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...
The pop-up Rose Theatre, erected below Cliffords Tower, has been an overwhelming success this summer. The historic 13-sided design of a 16th century theatre, created from scaffolding, wood and corrugated iron, housed an audience of 950. Tiered balconies provided seats for 600 and the open-roofed courtyard allowed standing room for 350 groundlings. Outside the theatre, the Village had food stalls, free wagon performances and other forms of Elizabethan entertainment – watered down, thank goodness! There was no bear baiting and the human heads on spikes at the entrance were – I hope – synthetic! The young lady in the photograph above was singing numbers popular in Shakespeare’s day.
Four well known plays were on offer this year, of which I saw two. To add to the verisimilitude of the staging, there were no microphones and the dialogue wasn’t always easy to catch, particularly from the higher tiers of the balconies. Seats in general were expensive, but I treated myself rather than stand for up to 90 minutes at a time. Groundlings were only allowed to sit down when space permitted, either on cushions they had brought with them and/or with their backs to the scaffolding. They were never allowed umbrellas, whatever the weather, as those would have obscured the view of the people behind them. However, they did have much closer interaction with the actors. Those fortunate enough to arrive first were even allowed to lean on the stage itself. The photo above shows the interval in Macbeth – with ‘blood’ being washed away. The groundlings had been shoulder to shoulder during the first act of that performance and would be again for the second, sometimes elbowed aside by characters making their entrances and exits, but nothing seemed to sap their enthusiasm.
Romeo and Juliet appeared to be set in Mussolini’s Italy, at least as far as the uniforms of the Duke and his men were concerned, with a dash of Venetian carnival. With a more open-minded approach to casting than used to be the case, it came as no big surprise that Mercutio was played by a woman and the Duke by a black actor. One of his ‘men’ was both female and black. The leads were played by Alexander Vlahos (Philippe in ‘Versailles’) and Alexandra Dowling (Queen Anne in ‘The Musketeers’), both favourite actors of mine, and their performances didn’t disappoint. The audience was attentive but not reverential, as witness the fact that someone wolf-whistled when Romeo got out of bed in his underpants at the beginning of Act 2. Alex grinned and took a slight bow.
Macbeth was a visual feast of fur and leather with gore by the bucketful. There was a great deal to enjoy, including some impressive sword fighting. Richard Standing and Leandra Ashton led a strong cast and much use was made of the many different ways to enter and exit the stage, including a large trapdoor. At times it emitted smoke and it also provided an all too temporary refuge for Macduff’s children. There were quite a few other surprises for the audience, the main one being that the witches – two women and a man – were represented as conniving underlings/occasional murderers rather than supernatural beings. As no doubt in Shakespeare’s time, there was some doubling up, notably that of Hecate/ Lady Macbeth’s maid and King Duncan/ the Porter. It all worked well, though. I hope the Bard (or Upstart Crow, for fans of David Mitchell) would have approved.
‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Richard III’ will have to wait for another time. Maybe next year?
4 September, 2018
And here I am again! It’s my 13th consecutive year at the Writers’ Summer School and I hope that I’ll have at least as many again to enjoy. Despite the recent drought, the extensive grounds of The Hayes are looking as wonderful as ever. Their upkeep is due to only two gardeners and I take off my hat to them.
Places sold out very fast for this special year and I doubt whether anyone who attended left disappointed. The programme was bursting with options, literary and otherwise. It’s possible to be on the go from dawn – jogging round the grounds or meditating by the lake – to midnight (or even later), although that could result in being completely burnt out by Tuesday. I came very close to that during my first Swanwick and have learned to pace myself. Whether larks or owls, everyone will have made a different selection, but this is how my week shaped up:
I volunteered once again to be an ‘ambassador’ and enjoyed helping the 70+ new Swanwickers – who all wear white badges as opposed to yellow – to settle in. As soon as I’d finished handing out keys in one of the reception areas, I co-led a guided tour of the site and then co-hosted one of the reserved tables at dinner. During the days that followed I buzzed around in search of anyone looking lonely or distressed and attended the mid-week feedback session. I also did a couple of shifts in the Book Room, run with her usual efficiency by the indefatigable Kate McCormick aka Elizabeth Ducie.
‘Write Your Life’ and ‘Song Writing’, both with the charismatic Paul Dodgson. The first choice was a no-brainer, as most of my fiction has an autobiographical element. As for the second, I’m no musician but some of my new characters will be. To avoid copyright issues, I’ve decided that it would be a good idea to put my own lyrics into their mouths. If only I had Paul on speed dial to add the music!
