Tuesday, 1 February 2022


 CW: passing mention of death/ mourning.

The first time you taste it,
it is likely lost in a mélange,
a tangle of strange, bright frissons,
more scent than anything.
The apple flares to life,
more itself than it was alone.

The same is true for the next time.
And the next.
So that the first time someone tells you:
Be careful of the cardamom,
you are surprised, digging through slow-cooked lamb,
and discovering four things you didn’t know you liked.

One of them is her – eager to please,
but no-one is suggesting she’ll replace the unspoken.
You are, all of you, too old for platitudes,
but politeness is a gift you can bring
to this new table on a barrage of charm.
She seems nothing like your mother, and he loves her.

Alongside whole cloves of garlic
you unearth dark, wrinkled, unprepossessing pods,
which have seeped their soapy sharpness
into the sacrificial flesh.
Later you will recognise it in a brief stint,
never written home about, as a chambermaid,
the linen closet fragrant with peaceful secrets.

And even though these days it only graces you
in glass-bound mixes blended by other hands,
you cannot now untaste it,
and it stands coolly apart from
neighbouring clove and cinnamon,
a reminder of love after death,
and the inevitability of new memories.

This last sample piece I’m going to post from Spectral is from the section on Joy, and, like a surprising number of the pieces is centred around food… and not, obviously. Like many of the joyful pieces, there’s a great deal of focus on being embedded in a body that enjoys a range of sensations. In interesting contrast, now I come to think of it, of the pieces that outline a body that creaks with pain and fatigue and difficulty. I’m very glad of this observation, for a number of reasons (not least being that, at the time of writing, I’m battling my body’s tendency to just be a texture of pain against, and moving through, a world that is unmoved by that static scrawl of “please, no”).

(My study smells quite compellingly of cardamom, for a start!)

This piece, while hesitant and shy, is still very warm, and I hope the smile it brings me can be echoed in you too, no matter how good or bad a day you’re having today.

Colour digital drawing depicting a broad, shallow bowl with the rim stretching out into flat handles on either side. The outside is dark blue, with the occasional lighter blue mottleing, aspecially around the rim and on the tops of the handles. There is a dark brown pattern which dips and wavers inside the upper rim of the bowl, which is a much paler blue than the outside and appears to be very shiny, based on the light reflecting from the glaze. There is an unglazed trim around the top, including the handles, and around the base. Reddish-brown glaze streaks over it in places. Inside the bottom of the bowl is nestled a pile of pale green cardamom pods.

This piece was very nearly something different, which is probably why it came last, but I was determined to draw at least one illustration for a piece in every section. Having already drawn four for Nature/ The Sea, and two for Whimsy, Joy looked like it was going to be left behind, but I finally decided what kind of pottery I was going to draw, and here it is. This is a quaich, and it comes from the Uig Pottery on the Isle of Skye. It is surprisingly small, and fits in the palm of my hand – a really pleasing weight and texture.

I probably wouldn’t know much about quaichs if it wasn’t for a somewhat impulsive trip back to Skye in 2005, this time to Uig, the port that opens up to the Islands via a number of ferries. I got to do a lot of walking, meet some really interesting people (including one of the potters), and experience exactly what it’s like to be able to hear nothing for literally miles around as you sit on a hillside, except for sheep, a dog down in the bay, and the ever-present gulls. I deliberately went up on the anniversary of my mother’s death, starting the ongoing tradition of Being Busy Around That Time (which often, with the timing of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, involves travelling to Scotland and/ or performing on stages. I think she’d have approved…).

I have a friend to whom we never got to say goodbye properly, due to, well [gestures vaguely around] All These Interesting Times. I think I’d like to drink a dram to her health (she loved a good whisky) from this cup sometime, hopefully down by the sea, in the company of good friends who loved her.

Once I’ve cleared the pods out, of course. That might be too experimental, even for her.

