No pumpkin – a story instead

When I was a child, we celebrated Halloween at home. We didn’t dress up, but we did bob for apples in a washing-up bowl, or attempt to take a bite out of apples strung from the beam in the living room, hands clasped behind our backs.

Trick or treat didn’t arrive in England until the ’90s, by my recollection, when I had children of my own. We’d carve a pumpkin, and stand it in the window to attract passing ghouls. I once got cross with a boy who knocked twice at our front door, begging ‘Trick or treat.’ ‘You’ve had your sweets,’ I said. ‘That was my twin brother,’ he replied. ‘Oh yeah,’ I said, ‘heard that one before.’ I was just about to shut the door when a child identical to him arrived at the bottom of the steps leading to my house. Shamefaced, I offered the second twin a dip in the treats bag.

Maria reads The Man in Black at Horrorshow

Maria reads The Man in Black at Horrorshow

Seven years ago this month, we moved to a village. Expecting the usual trail of spookily-dressed children, we bought some sweets and lit the tealight candle in our pumpkin. Knocks came there none. Year 2, the same. Year 3 and beyond, we no longer buy sweets for Halloween. We are at the end of the village, just before a stretch of the A2 with few houses, only orchards shedding their autumn colours and fields of sheep. At our end of the village, there are few children. There are mostly older people who have lived in their houses for upwards of 30 years. A ‘young’ neighbour, 50-something, like me, describes it as ‘Death Row.’

In spite of the lack of trick or treaters, we’ve carved a pumpkin every year – a new experience for my husband, Bob, who I have known for a little less than 9 years. But this year, the weeks have passed without thinking pumpkin, without (as I often do too early) choosing a candidate for our Jack o’ Lantern. We are having a pumpkinless Halloween. In any case, Bob will be out gigging with his band on mischief night, while I stay home with the cat. Who isn’t even black.

To make up for this, I am sharing a story, ‘The Man in Black’. I wrote the first version of this 15 years ago and revisited it for an  event called Horrorshow, held at The Barge, Gillingham,  a couple of years ago. My Medway readers will recognise the setting, in and around Rochester. Versions of this story have won and been shortlisted for prizes; this is the first time it has appeared in print.

Happy Halloween, one and all. May your pumpkins glow brightly in the dark of the night.

Read The Man in Black. Beware, those with a nervous disposition…

How can you help?

A man goes to see his parish priest in rural Ireland during the ‘hungry years’ of the 1930s or 40s. The man has too many children; he cannot feed them all.  He travels to work in England and sends money back home, and still there is not enough money. He asks the priest if there is anything the church can do to help. The man’s eldest child comes home from school a few days later to find that some of her siblings have been sent to an orphanage, several miles away.

An extreme example of help, of charity, gone badly wrong.

I have not ever been in such extreme need, but there have been times when money has been short, I have been (and am) too sick to work, and things have seemed grim. The state has provided, through welfare benefits. I have been able to keep my home and to feed my children at times when I feared I would lose everything. The generosity of others has also been both a lifesaver in emergencies, and has added some colour to a very black and white existence.

When funds are low, it can be difficult to keep hold of your dignity. And pride can get in the way of accepting offers of help. How that help is offered, in a way that allows a person to accept or reject offers, and so that it does not appear patronising or pitying, is very important. Here are a few good examples from my own experience.

I have a friend who has offered me loans over the years. I have often declined, sometimes accepted. In a recent emergency, I asked if the offer still holds, and she happily sent a cheque with a cheery note saying that there was no rush to pay it back. She has also given me money in the past, a small amount to pay an unexpected bill, for example. It has never affected our friendship. I have paid back loans, or gratefully accepted funds given.

Christmas past - Biscuit inspects the presents

Christmas past – Biscuit inspects the presents

Some years ago, a friend took me with her on a day trip to France. It was close to Christmas, and she knew that I had very little money to buy presents for my children. We stopped at a service station on the way home, and she turned to me with an idea for a gift that my children would love, and would make a big difference to our household. ‘I have a mad money fund,’ she said. ‘It’s for money I don’t really need, but it’s for splurging on treats. I’d like to give you enough to buy a Freeview box.’ She would give me the money on condition that I didn’t tell my children where it came from; the gift would be from me. My children may be reading this now, and this will be the first time I have made them aware of this act of kindness. It was done in a way that preserved my dignity, and literally it added a little colour to a pretty basic existence at that time. And my children, big as they were at the time, squealed with delight when they opened the gift.

I have friends who invite me to lunch and lightly say it’s their treat. People who will buy a drink knowing that I cannot buy one in return. They know that funds are low, or that I just need cheering up.

