I. About a Stranger

A Russian man interviewed

In a documentary,

Filmed along the Yenisei

From its sources in Altai

Three thousand miles to the sea,

Has stayed in my mind for days.

He told a lonely story

Abandoned on an island

In the lower Yenisei.

He had no-one bar his dog

But he had something to say

About the vast indifference

Of nature in the frozen waste,

Of his masters faraway.

Who knows how his life ended?

Maybe the spring flood water

Washed him and his dog away.

II. In Memory of a Friend

Among the sadness and grief

For an unexpected death:

Our gossips lopped off part way.

III. Political Polarities

The small but many people,

Easily twisted and taught

To misplace their frustration

On the colour of strangers

And the beliefs of others,

Are the ones whose lives get spent

In the latest experiment

By their heroic leaders,

Convinced of their right to rule,

Always secretly afraid

The mob will remember

How to add up the numbers.

Rulers draw dividing lines:

‘Here’s the new map, the new creed,

This is how we now believe.

Listen to our new story.’

IV. On the Ebb Tide of History

The war dead, the famished dead,

The unnecessary dead

May be counted fortunate

By those living in despair,

Old certainties in shreds,

Watching how the lies are spread.

V. In Search of Better

We all live wrapped in stories,

The ones we tell and are told:

Mother Hubbard’s cupboard’s bare,

The president has no clothes:

The ones no-one dares mention

Except the daft old woman

Cast up on alien shores

Howling with the winds of change,

‘Accept the necessity

For breakdown, chaos and loss

Of redundant connections.

Melt into the crucible,

Shelter in the chrysalis.

Re-forge, reform kinder dreams.

From the grey mess of ashes,

The phoenix will surely rise.

New stories must build new worlds.’

Morven Ash

March 2017













Weasels at 3am

Words are weasels. They leap into your path; they pause so you have time to think GOT YOU! and they elude you by plopping neatly back into the undergrowth.

So you bait a trap for the next one and go away for a while to indulge in your preferred diversion – another cup of tea or coffee, a chunk of chocolate, a hand-rolled cigarette.

Sometimes you come back to find the trap is empty. Sometimes you’ve caught the perfect weasel. It leads you smoothly to the next and the one after that.

If you’re really lucky you’ve caught a nest of little weasels and you work with them for an hour or three. You may lose time altogether and suddenly realise it’s dark and you ought to eat something more substantial than sweets or drink something stronger than tea.

However elusive weasels are by day, at night they have a nasty tendency to hunt you. When the little (Ed: darlings) bite, you just have to get out of your cosy bed, switch on the light and deal with them.

In the morning you may discover that the night-time weasels were lemmings in disguise. With or without regret you shovel them off the cliff into oblivion and reset your traps.

By the time the deadline comes around or perhaps some time after it passes, you have your allotted number of weasels lined up nose to tail in a satisfying order. Then the Editors come along. They go through the weasels you’ve grown quite fond of and suggest that at least some of them ought to be stoats.

Morven Ash

November 2016


Making (y)our country great again

Making (y)our country great again

Yesterday passed in a kind of et tu Brute mood. The drubbing the American electorate has delivered to the US establishment is so similar to that dished out by the British who voted to leave the EU in June.

I have tried to get into the mind-set of people on both sides of the Atlantic who have bought the rhetoric about ‘making our country great again.’ I have failed, which is probably not a wise admission for a teller of stories, but a dignified one for a woman who identifies herself as human first, white European second and a proud resident of Scotland third.

Too down for an evening of entertainment, I looked up the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini.

I found a series The Road to War, which was written and narrated by Charles Wheeler and first broadcast on BB2 in the autumn of 1989.

With the phrase et tu Brute in mind, I chose to watch episode 4 about the rise and fall of Benito Mussolini and of fascism in Italy.

What an operatic, bombastic speaker he was. I watched appalled and fascinated by the shape of his mouth and lower jaw. As the featured image and some of the footage in the documentary show, Mussolini played the he-man long before Putin.

Of course he wanted to make his country great again. In an excerpt from a speech condemning the Nazis’ first attempt to annex Austria, he boasted that the peoples north of the Rhine had been illiterate barbarians in the time of Caesar, Virgil and Augustus, the time when Rome, if not all of Italy, had been great.

