Thursday 31 December 2009

An Extraordinary Woman: The Muse At My Shoulder

On New Year’s Eve I take a Celtic delight in the pagan celebration of the end of one year and the anticipative celebration promise of the year to come. This day also was (is?) my mother Barbara’s birthday and I think of her. She was an extraordinary woman.Barbara With Grahame

Although we were (are?) very different personalities, I have inherited many things from Barbara . There is this desire to run away, expressed in the delight in travel. For her, with a family of four to bring up on her own and no resources, this was confined to books, maps and the globe of the world. Then things became just a bit easier and in her fifties she went to Denmark on her own. After that, year by year, she travelled further and further.

I was in my thirties when I started. Paris first. Then Moscow, Then different parts of America. Then Italy. Then the far East. Then New Zealand. Then Poland. Then back to France. Always France.

Being imbued with the Puritan work ethic Barbara would have approved of the fact that much of my travelling has been about the writing of novels. Evidence for this would be the working titles for some of my novels: for example, The Russian Novel (The Self Made Woman) ; the Singapore Novel (Long Journey Home); The Polish Novel (The Woman Who Drew Buildings); The London Novel (The Lavender House). Honesty’s Daughter was, for a time ‘The American Novel’. And my new novel for 2010 is The French Novel (Title still brewing…)

Sadly, Barbara was only here on earth to read my first novel Lizza in printer’s proofs. But in all these travels - in all this writing – she has been at my shoulder.

Although it is fiction, Lizza is based on a fragile sliver of Barbara’s young life.

‘I stayed up all night reading it, love,’ she said, when she read the proofs. ‘Couldn’t stop. Do you know that foreman? Well his real name was …’

It seemed that much of my pure invention was real. Which brings me to another of my bequests from Barbara: some kind of psychic acuity. Her oldest sister was a full blown medium but Barbara herself was highly sensitive. This psychic acuity probably explains why - as I write - I hear my characters talking, see them walking. It could explain the fact that when I’ve written about a place – even a place thousands of miles away - and checked it out later, I find that it’s already there, in my drafting book.

This psychic predisposition is there as a kind of ‘sleeper’ in many of my novels, but with my new ‘French Novel’ I have come out and centred the narrative on the psychic predispositions of my character Starr and the way she relates to space and time. New departure! It’s been great to write.

I’ve benefitted from other bequests from Barbara –a love of the realities of history, a cherishing of the resonance of the spoken word, an innate story telling gene – all these would merit further stories here.

But an important bequest worth mentioning has been Barbara’s role model as a Barbara in Uniform working mother with little regard for the domestic side of life. This has allowed me to write rather than dust, to make stories rather than make the bed. It has stood me in good stead all my working life and been instrumental in the production of so many novels.

However for now the greatest bequest to me is her continuing presence around me and her pleasure, through time, at what has happened in my life – my new novels, my good teaching, my extraordinary family.

Happy Birthday Barbara, dear Mum and extraordinary muse.


PS After I wrote this, I found the Ernest Hemingway quote for my Inspirations (left). Seems to fit.

Thursday 10 December 2009

The Over-Wound Clock

Apologies to good blogging friends for not being around lately. So many things DSCN1107have been crowding in!

I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of our Room To Write week-end conference.  Full of good writers, goodwill and good cheer, it took a lot of planning, preparation and doing -  but was all worthwhile . It seemed that they got a lot out of it .Already some of the participants have signed up for our booster day in the spring. Must be a good sign.

And then – along with Avril – I have been very busy with the final writing stages of the wonderful Easington Tall Tales Project. At the very beginning of this project I said it would be wonderful if we could have ten pieces of work from each of the eight writers. Looking at the final edited haul I see we have eighty items for the book which at l east, means that the average is ten, although some have done more and some less than ten. Styles and times differ.

This is no mean feat. We have funny stories, serious stories, short pieces and great poems from these talented writers: sixty thousand words in all. As well as this we have wonderful photographs, an amazing map drawn by Mavis Farrell, one of the writers, and fabulous drawings by Fiona Naughton whose paintings have featured here on this blog. All this will make a substantial and satisfying book which will illuminate life in this unique place.

We are now deep in the final editing and anthologising process (hard work, that!), then after Christmas the book will be off the printers, being shepherded through the printing process by Gillian Wales, who knows much more than me about these things, having produced several much admired books of her own. By February we will have this lovely book in our hands and will be launching it in this special by the sea. That will be a good gig.

More about that`at the time.

And finally in these last weeks I’ve been buried in the last stages of my French novel which is now at last there. (Hooray!)

Ending a novel is the hardest thing! When do you know it is finished and the story is ended? You go through it so many times and it is still wobbling about,  like a building held together with soft cement. Then there comes a time when you go there again and it’s firm and immoveable, as though this is  what it always was and always will be. There may be things to tinker with and fix, but the novel is sturdy and solid. there. (In the building world here they call this tinkering and fixing snagging. I like that thought.,,)

So this is how I ended up as tight as an over-wound clock, incapable of thinking any fresh thoughts. Certainly not able to write a post for my much loved blog.

But tick-tock, the hands are moving again. This mend has been helped by a few days here in London with Debora and Sean and Barney (dog) and Liberty(cat) and I’m loosening off - something to do with lovely meals, lots of kindly conversation, benevolent barking and lots of purring.

To top it all I’ve just had lunch with my lovely agent, J, who has read my novel and gets it, likes it.  It has its go-ahead: just a very little bit of snagging and my baby will be there adventuring out in the world strutting her stuff.

Now I really am ticking over.

Back soon


Friday 27 November 2009

Where The Wild Things Aren’t

I see from trailer glimpses on television that they’re making a feature film of Maurice Sendak’s superb book Where The Wild Things Are.

I first came across this work of genius – I don’t use that word lightly – a generation ago when I was teaching five to six year olds. In that classroom there were bulging bookshelves and as you can imagine there were lots of story times – virtually on the hour every hour.

