Of Cabbages and Wreckers – Writers & Artists Retreat West competition success

Last summer, I took my children to an overgrown path on the Wirral Peninsula that I remember playing on at about their age. It’s choked with bushes and saplings that die before they’re very old due to the lack of light, and a small stream runs along it. Getting our feet wet and our arms scratched, we followed this path from its starting point at Thurstaston Country Park, along the cliffs and down towards the Dee estuary. Once upon a time, it was a smugglers’ path, used by local villagers to spirit away illicit booty that was brought up the Dee, away from the Customs’ checks at nearby Birkenhead and Liverpool. I’ve also heard stories of wreckers who operated along the Wirral coastline, lighting bonfires on cliffs and beaches to confuse ships heading to or from Liverpool Bay. Apparently the cliffs and sandstone bluffs in this part of the Wirral are riddled with the caves and passages once used by these men.

Ever since that summer visit, an idea for a story ticked away in my mind. Being possibly slightly over-preoccupied with the current novel, I didn’t do anything about it until I saw a short story competition being run by Bloomsbury’s Writers & Artists, in conjunction with Retreat West. The story could embrace any genre but it had to use a beach for its setting. Well – it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I wrote and I submitted, and then, a few weeks later, was rather surprised to see my name and story title on the short list. I’m lucky enough to have been short listed in several competitions in the past but have never gone any further – until Tuesday, that is, when an email pinged onto my screen, briefly obscuring the guide to HR law for SMEs I was writing. My story, “Of Cabbages and Wreckers” had won.

You can read it here, along with the two excellent runner-up entries by Mark Mayes and Alexis Wolfe.

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Smugglers Path – hidden by the vegetation to the right of the boardwalk path. The child in red is standing where the path comes out onto Thurstaston Beach.

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The Sun-drenched Elsewhere – Into the Jungle Book

Autumn is in the air and, rather than tidying up my garden, painting the newly rebuilt porch

or – ahem – concentrating on work, I’m thinking about warmer places and other, earlier times.

 

*

 

When the rice and paneer with peas are reduced to scraped-out dishes, Pradeep, still in his forest guide greens, appears. ‘May I?’ He gestures at an empty chair.
‘Please.’
Sitting, he drinks with relief from his bottle of beer. I don’t blame him. Although it’s evening, and already dark, the air is still thick and hot enough to feel like a mugging about to happen.
‘Would you like to see some photographs?’
It’s quite a selection: tiger, antelope, birds of all kinds, even dhole, the elusive Indian wild dog. He’s keen to talk about f stops, ISO levels and shutter speeds, but this is far too technical to be interesting when set against the oranges and blacks of a tiger’s coat, and the wary glint in a chital’s eye.
Once we’re finished exclaiming over the photographs, he brushes away an errant grain of rice, and places a slim manila folder on the table. There’s a reverence to his movements and, when I see what’s inside, I see why. 
These are pen-and-ink drawings, and executed with such skill that I half expect each animal to stir itself, stretch, and step out of the paper. I pause over one: a tiger half-submerged in water, her tail curling up into the air, and her face wrinkled as if in joy. 
‘Ah, yes, Neelam.’ Pradeep could be her fond uncle. ‘Maybe, tomorrow, we’ll see her.’
Tomorrow, when it arrives, is cool enough to require a jacket, and still dark enough to set me fretting about what may pass by, unseen. However, once through the park gates, the air has lightened to purply-grey, and I can make out the humped shape of some animal making for the tree-line. The shape is familiar, but I can’t put my finger on it. 
‘Sloth bear. Baloo,’ Pradeep says, and laughs.
Baloo. Of course. These sal and bamboo forests are where Kipling set his Jungle Book. How fitting it seems to sight one of his most important characters. 
Further inside the park, the forest closes around us. I imagine the rustling of the leaves and scraping of branches to be the trees talking to each other, perhaps warning of our arrival. Pradeep has no time for such fancies. He’s listening for the alarm calls of monkeys, or birds. 
But no warning is given. Around a corner, past some large trees (‘duck!’ someone calls, as the branches skid over our heads), and there she is: Neelam, identifiable by her very large white ear spots. Amber eyes watch us and, as I look at her, it’s like meeting someone I already know. Her mouth opens, pink and toothed, and she calls: a sort of grumbly roar. Not to us, but to some concealed, not-to-be-known other.
Later, I buy her pen-and-ink portrait. I’ve no idea if she’s still alive but I pass her every time I come down the stairs. I know I’m anthropomorphising, but I feel we know each other well. She’s become a friend.

Photographs © Louise Taylor

(Clockwise from top: Tigress with two of four cubs in Bandhavgargh National Park; large male tiger in Kanha National Park; Langur monkeys in Sariska National Park; female sambar deer in Sariska National Park)

Friday Fictioneers – After Dark

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write anything in response to any of the Friday Fictioneers’ prompts, as posted by the unflagging Rochelle Wisoffs-Fields. I’ve written several pieces in my head but, sadly, they’ve got no further. Now – hooray! – I have.

The following picture is the prompt. My 100-word story follows. If you’d like to read other people’s stories or to have a go yourself, click here.

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogersondale-rogerson4

 

He booked us into the only hotel in town. It was too late to take the road up-country, he said.

We sat outside, nursing sundowners long after night’s violet-blackness had overwhelmed the sky. In front of us, a hole in the ground yawned even blacker. That’ll be a swimming pool, he said, when the tourists come – because they will.

I was glad the swimming pool and the tourists were still only a hope. Better to pretend no-one else knew about this place.

Your husband not mind you coming out here, he asked, slunking more gin into our emptying glasses.

 

 

Poetry publication in The Woven Tale Press

I had a wonderful childhood. Sometimes, I wonder if it was too good – I remember struggling with the idea that it was finite and that I would (if lucky) live three or four times longer as an adult than as a child. When I was forced into reaching the inevitable accommodation, aside from all that other life, I discovered other consolations. One of those was memory. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I walk around my childhood house in my head or I revisit a particular time, a certain event, a special place. There’s one such place that a cousin and I have agreed feels may be the strongest and most coherent memory we’ll ever be able to hang onto. (We’re not talking entirely out of our hats here; I think we both wonder if we’ll succumb to the dementia that took our grandmother.)

The place is Wales: North Wales and, specifically, the Lleyn Peninsula, where the Irish Sea boils up against a small spur of land that hangs off the side of Snowdonia. I grew up close enough to the place to feel some kinship or belonging anyway, but it was the annual holidays our families spent on a hill farm that really cemented my feelings. I’ve written plenty about Wales, and those holidays, in that writerly, appropriating fashion that I tend to fear must be at least mildly irksome to anyone else who regards the same places and incidents as as much theirs as any old writer’s. And, for that, I suppose I apologise – although I’ve done it again and, this time, The Woven Tale Press, a cornucopia of literary and artistic loveliness, has published the result.

My poem, At Dinas Dinlle, is available through here, together with the other contributions that make up the issue. You can subscribe (for free!) to the online version here. It is also possible to purchase a glossy printed version. My thanks to Sandra Tyler and her team for all their support and encouragement, and for producing such a beautiful and stimulating publication.

Flash fiction – Into Africa

Time for another flash fiction piece with the Friday Fictioneers, as hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. This week, I’ve hit the 100 word target on the nose.

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© Magaly Guerrero

Her dress, pink and foamy, would have looked well in a sundae glass. The shoes, though, were serious. Black and heeled, they lent her height that wasn’t hers and a demeanour I knew she meant to keep.

‘Leopards?’ she said, as the shoes took her, arm-in-arm with him, down the veranda steps into the half-dark.

He shrugged. ‘Lions too. And wild dog.’

Watching, I saw how she let him push her up against a tree. And, as they kissed, I smelt what she smelt: Pears soap, leather, sun-saturated clothes and a strong, clean animal scent that wasn’t me at all.

*

For other 100-word stories following the same photo prompt, look here.

Flash fiction – Homeward bound

Time for another flash fiction effort with the Friday fictioneers, hosted by the lovely Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Here is the picture prompt:

Dhow in harbour

PHOTO PROMPT © Fatima Fakier Deria

They stop on the bridge looking down over the harbour. She grips the railings like she might jump. Next to her, he touches a finger to his lips. ‘Salt,’ he says.

‘Which boat would you choose, if you could, to go home in?’ Her voice is dreamy.

He’s thinking of moules et frites in the little café not two hundred yards away. ‘Home?’ It’s almost a foreign word.

‘Yes. Not that one with the cracked keel; it wouldn’t even make it across the Mediterranean. But, oh, look!’ She’s jumping up and down.

He follows her finger.

‘The dhow,’ she says. ‘Of course! What better boat to sail back to Africa!’

*

If you’d like to write your own 100-word story, click here for more information, or to read other peoples’ stories, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday fictioneers – His house

Old houses

PHOTO PROMPT © J Hardy Carroll

‘This is your house?’ she says. She’s not imagined something so large, so sprawling hiding among London’s crowded streets.

He nods, and a muscle in his jaw twitches beneath the shaving cut she’s sure he won’t want her to notice.

‘What wonderful parties we can hold!’ she says, hands outstretched, as if already reaching for a cocktail glass. No matter that she has no friends yet. She will make some; for what else could a house such as this be built?

‘Parties? Goodness, no.’ His hand grips the gate, rattles at a lock she hasn’t noticed. ‘That’s what this is for: to keep my wife in and everyone else out.’

*

If you’d like to have a go at writing your own 100 word story, click here. And if you’d like to read other people’s take on the picture, click here.

In praise of libraries

I heard from an old colleague last week. While we were both still at what many of its staff called “the Mothership”, we occasionally used to pass a slow morning discussing what we intended to do in our next lives. I wanted to write and she wanted to read. ‘All day, on a chaise longue,’ she’d say. ‘A yellow velvet one, under an open window, with a tree right outside.’ Although we agreed that yellow, at least where velvet was concerned, probably wasn’t the most practical colour, she was immovable on the idea of the piece of furniture itself. We also agreed that I probably wouldn’t ever make a living as a creative writer just as she was unlikely to pay the bills from horizontal on a peculiarly decorative sofa. However, I hoped I might be able to supplement stewing over novels and poetry with freelance writing, while she thought that working in a library or bookshop were appealing ideas.

Some years later, after we’d both left, she emailed me a picture of a chaise longue in a sort of dark mustard colour (much more attractive than it sounds). ‘This is mine,’ she wrote. ‘I like to lie here and read when I get home from the library.’ Actually, I don’t suppose she did as much lying and reading as she’d planned; anyone who reckons small children are conducive to that sort of relaxation is either lying or delusional. Anyway, she loved that library.

She worked hard at it too. The hours varied over a fortnightly shift pattern – an all too common childcare challenge – and some nights she was still there long after her children’s bedtime. However the variety, she said, made it worth it. It wasn’t just book-shelving, issuing fines and checking out books; it was recommending titles, writing reviews for the library’s blog, running story time, dressing up for special events, organising computer classes, art classes, a writing workshop……a whole series of activities designed to help a community function as both a cohesive whole and a group of individuals.

Lonely people came to chat, new mothers turned up to drink coffee, to cry and to make new friends under the safe pretence that their six-week old needed to learn both words and actions to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, students used the large, well-lit tables as a study base and job-seekers wrestled with the Sisyphean requirements of the DWP on the public computers. I’m sure they were all welcomed with a smile.

I’m a library-lover myself. I can’t remember my first visit (to the large stone Birkenhead Central Library, grand as any stately home – and now under on-going threat of closure) but I know the early years of story time soon segued into hours reading everything the children’s library had to offer. An omnivorous reader, I made little distinction between classic, contemporary and even, oh the horror, American high school stories (hello Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High). The joy, though, of being given an adult library card! Suddenly I could take out eight books rather than four, and I did so every week. Even now, almost thirty years later, I can still remember some of the books and authors I first discovered in that huge curved room of other worlds. There was Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Dora Shafe’s Miss Read novels, Violette Szabo in Carve Her Name With Pride (which led me  on to read an entire shelf on the Special Operations Executive), David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest; the list, truly, is too long for a single blog post.

My library use at university was more utilitarian but, one day, breaking away from the law library, I went to the section of the Stacks used by the English department, and discovered that Sylvia Plath had written diaries – and they had actually been published! I read and I read.

Then came the ancient and beautiful library of the Inner Temple, the well-resourced libraries of a City law firm and, by now accompanied by a squirming, often screaming and always sleepless infant, the surprising spaces of the Barbican library. I loved them all in their own ways.

Nowadays I spend a good deal of my leisure time at my current local library: Winchester’s Discovery Centre. Note the name. Library is no longer good enough in this multi-purpose age of ours. Libraries have to be about more than books and, indeed, mine manages this with consummate skill.  Not only do my children and I read its books, we go to plays and concerts there, we attend workshops and exhibitions, and eat in its café. One of the highlights of my month is Winchester’s Loose Muse poetry night, run by the esteemable Sue Wrinch, where I’ve had the good fortune to hear Liz Berry, Jo Bell, Kim Moore and Sarah Howe amongst many equally talented others. There’s also the Winchester Poetry Festival, which makes good use of the library building. We would all be so much the poorer without our library.

And my friend, my old colleague, feels the same about her library, which now faces closure. The only way it seems some vestige of it can be saved for its community is for all the staff to lose their jobs and their positions to be replaced by volunteers. To say my friend is sad is too simplistic. She wants to keep her job – needs it – but she wants the library too.

I don’t want to get into the political side of this. I could say a lot about how I feel about the voluntary sector stepping in to cover what the State once assumed responsibility for but I shan’t. It’s not fair to my friend, to her library or her community. I hope they find a solution that works for as many people as possible. A library is too important to be lost.

