Monday, 31 August 2009

Schools and The Great Story Vandalism

I did feel like hanging up my hat when I heard on Hat on Peglate night radio that some school somewhere  had given up its library altogether. I’ve been too heartbroken since to check it out, deciding it was just a bad dream and we are not really on the edge of a precipice, preparing to leap back into barbarism.

Now this fear has returned as, on succeeding days in my daily paper, I read interviews with two great children’s writers who separately nail the importance of school experience in the making or breaking of a story reader. Michael Morpurgo, the eminent ex children’s laureate, reflects on his own experience where, having loved stories at his mother’s knee he went to school, where ‘stories’ became ‘texts’ to be studied rather than enjoyed. Rescued from that by an inspired university teacher he became a teacher himself when ‘…the only time I had all their heads pointing one way was when I was telling them a great story.’

The iconoclastic writer Terry Deary goes a step further, declaring that he detests schools with a passion. In his own education his obvious talents went unremarked and unsupported and (unlike Michael Morpurgo) his obvious intelligence did not thrust him on to a university education. Terry is cynical about the value of schools, saying here, ‘Schools are an utter waste of a young life… (the bureaucrats said) “lock them up all day in the same room and call it school” ’.

Although there are ironic, comedic overtones to Terry’s assertions here,  one senses heartfelt conviction. He would ‘cut off my left arm’ rather than go into schools to read his immensely popular books to children.

Yet, (declaring an interest, as I have been there), when he talks to children in other arenas he definitely has ‘all the heads turned in his direction’ as the children wait with baited breath for the next part of the story. Then afterwards the children wait patiently and expectantly in a queue clutching their books ready to sign. And when their individual turn comes he speaks to them directly, matily: he is one of them. They go away, eyes shining. (The other great writer who achieves this par excellence is the children’s writer, David Almond).

In fact, Terry, like Michael Morpurgo and David Almond, is a great teacher who doesn’t need a school. Great storytellers. by definition, are great teachers. They can do it under a tree, in a cave, on a street-corner. For proof of this, go right back to – amongst others - the Irish, the Greeks and the native Americans.

With his million-selling Horrible Histories and his many other firecracker works of fiction Terry locks onto the anarchic child in all of us and makes her see how wild, how strange, how interesting has life been through the ages and makes us reach for more of the horrible stuff...

Of course there are still great teachers and librarians in school who – under economic and institutional constraints  -  do a fantastic job of teasing and seducing children into the world of books, putting the right book into the right hand and the right time, essentially giving them a doorway to their future. My friend Gillian W is just such a one, as is my Australian correspondent here called  The Genteel Arsenal, (also called Bookpusher) whose site demonstrates perfectly the creative sometimes surreal matrix of obsession with  books and children that is the sign of a good librarian.

But still the vandalism goes on! How many children get As or starred As for English and have never read a whole book – just bite-sized chunks that will allow them to score well on directed questions? How many  clever thoughtful children have missed out on even this much story (losing therefore the benefits listed below) because they are deemed not academic? How many teachers (of all subjects, not just English) have time, in their hard pressed lives, to read full texts around their subjects – or, horror of horrors – for sheer enjoyment?

I taught in schools at a time when the good teacher, intellectually independent while still well prepared and delivering the goods, was not shackled to the Sadean chair of  tick boxes and computerized reports.  Working with the primary children I told stories continually, of my life, and of theirs, of the ideas we were tackling and of life around. And we always had a good story from a good book every day. I liked to read that to them in the morning, when they and I were fresh enough to imagine the wonder of the world in the book. So we were united and this set the tone of the day.

I have to emphasise that all this was not instead of a directed curriculum. It was incorporated all the significant elements of the curriculum and made it memorable. They learned it through story, you see?

So what do children learn through story?  They learn to empathise, historically and culturally; to incorporate their own world into the larger one;  they learn that cause is followed inevitably by consequence; that the weak can hold their own with the strong; that laughter is good for you; that it’s OK to cry now and then; that the people world can be reflected in the animal world; that in a just world evil does not go unpunished; that hard stuff happens in families and they are not alone.