One day a little boy brought me Where The Wild Things Are so I could read it to him and his friend. The book was new to me. I turned the pages and admired the subtle and wonderful colours, the restrained, powerful language. But then I looked with concern at the alarming figures – The Wild Things – that dominate the book. They are great gargoyles with legs – each with its own alarming identity.

‘Go on! Read it!’ says the little boy, his eyes shining. ‘You’ll like it! You’ll like Max!’

It is Max’s story. He stands there defiantly on the page wearing what looks like a white Babygro (called a wolf suit) complete with hood and horns and the smug half-smiling face of a revolutionary. My five year old boys recognise him as one of themselves. We see Max raging around in his wolf suit harassing the dog with a fork and hear his mother tell him he’s a wild thing and send him to bed without his supper.

His round face tells us of his outrage at this indignity. He will not be cowed. Then in his bedroom a forest grows around his bed with an ocean lapping at its edge. (See the book to see how wonderfully Sendak evokes this…) Max, our hero, ventures into this forest and rows a boat across the ocean to the land where the Wild Things are. And here they all are! Sendak treats us to a full double spread of the monstrous wild things.

The boys beside me watch my reaction and laugh and chortle, their fingers on the wild things. When I look closer I see why. These creatures are indeed grotesque and superficially terrible and Max is very small beside them. However they are also great, gallumphing, jolly creatures and before long Max – still with the smug-hero look on his face – is their king, complete with crown over the ears of his wolf suit.

He has a fine time lording over their games but becomes tired and a bit hungry and makes for home. When he gets home the forest in his bedroom dissolves and his supper is there on the table and it is still hot.

I have to tell you I replaced that book several times in that classroom. The successive copies became worn out with sheer loving use. These small children did not need me to read it to them as it tells its own story on their terms. Some learned to read through it. One doesn’t need to be a psychiatrist or a developmentalist to note that it fit their stage in life like a key in a lock. Burgeoning power, frustrating impotence, powerful imagination, unknown worlds to conquer, the need to be loved, the need have some control – all these are bundled together in this beautiful book for the child internalise without interfering adult explanation or intervention.

As I said, it’s a work of genius.

Now this work of genius has been transformed into a film just in time for Christmas. But, I see from TV trailers this this Max is an older adventurer. He swashes and buckles rather than sits there on the page with his smug-revolutionary baby face. The Wild Things here seem cartoonesque, over- characterised. There is music, dialogue. And worst of all there is no bedroom-forest! Apparently Maurice Sendak objected to this but he had to agree to disagree and the forest was out!

The book, in short, has been de-magicked. Whereas the book is a thing that reflects and respects a small child’s inner world and can be absorbed by a child in his own time and space, the film is yet another example of adult colonisation of a piece of children’s magic for more complex un-childlike ends.

Some would say film is another kind of art and will bring more people to read Sendak’s wonderful book. I say the perpetrators should be sent to bed without their supper…


Friday 20 November 2009

Light In Winter

Winter is a good time for writing. Dark days, dark thoughts, dark feelings drive you inwards in search of light, magic and adventure. Sunday 13 102

My new novel* found it’s birth in late spring days in French Languedoc when there were still wild flowers on the byways and the riverbanks. By eleven o’clock in the old town of Agde the deep shadows of the tall buildings offered relief from the sun climbing to its mid-day zenith.

And out of this heat, out of these shadows, out of time, came my story.

So now here at home it’s my delight to escape our dark northern November and re-enter that Southern world of bright light and 189 deep shade, of an old world and a new one, as I hammer away at the final draft of my new novel.

I’m often asked how many drafts a novel goes through: a question hard to answer in these technological days.

There is the handwritten draft, then the transcription draft, when the novel really evolves. After that there may be all kinds of changes as I go through the story again and again. This may involve shipping around chapters and paragraphs to tighten the structure, adjusting events to meet to the internal logic of the story, taking out characters, putting new ones in their place, replacing prose with dialogue to increase the pace, replacing dialogue with prose to render some reassuring distance and clarity for the reader. (How much one thinks of the reader in these final drafts!) Wednesday Agde 047

How many drafts? Three? Ten? hard to tell in these days when redrafting is mostly done on the computer and does not involve painful retyping at each stage much recourse to SnoPake. My modern way might involve four printed off copies to see how the changes work on the page but these are the result of eight or ten ‘redrafts’ on the screen.

The first drafts involve great inspiration and intuitive story- making, along with the creative melding of research into a real but invented world. But these last drafts are intricate, detailed exercises in both the writer’s and editor’s craft to make sure my readers ‘get’ my idea and enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Soon it will be done and off to my agent Juliet just in time for me to dust ofStreet Scenes 002f the tree and make some winter light of my own...


* I have at last found a title, but as yet it is a secret…


Sunday 15 November 2009

A Question of Taste or a Question of Sex?

Last week, invited by writer Peg Gardner, I spent a delightful afternoon with Blyth Writers and readers. This group has the excellent idea that they should meet to support each others’ writing on three Thursdays, then meet as a reading group on the fourth Thursday.How great. I’m always telling writers that they don’t read enough. It’s like aiming to be a chef and not bothering to taste.

An even greater pleasure was that they had all read one of my novels – The Lavender House – and some had read several of them. They seemed to enjoy my deconstruction of the writing of Lavender House and generally yarning about writing and the process of publication. They asked shrewd and insightful questions and the time raced by.

Within a day I had a lovely letter from Peg, full of humbling praise. She goes on. ‘Even the men, who say LH is ‘not their kind of novel’ all agree that it is very well written and they very much enjoyed your talk.

Even the men! There we have it – sex rearing its inevitable head on relation to taste in reading. We’d touched on it in the afternoon when we were discussing the research I do for my novels (lots…)

That was when I came out with my mantra of how much I hate to see research hanging around in novels like washing on a line.

I love the hard work of research whose purpose is to inspire my imagination into a subtle apprehension of a particular time, a place or a culture, so that I can hear my characters’ voices in the proper register, so that I can share their concerns about the wide and narrow worlds in which they live.

