Saturday, 7 August 2021

 Blossoming Bishop Auckland - Mark One

I gave up on Enid Blyton when I was seven and graduated in the following years of childhood to Emily E Nesbitt, J M Barrie, P L Travers, Arthur Ransome Allison Uttley, Geoffrey Trease and Rider Haggard. And of course the immaculate sisters Emily and Charlotte Bronte. My destination of choice was Spennymoor library, located then in a converted double fronted house in Clyde Terrace at the end of my house in the street of two-up and two-down houses, where I lived with my three siblings and widowed mother.

By the time I was 12 I was reading five or six books a week courtesy of this wonderful library. I would go to the library for four or five times week both to change my own books and the change books for my mother, whose taste ranged from Ethel M Dell and Barbara Cartland to Charles Dickens.

So, coming from an apparently poor home, this library proved to be the oyster from which – more than my grammar school – I could access and savour pearls of wisdom and human insight which nurtured my innate intelligence and gave me the whole world.

Off one corner of one of the well-stocked library rooms there was a long narrow space – probably formerly a larder – with a long surface from end to end with a row of seats. This was specially installed so that children from crowded houses like mine could come to do their homework and their reading in peace.

This is the library where a librarian Marion would suss out my taste and find books and save them for me.

A generation later, after in a lifetime as a teacher and writer, my go-to library was in Bishop Auckland Town Hall, in walking distance from my home which is itself now is as lined with books is that Spennymoor library. For many years Bishop Auckland Town Hall’s splendid library – plus art gallery and theatre - was managed by librarian magician called Gillian Wales who became my friend. I spent many hours there researching and writing my novels, running a writing group and giving writing workshops and guidance to aspiring writers. It was always a most welcoming, civilised and inspirational space.

But that was then, this is now! The Town Hall has been closed during the Covid pandemic and subsequently – undergone refurbishment as part of some wonderful developments in the new emergence of Bishop Auckland under the benevolent aegis of the amazing Jonathan Ruffer.  

Sadly, the whole building, behind its familiar Victorian façade, has now been modernised out of all recognition. Without the subtle leadership of Gillian Wales* the library has now been diminished into a negligible, less accessible space, among other fluidly unrecognisable spaces. I am left to wonder how many book-hungry twelve-year-old  children like me from crowded indigent households would find this in any way enabling,  engaging and inspiring as was the little Spennymoor library to me.

*My daughter reminds that the late great gardener Rosemary Verey,  is alleged to have said. ‘A garden never outlives its gardener.’ This seems so in the case of super-librarian Gillian Wales  and her Bishop Auckland Library.
 

Blossoming Bishop Auckland - Mark Two

Bu-u-t there are more optimistic signs in this wonderful town. After being locked down and virtually locked in in the last 18 months I am wondering Newgate Street – the main street of Bishop Auckland – I am having coffee with my daughter in the excellent new café The Fox’s Tale.  It is full and quite busy,  which is a nice thing to see. We sip our excellent coffee and look out of the window onto the marketplace which is at last regaining some of its former sense of busyness and occasion. A horse and buggy passes with three children aboard. 

We make our way back down the street and come upon what looks at first glance like a bookshop. It is beautifully laid out with a whole range of well-organised books standing to attention with here and there is a chair to sit on. We choose some books which definitely meet our varied tastes but discover we are not obliged to pay for them.

It turns out that this shop, run by very friendly volunteers, is called

  Get FreeBooks Bishop Auckland At 14. (Facebook Page)

 It turns out that this wonderful place is part of the global educational trust which focuses on self-help within communities. It very much involves children and families.

 Look it up at Global Education Trust



Our venture this morning certainly adds something of a balance to the sad downgrading of Bishop Auckland library in the context of upgrading lovely Bishop Auckland itself.


Inside the shop my own (now very grown-up) daughter picks up glossy books on France and French cuisine (to contribute to her research on her next book) and I pick up a novel set in Imperial Rome. And then she comes upon a novel of mine called No Rest for the Wicked, which just happens to be set in Bishop Auckland and features in the narrative the colourful Bishop Auckland Theatre. She holds it up in the air and gestures to me. I am pleased and slightly embarrassed, but delighted that someone may come and pick this up for free and take it home to enjoy reading it. 