Crucially they also learn how to sit still and concentrate, to listen, to hear words distinctly and in consequence will read and write more naturally; they extend their vocabulary by hearing new words in context, without the necessity for explanation. They learn to read on their own, with absorption and understanding. And these skills will take them naturally on reading history, geography, politics, current affairs and so they become part of the larger world. And they will always have the pleasure of escaping into a book when all around them is chaos.

Idealistic? Not really. I did it myself as a very poor and disadvantaged child: I learned all the elements listed above and I made it part of my philosophy as a teacher and as a writer.

But the barbarians with their clipboards are rattling the gates. We should watch out.


 Post Script from (my good friend) Sharon Griffiths from her article in The Northern Echo: her take on this issue

‘........Parkside Sports College at Willington has apparently scrapped its library, though it says books will still be available in the classroom.  And yes, when it comes to reference books, I can see there might be a point.  What’s the point of an out of date atlas when the internet can give you the most immediate up to date information?  We are in a fast changing world and we need to keep up with it.

And yet…. Before you can make the most of the internet and the unbelievable amounts of information available, you need to serve a long apprenticeship.  I can get what I want from the internet in minutes – simply because  all those years ploughing through reference books has trained me in how to access information, to find out what is relevant, and discard the dubious.  Today’s children will have no such training, no weighing and considering what they are told.

But what horrified me is that the governors of the school apparently declared books “obsolete”.  Obsolete?  ALL books?  If anyone involved in any way with teaching children  genuinely believes that, then the world is in meltdown.

Parkside might be much improved, but  with an attitude like that, what it is doing is training children to pass exams, tick the right boxes and little more It has nothing to do with broadening minds, exciting dreams, awaking aspirations and showing the children the endless possibilities of the world.

And absolutely nothing at all to do with education............"

Parkside incidentally, has just recorded its best ever exam results.  Says it all really.’ Sharon Griffiths,


This is a photo of the library where I sat and wrote for periods while I was in France. If you look hard you will see it is a young teacher introducing her small pupils to the delights of this fine library


Friday, 28 August 2009

The Gift of the Exceptional Mary D

My new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings is dedicated thus:

‘For the exceptional and inspirational Mary Davies - painter, writer and healer.’

uSE Box

This novel has been in the making for five or six years, when the exceptional Mary D gave me a box of materials about her travels and experience in Poland in the 1980s.

Mary knew I was interested in the idiosyncrasies of letters, notebooks, images and ephemera that I used to inspire my novels. I was, she said, to use them as I wished. Travel Docs We had long talks about her experiences and the the dilemma of using them as inspiration, for what I knew would be - in fact -pure fiction.

It has taken me some years to develop my imaginative take on on all this material and all these ideas in order to allow the novel to emerge of its own volition. It became more fluid – easier - when my purely imagined characters got to grips with the material of their true to life inspiration.

The Woman Who Drew Buildings is the outcome of all these processes.

A taster for you:

The extract below describes the moment when Adam, the estranged son of Marie Matheve (who has problems of his own) comes upon just such a cache of materials as his mother lies in a coma in hospital:

… Adam’s eye moved to the wardrobe and the pile of boxes above it. Now this he could disturb. He climbed on the dressing stool and started to pull down the boxes. He worked swiftly and as he worked his spirit lifted. He started to drop the boxes so their contents spilled on the polished floor – books, notebooks, papers, brochures, travel documents, bundles of clothes, bright scarves, packets of photos, sheaves of drawings in a disorganised pile….

… he took a second bottle of wine from the fridge, took a new notebook from the pile in her bottom left desk drawer, came back and began to make a careful list of the things that had spilled out of the boxes. His face was burning with wine drunk too fast, his brain was racing, his hand was shaking, but one by one he listed the items from the brown cardboard box:

· Article in Esperantist magazine by Marie Mathéve, recounting her ‘Study In Poland.’

· A newspaper article about the visit of Marie Mathéve’s visit to Poland on a Siropotimist grant to consider buildings.

