Shortlisted for the Bridport Prize

Ever read William Boyd’s Any Human Heart? I become increasingly convinced that his narrator, Logan, was onto something when he wrote that ‘all your life amounts to in the end [is] the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience’.

Well, I had a bit of good luck. I got shortlisted for the Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award for a First Novel.

I’ve been scrawling away at a dark and jaunty Edwardian crime novel called The Tin Face Parade for years. It’s not exactly what you’d call literary fiction – a tinsmith gets one of his tools hammered through his head on the first page – but it’s the sort of thing I like to read, and if you’re going to invest several years in something that might never see the light of day then you might as well enjoy it.

Occasionally I’ve sent it off to agents and have clocked up the usual ledger of silence and rejection, but perhaps this was actually good luck in disguise, because I later sent it off to a competition for an unpublished novel, and got down to the last five out of nearly 1,200 entries.

I didn’t win the Bridport (though I did get to hear and read snippets of the winner and runner-up’s novels, and I genuinely can’t wait to read the full works), but it was rather wonderful getting shortlisted. Sort of thing that makes you puff your chest out a bit. I sat at the prizegiving lunch at the Bridport Arts Centre surrounded by talented, likeable people, and mixed in with the taste of toothpaste and prosecco was the most delicious savour of impostor syndrome. Later I went up and got a cheque off Kamila Shamsie and my brother shed a sneaky tear of pride.

I’ve still no idea if the inept investigators of The Tin Face Parade will have that extra bit of luck that gets them onto a printed page, but it feels just a smidge closer. Even if they remain forever smoking their cigars in the obscurity of some seedy pub in 1907, they’ve given me a fine experience to treasure – which is especially noble given the terrible things I’ve done to them.

tin face parade_clean

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Midsummer on the beach

I may have mentioned once or twice how much I love living in this inconvenient corner of North Yorkshire. However, there are some points in the year when it’s especially wonderful.

Despite being on the east coast of England, Whitby actually faces north, which means that in the very highest days of summer, the sun both rises out of the sea and sets back into it. From my nearest beach – Sandsend – you don’t quite get to see the sun hit the sea because the headland blocks it out, but you do get some killer skies that feel like there should be flocks of flamingos coming into land. Or maybe hordes of Valkyries, depending on the evening.

June has been one of those months where the deadlines have come thick and fast and I don’t really seem to have come up for air, but each night for the past week or so, come half nine I’ve downed tools, thrown the dog in the car, and headed for the sands. And it’s pretty difficult to get stressed about life when your evenings look like this.

DSC_1956 DSC_2078 LRM_EXPORT_20180621_221327

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Field guns in the Kremlin

The other week, I took a little jaunt over to see my old mate P and his family in Moscow. I’ve been promising to visit him since he first moved there around a decade ago, but you know how life can pass you by. Anyway, it was high time.

Among the many pleasant things about going to visit a place where you’ve got an ally on the ground is that you can sort of have your cake and eat it. I could enjoy a bit of solitude drifting around the city in my own time, but equally I could spend a few evenings setting the world to rights with an old friend, and a couple of days out on the town with his grand little family. The big sights were all there for the taking – and places like the Kremlin and St Basil’s were as riotously overblown and magnificent as advertised – but we also did some fine things that I’d never have thought of doing off my own back, like heading up to the university for the best view of the city, or getting the Metro out to P’s place on the outskirts. The apartment blocks out in the workers’ utopia were as deliciously brutal as you’d imagine from the outside, but Moscow’s suburbs were rather leafier than I anticipated, and ten minutes from P’s flat was a vast country park, complete with a stately home, formal gardens and peacocks (and elderly Russian men playing ping-pong in their Y-fronts).


Perhaps more than with other places, I went to Moscow with a set of preconceptions, and of course I was way out. It’s the only time I’ve ever visited Russia, so I can’t speak for any other cities, but Moscow felt very much like any other European capital, just on a larger scale. If anything, the centre seemed rather safer (and certainly cleaner) than places like London and Paris. To my great disappointment, impeccably groomed Gorky Park was devoid of spies, murder victims and seedy funfairs, while the bars of Zamoskvorechye seemed to be doing considerably brisker trade in craft beer than in eyeball-stripping vodka. No corrupt policemen demanded my papers (though I carried a photocopy faithfully in my pocket throughout the trip), and out on the roads the smart little Japanese runabouts vastly outnumbered the decrepit old Ladas. On my first morning I passed a regenerated chocolate factory that was now full of baristas selling expensive coffees to blokes without socks on, and I might have suspected I’d fallen through a wormhole into East London if it wasn’t for the vast and ludicrous sculpture of Peter the Great towering over me like a cross between the Colossus of Rhodes and the cover of Time Bandits.

