Sunday, 8 July 2018

Hooray for the Bonnets o' Bonnie Dundee

It's fortunate for me that one thing so often leads to another. Whilst I was in the Highlands of Scotland for a court case anyway, I got a little commission to write about marmalade. Like Paddington Bear, I've had a lifelong attraction to the stuff, so this was one I couldn't resist.

Arguments abound on the internet and elsewhere about the origin of marmalade. There's little doubt that preserves containing peel were eaten, and mentioned, as early as Shakespeare's time.  However, for me the definitive story is that, in 1700, a storm-tossed ship bearing a cargo of bitter Seville Oranges took shelter in Dundee harbour, off the coast of Scotland.

The ship's master sold the now damaged cargo to a local grocer, who was down on his luck and hopeful of saving the family fortune. Once he got the organges home, how many tons is not recorded, he and his wife discovered that they were too bitter to eat (wonder what she said to him? 'Wheesht, Mr Keiller,' probably).

Undaunted, she set about making jars and jars of preserves with the oranges, and thus the Keiller fortunes were not only restored, but remade a thousand fold.

Marmalade's still made today in Dundee, particularly by the Mackay family who use the traditional, copper-pan method.  For modern tastes, it is not sweet enough, apparently - but for me, it's a marvellous start to the day on toast or Scottish oatcakes. Just like Paddington bear, I've got to have some with me wherever I travel.

Marmalade used to be notoriously good for treating sea sickness, before the days of modern drugs. My Nana told me that this is the origin of the name, as in Mer Malade, particularly as the journey to France from Scotland, beating down the east coast in foul weather, was liable to produce plenty of mer malade.

This explanation seems lost in the mists of time, and if you Google 'marmalade' today, you'll get all kinds of explanations - that in Portugal they make a quince jam called 'marmelot', for example.

To me it seems tenuous, and who cares?

I'll stick with my Scottish Nan.

Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can
Come saddle my horses and call out my men
Unhook the West Port and let us gae free
For it's up with the bonnets o' Bonnie Dundee

Scottish Traditional 

Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

All Aboard for Camp Nano Wrimo

In the month when Saddleworth moor burned in the heat and England fans watched a football game to gladden their hearts, I whipped up to the beautiful highlands of Scotland for work.

The trip coincided with the run-up to Camp NanoWrimo. I've partaken of the annual November 'how fast can I churn 50,000 words of rubbish' that is Nano more than once - and adored it. For those who are looking puzzled, NanoWrimo is an international writing 'extravaganza' which takes place on the internet each autumn.  You sign up, it's all free, and you attempt to write a novel in one month.

Of course, most of these novels won't be saleable, but that's not really the aim. The idea is to devote that month, as best you can, to the project - even though you may have family, studies, work, a court case, whatever, to cope with as well.  It generates a huge sense of belonging and satisfaction, and voluntary donations to NanoWrimo have sponsored all kinds of charitable literacy projects since its inception.

Camp Nano is a different idea - like going to summer camp, but in the virtual sense. You don't have to write a novel - work on a play, a short story, anything at all. For the first time, I've chosen to share a cabin with 20 others and, like me, they're all editing a project.

These cabin mates are situated all over the world, but you only know where exactly if they choose to tell you.  You work under a 'username' in your pretend cabin, to protect everyone's privacy, and they don't see your work, unless you choose to share it. What they do follow is your progress against your stated goal - words written, pages revised, hours spent working in a creative bubble. You can chat, ask advice and share tips or documents. There are also daily lectures and 'word sprints', all kinds of extras.

Already, I'm sensing that some of my cabin mates could become Facebook friends - but one step at a time. I'm slavering at the prospect of immersing myself in creativity and camp-fire chat for the whole month.

Call me daft but when I sign into Camp Nano and see that tent and jungle screensaver gives me the sense of a real writing retreat.

