Saturday 31 March 2012

The Aviatrix Anne Lindbergh and the Double Sunrise

From my Boody Jar
'I began these pages for myself, in order to think out my own particular pattern of living, my own individual palace of life, work and human relationships. And since I think best with a pencil in my hand I started naturally to write.’  (Anne Morrow Lindbergh: A Gift from The Sea. More info about her life on  my Reading Blog..)
Anne Morrow Lindbergh's book  -  A Gift from the Sea is her meditation on aspects of life based on her observation of  sea shells.
 I have shells in the pot that I call my Boody Jar, written about here before, so having read this book I got them out and put them on my desk. Then I thought hard about where they had come from, from raw beach at Seaton Carew to a steamy  beach on the North Island of New Zealand.
Of course, being me, I read Ann Morrow's book as a writer.  As a writer I identify with her - particularly in terms of observation. So many writers look, but only see the surface of things and their seeing in not really embedded in their writing; it is not part of their thought  process. 
In her introduction Morrow  says.... 'And since I think best with a pencil in my hand, I started naturally to write.' This reminds me so much of my own mantra 'How do I know what I think till I see what I say?'

Shell Kiss
Each chapter focuses on one shell that Morrow finds, or is given, on her island retreat. First there is her observation and then comes her meditation. My favourite observation is the shell she calls 'The Double Sunrise':' Both sides of this delicate bivalve are exactly matched. Each side, like the wing of a butterfly is marked with the same pattern; translucent white except for three rays that fan out from the golden hinge binding the two together. Smooth, whole, unblemished shell. I wonder how is fragile perfection survives the breakers on the beach.'
 She goes on to compare this with a human relationship: 'Two people listening to each other, two shells meeting each other, making one world between them, There are no others in the perfect unity of that instant, no other people or things or  interests. It is free of ties or claims, unburdened by responsibilities, by worry about the future or debts to the past. ...And then how swiftly, how inevitably the perfect unity is invaded; the relationship changes; it becomes complicated, encumbered by its contact with the world...
This can be interpreted in all kinds of ways but to me speaks of the fragility of true romance and its claims on real life.And here the end of pure romance is the entry of the snake in Eden. It is a very feminine observation and thought process:  it can be taken as proto-feminist or retro feminine. 
Each chapter, each shell opens up another aspect of a woman's life perhaps in the 1950s. And the sensitive perceptions of this woman, who - although economically privileged - has flown the heights and plumbed the depths of family life, make thoughtful readon. Certainly millions of people have thought so since 1955.
My favourite aspect, though, of this book is the beginning of each chapter where she observes   the physicality, the nature of the shell. That level of observation should be in every writer's skill box, in every writer's habit-satchel. 

Sunday 25 March 2012

The Power of the Wild Bluebell

On the bank in my garden leaves of bluebells are massing, ready to bubble forth  in flower late in April.

G., who has a writer's eye, took this photo on his phone: it is a wild bluebell in flower in the wild woods a short distance from here. Almost buried in last year's dead leaves and grasses and tangled in importunate ivy, this ancient flower stands there heralding a proper, wild spring.

The bluebells, long  naturalised in my garden, will be a paler, more apologetic blue, having lost their wild power.

Thank you for the thought, G.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Aslan in South Shields

Sand Aslan
Slick seal tide stains silk soft sand
when its  and the persistent push of water
makes a brand new tide of  pebbles

Food Bread in plastic, wrapped in silver,
tea from flasks in stainless steel
cigarettes in slackened fingers

Sisters, brothers,  all garnered
guile and  innocence
paw down  sand in rusty  tins

Sharpened spears of twice-used wood.
 pierce  the sand-scapes

- chips, perhaps,off the old lion block?

