Friday, 28 July 2017

Everyman and Everywoman

Day 18 - our heroine reflects on the man who is no hero

To prove I have been working hard at my Writers' Holiday, today's post is about books and writing.

One of my favourite radio plays, later rewritten as a book trilogy in 5 parts, and then later again turned into a film, is ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams. I have brought the original 1975 BBC recordings away with me to keep me amused while driving.

The main character in the story is Arthur Dent, an ordinary man who finds himself caught up in the most extraordinary of circumstances. Bulldozers turn up one morning without warning to demolish his house ready for a new bypass. While he is still coming to terms with this apparent bureaucratic incompetence, the Earth is itself destroyed to make way for an intergalactic space highway. Arthur is rescued and finds himself at the centre of an improbable (and very funny) series of space travelling adventures.

It is essential to the story that Arthur be unremarkable. He is ‘Everyman’, the representation of the average person with whom the reader can relate. In time Arthur bumbles his way to achieve hero status, the reader cheering him on all the way.

And that is what I want the characters in my stories to be - identifiable women and men who when faced by challenges find a way to win through. I hope my time here at Fishguard will provide inspiration for the better crafting of my fictional stories.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Defender of the Realm

Day 17 - our heroine takes inspiration from local heroine Jemima

I was surprised to learn that in 1797, the last invasion of Britain took place near where I am staying in Pembrokeshire. The event is commemorated in the impressive ‘Last Invasion Embroidered Tapestry’, designed by Elizabeth Cramp and embroidered over a 4 year period by 77 local women and men.

Some 220 years ago Britain was at war with France. The military was on high alert along the east coast and the English Channel ready to repulse Napoleon’s troops should they decide to attack. It was therefore with some surprise that the invasion when it came was not where expected, but rather in west Wales. 1,400 French troops came ashore near Fishguard. The few British soldiers stationed nearby had to send for reinforcements before attempting to fight off the invaders. 

But the local women had other plans.
The French invaders had spread out along the coast, pillaging as they went. Some of them interrupted preparations for a wedding feast at Trehowel Farm. Tempted by the copious amounts of wine which the locals had ‘rescued’ from a recent shipwreck, they also helped themselves to the food which was still in the process of being prepared. Unfortunately they were too soon and ate undercooked chicken. 

Twelve of the drunken and by now somewhat queasy soldiers were captured by local woman Jemima Nicholas. Armed only with a pitchfork she singlehandedly marched them off to Fishguard where they were locked up.

Then, while the local British troops still waited for military support, the formidable Jemima continued with her plans. She led a group of women in a continuous walk around the Bigney Hill. From afar, the French soldiers mistook the ongoing  stream of local womenfolk, wearing their traditional outfits of red cloaks and black bonnets, for red-coated British soldiers. Assuming they were outnumbered, the French promptly surrendered.

Maybe the story has become a little embellished by local folklore, but I rather like the tale of Jemima - a woman not to be messed with!

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Clifftops and Cairns

Day 16 - our heroine climbs a cliff (note: no caterwauling was required)

The sun shone brightly as I walked through the Pembrokeshire village of Porthgain. The tide was out leaving the few fishing boats behind the harbour wall beached in the mud, the ropes which tied them to the harbour wall hung limp, garlanded with drying seaweed. The fishy scent of the empty crab pots was soon left behind as, with the gentle breeze whispering across my arms, the call of the larks enticed me up along the Pembroke Coastal Path. 

I soon gained height, the cornflake-crunch of my boots upon the gravel path giving warning of my approach to the insects and other creatures which were doubtless hiding amongst the undergrowth. My aim was to reach one of the two white-washed cliff top markers placed either side of the cove, designed to lead boats safely to the harbour.

Porthgain was once a busy port where slate from the nearby quarries was taken and broken down before being shipped out. Later the slate works gave way to brick making and after that rocks were broken down into rubble for road laying. The buildings which housed the industries are derelict now and covered over by brambles and other creepers as nature seeks to take back ownership of the land. 

