Something for the four children who made stories, just for us.

It’s been five and a half months since we’ve seen some of the family. For various reasons, Ray and I are still shielding, and they’re a hundred miles away. So last week we had a Zoom slot with some of the grandchildren.

It was lovely to see them all together, rather than taking it in turns on the phone. Charlie, Alfie, Sasha and Kelsey told us about the arts and crafts projects they’d done through the summer, and Charlie said that he was writing a book.

‘Wow,’ we said. ‘What a great idea. Who else likes making stories?’

They all did, excitedly taking it in turn to give us summaries of things they had written, and ideas of what they would write next. The inspirations, all different, were influenced by books and films. ‘That’s exactly what writers do,’ we told them.

‘I’ve just had an idea,’ Ray said. ‘You can write stories to read to us on Zoom.’

There was a chorus of enthusiastic yeses.

‘And,’ said Ray, ‘we’ll send each of you a special notebook and lots of pens.’

So, yesterday, we were treated to an exclusive private reading by four authors. It was brilliant.

What would they write next, we wondered. Ray thought they might create a story together. I thought I might join in. Perhaps, I could start them off.

So, this is for our story-tellers, who might, perhaps, decide what happens next…

There were once four children who could sit quite still, if they had to. They were called, Charlie, Aflie, Sasha and Kelsie, or maybe, they were called Kelsie, Sasha, Alfie and Charlie. They may even have been called, Ashas, Lafie, Larchie and Selkie. It’s tricky to tell when your Zoom connection isn’t quite stable.

Stables are where horses live. Lots of children long to own a horse. Sometimes, if they’re very, very lucky, they might get to ride on one.

Most people would say that one of the things no one can do, is promise to post you a horse. Well, not a real, live, breathing horse. But that’s what Aunty Cath decided she would do, when she woke up one Monday morning.

It wouldn’t be easy. It would need some very special skills.

She’d got the idea while watching the children, who were a hundred miles away, on the other end of a Zoom call, eating some really delicious looking sandwiches. Those sandwiches looked so wonderful, perhaps the best she’d ever seen, that she could almost taste them.

She’d said, ‘I’d love one of those. I wish there was a way you could send one to me through the internet, right now. Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could put one in a slot on your computer, press a button, and have it arrive at ours, right away? One of you ought to invent a way to do that.’

They had laughed, as if their silly aunt was making another joke. But when Aunty Cath woke up the next morning she knew exactly how to do it, and she wasn’t just going to send food, she would send something alive, something exciting, that could be an adventure.

She had had a dream, not just about how to send a sandwich. No, the thing to deliver, was a horse. A magic horse.

Aunty Cath could remember exactly how her dream horse had looked. All she had to do, was draw it.

That was the difficult part: the trickiest thing she would have to do. Aunty Cath was rubbish at drawing. She much preferred writing descriptions. But, would words come to life?

What a question! Of course they did, all the time. That was the magic of stories, after all.

On the page, to someone who couldn’t read, stories could look like a lot of squiggles. But if you understood them, if you read them, like the four children had yesterday, then whole other worlds could come to life.

Print by Alberto Manrique

It was just what happened when Charlie told Coco’s story. Aunty Cath had run with him, when he was chased by a bully, and followed him into the shopping Mall and the hotel, and it had been lovely. Then, just when she’d thought Coco’s story was finished, another special thing happened: he made friends with a peanut, and how that had made her, and everyone else, laugh.

Next Alfie introduced her to Artemis Fowl Junior, and Dr Doom, and she’d had a very exciting time, going into big battles and mixing with fairies.

After that Kelsey told her about Tom Gates. He’d had to find ways to keep calm when Covid meant he couldn’t play with his friends, and Aunty Cath had been really relieved when he found a way to have a lovely special birthday party.

Then Sasha had described Matilda The Second, who was four years old, and super clever, but had mean parents who didn’t want her to go to school. Aunty Cath had been really worried about that, wondering who could save the little girl. What a surprise when Matilda cleverly tricked her parents into understanding that really, school was a good place for little girls to spend time.

Yes, that was it, all she needed to do was write a true description of the magic horse. She would start with his name, which was Starlight, because he glowed so brightly white.

