Dr Gary Farnell welcomed members and guests on what was a suitably dark and chilly evening the mood of which wasn’t lightened when he read a letter from society chairman, Barbara Large.
Barbara shared the upsetting news that following a consultation with her physician and subsequent hospital examinations she has been placed under long-term medical care and is being treated for a serious condition. However, she and her medical team are optimistic and everyone anticipates that Barbara will be back ‘shiny and new’ in time for March’s meeting and the onset of lighter evenings. Typical of her selfless attitude, Barbara apologised for her absence and I’m sure that when Dr Farnell asked that everyone join him in wishing Barbara a speedy recovery there was unanimous agreement. Everyone is channelling best wishes Barbara’s way!
Special Guest: Steve Marper
The Hyde900 Project was established in 2010 to mark the 900th anniversary of the founding of Hyde Abbey, the burial place of King Alfred the Great. The initial aim was to provide a platform to celebrate Hyde’s history and environment and to promote the wealth of talent to be found amongst its local people. The project proved so popular it was decided to continue it beyond its initial planned period and it has gone on to become a vehicle to support other events in Hyde and the wider Hampshire area.
More recently it has broadened into a serendipitous approach to community-based initiatives with such things as public health and fitness, music, visual arts and written and spoken word being included.
Cycling, with the annual Wantage to Winchester cycle ride and numerous guided history-based walks, have proved to be enormously popular activities. The Hyde900 archaeology programme, via the Community Dig, continues to investigate the early history of Hyde Abbey and choral music development is promoted through the Hyde900 Choir. Written and spoken word, also an important aspect of the programme, is promoted through the Hyde Poetry initiative which is now well established and the Hyde900 Writers strand was recently revived.
Following a successful bid for Heritage Lottery funding an extended programme of lectures, guided walks, information pamphlets, music concerts and the provision of space for the visual arts alongside some bursary availability have all been made possible. For further information visit Hyde99
Main Speaker: Mitchell Symons
Mitchell Symons was born in London and educated at Mill Hill School from where he went on to study jurisprudence at the LSE. However, this chosen degree pathway did not enthuse him in the way that he might have hoped and he started to work for the BBC as a researcher and subsequently a director. He also worked as a broadcaster and journalist and currently writes an award-winning column for the Sunday Express. He was the principal writer for early editions of the once iconic board game, Trivial Pursuits. Following his involvement in concept development, Mitchell went on to devise many television game show formats based on general knowledge.
Mitchell’s presentation was preceded by the cautionary note that his talk might become a little ‘potty-mouthed’ and that ‘Chatham House rules apply’ – which this report must ignore! Mitchell Symons proved to be a fast-paced, eclectic and tangential speaker who shared a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes without pause. The warning of ripe language was issued with good reason but Mitchell explained that writers are notorious for their invective and over his years of moving in publishing circles he has become somewhat inured to imprecation. By his own volition, he has been ‘helping the nation to poo since 1974’ and this, not for the last time, drew laughter from listeners.
Mitchell Symons is a prolific writer of primarily non-fiction material that includes quiz-question setting, oddly interesting facts and ‘how-to’ rules. For example, he wrote the trivia for the pilot series of the TV programme Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but turned down an invitation to become involved with the televised show. He has also published a book of pithy poems, a couple of which he recited to draw his talk to a close.
Mitchell was intrigued by his audience, claiming he did ‘not understand the purpose of writing societies’ and explained that the idea of writing for no monetary gain appalled him. After a long and financially prosperous career providing his reading public with titles such as Why Eating Bogeys Is Good For You and Why Do Farts Smell Like Rotten Eggs? Mitchell’s nemesis came in the form of free-to-view internet sites like Wikipedia where content that would have been grist to his creative mill became readily available and free of charge.
Mick Jackson, award winning novelist and screenwriter, who spoke on the evening about Finding Inspiration kindly adjudicated the October competition – write a story inspired by an unusual object. 300 words. He had his work cut out with a 25% more entries than usual.
Mick’s adjudication was as follows:
Joint 1st Place: Peter Hitchen – My Incredible Word Mining Machine
Joint 1st Place: Georgina Lippiett – The Japanese Puzzle Box
3rd Place: Barbara Needham – Measurement Technology
Highly Commended: Margaret Jennings – Clinker
Highly Commended: Maddy Dorobantu -The Carcass
Joint 1st Place: Peter Hitchen – My Incredible Word Mining Machine
Mick Jackson:‘Inventive and arresting – an original idea delivered with great wit.’
I invented a machine that can extract the words that get trapped in walls or under the surfaces of tabletops and windowsills.
You see, when people speak their voices hit things, but instead of rebounding they’re absorbed, trapped forever like layers of sedimental rock.
No amount of drilling can extract them.
Scraping is useless.
Yet the words prevail with half lives infinitely greater than that of plutonium.
Fossilised sound, irrecoverably locked away
You’ve got a machine like mine, to reconstitute the trapped sound and turn it back into intelligible words.
I tried it out for the first time this morning while everyone was out.
Hooked it up in the bedroom, put the mic next to the wall and turned the machine on.
It worked perfectly.
Turns out, the walls of my house are storyboards and play scripts for psycho thrillers and porn shoots.
By the afternoon, I’d smashed my word mining machine.
Joint 1st place: Georgina Lippiett – The Japanese Puzzle Box
Mick Jackson:‘A puzzle in itself, all the better for remaining unsolved at the story’s conclusion.’
Once he’d gone out I would slip in to the hush of his study, drawn to the box as if by a siren. My jittery hands would be calmed by tracing tiny ﬁngers over the patterns, feeling the edges and changes of surface, cool and smooth. Could this really have come from something so enormous, so vital, as a tree?
Like starlight in a jam jar.
I would lie on the ﬂoor and place the box next to me in the afternoon puddles of sun. Mesmerised by the ﬁngertip-polished colours of autumn captured in its surface, willing the answer to shine out. I remember thinking I could just stop. Be satisﬁed with the promise of an answer without pushing for any more, without committing any more, without risking any more.
But inevitably I found myself stroking each of its six sides, searching for breaches in its armour. Despite the slight shift in the surface, the whisper of hope, the spike of excitement, the box always held ﬁrm. Clutching at his own words for justiﬁcation (‘failing to try, is trying to fail’), I would shake the box, pushing its edges, corners, fractures. Heart racing, time running out, my temper snapping with my ﬁngernails . . . stopped only by the sound of the front door, the signal to retreat. Defeated for a few months I would wait, patiently, until the mystery weaved its magic and curiosity claimed me once more.
* I stand in his study for the ﬁrst time in years. The box is now tiny but its secret still has power. Holding the box to the light, I feel the old pull of longing. The certainty that to understand the puzzle of this box would be to understand him. I shall not fail to try.
3rd Place: Barbara Needham – Measurement Technology
Mick Jackson:‘chosen for its confident navigation towards the final revelation and the weighty object at its heart.’
In his bedroom Alfred deposits three items on a battered chest of drawers: an official letter, a notebook and a large, retractable tape measure. This last item has a special significance for him. It has a heavy embossed leather casing, worn with use, a brass button to release the tape back into its holder and the initials A.P. engraved on it.
Alfred stows his suitcase neatly under the bed. He is a man who appreciates order.
He eats his evening meal alone as he does not want to socialise at the bar. They might ask him why he has come to Germany and he contemplates their distaste if he tells them. Lying does not come easily to Alfred and he lacks the imagination to develop a convincing cover-story. Still, if they think he is a taciturn Yorkshire man abroad on government business, that is not wide of the mark.
Head against the iron bedstead, Alfred contemplates the coming day. He picks up the letter and reads it over again with quiet satisfaction. He has been specially chosen and he is confident that he will discharge his duties with total efficiency.
Alfred was appalled at the incompetence of his predecessor. The man was a complete bungler who could not have applied any scientific principles to the job. Nuremberg was a shambles.
