Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Bullying, Medusa and a Lesson in Classics

Gathering dust on the wall of my hideaway writing room  I came across a fragment of a Caravaggio painting of the head of Medusa. Underneath this was a short-line piece I wrote more than a decade ago. In reading it again I was shot through with the pain I felt as a fifteen year old schoolgirl being bawled at an bullied by boys in my school, who nicknamed me Medusa because of my wild uncombed mop of hair.

I can understand now that writing this painful piece brought some kind of delayed resolution. But even today I can see from these lines that the scars of the hurt are still there.

Bullying, Medusa and a Lesson in Classics.

In our classics lesson we learn that
Μέδουσα means guardian, protectress –
a child of strange parents. People saw her
as a monster with living,
writhing snakes for a top-knot.

The boys turn their gaze on me. One says
‘Just take a look at that lass, mate
And turn to stone. That Perseus guy -
didn’t he take her head for a weapon?
Didn’t he give it to the wise Athena –
To decorate her shield?’

His words freeze my face. Another boy says
‘What’s wrong with you, lass?Got your 
jam-rags on?’ Fear fuelled by the words 
of these clever sons of pitmen
crawls through my veins like fifty snakes -
lying there for some years, writhing.

These boys  win high marks for their classics homework -
their pages shimmer with the spirit of Perseus and his mates
as they kept a weather eye out for red ribbons
on the spiked horizon, wary of being waylaid
by the sweet songs of sirens, only to find themselves
shipwrecked through enchantment.

As the years roll on our lives change
and we take our true places in a changed world. 
I begin to think that, to call me Medusa,
perhaps these lads  feared my tangled Afro hair
Perhaps they felt an ancient fear
at meeting my  agonised, stony gaze

across the classroom..

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Auntie Mim and Her Talent With Bullets

Searching around for names for characters which are time-appropriate and psychologically-appropriate for one’s creations characters is one of the engaging aspects of beginning a new novel. So in the past year in writing Becoming Alice I have been very involved with this character called Alice whom follow – with her family  - from age zero to the age of 11. She has become entirely real to me.

I can’t quite remember how and why I named my central character ‘Alice.’ In the end she just seemed to walk out of the mists and tell me that that was her name. ‘My name is Alice.’

However in recent days something has occurred to make me think that the mists out of which she walked was my own subconscious. It was only after finishing the novel and celebrating its publication has it occurred to me that I actually had two aunts called actually called Alice.

One was my mother’s sister who, among five clever and accomplished sisters, was the one who was just that little bit dizzy. Her sisters would say, ‘Oh well! You know, that’s just our Alice.’  The other Alice was my father’s sister who was christened Alice but throughout her life she was known  as Mim. They told me it was because as a small child she would say me-mim-me a lot. She got a lot of attention in the family.

Auntie Mim was brought to mind for me by the fact that people reading my posts about my new novel Becoming Alice and other preoccupations have also all  also been dipping into the archive and pulling up a post I wrote in 2010 called Auntie Mim And Her Talent With Bullets.

And as I said Auntie Mim’s birth name was Alice.

As in  all generations in our family  Auntie Mim was fascinated by words. Her brother - my father -  wrote wonderful letters, read loads and was an obsessive cross-worder.  My late brother not only did crosswords but created them as well. One highlight of his mature life was competing on Countdown. My sister, a keen reader, was an accomplished cross-worder until seduced by Sudoku.  I write for a living. My daughter and son both write and love words.  And so- on …

In the present day my blog here,  Lifetwicetasted, is part of the contemporary world of word-play, as is Twitter,  which I now ‘play’ just a bit.  (For uninitiated  this involves writing something in 140 characters or fewer and posting it on the Twitter site. Then anyone who reads it can respond to it  in 140 characters or fewer. And so on. Anyone can respond to anyone.)

There is a lot of verbal  flotsam and jetsam floating about out there.  But the ones I enjoy are cryptic, punchy, imaginative, speculative, fluid, quick. It’s amazing what you can get into 140 characters.*

I have to say, as a word-junkie, Twittering is fun. I am sure Auntie Mim would have loved it Twitter.

Of course there was  no Twitter in the 1930s and 40s  but Auntie Min was obsessed with this thing called Bullets  - competition with a curious similarity to Twitter a competition in The John Bull Magazine where you had to respond to a prompt and create cryptic associated phrases for the ‘Bullets’ competition. I can’t remember the number of words but it was tight. She  was quite good. She sent them away and  even won at trickle of money prizes now and then.

It seems to me now that she would have loved the mental gymnastics of Twitter. 