He was not too tall, but he was strong, with a long glossy tail, and a shiny mane that flicked up softly when he galloped. What he loved sometimes, was to run along a beach when the sea was stormy, stamping through the frothy waves flicking spray up around him.

Other times he liked to walk quietly through long grass, feeling the stems tickle against his long white legs. He was good at stretching his neck and reaching high in the branches of a fruit tree to find apples.

Starlight was a gentle horse. If you were brave, and held your hand out flat, with a piece of carrot on the centre, and shut your eyes, you wouldn’t know Starlight had taken the treat until you heard him munching.

When he was happy, Starlight whinnied, gently, as if chuckling. He loved to have the soft skin under his chin stroked, and the hard bump of his forehead scratched. That always made his ears twitch.

Well, there he was: Starlight was on the page. Was he clear enough? Would it work?

What would the children do if they each received a horse, by email? Would they take him into their yard at the back, and keep him cosy and happy? Would they climb up on his back and see where he would take them?

There really were such a lot of questions that could be answered.

Thoughts on Blade Runner 2049

Blade runner 2049‘Anyway, I’m glad I saw it on the big screen, rather than the tv,’ Ray said.

‘Me too,’ I said.  ‘The special effects were spectacular.  But I don’t think I’d want to see it again.’

There was a pause, then Ray said, ‘The acting was good.’

‘Oh yes.  Very good.’

‘So what was wrong with it?’

‘Too similar to the original?’ I said. ‘I suppose it had to be, if it was going to pick up those threads of ending and take them further.’

‘Is that what you think it did, then?’ said Ray. ‘Take them further?’

‘I liked the game of spotting references to the original.’

‘But what about the story?  Was it too contrived?’

‘Maybe we’re so loyal to that original that nothing could possibly follow it.’

‘No,’ Ray said,  ‘there was a problem somewhere.  They missed the mark. I think it was the time-frame.  We’ve got colonies on other worlds in thirty-two years time?  That just doesn’t work.’

‘Well that’s not their fault, though.  They had to stick with the dates, or the story wouldn’t work.  The problem was that the first film set the date as 2019, and we’re trying to impose fact onto something that is meant to be a warning.  It’s an alternative reality.’

blade runner 2049 3Three days later, and I’m still getting flashbacks from those film visuals.  That landscape in shades of grey; the dark city extending into an even darker infinity, and the swirling, dust laden acres of waste-dumps feel close as I take Rusty for his morning walk across the fields.

These mornings the birds are too busy gathering autumn breakfasts to sing.  Is that why I think I hear that haunting, and rather beautiful, Blade Runner theme tune?

It seems, after all, that I may need to watch this film again.

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

September 2017, a phone call from Claire.

‘The ticket line opens in five days, Cath, are you up for the Cheltenham Booker this year?  It’s 1937.  I’ve got the reading list.’

‘Great, any you know?’

‘I read Mice & Men years ago, for school, and I’ve seen the film of the Hobbit – does that count?’

‘Pretty much, I think.’

‘The rest I’ve never heard of.  I’ll text you the list.’

Text from Claire:

Which 1937 title deserves to win our very own Booker? Our all-star line-up of Damian Barr, Adam Kay, Jackie Kay, Adam Thorpe and Alex Wheatle discuss A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had The Man Booker Prize existed eighty years ago. Chaired by James Walton, with an introduction by John Coldstream.

Saturday 14th October at the Lit.Fest with Claire: 1.30pm.

‘Good seats, Claire.’

‘Thanks, have you read any of the other books?’

‘Only extracts off the internet, and plot summaries. You?’

‘No.  I’m waiting to hear the outcome, then I might buy the winner.  I love this event, it’s introduced me to so many good writers.  I bought another Elizabeth Taylor the other day.’

 

chelt booker 2017

2.45pm, overheard in the crush on the way out.

‘Steinbeck should have won.’

‘Don’t you think the panel caved-in quickly at the end?’

‘I’m just going to the bookshop for the Zora Neale Hurston, first. I’ll meet you at the Hive in about ten minutes.’

‘I still can’t believe they knocked out Hemmingway in the first round.’

‘Well, does it matter if the characters are all male?’

‘I agree with Adam Thorpe, I don’t like plots to be too tidy.’

‘Not too dark though, surely.’

‘…so I’m going to read it again….’

‘What if it is a children’s book?  Animal Farm nearly won last year.’

