Monday 26 November 2018

The Joy of Meeting Women of Substance

The Joy of Meeting Women of Substance

So, last Wednesday night I find myself in a crowded sitting room with twenty or so Women of Substance who are just finishing off a delicious three course buffet meal made by Kate C. who has invited me to meet this group and talk about writing in general and my novel Becoming Alice in particular.
These evenings are hosted by Kate as a part of her long-term project raising funds for the scanner appeal for Bishop Auckland Hospital.

The gathering here this evening tonight is impressive - smart women mostly in their 50s and 60s - experts in the domestic arts, I imagine. Many of them - like Kate - are involved in charities and projects in the town, raising money and supporting the community.

I meet a member of the WI committee which raises funds for women’s charities. Some women here volunteer for the Kynren Project which produces mind-blowing spectacular outdoor performances i the town regularly through the year. Some talk of volunteering in the unique Gallery of Mining art in the Market Place. Others volunteer in the new spectacular viewing tower in one corner of the marketplace. Some of them volunteer as guides in Auckland Castle Project, now being developed into a very significant historical location, fired by the desire to reinvigorate the town of Bishop Auckland and the wider region. I meet a retired bank manager and justice of the peace who has very interesting stories to tell. There are so many interesting stories here.

Writing from life
But I’m here tonight to tell of my own fictional stories especially the story of Becoming Alice. This is the first of three novels in a Lifespan trilogy stretching from 1941 to the year 2000. Not coincidentally the timespan of this trilogy is my own lifespan and also arguably the lifespan of many of the women here.

First Thoughts
Earlier in the week, discussing with Kate my themes for her fundraising supper, I mentioned my theory that all of my 30 or so novels are anchored to the reality of my own experience.
Kate said, ‘Oh I can see that you will have many stories to tell from your life.’ This made me put forward my theory that the novels cannot simply be a series of self-referring anecdotes. Far from it.

The Novels
Let’s look at locations. Many of my novels, including Becoming Alice, do feature aspects of my home region in terms of history and a sense of place. Some of my novels - including Becoming Alice - feature London through the decades. Then other of my novels are set in Russia, or partly in America, or in contemporary France, or in Civil War Spain or in World War 2 Singapore
In the span of the 20th century many of us have become much more fundamentally citizens of the world and our stories - published and unpublished - reflect this. 
It’s true that I have spent time in these locations and can anchor narratives in specific places and times. However while my novels spring out of experiences in my life, the complex process of creation (cooking?) means that the novels cannot be said to be autobiographical.

A Writer's Skills
In addition to her literary skills, any writer must use her skills of observation, her unique insight into her own experience, her own perceptions, her senses her own imagination – all grounded in her own intricate memory. In the case of historical novelists and science-fiction novelists underlying all these aspects has to be the ability to research, to dive into that time and that place, using as far as possible original materials - all these things are raw material for a novel.

The Process 
In this writer’s case it takes more than a year or so all these elements are transformed, complete with story inspiration and an ensemble characters who gradually move to centre stage. This is the process by which an 80,000 word novel is written. The process ensures that this novel is unique in itself and substantively different to all the other novels I have written

The Inspiration
So, talking to Kate made me think harder than usual about the difference between personal anecdote and an original creative story. That night I spun up a very usual useful analogy to share these ideas with this group of Women of Substance whose keynote is possibly domestic excellence.

The Cooking Analogy
There is a ripple of astonished laughter in the group when I explain, in an aside, that I am not domesticated and don’t cook. This, as I go on to explain, is perhaps compensated for by having a daughter who is a witty writer, gifted cook and journalist and something of a domestic goddess, although modest with it. 

Back To The Writing Of Novels.
It is worth thinking about the nature of cooking and recipes. An apple pie for instance. We start with a list  of quite separate ingredients either in our heads or in our cookbook: apples, flour, fat, eggs, salt-and-pepper and herbs. Each of these is a separate element. But fat is not an apple-pie, flour is not an apple pie et cetera et cetera. Across in fiction my  experiences, perceptions, senses et cetera are equally separate elements. They are are not stories; they are fragments of a life.

Making An Apple Pie 
The cook does elaborate things in a certain order and then mixes the ingredients and puts them in the oven for a specific amount of time. In this analogy these very separate ingredients are changed by the chemical process of heat and time into something qualitatively different from the original elements. So the pie that emerges is distinctive unique and can suit a whole range of tastes. The pie is not the person who put the ingredients together and cooked it -  it is a separate thing in itself. The people who eat the pie recognise it for what it is and apply their own cultural standards to the nature of their enjoyment.

For me this all works quite well when one applies it to the relationship between a writer and her novel. When the process works well the novel many be read and enjoyed by a whole range of readers across class, cultures and tastes.

