Hello, and thank you for visiting my site. I hope that you'll return often and always find something of interest about my world and what inspires me to pick up a pen. (This is a figure of speech, unfortunately. My handwriting is terrible!) Here's what I've been up to recently...
‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good tale,’ was a piece of advice I heard more than once during my first visit to Belfast. I don’t know if the Irish are all natural born storytellers, but those I met over the four days of my visit certainly were. From tour guides to barmen, from taxi drivers to the security staff at the airport, I think they must all have kissed the Blarney Stone and I don’t think I’ve ever met friendlier or more helpful people. Any talk of ‘the troubles’ was very much in the past tense and I really hope that their optimism will prove to be justified.
My first evening was spent at the MAC (Metropolitan Arts Centre) for the opening of an exhibition curated by Dr John Walter. Shonky: The Aesthetics of Awkwardness is a group show of international artists that includes painting, sculpture and video, performance and installation.
To be honest, my own taste in art doesn’t extend far past the Impressionists, but I found plenty to enjoy all the same. The mostly young crowd was full of enthusiasm for the works on display and I was even asked for the first time in decades if I’d got any weed! (For the record, I hadn’t.)
The Titanic exhibition devoted to ‘the pride of Belfast’ is unmissable as well as extremely moving. Housed in a building designed to match the size of the hull, it contains nine interactive galleries that tell visitors just about anything they might want to know about the history of the liner from its construction and launch in 1911 to its rediscovery at the bottom of the Atlantic in 1985. It seemed to me that the collision with the iceberg and the reasons for Titanic’s sinking were rather glossed over, but that wouldn’t stop me from recommending a tour.
Berthed close by is the fully restored Nomadic. A quarter of the size of its ‘big sister’, it was originally fitted out in similar style and used as a tender for 1st and 2nd class passengers. Having seen active service during both World Wars, it then spent decades as a floating Parisian restaurant and disco before returning to Belfast. It’s the last remaining White Star Line ship anywhere in the world and well worth a visit.
Story telling went into overdrive on the Giant’s Causeway. Who wouldn’t believe in the legend of the giant Finn McCool? Well, maybe those who subscribe the idea of long gone alien civilisations.
The idea that all those rock formations, particularly the perfectly hexagonal columns, had come about due to volcanic activity seemed to me, no geologist, the most improbable. Slippery with algae, they couldn’t tempt me to walk on them, although I did hear tell of a tourist who had done the whole tour in stiletto heels. Maybe in her case the visit to the Bush Mills distillery came first; in mine it was a very welcome second.
If only I’d thought to wear my FitBit! Generally a reluctant walker, I certainly covered more than the recommended 10 000 steps a day during my time in Ireland.
In the evenings, though, it was all about the ‘craic’. Belfast has more places to eat, drink and make merry than you can shake a stick at. The photo above was taken at the Morning Star, an alehouse turned gastropub dating from 1810 and with the proud boast that its food is all sourced locally.
I’d love to know how many enthusiastic carnivores have taken up the 48 oz Steak Challenge and whether it came with chips!
26 October, 2017
As the result of the readings at Waterstones (see below), I was invited to run a creative writing session for the Inklings, a long established student society. The choice of topic(s) being left to me, I decided on a three part approach, interspersed with written exercises and feedback.
We began with flash fiction, which turned out to be the most popular. Having read out a few examples, I set them the task of writing a piece that included the expressions liquid lunch (see above image for the general idea), titfer and glitterati. These weren’t chosen at random, but from a Writing Magazine competition that I won a few years ago and, as it turned out, are no longer widely used – at least amongst today’s students. However, once I’d defined them, the Inklings came up with some very entertaining work.
Exploiting incidents in my own life and those of family, friends, colleagues (and even passing acquaintances) came next and I explained how these had led to dozens of short stories and articles, as well as my partly autobiographical novel, Shadows of the Past. The Inklings had no difficulty in finding memories of their own to serve as a starting point for some extended writing.
With time marching on, I was only able to skim over the lucrative opportunities offered by the ‘fillers’ market and then to challenge the students to guess what the main character of my children’s novel Wheels on Fire was planning in the way of revenge on the French. No one came up with the correct answer, but some were very close.
The two hours flew by and I hope that the Inklings enjoyed the session as much as I did.
16 October, 2017
It’s always a pleasure to take part in a literary event with friends and here I am in Waterstones cafe with fellow members of York Writers. We were all gratified to see more people in attendance than seats available! Left to right in the photograph are Toni Bunnell (who organised the evening), yours truly, John Walford, Andy Humphrey and Sarah Dixon. Some of us plan meticulously, whilst others take a more ‘seat of the pants’ approach and we all write in different genres. Toni, a well known local folk singer, provided a musical accompaniment to her reading from The Nameless Children. John explained his own approach to writing and read a story from his Time Machine collection. Andy, a seasoned performance poet, barely glimpsed at the text as he read from Satires and A Long Way to Fall. Sarah read the opening chapter of her children’s book Alfie Slider and shared both her motivation for writing it and how she had succeeded in getting it into print. They all fielded questions from the audience too.
