Category Archives: Poems

Still Catching Up

When I was in hospital (sorry to be still going on about this but a) I don’t get out much, as I may have mentioned before, so I have to make my experiences go a long way and b) I haven’t been feeling that great since getting out of hospital, at least not full enough of spit and bobbance to attend to my blog) – WHEN I was in hospital I noticed something I’ve never noticed before about the speed regulations in the corridors.

Speed regulations? Yes indeed. Nurses, for example, go around at a comfortable amble, it could almost be their prescribed gait (I don’t know about A & E, I did once stray into the A & E department, and one look at the smashed glass-panes on the doors and the general toilet-odour hanging about the waiting area told me this was a Different Hospital, though everyone talks about long waits in A & E so perhaps the Comfortable Amble rule does still apply there). Starting from that C/A (comfortable amble) norm, you notice that the Auxiliaries go even slower – a Casual Roll, I’d call that; and it seems there’s an even lower stratum of auxiliary, the Cleaners-up of Things, I can’t remember the various colours of uniforms, which it looks have been designed not to be hugely different from each other (a sort of Democratic semi-similitude is observed), but I think the two strata of auxiliaries have more or less the same uniform, except that the lower one has a slightly paler (green, is it? – I had a bad eye, remember); anyway, the lowest stratum adopts a positively Mediaeval Shuffle as they go about their essential, but undesirable, business.

Then you get to the other end of the spectrum. Doctors you can identify from administrators, not only by their lack of uniform (I don’t mean they’re in the scud, stupid), by the fact that the Smart Upright gait of the administrators (generally accompanied in the case of the female members of the band by a smart click-clack as of tap-dancing shoes) is represented in the doctors’ case by a slight Forward Inclination, which certainly suggests a higher speed and in some cases this is actually the case. I had always assumed this was because the doctors were always so Incredibly Busy, but now I suspect it’s actually to do simply with the Convention on Corridor Velocity: the doctors soon notice the sharp and critical eye of the nurses on them if they’re not seen to be observing this convention. Then there are the Docs in scrubs: they are the Porsches and Alfa Romeos of the hospital corridor. What they’re doing out of Theatre in that get-up I don’t know, but you want to watch them go!

It occurs to me there may be a direct correlation between health workers’ hourly rate and their corridor velocity, but I didn’t like to stop anyone and ask. It just remains a Theory.

Well, what’s been wrong with me these last four weeks, such that I haven’t even felt up to feeding a few paltry poems into the Poetry page? This is a bit of a mystery. Many of my friends, who share my deep distrust of antibiotics and steroids, say my ailment must be due to the prolonged course of antibiotics and steroids, administered by eye, which I’ve been undergoing. The doctors say nonsense to this, it’s but Coincidence, though one might feel inclined to apply that famous Mandy Rice-Davies quote to that particular assertion. I’m working on the theory of an arcane Link in the body, a golden thread that runs down from the pituitary gland to the right eye, then the right shoulder, the liver, from where it crosses to the left testicle, the left knee and the left Little Toe. Mong up any of these points and the rest get monged in sympathy. Well, some of them, there’s nothing wrong with my pituitary gland or my left testicle, I assure you, but the shoulder, the left knee and particularly the Little Toe are not oo great. But the trouble definitely centres on that right eye/ liver bit.

Anyway, when I finally come off the steroids I might make a further report, unless people urge me not to.

What are steroids? everyone wonders. Well, they’re good ‘uns, in the short term, everyone seems to agree. Originally found being manufactured in the body (particularly in the testicles, unless I’m much mistaken, I’m not sure about Ladies though), I dare say the Body’s now been taken out of the loop and replaced by the laboratory. I hope so, I’m not quite sure how I’d feel about opening my eye to receive a drop from someone’s – well, you know what I mean. One can’t help being a little squeamish…. Particularly when the third theory about my Ailment is that I simply picked up Something Nasty in hospital. Maybe the Mediaeval Shufflers should be promoted to Alfa Romeo status – I hope with pay-rates compatible with that change – or maybe all surgeries and treatments should be performed out in the car-parks in the sweet sea-air of Aberdeen….. As for the food…. No, but I’m sure everything you get must have been sterilised and double-sterilised so no particular fears from that quarter. Or the eating of raw ferments should be made obligatory throughout the hospital, particularly by nurses. I’m sure it would enhance their Comfortable Amble if they were picking at their jar of ferment with a little ivory fork as they went.

