2017/18 season opened with a perfect ensemble – musician, reader and writer

Report by Lisa Nightingale and Summer Quigley

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.ipp

‘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.’

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September 2017 Competition Results – Anne Gibson

A perfect fit to be our September adjudicator was Anne Gibson, literary therapist to residential homes for the elderly. author. 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 Quin – That Wasn’t on the Bucket List!

Highly Commeded: Louise Morrish – The End

Our September Winners
Our September Winners

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.

It didn’t take long for the man to finish inking…

THE END.

Erwin James at the Hampshire Writers’ Society Tuesday 13th June

Report by Lisa Nightingale

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.’

Claire Fuller at the Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Lisa Nightingale

‘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.

June 2017 Competition Results – Adrienne Dines

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.

Never forgotten.’

‘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.

Tracy Baines at Hampshire Writers’ Society

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.

 

May 2017 Competition Results – Margaret Graham

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.

A Wizzy Day in London

Written by Jenny at Little Knoll Press

It was a great day in London for Wizzy and his author Anthony Ridgway attending the audio-recording of Wizzy the Animal Whisperer, voiced by David and Sheila Suchet

In the children’s story, written by Anthony and illustrated by Suzan Houching, Wizzy and his friends, Dan, James and Sophie, set out to solve a mystery on their farm holiday and end up having an amazing adventure with the help of Wizzy’s special powers.

Actually  it was Wizzy’s alter ego who went to London with Anthony, this being a manual wheelchair with electric drive fitted to the large wheels – a bit like an electric bicycle. ‘Alter Ego’ Wizzy allows Anthony to sit a bit lower than in ‘old faithful’ Wizzy and this gives enough headroom for both of them to get into a London Cab.

The railway journeys worked wonderfully. There was help on hand at each railway station to place the ramp (this was organised beforehand by Grethe, Anthony’s mum and main carer) and once on the train we found ourselves guardians of the accessible toilet, it being conveniently situated opposite the space allocated for wheelchairs and bicycles! We also had a good view of the passing  countryside…

At Waterloo Station we joined the queue for a cab and with the help of our Cabby manoeuvred Wizzy up the ramp and into the central space of the cab. Wizzy just fitted with a bit of wriggling, and then Grethe and I climbed in and squeezed onto the seats. I must admit, seeing Anthony’s face when Wizzy reached the top of the ramp, I could hear the words he had written in his book –

[Dan] ‘I felt a brief sensation of fear. Was this such a good idea?

[Wizzy] “I will protect you, Dan. Do not worry.”

[Dan] “Nothing gets past you does  it?”

Arriving at the RNIB Talking Books Studios, we found the studio manager, Daryl Chapman, there to greet us, and he guided us down the lift and into the recording suites. David and Sheila Suchet were already in the studio, rehearsing the book script while the sound engineer, Paul Pink, adjusted the sound levels ready for recording.

The ‘large’ recording technician’s booth had just enough room for Anthony (and Wizzy) to get a front stall view and Grethe and I to stand behind Paul. The  recording started and we were spellbound…

We had set David and Sheila a challenge, asking them to conjure up different character voices for each of the eight characters.

Anthony’s writing  is dialogue driven, logical as his hearing is very acute.  This required each character in Wizzy the  Animal Whisperer to have his or her own distinct voice.

David took the parts of narrator, Dan, Wizzy, Neil Hayes and the Police officer, and  Sheila took the parts of James, Sophie, Mrs Braishfield and Karl – quite a task, especially when changing from one character to another during a quick exchange of words. Of course, David and Sheila were up to it, producing the whole range of voices, and without hesitation – in Wizzy’s words;

“Affirmative. I’ve processed the information. My speeds are the best.”

It was a wonderful day and our thanks go to the railway services, the London cabbies, RNIB Talking Books Studios, and most of all to David and Sheila Suchet.

Without Anthony we couldn’t have done it, and as the children say in the book, We couldn’t have done it without Wizzy.

 

The audiobook will be coming soon. Please email me if you would like a copy jenny@littleknollpress.co.uk

The printed book, beautifully illustrated by Suzan Houching, is available now.

Beverley Birch at Hampshire Writers’ Society

Report by Peter Hitchen

The Society’s April gathering hosted two exceptional women writers, both ideally placed to talk with insight and experience about the very specific nuances and skills involved in the subject of writing for children.