Mary Davies 007 8

· Photo of Marie and a younger (very pretty)woman leaning towards each other, making a triangle. On the back Marie has written; Jacinta Zielenska and me in the Cherzov flat.

· Small published book of drawings of Krakov marked Ex Libris D. Adama Zielenski` Paperback with a brown paper cover to protect it.

· Photographic slides, small and hard to see, with viewer,.

· Poland’s Progress edited by Michael Murray first pub 1944 this the third ed 1945

· Krakow by Edward Hartig 1964. Coffee table book.

· Poland by Irena and Jerzy Kostrowicki

Official 1981 guide to KrakowUse Window

· Official guide to Katowice

· Notebooks, many notebooks

· Two small red Sylvine notebooks still with their 30p price tag on. Marked Poland Diary 1981

· One Winfield exercise book marked Paris Diary 1985

· Daler Sketchbook full of Marie’s drawings eg: Cherrzov From My Bedroom; steelworks; estate with Tabac in foreground; old steelworks; coal mine looking towards Katowice; done in coloured markers, making her usual style brighter and bolder. But style is unmistakable.

· Spiral Bound Daler Sketchbook with more subtle drawings from Brittany, Paris Luxembourg gardens, View from my window 8th floor Rue de Rennes; Paris. Louvre 1985.


(Watch out for a later Post - The day when Mary D regressed me back in time...)


A Book Cover (2)If you fancy it, The Woman Who Drew Buildings (ISBN 978-0-7553-3380-6)

is published by Headline Book Publishing

and is available in all good bookshops.


Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Miracle of The Woman Who Drew Buildings

LWDB Dolly 3

It’s like a small miracle when a plain brown package arrives with the first edition copies of your new novel.

You tip them out. You put them in a row. You stand them up, you lay them down. You smell them. You flick the pages, to A Book Cover (2)hear that crisp fresh sound. You open the book and on those pages - set for ever – you read the characters, the conversations, the comedies and tragedies  that have somehow spun themselves out of your writer’s head. The words and paragraphs look strange, as though someone else has written them.

You have lived with those words and phrases for one or two years. You have lived with the idea  of  the novel for five or six years (more of this in the next post).  And now, here it is. It looks good, it feels good, it reads well. It has legs and will dance out into the world. A shiver goes down your spine.Drawing

What is The Woman Who Drew Buildings about? Well, when you get the novel, the blurb will give you a clue to the story  but I will tell you what it’s about! It’s about a mother and her grown up son – Marie and Adam Matheve - who are estranged; about the romance of buildings; about the world here and now, and the world in the 1980s when Poland was under the unravelling Soviet domination; it’s about out-of-body experiences; it’s about the rejuvenating circles of redemption that can come out of crisis. And it’s about the long-kept secrets and the different kinds of love that glue our lives together.

Angus, who loves chocolate, is around while the books are being unpacked. He says my anxiety and excitement about the book is just like he feels about his GCSE results, due out this Dressing UpThursday. Meanwhile, he’s dressing up, trying on some new clothes. But then he goes to find his grandfather’s big business coat  (bought in those same  1980s when my character Marie Matheve was in Poland)LWDB Images 112

…. Here he is! 

‘What do you think, Wendy?’

‘Lovely. Very gangster chic!’

He also insisted on to taking these other  funky photos here. He thinks they are very cool.

The dolly in the first picture? Oh, I made her for Debora when she was small but she never moved house when Debora did. She sits on a shelf  and watches me work and is very wise. According to her, The Woman Who Drew Buildings is my very best novel ever and everyone will love it….


Next post is about the wonderful Mary Davies, writer, artist and healer, who was the inspiration for The Woman Who Drew buildings. 

Scary Close UpWith drawing 

If you fancy it, The Woman Who Drew Buildings

(ISBN 978-0-7553-3380-6)

is published by Headline Book Publishing

and is available in all good bookshops.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Glittering Prizes and Fourteen Good Things

Apart from various exam awards, the Coty Compact I won for dancing, and the Collected Poems of John Keats that I won as a school prize – still use it !- my life has not been littered with prizes.

