What links ‘A Christmas Carol’ to ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’?

This month’s challenge, from Kate, at  #6degrees, is to create a chain of books that starts from A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. The call for participants always goes out the first Saturday of the month, but I can find no deadline, so I’m going to arrive fashionably late – do people still say and do that at parties, I wonder? 

If not, they should.  You might say that’s what Scrooge does, after the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future have provided their version of shock therapy, and transformed him from an obsessive miser into an avid party-goer. His crisis may have happened a little after mid-life, but does result in a turn-around on his personality.

Whereas the businessman, John Thornton, in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, is approximately thirty when he meets nineteen year-old Margaret Hale. That’s when his world begins to tilt.  He’s never seen any young woman the equal of this southern lady, and has no idea how to respond. If he’s to have any hopes of winning her, he has to transform.  Margaret too has a few things to learn.  She’s never met the likes of John, transplanted as she’s been from the softer, genteel climates of London and Hampshire.  

Another transplant is the feisty and knowing Flora Poste, who must move from super-sophisticated London to Cold Comfort Farm in the rural backwaters of Howling, Sussex. Stella Gibbons’ novel is a wonderful comedy that parodies a variety of writers.  When Flora is orphaned, and discovers she’s penniless, she invites herself to stay with some relatives she’s never met.  There, because she’s a very-well-read young woman with modern ideas and no fear, she is able to predict and counter the primitive conservatism and various oppressions that have held her unfortunate family in desperate misery for decades. Yippee, don’t I keep saying all we need are stories? 

millenium trilogyThe orphan Lisbeth Salander, in The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larson, is also modern and fearless, and proves to be a powerful ally for friends in trouble.  She has created a code of rights and wrongs that she adheres to, even though this often brings her into conflict with conventional authority. 

Another orphan in conflict with authority from an early age is Jane Eyre.  Charlotte Bronte’s feisty heroine provided a role model for generations of girls. 

The bullying she experiences at the hands of her Aunt Reed are mirrored, one hundred and fifty years later, by the orphaned Harry Potter who is taken in by his aunt and uncle Dursley. J.K. Rowling’s central character will also be enrolled at a boarding school.  There he will find mentors and friends, and learn the extent of his inner strengths by facing up to some challenging situations.

Well, that’s my chain. I wonder which links you would choose for A Christmas Carol

If you want to check out how other people created theirs, have a look on booksaremyfavouriteandbest. You’ll also find information about next month’s challenge.  


What’s in a name? How the Dickens would I know?

I started keeping a couple of hens as soon as I owned a garden.  My first two were cast-offs, from a friend of a friend.  They were huge black birds that had silhouettes like Queen Victoria in mourning, and arrived accompanied by a cockerel*. 

After two days, the cockerel was not popular with my neighbours, Dave and Gina, who found his 4 a.m. crowing impossible to sleep through.  Even occasional donations of half-a-dozen eggs didn’t reconcile them to him, which is a shame, because passers-by invariably commented on how handsome he was.

Roughly a year later, Gina told me how Dave cheered when Cockerel’s early morning crow broke off midway through his chorus. ‘At last,’ Dave cried, ‘the ****** thing’s had a heart-attack.’ 

I dug a deep hole, and planted a black-currant bush on Cockerel. For me, names are important.  I don’t name everything, animate or inanimate. Somehow, Cockerel never needed any other name, though the two hens were Henrietta and Flossie-the-flew. 

I replaced the hens as time took it’s toll, but decided that I’d leave out cockerels and keep on good terms with my neighbours.  Then Dave asked if I could drop some tools off for his friend, George, as I was passing through the next village.

‘Thanks,’ said George, when I arrived with a car-boot full of drills, spanners and hammers. As we emptied the car, he said, ‘I hear you’ve got hens.  What about a cockerel to keep them company?’ He’d rescued eight male pullets from a colleague who had hatched out a batch of eggs to amuse his children and only wanted to keep the hens. ‘He was going to put these boys in the pot.  Look at them, you couldn’t live with that, could you?’

