Monday 27 May 2013

Chelsea and The Accidental Gardener

The lower bank. If you leave this land alone at all
 then bluebells sprout up everywhere.
(More pictures below...)
Walk around my garden with me...
I spent some coffee times last week enjoying the elegant and perfectly coiffed perfections of the Chelsea Flower Show. Debora   was there, as was gardening friend   Gillian. My friend Avril  was going to go but did not quite make it.                                   

 I did not envy them, as for one thing I don't like crowds; for another I am merely an accidental gardener. Oh and there's this third thing - flower names do not drip off my tongue like honey. The only one I remember is Alchemilla Mollis because its name scans and because it holds drops of rain like tears in its exquisite leaves. And it thrives in shade and my garden has lots of that . Oh, and I know Forget-Me-Nots and Love-Lies-Bleeding from my childhood fascination with the names.

Many years ago I did plant and grow things fairly successfully but once  I plunged myself into the compelling career of writing it totally engulfed  my planting, growing and making instincts,my hot-housing  and propagating energies. I stopped sewing too.

More then thirty years ago we bought this house in the middle of a small market town,  Built in 1870, the land on which it was built was carved out of a bit of ancient woodland. So  apart from a useful  lawn, our garden is  mostly trees and a long lumpy  bank. And it cannot be tamed; it  can only be gardened by accident.

I have featured the house - in various guises - in several of my novels but only this year in my new novel has the garden appeared as a significant part of the story. To do this I had to imagine this plot of land 1600 years ago when this area was a forest. That was fun
Extract: (Elen) '... No wonder they call this Oak Place. I walk and walk and the trees open out making a green space on each side of a trickling spring which steadies itself in a pool then spouts down the hill to join the bigger stream that I’ve just crossed.  Around the pool is a low wall cunningly built without joining mortar  - a thing they do very well in these parts. In one place the wall widens into a shelf lined with golden stone. Here are wilting flowers crowded together and already smelling of decay;  three finely crafted clay jugs;  two glittering bronze bracelets and in the corner  a sheaf of barley. I add an offering from my mother for whom this pool holds happy girlhood memories: a silver pendant set with green glass. As I set out on this journey she told me she hoped Branwen would be here at the pool to meet me....'                                                  Work In Progress,
Walk around my garden with me ...

Last year we cut down this giant tree but left the base as natural scuplture.

These grow wild right at the bottom of the garden, beside the long wall.

Companion growing - bluebells and well behaved dandelions

Forget-me-nots tumble onto the curving path

Bluebells are promiscuous. They go with everything/

Bluebells against the long bottom wall. I think the deep blue says these come from seed through several years, not from old bulbs. Here and there we have white flowers which I think suggests ancient bulbs still flowering.
The bottom bank. There was an old apple tree here once, but we lost it,

Glorious greens with Love-Lies-Bleeding

Dandelions mingling with buttercups and bluebells.

Champion campions keep the bluebells company

Trees dominate the garden,

Forget-Me-Nots and bluebells near the bottom path.

And more trees 

Neighbours through the trellis in what is, after all, a town garden.

Monday 20 May 2013

A Surreal Treat from The Pied Piper of Cullercoats

On Saturday our Room to Write Trio ploughed through walls of Northumberland Rain to spend a day at IRON AGE a very different literary Festival in the little fishing village if Cullercoats  on the North East Coast.  For five days the village hosted  the fortieth anniversary of IRON PRESS (set up in 1973): an example of independent publishing  to be celebrate in these days of depression and downgrading in the broader field of publishing.  

IRON PRESS is the literary child of one-off writer, playwright, cultural entrepreneur Peter Mortimer. Over the years what started out as the influential  literary magazine IRON  in the 1970s has evolved into a full blown independent publisher IRON PRESS,  dedicated to finding and publishing writers and poets of quality and originality.

Vintage IRON magazines in the window
of Oliver's bookshop on Cullercoats.