So I’m very excited that the clever Al
has passed on to me the Kreativ Blogger Award for which I thank him very much. (Look him up – he’s interesting…)

How lovely to be labelled creative with a K!

Apparently my task now is to name seven things about myself that people might find interesting. To be honest I think I am mostly uninteresting except that I write novels, but here goes;

  1. I see ghosts and sense time warps. ( I am trying to explore this in the novel I am writing at present…)
  2. I knew I’d be a writer when I was eight, although I had never met a writer, and had barely even met a white collar worker.
  3. I taught for nearly twenty years before I became a full time writer. During this time in schools and higher education I also wrote a weekly newspaper column and published four young adult novels. I loved teaching (and still do…) but always felt like a writer who happened to teach, rather than a teacher who wrote on the side. I think perhaps I wasn’t a conventional teacher.
  4. I draft all my novels with an ink pen in ledgers before I transcribe them onto the computer.
  5. I used to paint and pot.In fact I once taught art in secondary schools. I think I am a better writer than painter but I think there are interesting parallels in the two artistic processes.
  6. I’ve experienced two bouts as writer in residence in a woman’s prison which I found both chastening and inspiring. A life-changing experience.
  7. My disability is that although I love intense conversations I am woefully lacking in small talk. So I’d never make a twitterer.

And now I have to nominate seven blogs to whom I am to pass on this award. So!

My Nominations For the Kreativ Blogger Award

  1. - Avril Joy at Writing Junkie for her poetic take on writing and her emotional honesty
  2. Kathleen Jones on A Writer’s Life for vivid, inspiring posts that do indeed reflect the intricacy of a writer’s life.
  3. Debora at Love and a Licked Spoon for showing that great writing and great cooking can be sisters in arms. Nepotistically speaking, she is my own Elizabeth David
  4. Bookpusher at the The Genteel Arsenal for her delight in the world of children’s reading which is where it all starts. Also for a fun. fizzy site that is full of youthful energy
  5. Check out http//: for this wonderful woman of bohemian inclinations, particularly for her ironic tone, her joie de vivre, her social commitment and her wonderful photographs. These are a revelation.
  6. Pinkpackrat for her political commitment and inspiring anger. And for her wit and knowingness.
  7. And I have just stumbled on the wonderful Norman Geras’ prizewinning blog at (Someone sent me a link following one of my own posts about Easington) I love the range, breadth and depth of his posts which may variously focus on the writing world, the political world, the world world. His posts are long, (which I like) , very readable, entertaining and thought provoking. A man of letters. As such a literate man I hope he might be amused to be labelled Kreativ with a K.

I recommend them all to you.

Happy reading, happy blogging!


NOTE : According to Al if you want to pass on this award to some favourite blog., this is what you do! (Isn’t this quite democratic?)
1. Thank the person who nominated you for this award.(Don’t need to tell you this, I’m sure…
2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.

- Check
Link to the person who nominated you for this award.

4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting. –Check

5. Nominate 7 of your favourite Kreativ Bloggers. - Check
6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate. - Check
7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated. –

this was fun to do -even for someone with no small talk wx

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Falling Idols Part 2: Dorothy, William, Mary, Sam and Sara(h)s et al

‘So, Wendy, what is a family?’ kathleen Jones 044

My favourite young man, the one somewhat given to chocolate, asked me recently, ‘What is a family?’

Unfortunately I had, the previous evening, been watching a documentary about murderer Charles Manson, whose gang of young murderous sociopaths called themselves ‘the Family’, so the question floored me for a moment.

When I recovered, I fumbled my way into talk of my own family - my much loved son and daughter, their spouses, my sister and brother and nieces and nephews. Then I thought how my sense of family is also imbued with ever-present memories of my unique mother and my gentle brother. Even my father, who died when I was nine, sits perfectly in my memory and constitutes part of my essential self. I remember how he used to put his little finger up my cardigan sleeve because his hand was too big to hold mine properly.

