“If A Lady’s Garden Is Not Beautifully Neat, It Is Nothing”

I thought of that dictum the other day, when I was tidying up my garden in the wake of the winter storms. Would Louisa Johnson, with her firm views on tidiness, approve of my efforts, I wondered.

Every Lady A Gardener

I met her through the pages of her treatise on gardening Every Lady Her Own Flower Gardener, pocket-sized, 95 pages long and published in 1839. It was one of the pile of books which was delivered to my seat at The British Library when I was researching the Crimson Cats audio book Every Lady A Gardener (never waste a good title, is my motto). Our CD is a compilation of extracts from gardening books written by women – or rather ladies – in the nineteenth century.

Through the pages of their books I met other redoubtable lady gardeners. There was Maria Jacson, who advised her wealthy friends on how to create “a gay flower garden”.

Jane Loudon

Jane Loudon

And Mrs Jane Loudon whose weighty 1841 manual on gardening, aimed very much at women, was a runaway best seller. It includes step by step instructions on how to dig your garden, “so a lady with a small light spade, by repeatedly digging over the same line, and taking out only a little earth at a time, may succeed in doing all the digging that can be required in a small garden”.

I particularly enjoyed the brisk gardening advice of Mrs C W Earle whose Pot Pourri From A Surrey Garden also includes recipes and tips on flower arranging. She gives minute instructions on how to preserve runner beans by salting them. “I believe this is done everywhere abroad, but never in England, where the waste, both in the kitchen and the garden, is a national vice.”

There was so much in these early gardening books that wouldn’t be out of place in ones published today; how to trap slugs, the importance of collecting rain water, the opportunities offered by climbers. But there were some things that have changed. Louisa Johnson’s idea of neatness was to remove every leaf, every twig, every stone from the surface of the soil, every “decaying stem” from her plants. Like most gardeners these days I’m much more relaxed about such matters. I’m afraid that Louisa would not have approved.

Dee Palmer

The House on an Irish Hillside

The House on an Irish Hillside

The House on an Irish Hillside

Back in 2004 Dee and I had a holiday in southwest Ireland. We started in County Cork and moved up the west coast to County Kerry where we spent a couple of days on the Dingle peninsula. It is very beautiful there, especially the last few miles beyond Dingle town, the westernmost point in mainland Europe, known locally as “back west”.

This is also an Irish speaking area – the peninsula’s name in Irish – is Corca Dhuibhne – though on that visit we had no idea of this. It was only a year or two ago when I read The House on an Irish Hillside by the Irish writer and actor, Felicity Hayes-McCoy about how she and her English husband, Wilf, made their home there that we learned about life “back west”.

Actually they haven’t made their home there, not permanently. Felicity is a writer, Wilf is a musician and opera director and both of them need to be in London quite often. So they live in both places, London for meetings, theatres and shows; Corca Dhuibhne to work in peace and to work their land. But because they live “back west”, it’s not just a holiday home, they have become part of the community there.

IH5-dingle-scones-webAnd that is what this beautiful book is about. How they found their “house on an Irish hillside”, rebuilt it, learned to live in a small community as well as in an anonymous city, and actually achieved the state described in that over-used phrase “a proper work/life balance”.

I know Felicity from the days we worked together at the BBC, she as an actress and me as a producer. Our relationship (a professional one, you understand) took another step forward when she adapted and read one of the first audio books we published when we launched Crimson Cats in 2005.  That was Gods and Fighting Men – The Fianna, the stories of the Irish hero Finn McCool.

IH1---Mountainside-and-cowsI enjoyed reading The House on an Irish Hillside and rang Felicity to tell her so. The book is proving to be a best seller, in America, in Ireland and in the UK so, chancing my arm, I asked if Crimson Cats could produce and publish the audio book version. She said ‘Yes’ and production is now well under way. We decided it had to be recorded unabridged so it will be a 6 CD pack as well as being available as an MP3 download. It will be published this spring with Felicity reading the text – no surprise there – and Wilf playing some of his own compositions and some traditional Irish music on the concertina.

