Choosing the scenic route.

I’d never heard of black Friday until last year.  This year, not only do I hear radio presenters talking about it as a tradition, I notice that it’s become a long black-weekend: several of the sales I’ve found popping up on my internet accounts extend until Monday.

Shopping in Cheltenham, photo from the Gloucestershire Echo

Photo from the Gloucestershire Echo

I’ve been a little busy lately, so hadn’t given much thought to what this meant, until we drove into town for a lunch date on Sunday and found ourselves in rush-hour-style traffic.  While I’d been counting down classes towards the end of the term, everyone else had already got into Christmas-mode.

‘Yep,’ said my good friend Claire, ‘I’ve got our presents all done and dusted.’ She grinned, and added, ‘We’re going fun-shopping this afternoon.’

I came home to light up the woodburner and listen to the wind blasting rain against the windows.  As I lounged on the settee, digesting, I wondered if this might be a useful moment to suggest taking some time out.

How often do you give yourself permission to sit still?  I don’t mean at home, where it’s easy to get distracted by family or responsibilities.  Take inspiration from this old favourite by W.H. Davies.

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

At this time of year, in Britain, it’s rarely warm enough to sit outside for long, so why not visit an art gallery?  After all, they tend to be comfortably warm, dry and peaceful places.

Whether you consider yourself a writer or not, before you set out, put a notebook and pen in your pocket or bag.  Just because you’re carrying them, doesn’t mean you’ve committed yourself to anything.

Once in the gallery, don’t wander for long.  Find a comfortable seat and study a painting.  Any landscape will do.  It doesn’t have to be one that you like at first sight.  In fact, it might be better that you don’t have strong feelings about it either way.

What I’m suggesting, is that you sit and stare at it for a minimum of five minutes.  Let your eyes roam over every segment of the picture.  Absorb the details, but let your mind drift: allow the gallery surroundings to recede, and let the painting take over your mind.


Pearlblossom Highway, David Hockney 1986

Later, as you return to the gallery, take your notebook out and write a word about the painting.  Start off with the one, that might be enough…




Whimsical Scratchings.

‘Writan, an Old German verb meaning to scratch, is the origin of our English word, writing,’ I tell Rusty, as he makes a vigorous attack on an itch behind his ear with his back foot.  ‘It says so in chapter one of this writing book.’

rusty scratching0001Rusty pauses, considers what I’m saying, then goes back to scratching his ear, with a blissful expression.

Meanwhile, I’ve drifted onto another line of thought. ‘It doesn’t make so much sense since we’ve got tied to keyboards,’ I say, ‘because now we tap.  But in those days, it was not just that the marks probably looked like scratches: if the author was using some kind of pen and ink, then it would have sounded like scratching, too.’

I can say this with certainty because I once made a quill pen, from a goose feather, and used it until it was too bedraggled to function.  This was despite the fact that on certain weights of paper the nib squeaked on the same tortuous level as dry chalk on a board.  I cringe, just remembering the sound, let alone the ridiculous romanticism of my adolescence.

‘All the same,’ I say, ‘I’m glad Writan became writing.’

Rusty sighs, he’s done with his itch, and I know he’s waiting for me to mention biscuits or walks.  It’s tough for canines in a bookish household. Instead of discreetly keeping my work out of sight, I can frequently be seen squandering valuable play-time, and who’s to know whether I’m really working?

Here’s me pondering how ‘scraping with a fingernail or claw…to relieve itching’ came to be so satisfyingly onomatopoeically renamed scratch while the afternoon is darkening into evening.  Am I incubating the germ of inspiration?  Only time will tell.




Happy 2nd Birthday, ShortStops! How’s The Short Story Doing?


2nd_birthday_cakeYes, it’s hard to believe but ShortStops is two years’ old today! It was November 2013 when I finally got my act together, inspired by all the wonderful short story activity in the UK & Ireland, to set up the site – as a hub, as listings, as a dynamic and ongoing celebration. I was going to wow you with some data – how many wonderful lit mags and live lit events there are now, etc.. etc.., but why freeze the picture today, and what are numbers anyway? Instead I invite you to wander around the site a little, peruse our lists, find something new to read, or a new place to send your own story, or an event to go to, check out everything that’s happening!

I do want to take this chance to thank all the tireless and dedicated editors of lit mags, organisers of live events, short…

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Radio Tales.

Some of the writers from my groups have been taking advantage of an invitation from the Writers’ Room for local writers to read their stories on Corinium Radio.