The purpose of research for me is not to put wadges of pre-digested historical or technical information on the page for my readers to learn something without the pain of study. I did mention to the group that I thought that male readers rather went for that kind of thing: just how a gun or a chemical process works; how the neglected Gnostic Gospels tell us more about early Christianity; how men sailed warships in the seventeenth century…

A couple of the men nodded when I said that. Perhaps it was not quite the compliment they thought.

I think there are wonderful sources in history, religion, science and technology. There are amazing real life letters, diaries and biographies of great (and terrible!) men and women which give us all the information we could wish for, in a logically reasoned context. I read these in my research and for fun. Some of my readers go to such sources when aspects of my story have piqued their interest. But the novel is not a learning tablet. It’s not a proper place for these chunks of information.

Novels are about the dilemma and intricacy of human relationships. They are about the impact of events on the human soul. They are as intricate as a ticking clock and reverberate with the challenges of crossroads and paths not taken. They make a virtue of surprise and a vice of what is left unspoken. This is as true of novels labelled historical as it is of more contemporary novels where the motivations are perhaps more familiar.

And if this is what women write and women read, fair enough. I love my readers. (In passing, it’s worth noting that are very good male writers who share these ‘womanish’ traits – E M Forster and Ian McEwen come to my mind at this moment.)

I’m delighted to say that I do get nice letters from male readers - some say my novel was lying around because their wife or sister had it in the house – who seem to get what I am about and don’t worry that I omit 'important' information about the particular spec of the warships during the fall of Singapore, or the savage technicalities of crime in 1960s London.

I wouldn’t have brought all this back to mind had I not had that delightful afternoon in Blyth.

Thank you for that, Peg.


Tuesday 10 November 2009

Fifteen Steps to Writers' Heaven at Whitworth Hall.

I often say that the only thing writers have in common is that they write. They are wonderfully various – committed, funny, serious, Whitworth 012 obsessive, original, bitter, manic in turn.

I spent last week-end surrounded by them at our first Room To Write conference at Whitworth Hall, a gorgeous small hotel in the middle of a deer park. The RoomToWrite idea was inspired by our own experience and that of a the number of writers we’ve met who say if only I had the time… or if only I had the space…

What, said Avril, Gillian and I , if we provided the place and inspired the writers to clear the time? Then we could provide something that might just change an aspiring writer’s life.

So we –and these fourteen writers – had two (very) full days thinking, talking, reflecting on writing - particularly long original writing. We talked about observation, about engaging the senses in one’s writing, about developing characters, about the daunting task of Whitworth 015 conceiving and tackling the architecture of the novel. We talked about how we need to change our reading habits and begin to read as a writer, admiring the skills of good writers and incorporating some of them into our own writer’s skill-set.

The setting was beautiful and the Saturday morning was Whitworth 009brilliant – flat autumn sunshine catching raindrops of the recent rain; fallen leaves soaking to darker brown in the grass. So the Fifteen Steps Exercise, invented by Avril and myself proved to be inspirational.

This was the Fifteen Steps brief:

Walk for half an hour and every fifteen steps stop, make a close observation and add to a list in your notebook(no sentences – words and very short phrases please). Move close in where necessary. You can note a tiny detail like the trembling of a leaf, or a large event - like deer cantering towards you or the sweep of the clouds in the sky. Whitworth 011 Remember to use all five senses. You may wish to take the opportunity to use metaphor and simile. Come back and write for half an hour, a piece of prose based on your list, perhaps with some allusions to your current big writing project.

The writing that emerged was exceptional – particularly so with people who were writing outside their normal comfort zone. And we remarked that the Fifteen Step Method could be used to great effect in a city market, in a factory, at a railway station, on a wild estate. It is not confined to a beautiful deer park.

And the writers were spoiled! The Whitworth people were splendid - the working lunches, afternoon teas, the breakfasts and the dinner were extra special. The highlight was the Saturday evening where four eminent authors dined with us, and shared their insights and experiences with these new writers. The beautiful room buzzed with talk and laughter.

They say the bedrooms were lovely too. But I ran home to my own bed late on Saturday night only to get up again at the crack of dawn recharged, energised for another great day.

One of many good bi-products of the week-end was the sense that friendships were being made here, that mutual support was being fostered in this good atmosphere – the breaking down of that sense of isolation that many of our writers mentioned in their first notes to us.

And they are so kind! A sample from Monday morning’s mail…

Dear Wendy, Avril and Gillian… What can I say? The weekend was wow!! Thank you all so much for your wisdom, imagination and attention to detail….It is Monday morning now and I wish I was still with you all in that lovely room! Jackie x Whitworth 014

Whitworth 020

Dear Gillian …Just a short email to convey my great appreciation to you, Wendy and Avril for running such an inspirational and well organised week-end; it was incredibly informative, yet great fun for everyone who attended. Michael

Whitworth 021 Dear Wendy, Avril, Gillian, RoomtoWrite proved spacious - capacious, palatial, expansive,open. And every other meaning of the word…Thank you for a really memorable weekend. All the expectation boxes ticked and all due to your hard work and commitment and plain willingness to not spare yourselves to make it a success….It was good to meet other like-minded folk in such a lovely place and learn from the interaction. I like hearing other people read their work - Can't wait for March. Thank you all very much … Erica

Whitworth 018They say organising writers is like herding cats. So I thought you might like to see Gillian, who organised us all with subtle elegance throughout this fascinating weekend.

What more is there to say?


Just – as Anne urged – that there will be a RoomToWrite ‘booster charge’ in March 2010, and another full conference in November 2010.

Everyone out there is welcome as long as the list holds out …

Post Scriptum: This came from Erica Yeoman who was there…

Whitworth Hall Fifteen Steps

Hazel brown nutcase open

Seed gone

Rock hard protection obsolete now.

Green lichen softens the fallen branch

Cold ,damp whiff of decay

But lingering sweetness.

Steps, leaf-strewn, Like thick rug waiting to trip


Down to cupola' Elegant relict.

Wrought iron swirls

Pattern the sky

Capping the tapered columns.

A cold stone bench

Holds crinolines and jean-covered legs.

A low November sun filters

Seen and not felt

Unlike the figures that tread

As light as the deer

Poised and arrogant.

