Thursday, 27 September 2012


This recipe was given to me by a friend years ago when we were looking for cheap and easy ways to eat healthily.  One batch can do all week, it freezes brilliantly and is especially good with freshly baked BREADLINE BREAD.


2 tablespoons olive oil
1-2 medium leeks, chopped
1.75 litres vegetable stock (I use Marigold Bouillon as it also makes a great winter drink)
300g broccoli cut into florets
300g frozen peas
2 supermarket bags watercress, spinach and rocket salad
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely (optional)
1 onion (optional)


1. Choose a very large pan. You'll see why in a minute.
2. Heat the oil in the pan and add the chopped leeks (plus garlic and onion if using).
3. Cook over a low heat for about 5 minutes until the vegetables are soft.
4. Add the broccoli and peas and stir well.
5. Add the stock and bring to the boil.  See? Full isn't it?
6. Simmer until the vegetables are very soft. You should be able to get a fork into the broccoli but it shouldn't be soggy. This will take roughly 7 minutes.
7. Stir in 1 bag of salad for about 3 minutes.
8. Add the second bag of salad and let it wilt.
9. Liquidise.
10. Season with lemon juice and pepper until the soup has a real zing.
11. There you go - lunch sorted for the week!

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


What holds any great story together is its structure.  A well written book is never an accidental splurge of inspired prose onto the page, and it certainly doesn't appear fully formed and without revisions.  Writing is a complex skill, and to do it well you need to be aware of what works, and why.

Take a look at the very first Harry Potter.  Of course it's a cracking story, but what struck me most on first reading it was how tight the plotting is.  Nothing is in there that shouldn't be, and everything you are shown is revealed as relevant when it's picked up again later in the narrative.  It's one of the factors that makes it such a compelling read, and the more you write, the more you will recognise this skill in successful authors.  

Having said that, if you attempt to begin writing with a fully imagined novel in your head you will almost certainly do yourself a permanent injury.  Brains aren't designed that way, and neither - generally - are novels.  Try thinking of your story as a journey.  To get to your destination successfully, you'll need a map and some signposts if you're not going to end up wandering aimlessly in circles.  Granted, you can make some great discoveries en route, but the chances are you'll end up neck deep in quicksand wondering how on earth you can get yourself back on the motorway.  

Here, to get you thinking, is an excellent post from Adventures in YA and Children's Publishing.  It can help you formulate your plot from scratch, or act as a tool later in the process to see if your manuscript has enough story to drive it forward.  If this isn't how you approach writing don't worry - everyone is different.  But I hope it will give you some idea of the landmarks to look out for along the way.


Wednesday, 19 September 2012


Cheap, easy and delicious, this is a great daily staple.  It works just as well with wholemeal bread flour as white, although persuading your husband to eat it may prove more difficult... #personalexperience


450g strong plain white bread flour
7g sachet fast acting dry bread yeast
1 teaspoon caster sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
250ml lukewarm water

Poppy seeds
1 egg (beaten). 


1. Preheat oven to 220C (425F / Gas 7).
2. Place flour into large mixing bowl and add yeast, sugar and salt.  Perfectionists may use a sieve.
3. Add the oil and water.
4. Lightly flour your  hands and knead the dough inside the bowl for approximately 10 minutes until it feels smooth and elastic. 
5. Lightly grease a bread tin or bowl with olive oil and cover with greased cling film. 
6. Leave in a warm place for an hour and a half - on top of the cooker is ideal.
7. Knock back the risen dough, which should have doubled in size.  Knead for a further 5 minutes.
8. Shape the dough into a rectangle / amorphous blob and place in a lightly greased bread tin / heatproof dish. 
9. Leave in a warm place until the dough has doubled in size (approximately 45 minutes).
10. Remove clingfilm, glaze the loaf with the beaten egg and sprinkle with poppy seeds. 
11. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the loaf looks golden and sounds hollow when it's tapped on the base.


Word count matters.

There is nothing that says, "I have no idea what I'm doing," faster or more clearly than a manuscript that is way out of the ballpark in terms of length.

However brilliant your concept or writing, if your manuscript is unusually long (or short) for its category, you're introducing obstacles to it being published.

If you want to give your submission the best chance, take a look at what else is being written in your area.  It's common sense to understand the conventions and take on board what seems to be acceptable.  Your picture book may be phenomenal, but at 450,000 words it's not going to be taken seriously - especially if you tweet it in 140 character instalments to your chosen agent.

Here, to help you out, is a great post by literary agent Jennifer Laughran.  It covers the issue of word count in children's and young adult fiction and offers a helpful guide to the norms.  There's even a useful link which allows you check the word count of other books like yours.

Because you want to maximise your chances - don't you?


Monday, 17 September 2012

The Making of the Hillhead Wall

Just occasionally, life works out very oddly indeed. Today, Glasgow unveils a major new public artwork.  It’s a collaboration between artist and writer Alasdair Gray and artist Nichol Wheatley, and marks the flagship first stage of an upgrade to the Glasgow tube system. 

