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.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Piece Four: Mothers and Daughters.

From A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Four:

Mothers and Daughters.

By mother died more than 20 years ago just about the time when my first children’s novel Theft was published. She read this novel in proof, staying up overnight to finish it. As the novel was substantially based on a fictionalised tale from her own youth - as I have said in Piece One (scoll down), she was always the heroine of her own stories - I was quite anxious about her reaction.

Always sparing in praise, she had to admit that she really liked the novel and couldn’t put it down. She didn’t refute any of the contextual facts and information which I had researched without any reference to her. I was only sorry that she didn’t see Theft between hard covers know that the world respected my fiction.

My mother has always been there alongside me,  not quite haunting me but standing at my shoulder when I moved up the professional ladder and when all the books emerged, when my children had their own challenges and achievements.

 Part of that process has been that I often dream of her, still seeking her approval as I did when I was a little girl. The piece below, however, did not come from a dream. I think I had a kind of vision of her there with their arms raised at the top of my stairs. A ghost? I felt it was a kind of visitation and was compelled to write about it in these terms.

Translucent Butter Muslin

I wake up trembling –
time – ringing,
nerves vibrating
invoking the Angelus.

I see you standing on my landing
Dressed in yellow, arms raised
back-lit in translucent butter muslin:
this vision of you  pulses
like the Evening Star
before my eyes.

I see you in another place all rusty hair and
red fluffy coat. I see you in a blue crêpe dress,
toggled at the neck in amber.
Then I see you standing smiling.
My father stoops and slings his arm
 around your shoulder.

Best of all I see you standing
straight and crisp, blue uniformed
and silver buckle belted. But now again
you come to me, standing there,
arms raised, wearing yellow -
radiant in translucent butter muslin.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

A Life in Short Pieces: A Daughter's Tale

A Life in Short Pieces: Piece Three. 

My father died when I was eight years old. I have missed him in
spurts on rites-of-passage days,  feast days and holidays for the whole of my life. 

But I miss him with a child’s perception. The child’s  perception is acute and long-lived. This piece contains the essence of my residual feeling for him.

A Daughters Tale

Remember how we walked along, you and me,
Your giant’s hand holding up mine, your  
long fingers poking inside my woollen sleeve?
Remember the nights she left for work -
you read the paper as I scaled your knew
and settled birdlike into that rustling space.

Remember how we cut out pictures
and pasted them into the Panjandrum book.
Remember how you told us stories –
your voice going up and down
like a red rocking horse
singing the story into the air.

Now look at our own youngest boy -
two generations down the line -
standing tall for Tai Kwan Do,
white clad and obliquely Oriental -
or cricket-ready, complete with face-guard.
This one can be pedantic. Like you. Like me.

A long lifetime ago, when
I passed your dying age of thirty seven
it dawned on me how very young
you must have been,  
when you abandoned
your life and mine.

At that time, to my childhood self
you really did seem very old. I had no way then
to process the despair that dug
so deep inside me. And I learned for the first time -
but not the last - to endure deep nameless hurt
in silence.

Note: It has just occurred to me that I plumbed the childhood depths of this experience when I created Demelza – ‘you can call me Dee’ – who elects not to speak at all in my novel The Bad Child.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

A Place for Naming

 From 'A Life in Short Pieces.'

This piece was written for and to my late mother who is never far from my thoughts. My relationship with her was part of my understanding of the relationship between Ruth Kelman and her daughter Alice in my forthcoming novel Becoming Alice. This sometimes vexed  relationship between mothers and daughters is also explored in my recent novel The Bad Child.

This piece is about a christening.

Piece No.2. A Place for Naming

The third of four children,
I slipped out – barely noticed
among the dogs of war
and other fine distractions.

In later years I made you tea,
passed hard examinations –
and wrote so many books
just to warm your heart
and catch your eye.  

I think about the family legend –
you were always heroine of your own tales –
 of me in your arms and you walking
to the church in the snow
– his arm around you.

Both waist deep in snow –
visiting church to rid yourself of sin
and to endow me with
a name made up by the man
who loved lost boys.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

A Life in Short Pieces

I am currently in the final stages of completing my novel About Alice. This is the first of three short novels with the overall title Lifespan which will cover the years between 1941 to the year 2000. These novels are fictional but -  not coincidentally - cover the approximate to my own lifespan.

