Thursday, July 26, 2007

An Orcadian Break

I'm heading off on holiday for a couple of weeks - but have no fear! Suffer & Survive comes in a handy 18 chapters, enough to give you a fulsome daily dose of a grand story till this blog returns full steam.
We're heading up to the Orkney Islands, one week in a caravan on Burray and another in a newly converted barn overlooking the sea on South Ronaldsay.
This is pure holiday - walking, discovering the island, gazing out, reading. Years ago I watched Harlan Ellison give a talk to scifi-fans at a Glaswegian scifi convention. In wonderfully acerbic fashion he berated anyone there who had not yet read George Mackay Brown, a writing master in their own land. Mackay Brown's novel Beside the Ocean of Time is coming with me, along with Maggie Ferguson's new biography of the man, which I'm told she rewrote at an editor's suggestion so it became simultaneously a book about the Orkneys. Other readng matter sifting its way towards my suitcase: A. L. Kennedy's So I am Glad; John Banville's The Sea; Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army; William Gibson's Count Zero; A. M. Homes' Jack; David Austin's A Clear Calling; and the selected poems of Fernando Pessoa. Some of those are new writers for me - holidays are a good chance to stretch my reading wings.
Hopefully I'll see some of you on my way back down from the Orkneys. I emerge for my gig at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 14th (10.30am), and I understand other Scottish events are being set up for me that week. I'll aim to find an internet cafe in Kirkwall and post any updates should they come in.
Those copies of Suffer & Survive in the picture are stacked up on a table in our own front room - hopefully to be replicated on a book store table near you some time soon! Or place orders in your library (no overseas editions as yet). It does make great holiday reading. Enjoy your own break if and when it comes.
Off we go - looking forward to the Minke whales as they slide past our conservatory window.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

I Ching Divinations with Colleen Kelley

Sitting at our home in Santa Fe in May, I had a big decision on my hands. Was this the time to up root, shake off that wondrous New Mexican earth, sell the place and move on?

That home and its land have been elemental in our lives – part of its story appears in my book On Sacred Mountains. A very dear friend in Santa Fe, Colleen Kelley, offered guidance around the decision. She offers I Ching divinations based on Stephen Karcher’s readings of that ancient Taoist text.

For an oracle, the reading was remarkably unambiguous. Here’s an opening line: ‘The Way of dwelling comes to an end. Turn away.’

For me, taking care of those 11.4 acres of land became my spiritual practice in what was a very challenging time – it was a deal, I cared for the land and it cared for me. The I Ching expressed this, opposing ‘the safety of the hearth against the dangers of wilderness, and the spirit world outside the boundaries’. Leaving that home, it advised, opened up the possibilities of ‘founding a noble house’ and becoming ‘a member of a noble family’. (My own take on this, inevitably, takes that in a literary context.)

So leaving that home was risky but inevitable, the process already underway. I enjoyed the language of Colleen’s divination. Leaving my refuge of companionable spirits I would meet with ‘the Hidden Lord of the Crooked Path’, a spirit energy that empowers one’s doing things outside the norm.

A fable came into the story, an ancient tale, which I have as yet to fully place in my own life though its purport is clear. A young man, whose father died, was sent to the mourning hut for three years. Omens appeared in the sky telling him it was time to renew. He ‘broke out of the prescribed grieving and set out to overthrow the tyrant and renew time’.

A fresh hexagram brought meaty language, like ‘biting through obstacles’ and ‘eating ancient virtues’. It was grand to have Colleen there to steer me through to understanding each time.

Just coming up with your I Ching question is a strong first step in the process. The divination process started from Colleen’s conjuring my question into fresh language. How does it then work.? Colleen writes: 'One approaches this "portable altar" with a question. It is in the process of inquiry and submitting the question to the 'Yi' that the "larger knowing" reveals itself in the ackonlwedgement of invisible forces operating along with invisible ones.' She calls what then follows 'an intimate conversation.'I took notes throughout, and found true encouragement in the fact that, while its message was unequivocal, the reading went far beyond any ‘yes / no’ decision. It homed in on the elemental nature of the question, and the mythic nature of its response took full account of the fact that life is a journey. Yes, it said, it’s time to up sticks and move on. But then it bothered to explain all the ways that this, scary though it is, is an advance and not a retreat.