Friday fictioneers – After tea

 

Please forgive me the second blog post of the day; I’m on something of a roll. This piece for Rochelle Wisoff-Fields’ Friday fictioneers was (once again) inspired by the novel I’m currently writing. The following picture is the prompt. And isn’t it beautiful?

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© Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

He was leaning back, yawning and kicking his heels against the chair legs. Her eyes detached him easily, away from the crowd of chattering parents and girls, the cucumber sandwiches and the half-drunk cups of tea.

Outside, behind the tea tent, they high-stepped its guy ropes to reach the line of stacked hay bales. ‘We were told not to go beyond these,’ she said, already scrambling up.

When he dropped down beside her, his eyes were restless and his face no longer ruddy.

‘Don’t worry! Who is there to see?’ she said, looking up at the sky and laughing. ‘There’s only God and He won’t tell.’

*

If you’d like to have a go at writing your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

 

 

Of Birds and Beasts

A tourist stopped me the other day. I was hurrying along the high street, congratulating myself for being on a World Book Day trawl of the local charity and haberdashery shops a full three days before my children were expecting to pitch up at school as Pippi Longstocking and Just William (their school’s theme: books that have stood the test of time). The woman looked at me over the top of her guide book. ‘Can you help me?’ she said.

            I glanced to my left and prepared myself not be the least bit patronising or sarcastic when explaining that, yes, the cathedral really is just behind Debenhams.

            ‘This is my third day here,’ she said, forestalling me. ‘I’ve seen the cathedral, the Bishop’s palace, the Round Table, the museums and the College. Is there anything else? My train isn’t until three.’

            Out of the corner of my eye a pigeon, its wings hunched around its head, shuffled sideways along a window ledge. It had to be my imagination but it seemed to be moving away from a small pile of grey and white feathers. Perhaps they were the remnants of a nest, thought it was still early, even for pigeons, or perhaps…..

            ‘Peregrines,’ I said. The name came from nowhere. If I’d thought it before speaking, I wouldn’t have said it at all. ‘At the cathedral.’

            But the woman with the guidebook took a step forward. ‘Really? Here?’

            ‘Oh yes.’ Forgetting about pipe cleaners and school caps, I said, ‘There’s a few of them about. One pair used to nest on the old police headquarters on Romsey Road, opposite the hospital but were relocated before the building was demolished. The site’s being developed for houses now, you see.’

            She raised her eyebrows. ‘And the peregrines? They’ve moved them to the cathedral?’

            ‘I’m not sure they moved them exactly but you can see them flying above it sometimes.’

            She grinned, and dropped the guidebook into the canvas shopper bag over her shoulder. ‘I’ll go there now,’ she said. ‘I might be lucky.’

            I nodded. ‘I hope you are.’

            After she’d gone, I thought about the other creatures I could have told her about.  There are the otters at the City Mill and, in particular, the one that my daughter, then aged two and somewhat zoologically challenged, misidentified as a lion. There are the water voles in that stretch of the Itchen where it flows through the water meadows that border Winchester College, the roe deer and kingfishers at Winnall Moors, and the mallard who, one spring, led her ducklings not from one river to another but to the Butter Cross, favourite meeting place of generations of teenagers. To the amusement and bemusement of shoppers, the family circled the monument just as if they might have swum around a pond. They stayed long enough to get their picture in the local paper until someone at last guided them towards the nearest water. And then there’s my current favourite: the thousands of starlings that mass at twilight in great stormy-grey clouds in the neon-lit skies above the Tesco superstore.

            Back on my shopping quest, I thought how even though my city might be England’s ancient capital, famous for its Roman heritage, for its cathedral with the longest nave of any European Gothic cathedral, for Alfred and his cakes and Arthur and his knights, I know it best through its birds and its beasts. And I like that.

Flash fiction – Her beginning

orchid

Photograph © Roger Bultot

The air outside her front door was all bitten through with ice but she stood there anyway, sleeveless and bareheaded, listening as he climbed the staircase.

Inside, he crossed to the window. ‘Orchids in the snow,’ he said, laying his hat next to them. ‘I knew this was your apartment as soon as I saw them from the street,’

‘Oh?’ She poured him the drink he hadn’t had time to ask for and drew off his jacket. ‘It’s been a long time,’ she said.

‘Hasn’t it? I’ve fought a whole war.’

‘And I’m just beginning mine,’ she said, watching him unbutton his shirt.

*

The above is my contribution to this week’s Friday Fictioneers run by the lovely and ever diligent Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

 

Friday fictioneers – This way

It’s been a while since I managed to get down to writing a Friday fictioneers’ piece. This one is inspired by current happenings. I’m not sure if it’s written in hope or fear or some mixture of the two.

 

dale-rogerson2

Photograph © Dale Rogerson

 

‘This way, Sir.’ A command dressed up like respect. He’ll understand only half of that.

He talks. ‘Who was the architect for this place? I know a fellow-’

‘No, Sir. You don’t.’

Behind them, the sun is gone behind the barred and bolted door. So, too, the howling crowds. This new light is sepulchral, pooling on the ground. He stamps over it.

‘Do you want to pray?’

‘Pray?’

‘Yes. Everyone finds their God in the end. Some people like Him to accompany them into the darkness.’

‘Horseshit. Trump’s had this God guy’s back for long enough. He’s on his own now.’

A head shake. ‘This way, Sir.’

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Puig de Maria

For five summers the hill looked down on us. I imagined it chuckling to itself as, on nearby Port de Pollença’s beautiful white beach, we chased toddlers with bottles of sun cream, wiped small faces clean of ice cream and endlessly shook sand-encrusted raisins from bags.

But 2016 was The Year. No more nappies, pushchairs or My First Shoes. We assembled the children and announced a short walk before swimming. One of them – what a little star – said ‘hooray!’, one said ‘no way’, one asked if there would be ice cream, one looked as if she might cry while the not-quite-three-year-old carried on rifling through someone else’s handbag. We had a rethink and left the two smallest with Grandma.

Guidebooks describe the Puig de Maria as an easy forty minute climb. At the top is the sandstone Santuari de la Mare de Déu del Puig, a monastery and chapel dating back to the 1300s and dedicated to the Virgin Mary to plead protection from the Black Death. The Bishop of Palma ordered out the original inhabitants in the mid-1500s and different religious orders have used the place sporadically ever since. In the 1980s, twelve cells were converted to bedrooms for overnight stays by ascetics, peace-and-quiet seekers (possibly parents of young children) and those averse to ensuites, air conditioning and other fripperies.

Lined with pine, olive and holm oak trees, the path is patched with shade. It makes for hot, thirsty walking but the views are matchless: westwards, the Tramuntana mountains rise dark and rocky above Pollença town, while to the east, Cap de Formentor and the bays of Alcudia and Pollença give way to the blue expanse of the Mediterranean. The children enjoyed seeing “their beach” from this new viewpoint, although, it must be said, displayed similar enthusiasm for the biscuits my brother-in-law produced from his rucksack.

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Starting as well-maintained tarmac, the path becomes rough cobbles closer to the top. Sturdy-soled though they were, I regretted my Birkenstocks (my only footwear option; I pack light) and wished for my trekking sandals, relics of another life. The children, however, scampered back and forth, probably covering twice the 2km distance, while discussing ice-cream options for the top, where there’s a small restaurant, apparently serving some of Mallorca’s best food, as well as that promised ice cream.

A goat, leaping across the rocks that flank this upper reach of the path, welcomed us to the summit. It posed for photographs, with the casual aplomb of the well-practised, before disappearing between the stone gate-posts. We followed, variously seeking shade, the incense-scented chapel and ice-cream. In our different ways, we were all disappointed. The sun was high and shade scarce to nil, both chapel and monastery were closed and locked and, despite a garish ice-cream sign, the restaurant, too, was shut. And yet, with air rich with resin, wood smoke and sea-salt, our hands gripping a warm honey-coloured stone wall – and, everywhere we looked, that incomparable view, it seemed impossible to expect more.

 

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Friday fictioneers – Condensation

horses-in-the-snow

Photograph © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

 

When she saw him opening his mouth, she pressed her nose to the window and stared at the ponies pulling at their hay in the field.

‘Father’s dead.’

‘Oh.’ The ponies were clouded with snow but their tails dripped and their warm bodies steamed.

‘Haven’t you anything else to say?’ His hand tugged at her arm as if he hoped to shake it out of her.

‘Good?’

She regretted the question mark even before the little word had turned to condensation on the glass.

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

 

Friday fictioneers – After the hunt

ff-tent
PHOTO PROMPT © Jan Wayne Fields

Perdy had triumphed on the hunt. She sat outside her tent, arms around the corkscrew horns of an enormous kudu bull. Its blood-clotted nose rested in her lap.

‘What a trophy,’ someone said.

Perdy smirked and looked across at Violet.

‘Jolly well done, darling,’ Violet said. ‘Do you have the right wall for it? Back home?’

‘Home?’

‘You’ve not moved in with me, have you!’

Perdy’s mouth twitched in a sort-of smile.

Violet took the smile and turned it into her own. Her fingers caught at mine. ‘Goodness, if everyone who came to one of my parties moved in, there’d be no room for me.’

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Serengeti blues

 

The Serengeti was blue. Not only the sky but also the acacias; squares of vivid indigo material crowded out the leaves.

‘Tsetse fly traps,’ our guide explained.

I checked my trousers (dual purpose khaki: camouflage for game viewing and, supposedly, an unappealing colour to tsetse flies) were pulled down over my ankles and my shirt buttoned to the neck.

Tsetse flies and the parasitic disease they transmit – sleeping sickness – is something of a mixed blessing for the Serengeti. European colonisers avoided the area, sparing the wildlife the worst of the ravages it was subjected to elsewhere. However sleeping sickness still troubles the inhabitants of the villages hemming the park edges. Easy to treat if caught early, it is difficult to diagnose and impossible without appropriate healthcare. Hence the traps in this remote eastern corner of the park.

Perhaps the migrating herds are as big an attraction for the flies as for the tourists. Silent in our open-top jeep, we watched as wildebeest kettled themselves on a broad lip of earth overhanging a chocolate-brown river. The biggest and boldest tarried hardly at all, crashing through the group to hurtle into the water below, where they kept to the centre of the crowd of swimmers. Meanwhile, the current was bearing smaller animals sideways, dragging them closer to flotillas of log-like crocodiles and further from dry land. The hot air was thick with the cow-like calls of separated mothers and calves.

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In the long, yellowed grass on our side of the riverbank, a lioness swivelled her head left, right and left again as wildebeest after wildebeest, streaming water, charged past her. Here and there, uneaten corpses showed it is not only foxes that get carried away in the presence of such plenty.

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When the sun was half-gone below the horizon, we started the engine to drive past the stragglers – young calves, mostly, still calling with hollow desperation for their mothers. I tried not to think of the lioness on the riverbank. The road took us away from the great herd, which was heading north towards the greenness of the Maasai Mara, but not from all of their hangers-on.

I heard the buzzing first, beside my left ear, and flapped a hand at the sound. Silence. And then I looked down and saw the fly settling on my trousers, somewhere below my hipbone. When it scissor-closed its wings, I knew what it was. I raised my hand again to swat at it but the creature dipped its head as if in prayer, and bit through my trousers and underwear in one quick lunge.

There was blood – a surprising amount – and the bite hurt out of all proportion to the size of the fly but, as the evening deepened into the same indigo-blue as those tsetse fly traps, I counted myself lucky. I’d be watching for the symptoms, I had no fears about the quality of the medical care available to me – and I was not alone with lions on a riverbank.

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[These events happened almost ten years ago so I’m guessing I’m safe from sleeping sickness. The piece was inspired by a sort out of my photographs on a cold day, when the heat, dust and indigo blues of the Serengeti seemed like a lifetime and another world away. Sadly, sleeping sickness continues to be a threat in much of sub-Saharan Africa and, to my knowledge, the campaign against tsetse flies is ongoing.]

Friday fictioneers -Playing the Palais

ff-prompt-17-nov

PHOTO PROMPT © Björn Rudberg

Jim played the Palais that last evening. He pressed his cheek to the neck of his double bass, the strings plotting out where his beard might one day grow, and called to the girl in the green dress who was pretending not to cry, ‘They say it’s only ’til Christmas. We’ll play again then!’

Two months later, as the damp English countryside unrolled outside a train carriage, Jim took the whisky the nurse offered. ‘Come dancing tomorrow night,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back with my bass.’

He didn’t ask her what was underneath the huge white paws at the ends of his arms.

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

Friday fictioneers: Overheard

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Image © Sandra Crook

Nodding at the old lady at the next table, the woman said, in a voice that wasn’t enough of a whisper, ‘She must have been lovely when she was younger.’

The subject of her remark looked up. ‘People said similar when I was a child,’ she said. ‘Isn’t she going to be a beauty?’ She smiled, as if the memory amused her. ‘Although it never happened, thank goodness.’

The woman clutched her orange juice like it was a life preserver. ‘I’m sorry. I-‘

Over her champagne glass, the old lady shook her head. ‘Why be sorry? One stands out so much more if one looks unconventional.’

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

Friday fictioneers – Off route

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Image © Jean L. Hays

‘Has she been through here? Yesterday? In a station wagon?’ Nina flipped open her wallet and pointed at the photo of the white-haired lady. ‘She’s got Alzheimers. She shouldn’t be driving. But-’

The mechanic bent over and squinted. ‘No, but I’ve seen this dame.’ He tapped a finger, its nail rimmed with black grease, over another photo. ‘The car, too. Couldn’t forget a car like that. Yesterday, like you said.’