Hope you’ve enjoyed these glimpses at the book and the journey of creating the illustrations for it. There are a few more things lined up for you to become privy to but, for now, I’m going to have a couple of days off before I get stuck into making the audiobook…

Monday, 31 January 2022

Ghost Tour

‘Will you cover for me?’ I’m helpless, delving into a set of well-worn expressions, shunning the stutter he beckons, projecting: Yeah, I reckon. ‘Listen,’ he says, ‘I owe you one.’ At this point, more like twenty, a reckoning that’s chasing propriety into an early grave. A new voice: ‘Step lively,’ says Greg, head a conspiracy tilt past the fire hatch and we scurry, him stubbing, me shrugging, Greg’s gaze a spinning speculation I nudge from him. ‘Madame’s on the march,’ he confides. I sigh. ‘No closer to the prize?’ My turn to roll my eyes, grab regulation headgear, unprop the door while trawling for witticisms. Zilch. There’s always next time. ‘Sure, love. Sure.’ We watch as the other darts ahead.    

Tiptoeing upstage,
we are mismatched murderers
longing for a break.

More Whimsy for Spectral, in the form of a haibun (or as haibunnish as English can get and not strictly speaking autobiographical either), written originally for NaPoWriMo 2019.

Digital colour drawing of an old-fashioned hatstand - tall and thin, dark brown with brass accents and hooks - draped over one side red velvet cloth, with a red top hat hung from presumably a hook on the other. With the cloth puddling around the base and one foot peeking out, one leg bare, there's an almost vaudeville vibe going on...

This is, essentially, a scene from my own house – the red hat that has accompanied me to many festivals, generally as a compere at various events at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, or at my own stage (Wild Strawberries) at Cambridge’s Strawberry Fair, and the hatstand... Hah.

I’ve always wanted a proper hatstand. I have... a lot of hats (literal as well as figurative), and there was never space or opportunity... until I went for a late-night walk while talking to friends on discord and almost literally stumbled across this fellow, abandoned on the pavement next to a large mirror spiderwebbed with a myriad of cracks. Bearing in mind that it was possibly cursed, I still felt that a midnight, frost-rimed gift of a piece of furniture I’d always craved, and such a handsome example, was not something to turn down.

Hard to say the figure I must have cut, and this is a solid chunk of wood and metal to hoick down the street over one’s shoulder, but there we have it – cursed or not, it’s currently draped in a red velvety throw and adorned with my hat, sitting quietly behind the door of my living room, and I hope it’s as happy to be here as I am to have it.

Thursday, 27 January 2022


We are in the business of
continental drifts,
but, not content to watch,
we plot the opposite
of avalanche,
planting pebbles to stem

We start with the unthinkable:
remodelling the seat of self;
a deft flick of the wrist,
and a spoonful of matter
steeped in patience,
serving up an armful of new years.

We bury rhizomes
to glow deep in
scorched earth,
birthing coruscant blossoms
green as holidays,
staining steady hands, and
newly nimble fingers.

Time ticks over glass arrays.
Dazed with vistas,
we dream the next step,
next and next,
stack stones to bridge the darkness,
sparks trembling to coalesce.

And root and branch
dance, incandescent,
reach, clutch,
breach the impossible to hold hands,
bold and ready
for a coming dawn.

This poem was written to answer a commission from Pint of Science – produce a poem to match the research work of Professor Roger Barker and his team, studying the effects of, and creating novel therapies for, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. He talks about his work with great passion and eloquence, summoning up for me images of branching matter and that excursion along dendrites taking me to the Norse myth of the World Tree – Yggdrasil, which spans all the realms, sheltering and connecting the lifespark of sentient beings in its generous boughs. Its roots and branches reach everywhere, and are under constant attack (in fact, the more research I did into Yggdrasil, the more fitting it was for this topic). It being one of which I’m particularly proud, this piece finds its home in the Philosophy & Mysticism section of Spectral.