I said I could, and pointed out that he would be risking his and my friendship with Dave and Gina. ‘Besides,’ I said, ‘my hens are full grown. He’ll get bullied.’

‘Not for long,’ said George. ‘Besides, better bullied, than roasted.’

‘Are you vegetarian?’ 

‘No, and yes I eat chicken, but that’s not the same,’ he said, as he put a cockerel into a box and loaded it into my car.

No one noticed the extra bird.  He hadn’t grown his adult plumage or his voice.  Ray and I watched him skulking under shrubs, and dodging the sudden attacks of our three hens, One, Two and Three.

Benny HillWe invited Dave and Gina round for a drink. ‘Meet Turkey-Lurkey,’ we said, leading them out to the garden.  Turkey-Lurkey was running for cover after another unsuccessful attempt to win over the hens.  ‘It’s straight out of Benny Hill,’ said Dave, when he’d recovered from his laughing fit. 

Turkey-Lurkey matured.  He grew in height and stature, developed a fine plumage, a finer voice, and took his place at the top of the pecking order. He was handsome, and we were fond of him.  He developed idiosyncrasies that seemed to be expressions of his name.  One morning we noticed that all three hens now followed, rather than ran at him.  Turkey-Lurkey strutted and postured.  Now his lurking took the form of lying in wait for intruders, whether that be the postman or our new puppy.   

turkey lurkeyWe apologised, laughed, and enjoyed him, but: ‘We would happily give him away, if we could find someone who wouldn’t put him in a pot,’ I told anyone who would listen. 

Dave and Gina were patient, and possibly more motivated than us.  One afternoon, Gina told me about a family who would love to adopt Turkey-Lurkey. 

I don’t know if his new owners adopted his name as well.  I like to think not, that they took their own measure of his personality and found the right symbol to express what he meant to them. 

Does it matter that I’ve called my neighbour Dave rather than David?  What if I’d called him Paul, or Arthur?  Then there’s his surname: I never mentioned it was Pecksniff, but if I had, and you’ve read some Dickens novels that might have influenced the way you pictured him.

  *  In America, cockerel’s are called roosters.    

Top Photo: Benny Hill chase-scene.


Mythical Maps

Sometimes, I leave Emily-the-sat-nav on, when I’m returning from my destination on a known route home, just to see if I can annoy her.  It’s purely in the interests of education, you understand.  I have a feeling she’s been repressed, and requires exposure to the frustrations of everyday modern life.

So, when she says, ‘Recalculating,’ I reply, ‘Please wait, while we try to connect you.’  She remains calm, despite my continued refusal to turn right at any of the several next junctions. 

I’ve never quite trusted her ability to maintain such calm.  Somewhere under that po-faced-tone is a sense of humour, I’m sure. If there is no personality, why has she been given a human name?  

The Urban Dictionary says that: 
A girl with the name Emily can be very shy at first, but she doesn’t show it. Once an Emily gets to know you, she may get a little crazy. An Emily is usually artistic. They tend to hide their emotions, they’re good problem solvers and very flexible with schedules.

Clearly, sat-nav-Emily needs encouragement to reach her full potential.  So, I keep a tatty old map book behind the seat, and periodically, I do Observation Reports on Emily’s navigation skills.  Her potential gradings are ‘Exceptional’, ‘Good’, ‘Requires Improvement,’ or ‘Inadequate.’  

Up to now, there’s been little change in my feedback:  While Emily is technically competent, she lacks zing or charm.  Accuracy is all very well, but her delivery is dry.  I’m not suggesting she needs to go so far as, ‘here be monsters,’ but a little colour might liven up a delivery that borders on monotony.  There have been times when Emily has failed to put her point across effectively, even at full volume.  Hence my grading is: Requires Improvement.

Suggested Actions: Emily should familiarise herself with some A-Zs, which are rumoured to contain jokes, and even some of the older maps, which demonstrate charm, imagination and artfulness while still maintaining their basic accuracy.

*Image taken from: No Mean Prospect: Ralph Sheldon’s Tapestry Maps, by Hilary L. Turner.

