Watermarks Anthology

My short story Unswimming has been selected for the new Watermarks anthology, published in May 2016 by Frogmore Press. The anthology, edited by Rachel Playforth and Tanya Shadrick, brings together fiction from established and emerging writers exploring wild swimming in rivers, seas, lakes and lidos. The anthology will be arriving on Waterstones bookshelves early May (or is available for pre-order now on Amazon). 

The Unswimming story came out of a personal exploration into the relationship between writing and swimming last swimmer. I hit a writing block at the same as a swimming block and found myself discovering there are in fact strong neurological links between the two. Scientists even talk of the 'blue mind' - the altered state your mind enters around water and the positive impact it has on creativity, memory and big thinking. 

It led me to write an essay called Body/Language, exploring writing, swimming, lidos vs pools, and the meaningful language employed in each environment. You can read it here (and see a picture of my favourite blue shoes).

Watermarks co-editor Tanya Shadrick has been doing some really interesting work at the local lido here, Pells Pool, as writer-in-residence. Head over to her website for more on her Wild Patience project.

The cover is by Neil Gower, an illustrator whose work I love (I can't wait to get my hands on his new book with Alex Preston, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, later this year). 


'If we don't read books by women, we're missing essential data', says author Deborah Levy, whose essay Things I Don’t Want to Know first ignited my mission to grapple with my female identity, as a woman, as a mother, as a daughter, as a writer – and, I soon realised, as a reader. 

So here it is: a reading list of 50 books. They are on there because of who wrote them, because of subjects they explore, or because of their influence on the societal perception of women. They are all fiction, with the exception of Deborah Levy’s essay, which is as moving as any novel, and which I couldn’t not put in.

This is very much a personal list. Some will be contentious. I have included, for instance, Lolita, because it has (mis)shaped widespread cultural perception of women and as a reader it was a useful stoker of the feminist fires I wanted to re-connect with. I first put this list together for The W Review, and since then I've made a few revisions, but it is interesting to see that most of the entries stay the same.

Curiously, a survey of 400 women by the Orange Prize revealed a rather more diverse reading list than mine. Women were asked which novels had most changed the way they viewed themselves – the results included The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

What books would you add to this list? Which ones do you disagree with? Which book most influenced you as a woman, or shaped your ideas of womanhood?


1. Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

2. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
(could have gone with anything by VW to be honest, including the essays, letters and diaries, but Mrs D is what I read first, many moons ago)

3. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

4. The Lover by Marguerite Duras

5. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

6. Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

7. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

8. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

9. Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

10. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

11. The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

12. The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

13. The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin

14. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

15. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

16. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

17. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

18. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

19. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

20. Diary of an Ordinary Woman by Margaret Forster

21. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

22. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

23. House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

24. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

25. Good Woman of Szechuan by Bertolt Brecht

26. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

27. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

28. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

29. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

30. The Way Things Are by EM Delafield

31. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

32. Lelia by George Sand

33. Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert

34. Swallowing Geography by Deborah Levy

35. Middlemarch by George Elliot

36. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

37. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

38. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

39. Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

40. Are you there God, It’s me Margaret by Judy Blume

41. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

42. Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

43. Aftermath by Rachel Cusk

44. The Vagabond / The Shackle by Colette

45. Laura by Vera Casperway

46. The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare

47. Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

48. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French

49. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

50. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Who are these people? What are their stories?

A refugee clutching a photo album...a '50s New Yorker with a snarl and a gun...the horizontal collaborator, the screaming baby, the jigsaw lady...toothless French woman with the cat on her head...the beaming Paralympian and the surly drunkard at a christening. The slum boy sleeping in shopping bags, the Victorian awkward bride, the Japanese street stylists, and the Ku Klux Klan.

We don't know who they are, but we can play with who we want them to be. Using pictures as a springboard into character, place and plot is an important part of The Writing Space that I run twice a week in Lewes as part of Lewes Short Story Club. Each session presents a circuit of tables with different activities, prompts and resources to generate new ideas and take your writing in different directions. 

For me, imagining into the stories of these strangers is an act of compassion. It is one of the greatest honours of writing: the opportunity to flesh out someone's existence, to create richly faceted and closely observed portraits of people whose voices need to be heard. Fiction as a mouthpiece for every human soul.