An Ending
During the session there is quite a lot of laughter and close attention. At the end there are some very insightful questions and comments. And amazing stories. Many of these exceptional woman buy my books and incidentally contribute to Kate’s scanner fund.

Afterwards I am presented with beautiful yellow roses - not one but two bunches!
These Women of Substance do nothing by halves.


A New Publication on its way.
Another pie cooking?


Friday 26 October 2018

Borderlines in Poetry and Prose

Words are wonderful
phrases are fabulous
 sinewy and flexible
adapting to changing times
to cultural settings –
and informing identity politics
demolishing class boundaries –
liberating perceptions
and breaking down borders
I am increasingly fascinated – even preoccupied – by the shaky borderline between prose and poetry, between memoir and fiction, between poetry written and poetry performed, between people performing poetry and stand-up comedians,

Recently in one of my regular talk among the trees @whitworthhall with Avril Joy [1] we wandered into the fuzzy area between fact and fiction, truth and invention within the prose and poetry universe which we both inhabit.
After writing three well-received novels (Including the  winner of the People’s Prize, the stunning  Sometimes a River Song) and winning national prizes  for her for subtle and surprising short stories, Avril  Joy has now returned to a first and favourite literary form: poetry.
In this Whitworth conversation Avril reminded me that years ago I quoted to her John Braine’s assertion  [2] that the task of the novelist was ‘to move people through time and space’.
She went on to discuss some  poems she had been reading where on a second and third reading she noticed that the writer subtly established movement through time. Hence the reference to John Braine.. And so I learned that this can be a mantra for poets as well as prose writers like me.
Avril is now developing a subtle and insightful collection of unique poems inspired by her many years’ uniquely perceptive experience with women in prison; the metaphor of ‘moving through time’ is exceptionally appropriate here.   I’m now looking forward to the publication of this illuminating collection.
As for myself I would always identify as a writer of long fiction with the occasional dart into the short story form.  Of course even in the short story I see narrative and character to be the most important elements.  At the same time I’m perpetually concerned that the prose style is graceful and elegant enough to carry truth in the narrative with its various layers and characters with their unique identities
But then occasionally I feel the need to write very short because that seems to me to be the only way to express the explosions, reaction emotion and feeling that that are scattered through the observed life.

I would never have the nerve to call these ‘poems’.  I label them ‘short lines’ or ‘short pieces’. As regular readers here will know I have paraded samples of these pieces here on Life Twice Tasted. I have assembled two small collections of these pieces, one of which was a result of trawling my notebooks going back many years. 
The other collection of these short pieces, published under Dancing Through the Panic grew out of a period of anxiety and depression  and proved to help in a difficult period.

 It’s hardly surprising, then, that  I am drawn to poetry which seems to have an underlying narrative   - from the Victorian narrative poets to the evocative modern poetry of the American Robert Hass[4].
Thinking it through  I suppose in my writing  I’m preoccupied with the storying of either my own life or that of the characters in places and times which spring out of my imagination. The evidence for this is in all my novels, not least my latest novel, Becoming Alice. And this in itself is the outcome of a long life closely observed and freely interpreted.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Bullying, Medusa and a Lesson in Classics

Gathering dust on the wall of my hideaway writing room  I came across a fragment of a Caravaggio painting of the head of Medusa. Underneath this was a short-line piece I wrote more than a decade ago. In reading it again I was shot through with the pain I felt as a fifteen year old schoolgirl being bawled at an bullied by boys in my school, who nicknamed me Medusa because of my wild uncombed mop of hair.

I can understand now that writing this painful piece brought some kind of delayed resolution. But even today I can see from these lines that the scars of the hurt are still there.

Bullying, Medusa and a Lesson in Classics.

In our classics lesson we learn that
Μέδουσα means guardian, protectress –
a child of strange parents. People saw her
as a monster with living,
writhing snakes for a top-knot.

The boys turn their gaze on me. One says
‘Just take a look at that lass, mate
And turn to stone. That Perseus guy -
didn’t he take her head for a weapon?
Didn’t he give it to the wise Athena –
To decorate her shield?’

His words freeze my face. Another boy says
‘What’s wrong with you, lass?Got your 
jam-rags on?’ Fear fuelled by the words 
of these clever sons of pitmen
crawls through my veins like fifty snakes -
lying there for some years, writhing.

These boys  win high marks for their classics homework -
their pages shimmer with the spirit of Perseus and his mates
as they kept a weather eye out for red ribbons
on the spiked horizon, wary of being waylaid
by the sweet songs of sirens, only to find themselves
shipwrecked through enchantment.

As the years roll on our lives change
and we take our true places in a changed world. 
I begin to think that, to call me Medusa,
perhaps these lads  feared my tangled Afro hair
Perhaps they felt an ancient fear
at meeting my  agonised, stony gaze

across the classroom..

