Monday 27 April 2015

Fiction and the Armchair Traveller

 (NB This article was first published in the Northern Echo on Saturday 25th April.)

 ‘Just right for the armchair traveller,’ an agent told me, having  read my new novel, Writing at the Maison Bleue.

I never went on holiday as a child living in a small house on a short street in a little South Durham town. That is, apart from a bus-ride to stay overnight with a relative, or a day train trip to local beauty spots Crimdon Dene, Seaton Carew or Whitley Bay.
But even then, in my head, I had journeyed to many exotic places. This was because my mother Barbara was a dedicated reader of books from the library located in a double fronted house at the end of our short street.
So, week by week, our small house was littered with books evoking faraway places like Zanzibar, Peru, South Africa, Borneo, Delhi, Hong Cong, and San Francisco. And that other faraway place: London.
It’s true that at that time these novels reflected an unreconstructed British Empire view of the world, but still they brightened my mother’s world, taking her away from her life as a single parent bringing up four children on low factory wages.
And from the age of eight - as a rather forward child - I was keeping up with her, travelling with her to these faraway places.   So from that small house in the short street in the small town in South Durham I had a an intriguingly wide  view of a world not limited by place, class or time.

This was how I began my career as an armchair traveller and, coincidentally, a writer and novelist.

The novels I read –as good novels do – made these strange places familiar. Without crossing the
threshold of my small house I could walk the mean streets of San Francisco, queue up for my entry to the Coliseum in Rome through the gladiator’s gate, ride through the Rocky Mountains, climb the Eiffel Tower and ride a rickshaw in Shanghai.
In time, when I grew up,  I got to visit such places and check the truth behind the fiction. I was never disappointed. Although there was much new stuff to discover I was pleased I hadn't come to them as a stranger.
I don’t think I am alone in my experience. Many people nowadays live a busy, hurried intense lives and they look forward to holidays which are much more common now than they were in my childhood. Certain people  warm their winters by collecting books to read by the pool or in the garden chair. Or they will read them during the winter so that they don’t arrive at their destination as a stranger.
This was the way, amongst many other fiction writers, I got to ‘know’ Henry James’ Florence, James Joyce’s Dublin, Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and Chinue Achebe’s Nigeria. And more recently, Kate Mosse and Sebastian Faulks’s France and Louis de Berniere’s Cephalonia and Solzhenitsyn’s Russia.
There is a difference, of course, between reading as an armchair traveller and reading while abroad. These days when I pack my bag to travel abroad in the flesh I choose novels to read at leisure by the French harbour and alongside of the French canal. The leisure time is enticing. Unlike the armchair fiction which I have read through the cold English winters the novels I take can be anything, from recent national and international prize-winners, to new novels by friends, or recommended by them.
 I am known to compete with my lovely son-in-law as to how many books we can get through in three weeks. He usually wins.
Packing your books can add (often welcome) weight to your luggage. But the advent of reading on Kindle and other eBooks has allowed some readers to ‘load up’ their machine with a dozen or so books and lighten their literary luggage. My practice is to combine the two methods. I must say I like the rustle of pages as I flick through them in the sunshine.
The odd thing for me nowadays is that   novels that other people read during the cold winters, or take for their summer’s travelling  in paperback  or  on their Kindle  - these could be books written by me! 
This is especially so because two recent titles are set in the deep South West of France. 

My newest title, Writing at the Maison Bleue, is set in a fascinating house by the Canal du Midi.

 I know this part of France well, having travelled their consistently through the last ten years. Of course underpinning this physical experience has been my lifelong obsession with reading fiction (and fact!) about France.
This made me a Francophile even before I landed. It was a familiar place to me even when I first arrived. So it’s rather nice  that one early reviewer said the novel was ‘a must for Francophiles.'

All this  might seem a long way for that little girl in a small house on a short street in a little South Durham town. But it’s not that far really. Only as far as the library.

Writing at the Maison Bleue is available at libraries
 and in print and Kindle form HERE   

The official launch is on Friday 1st May (7.30 – 9.30)  The Lafkaido Hearn Culture Centre at the University of Japan Mill Lane Durham City County Durham DH1 3YB  (Opposite the Oriental Museum)  Parking Available

The novel is available from libraries
and in print and on Kindle from

What books will you take on holiday?  

Make me a list of three books and a sentence saying why you will take them.
I will  feature the three most interesting lists here on the blog
and  I will send these readers a free PDF copy
 of ‘Writing at the Maison Bleue.'

