Sunday, 24 November 2013


I've been thinking about friendship a little lately, mostly because I have to plan a series of activities for my class in Anti-Bullying week next week, but also because I've been lucky enough to spend time with good friends over the last week. A get together for a friends milestone birthday, people I've known from college who are more like family than friends, coffee with others who I've known for less time, but I still hold as dear.

We get to choose our friends, they become our extended family, somehow I have to get this across to the 9 & 10 years olds I teach. Maybe they can't choose their friends, they are all lumped together in one class, friends through circumstance, not choice, and their friends go back to their own families at the end of the day. When you're nine, thinking a friend you have in class will be a friend for life is an insurmountable thought. Two of my best friends were with me at primary school, we are just as close now as when we played Scooby Doo at break time or argued over who's turn it was to sharpen the pencils. When you're nine a broken friendship can feel like the end of the world, the idea of being kind is hard in practice when your heart hurts. Making friends is easy, losing them is easy too. You have to make the effort. As Kurt Voennegut put it:

"There's only one rule I know of; You've got to be kind."

Saturday, 2 November 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Chicago, my kinda town fo showa

She Who Dares Writes: Chicago, my kinda town fo showa: There are times when, America, you are awful, but I like you (apologies to Dick Emery). Chicago is an impressive city, impressive enough to...

Chicago, my kinda town fo showa

There are times when, America, you are awful, but I like you (apologies to Dick Emery). Chicago is an impressive city, impressive enough to equal New York, certainly noisy enough. Our apartment was placed next to the Chicago Fire Department, and didn't we know it. All day and all night sirens wailed along the streets below, each day a new, impossible caterwauling contributing to the cacophony of city sound. You get used to it, and begin to listen out for the different tones. Despite this, it's hard not to love the wide avenues and cultured public spaces of this lakeside city.
Beaches sweep impressively beyond the freeway, the skyline gleams behind in the autumn sun. The architecture is stunning, old houses crouch between the skyscrapers, but unlike New York, there is space, room to manoeuvre.
The natives are freindly in a genuine un-American way, perhaps it's their proximity to Canada. The city is a place of innovation and inventors, built on reclaimed swamp land in the 1830's, the local indians used to call it Chica-gee (smelly onion). There is a waft of garlic bread on some street corners, (the best to be found anywhere is at Michael Jordans steakhouse in the gorgeous Interconintental Hotel)or delicious cocoa from the chocolate factory. Spectacular design and grand art abound, The Art Institute houses the largest collection of French Impressionists outside the Louvre.
Navy Pier is the site of the first Ferris wheel, three times larger than the one that exists there now, built for the world exposition in 1893, the baskets were railway carriages.
The city snakes and layers with overhead railways and sunken roads, skyscrapers built on stilts. It is Gotham - Batman was filmed there. A magnificent city with too few centre bookshops but glamorous shops on North Michigan Avenue, great libraries, galleries and art, gentle gorillas in the free zoo at Lincoln Park, soulful music at the House of Blues and deep pan pizzas like pillows. Worth a trip.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Changing Shoes On The Train - A short escapade int...

She Who Dares Writes: Changing Shoes On The Train - A short escapade int...: Empty fields scattered with autumnal colour give way to blocks of houses, winding rivers and industrial estates. Beyond Enfield the building...

Changing Shoes On The Train - A short escapade into the world of publishing

Empty fields scattered with autumnal colour give way to blocks of houses, winding rivers and industrial estates. Beyond Enfield the buildings thicken into close knit rows of streets, then flats and small green parks. Old pubs prop up corners and mothers push children under shedding sycamores. I hold a conker in my pocket from my walk to the station, shiny and new, like the freshly printed book that holds my story. I'm on my way to meet it for the first time.
The train picks up speed, my excitement mounts. We flash by another park. I wonder if the families on the swings will read my bedtime story. I hope so. I hope they read bedtime stories. The Sunday Times interviewed me about the book, pressing the angle that the middle class read them to their offspring out of guilt. I disagreed and my name didn't appear in the paper. Bedtime stories cross all cultures and classes, my father told me embellished anecdotes from his childhood, my mother read to me, I read to my children, their father made up stories. The form doesn't matter, the time and the story does.

Reaching Store Street in Bloomsbury my phone died, discommunicated from the world I sat alone in the pub with a vodka and tonic. I had nothing to read, no screen to interact with and no way of knowing if my other half had got my message, the only working public phone in three streets had swallowed all my change, unwisely I'd changed my shoes to heels and couldn't walk any further. Luckily he made it and we headed to the book launch. A function room on the second floor of an imposing building, walls lined with sofas and tables of nibbles, anxious strangers clutching glasses and waiting to make conversation. Other writers, nine of them, our stories brought to life with beautiful, emotive illustrations and held for ever in my most admitred of forms - the book. The Mumsnet Book of Bedtime Stories, piles of it, everywhere. I was tempted to scoop up many, but came away with one signed copy.

It was heartening to meet the other writers from all backgrounds and walks of life, all writing when we can between work and parenting, all excited by our first published story,hoping it will lead to more. Mumsnet is a powerful venture, it wasn't there when my children were little, but it provides much needed support for parents now. Walker Books are one of the few publishers who still have soul, their belief in the power of story and the beauty of the book is strong. Long may they publish.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

She Who Dares Writes: In Print - One

She Who Dares Writes: In Print - One: September has signified a time of change for me for many years, new terms, new jobs, fresh starts and new opportunities. This year it also s...

