Wednesday 26 December 2012

Literary discipline with Francine Rose: the significance of sentences.

Product DetailsApart from the Sarah Lund Sweater from the beloved, one of my favourite  presents - from my ever perspicacious  friend Gillian - was Reading Like a Writer  by the aptly named Francine Prose. I  have referred to her ideas here before but my Boxing day treat has been to sit by the roaring fire and  read this book wrapped for me like a Christmas prose present.
      Francine Prose is a great advocate of the very close reading of great writers, both to enhance our pleasure as readers and enhance our skills as writers.
    She clearly  real problems with academic approaches to the teaching of  literature. She dropped out of her PhD programme after realising that ‘literary academia had split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists feminists and so forth, all battling to tellthe readers they were reading “Texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had  actually written.’ *
     Later she says of her students  ‘…They had been instructed to prosecute and defend these authors, as if in a court of law, on charges having to do with the writer’s origins, their racial, cultural, and class backgrounds.’
      Here, using as her authorities the work of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, James Baldwin, Checkov, Heinrich von Kleist,and Virginia Woolf - Francine Prose returns to the fundamental disciplines of the word, the sentence and the paragraph  to illustrate the genius of such great writers before proceeding to their take on the familiar aspects of dialogue, character and narration.
     She focuses on examples of genius in a writer’s choice of a particular word to steer complex meaning in the right direction.  She showcases the way the structure of long sentences in some writers’ work delivers meaning and consequence in one beautiful flowing package.  Her examples of this process make me think of how one element in my own editing  is to shorten my sentences, make them crisper, more powerful. This is the modern way but listening to Francine Rose I will reconsider this instinct more thoughtfully in the future.

See for yourself:  on long sentences Francine Prose quotes the opening sentences of Stanley Elkin’s ' The Making of Ashenden:

' “All my adult life I have been a guest in other people’s houses, following the sun and seasons like a migratory bird, an instinct in me, the rich man’s cunning feel for ripeness, some oyster-in-and-r-month notion working there which knows without reference to anything outside itself when to pack the tennis racket, when to bring along the German field classes to look at a friend’s birds, the telescope to stare at his stars, the wet suit to swim beneath his waters when the exotic fish are running. It is not in the Times when the black dinner jacket comes off and the white goes on; it’s something surer, subtler, the delicate guidance system of the privileged, my playboy astronomy…” '

     Naturally she quotes Ernest Hemingway and further comments:

‘ Hemingway was not only thinking about the good and true and beautiful sentence but using it as sustenance – as a goal to focus on, as a way of  keeping himself going. And though it’s obvious that times have changed, that what was true of Hemingway’s era may not be true today, the fact remains that Hemingway not only cared about sentences, not only told his publishers that they mattered to him, but told his readers and told the world.
       The young would-be writers of great sentences can perhaps take comfort in the fact that Hemingway’s interest in sentences did not appear to have hurt his career...’

         And worth noting is that Francine's last chapter is entitled Reading For Courage.That appeals,. To be a writer today certainly needs courage,.

Now!  I must eat another mince pie and go away and take a good, hard look at my own sentences. That will be another Boxing Day joy.

A good way to use your Christmas Book Tokens, perhaps?

*Is one of the problems with some current Creative Writing degrees at all levels that they are staffed by academics stultified by this tradition?

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas Always Makes Me Nervous

Hooray! The tree is up. I’d done my holly and ivy pagan decoration (see below) but had to wait for the arrival of the very special Boy Who Likes Chocolate (from univ. via London ) to tackle the tree. He’s been Involved with The Tree for the last nineteen years. For the last five years he has been In Charge of The Tree. As you see, it is room height and features his signature red/gold/white bands.

Christmas always makes me nervous: the urgent need to Enjoy Oneself; the worry about whether the present will work for this or that loved one; the need for the food to be extra special, the house beautiful. And then in the wider world we have the TV streaming models of joy and affluence impossible to equal, set alongside the shadenfreudic, often pompous, commentaries about debt and poverty homelessness and family conflict endemic in this season..

In older age one becodmes quite good at self-analysis. Despite the fact that our present day family Christmasses are sweet and seem to work out well, I know my deeply worried attitude springs from the far-from-idyllic Christmasses in my childhood. In fact it is symptomatic that – apart from reading A Christmas Carol - I can’t remember Christmasses between the ages of nine and eighteen.

But here we have TBWLC decorating a tall tree underpinned with bright shiny presents and t a kitchen charged with quite lovely promise for today and tomorrow. And - wonderfully - the Licked Spoon Entourage, complete with Barney the dog, arrives on Thursday. (With cookies - see her exquisite  Christmas blogs)

And all this I’m beginning to feel, will make a very memorable Christmas. As Tiny Tim says, ‘God Bless us Every One.’

