Who am I speaking to?

There’s something so moving about this documentary of the last woman alive to be speaking wukchumni. It makes me want to gather up all my favourite words and just treasure them today.

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Fifth Draft

… and still a work in progress.


This is why I can never quite believe writers who say they write perfectly the very first time. And where’s the fun in that? This revision (above) has helped me work out what my story is actually about. Roll on the sixth draft.

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Remember this?


Old fashioned Basildon Bond notepaper with a lined sheet to put under your letter so you could write in nice straight lines, and blotting paper so that you didn’t smudge. Because of course it’s expected that you will still write with an ink pen.


I must have been a spoilt kid. I can remember thinking it wasn’t worth getting presents when you had to write those endless thank you letters after. Although there would always be the gems – the detective book which had a jigsaw you had to complete in order to find out ‘who did it’. That got a heartfelt letter. But the present I love most now – a china tea-set – came cup and saucer by cup and saucer for years. One at a time. I wish its giver was still alive now so I could write and tell her how much I treasure it. Difficult when you are seven though, and long for a trampoline. Or a white horse to be waiting in the garden when you wake up.

Dear xxx, Thank you for your present. I will have fun using it. I had a lovely birthday. Love Sarah.

When I went to boarding school, we were only allowed to ring up home before eight every morning, and there would be a queue of people waiting to use the one public phone in the hall so no conversation would be private. We would all write letters home but were told not to complain. Because it would upset our parents.

Dear Mum and Dad, Everything is fine. I hope it is for you too. Sarah.

I don’t remember what my actual letters contained but I imagine them something like that. I was a bolshy kid at the best of times.


I expect my parents didn’t keep my letters, although I’m surprised I don’t have any of theirs from this time because I know I treasured them. I can smell exactly as if I was standing there now the line of pigeon holes in the hall of the boarding house, next to the phone, and how we’d rush there every day after morning lessons to see if we’d got post. We’d pretend though that we didn’t care either way. We became expert at not-caring.


One Valentine’s Day, I must have been about fifteen, I was worried about not getting a card and so my father sent me nine. All with different handwriting on the front and even with different postmarks, and all signed with a question mark. Of course the minute I saw my bulging pigeon hole, I knew they were from him, and there was no way I could have pretended that I had nine admirers – I don’t think I had ONE – but it was the funniest Valentines Day ever. One was addressed to ‘Sarah Bless Her Cotton Socks’. It still makes me laugh.

And then there were the penfriends. Do people have penfriends any more? I had a French girl and a German boy. The german boy, Klaus, came to stay one summer. We’d been writing stilted letters to each other for a year. I have two pets. I have a sister. I like to play football… I didn’t understand why my father – who wasn’t much older than we were then when he fought in WW2 – was so upset about the idea of having a German staying in our home – who was his father? – but they became great friends. I can still picture them deep in conversation as they walked the dog every day. What did they talk about? After Klaus had gone home, he wrote to my father once, but I was never allowed to read it. Here we are… (I have no idea why it’s B&W, I think we were both arty. It was one of the few things we had in common)


I spent the summer between school and Fashion College writing letters to try to persuade a travelling boyfriend I was the one. They were long and rambly and I thought it might be interesting for him to know every single detail about my childhood. It didn’t work. My first week at college and I received a letter from him saying he wanted to go to University without commitments. But he wished me well. I didn’t keep that letter.


Then there are letters that have come at just the right moment for me. The one congratulating me on the birth of my first child and promising that after six weeks, things would get better. I read that one day after day for six weeks, and she was right. Work ones: the letter offering a month’s writing residency, the contract with an agency, a stranger telling me she’s just read my book and it’s as if we’ve had a conversation. And the personal ones: chatty details from a brother too far away so I can imagine his day, a friend enclosing a photograph of us together at fourteen. Remember this, she wrote.

And then there are the ones containing news I wish I didn’t have to read. Deaths, illness, bad luck. Official ones, and personal ones. I thought you would want to know… Too many of those these days, but at least a letter lets me take the news in on my own before I have to do anything.


And in all of these, I can see the handwriting, feel how the hand moved across the page I’m now reading. Keep them in a file to read after I can’t write back. My battered old address book is criss-crossed with old addresses, people who only exist on paper now. But I can still listen to them speak to me.


I went out yesterday to buy some writing paper and envelopes, and had to try five shops before I found the ones in these photographs. Two of those shops were card shops stuffed full with messages written out for me so all I had to do was sign them. ‘People aren’t writing letters any more,’ I was told again and again.

Tell that to these people.

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Sometimes it’s good to go back to the beginning, and that’s what I’ve been doing over the last few weeks. Reminding myself why I like writing, trying out new characters, freewriting with no real end in sight, trying out new things, reading authors I haven’t heard of before, playing.

And thanks to Vanessa Gebbie for this video of a real fresh start…

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In the news…

I’m very happy to report that Digging Up Paradise has been making some news recently. Here are a few of the cuttings:


kent life


digging up par


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Walking the Dog – a poem for Critical Voices

So many interesting voices, so many notes and so many ideas floating around Tunbridge Wells today after the Critical Voices conference organised by Graham Shaw for the Royal Society of Arts. It’ll take some time to process them, but for now, because I was asked, here is one of the poems I read. It’s from my new book, Digging Up Paradise.

