‘WEA? It stands for Workers Educational Association,’ I reply.

There is a moment of thought, and then Jackie says, ‘Does that mean you’re socialists?’

I smile and shake my head.  ‘We’re not a political organisation.  “Workers” were who the organisation was originally set up for, in 1903, so that they could access higher levels of education, and have the chance to improve their opportunities,’ I say.  ‘The title’s historical.’

Jackie wonders how she’s never heard about WEA before, if it’s been around so long.

‘It always surprises me how many people haven’t,’ I agree.

‘So what is it about now?’ says Jackie.

‘It’s still about improving lives,’ I tell her, ‘but that doesn’t necessarily mean economically.  It’s also about health and well-being, about keeping our minds active and enquiring, and getting us involved with our communities.’

I think about all the different sorts of classes I’ve been involved with since I started tutoring for the WEA over a decade ago.  As well as the Open Access Programme anyone can sign up for, there have been community groups set up for students with chaotic lifestyles, and disadvantaged backgrounds, where creative writing activities have provided a safe outlet for self-expression, and for some, has provided a first step  into employment or back onto the education ladder.

‘People come to classes because they want to learn, not because they have to,’ I say.  ‘That creates a real buzz in the room.’

‘So your students are still workers in the sense that they’re working at their education?’

‘I like that,’ I say.  ‘I might steal it.’

‘Help yourself,’ says Jackie.  ‘Can I keep this brochure?’

workers_educational-association-wea-adult-learning-course-reuben-internet_main

 

Ringing bells and not just whistling Dixie.

Last week I accidentally discovered how to ‘like’ comments that are left on my blog. I’m not sure how long this facility has been available, though for several months  I’ve had likes from other bloggers so for sanity’s sake, please don’t tell me.

I’d looked, in what I considered to be logical places, for a ‘like-button’.  I’m not sure my school bellbrain is wired for technological logic, because when I didn’t easily find it, I assumed that the other bloggers were subscribing to a more sophisticated version of WordPress and gave up.

I should have checked the help page, of course, or asked on some forum.  Except that takes time, and in the bigger scheme of things, does it matter if I’m not quite au fait with all the bells and whistles?

WhistlesI’ve thought about that.  I’ve been feeling uncomfortably bad-mannered over not returning greetings.  I’m glad to get responses, so I’m sure you appreciate some recognition too.

Besides I like the etiquette of blogging, that ether-level connection I have with other people posting from all sorts of exotic and local places.  It feels like a meeting of minds to connect with the words, and occasional pictures you post.  I want to get it right.

I’m like that about stories, but I give time to my reading and writing.  I study those bells and whistles, figuring out how they function, and seeing how I can apply them.

I suppose I’ve been thinking of this blog as being part of that creative process.  Not only because committing to a Monday morning post provides me with a weekly deadline, there’s also the challenge of finding my subject, then composing and editing it.  These things feel like good practice for a woman who already has too many hobbies and ambitions that are firmly fixed on wordsmithing.

Chersonesos' BellSo I’m not making any rash promises about exploring all the gizmos of the blog world.  I’ll only ask for your patience if I’m a little slow on the up-take.  Sometimes, it takes me a while to catch up with the rest ofwhistle poster the internet community.

 

 

 

 

 

What future for the written word?

DSCF6479I’m told that no one writes letters anymore, and so I log into facebook to see where my friends are, and what they’re doing. It’s all on-line, from the mundane to the wonderful, along with appropriate headlines.  Has the internet been beneficial?

Well, we’ve become a race of witticists, it seems. Posts are bounced back, forth and across as we match or transcend quips.  All those, ‘You know you’re….’ starters that we contribute to.

Who needs editors and influence? Anyone with a media link can join – which opens up opportunities that would have been undreamt of for most of us in previous decades.

Thinking along family history lines, I’m wondering what our descendants will feel though, sifting through our digital trails. The stories behind my likes, favourites and shares are complicated by loyalties, genuine feeling, good manners, ignorance and enlightenment.  What I read is only partially covered by the on-line evidence: what I learn is even less so.

