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New creative non-fiction from North West England

        New creative non-fiction from North West England

This edition published in Great Britain in 2009 by Flax, Storey Institute, Meeting House Lane, Lancaster, LA1 1TH. Tel: 01524 62166. All works © their respective authors Mostly Truthful © Flax


All rights reserved: no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher and the individual creators.


Flax is the publishing imprint of Litfest


Lancaster and District Festival Ltd. trading as Litfest. Registered in England Company Number: 1494221 Charity Number: 510670


Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and Layout: Martin Chester at Design Jack

Charity Number: 510670     Editor: Sarah Hymas Design and Layout: Martin Chester at Design Jack

Foreword by Jenn Ashworth



Kate Feld



Thornley Brow and Lampwick Lane



Rough Crossing




Adrian Slatcher





Birds and Fish


I Will be Buried by Books


Katherine Woodfine



Thinking Inside the Box




Northern Line



Jane Routh






from July



I have always been fascinated with ‘true stories’, or creative non-fiction, which we might define as writing that infuses information with imagination. Between them, these pieces examine the changing faces of a city, a season, a life and an intensely personal relationship to two great writers and to the writing life itself, and each of them send echoes outwards – they are bigger than the sum of their words.


Kate Feld’s ruminations on her Manchester show us a place where the past is ‘elegantly rotting’ and the ghosts that belong to it walk the streets with the imagined residents of this place in the years to come.


Katherine Woodfine approaches the inner landscape of her past through a litany of objects, examining the workings of nostalgia through artefacts that, through her description, become more than possessions, and are ‘giddy sparkling dream shoes that could take you anywhere’.


Adrian Slatcher examines the lives and methods of two writers as a way of understanding himself. ‘Hemmingway is a fish’ he says, and wonders how his own writing self will evolve – perhaps by setting a challenge every day to write something better.


Jane Routh tells us about her February, through personal recollections of Februaries experienced in different times, different places and with different people. There’s a whole lifetime lived in this one month.



times, different places and with different people. There’s a whole lifetime lived in this one month.

These and their companion articles are not to be skim-read, they are fluid, layered and deeply individual works where the personal experience and insights of the author are used to illuminate the subject matter, and vice versa.


Jenn Ashworth



vice versa.       Jenn Ashworth                  

I have played around with writing fiction, and got 50,000 words into a novel but stopped when I had my


daughter last year. (No great loss, I suspect!) I thought it might be good to try writing some short stories but hadn’t


thought of doing creative nonfiction. I don’t know why, because in some sense I have been doing it all my life.


Read more of Kate’s biography.


Listen to Kate read from A Rough Crossing.


Go to Kate’s blog.



Go to Kate’s blog.                        

Manchester now


I am walking home through the Friday night city, along Shudehill

where it dips down into Exchange Square, ground zero in Manchester’s retail explosion. In an alley near The Printworks a heavily-made-up woman is crouched against bricks, the miniskirt of her white nurse’s unform hoiked up and her fishnets down, relieving herself in full view while two friends wait. A car full of men lurches down the alley, and slows. “All right girls. Having a good night then?” The driver gets a good look as she scrambles to put herself back together, face slackening into drunken fury.



look up as I pass and see the name of the alley is Thornley


Brow. I try to imagine a time when this might have been a twisty lane, banked with blackthorn and hazel, winding up a hill. But I can’t.


This city is constantly changing. This city will never change. Layers of history build up and are taken in, given room. Manchester explodes in stages, expands and contracts, folds in on itself, over and over. Unlikely bedfellows jostle for eyespace on these streets:


a Victorian soap warehouse joined to an aspirational nineties aparthotel, balconies crowded with dying pot plants and Ikea deck chairs, attached to an ornate Georgian bank rotting elegantly on the corner.



live at the base of the first hill to the north, where the great


marsh plain gives way to the sheep and air and furze of the Pennines.


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air and furze of the Pennines.       Back to Kate’s contents page    

Standing on Holcombe Hill, Peel Tower looming at your back, you can see the whole city stretched grey and glittering in the haze, right across to The Peaks. The tram approaches Manchester over the flats, criss-crossing the Irwell, clacketing past mills with the date of erection carved proudly into their mouldering brickwork. Through Radcliffe, Whitefield, Besses o’th Barn. The names don’t fit anymore, but they remain.


The city is moving again. In a few years new neighbourhoods have sprung up whole, Potemkin Office Villages bankrolled during the boom and ready just in time for the bust. Now it’s all to let. What are we to do with Spinningfield’s antiseptic concrete corridors, its purpose-built public squares already equipped with giant television screens and Pret a Mangers?


We have New Islington where developers, giddy with


regeneration money, looked at the sore badlands along the canals leading east and concluded that calling it after a wealthy London enclave would help them shift units. The centrepiece of this development, just completed, is Will Alsop’s Chips, a braying cartoon of a building dropped in alongside the Ashton Canal like a circus clown at a funeral.