DSC_1685 DSC_1669

In fact, Moscow often feels so modern and Westernised that you can occasionally forget that the 20th century ever existed. Though of course it did, and there are plenty of reminders around. The modern art in the New Tretyakov gallery has a conspicuous chasm in its collection that seems to open up around the mid-1930s (coinciding, in fact, with the death dates of many of the artists), and an intriguing corner of Museum Park contains rows of statues that were pulled down from squares around Moscow in the 80s and 90s – chipped Brezhnevs, neglected Krushchevs, and imperious busts of a well-known moustachioed psychopath sitting quietly in the shadows.


Then, of course, there are the towering ministries and apartment blocks, the palatial Metro stations, and the ornate pavilions of the sprawling Soviet exposition park out at VDNKh. One afternoon, on our way back from a restaurant to the Metro, P pointed out a handsome villa that now houses the Tunisian embassy. It was once the personal residence of Lavrentiy Beria – head of the NKVD under Stalin, and a rapist of prodigious appetites. When the Tunisians did some remodelling in the 90s, they found his stash of murdered women buried in the garden. It’s all a bit difficult to get your head round, but the past is the past and here we are.


The Wednesday I was there coincided with Victory Day, a national holiday and one of the most important days of the year. In Russia, you see, the Second World War is the Great Patriotic War, and commemorations go rather beyond the respectful silences, poppy-wearing and wreath-laying that we favour over here. Thousands upon thousands of people poured into the city carrying placards with photos of their ancestors on, crowding the riverbanks to watch Putin give addresses on a big screen, as tanks rumbled along the embankment, fighters howled overhead, and field guns thumped in the Kremlin. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it all closed with an almighty firework display in the evening.

Shortly, I imagine, a whole lot of British football fans are going to be making similar discoveries about just how much fun it is to spend a bit of time in Moscow, but even if you find football as deathly tedious as I do, I can definitely recommend finding your way over there before too long. Don’t dawdle for a decade like I did.



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Restoring a 1950s trilby

As those who’ve come across me in the unflattering light of the real world will know, I’m quite fond of wearing hats. They’re unfashionable and affected, of course, but then so am I, and I’ve built up quite a collection over the last decade or so.

Thing is, though, that when you have nice hats and you wear them all the time, the weather ends up shrinking and mangling them, so by necessity you learn how to clean, stretch, and reshape them. I find it quite therapeutic maintaining and restoring things (whether it’s polishing boots, sharpening knives or darning jumpers), and hats are no different.

But as with anything, once you’ve started to learn something, the temptation is always to take it a step further, so I got a battered old 1950s furfelt trilby off FleaBay for less than £20 and set about restoring it. It started out looking pretty Greengrass, as you can see here.

Greengrass-1Revealing my ancestry as the grandson of a dry cleaner, I worked the worst of the stains out with lighter fluid, then steamed and brushed the whole hat to within an inch of its life to clean the dirt off. The surface of the felt had got quite rough with decades of use, so I used progressively finer grades of sandpaper to put a nice smart finish back on, before steaming crown and brim back into shape.

The leather sweatband had perished, so I cut it out and stitched a new one in. I suppose a proper hatter would use a sewing machine, but you can hand-stitch it if you’re patient.

Finally, the ribbon was pretty rank, so I put a new one on. In some ways this was the trickiest bit of the endeavour, but once I realised that steaming the grosgrain ribbon helps you get it tight, things got a lot easier.

So there we go. Quick last brush and it’s ready to face the world anew. What do you think?

Greengrass-2 Greengrass ont cliffs

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The Easter reset

A while ago, I was reading a fun article by Jeremy Anderberg on temporal landmarks, the basic idea being that there are ‘certain dates that naturally inspire us to turn over a new leaf’. Birthdays, for example, or New Year, or even just the beginning of the month. For the teachers I know, new terms, school years and holidays seem to be helpful punctuation, and I quite like Anna Hart’s idea of a post-summer reboot, since my life is always a bit of a shambles by the time I get to September.