(This is a new one. I am stll working on you see W)

Sunday 18 March 2012

The Itinerant Muse - Kathleen Jones Scribbling on Trains and Planes

Thinking, perhaps
I do love  Kathleen Jones' blog. It reflects her life as a  biographer, poet, teacher  and fiction writer of unique vision. Her blog reflects her life travelling the world and expresses her celebratory  and  principled approach to to life and literature. I asked her to be the guest blogger on Life Twice Tasted.

 Welcome Kathy...

'I’m writing this on a train - which is fairly normal for me, since I seem to be almost always on the move.  My partner works in Italy, our home is in the north of England, and my work as a writer takes me frequently to London and beyond.  Research trips for books have taken me to America, New Zealand, most of Europe, Russia, Cambodia and Australia. Before that, in another life, I was an engineer’s wife, trekking my children from one developing country to another across Africa and the Middle East.  You could say that I’ve learned to live like a nomad, with everything I need in my suitcase.
             All this travel is exciting and there’s all the input and stimulus that a writer needs, but it’s also necessary to have quiet, reflective, creative space to actually produce anything.  And that’s the hardest thing to achieve - a block of time to develop an idea in your head and put it down on paper.  I’ve learnt to use ‘transitional moments’ between one place and the next.  Trains and planes, buses and cafes - hours of time in limbo.   When you’re travelling, there’s no nagging list of ‘must do’s’, no washing up, no unexpected visitors.  Switch off the mobile phone and you’re secure.  The mind and imagination float free and - because nature hates a vacuum - all sorts of words and images begin to appear.
          Lots of writers have made use of the in-between spaces.  Katherine Mansfield  sometimes wrote on the staircase, which she saw as a transitional space, like a railway station - one had departed, but not quite arrived, and it became an alternative universe of space and time to be inhabited.   As AA Milne put it:
 Halfway up the stairs isn't up and isn't down.
It isn't in the nursery, it isn't in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts run round my head.
It isn't really anywhere, it's somewhere else instead.

            All this travelling has had an effect on the kind of things that I write.  Serendipity.  I’ve never concentrated on one genre, but always taken what turned up.  In the middle east it was English broadcasting for a local government station serving the Arabian Gulf states.  Then it was going a series of programmes for Woman’s Hour on what it was like to be a European woman living in an Arab world.  I’d have a go at almost anything - poetry readings in supermarkets, magazine articles on witchcraft, biographies of other writers I’ve admired, stories dug out of my own weird life.  Maybe I’d have been more successful if I’d stuck to one thing - but I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much!
              Although there’s a small part of me that longs to be ‘rooted in one dear, perpetual place’, as Yeats put it, the rest of my personality experiences a thrill of anticipation at the thought of travel - I can’t see a plane overhead, or a lighted train passing in the night, without wanting to be on it.   This passion for travel must be in my DNA - my mother’s family were seafarers who travelled the globe on ships and brought home foreign women as wives.   My father’s family were itinerant Irish, cattle drovers and horse dealers.
            But, for the itinerant writer, what happens to that sense of belonging, of writing out of place, the father/mother-land, believed to be essential for a writer?
             My roots, my sense of belonging, will always be in the north of England, Cumbria, in the wild landscape where I was born and brought up.  But even then we didn’t stay long in one place.  I was born in a farm labourer’s cottage not far from Caldbeck, then taken at the age of 3 to live on a remote croft in the Cheviot hills between England and Scotland.  At the age of 8 we moved back to the lake district, where my father had a farm manager’s job, before he begged and borrowed enough money to buy a small, ruinous (in both senses)  hill farm in the Uldale fells.  Different schools, different houses;  I became very independent and used to relying on my own resources.  Eventually my father went bankrupt and moved again, and I decided to go to London, where my real travelling (and writing) began.
        There are places I can’t write - places too noisy and busy, where I can’t settle.   And I can’t write when I’m stressed and anxious.  It was particularly difficult when my children were small.  We once lived in a hotel room for four months in the middle east, and we were shuffled round a series of rented apartments and other people’s houses - sometimes moving two or three times a year. Electricity and water were fragile things - not to be taken for granted. There was a busy expatriate social life I came to hate.   I learned to write in my head, memorising things to be written down as soon as I could snatch a moment. 
            I discovered that there’s a space inside your head you can go into and close the door, a parallel world of imagination.  Like Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement it usually appears when you need it. But no amount of searching will reveal it - the door opens by magic.  I’m always afraid that one day it won’t, and that the impulse to create will have vanished overnight, regardless of where I am at the time.  
            I’ve just written the last paragraphs in the airport departure lounge - plane an hour late - and, though I’m aware of the throng of people around me, it’s as though I’m in a little bubble of time, suspended out of real life for a moment.  In transit.  Very odd, but after so many years I now  recognise that it’s part of how and where I write.