Thursday 9 August 2018

Auntie Mim and Her Talent With Bullets

Searching around for names for characters which are time-appropriate and psychologically-appropriate for one’s creations characters is one of the engaging aspects of beginning a new novel. So in the past year in writing Becoming Alice I have been very involved with this character called Alice whom follow – with her family  - from age zero to the age of 11. She has become entirely real to me.

I can’t quite remember how and why I named my central character ‘Alice.’ In the end she just seemed to walk out of the mists and tell me that that was her name. ‘My name is Alice.’

However in recent days something has occurred to make me think that the mists out of which she walked was my own subconscious. It was only after finishing the novel and celebrating its publication has it occurred to me that I actually had two aunts called actually called Alice.

One was my mother’s sister who, among five clever and accomplished sisters, was the one who was just that little bit dizzy. Her sisters would say, ‘Oh well! You know, that’s just our Alice.’  The other Alice was my father’s sister who was christened Alice but throughout her life she was known  as Mim. They told me it was because as a small child she would say me-mim-me a lot. She got a lot of attention in the family.

Auntie Mim was brought to mind for me by the fact that people reading my posts about my new novel Becoming Alice and other preoccupations have also all  also been dipping into the archive and pulling up a post I wrote in 2010 called Auntie Mim And Her Talent With Bullets.

And as I said Auntie Mim’s birth name was Alice.

As in  all generations in our family  Auntie Mim was fascinated by words. Her brother - my father -  wrote wonderful letters, read loads and was an obsessive cross-worder.  My late brother not only did crosswords but created them as well. One highlight of his mature life was competing on Countdown. My sister, a keen reader, was an accomplished cross-worder until seduced by Sudoku.  I write for a living. My daughter and son both write and love words.  And so- on …

In the present day my blog here,  Lifetwicetasted, is part of the contemporary world of word-play, as is Twitter,  which I now ‘play’ just a bit.  (For uninitiated  this involves writing something in 140 characters or fewer and posting it on the Twitter site. Then anyone who reads it can respond to it  in 140 characters or fewer. And so on. Anyone can respond to anyone.)

There is a lot of verbal  flotsam and jetsam floating about out there.  But the ones I enjoy are cryptic, punchy, imaginative, speculative, fluid, quick. It’s amazing what you can get into 140 characters.*

I have to say, as a word-junkie, Twittering is fun. I am sure Auntie Mim would have loved it Twitter.

Of course there was  no Twitter in the 1930s and 40s  but Auntie Min was obsessed with this thing called Bullets  - competition with a curious similarity to Twitter a competition in The John Bull Magazine where you had to respond to a prompt and create cryptic associated phrases for the ‘Bullets’ competition. I can’t remember the number of words but it was tight. She  was quite good. She sent them away and  even won at trickle of money prizes now and then.

It seems to me now that she would have loved the mental gymnastics of Twitter. 

So, re-reading the post about Auntie Mim  the first time in some years. I can only speculate whether having two Aunties call Alice  lying there in my subconscious might have generated the name of my heroine in Becoming Alice.

There were many kind and interesting responses to my  post about Auntie Mim and the power of Bullets. But here are just two really significant and touching response which really stand out to me eight years later. I will share them here:

Anonymous3 August 2010 at 08:33

‘My father, John Irvine, won the biggest prize ever with a bullet in John Bull, in 1933. The money was 4,000 guineas (the equivalent today of £300,000.) He was a humble joiner in Paisley and with the money he moved with his family (wife and four children) to Troon, bought a bungalow and gave us all an education. He died at the age of 91. His winning bullet - at a time when monuments showing a soldier with a rifle were going up - was "Man with a Gun" (given words), completed by him with "Wasn't Greatest Sculptor's Design". I shall be eternally grateful to the John Bull magazine and to my father for the opportunity they gave us to better our lives.’ November 2010 at 03:57

‘I am one of John Irvine's children mentioned above. I am 81 now and the other three are still alive. Yes, we moved from a Paisley tenement into a Troon bungalow and went to Marr College where we got an excellent education. His winning bullet was considered at the time to be the cleverest there had been.’

That’s the power of words…

      * Afternote

I thought you might be entertained by a few of the tweets I cooked up by me in response to  The other people are highlighted if you want to know what they said…
To @paulmagrs Friendly Whitby ghosts mean I can be there in spirit, writing.
To @nwndirector Alnwick Castle water falls beat all earthly dress, even Phillipa's
To @daneetsteffens Truth is only the first step to understanding perhaps. Or understanding is a precondition for truth, more likely.
To @normblog An old friend of mine had a party to decorate her straw coffin, thus introducing meaning to her funeral - but not yet...
@Adelica Politicians wives wheeled out to order, in the old tradition of the vicar's wife or the wife of that old devil at the manor?