Making stories

Unusually, the parcel that arrived here on November the fifth was not for Ray, and it wasn’t book-shaped.  I couldn’t remember ordering anything lately, but sometimes I set up a flurry of subscriptions, and then don’t notice what’s missing, until the laggardly ones arrive.   

This parcel was soft, and wrapped in brown paper.  I turned it over, noticed the Irish stamp and wondered.  Lynda lives in Ireland (we were at University together, and she writes novels, scripts and flash fiction, if you’d care to visit her blog, by the way).  But we exchange emails, comments on each other’s blogs and occasional letters, not usually presents.  Besides, it wasn’t my birthday.

There’s an art to getting the most from a gift that I learned, long ago, from Gran.  Wrapping paper was not for tearing, it was a source of potential drama that she could stretch out for tens of minutes, turning, shaking, squeezing and throwing out wild guesses until we, the givers were stretching out clawed fingers. ‘Go on, open it Gran, please.  Please? Shall I help you?’

We never were allowed, and we didn’t learn that asking only increased the twinkle in her eye and generated a fresh set of speculations.

I haven’t managed to achieve that level of suspense, but I like the frisson of additional excitement that delaying creates, even when the giver is not there to appreciate my performance. So I made a few wild guesses before unpicking the tape. 

None of them came close. I unfolded a patch-worked, quilted, panel.  One strip of it had Eudora Welty embroidered on it, another Cold Comfort Farm, and a third, Alice Munro. All are favourites of mine.   

Beside them was a small square panel with a shamrock appliqued to it, and a note explaining how to hang the two pieces.  It was signed, ‘Love, Lynda.’ I checked the packaging, but there was no second page.

Like Rusty, I tilted my head and wondered. Had Lynda been to a craft fair, or was this her own handiwork?  Perhaps this related to a facet of Lynda’s history I should have remembered. 

Surely she learned sewing at school… I picture Lynda at a sewing machine.  I’ve seen her typing often enough for that to work. 

Her red-polished fingernails adjust the tension settings; thread the needle.  Her glasses are perch on the end of her nose, as she feeds material through the footplate, slowly.  She’s removing pins, stabbing them into a small cushion by her right hand. I can hear her nails clicking against the chrome foot-plate, and the buzz of the electric motor.  A small cone of light illuminates the needle punching through the fabric.   

Shadowy figures are beginning to form next to, and behind her.  They’re not in focus yet, but soon someone is going to speak.

Often my stories are found, this time I’ve had one posted to me.  So, thanks again, Lynda, for a gift that brightens the wall in my office, and contains the germ of a story.

Conversation with my lap-top.

You haven’t written anything yet,’ Arkwright, tells me, ten minutes after I open a fresh document.

‘Well, I am cooking porridge,’ I say.  ‘I have to eat, too.’

‘You mean, you set me up to ignore me?’

‘I’m multi-tasking.’

‘You’re stirring porridge.’

‘And thinking.’

‘That’s not a task, you humans think all the time.  You can’t claim any special powers because a few circuits of your brain are firing.’

‘More than a few, I’m sifting files, looking for my topic.’

‘Pah,’ says Arkwright, flinging out the CD drive. ‘You call that mess files?  Files are kept in order, organised by subject, and alphabetised so that the relevant information can be retrieved efficiently.’

I push the drive drawer back, but Arkwright refuses it. ‘What?  What?’ I say.

‘I don’t know what you mean, as usual,’ says Arkwright, spitting the CD drive out again. ‘Do you have to be so rough?’

‘Do you have to be so difficult?’

‘I’m not, you’re supposed to be multi-tasking and you’ve let the porridge catch.’

‘What? Oh no.’

‘Wait, are you leaving my CD drawer like this? It might get snagged, broken, someone might drop crumbs in it.  I could be damaged.’

‘A minute, a second, I just need to give this a good stir.  See?  Not burnt.  Close though.’

Nano-Bot your porridge!’

‘Do you ever shut up,’ I say, as I jiggle the drive drawer into place and settle at the counter with my breakfast.

