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Explore Salt Slow, the mesmerising debut short story collection from prize-winning author Julia Armfield
28th March 2020 - Gavin Read

Explore Salt Slow, the mesmerising debut short story collection from prize-winning author Julia Armfield, now in paperback

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield

Now available in paperback, Salt Slow is the debut publication from award-winning author Julia Armfield, comprised of nine short stories which mix the mythic and the fantastic with the everyday, telling tales of women and their experiences in society, with bodies and the bodily, with isolation, obsession and love.

Below, Gavin from our Marketing team picks nine short excerpts from the book to demonstrate the themes and language of the collection.

 


This is a book that's been passed around our office since we first got our tentacles on an advance copy. Nine distinct but overlapping stories of womanhood, adolescence, invertebrate life (yes!) and the uncanny, all told with a deft hand at understatement and an exceptional strength of writing.

 

Instead of us showcasing one story in its entirety, I’ve pulled an excerpt from each of the nine shorts below that highlight in different ways what for me make Salt Slow a must-read, and Julia Armfield an author to expect big things of.

 

“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed.”

 

This, the first line from 'The Great Awake', is pure Kafka: ‘An uncanny thing happened but I’m going to reel it off like an emotionless report as if it’s not uncanny to underscore how really uncanny the whole thing is.’ I’m a big fan of this approach, and of the ability of a short story to explore a concept, a single change to the quo, and in so doing weird the world as we know it.

 

It’s a bit of a misnomer to start with this comparison, but one of the things I enjoy most about the collection is the strength of its central conceits—albeit fleshed out in entirely different ways. This story, set in a world in which almost everyone becomes insomniac and their slumbers manifest as ghost-like figures, won last year’s White Review Short Story Prize.

 

“Of course, my Father’s new wife was not keeping her wolf as a pet or a working animal, but rather as a daughter, which rendered much of the reading I did around the time of the wedding unnecessary. The day they moved in, she dressed the wolf in a blue pinafore dress she described as its special occasions outfit and presented me with a copy, in my size, which my Father suggested I change into before helping with the unpacking.”

 

One of the joys of going back through the collection is discovering how many paragraphs work by themselves, as standalone stories. This one—from 'Formerly Feral'—is a great example, in which Armfield demonstrates great economy but no sign of austerity: in two sentences are a world, rich and rampantly fertile, teeming with narrative nods shooting off in numerous directions like one of Lydia Davis’s super-shorts. You could print this on art paper and sell it.

 

“It is only at a noise from the stern, a grunt followed by the scraping of some heavy object being lifted, that she manages to raise her head. As if from a great distance, she sees the way he is standing and what he is about to do to the thing between them. She opens her mouth to protest and finds her tongue too deeply bitten to cooperate. He has clubbed things before — large fish and great grey moray eels which he has heaved aboard with his hands and hammered at with the flat of an oar until they ceased their struggling. She knows the way his body moves before he does it, drawing in like a wire spring twisted up to full contraction before he raises his arms to beat something down.”

 

Note that the action doesn’t actually take place in the section above—the old authorial wisdom about the pulling of the trigger being the least dramatic moment.

 

This section, from the title story—about a tested couple stuck on a boat adrift in a flooded world—is pretty representative of some of the key images and themes in play in the book. There’s marine life, and understatement, and threat, and relationships. Specifically, several of the stories follow life after the end of a relationship, in different ways.

 

“The night is wild, uncurving, like the earth might be flat and walkable from end to distant end. Mona watches the girls nuzzle into the shoulders of their companions and tries to recall any instance of filming a boy in the queue. The band’s audience, she knows, is broadly feminine — the kind of music that aches and claws its feet in bedclothes — but it occurs to her that there also isn’t a single man in their crew. She powers down her camera, making for the back entrance. From somewhere inside, she hears the slight reverb of soundcheck, a swell of warmth within her like a welcome forcing open of her chest; the band’s very particular wailing lushness, their wide and craving snarl.”

 

This quote is from 'Stop your women’s ears with wax', which is probably one of my favourites. It follows a woman on tour with a band whose fans, only girls, are truly fanatical. There’s something not right about the band, who are hardly seen, and something unnatural about their influence.

 

This unnatural influence is for me mirrored in the language used above—in the description of things like night and music, unseen things, in how the choice of words not just describes but defines. Again and again in Salt Slow I’ve found that every decision is in service of the mood of the story, of the retelling of the world.

 

“You could tell the library book on mourning customs was dated, primarily because of the emphasis it placed on the bereaved abstaining from balls and galas in the months after a death.”