So to you, very gentle reader, I wish a very peaceful, happy and memorable Christmas Eve, Christmas Day & Christmas season.


Thursday 20 December 2012

Spooky Paganism in the House?

The Holly Reflection

All this year I've been researching the lives of pre-Christian communities for my new novel and have become very sympathetic with the Pagan outlook.
So when G brought in whole swathes of holly and ivy from the garden and I started to decorate the house for Christmas I was visited by a very spooky feeling that echoed down to me through two millennia: the feeling of having lived other lives.

Bodes well for the book?

The Holly and the Ivy

"THE custom of decking houses and churches with ever-greens, towards the close of the year, appears to be of very ancient date ; it being, in fact, one of those remnants of Paganism, which, although forbidden by the councils of the early Christian Church, had obtained too strong a hold on the prejudices of the people to be readily relinquished, as its transmission down to the present day serves to prove..."

 From A Garland of Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern Including Some Never Before Given In Any Collection. Joshua Sylvester, Edited, With Notes. (London: John Camden Hotten, 1861).

I would like to wish a Happy Winter Soltice to all the gentle people across the world

 who take their precious time to visit me at Life twice Tasted

Monday 17 December 2012

Playing Truant in Cambridge

My view over the Master's Gerden
So close to Christmas it seems like playing truant to make a getaway to Cambridge with my writing friend Avril but we went without guilt. We stayed at Sydney Sussex College and my room overlooked the Master’s Garden. We ate hearty college breakfasts, had two decent dinners and otherwise dipped into Sainsbury’s – a mere step away – to make sure that we didn’t starve or go thirsty as we worked.

And work we did. We drafted, transcribed, discussed  then read out to try our writing in the air. I think we both achieved more than we would have at home in the domestic pre-Christmas flurry. 

Avril worked on completing a set of short stories with a very original format, reflecting her success in this field this year.  We have had many interesting discussions about the form and function of the modern short story. (I have a new collection coming out in the  Spring. 

But in Cambridge I was in the middle of that big heave of beginning a novel which sits in a particular historical time. This involves a kaleidoscope of research, thinking, imagining and transforming. My truant time in Cambridge has certainly made more clear for me the ambiguous, inchoate mass which is the foundation of this novel. Now it seems that I have made the great leap and think I may have the novel before me – not just that crucial first 20,000 words but in these four days of concentration the superstructure of the novel has emerged for me from the Celtic mists. 

No, we didn’t see ourselves as tourists. But yes I did notice the exquisite city of Cambridge. Its very fabric exuded the history, literature, philosophy and science which has formed the intellectual background for my auto-didactic generation, educated as it was in small colleges and institutions a world away from these exquisite temples of privilege.

My favourite building in this ancient city was the oldest church – a small church called the Round Church on the main road which leads to the Cam. I was excited about this, as - for this novel -  I’ve been   researching the round houses the so-called Pagan people of late antiquity before, during and after the Roman occupation. The fact that the road this church stands on was originally the Roman Road was the cherry on my research cake. I understand the design of the church was based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. 

But for me – my mind fertilised by all this research - the atmosphere in the round structure of this church carried much deeper meaning and one way or another will have its impact on my novel.

As for playing truant - I returned home energised and guilt-free to embrace the delights of preparing for a family Christmas. I recommend playing truant to any dedicated writer. 

Two posts to come (also emerging from the Cambridge Getaway)
1. The Lithuanian girl on her way to China
2   Peopling Your Novel

Friday 7 December 2012

Literary Snobbery, Stan Barstow and John from Glasgow

One of the joys of posting here on Life Twice Tasted is the response that comes by many means and  from unexpected places. It is always good to see - as I can on my blogsite  - the way that readers range around the site and take a look at other, earlier posts as their interest is piqued.

So this week I spot three new brilliant sequential comments from John Haggerty of Glasgow on a post I wrote in August 2011 called Stan Barstow my Dad and Gregory Peck,  Click there if you want the full story including John's comments…
 Part of my discussion on this post was about literary snobbery. Among other things I said... ' ...These mean,  mistaken and ill conceived  phrases manage to combine the regional. literary, linguistic and class snobbery that still has a stranglehold on the British literary world. As a writer of some ‘regional literary novels’ myself I too have encountered this same frustrating prejudice . American literature celebrates fiction from its non-metropolitan regions and is much more deep, rich and  substantial for it...'