I’ve got another Hospital Observation still to make, but I’ll leave that till next time.

I meant to write about Skye, well, ages ago, since it happened ages ago, but in truth I can’t think what to say about that. We went there to scatter the ashes of our dear friend Ken Grant on the Quirang, which is a mountain that looks as though it was specially constructed for that very purpose (here’s a link to Sandy Weir’s pics if you don’t believe me). What more is to be said. Ken had endured a lot more Hospital than any of the rest of us have, and with a good deal less complaint, certainly, than would have been the case with me. I’m putting a poem in the next lot being inserted as the “Fourth Ten“, this was read as one of the various spoken tributes made that day.

From the Scattering we drove back to Portree in cortege via the extraordinary Fairy Glen, which was a favourite of Ken’s, and were accompanied for much of these proceedings by three little Chinese girls who had popped up the evening before, courteously invited to join us by Wattie, immediately challenged by Charlie R about Tiananmen Square, which they took in good part. They pranced about on the precipitous slope of the Quirang, much to Bill’s dismay, who was convinced it would lead to an International Incident if one of them took a tumble. They claimed to be Art & Media students from London, but it was a thin disguise, as they were obviously emanations from the Faerie realm. I believe Wattie was supposed to have been taking them on the next leg of their journey the next day, but I don’t know that they turned up for the rendezvous, and I believe had vanished back Whence they came.

After the main proceedings we got drunk in various establishments in Portree – obligatory for all apart from those who had to drive home that night. The sight of Charlie R attempting to eat his lunch in the Indian restaurant in Inverness the next day was indeed a memorable one, supporting himself with one hand on his knee, which kept slipping off, bringing his face down perilously close to his Madras on several occasions.

There’s also another poem for Ken which I wrote for his sixtieth birthday the previous year. I don’t know what he made of it, though he presumably realised it was referring to his own literary attempts. I don’t actually know, re-reading it, what I make of it: but maybe that was the point of it. These two are followed by some other occasion-poems, including a very bossy, and rather grim, epithalamion from 1993, when another protege of Ken’s from the Studio Keith days, Stewart Thomson, got married somewhere down on the Welsh Marches (great occasions, weddings, people have to listen whether they want to or not, but at least they have a drink to hand); also some odd bits and pieces I found in the same folder, which must be from around the same time. One of them is a tribute to my favourite old-style composer, Jean Sibelius, which I have no memory of writing. But I do remember that one of the other poems, “Another Evening” follows a bad habit I have of writing poems “to” pieces of music I like (bad because the result never seems to quite fit the music, the repetitiousness of music being a hard thing to render in words without it seeming like a waste of words) – in this case one of his symphonic themes. Another, the Don Evely one, was recognisably written in the time of the last Tory government (no, there’s no money, there’s just no money in the kitty, you’ll all have to tighten your belts….): and that gives one a comforting sense of continuity in these troubled times.


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Floral experiences

Yellow on the broom – this is round our Pond which you can’t see because it never refills

I don’t recall ever seeing such an abundance of broom blossom. Lemon custard in dollops on everything, as if the landscape were aggrieved at missing its usual dolloping of snow in the winter and had decided to make up for it with a more colourful spring alternative. What does it all mean, these weird alternations of heat, drought and north-wind weather? What happened to the old “prevailing” sou’-westers?

We scurry about in the garden trying to keep abreast of the vagaries of the new unpredictability. What we really need is four times the usual amount of vegetable seeds, so we can experiment our way round germination failures and the other problems attendant on slow growth (hungry slugs being one of the most obvious). But four times the amount of seed is four times the cost of an item that’s already outrageously pricey due to the dearth of seedsmen (apologies Henry Miller) of the old-fashioned kind. We are of course attempting to generate as much of our own seed as possible but – ha! another problem: where have all the pollinators gone? There are supposed to be a few honey-bees about, though personally I might have seen three so far this year, and the various bumble-bee tribes are also conspicuous by their absence. So, flowers, flowers everywhere and pretty low expectation of seed, as well as low expectation of some basic crops. We tend to forget that in the not-too-distant past we regularly had famine years in the north. If it weren’t for Tescos and their buddies, 2012 might well have proved one of them.