I walked up there the other day to get a look at it bisecting the right angles of millyards and brick warehouses. The blocks above Great Ancoats Street comprise one of the uncanniest places in the city. It is the starkness, the emptiness, that gets you. Like a Lowry


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you. Like a Lowry       Back to Kate’s contents page        

painting that’s been tipped up and shaken so all the matchstick men fell out. But nothing has been put back in.


Emptiness means danger here, so you’ll want to get through quickly if you’re on your own, the constant prickle of heightened awareness riding your back all the way up. Avoid the canals. They are magnets for the drug-addled and those with nowhere else to go, haunted by groups of boys who are capable of anything.


Chips is visible from a long way off, three oblong layers stacked and lettered with the names of local waterways. It crouches at the centre of acres of blighted ruin, impossible to tell where the building site ends and the fabric of the neighbourhood begins. The designers would have had to photograph the interiors very carefully, so the view showing through windows wouldn’t shock.


A kind of wildness has taken hold up here, but it is stunted and decayed. Nearby sits an abandoned brick hospital, a meditative ruin with trees growing out of its roof. Its proximity is a silent rebuke to the foolishness of this whole project. The building isn’t really finished, and you wonder if it will ever be or if it will sit here as a sad monument to what the city once aspired to. Like the de-horned


B of the Bang, an embarassed blot on the skyline, destined for the




Who will live here? What brave pioneers will sink their stake on Lampwick Lane, getting in on the ground floor, trusting that Starbucks and Coast will follow and vindicate their real estate gamble?


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real estate gamble?       Back to Kate’s contents page          


marketing poster on the fence shows the building at the centre


of a bucolic pleasure garden, surrounded by rosy-cheeked families


thoughtfully vetted for ethnic diversity. A father and son fish from



wooden dock, a couple stroll hand-in-hand towards a sweet


little bridge, a family wave from their gaily-painted narrow boat: a triptych of middle-class fulfilment lifted straight from the pages of a Ladybird storybook.


The reality of what happens around here now is quite different. Walking nearby at dusk, a friend saw a woman performing oral sex on a bored-looking man by the towpath, two more customers waiting in a queue patiently beside her, as if they were at a barbershop.


These canals were made to move coal and wool, cotton and stone and wood. There is no reason for them to be here anymore. They are clogged with empty beer cans and other things people want to forget about.


Those people who drink with such fierce thirst on Friday nights, chasing two-for-one-alcopops-half-price-pitchers-ladies-drink-free from bar to pub to club, they are the denizens of Angel Meadow losing themselves in sweet drunkenness at the whistle’s call, spilling into the streets at closing time spoiling for a fight and a feed and a fuck. This city is constantly changing. This city will never change.


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city will never change.       Back to Kate’s contents page        

I came to England seven years ago. I am still an American citizen,

technically. But for a while now I have been aware that things are happening to me. My center is being moved. That still point, about which my consciousness revolves, is being gently repotted in new earth.


I am not sure how I learned of this. Those sleep-fuzzed risings to nurse the baby, unexpectedly soothed by the low catechism of the shipping forecast – was it then that I became aware of the transformation? During that night walk in the park, strangely excited, joining streams of people making for the fire on the hill? Or at the funeral in Dewsbury, when we stood singing about arrows of desire and I felt a vague flicker of something below my heart?


Some late-blooming Englishness is being stitched onto me like Peter Pan’s shadow.


An alternate past is coming slowly into focus, a childhood of Ceefax and conkers and Top Trumps. Saturday night chippy suppers with extra scraps. Endless holidays playing cards and listening to the rain on the caravan roof, burning my tongue on hot blackcurrant. Cold pink legs under my school uniform skirt, the memory dogs me like a ghost limb.


Alongside this fiction lies my actual childhood, shot through with an idealized notion of England. Shimmering with bleak and jangly Mancunian pop, populated by Timelords and Bronte sisters. I think of Mr. Tumnus and his buttered toast and sweet Linnet’s


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toast and sweet Linnet’s       Back to Kate’s contents page        

laughter and When the dark comes rising, six shall turn it back and air raid shelters all blooming clover, and Where the sea meets the moon blanches land, Listen!


That is all very different than how it really is. But it is also true. The England of my imagination remains, grafted onto the place I live now, and I can still remember, yes, that is how I thought it was. Sometimes I can see with double vision.


When I first came here it spooked me the way it stayed green all winter long, the bare trees limned with a fine sheen of moss, falls of ivy twining up houses in a constant silent green-fingered creeping. It seemed unwholesome the way things never stopped growing. I missed crunching through the snow and the cold that freezes your insides with the first breath.


But I have walked miles on the moors in all weathers and had some particular stillness blown into me until my head was empty of all but a deep contentment. I have followed pack-horse trails through the wood with bluebells pooling in the shadows, flying rowan a pale cloud on the stone wall. Along the summer road, sweet- eyed mares blowing at flies, hedgerows alive with twists of hawthorn and dusky sloes and shy rabbits.


