Thursday, 29 April 2010

Just A Hole In The Ground?

G has decided he’ll make a vegetable garden in the sunny corner on the bottom dRAIN hOLE WITH PATHright hand side of our garden. It’s the only flat square patch on that side of the house which is really a long bank with a few large old trees,  soon to be  undercut with thousands of bluebells – a glorious sight for a week or so but a bit of a flopping- about mess afterwards. But worth  it.

I read something somewhere which said that when bluebells pop up anywhere and everywhere like this – as they have here for thirty years - it’s a sign of ancient woodland. I love that thought.

When we arrived here all that time ago this bottom right hand corner actually was a vegetable patch. I remember in those early days we found a lady’s silver watch down there. (Lost again now…) Drain Hole 2 But we were too busy writing and working to earn our living to grow vegetables and the corner became overgrown. I do remember planting some herbs down there once. My gardening - like most things then and now - happened in my head rather than on the ground. I dream a very good garden just like I dream a very good dinner.

So G, armed with two reference books and tips from his Auntie Susan who is a brilliant gardener, got down to digging and  clearing this patch,, doing a brilliant job.   Then one day there is this long whistle and G shouted up the bank, ‘Come and see! Come and see this!’

‘This’ is a yard deep hole in the ground. In the bottom of the hole is a terra cotta drain. G has just pulled off a long capping stone.

He tells  me that this is a Victorian dRAIN hOLE WITH HOUSEwater pipe, a drain to lead the water down the bank and prevent it from being a swamp.

On the other side of the boundary wall is the filled-in stone arch of a drinking trough which this pipe must have lead to. The narrow road beyond it was once the main road through this small town. The stream, now piped underground,  must have fallen down this slope before this house and the other houses in the road were built a hundred and forty years ago.

Before our road existed this area  was a flattish plateau  called a Garth, owned by the Dean and Chapter – that is the Bishop Of Durham. G knows all of this because for his dissertation for his history degree he researched the land, the houses and the people who eventually lived in these streets after 1860;. It’s a fascinating stDrain Hole 1udy.

Now we think there must have been a stream meandering across this land. And probably a well. One clue to this is that  our house has always had Springwell in its name. We didn’t really know why, till now. As we are talking we look down at the drain and it has filled up  with a good trickle of water. The stream is still running. – well, trickling!  This feels like magic. It’s so touching that I could cry. G leans down and touches the pipe and says with a craftsman’s  reverence,

‘I was thinking that the last person who touched this was the guy who put it in some workman in the 1860s.’ So many levels of time are sitting in the air around us. We have always shared that wonder.dRAIN hOLE 5

When everyone – including neighbour Terry who took these pictures - had actually witnessed this marvellous hole in the ground, G  rebuilt the stone slab and tile super-structure of the drain and filled in the hole.

I looked up the hill and realised that the stream  must have originally flowed through my kitchen. Still running water, then.

We’d acted as good archaeologists and documented the find (see Terry’s pictures here…) and replaced it as we found it.  The plot is now beautifully dug, raked over and criss-crossed with stamped-down paths to make six small beds. The potatoes are in, as are the garlic and carrots. There are more plantings to follow.

I think they’ll crop well. They’ll certainly never be short of water.


Drain Hole 3

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Writing, Planning, and The Tentacled Monster

‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with it she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.’ Goya.

Writing novels is both a simple and a very complex process.

On the one hand I just sit down and write and write and write - and write - until the words on the page grow into the story that - in some ghostly pre-knowledge – I know it always was. This organic model is very attractive – it implies that we writers are extraordinary vessels for a pre-existing story, conduits that act to give form to random elements of our subconscious.

This makes great sense to me.

On the other hand my novel can become a wild creature. It can grow tentacles and flail about. It can grow wings and fly. It can spurt legs and go clumping down the road away from me. For a time this is exhilarating, exciting. Fantastic.

Again, this makes sense to me.

Then there comes a day my monstrous story gets wild, too wild to hold onto. I have to rein it in, to give it form, to shape it up. This process, done well, can have its own more intellectualised creative charge, profiting from the conscious rather than the unconscious mind.

Each time I ask myself how is it possible to pull this material into a readable state without losing the original organic energy?