© Kathleen Jones

Saturday 10 March 2012

Birthday Vibes: Translucent Butter Muslin


I wake up trembling

Time vibrating, tolling

Like a church bell


I see you standing there

dressed in yellow, arms raised -

backlit translucent butter muslin

Visions pulsing like stars before my eye:

You, with red hair in a fluffy coat

You, in sky blue crêpe party dress -

toggled at the neck in amber

You, in a silk dress, smiling -

he stoops, his arm slung

around your shoulders

You, standing straight and crisp

in your blue uniforn

silver buckle belted

A Place For Naming


The third of four children,

I slipped out barely noticed

among the dogs of war

and other fine distractions.

Later on I made you tea

and passed hard tests,

wrote so many books

just to please your heart

and catch your eye

There is the legend -

a story told so many times -

of me in your arms, you walking

to the church, waist high in snow -

to expunge your sin

and endow me with

a name made up by the man

who loved lost boys.


I see you standing here

dressed in yellow, arms raised -

all translucent butter muslin

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Work in Progress: Recipe For Good Writing

It's lovely to be at the final stages of editing a long novel  but it can make your head hurt. At this point you have to juggle in your head with the ongoing narrative, the whole cast of characters, the themes, the atmosphere, and the setting all at once. But as well as this you have to make narrative flow, clear the undergrowth and retain its complexity, while allowing your readers true access to your meaning.

It occurred to me on this edit-run how important is the symbolism of food  to this novel; how meals can bring all these head-hurting aspects together.

Early in the novel American Tom Roache  surveys the table:

Tom looked up from his delicious porc aux cerises and surveyed the long table in the cloister. Ruthie Dancing was sitting at one end with Jonathon Tye to the right of her and the dark Spanish- looking boy in the washed out T shirt on her left. Jonathan was ignoring his hostess and concentrating on the plump feline girl on his right, whose eyes had flickered across to Tom more than once.  Here’s a chancer, Tom thought.

Ruthie was deep in conversation with the boy.Tom wondered about the boy:an unusual sort of guy for this kind of writing malarkey. He looked out of place and was therefore infinitely more interesting than anyone else around the table. Tom sometimes thought that gatherings of writers could be rather samey. He’d been to a few in his time: they could be drenched with cynicism, spite and the disabling atmosphere of people watching their backs.

Further down the table was the thin Englishwoman who had snubbed Tom on the plane: apparently she was a poet, name of Mariela. At this moment she was glumly working her way through what looked like porridge in a wonderfully bright blue earthenware bowl that had been brought down the courtyard, with some ceremony, by the Frenchman, Serge, who had placed it before the poet as though it contained pearls of great price. Serge was sitting beside her now, enjoying his own Porc au Cherises, chatting away to the poet. Tom could not tell from this angle whether or not the woman was responding.

Beside Serge sat the old lady Francine, who was deep in conversation with Aurélie LeBrun. They were talking in French and Aurélie was laughing and nodding. She was still wearing a rather distinguished chef’s apron and the fair hair that had escaped from her severe chignon was hanging in baby curls round her face.