Toni had allotted us fifteen minutes each, which gave me time to read a couple of stories from my Anyone For Murder? collection. I’d deliberately chosen two of the more lighthearted tales and it was good to hear the audience laughing. Only in the right places, I’m glad to say!
20 September, 2017
This is the first of a number of events in which I’m taking part this autumn. Do come along to Waterstones if you possibly can. It would be good to see rows of friendly faces!
11 September, 2017
Many congratulations to Julie Noble, who won a weekend in Austen country for her 500-word alternative ending to ‘Emma’.
I chose ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and am proud to discover that my entry was shortlisted. If you’d like to read it, go to ‘Stories and Poetry’ and see what I dreamed up for Mary, the ugly duckling amongst the Bennet sisters.
4 September, 2017
This was my 12th year at the Writers’ Summer School, generally just known as ‘Swanwick’. Why? Because it takes place each August in the Hayes Conference Centre, which is located in the Derbyshire village of Swanwick. My friend Cathy Grimmer was the Chairman this year and, with the help of her committee, did an excellent job. Nearly 300 writers were present during the week and almost a third were first timers.
The former gentleman’s residence has well kept and extensive grounds, including two lakes. The swans are no longer there, but there are plenty of fish. No swimming allowed, unfortunately.
Anyone wishing for solitude can generally find some.
The area around the Main House, though, is generally thronged with writers in between sessions. We are, after all, there to work and learn. There’s no need to sign up for courses in advance and dipping in and out is allowed. This year, I attended part or all of the following: Writing Popular Fiction with Sue Moorcroft, both Script Writing and Life Writing (memoir) with Paul Dodgson, Short Stories with Della Galton, The Swanwick Standard (photo journalism) with Simon Hall, Writing Intimate Scenes with Liz Hurst, Grammar (and punctuation) with Geoff Parkes and Writing for Competitions with Ingrid Jendrzejewski.
Most evenings saw a speaker: Derbyshire crime writer Stephen Booth kicked us off and was followed by Sophie Hannah, doyenne of psychological crime fiction, children’s author Cathy Cassidy and the Golden Egg Academy’s Imogen Cooper. New for this year was ‘In Conversation With…’ in which Simon Hall grilled authors Sue Moorcroft, Jon Mayhew and Steve Hartley.
These two gallant gentlemen, window cleaner Eddie and head porter Steve agreed to be interviewed for my article in the Swanwick Standard. I chanced upon them when I was taking a break from heading a ‘Procrastination Free Day’ session and they provided me with a mine of information. My other ‘duties’ this year included being an ‘ambassador’ with the brief to look after new Swanwickers (White Badgers), run one of the guided tours of the site with Veronica Bright, co-host a dinner table on the first evening with Julia Pattison and the Prose Open Mic with Jennifer Wilson.
That overlapped the Wild Wild West disco and, with no time to change in between, I helped Jen to run a tight ship (in my case, in a very tight costume). Participants, apart from the winners of the short story and writing for children competitions, were limited to five minutes each and I had an egg timer as well as my axe! Other entertainments include the Poetry Open Mic, Buskers’ Night and Swanwick Page to Stage performances.
All too soon it was the last full day. The conscientious amongst us attended the AGM and everyone assembled on the lawn for the annual Dregs Party. That’s always an occasion for donning whatever finery could be squeezed into the luggage and polishing off left over drinks and/or snacks before going in for dinner.
Cameras clicked the whole time and many hugs were exchanged with friends old and new. Only the hilarious Swanwick Awards and Farewell remained, with another farewell the following morning as those departing by coach were waved off by the rest of us.
So, that’s it. Next year is the 70th anniversary of the Writers’ Summer School. Early booking from 1st February 2018 is strongly advised. If you’d like to join us, keep an eye on the website: www.swanwickwritersschool.org.uk
Here I am being interviewed. Skip to the two minute mark. When you’ve finished, don’t forget to take a look at the photo gallery underneath.
19 August, 2017
It’s always exciting to bring out a new book and this one is hot off the press, so to speak. As a veteran of many school trips abroad, most of them to France (although Germany may well provide a future setting), it was inevitable that some of my own experiences and those of my colleagues will have crept into the story. However, the character of Karen (Kaz) Russell, wheelchair bound after the accident that has killed her mother, popped ready made into my mind. Furious that no one in authority seems to care enough to pursue the driver responsible, Kaz decides to take matters into her own hands and the school trip to Paris will provide the ideal opportunity.