Not all those who wander are lost ~ 
J.R.R. Tolkien 1893-1973

Jennifer Pittam has been published in: Aquarist & Pondkeeper, Astrology Monthly, Cosmopolitan,  Ether Books, People's Friend, Prediction Magazine, Romany Routes, The Lady. 

Competitions won: Coast to Coast Short Story Competition, 2nd Prize; Writers' Village Flash Fiction Competition, 1st Prize.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Tube Strike Riots? Not Really

So the entire London underground, which some call a Metro or Tube, closes because of an all-out strike. Are there punch-ups, furious rows, knife attacks on the staff ? Well, actually no. A few rants perhaps. In the face of adversity, the old Cockney humour erupts all over town.

We take to buses, we take to the overground, we take to the riverbus and to marching like one massive, over-age Sunday school outing. Since 98% of us have a mobile phone, we take to Twitter, with a hilarious hashtag game #tubeStrikeaPlay, in which you have to post a message based on both the strike and a play, song title or book. A modern, spontaneous version of 'Charades'. The first was the message #A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse! then someone replied with #Tu be or not Tu be? quickly followed by #Twelfth Strike ha ha!

Why do Londoners tolerate strike action at all? It's to do with history. There are almost no native Londoners - we were all immigrants once - in Celtic times and Roman, in Viking and Saxon. From Scotland after the Highland Clearances, and from Ireland after the Potato Famine. France gave us the French element when the Hugenots had to leave. We have Jewish Londoners from many parts of the globe by now after pogrom, holocaust and countless other outrages. More recently, refugees came from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria - the list goes on.

Any whiff of oppression, real or imagined, and something primeval surfaces.
'This must be just like the London Riots,' a group of schoolchildren tell me as we stand together at the bus stop. 'Everyone on the streets like this, init.'
 'Oh,' say I, 'in 2011 you mean? Were you there? That must have been scary for you.'
 'No,' they chorus. 'the apprentices riots in in 1595.' Apparently, they're doing it for a project.

 'Have you seen this one? they ask me, referring to Twitter again. #Much aqueue about Nothing
We clutch our sides laughing and they commandeer the whole of the bus queue into researching their project for them.

'Can you remember the apprentice riots ma'am?' they ask me. 'Of course not,' I reply, seriously  offended. 'Although, thinking back, I can remember the Poll Tax riots in 1991.' #An Inspector Calls in Sick (screams more laughter).

'Well,' says an elderly lady standing just behind us. 'I can do better. I remember the Jarrow Hunger March.'

'What?' the children choris. 'Respect, ma'am'.

I am truly humbled. When I was at school, I don't think I knew about the Jarrow Hunger March.  Or respect. Oh dear. #Don't worry uncle'l van'ya

'They came all the way from Jarrow on the River Tyne,' she said. 'Walked the whole way from Newcastle. They had so little, but people came out of their houses to cheer them on, and to give them food to keep them going. My mother did. And we had little enough ourselves. That was in 1936, my dears.' #The Curious Incident of the Walk Until Nightime

We are silent for a moment, thinking about the Jarrow men and what they stood for. We don't exactly enjoy tube strikes (and that's a massive understatement) but hell, there's a principle at stake here. #Late expectations says one of the boys, looking at his phone.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Nana and Our Denise

In the week when the Grim Reaper took not only Star Wars' princess Leia but her mother (Debbie Reynolds) as well, I'm back in dear old London for Yuletide.

The first pleasant surprise is that we are to have an 'extra second' added to the year. It's called a 'Leap Second' and it's done to keep our clocks in time with the earth's rotation. There's a committee (quel surprise) to decide when we should all get a Leap Second, and it's based in Paris. In picturesque French fashion, the committee members are known as 'Time Lords.' In typically British fashion, the great 'bongs' of Big Ben will be slowed an extra second using a stack of old pennies balanced on the mechanism - although, to be fair, it's a way that's worked for hundreds of years.