To say that it’s ambitious would be a massive understatement.  Over 120 tiles have been drawn, printed, fired and cut in a complex process that has taken years to work out and months to accomplish.  Long days, and longer nights, have been spent exploring the technical possibilities and limitations, and at times the entire project has seemed impossible.  Yet they have done it – concluding a story that began 13 years ago in a tiny restaurant on Glasgow’s Ashton Lane.

In summer 1999, most of my evenings were spent perched on a formica table in the Grosvenor Café.  Nichol and I had just started dating, and we would talk long into the night after the restaurant had closed while he worked on the Grosvenor’s new mural cycle. 

Ashton Lane was already home to a far more famous artwork.  Between 1980 and 1981, Alasdair had created his extraordinary Arcadia mural in the stairwell of the Ubiquitous Chip.  While Nichol worked on his new Grosvenor piece, Alasdair was across the road expanding and restoring Arcadia, and it fell to the Grosvenor’s owner, Larry Winning, to introduce them. 

They had a coffee and a chat, then went back to work.  It would be another seven years before their paths crossed again, but one feature of Nichol’s mural would spark Alasdair’s interest.  It was a panoramic view of Hillhead, the local area, drawn in simple outline and with the tiny Grosvenor Café at its heart.  

By 2007, Alasdair and Nichol had become firm friends.  They were now working together to bring Gray’s new mural cycle to fruition at Oranmor, and chess and whisky fixtures had become regular features of the week.  Nichol’s cityscape had already resurfaced in Alasdair’s work once, in a beautiful re-imagining in Old Men in Love, and by 2009 their connection was so well known that Nichol was approached at his studio by SPT.  An upgrade to the tube system was planned, with a range of art across the newly modernised stations.  Could he get Alasdair involved?

For two months they met every Thursday night over chess and drinks as Alasdair considered it.  

There were limitations to what could be done, and the architects’ designs added further clarity.  Initially, Gray wanted to decorate the whole space, but there were requirements for advertising, and a budget.  These constraints helped ideas to crystallise quickly, and in August 2010 Alasdair was appointed.  The idea?  A stunning panorama of the area rendered in tiles.  The question was, how would he do it?

The next year was spent in the studio exploring technical possibilities.   The contract to translate Alasdair’s finished drawing onto the wall was still out to tender, and while he drew, Nichol was figuring out how - and whether - he could pitch for the job. The approach had been made for Alasdair alone, and although he would require huge practical collaboration the practicalities, in this case, were daunting. 

Nothing like this had ever been attempted before.  Alasdair’s design was enormous, a giant 9 metre by 2 metre drawing which had to be translated from pen and paper onto wall tiles.  Imposing the design over a square grid would seriously disrupt its flow, so instead a method had to be devised where the mural could be ‘drawn’ onto the surface of several massive tiles and then ‘cut out’ to follow the lines of Alasdair’s picture. 

Making it work would be hugely complex.  The image would have to be cut into A3 size pieces, scanned, and then digitally stitched back together.  A process had to be found to turn these digital images accurately into wall tiles, and these tiles then had to survive high firing temperatures without cracking.  To complicate matters still further, the decision had been made to print the cityscape onto porcelain to fit with the subway’s new scheme - and porcelain presented a whole set of problems on its own.

Any one of these stages was highly innovative and fraught with complexity and risk, and every step in the journey was a minor triumph.  Before anything could even start they had first to find a method to cut the tiles to the right shapes, and in spring came the major breakthrough that would get the ball rolling.  Water jets.

Eventually, in November 2011 and after a lengthy tender process, Nichol had resolved the technical problems and was appointed to the job.  Despite knowing that the task could be done, it still had to be done, and winning the contract marked the start of an intensive and painstaking year.

A month later, the digital translation process began.  A traditionally skilled artist meeting modern technology presents its own challenges, and more than once Alasdair had to be reminded not to draw directly onto the computer screen.  Three full months were spent on the scanning and re-stitching of his drawing, followed by a further two on colouration alone.

Yet with transfer maker Howard Quinn now onboard, the image could finally be translated into shaped tiles.  Quinn had perfected the art of firing transfers onto tiles using ceramic pigment, although never on this scale before, nor onto such an unpredictable surface as porcelain.  A series of test firings began to iron out any problems, and it was decided that all tiles would be pre-fired and stress drilled to avoid cracking.  At last, in spring 2012 final manufacture was underway.

With the finished tiles successfully fired using Steve Richards’ ‘sunbed’ kilns at Glasgow Ceramics Studio, the final adjustments could be made.   In June 2012, the ‘Hillhead Wall’ was for the first time laid out in its entirety on a specially made 9 metre table so that it could be checked for colouration flaws or shrinkage.  

It was an incredible moment, as what had once seemed impossible was suddenly right there spread out in front of us in the studio.  

While most of the design was on large tiles cut like an irregular jigsaw, Alasdair’s rainbow and River Kelvin were traditional mosaic, tiny coloured tiles that each needed laid individually by hand in a process that took a full week.  It was a repetitive job, but one that offered the chance for inventive visual flourishes.  

That done, it was time for the final installation. 