Felicity has mixed the contemporary story with Irish myths and legends. This book is a joy to read and it’s also a joy to listen to in Felicity’s soft Irish voice. You’ll also learn how to pronounce Corca Dhuibhne. If you’ve had a stab at it already I can guarantee you’ll have got it wrong. Unless, like Felicity you speak Irish of course.


Follow The House on an Irish Hillside on their Facebook page.Facebook Logo Just click on the logo.


Crocodiles and Gorillas

In the 1890s Mary Kingsley paddled up the rivers of the Congo in West Africa in a canoe to collect fish specimens for the British Museum and to study local religions. In 2013 Dee and I travelled round the hills and forests of Rwanda watching birds and other wildlife and sampling the local beer.

Mountain Gorilla - Rwanda

Mountain Gorilla – Rwanda

Mary Kingsley had an unplanned encounter with a crocodile which tried to join her inside her canoe. She biffed him on the snout with her paddle and he went away. Dee and I had a planned encounter with a troop of mountain gorillas which gave us a huge sense of privilege. (There was also an incident with a rather large male elephant which planted itself in the middle of a narrow track and refused to let us past – but, hey, we were on his territory so fair enough).

Mary Kingsley came into contact with various French officials (whose trousers kept falling down) as she tried to negotiate the various documents she needed to travel.  Dee and I met many Rwandans – jeep drivers, guides, managers and staff of the various lodges – all of whom were unfailing courteous and helpful. (Their trousers seemed to remain intact as far as we could see).

Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots

Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots

You can hear all about Mary Kingsley’s experiences in our audio book Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots which is also the February Book of the Month with the CD at a reduced price. If you want to hear about the experiences of Dee and myself then you’ll have to invite us to dinner or at least meet us down the pub.


This audio book is available as a CD or as an MP3 download from our web site: www.crimsoncats.co.uk

A Good Yarn

Michael - age 8

Michael – age 8

When I was 8 years old (in 1954 if you want to laugh – see photo) I joined the Cubs – in those days known as the Wolf Cubs. In the fullness of time when I was 11 (work it out for yourself) I moved on to the Scouts – in those days known as Boy Scouts. By then the Scouts had moved beyond the wide brimmed khaki hat which had been replaced with a beret but we did, scouts and leaders alike, still wear shorts.

By this time Robert Baden-Powell – the founder of scouting – was long since dead but Scouting wasn’t and still isn’t. It is very easy to look at pictures of Baden Powell today and see him as representing a “King and Empire” world that is almost as remote to my grandchildren as the Tudor era. And yet, so much of the underlying messages and skills that I took from Scouting remain with me today. Basic ideas like courtesy, honesty, tidiness, reliability, keeping your word – things, to give them their due, my parents also taught me but Scouting provided an additional emphasis. Then there are many basic skills that have stayed with me: first aid, how to tie a reliable knot, how to estimate distance and height, how to recognise different birds and trees and to have respect for the countryside. Perhaps the most important lesson was to make a decision and then take responsibility for it.

My Adventures As A SpyAn interesting man, Robert Baden Powell. Our audio book, My Adventures As A Spy, (the October Book of the Month) is taken from his book of the same name which was published in 1915. I am sure it is based on fact (mostly) but the accounts of his spying exploits may have been, shall we say, polished a little in the telling. It doesn’t matter – they are good yarns.

I like good yarns.


My Adventures As A Spy is available at a discount price until 31st October 2013

From A to E – Crimson Cats Launches Its E-Book List

Out of the Blue - FB



For some time now we have been thinking that Crimson Cats, as a small publisher of unusual and individual titles, should move into the world of E-Books but, as can sometimes happen, the gap between thought and action was a long one. However, we finally made it and the first Crimson Cats E-Book has been published this week.



We decided to launch with a book written by me – a true story – which is called Out Of The Blue. Here is the blurb from the Amazon Kindle page:

Your wife might not live until Christmas. 
You need to prepare yourself for the worst.”