Look down through my May 2007 entries and you can see why selling the land was such a big issue. It is a wondrous place to be. On my first morning back home in Santa Fe, my current ongoing novel kicked in. The place is extravagantly supportive of creativity. My stay was a time of loving and detaching. Set on an earthen street that we named, Madre de Dios, it’s now on the market.

I have my own copy of the I Ching, and have thrown my own hexagrams in my time. Colleen Kelley guided me into whole new depths of the experience. She is a fabulous artist, and also highly intuitive, her work based on a whole raft of traditional spiritual trainings and a long history of profound practice. She has trained and studied this system of delivering the I Ching with Stephen Karcher. Though we were sharing the same city, our consultation took place by telephone. Should you have a big question revolving around your life just now, I know of no finer way and less intrusive way of resolving it. Colleen Kelley’s professional work comes with my full-hearted recommendation. For details of costs and how to proceed, you can contact her by email on

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Notting Hill

I had dinner with Sarah Anderson last night, whose Inside Notting Hill is stacked up as a bestseller alongside the latest Harry Potter in the Notting Hill Waterstone's (Sarah and co-author will be presenting the book there on thursday night, for anyone in the neighbourhood).
Sarah has her own part on this book's story. She set up Notting Hill's Travel Bookshop. Pass it by any time of day and you are likely to step around a small group of people (often Japanese) posing outside its window - Julia Roberts was a regular in this book shop when it was used for filming Notting Hill.
This new guidebook comes six years after its first edition. Its a spirited mix of user info on the likes of the restaurants, shops and markets, but also takes in the place's historical and spiritual dimensions. Some snazzy little essays too, fine writers recalling memories of the place and its people.
The book comes out from Sarah's own imprint, Umbrella Books. Sarah is a lively advocate of self-publishing, and indeed this book is the perfect exemplar of a book served best in such a way. It's a book that spins out of a local community, and while its sales reach is quite substantial with all the tourists that make it to the area each year, its primary market is a local one. Sarah's even managed to strike a blow for 'green' book distribution - instead of sending the books off to Eastbourne so the distributor can ship them back to the local store, she has won an agreement that means she can jut carry supplies round herself when needed.
Sara brought in Georgia Vaux to do the design - a professional step that's a wise one for any self-publisher. So often books scream 'self-published' just from a host of mistakes scrabbled onto its design. This pone, in an unusual dominant yellow, is punchy and attractive from the get-go. It also avoids one of the commonest pitfalls of self-publishing - the margins so narrow that the text disappears when you open a page. For more of such tips, for those who are around, check out a talk on self-publishing Sarah is due to give to the Society of Authors in London in October.

Monday, July 23, 2007

J. S. Haldane, books, and Simon & Schuster

Aged 76, in the last months of his life, John Scott Haldane conducted heat experiments at oil refineries in what are now Iran and Iraq. He paused in Istanbul on his return to mail off his findings by letter to his physiological colleagues, all part of a strenuous travel itinerary. A family album shows him turning up across various sites all over Greece, Germany and central Europe as well as the Middle East. On disembarking back in England he attended experiments with exploding cars in Liverpool's Mersey Tunnel, giving his recommendations on its ventilation.
It's endearing that this photograph, taken on the Acropolis in Athens, shows him still reading. His correspondence with his daughter, the novelist Naomi Mitchison, sees him discussing the latest novels, yet almost certainly this book was one of philosophy. Beyond all other things he was a philosopher. His life and its manifold achievements were focused on providing practical examples of how nothing could be seen outside of its interaction with its environment, a vision of a self-regulating universe that ultimately held God as a binding logic. Haldane never travelled without some book of philosophy on the go.
Which is a roundabout way of expressing my satisfaction that his life is now bound into such a handsome volume, which I hoe expresses some of the philosophy exemplified by his own well-rounded life. I'm pleased with my telling of his story in Suffer & Survive, but that's just my personal satisfaction for the sense of a job well done and enjoyed. Others can judge it in the market place. What pleases me is the very look of the book. When I first mentioned to one of Haldane's grandchildren that Simon & Schuster were the publisher he laughed, presuming they would turn take the shock-horror elements of the life story and be somewhat brash with them. Haldane's is such a gruelling story of self-experimentation that the story could have been sensationalized, but S&S have been sensitive to the story throughout - and were bold in seeing the worth of the story from the very beginning.
Some time ago they trimmed the number of new titles on their list in order to be able to give those they published their fullest support, and it seems to be working well. I was pleased with Macmillan's publishing of my first novel On Bended Knees back in 1992, but since Picador dropped the ball on the paperback of that book the following year I've had a justifiably jaundiced eye about the whole publication process. I've felt the need to throw the jobs of publicist, advocate, sales rep, editor etc into the bag on top of being the author, never quite trusting things to be right. With two weeks to go to publication, I've finally relaxed. I'll give the book whatever support I can, but with Simon & Schuster, I do feel the book, and Haldane's life, is in good and caring hands.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kathleen Jamie and 'Noticing'