It’s easy to love that changeless place. Love for modern England is harder won, but hard to dislodge when it comes. The bare narrow


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when it comes. The bare narrow       Back to Kate’s contents page    

streets and poky houses, clotheslines flapping and net curtains trembling. Cats sniffing the air in back lanes lined with bins, slates gleaming above stone blacked by two hundred years of coal, satellite dishes all pointed in the same direction.


My daughter will grow up riding yellowlit buses home in the dark, learning to say The Lord’s Prayer in the ugly new school. Learning to be modest and reticent, suspicious of the earnest and the outspoken, tolerant of eccentricities and quietly honourable. The clink of the milk bottle against the stone.


I am coming to accept that she will not have my heedless childhood of secret bare feet in May and catching fireflies on summer evenings when the earth is slowly giving up the heat of the day. She will not learn to skate on the wind-stippled pond, or understand the pleasure of removing snowcrusted mittens from wet red hands and laying them on the radiator to steam.


My daughter will grow up with the gentle blunted vowels of Lancashire in her speech, a stubborn banner that proclaims I am of The North. At some point, I am bound to be an embarassment to her because I came here too old to change the way I talk. Long after I forget that my neighbours’ voices once sounded strange to me, I will still sound strange to them. I will still be taken for a visitor by those who don’t know me.


But I know now that I will live here for the rest of my life. This is my choice, and I am not sorry. Just a little wistful. Each time I


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a little wistful. Each time I       Back to Kate’s contents page    

return to America – after six months, a year, two years – I will find it more altered. One year I will go back and find it has become another place, not wholly unlike the place I left but different in countless immeasurable particulars. It crept up on me the way it always does; the emigrant’s old refrain, when I go back home for good, heard less and less often until it has quietly stopped being a possibility. It’s a trick we have to play on ourselves. If you knew you’d never be coming back for good, who would leave?


It is a kind of consolation to know that I carry my home inside me in ways that go much deeper than how I talk. In ways I don’t really understand. Vermont is the place my earliest perceptions


sharpened into consciousness, and it lives on in my inner landscape.



fall asleep and I am suddenly walking down Route 100 past


Maynard’s Farm, or haunting the tumbledown cemetary at the edge


of the woods. Even awake I am still moving on this terrain. Whenever



have to think which is my right and my left, I see superimposed


upon my view an image of the dirt road where I learned how to ride



bike, and only then can I properly orient myself.


I don’t know where this mysterious sense resides. I can’t say it’s situated between my second and third vertabrae but it is here. It is my hereness, maybe. It’s the way where you are bleeds into who you are. And it is drawing new landmarks on my inner map, sketching in stone-shouldered Anglezarke Moor, tracing the Irwell’s shaky course. The map is being written, and I am relocated.


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and I am relocated.       Back to Kate’s contents page        

I see myself primarily as a writer of


imaginative work, whether fiction


or poetry, with a particular interest


in addressing the contemporary experience. As someone who has always thought deeply about writing, I believe literature is enhanced by its critical context, and that has informed my


non-fiction and my blogging.


Read more of Adrian’s biography.


Listen to Adrian read from Birds and Fish.


Go to Adrian’s Blog.



        Go to Adrian’s Blog.                

I am obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, or, to


be more accurate, with Fitzgerald and Hemingway’s relationship, and what makes them so distinct. They are powerful models for a writer, but so different. They were close friends and admirers, then they fell out.


Even at the end, Fitzgerald wrote prose that flew like a bird, you can see it in the unfinished The Love of the Last Tycoon, his writing at its glittering best, even though Fitzgerald, as a man, was over. What was most important to him – the writing or the life?


It was the life that got him in the end. He worked hard, continued to support the institutionalised Zelda, looked after Scottie, fell in love with Sheilah Graham. The drinking overtook him. The mid-western Irish Catholic liver gave out on him.


But perhaps the writing mattered too much, for he found it both easy and hard. Has ever a novelist had such a facility? Yet each of his novels is a chip off of his soul, and by the time of that final work, he’d already chipped off more than many could. By the end he’d sold what was left to the devil of Hollywood. His early fame, the ease and confidence with which he’d written This Side of Paradise and his stories of the Jazz Age had set him up for those later failures; so that Gatsby was virtually unread at his death.


Hemingway was different. His writing was never easy. If Fitzgerald just had to keep himself sober enough to write, for Hemingway each day was as hard as the first. Norman Mailer wrote that Hemingway’s



Norman Mailer wrote that Hemingway’s                      

greatest challenge was getting up each day, and not putting the gun to his head. The writing had to come hard, to give him something worth living for. You see it in the smooth, perfect morsels wrought out of granite in the first 49 stories. He railed at the supportive Fitzgerald, that Scott never did anything, never experienced anything, never slept with anyone. Gertrude Stein was shrewd about their qualities, and their failings. She suspected that despite Hemingway’s protestations, it was Fitzgerald who was the truer artist. For Hemingway, a new book required a new wife. Was it the life or the work that came harder?


