Sunday Reading: Hiraeth

words: Helen Duncan
photo: Liz Seabrook

It was the views that did it for me; held in the frames of the large sash windows that dominate the upstairs rooms. That’s probably the reason why I chose the house on the hill. Look North and your eyes meet Wytham Woods on the horizon. Look West and the land stretches further into the distance. Your attention rests for a second on a glint of silver as the light hits Farmoor Reservoir before moving on to the bluish rise of land beyond.

West. And that old familiar call. It’s only recently that I learnt there’s a name for it.

Hiraeth.

It bubbled up from within my subconscious. And in certain locations, where the landscape seemed somehow familiar, I would feel a deep longing for another place. And that is still how it hits me today, each time I gaze from those upstairs windows, or when I travel North or West.

I can feel strangely at home in new places. And yet home feels far away. I might recognize the bent silhouettes of windblown trees outlined against a wintery sky, or near-horizons formed by land close to rising in a sharp ascent.

Crashing waves, and a glittering sea that stretches far and wide, tug at a part of me. Newly-ploughed fields hold distant memories in their ridges and furrows, and long shadows, cast across fields in the golden hour of midsummer or on a crisp midwinter’s morning, stretch out as if to meet me, pulling me back to the place from which they spring.

Perhaps it is the tilt of the earth or the angle of the sun that causes such feelings. Or perhaps the lives of our ancestors continue to resonate in places; their very existence running through the landscape still, like a live wire: a frequency that some part of me, from somewhere long ago, remembers and receives. I have been out on the moors before, and moved between the mountains: the primordial crackle tuning and retuning as it tries to reconnect to some memory within. Where is home?

Come and sit with me for a moment on another hill, among the grey stones of Tre’r Ceiri hill fort, high on Yr Eifl on the Llŷn Peninsula. Here you can breathe in the 360-degree view of land and sea as easily as oxygen. Imagine the wonder its Iron Age inhabitants must have felt as the sun rose and set, and the weather fronts rolled in; as the moon waxed and waned, and the stars made patterns in the night sky. Did they feel this same yearning?

North and West, West and North. I am almost there.

But my home, it seems, is always just beyond the horizon, waiting.

 

Helen Duncan is a freelance writer and grantseeker based in Oxford. Her writing is inspired by the natural world, special places, folklore and fairytale. She celebrates life’s simple pleasures and seasonal living on her blog The House at Nab End and on Instagram. Discover more stories of finding home in Issue 34 of Oh Comely - Return

 

Meet the author: Emma Flint discusses Little Deaths

If we’ve got dark circles under our eyes, it’s because we’d been staying up all night to read Emma Flint’s compulsive debut novel, Little Deaths. It’s a story of love, morality and obsession set against the backdrop of 1960s New York. We spoke to Emma to discover more about the book and her experience of being a debut author, as well as gleaning some advice for aspiring novelists.

 

Could you tell us a little about the plot of Little Deaths and why you wanted to tell this story?

It’s set in suburban Queens, New York and is based on the true story of a woman who was accused of killing her children in the summer of 1965.

My narrators are Ruth Malone, recently separated from her husband and juggling single motherhood with shifts as a cocktail waitress, and Pete Wonicke, a rookie reporter from Iowa who’s desperate for a big story to make his name in New York.

One hot July morning, Ruth wakes up to discover a bedroom window wide open and her two children missing. After a desperate search, the police find the body of her four-year-old daughter the same afternoon, and then the body of her five-year-old son weeks later.

The police take one look at Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty bottles and love letters that litter her apartment – and leap to the obvious conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip. Covering the story as his first big break, Pete Wonicke at first does the same thing – but the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and press, and the more he begins to doubt everything he thought he knew: about Ruth and about himself.

It’s a book about love, morality and obsession: I wanted to explore the capacity for good and evil in everyone, and how most people have a sense of morality that isn’t clearly black and white.

What drew me to the story was the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and my impression that the real-life Ruth was condemned for who she was, rather than what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on a great deal in that respect over the past fifty years: I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance and their sexuality more than anything else.

Emma Flint

Emma Flint

 

With the true story in mind, how much did you feel you had to stick to ‘the facts’, and how much did you allow yourself artistic freedom?

I stuck to the true story as much as I could, and the basic facts of the case are the same as in Little Deaths but I’ve condensed the events between the murders and Ruth’s arrest into four months. In reality, the case stalled for over two years as two grand juries failed to indict her for murder. Then in November 1966, one of Ruth’s neighbours sent an anonymous note to the prosecutor’s office, saying she had witnessed relevant events on the night of the children’s disappearance. When interviewed by the police, she gave essentially the same story recounted on the witness stand in Little Deaths.

Most of the key characters – including Ruth Malone and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. The police officer, Charlie Devlin is a composite of several officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke and a few others are my own inventions.

I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer, you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.

Of course, I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the real investigation that my editors felt weren’t believable enough, which I then had to leave out and work around!

 

The book finishes (without giving too much away) without the satisfaction of justice done. Why did you want to end on a note of ambiguity?

Partly because that’s how I felt about the real case on which the book was based. Although there was a conviction, there were three trials before a final verdict was reached, which indicates in itself that the evidence wasn’t cut and dried.

And also, that’s how real life is: it’s rare that all the ends are tied up neatly, and it’s rare that the bad guys get their just desserts and the good guys live happily ever after. Whatever the legal outcome in a murder case, the family of the victim are still left dealing with their grief and with the absence of their loved one: I imagine that any feeling of justice is always tempered by that sorrow.

 

You capture the claustrophobic atmosphere of a New York summer in the 1960s perfectly. Can you tell us about the research you did to get the period right?

Thank you very much. I read two excellent books about the original case, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.

I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.

 

The public hear about the murders – and by default Ruth – via newspapers and gossip. How would you think the judgement on her would play out today, with rolling news and the internet?

I imagine it would be similar, but more intense. News changes more quickly now – we can see photos within minutes of them being taken, or hear news as it happens. I think you only have to look at how Kate McCann or Amanda Knox have been judged on social media to see what would have happened if this particular story had played out fifty years later.

 

Little Deaths is your debut novel. How did you fit writing it around ‘regular’ life? What does it feel like to have it out in the world?

It took a long time and a lot of sacrifices. I started writing in 2010 and I gave up my permanent job in 2013. I was lucky that I worked in an industry with a lot of contract opportunities, so I could work for 5 to 6 months, then take time off to write. I didn’t have a holiday for six years, and I had to pass on a lot of evenings out and weekends away. It was hard. Writing can be very isolating – you’re the only one living in your fictional world for a very long time.