Something else that awaits me on the doormat is my new passport. I had mine stolen earlier in the year and can't believe the lengths you have to go to, to get a new one. Of course I understand, and salute, the trouble they take in these days of rampant terrorism but it's more kerfuffle than the first time you ever got a passport.  I do like the pages inside though - rammed with intricate designs, depicting achievements in Great Britain, including of course Northern Ireland, dating back some 500 years. The engraved images portray this land's successes in invention, art, architecture and music. William Shakespeare's there, as well as artist John Constable, the Falkirk Wheel and Stephenson's Rocket.

This is the year when Britain famously left the European Union - how much that's going to affect our passports in London, both design and usage, remains to be seen.

It's also the year when we said goodbye to so many 'celebrities' - aka famous people - some tragically young. There was Ed Stewart, who had been the DJ on 'Children's Choice' throughout my childhood, David Bowie, whose early appearance in Aylesbury had us all agog; dear, funny Terry Wogan, Lady Penelope, Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Carla Lane who wrote the Liver Birds, Muhammed Ali who was called Cassius Clay when I was a gal. Jean Alexander - Hilda Ogden, Leonard Cohen, Andrew Sachs, Ian McAskill the Weather Man, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rabbi Lionel Blue who wrote wickedly perceptive editorials long before bloggers existed, Rick Parfitt and lastly Liz Smith, which meant that the Royle Family lost Nana and our Denise in one year. This list isn't comprehensive, by the way - just those I remember, who had some sort of impact on my life.

I guess it's a fact that life, unlike a gloriously stinky Stilton cheese, doesn't get better as you get older. That's a closely guarded secret - along with the one that grief and remorse are harder to deal with when you're older and more frail yourself. A lifetime's healthy diet and yoga doesn't prevent you from losing sight or hearing, either, children.

So am I facing January 2017 growling and moaning like a bad-tempered old bat? Actually, no. There is much to rejoice in - work, which continues to fascinate, yoga (thank you Rod Stryker) and my writing which has brought fresh challenges (no less than three new commissions for the coming year). Family members still intact plus the gorgeous blessing of a new life, nine pound Charles Laurence Dunn. The sun-god has been appeased for another year, and the days grow a little lighter and a little longer with every swing of the pendulum.

Wishing you all a peaceful New Year 
And a shining 2017

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Arise Sir Rod - A London Writer in Bonnie Scotland

From My Bedroom Window
In the week when Sir Rod Stewart became a Knight and Phillip Green ceased to be one,  I'm living it royal in Scotland's capital city, Edinburgh.  This se'enday has a distinctly surreal edge - perhaps it's because we're so near the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, otherwise known as Halloween.  For one thing, my court case is the most chilling I've ever clerked. It's not every day you hear a father say of his thirteen-year old daughter, in all seriousness, that he 'saw the stain of sin' in her eyes. Apparently, that explains his subsequent crimes.

Celtic Festival of Samhain
Well, a comment from the Clerk of the Court would be deeply inappropriate, so I fill my spare moments with healthful walking, eating and writing.  Edinburgh is deliciously full of things to see and do; from my bedroom window I have a glorious view of 'King Arthur's Seat', for a start.

Obsessed By the Strange
Edinburgh's a city notorious for being built, basically, on a rock, and one of the famous views, which I'm lucky enough to see from my hotel bedroom, is that of King Arthur's Seat. I stride up towards it - adding to my Evernote file that it features in Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' - and in doing so, discover another inescapable fact about Edinburgh - the place is obsessed by the eery and strange.

I select a pretty-looking pub, 'Deacon Brodie's Tavern', in which to enjoy a leisurely lunch and writing session. The tavern is rammed at first. Soon, they find me a table secreted by the upstairs window shutters, all a writer really needs. The spinach and cheddar pie is to die for. Although I'm salivating at the array of gin and high-quality Scotch whisky, it's a bit early for those. I make do with a large glass of Pinot Noir.

