December 24, 2012

Christmas Cheer?

I was talking to my cousin yesterday, who had gone to a large well-known supermarket for some last minute shopping. He arrived not long before they opened and was greeted with queues of people all with the same idea.

The manager was broadcasting to the waiting hordes telling them how long it would be before the store opened.

December 20, 2012

Dreams And Daydreams As Writing Prompts

EEG of brainwaves in REM sleep
I've been reading the new post on Writing Forward about using dreams and daydreams as prompts for stories. Melissa suggests keeping a journal of dreams and daydreams and using them as a way to inform and inspire your writing.

I've written a couple of posts about dreams (Hiram B. Redfern and Premonitions or Dreams) but never used them as stories or ideas in stories. Perhaps it's about time I did.

December 18, 2012

Unexpected Writing Prompts

It's amazing how the most unexpected things crop up and give an idea for a story. I was talking to a colleague at work and the usual 'Did you see...?' conversation struck up. 'No, I didn't ...' because I don't have a TV. So she told me anyway.

There had been a programme on the night before about grown men who acted out being babies and the women who 'looked after' them. While I sympathised that there may be deep-rooted psychological problems, not least for the women concerned, I didn't really want to know more.

December 14, 2012

Don't Forget To De-Stress Regularly

A young lady confidently walked around the room while leading and explaining stress management to an audience with a raised glass of water. Everyone knew she was going to ask the ultimate question, 'half empty or half full?'

She fooled them all ..... "How heavy is this glass of water?" she inquired with a smile. Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.

She replied, "The absolute weight doesn't matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, that's not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I'll have an ache in my right arm. If I hold it for a day, you'll have to call an ambulance. In each case it's the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes."

She continued, "And that's the way it is with stress. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, as the burden becomes increasingly heavy, we won't be able to carry on." "As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we're refreshed, we can carry on with the burden - holding stress longer and better each time practiced. So, as early in the evening as you can, put all your burdens down.

Don't carry them through the evening and into the night... Pick them up tomorrow.

1 * Accept the fact that some days you're the pigeon, and some days you're the statue!

2 * Always keep your words soft and sweet, just in case you have to eat them.

3 * Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

4 * Drive carefully... It's not only cars that can be recalled by their Maker..

5 * If you can't be kind, at least have the decency to be vague

6 * If you lend someone £20 and never see that person again, it was probably worth it.

7 * It may be that your sole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.
8 * Never buy a car you can't push.

9 * Never put both feet in your mouth at the same time, because then you won't have a leg to stand on.

10 * Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance.

11 * Since it's the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.

12 * The second mouse gets the cheese.

13 * When everything's coming your way, you're in the wrong lane.

14 * Birthdays are good for you. The more you have, the longer you live.

16 * Some mistakes are too much fun to make only once.

17 * We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull. Some have weird names and all are different colours, but they all have to live in the same box.

18 * A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.

19 * Have an awesome day and know that someone has thought about you today.

20 *Save the earth..... It's the only planet with chocolate!*

December 07, 2012

Taking Time To Read

Reading a book is always an inspiring thing to do. I find inspiration in the language used, the crafting of each sentence, and the ideas behind the story. I find myself savouring little nuances of language that can convey so much and admiring the plotting that carries the story forward. It is not at all distracting from a good read to note and remember the way it is written.

I don't always find the time to read as much as I would like. I have a full-time job that can be emotionally and mentally demanding and I'm often too tired to read by the time the evening's chores are done. Weekends can seem full of things to do as well and there is always my writing. I want to write more often than I seem to have the time to write.

The trouble is, I forget how much reading inspires me. I also forget that to find the time to read, I have to make the time to read, just as I have to make the time to write. I worked as a psychotherapist some years ago and would often suggest to people that they make appointments with themselves when they were feeling stressed and that they had little or no time for themselves. This is something anyone can do. You don't have to tell anyone who the appointment is with or what it's for - just that you are booked out for that time period. After all, we can keep appointments at work and in our personal lives so why not make appointments with ourselves?

As is often the way with advice-giving, I'm not always very good at following my own. Time for a kick up the backside methinks.

December 04, 2012

Thunderbird Puppet Appears On TV

Wow! Lady Penelope is real after all ... or is this an impersonator? I'm sure Lady Penelope looks less wooden (see picture below right).

This is one of the characters from that abject farce entitled 'The Only Way Is Essex' - a so-called reality programme. I'm talking about the picture to the left in case you were wondering.  Well, as you can see from the face in the picture, there is nothing real about it. Oh, maybe the props behind the pink-faced puppet are real.

TOWIE - as it is called - must be the furthest thing from the real Essex you can get. There is nothing of the rural beauty of the county in the programme - just look at the photograph! And yet, it seems there are gallons of females, young and middle-aged, who aspire to look and talk like the artificial face here.

How anybody thinks this is attractive is beyond me. What really puts the icing on the cake is when she opens her mouth and utters sounds. You won't be able to hear what she sounds like here because I refuse to put a link to the programme on these pages. It would be as insulting to my blog as the programme is to the people of Essex.

December 03, 2012

Secrets And Story

I was listening to the 'Infinite Monkey Cage' on Radio 4 on my home from work this evening. They were discussing code-breaking and the extraordinary achievements of the team working at Bletchley Park during WWII.

There were about 10,000 people working there and all were sworn to secrecy, with something like only 6 people in the world who knew the extent of the work at Bletchley Park in the war effort. This secrecy continued for decades after the war.