Seeing Little Deaths out in the real world is incredible – and quite surreal. I never believed it would be published, but I was determined to finish it. I knew if I gave up I’d regret it. And now it’s out there, existing independently, and being read and thought about by people I’ve never met. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me, and I can’t imagine ever getting used this feeling.

 

On your blog, you write about the experience of being able to declare yourself ‘a writer’, and the associated insecurities in doing so. What gave you the confidence to believe that about yourself?

Recognition and acknowledgement from other people whose judgement I respected: other writers, my agent, and then my editors.

 

What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?

Read, read, read. Read as much as you can, as often as you can. Find writers you love and work out why you love them. Find writers you don’t like, and work out why. Read other books in the genre you’re working in, and read outside your area of interest. Read poetry to find new ways of using language. Read drama to understand dialogue. Read non-fiction to give your fiction credibility and authenticity.

Find a writing group. It’s impossible to write a first novel in isolation: you need support and you need feedback from readers you trust. I also needed the accountability of writing a certain number of words for my writing groups by a certain date. Most people write a first novel about something they’re passionate about, and you need the objective judgement of others to tell you whether that passion translates to the page.

Find a routine that works for you – whether that’s writing 1,000 words a day, or 5,000 words a week, or spending ten hours a week with your novel. Work out when you’re most productive. Set aside lunchtimes or two evenings a week or find childcare for half a day each weekend – but carve out the time and then use it.

And don’t give up. Writing is a long slow process – it took me three years to write a full first draft, and there were eleven more drafts before it was finished. To make time for that amount of work, you have to believe in what you’re doing and that you feel you have a story to tell that only you can tell. That belief will get you through the rejections and the lack of free time and the slog and the utter exhaustion. Belief in what you’re doing will also help you decide whether the criticism you’ll get is fair or not: only you can know if changes that others suggest are right for your book.

 

There’s a long tradition of women writers being the masters of the crime/thriller genre – Agatha Christie, Ruth Rendell and through to today – do you have any thoughts on why that might be? Why are you drawn to it as a genre?

Recently we’ve seen a rise in domestic psychological thrillers, which are mostly written by women, and I think this is down to two things: firstly domestic settings and events are now seen as ‘valid’ subjects for novels, and secondly, I think women are becoming more open about the fears and threats they experience. We now have spaces where we can talk about how it feels to walk down the street and be catcalled, or how it feels to be stalked, or how it feels to be afraid to end a relationship. We’re all more aware of the existence of domestic abuse, and most people know that two women are murdered every week by a current or former partner (ironically, awareness is increasing at the same time that refuges are closing down and domestic violence charities are losing funding). Of course men are abused and killed by women as well – but specifically in relation to female crime writers: more than 80% of crime novels are bought by women, so it makes complete sense that a lot of crime novels focus on the deepest fears of women – being hurt or killed by someone close to them.

I think most of us like to experience extreme emotions ‘safely’: whether that’s terror when we watch a horror film, or falling in love / lust when we watch a rom-com, or a creeping sense of unease when we read a psychological thriller. It’s the same for writers: a lot of us choose to explore extreme emotions, or emotion in extreme situations, and I happen to like writing about the darker stuff! I’m interested in the point where love becomes obsession, or fantasy takes over real life, or when someone chooses to act on one of those moments of fury we’ve all had. I guess I’m interested in how someone gets to that point of no-return – and what happens afterwards.

 

Who are some of your favourite writers?

My favourite writers are ones who write about crime and about history: those are the subjects that interest me most, which is why I read about them and why I write about them.

I love Megan Abbott and Tana French, who write novels about crime, but who I don’t think are crime writers in the traditional sense. And I’m a huge admirer of Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel who both excel at recreating history and making it immediate and real.

 

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m working on my second novel, which is set in England in the 1920s, so I’m reading lots of fiction written in that period and non-fiction about that period. I’m trying to immerse myself in the social conventions and language of a very different time, and understand a society that was still reeling from the aftermath of the First World War. 

Looking forward to reading it! Thanks Emma. 

 

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is published by Picador. 

Contribute to our 'Awake' issue

 

Vitality, greenery, everything in bloom. We're opening our eyes to possibilities this season, looking at the world afresh and seeking out new experiences.

Issue 36 - out in April - will be themed 'Awake' and we're looking for your contributions. For this issue, we're especially interested in your first person stories of awakenings. 

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Monday 30 January. Please state 'Issue 36 contributions' in the subject header. 

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. 

We look forward to hearing your ideas! 

Sunday Reading: Poached peaches with cold cream

4104894504_8d74e5cf86_o.jpg

Words: Bre Graham
Photo: Femme Run

Every great romance in our lives is not just left in our memories, but in the physical things that remain long after that love has left. What we own, where we live and who we are, linger longer than the people that we hope might stay. Because sometimes when relationships end, they don’t just break, they completely shatter.

It’s the first stage of losing love, when even the thought of a thing can bring them back. Something as small as a scent jolts us straight back into that scene, and our pasts can open up again in an instant. It’s why for some, the summer stings of flings, outfits once loved collect dust and hide beneath beds and favourite restaurants are no longer frequented.

Recently, at the end of a relationship, one that was delicate and maybe doomed, I felt the best way to move on was to find a new way to walk to work. We had first met on a night out where we poured our whiskey like wine, swapped sweet nothings for hours and finally first kissed in a busy bar beside my apartment; the same bar I still pass every day going to my office. From our first meeting, to when goodbyes were said, I had built a guide in my mind to things that would remind me of this time; things that I knew, even when they were happening, would hurt hard to remember when it was over. Maybe just one of the downsides of being a writer is that I don’t want to forget a single thing, and most of the time, I don’t. The list was long, from bars to books, to songs and what Sunday mornings felt like, from the toast to the type of soap.

On our last good night together before things finally broke, I grilled steaks and we ate poached peaches with cold cream in an August heatwave, in a room full of unpacked, smoke-stained clothes from his week away. But I know, that for now, while I might try and block out these memories, at the time they were beautiful. Soon enough though, a peach will just be a peach and the end of August just a time when leaves change. When we least expect it, things we think we lost return renewed.

In the end, the stories that we build upon others dissipate. We can forget why once something as superfluous as a bathtub made us weak with regret, and the memories stop shocking us. Because what time reveals, is that the things we attach to others really just represent us at a moment in our lives. Maybe they’re just memories of being young and foolish, or maybe something more serious. No matter what they hold, they are stories as much of you, as they are of what you lost. Because everything we lose when we love, ultimately will return.