Deacon Brodie's Tavern
Chatting to the staff between scribbling, I learn that Deacon Brodie was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's terrifying creation, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. Stevenson was probably Scotland's greatest ever writer, the son of a well-known lighthouse engineer. He was a sickly, bronchitic chap all his life. As so often happens, imagination was stimulated during bouts of ill-health. As a lad he lived just doors away from the spooky long-dead Deacon Brodie's home. I wonder whether the holidays in isolated, fog-laden lighthouses increased the lad's fears and obsessions - certainly they did Scottish literature a huge favour.

Robert Louis Stevenson
I love the way the bar staff are so engaged and proud of this history. By day a goodie-goodie respectable citizen. By night the Deacon apparently turned riotous gambler, drinker and fornicator, one tells me. He wipes the bar with ghoulish delight. Brodie 'had' to take to burglary to pay off his gambling debts (always wondered why they are called debts of honour, whereas your rent, apparently, is not). Brodie was hanged in 1788. Nice.

When I return to my racketty hotel the manager, who seems to specialise in gassing rather than grafting, asks me 'how it all went.' Avoiding gossip about the court case I tell him instead about my lunch in the scary tavern. 'Wheesht, tha's nothin' - I could tell ye a tale about yon Arthur's Seat,' he says. And he does. Apparently, in 1836, 17 small coffins were unearthed in a small cave on Arthur's Seat. Each contained a carved effigy, meticulous in every detail including little black boots. Coincidentally (or not) the serial killers Burke and Hare, had 17 victims too. Burke and Hare supplied bodies to Dr Robert Knox of Edinburgh City, for the purposes of dissection. Unfortunately they murdered them first.

Seventeen Effigies
Were the effigies a long-dead Edinburgh witch's attempt at retaliatory magic? Who knows.  My hotel manager resists the temptation to go answer a complaint about the state of the towels in Room 324. Burke was hanged in 1829 for his crimes, he tells me, Hare eventually released.  Readers may find further details on the whole subject, if they so wish, elsewhere on the internet.

I'm off to watch the traditional Samhain procession.

Fire Ravens Dance Group Samhain 2015

'I incline to Cain's heresy ~
I let my brother go to the Devil in his own way...'

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde 
Robert Louis Stevenson 1850-1894

Friday, 7 October 2016

I'll Take the High Road, And You Take the Low Road

Off To Edinburgh
In the week when two grown men have a very public punch-up in Strasbourg I leave beautiful, enchanted Cornwall. After reporting for duty in a certain London courtroom, I'm given my marching orders for a trip to Edinburgh!

That's life in the legal world, but it doesn't bother me a bit because I have Scots blood in my veins and a visit north gives me a special thrill. Also, I hope the train journey will allow me time to nail Chapter 21 of the novel in progress.

London King's Cross Station
With a challenging court case ahead, I rock up good and early at London King's Cross. There's a queue forming already, on the plaform next to no. 9.

The Platform Next to No. 9
The keen-sighted amongst the passengers notice that, right from the start, the route to Edinburgh bears a striking resemblance to the one that takes Harry Potter to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

When I'm working on fiction I'm tempted to write about subjects of which I know nothing. It fascinates me when I realise just how much of her native Edinburgh found it's way into J.K. Rowling's books. Note to self: write what you know. It must be the oldest piece of writing advice in the book, there we are.

The Route to Edinburgh
Another piece of writing advice I want to take this week is to go for quantity, not quality - that's because I'm on a first draft of a 10-section piece of my work-in-progress. I used to edit every dang paragraph before going onto the next, and that's one of the reasons I've been such a slow writer.

Basher Lowe
A dear friend recently told me that, having published eight novels now, her secret is to 'bash out' the first draft without ever looking back.  Revision comes later. She got the idea from the rock music producer Nick Lowe, whose rough and ready first takes earned him the nickname 'Basher Lowe'. Second note to self: Good enough for rock n' roll will be good enough for me too, now, at least until I've written 'The End' at least once.