One name for this process is planning. The very word sounds deadening, institutionalised doesn’t it? Like forcing the tentacled, winged, heavy footed creature into a rectangular box. But there comes a time that I must think of cause, consequence and shape, and make the novel do its work to transform the organic material into a coherent form. This is the other, necessary side of the creative coin that spins, eventually, into a publishable novel.

For me this more conscious planning happens in stages as the whole story evolves. Inside these stages there have to be open cycles of organic speculation, feeling, risk-taking. But it is the planning that takes the story forward.

But I’m becoming aware that when one has written quite a few novels, as I have, there’s the real danger that the planning itself may have become too embedded in the subconscious and can stifle the organic energy of the first writing. The creature’s wings are clipped and the tentacles not allowed to flail.

So I've made a decision to cultivate the wildness, the riskiness again, to let the creature rage, to grow tentacles and wings. And fly.

So far, so very exciting


Thought You Might Like To See The Press Release …

Been working hard on this project for the last month so I thought you’d like to see -



The Writing Game

with Wendy Robertson

Bishop FM Community Radio

Author Wendy Robertson is embarking on an exciting new venture – a monthly, hour long, radio programme aimed at both writers and readers, and broadcast on community radio Bishop FM 105.9

Wendy’s programme will feature discussions and interviews about all aspects of the writing process which will be of interest to both aspiring and established writers and to readers. During the programme Wendy will give her informed take on the world of writing and its craft – The Writing Game. As well as this The Writing Game will feature conversation with authors of national standing and will act as a showcase for a wide range of new, unpublished writers.

Joining Wendy as regular contributors will be Avril Joy, Gillian and Glynn Wales presenting their Books of the Month selections, Theresa Robertson carrying the banner for children’s books,. and Debora Robertson who will have spot talking about quality food writing and journalism.

The first programme will go out on Tuesday May 4th at 7pm and after that will be available as a podcast to download from This first programme focuses on starting points in writing and features Avril Joy in her role of published author, and local writers Eileen Elgey and Hilary Smith.

Forthcoming programmes will feature conversations with:

· Crime writer Ann Cleeves, winner of the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award

· Internationally acclaimed David Almond, winner of the 2010 Hans Christian Anderson Medal, the world’s most prestigious prize in children’s literature

‘Our intention is that the programme will celebrate and showcase the fact that the north east of England is an acknowledged hotbed of literary talent.’ Wendy Robertson

What do you think???


Sunday, 18 April 2010

Congrats to Grazia Magazine

I rather like Grazia Magazine. I’m told its informal category is ‘News and Shoes’ which fits very well. It is a glossy weekly magazine that’s not really glossy. (It has a pleasing matt finish.) It cites celebrity but does not lean back on it. It highlights style and beauty without being slavish. Most importantly to me, it highlights significant public issues without being preachy or didactic.

Last week, amid the shoes and scandal, was a very good piece focusing on women candidates of all parties who are standing in the forthcoming election. These are women who don’t just sound off about subjects; they step up to the mark in their high heels and say their piece. They are young and savvy and all have their own particular ambitions and sense of their potential for power. They don’t want to be anyone’s babes or beauties. They don’t want to be trophy female politicians. They want to be politicians and they feel they can make a difference.

Recent research among young women indicates that when asked to name women in politics, they name Mr Cameron’s wife or Mr Brown’s wife. Politics by association rules. It is no coincidence that these wives/women are bright and well turned out and attractive role-models for young women of this generation.

The inability of these young women to name an actual woman MP could be down to the fact that as a group, women MPs are on the tidy side of dowdy and often sound defensive, even when what they say makes sense. Their earnestness comes over as uncertainty and lack of authority. (Unlike the tousled, charismatic ex MP Shirley Williams who is a delight when she turns up on something like Question Time and exudes knowledge and authority. And smiles. The other exception was the charismatic equally tousled late lamented Mo Mowlam.)

I hope that this collection of potential female MPs produces some sound parliamentarians who don’t dowd down like the current crop and don’t have their bright ideas dumbed down by the processes of a male dominated parliament.

Articles like this in popular women’s magazines are a great source of informed insight for young women who can’t be doing with the effort of burrowing through the pages of The Guardian or The Telegraph for their political education. The are intelligent and can enjoy their political education alongside the latest shoes and celebrity fairy stories.

Why not? I say.