The walk was a practical exercise in ‘writing the landscape’, which is the title of the workshop I am taking at the Fishguard Writers’ Holiday. I wrote notes at various points on my walk to record not just the sights but also the sounds, scents and textures I was experiencing. Occasionally I muttered to myself if I saw something worthy of note, but I did not shout out.

I say this because ‘Clifftop caterwauling’ is a trope used in fiction whereby the hero climbs to a height and screams with rage, despair or triumph. Think ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Lion King’. 


Triumphant as I felt from my climb, I satisfied myself with quietly adding another stone to the cairn made by those who had walked the path before me, before I returned to the harbour and The Sloop Inn where I enjoyed a most welcome drink.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Bugger all *

Day 15 - our heroine experiences writers’ envy

I visited “the strangest town in Wales” today. This is the description given by Dylan Thomas to Laugharne.  It is in fact not at all odd, but a very pleasant little village and well worth a visit.

I drove there listening to a soundtrack of Dylan Thomas reading some of his lyrical poetry and prose in his mellifluous and resonant voice.

The boathouse where Thomas lived for several years is now a visitor centre allowing the faithful to see for themselves the beauty of the setting with the views across the wide expanse of the Taf estuary. 

I indulged myself in some Barabrith with a cup of tea and imagined how much better my writing would be if I could only live and work in such a wondrous place.

Thomas himself wrote in the Writing Shed which is situated above the Boathouse. 

The shed is furnished in such a way that it looks as though the bard has just popped out (probably to Brown’s Hotel for a quick drink!) and will soon be back to pick up his pen to begin writing again, inspired by the wonderful view through the window.

Dylan Thomas’ final masterpiece, ‘Under Milkwood’ is set in the fictional town of Llareggub, parts of which are said to be inspired by Laugharne. 


(*If you do not know and wonder why I am swearing, ‘Llareggub’ is a constructed word, bugger all in reverse.)

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Austen-tatious

Day 14 - our heroine learns not to expect fame and fortune

I've been to Bath today where events to commemorate Jane Austen are in full flow. Austen died 200 years ago this month. For a short time Jane Austen lived in Bath and the city is keen to celebrate their famous resident. 

But despite the high regard in which she is now held, her writing career didn't bring her the fame and fortune one would expect.

Of the six novels for which she is famous, only four were published while she lived, and they were anonymous: ‘By a lady’ was the only clue given on the cover of ‘Sense and Sensibility’. ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Mansfield Park’ and ‘Emma’ were the others which she lived to see in print, but without her name on the cover.

‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’ were not published until a year after she died. Only later was her authorship acknowledged.

It is said that she did not earn much money from her writing whilst alive. However since her death her novels have been in almost constant print.

Some of her writings were pirated. They were translated into French without her consent and with no payment.

So with no official recognition, a low income and piracy issues, it has to be said that the life of ‘one of our greatest living authors’ wasn't in fact all that great. 

Who’d be a writer, eh?




Saturday, 22 July 2017

Z - time to reflect

Day 13 - our heroine pauses

Regular followers of this blog will know that each of my posts follows alphabetically. When I reach the letter ‘Z’ I take time to reflect. 

This latest series has taken 10 months to get from ‘A’ in August 2016, to ‘M’ in June 2017. There's nothing wrong with that. It has been a challenging year.

But now that I am away on my travels the pace has picked up. I became ‘Nomadic’ on Monday 10th July until reaching ‘Z’ today. In the last 12 days I have: 
- descended into the abyss; 
- been rescued by the Wizard; 
- set out on a pilgrimage; 
- run away to sea; 
- walked among the dead; 
- been forced to decide between truth and falsehood; 
- gone in search of knowledge; 
- regained control of the mysterious artefact; 
- met a companion; 
- dug for buried treasure; and
- sought an answer to a 100 year old mystery.

Rattled off like that it sounds exhausting! However I don't feel exhausted. I have enjoyed company and enjoyed solitude; I have exercised and I have relaxed; been peaceful and been busy. In fact time for everything from one extremity to another. From A - Z in fact.

