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June 22nd 2016

June 22nd 2016

June 22nd 2016.

The day before the EU Referendum. The day before we know if our world is going to change for ever. Remain or Leave? Are we going to be precipitated into an unknown and scary future or are we all going to settle back into a tentative and nervous normality.

I cannot think of a time in my life when political debate has been so raw, vicious, passionate and sometimes destructive. It has brought out all the very worst in human nature. Smug certitude; an inability to listen or respect an apposing view; well versed mantras clutched at, rather than explored.

This referendum has brought to the fore incipient racism, personal insult,  uninformed argument, unedifying anger and violence, based on emotion not facts.

Democracy is the freedom to have a voice and the ability to cast a vote  for an outcome you believe in.  It is a wonderful and precious thing. We are all united  in our fear of  losing it. It is one of the many reasons it has not been a simple decision for many of us to choose to remain or leave.

Feeling passionate about your beliefs combined with an ability to put them across articulately and coherently, changes opinions. Insulting and shouting down a person with an apposing view, does not.

Watching politicians and people on the street verbally abusing each other over this vote has been a daunting and upsetting experience. This debate has divided friends and families. It has driven wedges between communities and colleagphotoues.

Many of us feel their democratic rights are threatened and eroded by people with power and an agenda that is not the same as ours. There is bewildering acknowledgement that we are not at the heart of our own destiny anymore.

I wish this referendum had had some moral issues at the heart of it. I wish we had had more of a debate about who and what we want our country to stand up for. But, I fear this government has only one God. The Economy. Humanitarian issues, refugees, the horror and plight of Syria seem peripheral.

Britain and the world have stood by and watched a nation decimated, watched families  flee for safety and we have given them little. We could have given them so much at so little cost to ourselves.

The tragic killing of Jo Cox, a young and passionately involved MP stunned the world and made us all step back in horror. I watched her husband, Brendon Cox,  being interviewed last night. He was articulate, powerful and searingly dignified. It was heartbreaking.

Jo Cox believed in fighting every inch for a better world, not just for us, here, on this island  but for everyone without a voice, a home, a country. That means Remaining In.

Spring

Spring

It is far too long since I posted here. I am not sure where the time goes. Christmas came and I planned to post some New Year thoughts, but somehow time slipped… Now it is March and I realise how bad I am at fitting in writing with social media and blogs and answering emails and all the other stuff of modern life. Each year I start with good intentions. One morning for this. One afternoon for that… but it never seems to quite work out as I planned.

There is a two week FREE kindle promotion on Amazon at the moment for ANOTHER LIFE so if you have not read it or are looking for a holiday read, do head for Amazon and download.

It has been an endlessly grey wet winter but here in Cornwall spring comes early and colour is everywhere. As the daffodils begin to fade the magnolias and Azaleas are bursting with life in the gardens. It feels like emerging from a long hibernation. Life suddenly feels full of possibilities…

Serendipity. Books. Penzance Literary Festival 2015

Serendipity. Books. Penzance Literary Festival 2015

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Serendipity. Books Penzance Literary Festival 2015

The Penzance Literary Festival 2015 was under way when I glanced into my programme. My eye was drawn to an author I had missed:

Uncertain Light: a journey through unknown territory with Marion Molteno.

‘In the mountains of war-torn Tajikistan, rebels abduct a UN peace negotiator. The lives of those closest to him begin to unravel… The latest novel from award winning writer Marion Monteno takes you to places you have never been, alongside people you can identify with. It’s also a personal journey…. ‘

I had to go and listen.

Marion, a South African, spoke seamlessly about her life travelling Asia and Africa on educational projects and working with Save The Children. Her life was fascinating as a subject all on its own.

As she talked about Uncertain Life, I wondered if she had based her novel on the kidnap of five British Military Observers in Sierra Leone in 1999. My son, working with the UN at that time, was one of five unarmed soldiers taken at gunpoint and held for five days.

