Thursday, 9 April 2009


"So what are we doing today, Dad?" Lastborn child asks at breakfast.

"Well," I say, enthusiastically through a mouthful of porridge. "I thought we could go to Flaybrick Cemetery and have a good look around..."

I can tell by their faces that the children are not amused, nor surprised. They're used to it. Whilst writing an early draft of Mortlock a year or so ago, I came across a Victorian funeral carriage at Bamburgh castle and spent ages playing with the doors and coffin rollers. Research you see.

I love cemeteries for their history and the stories, that every headstone tells, each individual, some heart-breaking. Flaybrick was built during the 1860s when it became clear that burial sites within towns were inadequate, choked with bodies and liable to be a serious health threat to the living population. It is a gothic and atmospheric site, ruined and gradually being reclaimed by Nature:

One tomb caught my imagination, that of Isaac and Dorothea Roberts. Both Isaac and Dorothea were atronomers and I can't do their lives justice here. But it's story would make fascinating research and quite possibly a good book too. In 1888, Isaac photographed the andomeda galaxy M31, the first clear picture of an object outside our galaxy. Dorothea was awarded the Legione Du Honneur for her services to French astronomy.

The tomb is quirky and unusual. Lots of stars and nebula on it, not much mention of God. Dorothea fully intended to rest here too but died in SanFrancisco. I wonder what twist of their story took her there.

At the back is an inscription that struck such a chord with me that I thought I'd share it:

"Heaven is within us and we have the power to dwell in it all the days of our lives
Or we may decline and make ourselves miserable."

Well it made me think...maybe I should smile more often in photographs...

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Riddle Me This

"I watched four curious creatures
travelling together; their tracks were swart,
each imprint very black. The birds’ support
moved swiftly; it flew in the air,
dived under the wave. The toiling warrior
worked without pause, pointing the paths
to all four over beaten gold."

The Exeter Book Riddles (translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland)

I am wrestling with riddles. The ultimate obscure metaphors. Ancient and largely forgotten by most but children love them.
I am researching riddles for my next book, whilst waiting for my editor to get back to me about Mortlock (those of you who think the waiting ends once the deal is made take note). When I opened ‘A World Treasury of Riddles’ by Phil Cousineau and read:

‘What goes up a mountain and down a mountain but never moves?’

My second son snapped the answer out straight away: A path.
Riddles are old, very old. Oedipus staked his life on a riddle. There are riddles in the Rig Veda, the Bible, and the Koran. There are hundreds of Riddle Songs, purported to be love songs but as you travel in time through the collections from Alan Lomax, back through Vaughan Williams, and Child, you find them twisting into their original form: tales of innocent children pitting their wits against demons they meet on the highway. A slip of the tongue, one wrong answer will see them in Hell.

They come from an age before instant feedback, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones. A time when people waited. For the seasons, for a story to unfold, for a song to finish.

Our children pounce on these echoes of older times, the riddles the songs and stories, and devour them hungrily but too often we adults dismiss or misunderstand them. We see them as children’s pastimes when in truth, they are for everyone.

These are the inspiration for my stories. Mortlock came from The Twa Corbies, the Second Book, The Demon Collector, from Riddles Wisely Expounded.

And the answer to the above riddle? Apparently it is a hand writing with a feather quill on a parchment.

Take ten minutes out, mull it over.