Alfred appraises the tape measure and cradles it in his stubby hands. He caresses the leather. It is an old friend, a tool of his trade. Height, weight, physical condition, that’s what you must assess, then the length of the rope, the type of trapdoor and the drop.
Satisfied, Alfred Pierrepoint, hangman of England and instrument of retribution, settles down and sleeps soundly.
Josef Kramer, The Beast of Belsen spends his last night on earth.
Highly Commended: Margaret Jennings – Clinker
Mick Jackson: ‘Chosen for its drama. Displayed great potential – and made me want to see what the writers would do next.’
His breath smells like the wine Grandpa used to drink.
The smell transports her to a swing in a garden on a sunny day; mushrooms growing in the grass, the smell of cooking wafting, the happy banter of the grown-ups coming like music from the house. The sky is a blue cocoon and she is a tiny chrysalis safe in its care.
The man shouts, pushes her shoulder. She holds the clinker tighter. The pain of it digs into her hand, distracts her from the fear.
What is going to happen? So many things have happened. Now she is centre stage.
Grandma said she was an actress. I do not need to have the flounce and flare of an actress now, he likes wine I have no wine I should sing I am shaking too badly, I, I, I, smaller and smaller and smaller her soul quavers and searches and cannot find and the sky is glowering the world shrinking filled with shouting and where is Grandma snap where is Grandpa and where is Mummy snap and where is Daddy snap and when I am going to be away from this man and will the dreadful things…
The child clutches the clinker fiercely. Blood.
The gun has clicked bulletless three times. The man throws the gun, laughs, marches off.
A hand drags her away.
‘You are bleeding child, what have you done to yourself?’ The woman opens her hand, reveals the clinker.
‘See, what did I tell you, that clinker from the chimneys is your grandma and your grandpa come to make you safe, you are safe now, breathe child.’
Later another woman asks, ‘Why do you lie to her?’
‘Because when truth shall not keep her safe, we shall give her lies. It is all we can do.’
Highly Commended: Maddy Dorobantu -The Carcass
Mick Jackson:‘Chosen for the raw energy. Displayed great potential – and made me want to see what the writer would do next.’
The flames burn reds and oranges and blue. The air fills with the heavy smoke, coming from the burned tyre. Generations of motorcycles before it sense the intense heat. The smoke sits on the tip of the tongues of the passerby, in the eyes of the rushed firefighters , on the drew of the early morning grass. Blacked grass, just a puddle left to see, and the empty skeleton of a yesterday bike, the noise of the revved engine still lingering in the air. You see heat , you smell the orange of the fire, lying on its side in the grass like a fallen empire.
The boy looks vaguely at the empty carcass, yet to be collected in a van by the council. The park is dark, only the light of a full moon hanging overhead. He hears the sudden rush of a lonely cricket through the darken grass. The wind blows through the hollowness of carcass, the emptiness of his heart and his breath catches the silent smell of the man in the leather jacket. The man is close now and looks rapidly around him, taking in the panoramic view of the park, judging the exits and measuring every step.
The saviour is close, his steps clear in the stillness of the park. The boy trembles and his hand reaches the man’s just in time.
A firm handshake, a stern look. The man lights a cigarette.
‘You did well, mate! You can now be part of the GANG! ‘
The man hands him the package and disappears in the shadow of the trees.
The lonely, burnt bike tells the tale of his initiation. He is now a man, a brother. As the wind staggers through the empty shell, he dreams of becoming the man in the leather jacket one day.
With Barbara Long temporarily indisposed, Adrienne Dines kindly welcomed members and guests alike before hosting The Society’s Annual General Meeting. Adrienne presented for consideration the General and Financial Reports for the period 2016/17. A brief synopsis of the proceedings can be found at the end of this article.
Special Guest: Jon Walcott
Established in 2008, Little Toller Press is a small, independent publisher based in Dorset whose industry footprint has steadily grown despite its non-London centric ethos. Perceiving a market gap is often the catalyst for fledgling business ventures and it was the dearth of a specialist Nature Writing publisher that formed the germ of Little Toller’s creative profile, a profile that has become to be admired both within and beyond the publishing industry.
The success of any business start-up is rarely a foregone conclusion and this is even less so for those embarking on enterprises reliant on creative industry. This last, allied to the fact that the publishing world in 2008 faced what amounted to ‘the perfect storm’, should have ensured that Little Toller’s existence was short lived. Happily, this was not to be the case. A carefully constructed and meticulously produced early list, that saw lost nature classics re-born, safeguarded the company’s early life. ‘Classic texts of rural writing and illustration brought back into beautiful existence’ (Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian) is but one example of the early impression the press created. This, coupled with a resurgent interest in nature writing and a reading publics’ appetite ever more whetted for well-written words on the culture of ecology, began to establish Little Toller as a niche but significant player.
The next major step for the house came with a decision to look beyond established classics and divine new writing talent but again, the aim was to stay few in number and high in quality. Excellence, in terms of content and product, remains Little Toller’s prerequisite. Following on from John Burnside’s Havergey, Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow and Fiona Sampson’s Limestone Country comes the soon-to-be-released and much anticipated Beyond the Fell Wall by Richard Skelton. The growth of the new writers list has seen the house liaise with trusted literary agents cognisant of Little Toller’s culture with the aim to further augment a nascent stable of contemporary writing talent.
Jon’s commitment to providing readers with exquisite volumes that are a delight to own still underpins the aim of the press. Little Toller is one of the few publishing houses offering discerning readers the chance to acquire books to be treasured and passed on. If second-hand bookshops still exist in 100 years time, a browser finding a Little Toller First Edition, will no doubt consider themselves very lucky indeed.
Main Speaker: Mick Jackson
The theme of Mick Jackson’s key-note talk was ‘Finding Inspiration’. Members were treated to a thorough and detailed insight into how Mick finds inspiration for his writing from what, on first appearances, might be considered obscure and unpromising items. One of Mick’s slides showed the interior of his office, a space crammed with stacks of books, magazines, posters and personally precious things of curious interest. By his own admission, Mick is a hoarder, collecting the ephemera of his daily life in the hope that one day some of these things might provide the inspiration for his next piece of work.
Mick, working in light of Adrian Mitchell’s declaration, ‘I like stuff’ takes this modus a long way and we were treated to a glimpse of Mick’s scrapbook, a leather-bound ledger of Dickensian proportion, crammed full of things that have appealed to his sense of humour and curiosity. Working on Tom Waites’ premise of ‘putting interesting things in the same room and waiting until they have children’ is a writing philosophy that has worked well for Mick who believes that ideas beget ideas. Having a sense of physical place to establish a story’s concept goes hand in hand with a love of physical objects and this was perhaps best highlighted while Mick was a member of the UEA’s creative writing graduate programme. He accepted an invitation to explore the grounds of the English aristocrat, the Duke of Portland’s country house. It was a fascination with the labyrinth of tunnels that the eccentric Duke had excavated and how this endeavour connected to the Duke’s need to withdraw from sight, that inspired Mick’s triumphant debut novel The Underground Man, Faber and Faber, 2007.
An example of Mick’s prescience for the direction that some aspects of contemporary writing were to take was his recognition that ‘everything already exists’; that it is the writers who have the ability to find the interesting angle or the new approach who will produce new and original content. It’s all about ‘finding what’s already there and showing it to people anew’. Mick drew on the Michelangelo analogy that suggests the Boy David already resided in the block of marble.
Mick seeks to ask ‘what if?’ as a way of subverting preconceptions. In doing so he hopes to find a way to show the world differently, in much the same way as the great American post-Beat Generation writer, Richard Brautigan sought to make the ordinary extraordinary.
This was perhaps one of those keynotes that might have been best enjoyed first-hand, packed as it was with pithy advice and practical suggestions for writers seeking to find their next idea. If you weren’t there, Mick concluded his talk with the caution that inspiration won’t come to find the writer, it has to happen the other way round.
