Thursday, 30 September 2010

Out of the mouths

Had a conversation today that sounded like the set up of a joke; maybe one of those self-conscious jokes often told by teachers and clergy that you just know are too convenient to be true!

But I know the teller and she was there. My friend's grandson has just started at school. He takes after his father, quite serious, focused, academic and anxious. The first two days he trotted happily into the classroom without a backwards glance at Mummy and Daddy. Then on the third day the little lad wept bitterly and gripped Daddy's hand.

His surprised gran asked him why. Why today? She reminded him that if he kept going to school, he'd soon learn to read all his favourite books for himself. Wouldn't that be fun? He already loves books and can read most three letter words he can spell out so far.

Through his tears he answered, "I went on Monday. Then I went again on Tuesday. But I STILL CAN'T READ!"

A child driving himself to achieve a little more each day, so eager to unlock all the secrets those books are still hiding from him! I wanted just to say a "thank you" to all parents like my friends in this little scenario, who sow the seeds of love of books in the hearts of our children.

Books are as natural as breathing to children who are surrounded by stories, illustrations, the sight and sound and feel of books, the rhythm and rolling kaleidoscope of words from the womb. Not always; some children need so much more to help them make friends with the world of the written and spoken word, so reading can come along and tickle them into joy with all its textures and exciting new tastes.

We all love to listen to the funny true things children say.
As writers we can learn to listen carefully to their voices, to make the children who giggle and play in our fiction really live, or help those for whom we weave tales be drawn in to a dancing web of delightful sounds they will never forget.

The next day, my friend's grandson ran into school again with no long teary goodbyes. There were just too many exciting books to handle and decode, no time to lose!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Priming the pump; standing on the shoulders of giants

I've been treated to curling up during these first early autumn evenings with a new anthology of striking modern short stories. Edited by Al Sarrantonio and Neil Gaiman and entitled "Stories", plain and simple, I only spotted it thanks to my local library's great selection and showcasing of their eye-catching, recommended and recent books.

The stories themselves are neither plain nor simple. Nearly all have a twist in their lashing tails and more than one will leave you wondering and perhaps shuddering. It's hard for any anthology to be flawless and to avoid being patchy in places, but this collection was haunting and readable throughout.

I particularly relished Joanne Harris's "Wildfire in Manhatten" where ancient myths come exploding into modern America in a multi-layered and complex tale that demands a double take at its smoke and mirrors.

The anthology hits the ground running right from the first story, disturbing all we humble vegetarian sympathiser-types, with Roddy Doyle's "Blood". The pace doesn't flicker as we move on to Joyce Carol Oates story of identical twins, "Fossil-figures" taking sibling rivalry to a chilling new level.

This had me contemplating the amazing possibilities in stories built around the closest family realtionships, like siblings born in a multiple birth. I also loved the astonishingly (enviably? - I think so!) accomplished first novel I recently read by Diane Setterfield, "The Thirteenth Tale". It grips you mercilessly with its lovingly constructed gothic plot and Gormenghast-like cast of characters, centering on two pairs of twins.

Maybe it's because my great grandmother was an identical twin, as were her sons, my great granduncles and I, as an only child, always fantasised about having a twin, that I find these stories and novels particularly engaging. The talent with which these particular tales are told has much more to do with it, though!

I'm constantly drawn back to writing and reading stories that deal with family relationships especially where these strive to explore and challenge shallow assumptions and cliched stereotypes and to reveal and celebrate who we really are, or think we are!

I've also just been rereading the wonderful novel by Susan Hill "I'm the King of the Castle" about  two schoolboys, Edmund Hooper and Charles Kingshaw who find themselves thrown together by the relationship between Edmund's widowed father and Charles' widowed mother. Isolated in Hooper's "kingdom", trapped as in a glass case under the microscope in the rambling house once owned by Edmund's moth collector grandfather, Kingshaw finds himself bullied and dispossessed in this bleak and mesmerising book.
The book's English country setting is a character in itself, vividly brought to life by Hill's lucid descriptive power: there is the house and its grounds, claustrophobic and troubling; "Hang Wood" beckoning the tormented Charles to run away, only to be pursued by his tormentor; the surrounding fields haunted by vengeful crows and maggot-infested rabbits and the local castle where another round of the jockeying for position between the hunter and the hunted is played out, with a climactic scene in which a window of hope seems to be flung open for Kingshaw, only to be slammed shut again with devastating consequences.

Susan Hill is masterful in her building of the sense of tension, panic and utter hopelessness as one by one, within Kingshaw's quest for escape from persecution, his minor triumphs and moments of hope are extinguished. The ending is bleak but perfectly prepared for. I appreciate this book more each time I revisit it. For me, it has a similar appeal to L. P. Hartley's tale of an Edwardian childhood, "The Go-Between", also plotted with knife-edge tensions between hope and helplessness, the struggle between good and evil with all its ambiguities. The wonderful "I'm the King of the Castle" succeeds in touching the deepest fears and obsessions of childhood and adolescence, while being a cracking good read into the bargain.

It leaves me inspired to go on crafting my own stories out of childhood's partial but compellingly vivid understanding of the world, the power struggles between extraverts and introverted outsiders with whom I can usually identify!