I am writing this today because some people performed what they saw as an act of love, an act of kindness. It was done without asking, arrived unannounced, and although this was not their intention, it has offended my dignity. It feels like an act of charity, pity even, not an act of love. Love is not something you do at people, it has to be with their consent. I still love those people, but I do feel that my wishes have not been considered. Life has been difficult recently, things feel out of control. People in my position need to feel that they have some control over what happens in their lives, to be given choices.

Going back to man who went to the parish priest at the beginning of this post. That man was my grandfather. His eldest child was my mother. Things done in the name of charity can be wonderful, can give people an element of control over their own destinies, can help people get back on their feet during hard times. Or they can be like what happened to my granddad, to my mother, to her brothers and sisters who were sent away.


Chin up – counting on things getting better

The school hall was wood-panelled, with one wall adorned with the names of past head girls, a list of gold-leafed lettering. There were high windows along one side, and a stage with a table and a high-backed chair where Miss Collins, the headmistress, sat during morning assembly. At one time, I knew how many wood panels lined each wall, how many windows and windowpanes there were in the hall. I knew because I counted them every day.

Counting was a way to keep me safe. There was a lot to be anxious about back then – not only homework, exams and the ups and downs of friendships, but also that I did not always feel safe at home. Counting was, and is, a bit like stepping on the cracks in the pavement. Terrible things might happen if I didn’t count or if I failed to step over the cracks.

Today is the first day of October. My first words were to the cat, who has developed a habit of pulling her water bowl into the middle of the kitchen floor, for me to kick or trip over as I walk through to the bathroom without turning the light on, so I don’t wake up too much, giving me a chance of getting back to sleep after the 5 o’clock wake up. I may have sworn. I neglected to leap out of bed saying, ‘White rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits’, which would have protected me from anything bad happening this month. There is, however, still time for ‘Pinch, punch, first of the month,’ which might just cancel out the bad luck.

We all have rules, routines to keep us safe. Some of us take this to greater lengths than others. I’m not claiming to have OCD. I would not belittle those that are slaves to their compulsions. But sometimes my obsessions become too much to handle. At times of distress, the counting takes over. I add up the numbers on car registration plates, the digits in dates. If they add up to multiples of 5 they are good. 21 and 22 are also safe numbers. Today, 01/10/2015, is a safe day, a good day. I count the number of letters in newspaper headlines. I can calculate quite fast. During very bad times, I add up the number of letters in sentences I hear spoken, seeing the words in my head. My head can be a very busy place. It’s no wonder I have trouble sleeping, relaxing, with so much counting to do.

When I was very ill, with severe anxiety and depression, I was advised to use scheduling. This is a method whereby you plan what you will do in a day, even as simple as ‘have breakfast, shower, get dressed, clear breakfast dishes, listen to radio, try to step outside the front door.’ The last of these was because I was terrified of everything, including leaving the house and staying in the house. Scheduling imposed structure and rules that were more helpful than my personal rule of counting everything. If I did get to step outside, I would feel like I had achieved something. I was told that if I kept doing it, taking small steps, that eventually it would not be so hard, I could get back to doing some of the things that I used to enjoy. Support was a factor in this recovery. I used to think that I had to do everything myself, a belief built on having a shaky start in life, where I wasn’t kept safe or made to feel safe. I learnt that a few good friends were pleased to take me out for very short outings, to take me home again if I started to panic.

I have another good rule, one I invented myself. I call it internet-free Sunday. I’ve been practising it for the past three years, I think. I shut down my laptop by six o’clock on a Saturday (I also have a daily curfew on internet use – none in the evenings), and don’t open it again until Monday morning. It’s a break from mental overload, from always being available, from the temptation to check if there are any more Likes on my most recent witty Facebook status. It’s how Sundays used to be, only less boring.

I guess the point of this post is that rules can be tyrants or liberators. And that even the good rules are made to be broken. I once had a text from my son-in-law, suggesting that I might want to break internet-free Sunday to see a video of my granddaughter having her first taste of solid food. That was a good enough reason to break my internet fast early.

I’ve been counting a lot in the last couple of weeks. It’s one of those times when one bad thing after another has piled on. Sometimes bad things happen in spite of counting, in spite of it being a good date, numerically. I don’t feel in control of some of the things that are going on. The counting has not helped. Writing has. Writing has saved my life many, many times. My notebook is my friend. I can tell it anything – it does not judge, it doesn’t say I’m overreacting or being silly. It doesn’t tell me to pull myself together or to look on the bright side. As I fill the pages, I feel the tension leaving my body for a while. I feel ready to face the world.