Then I talked about the groups of friends I made emerging from college into later professional and adult life who are more knowing of me, more intimate even, than my family of the flesh - certainly they are more accurate mirrors for the person I have become.

All of which gets me back to the other part of my holiday reading A Passionate Sisterhood – the sisters, wives, and daughters of The Lake Poets, by the excellent Kathleen Jones to which I turned after the delights of Dan Brown.

I have appreciated the work of Kathleen Jones since she came to the prison where I was writer in residence, to read from her biography of Catherine Cookson, and play unique interview tapes of CC talking: we listened as this odd, phenomenal woman, talked, fulminated, raged about elements of her own story. I later devoured Jones’ scholarly work, which addresses the subtleties and dark, significant areas of the life of Catherine Cookson. This writer, because of her staggering universal appeal, is seen my some luminaries as not so much a writer as a literary aberration.

The women in prison - some CC fans, some not – were fascinated. Experienced as they were in the matrix of abuse that counts to some as family life, they saw aspects of their own life validated - not just in CC’s stories, but in her life.

So here I am, by the seaside, reading Kathleen Jones’s book on the extended ‘family’ that emerged from the emotional, intellectual and erotic encounters between poets Robert Lovell, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and two sets of sisters - the Hutchinsons, Mary & Sara(h), and the Frickers, Sarah, Mary and Edith. The last but not least of this remarkable extended close-living ‘family’ was, of course,the remarkable Dorothy Wordsworth, sister, muse, amanuensis and all-but lover to her brother William Wordsworth.

The stories of these individuals have been told separately but Kathleen Jones weaves her delicate way through this matrix of self conscious geniuses, these eccentric individuals. In doing so she brings the clever women - for once - into the foreground. In doing so she makes profound points about intellectual women sacrificing themselves on the altar of male genius; about the slave- labour involved in being the muse and amanuensis, valued more for their copying labour (thousands of pages…) than their critique; more for their motherly care of these child-men, than for their intellect. This is so, despite the fact that the original attraction to these women was their intellect and bright personalities.

The women’s childbearing faculties (except for the famously childless Dorothy W) were a bonus for these men of acute sentiment, although the gross care of children was in the main laid it the door of the women. So far, so little time, then, for the development of the women’s own considerable talents.

Except for Lovell, who died early. and Roberts Southey, who cheerfully shouldered Coleridge's domestic responsibilities as well as his own, the men come off quite badly here. The radical Wordsworth became autocratic and full of pride. Beautiful Coleridge, who became addicted to opium and was often paranoid, made a profession of running and staying away from his stoical wife Sarah and played a double blame game with his doting friends the Wordsworths , who blamed Sarah as the cause of his woes. Despite the extent of his betrayals and self indulgence Coleridge was still sustained for a long time as a kind of sacred monster by this talented, extended mixed up family.

Then there were the next generation of gifted and eccentric children… but read the book, if you can get hold of it! Let Kathleen Jones lead you through this family maze with a novelist’s skill.

I have to say the book quite put me off Wordsworth, whose poetry I’ve long admired, and Coleridge whose Ancient Mariner was a staple of my childhood. And it made me wonder what Sarah Coleridge might have produced had she not had to love, labour and support in every way this lost – ultimately so unattractive – soul, Samuel T Coleridge.

Idols fall and we suffer and survive betrayal, disappointment, loss and change. But we survive. That’s families for you.


Sunday, 16 August 2009

Dan Brown, Dorothy Wordsworth & Fallen Idols – Part One

On my recent seaside sojourn I picked up that hardy perennial of holiday apartments, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. I usually avoid novels when I am on holiday, as they end up being the object of analysis, deconstruction and fulmination: the opposite of rest and relaxation.

I’m sure I read The Da Vinci Code once and I am familiar with it’s themes, but I can’t really remember it. Anyway, on the one rainy day of my sunny week,  I decide to find out why many millions of readers have found Dan Brown’s novel appealing. Perhaps I can learn something.