Tonight I pause for breath. Tomorrow my journey goes on.




Friday, 21 July 2017

100 Years on

Day 12 of the journey - our heroine seeks an answer to a 100 year old question

I found this delightful little book today. As you can see it is no bigger than my mobile phone. For each day of the year there is a quotation from a Browning poem and space to list the names of friends and family who celebrate their birthday on that date.

The inscription inside the cover reads:
“With best love to Elsie from Bert January 12th ‘17”

Who were Bert and Elsie, I wonder? What was their story? In 1917 Britain was at war. Was Bert a soldier, perhaps, gifting this little book to his sweetheart Elsie before he left England to serve his country?

Elsie has written names on some of the pages: Muriel Macrae, Sid Butcher, Tim Wyles, Ethel Hoare. Some names have been crossed through, presumably when friends died. 

Who were these people? What was their relationship to Elsie? How many of them are still living? 

I will of course never find the answer to my questions.

What I can and will do is use the book, the names and my imagination to create answers and to rewrite Elsie and Bert’s story, 100 years after their true life tale began.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

'X' marks the spot

Day 11 of the journey - our heroine goes in search of buried treasure

First you need a map. Follow the directions to where ‘X’ marks the spot. Then start digging. With a bit of luck you'll unearth some booty that has been hidden away.

And so, I followed the map and now find myself in Hay-on-Wye in Powys. Hay is the National Book Town of Wales and is indeed a very bookish place. There are more than 20 designated bookshops but many other stores also include a shelf of second hand books so that there are books literally everywhere you turn. For the bibliophile it is thrilling and also mind boggling. 

There are general book shops and others which specialise. ‘Mostly Maps’ has a rather splendid cartographic gentleman in the window. ‘Murder and Mayhem’ stocks mystery and crime books inside its fiendishly decorated premises.  ‘Rose’s Books’ focus on rare and out of print children's and illustrated books. ‘The Poetry Bookshop’ sells exactly what its name suggests. The biggest and longest established general bookseller is ‘Hay Cinema Bookshop’ with over 200,000 volumes on display inside the old cinema.


So many books. And amongst all these books I hope to find one or two treasured volumes. Tomorrow morning I head back to town to start digging.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Writers who chat (and eat cake)

Day 10 of the journey - our heroine meets a companion

‘All for one and one for all!’ That's the succinct statement of comradeship devised by Alexandre Dumas for his famous quartet. The ‘true companions’ trope is excellently illustrated by d’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers. 

You'll find it used often in novels and films where the hero meets a like-minded person or persons on his journey, forming a ‘band of brothers’ who watch out for each other. Sometimes the companionship is brief but nonetheless the hero is strengthened by the friendship.

Such is the solitary nature of writing we don't often meet our companion scribes. But there are forums, Facebook and Twitter where writers can meet online to support each other. For example, I've just finished a most enjoyable hour on Twitter using the #writingchat hashtag to talk with my fellow writers. (The event happens every Wednesday, 8-9pm if you're a writer and would like to join in.)

But great though social media is, how much better it is when we get the opportunity to meet a fellow scribe in person. I met with two such colleagues earlier in the year, and another today. Although we have known each other online for a few years, it was lovely finally to sit down together and chat in real life. (An added bonus for me is that my companion today is an excellent baker of cakes.)

I wonder what the statement of comradeship should be for writers who chat? Perhaps ‘All for cake and cake for all!’ would be a suitable rallying cry.

Victory is mine

Day 9 of the journey - our heroine regains control of the mysterious artefact

Returning to halls after Christmas, during our first year at university, my room mate and I discovered this wooden gavel inside the wardrobe. 

The university had let out the residential halls over the holiday period to a conference and presumably one of the delegates had left the gavel there by mistake. (What sort of conference, and why the delegate was in possession of the wooden hammer, we never did find out.) We dutifully handed it in, but as no one came forward to claim it the gavel was returned to us to do with as we wished.

