

It’s made me think that it would be nice to always have an actor around to voice my thoughts and deliver my lines in conversations, somehow ennobling and elevating my inanities. Ideally it would be Werner Herzog, in his occasional capacity as actor. I’d feel less pathetic requesting that my tea be made ‘weak and milky’ if Werner was asking for me. He’d take no lip.

More excitingly the other writer at the event is Ron Rash. It’s shameful but true to admit that it has taken this event and Sarah, the organiser’s, efforts to introduce me to his work. I am now a tedious convert, having read both Burning Bright and Nothing Gold Can Stay in the last week. The stories are wonderful – vivid, understated, melancholy and occasionally very funny. I think we’ll both be doing a Q and A after the stories where I will try not to plague with him too many of my own questions.

If you’re in the area, come along and hear for yourself.


So this is my new website. I thought it might be nice to get all of my things together in one place. Prior to this they were just floating about the internet. I’d catch glimpses of them every now and again, lost balloons passing by.

Below this post you’ll find various stray ramblings and blog entries from my old website and journal written over the last few years. I suppose I’ll continue to emit these every now and again, along with perhaps some more helpful/directional posts about what might loosely be termed ‘book stuff’.

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It’s almost certainly an indicator of my lack of sophistication that I am not yet entirely immune to the occasional amusement value offered by the subject lines of spam mail. They are so consistently febrile and unhinged, and their occurrence so frequent that mentioning them seems as tedious as telling people about the crazy dream I had last night. Despite this I sometimes experience a pang of regret as I’m deleting them, a sense that I’m throwing away something of real poetic or comic value, a key to an entirely different way of seeing the world.  Clearly my heart isn’t sufficiently hardened yet. Here are two that caught my eye recently:

1) ‘Your dick size will be stamped on your forehead’

There’s little to say about that really. It’s hard to make out if it’s a threat or a promise. An interesting idea though.

2) ‘Your little friend is watching you tie your shoes’

I think this is a good title for a song. There’s something very menacing about it. When one realises (as you do after receiving 30 similarly titled variations on this theme) that ‘your little friend’ refers to your penis – then it takes on a whole other dimension – kind of dreamlike and melancholy. Does the penis feel left out of this exchange between your fingers and your shoelaces?

Barrio boys

Plaça dels Àngels in El Raval, Barcelona is a perennial favourite of  skateboarders and street drinkers. Many of the skateboarders seem to be getting on a bit now – closer to 30 than to 18. It’s hard to say what age the street drinkers are, though I guess younger than they look. The combination of harsh Spanish sun and countless cartons of Don Simon would I’d imagine be unforgiving to the complexion. At night as the local shops close the two groups are joined by a third group made up, it seems exclusively, of Pakistani men who are there to sell cans of Estrella beer to the other users of the Plaça. They spend the night working whilst the skate boarders spend the night hurling themselves and their wheeled wooden boards at a low wall, and the street drinkers drink and shout. It’s a typically polarised Barcelona scene. The people with dark skin standing and waiting on those with paler skin; the street drinkers – somewhere out of the equation in a universe of their own making. I wonder if these independent beer vendors watching the skaters, like those other independent vendors who carefully pick their way through the pale skinned bodies attempting to become darker sprawled on beaches, ever feel that leisure time is wasted on those that have it.

Lingua Radio

I tuned to local radio in the car the other day to placate Edie. Not that she loves local radio, but sometimes fast paced music calms her down when she’s crying. Anyway I found something urgent sounding and left it on. It turned out to be an advert for a hair salon. Over the music a young man with a kind of voice you might use if you were playing the school bully in Grange Hill went through his script unaware it seemed that he was advertising a hair salon and not a gun. Anyway at the end he said the name, the phone number and then ‘satnav’ followed by the postcode. I realised that the word ‘postcode’ will come to be replaced by the Orwellian satnav. One of the new usages like ‘ham’ to mean any cold, sliced meat Eg. ‘turkey ham’.

Whispering Grass

City parks aren’t terribly subtle in their juxtaposition of life and death. They have the swings and the slides and the children shouting, but alongside them they place memorials to the dead.

In Cannon Hill Park as well as the children’s play areas, the tennis courts and the (barely) crazy golf, there is the customary war memorial – in this case to the ‘sons of Birmingham’ killed in the Boer War, alongside various personally dedicated benches and a few commemorative trees.

When I was walking through the park the other day I noticed a fragile sapling tree, supported by posts, with a small plaque attached. The dedication said: ‘In memory of my beloved mother 13 April 1890- 24 March 1959’. This struck me as odd. No name, just dates. A new tree for someone who died 50 years ago.

A few feet on there was another tree of similar age with another plaque. ‘In memory of my beloved son 15 September 1958 – 14 October 1978’.

My initial, nonsensical thought was that this was a mother and son, until Pete pointed out the mother would have been 68 when she gave birth. More logically I suppose the dedicator could be the generation in between – the child of the mother, the parent of the son, bereaved at both ends and wanting to mark the loss.

For some reason though my initial impression clung on and I found myself imagining the dead remembering the dead. Dedicating trees and benches to one another, whispering to each other through municipal furniture, saying ‘I loved you’ and hoping it wasn’t too late.

New Faces

I was thinking the other day about X Factor. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because they’ve started putting up enormous billboards everywhere saying ‘use your vote’ and it makes me wonder why on earth they are advertising – it seems about 99%  of the population already watch it. Other billboards are dominated by Cheryl Cole (x factor judge) promoting L’Oreal and her forthcoming solo album. It’s like living in a one party state (Yes, I’m absolutely sure of that).

Anyway I was just thinking how a few years ago the big ITV Saturday evening show was ‘Stars in Their Eyes’ and already that seems part of some more innocent, hopelessly child like age. Back then people were happy pretending to be stars, dressing up and putting on make up. Now they want to be stars. Some barrier that was there before has fallen away. Weirdly the people pretending to be other people seemed to have more originality and sense of their own identity than the people just trying to be a celebrity – that seems to require more pretence and acting.


The Women’s Hospital has allowed a market trader to set up on its premises. As you walk through reception and into the first part of the hospital there is a man with a big table covered in bottles of knock off perfume. Visitors and dressing gown clad patients mill around spraying scent at their wrists. It’s an endearingly amateurish first step to what I assume is the final destination of a fully integrated healthcare/retail environment. The new hospital is being built over the road  – possibly the biggest building I’ve seen in my life. There’s something terrifying about the scale. I assume now that part of its vast footage will be set aside for designated retail space. Not just the usual little newsagent run by the Friends of the Hospital, but the full panoply of High Street concessions – Accessorize, Thorntons, Dixons etc. The logic seems undeniable. Someone, somewhere has realised that enforced waiting is the greatest facilitative environment for unfettered spending. If shopping as a leisure pursuit in general is seen as an attempt to fill some ill-defined gap, then perhaps the desire to shop grows the greater the misery.

By limiting themselves to shopping centres and high streets, retailers are missing out on a significant part of the population who are trapped in a community limbo somewhere or other – the most bored, the most dissatisfied and listless, the most open to the appeal of spending money and acquiring things. Old peoples homes, doctors waiting rooms, prisons – these are surely great missed opportunities.