That day in 1999 had been an ordinary summer afternoon.I had been out buying plants for my garden…

As I draw up to my cottage I see two men in uniform standing by my front door. The day shivers to a stop. I was an army wife for seventeen years. I know what uniforms on a doorstep means.

I open the car door. Climb out. The men in uniform glide towards me; check my name; my son’s name.

‘He’s dead?’ I whisper as the world disappears into a pinprick. There are just the uniforms, the doorstep, me. They shake their heads; reassure me. ‘No. No. Your son is not dead. Please… let’s go inside.’

The senior officer unrolls a sheet of paper and reads out a prepared statement. My son, along with four other Military Observers is missing, kidnapped by rebels while trying to rescue a group of kidnapped children. Nobody knows where he or any of the hostages have been taken…

‘But they’ll be found? ‘They’ll be rescued?’

The two officers stare at me, kind, compassionate. ‘Every effort is being made to secure the whereabouts of the hostages. Every effort will be made to rescue them, but I am afraid we cannot pretend this is not a very serious incident… British government ministers are flying out to Sierra Leone as I speak…’

I realize then. See it in their eyes. My son may not come out of this alive.

The officers warn me that the story is going to break on the 6pm news. They leave me contact numbers. I will be assigned a welfare officer.

I watch the kidnap of five British soldiers unfold on television. It feels nightmarish and surreal. The Military leap to support me. The village closes in around me. Friends arrive round the clock so that I am never alone.

I am protected from the press, given a special phone line with a liaison officer with a beautiful, calm voice. His name is Simon. He assures me he will be on the other end of the line day and night. And he is. Without him I would have survived those five days

Sometimes, I have to ring just to hear his voice. He offers me snippets of news that is kept from the media. He tells me how well trained my son and all the kidnapped solders are. How well versed for this very real threat of abduction… they know how to survive. His gentle voice gives me hope when I think I cannot bear another moment.

At night I obsessively listen to the World Service. I wonder if the foreign correspondents, reporting on the cruelty and barbarity of the drugged and armed Sierra Leone rebels ever give a thought to the sleepless wives and mothers listening in terror as they describe, in detail, all the shockingly brutal ends their loved ones might meet.

Simon talks me through the political negotiations that are happening in the background. When the rebels begin to let the hostages out, slowly, one by one, I  become terrified the rebels will not release all the hostages; that it is some macabre game they are playing.

As the end unfolds I watch a dark and fuzzy screen on the television. Ambulances wait in a clearing for the hostages to emerge from the jungle. I tell Simon, on the other end of the phone. Bizarrely, satellite is faster than his information and he cannot verify what I think is happening

I can see blurred activity round the ambulances then a sudden ribbon of words across the screen. ‘The five British hostages are out…’

A news correspondent is shouting. ‘They are safe. All the hostages have now been released…’

Many years later I ask Marion Molteno if she had based the idea for her book on the kidnap of British soldiers in Sierra Leone. I am taken aback by how hard my heart is thudding as I speak as the moment on the doorstep comes flooding back. I am  unaware of the reaction of other people in the room until I am told later.

I go and sit in my garden with Uncertain Light, unsure whether I am going to be able to read it. I open it and scan the first few pages. The prose is lovely. It is not my son’s story. It is a novel conjured from imagination and knowledge of a particular region.

Even so, I find I am reluctant to read this book, as if somehow, this story that is imaginary might, under my fingers, turn into the story that was real. I am unnerved by little flashbacks, of buried memory. Of how fast loss can come.

Writing this blog has taken me sometime. I could not make it the moment, the immediate aftermath of a chance encounter. As writers we often cannibalize other peoples lives. Weave them into our own fictional story. This is not my story. It is my son’s.

A writer imagines a plot for the kidnap of UN observers in Tajikistan. In the basement of a tiny theatre at the other end of the world another writer steps out of the pages of  informed imagination to make her plot all too real…Art mirrors life in strange and serendipitous ways. Disparate lives connect for a moment. It is disturbing.