Those words were spoken to Michael Bartlett in November 2002 by one of the doctors at his local hospital. His wife, the journalist Dee Palmer, had been taken ill very suddenly in October and had been diagnosed with endocarditis, a bacterial growth on one of her heart valves which was gradually causing the valve to fail. Initially she responded to treatment but suddenly the infection flared up again and she had to be rushed to a specialist heart hospital. Michael, who is a professional writer, began to share his fears and anxieties with family and friends by email. Those emails were answered and they spread. More friends joined in, and friends of their friends, and Michael soon realised that this was not a battle he and Dee were fighting alone. By the time Dee was finally discharged from hospital just before Christmas the emails were going to around 150 addresses.

This book tells the story of those two months, the lows, the highs, the humour that emerged out of the most serious events. Above all it is a story of the power of friendship, the strength both Michael and Dee took from the huge outpouring of love and support from friends and acquaintances from all over the world. This book is a tribute to all those who emailed, visited, wrote and were there when they were needed.

Bits of it are quite funny too.

For those of you who may be interested, Out Of The Blue is available on Amazon’s Kindle Store by following this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Out-Of-The-Blue-ebook/dp/B00D0BE99E/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1369550450&sr=1-1&keywords=out+of+the+blue+michael+bartlett

Alternatively if you do not have (or want) a Kindle but would still like to read the book then it is also available as a PDF download from the Crimson Cats web site: http://www.crimsoncats.co.uk/e-book-publishing/76-out-of-the-blue.html

We plan to go on and publish many more E-Books (not all written by me, I hastily add). This does not mean we will stop publishing audio books, we feel that the two can easily co-exist. We will however, continue to concentrate on unusual material, either out-of-print books that we feel deserve a new outing, material of our own or ideas which are brought to us by other authors. If we feel it is right for Crimson Cats then we will publish it.

I don’t know what took us so long really. At first we told ourselves we were doing research, talking to various writer friends who had taken the first step, reading all the instructions on the Amazon Kindle page, buying a Kindle and downloading books (mostly by friends) so we could see how it worked at the consumer end. It is now 2 or 3 months since we concluded that exercise but still the first book didn’t appear. Why?  Good question.

A rush of visitors, some building and decorating work on the house, a series of meetings that needed careful preparation, all valid reasons but at the same time all were excuses. The real reason, I think, was a fear of the unknown.

Never mind, we have finally done it and, of course, the perceived mountain was in fact a molehill (as everyone told me it would be).

Just a couple more thoughts with which to end. I called this first book Out Of The Blue as the illness which overturned our lives back in 2002 came right out of the blue. When I came to publish it however, I discovered that this is a title which has been used many times before. I also discovered that there are a lot of “Michael Bartletts” who are authors. Fortunately none of those other Michael Bartletts have written a book called Out Of The Blue so that’s something.

Next time I’ll give much more thought about the title – can’t do much about my name though.


A Life With A Purpose

If I gave you this list of names: Roger, Ulysses, Widdle and Puke, Theodore, the Magenpies and Alecko would they mean anything to you? As a final clue I could add the name Spiro but if you were still puzzled it would be clear you had never read My Family And Other Animals, Gerald Durrell’s account of his childhood on Corfu.

Having spent most of my professional life as a writer, and as a producer and editor working with other writers, it is hardly surprising that a large section of my address books contains the names of writers. Inevitably some of those writers have come and gone from my life, others have become close friends and some are people I am glad to have had the chance to meet and work with.

One such is Gerald Durrell.

CD CoverIt would be vain and untrue to claim Gerry as a close friend but on the few occasions we worked together we seemed to get on very well and enjoyed each other’s company. I certainly enjoyed his. As many of you know, we recently published some of his short stories read by Gerry himself under the title Stories From A Corfu Childhood which are proving very popular. Gerry was not an actor but I think it would be fair to say that he was a performer and is brilliant at finding voices for all his characters, many of whom were family members.

GDS entranceHe was, of course, a man with a mission and was certainly one of the most influential voices when it came to promoting the cause of conservation, long before it was fashionable. To celebrate his life and work a new exhibition, The Gerald Durrell Story,  has recently opened within the Durrell Wildlife Park on Jersey. This is an unprecedented look at both the public and personal sides of the author, naturalist and champion of all animals.