One practice I have managed to maintain is that of writing 'Daily Pages'.  It's like a morning meditation to me now - the minute I sit down on the 50 minute train ride from Barnet in north London to the Courthouse in the far reaches of the south, I get out my notebook and write.

Steaming to Edinburgh
Once I've moaned, groaned, whinged and self-flagellated, I change from a black to a blue pen (oh how I love you, Bic Four-Colour Biro!) and add a bit to my novel.

Serendipitous occurrences I note in green and the compulsory weekly check-in bright, blood red.

Edinburgh at Twilight

It's a long journey to Edinburgh and I arrive in the twilight. My hotel proves to be a gloriously racketty, gothic affair with turrets, real winding staircases and even a set of terrifying steps that lead straight up from the back door to Old Edinburgh.  I can't wait to explore.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Janet and John Go To Cornwall

Last Few Days in Cornwall

So I'm here in Cornwall for the last few days before I have to pack up and go back home to London.

I am fascinated to discover that the Alverton was once a nunnery - the Order of the Epiphany. An epiphany (from the ancient Greek) is, apparently, a manifestation, or an experience of sudden and striking realization.

The Hotel Was Once a Nunnery
One of the manifestations I want to see whilst I'm in this beautiful land is more writing.  It's not that I lack will-power as such - I write copy for yoga mats and running shoes with zeal and application. Yet, in the year since my mother died I've found it so hard to get back to my historical novel.  The book is based on a story she told me; one of those from London's East End. When she went, my inspiration seemed to take a dive, in spite of encouragement from friends and attendance, rather erratic, at JoJo Thomas's Creative Writing Workshops.

JoJo Thomas' Workshops
Then, quite by chance, I started working my way through Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way on Kindle.  I think it helps that it's on Kindle, even though I have the paperback and love its large format. On Kindle you get just a small helping at any one time. Religiously (ha ha!) I work through each and every exercise. I don't skip, and I don't rush. I don't look ahead. I just take my notebook - yes, my notebook, and my trusty four-coloured biro out for hours at a time, when the paying work permits, and bury myself in writing Daily Pages, and completing exercises that involve my honouring my one-time desire to be a nurse, an explorer and a flamenco guitarist.

Janet & John Reader 
Whilst I'm in Cornwall I listen to BBC Radio 2 a great deal - my room doesn't stretch to many mod cons - and I'm by turns entranced, awed and not a little tearful by the tribute to the late Terry Wogan. I remember Terry myself, for he was one of those broadcasters with an uncanny knack for appealing to all ages.  Many's the time Mother, Nana and I were doubled up in hysterics over one of his jokes. In particular, I used to love the 'Janet & John' stories. If you're over a certain age and grew up in Britain you'll have learned to read from a Janet & John reading book.  Janet and John were white, middle class and as I remember them, quite insufferable. Still, no matter your ethnicity, social class or religious faith, you still approached the skill of reading via their safe daily routine of walks in the park, by the stream and the bench.

Growing Up in the Veldt
A former boss, Editorial Director at Macmillan Publishers, once told me that she read Janet & John whilst growing up in the South African veldt. She wondered for years what a 'stream' was.  Terry's version, thinly veiled smut, was at times so excruciatingly funny that my Nana had to put the kettle down mid-pour, lest she scald herself.

Tea at the Alverton
Well, Terry Wogan was said to be the ultimate mult-tasker, dashing off a filthy Janet & John story whilst playing a record and eating a doughnut all at the same time. At the Alverton, one of the highlights of my stay has been their way with speciality teas - not only do they serve it in a china pot with a matching cup but they bring a glass timer so that you know when to pour! One of the more pretentious of the guests said it 'adds a touch of class' but for me, the sand-glass provides a perfect excuse for dashing off a timed writing exercise.

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped a berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

W B Yeats 1836-1939
Read at Terry Wogan's Memorial Service