Sunday, 10 November 2019

'Back from the Brink'

My 'office' on Friday
Even if you've never been to Northamptonshire, there is a good chance you've heard of Rockingham Forest. This was once a hunting forest covering over a third of the county; it now exists in isolated patches dotted through a farmed landscape, giving people like me the opportunity to walk in nature and breathe in some good air.  The perfect setting, then, for a creative writing workshop.

It was a privilege to be asked to run a session in Fineshade Wood under the aegis of a Back from the Brink Project, which as the name suggests is concerned with the conservation and restoration of rare plants, bats, birds, reptiles and butterflies. Our focus was birds and we began with a short guided walk led by Liz, who works for the project. After the recent torrential rain, I was relieved that we had glorious sunshine, although it was a bit nippy. Liz gave us lots of information about what was going on in this patch of woodland. We stood in silence to take in the atmosphere, connecting with our senses and enjoying the cackling of rooks and the call of pheasants.

Back in the warm, I gave the participants some exercises to do to help get the creative juices going, and read various extracts of published works - poetry, fiction and non-fiction - by way of example. Then I suggested some prompts and off they went. Despite some of them saying 'I'm not really a writer', they all produced some lovely work and I hope they will carry on doing so.

From my point of view there were two equally important aims of this workshop:
  1. To encourage participants to create a piece of writing based on the birds in the woodland and the environment in a wider sense.
  2. To bring awareness of the work of Roots of Rockingham, Back from the Brink and all the groups involved in restoring and managing this network of woodland sites, creating more habitat in which a range of vulnerable species can thrive, and to stimulate engagement in this work.
I think on both counts we had a successful morning.

Monday, 4 November 2019

How well do you know your own work?

Bernie and Riley, who was also in the studio
I was interviewed on BBC Northampton this morning (get her!) about A Sparge Bag on the Washing Line. It was great fun and I enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame, but the interview didn't go as I'd expected it would.

The host of the show, Bernie Keith (see page 167 of the book), is a lovely chap and very easy to talk to, and he always does his research. He knew, for instance, that I'd been to Worcester, so he must have read this blog. However, while in my mind my book is all about the funny stories, he came at it from a different angle, homing in on the whole business of diary writing, on the local connections and the rather serious side of adjusting to the 'new normal' when one of you retires.

I've just listened back on BBC Sounds here (I'm on at 1.44.45) and I'm pleased with the result. It is actually more lighthearted than it felt at the time - there were things recorded that I don't remember saying: isn't that strange? - but it has made me wonder if as writers we get so caught up with what we think we're saying that we forget our readers might have a different agenda.

What do you think?


Thursday, 24 October 2019

Wandering in Worcester

For no reason other than that we'd never been, Mr T and I have just spent a couple of days in Worcester. It's less than two hours away, but it was far enough from home to give us the chance to explore somewhere new and recharge our batteries.

Any town or city with a river always offers the opportunity for lovely walks, and Worcester is now exception. There is a huge project going on to rewild part of the Severn that should bring back flora and fauna, fish and fowl, which can only be a good thing. There were lots of people about enjoying the autumn sunshine.

The centre is very pleasant. Despite the inevitable proliferation of chain shops, there is still a lot of lovely architecture to admire and on the day we were there a fabulous market was in full swing. There was also a craft fair in the Guildhall, where I won a bright yellow brolly on a charity tombola. The real reason to go in, though, was that from the street we could see some fantastic chandeliers through an upstairs window. They did not disappoint up close.

Of course, we had to go to the cathedral; it would be rude not to. Not wishing to offend the good people of Worcester, but while it was a fine  example it was nothing special. There was, though, an array of wooden carvings of 20th-century icons. The one of Mother Theresa had the accompanying text:

'Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.'

Sad, then, that my overriding impression of Worcester was that there is a huge number of rough sleepers curled up in doorways.

Our trip finished, somewhat inevitably, with a visit to a National Trust property: The Firs, which is a museum in honour of Edward Elgar. It's a lovely cottage, but very small, and it's the place he lived for only the first two years of his life. The chap on the door told us that Elgar was very fond of the place, however, and wanted it to be the house where he should be remembered, should such a thing be thought appropriate.

In the little garden, there is a bronze of the man himself, sitting on a bench and looking out to the Malvern Hills. I sat with him for a while and enjoyed the view.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Announcing the launch of 'A Sparge Bag on the Washing Line'

Finally, I have a publication date: 30 October. If you happen to be in Kettering at 6.30pm on that day, please pop along to the Arts Centre and help me celebrate.