 

You might think that Salt Slow is a very serious book, a very dramatic book. It is, but throughout—like this section opening from 'Cassandra After'—are moments of morbid humour, coiled in the dark water ready for you to step on.

 

“Back inside, we found Jenny just coming in, though it was nearly eight o’clock. She smiled at us both, pulling her hand from the front pocket of her dungarees to show us what looked very much like the flicked-off head of a scab.

We ordered pizzas as usual on the Friday.”

 

'The Collectables' is one of my favourite stories, about an all-female flatshare and their project to Frankenstein together an undisappointing man. It’s deliciously dark, sinister and hilarious, with a rich sense of foreboding throughout. There are so many sections I wanted to quote, but I couldn’t resist the segue between sections above.

 

“At night, I fall asleep in shreddings and tatterings, my dreams shot through with shouts of violence, bitter notches like bad beads on a rosary. In the still-dark of early morning, I wake to wonder at my face in the wardrobe mirror. Beneath the white flesh of my forehead, my eyes seem further apart than before.”

 

Sidestepping for a moment the quick brilliance of like bad beads on a rosary, this section from 'Mantis' is a great example of how Armfield writes: lush, reduplicative, wrought. Writ large across ten shorts, Salt Slow is a collection not to be consumed in one ravenous inhalation so much as steeped in, repudiated, returned to and assimilated—like a new limb, which happens to be a comparison not out of keeping with the themes of the book.

 

The hardest thing I found reading Salt Slow was the use of commas and ellipsis: their frequency and location. I prefer sentences that steam unobstructed by punctuation toward their inexorable conclusion—or, maybe, are a bit more in that direction. So at first the way Armfield punctuates felt like a tripping-up, but then, as I became familiar with the themes, it felt right. Alien, but right: like uncertainty, awkwardness, truncation; the result of anxiety, of vivisection.

 

There’s another device she uses where the end of a sentence is lapped by its own echo, the description made again in different words. This is like a tide or a tail, and again ties in nicely with the themes of the book. There’s probably a grammatical name for it; I moved around a lot as a child.

 

“The key, she has been taught by the books she reads, is to love a man slightly less than he loves you. That way you remain in some sense unreachable. An inch above the floor.

          It is the shape of his mouth that makes this impossible. The crest of freckles up his back. He sleeps as if murdered, as if set in concrete, flat out and immobile. On one of their first nights together, he had set seven alarms to go off at three-minute intervals and in the morning had slept through every one. She had lain there confused, dead man in her bed. Had realised that there could be no way of loving sensibly if every morning started with the relief of finding him still alive.”

 

In case I’m focussing too much on the fishy horror of the collection there’s this, from 'Granite'—a story about a woman whose partner turns to rock—which is 100% romance and beauty.

 

There are a few other great sections from this story I wanted to use, which better demonstrate Armfield’s eye for observation, relationships, contemporary life—and for me her ability to weave together the natural and fantastical with the contemporary and the trivial is one of the things to be celebrated in the book. Monsters, transformations, miracles: these are subjects it’d be lazier to deliver in a timeless or cod-historical setting, with things like gossip and pizza and dating sites sticking out anachronistically like unpolished shards; in Salt Slow the two worlds feel not just inseparable but mutually perpetuating. Think Angela Carter reading HP Lovecraft, on her phone. In a Sea Life Centre.

 

“The jellyfish return again the next day. Flooding the shoreline in the early morning like a littering of plastic, the beach foul-breathed after a stormy night. The summer is becoming unpredictable, rain-swollen — a white, fetid season, filthy with cloud.”

 

There’s pathetic fallacy, where it rains when a character is sad, and then there’s this: the world is fully weirded by the fiction, and the true power of language is not analogy, not metaphor, but metaphysics.

 

There’s the old logic that SFF themes are solely or principally in play to tell us something meaningful about the real world. There’s a lot of value to the argument, but beneath its simplicity for me lurks the deeper truth that unreal fiction speaks to: that the world, the act of being, is inherently weird and magical. In Salt Slow you can say yes, metamorphosis speaks to adolescence and yes, jellyfish out of water are the end of a dependant relationship. But for me the collection renders these two things—the real and the fantastical—so well and so evenly that there’s no easy decision as to which is analogous to which, as to which is the skeleton and which is the skin.

 

If you dig the sound of Salt Slow I urge you to get your hands on a copy—I've a feeling you'll want to get onboard early in Julia Armfield's career. Word on the street is there's a novel in the works; in the meantime, you can also take a look at some recommended reading below.

 



Julia Armfield, photograph (c) Sophie Davidson
 

Julia Armfield is a prize-winning fiction writer and occasional playwright based in London. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and The Stockholm Review, and she was the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018. Salt Slow is her first book.