So, re-reading the post about Auntie Mim  the first time in some years. I can only speculate whether having two Aunties call Alice  lying there in my subconscious might have generated the name of my heroine in Becoming Alice.

There were many kind and interesting responses to my  post about Auntie Mim and the power of Bullets. But here are just two really significant and touching response which really stand out to me eight years later. I will share them here:

Anonymous3 August 2010 at 08:33

‘My father, John Irvine, won the biggest prize ever with a bullet in John Bull, in 1933. The money was 4,000 guineas (the equivalent today of £300,000.) He was a humble joiner in Paisley and with the money he moved with his family (wife and four children) to Troon, bought a bungalow and gave us all an education. He died at the age of 91. His winning bullet - at a time when monuments showing a soldier with a rifle were going up - was "Man with a Gun" (given words), completed by him with "Wasn't Greatest Sculptor's Design". I shall be eternally grateful to the John Bull magazine and to my father for the opportunity they gave us to better our lives.’ November 2010 at 03:57

‘I am one of John Irvine's children mentioned above. I am 81 now and the other three are still alive. Yes, we moved from a Paisley tenement into a Troon bungalow and went to Marr College where we got an excellent education. His winning bullet was considered at the time to be the cleverest there had been.’

That’s the power of words…

      * Afternote

I thought you might be entertained by a few of the tweets I cooked up by me in response to  The other people are highlighted if you want to know what they said…
To @paulmagrs Friendly Whitby ghosts mean I can be there in spirit, writing.
To @nwndirector Alnwick Castle water falls beat all earthly dress, even Phillipa's
To @daneetsteffens Truth is only the first step to understanding perhaps. Or understanding is a precondition for truth, more likely.
To @normblog An old friend of mine had a party to decorate her straw coffin, thus introducing meaning to her funeral - but not yet...
@Adelica Politicians wives wheeled out to order, in the old tradition of the vicar's wife or the wife of that old devil at the manor?

Friday, 3 August 2018

An Illustrated Story of a Book Signing

I find that everyone has a story. This lady had been
in the navy before coming North,

I had a marvellous time yesterday with my friend writer Avril Joy* in Gordon Draper's wonderful Bishop Auckland Bondgate Bookshop. I have written here about visiting Gordon in his bookshop and seeing it as something of a magical book cave. Well I spent yesterday afternoon in the bookshop signing copies of Becoming Alice for pass passers-by and people – friends and strangers – who called in to wish me good luck with my novel.
*Avril took the photographs on my wonky camera. Thank you Avril,  as always.

 Norma tells Gordon about
 about her very successful
 Sedgefield Bookends Festival

Gordon had set up a table with flowers and - towards the end -  brought in a bottle of wine to celebrate. Unlike other more conventional book signings this event had a real sense of celebration. We were not just celebrating Alice we were also celebrating the survival of independent bookshop’s both new and second-hand in this world of corporate bookselling and the concept of books as commodities.

Hugh and Eileen - both keen writers - talk  about
 their reading and their writing

This was illustrated by the attendance at the signing of the Bishop Auckland Ambassadors - a group of people who are active in supporting independent and creative retailers in Bishop Auckland to  promote their creative endeavours  to newcomers and to the citizens of this unique town. The enthusiasm of the ambassadors for their project was inspirational in itself.

Another lovely thing yesterday was that, throughout the event  ordinary book customers - young and old -  wandered in. Anything about boxing? Anything about climbing? Anything about Irish History? These enquiries sent Gordon hunting through his stock. Some people who came for the signing also  bought other books. 

I take my work very seriously, of course.

A celebratory glass with Gordon, the magician of the Bondgate Book Cave.

And even I didn’t escape Gordon’s magic. Without really intending to I bought a book called Customers and Patrons of the Mad Trade – the Management of Lunacy in 18th-Century London. (Now, she thinks, there’s a novel there somewhere

As I have said many times it's All About Alice.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Becoming Alice and the Art of Reviewing

 For me there is little doubt that reviewing is a fine art. These days more and more readers are trying their hand at it posting on Amazon comments and reviews of novels they have enjoyed.

In a timely fashion  journalist and reviewer Sharon Griffiths has just posted very helpful piece on how to tackle a review on the Damselfly Website under the   Reviews Tab. 

All this is on my mind because of a good example of this art -  a very sweet four star review from Steve Craggs at Saturday’s Northern Echo for my novel Becoming Alice.