Bre Graham is a freelance writer and editor. She is currently living in London working on her first novel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34 for more stories of return. 

Sunday Reading: Home

words Danielle Morgan
photo Ruth Allen

I don’t remember there being the awkwardness of a new relationship; those embarrassing moments when you are not totally sure of one another never really came. The butterflies flitted about the empty recess of my stomach, but they aren’t the kind that jump into your throat and made you feel sick and dizzy. They’re the docile kind, the ones that drift aimlessly about, resting softly in the pit of your belly. Occasionally, when a subtle moment of seeming insignificance swells a feeling of insurmountable love, they let me know that they are still there. They flap their delicate wings and remind you that they will never truly leave. Not when it is real. Not when it feels like this.

While I was at university, my head tucked into the dog-eared pages of The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Master and Margarita, consumed in the fictional lives of others, he was zipping about country tracks on his old Vespa, a little rusted around the edges, weather-worn and unkempt, but always reliable. A bit like us. Old school. The back wheel spinning as though in silent motion, kicking up the dirt as if he were disappearing into a cloud of muddied up fog down lonely lanes and roads ransacked by the wind and rain. When I think back I picture these moments as if in a movie; two main characters going about their daily lives completely oblivious to the paths they will take. The unassuming bookworm and the intrepid nomad. With no reason for the paths to cross, as fate would have it they do.

We sit opposite each other, the bluster of early autumn rain pelting against the window outside, the rusted fishing boats bruised and battered wedged at awkward angles into the damp sand. “Would you like to go for a drink?” he said. “Alright then, that might be nice,” I replied. The tide of feeling draws ever closer to the shore, I sip my stout and watch his lips as he recites stories about how we would fleetingly pass in the school corridor. We had never said more than a hello. Funny how things pan out, how the past revisits you in unexpected ways and ordinary chance turns to anything but ordinary luck. A twist of fate, like the unfurling plot of a movie, or one laid out within the well-thumbed pages of the books I would so often and fervidly escape into.   

A calmness unexpected in fledgling love took over, but perhaps that is because it wasn’t young or inexperienced at all; the seed had already been planted long ago. We just didn’t know it yet. Like the broken spine of a tatty paperback, or the moth-eaten hem of a shabby overcoat, it already felt familiar. Lived in.

A love that feels lived in is a league all of its own. Sometimes you are not perfect on paper but you know love when it feels like home. I had returned to mine, in a place that I never knew it had been waiting for me all along. Before the butterflies, or the fantasy worlds of my paperback heroes, before the dusty dirt track and the misty seaside adventures, but as all stories start: at the beginning.

Danielle is a writer living on the outskirts of London. She is a self-confessed book worm and tea addict. Follow her on twitter to keep up with her work, or just for the odd tea fuelled bookish escapade @_gigglingginger. Pick up a copy of Oh Comely 34 for more tales of return. 

Sunday Reading: Coming Home

words Anna Souter
photo Lara Watson

When I discovered the Welsh word hiraeth, I realised it filled an important hole in my vocabulary. There's no direct English translation, but it's used to describe a kind of nostalgic homesickness that is peculiarly Welsh. The word is also loosely associated with a sense of satisfaction caused by travelling west, towards the sea.

My father, a boy from county Durham, was first brought to west Wales by my mother when they were 15, to the small farmhouse bought by my great-grandfather in the 1950s. The cliffs of Ceredigion somehow spoke to him, and he fell unconditionally in love with the area. It's a place that gets under your skin and becomes part of your soul. The scenery is rural rather than wild, and the coastline undulating rather than dramatic, but it's perhaps the very ordinariness of its beauty that touches anyone who spends time there. When my sister and I came along years later, it became the scene of every family holiday. My memories are filled with impossibly long summers, a TV with only three channels, and beds made up with scratchy Welsh blankets.

As we got older, however, it became more apparent that my father was ill. A “bad leg” became a neurological problem, and the steep Welsh stairs and quirky cupboard-sized door to the bathroom in the small house became a permanently looming challenge.

On what would turn out to be my father's last trip to Wales, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the house. It had been a day of tears and shouting, my father on his hands and knees, swearing because he couldn't get up. We saw in the new year in our pyjamas, watching the countdown on the flickering television.

Just after midnight, we opened the curtains to find the garden and fields blanketed with snow. “It only snows down here once in a blue moon,” my sister and I told each other as we rushed out, wellies and coats pulled on over our pyjamas. The full moon was shining brightly, bathing everything in a magical blue light. It made the scenery shimmer with a haze of unreality, and feel far removed from the mundane sadnesses we'd watched during the day.

Most of the snow had melted the next morning, and we drove home in silence until the radio announcer began to report on the real blue moon that had been shining over the country's new year celebrations. It seemed our surreal moment really had been magical.

Soon after our return, my father was consigned to a wheelchair, which he would have to use for the rest of his life. His illness robbed him of his strength with a slow surety that was impossibly hard to watch. Finally, one Christmas five years later, my mother, my sister and I were returning to the house in Wales with my father's ashes in a jar.

He'd been very clear before he died: he wanted his ashes scattered on the cliff tops that had enchanted him as a young man. Far from pristine snow and moonlight, this time we battled against the wind and rain beating our faces and freezing our hands. The raging of the Welsh weather left us with the ironic certainty that it was only in the ending of his illness that he had found peace. We left him on the cliff top, in the knowledge that the next time we came back there it would feel like coming home.

 

Anna Souter is a writer and editor based in London. She loves art, travel and all things Welsh. Follow her on Instagram or read more on her website. For more stories of Return, seek out a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

 

What we're reading: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Photo: Liz Seabrook

Photo: Liz Seabrook

In issue 34, four writers shared the books they like to dip into, again and again. Here Jason Ward shares why, for him, December always means returning to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 

 

It’s surely not a coincidence that our most ebullient rituals occur during the bleakest days of the year. As winter batters its fists upon the windows, tradition is a friendly face at the door, a comforting visitor to help us ignore the darkness outside. Without even noticing, Christmas rites accumulate naturally around us. We listen to the same songs every year as we put lights on the tree, make the same biscuits we always make, watch the same Christmas specials that we could recite by heart. For the satisfaction they bring, we observe these events as closely as if they had been ordained.

Here’s a ritual of mine, then: every December I listen to a different audiobook of A Christmas Carol. An unabridged reading takes around three hours, so I’m able to get through it over a couple of crisp, lonely walks. In keeping with the oral tradition that fomented literature, A Christmas Carol is not a story you’re meant to read, but rather one you’re meant to have read to you. Dickens himself did this for 127 audiences during his lifetime, including his final public reading.