Send them to Wendy at

Saturday 25 April 2015

Until today Joe hadn’t talked very much with Lolla about his writing

Joe, at 19 is the youngest writer at the Mason Bleue retreat. He makes good friends with the oldest writer there: eighty-odd year old Francine. And he makes friends with the celebrity guest writer Kit Hallam.  

Excerpt from Writing at the Maison Bleue 

[...] It was on Giro day when the Award  letter came through Joe’s door. He celebrated his award with his girlfriend Lolla at the Black Bull - their usual meeting place on a corner at a decent distance from their respective hostels.
‘A thousand quid? Y..yum! ’ Lolla smacked her pouting lips – not really a pretty sight. ‘We can celebrate on that, Joe.’ For Lolla celebrating meant something serious up her nose or down her throat. At least, thought Joe,  she did this in a quiet fashion. She had told him more than once that she hated anything vulgar. There were people around them who were vulgar. And that, she said, was the worst thing in the world.
Joe shook his head. ‘No cash, Loll. Really, like! Says here the Award covers the plane and this place on the river. Sunshine and writing. And talking.’ He frowned. ‘Dunno whether I’ll like that. Talking.’ He frowned. ‘Good job I got a passport.’ He said thoughtfully.
His social worker had got him a passport when Jonny Green, a singer who had been in the same care home before his rise to fame, had treated the present generation of kids there to a beach holiday in Spain. In the end Joe had not gone because he’d been in a fight and was seen to have blotted his copybook.
Now Lolla pouted, her eyes gleaming through the long blackened lashes that flapped against her fringe. ‘Not fair, that, Joey. You should see some cash shouldn’t yer? Won the competition didn’t yer?’
Until today he hadn’t talked very much about his writing with Lolla . The writing was mostly his private thing.

In his heart of hearts Joe agreed with Lolla. He wondered if all the winners of the Room to Write Awards got their prize in vouchers and tickets. Or was it just those who lived in hostels for  outsiders?  Maybe it was like clothes vouchers for the needy  He knew he was not as needy as some of his other acquaintances because luckily drugs had turned out to be not his bag. It was a fact that drugs had been pushed onto him in prison when things became hard. And it was true that when he got out he was still using. But he had been rescued from sliding down that road by a guy called Cragan whom he met in the Black Bull. Cragan helped him to get off the gear for good. These days even the thought of the gear made him gag. [...] 

When Joe is writing he starts by making lists

Here's one of the  lists that he leaves on the salon table:

Joe Conroy

Trace at the Seaside -

- Fat Bob and skinny Joan, on duty
- Bob drives the minibus.
-The sea boiling up like soup
- The darker sky simmering like grey custard
- The mini-bus stinking
-  of dinner, salt, vinegar crisps and hair-gel
- Bob and Joan light off to Kind William pub
- As they walk away Bob touches Joan’s arse
- Glass box with weird talking clown – one lass runs off screaming
- Five pound-coins in Trace’s paw
- Bag of chips, ice lolly and three goes on the Waltzer
- Whirling round and round and round
- Sea, lighthouse funfair.
- Sea, lighthouse, funfair
- Woozy, seasick, Trace falls into the arms of a lad with red socks
-They race the tide and the tide wins
- Sheltering from the rain, tucked under the cliff
-  Fucking in the rain that fingers his bare arse
- The boy in red socks can’t manage
- Rain stops. Trace laughs. The lad
- punches her in the stomach and runs
- Trace is sick into a rock-pool 
-  size of giant’s foot
- hermit crabs scuttling for dinner

Friday 24 April 2015

Ruthie's Idea of a Writing Retreat

Another sample of prose from Writing at the Maison Bleue.   It all started when Ruthie Dancing, a crime writer, met Aurelie leBrun on the place and they made a deal,


A doorway to new writing 

This idea of a writing retreat had been running around in Ruthie Dancing’s head for years. She had nearly pulled it off once, just after she finished working in the prison, but then the idea aborted.  She did this quite often - trying an idea until it broke. She would say that it was a bit like writing your way to half way through a novel and then abandoning it: all part of the creative process.

(On the plane Ruthie tells completer stranger Aurelie leBrun about her dream of a retreat.)

Ruthie’s shoulders sag.  ‘Not possible. Short of resources - and any real business sense if I’m honest. I like to write and I want to share this. But …’
Now Aurélie frowns again, her face concentrating. ‘I have it!’ her fluting voice penetrates the gruff hum of the plane and the crackle of conversation from the other travellers. ‘I have it, Ruthie.’
I’m puzzled. ‘You have what?’
‘I have the house!  I have a house which I develop. Mon cher Serge and I, we take houses and make them good. So many poor old houses in our district waiting for our kind hands. Young people now in France like to build new. They scorn the old. You will have this house Ruthie. You will have this house for your retreats. For your writers and your writing....’ 
Ruthie is perplexed. ‘So …’
Aurélie puts a slim, manicured hand on Ruthie’s arm. ‘Your writers will retreat to my house, which is called Maison Bleue. This beautiful house sits on the banks of our wonderful Cana du Midi.  You will make your fine retreat in my house. We will share the profits.’
‘Profits? I don’t know about profits.’
‘Ruthie!’ Aurélie says firmly. ‘I assure you. There will be profits!’