Unless you live in Gloucestershire you’ve probably never dreamed such a broadcast existed.  I do live in the county, and didn’t realize until I was forwarded the email calling for contributors to volunteer for a short story slot in the schedule.  Since this discovery I’ve been tuning in and enjoying an eclectic range of subjects, styles and approaches.

So why don’t you check it out too?  It’s available on-line as well as via the air-waves.

corinium radioI’m looking forward to more stories, over the next week or two.

Perhaps you should also check out your local radio stations and see if they have similar opportunities.  If they haven’t, it still might be worth approaching them with the idea…

It’s all too easy to get locked into thinking the only way to share our words is through the printed media, but the truth is there’s a whole other world of performance opportunities out there for prose people, from slams to story-telling events to internet podcasts.

Reports from the first recordings have been trickling back to me full of positive vibes.  Scary but fantastic, is what they say.  I say, what a buzz.

Howard’s End is On The Landing.

The thing about titles is that they’re tricky.  I know this as a reader, a writer and a tutor.  Titles have so much work to do, and it’s hard to get the balance right, most of us agonise over them.  So I’m always impressed when I find one that catches my attention, intrigues me and suits the content it’s selling.

DSCF6333Howard’s End is on the Landing seemed to leap out from amongst the other titles in the shop. I glanced at the author, and remembered that Susan Hill wrote The Woman in Black, which I’d heard on the radio, but not read, and tried to remember if I’d read anything else of hers as I turned the paperback over.

The opening lines were a jolt:

It began like this, I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there.  It was not.  But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realized I had never read.

‘What, you, too?’

Further down the page, I read:

A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.

I was hooked.

I had wandered in to browse with no intention of buying, so what was it about that title that stood out?  Why was it the only book I’d bothered to pick up and look at?

Well, it made me smile (and still does).

I made the link to E.M. Forster, before I’d picked the book up, and was already wondering if that was intentional, but if so, in what way?  Maybe the book was a literary investigation into the novel, Howard’s End, in which case I was half interested, because I like a bit of literary research to aid my reading.

But, what possible link could there be between a classic twentieth century novel and ‘the Landing’? I couldn’t imagine that.

So, crazily, what I was also expecting as I picked up that book was to find it would be a story about a man called Howard coming to his end on ‘the Landing’ (and I still think it would make a cracking title for a golden-age murder mystery).

The thing is, the title was the lure that got me to open the cover and read those first few lines that hooked me so securely that I bought the book, read it, and have now put it on the shelf in my hallway.

One for the non-fiction shelf…

ISBN 9781514255537This week I finally got round to ordering my copy of Close to The Edge, by Sheila Williams.

This is a lovely, readable collection of stories about the Holderness Coast.  It’s not intended as a definitive history, rather a highly personal selection of fascinatingly quirky stories.

Daniel Defoe dismissed the Holderness coast, when he passed through on his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, back in the 1720s,

…the most that I find remarkable here is, that there is nothing remarkable upon this side for above thirty miles together; not a port, not a gentleman’s seat, not a town of note…

What Mr Defoe missed, Sheila Williams supplies*.

Chapter One – Growing Pains, begins with what the Holderness coast looked like at the time of the last ice age.

The North Sea was relatively dry, known as Doggerland and linked the UK to the rest of Europe.  The Holderness coast, indeed inland Holderness too, was a soggy, boggy stretch with meres, creeks and inlets all intermingled with ‘carrs’ – wet woodland and brush.  The whole provided a useful area for the hunting and fishing folk of the Stone and Bronze ages and nothing much more.

It takes us through the following centuries up to William the Conqueror:

After the Conquest, however, rebellion smouldered and broke out intermittently in the North of England until eventually William became tired of it and, his patience at an end, killed off as many of the recalcitrant Northerners as he could, together with their families, pets and livestock.  Not content with that early bout of ethnic cleansing he destroyed crops salted the land…and made a wasteland of the North from the River Humber to the River Tees.

This, you must be beginning to see, is a book about people in the landscape.  It’s the stories of characters who are not all Gentlemen, or even men, but who lived for a long or short time, on the Holderness coast.

You could, as I did, buy this book for the stories.  But be warned, you get more than a fireside read.  Before long you’ll find yourself checking road maps and thinking about experiencing for yourself the ‘huge grey-blue sea that transformed itself seamlessly into the sky so that is was hard to know where one began and the other finished.’ 

Photo: Sheila Williams

Photo: Sheila Williams

*Defoe was, of course, reflecting the understanding, values and preoccupations of his era.