I do not yet know how Uncertain Life will end, only that the people within it will never be the same. Life is fragile, transient and precious. A reminder never to forget that. Nor take the world for granted.

 

 

These are some of the authors I enjoyed from Penzance Literary Festival 2015

Sadly, I was not back from London in time to catch the launch of Laura Barnett’s novel The Versions Of US at the Edge Of The World bookshop. Or to listen to Tim Hannigan talking to Phillip Marsden about his new book Rising Ground.

I much enjoyed Susimita Bhattcharya talking about her book, The Normal State Of Mind. I also enjoyed listening to Lesley Hawden in conversation with Joy Salisbury. Her book Jakob’s Colours is about the largely unknown gipsy holocaust.

I found Sarah Winman in conversation with Patrick Gale impressive and moving. She is an exceptionally honest writer and this comes across eloquently. Helped by the fact t she is an actress and has a winning and charismatic presence.

This singled her out for me. She struck me as a writer who, within the confines of having to be commercial to sell her books, is disinclined to be pigeon holed into any particular direction or pushed into deadlines before she is ready. She does not  have a Facebook or twitter account to promote herself.

As one who happens to think the constant promotion by authors of their books can be counter-productive this is both unusual and refreshing. Winman doesn’t need to over promote. She can jump into the bestseller list because she has a distinctive, original and quirky voice. As you can guess, I’m a fan!

I loved When God Was A Rabbit. It affected me deeply in the same way that

Helen Dunmore’s, A Spell of Winter did. I think it is something to do with the integrity of the author.

 

 

August Blog

Penzance held its Literary Festival in July. For a few days the streets and parks were full of people happily wandering between events, listening to visiting writers and poets and steadfastly supporting local writers. Writing workshops for aspiring authors of all ages and numerous children’s events were a great success.

None of this could have happened without the vision, imagination and dedication of a few, who give up much of their lives to organising this event as well the endless hard work of many volunteers.

Penzance is lucky to have a wonderful, thriving bookshop that contributes hugely to Penzance and wholeheartedly supports the Litfest. It loyally promotes local authors as well as visiting ones by consistently having buzzy little launches in the shop in the evenings.

For those of us who spend most of our lives shut up in a small room with a computer it is exhilarating to be reminded, if we needed it, of the armies of readers in love with books, with words, with communicating with the writers taking part in festivals. That sheer joy of reading and talking about the books they have discovered or are about to discover.

I was also warmed by the generosity of writers towards each other. It is a joy to get together and share experiences of our current work, as well as the good and bad luck stories about agents or publishers. Hilarious and self-depreciating jokes over put downs or run ins with the egos of well known authors unite us all in a mutual love of what we do and the sometimes hard realities of commercial publishing.

Communicating face to face is the oxygen that breathes fresh life into the necessary solitary life of a writer and literary festivals remind us of the abiding satisfaction of interacting with discerning readers.

Writers are people who spend their lives building a world other than their own, developing, slowly, step by step characters that become more real than real life. Immersed in our own imaginations we become obsessed with the thrill of a plot unfolding in ways we had not envisaged or rising from the subconscious in weird moments to startle us. We want our books to be populated with characters who are believable, who jump off the page and lodge in the memory.

The drive and excitement of creating a story is like weaving a tapestry and being unsure how the completed work will turn out. Writing is not a precise science. Writers control the narrative. Confront and drive and conjure from imagination and intellect a chosen world, a spread, a family of people.

We choose a place and a plan for these particular lives as they make their way through joys, sadness, violence or cruelty towards some sort of resolution. We know them. We are protective of them. We don’t want to leave them. We are fearful we have not done them justice or have left them to their fates at the wrong moment.

Then we write The End and hand them over. We give them up. They are no longer solely ours. Agent, Editor, Publisher carries our newborn away for inspection. They will suggest slashes of brilliant prose; ask us to cut our excesses and beloved descriptions.