The Annual General Meeting
Adrienne Dines conducted the AGM’s (20016-17) proceedings, with written reports being made available for scrutiny. Presenting a thorough resume of The Society’s position, the report showed progress to be developing in accordance with the committee’s expectations. Membership numbers continue to increase year on year which in turn promotes The Society’s positive financial position. Whilst the need to recruit more members was acknowledged, the current status ensured that all financial commitments for the period of the report had been met with no existing debt burden cited. Appropriate steerage is being informed by the analysis of the results of the recent survey which also evidenced members’ satisfaction that the society has hosted a pleasantly wide variety of events and guest speakers. The proportionate distribution between expertise from both the creative and the business sides of the publishing industry was shown as being appropriate.
The Annual Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of The Society’s position by Sally Russell and seconded by Joan McGavin was accepted. The Annual Financial Report, proposed as an accurate reflection of the Society’s position by Peter Hitchen and seconded by Damon Wakes was accepted.
The 2017-18 season was opened by wonderful violinist Adrian Adlam who provided his own hugely enjoyable musical adaptation of Munro Leaf’s story of Ferdinand the Bull. Adrian interacted with the audience as he played the violin and narrated the story, with a Spanish accent for added effect.
Following this literary musical ensemble the audience heard from Chairman Alan Stephens or Read Easy, Winchester – a non-profit organisation that recruits, trains and supports volunteers to give one-to-one tuition to adults who struggle with reading.
The audience heard how the difference Read Easy makes is genuinely ‘life-changing’; it’s a phrase that their new readers use over and over again. One such new reader was Steve who bravely stood before the audience and explained his experience, bringing many close to tears.
‘Six months ago I would never have done the things I’ve do now, like joining the library, reading newspapers, going on public transport and going to coffee shops and the supermarket. They seem such simple things but I stayed home before. I would start reading but I’d get to the end of the page and didn’t understand so I put it down.
He continued, ‘I used to stutter but now I can pronounce even pronounce long words clearly. I’ve slowed myself down, just like when I’m reading I’ve slowed myself down. I’m thinking about what I want to say.’
If you think you would be interested in volunteering as a reading coach or know someone who may benefit from the Read Easy programme, please visit the Read Easy website
This month’s main speaker presentation was delivered in an informal interview style with biographer John Miller. Opening the conversation, a bemused John Miller advised the September meeting of the Hampshire Writers’ Society that Slaughterford, the setting of The Hiding Places, Katherine Webb’s newest novel, is an actual place,. It is an idyllic village in Wiltshire where the Sunday Times bestselling author now lives.
The story of The Hiding Places unfolds just after the First World War and as Katherine points out, all her books take place at a time shortly following a cataclysmic historic event; the fall-out provides much useful material. She recognises though, the period that she has chosen is not so far back and survivors still live but far enough to be out of her own time-line. It is the richness of the research, that ensures authenticity. None is more plentiful than the first world war. Still, there are areas such as Post Traumatic Syndrome where an historic lack of knowledge is evident. ‘It is amazing that any soldiers came back of sound body and mind.’ She says.
The other strikingly different area was that of class distinction. In the 1920s, the gaps were major, something that Katherine was keen to explore.
‘What is your typical writing day like?’ John Miller asks.
‘Disciplined,’ she replies. Katherine sits down to write at 9:00 a.m. and will not get up again until she has written 2,000 words. ‘This,’ she says, ‘could take a couple of hours; it could take until 5:00 p.m.’ A novel a year seems to have become her comfortable rate of productivity, lucky as this is what is required contractually from her publisher. She doesn’t re-write her manuscript many times as ‘there will always be notes,’ from her editor. Before she starts writing she will have indulged in a long period of research and thought processes, although she doesn’t meticulously plan her novel.
Katherine confesses to having spent a long time writing submissions to agents ‘…because that’s the way it’s done,’ she says. She followed guidelines and did things ‘by-the-book’ in order to get her first novel published and she collected lots of rejection letters. But it was through the website YouWriteOn.com that Orion found her. From there it was the agents who were contacting her, rather than the other way around. But, as she has no head for business, an agent is an invaluable help.
In response to a question from an audience member who is having difficulty perfecting the dialogue, Katherine responds: ‘Dialogue must always move the plot along. Read it aloud, if it sounds like it’s been written, then it’s probably not right. take another look at it.’ Another piece of advice is to par-it-down.
For a decade, she wrote in isolation; only after that did she join a writers’ group and this is something of a regret, saying that she should have joined the group a long time ago.
Her advice to new writers is to ‘Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft. Just write it. ‘You won’t know what the novel will look like until you’ve written it.’
A perfect fit to be our September adjudicator was Anne Gibson, literary therapist to residential homes for the elderly. Our first competition in the 2017/18 season was to ‘Write about an elderly person performing one item from their bucket list’.
“I’d like to say what an enjoyable experience judging these entries has been, all of them varied and entertaining, and on a subject close to my heart as I regularly spend time as a volunteer visiting two care homes, and I am involved with the Alzheimer’s Society.
“What was I looking for? First and foremost, the entries needed to fulfil the brief. A few of them, though very good, did not in my humble opinion really do this. So I would urge all entrants to this sort of competition to first READ THE BRIEF!
“After that, it was about authenticity, inventiveness, and a good command of language. And a little twist at the end of the tale is the icing on the cake. It is SO nice when a word or a phrase makes you sit up and think “YESSS”! And even within such short entries there were moments when that happened. Lovely also to be made to laugh out loud, which did happen for me with several of the entries. With so few words allowed, it’s also very clever if the writer can make the title count.
“Picking out the 5 entries below was one thing, but much harder was having to place those 5 in ascending order.”
1st Place: Rosie Sutcliffe – A Drop in the Ocean
2nd Place: Rosie Travers – Taking the Plunge
3rd Place: Gill Hollands – To Fly
Highly Commended: John Quinn – That Wasn’t on the Bucket List!
Highly Commeded: Louise Morrish – The End
1st Place: A Drop in the Ocean by Rosie Sutcliffe
Anne Gibson: A vivid bit of writing, told in the first person. Without taking the reader away from a sense of really being “present” at the scene, the writer packed a surprising amount of heft into this short passage. No twist, no laughs, but very well imagined.
People have told me that at my age I should slow down, relax, enjoy an easy retirement, tend my garden and watch the world go by.
To these people I say, “I’m an octogenarian, I don’t have much time left on this earth, so I need to speed up not slow down and squeeze as much excitement out of each moment as possible.”
That is how I came to be off the coast of Mafia Island, Tanzania, in a RIB, rigid inflatable boat that means apparently. The RIB was hitting the choppy waves in a series of short, violent spanks that reverberated through my aged frame, causing me to wonder if I had indeed over-reached my capabilities this time.
I was making unsuccessful attempts to focus on the horizon when the skipper shouted and pointed ahead, slowing the boat to gently undulate towards a huge shadow beneath the waves.
The creature was massive, moving with a quiet grace and elegance alongside us now as I fumbled with snorkel, mask and fins and unceremoniously plopped into the water.
I was too exhilarated to feel fear, too awestruck to do anything other than take in the sheer magnificence of this beautiful creature. Zebra stripes decorated with leopard spots and sleek, sinuous lines, gliding past me with slow, powerful precision. The whale shark, largest fish in our oceans. Great gaping maw in broad head, with followers of fishes trailing in its wake, immensely strong, yet gentle and unthreatening, I, felt humbled and ashamed to be human.
It was just a few minutes before with slow, graceful swipes of it’s massive tail the creature powered away into the murk, leaving me small and insignificant, full of wonder.
At eighty my bucket list grows longer the more I tick off.
2nd Place: Taking the Plunge by Rosie Travers
Anne Gibson:I liked this very much. Told with a light touch and promising to be a conventional treatment of the brief in a conventional setting, but the last few lines revealed both a tragedy that had haunted the main character for most of her life, and a squaring up to this tragedy. I found it moving, tender but leavened with a touches of dry humour.