Stan Barstow G Peck and Dad
In his comments John Haggerty extends the discussion and,  among other insightful things, moves onto the field of music :

'....The Northern folk music scene has given us musicians as diverse as Anne Briggs and Kathryn Tickell. Kathryn's album, NORTHUMBRIAN VOICES, is a living testimony to that rich tradition. Anne has become part of British folklore. Is it possible to contextualise Barstow's work against this wider setting? Perhaps we need to rethink our notion of regionalism in the light of writers such as Ted Hughes, Alan Garner and Shelagh Delaney. It may be helpful to look at American (South and North) and Commonwealth writers. Maurice Gee, the New Zealand novelist, has put his own region on the world map. Dunedin, Wellington, Auckland are all very much Maurice Gee country. Gee's place-haunted novel GOING WEST is the kind of work any Barstow reader would relish....'

If your interest is piqued, go to the page and read it in full complete with John Haggerty’s comments. Click Stan Barstow my Dad and Gregory Peck,  You might even add your own comments!


Tuesday 4 December 2012

Creating, Drafting and Transcribing a Novel. The notebook story.

Too many notebooks. Maybe
People often ask me how I write. What is the process?
After saying very carefully that all writers evolve their own  idiosyncratic method I admit that I write my first draft by hand. These days this is met by a degree of disbelief and a kind of pity that one feels for a bag lady in the road.
'I would have thought computers would have been a Godsend for you! Make things easier.' Then (add in kind tone of voice) 'They're very easy to use you know,'
Well, I do know,. I love my  computer(s).They are brilliant for instant researching, for blogging and Facebooking. I was a pioneer in that field.  I remember the joy of my first wordprocesser, an Amstrad 9512 - such a brilliant improvement from my electric typewriter and my bottles of SnoPake.  I shudder at the thought of the state of my original manuscripts - which were accepted by publishers . Never mind. Daphne du Maurier sent her publishers scribbled hand scripted drafts.
I like to write in ink pen
I now have and use an office computer, a standard laptop and a notebook computer as well as, more recently a tablet, So nowadays my transcribed drafts go out in that immaculate computer written form that I recommend to all my students.
I have experimented with drafting straight onto the screen and have found it very limiting, Staring at a blank screen hinders the creativity, the imagination. As the pages build up on the screen they are too finished too complete, too self referring, insufficiently open. They have too much authority and too little vulnerability.
Maps are the current obsession...
The only way for me to write the first draft of a novel is in a notebook (NOT loose pages) with an ink pen.
I normally (but see below) write in bound hardback A4 notebooks. (Cheap from Rymans...) I only write on the right hand side of the page leaving the left hand space for insertions, scribbled self-instructions and amendments.
I often customise the cover with drawings. paintings and collages to make them particular to these stories. And after so many novels the notebooks give a shape to this and I know that the currency is this: three fully drafted notebooks equal one full length novel of about a hundred thousand words. Give or take.

But with this new novel when I embark on the first lot of transcription, (About 20 thousand words in) I find that I have scenes and scraps, brainstorms and locations in five different notebooks. I can blame that on my habit of writing on trains, in cafes, pubs and parks on whatever is to hand. So the transcribing of this first part of the novel has been something of a  challenge as I spent time hunting down scenes out of sequence.

So I have given myself a good talking to and created a new A5 (ie handbag friendly) notebooks as  a prototype into which ALL the new drafting for this new novel must go. Here it is. I hope it works.

Just a thought. Writing whole books is hard work. But unless you make the process creative, satisfying and fun it becomes just another job instead of just more joy.

Saturday 24 November 2012

A Story from Miss V About Italian Internment,

Feedback counts. We writers are needy people. We like to know that people read us and get us. This has always been so with my novels: every letter or note of appreciation warms my heartAnd response is equally significant with blogging and the world wide web. If someone takes the trouble to comment on the blog or email a response to a post I am very excited to know that someone somewhere has been touched by my notions.And now to my delight I have had wonderful verbal and email response to the Letters to Ilio from the Cafe de Luxe. Different people were touched in different ways by this post.

Sometimes people respond to a post by telling me their own story. This was the case with my London friend Miss V. (I didn't even know she read the blog...) Miss V comes from an  artistic and theatrical family herself and is a wonderfully ironic storyteller. But I had never heard this story until she read that post and wrote to me:

Dear Wendy,
I have just read your piece on the Italian cafe owners and the most interesting book you mention, both of which struck a cord with me. I will definitely buy it.
My former husband, Joe, had a musician Father who, like so many foreigners living in this county, was interned on the Isle of Wight during the War. Later he taught the cello at the Royal College of Music, but when he was young was a member of various dance bands which played in the fashionable night clubs of the day. One of his great stories, regaled in an almost unfathomable Italian accent-he spoke very bad English! was the time when the the ultra glamorous Prince of Wales asked him to play a certain tune, saying he would tip him later. He never did. `That man owed me money' he used to say !
Anyway, in the War there were loads of Italian musicians in the Camp, people who later became famous who all formed a huge orchestra. One imagines they were among the lucky ones who had something to do. Later he married a girl from his town in Northern Italy and moved to Dean Street, where Joe was born. He was their only child and Mama called him Pupo (baby) always !!
Later his parents divorced and Papa returned to Italy, Mother decamped to Tunbridge Wells. She died of cancer but Papa came to my wedding and I have a wonderful photo of him, in his 90's but still handsome and charming, talking to my Ma who fortunately spoke very good Italian.They were entranced by one another !