Nina stepped back. In the snapshot, the same woman, forty years younger, her hair still red, leaned against a Model T Ford parked under an acacia tree somewhere very far from Route 66.

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women

I’m delighted to have had three poems accepted for publication as part of the Silent Voices – Found poetry of lost women project. The first poem is here, the second is here and the third is here.

The project aims to give a voice to the ordinary women of history who, for so long, have been assumed, as if by default, to have nothing interesting to say. It does so by using their own documents, whether that be public records or private writings, such as letters and diaries, and using them to make poetry. It’s a wonderful idea and the more you look at these apparently unassuming primary sources, the more apparent it is that some of the best poetry hides in the everyday and the ordinary.

The woman behind my poems is my great grandmother, Dorothy. Separated from her husband for almost four years when he was sent to fight in the Mesopotamian campaign in WWI, the pair of them wrote hundreds of letters to each other. Most of his survive; very much fewer of hers do, perhaps because of the difficulty he faced in keeping and transporting large volumes of papers.

Dorothy died relatively young, when still in her fifties, and in notes written by her son, David, the Sonny of the poems, was described as a mild-mannered woman who had a great deal to put up with.

I first “met” Dorothy through the prism of her brother-in-law, William Faulkner Taylor (see here, here, here and here). She corresponded with him for more than a year until he was killed at Passchendaele and, judging by his letters to her (to my knowledge, none of hers to him survive), was variously helpful (she had his watch fixed for him and sent him tobacco and cakes), supportive (obvious by the way he thanks her for her advice and counsel) and, purely platonically, indulgent of his need to use her as proxy girlfriend when he despaired of ever finding a real one (“Say, I hope you’re right and there is someone waiting for me and that she’s just like you.”) Nowhere, though, had I seen her voice tell her own story until I chanced on these letters.

Dorothy: it’s over to you.

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Agapanthus and Aye-Ayes in Jersey

The little boy on the aeroplane looks out of his window. ‘I can see our holiday!’ he says. For a moment, I miss my own children. Mournful at not being invited on this 40th birthday trip, they’ve requested a souvenir. I ponder the Jersey new potatoes on sale at the airport, imagining them coated with chives and butter, but I doubt they’re what the children have in mind.

In St Helier, we walk along the esplanade to the bus stop. Blue agapanthus grows liberally on World War II fortifications. If anything can beautify concrete pill boxes, it’s these flowers.

Agapanthus on WWII fortifications in Jersey

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Continuing the theme, the bus has a fake grass floor. An orang-utan swings above the driver’s seat while a kaleidoscope of tropical birds perch in the luggage racks. Birdsong and the call of howler monkeys accompany us on the journey inland. Outside, plump Jersey cows, brown as caramelised sugar, graze in small fields, roadside honesty boxes invite passers-by to have potatoes for dinner again and the garden of almost every house is alive with spikes of yet more agapanthus.

The bus deposits us at our destination: 32 acres of green loveliness celebrating and preserving Gerald Durrell’s “little brown jobs”. Durrell is an unusual zoo, not only because of its exhibits, which tend towards the less glamorous end of the zoological spectrum, but also because of its founder’s aspiration that, one day, it will no longer be needed.

Not all the animals are small. The gorillas aren’t. Everything about them is large, including their smell – like a locker room no-one’s cleaned. Even so, they attract a crowd that would thrill many sports teams.

 

After lunch, we browse the shop but I can’t see anything beyond the usual soft toys and plastic dinosaurs for the children so we adjourn to the aye-ayes. With their bright orange eyes and strange, elongated fingers – to winkle grubs out of bark – these lemurs are feared as omens of death in their native Madagascar. In Durrell, they’re housed in two mellow stone buildings. A woman shoves through the swinging door. ‘Can’t see anything,’ she says. ‘What’s the point of that?’

Inside, the darkness drops like a sack. It’s almost threatening – or would be without the musky smell and a dim red light I don’t at first notice. Silent, we wait, pressing our noses to the glass. There’s a shuffle and a scuffle, and then an animal with gremlin ears and a tail like a terrified cat’s passes in front of our faces. It’s only a shadow but it’s enough. It’s enough. It’s there.

Out again in the daylight, I spot a wooden collection box with a slot for coins and, beneath, what looks like a pile of sticks. There’s a notice: Bamboo chewed by an aye-aye. £1. It’s just the thing! I pick through the pile and, choice made, wrap two lengths of bamboo in a scarf and drop money into the box. I hope the children appreciate them more than they would the potatoes.

Best souvenir ever: a stick of bamboo chewed by an aye-aye! #durrell

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Friday Fictioneers – Sea beliefs

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Image © Claire Fuller

 

When I was seven, we found a mermaid. Right there on the beach, forgotten by the tide, tiny and curled up asleep inside a cockle shell. We couldn’t wake her, though we tried.

She came home with us and lived on a shelf in our bedroom, with the shells and sponges, the driftwood and sea beans. We didn’t tell anyone what she was. She was ours.

Yesterday, my daughter showed me a mermaid she’d found on the beach.

‘Look after her,’ I said and then, too quietly for anyone except the mermaid to hear, ‘while you still believe in her.’

*

If you’d like to write your own 100 word story inspired by the picture, click here, or here to read other people’s.

Friday Fictioneers – And so the darkness

Inspired by my friend, Claire, I’ve decided to have a go at the Friday Fictioneers. This is a long-running project, hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. The challenge is to write a piece of flash fiction, complete with beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or fewer, following a photo prompt. This week’s photo is supplied by Rochelle.

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Image © Rochelle Wisoff-Fields

 

‘We have light!’ She set the hurricane lamps on the table, one either side of the tiny shopping trolley the children had filled with bottles of sugar sprinkles and cinnamon (‘See, we won’t starve,’ they’d said). ‘I found them in the attic. They were Violet’s, I suppose.’

He shrugged and ran his finger over the glass of the nearer one, liking the burn. ‘Guess so.’

‘Lucky she never threw anything away.’

His finger was too hot. He counted to five and pulled it away. ‘No. You’re wrong there. She did. She threw people away all the time.’

 

William Faulkner Taylor – part 4

“I haven’t heard from Maud lately, she doesn’t write to me half as often as you do. Say I believe if you had your own way you would be quite a matchmaker, go ahead, hop to it……”

This is a quotation from one of William’s earlier letters. And, until recently, I thought that was where William’s friendship with Maud had ended.

But no. As this letter hints at, there was more to come.

France,

June 8th ’17

“Dear Dorothy,

I received your letter a few days ago with the badges in. Thanks very much, they were alright.

I am back with the Battalion again. I got back last Friday, the Battn was in the line when we got back so we were sent up to them & we stayed in the line for three days. We just arrived in time for quite a lively time, perhaps you read about it in the papers. We took a trench from Fritz but he came back at us pretty strong & we were short of men so couldn’t hold it & had to withdraw to our old position but we gave him quite a wallop for we hear now that the Germans have retired from the position altogether.

We took quite a few prisoners, some of them were just boys, I felt sorry for some of the poor little beggars. We had them carrying out wounded & they were just all in. You could see the tears in their eyes as they worked.

Well I had quite a good time at the Corps school, I did pretty well. There was sixty of us in the sniper class & I was seventh from the top in shooting & ninth in general knowledge, map reading & such like so I think that’s pretty good for me.

I have got two stripes now, so when you write to me please address my mail Cpl Taylor [indecipherable]. If this war keeps on another fifteen or twenty years I’ll be a Colonel or something like that.

I got a letter from Maud two or three days ago, & what do you think she sent me a photo. That’s going some, eh. I am going to write to her just as soon as I finish this. I have your photo & Maud’s tucked away in my pay book  together.

I got a letter the other day from Laura, with the usual amount of snapshots, of things around home in it. This time it’s the new colts & all the school kids. She sends me some photos of something or other nearly every week so that I can see for myself how things are coming along. In her last letter she said that Dad had just arrived home with a motor car. He has been talking of buying one for a long time & at last he has done gone & did it. He got half way home & got stuck in a mud hole on the trail & had to walk home & get a team to go & pull it out so he made a bad start. The lord only knows what the finish will be. I am expecting daily to hear that some of them have got a Blighty or something like that.

Well they are sending some of our boys away on leave. I don’t know when I shall get mine now. That three weeks at the school will put me back some & taking stripes will too. If I had still been a private I should have been about first but NCOs will go in seniority. Some of the fellows are also being sent to a rest camp on the coast for about three weeks rest. We were talking about leave this evening & I asked the Sg major whereabouts I stood on the list & he said oh you had better go with the next bunch to the rest camp & I said to hell with that stuff I want to go to England. So I don’t know what will happen but there’s going to be a row if I don’t get my Blighty leave. I think I can get it alright when my turn comes for I have a pretty good stand in with the powers that be, so if I don’t stop a whizz bang before long you may see me around Leicester soon.

Say what do you know about Marian Beaumont, anyway. She is only a school kid or at least she was when I saw her last. I seem to have got you & the folks at home guessing now. Laura wanted to know the other day what that ring was on my finger. She seems to think some French girl gave me that. “Nothing doing”.

Well I think this is all this time so good by, give my love to Harold when you write. With love

Bill

P.S. I don’t know about addressing letters to Mesop[otamia] but I fancy it should be addressed to Army P.O. London and not to Mesop. I think that is the trouble.

Did I tell you some of my letters came back marked “contrary to W.O orders. I asked Bill if he knew how the letters to Meso were usually addressed.”

 

So, a letter from Maud and her picture in his paybook…..  He’s been dead almost one hundred years but I am quite ridiculously pleased for him. And, thanks to the recent discovery of two enormous and fascinating packets of letters between Dorothy and her husband Harold (William’s brother) while Harold was posted in Mesopotamia and Persia, I also know the story was not yet finished.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 3

France, April 7th [1917]

“Dear Dorothy,

                           I received your letter a week or so ago, & intended to write to you before this, but have been busy having a good time, we have been out of the trenches for a week & are in semi-civilisation now. It feels good to be away from the trenches for a little while, old Fritz gave us quite a lively time the last time in. He messed things up pretty badly for us, but he must have been in a pickle for he got it pretty hot, & is getting it every day now.

 It was my birthday just over a week ago & mother sent me a pair of gloves & a ten dollar bill & a good big parcel so I did pretty well.

We had a sports day yesterday and a decoration, the [indecipherable] handed out quite a few medals to fellows in our brigade, of course it rained & spoiled part of the fun but we had a pretty good day.

By the tone of your letter you seem to be pretty down in the dumps now that Harold has gone away, but cheer up dear, don’t go worrying about it, I know it’s jolly hard for you women at home, it’s worse for you than for the men, I think. Mother is worrying quite a lot about us but I wish she wouldn’t, it sets me worrying when I get a letter from home and mother seems to be fretting, so don’t you go worrying yourself all away. The war will soon be over and we shall all be coming home again, so cheer up & keep smiling.

I haven’t heard from Maud for some time now but I suppose she has been busy moving back to Leicester, or else she thinks I am a very uninteresting kind of a guy to write to.

I haven’t received that photo of you yet, so I am sending you one. I had my photo taken by myself but I started to laugh just as the deed was being did & spoiled it, but I had it taken again but don’t know what the other one is like yet. The folks at home don’t seem to think much of the one I had taken just before Xmas & they have passed some rude remarks about it so I thought I would have another try.

Well I think this is all this time so I will say good night, tell granddad & aunt Laura & all the folks I am still alive & going strong & will write to them some time soon.

Good by love from

Bill”

 

The May 1917 letter below interests me for a number of reasons. First because it denotes the time William received his promotion from Private to Corporal. (He would have a second, to Sergeant, in the six months before his death, hinting at something of the soldier he was becoming but also, I suspect, at the volume of deaths necessitating the continuing promotion of men from the ranks.) Secondly because of the glimpse into his emotional state of mind, which reaches us via his concerns over his romantic life rather than his time in the trenches. I don’t know who Maud was but I can’t help hoping William got some further flicker of interest from her to hang onto through all those dark, terrifying days and nights. Thirdly because, no matter how many times I read it, I am always struck by the way he seems to be losing his grip on his grammar, syntax and punctuation – admittedly never terribly strong. Whatever the reason behind this, I’ve edited parts of the letter to make it more understandable but have tentative plans to scan all of the originals and make them available online. I do not believe William’s words are for me alone.

 

France 28.5.17

“Dear Dorothy,

                        I received a letter from you last Wednesday & one yesterday, so I think it’s up to me to write next. I am glad my letter cheered you up some, but I say you told me in one letter that you never get down in the dumps “oh no”.

Well, I am still at the Canadian Corp school & having a good time. I rather expect we shall be going back to our Btns about the end of the week. They are pushing us through just as fast as they possibly can, gee I have done more writing since I came here than I have done since I left school, we spent about half of our time taking down notes & drawing maps & such like, a scout has to do a whole lot more things than just shoot Germans & prowl around in no mans  land at night, we have to draw maps, sketch, write intelligence reports, observe, know all about rifles & telescopic sights, telescopes etc. be able to read maps, know how to use a compass & all that kind of thing & we get all that sort of work here, ours is a very interesting job it’s about the best job on the go over here I think outside of a good bomb proof say about twenty miles behind the line, but they won’t give me one. I got a letter from mother the other day & two from Laura. Laura writes & tells me all the farm news, how the colts and calves are etc. Harold must be having a gay old time, he sure is seeing the world, a trip to Canada after the war & he will have been pretty well all round the world.

We have some lively old times here the fellows are a jolly good bunch & they are all men that have been over here a long time & this is quite a holiday to all so you can bet we have some great old celebrations & some great old yarns go around of an evening.