In Print - One

September has signified a time of change for me for many years, new terms, new jobs, fresh starts and new opportunities. This year it also signifies an exciting development on the writing side, the side of life which has had to take a back burner position due to working flat out, its hard to find the time to finish the novel, but I will go back to it when I've wrestled the dissertation to a close. Early next month,Walker Books are publishing my children's short story 'When Polly Jumped Over The Moon', as part of a small collection of award winning Mumsnet Bedtime stories. Any writer longs to see their story in print, and im no exception, my level of chuffedness is off the scale, and there is a book launch to go to, a dream come true. check back to see how it went next month!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Out of Africa - Dazed and Confused

She Who Dares Writes: Out of Africa - Dazed and Confused: Back from holiday a post-plane sleep packages the memories into dreams - the lists start, the washing machine goes on, the supermarket is v...

Out of Africa - Dazed and Confused

Back from holiday a post-plane sleep packages the memories into dreams - the lists start, the washing machine goes on, the supermarket is visited, the house looks grubby after two weeks of hotels that are cleaned every day. It's full of so much clutter when you've seen people live on hardly anything at all. Sometimes, a holiday comes along that changes your life, at least for a little while, I want to hang on to the profundity before the normality takes over again.

Visiting Africa seemed as far away and as exotic as it was in the books I poured over in my early twenties, the tales in Angela Carters books, the stories of Karen Blixen, the adventures of Beryl Markham, the lives of Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela, but we did it.

We chose a small group family holiday with Explore because we wanted some guidance, hoped that our reluctant teenage children would interact, try new things, discover a new continent. Thanks to the cheeriness and tenacity of our wonderful guide, Jake Sampson and the other half of the double act, the driver, Wayne Daniels, they did just that.

We flew to Johannesburg, changed planes and headed for Port Elizabeth, one day ahead of the rest of the group, hoping to catch up on some rest after the long trip. Africa spread out before us, land of yellow and bunt ochre, circles and triangular patches of cultivated farmland, split by silver rivers snaking through the trees and ridges of hills before the white sand and turquoise sea. Africa is a land rich in every colour. The plane swept over the runway and veered into the sky, too windy to land, we made it on the second attempt. The first hint that every day was to be filled with adventure and excitement.

We stayed at the comfortable Kelway, walked along the beach in the morning and dipped our toes in the cold Indian Ocean, where we swam later in the day, then headed back to the airport to meet the rest of our group. Two families with children between 14 and 19, a perfect balance, good people to make memories with. Heading out into the Eastern Cape to Zuurberg along roads that shook the minibus and our bones, climbing into the mountains through low green scrub, thorn bushes and succulents. On the Zuurberg pass fluorescent tape is stuck to corner bushes, a low tech warning of the sheer edges. The Zuurberg Mountain Inn nestles on the hillside, clean, quiet, wooden floors and a huge fire in the lounge, where two fat Labradors lie. Our rooms are small pastel coloured houses with indoor and outdoor showers, views over the valley and a terrace to enjoy the complimentary sherry each day. The gardens are lush, monkeys wander in the trees, strange birds call out at night and the sky is limitless and full of stars. This is Africa, it feels real now.

Even more so when we head off in our bus for a full day game drive the next morning to Addo National park. The holiday is full of wildlife, improbable and impossible creatures of every size and shape. We bump over the rutted roads until suddenly a great, lumbering male elephant crosses out path munching his way through the bush. Elephants are destructive creatures, in a clever move, the rangers have put beehives under the trees to stop the elephants knocking them over. More elephants gather crossing the roads in herds, the babies shepherded by mothers and siblings.
Around the water hole they are joined by skittering warthogs and Kudu that were grazing on the ridge. Meerkats scamper alongside the bus, sprinting, tails up between the termite mounds. There are birds of every size and colour, Zebras running and yellow mongoose. The sun melts over the mountains as we head back on rutted roads for dinner and reminiscing.

On our second day our after-breakfast wander is organised into a mountain hike, a taste of things to come. I follow the cobalt clue trousers of our knowledgeable Zimbabwean guide, Brighton as he leaps from rock to rock and I plod after. One dogs joins us, I have new admiration for the canine and I promise not to call him fat and lazy anymore. At the ridge thousands of miles of fences stretch out before us. Africa must be a world authority on fencing, some enclose land, others are to keep the wildlife out, like elephant proof fencing made from old cables and parts of railway tracks.
Electric cables swing across the valley, the longest unsupported cables in Africa. We wish it was a zip line for a quick way down. In the afternoon we gather the families and head for Scotia Game reserve, where enthusiastic guides drive us on adapted open sided jeeps and off road past antelope and a zebra, her rump scarred by repeated lion attacks. They haven't caught her yet. Hippos rest in the late afternoon sunshine by a watering hole their pink bellies turned to the sky, it's unusual to see them out of the water. Crocodiles lie immobile on the other side. Rhinos graze nearby, their horns sawn off by recent poachers, a professional job, they left them alive, but the female miscarried.
There is serious money in the poaching game, and a serious threat to the animals.The radio crackles, there is word of lions and as we bounce down the track in the gathering dusk, there she is, majestic, loping down the centre of the road, followed by a male lion. She is the hunter, pregnant, proud, she stops and sniffs the air, turning and racing after Impala, as run along the ridge, the orange light behind, the sight is pure lion king, pure Africa. She gives up quickly, it's not worth the hassle and flops in the grass. We watch for a while then leave them be as we're cold under our ponchos and blankets, ready for our braii and the burning thorn bushes to keep us warm.