With much love 

A great story
- it could inspire a great novel couldn't it?

 And now it seems to have set off a chain of stories in my head. In searching the net for information about Italian internment I came across an interesting article by TANYA STARRETT telling the story of her grandfather Tomasso Pia. Fascinating stuff.All this convinces me that so many families have their own extraordinary stories of complex identity and citizenship. The novel is a great form to explore the ambiguities and contradictions embedded in such stories. Small Island by Andrea Leveyis a great example of this, I am not aware of a novel that springs out of these powerful stories of Italian internment in Britain. Let me know if you know of one.

I hope you enjoyed this post. As I said, feedback has its own delights.


Sunday 18 November 2012

Letters to Ilio from The Cafe de Luxe - An Extraordinary True Story

In considering the history of my small Northern town I am always coming across glamorous Italian names - often but not always on the fascia of shops, cafes, and ice-cream parlours names like Gabriele, Alonzi, Zair, Rossi, Serefini, Franco.

We have a well embedded Italian presence here which started in the late nineteenth century, when young men travelled from rural Italy to Britain here for work, escaping from poverty and the sometimes feudal pre-war conditions of farming life. In later years a young man who grew up here in these families would return to this same Italian home district and come back with a wife well versed in taking care of Italian menfolk.

Now in this  twenty first century we still have shops sporting Italian names but – as is the way with successful migration - in more recent history the children of these families have strayed from the shop counter and taken their skills into other professions – education, the law, the media, and business.

I am reminded of this by a great book by Barbara Laurie entitled Letters to Olio from the Café de Luxe. This is an archive of more than 200 love letters written by her mother-in-law, Gloria Serefini, to Olio, an Italian prisoner of war who had, before being repatriated, worked in her father’s café in Selkirk.

Earlier in the century, Gloria’s father had come as a young man to Scotland from rural Tuscany. Later her mother had come across at fourteen first to help in the house and the business. Eventually their café – one of several Italian businesses in this small border town – flourished. Later other members of the family made their way into England as far as Easington and Darlington in County Durham and finally to my small town of Bishop Auckland.

The Selkirk café had to close when Gloria’s father – like other foreigners – was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man. (Churchill had crudely ordered the authorities to ‘Collar the Lot!’) Gloria,  with her mother ill and her brother in the forces, was virtually alone. So her formidable aunt drove up from Darlington on her motorbike and took her back to Darlington until her father was released and able to opened thecafe again.

On his return from internment the café and the next door chip shop were opened and flourished. Then Gloria’s father, looking for workers went to the local POW camp which housed young Italian men who were offered for work on farms and in businesses in the town. Apparently he want said, 'Any Tuscans here who want work?'

So Ilio came to work alongside Gloria in the café and they fell in love. The café was a gathering place for young women from the town and for the Italian workers and Gloria – because of her fluency in Italian – gained a central role as interpreter. At first this made her an arbiter of relationships in the café but then, when the young men were repatriated to Italy, she translated letters for the Scottish women from their Italian boyfriends as they desperately tried to sustain their wartime romances.

It was at this time that Gloria herself wrote this flood of letters to Ilio which is at the core of this excellent book. Interestingly these letters were only discovered by Barbara and her husband Peter at the turn of this century when Peter – through the magic of the internet – had tracked down Ilio. Now an old man with a family of his own, Ilio had kept the letters safe in a wooden box. He had clearly never forgotten Gloria. This quest and its outcome are the most moving part of the end of Barbara’s book which reveals secrets kept for over half a century.

Barbara reading from her book at
the Room to Read and Write Book Group
The letters themselves comprise wor an historic archive of the intricacy of lives in wartime Britain and a vivid record of first and second generation migration in all its complexity. Barbara sets alongside the letters very useful contextual information about Britain in wartime and also the wider personal context of this idiosyncratic family.

But these letters are not just plodding memoir material. Fluently and passionately written, they show us the yound Gloria’s own character in depth - vivid, attractive, articulate, adaptable, clever, observant, hardworking, generous, and controlling to the point of manipulation. She could be the heroine or anti-heroine of any great novel. In a good writer’s hands she could be a World War Two Anna Karenina. Or a World War Two Carmen. Her story would make a great film.

And as is the case of great heroines, her life was threaded through with secrets. Finally and famously ensconced in her Café Marina in Bishop Auckland she put the glamourous Ilio on this evidence the love of her life)  behind her, ruthlessly painting him out of her history and her life. Her family knew nothing of those times and these potent events.