Like a bicycle or the zip on a jacket, we take A Christmas Carol for granted because it works perfectly. Possessing the quality of a fable, the story unfolds with such pleasurable inevitability that it’s difficult to imagine someone actually sat down and toiled over its nouns and verbs, that Ebenezer Scrooge and his misery didn’t always exist somewhere. Not wasting a moment, its elegant narrative works like a machine: there’s a reason why two centuries later we’re still telling the story to ourselves, not just through adaptations but versions starring everyone from Bugs Bunny to Fred Flintstone.

Despite the Bob Cratchit in my head bearing a striking resemblance to Kermit the Frog, however, I am helplessly, joyfully drawn to the original text. I love how its opening line – “Marley was dead: to begin with” – manages to be spooky and witty at the same time. I love that it’s written with a noble purpose and yet Dickens can’t resist showing off how clever he is. Most of all, I love the meaning of the tradition in my life. Every year, wandering the same city as Scrooge once did, I’m provided with a reminder that change is achievable, and that it is always possible to be one’s best, most compassionate self. 

 

For more tales of Return, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34

Sunday Reading: Holidays Away From Home

words Jordan Hernandez
photo Maren Morstad

Holidays were always a big deal for my family growing up, particularly Christmas.

Every year I would always climb into the front seat of my dad’s car as we set out to pick out the perfect Fraser Fir tree for our house. I would always be wrapped up like a mummy in my many layers of wool and cotton, giddy with excitement. On the way we always talked and listened to Christmas music on the radio, with the low hum of cars whizzing by and sometimes the pitter patter of rain falling onto the windshield. The car rides to and from picking out our Christmas tree were always our time, my Dad and I. It was during these quiet moments that I got to know things about him that remain special to this day. I learned how to pick out a tree that would be sturdy and long lasting. I would watch my Dad’s strong hands as he shook them all, watching to see which trees scattered pine needles to the ground as quickly as moths swarming and clinging to artificial light. One year I learned that my Dad’s favourite Christmas song is ‘The Little Drummer Boy’, and that some years it even makes him cry.

Christmas traditions growing up meant baking cookies, stringing multicoloured lights and garland on our banisters, sneaking things to be wrapped into the dining room and shutting the door. And then going to Christmas Eve candlelight service at church, hot chocolate on Christmas morning, phone calls from far-away relatives and a big lunch, of course followed by a long nap. Our traditions as a small family were always simple. But no matter how small our traditions were, they were always ours. They were comforting, they were expected, they happened like clockwork. I never questioned them because they were all I knew, they were our own version of those snow globes, the kind you shake and shake but everything remains the same within the glass bubble.

This year will be my first Christmas away from my own kin. I am going to another family’s home and partaking in their holiday rituals. I will be thousands of miles away from own home in Oregon, and then still thousands of miles away from my family in North Carolina. The geography of it all seems confusing, but in my heart the only map of Christmas has always just been a dot of a little town in North Carolina.

But I also find something most exciting, and in a way – romantic about extending one’s self further away from my family unit and immersing myself into a loved one’s. This means stripping away traditions and rituals that are second nature to me, and observing a new way of celebration and togetherness. To me it’s not so much about the bed I get to wake up in or the table in which we all gather around, but that the waking is slow and sombre and the gathering happens together in communion. Breaking bread every evening and taking turns with the dishes. I have also found myself overwhelmed at the sight of my beloved existing and functioning as a member of his own clan. The way he tenderly picks up and cradles his niece and kisses her forehead, going out on a boat with his brothers, wrestling with his nephews and softly talking with his Mother over morning coffee.

If this tumultuous year in society has taught me anything, it’s that home looks different for everybody. I hope no matter what home you spend your holidays in, it treats you warmly and most kindly. Perhaps home to you is surrounded in a forest of trees, or a good book with creased pages. Gathered around a fireplace with close friends or family. Floating on your back in the depths of the sea or in the arms of someone you love. Work at making that place your own. Spend time shaping and honing the goodness it offers. Learn to be patient if you must muddle through a season of temporary living. Find solace in the makeshift. I once read somewhere that home is defined as “the abiding place of the affections.” Find a place to gather or distribute your affections and let them soak there. Don’t squander all that you have worked with your hands to create. Spread your roots and never fear the coming cold.

 

Jordan is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregan, and the founder and managing editor at Sapien Magazine. Read her welcome to winter in issue 34 of Oh Comely, out now. 

 

 

Sunday Reading: The nostalgia of belonging

words: Aoife Inman; photo: Lara Watson

It’s not late in the evening but the clouds above me have gathered like a crowd, enclosing on the day with ever increasing speed. They turn my world to sepia.

I am stood with friends. We lean against the railings of the damp car park overlooking a swirling ocean. We have wrapped ourselves in every layer imaginable but still the wind is biting, fierce. The vast expanse of blue that stretches out before our eyes is breathtaking and it fills our friendship with silence for a moment. It’s my first sight of the ocean in a long while and words escape me. I fumble with them, puzzle pieces, but their jagged edges are all too harsh.

The last few stragglers are dragging beach-bags past us to traipse on up the coast path, retreating from the gathering storm. But with our arms laden with blankets, Tupperware and optimism, we trek against the tide to nestle just below the dunes. All three of us watching as the day melts before our eyes.

It’s this spell of familiarity that has numbed my tongue. I realise that I have forgotten the call of sanctuary and only in this echoing, drowning cry of wave upon stone do I remember.

The beach café pulls closed its shutters as we light driftwood fires and unpack, sticky brownies, bean burgers and soft rolls that mix with the sand and leave the grainy tang of the sea on our tongues. The sky is saturated with fresh grey; the murky paint-water of the afternoon. The fire grows higher, wood smoke clings to our clothes and we huddle closer. The smell is dirty, musky, bitter and it tastes of comfort.

We run towards the shoreline as the sea mist curls its toes over the cliff edges; brushing us with salty tongues. I am freezing but it doesn’t matter. The cold embraces me, whips my trousers in spirals round my legs as I laugh. We share stories, recount old friends and joy melts into unexplainable grief at the time I have lost here.

Eventually even the surfers, slick as seals, have ducked under their last waves and are dragging their boards through the grass and dirt up the misty hill. I press my dry lips tight to quell their chattering and sink my chin to my knees. We are three girls curled against the storm, our blankets billowing in tandem with the night. Sand burns our feet, our hands, our eyes and we blink out tears of belonging in a fragile world.

