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

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Intrepid in Cornwall

Setting off  For Cornwall

Like most writers I have to perform a juggling act. There's  the creative writing that comes straight from the heart, the copy-writing for rubbber gloves and wrinkle creams, and the fascinating work I have as a Clerk of the Court in London. 

Trendy people call it a 'work portfolio' and talk rather pompously of 'income streams.' If I'm honest, I don't care what they're called. Each brings its own mix of fun, despair, creative satisfaction and, well, money, in varying quantities.

This month one of the 'income streams'  brings me to Cornwall.  I have not visited that enchanted place since childhood. I remember it as a goblin-land - mysterious, beautiful and much warmer than London. Terrified that it won't be like that now, I book a ticket from London Paddington to Truro.  The Cornish Riviera Express - it doesn't disappoint and transports us at an unruly speed as far as Plymouth. After that, we meander further and further away from the capital city and all its angst. 

One of the things I want to do while I'm down here is rediscover my own creative wellspring, which has sadly deserted me in the year since my mother's death. Yes, I've met my commitments. I'm a professional, right? But my own, personal projects are stuck, and I cannot seem to recover that joy I used to have when I sat down with my novel and lost myself in another world. 

 I check into my hotel, The Alverton. It was once an abbey, owned by the Order of the Epiphany - well, there's serendipity. I could do with a bit of an epiphany. Things are looking up.

I was but made fancy
By some necromancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

St Juliot, Thomas Hardy 1913

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Leicester City, King Richard III and A Profusion of Smells

This Week I'm in Leicester

So my work as a Clerk of the Court takes me north to Leicester, slap bang in the middle of England. I check in at a little hotel, former home of artist and architect Ernest Gimson. Immediately, I fall in love with its art deco touches and 1920s oil paintings.

The Belmont Hotel
When I've dumped my bags, I'm out exploring.  Writers love to explore - I think we're born inquisitive or as they say in Leicester, born nosey-parkers. Presently  the colour  blue features everywhere you look - blue blue flags, blue scarves and hats; even the cathedral is lit up in blue. That's because, on Sunday 1 May, this little city's football team Leicester City will play the mighty Manchester United for the Premier League cup.  Only a few months ago, the bookmakers were offering shorter odds on Elvis Presley turning up alive.

Even the Cathedral's Blue
Leicester has history, too; stone-built and elegant, and lots of tantalising smells. Because I write historical fiction I must capture colour, sound and every stinky aroma going,  I cram into a curry house by the railway. Sipping a glass of lassi (yoghurt with mint and a little salt, served as an apperitif). I make jottings in my writers' notebook. Close-packed bodies/Shrinivas incense/cracked black coriander seeds spitting in an iron skillet.  Cobra beer, tawny gold/fat baked potatoes seared in tumeric.  It's vital to get it right so I use a technique learned in yoga nidra class.

Sipping a glass of Lassi
 I transport myself back mentally to the same curry house, then a coaching inn, the year 1826. It's the time of my novel in progress. No 21st century morals then. I recall that the French emperor Napoleon, embattled and exhausted, once sent an urgent missive to his wife: 'Home in three days. Don't wash.'

Plump Coriander Seeds
When my court case is over I have time to spare and waving cheerily at all the blue-capped lads and lasses who have been so kind, I pay a fleeting visit the grave of King Richard III. Richard reigned for just two  years in the 15th century.  He's known  for 1) having a hunchback  2) supposedly murdering his two nephews, the 'little princes in the Tower' and 3) dying in battle on Bosworth Field.But what became of his body? Did he escape? Did he die  in a ditch? Was he kidnapped, held captive? Did he die a brave warrior's death?

Laid to Rest in Leicester Cathedral
Then in 2012 some workmen dug up a car park in Leicester. They unearthed something strange -  bones, swords, stuff like that. To put it bluntly, the grave of King Richard. This answered so many of the unanswered questions -  yes, 'Richard Crookback', as Shakespeare called him, did have a scoliosis of the spine. He died very bravely in the battle, his wounds showing clearly that he fought for hours. The little princes? We still don't know. His coffin didn't contain a signed confession, that's for sure.

The Princes in the Tower?
He wasn't, I think, the nicest of men -  but it was a rough, tough time to be alive.  There's something about the grave of a warrior king and I bow my head. This one has been beautifully put together. He has an oak and yew, lead-lined coffin crafted by his 17th great grand nephew, a modern carpenter. There are stained glass windows depicting the discovery of the body, the inquest (yup, we still needed an inquest after 534 years)  the months of squabbling between the City of York and the City of Leicester. Should Richard of York return there to be buried? A valid point say you, but the tradition is that a British soldier dies where he falls.

The Well on Bosworth Field
On 26 March 2015 his body was carried from Bosworth field to a final burial in Leciester cathedral I suspect that, more than anything, Richard would have liked to be laid to rest as one more English warrior soldier.