The festival was presided over by Cullerocoats' most illustrious literary resident Peter Mortimer who like the Pied Piper had enticed here hundreds of the literary and musically  minded young at heart  from across the north, including writers, poets, musicians - some to bread or perform, some to just relish the special atmosphere that seems to gather around Peter who has managed to sidestep the be-fogging bureaucratisation of the arts and retain his originality and iconoclastic vision of the nature of artistic enterprise.

Peter Mortimer: A literary Pied Piper - funny, clever, the doyen of original writing in the North East. Every region should have one.    

Novelist Kitty Fitzgerald reads a short story from her new collection Miranda's Shadow.  The talented Kitty works alongside Peter Mortimer as editor and quality controller to ensure the high standard ot the IRON PRESS list. She has been the other  key player in the success of this vivid festival,

One venue for the readings and performances was the Lifeboat Station witt this marvelous view of the Cullercoats harbour. Very moody. Worth a poem in anybody's page.

Despite the weather they built a symbolic Flat Iron 'birthday cake' on the beach,complete with candles and the Number 40. Worth braving the weather.

The Carnival band played, making us dance about under a canopy in the rain, then led brave souls  onto the beach to march and caper around the 40th birthday cake.

Musicians in red and black
Blue sails of the Lifeboat Station in the background

Sweet music! On Saturday night  Bridie Jackson and her stunning group Arbour made ethereal music in The Community Centre, warming us up for  before the headlining David Almond event.

 (And more music in the evening when David's daughter  Freya Grace and her friend sang a set for us alongside the poets  in the pub.)

After the Arbour performance David Almond read from his retrospective IRON PRESS publication NEST.
Listening to him read his own work is like listening to music crafted in spoken words. David is a friend so it is hard to reach for the proper superlatives. So i'll l let others speak for me....
Nesting - Short Stories by David Almond

"There is nobody quite like Almond writing in adults' or children's fiction today. A writer of visionary, Blakean intensity."
The Times
"David Almond's books are strange, unsettling wild things. They are, like all great literature, beyond classification:"
The Guardian

In a street a bit back from the harbour in Cullercoats we found this beautiful bookshop.

The interior could very well be an atmospheric setting for a  labyrinthine thriller.

Thank you Peter and Kitty for bringing true cultural warmth to a rainy day. 


Iron Press:  Iron Press 

David Almond  lDavid Almond
 Kitty Fitzgerald /Kitty Fitzgerald
Bridie Jackson  Bridie Jackson
Room to Write Room to Write


Wednesday 15 May 2013

A Writer's View of Youthful Romance

A little bit stir crazy and crazy to write, I  found myself in a local hotel with its own ancient history but  with modern spa facilities that mean as well as  the usual through-put  of ladies lunching and businessmen meeting and lovers assignating, you are sometimes treated to the sight of women with their hair up in toweling robes resting, after having a flash of fitness. 

Writing in such neutral places - escaping, relaxing entirely separate - can be a flash of fitness for a writer too. I've posted here on the blog before about the joys of  Cafe Writing. This evolves in a changing world.

I can be invisible in such places - useful for a writer who needs to think and imagine. Here I draft an introduction to the new book. I  think of where it goes from here. I estimate its direction and audit its possible impact. I write some notes on aggression that might end up as a poem in a year or two. Probably never. But at least that aggression is expressed, which could be therapeutic. Unexplored emotion can be ugly on the page.

While I've been busy in my other writing world a young couple enter the deserted lounge. They buy a beer and a latté and play musical chairs until they find just the right place to sit before a window on a deep couch.

She has her natural hair swept up and not a speck of make-up on her face.  With his stylish specs he is handsome in that geeky way that is so fashionable these days.

At each station they flip open a miniature laptop and peer at the little screen, saying nothing - squandering,  in my view,  a clear  opportunity for intimacy.