Grace hadn’t even heard of a bucket list until Bill had shown them his brother’s photographs.
‘Bunging jumping in New Zealand,’ he said. ‘What do you think? Something to cross off the list, eh?’
Grace wasn’t sure what to think at all.
‘What’s the one thing you’ve always wanted to do?’ Bill said, as he shuffled around the community lounge of Sunflower House, proudly regaling his brother’s exploits to anyone wide-awake enough to listen. ‘Nobody should die having regrets about things they haven’t done.’
Grace didn’t want to think about dying, but she had plenty of regrets, although missing out on the opportunity to dangle mid-air at the end of a long rope was not one of them.
Molly Atkins wanted to go to Disneyland, but she’d never get the medical insurance; Bob Davis wanted to ride a Harley Davidson, difficult with only one leg.
‘Gracie? What about you?’
Silence. She wasn’t going to tell them the one thing she regretted not doing the most. Like the others, she’d left it too late.
But that was the whole point of a bucket list wasn’t it? To reach the Pearly Gates and look St Peter in the eye and declare je regrette rien. It wasn’t too late. When she was re-united with Steven, when she could pinch his chubby cheeks, ruffle his halo of blonde hair, and admire his ethereal wings, she could tell him that if it ever happened again, that awful day on the beach, this time she could save him.
Taking the plunge, at her age. They’d call her daft. She didn’t even have a costume.
‘So Gracie,’ said Annie, her carer, ‘you want to go shopping?’
‘Yes please,’ Grace replied. ‘And then can we go to the leisure centre? I want to book a swimming lesson.’
3rd Place: To Fly by Gill Hollands
Anne Gibson: This totally fulfilled the brief. I liked the sense of affinity between the elderly woman and the young man, and the grandmother’s exhilaration was beautifully conveyed. There was some very nice writing in this short passage. “My face pleated, flapping in the wind like my suit” was particularly nice.
Birdsong swirled in the thin air above the canopy. I caught silver glints through the misty cloud far below.
‘Oh!’ A hand caught my arm, making me jump. Gazing down from the rickety platform, I was closer to God than I’d ever been in 86 years.
‘You sure about this Nan? You can change your mind, you know.’ My grandson’s puppy dog eyes looked bigger than ever. He couldn’t feel my thundering euphoria.
‘I’ve wanted this all my life! It’s what I came all this way for.’ I grinned, mopping my forehead with a soggy tissue. ‘We’ve practised, haven’t we? Easy peasy!’
‘Well, if you’re sure…’ Sighing, he helped my stiff old legs into the suit, fastening the zips. ‘Wish I’d never told you my hobby.’
‘I’m glad you did. We have an affinity, you and I.’ I caught sight of an eagle circling below. ‘Look!’
‘Ready?’ He nodded, grinning, a flush of excitement on his cheekbones. ‘Let’s chase him!’
I stared over the edge, heart thumping, my legs suddenly quaking. I clamped my teeth together, pulling down the goggles.
Ben tipped us over the edge with a whoop. My heart stopped. I plummeted, breathless. My face pleated, flapping in the wind, like the suit. I recalled the wind chamber. Keep straight, spread out, relax. I dug deep.
The eagle’s cry rang above the roar of the wind. It was just below us, soaring effortless. As we began to glide, it came alongside, curious. I looked into its golden eyes, connected in my soul.
As the world spun and grew around us, my eagle followed until the parachutes snapped open, wrenching us upward. Then, we were thistledown, floating among spectacular views.
Bumping to land, the parachute shrouded me. Lying in the long grass laughing, I cried.
Highly Commended: That Wasn’t on the Bucket List! By John Quinn
Anne Gibson: An elderly widow fulfils a bucket list wish by going on a luxury cruise and in the process finds herself fulfilling a wish she never knew she had. This had a subtle twist, and was both tender and original.
Julie half-woke in her ‘deluxe balcony cabin with shared butler’ on the Queen Mary 2 and, in that lovely, unsettling space somewhere between sleep and consciousness, couldn’t quite recall the events that had brought her there.
Yes, she was sure she was on the liner, crossing the Atlantic, three days out of Southampton. And yes, she had booked the cruise to New York, finally fulfilling a promise she had made to herself as a teenager, oh-so long ago.
It was tragic that it took the death of husband Alan to make it happen: he ‘wouldn’t be seen dead’ on a luxury liner full of ‘know-it-alls in their long frocks.’
She remembered the council’s pay-out for ‘death in service’ being very generous. And then feeling desperate that it took such an event to achieve her longed for, suppressed ambition: a life free from a man who had grown both boring and boorish.
She recalled the excitement of her adventure being replaced by the feeling of isolation once on board. How, in the restaurant, each beautifully presented dish was accompanied by intimidation from waiters and couples on her top table. How the only people who bothered to speak to her – no one made the effort to listen – were those showing-off their success or worldliness.
And last night, when she’d been brave enough to have a post-dinner cocktail alone in the bar, that nice lady, a divorcee wasn’t she, starting a conversation. Helen, that’s her name, also alone on the voyage.
Now, with the sun squinting around the blinds, more memories returned: God, how many different cocktails did we try; the barman politely asking us to quieten down so passengers could hear the quiz!
Julie didn’t jump when she felt Helen’s gentle touch on her shoulder or heard ‘Wake up, sleepy head.’
Highly Commended: The End by Louise Morrish
Anne Gibson:Humorous, original and very nicely told. I loved the sentence “The story of her long life was written on her body.” It genuinely made me laugh out loud at The End with a twist that was both funny, thought-provoking, tender and ultimately a little melancholy. To tick all those boxes is clever writing.
‘You’ll probably bruise,’ the young man said, his gently worried expression at odds with the vicious looking studs and spikes that pierced his face.
‘I’m a tough old boot,’ Maud replied. Besides, she thought, who would see her bruised behind? Only the undertaker, when the time came.
‘What made you want a tattoo now?’ the man asked, snapping on latex gloves.
‘Why not?’ Maud smiled. The story of her long life was written on her body, in all the wrinkles, grey hairs and stiff joints. The two short words she wanted inked on her buttocks were a last laugh.
‘Tattoos are on lots of people’s bucket lists,’ the man said, opening a packet of enormous needles. ‘You’re sure about this?’
Maud nodded. ‘Is mine the strangest request you’ve had?’
‘I’ve been asked to ink things you wouldn’t believe,’ the man muttered.
Oh, I think I would, Maud thought, as the man helped her lie down on the table. She had experienced more in her ninety-nine years than this boy would ever know.
True, she had never learned to swim, or ride a bike, or drive a car. But that hadn’t stopped her from living life to the full.
She felt the cold press of an antiseptic wipe on one cheek. ‘Now this might hurt…’ the man said, as the needle whirred.
Maud’s eyes closed at the first stab of pain. Her mind opened, memories tumbling free.
She had survived the Spanish flu epidemic, pneumonia and breast cancer; given birth to twin boys, in an air raid shelter, in the middle of a war; travelled the world, by plane, train, ship, even once by hot air balloon.
She had seen governments rise and fall; witnessed people make the same mistakes, over and again.
Now the story of her life was drawing to a close.
She was so tired.
Soon it would be time to close the book and sleep.
You’d be forgiven for comparing the early life of prize-winning author and Guardian columnist, Erwin James, to that of Dickens’ Oliver, but there was nothing to sing about. Or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; there was definitely no romance. Found guilty of stealing sweets at just ten, he became a victim of a neglectful, remorseless society and was thrown in a children’s home
The reality of the fictional world that we writers choose to live in never ceases to amaze us; the truth behind the life of spies, the ferocity of competition between athletes, the harshness of war and the brutality of children’s homes in 1960’s Yorkshire where Erwin James lived. Despite the inadequacy of the carers, James’ life of petty crime was overturned by small kindnesses..
James had only a basic education. At that time educational investigations had proven that 74 % of adult male prisoners had a reading age of less than that of an eight year old child. For Erwin James, being a writer was far from his own expectations.