Steve has the brilliant skill of delivering the context, scope and content of a story in less than a hundred words. I love this one. Thank you Steve.
Add caption

Here it is: ‘The Festival of Britain was coming a coming  of age for many who endured the horrors of the Second World War; especially in this instance for the trio of northern schoolgirl Alice, her photographer mother Ruth and Louis, sometimes forger; artist and teacher.   Hearts beat stronger, emotions are more vibrant and passions can be given free rein. Durham author Robertson has you hooked from the start.’

If other readers out there find themselves reading  Becoming Alice I would be terribly chuffed it you try your hand at reviewing – or simply leaving a comment -   on Amazon. WX

Links: Becoming AliceNorthern Echo The Art of  Reviewing  Damselfly Books 

Thursday, 26 July 2018

The Horsebreaker. A Holiday Piece

This being the holiday season I though you might like this further edited piece  from the collection 'A Life in Short Pieces'. It was inspired by a holiday visit made by me and my little family to a Scottish farm in the 1970s. The children enjoyed it and so did I.

The Horse Breaker

 Now here is the man. His clanking boots
stamp the tender clover underfoot.
In his  wiry brown hand he clutches
a woven leather whip. His weathered face glows
and his  black eyes glitter -
ready for the work of his morning

Later today - in his thousand year ritual -
we’ll walk his fields, beat his boundaries,
and check his fences. He’ll point out the ruins
of antique houses, built stone on stone by
his own ancient forbears.

I’ll tramp across the fields by the side
of this man who breaks horses.
The sun is not shining but my face is glowing. I am-
feeling cool but still my features burn.
We stay by  a long gate and a bird spins upward
beating its wings in the cool air

The man makes kissing noises, his mouth pursed.
One horse snickers and -steam rising from its flanks -
Canters in our direction across the tussocky field.
The horse’s  roughened coat sports  a rank shine
and its mouth glitters with sores -
ancient scores, still not settled.

Now two birds spin upwards in
what looks like feral combat -
all fluttering and  hoarse chirruping  
a dispute with only one resolution

Monday, 23 July 2018

Age and the Escape into Creativity.

These days there is a generational dread of fading into senility of one kind or another. We have so much information about the distress and Alzheimer’s disease and so little real hope of any cure. What to do about it? Of course there is this cliché about the brain; the mantra swirls around us:  You have got to use it or lose it,’ they say.

My own way of using it is to keep on with the writing that has dominated my life, despite the change of focus in publishing from literary story-telling to the more profitable embrace of fantasy, proto-pornography, and violent sadistic proto-heroism. Interestingly these latter qualities are designed  to ensure escape from the pressure and mundane nature of ordinary lives,  rather than - like good literary stories  - revealing some deep truths about those ordinary lives: a very creative escape.

So any way my strategy to fend off mental deterioration is to continue to write and publish good literary stories which reveal some deep truths about ordinary lives. To do this I developed this idea for Damselfly Books. And unlike my early publishing days where I had keen editors and three book contracts to motivate me, I have to fly free and generate my own motivation.

All this has made me think about writers out there who continue to write and write well despite the odds. The thought has occurred to me that in order   to write creatively one needs a clear - even an empty - space in one’s head for the story, poem or essay to me into, to make itself comfortable, to allow it to grow.

However, depending on what happens on the planet of ordinary life, such essential space may not be there. It can be crushed into nothingness by routines, obligations, and those myriad inescapable tasks to keep life for oneself and others on an even keel. As well as this, I understand that this lack of mental space can dominate the lives of those who care for others, whether those others are spouses, children, parents, or beloved friends.  (Often - but certainly not exclusively – these domestic imperatives fall on women.)

And this lack of space to embark on creative, regenerative action can also dominate the lives of those individuals whose inner life is full of ghosts, fears and mental chaos of one kind or another. This prevents them from manufacturing the ladder with which they can climb out of their tumbled life and escape into creativity.

In my view this lack of brain space is the fundamental cause of the much vaunted ‘writers block’. Of course you can’t write the next poem or the next chapter or the next paragraph when there is no space in which it can grow!

On the other hand, some people live lives where there are just too many empty spaces. One thinks of people who are recently retired and miss the busy involvement of their jobs. Also one thinks of people who are bereaved, where the person they have no longer fills all the empty spaces in corners of their lives.

There are recommendations out there, of course the ways in which people may fill the spaces – and the brain turning over -  with things like crosswords, Sudoku, doing good community work; watching intelligent TV, listening to BBC Radio Four, reading new books, even tackling half remembered skills like pottery, painting and of to reduce their handicap.

My choice of brain-gymnastics is to keep researching, writing and producing my stories and sharing them with readers who still recognise the invigorating magic of the adventures and life journeys of heroic people not unlike themselves.