It’s a very quick read – thanks to a good admixture of short clear sentences, short paragraphs among the long, discursive, explanatory ones, short - sometimes very - short chapters, that all combine to rollick the story through the mental system almost without touching the sides. The energy  of action is rammed home with quick changes of location and personnel. The quest theme is flagged up by codes and puzzles slipping out fish hooks of curiosity to land us gasping on to the last page.

A technical formula, indeed, for a very successful, engaging novel.

I think I enjoyed all this, first time round. But now I perceive  a lot of sag. For example there are lots of places where one character explains facts at inordinate length to another character - variously:  the nature of The Divine Feminine; the Mary Magdalene myth(s); the legends of the Orders of Sion and the Knights Templar; the genius of Leonardo de Vinci; and so on.

I encountered another sag in the plethora of paragraphs describing at length significant buildings from the Louvre downwards.  I know, I know! The story wouldn’t work without the reader having this information.  Without this they couldn’t join in the quest, could they? (And I also know such informationfiction has wide appeal among people who want to learn stuff from the stories they read.)

Another sag is the contradiction between  a central theme of the novel - about how, historically, the male (church) establishment has excised the significance of the feminine core of our culture – and the characterisation. It is noticeable in this novel that the exciting characters – the professor, the aged curator, the obsessive collector, the colourful villains – are all men, whereas the woman cryptologist (beautiful, of course, and occasionally resourceful) is mostly the passive questioner, the receiver of male wisdom. Funny, that.

My favourite character this time round is the lurking, frustrated French detective. And I relish anew the poignant relationship between the duped archbishop and haunted, deluded, masochistic albino assassin. That is original.

But what surprised me most was my new perception that the novel so reduces the well documented and true genius of Leonardo de Vinci to a mere cipher of a puzzle maker. He’s always been a hero, an idol of mine and this is a trivial interpretation of his genius. Yet it is the central puzzle of the novel, the thing that holds it together. As a consequence  it will be hard to think of him in the future without the propositions of this novel lurking somewhere in my mind. An idol falls…

I told you! There’s  no rest in it. When I pick up a novel on holiday, that’s what I do – analyse, deconstruct, fulminate

I think I have learned something here - probably about pace and indulging in more colourful, extreme characterisation. But also I’ve learnt things that I would not, could not do myself.  And of course, these may be the very things that would make my novels sell by the million.

Wxkathleen Jones 044 2

Next post – Further holiday reading.  Lots to learn from Kathleen  Jones’ excellent Passionate Sisterhood! But still idols are falling.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Wild Postcards from The South Shore


scarborough 2 026

On the sea-bound temple-stagescarborough 2 015

children sing and dance for prizes 

and people sit in rows applauding.


Do they notice someone’s uncle

scarborough 2 025

hauling beach tents spades  and  buckets ?

Do they notice the tall, tattoo’d girl

shouldering  her orange surfboard?

   scarborough 2 023

Or two old sisters, arm in arm ,

dressed in fawn with wild blue hats,

who watch the  donkeys on the sand,

savouring the memory

of seaside childhood days ?


Or two black dogs, slick with sea water dogs

watching out and contemplating:

friendship, long beach walks

and coming First in Show?

Or the woman with green towels,                   

grey hair, purple top and wobbling breasts

dreaming of her butterfly scarborough 2 024 years.              

Or the plush rabbit

trying to escape

the straw basket of the  girl 

in the  moth-white dress.

Or the old woman sitting on her own

smiling as she taps her finger,

keeping time with the music

and talking to someone

who is not there.


scarborough 2 026





Wish you were here


Saturday, 8 August 2009

Global Interests & Travelling in the Head

globe 008

One of the nicest things in my house is good sized globe of the world. This globe is very tactile, with the mountains and high lands of the world  in high relief. It’s very good for letting your fingers do the walking.

In my less privileged childhood we just had this atlas of the world. We used to pore over it with my mother, as she traced the routes of the explorers  Magellan and Vasco da Gama, Cristoforo Columbus and Sebastian Cabot, Drake and Raleigh, Scott and Shackleton. (It’s worth remembering that this was an old atlas, hatched over with the red of Empire, our attitudes to which we had later to reassess.)