Sessions with the Prison Psychiatrist persuaded him to enlist in part time education. He completed a degree in History Degree, along with an interest in writing Fifteen years into his life sentence, rehabilitation gave him the opportunity to write for The Guardian..
‘I am a writer.’ he told the Prison Governor, Monster Mansion, HM Prison Wakefield.
‘Better get another hobby!’ was the reply.
So, where do you go from there? Returning to his cell after that short but damning conversation, he stared despondently at the wall.
‘Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent …..’ Part of a speech made my Calvin Coolidge, the thirty- third President of the United States. James had copied these lines though ‘I had to look up “omnipotent” though,’ he admits.
He escalated his cause, petitioned the Home Secretary and eventually was allowed to accept the offer from The Guardian. His deadlines, perhaps didn’t pose the same restraints that they do for many columnists, nor the motivation or inspiration. ‘ Life is what happens on the outside; surely?’
‘…we just aren’t sure how rehabilitated the prison service wants the prisoners to be…’ the Governor commented.
For four years, James wrote and submitted his weekly column.
‘You know you’re a writer when you want your readers to see and feel what it is that you see, ’he said.
Instrumental in the setting up of reading/writing groups within the prison, James made the decision to be what he is, a writer. His psychiatrist believed that he could be a writer.
‘I never expected to ‘live’ again.’ he said, ‘Thank you for this opportunity.’
‘You don’t need to know someone in the industry, in order to get published,’ award- winning author, Claire Fuller is keen to tell writers.
Claire is not at all bashful about having begun her writing career, aged 40, or how her first book, Our Endless Numbered Days was chosen from the ‘slush pile’ or that she was 48 before she was published.
She recalls that she was sitting in the back seat of a small car surrounded by cheese and bulging bin bags of wedding feast dregs, when she took the call from her agent with the news that Penguin had won the publishers’ auction for Our Endless Numbered Days . This debut novel was published in the UK and was sold to a further twelve countries. It was awarded the Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction 2015 and long-listed for the Dublin Literary Award.
Claire directed a marketing company for a number of years though she had gained a degree in sculpture from the Winchester School of Art. While she was developing a succession of projects, she realised that she needed to extend her knowledge. She chose creative writing.
Although she had not written fiction since leaving school, aged 16, she submitted a short story into the Hampshire Cultural Trust Short Story Slam. Eighteen months later her submission won a competition and she was rewarded with the princely sum of £9.50! ‘Entering competitions is an excellent way to become recognised as an emerging writer’.
Fascinated by the story of Robin Van Helsum, a Dutch boy, who claimed to have lived in a German forest for five years, she wrote scenes of a young girl living in a forest, which she incorporated into her dissertation for her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester.
Claire readily admits to being someone who needs guidance and discipline. During the academic year’s summer break, she feared that her motivation would lapse. She loves the freedom writing brings to indulge in description and launched into a self- imposed project, turning the forest scenes into a book. She took part in live research and ‘watched an awful lot of Ray Mears programmes.’
She submitted a synopsis of 140 characters to #PitMad. The ‘likes’ that she received from agents motivated her further and she finished and revised the book. To find an agent, she submitted to a variety of agents and received the usual rejection letters.
However she did receive an invitation to tea in London from an agent.
‘We sat outdoors at a long table. She bought me the smallest cake in London,’ Claire recalls. But she was so friendly, supportive and genuinely interested in my novel. ‘I knew that she was the agent for me.’
A certain amount of luck is involved in finding the right agent. It is important to work with them, Claire advised. Although it is part of the publisher’s contractual agreement to market writers’ books, they like it when you support them.
Claire observed that when you live with your story for so long, you often don’t recognise overlong narrative scenes. Her editor has asked her to alter the placement of her scenes to improve the pace or to change of words, but they have never asked her to change her story line or her ideas.
Claire enjoys the editing process even more than the writing of the first draft. She is a member of a critiquing group, which she has found invaluable.
Because her publisher has only offered her a one book deal, she has prepared the first draft of her next book while she was waiting for her first book to be printed, in her case, a period of eighteen months.
Swimming Lessons, her second book, was published by Fig Tree/Penguin in hardback and ebook in January 2017, published by Tin House, US, in February 2017, by House of Anansi, Canada and Piper in Germany in March 2017.
Swimming Lessons has received many favourable reviews including The Guardian, who reported that ‘ Swimming Lessons reveals a writer that has all the observational touches that show Fuller to be a serious novelist with an acute awareness of the nuances and patterns of human speech and behaviour.’
Meanwhile Claire she is working on Book 3. Then her submission process begins anew.
It was a pleasure to welcome back Adrienne Dines, author and Creative Writing Tutor as our adjudicator for June. Our last competition in the 2016/17 season was to ‘Write a scene in a rose garden’. As always, Adrienne was willing to share her wisdom as a writer and as a tutor. Her accompanying comments offer HWS members valuable tips.
Adrienne was also kind enough to comment on all of this month’s entries. I will forward these individually via email shortly.
1st Place: Louise Morrish – Sub Rosa
2nd Place: Rosie Travers – A Beheading
3rd Place: John Quinn – Another Day on the Front Line
Highly Commended: Wendy Fitzgerald – The Rose Garden
Highly Commended: Claire Gaudry – Memories of the Roses
Commended: David Lea – The Colour of Blood
1st Place: Sub Rosa by Louise Morrish
Adrienne Dines:Beautifully paced. Good use of Rose names. The hints are carefully laid so there is plenty of space for the reader. Uses the setting skilfully.
‘I never knew this was here,’ Charlotte said, as James led her through a doorway in the stone wall. Winding paths stretched away, meandering between beds of roses and through arbours covered in blossom.
‘The locals call this place Sub Rosa,’ James told her. ‘It means ‘a secret’. From Roman times.’
How apt, Charlotte thought; Ben had no idea she was here.
The garden was only open to the public for a few weeks each summer, James said. They began to walk, and Charlotte breathed in the scented air; a blend of perfumes. They were alone here, no sounds but their crunching footsteps and the hum of bees.
‘Have you heard of the Language of Flowers?’ James asked.
She hadn’t, and told him so.
‘White roses,’ James began, as they ducked beneath an arch of Rambling Rector. ‘They signify innocence, marriage, new beginnings.’
Charlotte thought of Ben; what would her husband do if he knew she was here? The thought caused a flutter in her belly, like a trapped bird.
‘Red roses,’ James said, as they passed a border labelled: Precious Time. ‘They mean unconditional love.’
Reaching a junction, they paused. ‘We could get lost,’ James half joked. ‘There should be a map, or a signpost…’
There was no map for where she was heading, Charlotte thought. James was Terra Incognita.
They passed a shrub bearing the sign: Nostalgia. ‘White and red roses,’ James said. ‘Unity and togetherness.’
At the end of the path was a bench, partly hidden behind a lemon-gold tea bush; Welcome Home. They sat, the bird in Charlotte’s belly thrashing now.
‘Yellow roses,’ James said. Their knees touched. ‘Shall I tell you what they mean?’
‘Perhaps,’ Charlotte smiled, ‘some things are better left a secret?’
He kissed her then, and she felt the bird soar free.
2nd Place: A Beheading by Rosie Travers
Adrienne Dines:Love this! It’s a very sinister voice and there is great use of deep point of view. The writer refers to the mother’s psycho-geriatrician but doesn’t labour it so we almost miss the clues. Clever play on words (particularly like the link with ‘hips’). This writer is in control.
One swift, brutal cut was immensely satisfying. No wonder Henry the Eighth had enjoyed beheadings so much.
‘You have been looking after the roses for me, haven’t you?’ David had asked on the phone from Singapore. Not how are you, or what have you been up to, not even a polite enquiry into the outcome his mother’s appointment with the psycho-geriatrician. Just concern for his roses.