Last Thursday being empire day we had a lot of big bugs around two generals & all their crowd, & Saturday afternoon we had sports, & yesterday after church parade we had a shooting contest eight men from each of the four Can. Divisions & our divis. Won by seven points.

I haven’t heard from Maud lately, she doesn’t write to me half as often as you do. Say I believe if you had your own way you would be quite a matchmaker, go ahead, hop to it, I’ll bet you think you are having some fun all to yourself but I believe you have struck a hard proposition in me, I am too slow they all tell me, so I guess it’s right, so Maud is going farming is she. I hope I get leave I’ll come & help her milk the cows etc. What oh “some spree”, I think according to your letter that David [Dorothy’s son] is going to make either a farmer or a gardener they are pretty much the same. You say in your letter that it is so strange that Harold is so sick all the time, is he just sea sick or was he sick before he left I had no idea he was sick. So you don’t like military letters, eh, it sure doesn’t  make a fellow feel like putting any mushy stuff in a letter for the officer to read, I think it would be rather slow work making love through the mail under the circumstances. I know it would be better for me. Well I think I had better dry up it’s getting dark so good by give my love to Maud if she is at home when you get this.

Bill

PS Give me love to [indecipherable but probably Harold] when you see him. Send me his address please I lost the other you sent me.”

The sun-drenched elsewhere: Learning to fly in Mozambique

Recently I wrote a poem following one of Jo Bell’s 52 poem prompts. The prompt was “first time” and, easily discounting the obvious, I wrote about a time, almost ten years’ ago, in Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelago, when I found myself at the controls of a small plane. My friend Amanda, over at Amanda’s Circus, who is also following the prompts, read the poem and wanted more details. So, adapted from my diary at the time, Amanda, this is for you:

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I don’t much like flying – especially not in small planes where there is so little separating one from all that empty space. This pilot, with his clipped South African accent, young man’s confident grin and long fingers picking at a plate of peri peri cashew nuts says he has the answer. What I need, apparently, is the joystick in my hand.

His plane is a Piper Cherokee, a tiny thing that might have been plucked from a toy box and dropped here, on this sandy strip of runway between the Indian Ocean and the palm trees that seal off Pemba’s old town. Somewhere out there, across the glassy water is the Quirimbas Archipelago. I wonder if I mightn’t prefer to stay in Pemba, even if it means no migratory humpbacks, turtles or dugong. But the pilot is quick to dispatch us to our places: my husband to the seat behind his; a big man with a smile that’s too small for his face, to the back; and me to the co-pilot’s seat. In front of me is a joystick which, it transpires, isn’t a joystick at all but a thing called a yoke.

The switch-flicking that comprises the pre-flight checks is followed by the roar of the engines, so loud and physical it seems to set every cell of my body vibrating. We bounce along the runway, blurring the sea to turquoise opacity. Just as it appears that we must run out of sand, the nose of the plane lifts and, halfway to vertical, the rest follows.

Levelled out again, between blue sky and green sea, the pilot lowers his visor against the glare of the sun striking the water. He twists round in his seat and assures the passengers the hardest part is behind us. The smile on the man at the back of the plane becomes rictus-like. He’s guessed what is to come and is rightly terrified. From somewhere I hear the words: put your hand on the yoke.

It thrums with the movement of the plane and resists more than I expect. Turn it to the left, I’m told. I do so and the aircraft rolls beneath us, the space that its fuselage shaded giving up two dhows, their white sails catching the same air that holds us aloft.

Below, lines of green so dark they’re almost black are the deep water channels along which the humpbacks migrate. Pushing the yoke forwards, as instructed, the darkness lurches towards us, shoving the sky out of the way. I shake my head and the pilot, still grinning, pulls back on his own yoke to lift the plane. Released, I look down at the patchwork of tiny islands Mozambique’s civil war so long kept for the cartographers. Soon one of them will resolve into the mangrove-fringed, baobab-studded bit of earth where we are to land but for now, for once, I’m happy here, suspended between sea and sky – and resolutely not at the controls.

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William Faulkner Taylor – part 2

Born in 1890 in Leicester, William Faulkner Taylor was the second son of William and Emilie. In 1906, the whole family apart from the eldest son, George (usually known by his middle name of Harold), emigrated to Canada. They settled in the prairie town of Senlac, Saskatchewan and established themselves as farmers. Ten years’ later in 1916, William Faulkner Taylor, now 26 years’ old, enlisted with the 46th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry (Saskatchewan Regiment) and set sail for England. By August, after a few weeks in a training camp in Hampshire, he was on his way across the Channel. I’ve already posted one of the first letters he sent “home”, to his brother, Harold, in England. However Harold was soon also to enlist – in the Royal Engineers – and William began writing instead to Dorothy, his sister-in-law.

Belgium, August 29th

“Dear Dorothy,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am alright, we came out of the trenches last night, after an eight days [sic] stay there, we have been to the trenches twice now the first time we were only there for two days, we are out behind the lines now in a rest camp for a little while. It was fairly quiet while we were in the trenches all but one day & then it was rather interesting for a while. Fritz kept us busy dodging a few things that the boys call rum jars but I didn’t think there was much rum about them. I got a letter from Sis the other day & one from her intended & I got one from Laura since I have been over here. Tell granddad I will write to him soon & tell Harold to send me his address will you, well I think this is all now so good by

Will”

 

Sis, more properly known as Frances, and Laura, were Bill’s sisters, back home in Canada. This is the only letter, at least that I have, in which Bill signs himself “Will”. Maybe I’m being fanciful but it’s tempting to imagine the young man who had so recently exchanged the green prairies of Canada for the devastated, shell-swept farmland of northern Europe trying out a new nickname to fit his new reality.

France, Sep 25/16

“Dear Dorothy,

                        I received your welcome letter last week, just about half an hour after I posted that last letter to you. Well we are in a different part of the country now, we were on the march the last three days of last week & we are away from the trenches now, we are billeted in a little village, this is a fine country & all the people around here are fine, different altogether to where we were before. You were pretty lucky to be able to go & stay close to Harold it would be quite a holiday. Well Dorothy I want you to do something for me if you will please, I am enclosing a ten shilling note & I would like you to get me two dozen Gillett safety razor blades & send them to me as soon as you can, we never get into a big enough place to be able to get them over here. I think this is all now so good bye

                                                                                                                        Bill

PS You asked me what kind of tobacco I smoke so that you could send me some, thanks very much but I get all the smokes that I can use mother sent me some & we get issued every week with tobacco [sic] & cigarettes, but I wouldn’t mind if you would send me a cake or something like that.”

 

France,

Dec 6 / 16

“Dear Dorothy,

This is the first time I have had a chance to write to thank you for the pipe  & watch. I got them about ten days ago. When we got them we were living up to our knees in mud, but we are alright now, we have been on the march for eight days & we are billeted now in a small town quite a way from the trenches & believe me it’s great to be back in something like civilisation again. We were just seven weeks on the Somme & I don’t want to go there again.

Well Dorothy, that pipe you sent me is a dandy, I couldn’t have got one to suit me better if I had picked it myself & the watch is doing fine, so I am very much obliged to you. I am going around town tonight to see if I can’t get you an Xmas present.

We were all going to get leave, we heard, about a week ago. One man out of our section did go, & now we hear today that it is cancelled, so I am afraid I won’t be able to see those three girls, that’s tough luck, eh what.

Tell Harold when you write to him that he hasn’t reached the limit yet by a long way, sleeping in a wagon under a tarpaulin is quite comfortable to what he will get when he gets over here.

I don’t know what’s happened to the mail. I haven’t heard from home for three weeks, but I might get some letters any time now that we are settled for a few days.

My chum got badly wounded the last afternoon we were in the trenches, he was only about two yards from me when a bullet hit him, went in his shoulder & out through his back. It broke his collar bone & his lungs were touched. I haven’t heard anything about him yet whether he lived or not. He was a Sheffield boy.

Well I think this is all this time so I will close with love

Bill

PS A merry Xmas & a happy new year.

I have just been around town trying to find something to send to you & I couldn’t find anything just to suit me. I wanted to get a silk apron but they were all sold out so I decided to buy you enough silk goods to make a blouse. I hope you will like it, I had some time around town in the shops. I went into quite a few before I got suited. You ought to have seen some of the things those girls fetched out for me to look at. At last I found a place where the girl could sling a little English& there was a fellow with me that could sling a little French so we got on fine & this silk is what she persuaded me to buy.

I have just had a letter from Harold & one from mother. All the folks at home are quite well. Mother says she hasn’t heard from you for a long time. Well this is all now. Good by dear.

Bill” 

 

France Dec 11/16

“Dear Dorothy,

Got your letter yesterday, & posted one to you the day before, as usual. Some lecture you gave me, but don’t worry dear I’ll be good. Say I hope you are right about someone waiting for me & I hope she is just like you.

Bill”

The short note above was written inside a hand-stitched Christmas card. I can’t imagine where he got it from or how he kept it safe. And I wish I knew the history behind these three sentences.

One hundred years’ on: poppies, the Battle of the Somme & William Faulkner Taylor

 

Owslebury poppies on the 100th anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme

A post shared by Louise Taylor (@sar1skatiger) on

 

On Friday I was dog-walking on the chalk fields around my home. At their fringes, where the farmer has left off with his sprays, the oil seed rape is woven with grasses, small scabious, bird’s foot trefoil – and poppies. I stopped and photographed them, and thought of one soldier in particular: my great-great uncle, William Faulkner Taylor, who had arrived from Canada almost exactly 100 years’ earlier, at the end of June 1916. He’d pitched up not so very far from me, in a training camp in Bramshott, Hampshire, to await his passage to France. He didn’t yet know it but the Somme was to be his bloody baptism.
“July 2nd 1916

Dear Harold,

I arrived in England last Thursday. I have been hoping to be able to come up to see you before we go to France, but the Colonel told us this morning at church parade that it was impossible to grant any leave at all because they want to rush us through & get us ready to go to France sometime in August, he said the only passes that he could give us were from noon on Saturday until ten o’clock on Sunday night & that wouldn’t be any use at all. I went home for a day before we left Canada & everybody was quite well when I was there, we left Saskatoon on the 12 of June. We were inspected yesterday by the King about 8 miles from here & believe me it was some march with a full pack after doing nothing but sit around for nearly 3 weeks, we were away at 6 in the morning & didn’t get back until six at night & were pretty tired boys. Have you enlisted yet or what are you doing, I suppose this letter will find you if you are not at home, I have been wondering if you have enlisted and are by any chance camped anywhere around here, if so we could arrange to see one another somewhere. Well, I think this is all now I will write again as soon as I hear from you.

Your dearly beloved little chip, Bill”

Eight days

Eight days’ ago, my writing “to do” list looked something like this:

-Refine elevator pitch for The Gardener’s Boy

-Rewrite synopsis

-Tailor cover letter to agents

-Wait for kind beta readers to return said novel covered in corrections and suggestions

-Catch up on the last three poems for the “52 poems project”

-Write travel piece on flying a light aeroplane in Mozambique

What I’ve actually achieved is more like:

-Flood Facebook and Twitter with dozens of incredulous/furious/sorrowful posts about, yes, Brexit

-Shout at the television and radio

-Read everything I could find on why why goddamnit why this has happened and where we might go next other than hell in a handcart

-Talk until my jaw stopped working to everyone I know who shares my stupefied horror.

And that last point is becoming the crux for me. I happen to live in one of the very few places in England which returned a majority remain vote. Most of my friends are remainers. Likewise, bar one person, so are my family and in-laws. I also spent over a decade working at an international law firm. Its clients – largely from the financial sector, FTSE 100 and comparable foreign-listed companies – tended to be international in set-up and global in outlook. We had offices in over a dozen countries and I was fortunate enough to spend time in France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Ireland as part of my job. I made friends from all over Europe, some of whom are still very dear to me. And I ended up feeling very European. It is as much a part of my identity – maybe even a little more so right now – as my Britishness. Learning that my legal identity as a European is to be removed feels rather like bereavement: the disbelief, the growing anger and first-thing-to-greet-me-in-the-morning sorrow is uncanny in its similarity.

With an EU-focussed jobs, as mine was, I learned a good deal about how that sprawling, gargantuan organisation works. I am aware of how desperately it needs reforming in some aspects. I am also aware of how much of a force for good it is. I discounted half the headlines I caught sight of, particularly if they were in The Sun: everything from wonky bananas to EU legislation not being scrutinised by the UK Parliament before being adopted. I had an idea of just how much money was ploughed into deprived regions of the UK such as the Welsh Valleys, Cornwall and, yes, Sunderland. I knew just how much our financial services’ sector – our main export nowadays, for want of a better description – relies on being able to operate across EU markets thanks to the “passporting” scheme. I understood that in these days of increasing globalisation, more and more countries are forming trading blocs and that trying to negotiate with one of these as a single state might be a little like chucking someone down a crevasse and expecting them to haul themselves up again with no rope or crampons.

I can’t remember not seeing the risibility in the argument that Britain was just fine and dandy before the EU and so could be again. Hark back 120 years and we were riding on the bowed shoulders of an empire that rightly no longer exists but that, while it did, supplied us with low cost raw materials while we, in turn, forced them to buy our manufactured goods at prices that suited us better than them. Moving forward a little further, were the two world wars, both of which had their genesis in Europe. Quite aside from the human cost, those wars left us, and the rest of Europe, financially devastated. Once aid from the US-funded Marshall Plan stopped in 1952, it was still a long haul back into the black. Thankfully we had a strong manufacturing and mining industry. That’s all gone now, driven to obsoletion by lower priced competition from developing nations. And here’s the bit I let my London-centric, left-leaning, liberal, all-friends-together bubble blind me to: all those devastated communities, whose jobs and hope seeped away as mine after mine and factory after factory closed did not feel the same as me about what the EU had given them. Why should they? In what way did their lives bear any similarity to mine? Angry, bitter and increasingly disenfranchised by a political system that never fails to look after its own, who should be surprised that millions of those people voted out last week? It was the first chance they’d had to have a voice and to make that voice count – even if they were shouting the wrong way and at the wrong people.