What's it about? This is the back cover blurb:


I’m sitting at my computer, but can hear the food mixer going, which is encouraging. Then Clive comes in to the office, rummages in his desk and retrieves a pair of pliers. I’ve been known to take a chisel to my pastry, but I’m disconcerted as to why he should resort to such desperate measures. He returns the tool a few minutes later and says simply, ‘Sorted.’ I decide it’s best not to ask.

When her husband retires, Julia Thorley starts to keep a diary for her own amusement. She doesn’t tell Clive, in case he starts to do daft things on purpose. She needn’t have worried.
This is the record of that first year, a period of transition for both of them, bringing laughter, irritation, frustration and negotiation as they find a new way to live together.

Thank heaven for the allotment.

Copies will be available on the night, but if you can't make it you can order one from the publisher or, of course, direct from me.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Is this what democracy looks this?

I sat in tears last night watching a live stream on Facebook from Trafalgar Square. Whatever your views on the climate emergency and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, these scenes were horrific. Pictures of the police moving in to evict a lawful assembly, under cover of darkness, throwing away people's personal belongings and all this with only half an hour's notice made my blood run cold.

I was in London over the weekend. Despite the passion of the XR protest, it has been a peaceful event in line with the organisation's pledge to take part only in non-violent direct action. Last night, there was no shouting or screaming. Even while they were being moved on, rebels were working round the square cleaning up rubbish.

This morning I am sad, but I am also proud to have played a very small part in the action. I am not brave enough to stand and be arrested, but I'm grateful to those who are.

Love and rage.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Pesky varmint!

I am supposed to be editing today, but I'm grumpy and can't settle, not least because I'm chasing payment of an invoice for a raft of yoga classes that began on 3 July. It's not acceptable and I'm banging my head against a brick wall. In an attempt to boost my mood I've been for a walk, but that hasn't helped. So, I'm writing a blog instead. I should probably have tried this first. Here goes.

We have a beautiful hazel tree in our garden that this year has yielded a particularly spectacular harvest. We like hazelnuts, but not, apparently, as much as the squirrels, who have been quicker off the mark than we have in their picking. Now, I like a squirrel as much as the next woman, but they've gone too far.

Usually they skitter about in pairs, but I've had regular visits from a Gang of Four who, not content with stripping the tree, have also been fighting amongst themselves. If you think squirrels are cute, I assure you you'd change your mind if you had one snarling at you from the conservatory roof. And the noise!

I would be quite  happy to share the produce with them, but they haven't left us any at all. They eaten quite a few, judging by the debris on the patio, but they've also buried dozens in my lawn. I fully expect that we shall have our own burgeoning woodland this time next year. They've been at the peanut feeder, too, and during their acrobatics have annihilated the trellis over the shed window. 

What's the solution? I don't want to cut down the tree, but this can't go on. One friend has suggested we cut off the nuts. Whether he means from the tree or from the squirrels isn't clear.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Order! Order!


I went to a full council meeting last night of Kettering Borough Council to support a motion relating to promoting cycling and walking in the town. I was there with my Extinction Rebellion pals, but also as someone who used to cycle, but who has been driven off my bike by two things: fear of getting mown down and lack of places to secure my bike in the town. Several members of the public spoke for the motion. (You can just turn up and do your three minutes.)

 I'd never been to a full  meeting before, and it was fascinating. For one thing, I hadn't expected it to be so formal. We all had to stand as the Mayor and her Deputy, both in full regalia, the Monitoring Officer, the Managing Director and, for some reason, a vicar, paraded in, following the mace, which was placed before them all with great ceremony.

Then we had to stay standing for what the Mayor described as 'wise words' from the Reverend Helen, followed by a prayer. I definitely wasn't expecting that! Of course, I don't know whether or not this opening speech is shared among the faith groups in the town.

Those of us in the public seating were given a fact sheet to explain proceedings and a helpful map to show who was sitting where and to which party they were affiliated. We have three Independent councillors, one LibDem, six Labour, and the rest are Tories. Our Conservative MP, Philip Hollobone, is also a councillor and I was surprised to see him there, given everything else that he must have going on at the moment. Perhaps that's why he didn't say much.

Anyway, it was a lively evening, especially the discussion around the motion. I'll spare you the details, suffice to say it was passed unanimously other than for one abstention.

Whatever you think about national politics, let's not forget how privileged we are to live in a country where we can play a role in what goes on - even if sometimes it feels as though we're being ignored.