 

 

Secrets, spies and a banned masterpiece in The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott
25th March 2020 - Lara Prescott

Secrets, spies and a banned masterpiece in

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

 

Every once in a while a debut novel is published that instantly takes off, receiving outstanding reviews across the media and scoring impressive sales. Last year there was The Binding by Bridget Collins, athe previous year it was The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower, both of which rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists. Now comes the paperback publication of The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott; fascinating, seductive and cleverly constructed, this is a combination of literary history, spy story, and historical romance, all with a deep connection to Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago at its core. When it was first published last year the hardback garnered impressive acclaim, both in the UK and the US, where it was already been selected for Reese Witherspoon's bookclub, and the new paperback will certainly be seen on many bookclub and summer reading lists for the year ahead.

Here you can read a piece written exclusively for Foyles by Lara Prescott, where she explains her own background and what ignited her own profound interest in Pasternak's seminal work, and inspired her to write this soon-to-be breakout novel

 


 

Named After a Muse by Lara Prescott

 

I have my parents to thank for naming me after Boris Pasternak’s heroine Lara in Doctor Zhivago. As a child, knowing nothing about the book or movie, I’d wind up my mother’s musical jewelry box again and again to hear it play “Lara’s Theme.”

It wasn’t until I was a teenager—and I was deep into my new obsession for Tolstoy, Pushkin, Chekhov, and all the Russian greats—that I read Zhivago for the first time. Back then, with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in my mind’s eye, I was most interested in the tragic love story. On my next reading as a young adult, I was most taken with the beauty of Pasternak’s poetic sentences. On my recent readings, what struck me most are the ways in which Pasternak conveys the importance of free thought.

 

Doctor Zhivago Movie Poster

 

And in 1950s Soviet Russia, that was a subversive idea. At the time, Boris Pasternak was one of the most famous living Soviet writers. His readings would sell out to packed auditoriums. Fans would stand and shout lines from his poetry, unable to contain their excitement.

Doctor Zhivago was to be his first novel—and one the Kremlin knew people would want to read. And when they got word of Zhivago’s themes—as well as its critical depictions of the October Revolution and the Russian Civil War—the Soviet censors banned the book.

Meanwhile, in the United States, political leaders were looking for ways to demonstrate American superiority over the East. And what better way, thought the newly-formed CIA, than through art and literature?

To me, there is no greater way to create empathy than storytelling. Books allow us to experience others’ lives, visit other time periods, walk the streets of places we’ve never been. They build connection.

So it’s no surprise that governments—seeking to control how their citizens view and experience the world—have always used words as weapons. Today, tweets, bots, and fake news do the job; but during the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans used books.

I first learned about the Zhivago mission in 2014, after my father sent me a Washington Post article about newly declassified documents that shed light on the CIA’s Cold War-era “Books Program.” With my interested piqued, I devoured the incredible true story behind Zhivago’s publication. What I discovered was that the CIA had obtained the banned manuscript, covertly printed it, and smuggled it back into the USSR. 

 

Doctor Zhivago b Boris Pasternak

 

The first CIA memos on Zhivago described the book as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” saying it had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.”

And it was seeing the actual memos and so many other declassified documents like them—with all their blacked-out and redacted names and details—that first inspired me to fill in the blanks with fiction. 

The first voice that came to me was that of a group of fictionalized CIA typists working in the Agency’s Soviet Russia division. As I began writing, I imagined all the idealistic Ivy League men at the CIA working on the mission—and behind them, the women in the typing pool. They became a kind of Greek Chorus to drive the book’s narrative. And who else could be a better narrator? After all, these women typed the secrets of the secret keepers.

But as I dove deeper into my writing, I realized I was missing half the story.

I subscribe to the thought: “Read a hundred books, write one”—which was certainly part of my process. I pored over book after book about the Cold War, propaganda, CIA history, Russian history, and more.

Then, one book in particular caught my attention. A Captive of Time is the autobiography of Olga Ivinskaya, Boris Pasternak’s mistress and muse for his character Lara—my namesake. Ivinskaya also played a pivotal role in Pasternak’s writing process, and in helping bring Zhivago to the world. In fact, she was twice sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag for her involvement with him.

To me, Olga is so much more than a muse, and after reading her story, I knew that I couldn’t just tell my novel through the women in the West; there had to be an Eastern thread as well—told through Olga’s lens.

While most eyes gravitate toward the famous men in the spotlight, I’ve always been more intrigued by the women in the background. The Secrets We Kept is a vehicle to give these women a voice once more.