Here’s a link to Paul’s Cottarton blog where he talks about the Siberian “log” method of keeping honey-bees – supposed to be very natural and good for them, though local beekeepers seem to frown on it, not sure why. The only trouble is, where can he get bees from? Love nor money doesn’t seem to produce the desirables, as most of them have died off due to Colony Collapse Syndrome (personally I think it’s something more along the lines of Douglas Adams’ So long, and thanks for all the fish). Anyway, if you come across a wild-looking man in a veil crouching by the roadside, it’s probably Paul lying in wait for a swarm.

Memorable floral experiences this year also include the amazing sight of the clouds of may-blossom along both sides of the Cree river’s lower reaches. We were driving over the road from Girvan to Wigtown where we were to be guests at Mary’s Wedding. I don’t mean we were walking into a song, Mary’s my niece, though it has to be said I’m not a very good uncle. Her other uncle did the tune proud on his Pipes, however. At the meal I was thoughtfully placed beside a lady who’d helped to get the Wigtown Book Festival started a few years ago. The Wigtown Book Festival is very Big, though Wigtown is very small, and I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of it – hey, I’m from the North-East. I have now though, and have decided to be one of the star attractions in the not unreachable future. Wigtown is also enormously pretty, but apparently in time past its inhabitants didn’t realise this and what is now the “square” (the mathematics of this notion leave a bit to be desired) used to be the general midden. It’s all tidied up now, naturally, or there’d have been no Festival.

I can report that that song about the Gallowa’ Hills being covered with flowers is a load of bunkum. Never did like that song anyway.

Girvan was where Annie, Rachel and I met up with Anna, Ben, Abby and Robin and from where we continued wedding-wards in a noisy rabble. I thought I’d been in this metropolis before (though Ben says it was probably Ardrossan) when I was on the way to Arran in 1967. Abby’s definitely been to Girvan though, she pointed out some rocks where she and Rosie used to sit at the Girvan Festival and get “baked”. (“Baked?” Rachel queried, “was the weather that hot?”). I’m not sure which rocks she meant, but it wouldn’t have been Ailsa Craig, that was a bit far out (see below), and essential ingredients would have got wet.

I have tomatoes called after her, onions called after her, a character in my current work in progress called after her; but this is Herself in her entirety….

I’ve added some more poems, but too busy to put in more stuff as I’d have liked. The child hopping around among the verses of “Wood Anemones, Craighall Den” is probably Abby (that was well before her baking days). “Kullervo’s Return to the Foster-Folk” makes me think I can’t have been best pleased at returning to my childhood haunts when we moved to Fife so that Annie could go to Uni – mid-‘nineties, that would have been. “Two Girls, Tarvit Hill” might be an affectionate little memento of Abby and Rosie’s friendship, which goes back a good many years.

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next, the asses’ milk….

We were down, Annie and I, in St Andrews recently, in the rarified atmospheres of an Art Historians’ conference. As it was held in honour of Professor Peter Humfrey, Annie’s one-time supervisor, who is supposedly retiring (which means he’ll be back at work next term – don’t ask me how that is, I don’t understand such things) and Peter is an ackowledged expert on renaissance Venice, Venetian art tended to be the theme of the two-day shindig. And very fascinating it all was, with lots of speakers giving short lectures on many arcane matters all within the general theme of renaissance Venice. A bit of a challenge for me, since I can’t sit down for five minutes without starting to fall asleep, and I seemed to be the more challenged the more interesting the talk was, but I strove manfully with my lower nature; and of course in a place like St Andrews a decent cup of invigorating coffee is never far away.

Welcoming and pleasant as everyone was, it was hard not to feel a bit of a fish out of water. I was just there as a tag-along with Annie, as we don’t really get out much. My badge (apparently an essential adjunct to every Conference of any merit) read Charlie Ashton, Independent, which I realised after a bit people found rather alarming. “So what do you actually do?” was fired at me more times than I found strictly comfortable. I – em – I (what do I do? well, I have to finish planting the potatoes; and the peas; have to put up the guinea-pig runs; running out of chopped firewood; the junipers and some oaks and hollies and fruit bushes to transplant still; identify another clay-pit for our next cob-job; turves on the caravan roof – oh God, there’s so much to do – and what was that other thing? oh yes – writing…..) “I’m a writer actually – nothing to do with Art History, I just came along with Annie….” – Oh, I see! Have I heard of you?….