Tom was fascinated by Aurélie. She was deeply attractive. But, having been bitten a couple of times in recent years, he now steered clear of attractive, mature women. Some of them, daughters of women of liberation, had been bred to believe they could and should have it all. Having it all – in the case of two fine women of his acquaintance – had meant owning his heart and creative soul as well as that of their hapless husbands. Having been stuck in such ambiguous mud a couple of times, these days he chose to stick to friendship. And women did  make fine friends.

Now, he appreciated Aurélie le Brun's grace as she stood up and gathered in the plates - helped by the boy Joe - and informed people they should retain their knives and forks.

At that point Serge LeBrun vanished down the courtyard and returned with a custard-yellow cheese - the size of a small wheel - on a board in one hand and a smaller white cheese on a blue plate in the other. He placed that before Mariela, the large cheese in front of himself and, without asking, cut everyone a slice and passed them around on small plates.

Tom didn’t care for cheese but, minding his manners, he took a nibble. It tasted tangy, salty in the middle and sweet at the edges. He found himself eating the lot, nibble by nibble. Aurélie returned from the kitchen with an apple tart the size of a bin lid. They ate their tart ate off their cheese plate, gathering crumbs of cheese enhanced by the sweetness of the apple. Serge brought a large shiny apple for Mariela. She looked at it resentfully but still took a very small bite, then another. Then another.

Just as Francine was taking her last dainty bite of the apple tart Aurélie tinkled her glass with her spoon and nodded towards Ruthie who resisted the pressure to stand up. Everyone looked at her expectantly. Jonno’s chair creaked as he sat back and folded his arms. The girl Abby smirked at Tom who raised his eyebrows, stern faced.

‘Well,’ Ruthie folded her napkin. She looked at them, from one face to another. ‘I suppose I should say something. I’ve welcomed you all individually and now I welcome you as a group. First, I’d like to thank my partners Aurélie and Serge for launching our retreat with this delicious meal.’ Tom led the patter of applause. Serge grinned and gave a vaguely military salute. Aurélie bowed her head gracefully.

Ruthie went on. ‘It’s great to see you here by the cloister talking and eating together, getting to know each other. I decided we wouldn’t to that awful thing of speaking about ourselves one by one. I’ve always hated that myself so can’t see why I should impose it in my own retreat.’

‘Bravo!’ said Francine quietly. And others round the table nodded and smiled. Except for Jonathan, whose glance had wandered across the courtyard up to the house and then further up to the wide blue sky. Tom thought he was either bored or embarrassed: hard to tell.

Aurélie and Serge were standing now, back from the table. Aurélie smiled. 'We do have some simple rules about the domestic arrangements.’  ...

‘I do have one question,’ said Tom Roache, looking straight at Aurélie . ‘Just how did you make the pork so very fine? I have never tasted such delicious pork.’

Aurélie beamed. ‘Thank you Tom. Me, I am not the  writer but I will write it down specially for you.’ Her gaze met his and for a moment he forgot hus good intentions about mature women.

Later that night the recipe turned up on the table:

Aurélie’s Roti de Porc aux Cherises
You need1 boneless, rolled pork loin or shoulder , 2 tablespoons olive oil , A couple of bay leaves , A sprig or two of thyme

250g cherries (stoned) or redcurrants , 10 sage leaves, roughly chopped , 2 onions, diced , 3 cloves of garlic, sliced 1 tablespoon runny honey , 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, 1 biggish glass of rosé, white wine or cider ,Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Season the pork well with salt and pepper. Warm the olive oil over a medium high heat in a large casserole and brown the meat all over, then remove it from the pan and set it aside. Reduce the heat, add the onions with the bay leaves and thyme and sauté until soft and translucent, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and stir for another couple of minutes, then add the sage, honey, soy sauce, balsamic and wine or cider. Give it all a good stir, then tip in the fruit and return the pork to the pan. Bring to a simmer, cover with a tightly fitting lid and cook gently over a low heat for about an hour and a quarter. Keep an eye on it. You might need to splash in a little more booze or water halfway through, though I didn’t. Serve the pork cut in thin slices with the sauce spooned over. The pork is also excellent the next day, cold, and sliced into salads or sandwiches.