One of the very welcoming volunteers – who is also a ceramicist - tells me that they are short of my titles in their collection. So I make a mental note to walk along to donate a few titles. It is my community after all.

Now here I am, thinking that my 12 year old self would be very happy to be walking into this shop and picking up some favourite authors to take home to my narrow street house and to read it for free.

So you can see very clearly how happy I am that my lovely Bishop Auckland is blossoming yet again.


A suggestion for you: if you are from this region please visit  number 14 Newgate Street and take away books for yourself to treasure. Or you may drop some off to share them with others. If you are not from this region check out Global Education Trust 


Find Debora Robertson at deborarobertson.com



 
 

 

 

Thursday, 18 March 2021

Dreams and Nightmares In A Long Life.

Featured in my new collectionWith Such Caution, are poems springing out of elements reflected in my notebooks over the last 50 years. What has emerged from this process of sifting and editing  is  a kind of hybrid of memoir and poetry reflecting the light and shade, the sunshine and shadows all experienced in a long life.

I have found as  the notebook entries were transmuted by the febrile abstraction  of poetry, that I started to recognise - among brighter notions and perceptions - a sprinkling of poems  involving dark dreams and even nightmares in a long life.
  
Possibly because I am a child of World War Two I have remembered dreams I had in the bed which I shared with my sister, in the house where I lived until I was seven.

 In that time, in  that bed, I distinctly remember  dreaming of invasion, in the form of  uniformed hordes coming up the stairs of that house in Lancaster,
 
 This was a dream. It didn’t literally happen!
 
But several of the poems in With Such Caution illustrate the impact of dark dreams successively on the consciousness of the little girl as she grows up to become a teacher, a feminist, a novelist and writer, a mentor, a wife, a lover, a mother -  in various combinations -  through a long life.
 
Of course this dark aspect combines with the lighter elements – light and shade juxtaposed -- and has contributed to perhaps a more abstract notion of a lived life, which makes With Such Caution much more than a straight memoir.


An Example:-

The poem here below - perhaps the darkest in the collection – finally written in 2002 – reflects some of the darkest aspects of the dreaming and the feelings that still haunt me.

 

Tin Drum Beat

 

Lady of shadow, where do you walk?

Come into the light

let me see you more clearly,

 

Grasping existence with your metal fingers

Sitting there hearthside to knit up the world

your face set hard to  the distance of  time,.

Your green-coin head turns this way and that,

viewing the treeless spread of the city..

 

Still you stay there at the edge of the dark

walking the streets with your diamond tread

beating the drum  with your  tough metal fingers -

choosing the child for the next conflagration

 

Lady of shadow, where are you walking?

Come into the light

Let me see you more clearly

 

You turn into an alley, darker than Hades,

and confront a boy whose eyes cannot see.

Your gaze pierces through the husk of his eyelid

igniting his soul to the darkness ahead,

 

Lady of shadows

Come into the light

Let me see you more clearly

 

I’m running before you, afraid of your gaze

afraid of your hands with their tin-drum-beat

afraid of your eyes, those glittering  emeralds,

afraid of the high-heeled click of your feet

 

Lady of shadows why do you follow?

I turn in the dark to meet your embrace.

Nov 29.02

 

Fragments of this poem are in several of the

notebooks. Perhaps this piece shows how

close are one’s dreams and nightmares

in a world where the imagination rules.

 

 



 Wendy Robertson

Buy Here at Amazon   http://tiny.cc/82autz 

Click Amazon for all my novels http://tiny.cc/f2autz  


 

Thursday, 4 March 2021

With Such Caution - A Life Glimpsed in Short Pieces

‘I think With Such Caution is alive, raw in its emotional reach, finely polished in its language, and has a universal relevance.’ A.J.

The bright spot in my lockdown year – drenched as it was with the caring, health preoccupations, peripheral boredom and occasional panic - found real value for me in the form of my self-elected task of collecting short pieces sometimes called poems from 50 years of my working notebooks.