Ah, that’s what they mean with that “what do you do?” thing. What are your credentials? What research have you been engaged in? What exhibitions have you organised? Where are you a professor of Something?

Alas, mumble mumble... (No, I’m not really modest, it’s just….)

Actually the main reason why Annie and I go anywhere like conferences is to stay in a B & B and get some (a)240 volt electric lighting and (b)television (yes, since we had a TV, quality has definitely finally slid over the edge into the abyss but who cares? TV is tops). And (c)a bath. Oh yes. – Unlimited hot water, stretching out, wallowing, and it stays warm and you feel so soaked and soft and well-wallowed. That’s what we call a holiday.

However, that’s all to change. For behold –

(picture the mexican tiles, the limewashed walls, the asses’ milk – and you can get a small taste of our Joy….)

– our own bath at Coldhome is ready to use, a little ahead of the little bathroom it’s situated in and where once the cattle mooed. The bath has officially been used: Will was the first guinea-pig, when he was staying with us the night before his interview; then Maddy, then Ellie before their recentest visit to their granny. I wanted to record the actual event on camera, but Annie says such pictures on this blog wouldn’t be Nice.

Don’t get me wrong, we were always fairly clean. But our old bath was a one-butt-and-two-feet affair, and strictly functional, apart from you could contemplate your knees close-up. Being more hard-core than Annie and I, Rachel and Charlie R are to get our butt-and-two-feet bath now and that’s an upgrade for them.

And so I suppose there’ll be no more conferences.

I found a poem about Venice I’d written a few years back. Now it has a dedicatee, as every poem should have, and is on a Venetian-themed card painted by Annie, celebrating Prof Humfrey’s “retirement”. It begins the second deciad on the “poems” page.

Annie was in a great rush to get us down to our (last?) conference in time (in time to have a hot bath first, that is), so she picked up a speeding ticket round about Dundee. When I posted off the form to the police this morning (that’s the one that said it warn’t me guv, it was my wicked Partner wot dunnit), I also posted a CD (yes, in an envelope, into the letterbox) which hopefully will mean Anna can get “The Eagle and the Egg” up and running.

Upcoming: the second Baddo and Nazir story “An Experiment with Vampires”. I have to set these things down in black and white or I’ll never get round to doing them.

The Eagle and the Egg

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The Devil’s Riding Crop.

Anna tells me that typically people who are reading a blog will have four other screens (or windows or whatever-you-call them, “doofers” most people around here would say) open at the same time, and that is why I should make my blogs shorter: because these people are to-ing and fro-ing all the time, reading a bit here, skimming a bit there, busy busy. So, wow: five Doofers at a time….. I remember seeing David Bowie doing that on The Man Who Fell To Earth, though wasn’t he a bit – well, alien?….

Nevertheless, whilever I can still Feel the Devil’s Riding Crop on my backside – and can still exult in the illusion of being able to outrun it – I shall seriously endeavour to mend my ways.

Another example of my dinosauritis has surfaced in my attempts to download (or upload, or crossload, or whatever it is) the audio file of “The Eagle and the Egg”, this being the second of the Vowel stories with which I tried to illuminate my illiterate youngsters. These attempts (the cross-loading, not the illuminating) have ended miserably so far but we think it’s more because of the imposing presence of the Aberdeenshire hills than anything else – ie. our Broadband is not as your Broadband is. My little laptop appears to lose concentration after the first forty-five minutes of grinding effort, despite my injunctions to shut down after NEVER minutes. We’ll keep trying. In the meantime I’m going to add some more poems from the now famous Scarlett edition, plus a couple of extras to make the number up to ten: ten poems makes a nice little group (or deciad as we call it in the trade), not too big to be intimidating, not too small to make me feel I haven’t done anything; and then if I decide to put in any more I can pop it somewhere into a little Doofer where it’s not in the way. This lot may go back even further than the first two, I can’t really remember, definitely 1980 though.

We were down in St Andrews last – no: I feel that whack, whack on my rump and I shall stop…..