A sudden sound breaks their nonchalance.

When it has passed

The animals strut again.

Disturbance is but season change

Summer yellow rose

Protests its permanence.

Yet the petals will fall into place

Optimism, inbred knows

Come next year it will flower again.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

Morning Creativity and Dreaming Up Projects

I love those times in the morning when my mind wakes up before my body. In those long minutes my mind is full of words. Sometimes the words are thoughts about the novel I’m working on, decisions made. I asked myself this morning whether Starr, dripping wet now in her Pentecost clothes, should go back along the canal to the boat, or walk up into the town to the Maison d’Estella. I decided on the latter

Sometimes the words are actual prose that might go straight into the novel. Fire. Water. Darkness. She wondered vaguely of this was what death was really like. That went straight into the draft. Sometimes I hear dialogue - Starr talking to young Thibery; Modeste talking about his cures; the way the Empress addresses Starr. I hear not just the words but the register in which each person speaks. Of course this all gets into the draft and is developed as the story evolves in a more conscious daytime mode.

The temptation here is to say that I am in a trance at htat time of day and that I am in mystic communication with my characters. More probably I've been imagining characters and inventing so many stories for so long that a special bit of the brain is hyper-efficient and supple and works on my stories in the night.

But this process does not just apply to stories. It applies to articles and other prose stuff that might be preoccupying me. It also crucially applies to projects that I dream up and put into action.

A propos - apart from the above interventions, story making has been somewhat left behind this week as there are two huge projects to preoccupy the sleeping and the making mind: the Easington Tall Tales Project Project and the Room To Write Weekend

The Easington work is coming on a storm – sixty thousand words of stories and poems invented and created by the Easington writers in response to the inspiration of that amazing area, that wonderful community and that unique culture. Looking through the work I can see the enormous progress the writers have made in these months and I wake up thinking the book emerging from this work will. in its own way, be groundbreaking. So sometimes I wake up literally hearing the stories of Susan, Chris, Mavis, Agnes, Joan. Terry, David and Mary in my head.

This week Avril and I have been reviewing images to go in the book with artist Fiona Naughton, who has spent days across at Easington looking, noting and photographing. And then days at home drawing and painting possible images for the book. She spent one good day with Mavis Farrell (a member of the group and herself a photographer) as Mavis knows all the secret places important to some of the stories. So now I am waking up with images of a possible book cover in my head and pages of great prose counterpointing Fiona’s sensitive drawings and dramatic photographs.

So tomorrow (Thursday) in the group we will review all their work and finally choose a title. Avril and I think that a title should emerge from the range of poems in our collection. Some great words there. Perhaps I will wake up in the morning and see the cover illustrated by Fiona’s painting of the coastal path by the beach, complete with the title (whatever it may be) subtitled by Tall Tales from Easington Writers …

And the Room To Write Weekend? Well I've been dreaming and thinking and planning that for nearly a year now. And now it's imminent. My feeling is that with all this thinking and dreaming and planning it could be a success, not least because it’s the work of three dreamers - Avril, Gillian and Me.

I will post all about that here after the week-end - there could be lots to say….


Friday 30 October 2009

Extraordinary Perceptions In Blaydon


 Blaydon 004

At the invitation of the indefatigable and inspired Dot Cameron, Reader Development Librarian at Gateshead Council  I go to Blaydon Library to talk to thirty odd readers – two reading groups and one community group - to talk about my books, writing and the important role  of reading in the lives of people with sight impairment. 

Dot carefully explains that they always used the term ‘reading’ although  most of these readers encounter written literature through audiotapes, CDs, MP3 players and Braille editions. Luckily all my novels are on tape or CD so are available to these readers.

The sheer task of gathering these groups together is challenging and we sweat a bit as one group is delayed in their bus by a traffic stop.

But now we are gathered. They are mostly silver hairs and the oldest it 93. But age doesn’t matter here - the comments and DSC00225[1]questions are as sharp as any I have had from any audience. But clearly they anticipate a good show and give close attention.

As I say later to Dot, it is a challenging gig. It’s  a different task to interact here where non-verbal clues and cues to meaning are not available.  I find myself being more dramatic (melodramatic?)  Blaydon 006 gin tone and regretting my redundant flailing arms and rolling eyes.

Nevertheless these very interesting people indicate their interest in all kinds of ways and are a very satisfying audience. The  questions are great and their interest is evident.  Many of them have read and liked my novels. It’s odd to think that the landscapes I have painted, the dramas I have enacted in my novels have been almost entirely appreciated through hearing the words rather than seeing them.

Most of them have lost their sight in latter years but Ann Ruddick is different. She is a lynchpin of AIRS  which, under the auspices of Gateshead Council's library service, offers a free regular talking newspaper service to local residents, accessible library and Blaydon 001 a information services, and a range of transcription services to local and national information providers.

Last year Ann was awarded an MBE for her voluntary service to visually-impaired people. Ann, originally a teacher by profession, now focuses her considerable energies on voluntary work with  people with sight impairment. She is very much in charge at these meeting – talking to people, helping them take their seats,  worrying about the late-comers, making sure people are getting their cup of tea and helping to clear afterwards. She has previously been busy on the phone checking up on people who could come and arranging transport. She works on email with a specially adapted system.Blaydon 001  u

This is all achieved with the help of her beautiful dog Pippa, as  Ann herself was blind from birth. She explains to me the difference between herself and some of the people here who become blind later in life. ‘They have their memory of the look of things to guide them. It’s different for me.’

There is a lot of laughter and insightful discussion.  We talk about the importance of the actresses who read these whole unabridged editions of my novels – both for me as a writer and for them as readers. I tell them the story of Anne Dover,  very fine actress, who has read some of my novels and manages the range of accents  and the light and darks shades of the narrative with consummate skill. Last year Anne contacted me to sound-source some Hungarian words and phrases in Sandie Shaw and The Millionth Marvell Cooker.  Then she emailed me to say she had found someone, now back in Hungary, to whom she could talk. She is a stickler for detail. This was very much appreciated by this particular group.

