On Writing: On The Very Start.

I am standing on Platform 3 at Banbury, waiting for the fast train to Marylebone. It’s barely twelve, I’ve hours until the meeting at 4:00, but I can’t bear to sit at home, compulsively tracing tube maps.

I am to meet a literary agent, who might perhaps sell my book.

My eyes are dry from lack of sleep; my wire-tight nerves have disrupted my household. The children have been mutinous over lunch box contents, the dogs restless, following me, endlessly, plucking at my attention until I shout at them.  I cannot remember my book, what I wrote, nor why. I feel terribly sick.

It’s not so bad now I’m on the move, on the way. I stare down the tracks towards Birmingham and will the London train on faster, faster. Come-on-now-faster.

The train arrives already packed,  and I stride down the platform in my boots, looking in for a table seat. I overtake a woman my age wearing a tight navy suit and impossibly high heels; she glances at me, at once pitying and envious. She sees my pink linen shirt, my skinny grey cords and my lucky pearls. She probably thinking I’m a country wife off for a bit of shopping, whilst she is headed for a conference; important names to remember, processed air to breathe.

I’m meeting an agent, I imagine telling her. Because for ten years, I’ve been writing a book.

I find my seat on the train, pull a large brown envelope from my bag. The postman gave it me as I was leaving home, I assume it’s something for the children, from Amazon, but it’s not. It’s a copy of Meadowland, one of my favourite books, sent to me by its author, John Lewis-Stempel. I am so pleased that I don’t even open it for a while, I just hold it on my lap, and trace the heart of the owl’s face on the front. Quite suddenly, I notice the awful, rushing sick-feeling has lessened. I had meant to spend the journey re-reading my latest edits, polishing a pitch for Book Number 2, but instead, I put my phone away, and I start to read Meadowland.  It’s about a year in the life of a field, and I’m in March by the time we reach Marylebone.

I get off the train and start walking towards Baker Street. I had planned to go to the Tate for a few hours, to cram my brain with whatever was on, but instead I walk, just walk. Eventually, I get on the tube and go to Little Venice, because I’ve never been. But it’s not how I imagine.

I still have almost two hours before my meeting, so I walk again, heading towards Kensington Gardens, because I think it must be nice there. A tramp asks me for a pound, and I give him two. ‘Bless you,’ he says. I don’t tell him I’m banking karma.

I reach the park and I sit in the Italian Gardens. Green parakeets swoop between the trees just behind me, and for a while I watch the dog walkers. I’m usually you, I think. About now. But not today.

There are other agents I might meet, that might like my book, but I particularly want this one. This agent. I wouldn’t even have approached her if my mentor hadn’t told me to try. A writer friend warned me: you’re going to be a very small fish, my darling. Practically plankton. In a very large pond.

But God, what a pond.

I pull out Meadowland, and eat an apple. I reach June, when it’s time to stop reading. I’m freezing from sitting still for so long, and when I look up and around,  young school children and Boden mummies have replaced the dog walkers. I think of my own daughters, the way they’d hung around my neck this morning – g’luck, Mummy, g’luck.

I march towards the tube, anaesthetised still, by Meadowland. The book describes the private life of a field on the English, Welsh borders,and it talks about the creatures that live there, the birds that return there, year after year, generation after generation. John tells of how he measures the depth of flooded grassland by the ‘plash of his wellingtons’ in the dark, and how geese remind him of irate drivers, grid-locked in LA.

Meadowland is a book that does funny things to your perception of time – to the way it’s spent, whether savoured or wasted. It does funny things to perspective, too, and reminds you of how you fit, really fit, into the grand scheme of things.

My nerves of earlier are almost gone: Meadowland as Mogadon. I can see my book now, clearly, perfectly.

I arrive at the street, the green door (Greene!), and I take a photo of it – the gleaming brass, the neat black lettering. The children wanted me to photograph everything, ‘so we can picture it properly, Mummy’. They know I’m an unreliable narrator.

I ring the bell, can’t stop myself grinning into the intercom.

‘Carlie Lee,’ I say. ‘To see Judith Murray.’

I touch a finger to the spine of Meadowland, in my bag. A beautiful, generous, unexpected talisman.

The door lock releases, and I push it open.


Door of Greene and Heaton






On Walking: Sunday 5th October

It’s barely eight o’clock when the dogs and I leave the house, and the sky ethereal blue.  There’s been a frost, and it’s cold; properly Autumn after the Indian summer.

The iced air sears my lungs and makes me cough. We set off through the village towards Bramshill; there’re no cars this early, no walkers or church-goers. Wood pigeons are noisily copulating in the chestnuts along the graveyard, and the air is still; expectant of good things.

As I walk up Church Lane, I can see the thick belt of the Scout Woods across the valley; a finer band of mist bisects it, as if the larches were caught in a smoke ring.  I imagine how beautiful the rest of the valley will look, and quicken my pace, hurrying as if to meet a lover.

I don’t let myself peek until the I reach the stile above the sledging hill, then I climb to my perch and sit, and look, and look.

The early sun is behind me, lighting the beeches golden, rust red, warm bronze. The fields behind roll green, clay-red, dun; the new shards of Winter wheat are a bright, plastic green, the grass of margins and hay meadows are a bleached white-yellow. I settle to watch the frost melt from the grasses in front of me, to listen to a nameless bird sing on a descending whistle. The ducks are joking the day to wakefulness and a fox slinks along the bottom fence. Pants and Dora are deep in the brambles to my right: ecstatic and hunting mice.

My fingers become painful, I’m gloveless, and the cold minces them red and white. But the sun is hot on my hair, my ear, and I tip my head back, as if I were a cat looking for fuss.

It is the morning after my wedding anniversary. Eleven years since becoming a wife –  six months scandalous later, a mother. I changed utterly and completely the day I married; grew up in a way that still leaves me breathless with fright. We thought I had miscarried our child the night before the wedding, and a doctor had patted me on the shoulder and told me, never mind, try again. You’re young.  I said my vows through lips numb with misery and shock, my eyes fixed on Stevie’s as if he could save the life in my belly. I remember nothing of the reception, except blood, more blood. Blood and the enormous hoop of my wedding dress.

The next morning, we went straight to the JR for a scan, Stevie reeling with hangover, me convinced I was still pregnant – I could feel it – and more blood. I still had confetti stuck in my tangled hair. We were supposed to be on our way to Gatwick for our honeymoon, but instead we waited, waited.

She was still in there, our daughter, laying on her back with one hand raised, as if to wave hello.

‘She was testing you,’ said a doctor. ‘Checking you really wanted her.’

Now, sitting on this stile, eleven years to the day since that scan, I feel more blessed and thankful than I can ever imagine. That baby – presumed gone – is now a thumping great ten year old. She has a sister, who’s nine, and we have built a family that exasperates and thrills us, drives us bonkers and makes us happy in a way we could never have known, eleven years and one day ago.

After we left the hospital, Stevie and I went to Boar’s Hill, in Oxford, to sit on ‘our’ bench. The view was once almost as precious as this one is to me now, and I remember thinking how today, everything that I was, is now only a part of everything I now am.

Looking out now, over Bramshill, I can feel that change starting to shift again. The 5th October. Always, for me, the start of something.


From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.
From gate on Church Lane, across to the Scout Woods.