PS. (not that easy to get me to shut up, is it): if you’re wondering where you heard that Devil’s Riding Crop thing before, it was Leonard Cohen. Rachel and Anna gave me a tape for my birthday nineteen years ago (remember tapes?), which I still have, of The Future, and that’s where it’s from. The Future, as you may recall, “is murder”.

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April 23


We were all up at the community hall in Glenlivet last weekend, where Annie and Rachel, and some of the kids, were taking part in “An Evening of Women’s Voices” in aid of somebody called “Sea Shepherd” (sounds a bit messianic, if you ask me). I’m afraid Sea Shepherd won’t be quite as much richer from the event as everyone would have liked, as snow was threatening, and if snow threatens in Glenlivet you take it seriously. Only three members of the general public turned up, and two of the acts pulled out, leaving the young people to take up the first half and Rachel and Annie to have to extend their rehearsed programme considerably for the second. The General Public left at the end of the first half, we hope because they had a previous dinner-date and not because “we weren’t expecting a concert from a bunch of kids”, or some such. The kids’ part was in fact very delightful, and far from unprofessional, not that professional was in their minds – they just got up and performed as easily and naturally as they do everything else. Poor Ellie was considered too young to take part, but she launched her own floor-show on – well, the floor, in front of the stage. Jessiman School-trained, after all, is Ellie.

The exit of the General Public didn’t matter too much, as it left a large gang of friends and their kids, but what is interesting is how it changed the whole dynamic of the performance. Both Rachel and Annie remarked on it. What was it: disappointment? Not exactly. Being less “on their mettle”? Probably. Being more prey to the assaults of embarrassment? Certainly. Annie, who is actually a natural performer, “under-did” her act more than she intended. Rachel allowed herself more obviously surprised/questioning/apologetic glances at Annie if things weren’t going quite as rehearsed.

Things were different a few weeks previously, when they took part in a performance at the Tin Hut (Gartly village hall), that time – there being no restrictions as to gender – backed by a couple of chaps, me on the flute to be exact and the wondrous Tim Branston on his slide guitar, and we brought off – I say it with due modesty – a scorching performance. That’s to say, we enjoyed it and if the audience didn’t they didn’t let on.

The Rot

So much goes into the whole thing of Performance, and frankly I think most of it is bad. Take traditional dances, ceilidh-type frolics. You require musicians for these. They aren’t performers as such, they’re providing the music you need and they get paid for it (or should), and everyone does lots of clapping and shouting to keep the enthusiasm level up. That strikes me as a reasonable balance of “audience” and “performer”. This is also the reason I like our monthly sessions in the Tin Hut – and the various other folk-ish clubs in the area too, though the Tin Hut is special because of its acoustics. The balance is good. Everyone gets an equal chance to take part, regardless of their supposed credentials; everyone gets an equal – and fairly muted – amount of applause. Sometimes something that someone plays or sings particularly appeals for one reason or another, and then there are additional sounds of satisfaction, but this isn’t the rule. I call this healthy, and while there’s no denying that everyone loves “a good performance”, even (in small doses) “a great performer”, the general balance of audience and performer, contaminated as it is by the cult of Celebrity, has become pretty unhealthy, wherever you look.

I guess the rot set in back whenever, when music stopped being solely the background to some Count’s dinner party, and big symphony orchestras were brought in to fill the grandiose concert halls that everyone wanted in the big cities. There was something faintly democratic about this, but it also forced the musicians to become performers, and everyone else to sit on their bums and participate by shutting up; and then of course you had the super-musicians, creamed off from all over the Empire, to prance in and head up the orchestra, so the rot got even rottener with a new cult of celebrity. The golden years of Classical music, these. Later on, when orchestras got too expensive, along came the Gift of technology: amplifiy the sound, and then three guys could fill the whole space with the same – no, with bigger sound, with as much sound as you had the electrics for, really.

It seems to me that when true belief collapses, self-belief takes its place, and as self-belief is invariably phoney, a sort of icon-fuelled self-belief – really just an old- fashioned religious-superstitious belief – takes its place: Celebrity is such a case. The geezer up on the stage will do it all for us. We may be inadequate, but he will carry our inadequacies and transmute them into glittering treasures. He is our messiah – at least till we decide, in our religious-superstitious frenzy, to crucify him…. (Or her, one is obliged to add….)