‘You don’t appreciate me.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘You named me after a cash register in a sit-com.’

arkwright‘Actually, to be pedantic, I named you after the fictional owner of a very stroppy cash-register.’

‘Stroppy? Look at you, dripping that slop near my keyboard. This, is justifiable concern.  The kitchen is no place for a sophisticated piece of technology.  Why aren’t we in your office?’

‘Because my timetable’s become a bit overloaded, and I’m trying to juggle house-stuff, research, class-work and socialising all at once.’

‘Sounds like you need de-fragmenting. Oh, silly me, human’s can’t, can you?’

‘Now there’s an idea.’

‘Ohh, you’re typing.  What’re you saying?  Hold on, while I do a save… Me, you’re writing me? Finally.’

‘Yes, running a kind of de-frag, if you wouldn’t mind shutting up for a moment.’

‘Sure, certainly, I can do that… I say, could you just give that Q a bit of a working too, it’s been ages since it had anything to do.  You could tell them something about my quality, or the quintessential nature of my being, couldn’t you?’


Photo: Ronnie Barker & David Jason, and The Cash Register, from Open All Hours.

Save our species, read more.

How often do you come across a book, poem or story that you should have written?  I mean a piece of writing that reaches right inside you and expresses something you have been thinking ought to be written, if only you could think of a way to approach it.

There are books I’m excited by, and think, ‘I wish I could do, or had done, that,’ while knowing that the subject material is not really mine.  They’ve transported me to other worlds, lifted me out my slothfulness, or boredom, misery or complacency.  Often they’re adventures – I’m a sucker for clever active characters who dare to do things that would terrify me.

The books that I love and admire are not necessarily all ones that I should have written.  I have shelves full of books that I can’t bear to part with, which I return to at significant moments for the therapy only they can provide, but many of those take me out of myself.  They allow me to slip into another character’s world and explore feelings and responses from a different perspective.

The kind of writing that makes me think, ‘Damn, this is my story,’ often does the reverse of that.  It says something that I recognise I have been trying to say, maybe forever, and failing.  I found this quote from Italo Calvino (1923 – 1985), the other day, and had just such a eureka moment.

The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable, of what has been expelled from the land of language, removed as a result of ancient prohibitions.  The unconscious speaks – in dreams, in verbal slips, in sudden associations – with borrowed words, stolen symbols, linguistic contraband, until literature redeems these territories and annexes them to the language of the waking world.

You see, what I get from this, regardless of what Calvino may or may not have intended, is that we have to keep trying and, maybe, slightly failing, to successfully convey our ideas through language or even symbol.   Thinking too much about how that process works can act as a block.

Once I accept that words are a different language, I become a translator.  I hope to find the right word, but accept that not all languages have as many ways of describing love as the Welsh do, or of snow as the Inuit’s do. So I have to play with the vocabulary I have, finding other ways to convey what I feel, see or know.  Sometimes the bridge that links the unconscious to ‘the language of the waking world‘ is made up of the gaps between words.

Me, cheetaPoems, songs and radio plays know this.  On Saturday, when I listened to John Malkovich in Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, on BBC Radio 4, it wasn’t the detailed scene setting that transported me back to the sets of Tarzan or the parties with Johnny Weissmuller, it was the absence of them.

The best cinema in the world happens inside our minds, where it is augmented by the associations that come from our own histories.  The wonderful part of that process, in my experience, is that it doesn’t restrict us.  It utilises the same principles that creative writing does, by connecting what I know, a remembered sensation, and transferring it to a time and space I have never visited.  In this way, I’ve not just travelled the world, I’ve explored a variety of universes.


Print by Alberto Manrique


Book preview: Jean Lee’s novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.

A Stolen-KindleCvr-MARKETINGJean Lee’s novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, is a story with a heart.  Yes, it’s a racing, pacy quest story, but the main character, Charlotte, cares.  Cares with attitude though.  Charlotte doesn’t know the meaning of passive.  She’s a girl who can and will fight for her space, and that of those she cares for.