The eagle-eyed (let’s assume this pun is intended!) among you will spot a certain similarity to the tree used in the previous illustration for the empty swing of Imparted. That is because… it is. And boy, did this whole excursion cause me some fun issues…!

Honestly? I’m not convinced this picture is finished (having already gone through so many iterations). And not just because I didn’t manage to cram everything connected with the myth into this picture, either. However, we have a tree. And to the left: Muspelheim, home of Surtr and the fire demons who will consume the earth at Ragnarök (image inspired by Icelandic volcanoes). And to the right: Jötunheimr, home of the Jötnar and their many and varied kin, who will also do their best to consume the earth at Ragnarok (image inspired by Norwegian vistas). Below, Hel, the cold banqueting place of the quiet dead, presided over by Hel. The waters of fate and wisdom bubble up and run toward the viewer from where the fire and ice meet, its guardians not currently visible…

Ratatoskr, inveterate gossip, perches in the branches, along with the deer whose names I've forgotten, and Níðhöggr, looking like an adder who’s had green paint spilled on him, gnaws one of the roots as they nibble the leaves. Hugin and Muninn, ravens of thought and memory, appear, bringing news; the unnamed eagle perches at the top, overseeing it all, beneath the neon lights of the aurorae and the long-gone lights of stars.

And my hand is cramped to Hel and back, mostly thanks to the foliage, but I think this piece is as done as it’s going to get. Is it overinvolved? Possibly. Did I have enormous fun researching volcanoes and glacial ranges, and impress myself with how quickly I can depict such things these days? Definitely. Do I wish I’d started this one a lot longer ago? You betcha.

Monday, 24 January 2022


(CW: Childlessness and mourning.)

There’s a hole in her heart,
or maybe just her torso;
a phantom organ that
squeezes and kicks,
dances in frustration in the
soft places between.
She apologises, sometimes,
knowing it will never see the light.

She hopes it’ll shrink,
as time and hope slope by;
she knows it can’t be filled with
other things, and busy-ness,
but maybe they can
crowd it down,
wear at its hard edges,
muffle it somewhat.

It wriggles, digs in sharp fingertips.
It has a trigger for every season –
presents unbought, traditions unshared,
snowballs unthrown, slopes unsledded.
There is blossom not to fondle, soft and sweet and small,
birdsong unidentified, wingflight not pointed.
There are beaches not to run on,
shells not to clatter in sandy, seaweed pockets.
There are conkers uncollected, fireworks uncooed,
sharp scents of brown leaf missed, and bonfires unlit.

She knows she could only be
even more tired, even more broke.
She knows photos and friends and
values and poems and families-of-choice
can be legacy, can write her love
into eternity.

She also knows that knowing
does not soothe the kick and squirm,
can’t sing it the lullaby she’ll never write,
won’t rock it, rocks herself instead,
bitter and sweet and utterly alone.
Just for a moment. A long, long moment.
While near, small voices pipe and skirl, contented,
through the first warm sunset of the year.

This poem was written in April 2019 for NaPoWriMo and, pronouns aside, is still true for me today. I don’t mind admitting that and, I strongly suspect, I’m not the only person feeling such things right now. Spectral has a fair number of pieces that deal with my… interesting relationship with my body and its vagaries, and with romantic relationships and theirs. Without going into too much detail, this piece is where those things have collided and left me stranded somewhat. High and dry, if you like.

Such a cliché, at times, me…

Anyway, difficult-and-necessary as that turned out to be to write for myself, it earned a place in the collection and inspired an illustration that turned out harder to accomplish than anticipated.

Cropped digital colour drawing of a large, slightly twisted tree with smooth, silver-grey bark and sparse, green leaves. A greening, unused plank swing dangles from a larger branch. Below is a green-and-brown mound of grass.