For me, Easter is quite a big one. Churchgoing is something I’ve drifted back into as life has evolved, but even before I got into the habit of frequenting the pews on a Sunday morning, I still used to try and get to church on Easter Sunday. There’s something enormously compelling about the feelings of absolution and optimism around Easter, and while everyone takes different things away from the experience, for my part I think it’s quite uplifting to be in a room full of people all thinking about how they’ve fallen short of being their best selves over the previous year, accepting that they’re almost certainly going to do the same thing over the coming one, and enjoying the sensation of having a clean slate as they clutch at the ambition to be just a little bit better.

I imagine comparatively few of my fellows believe that they are literally washed clean of all their transgressions on an arbitrary Sunday morning somewhere around the spring equinox, but it’s the symbolism that’s important. A reset button means you’re not beaten before you’ve got started. I become increasingly convinced that living the kind of life you want is about ongoing incremental shifts as well as occasional upheavals, and I’ve always found smaller changes to be much harder to go through with than the almighty bridge-burnings.


This year, the Easter holidays have been a reset button in other ways. The past fortnight’s been uncommonly full of opportunities for quality time with the best of people – long, dinners with my mum and stepfather; lazy afternoons putting the world to rights with old schoolfriends, and tramps in the woods with buddies I made on South American adventures 15 years ago. I drove an hour and a half each way to meet a mate’s new baby daughter in a pub somewhere off the A19, took my 17-year-old French cousin to a Kris Drever gig, and stayed up ‘til 4am one night plotting with my brother over bottles of home brew. Solitude and companionship have both been essential parts of my adult life, but it’s been confirming and energising to have a glut of the latter.

So yes, Easter’s been especially fine this year for a variety of reasons, and I hope yours has too.

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Mead fit for a king

‘Turbulent old time, the 17th century. It was the age of characters like Cardinal Richelieu and the Duke of Buckingham; of Oliver Cromwell, Galileo and Guy Fawkes; of civil war, regicide and plague; where a volcanic compound of science, magic, politics and religion theatened to shatter the crucible of the Old World. And never far from the action was an Englishman called Sir Kenelm Digby…’

If you’re an enthusiastic producer of cottage-kitchen hooch like me, you might have encountered references here and there to a 17th-century kitchen manual called The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. It famously contains instructions for brewing up more than a hundred different kinds of mead, metheglin, cider, ale and wine, along with a dizzying array of decadent dishes from the courts of the Stuart kings. There are a few magic potions in there too, my favourite of which is a lotion that allegedly ‘beautifies and preserves the complexions of ladies’, and includes such ingredients as lead, borax, henna, and breadcrumbs soaked in milk.


‘A man of vigorous spirits’

None of these recipes, however, are anywhere near as remarkable as the man who catalogued them. Kenelm Digby (1603-1665) was a courtier, privateer, diplomat, swordsman, theologian, alchemist, gourmand and incurable romantic, and he had a knack for getting tangled up in pretty much every scrape of his era.

His life story reads like the most impossible work of fiction, and since much of it comes from his own pen, perhaps there is a little embellishment here and there. But then there’s something of the Edward Bloom about Kenelm Digby, and I can’t help thinking about that line from Big Fish: ‘Most men, they’ll tell you a story straight through. It won’t be complicated, but it won’t be interesting either.’ Part of the joy of Kenelm’s story is in the swagger and romanticism of his own voice. Have a look at his Private Memoirs and you’ll see what I mean. Alternatively, for a brilliantly written, swashbuckling account of Digby’s younger years, I really recommend Joe Moshenska’s modern biography, A Stain in the Blood.


Kenelm, meet Ernest

In my latest piece for Ernest journal, I give a whistlestop tour of Digby’s life, with a focus on his famous booze manual. And should you be tempted to try one of his brews for yourself, I’ve adapted one so that pretty much anyone can make it at home. It’s a kind of hopped-up, floral mead, and Kenelm claimed to have got the recipe from Webbe, who was the royal brewer for Charles II. I’ve been telling people flippantly that it’s somewhere between retsina and Calpol, but in fact it’s a curiously appealing mix of mead and ale flavours that I’ve never found anywhere else.








Writing for Ernest is a joy – if you haven’t encountered it before then it’s a beautifully-designed, 160-page indie journal full of wonderful writing and imagery. Publications like these are hugely expensive and hard work to produce, and it’s a remarkable labour of love for the team behind it. The latest issue features pieces on East Anglian and Scottish adventures, baking in space, the women hidden in Antarctic maps, and the history of forgotten pies, plus loads more. It’s available here, and I’d love it if you’d consider supporting independent publishing by ordering a copy.