GDS Banner v4The ‘story’ takes in many formative events from both Gerald’s life and the development of the Trust that now bears his name. Each of the seven sections is named after one of Gerald’s books and contains objects, letters, photos and awards from the relevant period. Each section incorporates a monitor screen showing images from the period, including many original photos of Gerald himself.  The exhibition is staffed by trained volunteers who conduct tours and answer any questions that visitors may have.

Gerald’s widow, Honorary Director Dr Lee Durrell, says: “The opening of this exhibition will be one of the most rewarding moments of my life. The preparations have been underway for nearly two years and are a story in themselves – my personal journey of sorting through hundreds of photos, letters and memorabilia all linked to Gerry in one way or another.”

lonely dodo 2In spite of all the work that Gerry and many others have done over the last 50 years or so there are still a lot of species in our world which are threatened with extinction. To promote awareness of this, a new web site called The Lonely Dodo has recently been launched by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust with the help of Aardman and Stephen Fry. You can see more about this at their website www.thelonelydodo.com  Do have a look – it is great fun as well as carrying a serious message.

Many of the audio books published by Crimson Cats have personal anecdotes of one kind or another attached to them. In our talks in libraries, book shops and festivals we present some of the backstory for our titles, how they came about and why they were chosen for the Crimson Cats list. But, like all good stories, these anecdotes don’t have to end. All being well Dee and I plan to go to Jersey later this year to visit The Gerald Durrell Story , to renew our acquaintance with the life of a man who I will always think of as a friend, as well as being a writer and campaigner who I deeply admire.


Writing Down The Mists Of Time

I’ve been having a trip down memory lane this week… no, don’t panic, this isn’t my life story – I’m saving that for rainy days when I’m bedridden. No, I’ve been thinking back to the time when I sold my first play and could quite legitimately call myself a Writer. Heady days.

Happy Deathday To You - Radio Times

Happy Deathday To You – Radio Times

It was 1972, it was a radio play called Happy Deathday To You and it was broadcast in Midweek Theatre on Radio 4. It was directed by Richard Wortley, starred the late Derek Seaton and I had my name in the Radio Times. Wasn’t my Mum proud. (I was quite chuffed too).

I thought I’d made it then. Fame and fortune just round the corner. However, an older and wiser writing head than mine offered a word of caution: “The first play is the hardest to write, the second play is the hardest to get accepted.” He was right. Rejection followed rejection and it was 3 years before the next play, a 30-Minute Theatre piece called Are You Lying Comfortably, made it onto the airwaves.

Are You Lying Comfortably - Radio Times

Are You Lying Comfortably – Radio Times

Every writer will have their rejection drawer and it is the ability to put them behind you and start again that is the hall mark of a professional. Like many writers, I have often had comments from people at parties when they learn what you do such as. “Oh, you write, do you. What do you do as a real job?” Or, “I’ve been meaning to write a novel for some time but I’m so busy. Perhaps when I have a free weekend…”


I have a number of definitions of what makes a professional writer. Here are 3 of them.

  • A professional writer is an amateur who refuses to give up.
  • A professional writer doesn’t just write, they re-write and re-write and re-write.
  • A professional writer is someone who knows where the key moments are in a TV play without background music to guide them.

Since those early radio plays I have passed through many stages as a writer. I began by writing for pleasure, then I wrote for pleasure but was selling most of it, then I wrote to earn a living  which inevitably involved some compromises (I soon learned you could earn more for a 10 minute corporate video about a pension fund than you could for a full length play on Radio 4 even with its repeat fee), then I found a balance between writing and other creative work (which meant goodbye to the pension videos) and then I switched from one medium to another and started again.

But in one way or another, in one medium or another, I have always been a writer first and foremost and I guess I always will.