A vigorous shake of a stem and more fragile blooms fluttered to the floor. It was probably best to take off anything that showed the merest sign of weakness whilst she was here, relishing her role of jolly executioner. In fact, even the tightest bud would only blossom to fade and weep within days. She could save it the effort; put it out of its misery right now.
Gauntlets at the ready, Imelda made a grab for a wayward branch. It was very easy to get carried away.
‘Be careful with the Darcey Bussell,’ David had said before he’d left, ‘she’s a prolific bloomer.’
Two weeks later and the Darcey Bussell was a profusion of blood red rosettes.
‘Deadhead regularly,’ he’d instructed, ‘and the flowers will keep on coming. I don’t want to come home to a garden full of hips.’
Felicity Ramsay had hips, and boobs. Imelda could remember meeting her at the Christmas Party. ‘This is Flick, my new assistant,’ David had said, like an indulgent father. Felicity had a laugh reminiscent of a performing sea-lion. Imelda would have recognised it anywhere. Even over a satellite signal from Singapore.
What was she thinking of? She took a step back, put down her secateurs, removed her gardening gloves and headed back to the shed.
A delicate decapitation was too good for the Darcey Bussell. A chain saw would do a much better job.
3rd Place: Another Day on the Front Line by John Quinn
Adrienne Dines: Lovely controlled piece. Love the humour and the extended war metaphor. Poor hapless Brian. I love that the war is not really with the roses! Why such short paragraphs?
The first of the day’s sunrays slant over Lark Hill and illuminate the world’s neatest war zone: 22 Fleming Drive.
Soon, mug of tea in hand, Brian will march from his back door down to his shed, to finesse the day’s battle plans.
Throughout the week his preparation has been meticulous, purchasing chemicals and scrutinising weather forecasts.
Brian takes a final gulp from his ‘World’s Best Gardener’ mug, a Christmas present years ago from wife Linda, smiles at the loitering robin and prepares to ‘go over the top.’
The untrained eye will observe only a middle-aged man pruning, mulching and spraying, surrounded by glorious pink, yellow and red blooms of the Rosa family.
But any historian, philosopher or journalist will immediately see that Brian is at the raging heart of a battle that has been fought since time immemorial: the war to bend nature to their will.
Undeterred by the ultimate futility of his efforts, Brian works throughout the day until Linda yells from the backdoor ‘Dinner in five. Don’t forget to wash your hands!’
Brian drinks in the strong scent of a climber variety named ‘Handel’. Its cream flowers edged with blush remind him, as always, of when he first met Linda, her English rose complexion challenging the pink of her lips.
He takes out his secateurs and, wielding them with a dexterity and passion unseen elsewhere in his life, cuts the long stem leading to the finest rose to give to his wife.
With Lark Hill now long in shadow, Brian heads indoors, takes off his muddy boots and presents Linda with the perfect, perfumed present.
‘Not in the house Brian! You know, my hay fever…’
The hoped for armistice, even a truce, has not arrived and battle will be resumed on all fronts at 22 Fleming Drive.
HIGHLY COMMENDED The Rose Garden by Wendy Fitzgerald
Adrienne Dines:Sad, lovely complete story about old Jewish man visiting a grave. I like the link with dead rose petals and ash. Good use of setting to frame the story.
A thousand white roses, they’d said; intensely perfumed, they’d promised. And it’s no lie. The scent is heavenly; the vista simply heart-breaking. And he’s kneeling awkwardly on the wet grass, holding a bloom between his fingers; inhaling its aroma.
‘Grandpapa! Why did you go off without me?’ Relief makes my tone sharp. He barely looks up.
‘I told you. This is where I wanted to come.’ He lets the rose go, wiping his hand across his cheek. It’s wet.
‘Come on; get up. The damp will get into your knees,’ I tut.
‘Shush, Anna. Let a man be.’ But he takes my arm and pulls himself to his feet.
‘I tended roses in a garden once you know,’ he murmurs. ‘After the war. He made me sweep up the petals after they’d flowered; didn’t want to see them you see. Said it reminded him of the ash.’
My heart breaks. It’s a long speech for him. PTSD they’d probably call it now; he’s had it for years, made worse with age. Perhaps we shouldn’t have come.
‘But this is what I came for.’
I can see a small bronze plaque under the bush. ‘Lilli Haas. Died Treblinka 1944.
‘But … who’s Lilli?’
‘We were to be married, but they came with trucks and rounded them up; took them away one night, I never knew where.’ His voice cracks; his pain heartfelt. ‘Years later I married your grandmother; we were happy enough. But I never forgot my Lilli. An organisation helped track her down. I couldn’t go to Poland, but I could come here.’
The Holocaust Centre rose garden.
‘I needed her to know,’ he whispers, stooping to kiss the rose he let go. His tears are falling fast now; his eyes closed.
And I know he’s finally with her.
HIGHLY COMMENDED Memories of the Roses by Claire Gaudry
Adrienne Dines:Sad, romantic and some lovely lines (The roses help me remember. They hold me as my mind drifts further, as if they knew the needs of my bleeding heart). BTW, he was not ‘sat’ – he sat or was sitting!!
One hand tightly grasping the wrought iron arm rest and the other gripping my walking stick, I lower myself on my usual garden bench. My old bones crack and complain before giving me a sense of relief. I re-adjust my flat cap to prevent the direct sunlight from hitting my eyes.
I let my gaze roam and the mesmerising effect of the garden traps my mind, I am rapidly immersed in the colours and fragrance of the roses.
The rose bushes are arranged in an intricate circular maze. In a clever use of subtle psychology, the colour schemes guide the eyes effortlessly to solve the maze, flooding the senses in oranges, pinks, reds, purples and whites.
The roses help me remember, they hold me as my mind drifts further, as if they knew the needs of my bleeding heart.
I invariably recall our first walk through this garden. In each other’s blinding presence we were oblivious to the magic of the maze of roses. Yet, we felt their presence and they embraced ours. It was an unspoken agreement of mutual appreciation.
I am sat here, longing for our shared rose garden walks. It had been possible to hold hands here since one of us had dared touch the other as we were choosing our favourite rose from this same bench. Here in our secret sanctuary, we had evolved from a seedling of friendship to a love as deep as the deepest red of the garden roses.
A tender pink rose petal carried softly by the breeze takes me out of my reveries. I watch it fly past. It has come quietly and gone quietly like my darling love.
The roses always bring him back, the one who is no more.
I, the old man with creaky bones visit ‘my’ roses daily to find the strength to breathe through the crippling grief. He, my taboo love, is no more.
COMMENDED The Colour of Blood by David Lea
Adrienne Dines: I love this! The opening paragraph is great (though a few commas wouldn’t go amiss). Don’t indent the first paragraph, by the way. It’s definitely a scene in a rose garden though it might have been any type of garden – it’s the character, rather than the setting that is predominant here.
As photographer for the Saxonford Chronicle, or ‘Chronic’ as we like to call it, I am often called to social events that induce states of boredom, which would qualify as near-death experiences and they require considerable self discipline and copious amounts of alcohol in order to maintain an equilibrium. However, the accession of Ronnie Hardley-Fulsome, scion of the Fulsome family and heir to the Hardley millions was somewhat different in that the principal actor suffered a full-blown, actual death experience. What’s more, it occurred at the precise moment when I pressed the button of my Nikon D500 SLR digital camera and caught the whole scene for posterity.
The entire Hardley-Fulsome family was on the podium in the rose garden and many had travelled across the globe to be present at the occasion. Nevertheless, they hadn’t necessarily come to wish Ronnie well: they had all known Ronnie as Ronald before he transitioned and became Veronica, but the rules of primogeniture require that everything pass into the hands of the eldest male and the inheritance had been hotly contested.
Lady Laetitia Hardley-Fulsome had periods of comparative lucidity, but this was not one of them. The death of Ronnie’s father, Wolfgang, had set her mind adrift. Someone had handed her a dark red rose, which she presented to Ronnie before curtseying to the crowd and falling off the rostrum on top of the under-gardener.