Ernie 7


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No place like home

I’ve fluked some grand assignments in my time, but there’s nothing quite like writing about home.

I moved up to North Yorkshire full-time three and a half years ago, but I’ve been coming here regularly my whole life. In fact, my parents bought the cottage I now live in a few years before I was born. Among the Kodacolor memories of childhood, our long summers swimming off Sandsend beach, climbing trees in Mulgrave Woods or dressing up in cardboard armour for a trip to Whitby Abbey are among the warmest of all. At Sunnyside Cottage there are spidery drawings hidden at the bottoms of drawers, fossils on the mantelpiece that we found scratting around on the beach 25 years ago, and probably a good deal of sand from little feet still stamped into the carpet. On those inevitable occasions that I’m far from home and things aren’t going my way, it’s an armchair by the fire at Sunnyside that I dream of, so perhaps – for all my bravado and Indiana Jones hats – I’m a hobbit when it comes down to it.


It’s not always an easy spot to live, and the solitude can creep up on me sometimes after so long living in central London, but I’ve still never felt so comfortable in a place. Every evening I stroll the cliffs, beaches and woods around my home, and on days off there are more than 550 square miles of national park to stretch my boots across. Beauty in its various forms never fails to lift me, and this part of North Yorkshire has a rugged, occasionally haunting quality all of its own, misty with the ghosts of lost stories. Passing great barrows on the moorland ridges, I can’t help thinking that the forgotten men inside them have probably lain there since before the sack of Troy. As I watch barn owls hunt at dusk among the curious hummocks of Sandsend Ness, I think of the broken pipes and buttons of alum miners hidden in the fine shale under my boot heels, and as I cross the graveyard on my way to church, I know there are Norsemen in the earth. Some of their words still survive in local dialect, and their distinctive ‘hogback’ gravestones are displayed at the back of the church (one of which displays a scene that looks suspiciously like Ragnarok).

Sandsend ness

For the latest (April) issue of The Great Outdoors magazine, Emily was indulgent enough to commission a feature that let me walk the England Coast Path from Middlesbrough down to Filey. South of Staithes, it’s mostly familiar territory, but to my shame I’d never tackled the more northerly stretches. In particular, the section starting out from Boro is intriguing – strange and sad in its way, and quite different from the rest of the route. Passing the Dorman Long tower, you can’t help thinking that it was steel from here that built the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Ozymandias, take note.

dorman long

Anyway, it was a rather lovely way to spend five days, and as you can imagine, my difficulty wasn’t so much in what to include as what to miss out. the latest issue of The Great Outdoors is available here, and if the feature goes online in the future then I’ll update this post with a link.



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Faces from the past

When I moved north, most of the stuff from my London flat went into a lockup in Scarborough. It was a temporary measure to begin with, but life developments since have made it a more permanent state of affairs, and I rather enjoy the ability to live an uncluttered life without actually scrapping all my belongings then buying them over again when I need them. Items of adventuring equipment like my six tents, four sleeping bags and arctic winter kit are all very useful, but not strictly essential for day-to-day life. In spring, the winter clothes go back in the lockup, and come autumn it’s the same story for the palm-tree shirts.

One of the loveliest things about the lockup – apart from the sense that I might be a resistance operative tooling up for a secret mission – is the ability to visit the past without having to live with it. There are a lot of memories in there, and I always seem to come across something interesting.

This time round, I found a box of drawings from my undistinguished sideline as an illustrator, and among them was a picture I drew when my former colleague, Rose, left her job at the Scouts. They wanted a picture of her surrounded by all her workmates, though I can’t recall whose idea it was to stick us all on a pirate ship. I remember it being a time consuming but lovely task, especially since I was quite fond of many of the people I was drawing.


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Century-old life advice

I came across an interesting object while I was ferreting through a box of memorabilia just now. It’s a letter, sent exactly 99 years ago, by my great-grandfather to his only son, who was at boarding school in the south.

My great-grandfather, John Henry ‘Harry’ Braime was the JH in TF & JH Braime Steel Pressings – a familiar sight to anyone coming into Leeds from the south, and one of the last surviving Yorkshire steel pressing factories (my uncle and cousins still run it successfully today). Harry was supposed to follow his father into the veterinary profession, but he was shrewd enough to spot that the age of the horse was on the way out, so he threw in his lot with the age of steel instead and joined his big brother’s new pressings business.