That is, until Peter tracked his Tuscan family down and he and Barbara were shown the wooden box of letters by the now elderly Ilio himself . In time they were given the box and started to read the letters, uncovering the whole secret story. This led Barbara to collate the letters in book form and put them in the context of the extraordinary times and this extraordinary family.

Highly recommended.

You can obtain the book Barbara directly if you email her at
ISBN: 978-0-9523461-6-6

Monday 12 November 2012

Mapping The Imagination: The magic of a New Novel on the Horizon.

I’m in that very enthralling, exciting, worrying, phase of embarking on a new big novel. I have this big idea and am reading like crazy, checking facts and looking at landscape in a different way.  It has been some time in coming. I have been waiting for a decision on my last novel about writers living together The Art of Retreating and this process has frozen me like a hare pretending to be a statue in the middle of a harvested field.

 I’ve kept busy, as an artisan writer should be, with my short story collection Painting Matters. I have read novels for my Room to Write reading group although novels have been losing their escapist appeal for me as I take it all too seriously and read as a writer, tending to be too analytical and failing sufficiently  to suspend my disbelief to read with true  pleasure. The other members of the group are very patient.

Then in a London park I was introduced to a girl called Lisa who talked about her current obsession:  Ley Lines in London. I wasvery  intrigued because the past-in-the-present is part of my own world view.  Layers in time and figures in old landscapes are a long obsession for me which has inevitably emerged in some of the novels. For instance it’s an important element in my novel An Englishwoman in France where present day Languedoc lives alongside Roman Gaul in the life-changing experience of a woman mourning her lost daughter.

So, when I got back home I started to read these esoteric texts about  Ley lines and this got me looking at maps in a different way. I looked at the ley line maps and moved on more conventional maps - both contemporary and historical.  Maps can be very exciting sources for a writer. They are both precise and non-literary. You have to think imaginatively to elicit their meaning.  My own invented maps are an important element in the way I have laid the ground work (the ground-world?) for my stories. For instance I made a whole 1850 wall map for my novel A Woman Scorned

Now from these maps there emerged a new person and an very new idea for a novel that had not been there before I started looking at the maps. Magic. . This story is not at all, except tangentially, about the things called Ley Lines. From the Ley line books I have leapfrogged to more intensely serious sources about pre-history and Romano British history and then - I realised -  into the world of polite internecine strife between,  conventional historians and progressive archaeological historians in their increasingly rigorous search for meaning in a world about which there is no direct written record. And I am looking at ancient songs.  Fascinating. 

My new novel  will be (I think) about a certain woman, about a landscape, about journeys, and about what it is to be British. I am  just now trying to make logical sense of the Druids, and the function of the myth of  King Arthur as a metaphor. A long journey ahead.

Beginning again. Ha-aleluya!!

Work In Progress

A Sketch.
In the beginning - alongside the reading -  there are always 'sketches'  which may (or may not) end up as part of the novel. Do you think this sketch will find its place?

... So anyway I came into this world of light quite by accident, first in my mother’s belly then into the throng of a broad river well known for its dark spirits. The rain was sleeting down. A strut of the bridge creaked and broke and the chariot carrying my mother and her sister Branwen slid into the river, rained on by golden bangles and silver brooches. 
My brother Lleu told me years later that he heard the river sing like a choir of many voices. I have a ghost memory of the strange glow of the water and also the singing.  No doubt there were also shouts and screams but I do not remember them. .. 

Saturday 13 October 2012

Long fiction, the short story and the poem. Plus Work in Progress

As friends here will know I am enjoying the new adventure of writing short stories.

So I thought I would share here my introduction to the six story collection Writing Matters where I meander about thinking of the connection between long fiction  the short story and the poem.

And then also here is work in progress - an extract from one of these stories. Hope you enjoy it.

I once said in a room full of dedicated short story and published writers that a short story was the waste of a good idea. Such blasphemy got the gasps it really does deserve. In the end I did protest that my tongue was firmly in my cheek.

In fact I admire the short story form. It sits neatly between the novel and the poem. It combines the broad narrative significance of the novel with the precision, the economy and illumination of the poem. Both the poem and the short story demand of the writer the precise and focused use of language and true involvement with the processing of unique human experience.

And the truth is that I have always written short stories. The very first publication for which I received hard cash was for a story in Annabel magazine about a little boy called Sam who stood on a rusty nail.

As the years went on, while publishing long fiction, I continued to write short stories, mopping up the ideas that teamed in my head. Some of these were published in Sunday supplements and other places. After a while I started to collect them together more systematically. So emerged the collection called Knives and Other Stories (first published by Iron Press). Then came Fear of Flight and Other Stories which is to be published soon with the re-issue of Knives by AudioGo.