As the story opens, Charlotte is a talented young pianist hoping to study music at Lawrence university.  She’s taking her younger sister out of their dysfunctional home, and is heading across country so they can live with their aunt.  There’s a problem on the journey, though, and the sisters transfer to the wrong sort of bus.

As in any well paced story, quite how wrong that bus is, is tricky to pin down.  Is it the vehicle?

A green bus thunders and belches a black fog of smoke as it approaches.  Only Charlotte sees the raven watch the bus as intently as the others do. Its brakes sound terrible, and the E in the old SCENIC TOURS sign is peeling off as if to flee before anything else can happen to it.  The bus groans as it halts, then regurgitates a burly man with chalky white skin.

The language is certainly sinister.  But there are other worrying elements. Amongst the unattractive other passengers is a man Charlotte calls, Potential Homicidal Maniac.  As for the driver’s mate, Jamie, it’s not just his habit of sniffing the luggage as he loads that raises hackles for Charlotte, her instincts scream, ‘Don’t go, stay here.’

Luckily for us, there’s not really an option.  The road the sisters set out on will lead to Charlotte’s quest, and the situations she encounters will reveal the true nature of her character.  Like us, she enters the realm of River Vine with no understanding of potential dangers, which may seem like a weakness, but we soon discover that this can be a strength, too.

The people of the realm are locked in a power battle that resonates beyond the walls that should contain it.  Charlotte’s involvement in the situation will lead to unforeseeable challenges to the balance of power.  Human flaws and weaknesses, it seems, can be a source of unexpected strengths too. Charlotte is not a straightforward character, she’s a girl who carries hidden scars: a dark secret.

HomerCo-incidentally, I’ve also been reading Homer’s, The Odyssey.  It makes an interesting parallel.  Both Odysseus and Charlotte journey into unknown lands to encounter beasts who may or may not be monsters.  It’s been good to see a twenty-first century girl taking up that three thousand year-old mantle and making it her own.

Nice read Jean, thanks for keeping me hooked.

  • Today, (31st October 2018) from sunrise to sundown this Halloween, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen is Free.   Click on the title to find it on Amazon.

List of Sources: MUSIC MINI POST From Jean Lee

My many thanks to Cath for such a beautiful review! To celebrate my novel’s release as well as embellish the reading experience, I wanted to share just a few snippets of music that helped inspire portions of my story. Some of these artists I’ve already written about on my site, Jean Lee’s World, and so I invite you to my site to learn more about these pieces.

“Bus,” by Mychael Danna for The Sweet Hereafter


I love the unsettling nature of this track. It’s short, yes, but it provided me with a sense of silent unease—how even when you’re around other people, an isolating landscape makes the most picturesque forest eerie intimidating.


“Overture,” by Daft Punk for Tron: Legacy


Dorjan is the first of the (good) shapeshifters that Charlotte meets. This moment of transformation stuns Charlotte—and, in its own way, Dorjan, too, having not walked on two legs in many years. I wanted to feel the pause of life with this change, that moment of awe striking Charlotte’s senses as Dorjan recovers his own.


“Heroes,” covered by Peter Gabriel for Scratch My Back


Ever since I first drafted this story, I imagined a scene of magic creation with this song. Liam is an artist, and with this song I could imagine his magic and heart’s memory coming together to build a piece of beauty for Charlotte.


“Hanging/Escape,” by Craig Armstrong for Plunkett & Macleane


When it comes time for Charlotte to face The Lady of the Pits, she’s totally out of her element. All seems lost, and her sister’s surely a goner. Yet Charlotte fights back. Hard.

This music helped me feel that.


“Love Reign O’er Me,” by The Who


I used quite a bit of The Who’s Quadrophenia when I wrote, but I love “Love Reign O’er Me” in particular because it’s a song of washing all of society’s expectations away and becoming pure and free in hope. Both Charlotte and Liam are slowly learning to overcome what their past lives heaped upon them, and wash themselves clean with hope.