Questions will be asked about character, plot and motive. We will be reined in and asked to examine in detail words that have flown or stuttered out of our head and heart. Our created world is swivelled and turned and angled with expertise, examined for a false note, a longueur, a pointless chapter.

Initial indignation and outrage, as we cut and paste and lose a thousand words, are lost as we acknowledge the flaws and gaps and applaud the editor we trust. Those important, vital experienced pair of eyes that make a re-write bearable. We sigh; we battle and despair until slowly, with renewed excitement, a subtle, honed deeper story emerges from the original. We experience the exhilaration and exhaustion of a book completed.

There have been many possible twists. Many possible beginnings and endings, but this is where the story starts and ends. It is now up to readers, maybe at some book festival, where, hopefully, they will peer down at our cover and carry our imaginary lives away with them.

 

Waiting For Spring

Waiting For Spring

Outside the rain is lashing against the windows. The sea through the rooftops is white capped and irritable. A small tanker is holed up in the lea of the land. My latest book is finished and with an editor. Now I must wait

Winter has been ferocious, endless, sodden and here we are longing and waiting for the late spring. The cliff tops are still closed and brown with few green shoots emerging but the gardens are alive with Camellia and Magnolia trees with swathes of late daffodils lighting up the grass.

Yesterday, the sun shone in a clear blue sky that made the day icy but delicious. I am unable to garden at the moment as I have my arm in a sling so I take off to look at all the wonderful gardens around me.  Frustrated by the limitations of what I can do with one wing I turn to all the things that bring me joy and a quiet continuation each day. The beautiful local pottery bowl and mug I use every morning made by  local potter Lincoln Kirby-Bell. The fallen magnolia bloom I found yesterday, blown by the wind into a rhododendron bush. Looking at my tree ferns out of my sitting room window. The sound of the school bell and the sight of small children scurrying past the kitchen window towards the small school. Lying, reading in a warm bed as the rain hits the window.

The euphoria of finishing a piece of work can be replaced by sudden doubt and dark thoughts. Concentrating on small everyday things is like a small meditation on what has value in our lives and makes a whole life, not just a body of work. Something us writers holed up in a room with our imaginations sometimes forget.

Smart phones with good cameras now give us a canvas that need no words to paint and catalogue the seasons and our part within them.

Idle thoughts at the end of 2013

Idle thoughts at the end of 2013

December 2013

Idle thoughts at the closing of the Year

Recently, I went to stay for two weeks in a small fishing village in West Cornwall to dog-sit for a friend. Her house perched high up on the cliff-like hillside. Huge windows brought the views inside so that I perched out over a vast expanse of sea and sky stretching towards the Scilly Isles.

The harbour lay below clustered by cottages, shops and small art galleries. Day and night small fishing boats headed in to port and out towards the horizon. If I woke I could see the lights on the water and hear the chug of engines as they cast their nets into the dark.

At home I live only yards far from the sea. I can watch a fat slice of weather, grey or glittering coming in over the rooftops from my desk at the top of the house. Yet this house set high like a nest in a tree was like a magical third eye on the world.

I woke to sunrise heady and exotic. A band of orange would grow on the horizon, widen and widen until it burst out of ominous black cloud and erupted over an eerie metallic sea. Burst free in a great majestic ball of red that changed the silver path of night on the water to breathtaking glory. Out of these extraordinary, blazing new days little fishing boats emerged as if from a film set or a painting.

The small dog and I would dive out early into each new pink tinged day and follow the coastal path. I looked down on the fishermen far below in that mercurial and endless blue sea emptying their lobster pots along the coastline.

Sometimes, I would meet the same woman walking to feed her horses. Like two passing people on a train who will never meet again we had frank and engaging conversations.  I never asked her name as if somehow this would deter the surprising intimacy we had quickly built up. Both of us recognised and related to the hermit like lifestyle of the other. On a coastal path in the far reaches of west Cornwall I discovered she had lived in Vietnam and I had lived in Pakistan. These journeys to cultures very different from our own had somehow shaped our lives and determined the things we found important. Influenced the choice of where we had happily ended up.