I am sure that readers of this post will have advice for me – mindfulness, walking (yes, that does work for me), keeping my chin up. The chin up thing worked for me yesterday. I had been trying to regain control. Exhausted from lack of sleep, from feeling tense all the time, from the goddamned usual symptoms of chronic illness, I stepped outside into the garden and looked up. A buzzard was hovering overhead. I see buzzards from time to time in our area. I like to think it’s the same bird I see each time. It reminded me of the last time I saw it, just a couple of weeks ago. It was a beautifully warm September day, dragonflies were flitting over the vegetable patch, three sunflowers were nodding their yellow heads at the edge of the garden. My husband Bob had lifted up our granddaughter so that she could see the sunflowers close up. She was running around on the grass, wearing Bob’s sun hat. The day was already perfect, and then I saw the buzzard flying over the orchard that backs on to our garden. It made my heart soar. Seeing the buzzard again, yesterday, brought me back to that perfect day, reminded me that happiness is not so far away, even when things seem bleak, unresolvable.

For the love (and fear) of short stories

I love short stories. I fear them, too. As a reader, a good short story can stay in the memory for a lifetime. As a writer, one short story can have several lives: a publication in a print or online magazine; placed in an anthology; part of a single-author collection; a prizewinner. My story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ has now achieved three of these, having won the Society of Authors Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015.

The Society of Authors Awards Party was over a month ago, and it has taken me this long to process the experience. There was an email three weeks before, which swore me to secrecy until the awards evening. There was the choosing of something to wear. There was the feeling that there had been some kind of mistake, that someone else would be called up to receive the £1000 award. There was also my usual terror of big occasions. I told myself that I would escape as soon as seemed decent after the awards had all been given – £85,000 was being distributed for a variety of literary awards. There was also the fact that I had recently been at the point of giving up on writing short stories.

Blogging comes easily to me, as does other forms of non-fiction writing. Writing poetry is harder, but not as hard as the months and years it takes me to write a short story. As I write this post, I am avoiding going back to a story I have been working on since Christmas. I think I have come to the end of the first draft (I never know how a story might end when I begin it), but now comes the editing, the picking apart and discarding, rearranging the order of things, adding new sections. The truth is, I’m scared of it.

Here are a few popular misconceptions about short stories:

They are easy to knock off in an afternoon – after all, they are short.

Wrong – it takes a very long time for the writer to reduce a story to the fewest, best words. It’s like writing poetry in that respect. In fact poets write very good short stories for that reason. See poet Kate Clanchy’s excellent short story collection The Not-Dead and the Saved.

They appeal to people’s short attention spans; people can zip through a book of them in no time at all.

Wrong – stories require good attention from the reader, and they are like rich desserts: you take your time over them, and you wouldn’t want to consume several at one sitting.

Short story writers are failed novelists.

Wrong – short story writers have chosen a difficult form, perhaps one that is more difficult than novel-writing.

I could go on…

At the awards party, I spoke to several writers who have great respect for the short form. Ben MacIntyre, who was receiving the Elizabeth Longford Prize for his book about Kim Philby, A Spy Among Friends, said, ‘Ah, proper writing’ when I told him I had won a prize for a short story. In that room that evening, there were people who understood the devilish nature of the short form, who looked on me as a good writer for having mastered writing at least one good story.

Tom-Gallon Award winners - Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

Tom-Gallon Award winners – Maria with runner-up Caroline Price,

After the awards had been handed out (remember that this was the moment I had planned to escape the scary big party), I got into conversation with Joanne Harris. We talked about the low regard for short stories among the bigger publishers, and how approaching literary agents as a short story writer means they don’t get beyond ‘short stories’ on the covering letter before reaching for the rejection slip. We talked about how a short story can stay with you for the whole of your life: we both loved reading Oscar Wilde’s fairytales as children, both sobbed at ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. I told Joanne that I was trying to write a ghost story and I was scared to return it, that I might fail. ‘That means it’s good,’ she said.

The lights were being turned on and off in the room; it was time to leave. In fact I had stayed way beyond the official end of the party. ‘You do realise that’s THE Joanne Harris,’ Aamer Hussein, one of the judges of my prize, said to me. Yes, I’d been aware of that for the first minute or so, but then it was just two writers talking about what they do, what they love.

The Awards Party was a glittering evening, studded with big name writers, people I had been in awe of. The truth is that we all share the same thing – we have to return to sit alone in a room to put words on the page, and many of us are terrified by it. Even Philip Pullman told my friend and I that when he finishes a morning’s writing, he stops at the top of a page, so he won’t have to face a blank page the next time he comes to write.

Winning the Tom-Gallon Trust Award is a big thing. Some friends have said, ‘You’ll sell more books; maybe you’ll get an agent now.’ I am expecting neither. I’m a realist. I write short stories, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not interested in writing novels. The hard task of writing (and selling) short stories for very little return is my lot, my vocation. The £1000 prize is more than I have ever received for my writing; it’s a good thing to add to my writer’s biography. But it won’t sell more copies of As Long as it Takes and it doesn’t take away the love-hate relationship I have with writing short stories.