I think, for Hemingway, when the writing left him, he also lost his lifeforce. Perhaps if Fitzgerald had lived longer, we’d have seen the same decline. Yet Fitzgerald’s novels follow the life he lived, whilst Hemingway actively sought a narrative that was grand enough for him to write about.


They were such different writers, such different men, yet they were close friends before that falling out. Hemingway, fancying himself as a boxer, fought a bout against a local fighter, Fitzgerald was timekeeper, and in his excitement at the fight, Fitzgerald let the round go on too long, leaving Hemingway a bloodied mess. Hemingway never forgave him. They, and others, both told the story, in anecdote and in fiction. It seems a pivotal moment, not just in their friendship, but in American literary history.


Fitzgerald was always humble about his own talent and knew how hard were Hemingway’s daily fights to get words on the page.



how hard were Hemingway’s daily fights to get words on the page.        

Hemingway wanted a competitor, someone he could go man-to-man with, like in the boxing ring, with its simple ending, a broken nose or a prostrate body. But instead he got a cheerleader in Fitzgerald, who, because his own life was so wracked, could easily believe that Hemingway was more of a man.


Hemingway is a fish, writing against the swell of the water, pushing against a primal force. Yet fish never quite make it onto the land. He could never evolve as Fitzgerald already had. But Fitzgerald’s bird-prose can appear lightweight, flighty, ready to disappear on the pure joy of another thermal. The Great Gatsby, from a lesser writer, might appear slight, yet it is perfectly judged. Gatsby himself is a Peacock, made earthbound by his love for Daisy Buchanan. The primal struggle in The Old Man and the Sea is Hemingway’s last heft; a personal morality tale that could be about his art as much as its own story.


My love of Fitzgerald’s writing is a personal one. A young writer needs a gold standard and he was mine. Yet, Fitzgerald gives the young writer warning of what is to come, in the life as well as the work. Money is more important to Daisy Buchanan than Gatsby’s love; Dick Diver’s story is one of an idealism lost. Fitzgerald taught me how to write, but he also cautioned me. His novels are tragedies, not romances. As a young writer, I fell in love with the romance, but recognised the tragedy. I read Fitzgerald, then read about Fitzgerald and through him came to Hemingway. How could these two be friends, I wondered? Then it becomes clear, they both wanted, in life



I wondered? Then it becomes clear, they both wanted, in life          

and in writing, what the other had. My favourite Hemingway book is the posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast. Of course it is, for I have read so much by and about both of them, that I can no longer distinguish what is fiction and what is life. Maybe that’s the lesson, that the life and the writing are inseparable, interchangeable, and you must give as much to one as the other, approaching both with the same ferocity (Hemingway), and the same finesse (Fitzgerald).


I used to think I was more a Fitzgerald, bird-like, easy, but lazy, admiring those writers who could graft every word, but not wanting to lose the vision that you get from seeing the world all laid out in front of you. But now I wonder whether a writer has to become like Hemingway; someone who takes life in his stride, but sets himself a greater challenge, that of writing better.


It’s a strange kind of evolution from bird to fish. But I think there’s probably a time when it has to happen one way or another. Fitzgeralds don’t age so well, for even as their prose gets better, they’ve lost their faith in the world. It is what makes the work great. Hemingways have to continue having a reason for living, and once their lifeforce has gone, then only the writing remains.



and once their lifeforce has gone, then only the writing remains.          

I n my last house I was cramped into a single bedroom, so any new purchases were piled up against the wall like I was playing some game of literary mah-jong, hemming myself in. We had a couple of earth tremors whilst I lived there. I had visions of being buried alive under a bad novel.


But just because I now live in a house full of books, doesn’t mean that I was born in one.


I was a slow reader, as in slow to learn to read. Neither of my parents were big readers, but they believed in the value of education.


My dad, to this day, has probably read half a dozen works of fiction,


including two or three lurid novels by James Hadley Chase on


holiday in the seventies, King Solomon’s Mines, and one of my own unpublished novels. Children do sometimes follow their parents’ professions and interests, yet if reading is inherited, then like my red hair, it is a regressive gene, passed down from grandparents.


To be fair, reading was seen as a good thing, associated with school and public libraries. Perhaps because we never had many books of our own, being able to borrow a book for a few weeks from the little library down in the village was a wonder. Years later during the summer recess from university I joined the district library in Cannock, and took home yellow-covered SF classics by writers like


Bob Shaw and Brian Aldiss.


Recently I recalled a book I’d read and re-read when I was about seven or eight. A search on Google found it to be Ninety-nine Dragons



be Ninety-nine Dragons                          

by Barbara Sleigh. Two children, a boy and a girl are having problems


sleeping. “Count sheep,” their father says, and the girl dutifully does so, but the boy says “I’m going to count dragons.” In the dream the dragons go after the sheep, causing all sorts of trouble. I must have read this book a dozen times, taking it out of the library more than once, until, inevitably, it got moved to another branch. Getting hold of a second-hand copy from the internet, I understood why I’d liked it so much. I wanted to be the sort of boy who’d count dragons rather than sheep. Books, you see, can take you on any kind of adventure, but close the covers and you’re safely tucked up in bed.