In this two week absence from home I wrote all day blissfully marooned from domestic disturbance. I descended into the pink dusk to the harbour in the late afternoon. I explored the hidden paths and secret alleyways of this small seaside village. I found eccentric ladies gardening happily in near darkness. I chatted to old fishermen sitting on benches with small terriers watching the misty horizon for the same familiar fishing boats to head in.

I loved the late afternoon light most of all; when the sea was tinged a faded purple-grey as delicate as dove feathers. When the rosy dusk I was walking in was rapidly swallowed into darkness. When lights sprang on in the village and harbour and along the stretch of the Lizard peninsular. When gentle waves slid over the pebbles serenely like a meditation to the end of the day. When the smell of fires mingled with the damp air and people scurried hobbit like home to tiny, lighted cottages. In feelings deliciously lonely and joyful I would experience those rare flashes of pure and fleeting happiness.

Writing is necessarily solitary and being alone is addictive. Removing oneself from an insular world with a computer and making time and room to simply observe and be still reaps creative rewards. In the guilt of being away from my desk I sometimes forget the importance of pausing. The need to question life, the way we work, the way we relate to real human beings, rather than the imaginary ones we conjure and nurture.

2014 is going to be a time for many writers to evaluate how to go forward. Publishers who won’t commit are forcing many of us to consider the future of where and how we publish and I am no exception.To embrace the Internet and ‘indie’ publishing is both exciting and alarming.  I keep putting it off. There is so much advice out there. So much pushing your own work, blogging and social networking. You have to ‘be’ a business. Write, edit and sell your own books.  (Unnervingly, there are some seriously poor and unedited books out there as well as good ones)

However, the possibilities are intriguing as well as challenging. The opportunities for young writers starting out is infinite.  It would be foolish to dismiss as too hard a new platform many writers might well have to embrace.

I take heart from the latest edition of The Author. Many, many of us are going through exactly the same reservations and hesitations. Probably, most of us are going to have to jump, or drown…

However, I am submitting my new thriller the traditional way in January, and then we will see…

A New Year is coming up. Let us hope 2014 is going to be a happy and successful one for all of us!

 

July Sunrise

July Sunrise

I am spending a wonderful, isolated, dog sitting, editing week in Mousehole  in a house set above the sea.  Writer’s bliss. 

Life and Mountains

Life and Mountains

 

I sit facing the mountains as early sun heats my skin. There is a nest of sparrows at the top of one of the palms outside my bedroom window. The house lies in a valley of lemon and apricot orchards. Fat yellow lemons, impossibly seductive lie amid green branches and on the dry ground. I long to gather them up. The dry stony fields are circled by Cypress trees planted to shelter and protect the orchards and crops of onions and tomatoes from the sudden winds that blow in from the sea.

Pots of succulents and cacti lie around the garden, much like they do at home in Cornwall but here they seem to exist, like magic, in non-existent soil. There are English roses that have no smell and small pineapple plants with inner fronts startlingly like pale flesh.

The Tramuntana Mountains rise jagged, dominating the skyline. Mountains seem to captivate the soul with the random mystery of their being.  The evolution of rock face holds its own individual patterns, dark crags and hidden caves.It is easy to understand why men and women become obsessed with climbing or conquering them.

The first mountains I fell in love with were in Norway (where I spent a long winter in an empty log cabin used in summer by the Norwegian army.)

With only a baby from dawn to dusk I learned to map the moods of glorious snow capped peaks that swallowed and smothered us in silence.

I would walk my child in a sledge, perpetually wrapped in a papoose so he would not freeze to death. The only sounds were the plop of snow falling from the firs in the forest and the glittering mountains rising snow clad above me like stalwart and close friends.

Sometimes, driving, breath held, over a frozen mountain range we would stare mesmerised at waterfalls frozen in the act of falling. Cascades and twists and curls of rushing water frozen a bright iridescent green as it tumbled into the rivers below.

