So… why Treacle?

Treacle  ˈtriːk(ə)l

noun: treacle; plural noun: treacles

  1. a. British: a thick, sticky dark syrup made from partly refined sugar; molasses.

         b. syrup of a golden-yellow colour; golden syrup.

  1.  cloying sentimentality or flattery.

“enough of this treacle—let’s get back to business”

Origin: Middle English (originally denoting an antidote against venom): from Old French triacle, via Latin from Greek thēriakē ‘antidote against venom’, feminine of thēriakos (adjective), from thērion ‘wild beast’. Current senses date from the late 17th century.

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According to various online sources, the word treacle goes back to a borrowing from Old French triacle, a word referring to the sugar-syrup base into which apothecaries would decant whatever nasty-tasting cures they wished their patient to take. The word derives ultimately from a Greek word thēriakē, meaning an antidote against venom, which suggests that its early applications were topical (i.e. slather it on the outside, rather than apply it to the inside).

This dark, viscous product of sugar refining thus gained its name due to its association with apothecaries and their products. All the syrupy by-products of sugar refinement were known as treacle, but later the British firm Lyle perfected the refining process to produce that other, more popular, sugar syrup known as golden syrup. You can still buy treacle – these days it’s often called black treacle (or, in the US, molasses), to distinguish it from its golden cousin.

While sugar can be produced from beets as well as sugar cane, only the latter produces a pleasant tasting treacle.

The 17th century seems to mark the time when treacle made the jump from a medicine to a foodstuff. suggests ‘bread tart’ and ‘sweetmeat cake’ as early recipes using treacle, and the earliest recipes for ‘treacle tart’ in the 1870s precede Lyle’s development of golden syrup, even though most modern recipes call for golden syrup rather than black treacle. Gingerbread, which has been around at least since the 1400s, switched to using treacle as an ingredient during the 18th century. But the popularity of ‘Mary Poppins’ suggests that the association of sugar syrup with medicines remains as strong as ever.

I’m rather drawn to the idea that a substance famed for being sickly sweet (as in the famous treacle tart of my story – the favourite dessert of Harry Potter – and the treacle wells mentioned by the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland) ultimately derives its name from medicines which were so bitter that they required a sweet coating. That seems a good metaphor for this story collection.

In Treacle and Other Twisted Tales I take some well-known tales and retell them with a twist, a difference, or a wee flicker of darkness. There are new stories, too, some drawn from imagination and others from experience. There are no entirely happy endings – I don’t really believe in them – but some at least come to satisfactory conclusions. If there’s a moral in the story, it’s that beneath sweetness there is always a small, sharp tang of bitterness, and sometimes the sugar coating is very thin indeed. Life isn’t fair, and nothing ever turns out exactly the way we want it to. These aren’t fairy stories, you know.

As for the second meaning – sentimentality or flattery – isn’t that the business of we fiction writers? I employ my words as the appetising coating to encourage some unpalatable suggestions to go down. Did I sweeten the mixture enough?

And am I genuinely channelling my East End ancestors, or merely mocking Eastenders the soap, when I say to you, “Don’t worry, treacle* – if you don’t like this story, maybe the next one’ll suit you better”?

*Treacle (tart) = sweetheart


The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet

TKCC cover Feb 2014

Sonnets for the Sea

                Inspired by the exhibition of paintings by Bruce Killeen

                (Sonnets of  the Sea)

 I: Metaphorical Distance

Out at farthest focus, drifting, peaceful:

Green ladled with mauve like a healing bruise.

Light lies heavy on the horizon; chooses

To lean its languid body westward. The pull

Of the rolling planet quickens, and the full,

Swelling, murmurous mass of the tide looses

The bonds of gravity, dropping the deep, pellucid,

Purpleness of light gracefully into the ocean’s well.

Dipping my toe into the water, gasping

At the cold, desiring to go deeper and far,

I stare outward along the long divide

Of the horizon; the waves on the sand rasping

At the edge of the land, my feet, my heart:

Like this sea-coloured bruise I am trying to hide.