The Braime brothers were industrialists of the old school, and the wars and the burgeoning motor trade gave them plenty to get their teeth into. There’s a story that one of them was offered an OBE for inventing a new method of rifling shells in WW1, but he turned it down on the principle that they both got one or neither did. Quite possibly you have one of their old push-button oil cans in your garage (and in fact I may adapt the slogan on this 1960s ad for my own editorial business).


When Harry died in 1930, at the comparatively young age of 62, a strange anonymous note appeared in the Yorkshire Observer, stating that ‘Leeds has lost, by his death, a greater son than is generally realised. Though Mr Braime’s greatest achievements were for industrial purposes, there is no doubt that his very considerable gifts were unwearyingly and very effectively used to assist his country in her hour of need in the Great War. I also have reasons for knowing that in private life he was generous to a fault, but in a way that did not let the right hand know what the left hand did.’

His letter to my grandfather is a curious mix of the profound and the matter-of-fact – the buying of school books, the death of a workman at the factory, and a bit of life advice thrown in – but it obviously made an impression, because my grandfather (who went on to have plenty of adventures of his own) received it on his fifteenth birthday and kept it until the day he died, 74 years later.

Hunslet, Feb 28, 1919

My dear Ronnie,

Many Happy Returns of your Birthday – is my feeling for you with this note.

You will no doubt have seen your mother & Auntie Aggie today. I hope they had a good journey and found you in the best of health and spirits, and that you will have a good time together.

As regards those books, it is a good plan of yours to try to get them second-hand if in good condition. The money saved would doubtless buy you something else of service later on.

You need not trouble to go through those papers I sent with your mother whilst she is at Cheltenham – but of course if you have an opportunity, send them back with her on her return.

I am having a nerve-wracking time getting the motor people going with their new pressings, but hope to survive. You will be sorry to hear that Luckwoods – the man who sang those comic songs – died this morning from a haemorrhage of blood on the brain.

Now, I want you to read and retain on the pages of your brain the following words, as being the advice of your dad on the occasion of your fifteenth birthday, and with his loving thoughts of you. As I expect to pass through this world but once – if there is any good thing which I can do, or any kindness I can show any fellow-man, let me do it now. Let me not defer it, nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.

Trusting you will live to carry the above into effect through a long and happy life.

Your Dad

Harry_1_crop Harry_2_crop

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The Zillertal Alps with Peter Habeler

The Ramblers always give me the best jobs. First there was Bavaria, then the Dolomites, then Matt, the editor, got in touch asking if I might fancy going to the Zillertal Alps for a spot of walking with mountaineering legend, Peter Habeler. As usual, I had to think long and hard.

If you’re not familiar with the Zillertal, then I can heartily recommend you become so. It’s in Austria, on the Italian border, and it feels wonderfully unspoiled. That’s mainly because they’ve compartmentalised their mountains. Skiers get a big area to play in, but there’s also a massive chunk of mountain that’s protected from development.

Tribalism is one of the worst qualities of walkers in general, and I feel like I should be clear that I don’t think hikers or climbers have any more right to outdoor fun than anyone else. Obviously skiing is a huge boon to European mountain communities, and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone the ability to enjoy the mountains in their own way, but all the same, there’s something about the lifts and bars and spa hotels and the general homogenous nature of many ski resorts that I think robs mountains of some of their dignity. I’d rather look out on scrubby hillsides and the occasional scruffy cabin or ramshackle village than smooth slopes, elegant chalets and gondolas bolted to the mountain like chains. This is entirely my own irrational preference, but it is what it is. Like I say, each to their own. The important thing is that in the Zillertal you can have both, and I reckon that’s grand.

SL 4

As for my walking companions, I was out there with a game little gang of journalists and PRs. Our local guide, Florian, was an enthusiast of the best sort, and with it being a press trip, there was an extra treat in the form of Peter Habeler, who met us up in the mountains at the Berliner Hutte. Peter and his climbing partner, Reinhold Messner, made history in 1978 by making the first ascent of Everest without using bottled oxygen, and at 75 he’s still ferociously fit. He was a wonderful, sparkling, sort of birdlike little man, full of life and character, and it was a real privilege to spend even just a short amount of time with him. Much of my job as a freelance writer/editor is tedious, solitary grind, cooped up and hunched over a laptop, but if anything makes the whole gig seem worth it, it’s experiences like sitting round in a mountain lodge with the snow coming down outside, drinking schnapps and listening to Peter Habeler’s stories of adventure.

The article featured in the winter issue of walk magazine, and you can read it here.

Habeler 16  SL 13

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