Next day we drop down to the coast, to Plettenberg Bay, crossing Africa's highest bridge and bungee jumping sight. The white cross on the mountain nearby marks it's notoriety as a popular suicide spot. The infrastructure improves as we move towards the Western Cape. The roads are paved and there's more tourists here, more money, for some people. Many of the huge houses in Plett are second homes for wealthy Cape Towners. Yet each town still has it's own second town, the Township. Made of ramshackle wood and corrugated iron in this region. The government provides water and electricity while tenants live in ramshackle shacks, waiting for brick built houses to be built. Churches, shops, schools and a witch doctor drop in centre are scattered among the dwellings. I notice I haven't heard any african music yet, it's not until Cape Town that I do, the hotels play Neil Diamond on an almost constant loop.
Our next accommodation, The Dunes, has little of an African feel, low chalets and houses along a beautiful beach. In the evening we walk down and watch dolphins surfing in the glassy waters, curling in on the bend of the waves. The next day is a free one, but we all choose the same excursions so share the experience of walking with elephants, and riding on their swaying backs. More majestic, improbable animals.
In the afternoon we take a boat trip and spot Minke and Bryde whales leaving their blueprints on the ocean.

Friday we drive to Knysna and stop at the Quay for shopping. The Quay feels almost exclusively white, the town African, the separation is unsettling, although what I see of integration is promising, there is still some way to go. Madiba is everywhere, a hero of mine and an icon to the African people, I hope his legacy is a good one. Another boat trip to a nature reserve and a walk. It is the walks that characterise this holiday with inspiring and breath taking scenery. More breathtaking on the next day when we climb the headland near Plett, scrambling high past a seal colony, an all you can eat buffet for the sharks. One cruises nearby but seems indifferent, his huge shape flicking close to the rocks. We climb past caves then split into two groups. The hardy set off with Jakes for the four hour trail of tears and we join Wayne for a fun tumble down huge sand dunes, cooling our toes in the beautiful ocean and scrambling along cliff ledges for a shorter, but still spectacular trail. That evening Stuart and I complete the next stage of total offspring embarrassment by dancing at The Dunes, there are celebrations as a local rugby team has won. Rugby is everywhere, Jakes and Wayne carry a ball with them and it becomes our holiday mascot. Once it bounces over a cliff, but we retrieve it.
Our next adventure proves the source of pure comedy. Driving inland, the scenery becomes more arid and flat, scattered with the African Ostrich, more great, improbable creatures. We stop at Safari to learn more about them,their strength, tough leather,vicious beak and powerful legs. George and Jack are brave enough to try and ride them, Bernie Clifton would have been proud, we fall about laughing. After lunch, some of us take the adventure tour option at the Cango Caves. We admire the symphonic halls of Gaudi like formations, the guide turns off the light's and sings in a beautiful tenor, the anthem of South Africa. It's a moving moment. We're not moving shortly after however, stuck in low passageways, crawling through the damp and squeezing up through a tight chimney of shiny rock, following each other in claustrophobic tunnels, my daughter posts herself through a tiny space, her bare foot wiggling in mid air. I'm relieved when I hear her voice from the other side. We compare bruises afterwards over a cold Windhoek lager, drunk in our next residence - De Poort, a tiny settlement of stone and thatched cottages that nestles in the mountains like a frontier post. Dinner is Ostrich steak cooked in berries, served by the daughter and mother of the house.

The next day we drive down through mountains swathed in mist to the industrial mix town of Mossel Bay. Some us have opted to go cage shark diving. I didn't sleep the night before, anyone who grew up with Jaws will know why. When it comes to it I feel strangely calm, until I see the first sharks. They are huge, attracted by the chump liberally scattered over the side and the large sardine head dragged on the end of a line. Sharks use their mouth to feel things, like babies, ifthey're not interested, one quick bite and they will be away. This doesn't help settle my stomach. I question my parenting skills, letting my 17 year old daughter into the water, but I, Jack, Oscar, Ella and Mike join her at various stages. She's a brave girl and stops in for a double session. Wet-suited up we sink into the dented cage. The beast swims by, indifferent or watchful, a large dead eye meets mine through the water. I lift my mask to see better, it seems impossible, another impossible creature, but as I watch her thrash against the cage, tugging at the bait, I know it is real, magnificent and amazing.

Tuesday it's belting down, we're trapped in a hotel that looks like it's been left over from the British Seaside circa 1970, with more than a whiff of Fawlty Towers about it. Unperturbed we set out into the soak to spot more whales off the coast at Hermanus, hide in a vintage bookshop where I purchase a 1935 copy of Women of Adventure (after all, I am one now) and settle for a coffee nearby before we head to Cape Town. The bus is quiet, we're all sad to be leaving the open spaces for the city, but Cape Town has it's charms too. The hotel is comfy and Corporate, the Strand Towers, with hot powerful showers. We walk down Long Street in the evening, our posse led by the confident Jakes, and eat at Mama Africka where there is a live band and Ostrich, warthog, crocodile and Kudu on the menu. I plump for the aromatic chicken curry and several of their excellent cocktails.