Old French wood and the ubiquitous  turquoise

 If you would like read the whole of  Writing at the Maison Bleue click HERE

Saturday 18 April 2015

Sharing Writing on the Salon Table:

I thought you might like a sample of prose from Writing at the Maison Bleue. Writers at the Maison Bleu retreat share their writing by leaving a sample on the table in the great salon in the house by the Canal du Midi.

Veteran writer Francine's  'writing on the table' speaks of her adventures forty years before when she was a child in France in World War Two.

She has been left without her parents 

in the harbour town of Agde


At the deserted refuge I choose a small case from my mother’s collection and in it pack my schoolbooks, two suits that I cut down from suits made for my mother, the shoes with tyre soles that Auguste made for me, my red scarf, the little black and white photograph me and my mother at the door of the house where I grew up. A photograph of me on my bicycle, taken by Auguste. The little package with my mother’s cherry red dress. On top of them I put a cardboard folder with my butcher’s-paper stories on them. I add in more empty sheets where I decide will write more of my life out there in that secret place the country.
            I will have to hold in my head the images of Auguste’s harmless kisses and the loving touches we shared behind the scenes at the blue house.  And I will remember the bad things that went on there. The things we did.
           I wedge the suitcase on my bicycle and walk it down to the harbour. Madame Griche is there outside the laundress’s door, now closed and locked. She has her heavy bicycle with her, with the baskets back and front quite common these days.
I look for Auguste and his mother. But there is no sign them him.   I will not be able to kiss him goodbye.

Writers Francine, Joe, Mariella, Abby, Felix,  Kit and Tom all leave very different examples of writing on the table in the salon at the Maison Bleuethat tells us a great  deal about them and their role in the story.

Hope you are enjoying the book!


Saturday 11 April 2015

Julia Darling and a Way of Speaking on Radio 4

A few weeks ago my friends Gillian Wales, Avril Joy and I - with our of  RoomToWrite hats on -   hosted a playwriting workshop to mark the tenth anniversary of the cruelly early death of our friend, the brilliant writer Julia Darling 

As I posted here, on LifeTwiceTasted, this was an inspiring and practical event
which reflected something of  the joy of our friend Julia who was always a popular and inspiring presence here in South Durham.
So I was delighted to hear – during my midnight listening - that the BBC are also commemorating Julia’s unique contribution to contemporary literary culture by broadcasting her work during this week. 
The broadcast is based on the tragic/comic lyrical diaries that Julia kept in the last three years of her life when she was in the latter stages of breast cancer. The diaries breathe her unique, intensely human, sense of the tragedy, the comedy and the ironies of   the process she was undergoing. To make poetry of this process, as she did, is the gift of angels.
So the BBC programme was, I thought, something to look forward to, to remember her and keep her alive in our hearts.
Then I was somewhat surprised, when I listened to a trailer-outtake from the drama when I heard the actress ‘being Julia’ speaking with a distinctive Tyneside accent.
Now the actress was good; it sounded great. I love our varied North Eastern ways of speaking which have larger or smaller echoes linking  individuals with the cities of Newcastle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough as well as the diverse countryside communities in between. And then we have other incomers here from all over Britain and the world with their own ways of speaking, I have antecedents in Wales and Scotland. My friend has antecedents in Lahore and Belgium.  These ways of speaking reflect the varied history and culture of the broad North East region. It is our way of speaking but it is no single accent.
We  can be very uneasy, then, about all this being squashed into a stereotyped ‘Geordie’ accent. We don’t all talk like Ant. Or Dec.
But – most important here - our inspiring friend Julia Darling used none of these identifiable modes of speech. She had a very good ear for speech and in her short stories and plays used her literary skill to allow these authentic modes of speech to play their proper theatrical part.   
But, as you will see from The Guardian obituary extract below, Julia was born in Winchester, went to Winchester Girl’s High School and lived in Berkshire. I will not say she had no accent – everybody, even the queen, has an accent. But, like all of us. Julia’s accent reflected her cultural background. Julia's plays demonstrated her good ear for local speech and gave powerful work to our talented North Eastern actors. As well as this Julia was a great reader and performer of her own writing, She had a lovely voice with a slightly deep intonation and  a smile somewhere inside it. She could do a North East accent but it was not her own mode of speech.
She certainly adopted the North East as her heart’s home and was part of our cultural map here. She was ‘our’ writer, But to render her poignant, last lyrical odyssey in any other way of speaking than her own -  as though she were a character in one of her own plays - seems mistaken to me.