Over the years I’ve often heard that “boys don’t read”, well here’s the breaking news – they never did; I was an exception. I’d be the one ordering from the Scholastic catalogue that came round the school each term, or with a hefty Jules Verne hardback wedged next to my P.E. kit in my Adidas bag. In the long holidays I’d be dropped off each day at my grandparents’ small farm. While my sister was obsessed with the horses, I played football in the fields, organising one-man World Cups, and, on rainy and not-so-rainy days, I read books.


But the library was never enough to sate my need for books. You can track my life in the books I’ve bought. I spent my pocket money on Ladybird books from the Midland Educational in Wolverhampton; on holidays in Wales, I emptied the campsite shop of its Dr. Who novelisations; aged 15, I picked up a glossy American


import Beatles Forever in the WH Smiths in Bournemouth, priced up


in dollars, they had to ring up to get the price in pounds; and I spent



up to get the price in pounds; and I spent            

much of my first grant cheque in Lancaster University bookshop on white-spined Picadors by William Burroughs, Kathy Acker and others. Later, studying a creative writing Masters in Manchester, I’d attend regular author readings at the Deansgate Waterstones, getting drunk on the free wine, or going for a drink after the reading with the authors and booksellers, waking up the next day to find I’d left


my signed copy of Everett True’s rock memoir Live Through This in


the taxi that dropped me home.


I moved to a two-bedroom flat about four years ago, one room for me, one for my books. They still pile up, threatening the reinforced floors. I can’t always remember if I’ve got a particular title when I come across a secondhand copy, but I do remember covers, so if it’s a different edition I’ve now got two or three. I prefer secondhand paperbacks and brand new hardbacks. I don’t go wild on First Editions, as I’m building a library, rather than a collection. I like forgotten poetry anthologies, and hard-to-find books of literary criticism; I bulk-buy from Booker shortlists and small presses. My parents were glad to see the back of the books I’d been storing there for years. It took several trips to Manchester to reunite me with my library. When I go back there now, I have to remember to take something to read. You can go round my sister’s house and not see a book out on display anywhere, despite her studying the same English degree as I did. Her books are hidden away, or, once she’s read them, given to the charity shop.


I’m half way or so through life, all being well, and I know now



or so through life, all being well, and I know now          

that I won’t ever read every book I’ve got. I collect them, but I don’t dust them or catalogue them, or put them in alphabetical order. I just keep buying them. They pile up in the available space, and sometimes seem to shift around by themselves, so that a forgotten volume unexpectedly catches my eye. I’ve bought a dozen in the last fortnight alone. I don’t own a luxury apartment or special edition Toyota, but I’ve got a dozen collections of John Ashbery’s poetry, and at least four copies of The Great Gatsby. Whatever I’m looking for, I won’t find it in the one book, but in the many. And, as you know, I’m a writer. I’ve thousands of books and not one of them has my own name on the spine. Yet.


It will be a book that sees me off, knocking me on the head at the age of 95 or so, as the walls tremble around me. All I ask is that if it’s an Amis that gets me in the end, it’s Kingsley not Martin.



an Amis that gets me in the end, it’s Kingsley not Martin.        

I can’t ever remember having not

written. When I was four years old, guinea pigs featured quite a lot in my work. From being a teenager on I wrote


diaries. I’m unsettled if I don’t write. It’s how I work through ideas. Being so used


to having that imaginary space, it’s not pleasant when it goes.


Read more of Katherine’s biography


Listen to Katherine read from A Northern Line.


Go to Katherine’s blog



  Go to Katherine’s blog                      

O pening the boxes feels like an act of archaeology. Nostalgia

unravels itself like a polka dot ribbon: a rainbow of sparkly make-up; Sweet Valley High paperbacks in a palette of pastels; pre- teen diaries swirled in pink handwriting, starred with unicorns and rainbows and Smash Hits stickers; Material Girl headbands and matching eye glitter; weeping bath pearls; a ring-binder carefully collaged with pictures cut from Just 17 and tattooed with unreadable biro scrawls; handmade mixtapes, the track names painstakingly inscribed, recorded from Radio 1 on some long-lost Sunday night. A clutch of desiccated nail polishes in a dozen variations on Candy Girl pink jostle alongside heartfelt pen-pal letters folded tight in their Parma Violet envelopes; heart-printed tights are tangled together with a flurry of gauzy ponytail scarves; a book spills out fashion illustrations of razor-cheeked women in shoulder pads, body-stockings and New Romantic capes; and a faux-fur pencil case seeps lip balms. In the bottom, like an archaic science-fiction artefact, a black Walkman leaks broken innards. An ancient video cassette is labelled: “Do Not Tape Over: Wizard of Oz.”