The next day we split into our family groups to do our own sightseeing. We wander down Long Street into the Pan African Market, buying a range of hand carved bowls and fabrics in this eclectic and tactile place, stop for coffee in Cafe Zulu and buy t-shirts in the African version of Urban Outfitters - SKA. Then we walk through increasing rain to the lush Company Gardens, past the museums, galleries and sugar coated colonial palaces to the Jewish Museum. A fascinating place with an excellent cafe, try the magic onion! After a sobering walk through the holocaust museum we took 'our life in our hands' taxi to the V&A (Victoria and Alfred, her son, not Albert) Waterfront. Suddenly we're in a 'could be anywhere' plush mall, we break out and hit the craft market, The Robben Island Museum and have dinner at another excellent eatery on Long Street, The Royale, where they have over 50 burgers, including The Royale with cheese. The food is great wherever we go, fresh, varied and local.
Our last full day a melancholy descends, it's hard to believe it's nearly over, a fantastic time was had by all. We head to Boulders Beach to watch the penguins and for a last paddle in the beautiful sea as the waves charge over the rocks and Rock Dassie watch from the ridge of a nearby hut. There is a quick stop at The Cape of Good Hope for a group picture, another hill climb along the headland where baboons wander in the car park. I'll miss Africa, it's surprises, it's people, it's wildlife, our tour group and our guides. It's a unique and a special place, go if you can.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Reading Aloud - Hubbub

She Who Dares Writes: Reading Aloud - Hubbub: Down in the basement of The Harrison Pub, London, now and then there is a small gathering of literati and Birbeck students. A literary Bro...

Reading Aloud - Hubbub

Down in the basement of The Harrison Pub, London, now and then there is a small gathering of literati and Birbeck students. A literary Brouhaha,a Hubbub. I was delighted to be asked to read my short story - Beas Knees - and took my daughter along for the experience.

Under the pub the room was small, intimate, there was hessian stapled to the ceiling and silk flowers woven round the plumbing. The stage had one strong lamp with an orange filter, like an over-sucked travel sweet. Dust motes floated in front of heavy velvet drapes, the black stage was empty, expectant. Stepping on to the stage was easy from my front row seat. I tried to be cool under the blazing light, I couldn't see a thing, so I just focused on the words on the page and performed the story.

The sounds of the words made all the faults visible, I hoped only I had noticed. Then it was over, there was polite applause, relief, back to my seat to relax and enjoy hearing others read, even my daughter looked pleased, not embarrassed - a rarity. Afterwards we shared fat chips and garlic dip on the benches outside and a glass of sharp white wine that brought everything into soft focus. A good night.

The next day I was immersed in paperwork for a teaching post that smothered my creative impulses, I've got to hang on to those nights at The Harrison, and go again.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Fact? Stranger than Fiction? Adventures in Blackpool

Last weekend I headed North again, this time to Blackpool to find out if the people and places I've been writing about do exist (call it research) and add final edits to the first daft of 'Girl In The Box' the Y.A. novel I've been writing as part of my MA, which is now evolving into N.A. (New Adult, publishing speak for an emerging market they haven't drained yet)

I went with a friend, who left Blackpool behind some years back, she didn't see it through my eyes - The fantasy nudging at the edge of reality. For her, it's bleak and deprived, I could see what it once was, its faded glamour and its potential to shine again.

Up at Bispham we walked alongside grey concrete sea defences over the churning brown sea, lashed by rain and wind, admiring the glistening light from split clouds and staring up the long, empty tram lines that stretch into the distance. The next day we boarded one and headed for south of Pleasurebeach. These swish, shiny green trams with automatic doors are a far cry from the wooden floored carriages I remember. The driver sat in a chair like the bridge of the starship enterprise, three screens and a flask of coffee in front of him. Ding Ding and we were off past tidy front gardens, the Norbreck Hotel and a further string of improbably named establishments promising to be 'The Talk of The Coast'or 'All parties catered for'

Next to The Big One and South Pier there were white caps on the sea and incessant wind on the front that whipped my hair into my mouth or stood it on end, I couldn't see a thing as it was also in my eyes, which are watering too. The mile long sweep of concrete along the front abutting the golden sands looks good, continental even, and it's clean, the whole front was. I visited the fortune teller in her red and yellow booth on South Pier, she read my palm and told me great success was in the future. How far in the future? I wondered, I have bills to pay. I tried to keep a poker face and reveal nothing, but she was spot on about my back problems, and my children. Generalisations, my friend said, she looked at you and thought, "Middle aged woman, must have health issues",
"Thanks," I said, rolling up my jeans and sprinting across the big sands to dip my toe in the Atlantic, it was surprisingly warm.
Here's a short extract from the novel. Alice has just experienced her first full blown disappearance on Blackpool front, after seeing her dad on a team, Summer doesn't quite believe her, but Lily does. They go to the ballroom (just as we did) for afternoon tea:

The Ballroom

Summer pushed open the heavy door and led me in to the ballroom, I caught my breath, It was huge, I felt like we had stepped into the yawn of a giant whale, the columns and arches its gaping jaws, balconies and boxes its teeth, the vast dance floor its tongue. It was elegance and opulence on a grand scale, far away from the cocktail of noise and grime outside. Summer grinned at my open mouth,
“Yeah, I know, impressive, isn’t it?” I swiveled my head up to the painted ceiling, a powder blue sky scattered with healthy cherubs having a party in the heavens, much grander than the tacky angels that stared at me when I was getting my hair cut in Ned’s Salon. The balconies were piped with gold and cream, frosted in gilt and topped with blood red velvet and gold rails, a couple were leaning over watching the dancers below, like puppeteers.