(In January Anne will be recording the CD for The Woman Who Drew Buildings. There are Polish words to think about there…)

My favourite comment of the day is from the nice man who says. ‘I read The Long Journey Home and as I read it I thought it was so real that this writer must have been there in Singapore and experienced these things, or she is a brilliant re searcher. I think now it must be the latter…’

I love it! We writers are very needy…

Dot Cameron emails me the next day that they have had phone calls saying how much people enjoyed the session.  Hooray!

Thank you Dot for inviting me. As always I learned a lot.



Tuesday 27 October 2009

Desert Islands and Prison Life : Two Posts in One…


The Event seemed to go very well. The room was full of interested people and Durham City Arts Director Alison Redshaw – vision in her clothes of many colours – had everything in hand. The Durham Book Festival has started with a bang and our event was one cracker of the evening.

Librarian Charlie Darby Villis talked eloquently about the potent and dynamic role of books and reading in prison life. In fact without his hard work this year none of this would have happened)

Avril Joy talked passionately about her commitment to the women and her deep understanding of the social and political dilemma of women in prison. Then she read from her ne novel Bad Girl. (She had read from it yesterday in prison and the women loved it).

Then Richard Walker Hardwick gave his take on teaching original writing to the men in a high security prison. He read from his novel, Kicked Out which emerged from his work in shelters and hostels for homeless young people. The way he catches the voice of his young protagonist is uncanny.

Then me! I mostly stuck to my proposed script (below) and read from Knives and The Woman Who Drew Buildings (Extracts below here…)

Then Derek Sanders, Head of Learning and Skills gave his views on the technology of literacy and learning provision inside Low Newton.

The highlight of the evening was the interlinking performance, by professional actresses Zoe Lambert and Libby Davison (directed by Tess Denman Cleaver), mostly sampling some of the excellent work in the book we produced inside The Self Revealed. Through these two actresses the voices of the women we were all talking about came eerily into this studio theatre in the middle of the city of Durham.

Afterwards there were some interesting questions – not excluding the question from one gentlemen about the ‘bad’ language used both in the women’s writing and our own. It was a very interesting question, though to debate this crucial issue of authenticity, self, mutual respect and the link between fact and fiction would have taken a whole other meeting…

Earlier: What I thought I would say at a talk given as part of a panel at the Gala Theatre at the Durham Book Festival 2009:

‘Being a writer in Residence in any prison is to walk and work on the margins of society and the esoteric margins within the prison environment. We are outsiders who can only achieve anything if empathise with the prisoners in an environment where over-empathising with prisoners can be seen as perverse.prison etc 006

We experience - as do permanent staff - the borderland between freedom and incarceration. The fact that we come through the gates at the end of the day does not obviate the fact that for six or more hours we have not been free to act intuitively; to speak off the top of our heads; to hug a person who has made us laugh; to swap gossip about our history, our homes, our lovers and our children.prison etc 005

In this environment we have to create a desert island of personal freedom and invite the people we meet – staff as well as prisoners – to join us there. The treasures on my island include great books to read and the opportunity to write out of one’s boots, to write hot, and write well. The nice thing is that all you need is a pen and a notebook and you can take them back to your pad.prison etc 004

I think that inside or outside prison everyone can learn how to write well, and will certainly write better if they write a lot, with a waiting audience and a willing collaborator in mind.

In my residency totalling five years ( a stretch of three and a stretch of two) there emerged hundreds of pieces of writing from a wide range of women, a selection of which survive in dozens of pamphlets and leaflets culminating in two books Why Am I Running? And The Self Revealed. prison etc 002 These are permanent records of what can seem an ephemeral sometimes unaccountable experience. Paradoxically this very free activity ticks many boxes in a box-ticking society.

During that time as well as the books we wrote a radio play. One woman, now safely back in China, wrote a short story that was broadcast by the BBC. One woman used her writing collection to illustrate her state of mind which helped to secure more appropriate sentencing. We participated in the international Changing Lives Through Literature Project. We invented the first Litfest Inside, where the women worked with seven published writers in fourteen days. We had two performances of women’s work to insiders and outsiders. We initiated a shadow Orange Project where women, read discussed and reviewed the shortlisted books for the Orange Prize. And so on.

The most wonderful thing was that for a few hours a day we could inhabit our Desert Island and remind ourselves of our unique humanity and remember we were citizens of the world…’

Extracts Read From Knives Short Story CollectionkNIVES 002

‘…So lets get back to this screaming of brakes. This noise of traffic in my ear. The lions roaring like people. The people growling like lions. And this girl! Her hand was digging in my shoulder. I could hardly see her through the haze, but she I knew from the very scent of her she was young. What was she saying? …

2 Extract from The Woman Who Drew Buildings: woman who drew 2 (2) 

‘… But prison had succeeded where Sam with all his cocky charm had failed. Inside prison, smoking tobacco was the least-worst thing you could do to numb the pain, to while away the time….Of course prison had been a shock, terrifying. But in the end it was not so hard as Adam first feared. The worst thing was being warehoused and moved around like an object, with no sovereignty over your body, your possessions, or your daily routines. The fear inside those places was not about what happened but about what might happen: that something bad might happen even when in the end it didn’t. Dark tales and myths about what had happened to others in this same place flew about the place like black moths. Being suspended in such uncertainty could twang the steadiest of nerves and in the end he learned that a smoke could steady the nerves…’

Friday 23 October 2009

The Girl Who Was Punished For Reading

When I was young, for reasons clear to regular readers of Reading 001 these posts, I was a book worm. Well, not so much a book-worm as a book-dragon. Once I discovered that it was possible to escape into a book I was hooked.

What was I escaping from? Well, start with a drab house, a stressed mother, bullying at school, arms and face too long, hands too big, hand-me-down clothes, sparse meals…

From such a place I could escape to a ranch in Canada, a long treck in China, a Scottish farm, a Spanish hacienda, a Danish castle, a house called Manderlay, a sailing boat, or a boarding school in Surrey. Adventure, colour, drama, comedy and tragedy were at my finger tips at the turn of a page. It was fan-tastic. On reflection, my life then could define the term escapism.