Cheered on by my friend the fine poet and novelist Avril Joy and literary scholar Donna Maynard - who is fascinated by the notion of archive -  this very special collection has finally blossomed during this year of confinement.


My hundred or so notebooks have served through the decades as my best friends, my confidantes, my research assistants and my counsellors. In this way this Lockdown Year has given me the space to survey my notebooks, harvesting short pieces which – I discovered – had captured a range of universal truths about my life as though they were  butterflies in a net.  So I have spent this fallow time exploring these harvested pieces and moulding, editing and refining them to the point where they have revealed true elements of my whole - pretty long - life.


So these poems are pure glimpses of a long life - some glimpses recalled again 30 or 40 years later; most of them written on the cusp of the events that inspired them, to be revisited during this fallow year and re-interpreted as I reflected on them  afresh.


I think your voice is one of the collection's great strengths, I hear it speak clearly and candidly throughout and, among other things, it sounds frank, intelligent, intellectually curious, honest, questioning, hurt, warm, amused, reflective, probing and combative. It is a great idea also to include footnotes which add another aspect or layer of voice as if you are speaking directly to the reader.’ DM.


And now I have moved on to the complex process of publishing this collection - a very different process from from the more familiar tasks of writing and editing my own work.  Here was a very different category of decision-making. Readers of this blog wilI know that I have embraced this new publishing process several times before but it is never easy. It is so much more challenging, in my view, than actually writing my long novels (see list on the right) which were published by mainstream publishers.


‘I am wholly convinced of the value of short pieces/ poetry as memoir. It is every bit as much, as authentic and true, as any prose account and there are ways in which it gets beneath the skin of a life to the deep self - in a way - to the soul. AJ.)


One important decision was the title: after much head-wrangling I decided it would be With Such Caution - borrowing the title from one of the pieces in the collection:  


         In her early life, timid and shy,
         she pre-empted risks by keeping
         her horizons low and her head
         bent down over her books.


,
With Such Caution is a perfect title choice. As a title poem it gets to the heart of the shy, timid, girl that haunts you still. She is alive in these pages, Wendy, we feel her caution, her apprehensions and fears’ AJ.

Then there was the decision about the cover – very important, as I know, to engage  potential readers.

 My collaborator in this part of the  process was the talented designer Kate Hall  of Kate Hall Design, who worked her special magic on my concept of the book and developed exactly my dream cover. This image  too - like the title - begins with a little shy girl who would always be a writer. Take a look. 


If you get hold of the book you will realise that this is not a conventional memoir. You will notice that the poems are not set out in here in autobiographical time. Rather they are inspired by my feelings about the pieces in the present time, as I have edited them and put them in order for this special collection. Perhaps you could say  the ordering constitutes a glimpse of my state of mind in the present day while I have been working on this collection.


 ‘I like so much that you haven’t chosen a linear path - I think when we reflect on our lives we do so in myriad images and scattered memories. I suppose I’m saying that your chosen form mimics the process of remembering…’  AJ.

Inevitably members of my family have roles to play in this collection, albeit seen  through the veil of my selective memory and my  idiosyncratic emotional perceptions. I have already posted on this  blog one of the poems featuring my mother, Barbara. (Scroll down...And now the poem at the end is this pieces focuses on Billy, my father. I thought you might like it as is just one illustration much of what I have tried to say here. 

'... there is a creative unity which is an important part of your authentic writer’s voice, aligned as it is with your refusal to be confined or limited by genre or received wisdom - something of course which is underscored in the collection in poems such as Outsiderness, With Such Caution’and ‘Different Worlds.' DM. 

 I very much hope you  enjoy reading With Such Caution and perhaps reflect  on your own lives, And I hope the writers among you will be inspired to survey their own notebooks for similar inspiration.  


I am pleased to day that With Such Caution is available now in paperback and ln  Kindle on Amazon  HERE


WX


Billy: A Daughter’s Tale

 We walked along, your giant’s hand in mine, 

 long fingers poking inside my hand-knitted sleeve.

Remember the nights she left the house for work?

You sat and read the paper as I scaled your knee

settling, birdlike, into that rustling space.

 

Remember how we cut out pictures

and pasted them into the Panjandrum book?