The Beautifull Cassandra

The Beautifull Cassandra

I was 26 when I sold my first play but I began writing somewhere around the age of 8, by winning an essay competition in the local paper. Jane Austen began when she was 12, (well she may have begun earlier but 12 is the first recorded piece). The stories she wrote when she was between the ages of 12 and 15 are mostly short, often very funny and, although naive in many ways, show the emerging talent that will deliver the novels in later years. One of her first “novels”, Mr Harley, is half a page long and very funny indeed. You can hear it beautifully read by Teresa Gallagher in the Crimson Cats audio book, The Beautifull Cassandra and other writings” which is a collection of some of Jane Austen’s Juvenilia. It is available as a CD or as an MP3 download from the Crimson Cats web site:  www.crimsoncats.co.uk

I doubt whether my work will still be read or listened to, 200 years after my death, but writing my plays, stories and novels has always given me great pleasure and I have every reason to believe Jane felt the same.

Whether anyone will remember my work is neither here nor there. To find something that gives you pleasure and which lasts throughout your life is not something to be dismissed lightly.


The Next Big Thing

I was recently contacted by my friend, the writer Felicity Hayes-McCoy, to introduce me to a concept called a ‘Blog Hop’. This particular one is called ‘THE NEXT BIG THING’  in which writers answer ten questions on their work in progress and tag other writers to do the same.

My own “next big thing” is still in its very early stages, far too early to actually want to talk  about it. I always tell my writing students, “don’t talk about it, write it,” so I am going to take my own advice. However, I have relatively recently finished a short story collection so I will use that as a basis for this Blog. Here are my responses to the ten questions.

1) What is the title of your next book?

The title for the next one is still undecided but the one most recently finished is called “Personal Islands” and it is a collection of short stories around a common theme.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

I’ve always been interested in writing about people who are alone without necessarily being lonely. Many of my plays have been about the one person in step while the other 99 are not.  One of my favourite quotes comes from Thoreau: “If a man is out of step with his companions, maybe he is marching to the beat of a different drum.”

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It’s a short story collection with each story set on an island of some kind, perhaps a real one such as Shetland or the Isle of Wight, or maybe an unreal one such as an Aisle in a supermarket or The Isle of Avalon. Each story in some way is about isolation, chosen or unchosen, wanted or not wanted.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This is fantasy time really, isn’t it? And an impossible question to answer when dealing with a short story collection. I have always – with only couple of exceptions – been happy with the way my plays have been cast. For “Personal Islands” it is impossible to pick actors for all the characters but that seems rather feeble so I will go for Juliet Stevenson to play the central part in a story called “Because His Mother Can’t” which deals with a woman’s journey to The Falkland Islands to look for the grave of her step-son who was killed there while serving with the British forces who re-took the islands from Argentina in 1982. I was lucky enough to be able to accompany my wife, Dee Palmer, the BBC World Service Producer/Presenter, when she went to the islands in 2002 and I found much of the experience very moving.

 5) What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

How different people deal with different concepts of isolation.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I am currently discussing this story collection with my agent, Diana Tyler of the MBA Literary Agency. We will try for a print publication but, although the short story market has improved enormously with the advent of digital printing, it is still a difficult market to crack. We have not ruled out a Kindle publication.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

This varied from story to story. Some flowed off the fingers, some were more a struggle as I worked out exactly what I wanted to say and how to say it. One story, “Nothing To Fear”, deals with a woman who discovers she has a growth in her pancreas – specifically an excessive growth of the Islets of Langerhans inside her pancreas – and how she dealt with the choices this forced on her. This story required me to have a lot of conversations with a surgeon about the pancreas and the way such problems are treated. It was hard to find the structure to tell this story and even harder to work out how it was going to end.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

I wouldn’t.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

The Falklands - Argentinian cemetary at Darwin
The Falklands – Argentinian cemetary at Darwin

The visit to the Falklands was one obvious inspiration.  Another was the concept that battles never end but people might tire of them and step aside to let others continue – this resulted in the story “A Separate Peace”. A newspaper report on the number of people who die alone and unknown inspired “Farewell My Lonely” and my own mother’s dementia was the starting point for “That’s A Funny Looking Cloud”. When I realised that deep down all these ideas had a common theme I went hunting in my head for other stories to make up the collection.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Whoever knows what sparks someone’s interest? The style of the writing? The subject matter? Identification with the characters? As a writer I don’t even try to second guess my audience or readers. I write what I want to write, what I need to write in some cases, and I always try and tell a good story. Storytelling is as old as time and those of us who can spin a yarn, tell a story, entertain the rest of our tribe, have a responsibility to use our talent (if that is what it is) for the benefit of others. As one of my much-missed BBC drama producer colleagues once said: “Imagination is the only exact science.”