I’ve been twirling the globe recently, checking where I’ve just been in France and where my family were recently in Turkey. I thought of what the distances would have involved in other times, without the power of steam,  the internal combustion engine. and aeroplanes. Going further, I thought of other places we have travelled to between us, in the modern way – Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Jamaica, Grenada, Boston USA, China, Africa and Indonesia. I thought of my good friends Judy and Judith, who  live half of each year in New Zealand and America respectively almost as though they were commuting.

This global interest has been stirred by my recent researches into travel in the early centuries after the death of Christ. I found myself blinking at the thousands of miles St Paul walked in the countries of the Easter Mediterranean travelling  – on, alongside, or behind - a donkey. I blanch at the death toll involved in travelling by sea, and respected the sailors for keeping in sight of land for fear of shipwreck, pirates and vengeful weather.

Looking at the globe I imagine the difficulty of the three Marys (See Of Loves and Fishes) travelling from Galilee to Gaul with their precious and iconic burden, whatever that might be. (Imagining what this burden might be has been part of my thinking for this novel).

I locate the site of Nicodemia, East of  Istanbul, just between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, where the Roman Emperor Diocletian built a city and located his court for a time. Now I have to imagine just how my three characters can make the journey from Gaul to Nicodemia in 303AD without falling off the edge of the world and of my novel!

This travelling in the head is a family tradition. My mother never travelled in reality until she was fifty two. (No funds!). But when she was fifty two she went by boat across the River Tyne in a boat for a week in Denmark and her real travels began.

Now, today, I’m off  for a week in Scarborough -  a mere hour and a half’s drive away on the coast of the North East of England - to read, write, and enjoy the sea air with B. Sounds unadventurous, but then  it’s only a few miles away from the birthplace of Captain Cook, the where that great traveller learned the trade that lead to his great and tragic career as an explorer. I have every hope that the inspiration of Captain Cook and the the brisk air of  the north east coast will help me to imagine the journey on 303AD to greater effect.

I have to say travel in the head is a great resource for a writer.


PS Look for further postings from Scarborough…

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Rings, Romance and Great Expectations

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach…     
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

A few days ago is was my wedding anniversary but I forgot.Frienada At Whitworth 328 What’s more, he forgot too!  We fell into each other’s arms and laughed concluding that living the life meant more than cards and flowers. There was some talk of long service medals, however.

This is a marriage that went to work and loved it, that had flowers in its hair, that wore sober suits and hippy skirts. It walked children in prams, and went to PTA meetings.  It took holidays by the seaside that needed two ponchos to keep warm. It went to the races, to rugby matches and to school plays. It waved off children to their new life and welcomed them back again. It watched cricket and football and cop shows on TV. It read newspapers at length. It read books and wrote them and delivered heavy manuscripts to the Post Office. It visited clinics and hospitals and held its breath. It is a marriage that travels and continues to relish the boy who eats chocolate. It is a marriage that still holds hands.

Once, when we’d been married for about six years (still very young…) I went to my place of work without my wedding ring, having left it in the bathroom. A woman colleague shuddered at the sight of my naked finger, saying, ‘I couldn’t do that, leave my ring off. I’d feel as though I didn’t belong to my husband.’

I thought about this and decided that I’d never felt as though I belonged to anyone. In fact, growing up had been the process of establishing just that fact.

So, for the next ten years I wore no ring at all, thinking people had to get to know me without the ring label. I didn’t want people to have rigid expectations of me, especially the expectation that I belonged to someone. Then, when I felt I’d made my point, I wore a ring again. In fact, in the end, I wore two.

These were the decades when Romance and the quest of belonging to or owning someone were Rife. We’d never had it so good and one symbol of this was the rash of Romance. Romance was the big selling point for films, books, magazines and advertisements for perfume, soap and Martinis. Novels published by Mills&Boon  and their imitators  steepled into millions.