Remember how you read us stories -

your voice going up and down

like the waves of the sea?

 

So very sorry you don’t know my youngest –

like you he’s  highly numerate - you

did not see him standing tall for Tai Kwan Do 

(white clad and obliquely oriental)

or cricket-ready, complete with pads

and helmet and faceguard protection.

 

It’s a lifetime since I passed your dying age

of thirty seven. And now I contemplate

how very young you were  when

you abandoned your life and mine,

when - to my nine-year self - you seemed eternal.

 

It has taken two generations

between then and now  for me

to ventilate  the retrospective pain

of losing you too soon.


                 Note :  My father died when I was nine and I see now  that our relationship was the template                                                                         for my whole life.

Friday, 1 January 2021

 

Translucent Butter-Muslin.

It was my mother’s birthday yesterday. The last day of the year. Perhaps that’s why even as a child I always liked the New Year celebrations much better than those at Christmas. My eventual explanation for this was that this was the influence of the Celtic elements in my identity.

Another explanation could be that there were bad days in my childhood but even in the worst of days New Year’s Eve seem to carry the silver lode of  celebration.

And now I have shrugged off the bad days of my childhood and we are here into 2021. Despite a universally tragic 2020, New Year’s Day in 2021 seems to me to be a good day to press on with my own Work in Progress. My mother would say 'stop fretting – keep working!'

I am just now working my critical way through a selection of poems which – with the help of my friend Donna  Maynard – I have harvested from my notebooks going back 50 years. Originally I never labour labelled these short line pieces as poems. It always seemed too pretentious by far. It comes from a habit of noting down in words how I see things what is happening – like bullets of experience in short lines.

In retrospect it so happened that through the years this collection of short line pieces took a form that other people – with more literary, poetic nous than me – have viewed them as “poems. The collection will be called With Such Caution - A Life Glimpsed in Short Lines.

In this recently assembled collection there are more than 60 of  pieces going back to 1962. And during the confinement of Lockdown I have been working my way through them – polishing here, clarifying there. This has been something of a voyage of discovery.

 I have discovered that the short-line pieces range across all aspects of my life – both imagined and – in the world sense – real. They include inner thoughts and fantasies, and outer experiences. On reflection I suppose many might be seen as autobiographical, but, like a good deal of any writer’s output, much of it just might be entirely invented. 

My mother – always called “Mam” – crops up with a certain compelling frequency in this sollection.=. My brothers and sisters are there – some would say projections and retrospections perhaps growing from my storytellers mind. “Mam” crops up several times as I certainly sense that I can remember her right back to the day I was born. And then, even after she died too early, the writing here shows how much she featured in my life, in my dreams.

I realise now that I spent my childhood very hungry for her approval.  I was still hungry when, as a grown up, working and with children of my own, I gave her my first published novel Lizza to read in publisher’s proof.  She told me she sat through the night reading it to the very end. i was relieved when she approved and informed me that I’d got most things – the novel was set during the 1926 strike – right!  Thank you Mam!

 My poem  here below Translucent Butter-Muslin reflects on a dream I had of her many years – and 16 books – later.  Sadly, I lost Mam before she had a chance to read all the other novels which succeeded  Lizza.

 My mother – her name was Barbara -  was always a great reader and I can feel at her at my shoulder now as I wish all the beloved readers and writers out there are very creative and satisfying year in 2021.


Here for you is a poem:


 Translucent Butter-Muslin  


I wake up trembling - time ringing, vibrating,

calling the angelus. In my dream

I see you standing there, all in yellow,

arms raised - backlit in translucent butter muslin –

a vision pulsing before me  

manufactured by  stars twinkling  

in the sky at night,

Now I see you standing smiling.(My father

stoops over you, his arm slung 

around your shoulder). And I see you

standing at my school-gate wearing

in a fluffy white coat, red hair blazing.

Then I see you in a blue crêpe party dress

toggled at the neck in amber.

I see you smiling at my brother’s wedding,

wearing a blue hat, its brim upturned.

Best of all - I see you standing up straight

- blue uniformed and silver-buckle-belted.

But here and now I see you standing here

at the top of my stairs  in translucent  butter-muslin –

arms raised towards me.