The difficulty was, my room mate and I both wanted to keep it as a souvenir. We considered tossing a coin, or perhaps playing Paper, Scissors, Stone to decide who would win custody. But eventually we decided on joint ownership, each of us taking a turn at being the custodian of the gavel. And so each time we meet (on average once a year, sometimes shorter but often a longer period) the gavel is ceremoniously handed over. It has become a motivating element in the 41 year story of our ongoing friendship. 

The gavel has become our ‘MacGuffin’, our ‘weenie’, our thingamijig. In fiction, particularly in films, the MacGuffin is the word used to describe the mysterious artefact, the priceless jewel, the secret papers or whatever it is that the characters seek. The search for it is something that drives the plot forward.

Yesterday my journey took me back to our Alma Mater. Today I return victorious, having acquired control of the MacGuffin. 

Monday, 17 July 2017

University - then and now

Day 8 of the journey - our heroine goes in search of knowledge 

Today I visited Old Joe. Over 40 years ago I consulted Old Joe on a daily basis. This was to check whether I would be late for my next lecture: I usually was.

Old Joe is the affectionate name given to the 325 foot tower which stands in the centre of the University of Birmingham’s campus. It is in fact the tallest free standing clock tower in the world. I only found out that fact today, although I may have been told many years ago. There is much I have been taught but which I have now forgotten.

A standard fictional convention is when the hero visits a hermit or wise man in search of knowledge to help in his quest. Knowing how unreliable my own memory is, it does make me wonder whether the old sage will always provide the right information. 

But then wisdom is about more than facts. Perhaps the truly wise person is the one who accepts that he doesn't have all the answers.

In the 40 years since I was a student here much has changed: trees have grown taller; buildings have been demolished, including Ridge Hall where I lived; others have been built in their place; the paternoster lifts in the Arts building have been removed. 

Yet despite all the changes Old Joe is still there. 

And my timekeeping is no better!




Truth and Lies

Day 7 of the journey - our heroine must decide between truth and falsehood

I've left behind my Hawarden book haven and headed south along the Welsh border, round the Wrekin and am now in Shropshire. In the midlands they use the phrase ‘going round the Wrekin’ to mean taking the long way round, similar to the ‘round the houses’ expression used elsewhere. 

If you haven't heard the name before, the Wrekin is a local hill. Some people believe it to be an extinct volcano. Apparently this is not true.

There is another theory. It is said the Wrekin was formed when a load of earth was dumped on the ground by an angry giant. Maybe this is true.


The local river, the Teme, is renowned for its bearded monsters. Apparently this is true.

If you walk by the Teme in early evening as the sun is setting you will not be bitten by midges. This, most unfortunately, is not true.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Slumbering

Day 6 of the Journey - our heroine walks amongst the dead

My room overlooks St Deniol’s church in Hawarden. Like many people, I find old churchyards fascinating. I walked around reading the gravestones, trying to piece together the stories of people’s lives. Some of the graves date back to the 1600s and 1700s. There are also some war graves here, including one from the Crimean War. One man appears to have buried three wives in the same grave: I wonder whether they all did ‘rest in peace’ as the inscription urged them to do or whether there was some ghostly fighting between the women.

Some inscriptions are simple, others more flowery. Many have scripture verses, poetry or hymns embossed. There are a few euphemisms used, death too harsh or upsetting a word. The most frequently used is to describe the deceased as someone ‘who fell asleep’. As a child that gave me the heebie jeebies. The poor old man, I would think, he only nodded off for a minute and his family buried him before he could wake up!

There are other attempts: ‘Who departed this life’; ‘Was called home’; ‘Who passed on to higher service’

Then there is this verse on the grave of 24 year old John Jones which begins as if to offer comfort, but to my mind succeeds only in sounding like a threat:

‘Weep not my wife and children dear
A tender father lieth here
My death you know, my grave you see,
Prepare yourselves to follow me’

Sleep tight, my friends.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Reflections on the rolling waves


Day 5 of the journey - our heroine runs away to sea

I went to the seaside today. I watched children and dogs playing on the sand and running in and out of the waves. I narrowly missed being knocked over by a group of teens, their faces flushed with excitement as they returned to shore after a sailing lesson. I ate some deliciously upmarket fish and chips. I walked on the promenade and drank a cappuccino while the tide rolled in. All very enjoyable.