Speaking at a Word Factory Short Story Salon at Waterstones Piccadilly, David Almond once said that when you start writing a character you are on the outside of them; the art is getting closer and closer until you inhabit them and can present a compassionate portrait. Compassion in literature is really important to me, both as a reader and a writer. If all we've got are stories, we need to honour the stories of others and treat them as a precious commodity.

Would you like to come along to The Writing Space? It takes place in Lewes every Tuesday evening 6-8pm and every Thursday morning 10-11.30am. The Thursday group particularly welcomes parents/carers with young children, who can write while their little distractions are looked after. For more information, sign up to the Lewes Short Story Club newsletter.

What is Home? Where is Home?

At the writing group for parents and toddlers this morning, we opened the door to the playhouse and discovered a sleeping bag and mats, and that thick morning scent of sleeps in small places. We left food and bottled water and a little note saying Hope You Are Well.

What an inadequate note. What else would we write? The pen felt full of apology. Then full of fixes it wanted to offer. I wanted to ask: What are your Stories? I wanted to leave books with the food.

I see the playhouse, dry and warm, in the centre of a circle - then the tranquil gated blossom garden around it - the gentle privileged town around that - then a county circle around that, the white cliff sea on one edge and the guardian Downs on the other. The circles widen beyond that, half of England, half of the sea. Boats and trains and motorways that have sped through these circles to bring the sleeper to here.

In which circle sits the 'Home'? Or does home imbue every circle? I'll go back tomorrow, with more useful things. Maybe I'll leave a book.

Part of me feels patronising even writing this, romanticising disadvantage and sentimentalising vulnerability. Waxing lyrical about home and homelessness on a middle class blog or Instagram post brings uncomfortable parallels with the idea of the Noble Savage. But I did find something poignant here; something moving about the idea of sanctuary, and the relief I imagine someone felt when they stumbled upon this little shelter in a safe walled garden.

Home, Identity, Journeys, Belonging - SWAY at ONCA

These thoughts come a few days before I'm due to be involved as writer-in-residence with an art exhibition in Brighton. SWAY at the ONCA gallery explores ideas of home and displacement, journeys, identity and belonging, through the metaphor of swallows. Hundreds of origami swallows are suspended in great flocks from the ceiling in vibrant colours. Each is weighted in place with a coin from countries all over the world. Some are made by visitors, who write messages on the wings.

It is the passion project of Solange Leon, a dynamic vital artist who herself is a many-journeyed, richly-heritaged human, developed in response to global socio-political crises, the refugee pandemic, Brexit, closing borders and the stories this all is creating.

A beautiful drawn world map on the wall is embroidered with delicate coloured threads as each visitor to the exhibition leaves a visual record of their own migrations. Downstairs, an exhibition of photographs by Lilian Simonsson documents children in refugee camps. Visitors can also add their own ‘voice’ to a new dawn chorus arranged by John Warburton, incorporating original songs from more than 24 different countries.

Throughout the exhibition, visitors have been contributing words, text and story about their own experiences and at the closing night event on Sunday at 4pm I'll be weaving these into stories in response to the work. I'd love to see you there and perhaps share your own story too.

More info here: onca.org.uk/whats-on/now/solange-leon-sway/ 

#StoryObjects: Shell Necklace

I grew up in Newquay, a better-days seaside town on the north coast of Cornwall, with arcades and skateboarders and bright beach huts in rows. Miles of vast beaches, a resident seal, a Bronze Age chieftain under the Barrowfields, and the finest surfing in Europe. Children call out from rockpools with news of cuttlefish, gobis, dogfish, holding up a black uterine mermaid’s purse, or the skeleton shield of a crab. It’s a place of surging dark seas, an ocean that roars You are Nothing, I am All. Pasty-fat seagulls snatch up kittens and ducklings and let them drop from the sky. I began this shell necklace as a child and have added to it from beaches all over the world ever since. 

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I love the storymaking role that objects play – the museumification of ourselves through the items we find, and acquire, and treasure, and keep. What we wear, what we display, what we secret away in a locked box. I should probably get rid of these dustcatchers, but each one has a story that anchors me back to a time and place. Every object is a transaction between my past and present self. They are the pilgrim’s scallops of a 34-year journey, and it seemed perfect to use them as the imagery for this site. So take a look around this strange little museum. What do you see? What do you recognise? What makes you want to know more? I wonder what objects we’ll connect through. I wonder what would be in your museum? Share your meaningful miscellany using the hashtag #StoryObjects.

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