The immigration issue that appears to have exercised so many people is too depressing to spill many words over. But this “fear of the other” that is apparently so entrenched in so many communities and that people seemed to have misunderstood, or been denied the information to help them understand, that the free trade they so desire to keep is, according to the current rules governing the EEA and EFTA, entirely unachievable without free movement of labour – the one thing that is abhorred above all else – makes me feel a sick stranger in what its supposed to be my own country. I am furious with the disingenuous, self-serving leave campaign that not only failed to deliver the facts but that flooded its recipients with hopeful lies. And I’m starting to find fury with the remain campaign, with myself, for not finding some better way of explaining all of this, with making some attempt to engage those people who felt they no longer mattered.

So we are where we are. And, frankly, it’s as if the grown-ups have gone away for good and left us to re-enact our very own Lord of the Flies. The Government exists in name only, prominent Leave supporters are falling over themselves to knife each other in the back, one individual who decimated our education and prison systems and spent years telling us “I can’t be leader, I’d be no good, I can’t be leader” is now asking his party to elect him, and the opposition is rapidly turning itself into a cult. No wonder the Irish embassy has just asked eligible UK citizens to hold off applying for passports as its systems shook under the weight of applications already received. No wonder China is holding us up as an example of why democracy does not work.

Where now? Where now? There has to be something beyond posting memes on Facebook, signing petitions and worrying over our children’s future. Who is going to show us what that is?

260 days in the country

There are some things about living in the country in the winter that I now know you really have to live to understand. One is the mud. It’s not so bad when it’s frozen, other than when the children slip over on it, of course (filthy clothes and cuts and scrapes) but in its normal state it’s gone straight into my room 101. Child 2 has lost wellies to it, the dogs, even after much grooming, have acquired interestingly freckled abdomens and I have taken to identifying the cars of other country-dwellers by the levels of dirt on their vehicles. Previously I was slightly thin-lipped about why you wouldn’t take better care of such an expensive item; now, I quite understand the impulse to do no more than wipe clean the number plates and windscreens. Takings at Tesco’s car wash might be down but I am at least four pints up per month at the village pub – or I would be had said pub not just closed.

Inside the house, Child 1 stuffs cotton wool inside his ears each time I remind him please not to run up the stairs in muddy trainers, my kitchen cupboards have tidemarks so impressive I’m considering whether they have any artistic merit and the radiator behind Dog 1’s crate needs the dried dirt chipping off only the day after I spent forty-five minutes engaged on the same task. After considerable experimentation I have discovered that biological washing powder and bleach works best on the (textured cream) stone floor in kitchen and utility room. Sadly, the septic tank doesn’t like either of these much so most of the time it’s bicarbonate of soda, a splash of Zofresh and a scrubbing brush that has a disingenuous habit of slipping sideways out from underneath my hand.

Another thing is the cold. It’s mildly perplexing that a gas bill that disappears monthly or quarterly from a bank account was barely noticed. A tank of LPG in the garden, however, is something to watch and hoard and mutter happy self-congratulatory sounds over when yet another month passes without the dial dipping into the red. Meanwhile, we spend more than we care to count on seasoned logs for the wood burning stove while simultaneously convincing ourselves that the pile of wood pruned from the apple trees should save us, oh, at least the cost of two slankets next winter.

Unit 72, Birkenhead Market

 

I wasn’t the sort of child who went dribbly-mouthed and frantically bothersome outside a sweet shop. Stand me in front of a bookshop, however, and there was no peace for anyone until I’d emptied my purse into its till. I’m still rather like that now, particularly where second-hand bookshops are concerned. And, for that, I credit one particular place: Unit 72, Birkenhead Market.

It’s been more than two decades since I went there – in fact, I don’t suppose it even exists anymore – but I thought of it the other day when I reread Helene Hanff’s wonderful 84, Charing Cross Road. Hanff, a martini-loving, cigarette-smoking, New York dweller, was a playwright and screenwriter who found by far her greatest success in later life when she published a book of her correspondence with a London bookshop, Marks & Co. The shop specialised in acquiring second-hand books, particularly from the sales and clearances that increased so rapidly in number after the Second World War (WWII) as the owners of many of the UK’s largest houses admitted financial defeat and sold off their possessions along with their bricks and mortar.

One person’s loss was another’s gain, and Hanff, whose formal education did not extend beyond high school, was a lifelong self-educator with a particular passion for English literature. Although even some of the more obscure titles she ordered by post from Marks & Co could doubtless have been obtained in New York, she would buy her books from nowhere else: “The books arrived safely, the Stevenson is so fine it embarrasses my orange-crate bookshelves…I never knew a book could be such a joy to the touch.” Through her correspondence first with Frank Doel, the chief buyer for the shop, and then with other staff members too, she became closely involved with their lives. For several years after WWII she sent them food parcels (“My little ones…were in Heaven – with the raisins and egg I was actually able to make them a cake!”) and they reciprocated with a beautiful hand-made Irish linen tablecloth and repeated invitations to please visit them in London.

There was little Hanff wanted more than to visit the “London of English literature” but she was stymied repeatedly by financial constraints, poor health and also, one senses, a fear of travel. For more than two decades her explorations happened solely through the pages of the books she ordered from Marks & Co. When Frank Doel died suddenly following a ruptured appendix, Hanff was motivated to ask his widow, Nora, if she could publish a volume of their correspondence. And so 84, Charing Cross Road, the book, was born.

Published by Andre Deutsch, it gave her both plaudits and money.  At long last one of the barriers preventing her from crossing the Atlantic was blown away. And so, with a case of newly purchased clothes, including a dress – “silk, chic and expensive…intended to cover large evenings” – and a growing sense of trepidation that had kept her from sleeping the night before, she found herself on a plane. The result of her ensuing six week stay in London is recorded in her book The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (currently out of print in the UK but due to be rereleased in July 2016).

“All my life I’ve wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those [on Bedford Square]…I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die.”

I was living in London when I first read this book – living in London, slightly jaded by its dirt, its cost of living, its crowds and the quietly terrifying sense of threat that pervaded the place after 9/11. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street seized me by the scruff of my surprised neck and reminded me of all that was good about London and how much I too had once wanted to be there. Mine was the crowded, crawling streets of the Medieval city; the flash and dangerous opulence of Henry VIII’s time; the oh-so desirable salons of the Bloomsbury Set; the West London streets set with large white houses with pillared entrances and chequerboard steps; and St Pauls-the-Phoenix. Hers was Bloomsbury, Russell Square, Regents Park, St Pauls, Westminster Cathedral and Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. More than that, though, she opened her arms and her heart to the modern day city, and it to her.

I don’t think she ever made a repeat visit but I’m not sure she needed to. I don’t live in London anymore but if I need reminding of what I did come to love about the city I only have to read her books. Her places were not necessarily mine but her words fill me with the sense of how books open doors figuratively and, sometimes, literally. Unit 72, Birkenhead Market once did that for me, too. It’s where I joined the Chalet School, tried out a US Californian high school, travelled the world with Gerald Durrell, set my cap at becoming a Yorkshire vet, stomped across Egdon Heath and wept over the fate of those luckless last few in “On the Beach”. I still have almost all of the books I bought from Unit 72 – only those that I knew I’d never want to read again or actually fell apart have been, reluctantly, retired – and I still read most of them, now and then. Some people (my husband!) say life is too short and there are too many good books to read one more than once. It’s a valid point but I’m with Helene Hanff here: like clothes that I wear many, many times, I reread my books again and again. Why would I not when they take me to so many places I’ll never visit any other way?

books             Hanff

Enjoying a vibrant writing life

My writers’ group is lucky enough to be involved in 10 days – Winchester, a biennial, interdisciplinary arts festival supported by organisations such as Arts Council England, Hampshire County Council and Winchester City Council. The aim is to bring together artists of many different types, provide them with the opportunity to showcase their work – in Winchester Cathedral, the City Museum and the Discovery Centre – and to engage the public, both creatively and perhaps also by making them look at their city in a new way.

The theme is Chalk – and cities don’t get chalkier than Winchester. Dig down anywhere in this ancient capital of old England and its environs and you’ll find lumps of the stuff studding the topsoil. Keep burrowing and you’ll find chalk bedrock. Thanks to the filtration qualities of the chalk in the riverbed,  the tributaries of our river, the Itchen, are transparent as the most precious diamonds and provide the ideal habitat for water voles, otters and white-clawed crayfish.  Chalk imbues our buildings, our streets, the graves we bury our dead in, our whole history. It’s a huge subject.

Last night the writers involved – those from my writing group and another local group – came together to decide which of the several pieces each of us had written would be showcased in the various venues. We then moved on to discuss several different public engagement activities. One of these, due to include crowd-pulling speakers, raised particular concerns. It wasn’t that we couldn’t find interesting – and successful – literary people who’d be willing to speak; it was that we weren’t offering anything different from the myriad of other talks and conferences held locally on how to get published, how to secure an agent, why Mr X wrote the book he did and what made Ms Y persist with hers in the face of a full-time job and multiple rejections. That’s not to say these are not valuable topics to hear about because of course they are.  However, we wanted something different: something for all those writers for whom publication is never going to happen for whatever reason and also for those mid-way along the journey, who might want new ideas to keep them going, to validate what they do and support who they are. This resulted in the idea, put forward by the director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival, that we discuss (and it will be a discussion rather than speeches) how to have  a vibrant writing life – and celebrate it. Of course, this might include publication but it might also mean thinking about what else is available locally to stimulate your writing. Yes, we’ll have interesting, successful and well-known writers on the programme but hopefully they will be able to approach the event in a different frame of mind from other similar ones and to inspire in listeners the sense that the world is full of possibilities, big and small. And what, after all, is more important to any writer – indeed, at times, to any person – than inspiration and possibility.

Chalk, it seems, runs deeper than the bedrock.

For more details about the collaboration between the Hyde and Taverners writers’ groups for 10 days – Winchester, please check out our website. There’s an opportunity to send in your own work (flash fiction or poems of 200 words or less) or a chalk moment to feature on the website. (NB You don’t have to be from Winchester to do so!)

On What is Lost

The beauty and genius of a work of art may yet be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer, but when the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again. C. William Beebee

William Beebee was the David Attenborough of the early twentieth century. Ornithologist, explorer and trail-blazing conservationist, he led dozens of expeditions for the New York Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History and, in the early 1930s, spellbound wireless listeners with his bathysphere broadcast from half a mile down in the ocean, describing never-before-seen fish and other marine life beyond most people’s craziest sci-fi dreams.

I came across Beebee through the quotation at the top of this blog, which Gerald Durrell used at the front of one of his books. Durrell’s ashes now rest at Jersey Zoo beneath a stone inscribed with the same quotation. They are words that, from my first reading of them, have resounded with each beat of my heart. They are words that I cannot believe do not inspire a sad sort of panic in anyone who hears them. I thought of them last week when I read about the disappearance of Tanzania’s elephants. Aerial surveys in 2013 and 2014 confirmed that Tanzania has lost two-thirds of its elephant population in only four years. First the Selous, then the Ruaha and soon, perhaps, the Serengeti. These aren’t subsistence poachers – impoverished farmers or disgruntled locals pushed out to make a “better” national park experience for dollar-rich tourists – or even haphazardly-organised gangs. No, these are criminal syndicates based in faraway Dar-es-Salaam and divided into “teams”, responsible respectively for scouting the animals, killing them, butchering their remains and, finally, transporting what they came for: ivory.

Immense amounts of money still resides in ivory (just as with rhino horn, tiger bone, turtle shells and shahtoosh among others). We can blame China and the childlike belief of many of its residents of the cancer-curing, penis-stiffening, blood-warming properties of ivory et al all we like – and maybe we should do so. However, we must not forget also to look much closer to our comfortable Western homes to find the cavalier lack of respect that characterises so many of our dealings with all those millions and millions of creatures with whom we share our earth.

Take “Cecil”, the Zimbabwean lion, reportedly illegally lured from his reserve, shot with a bow and arrow and then pursued for the 40 hours it took him to die before he was finished off by a gun. And the killer? A dentist from Minnesota already so in love with hunting for hunting’s sake that he’s under a probation order for his inexactitude over precisely where a black bear was killed in Wisconsin in 2006. But it’s not only him; it’s every bystander too: the applauding ones, the silent ones, even the ones who turn their back in a show of caring. After all, this is a man whose online presence showing him posing with a slaughtered rhino and a slain leopard apparently caused no more disquiet among his friends and associates than, say, a change to his golf handicap or a significant birthday. If such activities are deemed normal – whether grudgingly or not – then where is the impetus for change?

I’ve read things today suggesting that neither Cecil nor this gun-loving dentist deserve the publicity they’ve received. Apparently I should be more concerned with the nameless, numberless dead in the DRC and Syria or with the hundreds of thousands of children being lowered further into Dickensian life by our Dear Leaders and their “we’re all in this together” philosophy. And I am concerned. Of course I am. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t also care about the fate of Tanzania’s elephants and “Cecil” the lion. To me, each feeds into the other. To be properly human is to care about anything that once gone is forever lost, whether that’s a population of elephants, an individual lion, the childhood and improved life-chances of a country’s children or civilians wiped out in conflicts they didn’t start and can’t finish. William Beebee spoke sense. There’s no rewind button. What a pity we can’t see it.