Maybe those who want to make Britain and the USA great again need to remember that like Rome’s, much of the ‘greatness’ was achieved through slavery and warfare.

Building Bridges

Building Bridges

The contrast between the open faces of the protesters at Standing Rock and the law enforcers togged up in riot gear reminds me once again of the gulf between those who see the earth as a conscious being and those who don’t. The gulf appears to be unbridgeable.

I stand on the edge of this and other divides where it’s easier to indulge in lamentation and fury than to cope with the vertigo which turns me to jelly every time I peer into the abyss.

The cat-like side of my personality prefers to curl up in a warm corner and pretend the divides do not exist. The dragon is more of a warrior. It has carried me over the edge; it has helped me to sift through the dirt at the bottom of the gulf and to create the framework for many of the Songs of Miria.

A major theme in my novels concerns an issue similar to that facing the indigenous peoples of Dakota: how do those who love the land and respect all the beings who rely on it deal with those who seek to exploit it? In fiction I can manipulate the exploiters into engineering their own downfall. In fiction love can be stronger than fear any time the author chooses.

As a writer I’m supposed to know the difference between a fantasy world and the real one. However, the craziness of the last couple of years in the so-called real world has underlined the power of the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves. In his recent film HyperNormalisation Adam Curtis unravels many of them and glides over others. Running at 166 minutes, it is long but worth watching on BBC iPlayer.

Stories are powerful. Where they can reinforce division and fear, they can also build bridges. They can open hearts and minds to new and different possibilities and help to shift attitudes from knee-jerk fear of others to empathy. This is why I write them.

Peppered Coffee

Peppered Coffee

‘Everyone wants to be rich,’ said the woman opposite me.

Sometimes I don’t get irony so I replied as though she’d been serious, ‘I don’t.’

Here’s the reason why.

During my gap year I worked as an assistant matron at a boarding school for the un-academic daughters of the so-called great and good.

I’d just left an all girls’ fee-paying school where I hadn’t been popular but I’d never been bullied. I have no memory of bullying among my peers. I didn’t expect the new school to be different. The scale and the viciousness of bullying there came as a shock.

I’d been raised to believe that the aristocracy were my betters in every respect, yet two of the worst bullies were the daughters of hereditary peers.

They were able to run rampant because the headmistress’s interpretation of the rules was so capricious that her staff could not rely on her to back them up in matters of discipline and punishment.

The one person able to exert any authority over them was the senior matron. As well-informed about the girls’ backgrounds as a racing correspondent on the subject of the bloodlines of Derby runners, she used to regale her staff with stories: Olivia’s mother had eloped with an Argentinian polo player; Arabella’s father was to be prosecuted for causing death by dangerous driving while under the influence of alcohol; Camilla’s parents were in the throes of a very messy divorce.

I recorded the gossip and details of unpleasant incidents in my diary. My judgements were harsh. I was horrified by the mother who refused to let her daughter hug her goodbye at the start of term. She asked her husband ‘to get the brat off me,’ presumably because she was too vain to admit that she was old enough to have a 14 year old child. I hated the countess who reduced me to tears on the phone and myself for letting her intimidate me. I was appalled by the fifth form gang who tortured the first and second years by making them drink peppered coffee.

Some years later, I saw the ringleader of the gang on a street corner in Notting Hill. In the middle of the afternoon, she was off her head on drink or drugs. At the time I had little sympathy for her.

These days I’m mellower and kinder. Although she, like the other 199 girls at that school, had everything that money could buy, she, like many of her fellow pupils, came from a dysfunctional family. Had she been born on a council estate instead of in a castle, she would probably have been referred to the social work department of her local authority.

Her father, depressive and alcoholic though he was, ran a large and influential company. Most of the parents of girls at that school were in positions where their decisions affected thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people they regarded as lesser than themselves. Having witnessed the callousness, sometimes the cruelty, with which they treated their children, I lost all respect for and trust in them and their ilk.

I do not envy the rich. I do not aspire to join their ranks. I would rather try to stay in my integrity.


This afternoon, Thursday 20th October, I got the keys to my new property and can begin to make it my home.

It is the twenty-fourth move of my life and five moves since I arrived at the place I thought I’d call home for the rest of my life. It was a former farmhouse surrounded by a 50 acre field.