This sanctuary is tender, unforgiving, and I am rocked in the spell of its embrace, bewitched by its splendour.

 

Aoife Inman is a final year undergraduate history student and freelance writer. Her short story ‘A Pawn in Spring’ is due to be published in the Electric Reads’ Young Writers Anthology later this year. Follow her on Instagram @aoifeinman

Pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 34 for more tales of Return. 

Psst, looking for a Christmas gift idea?

Stuck for a Christmas gift idea for a friend? May we suggest a whole year of Oh Comely? Take out a gift subscription and we’ll send you a gift-wrapped edition of issue 34 to give on the day, along with a Christmas card. (If you prefer we can deliver your present directly - just let us know in the comments box when you order.)

Go to icebergpress.co.uk/christmas and enter the code GIFTWRAP16 or call 020 7415 7238. You’ll save 17% on a year’s subscription – only £25 for six issues. Last orders for Christmas delivery: Thursday December 15th. For international gift subscriptions please see our website.

 

The small print: To see all our offers for UK and overseas subscriptions, visit icebergpress.co.uk/subscribe. Or call 020 7415 7238 – we are a small team, so at times you may get through to our answerphone. Leave us a message and we’ll call you back. Terms and conditions: this offer is for new UK print subscribers only, check online for overseas prices. You will receive six issues in a year. Prices correct at time of going to print and subject to change. For full terms and conditions please visit icebergpress.co.uk/tandc.

 

Issue 34 playlist: Comfort songs

words: Marta Bausells

The songs we come back to are like old friends – they can be quirky, loud, make little sense, but they’re always there to lift us up. The songs chosen for this playlist are some of the comfort songs of Oh Comely’s team members. Each for a reason, they soothe us, bring us up and assure us everything is fine just the way it is – and we hope they’ll do the same for you in this colder, darker season. 

Some are celebrations of life and friends, others laments of heartbreak, other declarations of intentions like Billie Marten’s “I want to see things I’ve never seen, quietly happy and live by the sea”. Some are 90s hymns to self-assertion like No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak,’ shouts about when to draw the line like Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’, or roadtrip memories like Jeffrey Lewis’s ‘Roll Bus Roll.’ Others are sensational new songs we can’t stop playing, like Solange ripping her heart out and singing “sometimes I don't wanna feel those metal clouds” and Frank Ocean beautifully declaring an open, non-possessive love. 

The common thread is acceptance, peace within the chaos. We’re here now, and we’re not supposed to be anywhere else. As you refocus and think of the year ahead, snuggle up, light a candle, turn the music up, and relax. You’re home.

Wrap up cosy and plug in to issue 34's playlist on Spotify

Win! £500 to spend at Joanie

It's competition time!

Joanie is a fun new womenswear brand with a nostalgic twist and femininity at its heart. Joanie’s range is available in UK sizes 8 to 22, and the brand celebrates individuals who know their own style.

The latest collections for Autumn/Winter 2016, ‘Adorkable’ and ‘Champagne Toast’ showcase cute and quirky pieces and seasonal party wear.  Want to win a £250 spree on their site plus another £250 voucher code to give to a friend? Simply click here and answer the question to be in with a chance of winning. Closing date 14 Feb 2017 at midnight GMT. Good luck! 

Sunday Reading: Potion in a tin foil cauldron

words: Emily Ingle

Like many tales, this one starts with a girl setting off from home. I left last Halloween’s broomstick in my parents’ attic, along with most of my belongings, so it was a Boeing 767-300 that flew me across the ocean. Still, a metal box of people floating above the clouds must be nothing less than magic. I watched southern English towns shrink until they were sesame seeds sprinkled on spinach, handed to me by a smiling flight attendant. I stirred this tiny enchanted woodland with my plastic fork. One paper sachet of salt, one of pepper: a potion in a tin foil cauldron.

I was flying to a world I knew from websites and prospectuses read on the sofa of my university’s study abroad office — a world that put its spell on me from afar. Houses became fairy-sized while the day stretched to an extra seven hours. My journey took a path through a forest of duty-free handbag shops and immigration checkpoints, lined with fire extinguishers that by some strange alchemy weren’t red but silver. It was also a voyage on a sea of stories. Of the books that I squeezed into my suitcase until it was only under the airline’s weight limit by a mouse’s breath, nearly all were fairytales of some kind. While I was packing, a friend gently reminded me that they do have libraries in Colorado, but I still wished I didn’t have to leave some favourites behind.

The versions of fairytales we are fed are often sanitised visions of sparkling castles and royalty charging in on horseback at the perfect moment. But it depends on the telling you choose. Tales have been mocked as superstitious and irrational, but they taught me more than any guidebook or map I could have taken in their place. It is hard to leave the kind of friends who will tell you to bring more socks and fewer books even when it’s not what you want to hear, and grandparents who might not fear wolves but spend a lot of time in hospital these days. But the tales taught me to approach a new land as a dark and mysterious forest; that the charms will be as unexpectedly enchanting as the corners are shadowy. They taught me that the worst monsters would be the ones I conjured up myself.

They also taught me that I could be the storyteller. Long before they were written down and filmed, tales were held in heads not between pages, the narratives and characters more easily shifting into the shape of the teller or the listener. Now I’m sitting at my second-hand but new to me desk. A potassium-rich banana might have been a wise amulet to bring against the dizziness that comes with altitude and I feel like I could sleep for a hundred years. Those books have just been unpacked and are stacked up on the desk’s wooden top. They are the stone gargoyle that will awake to lend me its wisdom or taunt me into action, but it is only my touch that will animate it. There is a misty mountain outside the window and a fantastical range of peanut butter in the cupboard waiting to be tasted.

Fairytales punish ungratefulness with curses and toads; they are a reminder to always be aware of the opportunities I am privileged to have. But while I sat stirring my in-flight potion, my suitcase remained unopened. Instead, I watched the screen in front of me make a charmed map of the start of my own tale. It might be less battling ogres and more googling how on earth zebra crossings work in America, but it’s mine to tell. I’m not looking for a fairytale ending; I’m looking for a fairytale beginning.

Emily Ingle mostly makes pictures for other people's words but sometimes she writes things of her own. You can find her on her website, or pretending she lives in a fairytale.

For more tales of everyday magic, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 33

 

Meet indie rock rising star Lucy Dacus

words Marta Bausells; photos Cindy Parthonnaud

 

It’s good that we have chosen a walk around Abney Park cemetery on an Autumn afternoon to have a chat with Lucy Dacus. “Two of my favourite things are forests and graveyards! They’re good because people are quiet. Good for reading and thinking,” she says as we wander around the leaf-covered park in north-east London. Despite being a rising star in the US East Coast’s indie rock scene, Dacus likes to keep things simple – her favourite activity, she says, is to go for walks in her neighbourhood in Richmond, Virginia.