II: Formalising the Atlantic

Where will you go from here? You’ve measured exactly

The angle of sunlight that, striking the cloud layer,

Refracts through the prism of the horizon, neat and square,

A thousand shades of aquamarine; laying them delicately

End to end along the proper horizontal, modestly

Masked with shadow. With dividers and set square

You’ve drawn the perfect perpendicular, straight and set fair

To indicate the strict statistical limits of visual accuracy.

But how can you calculate clearly, precisely,

The creeping numbness of toes, cormorants, the stark

Face-slap of salt, the way the selkies sing?

Or the kick of the tiller against your wrist, turning nicely

Into the wind? Formal analysis misses the mark:

The poet is in this landscape. That changes everything.


III: Like the Sea

Why is a sonnet like the sea? For one,

When you start to search it recedes from you,

Seeping away towards the distant, blue

Hazy hover of light on the horizon.

Its going reveals deep clefts, exposed to the sun:

Vulnerable. Laid open to the view

Of the inner eye: arid fields of conflict; overdue

Reminders of other projects, left undone.

On a moment, while your back is turned: the change.

Moving effortlessly with the moon’s quiet pull,

Thought washes back, inescapable.

The mind’s tide rises. Words rearrange

Themselves. The ocean inspires: limpid, brimful

Of creativity. Not to write would be intolerable.



Sunlight on the bay:

Golden promise of summer

Holds rain in its lap.



Flower essences

Flow from the midnight pen of

My garden poet.


Voice of Monarch Butterflies

voice of monarch butterflies

I didn’t come to this anthology cold. I am already following two of its poets on Twitter: the editor, Iranian poet Soodabeh Saeidnia, and my friend, Egyptian poet Ash Bahget, host of the #Ashverse poetry thread and a muse to many of us in his own right. I confess I bought the book purely to have the pleasure of reading some of Ash’s longer works. Twitter poetry is a challenge and a pleasure, but there is a different vibe in a longer poem, room to breathe and stretch a little, to let the words spread themselves out and show their depth.

I have a great respect for any writer who has the strength of will to write in a language not their first. Reading these poems, I prepared myself to be tolerant, thinking that quality might easily be hidden under a lack of facility with the language. O woman of little faith, hang your head in shame. Here is the language I have spoken from the cradle, turned and examined and crafted by ten poets, all of whom are completely competent in at least two written languages. I have never had the nerve to write in any language but my mother tongue, and now I find myself outed as a dilettante, a shiftless layabout, a poet only half committed to my craft, speaker of only a single language. And lazy!

Here I find images the mind cannot let go:

Even though the petals fell / blackened like leaves from hell / the tree is still standing…

-Ash Bahget


Moments of pure heartache:

I love the people / who left footprints / on my heart beach

Never faded / by waves / of other smiles

-Soodabeh Saeidnia


The power of desire:

Take a sip of me / I’ll drift under your skin

-Anooshka Khazaeie



I tried many times / to forget your words / to unlearn the memories

To untie the knot forever…

…I am prisoning myself in the walls of your words.

-Abu Sufian


Heartbreakingly topical:

The girls had dropped their head scarves and dropped shoes along the way

I used that as a guide to follow where the Hashtag came from…

From ‘Hashtag’ by Debasis Mukhopadhyay


The walking bomb / frustrated and scared / cannot focus on green gardens any more…

-Aimal Zaman


Breadth of scholarship: these poets reference Darwin and Scheherezade, monarch butterflies and sequoias, American poet Anne Sexton, Sufism and ekphrasis, the rose among thorns, the bird in a cage. These are words born out of the absolute necessity of the poet to speak to us, and in reading them we go on a journey for which we were not – could not ever be – prepared.

This book will have a worthy place on my poetry shelf, one day far into the future, when it has stopped being beside my desk tempting me, every day, to open it and read one more poem.

And I am completely in awe of the sheer reckless bravery of the man who has not only read Kafka, but manages to write poetry about the experience! I am leaving the final words to him.

…-Like a dog! Like a dog! I say and fold the page in a hundred folds to unfold a crease that never comes out.