One day, a guy turned up at the door to ask if it was OK to show his mother round. On afternoon release from the care home, she was last of the farmer’s wives to reign in the kitchen. She wept because four of the big trees she had loved had been cut down. Only a vigorous sycamore and a more delicate ash were still standing: I loved them both.

Another sunny afternoon, I heard a knock at the back door. In the days before mobile phones, a guy asked to use my phone because he had crash-landed his glider in the field.

The summer oil seed rape was grown all round the house was not the most pleasant. Every morning I opened the curtains to be confronted by the citrine yellow of the flowers which never seemed like a natural colour and my child, then an inarticulate toddler, grizzled almost constantly.

One soft November, I was intoxicated by a different yellow, the needles of the larches against the grey of the cloud.

In those special years of my son’s childhood I leaned to know a small, sweet piece of land. It was then and it remains my heart’s home.

I stayed there less than five years before it was back to calling myself at home when I knew where to find a light switch in the dark.

This afternoon at my new place I wandered from room to room and round the garden. For the first time since the farmhouse, I felt real sweetness in the ground and I think, feel and expect that my heart will be home here too.

Morven Ash

October 2016






With my inner vision, I see/feel/have become a wet sheet hung out to dry, billowing in the wind, struggling to be free of the pegs which hold it to the line.

In recent weeks, many of the pegs which used to hold me together have gone.  

Since the middle of August, I have purged, packed, cleared and cleaned two homes a couple of hundred miles apart. I have thrown away, recycled, donated or sold precious things that tied me to my childhood and the rubbish of decades.

I have locked two front doors for the last time. One place I have left without regrets. It was a sad building which I managed to make productive but rarely cheerful. The other, where I was a regular visitor but not a full-time resident, was bright and sunny and I miss it as much as its occupant who has moved elsewhere.

I’ve made the process sound poetic because I’ve been starved of word play. In actuality, it has been prosaic, hard work, even with all the help I’ve had. Thank you friends, thank you removal people, thank you all but two of the operators  I’ve had dealings with at the local councils, utility companies and charities.

Two out of three moves complete, I am betwixt and between endings and a new beginning, billowing in the wind like the damp sheet. I know that soon it will be dry enough to take from the line and fold: in this I am more fortunate than millions. I know where I want it to be stored.

But the pegs may not hold. The gale could still carry the sheet and me in an altogether unpredictable direction.

Morven Ash

October 2016


A friend of mine with a bad back has decided to treat herself to a terracotta reclining chair. To make room for it in her tiny flat, the brown settee had to go. Adamant that nobody would want that old thing, she doomed it to the tip, sorry, the recycling centre. 

We hummed and hawed over the options of how to get it into the car for its final journey and in the end decided to saw it in half.

In the process we discovered how carefully it had been constructed. We admired the craftsmanship that had gone into making it. While I sawed, I started to tell her about the unsatisfying book I’d just finished.

In the case of both the settee and the book, solid craftsmanship was not enough.

I am not going to name the book or its author because I am not having a go at her personally. In fact, good on her for identifying the formula which propelled her debut novel into the New York Times best seller list.


I cannot sit comfortably with the formula any more than my friend could sit comfortably on her old settee.

In the opening chapter, the reader is introduced to the heroine. She is intelligent, established in her career, fit in both senses of the word. In the formula she is h.

She is wary of the hero the first time she meets him. He is intelligent, established in his career, and so wealthy that he owns large properties in several countries and flies between them in private planes. He is impeccably dressed in expensive clothes. His temper is uncertain. He has many secrets. In the formula he is H.

The formula reads H > h because the hero has to know more and accomplish more than the sassiest, most feisty of heroines. He has to rescue her when she inadvertently endangers herself. I can buy the idea that she is prepared to compromise her career for the sake of their joint quest but I am uncomfortable about the ease with which she accepts that her role in her relationship with the hero is subservience.

My reward for sawing up the sofa was £1.67 in loose change. This morning I discovered that a new one in a similar style retails for over £1200.

My reward for finishing the book was a lesson in how to pace a novel. As a result, I have changed the order in which my heroine makes her first journey of discovery in her father’s homeland to provide a more dramatic conclusion and to set up the second volume more clearly.

However in my books the formula H>h will not be applied.