‘Are the female characters only in the film, then?’

‘Personally I won’t read fantasy. Fiction should be realistic, not about fairies and dwarves…’

‘Amazing to think it’s really about The Somme.’

‘Actually, this is my ninth Booker.’

‘…and it reminded me of Doc Martin…of course so did Doctor Finlay, now I think about it.’

‘But is it a book only of it’s time?’

‘The thing is, this is an authentic black woman’s voice at a time when there is no black voice.’

‘That first line is just beautiful.’

‘…and I’ve always liked Maya Angelou, so it’ll be interesting to see how she compares.’

‘I can’t think how I’ve never heard of her before.’

chelt lit fest

The joys of a Treasure Hunt

Once, these were the staple event of children’s birthday-party games.  Remember?  The simplest, youngest, versions took place in a sitting room, with an adult directing us:  ‘Hotter, hotter, no colder, freezing-colder … that’s better, warming up…’  I know it wasn’t just me who got excited, because that game was always followed by: ‘I think we need to calm down now.  Let’s play statues.’

It disappeared from the party menu long before pass-the-parcel or charades.  I suspect it was too stressful, both to organise and, to watch as the carefully tidied party-house was usually dismantled in the process.  Hide-and-seek was an easier replacement.  It was fun, but lacked the sense of story that a true treasure hunt has.

enid-blyton-illustration-famous-fiveI think the hours I spent with Julian, George, Dick, Anne and Timmy gave me high expectations, because although I’ve never told anyone before, I’m ready to share my certainty that one day a treasure clue would come my way.  I wasn’t sure I’d be as clever and brave as the Famous Five, but I lived in expectation of adventure.

Long John Silver had shown me what a real treasure map looked like.  There was no sign of one in any of our books or boxes, and believe me, I looked.  So one summer afternoon my friend Jane and I created our own treasure map.

It took hours.  This was no casual project.  It was paced out, checked with a compass and taken through several drafts before we made our best copy.  There were landmarks, written clues, and a large scarlet X to mark the spot where we had buried a carefully wrapped ladybird book for our brothers to find.

The final document was drawn on a heavy fly-leaf that I ripped from an old book.  I hope it wasn’t anything precious, even then I don’t think I would have damaged a book unless it was already in a bad way.  But if I did, it was worth it.  I can still remember how impressive the finished article was.  We artistically ripped the edges, then aged it with cold coffee before rolling it up, tying it with a red ribbon, and hiding it in a jar.  Then we handed out the first clue.

Much later I created treasure hunts for my niece’s birthday parties.  Each one reminded me of that long summer afternoon.  I don’t know what we did with that first map.  Perhaps it’s still tucked amongst the paint pots in Dad’s shed.

pirates-of-the-caribeanThis year my grown-up nieces asked me to create another Treasure Hunt, for Boxing Day.  It was fun working it out.  This time the map was in my head: the clues were anagrams, puns, allusions and poems that I secreted along a footpath to a distant field, then back again.  While the family were out of sight, I snuck into the garden and set a final leg that led them round the house, to finish with a hoard of chocolate coins hidden near where they’d started.

And you know what?  It was a creative buzz.  In this story I had real characters to work with.  I’d set them a journey that I hoped they would be able to pull off, but I wasn’t sure.  I climbed up on the picnic table to watch for them.  Was it too easy?  Was it too hard?

Oh, the relief when they came into view.  Keeping out of sight, I watched them track the next clue, then gather to read and discuss it.  I sneaked closer, and eavesdropped. Even when I saw that it was working, I couldn’t walk away.  This was story, and I was in it too, a flawed, but omniscient narrator.

 

 

Feedback sessions in a writing group.

Can enough ever be said about the value of thoughtful feedback?

The feedback that generally happens in my writing classes is based on the heard story.  The author reads their work and the group respond.  That’s pretty standard, and it’s a lovely, if initially scary, experience.

dog-paintingI hope I will always remember my own early experiences, when I rushed through the words that I had sweated over – usually the night before it was due to be read.  Terrified and exhilarated at the same time, I set off reading at such a pace that my tutor needed to pause me at the end of the first page, and remind me to breathe.

I credit my good friends Ruth and Lynda, who between them coached me through the ‘Story-telling’ module at University, with the fact that I can now read at a more measured pace (thanks pals).  But that’s another story altogether.