 


 

Lara Prescott (credit Trevor Paulhaus)

Lara Prescott was named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago and first discovered the true story behind the novel after the CIA declassified 99 documents pertaining to its role in the book's publication and covert dissemination. She travelled the world - from Moscow and Washington, to London and Paris - in the course of her research, becoming particularly interested in political repression in both the Soviet Union and United States and how, during the Cold War, both countries used literature as a weapon. Lara earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, and The Secrets We Kept is her first novel

 

Take It Back by Kia Abdullah
20th March 2020

Presenting a bold new voice in fiction, the searing Take It Back by Kia Abdullah

Take It Back by Kia Abdullah
 

Take It Back is a gripping courtroom drama in which 16-year-old Jodie accuses four classmates of something unthinkable. Jodie is white and the four accused are Muslim, a fact that ignites a tinderbox of tension in the streets of East London. Powerful, moving and intelligent, Take It Back is a compulsive read.

Here, author Kia Abdullah tells us why she wrote the novel and how she feels ahead of its paperback release. Her account is followed by an extract from the novel.
 



Take It Back is not an angry novel, but it does come from a place of anger. It’s hard for me to admit this because anger is such a base emotion. It earns neither trust nor respect; it just spits and seethes instead. But I was angry, possibly for as long as an entire decade. I was raised in a conservative British-Bangladeshi family and felt stifled by the pressures it placed on me: to marry early, to be quiet, to be docile, to be good. I struggled with the cultural tribalism that said ‘if you’re one of us, you can’t be one of them’.

As the years marched on and the mood turned against British Muslims, I found myself in a place of limbo. My community had its flaws – some of which I suffered first-hand – but it was not the malevolent monolith portrayed in the media. My loyalty clashed with my latent anger to create my central character of Zara, an ex-lawyer turned rape counsellor.

Zara is similarly caught between two worlds and I was keen to test her loyalties. Enter Jodie, a 16-year-old girl that accuses four classmates of rape. Jodie is white and the four boys are Muslim – an inherently tense context that allowed me to explore the issues that mattered to me: mob mentality and how the media treat people based on their race or faith. A court case lent natural structure to the story and thus the basis of the novel was formed. I was aware, however, that I had no legal experience and therefore undertook intensive research.

I spent a week at London’s Old Bailey and enlisted the help of a barrister and a solicitor. The first invited me to chambers and the second read the novel to root out faux pas. Between the two, they answered a hundred questions. Other generous strangers also offered support: two rape counsellors, a survivor of assault and an ex-police officer.

I was incredibly grateful for their time. Equally, I was conscious of doing ‘too’ much research and weighing down the novel with technical detail. For me, the key was to research comprehensively, then pull it back to 70% for the sake of the story. The result is Take It Back, a gripping courtroom drama at heart that also says something important about the world, as I believe all good fiction should.

The feedback has been overwhelming. Take It Back was named one of the best new thrillers by The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Sunday Times, and readers have been incredibly supportive. Word-of-mouth is invaluable for lesser-known authors like me and I’m grateful to every single person who has told me that they have literally pushed the book into the hands of friends and colleagues.

I’m especially heartened by readers who note that Take It Back is more than a courtroom drama. Writers of crime fiction often worry that our books are not taken seriously as works of literature, but there is so much care and craft that goes into them. I’m thankful that readers have picked up on that.

As the paperback is released, my hope is of course to reach more readers. I would love to hit the bestseller list one day but I’m also aware that this doesn’t happen overnight (if ever) for most authors. The best we can do is to keep writing good books and hope that people will buy them, read them, love them and share them. The bestseller list would be nice but what I really want is to earn enough readers to be allowed to continue.

 

She watched her reflection in the empty glass bottle as the truth crept in with the wine in her veins. It curled around her stomach and squeezed tight, whispering words that paused before they stung, like a paper cut cutting deep: colourless at first and then vibrant with blood. You are such a fucking cliché, it whispered – an accusation, a statement, a fact. The words stung because Zara Kaleel’s self-image was built on the singular belief that she was different. She was different to the two tribes of women that haunted her youth. She was not a docile housewife, fingers yellowed by turmeric like the quiet heroines of the second-gen literature she hated so much. Nor was she a rebel, using her sexuality to subvert her culture. And yet here she was, lying in freshly stained sheets, skin gleaming with sweat and regret.

 



Luka’s post-coital pillow talk echoed in her ear: ‘it’s always the religious ones’. She smiled a mirthless smile. The alcohol, the pills, the unholy foreskin – it was all so fucking predictable. Was it even rebellious anymore? Isn’t this what middle-class Muslim kids did on weekends?