The past trips towards me in ruby slippers: the giddy scarlet dream shoes that could take you anywhere, even home again, the image distorting through an underwater VHS haze. Back to the wet Saturday afternoons watching a film I had seen so many times I knew all the words, hopscotching in red sandals on the empty pavement, secretly practising tapping my heels together three times. There’s no place like home. Yet there’s simultaneously a strange kind of



place like home . Yet there’s simultaneously a strange kind of          

borrowed nostalgia too, a wistfulness for an inaccessible other past, played out on an old film reel in MGM Technicolour. It’s the feeling experienced when looking at black and white images of 1930s movie stars, or listening to 1950s rock and roll, or reading Enid Blyton adventures: a longing for an idyllic, mythical once-upon-a-time that we ourselves have never experienced, which indeed may never have existed at all.


Spread out like a Tarot across my living room floor, there’s no doubt that this scattering of ephemera would be, to anyone else, little more than charity-shop junk, but for me it is the traces of a past life both experienced and imagined, both intimately familiar and ultimately unrecognisable. Fellow Wizard of Oz fan Salman Rushdie would perhaps attribute these mixed emotions to the notion that we all have “imaginary homelands”, fictional “worlds made out of words” constructed out of our desire to share a collective, idyllic past. Like Dorothy’s dream-vision of Oz, these imagined worlds can become even more real than our genuine memories, the ‘true’ mundane black and white world of Kansas: inevitably, as Rushdie says “the imagined world becomes the real world as it does for us all”.


As to my “imagined world”, it is disarranged now. The traces have been sifted, the residues classified like museum artefacts, tidied and reassembled. The leaking bath foams and crumbling nail polishes are consigned to the rubbish bin. What is left fits neatly into one single box that I can’t quite bear to part with: an orderly treasure-



box that I can’t quite bear to part with: an orderly treasure-        

trove of memories, both real and imaginary, but certainly very far from straightforward. After all, as Rushdie himself puts it: “once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that ‘there’s no place like home”, but rather that there is no longer any such place as home.” The remaining boxes retain a lingering scent of Dewberry, White Musk and Impulse body spray, now empty but for a smattering of tarnished sequins and crusted silver glitter.



for a smattering of tarnished sequins and crusted silver glitter.            

W andsworth Town station could be the end of the world. On a Friday afternoon in summer, I’m all alone here but for a bee


buzzing in the buddleia dropping over rusty railings. The concrete radiates heat: white-painted wooden buildings along the platform murmur of cricket pavilions on long-lost village greens, despite the vivid yellow of CCTV signs. This could be a day from some faraway


past, a time before traffic islands. It’s Betjeman’s Wandsworth of


“blossoming trellises”, of “elms and sycamores around a green.”


It’s home time and I’m waiting for my train, kicking my heels in the dust on the empty platform. This is part of my routine now:


ordinary yet otherworldly. As the train approaches, humming as it slides towards the platform, I can’t help thinking that even the trains seem different here: there is none of the hot hiss of a Manchester train as it comes snorting into Piccadilly Station. This train is smooth, disinterested as it glides soundlessly on its way, carrying me with it towards the city. It’s the end of another week and I’m heading home at last, except of course this place still doesn’t feel like home to me. Gazing out of the train window, the London I see is an unknown country, little more than a series of disconnected points, coloured dots on a map.


The train slides onwards, carrying me past Clapham Junction. Now, London is a series of snapshots, fragments offered up between tunnels. Gleaming Gotham City towers; the jagged edges of television aerials; a gothic spire; creeping rows of lego-brick low rises; dishevelled poppies scattered along the edge of the railway



poppies scattered along the edge of the railway                

line; cryptic messages spelt out in spray-can lettering; the proboscis of a crane; a straggle of spindly rooftops blurring past me behind glass and lost once again.


We pull into Queenstown Road and the Quiet Zone sighs with the twitching pages of a dozen tattered newspapers. Everyone is still, silent but for the regular, whispering hush of the pages turning.


Yet as we pull away, a flicker catches my eye: it’s a fox, a fox trotting briskly down the empty platform beneath the sign reading do not alight. The flash of an eye “so unexpected, so familiar”, so known: it slips beneath a fence into the undergrowth and disappears so fast



wonder if I imagined it. A thought-fox, swift as a shadow on the


station at Queenstown Road Battersea, where at last it seems that something else but me is alive.


Waterloo is a battleground. Commuters stampede the concourse and I dive across to escalators that drag me downwards, snaking underground in a flurry of free papers. This is the underworld of myth and mystery: a gloomy, seamy land of subterranean crypts and


staircases leading to nowhere. This place is more recognisable to me:


after all it’s Ackroyd’s “London below”, the dark heart of Moorcock’s Mother London and Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the setting of a hundred forgotten horror films. This is the fantasy “London Under London”:



parallel world of tunnels that unravel themselves towards scarcely


real destinations with storybook names: Seven Sisters, White City, Angel, Temple, Elephant and Castle.