Crimson and gasping as I invariably was at the end of those early reading slots, I went back for more, week after week.  What drew me?  Well, aside from the joy of finding other people creating stories and poems in their spare time, and the stretching of my creative horizons that happened during writing exercises, I had an audience for writing that until then, I had mostly been doing in secret.

This was not family or best-friend feedback.  My fellow scribblers responded with constructive, impartial support.  I began to see where my writing worked, and how it could be improved, which both encouraged and challenged me to work harder.  I became more confident about my ability to put words together, and critical of what I was doing.

The next level of feedback is to look at the story, rather than listen.  That way, what happens on the page is the story.

Sounds obvious?  Well think about how much the ‘telling’ style directs us.  Delivery (the pauses, accents and intonations), plays a part in how we respond to the events being described.  It is one speaker’s interpretation of what those marks on the page mean.

So this week the aim is for no reading out-loud in my class.  Each writer will have a papertwo-diaries copy of the homework-writings to study and respond to.

This is a big step to take, but an interesting one.  To sit quietly and hear what someone else understands you to have said can be challenging, particularly if they’ve seen something you didn’t intend.  Does that mean they’ve missed the point, or, have you?

Perhaps you’ve not written that scene clearly enough: or is it that depths have made their way instinctively into the construction of your writing?  Sometimes, it takes a reader to see the writing road that you’ve side-stepped, and what better reader than another writer?

 

Photo from, 1952 film, The Importance of Being Earnest.  Dorothy Tutin and Joan Greenwood.

Our WEA heritage

wea-heritage-projectThursday evening I went along to Blackfriars Priory, where the latest exhibition of the South West WEA Heritage Project was being launched as part of the Gloucester History Festival.   What a lovely event.

blackfriars-gloucesterThe priory is a beautiful building, and the weather was perfect.  Sunlight slanted across the ancient stonework, and those heavy walls kept the air comfortably cool.

The Heritage project has raised some fascinating stories.  Essays, minutes of meetings, branch brochures and newspaper accounts and photographs have been tracked down in attics, cupboards and archives; memories have been jogged and research skills honed and practiced.  A map of the way the WEA has developed, expanded and adapted to suit the changes of the last one-hundred and thirteen years is building.

The stories have circulated.  Last week, for instance, I was told about classes being held in a railway carriage, during the home-going journeys of commuters.   Imagine that…

During the 1930s, the Gloucester WEA Branch had a separate Dramatic Section.  The one surviving Programme I’ve seen, for Four One-Act Plays to be performed on two nights in February 1937 had a cast of 26, 14 front-of-house and back-stage staff, plus an orchestra, under the direction of Arthur S. Morrell.  The background notes about the WEA Players says that in seven years they staged ’60 plays of varied types.’  That’s quite an achievement for a small city.

Those were different days.  To get back to that kind of commitment we don’t just need to remember times when there was no social media, we have to think about no tvs, and the majority of us relying on public transport, bikes and shanks pony.

A Minute book that survives for this group makes interesting reading, not just for the level of commitment the Players had, but also for the incidental references to events in the local area and occasionally, the wider world.

At the end of a meeting on March 8th 1939, Mrs Sparrow read a letter from Mrs Edwards, thanking the Players for their efforts on behalf of the food ship for Spain.

The thing I like about research is the way it invariably widens my horizons.  I’ve had to revise my cosy assumptions about The WEA Players, and think about what their engagement with world events suggests about the learning that was taking place.  In the programme notes for the Four One Act Plays the Players say:

To promote and develop a love for the Drama seems to be, in these days, not only worth-while, but very necessary.

The Study and performance of these plays also gives much satisfaction to the players, who are glad to think that they afford their friends an evening of pleasure and entertainment.

We would also bring to the notice of our audience the opportunities existing in the Worker’s Educational Association for the study of a wide range of subjects.  If you are interested…please leave your name and address with one of the stewards.

I think The Players would have ticked the six points of WEAs ‘mission’ today:

  • Raising educational aspirations
  • Bringing great teaching and learning to local communities
  • Ensuring there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
  • Developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
  • Involving students and supporters as members to build an education movement for social purpose
  • Inspiring students, teachers and members to become active citizens

glos-history-festival