These were best selling authors Sue Moorcroft and Amit Dhand, the BBC’s Simon Nelson, whose main brief is the development of new writers (!), and storyteller/writer Sophie Snell. I enjoyed them all, but have to say that Amit Dhand was outstanding. Funny and self deprecating, the story of his dogged perseverance to get his first Harry Virdee novel accepted had the delegates who packed Main Conference Hall rolling in the aisles and the queue to buy his books afterwards almost stretched back to the bar. Only three in the series so far, but the television rights have been sold and I foresee many more titles over the coming years.
In Conversation with…
This year’s line up, chaired by our very own Simon Hall (journalist and novelist), consisted of our guest star Jonathan Telfer (editor of Writing Magazine), prolific short story writer Della Galton and crime scene investigator/writer Kate Bendelow. Much hilarity ensued.
Open mic events
I co-chaired the Prose open mic once again with Jen Wilson and read ‘To My Writing Partner’ at the Poetry open mic. That is the sonnet that got me to Swanwick in 2006 when it won me a free place and you can read it elsewhere on my website. Yes, I know. Hi-de-hi, everyone! As I wasn’t taking part in Buskers Night, I was pressed into service to take photographs. (See the gallery below for a selection of these.) Swanwick has a wealth of musical as well as literary talent.
Page to Stage
Three five-minute dramas and four comedies, submitted in advance and selected by an external panel of judges, were cast and rehearsed during the week. That being so, most of the actors needed to read from their scripts, but it didn’t prevent them from playing their parts convincingly. We then cast our votes for the best comedy, best drama, best actor in a comedy and best actor in a drama. The highlight of the evening for me was Steve Barnett’s portrayal of a ghost. A young WW1 soldier shot at dawn for cowardice is protesting his innocence while his mother (played by Faye Wentworth) grieves for him by her local memorial (on which his name is not included). Steve’s performance moved me to tears and I was delighted when he won.
Extra bits and pieces
It was interesting to take part in Kate McCormick’s ‘What are you writing now?’ session on the first evening, to hear the prize winning readings – poetry, prose and children’s fiction – later in the week and to attend Roy Devereux’s ‘Swanwick at Seventy’ presentation. I was also honoured to be the ‘tail end Charlie’ guest on Elizabeth Ducie’s Swanwick blog.
Fancy dress disco – 1940s theme to reflect the long history of the Writers’ Summer School and a tea dance. I improvised an outfit for the former and hired one for the latter. (Most of the costumes came courtesy of Swanwick’s very own Jolly Jesters, who obligingly deliver to and collect from The Hayes each year. That’s a particular boon for delegates who arrive by coach and are very limited as to what they can bring along. See if you can spot me in their collage.)
Celebration cakes provided by The Hayes (one gluten free and one not), group photograph on the lawn and a gala dinner.
Selling my wares
‘Workhouse Orphan’ sold particularly well in the Book Room, as did the still popular ‘Easy Money for Writers and Wannabes’.
Impromptu events and conversations
Too many of these to list here, but they are in many ways the life blood of Swanwick. Catching up with old friends and making new ones, hearing tales of success or failure from all points of the compass, swapping ideas, listening in on jam sessions, lingering far too long over meals or in the bar – particularly in the bar – are often the things I remember long after the main events of the week have faded in my mind.
Please click onto the gallery below for more photos of the week.
Swanwick 2019 can’t come round soon enough!
18 August, 2018
2 August, 2018
‘Workhouse Orphan’ is now available from Amazon in paperback or as a download. I have a small stock, so please let me know if you would like a signed copy. I’m also more than happy to give an author talk to any interested group. Although the book is aimed at the younger reader, a great deal of research has gone into it and the subject matter makes it appropriate for any age group.
23 July, 2018
Will toiling underground in a Yorkshire coal mine be even worse than life in a London workhouse? Young David Dawson is given no choice in the matter and can only hope for the best, but what of the younger brothers and sister he has been forced to leave behind? Trying to think up a plan to rescue them is at the forefront of his mind as he gets to grips with backbreaking work and the almost incomprehensible speech of his new co-workers.
While this is a work of fiction and has a positive resolution, I hope that it may serve as a reminder of the inhumane treatment doled out to ‘paupers’ all over our country until well into the 20th century. Once inside the grim walls of a workhouse, families were split up and given no say in their daily lives. Outside, they might well starve or freeze to death. Orphan children were particularly powerless, their fate at the whim of the Board of Guardians.
This novel is set in an era when thirteen is considered high time for a child to earn his or her own living. Things have moved on since the days of Oliver Twist, but conditions are still harsh. His education cut short, young David faces a future of exhausting manual work in an industry known to be the most dangerous in the UK.
My inspiration has come from the cherished memory of David Robert Davidson, a workhouse boy from London who was briefly married to one of my great-aunts. Ten years younger than she, he was her second husband, the first having already perished in the Great War. In the photograph above, I believe David to be the young man posing with the Lewis gun.