In my new novel Becoming Alice Ruth Kelman gives birth to her daughter Alice in a Tyneside cellar. A thousand miles away, Louis Roxby, a young English soldier adjusts to the severe strictures and strange opportunities of prison camp life. Between 1941 and 1951 Alice Kelman becomes a northern grammar school girl; Ruth becomes a skilled photographer and Louis Roxby becomes, in turn, a forger, an artist, and a teacher, finally to enjoying the freedom of post-war bohemian London. Then in 1951, their paths cross as they are drawn like iron filings to a magnet to the celebratory Festival of Britain in London’s South Bank.

And now this week Damselfly Books have published Scenes from a Life by new and talented writer Hugh Cross – who began writing  when he was 80. No Sudoku for him!

Monday, 2 July 2018

A Nineteen Sixties Marriage.

From A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Six.

I was married in the early 1960s. People married young then.  In those years it seemed that the world was changing, although many of the changes were most vigorously expressed along the Kings Road in London, at wild music gigs like Glastonbury and on television with the daring political satire show That Was the Week That Was. Just a few years before that I had mocked a friend for liking a group called The Beatles. (‘What a stupid name!’)That was around the time I first heard another friend refer to Mr Presley as Elvis as though he were her brother.

The American pursuit of victory in Vietnam was becoming increasingly unpopular in Britain, who didn’t participate. In America too there was dissent as some young men fled the draft. (I met one of these former so-called ‘draft dodgers’ years later when I trained teachers in Sunderland.)

Then, shortly before noon on November 22, 1963, President John F Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in a motorcade through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas.

When I heard this terrible news, I was hoovering the sitting room in my new house. That was when I really know the world had changed.

A Nineteen Sixties Marriage.

This was a marriage that went to work
and loved it; it wore flowers in its hair;
it sported sober suits and hippy skirts; it pushed
children in prams and went to parents’ meetings.

At the seaside it pulled on two ponchos
to keep warm; it went to the races, to rugby matches
and school plays; it waived its children off to their new life
and welcome them back again .

This is a marriage that watched  cricket, football
and cop-shows on TV; it read newspapers at length;
it read books and wrote them; it posted risky stories
into bright red boxes; it kept its secrets.

It visited hospitals and clinics, holding
its breath for good news and bad.

This is a marriage that still holds hands

Sunday, 24 June 2018

A Unique Bookshop for Alice


In these days of bookshop chains and publishing conglomerates there is much compensatory talk among readers and writers regarding the value of more independent publishing and private booksellers and bookshops.

This has been on my mind this week because I spent a very happy afternoon in a bookshop in my home town of Bishop Auckland, talking with the bookseller about my new book Becoming Alice out this week on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. With my writing friend Avril Joy I was talking with the bookseller Gordon Draper about arranging a book signing for Becoming Alice in his shop in the near future.

In recent years my home town of Bishop Auckland has been brought back to life by the advent of the Auckland Project* which is developing new art galleries, enhancing the historic market square and the buildings that enclose it. The Auckland Project is refurbishing the historic bishop’s Castle and its Park as well as  initiating a fascinating  archaeological recovery of its centuries’ old kitchen gardens.

In the early days a person involved in this project said to me how strange it was that it a place with this history - both distant and recent -  should have no bookshop. But it does have a bookshop of a rather unusual kind on the little street off the marketplace called Bondgate. Not unnaturally the shop is called Bondgate Books.

But this is a bookshop with a difference. When you enter its 18th century doorway you enter a world of book-magic: a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books, The books and papers are stacked from floor-to-ceiling, as well as in boxes and piles on the floor.

Gordon Draper, the Aladdin of the unique Bondgate Books, has been a market book trader going back 30 years. His father before him also dealt in books and - Gordon tells me - was instrumental of bringing magazines like Private Eye to the north-east. Gordon himself still has bookstalls in markets in Darlington, Middlesbrough and on the quayside in Newcastle.

I have a friend who regularly shops there. He tells me he has acquired some literary treasures there at a decent price. The second-hand stock extends from contemporary best-selling fiction - to books from the early 20th and late 19th century - now collectible is a very decent price. There are early 20th century mining textbooks, books on the history of Scotland, of the North East, of Yorkshire. In Gordon’s shop you will find  books on football, books on both world wars, books on science fiction and fantasy, books and nature and science. You name it, Gordon stocks it.

You might wonder how you might find your way around this cornucopia of print. You just need to express your interest and the Aladdin of this particular book cave -  who knows all his books - will lead you to them.