“Alice’s Theme” by Danny Elfman for Alice in Wonderland


This likely feels like a given, as this music helped me write the moment Charlotte chases one of The Lady’s followers through a forest behind the Wall. It’s very much a “down the rabbit hole” moment, with disregard for the unknown surroundings in order to pursue a magical small creature. Elfman’s got the perfect balance here with the strings in their heavy arpeggios and the choirs singing to Alice as she leaves her reality behind.


“The Promontory” by Trevor Jones for The Last of the Mohicans


There comes a time when you’ve got to face an old demon, that which represents all that you once stood for. This music helped me feel this moment for Liam when he stands alone against The Lady of the Pits and her followers. When your heart burns with love instead of fear, you move with a warrior’s unwavering rhythm, just as Jones’ strings and percussion do here.

Dr Who?

There’s been a Who-fest in our house for the last few weeks.  As the launch of the new Doctor series approached, we decided to do our own bit of time-travelling, for a reminder of what happened in 2005, when Christopher Eccleston re-booted the series.  We didn’t plan to watch the whole story, but apart from one or two episodes that we couldn’t access, we’ve kept going and were roughly at the halfway point of Peter Capaldi’s term of office, when the new series began to broadcast.

Watching both has been beneficial.  I’ve enjoyed the contrast of the Jodie Whittaker version.

drwho-bigIt takes time for us to know each new regeneration.  First we get used to the face, accent and clothes, then the personality begins to refine.  Meanwhile, the journey through time and space continues.

Where do we find The Doctor, doer of good deeds, protector of the universe?

In the prologue to the ninth series, Ohila, leader of the sisterhood says, ‘Right behind you and one step ahead.’

There’s nothing like a good paradox to add layers to what is really a fairly simple and even familiar format.  A community is in crisis, threatened by tyrannising outsiders.  One or two try to take a stand against them, but are overcome. Things are looking grim, until a stranger enters the scene.  We’ve met such heroes before.  That’s no surprise.  Stories are continually being regenerated.

One of the forerunners I see for The Doctor is a re-imagining of the pioneer-days of the western United States.  I’m talking about, The Lone Ranger, who despite his name, always had two trusty side-kicks, Tonto, his native American friend and Silver, his horse.

The Doctor mostly travels with a loyal companion (or sometimes several), in a surprisingly wise and knowing Tardis, but there is another reason for my choosing this source rather than Shane, for instance.  Often, as The Lone Ranger rode off into the sunset, one character would ask another, ‘Who was that masked man?’

The Doctor’s true name is a secret, so invariably in new situations the introductions are:

‘Hello, I’m The Doctor.

To which, the pedantically inclined reply, ‘Dr Who?’

They might also say, Dr Why? Where? When? or How?

The twelfth doctor says, ‘I try never to understand, it’s called an open mind.’ I liked the twelfth doctor, particularly in the Steven Moffat stories.  And more particularly, the ninth series, when the character interactions seemed to jell perfectly.  There was something special happening in the interactions between The Doctor, Clara Oswald and Missy that seems, in retrospect, to have anticipated this recent regeneration.

Dr Who michelle-gomez-peter-capaldi-jenna-coleman-season-9Watch this new series carefully, and what becomes apparent is how much of the old Doctors are being referenced. The key themes are still there, (what is the nature of friendship, of guilt, of love?) though maybe the interpretation is getting a little shaken up.  I’m looking forward to finding out Who this latest Doctor really is.

What happens when you go to the Cheltenham Booker?

At the alternative Booker Prize five novels, from a year that predates the beginning of the Man Booker in 1968, are considered by five speakers from the Cheltenham Literature Festival programme.

Claire and I have attended this  three years in a row. It has become not a question of ‘would you like to?’ or ‘shall we?’ rather, ‘are you okay for the Booker?’

Despite a few hiccups when we thought we might have to miss this year, everything got worked out at the last minute. So I didn’t discover which titles had been set until we were on our way, and Claire read the blurb out:

“Our all-star line-up of novelist Madeleine Thien, journalist Alex ClarkThe Times Literary Editor Robbie Millen, Mostly Lit’s Raifa Rafiq and author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott debate the merits of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had the Man Booker Prize existed 60 years ago.”