After a long process, which included 20 labels fighting for her, her debut album No Burden came out this September and has been doing the rounds in the States and collecting glowing reviews. Dacus, 21, has been touring her country all year, pretty much non-stop. Hymns like 'Map on a Wall', written years ago, seem perfectly appropriate for her current life on the road: “But I am alive and I made up my mind / to live fearlessly, running wild beneath the trees / above a ground that's solid at the core.” We walk around and sit down with her to talk songwriting, amulets and living more freely in her flash visit to the UK.

 

What in your life draws you to writing songs? And what are the songs in No Burden about?

I don’t have a very good answer because I don’t have a lot of control over the songwriting. I just go on walks and, sometimes, I start writing a song. I just have to listen to my thoughts and acknowledge them, and write them down, and let them sit, and let the song become what it is ... and then I realise oh, it’s finished! It doesn’t feel super intentional. And then after it’s done I can see what it’s about. No Burden was recorded in January 2015, and all the songs in the album were written in the 2 years before that, so some are really old! They’re not really related to each other.

Talk to me about your single, the self-deprecating and pretty amusing statement song 'I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore'. What experience was it based on?

That’s a song that took me like three minutes to write, because I’d been thinking about how to express those thoughts for so long. It’s about my experience primarily in middle school, when I started to try and become myself, apart from my parents. It’s about when you start forming your identity and people are imposing things on you, trying to teach you what your role is in society.

Why did you title the album No Burden?

I just wish people would understand that they don’t burden other people with their ideas, and if you are a burden on someone else that’s the other person’s fault. There’s nothing wrong with your thoughts or your influences or your effects on other people. I think people hold themselves back too much from each other.

And what’s the mysterious picture on the cover?

It’s a picture of me when I was five that one of my parents took of me. Despite what you see, it’s not a huge open field, it’s actually a slope down to a parking lot. But I just went and laid down out of habit (I was always laying down under trees when I was a kid, pretty fanciful). That was a time when I didn’t have the concept of being a burden. So I always try to revert back to that mindset.

When did you start writing music?

When I was in middle school I went to a church camp over the winter, and we had our girls’ cabin and our cabin leader was this college girl who had an acoustic guitar and I thought she was so cool. I was like: I’m going to go learn guitar and be like her. So I just learned a bunch of covers, and friends and I would sing covers together around campfires – classic suburban or country things to do!

You’ve been touring without much of a break since March. How do you keep yourself sane on the road?

I don’t know if I do keep myself sane, but things that are consistent are that I read a lot and I try to keep in touch with people back in Richmond, like my family and friends. But it’s hard, because there’s a difference between intentional communication and incidental communication. Intentionally, I can call them and talk, and say goodbye and it’s done, but the incidental stuff is what I miss. Living with my friends and them coming home and complaining and eating together, and the “what are you up to tonight?”. I miss the unplanned parts of friendship.

What’s Richmond like as a musical city? It sounds like there’s a huge music scene but like it’s very local, and artists don’t get out of there as much as they do in other cities.

Richmond is in a really good position, because it’s two hours from the beach, two hours from the mountains, two hours from Washington DC, six hours from New York. It’s on the East Coast and there are many cities nearby, so I would think more bands would tour from Richmond, but for some reason it’s not as nationally or internationally active. But in Richmond, local bands are thriving. There are tons of new groups and new music that’s really exciting, and I think it’s because people encourage each other locally so much. It’s a curse and a blessing that people don’t get out, because people do ruminate and really grow from each other there.

What’s your life like when you’re back home?

I live in a neighbourhood that is a couple blocks from the river and a couple blocks from the cemetery … I just walk a lot, by myself or with other people. What’s cool about this job is that when I’m not touring I have nothing to do, really (well, other than practice, record and write new songs!). I live with five of my best girlfriends who are all creative types too – sculptor, illustrator, filmmaker… So they give me a lot of life and other content, it’s not just music. That’s why reading keeps me sane too, because it’s an escape into a different creative artform that I’m not involved with.

Speaking of books, what are you reading right now?

Two days ago i finished Anna Karenina, which was great, it was so good – I’ll probably read more Tolstoy soon. I’m about to finish the third Elena Ferrante book. Oh my gosh, they’re so good. I started it just a couple days ago and it’s already over. I’m so upset that there’s only four of them, I wish they’d just go on and on and on! I just started Don Quixote too – and it’s so long I’m kind of intimidated by it. I’ve been trying to tackle epics this year.

Where would you like to be in five years?

I always operate under the assumption that this will all fall apart soon, any day at all, so I try to keep low expectations. But even if I couldn’t do this job, I’d be fine going back to a 9-to-5 desk job. I have my sights on starting a publishing company and maybe a record label in the future, just try to figure out ways to lift up other musicians and writers and artists that I care about. This year has been a lot about my album, and I don’t think I would be satisfied if that was the rest of my life, just my own stuff.

Is there an object you always bring with you on tour?

The lipstick that I wear at every show (I never wear it when I’m not my “work self”). And since August I always wear this ring which was a gift from my birth grandmother. I’m adopted and I met her in august and she gave me this ring she’s been wearing for 44 years. My birth father and his family came to a show in LA in August, and it was overwhelming but they’re all really sweet people.

No Burden is out now.

Contribute to our ‘Strength’ issue

Issue 35 - out in February - will be themed on 'Strength' and we're looking for your contributions. 

We’re looking for stories of resilience, resolve and readiness. Tales that explore a richness of colour, or a force on the senses. Your personal interpretation of what it means to be strong.

To be considered, email a 100-word outline of your idea to ohcomely@icebergpress.co.uk, along with two samples of your work by Monday 21 November. Please state 'Issue 35 contributions' in the subject header. 

Unfortunately we don't accept fiction or poetry samples. 

Look forward to hearing your ideas! 

More curious things: Magic

Our latest issue is dedicated to all things magic and you can see some of the products that inspired us on pages 14 and 15. There are always many more treats we find than we can fit into our pages, so here we're sharing five more favourites (and you can check out some more enchanting pieces here). 

We've fallen in love with the gorgeous compositions of Kansas-based Grace Chin. She describes her work as a search for "pithy, compelling statements that are meant to occupy primarily domestic spaces and serve as daily reminders".  We'd happily look at this every day (and - for more inspiration - check out our feature on digital covens in the issue). 