City, Angel, Temple, Elephant and Castle.                    

I’m heading for the Northern Line, darkest and deepest of all. David Mitchell’s “doom-laden” suicide line stretches out over seventeen and a quarter miles, reaching from Morden to Finchley. There’s something mysterious about its phantom tunnels that lead to ghost stations silent with secrets. Yet for me, at least, there is something peculiarly reassuring about the Northern Line too: a solid black track marking a clear path northwards, dotted with matter- of-fact, resolutely Anglo-Saxon stations: Chalk Farm, Kentish Town, Mill Hill, Burnt Oak, Woodside Park, Whetstone. Perhaps it’s all in the name, or perhaps it is its sooty, Industrial Revolution darkness, but this feels like intimate territory. Apt that it is this line that will carry me home.


As a sleek breath of air whisks down the platform, I can’t help thinking that this could be a fox’s place too. It could be here, slinking like a shadow, beyond the yellow lights, deep into the tunnels that bend away from me. This could be where the thought-fox comes from; for of course, Hughes was here too, in the “grimy lilac softness” of some other London evening, walking towards the Northern Line, taken aback by the sudden appearance of


A fox cub On the hump of Chalk Farm Bridge! … an unpredictable Powerful bounding fox?


As the words come back to me they evoke the chalky stillness of




a classroom, clock hands twitching forward on a slow afternoon. I’m not the only exile to have passed this way, glimpsing foxes like secrets in the unknown spaces of London.


At last, the train hurtles down the platform, sending hair and newspapers flying. The doors skim open and I embark on the final stage of my journey. As I find my way to a seat, it occurs to me dimly that all this is part of my life now, this journey to and fro beneath the city, but today there was a fox, and foxes make things different. Now the doors glide shut and at last I’m heading northwards, which surely must mean going home.



last I’m heading northwards, which surely must mean going home.            

I used to associate prose with doing


a job, so writing non-fiction’s more


recent – though I edit it and re-work it


just as much as poems. To extend the parallels with photography, I’ll liken non-fiction writing to documentary


photography. I enjoy the tension in the elastic stretched between objectivity and opinion.


Read more of Jane’s biography.


Listen to Jane read from February.



from February.                            

F ebruary filldyke, my mother always used to say. I don’t know

whether the dykes this month is supposed to fill are just Fenland dykes, or whether ditches all over the country overflow.


Born in the Fens in 1917, the language she heard and learned in childhood would have been wholly local. But as a child, you’ve no idea your language is local, some words even particular to your own family – until you meet other ways of speaking. Skerrick, I said the other day, only to discover this word of hers isn’t universally understood. My mother would have started to lose her local speech when she went to secondary school in Sleaford, the High School intent on making a lady out of her. Or at least a teacher.


The beginning of WWII took her to a town; she would have heard radio language then. Television, when she was 35. By the end of her life I’m not sure whether you’d have been able to tell where she was from – certainly her brothers and sisters had broad Lincolnshire accents in comparison. But maybe vocabulary’s more deeply ingrained, and phrases.


Filldyke doesn’t describe what actually happens in February: the month’s considerably drier – by about a third – than January if you look at rainfall statistics. It’s a countryman’s prayer rather than a forecast: may dykes be full before things start to grow. No filldyke this year at least, the land drier underfoot after a winter of frosts than it was all last summer. Snowdrops are at their best now, spilling out of hedgerows and down banks wherever there was an old farmstead – as



and down banks wherever there was an old farmstead – as          

much a marker of human habitation as nettles in summer.


Today, 22nd, is a friend’s birthday, one that’s easy to remember as this is the day curlews return inland from the coast. I’ve been listening. I’ve not actually heard one yet, though I did last year, right on time in spite of the fact that it was horribly wet. I thought I could have heard one yesterday, distant, plaintive. The point about February is that I keep going outdoors. I lost all interest in the garden (again) over the winter, and now the merest brightness has me outdoors, clearing armfuls of birch twigs that break off throughout the winter, mulching the hellebore buds that are thrusting up, despairing at precocious weedlings. February saprising, I’d say.


Sap rising literally,too. Last year I cut a small overhanging branch from a 25-year-old birch trunk, returning after a while as I was puzzled by something moving. It was a fast drip of liquid from the cut. I collected half a pint and sipped cautiously – though it must have been one of the most well-filtered waters I’ve ever drunk. Fermented, I think it would have tasted like retsina. Birch wine! So that’s what it is. I’d also seen sycamore weep, cut at this time of year: I remember one pouring out stalagmites of ice in the cold – so many gallons of sap, and not destined to go up into leaves to evaporate, only rising to swell the promise of bud.


Maybe you notice moments of winter warmth more simply by contrast with the wet and cold. I’ve a clear memory of sitting outside for lunch one 1st February and feeling some warmth on the shoulder



for lunch one 1st February and feeling some warmth on the shoulder        

of my coat. I’m sure of the date (though I’ve had to track the year by looking for a poem I wrote: 2005) because we saw nine buzzards circling above us. Ken always says Look higher when we hear distant mewling but haven’t yet spotted the birds, and he’s right: they’re usually directly overhead. Those nine were, but very high, sweeping in vast circles up there. We decided they’d gathered in a sort of parliament to stake out the territory for the season and after that we were back to the usual pair working the valley.