But who am I to judge the reality of this situation? This is surely only the modern version of the back row of the cinema where you listened to the dulcet Americanised tones of stars and looked at  the iconic images of great films, This was always so useful to cover up the tongue-tied awkwardness of that first or second - or tenth - date.  I remember you would both  look hard at the screen in silence while his hand crept along the back of the seat.

But then - if I remember rightly - that screen was very big: much larger than life. This screen in the silence of the hotel lounge is very small - no larger than the palms of two hands. And this girl and boy could very well be  guests at this rather sweet hotel where there are other spaces to get closer, and to say more.

Nothing like that in the 1960s. More's the pity.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Writing Out of Your Comfort Zone and the Perfect Apple Pie

Back to basics notebooks
Notebooks help you work outside
of your comfort zone.

Our second Back to Basics workshop seemed to go very well. 

More than twenty eager and interested writers focused with energy on  series of challenging tasks that related to the equally challenging tasks they completed last week.

After many years of organising workshops, this time, as mentioned in the earlier post  we have dispensed with the read-around and the more or less friendly talk-about-yourself interludes. I reckon now you don’t have to be somebody’s best friend to write alongside them.

One problem with the read-around  is that – apart from being time-consuming – it can be off-putting for neophytes and and occasionally vainglorious for the already experienced or talented.

(All this, of course, can be different with a much smaller longer-standing group where reading out and tutor led evaluation can be a learning experience for all.)

So this time, no ‘this is me’ no 'am I better at this than you or worse than this?’
Instead we had two hours of hard work and attention to almost minute details. You could almost hear the brains ticking, the thinly veiled anxiety/excitement.

We did relax a little over coffee, looking at writing in action in notebooks and reading hand-outs of inspirational quotations on this week’s theme of Place. There were some sidebar conversations about the sometimes confusing nature of memoir and the intriguing evolution of fact into fiction.

One very nice writer, nursing her coffee told me. ‘To be honest, last week’s session, though I enjoyed it, got me right out of my comfort zone about writing.’
‘Pleased about that,’ I said.’Out of your comfort zone is a good place to be. It’s from there that you make progress as a writer.’

The place for comfort zones is writing groups. They are brilliant support and interest groups. They are great at providing short term targets for specific pieces of writing.They are wonderful places to meet people of like interests.

However to stick too closely to this process can allow aspiring writers to stay fast in their comfort zone. In time it can be difficult to make real writing progress from within that comfort zone: the accomplished polish their accomplishment; beginners can flounder and not make progress. Even if you get better at the small steps it bresembles making a perfect apple pie every time and not extending your cuisine.

I related the 'comfort zone' comment to the larger group. To my relief there were nods of agreement all around, so I may have got that right.

So some hard work was achieved in this session where our dominating theme was how the nature of Place works to earn its space in our prose writing. The response was intense and lively, as our ‘out if comfort zone’ workshop went on its merry way.

It felt so much better than making the perfect apple pie yet again.

I’m looking forward now to next week  when we'll be thinking about the large scale creativity of the memoir or the story in fact and in fiction – a smorgasbord rather than an apple pie, perhaps.

I'm also looking forward to seeing some of the written outcomes of all this hard work ...

  Happy writing

Sunday 5 May 2013

The elegant Nicholas Evans talking to the twinkly James Nesbitt

I enjoyed watching the elegant  Nicholas Evans talking to the twinkly James Nesbitt  on the recent  Sky Arts Living The Life. I particularly identified with Nicholas Evans when he asserted that for him the great thing was thatevery novel is a very different thing. ‘Of course the publishers agree with this but in reality what they want is the same thing time and time again.’

When you think that this ‘same thing’ is the phenomenally successful Horse Whisperer you can have a smidgin of sympathy with the publisher, while still bewailing their lack of creative understanding  and obsession with the ‘safe bet’. They and their accountants would clearly wish for more of the same,

I’ve heard similar regrets from equally successful writers whom I will not name as we all know  criticism of one’s publishers is a tight rope to walk.,

These days  there is so much advice in the widespread HowToWrite industry about knowing your market and building your brand – as though novels were soap-powder or mobile phones. We’re urged to become our own agents, editors, PR people and publicists and developing our brand.  