Inspired by “big tree with swing on green field, Chiang Mai, Thailand” by Auttapon Moonsawad, it took on a life of its own which you’ll see in the next post, and left me with a cramped hand and a sense of bemusement, but at least I have not one but two illustrations out of the thought. I had to do a fair amount of adaptation of the original inspiration, which involved such rabbitholes as learning about the entire resort of treehouses in Chiang Mai and the coffee house in the giant tree, none of which showed me what the top of such a tree looked like, so… improvisation…

Which you’ll see on Thursday. I’m getting ahead of myself again. As you can see from the concept scribble, I had a whole notion of having ivy twining around the rope. Ivy was going to feature prominently in a variety of the illustrations (twined around the kingfisher’s branch, draped around the standing stone, etc.), but I abandoned the concept in favour of, you know, actually finishing stuff.

Photograph of black ink pen notes and doodles in a lined notebook. The title says "EMPTY SWING" with a couple of very basic outlines of plank swings suspended from branches. The second is at a three-quarters angle as though from above and is twined about with ivy. The note above says "At an angle? ivy twining" and next to the ivy part says "etc."

Only a couple more to go, and this book is now feeling terribly real, somehow…

Thursday, 20 January 2022


For once I’m not going to start with the poem this artwork is related to – in fact, I might not even include it at all in this post. We’ll find out by the end of the article, I guess…

You see, for one thing: it’s long. It takes up a whopping six pages in the current draft of Spectral, seven with the illustration. It’s the second longest piece in the book and will take up quite the chunk of time in the audiobook.

For another thing: it’s intense. And really, trust me – you don’t want to start your day reading that.

So I guess I’ll talk around it a little more while I decide. ACTH was written in November 2018. I couldn’t tell you what prompted me to write it – maybe I’d been waiting to write it for a while. It’s basically a (slightly) edited stream-of-consciousness about the process of not only having a panic attack or meltdown, but also how everything gets so much worse when someone is trying to get you to analyse and describe (and explain) your own feelings. Feelings which are huge and frankly monstrous, and out of your control but also very much a part of you.

If you’d like to back away from this post right now, no blame to you, fair play. At some point I’m going to have to turn it into a recording, and that’s going to be an interesting experience (I’ve only performed it three times or so, and each time I’m flushed and out of breath afterward).

This is not a comfortable or comforting poem (unless it helps you achieve a kind of catharsis, or merely makes you feel less alone, in which case I’m very glad for you), and it’s deliberately messy and difficult, as I take the stammer which deepens, when trapped in one of these spirals, into an ice-hot knot, an impossibly large glottal stop, and transcribe it over six pages of halting lines, some of which don’t even have letters in them, let alone words.

I wrote this poem in an Allographic Write-In, back when they took place in 3D space and hugs were a possibility. And it’s named as it is because I did my physiology and psychology degree back in the last century when we called serotonin 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), and we learned about stress responses and the particular pathway governed by adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH, which I always get mixed up with acetylcholine, ironically enough. (Or maybe that was when I was teaching it to A Level students in 2003 and I had them act out the stress pathway by embodying different body parts passing notes to each other to stimulate other notes to be passed on to the next fidgeting organ… hard to say…) And titles are my least favourite part of the creative process, so a working title generally sticks around because it’s better than nothing. So behold: I Googled the hormones and neurotransmitters involved in a panic attack and discovered that there are a lot, including serotonin and dopamine (which surprise is part of the rationale for placing this piece at the end of the Anger section, which then leads into Joy), and we had a permanent working title.

Anyway, the thing about scribbling in a small notebook in a hurry when you have handwriting like mine is that all sorts of misapprehensions can occur, which led to this part:

… because I’m –carrying tigers
–t-ti– tight-wound into s-tubborn synapses;
I ssee them in the shape of certain smiles,
hear their growls in heavy footsteps, slammed doors,
all the other exhortations of a –twitching,
un– ttrustworthy world.

I couldn’t tell you now which word I misread as tigers, but I liked it, so on went the stanza into that extended metaphor.