Me thinking a lot on her knee.


 

 

Friday, 13 November 2020

Reading on Planet Lockdown - Discovering Quebec with Louise Penny,

Shielding in lockdown has been like landing on a different planet. For me one consequence of exploring this new Planet Lockdown is the deepening and strengthening my lifelong habit (obsession with?) of reading and writing – all of which started when I was about seven. Reading has always been my escape from a dark and difficult world, furnishing me with an almost magical doorway into a sensate, fulfilling life. And now in recent months on Planet Lockdown this deep reading habit has allowed me to escape the sense of dark confinement and deprivation and find a (possibly eccentric) way of living to the full. 

And now I have found many different pathways on this planet. One of my reading pathways has involved   revisiting lifelong favourites. Then I got to thinking that I have possibly outgrown some old favourites; perhaps I even overrated these works in those early readings. But sometimes it happens that I find new layers of meaning in such older works which tell me something about the life we have to live now.

Another pathway here on the planet has been finding new works. I have relished a great pleasure in discovering new writers and stories which inspire me to explore new rivers and climb new mountains – to open up my confined world. So in these lockdown days new territories are opening up for me:  territories which would not have opened up for me, which I would not have foreseen, without this unique reading retreat which is Planet Lockdown

Some of the best of these has influenced me not just as a reader but more crucially as a writer.  One of these - a recent discovery - has been the work of the Canadian writer Louise Penny.

I can’t remember just how I first discovered this writer. However, having read one book, I found myself looking for others and, using an old habit – again started in childhood – of discovering a writer by reading a series of their novels. In this way I can cultivate and incorporate into my reading/writing map this writer’s approach to the storytelling task, to their worldview, to their creation of characters; I could learn from them their deep apprehension of climate and the natural world. I recognised these elements which combine uniquely in each writer and constitute what we call their style.

I feel first developed this series approach to reading generations ago, when I was doing my French and German A-levels. To back up my curriculum studies I hunted down the novels by Honoré de Balzac, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant and Heinrich Boll, and the plays of Goethe. (We did read whole books in those days in the original language. I believe things are different nowadays.)

Back to reading on Planet Lockdown – Louise Penny’s novels which might be loosely labelled murder mystery stories,  showcase her high literary skills and her clever storytelling skills.  The novels are bedded in the historical and cultural identity of French Canada. The history of the British colonisation of this original French province lies there in layers, underneath the contemporary stories. Penny’s storytelling is complex and sometimes surprising - threaded through with philosophical insight and an acute sense of the ‘other’. I learnt a lot in reading these novels – isn’t there a certain pleasure in absorbing information in the context of a story?

The settings for Penny’s novels is French-speaking urban and rural Québec; the central characters are urban and rural Québécois with a sprinkling of English speakers – called Anglos here - historically top dogs in the province but now at one level down: first nation Canadians such as the Cree nation also play a small part here.

As well as relishing the stories, in reading this succession of Penny’s novels I have learnt a great deal about the unique history of this part of the North American continent. And I have developed further my knowledge of the human dilemma – the politics of family, the forming and destruction of friendships, the nature of betrayal, the intertwining of love and hate.

I have been thinking that this is part of what we explore through reading – finding new pathways, new tracks, and ways to interpret what is essentially a very foreign environment to an English reader. This is so even if - like me – you flatter yourself that have a good sense of the world and its history.

Penny’s novels explore a series of widely ranging mysteries held together by the leading character, a Québécois policeman, Chief Inspector Armand Ganache, of the Sûreté de Quebec, his intellectual wife Reine Marie by his side. These two are at the centre of an extraordinary caucus of characters who live in a tiny village deep in the forests and mountains of rural Québec, some miles away from Montréal.

One great attraction for me of these novels is the secondary and tertiary characters who reappear in further novels.  This includes a complicated ancient poet called Ruth whose constant companion is a duck called Rosa. Another attraction is the way the writer renders for us the extremities of the distinctive seasons and the landscape of this part of Canada to the degree that, as well as forming a background for the narrative, they become part of the characterisation of the whole novel.