Surely, though, growing up with the language of social-media will mean that future generations develop a method of reading between our lines. Someone will adapt and develop a methodology.  I foresee seminars and thesis creating lines of argument, and theory to be applied to the clouds we’re creating.

Because whether we intend to or not, aren’t we creating ourselves as flash-fictions every time we turn the screen on?

Thought patterns.

Late on Saturday afternoon we were all stuck on the word wheel.   When I say all, I mean the three adults sharing coffee, biscuits and gossip round my brother’s kitchen table.

DSCF6353

Sam did leave his lego for a minute to watch me tearing some scrap paper into squares and writing out the nine letters, but he was right in the middle of something really important.  We showed the wheel to Milly, coming in to grab a biscuit and ask a question about her homework.  She laughed, shrugged, and took a couple more biscuits for later.  ‘I need the sugar for concentration,’ she said.

Despite the biscuits, we still hadn’t figured out how the nine letters should be ordered fifteen minutes later, when it really was time to get home.  The best I could come up with was UNVAPOURS.

Later I found my word on google, but without a definition: so that was unsatisfactory.  Anyway, like Milly, I had homework to finish.  So, some you lose, I told myself as I settled down with the bones of a lesson plan.

Early on Sunday morning I got a phone call from my brother.  ‘Sam’s just solved the word wheel,’ he said.  ‘He was making words out of those letters you left on the table and writing them down.  He got SUPERVAN and then NO.  What do you think?’

I think, sometimes you need a fresh view of a problem.

Supernova remnant N 63A lies within a clumpy region of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Supernova remnant N 63A lies within a clumpy region of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Image created by NASA and ESA

 

 

Day by day by day, that’s the writers way.

Milly calls in to say hello.  Now she’s reached teenage, I don’t see so much of my middle niece.  This is natural, but I’ve lost the knack of easy conversation with her, and find myself falling back on the kind of questions I remember being asked at that age, such as:  ‘How are the holidays going?’

Milly shrugs.  This I translate easily.  ‘Bored?’

She is.

‘But you’re all going off for a few days tomorrow, aren’t you?”

Milly grimaces.

‘That’ll be fun,’ I say, ‘won’t it?’

‘They’re forecasting two days of rain,’ says Milly.  ‘Six of us, stuck in a caravan.  Yeuk.’

Giles4‘I’m sure there’ll be places to visit,’ I say.  ‘Or you could play board games.’  I try not to hear the word bored as I say it, but I can still remember the horror of family holidays in those ‘nearly adult’ years.

‘You’ll have plenty of time to draw, then.’  Milly loves art and design.  She shrugs again.  Remember when words seemed irrelevant, even insufficient?

I have a eureka moment. ‘You should keep a diary.’

‘It never works.  I forget after a few days.’

I nod.  ‘Me too.  But it doesn’t matter,’  I say, and I try to describe how wonderfully those few lines will read in ten or even twenty years time.

Diaries, huh?  I do know people who regularly write them.  I’ve never managed more than a few consecutive weeks, and they are defiantly private: excruciatingly embarrassing even to me.  Yet I’m grateful to my younger self for the fragments.  Not just so I can remind myself of events, but because I can immerse myself in preoccupations I’ve grown away from.

Etsy image

Etsy image

My old diaries are, like those of Gwendoline Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, something sensational… No matter how patchy.  Through them I experience an echo of the pains, frustrations, joys and excitements of earlier ages.  I can reconstruct memories and transpose the emotions.  How do we write convincing fiction?  We feel it.

So thank you for the quote, Mr Oscar Wilde.  Which leads me to wonder whether Milly is old enough to appreciate the subtleties of The Importance of Being Ernest yet? 

Dorothy Tutin & Joan Greenwood, from the 1952 film of The Importance Of Being Earnest

Dorothy Tutin & Joan Greenwood, from the 1952 film of The Importance Of Being Earnest

On writing to order…

Have you had a good week?

I only ask so that I can boast about mine.  Because I’ve been busy, not just with the usual displacement occupations around the house and garden, I’ve been writing – creatively.  Yay-hey-hey & Yippidy-yay.

Okay, so it was all a bit last minute, and it needs more work, but I’ve the bulk of a story put together.  And it works: that is to say, I think it’s working.