It’s difficult these days for a writer to place very good short stories, despite substantial national campaigns to reinstate the value of this prose form in the public consciousness. I have been advising serious short story writers to build a collection around a theme.
In producing Painting Matters and Other Stories I have followed my own advice.

Often we don’t quite realise quite what we are influenced by or what may be threaded there in layers below our surface narrative. And recently, when re-evaluating my own long fiction, I realised how much painting, painters and teachers and inspirers thread themselves through quite diverse novels.

My first job (when barely out of my own teens) was teaching art to disaffected teenagers and when I moved on I continued to admire art history, contemporary painters and to paint a little myself. Also – very significantly as I re-read my work what also struck me was the degree to which I see painting as a liberating process.

So I decided that Painting would be the loose theme for my next short story collection which has emerged here as Painting Matters and Other Stories. I hope you enjoy these stories.

Work in Progress: from the short story actually called Painting Matters:

"… And the person knocking at the door could definitely not be Sheena’s sister Geraldine. She lived on a boat somewhere in the Midlands with her arty friend Roy and her musical so n Seth. Geraldine’s focus on Emma was a five minute telephone call every Sunday night.She often told her step-mother that she made phone calls standing up. Time, she would say, was to be spent, not wasted.

Emma was breathless when she finally reached the door. She put a hand to her throat, took a deep breath, undid the chain and opened the door. She blinked up at the boy who stood there. He was tall and rangy, his grey eyes were ringed with black; his black hair shot up from his brow was cut oddly short at the side and. He was clutching a big square parcel which he hoisted so she could see the label. ‘Emma Unthank?'

She nodded…"

Monday 8 October 2012

Proud Mum’s Portrait of a Good Writer

 Phew! Nice to be back on song after a while under the radar.

Last month’s highlight for me was Licked Spoon launching her  super book  Gifts From The Garden which as the proud Mum I think everyone should have for themselves or buy for creative friends for Christmas. So far it's had good reviews in theTelegraph garden section and Gardens Illustrated - so it’s not just me!

The book is great – brimming with ideas, beautifully shot and – most important for me – beautifully written. This is her hallmark.

The launch at Stoke Newington Bookshop – a brilliant independent bookseller - was packed with every kind of booklover, gardener, cook, and maker.  As a Northern Outsider I was interested to observe the styles of these book lovers, which ranged from neat and familiar, through Shaker restraint, to the elegant and the cookie. My favourite style-statements were the elegant grey suit with black tee-shirt(man) and golden brogues with shocking pink bows (woman).

In between the laden bookshelves the tables were filled with gift-food made from the book, complete with luggage label page-references.(I was sent out in the afternoon to buy those labels…) Debora told the story of the book and burnished it with stories of our outrageous Uncle Jos, his witty wife and his amazing allotment. Then - using her recipes from the book - she  demonstrated how to make a calming tisane (lovely word that ...) and  a beauty skin scrub with the help of her friend Allison.

Here we had great food, aesthetic appreciation, much laughter, hard information and beautiful books. Here the medium was indeed the message. I can’t find it in me to apologies for the eulogistic tone of this post. This writer is my clever kind daughter after all. 

As well as rushing out to buy brown luggage labels, another thing I did that week was make a portrait on my tablet of Licked Spoon working, I know, I know! It looks like poker-work, But like Licked Spoon's  writing, cooking and gardening, it is all my own work.

If you fancy Debora's  Gifts from the Garden click here 

Monday 1 October 2012

Changing My Priority Back To the Written Word.

Here on Lifetwicetasted you have heard from time to time of my adventure into community broadcasting with my programme THE WRITING GAME. Through producing writing and editing 23 one hour programmes I have learned a great deal. It has been exciting and full of month-by-month pressure. If I were thirty years younger I might  have made a career of it.

But I am a writer: my commitment is to the written word and I must now focus properly on that,
You might be interested in the whole story, so below is the  piece I have posted on my Bishop FM Blog which will give you the whole picture.  It has been a great experience is the significance of the spoken word and the deadline disciplines of broadcasting.  Any writer out there who wants to spread her or his creative wings whould give community broadcasting a try.

This is what I said:

'...They say every good thing should come to an end and I am sad to say that, due to pressure of work, I will be unable to continue with The Writing Game.
This winter - writing being my day job - I will be completing the third of three short story collections[1]* This new collection is called Painting Matters & Other Stories and features painting, painters, teachers and other life-changers. I will also be embarking in a big new novel involving ... er ...ghosts.