While writing my own books, I look for reading matter that is either companionable or instructive. For novels I generally pull a Patricia Highsmith down from the shelf, since the tautness of her prose is a great model. This time around it was A Dog’s Ransom. I’ve not quite unlocked the secret of her style. It’s something to do with brisk sentences, a neat range of detail, all characters somewhat sympathetic and mundane, some ribbon of evil twisting their lives into its threat.

I’m enjoying a sequence of book’s about man’s relationship with the natural world too. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Last Man Standing was a recent one (though the intrusion of the author into the story annoyed me this time around). I’ve enjoyed being taught the quality of noticing as well – from the books of the survival and tracker specialist Tom Brown; from Bear Heart, whose The Wind is my Mother advocates simply sitting still outdoors and turning your head slowly from one side to the other, through hours, noticing very little shift in the surroundings; and currently Kathleen Jamie’s Findings.

Jamie is a poet, which is clear in the beauty and clarity of her descriptions as she surveys different aspects of her native Scotland. She expressed impatience with her impatience, wanting to learn from observation rather than always looking for facts in her encyclopaedias. One particular charm is how her life as a mother permeates the book.

One of my favourite teaching tricks for writing is showing how description works best: we learn through the perspective of a character, so from what we see we learn about who is seeing, (even they have chosen to notice informs us about them). From Jamie I love the fusion of her outdoor experiences and domestic life. Here’s a vivid case in point: ‘Sometimes as I walked, I’d flush a flock of feeding shore birds, dunlin or turnstones. I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.’

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Haldane in Edinburgh

Sitting in this little house in the French Pyrenees yesterday, I chatted by phone to an Edinburgh journalist. The result is out today as a feature article in the Edinburgh Evening News.

Writers in France

We were invited for aperitifs in the house above ours yesterday evening. It reminds me of Jonathan Miller’s notion of a perfect holiday – to stay in the house across the street, and watch the comings and goings in your own home from a different perspective.

The neighbour is a doctor from Avignon, his wife annoying her children by speaking English to them all the time. I managed the tale of my Haldane biography in French, but the women admitted to be being much more interested in my novels. Douglas Kennedy, an American writer living in London but with an apartment in Paris, is their favourite current novelist. It was interesting to hear how writers affected the results of the recent presidential election here. In coming out in favour of Sarkozy, they rendered him mush less apparently rightwing in the people’s eyes. We remarked how little impact writers have, in both Britain and America, in comparison.

This morning’s walk was around the 3rd century Roman aqueduct in nearby Ansignan. I’ve enjoyed walking and imaging my way into the scene in recent years, as it was to play a central part in a novel I was planning. Of late though I have decided to let that novel evaporate without writing it – there really wasn’t enough interest from publishers, and it was not one of those I needed to write. It may emerge, in a different form, in years to come.

So life is lighter for not writing a book, and a walk becomes just a walk.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

E. B. White on writing tactics and his environment

Though this is a Sunday, I was set to put in a writing stint on my ongoing novel. I took a long bath, for that’s where new ideas often emerge and settle. We took an early walk into the hills with the village dog. I am now set to sit down and continue.

Yet I’ve done nothing of the sort. Hey, this is a sunny Sunday in the south of France. Why the rush? Keep mulling. This fallow time is a wonderful part of writing.

I picked up Writers at Work 8 from the bookshelf this morning, a collection of interviews with writers from the Paris Review. Their reviews are so deftly edited it seems writers can do nothing when they speak but elucidate wisdom in a flow of beautiful and considered language. I read the interview with E B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little among others. (Curiously the book’s preface somewhat diminishes him as an ‘essayist’ rather than a ‘creative writer’, as though writing for children were beneath notice.)

He is fine o this fallow nature of a writer’s industry. ‘Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time. He waits for a surge (of emotion? Of strength? Of courage?) that will carry him along… I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.’