So that’s it. If you’ve enjoyed reading about me as a writer, why not browse the Crimson Cats Audio Books web site www.crimsoncats.co.uk and see what I’ve done as a producer. I’m grateful to Felicity for introducing me to this Blog Hop concept. Next week on THE NEXT BIG THING are three writers – very different writers – whose work I enjoy. Two of them, Catherine and Danny, I have known since my BBC days. Christopher I only met recently but, as I hope he would agree, it was instant friendship and respect. Many thanks to them all for accepting my invitation to blog hop.

Catherine Czerkawska is a Scottish based novelist and playwright. She has written many plays for the stage and for BBC Radio 4 and has published numerous novels and short stories. Wormwood – her play about the Chernobyl disaster – was produced at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to critical acclaim in 1997, while her novel The Curiosity Cabinet, was shortlisted for the Dundee Book Prize in 2005 and subsequently published by Polygon. Her most recent novel, The Physic Garden, has been described as ‘heart-breaking’ and a ‘beautiful, elegant exploration of betrayal’. It is currently available on Amazon’s Kindle Store, with a paperback edition planned for later this year. She blogs at: http://wordarts.blogspot.co.uk/

Danny Greenstone has been part of entertainment history since portraying the king in St. Mary’s Parochial School’s production of ‘Old King Cole.’ Professionally, he has written, produced and directed for radio, television and theatre and his work has been seen and heard worldwide. For their media spotlight he coached Sebastian Coe, David Blunkett MP and Charly Boorman and he has successfully run development workshops in Indonesia, Singapore, the US, Germany, Denmark and, of course, the UK. Danny possesses boundless enthusiasm, limitless optimism, attractive ideas, a sharp intellect, an uncanny wit and a good memory.  If he has a fault (which he hasn’t) it’s modesty. He blogs at: http://www.huzzahmedia.co.uk/page30/index.html

Christopher James was born in Scotland in 1975 and educated at Newcastle and UEA, where he graduated with an MA in Creative Writing. He won the 2008 National Poetry Competition for his poem ‘Farewell to the Earth’ as well the Bridport Prize in 2002 and the Ledbury Poetry Prize in both 2003 and 2006. His collection The Invention of Butterfly (Ragged Raven 2006) was listed by The Independent as one of its top ten poetry books. The recipient of an Eric Gregory award from the Society of Authors, Christopher’s poems have appeared in The Rialto, Smiths Knoll, London Magazine, Iota, Magma, The Spectator, and many other magazines. He has read at the Cheltenham, Ledbury Poetry Festival Aldeburgh Festival, hosted poetry workshops and has been commissioned by the Tate. His other books include: Farewell to the Earth (2011) The Manly Art of Knitting (Templar 2011) and England Underwater (Templar 2012). He now lives in Suffolk with his wife and three young children. He blogs at: http://christopherjamespoet.wordpress.com/


Smoke After Our Words

About a month ago I posted a piece about some of the poets we had met recently. They were both modern poets – and very good ones – but recently I have had a personal reminder that poetry has been with us for thousands of years. (I was going to say “since the dawn of time” but another new year resolution is to try and avoid clichés like the plague…!)

Many years ago when I was a producer in the BBC Radio Drama Department, I produced a feature programme for Radio 3 called Smoke After Our Words. This was about Finish Epic Folk Poetry, the source material for The Kalevala which is one of Finland’s most significant works of literature. These poems were often sung to music built on a pentachord, sometimes assisted by a kantele player and are effectively stories in verse, or at least in rhythm, which would have been told or sung round the fire at night by professional story tellers. These poems are different from Norse legends and other Scandinavian tales.  They are primarily poetic, mythical rather than historic, and the heroes are more likely to use magic, rather than violence, to solve their problems.