Bridget Jones disguised her quest with suitable irony but Romance and Lifelong love are there in the subtext, like Blackpool printed through a stick of rock. These days chick-lit and mum-lit novels and films -  for all their savvy street style – rehearse the same quest for Romance, although the lifelong bit may have slipped a bit.

The pity of it is that none of us can measure up to the glamorous puppetry of such fictions. In fact there is a yawning gap between these polished creatures and the chunky ill-shapen bodies, mussed up hair and the harassed lives of both women and men in real life. The billion pound glamour industry in all its forms promotes itself very nicely in this gap, thank you!

It’s a good thing then, that despite our lack of glamour,  so many of us rejoice in long term relationships that evolve and develop through the years – larger this year, narrower next, disappointments this year, surprises next. Living here. Living there.  Jobs gained. Jobs lost. Clinging together. Mourning together. Running away. Coming back. Making time for yourself. Arguing your corner. Holding hands.

This life is no film or fantasising storybook; it’s no jolly idyll that leaps from passion to idyllic parenthood to empty-nest-adventure. It’s a bumpier but much more exciting ride than that. It’s two separate  people making it up as they go along, becoming lifetime comrades and mutually appreciative buddies whose relationship continues to change, evolve, soften,  sharpen, as the years go by.

These days I rejoice in wearing two rings on my wedding finger. The second one is my mother’s which she wore for the short fifteen years of her happily married life and for the thirty six years of her not so happy widowhood. I am touched and honoured to wear it.

Perhaps I’ll have another ring – a kind of long service medal. I’d buy him one, but he would never wear it. He doesn’t believe in men wearing rings.

Hey ho!


Monday, 3 August 2009

Writing, Therapy, & Disclosure.

Changing Draft Writing regularly acts to reveal - to yourself and sometimes to the world at large  - your inner thoughts and the wilder shores of your life experience  

Of course, in poetry and prose- fiction the wild surprise of such revelations is codified by metaphor and language, by characterisation and contrived narrative. Even so, the wild things are still  buried in there somewhere, to be excavated - in time - by over-eager biographers.

These wild things are self-consciously present in published diaries and journals - often self censored and edited to construct in retrospect an admirable self.  They are even more self-consciously present it the contemporary rash of ‘Misery Lit’  memoirs that now have special shelves in some bookshops.

The wild things are buried in the stylised, ironic prose of journalists who use their own lives as raw material in comments and commentary. And they are there in cyberspace, in the un-refereed frenzy of websites, weblogs, twitters and chat rooms. And blogs – like this one, you will say!

You might also say, of course, that getting the wild things ‘out there’ is all to the good. Aren’t there  courses and workshops in writing as therapy? Don’t some psychologists ask their clients to keep diaries to help with analysis?

But in my experience we have to be very careful about this process. I think that just to express and organise your thoughts is an empowerment in itself. Submitting them to outside analysis may be to surrender control - yet again - of your own life.

I have had the privilege  of working with many people, new to writing, who experience a magical release and self realisation when they find they can write down what has been inexpressible.

Some of these writers have turned up in workshops. I remember one man - jolly, likeable, easy going - who wrote a hungry, chilling account of  his slavish existence  in an orphanage. He was proud of and (as we all were) moved by his own writing. One of his stories told of a Christmas when the orphanage had  an official visit from the mayor. Lavish food was laid before the hungry hordes of children. But the mayoral party was delayed for more than two hours and the children had to sit there with the food before them. Then the mayoral party arrived and boiling gravy was poured on their cold dinners and they were forced to eat and show their relish as a public display.

I have worked with women in prison,  for some of whom writing was like lancing a boil. (See The Self Revealed, left) I have wept with them over more than one  free-flow articulation of a catalogue of abuse, confusion, despair and corruption of the self. Much of it was so dark as to be unpublishable – even on those special shelves in bookshops.

I was - and am - always careful to say I am not a therapist. All I could and can do is help them with the process of expressing, editing,  laying out and  producing a good looking document. But I have observed that this level of control over the uncontrollable aspects of people’s lives seemed and seems to be an empowerment and is of itself therapeutic.

The writing is enough. As a writer myself, I know this .



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