Friday 3 August 2018

An Illustrated Story of a Book Signing

I find that everyone has a story. This lady had been
in the navy before coming North,

I had a marvellous time yesterday with my friend writer Avril Joy* in Gordon Draper's wonderful Bishop Auckland Bondgate Bookshop. I have written here about visiting Gordon in his bookshop and seeing it as something of a magical book cave. Well I spent yesterday afternoon in the bookshop signing copies of Becoming Alice for pass passers-by and people – friends and strangers – who called in to wish me good luck with my novel.
*Avril took the photographs on my wonky camera. Thank you Avril,  as always.

 Norma tells Gordon about
 about her very successful
 Sedgefield Bookends Festival

Gordon had set up a table with flowers and - towards the end -  brought in a bottle of wine to celebrate. Unlike other more conventional book signings this event had a real sense of celebration. We were not just celebrating Alice we were also celebrating the survival of independent bookshop’s both new and second-hand in this world of corporate bookselling and the concept of books as commodities.

Hugh and Eileen - both keen writers - talk  about
 their reading and their writing

This was illustrated by the attendance at the signing of the Bishop Auckland Ambassadors - a group of people who are active in supporting independent and creative retailers in Bishop Auckland to  promote their creative endeavours  to newcomers and to the citizens of this unique town. The enthusiasm of the ambassadors for their project was inspirational in itself.

Another lovely thing yesterday was that, throughout the event  ordinary book customers - young and old -  wandered in. Anything about boxing? Anything about climbing? Anything about Irish History? These enquiries sent Gordon hunting through his stock. Some people who came for the signing also  bought other books. 

I take my work very seriously, of course.

A celebratory glass with Gordon, the magician of the Bondgate Book Cave.

And even I didn’t escape Gordon’s magic. Without really intending to I bought a book called Customers and Patrons of the Mad Trade – the Management of Lunacy in 18th-Century London. (Now, she thinks, there’s a novel there somewhere

As I have said many times it's All About Alice.

Monday 30 July 2018

Becoming Alice and the Art of Reviewing

 For me there is little doubt that reviewing is a fine art. These days more and more readers are trying their hand at it posting on Amazon comments and reviews of novels they have enjoyed.

In a timely fashion  journalist and reviewer Sharon Griffiths has just posted very helpful piece on how to tackle a review on the Damselfly Website under the   Reviews Tab. 

All this is on my mind because of a good example of this art -  a very sweet four star review from Steve Craggs at Saturday’s Northern Echo for my novel Becoming Alice.

Steve has the brilliant skill of delivering the context, scope and content of a story in less than a hundred words. I love this one. Thank you Steve.
Add caption

Here it is: ‘The Festival of Britain was coming a coming  of age for many who endured the horrors of the Second World War; especially in this instance for the trio of northern schoolgirl Alice, her photographer mother Ruth and Louis, sometimes forger; artist and teacher.   Hearts beat stronger, emotions are more vibrant and passions can be given free rein. Durham author Robertson has you hooked from the start.’

If other readers out there find themselves reading  Becoming Alice I would be terribly chuffed it you try your hand at reviewing – or simply leaving a comment -   on Amazon. WX

Links: Becoming AliceNorthern Echo The Art of  Reviewing  Damselfly Books 

Thursday 26 July 2018

The Horsebreaker. A Holiday Piece

This being the holiday season I though you might like this further edited piece  from the collection 'A Life in Short Pieces'. It was inspired by a holiday visit made by me and my little family to a Scottish farm in the 1970s. The children enjoyed it and so did I.

The Horse Breaker

 Now here is the man. His clanking boots
stamp the tender clover underfoot.
In his  wiry brown hand he clutches
a woven leather whip. His weathered face glows
and his  black eyes glitter -
ready for the work of his morning

Later today - in his thousand year ritual -
we’ll walk his fields, beat his boundaries,
and check his fences. He’ll point out the ruins
of antique houses, built stone on stone by
his own ancient forbears.

I’ll tramp across the fields by the side
of this man who breaks horses.
The sun is not shining but my face is glowing. I am-
feeling cool but still my features burn.
We stay by  a long gate and a bird spins upward
beating its wings in the cool air

The man makes kissing noises, his mouth pursed.
One horse snickers and -steam rising from its flanks -
Canters in our direction across the tussocky field.
The horse’s  roughened coat sports  a rank shine
and its mouth glitters with sores -
ancient scores, still not settled.

Now two birds spin upwards in
what looks like feral combat -
all fluttering and  hoarse chirruping  
a dispute with only one resolution


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