Bon Appetit! Aurélie – Baises xxx

I know! I know! It's not perfect, but it's getting there...Wx

Sunday 4 March 2012

A Thousand Year Old Chinese Poem

While working in prison I met an elegant Chinese girl whose English was excellent and who at that time was working her way through Jane Austen. Her name was Xiaocsia He - first name pronounced  Shargia. She did some great work with me, including a short story which was read on th4 BBC and the beginning of a very ambitious novel set in China. One day she brought me a page of Chinese letters. She said it was a thousand year old Chinese poem and could we work on it as you couldn't do it word for word, you had to proceed concept by concept. So we worked together to render it into elegant English. Here it is,,,

We are parting
at the time when the leaves
are withered and keep on falling

The cutting winds of autumn
batter my heart,
bringing sorrow to every part
of my mind and my body
making me die inside.

Now, all I have to cherish
are our bygone times, our old days.
Oh! In what time of our lives
in what part of the world
could you and I ever meet again?

Collaborative Tanslation: Xiaocsia He & Wendy Robertson

This is a very poignant poem, considering her situation. Xiaocsia is back in China now, no doubt making her way in a better life.

Friday 2 March 2012

The Writing Game: Writing Behind Bars

My preoccupation on this month's  Writing Game programme is Writing Behind Bars

It's always good to talk to other writers. This week it has been a special inspirational treat to talk to two other writers with  experience of working in prisons.

I will begin with a story. One day I was walking down Newgate Street in Bishop Auckland. Towards me came a group of three people: a woman in her forties, a woman in her early Twenties and a little girl of three of or four. The young woman tugged her mother’s arm ands said, ‘Look Mam, this is the writing woman.’

We all smiled and nodded and I said how beautiful the little girl was. I had seen her photo as a baby when her mother was in prison. I asked the young woman if she was still writing. She shrugged and said there was no time, on the out. ‘But I still have my poems.’ She turned to her mother. ‘Don’t I Mam?’

This can happen to me now and then because the prison where I was writer in residence was in the main a local prison with many of the women there from our local communities.

On the programme (broadcast Sunday 4th March at 12 noon) I share the experience of working creatively in prison with my two guests

They are Avril Joy – a friend of the Writing Game – who worked for twenty five years at Low Newton Women’s prison as a teacher and later as head of Learning and Skills before becoming a full time writer. (see her blog on imprisonment at )

She has now published two great novels The Sweet Track and The Orchid House, and has a novella and a short story collection on Kindle about women who end up in prison - When You hear the Birds Sing, and Susie Drew and Other Stories.

The other writer is Richard Hardwick who is at present writer in residence at Frankland men’s prison in Durham. He has previously worked in neuro-linguistic programming and worked with young people in social care. He has since published a well received novel Kicked Out and a moving memoir Andalucia. Avril and Richard read from their work on the programme. (Contact: )

On the programme the three of us sit around the fire in my study and discuss our experiences working as teachers and writers in prison. I worked out that between us we have nearly thirty four years between us, so there was a lot to talk about. The talk ranges from the difficult context of prison, the dark times, the laughter the ordinary and the extraordinary nature of the people one meets inside. We talk about the way the creative writing process can contribute to the lives of prisoners and how it affects the work of the writers who go into prison to do this work.

This was quite an emotional programme. One of my conclusions is that the hard experiences discussed here are not far from any of us. When I was working with women in prison I often thought, there but the grace of god go I. or my sister, or my daughter. I wrote a book about it, Paulie's Web.  (see sidebar)

If you want to listen again, remember that this programme is available as a podcast from Bishop FM or as a free download on iTunes. You can also listen to it on your computer.



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