When I was choosing illustrations for the book, I knew really early on that I wanted a tiger. Moreover, I wanted one moving through undergrowth, menacing the viewer.

Google image search brought something much more electrifying than my original, almost languid sketch (see end of post), but frustratingly, gave no clue as to the original photographer. Reddit, of all places, bounced me to the possible source, so, unless anyone knows any different, that’s who I’ll credit.

"Digital colour sketch of a tiger's face surrounded by abstract foliage. The tiger is snarling, mouth wide open, every tooth exposed, pupils pinprick-small. One ear is visible, and a hint of the other. Its eyes are a muddied shade of light green. The foliage that surrounds it are many shades of green and brown - blurred and scribbled, somewhat impressionistic, the leaves and stalks overlap the tiger's face, obscuring some parts and framing others. There is the tiniest hint of its massive body beyond. "
Source: Probably wildlife photographer Michael Nichols. One of the things that intrigues me is that I can’t tell whether this creature is exhibiting fear or rage. And that’s why it’s illustrating this poem…

There are fourteen visible layers to this piece (I may have overthought somewhat), plus another three for guidance, where I sketched the outline, and some of the important placements, like the stripes which seemed more significant to me at the time (and the more visible ear, which I apparently put in way too low, somehow). The learning curve for producing these has been steep, and this particular piece nearly saw me throwing the towel in; I’m really glad I persevered, even though it’s not quite as gloriously saturated as the Tyger of the glossy, childhood book I can still see, feel, and smell, with very little provocation. It’s possible that the publisher won’t be able to make much of the greyscale version of this; I’m looking forward to that discussion!

(And no, I didn’t know when choosing illustration concepts that 2022 was the Year of the Tiger… but I do now!)

Looks like I’m not giving you the whole poem this time after all. Instead, here is the concept sketch, complete with scribbly notes, and the initial outline of the final piece. Next time we’ll either be delving Philosophy & Mysticism, or Melancholy. Depends what I manage to do… Thanks for reading!

On lined paper in a spiral-bound notebook is a slightly cartoonish black ink pen sketch of a tiger prowling through vertical lines that are probably grasses. One paw is in front of the other and we can see as far as the start of its near hind leg. Its ears are pricked forward and is staring intently at something. Handwritten above the sketch are the words: "Prowling. Seen through fronds?" and at the side are further notes saying "They tend to be lying down when there's grass to peer through..." then "not always, though" and then the phrase "kind of thing" lower down. The pad is clearly on a very messy desk!
digital sketchy outline (incomplete) of a tiger's face - the tiger is snarling, mouth wide open, every tooth exposed, pupils pinprick-small.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Meet Me In Marigolds

The Post-it note has a smiley face,
and it’s a race between emotions –
notionally: pleasure, beckoned by
the sight of your handwriting,
the way you fail to dot your every i.
‘There’s nothing else it could be!’
My smile stretches, sly and sweet.

Next: anticipation, a wave of adrenaline
spiking through the morning fugue
with images of rising to the challenge,
followed swiftly by the warm reward.

And then: contention bells in my head,
dread lurching to the fore;
for all the sweetness of imagination
there’s more, broadening the view of
victory to see us… where?

Are we in a field of fleshy flowers,
a barely-veiled metaphor dotting us
with pollen?
You’re neither hardy nor hearty,
usually eschewing outdoor pursuits,
pressing your suit in more… suitable locations…

Okay. Maybe we meet wreathed in blossoms,
top-heavy under some local post,
in-joke harking back to spy movies
and classified ads and brown-paper-wrapped
bad little habits in seaside retreats…?
But still not there yet.
Betting on landmarks seems foolhardy
in a city thronging with history.

This is a brutal test of my affections.