Outside the cathedral I sit on a bench with bluebells at its foot, soaking up the sun. I draft  my last few chapters. I need to take the reader to the inquest.  In 1826 the Coroner's inquest for the dreadful, bloody crime I've depicted would have been held in a local pub or dancing room. It must have smelt like Leicester cathedral, only much, much worse. Cheap tallow candles stinking of animal fat, fried fish, sweat, local-brewed ale, naked fear.  I take a good sniff, then write....

Bloody thou art, 
Bloody will be thy end...

Duchess of York (Richard III, Act 4, Scene 4)
William Shakespeare 1554-1616

Sunday, 6 March 2016

First Aid and First Goals - A New Writing Course

A Funny Old Week
Well, this has been a funny old week, as we say in London. I'm determined to get creative.  I'd like to take a class but at present, time and finances forbid. So I get a course in a book.

Beehives in the Park

The Course comes as a big fat tome and a download for my Kindle. I lap it up on the London Underground, in the park with the bees humming around the hives, in the cafe under London Bridge Station (a bit similar to working whilst bricked up in an Egyptian mummy's tomb). I'm a great believer in taking classes no matter how experienced you are - in the same way I still take yoga classes after decades of practice, I trust I'll never be too proud to take a writing class.

When I'm not making jottings I'm busy stretching every nerve, brain cell and joint to pass my First Aid Certificate. In one sense, taking a course from a book isn't the same as going at it live. With an instructor from the St John Ambulance shouting,'two rescue breaths, thirty pumps on the heart', I make very fast progress on my First Aid. Still, I'm determined to make a success of my writing course too. I remind myself that in the past, writers wrote, they didn't spend hours on Facebook or have the luxury of even, necessarily, attending school so very much, never mind attending college.

Thirty Rescue Pumps
Chris Sykes' course has loads of exercises and begins, in the introduction, with asking the student to think about how and where they write. Then, tease out their reasons for wanting to write, and finally to write down three short-term and three long-term goals for their writing self this year.

I jot down a few things about myself, and note a couple of modest successes.

'Lives in the mad, bad beautiful city of London,' I begin. 'Dredges the events of the past for stories, head firmly in the now. Writes on the tube, in the park or best of all, at the zoo. Rather fond of prawns. And ginger nuts. Winner of Coast to Coast Writing Competition ('I Remember Very Well'); Winner of Writer's Village Flash Fiction Competition ('Past Times'). Articles published in Prediction Magazine, Astrology Now, Aquarist & Pondkeeper; titbits read out on BBC Radio 2 by Zoe Ball, and by Anneka Rice.

Writes at the Zoo
Now for some goals to give my course bite:

Three short-term goals:

1. To champ away on my blog and Facebook page weekly for the next three months (5 June 2016)
2. To finish my W.I.P. 'Face The Champion' by 5 September 2016
3. To have completed a basic outline for 'Keep Them Safe' by 5 September 2016

Three long-term goals:

1. To submit 'Face The Champion' to every possible publishing opportunity by 5 March 2017
2. To have my website functional by 5 December 2016
3. To save for and attend the Historical Novel Society's conference in September 2016.

Rather Fond of Gingernuts

Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go. 
E L Doctorow 1931-2015

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Creative Writing Workshop Beats Black Dog

A Toilet of a Year

This has been a W.C. of a year. Battling with the anguish of bereavement and supporting my father through two operations, I find it tough to get back to writing.

People tell me to 'pull myself together' but have bugger all idea how I might go about it. Still, there is a gem of truth in those old wives' tales.

This week I pull myself together in three ways; 1) sign up for a creative writing workshop 2) start a fresh, new course and 3) win a prize for a piece of flash fiction. In a literary city like London there are loads of workshops available; large and noisy, intimate and searching, cosy and hilarious, stretching and expensive.  I choose one called 'Less Thinking More Writing'. It's run by JoJo Thomas on Sunday mornings. The atmosphere's creative and beautifully prepared, with fab fab home-made cakes and coffee.

Delicious Homemade Cakes
There is little critique. The extended a.m. session (4 hours for £40) is targeted towards creativity. Packed with exercises and perfect for a Sunday, the 'round the table' set-up with discussion and lots of funny, insightful reflection means that we all leave feeling positive yet gloriously stretched. 'I'll never view haddock in quite the same way,' says Huw, as we say goodbye. And neither will the rest of us.

Set in Torbay
 Last time I attended JoJo's workshop I turned one of the exercises into a teensy story which, to my delight, won first prize in a Flash Fiction competition. The judge describes it as 'beguiling', which was great. I can live with 'beguiling'.

 The flash fiction story is set in Torbay and I use the raw grief of my mother's death for this piece - better than boring everyone on the bus. The prize of £50 is a huge boost to my morale. This week's results may, according to JoJo, have produced a deliciously new, darker beginning to one of my novels in progress. Watch this space.

A Darker Beginning

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.
Somerset Maughan 1874-1965