Special Guest: Judith Heneghan

Being the Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival and a highly regarded and extensively published specialist of children’s literature, Judith Heneghan was ideally placed to open Tuesday’s proceedings.  Judith is a Senior Lecturer and also a Programme Leader on the University of Winchester’s Creative Writing provision where she has taught since 2006.  To date she has written 50 nonfiction books as well as feature articles, novels and shorter fiction for children.  Previously to her role at Winchester, she worked as a commissioning editor of adult nonfiction and a freelance editor of children’s nonfiction.

Judith’s enthusiasm for Winchester’s annual Writers’ Festival was infectious.  She explained that its aims for this year were to build on its past successes and to inspire, encourage, educate and to facilitate learning for all the delegates. Networking opportunities for novice and experienced writers attending this year’s festival will be more extensive than ever, as will the list of contributors from the greater writing world.  Contributors will include luminaries from some of the best known publishing houses and literary agencies in the country as well as the wonderful author and broadcaster, Lem Sissay.  Further information about the planned programme, along with competition and other details can be found here: http://writersfestival.co.uk/

Main Speaker: Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch is a prolific author of critical acclaim having produced in excess of forty books.  Her prodigious output includes picture books, novels, biographies and retellings of Shakespeare.  Her publications have been translated into more than a dozen languages.  They are in the admirable position of being amongst the top ten per cent of books borrowed from UK libraries.

Beverley’s own childhood years were spent in East Africa where the wide open spaces of Kenya afforded the opportunity for formative and adventurous experiences largely free from the interference of adults.  She eventually left Africa for England to study for ‘A’ levels before graduating from Cambridge University with a degree in Economics and Sociology.  After graduation she started to work as an editor and in 1981 she became a full-time writer.

As would be expected of someone with the breadth and depth of Beverley’s professional literary experience, her talk was packed with insights into what being a  writer entails and what writers have to do to produce work of real merit.  Of course, ‘merit’ in writing is a subjective quality but Beverley’s appraisal of what it really means was grounded in a plethora of practical and theoretical examples.  ‘We need to constantly refresh our understanding of why we need to write’ she told her audience and then explained that this writing should be centred on exploring the underpinning themes of the stories that writers create.  All stories, we were told, have specific, fundamental themes that should challenge child readers to see things anew. In doing this, it should enable children to reposition themselves in the light of these new, vicarious experiences.  But what are these themes?  They are many and varied and over her long career Beverley has seen all of the following underpinning the work that she has been involved in either as a writer herself or as an editor for others; love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal, redemption, loss, maturation, power, obsession and corruption are all on the list.

Beverly was at pains to explain that this was by no means a definitive list but that whichever of these themes was at the heart of a story,  they should be rendered in a way that is suitable and accessible for children.  The narrative gravity associated with these thematic issues should be apparent to discerning writers as they produce their work and this in itself is indicative of the fact that ‘writing for children’ is not a euphemism for dumbing down the literary responsibilities of the author.  If anything, these responsibilities should weigh more heavily on children’s authors than they do on those involved in other aspect of producing good writing.  Beverley said that children’s authors should ‘dive inwards in the process of writing and that in doing so they should trust their subconscious to render a story that is both important and transporting for the child’.  She concluded by offering some sage advice for those starting out on their publishing journey.  Writers should not write in order to seek or support the contemporary ‘hullabaloo’ that seems to be endemic in the contemporary literary scene for ultimately that hullabaloo is ephemeral.  Rather, writers should stay true to themselves and produce work that will endure beyond the here and now.

Surely this is what great writing is all about.

April 2017 Competition Results – Beverley Birch

Beverley Birch was shortlisted three times for the Branford Boase Award in recognition of the editor’s role in nurturing new talent and, as a prolific author, she was also nominated for the Carnegie medal. Hampshire Writers’ Society is most appreciative to Beverley, who graciously came to our rescue by agreeing to be our April adjudicator as well as our speaker. In return, our members managed to supply entries that made it difficult for her to choose the usual two highly commended places. The competition, ‘Write a children’s story, inspired by a well-known story for children’, meant that after choosing 1st, 2nd and 3rd place, Beverley was unable to decide and ended up choosing four additional pieces to praise.