Luka’s footsteps in the hall jarred her thoughts. She shook out her long dark hair, parted her lips and threw aside the sheets, secure in the knowledge that it would drive him wild. Women like Zara were never meant to be virgins. It’s little wonder her youth was shrouded in hijab.

He walked in, a climber’s body naked from the waist up, his dirty blond hair lightly tracing a line down his chest. Zara blinked languidly, inviting his touch. He leaned forward and kissed the delicate hollow of her neck, his week-old stubble marking tiny white lines in her skin. A sense of happiness, svelte and ribbon-like, pattered against her chest, searching for a way inside. She fought the sensation as she lay in his arms, her legs wrapped with his like twine.

‘You are something else,’ he said, his light Colorado drawl softer than usual. ‘You’re going to get me into a lot of trouble.’

He was right. She’d probably break his heart, but what did he expect screwing a Muslim girl? She slipped from his embrace and wordlessly reached for her phone, the latest of small but frequent reminders that they could not be more than what they were. She swiped through her phone and read a new message: ‘Can you call when you get a sec?’ She re-read the message then deleted it. Her family, like most, was best loved from afar.

Luka’s hand was on her shoulder, tracing the outline of a light brown birthmark. ‘Shower?’ he asked, the word warm and hopeful between his lips and her skin.

She shook her head. ‘You go ahead. I’ll make coffee.’

He blinked and tried to pinpoint the exact moment he lost her, as if next time he could seize her before she fled too far, distract her perhaps with a stolen kiss or wicked smile. This time, it was already too late. He nodded softly, then stood and walked out.

Zara lay back on her pillow, a trace of victory dancing grimly on her lips. She wrapped her sheets around her, the expensive cream silk suddenly gaudy on her skin. She remembered buying an armful years ago in Selfridges; Black American Express in hand, new money and aspiration thrumming in her heart. Zara Kaleel had been a different person then: hopeful, ambitious, optimistic.

Zara Kaleel had been a planner. In youth, she had mapped her life with the foresight of a shaman. She had known which path to take at every fork in the road, singlemindedly intent on reaching her goals. She finished law school top of her class and secured a place on Bedford Row, the only brown face at her prestigious chambers. She earned six figures and bought a fast car. She dined at Le Gavroche and shopped at Lanvin and bought everything she ever wanted – but was it enough? All her life she was told that if she worked hard and treated people well, she’d get there. No one told her that when she got there, there’d be no there there.

When she lost her father six months after their estrangement, something inside her slid apart. She told herself that it happened all the time: people lost the ones they loved, people were lost and lonely but they battled on. They kept on living and breathing and trying but trite sentiments failed to sooth her anger. She let no one see the way she crumbled inside. She woke the next day and the day after that and every day until, a year later, she was on the cusp of a landmark case. And then, she quit. She recalled the memory through a haze: walking out of chambers, manic smile on her face, feeling like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. She planned to change her life. She planned to change the world. She planned to be extraordinary.

Now, she didn’t plan so much.

 



Kia Abdullah

 

Kia Abdullah is an author and travel writer. She has contributed to The Guardian, BBC, and Channel 4 News, and most recently The New York Times commenting on a variety of issues affecting the Muslim community. Kia currently travels the world as one half of the travel blog Atlas & Boots, which receives over 200,000 views per month. kiaabdullah.com

 

 

Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori
18th March 2020

Around the World in 80 Trees by Jonathan Drori - look up, look around and appreciate trees so much more!

 

Around the World in 80 Trees

 

In Around the World in 80 Trees expert Jonathan Drori uses plant science to illuminate how trees play a role in every part of human life, from the romantic to the regrettable, stunningly illustrated by Lucille Clerc. To support the new paperback edition of this stunning book, Jonathan has written a blog entry exclusively for Foyles where he lists his nine favourite trees, with beautiful, fascinating supporting reasons, accompanied by some of the glorious illustrations, that will make you want to order this stunning book for sure!

 


 

Nine Favourites

 

The Cedar of Lebanon

A tree that always gives me a little tug of the heartstrings is the fragrant, resinous, rot-resistant cedar of Lebanon. Despite the name, the best place to see them in the wild is southern Turkey but they are common enough in parks and gardens. Most trees from cold climes have downward pointing branches to slough off snow but cedar branches are almost horizontal and need substantial joints. Somehow though, they manage to be improbably graceful. The first time I saw my father cry was when we found our favourite Richmond Park cedar dead, having been struck by lightning. I remember realising that that trees are not necessarily permanent and that my father, whom I had thought to be in benign control of everything, wasn’t.