The reason I’m crowing?  My flurry of creative activity follows several weeks of floundering that started when I came across a short story competition, two months ago.  The brief was for stories based on a theme that I have strong feelings about.

I dithered when I first saw it, knowing that the risk, in getting onto a soapbox, is for entertainment to drift into diatribe.  Still, thought I, so long as I understand that, I can watch for it.  Because the plus side of such a situation is that I’d be writing from my heart, something I often argue for.

From the start, I was overwhelmed with ideas.  The trouble with the dozens of scenarios I came up with though, was none of them were stories.  I needed an angle, a character, a crisis to kick off from.

At that stage I was determined not to worry.  I had two whole months for the writing, which was plenty of space to try an oblique strategy.  I would take a break from my creative problem and catch up on other jobs, which would allow the theme to sink into my murky subconscious and ferment.  With luck, when I pulled it back out, it would have metamorphosed from a raw mash of ideas into something crisp, clear and refreshingly intoxicating…elderflower cordial

When it comes to writing, I’m not a patient person.  After a few days I took the lid off my ideas, made notes, then crossed them out.  I told myself I was putting the ideas away, but I didn’t.  I thought about them in spare moments.  Days drifted into weeks. I told myself not to panic – you can imagine how well that went.

Things got so bad that I failed to maintain the breathtakingly simple, Five Minutes Every Day trick.  Then, one day last week, I was putting together a handout of writing competitions, and came across a weekly flash fiction challenge that appealed.  Well, I thought, at least it will be something creative.  I’ll do that.

Funny thing was, that what I found myself writing was the germ of an idea that was just perfect for the bigger story competition, though in the end, the deadline slipped past me.  The thing is, I’m not writing it for entering anywhere, at the moment.  I’m too busy following my characters and their story to worry about that.

 

Keepsakes and Treasure Seekers

You see this box?DSCF6030It was a thank-you gift.

Someone who noticed how I like boxes thought I would appreciate it

I did.  It was not a big box, being shorter than a penguin paperback, but deeper.  If you look closely you’ll see that it’s made from good quality materials; that the surface has a linen-like texture and the edges are beveled.  I liked the solid design and the simplicity of the logo, though I didn’t know who Jo Malone was, or what they sold.  DSCF6031

What made it really special was that it was offered filled with mementos.   It told the story of a writing weekend, but here was a different view of where we’d been and what had happened.

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For nearly a year this box has been on the edge of my desk.  Sometimes I open it, but mostly I remember what is inside.

I haven’t put this with my other boxes, because this one does something different.  It doesn’t just transport me back to another time and place, it also paints a portrait of the person who selected the contents.

The best stories…

Imagine this:

It’s winter.

On a damp, cold, morning in January, Kelly has just arrived for work at Rustic Farm.  The breakfast sky is overcast, the hedges and trees are leafless, and underfoot there is mud.  The concrete yard is spotted with large dark puddles.  England in winter feels like a grey place.

Even though Kelly is wearing her quilted waterproof coat, heavy jeans, a woolly hat, and black wellington boots, she has stuffed her hands in her pockets.  The wet cold is seeping through to her bones and she’s only been out of the car five minutes.

stand and stare...She hurries to the storeroom and measures out food for the calves.  As soon as they see the buckets, they rush to the feed barrier and jostle for space at the trough, churning the air with their hot snorting breath, reaching out their long, coarse pink tongues to lick at the cascading trail of feed.  The calves chew contentedly, snuffling mouthfuls before raising their heads and chewing, open-mouthed, their eyes blissfully half-closing.

Kelly goes to the barn and climbs the ladder up the haystack.  She is so close to the corrugated tin roof that she has to crouch.  The air up there is dry.  Kelly roles five bales off the edge.

Back at the manger, she hefts a bale in and cuts the strings holding it together.  The hay falls into fragrant sections.  Kelly fluffs up the stems and spreads them out.  She makes a cloud of soft greens for the calves to sort through.  The scent of sweet meadow grasses wafts up, and for an instant, evokes the memory of a hot June afternoon stacking bales.  She pauses, picks out a stem and chews it.  It is faintly, dryly sweet.