One proviso - I wish Grazia had carried a coverline on its front about this excellent article. You’ve got this level of credibility, so flaunt it…


Thursday, 15 April 2010

Auntie Mim and Her Talent With Bullets

Auntie Mim 

Auntie Mim’s name was really Alice but throughout her life she was known  as Mim. They said it was because as a small child she would say me-mim-me a lot. She got a lot of attention.

Like all in our family she was fascinated by words. Her brother, my father, wrote wonderful letters and read and did crossroads. My brother not only did crosswords but made them as well. My sister has written and was a keen cross-worder until seduced by Sudoku.  I write. My daughter and son write and love words.  And so- on …

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

They are all out there. There is a lot of verbal  flotsam and jetsam floating about.  But the ones I enjoy are cryptic, punchy, imaginative, speculative, fluid, quick. It’s amazing what you can get into 140 characters (ie letters, not words…)

Back in Auntie Mim’s day she was obsessed with this thing called Bullets. I can remember her hunched over a competition in either the People  or the News Chronicle  where you created cryptic phrases of under so many letters (can’t remember whether it was 140 but it was tight) creating cryptic phrases for the ‘Bullets’ competition and sending them away. She won prizes now and then.

In recent days,  getting to grips with Twitter, my Auntie Mim came to mind for the first time in some years. It occurred to me that she would have loved the mental gymnastics of Twitter but would have been disappointed, I think, that there were no money prizes involved.

I thought you might be entertained by a few of the tweets cooked up by me in response to those of others. The other people are highlighted if you want to know what they said…

@paulmagrs Friendly Whitby ghosts mean I can be there in spirit, writing.

@nwndirector Alnwick Castle water falls beat all earthly dress, even Phillipa's

@daneetsteffens Truth is only the first step to understanding perhaps. Or understanding is a precondition for truth, more likely.

@normblog An old friend of mine had a party to decorate her straw coffin, thus introducing meaning to her funeral - but not yet...

 about @Adelica Politicians wives wheeled out to order, in the old tradition of the vicar's wife or the wife of that old devil at the manor?

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


Monday, 12 April 2010

Radio Times and Cafe Writing

Cafe Writing 001

There is a myth or tradition in the writing game to do with writing in cafes. I have written about it here. before but this is to show that I’m not a one trick pony and the cafe habit still continues.

On Saturday morning I attended an induction programme for our local community radio station Bishop FM to learn just how such a place works. This is because I have agreed to present a programme for them that I’m calling Writers Readers and Books. First programme is out in May and I’m learning a lot.

After the meeting I went to the Cafe on the Corner and made a few notes so I would remember the main points of the meeting. Then I took out my other newer notebook the one which is dedicated to my newest novel – as yetunnamed.

One way in which I like to start a novel is to get to know the people involved. These notes come in the form of a kind of chapter about that person – which might or might not end up in any part of the novel. Whatever happens, it helps me to know the person.

I have written four of these character/ chapter/fragments already. So, after scribbling my radio notes I wrote a thousand words or about on of my new characters, Anne Marie

…’Anne-Marie always travels light

- One pair of ventilated trainers. (She had paid too much for them, encouraged by her young friend Celine, who had more money than sense.

- Two pairs of serviceable canvas trousers . One pair is very old, bought in the Army and Navy Stories in 1975. They washed very well.

- One pair of very expensive slim sandals – again Celine having her say.

- The shirt blouses - Lands End – such good value!

- The usual Marks & Spencer’s knicker-stuff,

All these went into the bottom of her carry-on case. On top of these she pressed her vary fat notebook and a very slim laptop - a present from her agent when her seventieth birthday coincided with the publication of her thirtieth book. On top of all these she pressed copies of her two latest novels in case anyone didn’t believe her.

Beside them she squeezed in the ancient plastic bag that she bought in Harrods in 1950. Such quality then. Quality lasts, that what she always said.

Last but not least she pressed in her plastic box of ‘bobby pins’ . These magic clips have transformed her thick straight (once red, now white) hair into a cloud of curls every single day in her life since 1945 , when an American she met – who became her first her first husband – presented them to her, saying, ‘All the rage in the States , honey. My mom and my sister swear by them.

At first Anne Marie had been irritated when Celine got her involved with this French thing. ‘Just think of it AM.,’ she said .’Ten days in the sun! The company of writers! They’ll take care of you, cherish you, darling.’