I hope that the book will appeal to the 10-13 age group and also strike a chord with their teachers. Comments and reviews will be very welcome.
4 August, 2017
I’ve been on an emotional roller coaster since my last post. Out of the blue came a series of visual disturbances that I convinced myself were TIAs (transient ischaemic attacks or mini strokes). They took the form of a shimmering effect around anything I happened to be looking at and lasted for several minutes each time. Always a reluctant patient, I put off seeking medical advice until frogmarched down to the practice. The G.P. took my self diagnosis seriously and gave me emergency treatment until it became apparent that I had no other stroke related symptoms. She then sent me off for an immediate eye test. BINGO! To cut a very long story short – and I’ve had neurological and ophthalmological tests since to make sure – it appears that my eye muscles were under severe strain from out of date spectacles. That had led to a condition called ‘migraine with aura’.
Have you ever heard of that? I hadn’t. To me, migraine was just a very bad headache and I had had no pain at all. Much better informed now, I’m anxious to spread the word that migraine can manifest itself in a variety of different ways, many of them alarming.
Born with good vision, I came down with scarlet fever whilst still at primary school and have been shortsighted ever since. National Health issue spectacles – brown frames for boys and pink for girls – had metal earpieces that dug in all year round and made the backs of my ears particularly sore in winter. Even when my parents paid for more attractive frames, I still hated wearing the things and they spent more time in my pocket than on my nose. Which child – at least until the arrival of Harry Potter – has ever wanted to be a Speccy Four-Eyes? As a teenager, I worried that ‘boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses’ and so was even less likely to be seen out in them. This persisted through university and into my twenties, when I invested in prescription sun glasses and contact lenses. As often as not, though, I wore neither and only clapped my ordinary spectacles onto my nose when I thought no one was looking. I wasn’t shortsighted enough to bump into things and just bumbled around seeing everything out of focus.
I’ll be truthful. Even now, I’m not happy at the prospect of wearing my new specs more or less full time. However, I’ve been advised that I should and I’ll just have to get used to the idea. After all, it’s a small price to pay for being given a new lease of life. Vanity may at last have given way to common sense. At least, I hope so.
3 August, 2017
I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s show at York Barbican, in which all the musicians – including the chap not billed, who played harmonica, flute, saxophone and occasionally drums – gave sparkling performances.
Seeing Al Stewart on stage again, brought back memories of the only other occasions on which I’ve been fortunate enough to see him perform live. Both were way, way back when I was a student in Manchester and I’m no longer certain in which order they came.
Some members of the audience at the Barbican looked a little sceptical when Al related a story about being stranded penniless in New York City, gate crashing a party and spending the night with a girl who was keen to get rid of him in the morning – until she saw Paul Simon, his former London flatmate, and Art Garfunkel arriving in a posh car to pick him up from her apartment. I didn’t doubt him for a moment. On a rare (for me) visit to Les Cousins in Greek Street, Soho, Al was singing when Paul Simon made an unscheduled visit and joined him on the stage. Not only that, his (Paul’s) mother was with him and held his coat while he sang.
Al’s 1969 album Love Chronicles was the first mainstream record release ever to include the word ‘f****ing’. At a charity concert organised by a friend of mine in Manchester, he sang the entire 18-minute title track to the delight of the mainly student audience but the horror of the theatre manager. There was talk of his being banned from the city forever, which obviously didn’t happen. In fact, I believe that he’s there this very evening.
Still a lover of vinyl, I cherish my much played copies of Love Chronicles and of Al’s first best selling album, Bedsitter Images. The above photo was taken not long before I acquired them. It’s been quite a while!
6 May, 2017
It’s always a pleasure to review a show for a local group and last Tuesday evening saw me at Harrogate Theatre for Ripon Amateur Operatic Group’s dress rehearsal of 9 to 5 The Musical. Sitting in the centre of the front row of the Circle and armed with a clipboard, torch and copy of the programme was an interesting, although far from relaxing experience. It’s always an odd feeling to see the cast acting, dancing and singing their hearts out to rows of mostly empty seats and so receiving minimal feedback for their efforts. Wishing to do justice to the performance, I was also acutely conscious that turning my attention away from the stage in order to write notes might cause me to miss some of the action. However, I did my best, sat up until 2.30 a.m. to finish the review in time for the press deadline and kept my fingers crossed that I hadn’t made any major mistakes or omissions.
Delighted to receive some complimentary tickets, I was in the theatre again for the last night of the show and enjoyed it a great deal more. Relaxing in the Stalls, with no decisions to make other than which flavour of ice cream to buy in the interval, was an undiluted pleasure. There were indeed little cameos that I’d missed first time round and the enthusiastic applause from the audience at the end of each big number was very well deserved.
1 May, 2017