The winning story of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award 2015, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, was first published on Writers’ Hub along with a blog piece on how I came to write the story: From Noreen to Norah: on writing More Katharine than Audrey. The story appears in my short story collection As Long as it Takes.

My love of short stories, and an awareness of the few opportunities that exist to publish them, led to the establishment of Cultured Llama Publishing, which publishes poetry, short stories and Curious Things (cultural non-fiction). Cultured Llama now boasts two winners of the Tom-Gallon Trust Award among its authors. Emma Timpany won the award in 2011 . Her debut short story collection The Lost of Syros has just been published by Cultured Llama.

I am judging the Save As Writers’ ‘Writing the City’ short story award this year. The closing date is 31 August 2015. More details here.

Here are a few champions of the short story: Short Stops; Thresholds; The Reading Life.

Orchards and the A2 – writing for Wandering Words

No entry - orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

No entry – orchard in Teynham, by S Palmer

A couple of months ago, an email arrived in my inbox, asking if I would like to write something for a new website called Wandering Words. Wandering Words is an Ideas Test project, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival, to put the written word on the map in Swale & Medway.

One of twelve writers tasked with ‘site-specific writing’, my given subject was the A2, which I could respond to in any way I liked. The only provisos were that I should spend at least three days ‘on site’, should encourage the participation of the people of Medway and Swale, and I had about six weeks to complete the writing.

I live on the A2, on London Road, Teynham, and I had already been working on some poems about the orchards that surround us. I am fascinated that Richard Harrys, fruiterer to King Henry VIII, lived in Teynham, and established the ‘chief mother of all orchards in England’, in and around the village. Initial research revealed that the Faversham Fruit Belt, which Richard Harrys began, stretched from Rochester to Canterbury, following the route of the old Roman road. In fact the first cherry trees in England grew as the result of Roman legions spitting out cherry stones as they marched.

For several weeks in March and April I could be seen hanging around in orchards (wandering lonely as a cloud?) gathering material for writing, taking photos, waiting for the blessed blossom to come out (two and a half weeks late this year, I was told), and talking into a borrowed iPhone to make audio recordings.

I made a couple of trips up and down the A2 with a photographer friend, Stephen Palmer, looking for orchards – both commercial and old, abandoned ones. It was the latter that interested me most, our best find being a disused orchard near Newington, which people pass by every day without even seeing. I documented a favourite walk, starting and ending on the A2, going up Cellar Hill, taking public footpaths along by orchards and down Nouds Lane. It’s amazing what new things you can notice, even on familiar walks.

I interviewed several people – a cherry farmer who I met at a farmer’s market; Pam Talbot, who used to pick cherries with her family in the 1960s and ’70s; an older neighbour, about his life travelling up and down the A2 for work, his memories of the road, the countryside and his working life.

The result is a sequence of poems, some nature and journalistic writing, photos and audio interviews, which appear on the website

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author's attic, by S Palmer

Teynham to Sheppey as the crow flies, from the author’s attic, by S Palmer

I wondered at the end of it all, whether I had written an elegy for a disappearing world. The old orchards are going, replaced with short rootstock. New cherry trees are even grown under polytunnels with irrigation systems at their roots. More efficient, less back-breaking to pick from, but what have we lost? To quote from my final piece, ‘Walking anti-clockwise’: “The sight of orchard ladders in tall trees dripping with fruit will disappear from the Kent countryside. The orchards that Pam Talbot picked from in the 1960s have already gone. ‘I remember,’ she told me, ‘right at the top, you could see the cathedral.’ A clear view from Faversham to Canterbury, seen from the top of a cherry tree.”


Here are a few words from the funders: ‘Wandering Words is developed, managed and funded by Ideas Test, working in partnership with Rochester Literature Festival. We hope to inspire others to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and share their work too. Blogs, poetry, journalism, graphic novels – all are welcome – we want to create a digital library of written reflections on the area.’ Contribute your own Wandering Words at



From ‘Kidney bingo?’ to selling books by Rochester Castle

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

I’ve been a punter at Rochester Sweeps Festival for some 25 years, starting when my children were small through to now being the grandmother of an 18-month-old. This year, for the first time, I was stallholder, helping to sell books for Cultured Llama Publishing. We at Cultured Llama have just published Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris, so we set up alongside stalls selling musical instruments and records in a car park by the moat of Rochester Castle. It brought me back to some happy days in my teens.

My first job was selling fundraising bingo cards door to door, when I was about 12 or 13, for a charity supporting kidney patients. My line to my regulars as they opened the door was, ‘Kidney bingo?’ I wondered if, after carefully tearing the perforations on three sides of their pale mauve bingo cards, their numbers matched those in the winners’ brochure, they might win a new kidney for themselves.

