In the woods

Library of the Native Woodland 

A few weeks ago my sons and I found a library of tree books in a hidden garden behind the Tramway (we were in Glasgow, staying with wonderful friends). Each wooden book opened to reveal an inlaid panel from a native species of tree. As the boys ran their gloved fingers over names etched into the wood, spelling out Wych Elm and Rowan and Birch, sunshine glimmered through the leaves and I couldn't have felt happier.

I grew up in a cottage between woods and moors and love both landscapes, but the woods were where stories lived. I've been reading Sara Maitland's excellent new book Gossip from the Forest: The Tangled Roots of Our Forests and Fairytalesin which she explores the ways forests and fairy tales have fed one another and our relationship to both. 'Once upon a time, the stories would begin... no particular time, fictional time, fairy-story time. This is a doorway;' Maitland says, 'if you are lucky, you go through it as a child, aurally, before you can read, and if you are very lucky, you become a free citizen of an ancient republic and can come and go as you please.'

I've been immersed in fairy tales recently as I'm teaching a module on them at a university until Christmas. I don't think I'd ever quite left that republic, but being plunged back in there has reminded me just how much I love the form, with its skein of wondrous journeys, stark characters, beautiful oddities and delightful lies. I envy the lives these stories lead, travelling and transforming. Max Lüthi called the fairy tale a short epic form, a universe in miniature that 'embraces in its own way the world: nature both dead and living, man and the works of man, and the supernatural.' Nothing will fill a hole you didn't know you have like a fairy tale.

Because I've been a little lost amongst work and tales, I've been remiss in not mentioning new stories published: 'Bird Doll' in The Screaming Book of Horror; 'In the Dressing Room Mirror' in Stilla book of short stories inspired by haunting photographs of an abandoned building by Roelof Bakker; and a tiny story called 'A Secret Herbarium' in beautiful letterpress book Type by Sarah Bradley, which has already sold out!

At this year's Lancaster Litfest I worked more hours in one week than I thought was possible, but in-between all the running round, panicking, and wheeling of bookshelves across Lancaster city centre's cobbles, I got to enjoy some brilliant events. Hearing two of my short story heroes David Constantine and Adam Marek read from their new collections — Tea at the Midland and The Stone Thrower — and discuss the form was an especial privilege. I could have listened to them talk all night.

As part of the festival we commissioned three new pieces of writing that take inspiration from the Lancashire landscape. The evocative shorts, by Sarah SchofieldIan Hill and Naomi Kruger, are available as an ebook called The Language of FootprintsIt's free to download (and I edited it), please do have a look.

I also read at the festival; on a chilly Sunday morning in Williamson Park I was trailed by children and adults along paths, over bridges and through the woods as I read a new fairy tale inspired by the history and features of the park. The Stone King audio story and map will be available to hire from the park in the spring for people to take the storywalk by themselves.

Photo by BeanPhoto

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Carys Bray launched her first collection, Sweet Home, in a beautiful bookshop in Southport (complete with roaring fire, cupcakes, and a unique ceiling-mounted string dispenser and brown paper to wrap the books). Carys's writing about family life is tender but unflinching. Her stories are brave and should be read.

Carys reading. String dispenser on the right.

Last weekend, I ventured with my sons to The First Cut exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery, where we wondered at a forest of floating trees, a garden of flower books, a flock of map birds, macabre silhouettes and delicate book sculptures, and the boys somehow managed not to destroy anything.

I'm reading a few times in the next couple of weeks. I'll be at friends Tom Fletcher and Stephen McGeagh's book launches, for The Ravenglass Eye and Habit respectively. And at the Frozen North Winter Weekender in Preston, where I'll be leading my Preston3Twenty walk. And I'm still buried in fairy tales (not an unhappy place to be), so I'll be in the woods for a while longer yet.