This concern for his environment took effect at a deeper level—curiously prescient for an author born in 1899 (he died in 1985). ‘Deeply impressed’ by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, he felt ‘it may well be the book by which the human race will stand or fall’. On a writer’s duty, he claimed: ‘One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the faeces out of Lake Erie.’

As my novel for young adults considers a boy’s deep accord with the forces of nature, E. B. White turned out to be an apt and companionable find for a fallow day.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Marriage in time of war

I’ve been struck of late how different marriage is in times of war.

Shimmer Chinodya’s war in Harvest of Thorns is the Chimurenga, the rebellion that formed modern Zimbabwe. Benjamin returns from the battlelines with a bride in tow, one he found among the ruin of her village and the killing of her family.

Walter Baxter wrote of the Second World War. I wrote some months ago about his powerful Look Down In Mercy. I recently read his other novel, The Image and the Search. More on both Baxter and Chinodya later perhaps. My point here is how characters’ marriages were affected by the intensity of war. One even gets married, having learned that single men are despatched on the most hazardous air runs.

And while doing some extra research on J. S. Haldane in the National Library of Scotland the other day, I came across this letter, written by Jack (JBS) Haldane to his mother, regarding the marriage of his young sister Naomi to Dick Mitchison (and so becoming Naomi Mitchison, the name under which she found fame as a writer). Naomi believed her brother had been her mother’s sacrifice to her imperial beliefs … though in truth, I doubt you could have kept Jack back. No more could you have kept Naomi back from her own war duty, marrying a dashing cavalry officer. She first took the train out to claim him as her own when she was sixteen.

‘Events move quickly, don’t they,’ Jack wrote to his mother in February 1916 (MS20655, f.89). ‘I knew Dick was in love, but I didn’t know how fond Nou was of him. However it is an excellent thing, for if she is in love with him & he gets killed she will be much better as a widow than otherwise, & in her case there is quite a lot to be said for early marriage anyway. Still, I can’t pretend I expected it. I think they ought to get on very well, for she, as well as the war, should pull him together. Nou seems thoroughly pleased with herself, and so would I be in her place.’

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ugo de Pezilla de Conflent

All is right in this corner of the world – I’m linked up with Ugo again, the village dog. He was trundling out of the village on his own walk which merged with mine. Leg cocked against the wall (Ugo not me), it was fun to see astonishment cross his face as he realized it was me. Then the barks and the jumping up and down, and off we trotted.

Today’s was a figure of eight loop – down to the river then up into the hills, disturbing the other dogs who are largely penned in these parts. It’s grand to be here in July, while the roadside flowers are abloom and the Pyrenean pesticide squad have not sent out there trucks to blast the poor things.

I’m managing the two hours a day of writing, to keep up the notion that this is no holiday, oh no, it’s a serious writing retreat. It does seem that way in fact – when walking or sitting or cleaning or gardening, sprigs of the next stage of the book show forth. My reading all spirals around the ongoing novel too – currently I’m having a swell time with Bear Heart’s The Wind is my Mother.

Dogs will make an appearance in later chapters. Whether Ugo’s traits make it into the book is yet to be seen. How do you describe the look of astonishment on a dog’s face?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Four Random Views

A baby moorhen chick sat atop the mound of its nest three feet inside a Hampstead Heath pond at the weekend, chirping. Its parent was at the bank, pulling off a leaf. The adult bird brought the leaf back to the nest, added it to the edge as fortification (presumably), then went off on some more foraging. Home building, home maintenance, use of the wild, childrearing - brilliant stuff. I can't see all that intelligence being housed in the bird. It's got to be a more general intelligence that the bird simply tunes int to, surely. A great intelligence.
Writing for me is a bit like that. It's going beyond yourself. Like the moorhen, I keep my critical faculties alive ... trim this, add that, it will be better. What I always want to do is to surprise myself. It often takes patience to do that, letting the more humdrum ideas come and go. Surprising myself means letting my book happen, not squeezing it into my prescribed lines.

On Sunday James and I took a stroll around Brent Reservoir, on the edge of London. I was chatting away to James about my eyesight. I’ve noticed of late how I cannot read from my left eye even with glasses. Lose my right eye and I would be officially blind, I told him. If that happened, I mused, I would learn braille.
I paused the conversation to lead the way along a narrow path through woodland. A willow branch had been cut and hung above the path at a curious angle. I did not see it. It glanced off my right eyebrow, pressed my eyelid closed, and struck its final blow just below the eye socket. It was cut and bruised, but that’s all.
How odd, I’m talking about losing the sight in my right eye, and a moment later a branch comes as close as it can to poking my right eye out.
In fiction, it would look too contrived.