A couple of years before, I’d noted the first wild daff open in


the wood on Valentine’s Day. It was cold, but the sun was out and



can’t stay in any more’ I wrote. February has a feel to it. In 1998,


I was even projecting my awareness of this on to fellow creatures. There was ‘an odd feeling to the day; creatures have been wandering about, oddly, unseasonably’. On the morning of 13th there was a


weasel strolling along to and under the side gate, and then messing around in the clematis netting. Next a stoat flipped and rolled under the front gate, trotted along the edge of the flower bed and went out under the side gate where the weasel had gone. He was soon back, and idled around on the lawn, not quite in the high jinxing dance you see on a summer’s afternoon, more in a sort of dreamy waltz.



blackbird watched over her shoulder, not much affected. Then he


was back on his beaten track: round the house, along the terrace, a quick dash under the mahonia and under the double gates into the field. (The very particular civility in the matter of gates on the part of fellow creatures here is that the fence has rabbit mesh round it: gates



here is that the fence has rabbit mesh round it: gates          

provide a squeeze-under which saves the effort of a three foot vertical climb and descent when small things are in no hurry.)


When I drove back from taking the post the sparrowhawk on the wire didn’t bother to move, and the hare by the gate only loped a car’s length away then stood watching me, his black tipped ears seeming to double his height.


The strangeness out there was that the silence was, quite suddenly, overflowing with birdsong.


The radio said that London had had its highest February


temperature since, since

records began. I put the central heating


off. I lay watching twilight greys take possession of the winter sky and a pipistrelle dashed past the window, and another. Not so foolish: I’d wafted my hand through gathering midges as I opened the gate.


And of course geese are supposed to start laying on Valentine’s day.


N o milk for me, thank you. He pulls the chair away from the table

and settles in: I’ll just take the weight off while it cools. This is going to be a long session. The first rain after a dry month, but still there’s nothing moving: worms must be dropping straight into the runs. He’s been mole-catching (a pause while he calculates) just over sixty year now. Three thousand a year, that’s a lot of moles. (A pause while we calculate.) Yes, a lot of moles and still they tunnel on, undeterred.


In places where there are old, long established runs, they can be left to themselves and their underground lives. It’s new workings – maybe at this time of year young moles sculling around just under the surface – that cause trouble, throwing up stones that catch in machinery, or soil into hay that make it spoil in store before the season is out. Any kindly feelings remaining towards moles from Wind in the Willows soon evaporate if you care for a lawn they’re intent on undermining. Get one in your vegetable patch, and you’ll happily join the pursuit: the only time I’ve known a mole work in a straight line has been along a row of vegetables. Roots disrupted, your winter crop fails.


Only when moles go deep do they throw up hills. The last few weeks have been dry: worms burrowed deeper into damp earth, and the moles after them – the resulting hills, enormous. There are a couple of astonishing hills among young trees near the house, a foot high and over a yard across. Nests, maybe – though on the whole they nest and overwinter in the cops, the built-up hedgerows that provide



and overwinter in the cops, the built-up hedgerows that provide            

havens above the water table even in heavy rain.


Tea without milk takes a long while to cool. We’re on to the price of coal now. He can tell me exactly how much I paid for nuggets last time I had them, and that was years ago. Now he’s retired, all the time in the world, he does a bit of keepering as well. He’s always had all the time in the world: even when he had the coal yard, you’d see him standing motionless in a field, listening for moles. He can’t hear them scratting so well these days, he has to wait until they throw some soil up, then he can get them: you don’t shoot at the heap, but below that, where they’ve come from. He digs out the dead, so he can tell you how many he’s caught. I’ve never known him do his accounts by hanging corpses along a fence. (Someone’s hung 73 on barbed wire by the moor road. I’ve just counted.) I suppose he works among friends, and he’s trusted.


He’ll trap moles as well as shoot them. He told me last year my soil was too murley for traps. This time he shows me his traps, rough- carved, thick wooden half-cylinders with bits of string and wire – like nothing I’ve seen before – and the wood polished with use.


The tea must be cold by the time he says he talks to owls. He likes them. One night he must have had a dozen round him, were they confused! Here, I’ll show you. He feels in a pocket: binder twine, bits of paper, fencing staples – and a spent cartridge. He squeezes the end, slots it between his fingers and curls his fist, then blows gently over his knuckles. A tawny owl calls softly from the beam above our


heads; another answers from its territory in the rafters of the main room.


I’ll leave it with you he says, putting the yellow cartridge into my hand when he goes.


No amount of blowing on my part has produced the faintest of hoots. Well, he did smile when he gave it me.



the faintest of hoots. Well, he did smile when he gave it me.