Celine – first her editor, and then her dear friend - was always very keen to find people to take care of Ann Marie. She had never quite got to grips with the fact that Ann-Marie needed a friend like a fish needed the safety of nets.

But still, thought Ann Marie, Celine mean twell and that went a long way in terms of forgiveness. ….

Nots The Art of Retreating 001

And, sitting there at my corner table looking out on the market place I wrote more about the remarkable eighty year old Anne Marie and the journey on which she was about to embark. When I walked out of the cafe I knew a lot more about Anne Marie than when I went in. She has now found her place in my story.

Two more people to go, then I’ll start my new novel. Now I’m experiencing the real relish – even exultation - I feel when begin something very new.


Another aspect of exultation: if you like cooking as well as writing and reading check out my dear daughter’s blog called Love and A Licked Spoon at ( It has just been selected as one of the five best blogs by Psychologies Magazine. Hooray I say. I’m proud of my girl.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Changing Lives and the Boston Connection

Avril J’s comment on my last post on the seriousness with which many Americans take their literature reminded me of an experience we shared ten years ago when I was writer in residence in a prison picture 31 of 65 in series bs in directory 2002/12where she was teaching. We became interested in Changing Lives Through Literature American project lead by Professor Bob Waxler of the University of Massachusetts. There instead of prison, some offenders – armed robbers, thieves – were sentenced to a twelve week seminar on Modern Literature lead by Bob Waxler.

At that time I was reading substantial literature to and with the women in my care and delighting in the reactions and changes of view that that brought about. So we inaugurated our own small Changing Lives project from the inside. Of course this was different. Even if they did volunteer for my project my students had no option but to be there in prison.

In Boston prisoners up before certain judges participating in the scheme, were allowed to choose the Changing Lives project instead of a custodial sentence.

This groundbreaking initiative came about after a discussion between Professor Waxler and Judge Robert Kane (I think it was after a game of squash or tennis or something) when the Judge bewailed what the swinging door experience where he sentenced people again and again they came back through the swinging door of his courtroom. Bob Waxler said that the judge should sentence them to six months in his seminar room and maybe the door would swing less.

In the American way, this came about. If you are interested in the details of this and its qualitative success, read my article Erasing The Chasm between Bench and Dock which is on my website (link below). You could also look at their now very sophisticated Changing Lives Website (also link below)

To cut a (very) long story short on blustery, hail-ridded spring, Avril and I eventually went to Boston to visit the project and talk to Professor Waxler, Judge Kane and their colleagues about the realities of this idealistic project.

Three reverberating memories of this seminal visit are

- being cut down by vicious hail-ridden wind on the city’s crossroads

- coming into the glittering city at night,

- and having dinner – early, in the American way – with three judges and two probation officers where the table full of very good talk.

But the most important memory is sitting in the University of Massachusetts, at an almost Arthurian round table alongside eight of the Changing Lives Students, two of the Judges who had sentenced them and two of the Probation Officers responsible for them. The ringleader was the charismatic but laid back (even then I thought this an impossible combination…) Bob Waxler.

The table was round, the ethos was democratic. Everyone – not just the students – everyone had to have read the book and around this table no one had more authority or more right to be listened to than anyone else. They had read the Raymond Carver short story. What Do We Say When We Talk About Love?

The discussion, discreetly chaired by Bob Waxler, was fascinating. This was session twelve of a twelve session course. It was clear that a great deal had been learned by everyone around the table. No-one shouted over anyone else. Each person listened. The discussion was wide ranging and disciplined and lead by the students, who had read this story with an unmatched intensity and expressed unique insights and views which came from their own lives in their home districts.

And later, one by one, the participants told us how the experience of Bob Waxler’s course had changed their lives. The judges told us how their attitudes and understanding had been altered by their experience.

Thank you Avril, for reminding me of all this. The memory raised my spirit in a hard week when the venal media circus of the forthcoming election is grinding to a start.

I just had a thought. This would all make a fantastic film. It would out-poet Dead Poet's Society. Too idealistic for the modern age? We need some idealism.

(NB I didn’t have a picture of a round table so I included a picture of a house in the historic Back Bay in Boston – another part of our Boston adventure…)


To read my full article Erasing the Chasm Between Bench and Dock

click on:

To discover more detail of the Changing Lives Through Literature Project click on their website:


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