Book review – Gossip From the Forest by Sara Maitland

Gossip From The Forest coverThis is definitely a book to take your time over. I received my copy at the book launch in Bristol this March, and have been dipping in and out ever since – to me this seems like the ideal way to enjoy Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales.

The book is divided into 12 chapters, each dedicated to a particular forest and Sara’s experiences of it during a particular month, beginning with Airyolland Wood, “a tiny triangle of ancient oak wood” in March.

Sara partners each month and forest to her own retelling of, mostly, well-known fairytales, and packs the pages full of information on the forests and fairytales – discussing their sociological impact and the threats that have challenged the survival of both.

Ideally this is a book to be read at a pace of one chapter per month, but once you begin reading I suspect you’ll be unable to resist racing onwards, enticed by Sara’s facts, theories and tales.

Sara argues compellingly that forests and fairytales are deeply intertwined – citing countless examples of how fairytales must be as firmly rooted in forests as the trees themselves. More controversially perhaps, she believes that forests are equally invested in the fairytales, that they have a somewhat symbiotic relationship: “The fairy stories teach us how to see the forests, and how to love them too. They are spooky but special in our imaginations.”

Each of the woods she researches for the book (and what a lovely task that must have been) has its own specific character – the one that enticed me most is the gorgeously named Staverton Thicks in eastern Suffolk, which Sara visits in August, “which is the right month to go, because it is the month of childhood.” This is a place of lichen, ferns and fungi, numerous butterfly species, and oak trees that have been pollarded, a management technique that apparently has a side effect of making them so easy to climb that Sara’s 20-year-old niece was unable to resist. It sounds like a magical place.

Sara’s reimagined fairytales are plump treats laid out after each journey through a forest – and again I have a favourite, this one being Sara’s version of Hansel and Gretal, written many years after the children burn the witch in her own oven, once they have grown old themselves. It’s a thought-provoking and deeply pleasing tale.

Sara’s delight in each of the woods she explores is evident (even when she expresses her fright experienced while walking alone in The Purgatory Wood and discovering she is not actually alone after all), as is her interest in their histories.

Reading this book you will learn about the influences that have shaped the woods we know today, as well as the myths that have sprung up about what they once were. You’ll also discover an awful lot about wildlife and trees. With Sara’s lyrical narrative carrying you forwards, I suspect that if you read it before bedtime you’ll fall asleep with your head full of shifting leaves.

Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytales by Sara Maitland is available to buy from Amazon.


Why journeys are good for writers

Iona beach cr Judy DarleyLast week I travelled from Bristol to Penzance by train and it reminded me why journeys are so good for writers.

In part, yes, it’s about seeing new things, meeting new people, being open to new experiences, but equally valuable is the power of the journey itself.

For starters, providing you’re not controlling whatever vehicle you choose to travel by, getting from A to B invariably carves out a space of precious time, which can be filled by putting pen to paper or finger to laptop key.

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Mid-week writing prompt – Amsterdam bridges

While taking a boatride through Amsterdam’s canals a couple of years ago, I found myself fascinated by the shadowy underside of the city’s bridges.

Amsterdam bridges cr Judy Darley

This photo captures the both the underside and overside of one of the bridges, Amsterdam’s boat culture and bike culture, plus a hint of the canal-side views – so many directions to choose from!

If you write or create something prompted by this idea, please let me know by emailing judydarley (at) I’d love to know the creative direction you choose.

Book review – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Murial Spark

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie book coverThis novel is an elegantly crafted masterpiece on the dangers of power in prejudiced hands. The formidable Miss Jean Brodie of the title is a schoolteacher who moulds her favourites, known as the ‘Brodie set’ into mini versions of herself: cultured, opinionated and extraordinarily snobbish. That she is a teacher rather than an empress or warrior queen is the only thing that prevents this leading to a battle of epic proportions.

With most books these days presented in the first or third person, the omniscient viewpoint is an unfamiliar beast, but in author Murial Spark’s hands it transforms into a skilled tool that takes us on sweeping journeys through minds and times. Far from being linear, the action flickers back and forth, relying on us to keep up, and keep track, of everything we’re being shown. Continue reading

Mid-week writing prompt – murky pool

Pool cr Judy Darley

This week’s prompt shows my fascination with contrasts – this should be an idyllic summer scene, but where are all the people, and why is the pool’s water so murky and green?