Ronnie raised the bloom rather theatrically to her nose and inhaled deeply. Incidentally, this was a nose that had been broken many years before in a boxing ring at Radclyffe public school and could be best described as ‘wonky’. Her heavy chin quivered for a moment and then she collapsed, her knee length pencil skirt rising up her substantial thighs and her fascinator waving gently above her tumbling curls.
Wholly unforeseen events indisposed scheduled guest, Margaret Graham which forced a last minute alteration to the evening’s programme. Stepping in to save the day, The Society welcomed short story writer extraordinaire, Tracy Baines to share her wisdom on how to write short stories and how to get them published.
Sitting alongside Tracy was Ian Thornton of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment, whose story of bravery and fortitude, allied to an unswerving desire to promote the charitable legacy of his late brother, was a privilege to listen to.
Special Guest: Ian Thornton
Captain Ian Thornton, a commissioned infantry officer with the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment and patron of the charity Words for Wounded is passionately committed to helping his fellow servicemen wounded in the line of duty to live as full and active lives as possible.
Captain Thornton understands all too well the personal cost of military service, having tragically lost his younger brother, John on active service with the Royal Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. After this terrible event, it fell to Ian to organise some of John’s repatriated belongings. Amongst those precious personal items was John’s diary and Ian quickly realised what an important and unique record it comprised. Ian explained that John had already shared some of the diary’s contents and so knew John would not feel that he was being intruded upon. What Ian read seemed at once funny, poignant and superbly well-written. Indeed, it is a testimony to the quality of the writing that John’s diary now resides in the Imperial War Museum but crucially, before it found its way into public display, it provided an inspirational template for the publication of Helmand: Diaries of a Frontline Soldier. Endorsed by ex-Royal Marine and politician, Lord Paddy Ashdown and with a foreword from Simon Weston, the book comprises the diary entries of Ian and John Thornton alongside those of other serving and ex-military personnel. It provides a glimpse into the frontline experiences of those serving in Afghanistan.
The proceeds from the book support both the John Thornton Young Achievers Foundation and the Royal Marines Foundation and to date have enabled youngsters to become involved in a wide variety of activities that they would otherwise not have had the opportunity to experience.
Main Speaker: Tracy Baines
Growing up in North East Lincolnshire, in the estuarine town of Cleethorpes and with the river Humber an ever-present backdrop, a young Tracy Baines sat fascinated at her grandmother’s side listening to recollections of her family’s history. Not least amongst these were the tales of hardship, bravery and adventure of her grandfather’s time serving as a member of the now legendary wartime Baltic Fleet. Tracy promised that her grandmother’s wistful desire that ‘somebody should write these stories down’ held true.
It was this seed, dormant for years, that eventually began to germinate when Tracy visited her public library and found information on a local writers’ group and decided to become a member. Here she was finally able to find the courage to write of her great uncle’s maritime death. Tracy’s mother word processed the handwritten manuscript and duly sent it off to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. To Tracy’s astonishment and delight, the story was accepted. Tracy wasn’t to know it but this was to be the first of very many publications.
Buoyed by her initial success Tracy wrote a second story and pitched it to Woman’s Weekly but as is often the case, writing success doesn’t follow a linear pattern. Tracy’s new story was rejected but the letter included an invitation to submit further work. Being inexperienced she didn’t interpret this to be the very near miss that it was and fell into the common but mistaken assumption that her story was without merit.
Tracy talked a little about what it means to be successful. For her, that means defeating personal demons in the shape of self-doubt and freeing herself to be the best writer she can possibly become. Here, Tracy was keen to point out that we all must learn as she did – that a story’s rejection is not proof that it is no good – but rather it is probably just not a good fit for its chosen recipient. Tracy stressed the importance of judging the market and submitting work accordingly.
Tracy uses realistic goal-setting as a method for maintaining her writing focus. So take down that scrawled note from behind your fridge magnet that reads ‘To Do: Write a 100k word novel. Win the Man Booker Prize’ and swap it for one that is in Tracy’s words ‘an attainable stretch’. For example, her goals might be that she writes a story every week and pitches to 10 magazines; implicit in this is the need to be realistically ambitious. Only after Tracy, with her husband acting as benign task-master, decided that she would cast aside self-limiting doubts was she artistically free to forge her career as a serious short story writer. From then on she finally understood that life as a writer was not just the preserve of a higher species of human but one that was possible for her, too.
Tracy’s inspirational message was that a writer’s life could be had by those prepared to work at their craft, banish self-doubt and persevere when others might give up.
Many thanks to Tracy Baines for stepping in to announce the competition winners last evening.
The list seems endless, but briefly our May adjudicator, Margaret Graham, is a bestselling author (including plays and co-researching a television documentary), editor and feature writer for e-Frost magazine, creative writing mentor and tutor, and joint founder of the charity Words for the Wounded. In her spare time Margaret writes as Milly Adams.
The brief was to write ‘A scene involving a disabled character’ in 300 words. It was a delight to discover that Margaret found the three winning entries to our May competition‘fresh to me, surprising, moving and works of clarity’, with the highly commended running close behind. Margaret mentioned that it was hard to choose the winners but they came through as they shone and resonated for her.
1st Place: Lynn Clements– Not That Colour, Jacko’s Story
2nd Place: Erica Evans – Dinner Date
3rd Place: Rosie Travers – Milestones
Highly Commended: Rosie Sutcliffe – Annie’s Song
Highly Commended: Ant Ridgeway – Reflections
1st Place: Not That Colour, Jacko’s Story by Lynn Clements
Margaret Graham:The writer grabs us by the throat and wham bam, we’re into Jacko’s world. We are in Jacko’s fortress, we witness his disengagement from the tears of his mother, the heart stopping safety he finds in colours, and finally, the security he finds in the colour of the official’s briefcase. It’s grey, so that is all right. He returns to counting the legs of the spider. Yes, he’s safe.
But of course, his autistic life is at a point of change. He isn’t safe – or is he? The official has been called after the incident involving Jacko. In his briefcase are papers that could lead him away from this safe world, into another. Will it be a place of safety, one which understands, which relieves his mother of pain? Or not?
The writer never tells us of Jacko’s actual condition, we find our way through his world using the map the writer has so cleverly devised. It is understated, composed of brevity, clarity, colours, numbers, objectivity and so cleverly emotionless. But though it is without obvious emotion we empathise with him, fear for him and hurt for his mother. Normal world, point of change, full of tension, and increasingly we understand, and want to know: what becomes of him?
Clever and deeply impressive writing. Can it be sustained beyond a short piece, that is the question? Would the writer have to remain in Jacko’s point of view or move to see the situation from those who ultimately take control?
As the pot hit the wall its lid broke. Red paint sploshed over nearby windows and pieces of fruit laid out on a plate. Jacko watched the faces of the adults as they turned towards him. They looked black. He wasn’t sure what they were going to do next, so he just stood and watched.
The next thing he remembered was his mother sitting behind the glass of the fat woman’s room. He wasn’t sure how she’d got in there and he was worried that she wouldn’t get out. He’d tried the door handle before and it didn’t move. He sat on the chair where he was told to sit, which was ok because it was blue. He watched his mother’s mouth open and close and the fat woman’s eyebrows move up and down. His mother stood up quickly and opened the door. Jacko thought she was very clever to know how to do that, when the handle didn’t work.
In the car on the way home the only sound he could hear was crying.
When he got home Jacko took his magnifying glass into the garden. He lay on his front in the long grass of the wild flower patch, which his mother had helped him sow. He looked for arachnids; he wanted to test his theory that he could find three different types of arachnids by the time his mother called him in for food.
He was still searching when a very tall man wearing glasses, with a bushy beard and hair sticking out of his ears came into the garden. His briefcase was grey, so that was ok. He heard the man say he was from The Educational Psychology Department. Jacko rolled onto his back holding a struggling spider. He counted its legs, to be safe.