Witch Bows to No Man wreath, $75, Grace D. Chin

Its glass dome may make it look a bit like a crystal ball but in fact this is a table lamp, ideally sized for a nightstand or a desk. If it won’t help you see into the future, as least it’ll help you see into those dark corners of your room.

Round cloche table lamp, £140, Urban Outfitters

It's hard to resist the old-fashioned charm of this fortune dispenser, promising 100 tickets of "advice, mysterious quips and daily fortunes". Don't bamboozle yourself by pulling out five at a time. 

Fortune Dispenser, £6.95, Rockett St George  

We're huge fans of the work of the Strange Women Society (you can see another of their designs within the magazine, and they designed our special subscriber print). No surprises then that we'll be wearing these enamel pins with pride.  

Strange Women Society Initiation Pin, $10, Strange Women Society 

This Tisty Tosty bath bomb has a wonderful story to contemplate while you soak - it's based on a medieval love potion. Containing real rosebuds, it's scented with floral orris root powder, rose, and lemon. Geranium, jasmine and rose help create a spellbinding fragrance, while rose oil also gets to work soothing broken hearts - it’s used by aromatherapists to lift the spirits.

Tasty Tosty bath bomb, £3.50, Lush

 

Order a copy of the Magic-inspired Oh Comely issue 33.

Sunday Reading: Fire and Water

words Gabriella M Geisinger; photograph Luna Craig

My mom went into labour on the evening of 22 July 1989. It was the last of a stretch of inordinately hot days, the kind that make the Manhattan skyline waver against the clouds. I do not know if you could see the stars that night. She was 37 years old, and was in labour for 22 hours. On 23 July, at 6.08pm, I was born. A Leo.

I’m no great believer in horoscopes. I find the platitudes to be self-soothing. One more way that we absolve ourselves of responsibility for our actions. I never met an Aries I liked – I’m a Capricorn so it’s no wonder we don’t get on. We toss our hands up to the heavens and blame the stars for our misfortune – mercury is retrograde; the moon is full.

I was born at 6.08pm and was the colour of terracotta. I was in an incubator for a few days before I could be sent home to our one-bedroom apartment. It was on the 16th storey, though really it was the 15th – the 13th floor had been abandoned for fear of bad luck. Superstitions, like horoscopes, are not something I believe in.

And yet.

I grew well into my pre-ordained, star-lined path with a wild head of curls – a lion’s mane. Once I was old enough to read Teen Vogue I discovered that, technically, I was a Cancer-Leo cusp. More so than I knew – for then my mother’s 22 hours of belabourment were still unknown to me. Had the physicality of my mom’s body been different, I would have been a Cancer. Had the doctor agreed to a C-Section several hours earlier, I would have been a Cancer. Perhaps I am. That first Cancer’s breath expelled as a sad sigh when I sit, alone, at a party without anyone to talk to. Afraid to approach a stranger. When I spend a whole weekend lost in a world of books. The years I spent as a competitive swimmer, still claiming that I feel more myself in the water – that my body was not built for land.

There is a fault line that stretches through my personality – from tiptoes to crown. It is a fault line that defines me, and splits me in two.

As a child I had a penchant for volunteering and then, upon being chosen, quickly retreating to my seat – my cheeks the colour of beets. As a teen in school, I’d raise my hand to read my favourite passage of a book and then, when my lines came, my heart would block my throat and no words could eke out. I trembled. The pages shook. I felt feverish. Take pity on me.

The duality of my nature is that I both love and fear adventure – attention – risk.

I moved to London in September 2013 and I knew no one in the city. On my first night I befriended two girls in the courtyard of my housing complex. I walked up to them and said hello, fresh off the airplane from New York City. The Leo in me took over – it said this will all be fine. The Leo is most often my motivation – to be liked. It is fiery fearless when it needs to be. It seeks the limelight by way of the byline.

These two elements are not so disparate – but I agonised over them. They made for a more interesting (re: difficult) life. Parties left and then returned to an hour later, realising that I didn’t actually want to be home alone. When my mom finally told me the story of my birth, the metronome of the ticking clock, ushering her from one day to the next, it clicked into place. I reached an understanding; instead of trying to marry these two personalities, I decided to let them co-exist. Horoscopes are, after all, self-soothing. 

I am no great believer in horoscopes.

And yet.

There are two halves of my self – and to chalk it all up to a simple arrangement of molecules and chromosomes feels, somehow, less magical than the alternative. That the particular trail that the stars drew across the sky that night pulled and pushed me into being. The arrangement of the heavens, the planets and asteroids, as the world spun from one day to the next pencilled itself in me. A map of changing constellations under my skin, all variations on a theme.

 

 

Gabriella M Geisinger is a freelancer writer specialising in music, societal commentary, and poetry. For her MA in Narrative Nonfiction at City, University of London, she completed her memoir The Many Lives of my Father. She uses words like bricks, building houses that keep you safe for a time. You can follow her on twitter, and visit her website

 

For more stories of magic, pick up a copy of Oh Comely issue 33

The Neon Demon: An interview with Nicolas Winding Refn

"It started off as a horror film, but then I also wanted to make it into a comedy with a lot of camp, because I love extremeness, and it needed to have melodrama. And in a way it also became a science fiction movie."

The inability of Nicolas Winding Refn to precisely categorise his own film is to its credit. The Neon Demon is at once gruesome and arch, empathetic and heartless, icy provocation and savage allegory. Employing the same mesmeric tone as his earlier work like Drive and Only God Forgives, the film follows aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) as she attempts to prosper in the cannibalistic world of fashion. As Jesse's beauty warps herself and everyone around her, however, The Neon Demon's fundamental acceptance of human cruelty unsettles as much as its sudden, brutal lurches.

Ahead of its home release today, Nicolas discussed the meaning of the film, and tried to persuade us that narcissism is a virtue.

A wide-eyed teenager going to Los Angeles to “make it” is a plot that's roughly the same age as movies themselves. What appealed to you about using that story?

There was a simplicity to it that I found very interesting. The more simple something is, the more it resonates. That can be confusing because there's a certain expectation for culture to be “complex” and “thought-provoking”, but those are usually devices to steer away from what's really the essence. I believe that less is more, and none is everything.

What do you think is driving Jesse? Is she just looking for fame? Is she trying to escape something?