Nowadays there is a school of thought that disadvantaged children should be offered literature that validates and reflects their own environment.* There are good examples of this. We have novels Reading 006 like those of David Almond or Alan Garner that might do this in a way sufficiently complex and multilayered to be of interest right across - and up and down- the snakes-and-ladder board of class and culture.You may have your own favourites that fit this bill.

In those days, though, I did not look in literature for what I already knew; I looked for what I could wonder about: sumptuous rooms, tea on the table and a smiling mother, picnics in the dorm, trekking in the wastes of Canada, murderous wives and predatory widowers, love beneath the oleander tree, walking with a hundred Chinese children to safety, delivering lambs on a Scottish hillside, assassinating kings and sailing with my comrades down Coniston Lake

Reading 003 So far, so escapist. But in so escaping I discovered for myself the universals of emotional, political and social life far beyond the confines of that small house in that small town. I now feel certain that this level of escapism ensures that - in tune with the Bronte sisters - though one’s domestic life might be contained, the spirit can roam free and the soul is never parochial.

However, being a book-dragon was not without drawbacks. One day at school, escaping the dining hall clatter of plates and voices onto Crusoe’s Desert Island, I was pulled up by my red-haired German teacher.

‘What are you doing there, Wendy?’Reading 005

‘Reading, Miss.’

‘Two hundred lines! I must not read at the dinner table.’

I must not read at the dinner table

I must not read at the dinner table

I must not read at the dinner table

I do now…


Reading 004

* (Afterthought. Of course there was all of D H Lawrence in which I did recognise aspects of my own life. And I did encounter The Family From One End Street written and illustrated by Eve Garnett, a charming and romanticised version of working class life which no more resembled my own than did The Forsyte Saga… )

Sunday 18 October 2009

Boody, Gaudi, and The Drowned Land

I was nine years old when I came to the North to live and it wasboody 004 Shadowy like coming onto a different planet. People were hard to understand. It was not just the accent or dialect, it was attitudes and assumptions. People were difficult to read. The confusion must have been mutual because my older brother was beaten at school, harassed because of his ‘poncy’ southern accent, and sensibly reverted to the local lingo in weeks. I didn’t suffer because I was frozen with confusion and possibly dumb with grief at my father’s recent death. I spoke very little.

The domestic arrangements took some adjusting to. We stayed at first in my relative’s spotless house where the bath was tin and lived on a hook in the yard and the toilet was across the public back lane. I soon discovered that this toilet  was a place of escape, of silence. I could sit on the high throne and read, eat stolen sweets, or just muse about how terrible my life was.

One day I was sitting there and my eye moved upwards to a high shelf above the door. On it were two large, glass jam jars.  I clambered up to snatch ne so I could see it properly. Someone had filled it with shards of coloured glass,  bright stones, broken, patterned pottery, and seashells. boody 003 full size  Holding it up in the beam of light streaming through a crack in the wooden door, I thought it was beautiful.

Later I asked my cousin what the jars were.

He looked annoyed. ‘Yeh shouldn’a looked,’ he said.

‘Why not?’ I said with unusual persistence.

‘’S’a secret.’

‘What is it for?’ I said.

‘It’s not for anything,’ he said scornfully. ‘It’s boody. It just is. And it’s a secret. It’s always secret. Yeh have ter hide it.’ He punched my arm. ‘Yeh tell nobody!’ Then he ran off to kick a hard leather ball with his friends.

The boody jars were a great resource for me in the following difficult months of adjustment. I would take them down and hold them up in the stream of light and feel comforted. I never questioned the name. Boody jars were boody jars.

Years later I started to reflect on them. The name, I decided, could come from two sources. Boody could be a childish name for beautiful. It also called up the notion of booty – war chest items seized by force or looting on land, or by piracy by sea. Come to think of it, that fits the tradition of secrecy - hiding the haul.

I think now that because the booboody 001dy jars consoled me at a difficult time of my life the image  of them has stayed with me. I even have my own boody jar on a shelf in my upstairs, inside toilet. It’s not a jam jar, just an old glass vase that was hanging around.

When I was in Barcelona some years ago and saw the Gaudi wall in the Parc Gruell, I instantly thought of Antoni Gaudi Guell Park - mosaic seating area adorned with multi-coloured tilesthe boody jars. These gorgeous curving walls are faced with a mosaic of broken pottery tesselated into intricate, almost random, patterns. I was told that the workmen were given the pottery shards and they improvised the patterns, but I don’t know whether that it’s true. I like the idea of the democracy of artists and that explanation might explain the walls’ childlike appeal.

Then this June I visited the Abbaye de Valmagne in the Languedoc.  Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries this Cistercian P1160139edifice was one of the richest abbeys in South of France. Here, as well as acquiring fine church artefacts and church based gold  the monks  grew plants to feed themselves, to cure illness and  flowers to decorate the altar of the Virgin Mary altar.

Then in 1875 the Huguenots sacked the abbey and killed the monks.  All the stained glass of the roses and clerestories were shattered.

The abbey was slowly restored, but after the Revolution in 1789  it was ransacked agaiP1160137n, this time by revolutionaries. The last five monks fled and the church was sold off as a wine store.  Paradoxically  the huge vats that were lodged  the nave and side chapels, saved the fabric of this great building from destruction.  As in England, deserted abbeys were commonly used as stone quarries to build houses and more mundane buildings..

Fast forward  to 1988,   1998, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2005 when there was serious flooding in the Gard and HéraP1160135 Boodyult  regions of France. The French use the word inondation which has a very biblical feel about it.

Anyway, during these floods very fine fragments of  the Abbey’s first medieval shattered glass began to come to the surface. Over the years an artist collected them until he had sufficient to make this beautiful glass panel which, back lit, allows us to see through that same exquisite glass as did those early medieval monks.

And now I wonder if - through the years, as he slowly collected his bits of glass –  the artist kept them in boody jars, colour coded. 

"Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it." -

Tuesday 13 October 2009

The Myths of Writer’s Block and ‘Daily Pages’

DSCN0309 Writers’ pathways are interesting. Accounts of the writer’s lives in Writer’s Magazines and Sunday Supplements are compelling reading for interested readers and for those on a similar pathway towards publication or merely towards coherent and public self expression.

The inspiration, the daily writing habits, the search for a voice, the accidental meetings that make a difference, the early struggles … one could go on. Bedded in there are myths that are hard to shake off. Roald Dahl and Daphne du Maurier in their respective garden huts; JKRowling in relative poverty sitting writing in a café: these can inspire notions that ‘… if I have a a garden hut, if I write in cafés I too could produce, James and the Giant Peach, or Rebecca or Harry Potter…’ Dreaming of course. But it’s very proper for a writer to dream.

Another myth (or anti-myth?) is that of writer’s block – written about robust charm recently by 60 Going on 16. I’m known among my friends for believing that writer’s blocks are self derived myths based on physical or mental exhaustion, dearth of ideas, not enough reading, writing being given a low priority in a writer’s life or a writer’s deep lack of enjoyment in the writing process itself.

I have to admit, though, that in this last week this idea has given me pause for thought as for some scary days I have not been able to get to my day job – writing this new novel. To other writers I airily say Don’t worry, it’s not writer’s block – it’s a fallow time! your subconscious is working on it! your brain is shrieking for a rest! Not an easy thing to say to yourself , when you imagine you have literally lost the plot.

But yesterday to my great relief I got back to my story to discover the time had been fallow, the soil had enriched itself, my subconscious had been working on it, my brain had enjoyed its overdue rest. The plot was found again.

The other myth that abounds out there in Writingworld is the myth of ‘daily pages’, generated with honest intent by writing gurus such as Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. In this world, writing a few pages of anything each day is a panacea for all writers ills - ‘writer’s block’, lack of ideas, lack of self belief …

In fact it is a good idea gone wild. At it’s best it can bed down a habit of broaching your subconscious, and is a useful beginning down the writer’s road. At its worst it can be a compensatory activity which is self-limiting: the shell without the grit of discipline, structure, and purposeful imagination that can produce decent writing.

What it is, is a good idea to be used rather than to be a place of rest, as though your randomised internal language is a cosy arm chair where you can doze instead of waking to the original writer that you can be.

My own favourite guru source is Dorothea Brande’s 1933 book On Becoming A Writer. I discovered this through the recommendation of John Braine in the introduction to one of his novels. I managed to obtain a copy of her book (though it was out of print…) , to be transfixed by its contents. I must have been part of a turning tide, as it was reissued in the next year and remains popular.

On Becoming a Writer is a simple two or three hour read, inspirational in tone, American in style, which makes you immediately was to get out your notebook and write. She advocates writing early in the morning when you are still in the sleep-wake mode; she says writing anything that comes to your head for half an hour, even if it is only I don’t want to be sitting here writing I don’t want to be setting here writing. It works. And from this concept - borrowed effectively by Goldberg, Cameron et al - comes the concept, now widespread, of ‘daily pages’.

But the best part of the Dorothea B concept - her twenty one day exercise – is often smudged to the sidelines.

Here is my version of the Twenty One Day Exercise

  • write a single daily page for twenty one days. It’s important that you do not look back to yesterday’s page. Forge on.
  • For twenty one days you write on a fresh page and do not look back.
  • After twenty one days you make an hour or so at any time of day and read through what you have written with respect, as though your were reading someone else’s work.
  • Then you read through again and make notes, because here you will find clues to - the kind of writer - the subject matter that preoccupies you - your normal vocabulary - your fundamental style.
  • Take three paragraphs or sets of twenty lines from your daily pages and develop them into three separate pieces of writing. Could be a short story, first chapter of a novel, or a poem.
  • Now work on these to some kind of conclusion for the next twenty one days.
  • Work on. Return to the twenty one day cycle every now and then to refresh your inspiration.
  • Don’t get into an eternal habit of daily pages that taps off all your inspiration and motivation and stops you writing for real.

If I hadn’t ‘found the plot’ again, I’d have turned back to Dorothea B ….


I have seen this method turn tentative writers into proper writers and existing writers into more honest, original writers.

Give it a go. You never know where it may lead….


Friday 9 October 2009

Hélène Cixous on Writing and Reading

Loving all things - well, most things - French, my eye was caught byHelan Cixoux 001 Hélène Cixous’s book Rootprints, Memory and Lifewriting, a perceptive treatise on her ideas, her fiction and her essays. The book is in translation (Mireille Calle-Gruber) with whom there is a (very) long interview. As well as this the ideas are grounded in philosophical thought, so it is a hard read. But buried in there are some great gems – food for thought for writers and readers alike.

(NB The quaint syntax is possibly down to the translation, possibly not…)

Hélène Cixous on

The position of writing

The initial position is a leaving oneself go, leaving oneself sink to the bottom of the now. This presupposes a conscious belief in something, a force and materiality that will come, manifest itself, an ocean, a current that is always there, that will rise and carry me. It is very physical.

Where I begin to write, that’s what it is, it is physical…

As for reading: reading feels to me like a making love, the string element in reading is the ‘leaving oneself (be) read’, to be read by the text…

I was tempted to transliterate it into my kind of English but its very strangeness is arresting, makes one concentrate on untangling what she really means.

Helan Cixoux 002

Just a thought


Thursday 8 October 2009

The Semi-Colon, Knives and Collectable Books

Jeremy rang one day to say he was enjoying my short story kNIVES001_thumb3collection Knives* ‘… and I wanted to ask you, Wendy , about a novel by R C Hutchinson that’s mentioned in one of the short stories.’

This short story, Married Life? is a forensic, possibly comic, examination of the long marriage between Imogen and her husband Freddie. Submissive wife Imogen has finally broken out, visited India and made new friends.

…Imogen's new friends considered her very special and treated her tenderly. After six weeks she came back with a notebook full of contact addresses all over the world and some wonderful photographs. Freddie barely glanced at them. He was not interested in these wonders. After all he had not been there. And anyway he’d just acquired a first edition R C Hutchinson in an Edinburgh Oxfam shop. He gloated about it to Imogen. Now that he had every edition of every one of Hutchinson's masterpieces, he could relax…

On the phone Jeremy said he himself had a book by R C Hutchinson and didn’t realise they were collectable.