 

The Baobab of Southern Africa

I love the baobabs of central southern Africa. They are among the blobbiest trees on the planet – so much so, in fact, that they look like they’ve been flung into the earth upside down, their branches far too spindly for their huge girth. Their trunks are like sponges, able to expand as they take up water in the rainy season, which attracts elephant who are known to rip parts of the tree off in order to get a drink. Visiting a huge baobab at night is especially atmospheric. Their flowers bloom then, with the scent of slightly sour milk, which causes huge excitement among bats and bush-babies who come to drink the copious nectar and at the same time, spread the baobab’s pollen far and wide. The local superstition that baobabs are home to ancestral spirits adds an extra frisson.



 

The Areca Palm of India

In India, you’re never far from a paanwallah, the vendor of little envelopes of betel vine leaves containing areca nut, slaked lime (the chemical, not the fruit) and a bespoke mixture of fragrant spices and potions. The  main active ingredient comes from the large seeds within the deep orange fruit of the areca palm, a delightfully tall and slender species whose dark and light horizontal bands make the trunk look like a pile of discs. Paan is used as a social lubricant or chewed as an after-dinner mouth cleanser and turns alarmingly vermillion in the mouth. I remember travelling in Kerala with a friend who made the mistake of asking for a particularly manly paan –its name, the ‘Babu 120 Special’, is unforgettable as, poor chap, he spent the next day with the world revolving rapidly around him.

 

The Beech of England

Have you noticed the silence of a beech forest? The silence. Beech trees are especially good at capturing sunlight, which means there’s not much left to support a rustling understorey and the copious leaf litter absorbs sound as well. Unlike other trees whose bark splits and as the tree grows, beech continuously sheds and replaces tiny particles of bark, so it remains delightfully smooth. The Roman poet Virgil complained about lovers marking their initials on beeches, though he did the same himself – the hypocrite! There’s a German superstition that lightning never strikes a beech tree. In fact, they get struck just as often as any other species but because the electricity can flow easily down the outside of a smooth wet tree, beeches are more likely to survive. I love how superstition and science can be intertwined.
 

The Traveller’s Tree of Madagascar

I’ve been fortunate to have been on botanical expeditions to Madagascar – a naturalist’s paradise because it hived off from the rest of Africa about 90 million years ago, long enough for plants and animals there to have evolved in their own way. The Traveller’s Tree gets its name from its breath-taking and frankly ridiculous fan of leaves, which is reputed to orientate itself so consistently that it can be used as a compass. The tree also offers (supposedly) drinkable water that can be drawn from a straw inserted near the base, though when I tried it, it seemed to be alive with wriggly things. An outgrown relative of the Bird of Paradise flower, (the florist’s friend), the Traveller’s Tree has large, bright turquoise blue seeds which are dispersed by the permanently startled looking ruffed lemur, which can only see in blue and green.

 

The Kauri of New Zealand

Standing by the towering kauris of the north island of New Zealand makes me feel very small indeed. They can grow to 150ft (45m) like ancient columns in the forest, their colossal mottled-grey trunks uninterrupted by branches until they’re way above the ground. Resin from the trees, which occasionally drops off in lumps, accreted for thousands of years until in the late 19th century, entrepreneurs discovered that it was just the thing for making outdoor varnish. In scenes reminiscent of the California gold-rush, the 1890s saw a resin rush, when 10,000 diggers from all over the Empire arrived with metal rods which were driven into the ground and twanged – the timbre indicating whether or not the prospector had struck resin. The New Zealand government were sensible enough to tax the exports and pay for a whole lot of infrastructure. The fallen resin has all been collected now but the trees that remain are utterly magnificent.

 

The Rowan of Scotland

My mother was Scottish, and I always get a little misty eyed about rowan trees. They’re such exuberant survivors of all that extra weather north of the border! Their perky orangey-red berries are magnets for birds, who distribute the seeds far and wide – with a little dollop of fertiliser of course. Trees that grow from seedlings that germinate in the clefts of other trees or in a high crag are known as ‘flying rowans’ and are reputed to possess special powers to protect against witchcraft, a superstition that is reinforced by the five pointed star on the base of every berry.

The Birch of England

As a child, I found the ghostly glow of birch trees reflecting moonlight quite unsettling and I still have a little shiver when I catch a glimpse of their improbably white bark at night. In common with other trees, the birch lives with a fungal partner, whose microscopic filaments plug into the roots and fan out under the forest, hoovering up nutrients that tree roots can’t quite reach. In return, the tree keeps the fungus happy with sugars. Every now and then the fruiting bodies of the fungus poke up above ground – those are the mushrooms and toadstools that we see. The birch’s life partner is the hallucinogenic fly agaric toadstool – familiar from scary fairy tales as the one with a scarlet top and white sprinkles. Birches are clearly to be respected.