1st Place: Cass Morgan – Mrs Bilious

2nd Place: Kristin Tridimas – A Koala Named Sydney

3rd Place: Matthew Cross – George and the Dragon

Highly Commended: Annie Vine – The Wild Colt

Highly Commended: Linda Welch – Unexpected Treasure

Highly Commended: Ant Ridgeway – Friends

Highly Commended: Kim Howard – Mirror, Mirror

1st Place: Mrs Bilious – Cass Morgan (Inspired by Roald Dahl’s Matilda, or, more specifically, by Miss Trunchbull and the chapter, ‘Bruce Bogtrotter and the Cake’).

Beverley Birch: This was altogether strong. The punchy opening brings the situation instantly to life, the child point of view keeps us locked in the story through a distinctive sense of voice, good narrative flow and pacing. And a tricky situation for the child characters to escape (always appealing), is enlivened by effective and efficiently used imagery. A definite winner!

Winner First

At 11:57, putting a handful of insects into the lunchbox of Mrs Bilious was funny. At 12:03, the reality was hilarious. At 12.05, it was the worst thing they’d ever, ever done.

Simon shuddered as he looked at Joel. His best friend’s left eye stared in horror. His right winked as something scuttled across his eyelash. Hands clenched to the chair seat, shoulders high to his ears, Joel’s cheeks puffed out wide. Two ants emerged from the corner of his mouth, ran across his face, over his ear and into the safety of his hair.

Hot breath blew onto Simon’s cheek. He turned towards the cherry-cheeked face of Mrs Bilious. She leaned in close. Through cement-coloured teeth came odours of sugared tea and half-digested digestives.

‘Eat up,’ her voice whispered.

‘No.’

‘Sandwich-spoiling brats will be punished. Now, EAT UP!’

Her yellowy eyes sizzled and locked onto his. There was nothing he could do but scoop his hand into the lunchbox. Ants scurried and hurried onto his hand, up his arm and into his sleeve. Others dropped to the table in their bid to escape. The unlucky ones stayed where they were, with no idea what was coming.

Back leaned Mrs Bilious. Every part of her blazed in delight; her mouth tight in a triumphant smile, her eyes agog, her grey curls bounced in anticipation. Even the hairs in her nostrils quivered in glee.

Simon closed his eyes, opened his mouth and threw in the ants.

If they were mad before, now they were livid. Up the insides of his cheeks they darted, over his tongue, through the gaps in his teeth. It was like popping candy gone horribly, horribly wrong.

He wanted to spit out. He had to. But the smell of tea and digestives wafted in his nostrils. There was no going back, and he knew it.

2nd Place: A Koala Named Sydney – Kristin Tridimas

Beverley Birch: A very close second. Koala’s eye-view and voice has great appeal, laced with a wry humour. Excellent command of language, and pacing, and sets the scene, backstory and predicament swiftly without losing momentum.

Winner Second

It was hot and uncomfortable inside the human girl’s bag. He had been bashed and banged and now seemed to be travelling along something which kept changing direction. And to make things worse, he only had one cough sweet left. He’d saved it for emergencies, wrapped up in his bandana.

Great Aunt Victoria had been very clear. ‘Don’t let anyone see you, or they’ll send you back. Even worse, they might put you in a zoo!’

Surely one quick look wouldn’t do any harm?

He hooked his claw round the end of the zip and pulled. Poked out his nose. This place smelt of plastic and metal and tired people. He put his eye to the opening. He was moving slowly past a forest of legs. For a second, he thought back to his gum tree home in the Australian bush. He could smell the eucalyptus. Hear the kookaburras.

His home was gone now. The bush fire had destroyed it.

A pair of familiar pink legs swam into sight.

‘Dad, it’s my bag!’

He shrank back down inside.

He seemed to be flying but then there was a big bump.

‘You wait here while I get the suitcase. I shouldn’t be long.’

Footsteps, going away. People talking. The rattle of wheels.

The screech of a zip.

The zip!

The girl’s face was inches away. Her eyes were open wide.

‘What are you doing here?’

He gave her his friendliest smile. ‘G’day!’

She yelped and jumped back.

A second later, her face came close again. ‘You can speak!’ she whispered. ‘What’s your name?’

He clicked and whistled. ‘That means Climbs to the Edge in koala.’

‘I’m Jenny. You need a real name.’ She looked at something above his head. ‘I’m going to call you Sydney.’

He was safe.