I looked down onto the parched mountains of Afghanistan as I flew to Pakistan and my stomach quailed as I thought of my son fighting somewhere down there with the British Army.

I walked in the sweet smelling forests of Northern Pakistan and gazed out across mountains tinged with gold, glimpsed the snowy peaks of Kashmir.  A sweet and cool climb that was made incongruous by security men with guns appearing suddenly from behind the trees as we climbed…  Startling each other in the shadows of trees filled with bird song and butterflies.

Below us, hidden, but near, lay the hotel with an English garden full of roses. A perfect backdrop (with hidden serpent) Aquamarine sky and the smell of roses set against the southern slopes of the Western Himalayan foothills.

I digress! I was merely going to jot my thoughts on the obvious… That travelling even a small distance to reassess life, find thinking time, can radically change ones perspective.

Life is hard for writers at the moment. It is so easy to get into a negative way of thinking. About the way publishing is going. How quickly the traditional way of producing books and promoting as well as reading them is changing.  The role of editors and agents seems to be changing too.

Most authors seem to be writing books without contracts and a publisher’s interest in synopsis and first chapters of a book will not always translate into actual acceptance on completion these days.  Publishers flounder too in this recession, somewhat cowardly and risk averse.

More and more writers are taking control and finding independent ways of getting their work published. There is a tsunami of advice and information on line to absorb and filter. Many writers are generous, passing on their acquired knowledge and the pitfalls they encounter along the way. Many have made a business out of giving advice and finding it gratefully received.

The perceived way of doing things is changing fast and as writers we have to adapt too and take control of our own future. In the current market we can no longer afford, hermit like, to shut ourselves away for a year, to the exclusion of all else, to write a book. The business of selling books means it is vital we engage more and more with the outside world, have interesting websites, build profiles, blog, twitter and do facebook.

A huge number of writers have always been media savvy. For younger writers, the facebook generation, sharing details of your life is a given.  A quick click informs. Promotion is, after all a vital part of producing a product.  A book is created (manufactured) and needs to sell like any other product to be successful. How else do people know you are out there?

Publishers rarely have money to spare for promotion even when you are published mainstream, so authors need to get used to promoting themselves in every way they can.  For some of us this has taken a little longer to sink in. Trust like we have floated along hoping for the best.

So, as I sit in the peace of mountains, rescue moths from the swimming pool, sniff the air full of honeysuckle and lemon I feel a subtle shift in myself. My mind is buzzing with creative ideas. Instead of mourning the waning of traditional publishing, the old and known ways I was comfortable with I feel suddenly able to celebrate the immense possibilities. To explore the huge and varied opportunities this technical age is now bringing writers like me. Not least there is simple pleasure of interacting with other writers and readers out there.

Who knows, life is circular and mainstream publishing might recover its nerve. Bookshops may flourish and thrive again one day, a lovely thought. Maybe they will be co-exist side by side with an equally thriving and respected form of publishing online. A place where writers began to drive and control their own destiny

 

 

Perverse Nature

Perverse Nature

As I write great goblets of rain are hitting the windows sideways in a ferocious gale, gusting around the house, finding every crack, filling the house with cold air and rattling the windows.

The sea across the rooftops has disappeared into a matching grey  sky. Yet in the garden my clematis Montana is beginning to flower as if in defiance. Other more delicate creepers have already bloomed fragile blue flowers then perished. The magnolia tree has great fat buds but not enough sun to warm them into life. The camellias are flowering but are wind burnt before they open and drop brown onto the ground.

A week ago I sat in the garden eating a crab sandwich in warm sunshine admiring my sweet peas who had decided they were everlasting, their greenery still intact after flowering into November. They are now just haystacks of beige clinging to the trellis.

One morning I photographed children being snapped  by their parents on the steps of the prom. A day later I watched the sea heaving itself  relentlessly towards the railings. This is Cornwall in all its variety.

 

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