This is not a new idea for me. A few years ago I published a short book of very short pieces – let’s not call them poems - about elements in my own life. I published this small book and it is still I think on Amazon. I have revisited these pieces and, I hope made them sharper and more precise.
I thought I might post them in an occasional series, one by one, on Life Twice Tasted for your simple enjoyment.  


A Life in Short Pieces


 Piece One 


To begin anything
I must bring about
the end of earlier things.

Conception is the end
of one of their
in the beginning of another.

Birth is an end
of a secret affair
and the beginning

of love out there
in the open,
lasting a lifetime

And so on, scrawling back to Eve -
and even she engendered
the end of Adam’s spare rib.

2013 and 2018

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Urban Garden

Buttercups flourish and geraniums roam.
Rogue dandelions lurk in swaying grasses.
Wild birds sink to the left and to the right.
Dogs are barking, making their presence 

felt in the town. Motor bikes squeal
as they weave their way
through the cars that roar
down the unseen road. Overhead 

the whirring buzz of
a helicopter,
circling in search
of a boy with a gun.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Garden Cure for Writers,

A garden is always a series of losses set against a few triumphs, like life itself. – May Sarton

 I have just noticed that I wrote my last post on W.H. Auden in December....
I have suffered rather a fallow time in between then and now, when darkness has been my enemy – particularly last winter on short winter days. But now I   have turned to the light to find restoration and a cure.

I have begun sitting, reading and working in the large bay window that faces my garden. From here I can see the grass and the circle of trees that crowd around it. Peering through my trees to a nearby garden further down the bank I can see to  tall silver birch trees. These slender trees stand tall and still when there is no wind. When the wind blows they bend and sway in a supple fashion, new leaves trembling on  fine branches. When there is a storm  these trees are whipped from one side to the other. But never break. They speak the language of the storm until it fades away and when they can they stand still and graceful yet again. In the months when I spent a good deal of time looking out of my  window I got to calling them The Two Sisters.

Now the year has turned and the sun has been shining, spilling bright light day after day into the house and across the garden. Now I have  even begun to sit outside and look around me to see, smell and feel the garden - the trees, the shrubs, the plants and flowers and to listen to the birds who populate the old trees,

Although from necessity the borders have been neglected in this year, instead of feeling guilty I relish their very life and extravagant creativity. The borders are brimming over with perennials split, planted and trans-planted last year in the optimistic times before I landed up in hospital.

My rewards this year are the crowded green borders not tricked up with the noisy colours of bedding plants. Instead I am enjoying the fulsome green energy of the perennials threaded through with rogue bluebells here and there. Someone once told me that if you live in on ancient woodland then when you leave it to go back to nature then bluebells will pop up everywhere. This seems to be the case here. Normally at this time of year far end of the bar the garden, down the bank -- the more consistently neglected part of the land - is dense with bluebells. But they rarely appear in the more attended to edges and borders. Not so this year. They are in every border, popping up like random commas on a scribbled page.  

One challenge of all this growth is the brambles that run riot in the spaces that have been neglected. These are prickly, wily plants, weaving their way through all the borders - great sinewy snakes that  shout danger from the side-lines. So, I’ve been looking out my leather gloves and secateurs to do battle with these invasive monsters. Unlike the bluebells they are not welcome here. You can see that I am now motivated to get out into the garden to try and control the brambles. So that is real progress for me.

But most important of all I have learnt again to sit in the garden with a cup of tea or a glass of wine in my hand enjoying the seventeen shades of green interspersed up by the occasional Canterbury Bell or the striving  rose or the odd insistent Azalea

My good friend sitting here with me lifts her glass and says, ‘Let’s call it a woodland garden this year and celebrate its natural beauty.’

I’ll drink to that.  

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.Marcus Tullius Cicero


A special note for you: As well as tackling the brambles I have also  been  motivated  to  re-structure and relaunch my website, now called

 Wendy Robertson’s Damselfly Books

There are significant changes. If you have a minute, take a look 

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Writers Beware! WH Auden’s 'Minor Devils'

I am reading and enjoying a whole range of 20th century and earlier poetry as a very pleasurable part of my research for my new novel: Lifespan - A World for Alice. I am perpetually surprised, even stunned, by the prescience of poets who hold the future, the present and the past in their synoptic gaze. Great examples of this are the witty, ironic,  Roman poet Ovid, the inimitable, deceptively down to earth, Ted Hughes,  and the all-seeing WH Auden. 