-Debasis Mukhopadhyay



Ekphrasis in practice

Undercurrents: welcome to issue 7 of Spontaneity! We are all about ideas, about the interplay between short stories and photography, poetry and flash fiction, music and visual art. Everything here connects to something else, so click on a piece you like, then get beautifully lost – and if you want to be a part of it, get in touch.

My poem in this issue was originally inspired by an exhibition at An Tobar, arts centre of the Isle of Mull. It also links back to a photo by Dimitry Bulkin in Spontaneity issue 6. I love the way in which forms of art inspire and imbue one another.

And Ekphrasis? In its most general sense, it means art inspired by other art – as in a poem inspired by a painting, or vice versa, and that seems to me to be at the heart of what Spontaneity is trying to do.

Feeling bookish

Jo Bell’s a poet I admire. I may have more to say on this subject in future, but this reblog is really about Gilbert White. White’s Natural History of Selborne is one of those magical books whose mundane title conceals wonders. It sits on my shelf alongside Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (and would probably be quite comfortable with Thoreau, if I could stand him). White’s gift was to observe with care, and to make us care when we read his words; his world was quite small, and parochial, but he gave us all of it. Here, in Jo’s poem, she gives me the cockiness of rooks, and makes me regret that I’ve still never heard the nightingale sing. She’s made me want to read old Gilbert again, and that’s all to the good. (Scroll down to go straight to the poem.)

The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

This Spring, I will mostly be plugging my own book. Forgive me. If you follow me for more general poetry news, there will still be plenty of that. The stream of ME ME ME announcements will soon dwindle but for now, here’s a short summary of both title and book.

It’s a plain-speaking book but not, I hope, a simple or crude one. By my reckoning a poet should be in the business of windows, not chandeliers. I want to look through a poem, not at it, to see the world more clearly.

My world may be different than yours. Mine probably has more boats in it, for a start. If Kith revisits the themes of my last book Navigation, that’s inevitable. I still live on a narrowboat, making my England both smaller and larger than that of the average bank dweller. My love life still mimics John Arnold’s description of war – “long periods…

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How to Write Poetry (3)

This one, from my book The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet, was just voted the best poem in January’s edition of Reach magazine.

How to Write Poetry (3)

Climb to the top of the garden at midnight;
Feet in wellies, cold, half-asleep.
The stars drift like plankton: miles deep
Shoals of tiny creatures; living light.

Trail your hand in the water, feel the chill
As phosphorescence coats your fingers. Lay
Your head back and let it swim, feel the sway
Of the endless ocean of night spilling over the hill.

Reach up your fist and drag the moon from the sky.
Smear it over the paper. Take a scrap
Of bitter dark, a sliver of frost, perhaps
A breath of emerald aurora, if you are lucky.

Pour the ink-black ocean over everything.
Paddle your fingers in luminescence, smear it
All over the page. Dry it in the slight,
Trembling, first clear breath of morning.

Bend down to wash in dew. Shake off the night.
Time to go in now: it’s starting to get light.


My Valentine poem ‘Sunkissed’ is number 4 here. Pop over and vote for your favourite.


My Best Books of 2014

the rothko room back coverthe rothko room front cover

Never mind anybody else’s Best of 2014 list. Here are some books I’ve actually read and still want to shout about. Prose works and Poetry. Some of the words below are taken from my Amazon reviews of these works.
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
It’s not often I wish Amazon allowed the award of six stars. This is one of those books. I’d award it maximum points for its use of language alone: Ice Cream Star speaks to us in a patois of childspeak, mutated grammar and sophisticated reasoning that is compelling to read. She has a unique voice.

The story itself is a beautifully written realisation of a harsh, unforgiving world. It’s full of hardship and misery, and the kinds of half-baked systems that you would expect to be invented by children left in charge of their own future. The plot is horrifyingly plausible: a brilliantly realised dystopian vision, with Ice Cream Star front and centre; a reluctant heroine we cannot help but love.