On sharks and children

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, the movie. Rarely can a film have entered into the collective psyche in the way that this one did. I can’t remember when I first saw it although I do remember when I first didn’t. It was shown on television here when I was a very small child of four or five. I came home from school the following day highly indignant because my teacher had asked the class who had stayed up to watch it. Apparently – or so I interpreted it – mine was one of the very few hands not to be raised. Of course I made up for it in years to come, watching the films (all of them) and reading the book. Perhaps that’s why the spectre of sharks has never been far from my mind when swimming in seas and oceans as geographically, biologically and climatically diverse as the Irish sea, the Mediterranean and the Indian ocean. Older people tell me it didn’t used to be that way. ‘Sharks?’ I recall a great-uncle saying. ‘No, you might worry about sharks if you were torpedoed [he was in the Merchant Navy in WWII] but not at the beach. Never at the beach.’ I did though – and a cousin and I used to spend goodly portions of our Easter holidays in that well-known shark mecca, the Lleyn Peninsula, committing to heart the tragedy on every page of a luridly-illustrated book entitled something like “Shark Attack!” that we’d picked up for 50 pence in the discount bookshop in Portmadoc. Needless to say, any large marine creatures in Cardigan Bay remained prudently elusive.

My children still haven’t seen any of the Jaws films (yes, my five year-old self would be disgusted with me) but the idea of sharks as Something Bad and Dangerous is sewn into their consciousness. I realised as much three or so years ago at a tearoom in Orkney’s Bay of Birsay. ‘There was a pod of orcas out there last month,’ the waitress said, as she put her tray down. My four-year son and niece squabbling over turns of the binoculars in front of the picture windows either did not hear her or, more probably, orca meant nothing to them. My two-year old daughter, however, with eyes fixed firmly on the cakes, tried out the new word. ‘Orca?’ she said.

The waitress smiled, wiped her hands on her apron, and went over to a small display of postcards next to the homemade jams. She put one glossy card on the table. ‘Here,’ she said, pointing to the impossibly smooth curve of black and white back. ‘This is an orca. It’s also called a killer whale although, really, it’s a dolphin’. With wide, interested eyes, my daughter looked up and nodded as if she understood. Then she frowned and looked down again. She jabbed her finger against three tall triangular fins that broke the surface of the water around the orca’s back. ‘Sharks,’ she said, unhappily. ‘There are no sharks in the swimming pool.’ We adults nodded in hearty agreement. ‘Sometimes in the sea,’ I began, before sensing the need for a change of tack. ‘But these aren’t sharks. They’re orcas. And you needn’t worry; this sea is far too cold for swimming.’

The storm that had sent us hurrying along the coast away from Skara Brae had subsided. Wind-driven sea-spray still misted the tearoom’s windows but the seaweed on the shore outside no longer tossed its rubbery green tentacles from side to side like long-haired headbangers at a heavy metal concert. The water – so recently a foaming cauldron with sea birds expertly piloting the wind above it – was grey and almost glassy, and the birds now rode its surface, easy as paper ships on a boating pond. A slice of sun poked out coyly from behind a cloud to coax diamond chips of light from the sea. The children at the window were sufficiently entranced not to notice the plate of cakes on the table behind them. Still clad in now slightly steaming waterproofs, they’d reached some sort of accord as to who had which pair of binoculars. No matter that one was looking through the wrong end; they were happy and quiet. We ate our cakes and drank our tea. I wondered how many times I would need to return before I saw an orca. The four year-olds shrieked simultaneously. Several small balls were bobbing closer to shore before resolving themselves into large grey animals that humped fatly out of the water and onto a narrow spit of sand. One rolled onto its side and waved a celebratory flipper at the sun. I stared at the seals, thinking them fair compensation for the lack of orcas. My daughter looked at them before shaking her head a little sadly. ‘Sharks,’ she said.

On words and ears and why I write

One of the questions every writer faces sooner or later is, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Plenty of us tell ourselves, oh, I write for myself; it doesn’t matter if anyone else reads it but if this isn’t exactly a lie, it’s perhaps only a half-truth. Very little makes me admire a writer more than when they stand up to be counted, so to speak, and admit that, actually, they write to be read. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that it tends to be published – and often very successfully so – writers who are brave enough to say as much out loud (although perhaps this is because these writers have less fear of people pointing and laughing or, worse, ignoring them altogether).

Of course traditional print media is not the only way for writers to be heard. Oral storytelling is far older than the written word and, while it has rather lost its place in the western world, it has its successors. Mind you, some forms of writing lend themselves rather better to oral performance than others. Few people would sit through a recital of even a novella but a play is another matter. And the long history of poetry recital is increasingly being supplemented with flash fiction. Years ago I engaged in the quaint-sounding pursuit of “Speech and Drama”, which mostly consisted of reciting – from memory and with appropriate theatrics – a variety of poetry. As a somewhat melancholic teen, I spent far too much time perfecting my performance of several of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” collection. It did gain me a Poetry Society gold medal for spoken poetry after a performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama, during which my grandmother had an angina attack (hopefully unconnected), and also prompted me to plough onwards with my own highly derivative poetry collection (long since consigned to the loft for future generations to squirm uncomfortably over or rats and pigeons to use as nesting material).

The idea of performing my own materials in public had not really occurred to me until a friend of mine – a published novelist – reminded me that it was doing readings of her short stories at the local library that pushed her onwards with her creative writing several years ago now. When that same library, in Winchester, started to host an evening called “Loose Muse“, I read the promotional materials with interest. Started in 2005 by Agnes Meadows, Loose Muse, whose home venue is London’s Poetry Café, aims to provide a supportive environment for women writers of all genres to come together, share their work and learn from each other. As well as providing an opportunity for new and upcoming writers, it also showcases more established ones. For example, I was delighted to hear the award-winning poet Rhian Edwards perform (ukulele and all) and subsequently to enjoy the Family Matters tour, performed by the poet/writers Agnes Meadows, Patricia Foster, Janett Plummer and, in absentia, Linda Shanovitch.

I actually only intended to go along as moral support for a friend who’d been asked to perform one of her comedic short stories in the guest slot but she persuaded me to take along one of my poems in case there was space in the “open mic” slots at the end of the evening. There was – and I read “At Pine Ridge”, published last year in Synaesthesia magazine. The second time I went, I was braver and read something new that I have yet to submit anywhere. It got positive feedback, which has encouraged me to think about to where I might send it but, more importantly, it sparked a conversation among several of the people sitting near me. It’s a poem about early motherhood and everyone near me, including the 80 year-old lady who’d read a magnificent ballad about Queen Eleanor, had something to say or to recall on the topic. It’s a good feeling when something you’ve written engages so many other people and makes what I said in my first sentence above seem only a quarter-truth. Perhaps, after all, writing to spark a reaction in others is what counts…..

Freestyle writing challenge

Two days ago I was tagged by Helen Jones to consider taking part in a short freestyle writing challenge. I used to do this sort of thing a lot. It’s a little like warming up before a run or some other vigorous exercise; it prevents the “muscles” you’re going to use in the main event (whether that’s running or writing) from spasming from the shock of unaccustomed use and reminds you that, actually, this body (or mind) has potential.

And it’s potential that’s you get from a freestyle writing exercise. It’s as far from a polished piece as it’s possible to get but it’s not useless. Far from it. And actually it’s fascinating to see what the mind is capable of coming up with at short notice and with no prior preparation. I’m not sure I’ll do anything further with what mine produced – at least not now – but I will try to make it a more regular thing as a way of warming up to the poetry-writing and novel-editing that currently fills my writing hours.

So, the rules were as follows:

  1. Open an MS Word Document
  2. Set a stop watch or your mobile phone timer to 5 or 10 minutes, whichever challenge you think you can beat
  3.  Your topic is at the foot of this post BUT DO NOT SCROLL DOWN TO SEE IT UNTIL YOU ARE READY WITH YOUR TIMER!
  4. Fill the word doc with as much words as you want. Once you start writing do not stop.
  5. Do not cheat by going back and correcting spelling and grammar using spell check.
  6.  You may or may not pay attention to punctuation or capitals. However, if you do, it would be best.
  7. At the end of your post write down ‘No. of words = ____” so that we have an idea of how much you can write within the time frame.
  8. Do not forget to copy paste the entire passage on your blog post with a new topic for your nominees and copy paste these rules with your nomination (at least five (5) bloggers).

My topic was:

You went to sleep in your own bed but have woken up somewhere completely different. Where are you, what’s happening and can you figure out how you got there?

I didn’t address the brief fully. Reading through my piece, it’s clear I have zoomed in on the physicality of where am I, with scarcely any sense of what’s happening or how I got there. Oh well – things to consider for another exercise, I suppose.

Here’s what I came up with:

Thin grey light – not the soft yellow that flushes the edge of my blind. This light fills the room. Room? Is that what it is? The walls are grey too – and hard, like stone. They’re so cold they feel damp. Perhaps they are damp. Or perhaps it’s my hand. I rub it against the duvet, except it isn’t a duvet. It is…..nothing; only my own self and the translucent cotton of my nightgown. Oh, I’m cold. Yes, I’m cold. I sit up and I’m lying on stone too. I can feel the hardness in my back and around my hips as if my bones have grown overnight, intruding into new places in the muscle. I flex my legs: first one and then the other. I stretch my arms. It hardly seems like my body. And yet there’s the cold; there’s no denying this cold.

I scrunch my knees up against my trunk, seeking the slight warmth the one can offer the other, and wrap my arms around myself. Now I’m halfway to vertical I can see where the light is coming from. It’s seeping around a large rock. I ought to investigate but I’m afraid. The cold is no new sensation. Unpleasant maybe but not yet, at least, unbearable. And for as long as I sit here, rocking to myself, I can pretend I’m somewhere quite usual. Or, better, I can imagine that I’m set to wake any moment. Yes! That’s it! The alarm’s going to go off in a minute or perhaps two. And then there’ll be the smell of toast from downstairs and the sound of someone shouting, ‘Get your shoes on! Hurry up!’ Perhaps next door’s dog barking at the blackbirds tugging worms from the lawn. Anything but this.

Oh. Now I’m listening. I can’t help myself. Someone is shouting but it’s nothing about shoes and nothing about being late. I can’t hear a dog but if there is one I don’t suppose it’s one I want to meet. I turn my head, look around. There’s a big rock – huge – at the back of whatever this place is (a cave?). I get to my feet – they’re bare, of course – and pick my way over the stones that litter the floor. I’ll hide here until whoever it was put me here comes back for me. They’ll rescue me, I’m sure.

Words: 392 (in 10 minutes).

I’m going to flout the rules and not nominate anyone in particular to try this exercise but, if you want to, particularly if you’re a Taverner (and whether or not you have your own blog – you know who you are), it might be fun – and it’s only ten minutes. If you do want to have a go, your topic is: <don’t scroll down until you’re ready to write>

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You have just been born. Where are you lying? Who – or what – else is around you? Do you know who you are?

It’s All About Dogs

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.” Gerald Durrell on Roger the dog in My Family and Other Animals

“A black-and-yellow streak shot past the station agent. Dog Monday stiff? Dog Monday rheumatic? Dog Monday old? Never believe it. Dog Monday was a young pup, gone clean mad with rejuvenating joy.” Dog Monday greets Jem Blythe as he returns from the First World War battlefields in Rilla of Ingleside by L.M.Montgomery (from the Anne of Green Gables series)

 

I grew up with dogs – real-life ones and those in books. The real-life ones were my friends and even my sanctuary when the rest of the world got tough, and just the mere sniff of a dog in a book made me like it more. I haven’t touched an Enid Blyton book for years but the thought of Timmy still makes my heart skip with excitement and I’m yet to get over my yearning for a St Bernard after Rufus and Bruno in The Chalet School series. I even came to look on bull terriers with a softer eye after Heloise in I Capture the Castle.

And now, at last, we have we have a new addition to the household: an almost nine-week old Toller puppy who is as soft and fluffy as a kitten and yet looks head-turningly fox-like, right down to the foxy spring and pounce. He’s not doing much for my daily word count or for the unbroken nights that I was still counting as a blessing even though my children are now both school-age. And the house has acquired the faint odour of eau-de-canine despite daily floor-washing, a liberal application of beeswax, open windows and highly-scented flowers. However that, I tell myself, will dissipate once house-training is complete. (NB There’s no need to disillusion me here. I’m well aware of my future reality.)

My children are exactly the same ages as my younger sister and I were when our family acquired our first dog: an Irish Setter called Penny. Penny was the first of several dogs: Irish Setters, Dalmatians and a Toller.

I have a dim memory of being crowded into a small room in the breeder’s house, a litter of puppies tumbling about in the space between fireplace and sofa, while the breeder quizzed my parents. Where did they live? Had they had dogs before? Would the dog live inside or out? Did they know how much exercise Setters needed? They must have passed the test because Penny came home with us, cradled on my mother’s knee, in the back of the car. Many years later, she said, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t sit in the front seat with her.’ If she had, Penny wouldn’t have had the chance to be sick all over my shoe. I didn’t like the shoes; they were sturdy brown things from Clarks, with T-bars and no hint of a patent shine but I still wasn’t sure I wanted dog sick on them. ‘Don’t worry,’ my mother said, ‘I’ll clean them for you.’

When we got home, I assume the first thing my parents did was take the puppy into the garden. The first thing I did was run upstairs to my bedroom – I’m not sure what I’d done about the vomity shoes – and lie down on my bed, staring at the ceiling. We’ve got a dog! A dog! is what, even now, I remember ran through my mind just like the wobbly caption at the bottom of an old film. (Incidentally, I recognised the same peculiar mixture of exultation and disbelief more than twenty years later with the birth of my first child. It’s a baby…. was my first thought.)