I have to say that these are no ordinary mystery novels. Apart from the complex and attractive character of Ganache himself, the stories of are bedded into a whole range of world issues played out against the linked histories of France and Québec. These involve murder, drug addiction, the joys, the warmth and this occasional toxic nature of family. We get to know the worlds of painting and fine art, the danger of enclosed monastic life, the dark nature of political and police corruption, And in each novel the exploration of good and evil and the dark and the light of characters and cultures is intelligent and satisfying. This writer assumes her readers are intelligent and not afraid of ideas.

Being a great Francophile the setting of one of my favourite novels in this series moves away from Québec and is set in Paris, where the historical French cultural identity of the Québécois is embedded in the narrative and is a key to the mystery at its core. As readers we get to walk the streets of Paris with Armand Ganache and his clever wife Reine Marie. I enjoy the way the Rodin Museum and the tale of the Burghers of Calais plays its part in the narrative.

The detective Armand Ganache is a deceptively clever man. He is a thinker:  a quiet, thoughtful soul who wields authority and leadership like a  magician's wand. We spend a lot of time inside his mind.  In this Paris novel as in the others, he  uses  literary and philosophical analogies with a free hand, always adding depth and significance to the  story,

One – it seems to me – very attractive and original aspect of all the novels is the attention they pay to the French influence on the daily life and of the food of the Quebec province. This is described  described with relish and serves to reflect the intimacy of the relationships and the authenticity of the stories as they unfold.

Looking at all this,  I am now thinking that it might make the novels sound fact-heavy and complicated. But not so! The passion informing the research and the literary skills of this writer makes each novel a compelling - even an easy - read.

 And there are surprises. Each novel is different to the others – these are not patently similar mystery stories. They are handcrafted novels which - apart from anything else - enhance our understanding of the human condition and cultural identity. They explore the dark and the light, the good and the evil embedded in the human drama. The dark side of some individuals and their motivation towards evil is deeply and sometimes shockingly present but not - as in some mystery novels – wanton and unjustified. 

So I suppose have to admit that the confinement and the long days of lockdown have been transformed into a gift  - for me, the time and the space and time to learn -  in this case about Québec, and  to become acquainted with the very special Armand Gamache in discovering  the novels of Louise Penny.

Happy reading!

Here Are Some of The Novels:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace / Dead Cold
The Cruellest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick Of The Light

The Beautiful Mystery
How The Light Gets In
The Long Way Home
The Nature Of The Beast
A Great Reckoning
Glass Houses
Kingdom Of The Blind
A Better Man
All The Devils Are Here

 

 



Saturday, 17 October 2020

From My Lockdown Notebook: Outsiderness,

 

I often say to writers that the only place for a writer is on the outside of everything. These days more than ever we are on the outside – of any aspiration to normal life. So it is no wonder that the following has emerged from a starting point in my notebook.

In this prolonged period of isolation my notebook is my best friend. In it I have scrawled impressions, thoughts, and feelings which turn up in an almost random fashion. Occasionally I turn the pages, pick up an idea and work on it in a more focused fashion. Working and moulding this into something more distinct and possibly distinctive is a writer’s active pleasure.


 

Outsiderness

 

Being the third child of four

I was bred to be an outsider.

Being the new child from a far town

I was labelled outsider.

 

Talking with the wrong tone

I was seen as a verbal outsider.

Being the cleverest child in class

made me an outsider.

 

Working alongside men

I was the female outsider.

Telling stories made me

a mendacious outsider.

 

Living with a man who doesn’t see

I have become an invisible outsider. –

Learning to make myself comfortable

In this ultimate containment.

 

Now, living through to old age

I am an intimate outsider, even

the ultimate outsider,

to others on the planet..


So anyway  now I relish 

my role as outsider 

at the centre of my own world.

  

*****.



Also see my novel  The Bad Child 

which emerged from these same feelings of Outsiderness some years ago.

  I find I am nothing if not consistent.

 

'As her life begins to unravel Dee tells us her own story - how she begins to rescue herself  from her own life. But she’s not alone on her journey. Travelling with her is a woman who throws pots and a dog called Rufus. Then there are Dee's drawing books and the characters she's met in the stories she has read…'



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