I am pleased that the BBC has honoured her memory in this way and am looking forward to listening. But …

Extract from Julia’s Guardian Obituary: Julia was born at home in Winchester, the second of five children, in the house where Jane Austen died. Her father was a science teacher at Winchester College. She was educated at Winchester County high school for girls and St Christopher's school, Hertfordshire. She was a maverick and true original who, since childhood, had hated rules, control and authority. When she plastered anti-apartheid and women's right to choose posters on the windows of the house, the Jane Austen Society complained.

Click for Links: 

Monday 6 April 2015

The Joys of Being a Serious Writer, Susan Sontag, and Me

My Easter week-end was made joyful by sitting in my sunny back yard reading a long article by Maria Popova about the writings of Susan Sontag.  In this article Popova distils for us the essence of Sontag’s wisdom about the inner world of the serious writer and the outer world of the interested reader.

I suppose this holiday activity of mine makes me look what I am – a rather serious
person. I was serious as a child, serious as a teenager, a serious young and middle aged writer. And I continue to be serious.

This seriousness can be a guilty secret, to be disguised at any age. My love for ideas and cultural history was not cool in my youth; it was not cool in my middle years.  But now as I get older I have at last come out as ‘serious’ and am not dismayed when some  people label my love for ideas, culture and history as eccentric. This is very useful nowadays when being\serious and committed writer who values the stories over profit can makes one seem odd to some people.

In the contemporary world a peculiarly evolving literary snobbery has carved our story-world into a blunt-edged hierarchy which has spawned iron-clad genres to feed a market which takes an essentially patronising view of readers, underestimating the breadth of their world view and the subtlety of their understanding.

As I keep saying, I am a serious writer. I take the world around me seriously. I take my readers seriously - not least because through the years they have been loyal and have understood that my narrative fiction and my story-telling, while it contains its own joy and humour, has cultural meaning beyond the hearth, the house, the street, the town, the city and out into to the world beyond. 

So, when the location of my storytelling has moved out from my home region to as far afield at France, America, Singapore and Germany, my readers have stayed with me and enjoyed the stories. Perhaps they recognised my voice as a storyteller who knows her world and tells some truth about people relevant on their twentieth and twenty-first century world.

So, you will see how much, being a serious storyteller, I relished my afternoon in the sun in the company of Maria Popover and Susan Sontag.

First  I was pleased to read that Susan Sontag warns us writers to be serious, and never to be cynical.

Although I make no claims to be a great writer, I hope I am a good writer. So I warm to and identify with Sontag’s description of a great writer. ‘A great writer of fiction both creates – through the acts of the imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms – a new world that is unique, individual and responds to the world but is unknown to still more people [and shares it with] still more people, locked in their worlds: call that history or society or what you will.’

I love the way Sontag elevates story-telling to its proper high place in all cultures,  asserting that storytelling is literature’s great duty. ‘Storytelling, as well as being engaging and entertaining, transforms information into wisdom.’ The primary task of writing, she says, is to go on writing well – ‘neither burn out nor sell out.’
She is concerned that … everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom.

To write – and to read – is to know something. What a pleasure it is, she says, to read a writer who knows a great deal (not a common experience these days). A great writer of fiction, she says, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot but evoke better standards of justice and truthfulness.

So I have no need to apologise for knowing a lot about a lot.

Storytelling, as practiced by a novelist, has an ethical component. ‘Serious fiction writers think about moral problems in practical terms. They narrate, they stimulate the imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and therefore improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement.’

The act of reading is a close, intense and rewarding experience. The nature of moral judgement essentially depends on the capacity for paying attention on the part of both the writer and the reader.

She goes on: ‘A novelist […] is someone who takes us on a journey through space and time.’ I like this. I myself recently wrote in my newsletter The Writing Process that the writer is the pathfinder through the inspirations, information, events, characterisations and prose that form the bulk of a first major draft.

Quite coincidentally The Pathfinder is the title of my next novel, which will be out towards the end of the year.

So, all in all, my afternoon in the sun has reassured me that it is no bad thing to be a serious person and a serious writer.

 I am in the best of company.


Read Maria Popova’s whole article

Get Susan Sontag’s Essays and Speeches

Read my newsletter: The Writing Process.


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