Then I became somewhat reflective. You know the sort of thing - the sea’s so big that our lives seem insignificant; what lies beyond the horizon, etc

The sea has always provided inspiration to writers. Running away to sea is a constant recurring storyline, the very stuff of adventure tales. Stories such as Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, the classic running away tale of Jonah and the Whale, poetry such as John Masefield’s Sea Fever (‘I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky’) - the list goes on. 

Maybe tomorrow I’ll draw on that inspiration and write a sea inspired story. Although it will probably be more about paddling and sand castles than pirating and swashbuckling. But then, why not, perhaps I could try something a little different? 


Thursday, 13 July 2017

Quest for Quietness

Day 4 of the journey - our heroine sets out on a pilgrimage.

I am in library heaven. Gladstone’s Library is a wondrous place. I have wanted to come here for a long time and today I made that dream a reality. It was founded by former Prime Minister William Gladstone, opened in 1902 and became a residential library in 1906. There is a serenity to the place which I can't fittingly describe. The library itself is all polished wood and large tomes. The librarians speak only in whispers. There is no other sound apart from the gentle tapping on keypads.

The facilities are good too. The ‘Food For Thought’ bistro provides good food at reasonable prices. There is a separate lounge with deep cushioned armchairs and an honesty bar.  My ensuite bedroom is comfortable, with a view across the churchyard of St Deiniol’s.

Hawarden is just a mile away from the small village where I was born so I went on a pilgrimage. I think I found the right place although I can't be sure. I didn't recognise it from the last time I was there; I was probably too preoccupied being born. Somewhat disappointingly there was no plaque on the wall to record the birth of Mancot’s famous (or perhaps infamous?) daughter. One day, maybe.

And when I returned from my walk along the country lanes of North Wales, I sat in the library and did some real writing. Which is what my quest was intended to achieve.



Panorama - a view from the Edge

Day 3 of the journey - our heroine finds herself on the edge before being rescued by the Wizard.
Today I walked up Alderley Edge near Macclesfield, a large sandstone escarpment from which one can view the Cheshire plains below. Climbing up to the height was simple enough. The sun shone, visibility was good, a perfect photo opportunity.

There are several legends and folklore associated with Alderley Edge (some of which provided inspiration for Alan Garner’s books ‘The Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’). Standing in the bright sunshine such myths felt fanciful.

But when I tried to find my way down again the path didn't seem so obvious. I wandered through the wood, following trails which at first glimpse looked familiar, but then realised I had not seen before. The sun went behind a cloud. Inside the wood the paths were overgrown and the farther in I walked, the darker it became. 

Surrounded by trees it didn't take long before I lost all sense of direction. Was I walking in circles? Had I been bewitched and led astray by the spirits of the wood?

Happily I was rescued from my wanderings when I chanced upon The Wizard of Edge - not Gandalf or Merlin, but rather the pub which bears the title! 

And so, freshly provisioned, I continued on my journey.



Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Overground, Underground

Day 2 of the Journey and our heroine leaves the world above ground and descends into the abyss.

As creative literature students know, the descent into the abyss is a traditional plot structure. 

My descent however was more literal than literary. More particularly, I entered the Williamson Tunnels in Liverpool. This is a labyrinth of tunnels underneath the streets of Edge Hill in Liverpool, dug in the early 19th century at the whim of Joseph Williamson. Nobody is really sure whether this was an altruistic job creation scheme for soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars or simply the folly of an eccentric individual. 

The facts of how long these tunnels are, how many of them, or even where they are, remain a mystery waiting to be solved. Those that have been discovered have no obvious purpose, and head off in random directions without any clear order. If you visit Liverpool I can recommend a visit to the Heritage Centre 

The history of the tunnels and the man behind them have certainly provided me with inspiration, perhaps for an article, maybe also for a story or two. A successful second day.