Morven Ash

September 2016

Review of Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Review of Josephine Tey: A Life by Jennifer Morag Henderson.

Actually this is a reminiscence about a favourite woman author as well as a review of a biograph about her.

My family devoured crime fiction written by women in the so-called Golden Age of Crime Writing. We had some of Agatha Christie’s novels, all of Ngaio Marsh’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’s (two in hardback) and most of Josephine Tey’s.

We also had a small bookshelf in the loo (definitely the loo, not the toilet, because we were middle-class and also owned most of Nancy Mitford’s novels.) I have an abiding memory of a battered copy of the Great Pan edition of Tey’s The Man in the Queue sitting face up on top of that bookshelf. The image above is the cover. I was only little: it scared me.

Around the age of 13, already passionately interested in history, I read the Daughter of Time, perhaps Tey’s most famous novel. Nobody will ever convince me that Richard III murdered his nephews and I suspect Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, arranged the murders of the Princes in the Tower.

I then read The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar, several times because I loved the horses and assumed from the Englishness of the scene that the author was English.

My mother informed me that Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot were pen names for a Scottish woman called Elizabeth MacKintosh. My mother had a dismissive attitude to Scots, based mainly on her observations of her in-laws. She called them unfeeling, uncommunicative and narrow-minded and shared the view of the English ruling classes that Scots could govern any country except their own.

Among the many pleasures of reading Jennifer Morag Henderson’s biography is that it redeems Josephine Tey’s Scottishness* and at the same time explains why she has not been ranked more highly in the canon of great Scottish writers. Unlike her near contemporary and fellow resident of Inverness Neil Gunn, Tey was not part of the budding Scottish literary renaissance or the nationalist movement.

Henderson is also an Invernessian who draws heavily on local knowledge and connections. She creates a clear picture of the subtleties of the class structure which combined with Beth MacKintosh’s reserve and spikiness to form an awkward relationship between the famous writer and the small town in which she was raised, to which she had to return in her twenties to look after her widowed father and from which she escaped periodically.

The range and depth of Henderson’s research is fascinating. She has identified down the men towards whom Beth MacKintosh had romantic feelings. She has traced a third pen name. She writes with such immediacy that, as she says towards the end of the book, ‘sometimes it is hard to realise that these lively young women and men are all dead and gone.’

As part of Bloody Scotland in Stirling over the weekend of 9th to 11th September, Val McDiamid and Jennifer Morag Henderson will discuss the life and work of Josephine Tey on the Saturday morning. I regret that I can’t be there and won’t have the opportunity to congratulate Ms Henderson in person on her enthusiastic and generous portrayal of a complex character.

Morven Ash

August 2016

*Spell check never ceases to amaze me. It suggests I replace Scottishness with Skittishness. Has it been programmed to think that skittishness is a Scottish characteristic?






As the title of this blog suggests, I love cats of all kinds and the feline aspect of my personality is illustrated in the image that accompanies this post: Morven as big cat.

Another love is language and since I moved to Scotland I have enjoyed discovering some of the wonderfully evocative words in Scots. Eldritch is among them. It means weird, sinister and ghostly.

This is an example from Burns: So Maggie runs, the witches follow,  Wi’ monie an eldritch skreich and hollo. 

This one comes from Robert Louis StevensonThe woman, whose voice had risen to a kind of eldritch sing-song, turned with a skip, and was gone.

One August several summers ago, I had direct experience of something I can only describe as eldritch. At the time I was sharing an isolated cottage with three cats. Belle and Lily were sisters and the third was Belle’s son Teddy. Except when the temperature fell below freezing, I put them all out at night.

Around 5am I was woken by loud screams. They weren’t human: they weren’t any of the feline mating calls or fighting hisses familiar to me. They sounded as though someone was in the kitchen torturing one of my cats.

Even though I was alone in the cottage, the urge to protect the poor creature was stronger than fear. I sprang out of bed and rushed down the stairs.

In the half-light before sunrise, I saw little Lily, the runt of her litter, puffed up to twice her size with her bottle-brush tail upright. She was hurling abuse at the tomcat with the scarred nose and bent ear, which cowered in the corner between the cupboard and the sink.

So as well as meaning weird and unearthly, eldritch is also the perfect adjective to describe the racket made by a small cat defending her territory against an invader.

Morven Ash

August 2016