The KalevalaThe script for the Radio 3 programme was written and read by another poet friend, Keith Bosley, who translated the Epic poems for the Finnish Literature Society. Keith has recently recorded an audio version of his translation of The Kalevala which is published by Naxos Audio Books today, 28th February. Click on this link for more details: http://www.naxosaudiobooks.com/0124.htm

The Epic Folk Poetry tales range from ancient myths about the origin of the universe to an 18th century elegy sung to army recruits as they left home. Above all these poems remind us of the power of the human imagination and man’s need for art and the desire to tell and be told stories. The need for access to authentic specimens of folk poetry has been felt all the more acutely in recent years as the interest in oral tradition has grown.

One of my favourite passages from the epic Poems, and the one which gave the programme – and this Blog – its title, is the end of a poem called Merimatka 1 or The Voyage 1 and it goes like this. I give it to you in Finnish and in translation.

Mitä meist on laulajista

kuta meistä kukkujista

ku ei tuisa suusta

kekälett ei alta kielen

savuu ei sana jälestä!

Of what use are we singers

what good we cuckoo-callers

if no fire spurts from our mouths

no brand from beneath our tongues

and no smoke after our words!

What a wonderful concept for all of us who are writers and storytellers. May the smoke trail after your words and mine and perhaps lead you to explore some poetry or other writing that is new to you.


How Does Your Garden Grow?

Ah, February, the time when all keen gardeners (which doesn’t include me but does include Dee) start itching to get their hands back in the soil. I remember staying with my parents one spring shortly after they had retired in the mid-1970s. Dad was watching the telly (probably football) and Mum popped her head round the door and said: “Just going down to the greenhouse, dear.” Dad glanced up briefly and said: “Okay, love, see you in September.”

Dee has always been keen on gardening. She started with the window boxes of our basement flat in Holborn and moved on to the overshadowed square of turf at our next flat in north-west London. Her first real garden was the long thin one running down to the River Wey behind our house in Guildford and now she is creating a wonderful garden at our home in Norfolk. In all of them she has dug, learned, failed, cursed, succeeded and altogether had a wonderful time.

Every Lady A GardenerIt was, of course, Dee who came up with the suggestion for the Crimson Cats audio book Every Lady A Gardener and it was Dee who spent a number of happy days in the British Library in London researching those 19th century women who shared her passion. This was a time when gardens were beginning to change. Previously, at one end of the scale you had the large houses with a team of gardeners and at the other working people growing vegetables to feed their family. But in the 19th century, with the spread of middle class villas out into what was to become suburbia, the concept of gardening as a suitable pastime for the genteel was taking root. And ladies were actually starting to do some of the work themselves – hence the sudden profusion of gardening handbooks written by women for women.

When Dee started to research this audio book she expected to find many differences between the experiences of 19th century gardeners and those of today. Instead she was more struck by how modern much of their advice is and how many of their observations are still relevant today. You can read a couple of extracts at the bottom of the Every Lady A Gardener page of the Crimson Cats web site:  http://www.crimsoncats.co.uk/3-every-lady-a-gardener.html

Gardening WitGardening books of all shapes and sizes abound of course, fighting it out for popularity with cats and cooking. Personally I could never get excited about a 500 page book about Roses but I do like the quirky end of the garden publishing spectrum. The publishers Summersdale have at least 3 fun ones. Try Gardening Wit or The Gardening Puzzler or You Know You’re A Gardening Fanatic When…. Go to the Summersdale web site http://www.summersdale.com/ and enter “gardening” in the search box to find these three titles. Ideal presents for a non-gardener (me) to give to a real gardener (Dee). No risk of having picked the “wrong kind of roses” or similar.

Summersdale is the publishing firm that came across our audio book Everyman’s England and brought out a hardback version again some 60 years after the original book had gone out of print. They have a very interesting catalogue – well worth a look beyond the gardening titles.

Supper in the Soil

Supper in the Soil

Time for me to go and do my share of the gardening work. We share all the work equally you understand – Dee grows the vegetables and I eat them.

Bon appetit.