We made our way through the round tables to a space by the dance floor and sat next to a couple with year round tans, the elderly gent with a neat white goatee, smartly dressed in a waistcoat, his jacket slung over the back of his chair, flapped at his face with a pink paper fan. His partner pulled him up for a waltz. The polished dance floor was scattered with a few couples that looked lost in the space, faces set in serious mode, they moved perfectly in graceful time, all shapes and sizes, the women in swishing skirts and gold shoes, sometimes surprising us with a flick of the ankle or a little kick. Lily nudged me,
“I can kick higher than that, just you wait and see, they’ll all sit down when the quickstep comes on, they can’t keep up.” Strips of red lights ran up steps to the stage, hung with a backdrop of the Italian lakes, painted with misty mountains. The giant white Wurlitzer rose in its centre, A tiny figure bounced on his stool and danced fingers across the stacked keyboards, his music trumpeted loud chords, booming notes and strangled waltzes. Summer looped her arm through mine,
“Personally, I think it sounds like a bag of cats, but the old folks love it. Music’s much better when they have Northern Soul weekenders mind, place is really heaving then.” I nodded.

Summer ordered afternoon tea at the bar and brought over plates stacked with scones, cream and jam. I was starving, but still shaky from my funny turn so I picked the cucumber out of my sandwiches and nibbled at the edges. A little girl wobbled past our table, topless and wearing wellies. She smiled at me and waved, so I waved back before I turned to watch the grey haired couples waltzing in the dappled light of the huge glitter ball. The ladies all seemed to have the same shampoo and set and the men had trimmed their nose hair for the occasion. Women swished past in big dresses, stepping out in strides and spinning before us. A roar of laughter came from the table behind, screeching ladies with perms crowded around their afternoon tea with their half pints alongside their cups and saucers. The dancers bent backwards, doll like, stretching their upper bodies a far away from each other as they could. I giggled and leaned towards Summer,
“Its like they’ve all got bad breath.” I was steadier now, almost normal, although my hands were still trembling, she smiled at me, I felt much better then, I wondered if we would get a chance to dance together. The pink monstrosity that was Edith swept past us, she’d added pink streaks to her hair too. Moosh smiled at as they spun past, he winked over Edith’s shoulder. It seemed like anyone could dance if they wanted. A waitress stepped out from behind the long bar and placed her towel over the pumps before taking the hand of an old drinker, she turned him a few times under the glitter ball before returning him to his stool. In the far corner a middle aged bloke in a tight t-shirt and jogging bottoms danced with his dad, they both had Kiss Me Quick hats balanced on the back of their bald heads. The dance floor was filling up now and when the music paused as the organist launched into another waltz I grabbed Summer’s hand and tugged her towards the dance floor. She looked as surprised as I felt, I was still frightened of disappearing in the middle of everyone but I thought that having her near might help somehow. I stood in front of her, tipping my arms up and down like a broken teapot, I didn’t know how to waltz, but she did. She laughed and looped one arm around my waist, resting her stump on my shoulder,
“Just follow my lead,” she said. I followed her round the dance floor, staring at my feet and stumbling over her toes, “Look up,” she ordered, and pulled me closer. We turned and turned until I was dizzy, until all the others blurred into sparkles and sequins and it felt like it was just the two of us in the magic light. We moved faster until I was out of breath, but Summer kept stepping confidently and counting,
“One, two three, one, two, three, mind my toes, ouch that’s it, one, two three.” I laughed and relaxed a little, leaning against her, I was just getting the hang of it when the music stopped. We moved back to our table, Moosh and Edith had sat down with fresh pots of tea and a rack of cakes waiting. I took a seat, watching Lily nibble a sticky slice of chocolate cake and wipe the crumbs off her plate with a bent finger. She smiled at me, chocolate stuck to her teeth,
“Feeling better love?”
“Yes thanks, much.” I took one of the cakes she offered, a small French fancy with yellow icing and a blob of cream escaping from the side, Lily leaned forward and whispered,
“Your mum used to say she felt a bit shaky afterwards, she soon got used to it mind, sugar helps. She learned to control it, you will too.” I stared at her, my mouth full of cake, stunned, but before I had chance to ask what she meant she was pulled up to dance by a tall, thin man in a shiny polyester suit. She was off in a flash, shaking her sequins as the organ player announced a rumba. Edith pursed her lips and sipped at her tea,
“That’s Terry Greene, his third wife died last month, she ought to watch out there, he’s a real goldigger” Lily swung under Terry’s arm, kicked her leg at armpit height and waved at us, Moosh waved back,
“He’ll have no joy there Edith, she’s as broke as the rest of us, widows and widowers all.”