Diamonds and Dust, and Honour and Obey by Carol Hedges
From one of my fellow Crooked Cat authors, these are beautifully written and very readable.
Superbly written melodrama with not one but three strong female characters. Diamonds and Dust is grittier than Pullman, darker than Dickens, more amusing than Shaw and drops more names than Debrett’s. I’m reduced to name dropping myself as I can’t come up with adequate superlatives to describe this story. It made me laugh, more than once – it’s clever, funny and very, very good.

I settled down with a pile of biscuits and the first chapter of Honour and Obey, expecting to enjoy it as my evening read for the rest of the week. Three hours later I had to force myself to put it down. I only stopped reading because my eyes were closed and I couldn’t see the words any more.

It’s a grimy, warts-and-all portrayal of Victorian London, with foul deeds galore and a nasty mystery to solve – just another day in the lives of London’s finest at Scotland Yard. As usual there is a cast of great characters, including one of my favourites, Trafalgar Moggs, who appeared in Diamonds and Dust. There are no swooning heroines – simply a number of feisty, clever, capable women sorting out their own lives – which might, or might not, include a little romance. Eventually. I loved every dastardly deed and bout of derring-do.
Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? By Kenneth Koch.
Not new (it was published in 1998) but new to me – by far the most wonderful book I have read on teaching poetry to children. It has a lot to say to any of us who fancy our hand at rhythm and rhyme, and it’s full of the most wonderful verse created by children who worked with the author. And what a gorgeous title!
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, poetry collection by Kei Miller
Winner of the 2014 Forward Poetry collection prize. I just want to stake my claim – I saw it first! This is a wonderful collection, and it’s even better read in Kei Miller’s own voice – check him out on Youtube. Every now and then I treat myself to a single-author collection of poetry, and this is the best I’ve read in a long time. Here’s my Amazon review, titled ‘A Map on Human Parchment’:
I confess I came to Kei Miller through listening to him online. I wondered if the poems would have the same magic when I read them in my own head, in my own voice. They do. There’s a careless joy in some of these works, mingled with a pain so deep you can feel it. Even when he’s consciously poetic (as an artist may be painterly) it works – putting the construction of his work on display is like laying out the mapmaker’s tools on the desktop before the map is begun. I feel for the cartographer, trying to map his literal way through the human soul. I hope he makes it.
Archer’s Voice by Mia Sheridan
On the face of it this is pretty standard mainstream Romance. However – there’s something different about it. It’s Archer Hale, the heart and soul of this book (though not its protagonist). Sheridan came up with a great idea here, and the book’s all the better for it. Far better than the usual run.
The Rothko Room by Russell Cruse
This is a wonderful, blackly comic fest of action and intrigue that leaves all competitors gasping in its wake. I first read it as a working project on, and rushed out to buy this self-published work as soon as I could. Available in e-book and print versions. By far the most original and enjoyable read of 2014.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
This counts because I read it in paperback, which wasn’t released until 2014. I loved this little gem of a book. Compared to some of Gaiman’s work it’s spare and restrained – and it really works. I’ve always been a fan, but never quite felt he hit the spot (although one or two have come close). The Ocean at the End of the Lane received mixed reviews, and of course it demonstrates Gaiman’s trademark plundering of world mythology for his own uses. For my part, I think it’s the best thing he’s ever written.

Fade to Grey by Yvonne Marjot

My poem on blog magazine I Am Not a Silent Poet.

I am not a silent poet

The walls are grey, and the light
Barely touches her face.
For a moment she raises her eyes,
Then it all goes back to grey.

The window’s a dismal blur;
There’s hardly a sound in the place.
She’s been sitting here unmoving,
Watching the memory play.

It’s raining out there. The sound
of the second hand marks out the day.
She must pull herself together.
She can’t go on this way,

Other people endure this;
They seem do it with grace.
Get up and walk out that door.
It’s time to face the day.

She tells herself to move,
But her legs will not obey.
The hours wear on, and the light
Fades to a darker grey.

Outside is where it happened.
She can’t go there again.
Inside it keeps on happening,
Over and over and over and over…

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