That leaves in fifth place the hardest and the most original aspect - the actual invention of a world, giving the breath of life to a cast of characters, the driving of an arc of narrative and the spending of a year or three actually putting coherent words on the page.

I had no such insight when I started.  I had written this novel about a very special girl of fourteen in the year 1926, I called the novel Lizza after the main character. Not having read any How To books I chose a publisher at random (Hodder and Stoughton).and posted the package in the large slot at Spennymoor Post Office and they published it in hardback and paperback in the next year.

This novel was bought by libraries and was still being borrowed ten years later.
The Woman Who Drew BuildingsThey said it would be great for their Young Adult list. I’d never heard of Young Adult or any other genre. I wrote three more novels – very different to each other - which they guided into their young adult list.

But  all I did was write the novels that I wanted to write.

Then – still writing what I wanted to write -   I started to write bigger novels with a wider range of characters. These, I was told, were adult novels.  The first of these – a well researched intergenerational  historical novel - was taken by another publisher who slotted it very easily into what they were now calling the Saga category, Other novels followed – each very different - which also slotted into the convenient publishers’ category. They did moderately well sitting on the middle of the publisher’s list and were borrowed in hundreds of thousands from the libraries.

Then I progressed – pursuing the commitment that each novel should be different – to less easily categorised novels still with my focus on  good stories, original authentic characters moving now to accurate  twentieth century and contemporary historical backgrounds. Really my work was slipping out of the clearly marked saga territory and was, I sup[pose,  more difficult to market.

 Although distinctively twentieth century historical, Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker and The Woman Who Drew Buildings are not by any manner of means sagas. Nor are my later novels An Englishwoman in France (a slightly spooky novel about a woman whose daughter has been murdered).The same goes for my most recent novel - first called The Art of Retreating, now renamed The Search For Marie France which recedes from the present day to France during World War 2.

So, in my writing life I’ve kept my faith with myself and written the novels I wished to write. Then my very decent publishers – along with most other publishers – lost their faith in the popular well written mid-list.

The paradox is that, without exception, my novels continue do very well in libraries where the greatest readers follow their fancy.  Readers have followed me as I kept faith with myself and wrote the novels I was impelled to write. They just seem to turn up again and again to read something with my name on the cover, whether or not it looks like a saga cover, (Surely in twenty first century business-speak this should count as the best focus group ever??)

Where was I? Oh. With the elegant Mr Evans and the twinkly Mr Nesbitt
Their discussion was imbued with an almost feminine insight (compliment, that..) about their common  and uncommon backgrounds. We learnt about the bad karma of great professional success surfing the wave of personal misfortune. They spoke movingly about their mothers and with dealing with their different but equally tragic deaths.
It was fascinating watching these very different men with substantial artistic egos winkling from each other revelations which would have been unavailable in professional interviewers. There were signs of editing and cutting which indicated that it was part of a much longer, perhaps more rambling (perhaps even more interesting) conversation,
This is a great  format for exploring the field of popular culture. I would watch it again if your machinery allows it.

If this has caught a smidgen of  your interest – all my novels are in your library, on Amazon or on Kindle . Click.
Or to see a complete list of possibles categories  click here

Thursday 2 May 2013

Stop Press! Great Workshoppers.

Wednesday's workshop was great - more people that I'd expected but everyone set to with such a will, tackling the series of challenging tasks with energy and imagination. Some great words are emerging and two new people have asked to come to next week's workshops. They will be very welcome.

Wednesday 8th  2pm Bishop Auckland Town Hall. 
(Scroll  down to last post for details.)  

I was touched that my lovely sister Susan did
some great research  and found the house
 in North Wales  where  our
grandmother was born in the 1890s.
Now, there's a story there...


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