He had been sent up to Hartshead, a small mining village in the former West Riding of Yorkshire, to work as a ‘hurrier’, pushing along heavy carts full of coal. As far as I have been able to ascertain, his reason for marrying was to take care of his friend’s widow and children until he was called up and to ensure their entitlement to a pension should the worst happen. Unfortunately, it did. David’s name is included on a memorial plaque in St Peter’s, Hartshead and honoured each Remembrance Day.
I should stress that ‘Workhouse Orphan’ is NOT a biography. The details of David’s short life that have passed down the family are too scanty for that. All I do know for sure is that his widow and stepdaughters thought the world of him. When they emigrated to the USA in 1919, they took with them his regimental photograph, from which the detail above is taken, and the certificate issued in recognition of his sacrifice for King and Country. Both were cherished until the last stepdaughter died, at which point they were sent over to me. A younger cousin now has charge of them.
23 July, 2018
Not having seen Ariel Dorfman’s challenging psychological drama ‘Death and the Maiden’ before, I really had to do my homework in order to do this performance justice. I was very glad that I had. The Harrogate Dramatic Society may be an amateur group, but there was nothing amateurish about the production. The three actors were word perfect and very convincing in their roles. The set was excellent and the scene changes well organised and slick.
The only sour note came when my review appeared in the press. Although the original I submitted was comfortably inside the prescribed word limit, someone had taken it upon him/herself to cut it, thus removing some well deserved praise. There has since been an apology and the promise of the review appearing in toto next week. If it does, I shall reproduce it below.
News flash! It did and here is the much improved version.
29 June, 2018
Submitting stories overseas is a new departure for me and I’m thrilled to report that one of my murder mysteries has just appeared in a magazine only available in Australia and New Zealand.
That’s Life Fast Fiction is glossy, bright and pays well. What’s not to like!
11 June, 2018
Here’s a screenshot in which you can actually see me lurking in the background. As the episode was filmed several weeks ago and broadcast last Friday, I’m not giving away any secrets by saying that Chastity and Paddy were announcing ‘their’ pregnancy in the Woolpack. Supporting artists (‘extras’) are told how – or indeed whether to react to whatever is going on, so I’m not just being nosy.
One of the things I’m often asked by fans of the show is whether cast members are like the characters they portray. In the case of Emma Atkins, I’d say definitely not. Charity has a very hard shell and always puts herself first. Emma, on the other hand, is friendly, chatty and even relieved me of my suitcase on one occasion, carrying it off the minibus to the village set for me and all the way into the canteen.
Natalie Robb strikes me as very much like warmhearted Moira. She was first to the rescue when I fell flat on my back in the Emmerdale graveyard during the filming of Edna’s funeral!
Mark Charnock, best known nowadays as pub chef Marlon, first came to my attention in his role as Cadfael’s young assistant, Brother Oswin. I loved that series from start to finish and so was thrilled to bits to have the opportunity to chat about it with him one lunchtime. Amongst many other things, he told me how relieved he was to be cast as a novice and therefore not forced to have a tonsure* like the older monks. He still has a fine head of hair!
*Tonsure (/ˈtɒnʃər/) is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp, as a sign of religious devotion or humility.
18 March, 2018
Almost seventeen years ago, a lady from the RSPCA arrived at our home with a pair of ‘hard to place’ kittens, offspring of a feral mother. It had never occurred to me before that black was the least favourite colour for would be adopters to request. Why? Goodness knows. Superstition about witches and their familiars, perhaps?
Given the chance to name one of them, our younger son immediately decided on Tom. Not the most imaginative name for a tom cat, I suppose, but it stuck. He was Thomas on formal occasions and his subsequent paperwork for the vet. His sister became Tabitha, Tab for short.
They were so shy that we hardly saw them for the first few weeks and kept accusing each other of leaving exterior doors open. The food we left out for them always disappeared overnight, though. Tab was much warier, but Tom gradually gained enough confidence to jump up onto the sofa beside me and allow himself to be stroked. Eventually, his sister followed suit, although not before opening up my right arm from wrist to elbow with her tiny claws the first time I attempted to pick her up. I still have the scars to prove it!
Tom and Tab squabbled as siblings will and he often elbowed her out of the way when treats or a warm lap were on offer, but they were always together. Will she miss him as much as we do? It’s hard to tell with cats, but she must wonder where he is now. Unfortunately Tom, always the larger and bolder of the two, began to deteriorate last year. His back legs lost all their strength and he started to waste away. Towards the end, he was on three different types of medication, but the vet told us that there was no hope of improvement.
We console ourselves with the knowledge that he had a comfortable life far in excess of what might have been expected when he was born. Farewell, old chap. You’ll never be forgotten.
16 March, 2018