3rd Place: George and the Dragon – Matthew Cross

Beverley Birch: This is a clever, funny take on the traditional tale, bringing both George and the dragon instantly to life, each with a distinctive voice and a convincing relationship that promises fun ahead.

Winner Third

A chilling roar caused him to raise his shield. Instead of fire, the cavern filled with thick white smoke and a fizzing sound. George stepped softly towards the source. It was a young dragon, squeezed into a whalebone girdle, its wings and legs tied with rope. He crept forwards and drew his sword.

“Hello.” It said in a low rumbling voice. George paused, he wondered whether he could kill something that said hello to him. “Look, this is rather embarrassing. If you could be a good fellow and cut me down, you may choose any treasure you desire.” George hesitated, then raised his sword and severed the ropes. The dragon prized itself from the girdle before sitting on its hoard. “All I want is a peaceful place to hibernate, a comfortable hoard, and the occasional sheep for a snack.”

“Oh, the kingdom ran out of sheep.” George sat opposite the dragon, his shield close just in case.

“They sent their own kind instead – who does that? Why not a goat?” The dragon burped another cloud of smoke and fizz.

“Your breath poisoned a nearby village.”

“Eating humans gives me terrible indigestion. I had to take antacids.”

“Why did you keep eating the tributes?”

“Humans are like chocolate, I can never have just one.” George pulled a packet of jelly babies from his backpack and offered one to the dragon. “Yuk, how can you eat those?”

“So how did you get stuck in the…girdle?”

“The princess jumped me when I left the cave. That girl is malicious, no wonder the king left her as a tribute.” The dragon appeared deflated.

George eyed an ornate wine bottle among mound of treasure. An idea spread from his mind into a smile on his lips. “I have a cunning plan, put the girdle on again.”

Highly Commended: The Wild Colt – Annie Vine (Inspired by Jill’s Gymkhana by Ruby Ferguson)

Beverley Birch: A good, tight narrative style which brings the setting, character, and particularly the colt’s character and terror instantly alive. A good sense of audience here.

‘He’s eight months old. Sire’s a half-thoroughbred and Dam’s a Welsh Mountain,’ said Tom, his cheerful voice unusually tense. ‘First saw a human six days ago. Had a heck of a job getting him into the horsebox.’

A powerful hoof assault made the box quiver. Edie peeked through the eye-slat. The colt’s neck muscles were so taut they made his head twitch upwards. His wide eyes relayed his fear – no pools of melted chocolate – they were steely black with whites that resembled human’s. His muddy, matted coat, now dry and cracked, had turned into dragon scales, sliding smoothly as he moved. Barbs shortened his tail – the web of hairs gripped them like cossetted treasure.

Edie’s fingers itched to caress, to reassure, to calm.

Don’t worry, little colt, you’re mine now. You’re safe.

‘Help me with the door,’ ordered Tom.

With the latches straightened, the door slid open.

The colt leapt from the back of the horsebox into the gaping hole of light.

Tom’s shock was audible. ‘Lucky I backed up and opened the gate.’

Edie’s heart flipped as she watched the rump muscles gather and stretch as the colt bolted away. Despite his nervousness, his poise was faultless. Once he realised he was safe, he would hold his tail confidently, not hanging like the flag of a lost battle.

‘Look at that stride,’ admired Tom. ‘You’ll be winning the gymkhanas with him.’

The colt slowed to a trot. Lean, smooth legs stretched.

‘Or the dressage…’

Galvanised, the colt broke into a canter and raced towards the wooden fence.

Edie gasped. If he rammed it, the wood would slinter into deadly spears.

His timing was perfect, forelegs rose with tucked hooves. He cleared the fence gracefully.

Edie bit her bottom lip. ‘I think my dream of showjumping has just become a reality.’

Now all she had to do was catch him.

Highly Commended: Unexpected Treasure – Linda Welch

Beverley Birch: Lovely flavour and rhythms, enhanced by quirky detail and swiftly conveyed, convincing characterization of a boy and his grandfather with the promise of interesting action to come.

Jamie loved weekends with his Granddad. He picked him up from school on Friday afternoon and they had fish and chips for supper, straight out of the wrapper.   On Saturday morning they got up early and drove to the Municipal Dump.   The sign on the gate said Household Waste Recycling Centre but Granddad said it had been the Municipal Dump ever since he was a little boy himself (about a hundred years ago, Jamie thought). Jamie was supposed to stay in the car because there were cars and lorries manoeuvring about the yard, but he was allowed look around the small shop where they sold some of the things people were throwing away.