On The Writing Game we have celebrated writing and writers, reading and readers. We have interviewed great writers such as David Almond, Pat Barker, Terry Deary, Kathleen Jones, Maureen Almond and Ann Cleeves. We have featured talented local writers such as Barbara Laurie, Geri Auton, Noma Neil, Eileen Elgey and Alison Carr. Also musician Andy Jackson and Su Kane.

Of course the Writing Game is not just one person. On the The Writing Game team – all from Bishop Auckland – we have had novelist and short story writer Avril Joy, gardener, librarian, writer and expert on mining art Gillian Wales and historian Glynn Wales who reads more widely and more eclectically than anyone I know.

Between the four of us on our team we have celebrated the Dickens Bi-Centenary, the joys of writing and reading Children’s Literature, the inspirations of music, gardening and travel, and the writing of Bishop Auckland history; we have showcased the writing skills involved in writing novels, short stories, memoirs and poetry.

 With valued technical advice from Bishop FM’s James Burrage and Terry Ferdinand, and encouraged by Gillian Campbell, I have learned a such in the course of producing these many one hour programmes – researching content, recording interviews and discussions, editing two or three hours of source material into the coherent 56 minutes which is The Writing Game. This has all been very fascinating and absorbing – a great learning curve for me. But in the end it has left little time and energy for my equally fascinating and absorbing 'day job' of writing novels and stories.

The good news is that all of the Writing Game programmes will remain here as THE WRITING GAME ARCHIVE an archive of podcasts on the Bishop FM Website as well as being featured on the widely available iTunes. So the opportunity is there for everyone to listen again to these good words about reading and writing on The Writing Game.

So in signing off here I would like to thank Gillian C, James and Terry for allowing and encouraging me to share with them the airwaves of South Durham. And Gillian W, Glynn and Avril or their ongoing inspiration and comradeship. (I hope you will hear their voices again on the aor waves of Bishop FM.)
Thank you all so much.

I hope I too can come back here now and then to share with you my opinions about writing and books which may be in the news. If you want to share with me the ongoing delights of my day job, look at my blog at

Until then, happy writing, happy reading.

Wendyx ...

[1] The first two -The reissued Knives & Other Stories and a new collection Fear of Flight &  other Stories –   are both  now commissioned for publication. The third collection Painting Matters & Other Stories is in its final stages of writing...  '

So now, back properly to the day job...

Friday 21 September 2012

Writing, Talking and Ghosthunting on Holy Island

A few days away with like-minded friends can be very refreshing. I remember a very fruitful time at Annamackerig on the Irish border, (where I saw a ghost...) While I was there  I drafted many of the short stories that later, transformed in some ways, were welded together in Paulie’s Web (see sidebar) now on Kindle and being enjoyed by those of you who like something different. You couldn’t get much farther away from prison than that idyllic place beside the lake full of merry musicians and inspired, surreal writers,

Then there was that time on the Scottish borders with the late great Julia Darling and the mistress of MsLexia Debbie Taylor. Julia was working out what proved to be her last novel The Taxi Driver's Daughter.  That was a funny, very female sojourn with lots of writing talk and (if I remember rightly)  a bit of reflexology.

Anne's Photograph
And now I have just come back from a very refreshing few days with writers Anne Ousby, Erica Yeoman, Gillian Wales and Avril Joy - first on the coast by Dunstanburgh Castle, then an afternoon, a night and a day on Holy Island.

This involved much inspired writing-talk and inspiration, active photographing and even writing. Erica was researching her new historical novel which is partly set on Holy Island. (She and we were disappointed at not hearing the seals singing. But we writers can always use our imagination.)

Gillian's Photograph of Gertrude Jekyll's Garden
The other three – very informed gardeners - visited Howick Gardens and the exquisite Gertrude Jekyll garden on Holy Island.  I looked and looked at the bright sky and and the glittering tourquoise sea and thought about ghosts – but they were as rare on these days as seals singing.

But over lunch Erica told us a true ghostly experience which winged its way right into to my notebook. We talked about Anne’s new website and urged her to love doing it. We also brainstormed with her a very original idea for a specialized blog which might come off. It is about gardening – and judging from the popularity of Gillian’s website it should be very well appreciated. We talked of Avril’s new newsletter which is full of great writing advice and also gives writers a range of competitions which can enhance their audience.

It’s always illuminating fun and joyful inspiration to meet, talk and work with writer friends of this quality. Of course it can also be physically and psychologically dangerous – which is the theme of my forthcoming novel The Art of Retreating. (See earlier posts here  here &;  here,     But that novel is set in the Languedoc. Of course …er ….that is fiction. But it could never have been written without my wide and varied experience of going away with people to write, talk and think

Have you, like Erica, any experiences of (not neccessily  belief in…) ghosts that you’d like to share? Email me if it’s just too weird to comment here email me (

Thursday 13 September 2012

Remembering Iris

My time in London with daughter Debora was fun. She is working on a new book and planning the launch  of her marvelous ( mother's pride...) book Gifts from the Garden on the 20th. 