The council house customers on my round were quick to find the money for their weekly gamble-in-a-good-cause. The few in what we called the ‘private houses’ in Castle Road, especially the harrased-looking woman in the house that gave the road its name (it had a mini-tower with castellations), often did not have the change to pay for their tickets.

From there, I followed on to serving on the sweets counter at Woolworth’s, after school and on Saturdays, then graduated to International Stores. After serving my time shelving and on the tills, I gained the role of Saturday chief cashier, working in the office, getting change bags for the tills from the heavy-doored safe, which stood in the front window of the shop. Anyone who was so inclined could have challenged me with a knife, a shotgun, or just the threat of violence as I stood with the safe door open exchanging bags of ten pence pieces for ten pound notes, or storing the till drawers in there at the end of the day. But no one ever bothered me.

Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I had the most fun working in a shop. I made friends who I met outside of work, going underage drinking in the pubs of Epsom, off to discos and parties. Although the work was hard, I preferred being busy all day, as it made the time go fast.

What I loved most was the brown paypacket with actual cash in it, and a little payslip on thin paper with pale numbers printed in the boxes marking hours worked, pounds and pence earned.

So when it came to being a stallholder at the Sweeps (if only for a day or two), I was quite excited. Laying out the stall, pricing up with coloured stickers. Preparing the float for the cash tin. Marking down sales and giving change.


Daughter Rachel and granddaughter Caitlin lend a hand on the Cultured Llama stall

It all came back to me – customer service, as we didn’t call it back in the ’70s, and with the bonus of having a part in the production of the books we were selling. I was able to tell people about our stable of Scottish poets, for instance, and even introduce some of our authors who dropped by to the customers who were looking at their books.

Not everyone bought a book. Some chatted a while and left empty handed, some scanned the book table at high speed, not even noticing that there was a human being sitting behind it. For some of the time, I sat with my granddaughter on my lap as I waited for customers. Georgie on a neighbouring stall shared homemade lemon drizzle cake with the other stallholders at quiet times. Customers on the Hobgoblin stand offered virtuoso performances on melodeons, guitars and mandolins (husband Bob included) and my granddaughter danced with joy to a reggae band on a nearby stage. My daughter and I joined in with her; three generations dancing at my favourite festival.

Life has changed since my teens, when I could lift boxes off warehouse shelves, stack them in a trolley cage, and wheel it out to the shop floor. A bad back prevents me from carrying much more than a tea tray; chronic ill health means that a day selling books must be followed by several days of rest. But, for a short time, I was taken back to my shopgirl days. Next time, I fancy one of those aprons with zipped pockets for the change.

‘Saturday Girl’ is a story based on my experiences working in Woolworth’s. Here is an extract:

Sharon looked at the clock above the centre checkout as she dashed to the sweet counter: one minute to nine; just on time. She hated that clock. In the last hour on a Saturday afternoon the minute hand seemed frozen, moving at the rate of the glaciers she’d learned about in geography. Now it meant an hour and half until tea break.

Steve answered her smile with a nod and a ‘Morning, Sharon.’ She wondered when it would be all right to say, ‘Steve and I are going out together.’ She wasn’t expecting a full-on snog in the staff canteen, but some acknowledgement – a wink, a glint in the eye.

She pulled a box of chocolate-covered brazil nuts from below the counter, and tipped some into the Perspex container next to the Quality Street. Paul whizzed by, dipped into the chocolate brazils and pocketed a handful. She flushed and glanced around. Steve was bundling a box of toothpaste onto toiletries; Mrs Harris was demonstrating the Avery pricing machine to a new girl. Both dashed to the records’ counter as The Stranglers clashed across the shop floor. Ralph had broken the rule of playing only the latest Top-of-the-Pops not-by-the-original-artists album. Everyone who had the good fortune to be on records gave it a try, playing their favourite record. No one, so far, had got beyond track one. Meanwhile, Paul bounded up the stairs with a brazil nut-shaped bulge in his cheek, looking like her brother’s hamster.

Steve came over as she was laying out the scoops on the loose sweets. He picked one up and ran it over the top of the chocolate brazils, as if to smooth them. ‘Lou’s favourite, these,’ he said, and wandered off with a pained look. Sharon took the scoop and dug it into the back of the display.

‘Saturday Girl’ is available in my collection of linked short stories, As Long as It Takes.

Love and death

I am the servant of a 20-year-old cat. Each day, I live with the knowledge that she won’t be around forever. A recent dream found me carrying her in a cardboard box, across a field, on her last journey to the vet. My daughters fell in at my side (Biscuit is the last pet we all owned/served before they left home). The sun was shining, and I said to Biscuit, ‘What a beautiful day for your last day in this world.’ I woke sobbing, and went to check on the old girl, who was sleeping peacefully, but not finally, on the sofa.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

It was a comforting dream, knowing that I will do my best for Biscuit, as I have for two other cats – not letting her go on any longer than is right for her; being with her when the needle goes in.