‘People buy rubbish?’ he asked incredulously, and Granddad laughed.

‘One man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. You never know what you might find.’

Today Jamie bought an old binocular case that was just the right size to hold a bottle of juice and a banana for school. The man only charged him 25p and Jamie hurried back to the car to wait for Granddad.   As he knelt on the seat and looked out of the back window he saw another little boy climbing over the back fence of the tip.   No-one else seemed to notice him slide into one of the skips, but as Jamie watched, he saw him throw a piece of corrugated plastic out of the skip, and climb back out again. Jamie got out of the car and went over to him.

‘You’re not supposed to be wandering around, it’s dangerous. What do you want that for, anyway?’

‘Roof,’ the boy said.

‘Cool! Are you making a den?’ Jamie asked, not waiting for him to answer. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Stig,’ he said, and disappeared back over the fence, dragging the plastic behind him.

Highly Commended: Friends – Ant Ridgeway

Beverley Birch: A very effective voice (a donkey) brings the reader convincingly into his state of mind and character, with some light touches of humour. Tightly written with a good narrative flow.

I’m bored. I’ve been standing alone in my field all day. There’s an itch on my back. I tried rubbing against the fence but I can’t quite reach it. The three ponies in the next field are eating grass. Lovely shiny coats they have. Not like mine, rough like tree bark. I trotted over to say hello.

‘Eeeaw, eeeaw’.

One of them looked up, tossed her mane and carried on munching. The other two took no notice as if I wasn’t there.

It’s cold today. Wind and rain have soaked me to my bones. My shelter blew down. There are trees where the ponies are. Not here. So I’m standing all alone, head down.

Wait. Who’s that climbing over the gate in his yellow coat and hat? It’s the boy. He’s got that little animal in his hand, the one which doesn’t move. Says it’s his bear, whatever that is. Says it has very little brain. That bouncy puppy’s with him too. Wish I could wriggle under the hedge like him. I’m too big. Don’t like his nippy teeth. Seems to think my hooves are for nibbling. Last week, he ate my best thistle. I was saving it for breakfast. He didn’t like it. He started yelping, pawing at his mouth. If he’s not careful, I’ll bite him. Or maybe I’ll kick him.

‘I’ve bought you a birthday present,’ the boy said.

Is it? I thought. Wasn’t that a long time ago? I swished my tail. ‘It’s a pot. It had honey in it. We had to eat it ‘cos it was a long journey.’

He put it on the ground.

‘There’s a balloon too. Sorry it popped on the thorns.’ I glimpsed aflash of red inside the pot.

‘Eeeaw, eeeaw.’

The boy laughed.

Not alone anymore.

Highly Commended: Mirror, Mirror – Kim Howard

Beverley Birch: A clever and successful send-up of several fairy tales, with life seen from the point of view of the mirror fed up with the fairyland beauty leagues. Dry humour and quirky detail – lots of fun in this.

The lack of manners upsets me most. I never get a ‘good morning’ or a ‘how are you?’ It’s always “Mirror, mirror on the wall….”

Of course I’m on the wall. A heavy chain and some hefty nails make sure of that. They aren’t interested in me. No one ever compliments me on the carved wood of my frame or says ‘wow, have you been polished?” They only want to know one thing – where they rank in the fairyland beauty leagues. They have no imagination. They must be able to say something other than “…who is the fairest of them all?”

As if I’m going to tell them what I really think. It can be tough, but I always try to find something positive to say. Not because I care about how the silly self-obsessed things feel. I can’t risk someone getting upset enough to start throwing things. I’m made of glass. I’d never recover if someone smacked me in the face with a hairbrush.

I was chatting with Cinderella’s glass slippers the other day. The one who stayed on her foot is too smug for words, but I really feel for the other one. She was convinced she was going to shatter when those big ugly sisters tried to stuff their fat feet inside her. And she still hasn’t got rid of the bloodstains. Fortunately, since their mother chopped their feet about, it’s harder for them to hobble up to the castle. I dread telling them their league status.

Uh oh. Here comes the little girl with the scarlet cloak. Well, not so little any more. She’s a stroppy teenager now. Since that incident in the woods with her granny and the wolf, she’s started carrying an axe in her basket. Someone should tell her that red isn’t her colour, but it won’t be me.