We sorted out some papers and she handed me  a paper with a rather dark, long poem of mine which I'd entirely forgotten. Reading it again I remembered the girl who was its  inspiration - a friend I had when I was nine and she was fourteen. She used to call for me many days to come 'out to play'. Even at that age I thought her home set-up was puzzling. In retrospect her friendship with me was equally puzzling.I now feel that in writing this I was recovering some memory. 

The poem was first written in 1996.  I have edited it further to post it on the blog. It's still dark...

Hope at least you find it interesting.Wx

Remembering Iris

 Men open their wide mouths
teeth bite, bite like lions - 
soft hands, smooth pussy paws -
only going for the cream
lapping it with sandpaper tongues:
blue eyes, large black irises

In the house of her aunt and uncle
is a girl - dreaming, putty faced -
and on her bed  a bedspread.
whose white hanging-down  tassels 
vanish one by one
bitten off by pussy cats, they say.

Their house stands in our row -
Jerry-built like ours, fenced with chicken wire -
although unlike us they have no chickens
The aunt and uncle have red faces  
his more bulbous, hers sharp with make-up,
her hair all yellow feathers, sides upswept.

My father - prone to bad mistakes -
buys a dozen chicks for breakfast eggs.
and on a string above their fluffy heads  
he swings his wedding ring to sex them.
But his ring swings to the left and
tells us they are cocks, every one

No morning chucky eggs for us!
Still, we feed the chicks, clean their cage
cluck over them. But, come Christmas, 
we choke them. Not my father - all soft heart -
but my uncle who smiles as his strong fingers   
squeeze out their little chicken lives.

And by Christmas Day the dreaming girl
has palmed her savings, run right away.
Her aunt calls her a sly cat –
bad to the core  and so ungrateful –
as she burns the bedspread in the garden
fenced all round  with chicken wire.

© Wendy Roberton 1996/2012

Saturday 8 September 2012

Talking With Prison Writers Under a Clear Night Sky

The Indefatigable Pauline...
I arrived in London after a weekend in deepest mid Wales spent with other ex-prison writers in residence, before the induction week for new writers in residence for prisons. I was there at the invitation of the Writers in Prison Network, This is the  brainchild of Clive Hopwood and Pauline Bennet who work indefatigably to introduce into some fortunate English prisons energetic, creative people - writers, poets, film makers and storytellers - to leaven the mix of prisoners, teachers and officers and to offer something new and inspiring into these complex environments.
In my experience, the writer in residence can to a smaller or larger extent change lives. See here and here .

We stayed in an ancient extended farmhouse deep in the Welsh countryside - atmospheric to say the least.  It was good to talk to Steve a short story and historical writer now working on a book about a circle of friends of Conan Doyle - a kind of crime club where gentlemen read to each other papers about their own amateur sleuthing.
And also Andy, just appointed as a writer in residence in a men's prison, and wondering what he was in for. I recommended the short stories of (very blue collar macho...) Raymond Carver to inspire his students and Stephen King's On Writing to help them get inside the head of a writer. All quite macho of course. But that can help in a men's prison. (Look at Raymon Carver's What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love?) 

And there was Sheilagh, who is about to go into the prison where I worked as a writer in residence. I told her she would enjoy it and find women to support her as they mostly support each other.
Clive and Pauline were recording short interviews for their developing WIPN website and I was asked for my top tips for new writers coming into this project.

I can't quite remember what I said but on reflection this is what I should have said:

1. Keep a very open mind.
2. Like the people you meet - this includes both prisoners and officers, some of whom do an amazing job
3. Don't get too fascinated by crime - don't identify your students by their crime  - move on with and for them.
6. Tailor your provision to the needs of individual students, not the needs of the institution or your own need for certain creative outcomes. Yes, I know this takes a certain amount of savvy and subtle political manoeuvring. But from experience, I know it is possible.
7. Always keep up  with your own writing and creative work. Read it and share it with your students. Write alongside them. (Risky I know, but they are taking a risk writing aren't they, writing for you?) In doing both of these things, you are showing proper respect and respect goes a long way in prisoners.
We were invited to take advantage of a outdoor hot tub at the farm but I am sure to everyone's relief I wasn't moved to disrobe.
But I did have two great treats.  One was a lady invited by Pauline who treated me to a hot stone massage on the Sunday morning and told me I had wonderful skin.

The other was the wide, unpolluted night sky of mid Wales which was pure and very grand. A good scene for a story or an inspiration for a poem.


PS For those out there who, as individuals or institutions, have long pockets or philanthropic inclinations Clive and Pauline are always searching for funding this remarkable project. Contact them at


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