I sat back in my chair and watched them, what had Lily meant? ‘Mum could control it’ control what? I nibbled on a dry egg sandwich, watching the dancers and trying to pick out the best notes as the organ pounded. Mum loved Blackpool, dad hated it, right now, I agreed with both of them. I squinted up at the curled writing above the stage, reading aloud,
“’Bid me Discourse and I will enchant thine ear’, what’s that meant to mean?”
“It’s Shakespeare,” said Summer, I looked at her surprised, she grinned back, “I used to work in The Shakespeare pub, collecting glasses, they had his quotes all over the bloody place.”
“Now don’t be modest Summer,” Moosh said, “Bet she hasn’t told you she played Titania, queen of the fairies, in Midsummer Night Dream at the Grand the other year,”
“It was just a school thing, for kids really,” Summer explained with a hint of colour in her cheeks,
“But I bet you could still tell Alice which play that quotes from” Moosh said, waving his arm towards the scroll, Summer blew air between her teeth,
“It’s a poem, not a play, and it’s Venus and Adonis,” she answered. Moosh flexed a weak bicep under his suit,
“Edith and I then!” Edith laughed and kissed him,
“The music’s been the same since the war Alice, lovely isn’t it? Makes you feel like you’re the belle of the ball” I nodded politely, the whole place was magical, but I was still thinking about dad and my invisible body. I glanced nervously at the door. The music stopped and the organist turned to the audience, taking a deep bow, as he left the stage, one of the permed ladies screamed and threw something large and white up towards him, he caught it easily in one hand and kept walking.
“What d’you think that was?” I asked,
“Probably her bloomers.” Summer replied. An announcer strode on stage and grabbed the mike, his voice echoed around the hall,

Thursday, 16 May 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Game of Thrones

She Who Dares Writes: Game of Thrones: If you've watched Game of Thrones you know how easy it is to be sucked quickly into its fantasy world, especially if you have the doub...

Game of Thrones

If you've watched Game of Thrones you know how easy it is to be sucked quickly into its fantasy world, especially if you have the double box set. Watching from the comfort of the sofa, little did I expect I would soon be out in the frozen North, re-enacting Game of Thrones on our She Who Dares annual weekend away.

We left the soft, sunny South and headed North, to the land of my forefathers, North to the Wall, a dark land of mists and mountains, passes and terrors, riders in the night and ravens at dawn, a cold land of rains and snow. Or as it's called in Britain - The Lake District. We enjoyed the hospitality of the locals on a brief overnight coaching stop in Garstang, before driving further North to Penrith, dropping down through Keswick to Glanamara Lodge in Borrowdale. A comfortable activity centre founded to 'improve' the population of industrial cities like Manchester and Leeds, and run on pretty austere lines until a decade ago. We were relieved to find clean, comfy rooms, central heating, open log fires and a bar! The food and hospitality were fantastic, the standard of instruction excellent. It needed to be, I felt like we were being prepared as stunt doubles for Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones or Frodo in Lord of The Rings.

After lunch we geared up and headed out to an old quarry for our first activity - The Zip Wire, fixed between two trees over a 60 foot drop, I asked the instructor how often they set it up, "Just three or four times a year" he replied. I hugged the tree closer and hoped the rope would take my weight. It did, but on my second descent the speed increased, the rope was too short and I found myself using my head and the tree as a brake. More 'George of The Jungle' than Indiana Jones on that one.

After a luscious three course meal, plenty of wine and entertainment from the Darlington Ramblers,(our fellow occupiers of the lodge,more Lannister than Stark) we set out the next morning for a spot of Fell walking. Half expecting a tribe of hill walkers to come yelling over the peak, weilding swords, we climbed up paths that had turned into rivers and I discovered my waterproof trousers, were not, in fact, waterproof at all. Rivulets of water soaked through to my underwear as we waded through brown, muddy water, switching up gravel paths to climb higher into the fells.

The mist came down, the rain changed direction, blasting our faces with horizontal sleet, peppered with snowflakes the size of Milky Bar buttons. We climbed on, reaching Castle Crag, I felt we should be leaving a banner, roaring down the other side, invading the tea shop along the river, but their creostoe coloured sweet tea was enough to broker a truce. We sat outside, numbed with cold, warming our hands around the white china mugs. Hardly a rampaging army, more a bedraggled huddle of middle aged women. Still, we didn't know what was ahead on our epic journey.

Lunch was taken back at the centre, we dried off, got warm, only to be frozen to the bone again. More layers, large blue fleece onesies that made us look like ageing Teletubbies, waterproof trousers, jackets, gloves, hats, socks and pink trainers to match my pink Lush lipstick. Amazingly, it stayed on all the way through our next, very wet, activity. I should have pushed them for a marketing campaign.We drove up to a nearby hill, again, and marched to the river. Ghyll scrambling is much like a water park, a natural water park, where the slides are drops and falls and the water pounds through slick, polished rock like lethal cappaccino.

That evening, over dinner, we shared war wounds and compared bruises from our wet campaign, we'd made it to the North, biut we couldn't conquer this landscape. Humans are insignificant out there. We discovered how much so on our final morning.

Over a leisurely breakfast, we watched some of the 1700 riders on the Fred Whitton Race cycle past, knowing they had 120 miles of winding roads, crucifying hills and driving rain to go before their day was over. We just had an episode of Indiana Jones. Donning more kit for climbing, we drove to Via Ferrata at Honister slate mine and began the long walk up the crag, cutting into the dark belly of the mountain as if we were on a quest for The Ring. We didn't see Frodo, but emerged to stunning views and a camera crew, filming a short piece for CBeebies. Thanks to those pesky kids, we had to start with the more challenging descent, over the edge and down a sheer rock face, clipped on by karibiners to plastic cables as we followed each other down a rusty ladder and worked across the rock on a series of ledges and metal staples.