I'm always grateful and thankful, standing on the shoulders of giants, for all I can learn from the techniques in plotting and pacing and characterisation of other writers. We all have stories to tell, pebbles in the stream, worn away to reveal hidden grains and fault lines inside us; unique, and humbling and shocking and so beautiful.

So now my library books are back on the coffee table and it's onto Microsoft Word's nemesis OpenOffice here on the laptop to edit my latest short story. I've tucked its ungainly flamingo body back under my arm with its legs hanging down. Yes, it might be looking at me a bit puzzled (see yesterday's blog if you're not following), but after a bit of a struggle, I've convinced it to keep its neck straight while I knock that ball towards the peg!

Books mentioned in this post with links to

"Stories; All New Tales" eds Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio at

"I'm the King of The Castle" by Susan Hill at

"The Thirteenth Tale" by Diane Setterfield at

"The Go-Between" by L.P.Hartley on

Monday, 27 September 2010

Plots live flamingo mallets

John Tenniel illustration, coloured by Fritz Kredel

The plot of my current short story keeps squirming around like the live flamingo mallets in that croquet game in "Alice in Wonderland". Very provoking, as Alice herself might have said.

This story began as a humorous short dealing with a young man coming to terms with the increasingly confused behaviour of an elderly relative. As I wrote on, the plot started subtly remoulding and contorting itself, like the flamingo's neck twisting to look Alice in the face with an expression of puzzlement.

The plot looked back quizzically into my own face and demanded  a detour into the undergrowth! The reassuring humour gradually leeched out in twists of more savage irony. Then the characters started to jockey for new positions within this adjusted panorama. I kept coming up to high hedges in the maze of my original idea and then turning to see a stunning new horizon for which I hadn't thought to pack a map, let alone sandwiches.

As I tried, like Alice, to adjust my grip so as to take control again, tucking the body of the plot firmly under my armpit with its legs hanging down, it would spring back into another attitude and skip off down an alleyway I hadn't foreseen.

Sitting back with a coffee at "half-time",  I replotted for some pace and drive within the new focus of the plot. I set off again, determined to finish before fluttering around editing my words, stalling and second guessing the finished story.

So far I've found the plot path has changed from springy turf and warm meanders round sunlit bends to a stark gothic stairwell falling away into a bleak gulley between terror and tenderness.

Flipping heck! I've just got to hunker down and finish it now; then lay it aside for a while until it's uncurled its tatty toenails for trimming and see how I can polish it till it bowls through the home hoop and into the reader's life.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Autumn's turning

Autumn's turning the world umber, sepia and biscuit. 
Chilly sun's pouring a path through ash leaves and beckoning me away. 
Paths whicker with added crunch through moss-furred rockeries,
Jackdaws coughing overhead. 

I can't resist, today. 

Somewhere a gardener's whining his cutter, shaving the box and beech to winter trim. 
That's not where it begins or where, 
After the explosion of the spores through the loam, 
It will feign an ending. 

The mahogany nux of a fallen chestnut gathers 
The risky phlogiston of the sky's arc above it, beyond the canopy.  

I must play my part. I will see it through. 

Friday, 24 September 2010

The plot thickens

Had one day well and strong enough to venture out this week. I'd overdone it last weekend attending a wonderful service at Talbot Lane which was soul-expanding and heart warming but crunched my M.E.-ridden crock of a body to a standstill with three long hours in the freezing cold (church couldn't afford to put heating on and lady near me was actually trembling and shivering with cold throughout!).

 I was one of sixteen ministers and communion stewards distributing the bread and wine at this Covenant Service for the whole Rotherham & Dearne Valley Circuit. It was a real joy to meet up with some friends I hadn't seen since I collapsed with M.E./CFS plus erratic diabetic hypos almost five years ago. How can it be that long? This time last year I wasn't even well enough to be at the service, let alone take part, so I have so much to be thankful about! The odd "good" day here and there is like a candle in a naughty world (to quote the Bard waaay out of context)!

So I went on a "good" day later in the week to Wentworth Woodhouse Garden Centre and Walled Garden with my Mum and a dear friend who I met through family history research (she's a very distant cousin). The weather was autumn sunshine, gentle and soft, dry and mellow. We explored the gardens, the cascade, the rock terraces, bear pit (not an icehouse, no matter what folk once believed) and the village. Met some Fallow Deer, lots of wild birds, fish, chickens and local tradespeople selling produce that has not even seen an aeroplane or, in some cases, a car. Had lunch in the Walled Garden Reastaurant. Local business at its best. Cappuccino and comestibles at their best, too!

Overwhelmed and humbled this week to have my third "Highly Recommended"/ shortlisting in four months from the team at "Writer's Forum". This time it was for my recent short fiction "The Butterfly Wall". The critique they offer on your work is invaluable and so helpful, I wish I'd discovered it before. I find one of my particular challenges is plotting. Anyone who knows me will laugh, knowing I'm not the most linear of thinkers! This is all challenging and inspiring me to tighten up on my plotlines and chronology.