I’m writing this in France, having come down to our Pyrenean home for two weeks of stillness and moving my new novel forward. This year has been consumed by travel. On my new train route between Plymouth and London I pass two white horses carved into hillsides. From the plane yesterday I looked down on the white spiralling fans of a windfarm and they had some of that same emblematic effect of the white horses. They’re waving their arms up at the sky, saying look, at least we’re trying.

I’m writing this new novel by hand, in a slim manuscript book. At least work can’t simply disappear into a screen that way, the computer randomly erasing files. So I thought I was safe. I hadn’t realized a new danger that has come in since I last wrote in this way. Recycling. Looking for my book to bring it down to France with me, it had vanished. It turned up, thankfully, among the Sunday supplements and old magazines in the paper recycling bag.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Edinburgh Book Festival (&, of course, J. S. Haldane)

When the box office for the Edinburgh Book festival opened, a queue stretched two miles along Princes Street from the sales desk in Waterstones. Sales for the festival are an astounding 45% up on this time last year. I've tried myself to reach the booking service online, and been told that there was too much traffic, come back later. The whole system crashed through overuse on launch day.
My own event now appears as a supplement to the programme - a collector's edition for those in the know! Click here to be taken to the booking page - put in just 'Goodman' or the date: my event's on August 14th at 10.30am. And take care. The other Martin Goodman appears at the festival the following day - I'm sure he gives a good show, but I'd be sorry to miss you.
I really look forward to occasion, telling the magnificent tale of J. S. Haldane's life, spinning it from the very venue of Charlotte Square where Haldane was born, grew up and got married.

(The picture is a fine portrait of John Scott Haldane in the doorway of the family of home of Cloan, near Auchterarder. Take it as evidence of the quality of the pictures in the book, that this glorious one didn't make it between the covers. You saw it here first!)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Sculpture, sculptors, Sir John Steell and Edinburgh

Here's a piece of Edinburgh esoterica from John Scott Haldane's life that didn't manage to make it into my new bio of the great man.
As kids, John and his siblings squeezed into their upstairs nursery window in their home at 17 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. They held hand mirrors, dazzling the pedestrians going down the alley to their left - and dazzling the sculptor working on his statue of Alexander and Bucephalus in the courtyard of the house to their right.
This was the most celebrated sculptor of his day, Sir John Steell. Fifty years in the making, the statue now stands in the forecourt of City Chambers, on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
I like these sprigs of detail that biographical research brings to light. I'd never thought previously about the human endeavour and the foibles of the creative process that go into these monumental works. great as he was, Sir John Steell does seem to have been wiped from history somehow.
While this statue pays homage to the subscribers who had it erected, I saw no note of who the sculptor was.
Maybe that says something about Victorian values, praising the moneymen and scuttling the creator off into the margins. Or maybe it's simply that sculptors were stuck in some rut whereby they were seen as celebrating others. Edinburgh has a great statue of Walter Scott by Steell himself at the heart of the Scott Monument on Edinburgh's Princes Street, while another of his graces New York's Central Park, so literature was presumably given more esteem than sculpture. At the recent Royal Academy exhibition I admire the sculpture of a naked Voltaire. Are there any such sculptures of sculptors? Shouldn't there be?

Friday, July 06, 2007

J. S. Haldane ... I just couldn't let it lie

My first two copies of Suffer and Survive, my new biography of John Scott Haldane, arrived at my London home yesterday. My agent called to tell me how splendid they look. By chance I happened to be back in Edinburgh, fresh from scouting through the archives at the National Library of Scotland once again.
Now I know, a biographer has to learn to let go, to move on. So much stuff on Haldane once existed though - his own memoir, the biography by his sister - and I still have hopes of finding it. And I did manage one such triumph yesterday.
The letters from Haldane's colleague, C. Gordon Douglas, had gone missing. This was vital correspondence sent from the frontline, detailing the continued work of the pair in combatting gas warfare right through till the end of the war. It was once part of the Oxford Physiology Lab. I searched through their dusty boxes, and indeed had been through the National Library before, and subsequently had their staff launch a fruitless search.
Yesterday, for some reason, I came across it - a treasure trove, MS20034. A great haul of WW1 material, plus some fine letters from Jan Smuts about their work launching the concept of holism to a British Association meeting in South Africa in 1929. Fine touching things too, like a letter from Haldane's former cook.
Is it too late? Well of course this material does not get into this edition - and that does not matter. I felt the book was complete as is, with no holes to fill -a trip to Canada and some writing around gave me the information I needed to write the complete wartime story. I already had much more material for my book than I could fit in. It broadens my own background knowledge on the man thouh, and bolsters my argument for his vital role in gas protection during WW1. My delight is simply the researchers' reward, coming up trumps, finding a missing piece.