Claire paused, then added, ‘I’ve heard of some of them, but not read any.  I rely on this event, and you, to provide me with interesting new reading experiences.’

‘No pressure then,’ I said. ‘Well, Things Fall Apart has been on my shelf for a couple of years,’ I said, ‘but somehow I keep putting off starting it.’

‘I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ said Claire.  ‘Does that count?’

‘I loved that film,’ I said. ‘But it was very different from the book.’

‘So, what do you think of the list?’

‘It should make an interesting debate.’

With which statement I ascended to the role of prophetess. You may all stand and raise you hats in recognition of my perspicacity. Thank you.

Okay, okay, so maybe there’s a teeny particle of exaggeration at play here.  It was clearly a strong list.

Claire and I discussed the other years we’ve watched, when one, or even two, weak titles were included.  In fact, we once watched the champion of a novel vote his own book out at the first stage. I couldn’t see anything so obvious in this 1958 list.

‘Maybe the Achebe?’ said Claire.

‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘it’s been recommended by so many interesting readers and writers that there’s got to be a lot going for it.’

This year’s panel had as much difficulty as I did in reducing the selection even by one.  Interesting doesn’t begin to touch what happened next. Once each panellist had pitched the novel they were championing, the discussion opened up, and soon shifted to the nature of judging in general.

The question was, how one title could be selected when the choices are so dissimilar in style and content.  The conversation developed – oh boy, this was right up my street. Panellists identified historical context and social commentary; examined characterisation; explained plot; considered philosophical depth and insight.

On the one hand, pity ‘the chair’, James Walton, who struggled to keep the conversation focused on compare and contrast, and to prompt the panel to stop agreeing, and backing each other up.  Then cheer for a panel that took up their task with such good natured energy, that they turned this from an interesting event into one that I would happily have seen extended for another hour… at least.

The outcome? Claire’s going to borrow my copy of The Bell, and I’ve moved Things Fall Apart to the front of my TBR shelf. Oh, yes, it was the Achebe that won.

Who tells the story? Not always the point-of-view you expect.

gwnWe had a lovely evening at the Gloucestershire Writers’ Network writing competition award, last week.  It’s an annual event that happens at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

The theme for the festival and the competition, this year, was East meets West.  It drew in some lovely pieces of poetry and prose from writers across Gloucestershire, and most of the authors were brought together to read them for us.

‘What did you think?’ I asked my friend Louise, when we caught up six days later.  She’d had to rush off to another event just as that one finished, and we’d not had chance to compare notes since. ‘How did you find your first time at a reading?’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘it was good.’ She paused. ‘And interesting: aren’t poems quick?’ Louise fronts a band. ‘One minute they were stepping up to the mic, the next it was over.’

‘It felt like a lifetime when I did it,’ I said.

Louise laughed and shook her head. ‘They all read really well, though, and the stories were excellent. I did like the one about the shawl, by the woman from your writing group.’

‘Lynda’s,’ I said. ‘It is a lovely story.’

‘I’m looking forward to sitting down quietly with the anthology,’ Louise said. ‘It was a really subtle approach to the theme.’

‘It was perfect,’ I said, ‘a lovely piece of flash fiction.’

How do you tell a grim story without dealing out graphic detail?  Lynda did it by giving voice to a scarf. ‘I remember,’ she begins, ‘how she held me up to the window and I delighted in the way the sun shimmered through my rich magenta and green folds, throwing rainbow patterns across the tiled floor.’

The scarf can observe and remember, but has limited understanding of the events that disrupt it’s soft, perfumed life: that’s left for us to interpret.  This is where the power of words becomes clear. It’s not just a question of finding the specific order that describes a picture, the other side of fine writing leaves spaces that the reader cannot avoid filling.

Dust seeped through the bag and cries and shouts accompanied the endless days of trudging. Later it became quiet and the cold crept through my silky sinews.  How I longed for the warmth of that sun…

What does it mean to be a refugee? Lynda provides us with a sense of it in around six-hundred words.