 

The Jarrah of Australia

Towards the end of the 19th century, the streets of London were hectic with horse-drawn traffic and in the days before tarmac they needed to be paved. Stone and cobbles caused hooves to skitter, while coniferous wood from the Baltic was deeply unpopular with pedestrians who would get squirted with rain and horse pee, squished from spongy planks as carriages rolled by. Enter, the jarrah, all the way from the other end of the British Empire, southwest Australia. Resinous, non-porous and very dense, jarrah is tough as old boots. By 1897, 20 miles of London’s swankiest streets, including Piccadilly, now home to Foyles’s gorgeous flagship store, were clad in millions of jarrah blocks.
 



Jonathan Drori


Jonathan Drori CBE is a Trustee of The Eden Project, an Ambassador for the WWF and was for nine years Trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and The Woodland Trust. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society and the Zoological Society of London, and a former documentary filmmaker with the BBC.

 

 

 

The Voice in My Ear by Frances Leviston
17th March 2020

Perceptive, elegant and quietly devastating - The Voice in My Ear by Frances Leviston

 

The Voice in My Ear by Frances Leviston

 

The Voice in My Ear is the first work of fiction from award-winning poet Frances Leviston and offers a frighteningly perceptive slice of contemporary womanhood.

Ten women, all called Claire, are tangled up in complex power dynamics with their families, friends, and lovers. Though all are different ages, and leading different lives, each is haunted by the difficulty of living on her own terms, and by her capacity to harm and be harmed. Here you can read an extract taken from the second story in the collection
 



BRODERIE ANGLAISE
 

I was not maid of honour, not even a bridesmaid, but I was dutifully invited, and for this I needed something suitable to wear, something that would signal my grasp of the occasion as well as my transcendence of it; but no matter where I looked – and I spent hours looking – the dress did not exist. No shop possessed it. There is no point explaining now exactly what I had in mind. The details in themselves do not matter, except to say this dress should accommodate my chest without looking matronly or profane; that it should upstage the bridal gown without appearing to do so; and that I was not exactly conscious of these obstinate stipulations, but clicked through the rails of department stores in an agitated dream, like someone brainwashed to accomplish a murder without their consent.
 

My solution, in the end, was to make the dress myself. At university, I had done quite a lot of sewing. Gemma, one of my housemates, owned a little sewing machine she taught me how to use, though she hardly used it herself. I would run up silly costumes for my friends for Halloween, and basic items for me. ‘Run up’ was a phrase of my mother’s, one I tried not to use, not out loud at least, though it was stuck firmly to the walls of my mind, like the Blu Tack I had used in my rented room, the greasy little coins from which cost me my deposit. But since I had come back to my parents’ house the previous summer, the sewing kit had stayed packed away, along with all the items it helped me manufacture. I didn’t want to talk about it; I didn’t want my mother to know.
 

Little by little, then, I decided I would make the dress in secret, and pretend it was vintage: my mother’s side of the family did not approve of second-hand shopping, and Candice was her niece, her younger sister Amanda’s child. My hopeless lunch-break expeditions down the high street became quiet pilgrimages to haberdashery departments, in which I kept my head down, moving quietly among the middle-aged and elderly ladies rattling their knuckles through trays of beads, drawing no more attention than I could help, and asking no questions in case I brought an avalanche of answers down on my head.
 

Many fabrics presented themselves, and I chose as carefully as I could, avoiding jersey, silk and satin because they would be too difficult to work with, and linen because it would crease. Some bolts of beautiful patterned cotton I put back because I would not be able to make their bold edges join in any logical progression at the seams, or so I told myself, though I think I also quailed at the prospect of them drawing Candice’s wedding guests’ eyes towards me in the way they had drawn my own.
 

After a few trips, I had amassed in my bedroom threemetres of broderie anglaise, two kinds of thread, a roll of greaseproof paper, a pattern and a roll of calico for practising with, which, along with the sewing kit I dug out from the bottom of the wardrobe, should have been everything I was going to need. Everything, that is, but the sewing machine.
 

Gemma lived two hundred miles away, and we had not spoken since our final exams. I knew nobody else except my mother who owned a machine. Buying one of my own would have been prohibitively expensive: I was temping as a secretary at the time, work which somehow contrived to pay slightly less than minimum wage, and what I didn’t surrender in room and board to my parents was digging me out of an overdraft the bank kept threatening to dissolve. Even if I could have got my hands on my own machine, they were terribly noisy, which left me the same problems I would face if I chose to use my mother’s: namely, finding a time when I could sew without detection.