I think Jesse lives in two parallel universes. On one level she's the deer-in-the-headlights young girl coming to the big city. She feels she doesn't have any particular skills but she can make money from being pretty, so why not take advantage of that? You never know where it might lead to. And then there's another part of her where she's like an evil Dorothy that comes to meet the wizard, but she is the poison that's going to drive the wizard insane because she has what everyone desires, and she knows it. You never really know if she is manipulating or being manipulated, until she goes through the journey of becoming the complete narcissist.

The character of Jesse has to be the most magnetic person in the room, and yet this is a film where every single actor is beautiful – even the sleazy motel owner is played by Keanu Reeves. How did you work with Elle Fanning to create that effect?

Elle is not just beautiful, she's unique. There was no-one else who could have done this but her. If there was no Elle Fanning I don't think I could have made the movie. It was the same thing as Ryan Gosling in Drive. If you weren't gripped by her then there was nothing to take you in – the whole idea is that Jesse has some ineffable quality everyone wants.

How much of The Neon Demon is specifically a comment on fashion? Do you think it's more vicious than other industries?

I don't think fashion is more vicious than other industries, but it's very complex and non-complex at the same time. It is about the most beautiful image, and yet fashion reflects our cultural evolution, our historical evolution. Fashion is very important to us as people. I love fashion personally, I love making fashion commercials and working in advertising. I enjoy the glamour of it, and also the vulgarity and the silliness. It's a great mirror of society.

The models in the film take their competitive nature to extreme, bloody ends. To what extent are their actions allegorical?

It's just normal human behaviour. We're competitive creatures. That's usually seen as something negative, but a lot of The Neon Demon is about celebrating narcissism as a virtue. It's the next human level, our next evolution is a full love of thyself.

Are we supposed to support Jesse throughout? Is there a certain point where we start judging her, and is that hypocritical?

Secretly there's a desire to go through her journey, but then there's morality that's very ambiguous because we still live in a world where narcissism and ego and vanity is usually considered negative. However, we all have it to various degrees, and I think that with the next generation there's more of an acceptance of narcissism, an encouragement of it – the idea that it's okay to completely love oneself openly. For my generation that was a very terrible thing to even admit to, but my kids' generation accept so much more of human behaviour, and fully accepting oneself is a part of it. Of course there's also the hypocritical nature of us, that we all teach this notion of equality, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All those things that I tell my own children, but I also know that if it's not beautiful I don't look, and neither do you. We have to accept that rather than trying to dismiss it, but it's a horrible feeling. It's also very refreshing because it's like letting go of your own fear of what is right and what is wrong and just accepting what thou will. It's about giving in to your urges.


The Neon Demon is out now on DVD, Blu-ray, Digital and VOD.

 

Sunday Reading: Byootiful Holly

Words: Poppy O'Neill
Illustration: Kate Rowland

Shirley rang. V.nice tea - Holly bit better. Fire done - see you later. A note scribbled on the back of an envelope in 1991. Twenty-five years later I find myself carefully scanning and saving it, safe in the digital world from fire, theft and spilled cups of tea.

My grandmother, Sassy, came across these scraps of paper during a grand spring clean. It's a hoarding instinct I share with her, that causes bank statements to sit for decades, just in case. Pieces of official paperwork and personal ephemera that may possibly, maybe one day, be wanted. It was in this big clear out of seemingly useless paper that the preciousness and vulnerability of these jotted sentences became apparent. Holly was Sassy's beloved Jack Russell, who passed away not long after the notes were written. 

I time-travel by means of this informal letter-writing; messages left by those who dropped in on Holly while Sassy was out. All hopeful, all testament to a cheerful dog, wagging her tail and scrounging from the table. She might be downcast by the evening, but when the note was written she was happy. The granddaughters have grown up, but when the felt-tip touched that paper, they were little girls. Holly might have died many years ago, but when the words were jotted spontaneously down, she was there, she existed. I revisit these letters and a past us, kept as a gift to our future selves. 

I look at the other items Sassy kept. Appointment diaries, facts of the day, people to meet and events to attend. The details that seem small at the time become the concrete, provable key to the cherished essence of a memory. There is a list in her bundle: Things I Want To Remember, and it runs over two sides and up the margins, recalling the quality of Holly's movements – kangarooing through high grass – her habits – biting car tyres – small things that make it seem incredible, once they are gone, that pets never speak a word to us, and yet their personalities are absolutely individual.  

The letters I wrote Sassy at five years old show a child trying desperately to comfort an adult. Holly saves the day, Holly lives with the Flower Fairies, Byootiful Holly. I remember her solid barrel of a body, her warm wiry hair and her pink bacon-rasher tongue. I remember it dawning on me some months after her death that she was truly gone forever. 

These little scraps of evidence are trivial, but they become important precisely because they are kept. The timbre of our voices is in these notes. Relics to conjure a moment, a feeling, a smell. And when they are read alone, while that feeling of a loved one in the room is slippery and comes always with melancholy, we hold on to it and in a small, personal way they are there.

Recipe Friday: Clotted Blood Cakes

Just in time for Halloween, we bring you the last in our fiendish selection of recipes from The Hoxton Street Monster Supplies Cookbook - full of tasty tidbits to satisfy monster appetites. Seeing as they're the experts in feeding the undead, we let them introduce the recipe themselves...

"Those with nocturnal habits often need a mid-morning pick-me-up and blood was always the tipple of choice. However, the profusion of coffee shops has meant that many tribes have adopted the human predilection for caffeine, making fresh blood less popular. The traditional blood clots have been replaced in this recipe to appeal to modern tastes."

You will need (for 20 cakes):

 

200 g white chocolate, broken into pieces

125 g unsalted butter

3 eggs

175 g caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

150 g plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

75 g dried cranberries

 

1 Line an 18 x 28 x 5 cm baking tin with nonstick baking paper and snip diagonally into the corners so that the paper fits snugly.

2 Melt half the chocolate and the butter in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of gently simmering water. Whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract in a separate bowl with a hand-held electric whisk until light and frothy and the whisk leaves a trail when lifted.

3 Fold the chocolate and butter mixture into the beaten eggs with a metal spoon. Sift the flour and baking powder over the top and then fold in gently. Chop the remaining chocolate and fold half of it into the mixture with half the cranberries.

4 Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and sprinkle with the remaining chocolate and cranberries. Bake in a preheated oven, 180°C, for 30–35 minutes until well risen. Leave to cool in the tin.

5 Lift out of the tin, peel off the paper and cut the cake into 20 squares. 

 

For more deliciously fiendish recipes, pick up a copy of The Hoxton Street Monster Supplies Cookbook, published by Mitchell Beazley, £12.99 (octopusbooks.co.uk). And for more otherworldly treats, order Oh Comely issue 33, 'Magic'