I have never been so terrified, reaching round a blind corner, feeling for the next foothold, I began to argue with the instructor. But they kept us going,further on to a steel cable strung across a 100 foot drop, 60 foot long, I gripped the sides as if my life depended on it, which it proabably did. Then further white knuckle climbing 750 feet above sea level to the peak, and down through the mine and the luna landscapes of the old slate mines, finally, back on terra firmer with trembling knees

After that, nothing could sacre us, what an amazing weekend, with some amazing women, I went back to sit on the safety of the sofa and watch the next episode of Game of Thrones, knowing I could face The North with the best of them.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

She Who Dares Writes: David Almond - Imagination

She Who Dares Writes: David Almond - Imagination: The ADC Theatre in Cambridge boasts illustrious Footlights Allumini. Inside it's stuffy and slightly dusty, the seats are a third full...

David Almond - Imagination

The ADC Theatre in Cambridge boasts illustrious Footlights Allumini. Inside it's stuffy and slightly dusty, the seats are a third full of grungy middle class white kids and their parents. My offspring and I have sat on the back row, hiding in the shadows, waiting to listen to David Almond talk about his writing, I've bribed my son's presence with an overpriced jar of jellybabies from a nearby sweetshop, I think he'd rather be home on the XBox, but I must keep trying.

It's fitting that the place smells a little like a library, that's where Almond does most of his writing, the library in Newcastle, 9-5, with a break for lunch. Writing in my local library would be difficult over the clatter of keyboards, but it's a noble idea. Almond champions libraries, as should we all. He champions books, his talk lauded the beauty of books, the magic of the printed word, the evocation of wonder in everyday things. He speaks in a soft Geordie accent, a modest looking man in dark colours with a large black rucsac, from which he pulls his notebooks, his ideas for writing, his notes that capture his imagination,

"Making marks on paper is really important to writing, I just love storie, storytelling is a fertile onward going thing."

Almond has written most of his life, his love affair with words emerging as a babe in arms, carried down the hill in his hometown to his uncles' small printshop up an alleyway, whre he oohed and baby gurgeld at the wonder of the printers turning and producing press, the black ink on white paper, "Truly gorgeous".

He was a teacher for a long time too, although he's made a living from writing for the last 13 years or so. David believes in creativity, "Learning is a creative art, creativity informs everything you do."

David Almond books range from the uncanny and fantastic to the real and emotional. His new book, 'The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas' was inspired by a family holiday in Italy and a trip to a local circus, where for those willing to part with an additional five Euros, a curtain was drawn back to reveal the fantastical act of a man swimming in a tank full of piranhas.

He loves writing for young people because of the different range of forms it offers. His his book 'The Savage' is part graphic novel, written in collaboration with the illustrator Dave MacKean,

"Words and pictures go naturally together - as soon as the word goes into your brain, it turns into a picture." He writes about his childhood a lot, but as a traveller, which enhances his ability to become the voice of a character, an adolescent girl in 'Mina', a boy or angel in 'Skellig'. He praised Walker Books for making 'proper books', soemthing I was pleased to hear as they are publishing a short story of mine later this year.

The talk finished, there was a smattering of applause, I bought a book for the youngest, he was even keen to get it signed, first in line, thank you David, a worthy afternoon away from the XBox.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Academic Amnesia

She Who Dares Writes: Academic Amnesia: It was the last taught module of my MA this week, after Easter we enter the strange ground of talks, events and sporadic tutorials, and t...

Academic Amnesia

It was the last taught module of my MA this week, after Easter we enter the strange ground of talks, events and sporadic tutorials, and the serious business of writing up a dissertation. I'm not worried about the quantity of creative work, but I am worried about the quality and the resonance and punch of my accompanying critical essay. It's time to break out of the academic amnesia and get some serious writing done, kick start those neuron pathways that are dormant on the discontinued line.

I'll miss the MA, the once a week toe dip into the academic world. The last two modules have taken place in leased rooms off the Grays Inn Road, a modern steel and glass space. This week I discovered a green space behind the building that I hadn't noticed before, an elegant park sat behind a graceful London Plane. On closer inspection the wide paths bend around tombstones of lichen clad grey. I can't see the church from the window, but I can dee a tall white crane that digs the space next to the park. I wonder if they discovered any bodies in their excavations.

Westminster Kingsway is less ivory tower, more night school, populated by exuberant youth that literally bounce off the walls. Their conversation is sparky, loud and combative, in a style that implied they were always looking for a fight.

Overheard in the Ladies Loos:

"She's just jealous girl"
"She said don't speak to me, I don't need to speak to her, I don' know her"
"You left me a message, you can't assume I've read it man?"

On the tube there is silence, no conversation, all plugged in and non-communicative. The college foyer is like a Friday night in Liverpool, just after the Irish centre closed its doors and the occupants spilled onto the streets and mounted the top deck of the last night bus, loudly singing rebel songs. There's the same volume, the same energy, the same voices competing to be heard, physically, not electronically, shouting into the cold air.

Monday, 25 February 2013

She Who Dares Writes: National Competition Winner!

She Who Dares Writes: National Competition Winner!: So called by Jack FM today - a National Competition Winner and Hertfordshire writer. In a huge boost to my confidence I'm one of 10 fi...

National Competition Winner!