Just as he had done thirteen years before, and just round the corner from the former Grosvenor, Nichol worked overnight on a Hillhead cityscape.  This time however, it was a far tougher job. In a busy subway station minimal disruption is key, and the entire artwork had to be kept under wraps until it was officially unveiled.  Every night for ten days the team worked from midnight till 5am, laying the tiles and then covering them again before the morning rush hour.  Sleep patterns had to be reset in advance, and door buzzers were disconnected so that no-one was woken by the postman.

Unlike before though, for this install I wasn’t perched in the background with a mug of tea.  In a strange book-ending of our time in Glasgow, the making of the Hillhead Wall coincided with our move to begin a much longed for house build in the country.  Although we hadn’t anticipated it, the subway job had proved so intensive that we had to leave Nichol behind in the city for a full year, and family life during that period consisted of snatched weekends and scheduled phone-calls between meetings. 

On  25th June though, the phone call finally came through.  The Hillhead Wall was finished – and it had come in on budget to the penny.  Between then and now, the mural has been covered by a hoarding bearing Alasdair's words, ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better world,’ and West End commuters have passed it every morning with no idea what – if anything at all - lies behind it. 

Today that hoarding finally comes down.  For the first time, Glasgow will see what Alasdair, Nichol and their team worked for so long to create, in a job that proved immensely challenging on almost every front.  Looking at the final result and thinking back to those early days in the Grosvenor, I can honestly say this.  At times it may have been far tougher than we ever imagined, but it has been worth every single second.

(All photographs copyright of Nichol Wheatley, except for Alasdair and Nichol playing chess, copyright of Nick Harrington).

Sunday, 9 September 2012


A House made of Books

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to build a house.  Not a sleek modern house crammed with the latest gadgetry, but a really imaginative house inspired by all the books I loved while growing up.

Ideally it would be in the country, preferably inside a tree or underground, and there would have to be secret rooms. Whatever it appeared to be on the outside, the inside would be different, as if simply stepping through the front door transported you to a whole new world.

Years passed and I got a job making documentaries, moved to the city and married an artist.  We lived in a flat that he had bought when it was near-derelict, and together we discovered something. I had ridiculously ambitious ideas for our home that I couldn't translate into reality.  Nichol was extremely skilled at making things and had a remarkable degree of tolerance.  And gradually, we transformed our home into a wonderful, creative place that reflected all of that - a home that we thought we'd probably stay in forever.


Out of the blue, the chance came up to buy some land.  We wrote down what we wanted, hired an architect and drew up the plans.  Our brief was simple - or so we convinced ourselves.  We'd like a Hobbit House on a Weasley budget with as much room as possible for the stuff that we'd made.  Our budget was very tight, and so as much of the house that we could do by ourselves we would need to.  Given my previous experience of watching building projects go off piste you'd think I'd have learned my lesson, but apparently not.  I'm nothing if not optimistic.

So that's where we now stand.  Tether's End will chart the growth of our new project from start to finish, and hopefully the final cost will be less than £400 million.

So, to all those who partied, loved, crashed, missed the millennium, danced on the roof, painted, played chess, made films, held cricket matches and rode half-pipes in the hall, came to the poker, cooked banquets, were born, slept in the storeroom / roof / bath, wrote books, fell down the stairs, got up the stairs in the first place, drank purple passion punch and survived, didn't fall off the edge of the mezzanine, or smoked cigars next to the chimney watching the sun come up at our old home - we salute you.

We had a great time there.

Welcome to our next adventure.

Getting Started

Writing books is not easy.  However talented or determined you are you're bound to come up against obstacles, some of which you can over come by experience, some by hard work and persistence.

The internet is a great source of writing advice, some good, some not so good.  Here, I'll be collecting the best of the tips I've found as I make the move from non-fiction into fiction.  Having a 'great idea for a book' is in no way the same as being able to write one, but if you're really determined I hope what you find here will set you off in the right direction.


1. Join Twitter.  No, seriously, do.  It's a fantastic place for writers and pretty quickly it will become clear who really knows what they're talking about.  Follow them.  Listen.  Learn.

2. If you are starting from scratch, Write to be Published by Nicola Morgan is well worth a read.  It's packed with sensible advice, and (even better) it's funny too.  Actually, even if you're not starting from scratch it's worth a look.  You may be surprised by how much you already know.

3. Write.  It may sound obvious, but many 'writers' who want to write a book never get round to the actual writing part.  Writing takes discipline, and like any skill the more you do it the more you will improve.  Be prepared though - it may come as shock when you realise how much drivel you are capable of spouting.  This is good.  It means you are able to look at your own work critically, and make it better.

4. Read.  Read intelligently, and keep abreast of what's being written in your chosen genre.  What are these writers doing well that you could do better?  Take it on board.

5. Never, never, NEVER pitch your book to an agent via Twitter.  Submission guidelines are there for a reason.  Would you walk up to a random doctor in the street, drop your trousers and shout, "What do you think of my boil?"  Thought not.  Just remember that.

And finally, a word from the marvellous Nathan Bransford.

Because, in a nutshell, this is what it's all about.

Nathan Bransford: The Publishing Process in GIF Form