For example:

Extract from Cattivo Tempo written in 1949  by WH Auden

‘Sirocco brings the minor devils:
A slamming of doors
At four in the morning
Announces they are back,
Grown insolent and fat
On cheesy literature
And corny dramas,
Nibbar, demon
Of gaga and bêtise
Tubervillus, demon
Of gossip and spite.

Nibbar to the writing room
Plausibly to whisper
The nearly fine,
The almost true;
Beware of him, poet
Lest, reading over
Your shoulder, he find
What makes him glad,
The manner arch,
The meaning blurred,
 The poem bad.

Tubervillus to the dining room
Intently to listen,
Waiting for his cue; 
Beware of him, friends,
Lest the lest the talk
at his prompting  
Take a wrong turning,
The unbated tongue
In mischief blurt
the half-home-truth
The fun turn ugly,
The jokes hurt.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Perpetual Brainstorms and Creating a Novel from the Inside Out.

Creating something - whether it’s a story or novel,  a poem  or even a painting - involves creativity not just at the beginning but at every stage.

For this writer the perpetual brainstorm that is daily life  blossoms with dozens of emerging ideas, any of which could grow into a new novel, new short story or – more rarely for me, but sometimes - a poem.

My method is to distil the wild chaos of these ideas into the roughest of lists generated by the brainstorm invading my subconscious.

Once this list exists I start to come across - apparently by accident - sources, resources, poems, myths,  anecdotes, functional tasks, smells, plants, costumes others' experinces, which attach themselves like iron filings to  a magnet to one or other of the ideas 

On the list in my book about writing The Romancer: On Being a Writer, I described   this chaos as a kaleidoscope which, when you
make when you shake it, creates endless patterns and shapes that form up into coherent shapes  even stories. (This coherent mass is important the late, great Julia Darling  used to call it the soup.)

Then, from that fertile and febrile subconscious process, characters start to emerge - it could be ‘a man I once knew’, ‘a woman who in some part is like my mother’, ‘a girl I met in prison’, 'a woman who was too fond of walking', 'a woman who was too fond of men', 'the child who had too much anger', 'child who had too much pain.'

 I leave these people bubbling away in their particular kaleidoscopic fashion as I  settle down now to writel

Then I give some attention to what we all – writers and non-writers - know best -  context. Everyone lives through time through time whether there lifespan is 10 years, 70 years, or 110 years.

This understanding time creates a natural which could be built around e.g.  the life of the nation, the succeeding generations of a family, the life of an individual, a plant,animal or an organism. It is marked by such rites of passage – seasons, catastrophes, wars-world, wars-local, birth, death, murder, miracles, marriage, redundancy, illness, bankruptcy, gaining freedom - all  these phenomena function act as rites of passage for the individual: cusps of change in any and every individual life in any society. Further there are unique individual rites of passage through experiences such as abuse, prison, physical injury, or brilliant discovery

Then somehow, like traces of DNA laid on top of each other, there comes to be a match between the kaleidoscope of a unique life and the people participating in it. Effectively this is fiction. In the making this fiction you create a unique – albeit fictional - lifespan with its own story arc which will resonate and be recognised across a whole population of readers,

This is the way a thousand stories have emerged into modern life -  great mythic poems like Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and the creation  myths and fairy tales from every community across the world which all go to illuminate  our  common human ground.  

Then we have the gifted people who consciously address this human miracle and create story magic that crosses across national boundaries - people such as  Lewis Carroll and Hans Andersen, and poets like Ted Hughs and Seamus Heaney. And the more numerous singers who create lyrics, poets  who create poems, writers who create short stories and novelists  who create their novels. 

In the case of this story-teller  - this point is where my own unique novel starts to evolve: I home in on a certain person in my people-scape, a place in my landscape, a stage in a certain lifespan: all these things crystallise my starting point and I feel able to begin to write.

This convoluted process could take an hour, a day, or a year or indeed a lifetime - even while you are doing something quite else -  such as working on the earlier novel or story.