So called by Jack FM today - a National Competition Winner and Hertfordshire writer. In a huge boost to my confidence I'm one of 10 finalists in a writing competition run by Walker Books and MumsNet, the story of Polly The Jumping Cow will be illustrated and published by Walker in a collection of Bedtime stories this October.

I'm chuffed to bits, although I cringed at how posh I sounded on the radio, didn't sound like me at all!

It's ironic that I've been plotting, scoping and fussing over two novels for Young Adults for the last couple of years, sending them out into the wilds to flounder, but the work I'm noticed for took me a walk in the forest and an hour over a cup of tea to write. Just shows how important setting and experience are, and how to grasp the inspiration as soon as it strikes.

Thanks to all at Hatfield Forest for providing me with the inspiration, and to my daughter for helping with the ending. To be published by Walker is a dream come true, I've loved their books for years, and a collection of bedtime stories? Well, I have treasured ones from my own childhood, - 365 bedtime stories, illustrated by Richard Scary, and of course - The Walker Book of Bedtime Stories, that I read to my own children.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

She Who Dares Writes: 'Til the Cows Come Home

She Who Dares Writes: 'Til the Cows Come Home: So I've decided to try and flex a different set of creative muscles and am dipping my toe in various ponds in the hope that one connection ...

'Til the Cows Come Home

So I've decided to try and flex a different set of creative muscles and am dipping my toe in various ponds in the hope that one connection somewhere will spark a lead to another, and another.

At the tail end of last year I was inspired to write the text for a children's picture book, Polly The Jumping Cow, based on the quirky herd of Red Poll Cows that roam Hatfield Forest. Here's a little excerpt:

Polly was born one starry night under the old Hornbeam tree. Her mother was a Red Poll, her father was a Red Poll. Polly was a Red Poll too.

In those first days she wobbled around the forest on her unsteady legs, following the herd to the best grazing spots, over the plains and under the trees, by the lake and the coppice. One day, her head bent low in the sweet grass, she heard some children singing,

“The little dog laughed to see such fun, and the cow jumped over the moon.” They danced under the old oak, skipping round the trunk with a small dog yapping at their heels.

That night, as Polly snuggled up to her mother and looked up at the stars and the summer moon hanging in the sky, she began to wonder. She whispered, “Can cows jump?” Her mother shook her head and rolled over,

“Cow’s can’t jump Polly”

But the next day, Polly tried. She jumped over little muddy puddles, and shouted, “I jumped over a puddle mum!” but her mother kept chewing the grass,
“Cow’s can’t jump Polly”

These curious cows could often be found sabotaging our bug hunts having squeezed their way through previously impenetrable fencing. They were always turning up somewhere surprising, sticking their heads through the office window and lowing loudly. One did jump over the style one day and was off up the road.

I need an illustrator in pen and ink or watercolour, someone who can catch the cows soft shapes and the beauty of the forest, but also the humour and cheekiness of this breed. If you qualify - get in touch!

I've been writing some short stories too, snapshots, scenes, little islands of prose. Website content is currently being composed and should go live next month.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

She Who Dares Writes: Monologue - The Hairdresser

She Who Dares Writes: Monologue - The Hairdresser: I was going to put this forward to Mslexia magazine, but missed the deadline - 200 words on The Hairdresser: Mine is the small room at the...

Monologue - The Hairdresser

I was going to put this forward to Mslexia magazine, but missed the deadline - 200 words on The Hairdresser:

Mine is the small room at the top of the house squeezed into this harbour town. Behind thick stone walls I weave, my fingers rigid with cold in the dull winter, swollen and dry in the bright summer months. I watch the people swarm below, their hair whipped and scurried by the sea winds. I save the lost hair shed by young and old, the hair that is lifted up on the salt breeze, drifting through my open window.

It is a careful job and I take my time, I am not as quick as I used to be, but they will wait for my work, I am still needed. I conjure baby down, gossamer thin; heavy curls with conker shine, grey and wiry, coarse or fine. Hair that is swept into tumbleweed from the salon floor, bagged and left to bulge, feather-light, outside my door. I will use it all. My wigs are the best in town, in the county in the country. So they say.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Silver Screen

So new projects begin and I find myself back where I was a few years ago, looking at writing a screenplay again. This is OK, the new project dovetails with the YA novel, Girl In the Box, I'm just trying to imagine the first scene, and whether Alice should speak via voice over or dialogue. She's carrying a rabbit at the time, maybe the rabbit should have the voice?

I'm back to summing up a whole film in one sentence, the dreaded logline.
Went to our local flicks to see Les Mis yesterday, it's logline is:'Fight. Dream. Hope. Love.'
That's cheating, it just about sums up everything.

I watched it with an eye on the clock, a nod to Blake Snyders, Save The Cat, in which his beat sheet divides a screenplay into actions and minutes.

At one minute we should have the opening image (Les Mis, the slaves battling to pull a listing ship back to dock, a symbol of their struggle, way below the oppressors - Javert).

Theme stated - the next 5 mins - More of the same in Les Mis, with a few shots of a battered Hugh Jackman staggering about. Set up should be the first 10 minutes - Hugh rambling around, given a chance, reforming and becoming a new man - Law V Grace, and all that jazz. You get the idea.

Despite my objections to the goal driven approach being a particularly male view, its amazing how almost every film follows this pre set structure, go on, give us some examples of those that don't please!