Walking the Dog
by Sarah Salway

Today he is in charge, lead
looped at his side as he walks

the dog, smiling and keeping
in step as they bound over

the horizon. Only he knows
how yesterday the dog took over,

how he didn’t dare open his eyes
in case it still sat there,

teeth bared, paws on his shoulders,
the bulk of it blocking out the sun;

they stayed like that, prey and preyed,
and it didn’t matter how many times

he told the child inside not to be afraid,
that the dog just wanted to be friends.

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Visit some Kent gardens with me…

To celebrate the launch of Digging Up Paradise, I’m very pleased to tell you that Visit Kent are running a fantastic competition. The prize is a stay at the luxury Rowhill Grange Hotel, with free entrance to two of the gardens featured in the book: Penshurst Place and Finchcocks, plus a signed copy of the book.

So please do enter, and let me know if you win – maybe we could have a picnic together in one of the gardens this summer. And here are some glimpses of the gardens to tempt you…

kent gardens

The competition details are here.

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Putting out the bunting for Digging Up Paradise…


This week, my new book, Digging Up Paradise, is published – and there have been reports of sightings in gardens around the country.


I’m proud of this little baby – a mixture of reflection, stories, and poetry, with photographs and writing prompts too.


And so I thought I’d run a little competition. If you have got a copy of Digging Up Paradise, send me a photograph of it in your garden, or any garden, and I’ll pick out a winner for a very special prize. In fact, unique! I’ll make the winner of my favourite photograph a book of writing prompts and seeds tailored to your needs.


You can even take a picture of it with a postcard from the hedge…

postcards from the hedge

Closing date is 30th June 2014, and you can send your photographs to me at sarahsalway@gmail.com. I look forward to them!

And here’s a blurb from gardening writer, Lia Leendertz about the book:

On this poet’s garden tour, Sarah Salway writes of the gardens’ physical selves, of course, but also of the sensations they conjure, the memories they stir up and the glimpses of history that colour her perception. Each description is rich, layered, personal and moving. It is more like the way we all experience gardens than any garden writing I have come across.

Sarah has a unique combination of a garden lover’s eye and a poet’s imagination, and it is a delicious treat to watch her exercise them on this group of gardens. She makes a fascinating and unpredictable virtual garden companion, always drawing your attention to some unexpected detail, or taking some half-told story, exploring it and breaking your heart with it. At the end I desperately wanted to set her onto my own favourite gardens and see what happens.

I read this book sometimes with a silly smile on my face, sometimes gripped and anxious, often with a tingle running down my spine. Sarah’s poetry has always moved me, and now she writes about my favourite subject, gardens. How lucky we gardeners are to have her in our midst. This could not be a lovelier book.

You can read more at the publisher’s website here but before you do, here’s the favourite part of MY garden at the moment, a red rose that is trying to climb out over the wall so it can throw petals in the path of everybody who passes!


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Arts and Wellbeing – RSA Tunbridge Wells and Poetry Exchange

This week, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of two fascinating meetings that have made me think about arts and wellbeing.

The first was one I chaired, for the RSA in Tunbridge Wells, with Carol Lynch, Chief Executive of Kent Community Foundation, William Benson, Chief Executive of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, the artist Tony Crosse, and poet and writer, Steve Walter.


With a panel comprised of funders, politicians and artists, it’s perhaps not surprising that we came so quickly to a consensus about how much we needed the arts. I jotted down a few of the words used to demonstrate the benefits – to connect, to surprise, to heal, to challenge, to explore, to bring together, to regenerate, to educate, to enjoy.

I was very pleased that last one came up so strongly. Perhaps helped by a demonstration from Tony Crosse of how paints and paper beat powerpoint any day…


But as part of my research, I carried out an internet search on ‘arts and wellbeing’ and found pages and pages of projects for vulnerable people, for deprived communities, for young mothers, for addicts, for … you name it.

Brilliant. But it did make me wonder whether, given that we are all agreed that we need the arts to help increase self esteem, empathy, confidence, self-awareness, sense of community, we shouldn’t be getting politicians to take part in arts projects too? How about surgeons joining patients in the same artistic endeavour to explore medical attitudes so that a new space and relationship can be formed?

Are we saying it’s more important for certain groups to engage with arts? If it’s important, surely it’s worthwhile for everybody. And the figures I found from the Office of Statistics suggested that in England only 6% of us participated in painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture, and only 8% played a musical instrument for their own pleasure. Interestingly the figures in Scotland were higher with 17% engaged in arts and crafts for example, and 26% playing a musical instrument.

So I offered an invitation to the group to go home and remember what they used to like doing at school – painting, poetry, theatre – and to actually sit down and make something. It was half a joke, but I was delighted to have two poems in my inbox the next morning.

And also apt because last night, I took part in a workshop for the Poetry Exchange which is looking at encouraging us – in many different ways – to think of poetry as a friend. This is the poem I took along with me… a friend I’m probably curious about rather than truly comfortable with, but with lot of potential for exploration.

by Louise Glück

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I’m never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I’m looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

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News, news…

postcards from the hedge

I’m so proud to have my work and love of the landscape featured in the Independent on Sunday yesterday. A double page spread, no less.

And to be on author, Pam Johnson’s website, Words Unlimited this week too.

If you click on both these links above, you’ll get the full articles.

And I’m just as delighted that people are pre-ordering Digging Up Paradise. THANK YOU PRE-ORDERERS! And I’m going to be signing books at Cultured Llama’s headquarters on Friday, so if you have ordered a book and would like a personal dedication, do let me know what you’d like me to sign!



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