Next I consider: who am I missing?
Is this the name of one of your many associates?
Am I to approach a list of barely-retained
strangers to say: ‘Hey, is my… um… there today?’
stumbling and mumbling over names and titles,
bright with embarrassment and everything
we’ve never said?
You’re off your head, babe.
Hey, maybe we should call it a day?
This pressure’s getting heavy…

And then it hits me and I
dip my head, grin, slip to the sink,
rummage in its undercarriage and
come up golden.


This is going to be one dirty weekend.

Back in late 2010, a poet named Tim Clare upped the ante on his annual poem-writing challenge, and set the stage to write 101 poems in a day. He asked for suggestions, and I ventured the title of this piece. He did it proud! I’m now the kind of person who runs poetry workshops, it turns out, and, when I’m faced with people who’ve done my standard prompt for a poem (“Lemons”, if you’re interested), I tell them: “Pick a book off the shelf and open it at a random page. That, or you could try ‘Meet Me in Marigolds’.” Very few have taken me up on that, sadly. By the time it got to late NaPoWriMo 2017, starting to run out of notions, I thought it was time I put my stanzas where my stylus is. Or something. Anyway, this is what happens when I’m being fussy about other people’s prompts - random story poems. It will be making an appearance in the Whimsy section of Spectral later this year.

A digital drawing of a pair of creased, long gloves which are coloured a bright yellow, lying on a rumpled, white surface, crossed at the wrists; there are some strong shadows under the gloves; the light is clearly streaming from the right, and there is a small, grey strip at the bottom of the picture, indicating that the gloves are overlapping the edge of the white, rumpled surface.

“Well, it won’t take long to draw this!” I thought. Feeling this especially true after I blasted so fast (for me) through drawing the kingfisher for Monarch. Oh well! It took me a long time to be happy with this one, and I think it’s pretty good now. Always difficult to tell, writing these so shortly after finishing drawing, when I’m still in the stage where I think it’s very flawed in every way. But the creases look better than anticipated in places, and I’ve decided that It Will Do.

Thursday, 13 January 2022


There it is!
The branch startle,
the ice-pick dart,
the plunge and struggle.

The sunset breast,
the test against gravity,

There! Oh, there!
Water spray light-caught,
fraught on a sleek line,
defining history.

You missed it.

This piece was written in January 2017, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why. It’s been used by me as a quick piece for the Allographic open mic “Chaos Round” (where, for an unspecified amount of time an unspecified number of poets dash to the stage – physical or virtual – and give us tiny poems, fragments of pieces, mysterious fillips, then retreat) a few times, and, as they say, I just think it’s neat. As a child I did a lot of birdwatching, even had my own binoculars, and I’m still that person who’ll stop on a walk or stare out of a car window at interesting avifauna (sometimes to the consternation of the people in the passenger seats, it has to be said…). I have, however, never seen a kingfisher in person.

Mildly impressionistic digital drawing of a British kingfisher sitting on a branch against a fuzzy green background. The kingfisher squats on the pale, slightly knobbly, upward-curving branch, body in three-quarters profile, its back turned slightly toward us. Its head is turned to present a perfect profile, facing toward our left. Its dominant colour is a shade of teal - on its back, head, cheek, and tail, which is small and pointed. There are paler spots and highlights of aquamarine scattered throughout and curving along its back, and its head has an almost regimented variegation. The other main colour is orange - on its breast, belly, temple, and a little just in front of its glossy, black eye. There are white accents on the back of its neck, throat, and top of its long, straight, shiny, dark beak. One little taloned foot is visible peeking out from beneath the belly fuzz and curving around the knob of the branch on which the bird is perching.
A common kingfisher, drawn from a picture by John Bridges

This was a lot of fun to draw, but took me significantly longer to get around to starting than I’d have liked, probably because it seemed so very daunting a prospect to do justice to. However, once I’d got going, it took me significantly less time than anticipated to draw. I’m clearly learning… However, the source photo cropped the tail, so I’m very much hoping I did it justice!

Look out for this and its Lesser Spotted friends in Spectral later this year!