Gordon finds me a very old map of the North. (I love maps). ‘Look!’ he says. ‘No A1!’
There are bargains everywhere here, but Gordon knows the value of his stock ‘See this! £50. See this? Worth £100!’ Collectors call on him regularly to check his stock. He knows their interests and on his travels keeps an eye open for books to match their taste and their pocket.

As for myself, having written novels for so many years, it’s no surprise to me that many of them now are doing the rounds in the second-hand book trade. Gordon seems to know who I was and tells me he has sold many of my novels through the years. He darts away and finds a copy of my novel Family Ties. He gives it to me to sign, carefully finding a rubber to rub out the present price. I am intrigued that my signature may make a difference to the price.
To Buy 

Gordon seems pleased that I will be happy come to sign copies of my new novel Becoming Alice here in his shop. I explain to him that the story Becoming Alice takes place between 1941 and 1951 and is set in this part of Durham and also in post-war London. The story culminates in the Festival of Britain on London’s South Bank in 1951.

 So, I think, this book could very well interest local readers and also some of the more cosmopolitan tourists who are coming into Bishop Auckland to see the changes and visit the regular stunning Kynren spectacular associated with The Auckland Project.

Thinking of my signing event, it occurs to me that some of the other books here also illustrate some of the historic times between 1941 and 1951. I can just picture such books all around me, as Avril and I sit at a little table in a cleared corner, coffee cups in hand, signing copies of Becoming Alice and sharing stories with readers. I would guess that the cross-section of readers here will be rather larger than in the more conventional bookshop.

As we leave the shop. Gordon vanishes again and a return with some flower books and prints for Avril who has mentioned that she is keen on such sources for her collaging.

I will be signing copies of Becoming Alice at Bondgate Books in Bishop Auckland between 2 and  4 o’clock on 2nd August. 

Be nice to see you there.


Becoming Alice Paperback:
Damselfly Books :

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

White Silk Tassels

From A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Five. 

White Silk Tassels.

I met my first proper friend, Iris in the year before my father died. I was eight and she was fourteen. For some reason we made friends. At the time I didn’t think this was strange. Iris has been much in my mind in recent decades when - wearing my writer’s cloak - I have been interrogating my own past.

I realise only now -   a generation later – that in my encounter with her I somehow witnessed a kind of
War damage in Coventry
hidden incest. I think I only really recognise this as I was writing the following piece, White Silk Tassels, sixty years later. I realise now that it must have stuck in my child’s mind because, having been my friend for many months, my friend Iris vanished and was never seen again.

Assembling all these feelings and ideas and thinking about my own life at the time as a child in Coventry  the implication of this disappearance dawned on me. In recent years there has been a certain amount of discussion about the phenomenon of recovered memory. I suppose as writers we dip into recovered memory and respond with various kinds of truth and fiction. Perhaps all writing involves both recovered and false memory
But writing this short piece called White Silk Tassels my recovered memory was suddenly moulded into an idea – a final explanation as to why my friend vanished.

I think as well that this memory dug deeper because of the contiguous events of my father’s death.

White Silk Tassels

Men  open their mouths wide
Reconciliation by Josefina de Vasconcellos
 at Coventry Cathedral, first conceived
 in the aftermath of the war. Image: Ben Sutherland,  

their teeth bite, bite like lions
their nails are sharp as pussy cat claws.
They go for the cream, lapping it up
with their sandpaper tongues.

In her auntie’s house  my friend sits
on her bedspread; it’s white silk tassels
sweep the linoleum, red as a cat’s tongue.
Her aunt and uncle have red faces too –
his more bulbous, hers pale and sharp as razors.

Weeks go by and the white tassels vanish,
one by one – bitten off by naughty pussycats,
according to her uncle. Our houses - Jerry-built –
are fenced in with chicken wire
but,  unlike me,  Iris has no chickens.

My father - prone to mild mistakes -
bought a dozen chicks for breakfast eggs.
He swings, his golden ring above their fluffy heads.
It swings to the left, so he was wrong.
These fluffy chicks are cocks, every one.

So, no morning chucky eggs for us, love!
Still, we feed these boys, clean their cage,
cluck over them like mother hens.
Come Christmas time we have to wring their necks
Not Daddy – all soft heart – but my uncle does the job,
smiling as his fingers squeeze out their little chicken lives.

Come Christmas too, my good friend Iris
has stolen her own savings - they say -
and run away.  Her red-faced auntie calls her
a sly cat, bad to the core and so ungrateful,
as she burns the white bed-spread in the garden
fenced all round with chicken wire.


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