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

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Sweltering under the Paralympic Sun


Catapulted from sleepy mid Wales to central London -

I am now sitting in a leafy city garden eating gourmet avocado salad and drinking white wine. Overhead yet another jet flies by. Debora, the maker of said gourmet salad, tells me that for this month there have been more  jets directly overhead because the nearby Olympic stadium is a no-fly zone.

Despite the jets it feels green and peaceful here, like many surprising pockets of central London which confound the stranger’s expectations of a dark and dingy city. The new people just moved into the flat next door are working on their garden and Debora tells me of a man in a house nearby who has two beehives on his house.

We are somewhat exhausted today because we spent yesterday being roasted under hot sun watching wonderful athletic feats by remarkable paraympian athletes in the packed Olympic Stadium. This was smaller, more intimate than I'd expected. From where we sat we had a good view of the track events and a fair view of the long jump and the shot-put. Well edited television coverage obviously expands the whole shebang and makes it seem larger than life to the people at home in front of their television.

But I now know to be there was to apprehend a culture that was indeed larger than life, to witness the greater reality of the occasion. And this was not just about seeing the stoical, gifted and focused athletes competing before us, making us all more determined to try harder in our narrower lives. It was also about the crowd – lots of local voices and images reflecting our modern culturally diverse capital city alongside other faces and voices from the world. And so many families with children on the last day before schools round here began: children running up and down the aisles having fun, or being photographed against the arena, the Olympic flame in the background - historic images for the family albums.

The medal presentations seemed to come thick and fast, the massed audience applauding and standing up for winners from every country. One older man nearby stood each time to military attention, his thumbs to his trouser seams. I couldn’t stand up as my ankle was playing up a bit. But I was standing up with them all  in my heart.

And it was especially sweet at the end of the session to applaud David Weir when he was presented with his gold medal. If the beautiful stadium had had a roof it would have lifted as the whole crowd joined the athletes singing our own national anthem.

All this and wild flowers too...


Next - scrolling back to my weekend  in mid Wales with prison writers


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