Is this view of neglect a sign of some greater travesty?

If you write or create something prompted by this idea, please let me know by emailing judydarley (at) I’d love to know the creative direction you choose.

Escape to Penzance for the lit fest

Penzance shore cr Judy DarleyPenzance Literary Festival begins tomorrow, running from Wed 17th till Sunday 21st July.

On Thursday 18 July I’ll be enjoying the glorious train line that runs from Bristol to Penzance, hugging the Devon and Cornish coasts wherever possible. Then, that evening, I’ll be reading one of my stories as part of the Telltales night at Admiral Benbow from 8.30 – buy tickets here.

The festival organisers invite you to “Come and meet a galaxy of prize-winning and up-and-coming authors, poets and playwrights, from West Cornwall and ‘up-country’ too.” And most of the events only cost a couple of quid.

Literary happenings that have caught my eye include a talk from artist, author, photographer, film-maker, maker of books, and ‘out-of-the-box thinker’ Andrew Lanyon, sharing details of “his latest explorations into the worlds of creativity, imagination and logic.”

On Sunday there’s be a chance to hear local poets Angela Stoner & Susan Taylor, in a performance called ‘Overlapping Steps: Poems that speak to each other‘.

The festival programme says they will “explore the connections they have uncovered in their separate voices by reading poems from their works that interact with one another.  There will be visual (and possibly musical) accompaniment.

There are also drop-in sessions for writers at the delightfully named Lost and Found café, guided walks around the Lamorna Valley, and much more. I’m really excited to be a part of it!

Different mediums for short fiction

Published storiesThis week I received two rather exciting packages in the post, each one containing a small bundle of words. The first to arrive, ’16 Single Sentence Stories’, is a gorgeous little book that does what it says on the tin, and one of the 16 single sentence stories is by me!

I’ve so happy to have my tale ‘A Hushed Space’ included in this very original mini-anthology, and to see my words illustrated by artist K. Sekelsky. ’16 Single Sentence Stories’ is available to buy from

The second is issue two of new literary title The Germ Magazine, and features my story ‘Little Blessings’. It’s available to buy from

In other news, my very strange, very short story ‘The Bid’ was published by an online magazine called Cease, Cows. Take a look if you have a mo (or should that be a moo?)!

It’s always to good to get your work out there, and when that culminates in seeing your words in print, it’s thoroughly satisfying, not to mention motivating!


Tea cr Judy DarleyThis piece of flash fiction by Judy Darley was originally published in Scrapsan anthology of flash-fictions released to coincide with National Flash Fiction Day 2013. It is posted here with the editor’s permission.

Dressed in her winter coat and winter boots, Amma feels over-warm in the art gallery, so much so that she considers peeling off a layer, leaving some woollen aspect of her clothing pushed beneath a bench to retrieve before she leaves. The heat is making her contact lenses feel dry and her tongue is quietly, uncomfortably, cleaving to the roof of her mouth.

If she is quick, speeds through the exhibition fast, she’ll be able to escape into the fresh air outside, maybe go somewhere for a quick cuppa before heading home. The thought makes her smile to herself as she strides past most of the displays, giving them only the most cursory of looks.

The central piece of the exhibition is a gigantic block of tea, made from countless leaves pressed together – a full ton, according to the literature pinned to one wall. The block is as high as her breasts; its corners are as sharp as teacups are round.

Amma holds her face close to it to see if she can inhale the fragrance of tea, believes she may have caught the faintest whiff of tannin, but then realises her receptors are most likely simply telling her what she hopes to smell. The life has been squeezed right out of this tea, she thinks. For all its glossy solidity, it may well be as dry and flavourless as dirt.

Amma glances round quickly, checks that the security guard is absorbed in watching a gaggle of art students in the far corner. She leans in towards the block of tea, sticking her tongue out as far as she can, for one sly, secretive, inquiring lick.