But you do know the point when you need to start writing this particular story. 

After that -  as my writing friend Avril Joy  and I always say  - you must trust the writing. Don’t abandon the creativity when you actually start writing; don’t hamper the writing with fail-safe planning, or vain attempts at  audience- or market-pleasing.

As you write, be sensitive to the surprises and insights arise on the page in your writing: characters who take their turn at  centre stage until one of them demands a permanent place at the centre; you give them names and perhaps change the names if they’re not happy with them.

The form of your story will begin to emerge. I firmly believe that form always follows inspiration.  Your story starts here and takes shape as you write. From time to time you start to look at where you’ve been in your narrative and you begin to get the sense of where you might be going.

It might take a year or so to become conscious of where you’re going and right on to 
finally arrive at a body of work that just could be your novel.

This is the point where you need a   splurge of another kind creativity. First you need to edit the body of your prose into its best literary heart possible. Choice of absolutely the right word in the right place. (Every word a bullet !) The most illuminating metaphorical inferences. The music of the language. The virtue of this creative editing to the best possible prose  we need to take got this is a central and important point.   We need to take this stage for granted:  the writing itself has got to be good.

 The need to import a sense of shape to help  mould the form of your novel is a creative task in itself. You need to ask yourself some questions.

 Perhaps five questions will be enough:

1.    1 What seems to have emerged as the main strand of meanings in your novel?
2.     What is the journey, the arc of change, in the characters you have created within this novel?
3.     Are here underlying themes that have emerged in the writing – that have kind of snuck up on you?
4.     Are there visceral connections between the different stages in the narrative? (It’s worth considering here the nature of continuity, cause and effect, and reiteration and restatement for emphasis.)
5.     Will your readers trust your storytelling to read to the end?

Shaping A World for Alice

In my new novel Lifespan: a World for Alice my focus is on the years between 1941 and 1951   in the lives (it turns out) of seven very vivid people. Clearly the point of visceral and metaphoric connection throughout the novel is very important so that it moves smoothly forward. It needs to be more transparent than its   multi-layered structure i might imply. It   needs to be smooth and well formed to hook itself into the reader’s  mind to become part of his or her own imagination.

I am quite happy to say that I’m just about at this stage with A World For Alice. 

This manuscript has now been drafted;  edited in transcription from my pen and ink written draft and edited. Now it's needs to be shaped into a recognisable, functional novel which will make sense to the reader. I  completes a whole swathe of editing on the screen but then my mind began to scream for a more graphic tool to facilitate this shaping process.

So, I print  the whole novel. It's now in about its eighth draft. I print off all the pages.  Now what I have is a fairly practical task. I have to deal with the matrix of all my characters living their diverse lives through these years and make it a coherent whole. 

I   consider a method described once by the very original Beryl Bainbridge’s. It seems at this point she would print off the whole manuscript and put each chapter separately on a step of her stairs. Then she  could arrange and rearrange the order  of the chapters perhaps inserting new material until  the sequence and the story worked on every level.

 I  am quite attracted to what sounds like a very practical approach but doubt whether the order would survive in this very inhabited house with people running up and down the stairs several times a day.

So I decide  to use Post It notes and stick   them on  a board in order. Each chapter has its own Post-it Note,  colour-coded in relation to which  character’s narrative predominates that particular chapter.  I put these in vertical lines in a kind of order that I can change around as I re-consider sequencing and shaping.  I can write new material to help with this shaping. I am very pleased with first stage this but then overnight the Post-it notes collapse  into a sticky pile on my work table and make no sense at all.

In desperation I find some stickier coloured labels which I can still move around at will, facilitate my effort to make the whole novel smooth and coherent. This method seems to work. 

Now I have all these changes in order and all the incidental editing inserted as I’ve worked through the rearranged chapters yet again.  The next stage is for  the this order and these changes to go back into the printed document  be printed off again. The benefit of good old computer is crucial at this point. Different from the olden days …

 70,000 words. A  good first lifespan in my trilogy. Just needs a bit more polishing. And a bit more. It seems to be working so far. 

Fingers crossed.

I hope my readers will like A World for Alice. No.  I hope they love it.

A girl like a a girl I met in prison elbowed her way into Paulie's Web


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