I soon got over the urge to lie prone on the bed and joined everyone else – bar the cats, that is – in the garden. Penny, I was determined, would be my very own Roger, Timmy, Dog Monday, Jack and Pongo all rolled into one. Of course, as a child, and a young one at that, I got all the best bits of having a dog in the family and, walks in inclement weather aside (we lived in the north-west where it rains more often than it doesn’t), none of the drudgery of mopping, wiping, getting up in the night and training – although, to do them credit, my parents got me involved in all of that just as soon as I was old enough. I grew up determined that my children should have the same thing. Now they have and I am filled with a strange mixture of pleasure, excitement and trepidation. Real life dogs are much more work than literary ones but, I think, just as inspiring in their own way.

Gratuitous puppy picture:

Robbie

The Comfort of Stories

‘Tell me about when you were little, Mummy.’

‘I can hardly remember,’ I say. ‘It was so long ago. Shouldn’t you be going to sleep anyway?’ I pat the duvet, encouragingly.

He shakes his head. ‘No. Can I tell you something?’

I nod. ‘Of course. Anything.’

‘I’m actually quite terrified when you leave me alone here.’

‘You are? But why?’ I look at him, earnest in the pool of light coming from the bedside lamp. Then I look around. The room is an attic one. Its window is closed and the blind down. The rows of books in the bookcase at the end of the bed look back at me, in a friendly way, I think. At the other side of the room, his special books sit on top of his toy storage chest: the Roald Dahl ones and the spaces where the Tom Palmer ones should be (but those are so special they currently live right next to the bed). Then there’s his play tent – a red and gold striped scaled-down Big Top – with its door held back on its Velcro fastenings. In this light, it’s black inside there. And then there are the windows; he cut them himself. I was cross – of course I was – but he said, ‘I wanted to see out.’ Behind the tent is the small door leading into the eaves storage. I’ve never said so but this is what I wouldn’t like if I was six and sleeping in this room. The door isn’t a snug fit in its frame. We’ve wedged it tight with folded paper, like you do with a wobbly table in a restaurant, but sometimes it comes loose and then there’s a soft banging sound, barely perceptible until you know what you’re listening for. And there’s always a draught, even though the roof is sound and the tiles where they should be.

I smile and move the tent further back against the eaves’ door. ‘What sort of story would you like?’

He smiles too, and I imagine I can see his body relax against the mattress. ‘About your rabbit. What was her name?’

‘Bramble.’

‘That story about her and your cat. What happened?’

He knows the tale well enough to tell himself now but I pick up his hand and hold it between my own as I begin.

            My rabbit was huge. The biggest rabbit I’d ever seen. She was half Chinchilla Giganta, you see, but, of course, she was still only a rabbit and I was always very careful when I let her out to run. I’d shut the dogs away and the cat, too. But one day I forgot to lock the cat door and as I was standing by the greenhouse, the cat streaked by me. Now, she was a small cat but fierce with it and absolutely the animal boss…..

‘Tell me about the dogs and their beds.’

            Ah yes. Well, one morning we came downstairs to find the cat asleep in the middle of the Dalmatian’s bed. The Dalmatian was curled up in the Irish Setter’s bed and the Irish Setter, a huge, gangling animal, was balanced across the top of the cat’s small wicker basket. Yes, that cat had things her own way.

            ‘But not with Bramble,’ he says, his eyes bright.

            No, not with her. So the cat sprinted down the path towards the lawn. I shrieked but she ignored me. And, in another breath, she was right behind Bramble. Perhaps my shriek had warned Bramble, perhaps Bramble sensed her coming up behind her; either way, that big white rabbit turned round to face the cat, stood up on her hind legs, raised her forepaws like an attacking grizzly and brought them down on the cat’s head. Then she turned around and kicked the cat with her back legs. The cat screamed – I’d never heard a cat scream before – and shot up the apple tree.

            ‘And it was hours before you could get her down again.’ He can’t resist finishing the end of the story.

‘That’s right. It was.’

Later, much later, when he’s finally asleep, I hold my head close to his and listen to his breathing. There’s a Tom Palmer book resting on his pillow, and another under the duvet on his chest. I leave them there. And as I go, taking care to leave the door fully ajar so the warm light from the landing fills his doorway, my heart swells a little at the comfort these stories – mine and those of others – are giving this little boy.

The Places We Walk

My first child slept only when being walked in the sling. After much effort and a lot of tears (mine and his), he agreed to give my back a bit of a break and take the occasional nap in a pram. Together we  prowled the fringes of Tower Hamlets and the City of London. In my new-Mum uniform of jeans and tunic tops, I side-stepped the suited people hurrying from tube to office to wine bar to tube, forgetting that I used to be one of them and that, once, they might have been me. I walked the length of Bishopsgate to the Monument, marvelled at the emptiness of Borough market during those hours when all the office lights in the surrounding buildings blazed, strode down to the Waitrose at Wapping (my target – not often achieved – was always to get through the check-out before the baby woke) and often ended with a cheese and marmite pancake for me in Spitalfields market. Then we moved and, I found new places to walk. At first, there was the park and the streets of elegant terraced houses surrounding it, the water meadows and the Georgian streets in the College-side of town and, eventually, I found Winnall Moors. Originally owned by the great Hyde Abbey in medieval times, later developed as flooded water meadows in the seventeenth century and now a nature reserve, it is still hushed perfection. With no dogs, no cyclists – frankly, few other visitors at all – and only the wind twisting through the bulrushes and the call of the sedge warblers, it hardly seems just ten minutes from the city centre.  In the summer, male banded demoiselles, in the metallic blue of a tin soldier’s livery, court the iridescent green females. Swans nest on the path and water voles, with luxuriant grassy moustaches make brief riverbank appearances. Once, on an autumn afternoon, I saw a young fox. He stood, paw poised in what I imagined to be horrified disbelief, before skittering back into the rushes. When the first child was joined by the second, I made occasional forays with both children, stacked like pancakes in their double pushchair. They synchronised their naps only rarely so, with at least one child crying or chattering, the days of the foxes and voles seemed over but then, one winter, we saw a line of deer, slipping like shadows across the path. Now, the children stamp and clatter along the boardwalk, pretending they’re explorers in a tiger-filled swamp. My daughter no longer mistakes the Highland Cattle grazing nearby for horses but I remain wary. This is the child who once said, ‘Oh, it’s a lion!’ as we watched an otter disporting itself at twilight. And so still we look: at the heaving mass of tadpoles in spring, at the coot families, at the changing colours of the trees in this place that has allowed us to slip into it as if we’ve always been there. 024

Writing resolutions

“…December is traditionally a bad month for writing. It is a month of Mondays.”

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

The first time I read it, I breezed past this statement. December? A month of Mondays? No, not here. But now that January is here and the schools are back, the chocolate eaten, the house returned to its normal state of just-about-ready-for-a-good-sorting-out (although I’ll have you know that I am exceptionally tidy; I just happen to live with grubs)  and I have once again spent a whole week sitting at my writing table, the document history on my computer tells its own story. Yep, before Monday, I last opened any of my writing files on the 19th December and work in the two weeks preceding that date was…..sporadic. Um. I can see the advantages of the pre-computer age; it’s so much easier to fool yourself on paper. It can’t  have been just me who not only made colour-coded revision timetables but who also made long lists of revision sessions undertaken and perhaps, now and then, misremembered the time actually spent labouring over Physics or whatever. Good for morale, you see. <Ahem>

And so I have been thinking about what I want to achieve this coming year. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions – I gave them up along with the colour-coded revision timetables – but I have reminded myself of a few things:

  1. I can’t edit what I haven’t written.
  2. No-one has to like what I write but shared writing can grow into stronger writing.
  3. I’m privileged to be able to spend so much time doing this thing that is so fundamental a part of me – and I should not be abusing that privilege by using the internet so much. Online shopping can never constitute research. Neither can Facebook. And probably not this blog either…..

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Books can be a bit like clothes. You get used to what styles suit, what feels right and even, perhaps, what fits your self-image. That, apart from the occasional seasonal tweak or up-grade (what’s on the Booker shortlist – or not; what’s on the Waterstones 3 for 2 table; who’s made it into the Granta Best Young Novelists to Watch list), is that. Particularly as you get older, the idea of making changes for change’s sake seems somehow absurd. There’s no-one across the Sixth Form common room to be impressed by your copy of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poking out from the top of your army surplus knapsack, no one-night stands who might prowl through your bookcases and comment on your poetry selection and no-one who might be thrown by finding a Nancy Friday book in your bedroom. A glance through my reading notebook, kept more or less consistently for over ten years, makes it clear that I’m as guilty of this as many people. Much as I might like to think I have broad tastes, what isn’t there is still noticeable by its absence. Margaret Atwood aside, there’s no sci-fi; other than His Dark Materials, there’s no fantasy; dystopia makes only a brief appearance (Margaret Atwood, again, and two post-apocalyptic novels – Julie Myerson’s Then and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven – lent to me by writing group friends) and there are no thrillers at all. “Classics” appear only infrequently and, much as I might like to pretend it’s because I’ve read so many of them already (I don’t note re-reads), I know there are legions still waiting ahead. Oh, and there’s just one play (Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi) and that’s there only because I saw a friend perform in it at London’s Arcola Theatre. As an example, here is my current reading pile – by which I mean the books I’m actually reading at the moment; it’s never just one. books From top to bottom, there’s one poetry book (Stags’ Leap by Sharon Olds), one writing craft book (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott), one (historical) literary novel (A Girl in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie), one contemporary novel by a writer now better known for her YA (The Art of Seeing by Cammie McGovern) and one history book I’m only a dozen pages into (To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD Wallace). Pretty standard stuff for me, really. But always with the potential for excitement too. Staying within your comfort zone does not mean not enlarging your horizons. Set largely in pre-partition India,  A Girl in Every Stone plunges its two central characters into a maelstrom of history that stretches from ancient Persia to pre-first world war Turkey and on, via Ypres and Brighton Pavilion, where Indian Army soldiers are restored to some sort of health, to Peshawar. It’s quite a canvas and its author is not afraid to tackle those issues of politics, faith and national identity that are, so sadly, still resonating today. For an armchair traveller such as myself, this is one author I’ll be searching out more from; and that’s so even if I am, at two-thirds of the way through this book, growing in certainty that the stunning prose and the epic sweep of the book are in danger of washing away the characters that the reader is, presumably, supposed to care about. If A Girl in Every Stone has enlarged my horizons so, in a smaller, quieter way, has The Art of Seeing. Ostensibly a story about sisters – the younger a talented would-be photographer and the elder famous, from her late teens, as a movie actress – and what happens when their worlds reverse, it’s more nuanced than that, touching on envy, the strange nature of celebrity and how easy it is not really to know those who are supposed to be closest to us. Given that the author is herself just such a younger sister of a famous actress it might be easy to suppose this is a defining theme of her work but it really isn’t – and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Stag’s Leap is a collection I’m dipping in and out from. It’s proving hard – psychologically-speaking – to read. What happens when  marriage, and all the love that was contained within it, fades and dies? What happens when one party has already checked out? How does the other party (in this instance, the poet) lift up her head, set her shoulders and move on with her life when so much of it is bound up with the physical presence of the man who is leaving her? Even when she’s still so possessive of his physical self – she spends many lines describing, for example, his “cindery lichen skin” – she is also generous to the point of bravery, appearing almost to ‘suffer’ from the relationship equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome:

“When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, I am half on the side of the leaver”

It’s this generosity that makes these poems fly. And that is what I most want from any book.    

The writing apprenticeship: learning the craft

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.

Stephen King, On Writing

I’m reading a couple of writing craft books at the moment after the members of my writing group decided to exchange some of our favourites. I’ve read Stephen King’s book before but probably not since it first came out, which was long before I started taking writing seriously. And when I did start taking writing seriously, I ditched the craft books as soon as I’d read Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer. When she pointed out just “how many rooms there are in the house of art”, it not only struck a chord that made me shiver with happy recognition (someone else feels like that!) but, more than that, I fell in love with the idea that it was to literature itself I should turn to learn my craft. It just made so much sense. Why should I read lists of rules and dos and don’ts when I could pick up a novel and enjoy it not just for its story or its artistry but for the technical assistance it could provide? It seemed to me a bit like when I was at school and struggling with the (to me) abstract applications of algebra. I was astounded and not a little thrilled when I discovered, in A-level Biology, that I was capable of using and understanding the algebraic concept behind the chi-square test to look at the distribution of marine life on a seashore at low tide. Relating it to something I was actually doing and, crucially, was interested in was key.

And so, for many years, I read not only for pleasure but also to learn. Stream of consciousness? Why, Virginia Woolf, of course. Use of close first person narrator? The Catcher in the Rye. What about close third person? Did you need an excuse to read Harry Potter? OK, Multiple narrators? Try The Poisonwood Bible. How to write a scene with a large number of characters all trying to speak at once? What about the ballroom scene in Anna Karenina? Etc. All very enjoyable, of course, and lovely to have an excuse, if I needed one, to revisit some old favourites. However as time went on and I wrote more and more, I came to have a closer understanding of my own technical weaknesses (mostly, I believed, pace-related, if you’re interested) and began to think a little theoretical help might not be such a bad idea. Yes, there was still a part of me that harumphed about how the writers of one or two hundred years ago managed very nicely, thank you very much, without a craft book ever crossing their table but there was a more insistent part whispering how they didn’t have washing machines or computers or penicillin either and probably wouldn’t have said no to them. Why not take your help where you can get it?