In fact, many years ago, I actually did know a man who collected RC Hutchinson and had all his first editions. This man even gave me his spares and I now have many – not all – R C Hutchinsons and a few first editions.

Who is this writer? you say. In his time Ray Coryton Hutchinson (1907-1975), was a best selling novelist in the class of post-Edwardian novelists such as H E Bates. He became a fellow of the Royal Society Of Literature, won the WHSmith Literary award in 1966, and was on the Booker shortlist for his posthumously published novel A Child Possessed.

Only connect! Just yesterday I saw that Faber’s inspired new print-on-demand initiative, Faber Finds, is including on their list R C Hutchinson’s Testament, first published in 1939. Set in Russia, the story is structured around the evolving relationship of two very different men - on street corners, on the battlefield, in Russian salons and in prison camps. According to the Faber pitch ‘it is a novel steeped with political ideals, with philosophical truths, and with personal heroism.’ According to me, it’s a well researched, rollicking read with great characters, from a great craftsman. It also looks good in this restrained, handsome edition.

So, in the afternoon I was lurking by my bookshelves and my hand fell on Hutchinson’s novel Elephant and Castle, (A novel set in London; I love London-set novels.) The acknowledgement list alone is a quirky rendering of R C Hutchinson’s London in 1948, the time of writing of this novel.

The opening lines of chapter one of Elephant and Castle - which would never survive the counter-pedantic eagle eye of front line editors in today’s publishing - is a miracle of grammar and syntax which could be an exemplar for any aspiring writer who is confused about semi-colons or punctuation in general. (Many are…)

A beginning writer, journalist, or reviewer could also learn much from the substance of the paragraph.

What do you think?

‘…In the strictest sense, it is impossible to give facts uncoloured by opinion. When a man says ‘We had dirty weather’ you know that he disliked it; another would have said ‘It was fresh and exhilarating, though there was a good deal of rain.’ No one can relate all the circumstances, and those which a man selects, deliberately or not, will owe their inclusion at least a little to his prejudices, as well as his habits in observation and memory. But remember too, that your own prejudices operate all the time. Whatever comes to your mind comes through your own screen of intricate associations: the memory of something said in a schoolmaster’s sarcastic voice; the loneliness of a foreign city; a soldier’s kindness in a railway carriage when the first light was revealing frosted fields; defections and disillusionments. The phrase ‘What I should have done …’ marks, as a rule, a misunderstanding of the nature of things. The largest mistake about truth is to imagine it is simple…’ From The Elephant & Castle by RC Hutchinson


Afternote: Jeremy is not alone. Knives is enjoying positive reactions from all over the place. And my friend Charlie says it’s in big demand in prison.



* My mother Barbara used to say that self praise was no recommendation, but here’s what publisher Peter Mortimer wrote to accompany the review copies of KNIVES:

‘Some of the short stories were published in magazines, newspapers and anthologies; one has, surreally, been transformed into a Manga comic. They are collected in book form for the first time and bring together a dozen tales inspired, as the author herself puts it ‘by the consummate experts on the darker side of experience.’
Novelist Wendy Robertson spent three years working with female prisoners, and though these resulting stories may be dark on one level, on other levels they reflect the author’s take on the recoverability of the human spirit, plus the qualities of stoicism, wit and irony. From plunging cat burglars, hallucinating old
ladies, gender bender confessions, and women seeking fleshpot escapes, these short stories expand Robertson’s already considerable reputation. First book of short stories from one of
the country’s best selling novelists.kNIVES005vERYCLOSE_thumb5

IRON Press
0191 253 1901
5 Marden Terrace
Cullercoats, North Shields
NE30 4PD

Monday 5 October 2009

Erica’s New Year and The Leaping Dolphin

The night before last we had a great wind. Around the house the trees were bending and swaying in a wild dance of their own. The next day the wind still raged. A. went off to play rugby with his fan club and I stayed here, a restless victim of the wind, watching the drying leaves being torn from the branches and lying on the grass like a neap tides on the lawn. Ah yes! The first quarter of the the moon.

I tried to work – to write, to read, to draw – to no avail. And though the day was bright, the raging wind forbade me outside pleasures. My own restlessness in the wind reminds me of when I was teaching small children who were wild as feral kittens on windy days. I thought this was my notion until I read that it is a documented fact that children are harder to control on windy days. On wet and cold days they welcome the warm fug of the classroom, but on windy days they are reminded of their hidden wildness and act up to it.

Then at last my windy day was brightened by an email from my writer friend Erica, about an edit she was doing on her novel. She says blithely, Autumn is my New Year, when I want to spring clean and create and produce new ideas. So I can set to work…

Autumn has always been a powerful signal in the year for me. The cycle from school child to college student, and then schoolteacher to college lecturer always started with that emotional see-saw of September - half full of fear, half drenched with excited anticipation: a new arena for stress, balanced by a pristine, clean slate. And then I experienced these feelings at one remove as my children joined this same cycle. New uniforms, new protractors, new backpacks and new misgivings: I remember it too well.

In more recent years the swashbuckling freedom of a more free-lance working life has had its own pleasures, its own stresses and its own dynamic cycles of production: its own planting season, its own harvest. And yet I still run my working life on a September to September academic diary and still talk about ‘having lunch with my friend Judith once a term’.

But at least Autumn – windy or not - sets running like a hare in my mind one of the few poems I have off by heart:

That Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run….

John Keats’ poem Ode to Autumn is as skilfully engineered as a key in a well oiled lock, as organically perfect as a leaping dolphin: he continues to be a challenge to all poets who have followed him.

Wasn’t it Keats who wrote to his brother, saying … the great beauty of poetry is that it makes every place interesting? And this reminds me of Mrs Wood, my art tutor, who told me once you can draw, Miss Wetherill, you will never be bored.

So, even with the wind, there is mellow fruitfulness about.



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