 



Frances Leviston

 

Frances Leviston is the author of two collections of poetry: Public Dream, shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection Prize; and Disinformation, shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the BBC Short Story Award. She lives in Durham and is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Manchester.

 

 

Explaining Humans by Dr Camilla Pang
14th March 2020

An extract from Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships by Dr Camilla Pang

 

Explaining Humans by Dr Camilla Pang

 

Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of eight, Camilla Pang struggled to understand the world around her and the way people worked. Desperate for a solution, Camilla asked her mother if there was an instruction manual for humans that she could consult. Without the blueprint to life she was hoping for, Camilla started to create her own, the beginnings of Camilla's remarkable debut, Explaining Humans.

Now armed with a PhD in biochemistry, Camilla dismantles our obscure social customs and identifies what it really means to be human using her unique expertise and a language she knows best: science.

 


 

4. How to feel the fear 

Light, refraction and fear 
 

It’s 2.30 a.m., and my room is filled with thick darkness and ice-cold silence. There is no one here to realize how petrified I am. I want my mum, but she is at our family home, a forty- five-minute drive away. I can’t stop feeling anxious about the colour orange and the texture of biscuits in my head, and the smell of new shampoo on my pillow. I can’t sleep and I want to go home. 

Night-time was always a moment of peak anxiety for me. My ADHD induced insomnia, while my ASD filled the waking hours with obsessive thoughts and fears. I would find myself caught in the middle: scared to sleep and afraid to be awake. I would often need my mum to move her pillow into my room and sleep on my floor, so I would feel safe enough to get through the night. 

These night terrors were just one example of the fears that have followed me through life. There are the obvious anxiety triggers that still affect me today, like sudden loud noises, or large crowds of people. And then there are fears whose origin even I now struggle to understand. I can sip on a carrot-and- orange juice – my weekly treat – and wonder why this colour used to repulse me so much. Orange food, orange clothes, orange plastic seats, all once seemed like toxic or contagious substances to be avoided at all costs. This is part of how ASD works, creating instinctive and repulsive fears that can’t be explained, but must be obeyed. 

Fear is something we all have, and it’s something we need, essential to our survival as a species. Without fear we have no scepticism, no caution, no check and balance on our impulses. But the opposite is also true. When all we can feel is fear, it becomes paralysing, leaving us unable to think clearly or make decisions at all. Your fears might be small ones, about a difficult meeting at work or admitting your feelings to someone. And they might be large: phobias you have always held, worries about major changes in your life, fears about ill health or financial issues. Whatever the case, fear accompanies us all whether we acknowledge it or not, and whatever size the dose. Unless we understand our fears, untangle their root causes and examine those issues rationally, we risk being controlled by the things that make us afraid, rather than taking control of them. Fear can be irrational but more often it’s highly logical and reasonable; and our response to it must be the same.

With Asperger’s, there are moments when all your thoughts and fears rush onto you like a beam of blinding light. You experience everything all at once and have no inherent ability to separate the different emotions, anxieties, impulses and stimuli. Another of my great fears was fire alarms, a terrifying noise that would send my senses running red hot as the noise reverberated through what felt like my entire body. Imagine a feeling of total physical dread. At school, while the other students would neatly form ranks like soldiers, I always had to run as far and fast away from the noise as possible. 

At moments like these, I have to live in darkened rooms, with the blinds closed, noise-cancelling headphones on and quite possibly the safe canopy of my desk to sit under. This was, and is, my survival method. But it’s not a way to live. I needed something that allowed me to get ahead of my fears, as well as to hide away from them. Because I have no in-built, unconscious filter, I knew I had to create my own: one that would allow me to cope with fear and function alongside it. 

And, just as the feeling of fear felt like a blinding light, my study of photonics (photons being the quantum particles that make up light) helped me to realize that they could be broken apart in the same way a beam of light can be refracted, revealing its many different colours and frequencies. Our fears, which are never as singular or overwhelming as they sometimes feel, can be treated in exactly the same way. With the right filter, we can open up, understand and rationalize our fears – seeing them in a new light. So save your #nofilter for Instagram. In real life, we need all the filters we can get. 

 



Dr Camilla Pang

Dr Camilla Pang holds a PhD in Biochemistry from University College London and is a Postdoctoral Scientist specialising in Translational Bioinformatics. At the age of eight, Camilla was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and ADHD at 26-years-old. Her career and studies have been heavily influenced by her diagnosis and she is driven by her passion for understanding humans, our behaviours and how we work.

 

 

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