A calf coughs, vigorously.  A shower of dung sprays through the rungs of the gate by Kelly’s feet.  She laughs, throws away the soggy hay stem, gathers up the cut bale strings and goes to fetch a shovel.

Maybe this is a bit corny, but sometimes a metaphor says it best.

So this week, as I was helping with the hay making, absorbing the scents of sun drenched herbs and grasses, I was thinking about that moment when the bale gets opened.  What makes good hay is the quality of the herbage that will go into it, and the care taken to cut it at the right moment, then to dry it quickly and thoroughly before it gets baled.

It seems to me, that what I aim for in my writing is the same thing.  I too must judge the perfect moment to cut into and out of my story, and use the best words I can to evoke the essence of a time and place.  I aspire for my reader to forget, just briefly, everything except the story I am telling.  Because those were the sorts of story that set me dreaming of becoming a writer.

Print by  Alberto Manrique

Print by
Alberto Manrique

Psst, pass this on.

It is the responsibility of writers to listen to gossip and pass it on.  It is the way all storytellers learn about life.

Grace Paley

A dragon dragged past the window, tail flailing as Sam turned the pages of his bed-time book slowly, hanging out the moment of sleep in favour of chat, life, and narrative.  Sam DSCF5241was winging stories across the duvet.  Pictures came to life in his voice.

It’s months since the last time I was asked to mind him for the evening.  ‘He might decide to read to you,’ his mum had said, quietly, before she left.  Now, here we were with the chosen book, and my voice, for the first time, was stilled.

Sam read.  A few words we had to spell out together, and Sam paused to try it out, then he went back to the beginning of the sentence and read it again, with colour and feeling.  He was not just reading, he immersed himself in that story’s world.

When we had turned the last page of the book, and Sam was ready to sleep, I crept downstairs, hugging the memory of those moments.

Heard any good stories lately?

KuchaleeWe’re at a local fete.  Lots of people drifting round stalls, greeting, sipping tea and eating cake in a sunny vicarage garden.  The story teller wanders in.  He wears a big woolly hat and bright, Caribbean style beach clothes.  He carries a drum.  Heads turn, but he doesn’t seem to notice.

He settles on a low stool under a broad leafy tree, crosses his legs around the drum and taps out a soft, regular, rhythm.  Children pause and turn to look.

The Story-teller speaks, just loudly enough to be heard above his drumming.  ‘The Mosquito,’ he says, ‘had a beautiful yam.’  An audience begins to form.  With a gesture, the Story-teller encourages them to settle around his feet.

His drumming builds into a crescendo, then dies away and he says, ‘The Mosquito boasted about his beautiful yam to everyone.  They were so impressed that they all came to his house to taste some.’

His audience has expanded to include adults, standing.  A few are parents, waiting within reach, but they’re listening too, to the story of a boastful mosquito.

The Storyteller slaps at his drum and calls out in the neighbour’s voices, ‘Let us in, Mr Mosquito, and share some of your wonderful yam.’  His drumming softens and, he tells us, ‘Mr Mosquito was terrified.  He stayed behind the door pretending to be out, but the neighbours wouldn’t go away.’

The Storyteller pounds at his drum and raises his voice.  He says, ‘They said, “We know you are in there, Mr Mosquito.  Why do you not answer us?”’

The Storyteller drums soft and fast, and his voice drops.  ‘Mr Mosquito said, “Zzzzzzz.”

“What?”’ The Storyteller calls out above the heavy beating of his drum. “What is that you say?”

The Storyteller pauses, and into our silence he loudly sibilants, “Zzzzz.”

We are all wide-eyed.  I am vaguely aware of the fete, busy behind us, but, what is going to happen now?

Our understanding of the shape of a tale is something we practice from the moment we learn to communicate.  Once we can begin to say, this is what I want to do, or this is what I have done, or even that he or she did to me, we are putting together narratives.  If we’re lucky, someone has already been regularly reading to us, or even telling us stories.

The traditional stories I grew up with, European tales, were sculpted for the page. Stories from other cultures often don’t work in the way we’re used to.

Kulchalee, The Storyteller, drew his story to a close in one line: ‘And that is all Mosquito ever said again.’kulchalee