With the first cat I took on the final journey, I let her go on for far too long: injections every three weeks to relieve her arthritic back legs, which she struggled to lift over the litter tray. I kept her going for me, and I vowed never to do this for another cat. My struggle was with the acceptance of death, with letting go.

As the child of migrants, death was something experienced via visits from uncles or aunts who, somehow, had heard the news from Ireland in the days when few of us had telephones in the house. My maternal grandmother’s death was something I barely understood. I had only met her two or three times, and I knew that there was ‘no love lost’ between my mother and her mother. Mum was kind of upset, but in a closed-down, angry way. She said there was no way she could go to the funeral in Ireland, with the five of us children to look after; I think she didn’t want to go, and we were the excuse. There was a tradition of closing the curtains when someone died, out of respect, and there was no telly allowed either. I found the loss of children’s TV that day greater than that of my nan. I also didn’t know how to feel about the death of someone who should have been close, but whom I barely knew.

My first experience of a death that truly affected me was of a pet. Prince, our little cross-breed dog with a bit of Jack Russell and a lot of ‘the devil’ in him, took it into his head to keep running beyond the house of the neighbour who gave him a biscuit every day, and ran and ran with me in pursuit. The more I chased, the faster he ran, eventually into the path of a car. He was still, but his eyes were open and he was breathing when the car driver stopped, picked him up and took the two of us home. Prince disappeared to the vet’s in a neighbour’s car, and I never saw him again. I thought it was my fault, and my mum did not comfort me, so lost in her own grief for an animal she seemed to love more than her own mother.

I didn’t go to funerals as a child, except for one where the father of school friend had died, and the children’s choir, of which I was a member, sang at his service. Even then, I just felt sorry for the girl, not sadness about her father’s passing.

My first funeral of someone I knew well was for a girl I worked with in Woolworth’s, who was just 15 when she died of leukaemia. Even then, a mix-up over the church meant that my friends and I arrived just as everyone was coming out of the service. We then went on the crematorium, where I watched this box disappear through a set of curtains, unable to connect it with my friend.

In my mid-twenties I experienced the devastating death of a friend, Julie, who took her own life, just days after the birth of my second child. The people around me thought it best that I didn’t go to the funeral. My sister arranged for a beautiful flower arrangement to be sent on my behalf. My mum came to stay for a few days, seeing my grief. But no one said, ‘I’ll look after the baby; you go and say your goodbyes.’ For a long time, I didn’t believe she was dead.

It took me 15 years to come to believe that Julie wasn’t coming back. I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time, and I said that this girl’s death was something I needed to deal with. I said nothing during the 50 minute session; I just cried and cried, let out all the tears that I should have shed when she died. I finally believed that she had gone.

I didn’t go to my father’s funeral, partly because I was very ill at the time, but mostly because I was angry with him, and had been for years and years. I don’t regret missing this. It was the right thing to do for me, and I believe that funerals are for those that are left behind, not to mark respect for the dead. I heard there were disagreements about the service: Mum wanted them to play ‘Walk Tall’, made famous by Val Doonican. It was a song that Dad sung when he was drunk, swaying in the doorway of the living room after a good session in the White Horse. My siblings didn’t want to be reminded of those times, nor were the lyrics appropriate: “That’s what my mother told me when I was about knee high…” My dad wasn’t brought up by his mother. He didn’t get to know her at all before he was 16.

It was my father’s death that led me to have my own will drawn up. I was a single parent at the time, and with no partner to assure my wishes were met, I didn’t want my mum saying I should have a Catholic funeral, or that I should buried when I wanted to be cremated, or that said burial should take place in the town in which I was raised. I was 40, and it was the first time I had squared up to the possibility of death.

I have few problems with death these days. My favourite TV programme is Six Feet Under; I am now watching it for the third time. I find it strangely comforting, especially at times of great sorrow. I watched it at the rate of two episodes a day when my friend Karen was dying of cancer. It helped me to cry in the way I should have done when Julie took her life all those years ago. And here’s the biggest thing – I offered to deliver the eulogy at Karen’s funeral. I knew that I was the best-placed person to do this. It was the hardest thing, but when I heard the non-religious celebrant talking about my friend, clearly knowing nothing about her, it stirred me on to give my account of the real Karen.