(Pictures are ones I took on my visit to Ypres - the memorial to the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives in the first gas attack, and the graves of some of those soldiers)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Writing in Thailand

Oh well, sometimes you can be just too busy. I've been invited to teach a creative writing course on Thailand's royal beach, and a whole new array of dates are available - but sadly I'm booked up for all of them.
I last taught in Thailand in 1991, setting up a postgraduate English department as part of St John's College. I loved my time there ... and as proof of whether time in the country can be a boon to creative writing, check out the Thai chapter in my novel Slippery When Wet. The balcony of my room looked out over fields. I sat out there, watching an elephant strip branches off surrounding trees, and felt the pressures of western life lift off me. The notion of writing a book about sacred mountains, eventually manifesting as my On Sacred Mountains, first occurred to me there.
One telling fact of my time there - I never saw a child crying.
I'm sure times have changed the place - the traffic was appalling then, the river the best way to travel, though new transit systems might even have improved things. Up in Chiangmai one day I was probably the most dangerous thing on the road. I hired a motorbike for a day out, never having driven one before, and headed into the hills. Somehow my route back took me through Chiangmai Zoo, wending my way round all its cages. And try out the temple of Wat Po back in Bangkok - Thailand's temples are wonderfully lived in: monks singing or maybe repairing bikes, kids at school, farmers passing through.
If you do head out there, drop me a line! Here's a link for that writing course, write in paradise.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Manchester, Panda and Michael Mayhew

At a British Council breakfast to mark the launch of the first Manchester International Festival last Saturday, the festival director Alex Poots impressed me with his vision of what a festival needs to be. It linked in with my own recent festival thinking, linked from below - a festival needs its dynamic, needs to reflect where it stems from (to be 'autochthanous', in a word I've come to admire of late), and needs to be of some real service to its community. I'm paraphrasing wildly - the reality in Manchester's terms is that it is an international festival of newly commissioned works.

I was in town specifically to enjoy the opening platform of Panda's productions - Panda being an innovative organization that nurtures performing arts organizations in the region (founded and run by my sister, Liz O'Neill). It was an energetic showcase of good new work, in the wondrous surrounds of Manchester Town Hall, one of the land's most splendid Victorian buildings.

The evening was rounded off by the opening installation of the performance artist Michael Mayhew's new project, Vanishing. I took part in the afternoon's preparatory session, when members of the public took turns to be interviewed by the team of five women performers. Sitting on facing wooden chairs either side of a standard lamp, one of five such sets strung across the great hall, I spoke about someone who had disappeared from my life - the theme of the day. It was moving to participate in this way - one of my own favoured workshop techniques allows for such talking opportunities as part of the process. It's rare to have someone's uncompetitive attention focused so purely on oneself and one's own story.

Sounds of those conversations were utilized by a 'laptop ensemble' (a new concept on me, five men intense over their Apples) to pour an aural landscape over the evening's performance. The women, now dressed in black and scrawled upon, muttered and walked around the hall where the audience sat among rows of floorlamps. It all looked very fine - a passive rather than theatrical experience to be part of an installation, one main role of the audience members being bodies that absorbedthe sound. In fact lying on my back seemed the best way to appreciate the evening - and as a suggestion that I might even have been on the right track, silver helium balloons in the shape of stars hovered by the ceiling.

Michael Mayhew will continue the work by making an overland journey to meet with the Aborigines of Australia - the pretext being a search for an unknown sister who he neither expects nor hopes to find. The walk will continue to the Arctic somehow, in search of a disappearing natural world. It's the sort of research I might dream up as a writer, an amalgm of travel and life writing, but never be able to fund. It's a writing project without a book or even the writing as a result - I have to bow down to the huge fundraising achievement of the whole operation.