Where was I? Ah yes, the Tin Hut. Fraser Wilson has managed this little treasure so well that fairly eminent singers/bands from both sides of the Pond now phone up to ask if they can do a gig; and of course we once-a-monthers who gather for the ordinary Tin Hut Sessions can bask in the reflected glory. I don’t know if this is good. I also don’t see that it’s inevitable that someone who has a “great talent” should be expected to “move on to higher things”, as we say, meaning join in the brain-drain to ever bigger cities. Amongst the musicians of Old, I think my favourite is still Franz Schubert, a man who sweated, bled and snored great tunes, who hated public performance, and whose profoundest works were written for his circle of friends to play, or listen to, in their own homes or the local Kneipe. That sounds ideal. I was interested to discover that Schubert’s teacher was Antonio Salieri, the court musician who features as Mozart’s adversary in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus. I’m not quite sure what this might imply, but I know I’ve always had the greatest admiration for unsung heroes like Session Musicians, and I think Salieri might have been one of those, while dear Wolfgang A, I fear, may have belonged to that special breed of performing monkeys who constitute the Mainstream and for whom celebrity is all.

Wouldn’t we all go for it if we could though? Who can say for sure. I’ve been having an Abscess recently, so dentists are on my mind, and dentists waiting-rooms always take me back to a cartoon I saw years ago in Punch magazine (it’s generally Chat these days, or Vogue,  Bunkered,  Horse and Hounds, but back then it was always Punch): I can’t remember the picture, but the caption ran, Oh yes, my husband’s an author – but so far, luckily he’s been able to avoid all that tiresome business of publication…

Here’s an “after” picture of my Author’s Den to complement the “before” one of last time, with the snow replaced by mud. I’m taking advantage of all this wetness-from-the-sky to carry up bucketfuls of earth and turves and plonk them on top of the roof whenever I have time, though the buckets are getting heavier as the ground gets muddier and staggering up the ladder gets increasingly hazardous. There’s a weed-grass that grows round about here, I’m not quite sure what it is but it seems to work pretty well on the turf roofs, forming great big mats of short fine growth that likes wet but doesn’t seem to mind drought too much. I hear May is scheduled to be as miserable a month as April, so that’ll extend the season for turfing activities, as well as for tree transplanting, which we still have a bit to do of (there’s the kind of syntax of which a writer may be proud). So the weather’s always perfect for something. I’ll have to move that stack of old windows from in front of the south-facing window and let in some light. Our littlest tabby cat (pictured in escape mode, Ellie being just round the corner) has been trying for months and now seems to have finally attracted the one intact male left in the District (may be a wild-cat, I suppose). This at least is my guess based on the smell in the caravan, which I again left open one night.

I’ve reached the box of old poems that lie somewhere within, two of which I’m using to start a “poems” page. After much thought about how to arrange my old poems on this page (even some new ones too, as I do occasionally write them still), I decided just to fish about in the various boxes, folders and notebooks and pick out at random. As a postgraduate student I used to inveigh against the habit in Literature departments of requiring a historical/biographical context to understand poems or other works, saying it was just another facet of the Cult of Celebrity and that the work should be supremely capable of standing on its own: so now it’s going to be fun reversing that stance and giving as much details as I feel like. What my eye fell on first was a little booklet put together many years ago (1984, I suppose) by a young German artist who was staying with us at the time. Scarlet picked through sheaves of my poems and came up with a handful which she wanted to illustrate with her intricate pen drawings. I’d better not try to reproduce any of these here, as we have long since lost touch so I can’t ask her permission. But her “Erinnerung an Schottland” is now my “memento of Scarlet Mosel”. The poems she chose – like the first, “Lady Isis” – were mainly love-poems, though love poems have never particularly been my stock-in-trade. The second, “Your house grows….“, is one I wrote for my stepmother’s birthday during one of her bouts of back-pain.

There should now, or soon, be a tab at the top of the page directing you to technical stuff, such as the construction of our turf roofs. This was a split-off from last time’s blog when Anna and I decided that getting too technical on your ass about Coldhome stuff wasn’t a great idea if you’re one of those who read this because of your interest in my words of wisdom about writing issues. In fact, we were discussing splitting the blog into two separate but interlinked blogs. It was Abby who put a spoke in there with the enlightening idea that the way it was (is, has been up to now) was “living literature”. We fell for that one, and I think Anna may even have stuck that up as a quote somewhere.


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