I missed her terribly, but I did believe she was dead. Much of this was through seeing her in the last few weeks of her life. On one visit, I took her for what turned out to be the last visit to our favourite cafe. She could barely walk, but somehow we got there. Here is an extract from ‘Where the High Street meets Star Hill’, the prose piece that ends strange fruits, the poetry collection I published in her memory, to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support:

November, two weeks on from diagnosis, she is home, and my husband Bob and I arrive to take her out to Norma’s cafe. She is skeletal, yellow-tinged, wonders whether she’ll be able to make it to the car, to the cafe, but somehow we get there. Two cappucinos, mine a decaff, and she fancies a packet of Quavers, so that’s what I get her. She is exhausted after twenty minutes, so Bob goes to get the car, to bring it as close as possible. She asks to sit outside in the cold air. She has spent weeks indoors, staring out the window, too tired for TV, bored of the radio. ‘I do love you, Karen,’ I say. She giggles. She and I don’t say things like that to each other. ‘I love you too,’ she says, and gives me a peck on the cheek.

strange fruits is available from All profits from its sale go to Macmillan Cancer Support.

On showing not telling and subtext in writing and relationships

I am reading a bestseller, and it’s annoying the hell out of me by showing and telling. It’s a memoir, and the story is good, but I am mentally editing as I read: the writers’ and editors’ affliction. So let’s talk about showing not telling.

I can’t explain this any better than Julia Bell. Here is a quote from her blog. You can read the full post at Show Not Tell.

Good writers always try to show in this way – illustrating their characters through their actions and details. If you find yourself writing reams of back-story and notes and profiles, then, good, you’re discovering your character. But how much of this do you need to share with your reader? If you find that you’re writing no dialogue or action for your characters you might find it’s because you’re telling too much of your story, and not letting the characters be dramatic on the page. You’re describing them in action, not showing them in action.

There is a passage in the book I am reading that shows that a cat is a stray – he is described as scraggy, thin, has no collar and has an abscess on his back. He is hanging about in the lobby of a block of flats day after day. The narrator tells us that he thinks it’s a stray; he then says to his friend, ‘I think it’s a stray’. We’ve already got this by the description; we could do without the narrator telling the reader and then telling again in the dialogue. But I’m telling you this when you’ve already got the point. Which is the point.

I suppose what’s irking me is the absence of subtlety, of allowing the reader to work things out, make their own interpretation of the words.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of the importance of subtext in an article by Tim Lott in The Guardian, which is mainly about the use of subtext in relationships, but talks about writing too..

One of the lessons that I teach my creative writing students is the importance of subtext – what is really being said, as opposed to what is apparently being said. One can learn about this by, for instance, reading great movie scripts – in Casablanca, nearly everything is implied rather than stated directly.Or you can simply look at your own relationship with your partner.

No dialogue is so couched in subtext as that of people in long-term relationships. This is inevitable because one learns to be careful since, over time, certain “hot buttons” are established, which, if pressed, are liable to set off fireworks. So one tiptoes around certain subjects and yet can’t quite leave them alone.

I can think of several examples in my own life. When I phoned home to say I had got a 2:2 in my first degree, my mother said, ‘Is that good?’ Partly that she didn’t understand the university marking system, but also a couched response to the words ‘Lower Second Class’, which were clearly not the words she was hoping for. When I asked a partner ‘What’s your signature dish?’, he took this as a criticism of the fact that he had not taken a share in the cooking. He was right – it was a difficult subject to broach with someone who didn’t take criticism well. My assertiveness skills had temporarily deserted me. I also lived with someone who would make himself a sandwich and a cup of tea, and bring it into the living room where I was sitting, without asking me if I would like one. What better way of showing not telling the state of our relationship.

So I guess that subtext is good in writing but not so good in relationships – direct communication is better. Or maybe not. When my mother said ‘Is that good?’ she was really saying, ‘I’m disappointed in you’. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that;  a simple (even if not heartfelt) ‘Well done’ was all I wanted.

Famous first words

“You got a lotta nerve/ To say you are my friend” – doesn’t this set the scene for what is to come in the acid lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’?  Forget famous last words, what about famous first words: “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together” (Paul Simon); “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/ but heaven knows I’m miserable now” (Morrissey/ The Smiths), “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” (Carly Simon); even the Spice Girls gave us the unforgettable:

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat”; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”; “Matilda told such Dreadful Lies/ it made one Gasp and Stretch ones Eyes” – the first lines of poems I learned by heart as a child (by Edward Lear, John Masefield and Hilaire Belloc). “Call me Ishmael”, the unforgettable opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” opens Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: both sentences have become as famous as the books themselves. In fact many people who have not read the novels will know these first sentences.

Julian Cope from The Guardian 10/1/15

What started this train of thought was a quote by the musician Julian Cope in The Guardian (10/1/2015):

I grew up mostly with poetry books and my mother’s fascination for an index of first lines. She thought every great poem must reveal itself in the first line and I’ve written every rock’n’roll song with that in mind. When my first hit came out [with The Teardrop Explodes], the first line was “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news” – it was written with my mother in mind. I want to go to my grave with a colossal index of first lines.