2nd Place: Dinner Date by Erica Evans
Margaret Graham:A date which very early on raises enough questions for us to understand that there is more to this than meets the eye. It’s as though the camera is on the girl who seems to be the protagonist, and the man sitting opposite. The camera gradually draws away and we see that actually the date is between two others also around the table; two vulnerable people. The protagonist and the man opposite are in fact, carers, or the facilitators of the date. But will this lead to more for the carers?
Delicately written, clever touches – the replacement of the normal knife with one of plastic, the eye contact between the carers. Is it professional or could it be more? Normal world, point of change.
The restaurant has a romantic view, just right for a date. The sparkling nightscape is captivating but inside coy glances are being exchanged instead. Wine arrives. I put a straw into the glass and hold it to lips which fumble for the end, eyes still on their prize. I watch carefully, but discreetly, a skill I am still learning. Be there, but don’t be there. Don’t stare, don’t speak. The lips part, slaked, and smile. Not at me.
I cut the meat. Is it too big, too small? Was I too slow? Darren has already finished cutting his. I surreptitiously replace the silver fork with a plastic one. One that won’t grate on teeth clamped too hard. There is little conversation now, focus and effort mostly placed on eating without choking, without dropping morsels from mouths. A waitress appears and enquires about the food. I look down at the tablecloth, the question is not for me. When I look up Darren winks at me. I don’t respond. I’m here to drive the van, manoeuvre the chair, lift the fork. It’s not my date. It’s not yours either, Darren.
After dessert, Maisie looks at her arm and asks me a question. I can’t understand her and feel shame rise inside. I haven’t worked with her long enough, my ear isn’t yet tuned in to how she speaks. Joe sees my embarrassment and saves me.
‘Maisie said could you put her arm on the table, please.’
His speech is clearer and I comply. Joe reaches across to hold Maisie’s hand. She smiles at him again.
‘Please could you return in half an hour?’ asks Joe.
Darren and I are excused. He goes to smoke, I sip a cola at the bar. It’s not our date. It’s theirs.
3rd Place: Milestones by Rosie Travers
Margaret Graham:I find 2nd person difficult to sustain, and indeed to read for any length of time, but this worked. The piece ached with the loneliness of the mother bringing her small disabled child to a centre for the first time. The disablement is all that she can see. Another mother reaches out a hand, and her words lead to an understanding that of course her daughter is indeed that – a daughter, not just a disabled cypher. One day her daughter will of course care what colour her helmet is. The normal world was at a point of change.
You take a deep breath and push open the door. It is a relief not to have to explain. The receptionist already has Olivia’s paperwork.
‘Come on through,’ she says.
The walls are painted in soft muted colours. You’d imagined something vivid to provide stimulation, bright murals in primary colours. You’d expected to encounter a cacophony of noise but everything here is quiet, subdued.
There are other children in the sensory room. You lay Olivia onto a beanbag beside the bubble tube. Fibre optic patterns spiral across the soft foam floor.
When Olivia was born you counted fingers, toes. Her tiny body was perfect. Her blue eyes flickered open; she saw you, you know she did. She jerked at a sudden sound. She could hear. She mewled like a tiny kitten. She had a voice.
They warned you about the implications. You drew on resources and discovered a gritty determination. Milestones would be reached; it was just a question of adapting the criteria.
‘How old is your little girl?’ one of the other mums asks. Her daughter is wearing a flamingo pink helmet. They’ve already told you Olivia will need one of those when she’s older. The other mum, her name is Kerry, immediately knows what you are thinking. ‘They come in all sorts of colours,’ she says. ‘Just see it as a fashion accessory, like choosing shoes and bags.’
‘Right now, it’s hard to imagine Olivia choosing shoes and bags.’ The words come out all wrong. You don’t mean to sound churlish, ungrateful. Positive thinking is sometimes a lonely journey.
‘Of course she will. She’s a girl, isn’t she?’ Kerry says.
Light reflects like dancing sunbeams from the disco ball on the ceiling. Olivia’s lips curl, revealing one of her gummy smiles. You reach for Kerry’s out-stretched hand.
Highly Commended: Annie’s Song by Rosie Sutcliffe
Margaret Graham:This moved me because of the initial loss of the anticipated life, the unfairness of a bolt from the blue – a stroke, followed by the loss of hope, the disappearance of those who were once friends in the face of such a change, such disability. But then, one of those friends finds the key to bring back hope, and holds out a hand. Music as therapy, but it is friendship that really brings this return of hope, and the remembrance that the stroke patient is actually a person: she is on the point of believing this again. Lovely and warm. Will they win the singing competition? A win that would actually be much more than a mere competition win.
In the grand scheme of things this was not how I’d envisaged my retirement. Within a week of finishing work I’d planned long, challenging walks in National Parks, booked a trip to Italy, joined a reading group, enrolled in a photography class and with some trepidation begun singing in my local choir. Within six months of this I’d been smitten down by a stroke, the right side of my body no longer obeyed my brain, a process I’d never given much thought to previously.
Patting at a sliver of drool with my good hand I slowly resumed the laborious process of spooning vegetable soup into my reluctant mouth. The chunks of vegetable frightened me, the whole swallowing process was a dangerous skill that had taken weeks to relearn.
‘Eat up, Annie,’ one of the carers trilled, ‘you’ve got some visitors this afternoon.’
I couldn’t answer her rotund retreating form as the sounds that emanated from my mouth bore no relation to the words in my head. Visitors were a scarce resource, little huddled groups of my friends sitting, awkwardly fidgeting. I had so little to offer a conversation now. I felt burned by their embarrassment.
Visits dwindled. So what did the carer mean? Was this some unpleasant euphemism for an impending medical procedure?
Fears were allayed when Jenny from choir strode into the residents’ lounge, complete with keyboard and a dozen choir members.
‘We’ve missed you, Annie,’ she explained simply.
The room was soon pulsating with peaks and troughs of well known and loved favourites and it wasn’t until I saw Jenny smiling through tears that I realised I was singing too, proper words, in tune. Music, medium to my brain.
Next month we are performing Annie’s Song in a national competition. I think we might just win.
Highly Commended: Reflections by Ant Ridgeway
Margaret Graham:Again, the loss of the anticipated life, and the reflections it brings. An IED causes life changing injuries, and from the depths of self-pity the patient, a soldier, reflects on his trite remarks to those similarly injured. Remarks that were superficial, and without understanding. Now he understands and feels himself sinking as hope leaves. But then, reflections on the life of his disabled son inspires him to re-assess and aspire to the same quiet courage. It brings him to a point of change. Inspiring and worthy.
Bang… I was able bodied until the land mine exploded taking my legs with it.
I’m lying in my hospital bed feeling very sorry for myself.
What will the future hold for me now? One minute fit and healthy. The next, only half of me.
My career in the Army has been distinguished. I have a medal for bravery but nothing prepared me for this.
I thought I was invincible. Had a reputation for dismantling incendiaries without incident. Fearless Phil they called me.
It doesn’t help remembering some of my contemporaries with worse injuries than mine. Those minus arms, legs, blinded and with horrific facial scars. I remember thinking I wouldn’t let it happen to me. I cringe when I think of the way I spoke to them.
‘Never mind, old chap. You’ll pull through.’ The pity I felt.
I have a disabled son. If Mike were here now he would understand perhaps what I am going through. He’s been disabled since birth and most of his life he’s been in his wheelchair. Can’t do much without help.
So what the hell gives me the right to feel so bloody gloomy?
At least I have known what it was like to be able to walk, be independent. He’s never had that experience. You know what though; he’s the most positive, cheerful person you could ever meet. He’s out and about most days. People love him. He has this amazing ability to make people smile, feel good about themselves. Never feels as if life isn’t worth living.
Thinking about him, puts things into perspective. Right. I’m re-evaluating my situation. Starting with my rehabilitation next week, I’ll do everything I’m asked to do and more.
I’m going to make Mike proud. Together, we’ll show the world just who we are.