That brings me back to the Stephen King quote at the start of this piece. I don’t remember it from my first reading of the book but it struck me like the lightning bolt I hope never to experience in reality. Of course, I thought. Of course! I’ve been a story teller all my life, often on paper but always in my head. And I think it’s the in-my-head part that’s where I’m sometimes coming unstuck now. A story that stays in your own head or migrates no further than a piece of paper that’s for your own reading needs to please only you, the writer. All the extraneous bits: the interlopers who don’t advance the plot, the descriptive passages that slow the pace but are just oh-too-lovely to lose, the filler adverbs, the dialogue that tells the reader stuff they already know or don’t need to know, none of that matters. However start showing your work to others, whether that’s on a course, in a writers’ group or, big gulp, to an agent, and it matters like nothing else matters. Then – then! – you realise that there is lots still to learn because this is a life-long apprenticeship and that if you’ve seen one (what now seems like it ought to have been a self-evident) truth in one craft book, goodness knows what there is to find in others.

On Autumn and the desirability of awakening

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At the start of each new season I always find myself thinking, this is it. This is my favourite season. Autumn this year is no different. The hips on the rose covering our garden shed roof are surely redder and more numerous than ever before, the grapes are fat and black on their vine and, beyond it all, the trees are such a dizzying patchwork of colours that I wish I could paint.

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I’m lucky to live here in such a beautiful and quiet place – and I only feel luckier when I catch the end of the nine o’ clock news on Radio 4 or scan the BBC news website. I say “catch” and “scan” because, I am ashamed to say, quite often nowadays the news seems to carry more misery and suffering than I can bear to let in. I suspect it was ever thus and it’s a symptom of my increasing age. I used to think I could do anything, change anything, fight anything – and I was going to do it too. Oh, I was a passionate child! Where did all of that go? I don’t remember ushering it out of the door and waving it goodbye. It must have seeped away all by itself while I was looking elsewhere, engaged with my own small life.

A relative, not from this country, said once: ‘It’s such a bubble where you live. No-one here has any idea what the rest of the world is really like.’ I wasn’t affronted. I wasn’t even surprised. His country is frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons: politics, terrorism, human rights, health – you name it – this country has all the bases covered. However, it was also the birthplace of the poet-philosopher, Iqbal.

The pageant of Nature is a fathomless ocean of beauty,

If eyes were to see every drop has in it tumultuous beauty.

It is ever present in the mirror like sheen of morning sky,

And the dusk of the evening and the flower spangled twilight.

Rivulets gushing down the hills and free-flowing rivers have it,

It is there in the city, the wilderness, the deserted places and in

man’s abode.

The soul, however, yearns for something, missing,

Otherwise why should it toll the knell of sorrow in this desert?

Even the open display of beauty keeps it restless,

It lives like a fish out of water.

It was dawn and yearningly I looked around searching for a

beautiful sight,

I saw a single ray of the sun wandering in the heavens.

I will be collyrium and would integrate with the human eye,

And make visible all that night had hidden from view.

Were the entranced at all keen to become conscious?

Were the asleep desirous of awakening?

Those beautiful words come from Bāng-i Darā (The Call of the Marching Bell). Of course, I like them for their enchanting images of the natural world but it’s more than that. With their insertion of Mankind into the poem, they remind me more successfully than any news outlet can of what my brain wants me to forget. Nature is illuminated by the morning sun but, for the poet, a question mark remains over whether Mankind will share a similar enlightenment (Were the entranced at all keen to become conscious? Were the asleep desirous of awakening?). It’s salutary to realise that this poem, written over one hundred years ago, still has no answer. The sun still rises, the seasons still change, nature, against many odds, is still glorious and we – at least the adult “we” – still sleepwalk on, all of us blind to the world outside our own bubbles and oblivious to what might be waiting beyond even nature’s magnificence.

In diaries, there is life*

Last week, sorting through the junk in the loft, I found my old diaries. Not all of them: the earliest are marooned under the floorboards in the bathroom of the house I grew up in after my father nailed down the loose board I accessed my hidey-hole through and I was too embarrassed, in my ten-year old way, to tell him what he’d imprisoned down there. Of the rest, parts are thankfully illegible, some pages – oh, the dramatic shame of it – appear to be tear-stained and almost the whole lot makes me cringe. The egotism of being fifteen (They [my parents] haven’t said so but I am the problem in this house….), the scorching certainty of a nineteen year-old that this one boy is the only boy in the world for her (I’ll never meet anyone like him again. This was my chance and I’ve seen him walk away in the arms of another girl….), the terror of being twenty-two and leaving university for a job in a city I didn’t want to be in (The noise, the people, the people, the noise! Is this it for ever? How did I come to this?) and then, more happily, a whole series of travel diaries. Glancing through them takes me back to my first African safari, much of it done in an ex-WWII army lorry, my first trip to India, only two days after 9/11, and to many different places in Europe – some of which I was lucky enough to visit as a result of a very enjoyable job in the city that my twenty-two year-old self had hated so much. I was eight when I started my diary, inspired by a child’s version of Anne Frank’s diary. Hers is still one of my favourites – not just because of the literary brilliance her words hint at (what a wordsmith she could have become!) but more because of the zestful way she lived – and recorded – life. But there are other diaries too. There are literary giants: Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Samuel Pepys and Alan Bennet (these are in no particular order apart from the one in which the names occurred to me); and then there are those where the individual’s relative lack of fame makes the literary dialogue between the private self and the page no less valuable. Two in particular occur to me. The first is Olive’s Diary, written by a 16 year-old English girl at school in Paris in 1914. Recovered and serialised on the web by a journalist, Rob McGibbon, who’d been given the diary some years earlier, it tells the story, in her own words, of the last six weeks of her life. Tucked into its final pages are newspaper cuttings announcing her sudden death. In some ways, it is the tragedy of another young life cut so awfully short that provides the pathos but, in another, it is her joyous descriptions of Paris and her homesickness that make it so effortless to identify with her. The reader could be her…. she could be the reader; those experiences that all of us share to some degree or other evoke a tenderness and a sympathy that is not easily forgotten. The second is the Red Leather Diary, a seventy-five year old diary rescued from a one-way trip to a New York dump by Lily Koppel, a young journalist. The author, Florence Wolfson, proved still to be alive and, together, the two women used the diary to produce an enchanting memoir of life as lived by a privileged young woman in 1930s Manhattan. Much of the joy and fascination in the book comes from Florence Wolfson’s own reactions to meeting her younger self. The literary and artistic aspirations she’d held were, by and large, unmet despite the promise the diary suggested (she’s acquainted and, in some cases, has affairs with soon-to-be-famous poets, authors and actresses) but the sense of a life lived is undimmed. And that has to be one of the chief standard bearers, flag waving wildly in the wind, for diary-writing. We – that is, any of us who choose to do so, whether literary giants or not – write diaries to prove to ourselves that we were here, that we lived and loved in the best way we knew how. *Original quotation: In chaos, there is fertility –  Anaïs Nin.

Writing – when motherhood intervenes

Not long ago, I watched Lost in Living, a film which aims to explore what happens to the creative impulse when a woman becomes a mother. From the lofty viewpoint afforded me by – to date – six years of motherhood and, um, several hundred hours browsing Mumsnet’s talk boards (delightful as it is, that place could be used to define “time sucker” – ideal for a procrastinating writer), I laughed out loud when two heavily pregnant young women – one artist, one writer – were talking about how life would be once their babies were born. You wait, you just wait, the little voice in my head said. To be fair, both women were expecting changes: the artist was predicting that her output would slow and the writer worried about how she would get her daily three hours writing done. Both had correctly predicted the practical hurdle to their creativity that their baby would pose. And, all credit to them, this was more than I did when in the same situation (I hadn’t then discovered Mumsnet). However what neither had guessed – and, really, how could they? – was how their status as best friends bonded mainly over their artistic lives would change as the tentacles of parenthood grew stronger.   

In contrast to these two young women, the film also shows two older women – their families now grown. Again, one is an artist and the other the writer, Merrill Joan Gerber, who is not nearly as well-known as she deserves. It was the interviews with their adult children that I found most illuminating. Of course, there are parallels with any pursuit (many professional jobs, for example) that take both a parent, and that parent’s attention, away from a child for long periods of time. And yet there are things peculiar to the arts that are questions worth asking. How many of us would really like to have our lives depicted in our mother’s books? And how many would not feel some resentment of a mother who prioritised locking herself away to paint pictures that, at least at the time, brought little fame and less money? Can writing, and its artistic equivalents, achieve equilibrium with family life?

Unless, god forbid, our children predecease us, motherhood ends only with our deaths. With the birth of the first baby, that’s it: motherhood is the job there’s no resigning from. At first, it tends to assume a pre-eminent, crushing importance, which squashes everything else. But slowly, slowly, most women want their “me-ness” back. It seeps out in different ways for different people: first post-baby trip to the hairdresser, the pub or a swim; then, perhaps, a return to work or a much loved sports club. Isn’t writing just an extension of that?

Oh, I wanted the trips to the hairdressers and the pub, the swim and, hell, even the return to work.  But I was….greedy….I wanted to keep putting dozens of different lives on paper. And writing requires the sort of time, space and, crucially, head space that few other pursuits do. I snap at people who interrupt me when I’m writing and sit on my chair, twitching, waiting for them to leave the room. If what I was doing was regular paid employment, I could justify it more easily (‘Don’t you want your swimming lessons?’ ‘What about the roof over your head?’). I can’t even say that I write because I have to; that it makes me a nicer person and a better parent. Any adult listening to such an explanation would surely see that as pure selfish indulgence and ask why I hadn’t learnt better self-control; a small child simply wouldn’t understand.   

However, my daughter is only four and my son six. How can I know how they will respond to what I do(n’t do)?  In my gloomier moments, I think, well, what does it matter anyway? Phillip Larkin was right. Whatever path I take, I’ll f*ck them up. That’s the job description, right? And on other days when I’ve had more than five hours’ unbroken sleep, when the sun hits the Acer in my garden at just the right angle to show off its glorious redness and my tea has brewed for precisely the right number of minutes and seconds, there’s nothing that could make my life better. I have my family, I have my writing and, in combining the two, I am treading a path already well laid out by others and, I hope, showing my children a valid way to be happy.

Birth of a book

I’ve done what I’ve wanted to for ever such a long time: I’ve written a book. In fact, I spent so long writing it, editing it, rewriting it, changing a comma here and a semi-colon there that I’d quite forgotten why I’d written it at all. Not why I was writing – not that, never that – but why I had written that particular story. And then someone asked me.

‘It was the place,’ I said, thinking aloud.

‘The place? Africa itself, you mean?’ she said. I could see the scepticism on her face.

‘No. Yes. Well, sort of.’ I nearly gave up trying to explain then and there. I wanted to tell her just to read the book but I couldn’t because it’s not published yet, perhaps never will be, and I hate the idea of shoving my work at friends or family who haven’t specifically asked to see it. ‘East Africa,’ I went on. ‘Savannahs and wildebeest migrations; Masai herdsmen in checked blankets; Englishmen with money and ideals who imagined they could make it their land. That sort of thing.’

Her eyebrows, already raised, went a little higher but I was comforted by the explanation. It went some of the way to explaining the genesis of the book. It began with a place, and there’s always a reason why we go somewhere. Even if the reason is a bored travel agent telling us that our £200 budget will stretch only as far as a two star hotel complete with construction site and cockroaches in Kavos, that’s no more or less a reason than Gerald Durrell’s mother, Louisa, deciding to relocate her family somewhere warmer and cheaper than “Pudding Island”.

 Like the Durrells – and perhaps because of them – it was to Greece that I was planning to go in the long ago summer of 1999, once I’d augmented that £200 budget with money from the premium bonds that had never given me back so much as a tenner. And then the friend for whom the trip was really planned – an American who was thoroughly seduced by the idea of island hopping in the Ionian Sea – came home early from work one day with a headache. As it turned out, it wasn’t just any headache: an unseen aneurysm bulged and then burst. Less than two weeks later, she was dead.

Anaesthetised by a grief I vaguely felt was not mine to feel, I cancelled the Greek trip. I was busy at work and, I said to myself, deadlines and late night cocktails would be as good a distraction as any. My best friend disagreed. She turned up at my door early one Saturday, woke me up and waved a sheaf of rainbow-hued brochures in front of my face. What about, she suggested, taking that trip to Africa we’ve been talking about for years.

Hobbled by a hangover and too much caffeine, I blinked. I picked up one of the brochures. Stretching across its cover was a blue sky kept from crystalline perfection by clouds like cobwebs. Warmth began to wash through my veins and an internal video player clicked onto a film gleaned from years of Attenborough documentaries: millions of wildebeest trekked across plains that shimmered in a hazy heat I never got to experience in England; indolent lions sprawled, sun drugged, in long grass; and flamingos, perched on absurd chopstick legs, coloured lakes pinker than candy floss.

And so it was, having cashed in all the premium bonds, a month or so later, my friend and I were on our way into Nairobi in a taxi with a sign on the dashboard that read God Speed Us. It was dark and once we had entered the city, we could have been anywhere, were it not for the splayed, spiky-topped acacia trees that paced the main road. The neon signs (Drink Coca-Cola! Sony Sounds!) were the same as everywhere and most of the buildings looked as large and high as those in any British city.

However, as we rounded a corner, the driver waved a hand vaguely towards the left and said, ‘Norfolk Hotel’. I saw a veranda, lit by hanging lanterns spilling streams of light into bushes gaudy with flowers. Behind was the hotel building itself, snug in the darkness. I knew that in the early twentieth century many settlers had started their trek, along the rough red roads to the Highlands, from that hotel. Most of those settlers are long gone and cars replace their oxen, yet the Norfolk remains. At that moment, something of the history of the place entered me. And it’s not left yet.