I've a couple of a stories on the go at the mo. One's a humorous one provisionally entitled "The Surreptitious Biscuit" (say no more!) and another where the protagonist takes a phonecall from his grandmother in the middle of the night (based on a fragment of conversation I heard years ago from a friend whose gran rang him up and asked him seriously: "Is that your mother?"). 

Yesterday's crash on Facebook had me dipping my toe in Twitter and apart from a wet toenail and potential Athlete's Foot I don't know where that may lead. I do know that my "real" writing is often fed by my erratic blogging, facebooking and maybe even in future by tweeting. I'm also aware I need to use the little energy I have between the M.E. brain-foggery to produce more and more completed and focused writing. 

"You're my favourite waste of time," as someone in the charts (whose name temporarily escapes me) once yortled; but nothing's really wasted if you put it in your pocket, hug it and chew it till it turns to gold or dust!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Quirky signage

Don't you just love to let life's quirkiness and anomalies wash over you and tickle your funny muscles?

Was well enough (just!) to venture out last week and after a fun but exhausting visit to the Rotherham Show in Clifton Park, I later found myself slumped at a table outside the Cafe Rendezvous (sic) in the Travel Interchange AKA Rotherham Bus Station on Frederick Street. Being generally too zonked with beginnings of M.E. meltdown to pursue more intellectual or vigorous avenues, I fell to contemplating their signage.
Spotted that the main signs above the cafe were spelled incorrectly as CAFE RENDEVOUZ (see photo above).

Looked around and noticed that the rest of their signs, on the outside awnings (see photo below) and plate glass windows etc were all spelled in the correct French way as CAFE RENDEZVOUS. A ploy to get attention? A mistake too expensive to put right? 

Reminded me of that ball on a bridge over the Cam in Cambridge where a slice is missing and there's a tale that the stone mason did this as punishment for an unpaid bill. Also made me think of a grave in Finningley Churchyard near Doncaster where all the "N"s in the inscription are backwards (see bottom photo). Unpaid bill or ignorance? Willful or witless? Answers on a postcard. The Rende(z)vous/z makes a mean cappuccino, though.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Look closer - you might be missing pure beauty

Achillea millefolium in my garden

I love all the living things in my garden, but my eye can be shamefully selective. For years I thought less than fondly of my two clumps of Achillea Millefolium. They seemed so ungainly at times. They carry their yellow cauliflower heads with the geeky flattened tops high above feathery, silver-green foliage, top heavy as a silicon-enhanced bust on a wasp waisted model. Somehow, they never quite pushed my buttons (more fool me)! I was often vexed by the way they lunged out over the lawn  like a little crowd of rubber-neckers  at the scene of a disaster, twitching the borders like nosy neighbours at net curtains. Then as summer faded, they'd be at it again, laying their oversized top-knots down on the ground, ostriches ready to stick their awkward heads in the sand.
This week I got out my mobile to take photos of some of the flowers that already make me smile. Snapped the settings to "macro" focus and away I went. I even took a photo of one of my "ugly duckling" Achilleas and wow! I confess I'd never really SEEN their intricate geometry and symmetry before. God's awe-inspiring eye for detail sang out from the images of his sunshine-faced creation. Thank goodness the Lord of life doesn't walk on by me because of my less than glamorous outer casing and uncoordinated stumblings!
"This is the Lord's doing; it is marvellous in our eyes!" (Psalm 118:23)

Friday, 3 September 2010

Never too late

I decided this year to try a different approach with one of my favourite flowers, the humble Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus, Latin fans!). 

One year I had the whole conservatory at the Manse filled with blooms. Cut and come again from July to late September. Most visitors, friends, bereaved, wedding and baptism couples went away that year with armfuls of the glorious blooms. That started out as an unplanned indoor display. I'd had them potted up, three seeds per pot, on the east facing conservatory windowsills, intending to transfer them to the garden once established. The transfer never happened and the sweet peas joyfully took over every available inch of window space, like rainbow stained glass letting in the morning's lemony light.

When I moved into my retirement house a few minutes' walk away, I still have an easterly facing conservatory, but planted up my sweet peas at the far end of the garden, trellised against the fence under the fruit tree. The ground was very stony and the earth quite thin under there; the snails had a field day, so I put down piles of bran which the little darlings gorged on instead and left the pea shoots alone (mostly!). The sweet peas thrived but could only be seen in the distance from the house.

So this year, I planted some in one of the hanging baskets closest to the house. Nothing seemed to be happening much for ages. July came and went. August too; one visitor said her Sweet Peas had flowered and finished ages ago. Then today, at last, among the tendrils and leaves, one bloom, promising more to come. Not just any bloom, but a rich purple, one of my favourite colours.

Spring is beautiful; but Autumn speaks of God's love, too, and it's never too late for the hidden seed to blossom.

Wordling with genealogy puzzles

Wordle: Untitled
Family history is complex. Wordle wordmaps it all into art! A dazzling chunk of ancestral fragments crystallize into a stained glass panel of possibilities. Freeing the fat and flour into muffins with the tips of your fingers. Crumbling the soil so the blooms can breathe colour into the scented air. The past is shimmering into future opportunities. Lapped in love, how can we fail to be seized by the Spirit?