For writers, the first line of a poem, song, story, novel or article may be the last thing they decide upon. It often is for me; I can think of only one poem where the first line of the first draft remained the same: “A drought is declared and it rains for a week”. Usually I draft and redraft and look at the strength of the first and last lines much later on. The last line is the strongest statement; the first line the second strongest. If you don’t engage the reader/listener from the start, you’ve lost them.

Some years ago, I sent a piece to BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths, and for a short time I became a columnist for the programme. This was my first experience of being professionally edited, and it came as a shock. The producer told me that the first page and half of what I had sent needed to be cut; that she had found the first line of what was to be broadcast on the second page. With a few editing suggestions, this line became: “I had him plastered on my teenage bedroom wall; hair flying and shirt ripped open.”  It was a good lesson for editing my own work; the first things that you write are often just warming up before getting to the good stuff. They might be good words in their own right, but belong elsewhere in the piece. The line you are looking for may not be in the first draft at all, but it may well be halfway down the second page or even at the end.

The same caveats apply for first line suggestions from other people as for any editing suggestions: is it what you want or what the editor or workshop member would have written if it were their work? I am not part of a workshopping group for writers at present, and have had mixed experiences in former groups. Some negative suggestions absolutely floored me, almost made me give up on poems and stories I was working on. You need to have a strong belief in your work, be open to suggestions and also be prepared to reject those suggestions. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Opening lines are important for public readings and talks. All too often, I have heard a poet or singer at an open mic apologise for how rubbish their poem or song is, or over-explain the roots of it or what it means. If you’re too shy to do anything but read your own poem, then just do that – introduce it by its title, then hit the audience with the first line.

Not just for January: creative resolutions, commitments, manifestos and planning tools

New year’s resolutions: unrealistic promises to yourself made to be broken, or a way to kickstart your plans for the year? I gave up on them a few years ago. The dark days of January are no time for donning the hair shirt of deprivation. But I do use planning tools, and make commitments to my creative life throughout the year.

A list of writing commitments is pinned to the noticeboard next to my desk. I don’t update these very often, but they do serve as a reminder of such things as:

I shall not share my writing too soon

I shall write what I want to, not what others ask of me

I shall help others with their writing, but not so I don’t have the energy for my own work

I shall write every day

The last of these is no longer relevant for me, as it was tied to Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way telling me to do this, and I no longer follow her advice. See my previous post on this. I have encouraged others to write commitments to their creative life, and have often adopted others’ commitments when they have been shared in group exercises. One person’s, to read one book at a time, helped me to get through the growing pile of books started and abandoned in favour of another book. I just did this for a summer, but seem to have slipped back into my old ways. But that’s OK: it’s a commitment I can pick up at another time if the book pile begins to feel more like homework than pleasure.

Some people use manifestos for their work. A definition, taken from the website SoulPancake:

Manifesto: a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives.

Go to the link to read others’ writing manifestos, and add your own: SoulPancake

In addition to my commitments, I mind map writing plans and pin them to my noticeboard. I have old ones going back several years pinned behind the current one, and it’s good to sometimes look back and see what I have achieved. I refer to the current one if I feel stuck for what to work on, and it might remind me, for instance, that I have tagged draft poems in old notebooks that need to go on to the computer (I always draft by hand). The seemingly dull act of typing out the poems gets the creative juices flowing and working on screen allows me to cut and paste, change line breaks and fiddle around to my heart’s content.

DIY Pathway to PubI also use mind maps for working with others, for instance in planning towards publication of the latest Cultured Llama book, Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris. Mind maps are a great way to take notes and then share them with others (some say that mind maps are personal and can’t be understood by others). Here’s one that I prepared earlier.

For those that prefer a ready-made planner, there is a great one on the Urban Writers blog. They will also send you prompts and challenges, as well as details of their urban and rural writing retreats,  if you sign up to their mailing list.

As someone with limited energy, I subscribe to Sustainably Creative. Michael Nobbs, an artist, blogger and tea drinker, also has a chronic illness, and offers a daily podcast, ‘One Thing a Day’, on how to move your creative life forward using small steps. He often invites members to join in online sessions, and offers tools to work without becoming exhausted. One tip I have picked up from Michael is working with a timer (mine is a mechanical one, topped by a gingerbread man). Though, I do tend to ignore the timer when it rings, it does remind me that I may be pushing myself too far. I have reset the timer twice in order to continue writing this post! So I shall bring it to a close before I get exhausted.

I am adding to my writing commitments this January: I shall spend more time on my own writing than editing others’ writing. Let’s see how that goes.


WordPress Themes