As is the way with the Official Secrets Act, there are various time periods when secrets are no longer secrets. As deadlines passed and knowledge could be shared, some extraordinary stories began to emerge. A husband might turn to his wife 30 years after the war and tell her, 'I have something to tell you. I worked at Bletchley Park during the war.' To which the wife might reply, 'So did I. Which hut were you working in?'

This shows the lengths to which ordinary people like you and I would go to to keep the secrets they were sworn to. It also set me to thinking about the secrets people keep from each other and how we choose whether or not to reveal them. My story entitled 'The Secret' was based on a similar idea - two people living with a secret they both knew about. There are always things we do not discuss with others, however close they may be, and it is these things that weave subtly into a story-line to create interest and suspense.

December 01, 2012


Have you ever wanted to see your own book in print or at least on sale? I know I have. Well now you can. Heard of Fifty Shades of Grey? I’d be surprised if you haven’t. You might be surprised to learn that half of the author’s success is because she published it as an e-book. It wasn’t just the sex that put it in the top sellers. It was the fact the sex was in an e-book that did it.

People who might have been embarrassed to hold a book with a cover that told the world what they were reading are more than happy to download an e-book. It can be read on the train on the way to work without anyone knowing how steamed-up you are getting.

So, even though I’m not writing steamy sex scenes (honestly - although there’s a big market for it, so watch this space) I’ve been trying to get to grips with Amazon’s ‘Kindle Direct Publishing’ - one way in which to self-publish your stories and books.

The sign-up process was a bit fraught, particularly going through the bank accounts bit and trying to find out what my International Bank Account Number (IBAN) and Bank Identifier Code (BIC) were. I discovered these were available at the bottom of an online statement … I only had to look.

While I haven’t gone into it too much at the moment, it looks as though anyone could be self-publishing quite quickly. This seems to be a rising fad and an easier way of getting your books and stories (and blogs, I discovered) out there in the public domain. Publishers are notoriously difficult to get past and rightly so. If they have a reputation to keep up they will be very choosy who they publish.

Anything from short stories to full-length novels can be published. It’s up to you what you publish and how much you set the price at. Be reasonable about the pricing - it probably helps to look at what others are charging for similar products. Don’t overcharge, you won’t be thanked for it and customers will only too gladly give you bad press.

There are various services available, including the option of choosing a suitable cover, good layout and having a hard copy of your book published. You can even have your book translated into multiple languages! Some of these services come at a price but the basic self-publishing to Kindle is free.

If you are going to self-publish it will help to take a leaf out of the publisher’s books (see what I did there?) and put yourself through the same kind of rigorous examination before you even think about putting your book on the shelves of the world’s library. It is really important that you edit and proofread and re-write until you are satisfied that you have the best you can give.

This is going to be your shop window on yourself and if people don’t like what they see, you have no chance. Your customers are more picky than you can imagine. Bad grammar, bad layout and a bad cover will drive people away. Don’t think you can slap your book together willy-nilly, whack it on the shelves and expect it will be a best-seller … it won’t. You need to polish until you have the deepest shine possible and then give it a bit more spit and polish. Make it look as professional as you can and you stand at least half a chance.

I also discovered that there is a ‘Kindle Publishing for Blogs’ section. Put in a few details about you and your blog and publish it to the store and wait for the interest to grow. Make sure you have a blog worth reading though. I’m hoping my own blog is one people will be interested in and I’ve gone through the process of publishing it (see Add to Kindle button in the sidebar) to see if I can make a few cents/coppers here and there. I live in hope.

November 28, 2012

Do Stories Write Themselves?

I had an idea for a story recently based on one image I saw somewhere. The figure of a woman hurrying through a tree-lined avenue on a misty, rainy evening was very atmospheric. It conjured up questions about where she might be going, where she was hurrying to and why she was hurrying. I wanted to know more.

I started to write and found myself creating a couple of characters and then placing them. I didn't consciously place them - it just came to mind. The image I saw made me think of Paris and that's where I imagine the story to take place. I know nothing about Paris beyond what I've read and seen in films.

Some of the details I have consciously started to create by researching French female names and places in Paris. The location still seemed to come about without me doing too much work to find it. I now have to find out about the area I am writing about. This shouldn't be too difficult with the internet at my fingertips, and my knowledge of cities and parks anywhere can do the rest. Fotopedia seems to be a great source of inspiration for locations.

It always amazes me where the ideas come from when I only have a couple of thoughts about a story. Starting to write seems to pull things out of the imagination, but it happens almost subconsciously. From the image of a single figure in a photograph I created a home, a house-maid, a stranger and a situation that is incomplete in my head. There is something going on for this woman but I'm not yet sure what it is. I have to trust that putting pen to paper will pull it out of me.

Lots of partial ideas and fragments of story can seem to be lodged in my head but I'm not sure how to put them together. This is part of the process, it seems. Write and something happens to start linking them together. At other times I have to sit and think about how to link them.

I've often heard the saying that a story will write itself. While this obviously isn't literally true, it does seem to have some substance. Conversation and events can come to mind while I'm scribbling away with my pen, or tapping on the keyboard. In fact they almost seem to be on the page before I've thought about them. They seem to come straight off the end of the pen and take me by surprise. I often know where a story is heading but I don't always know the events that will take over people's lives in the story and this can sometimes change my perception of where the story is headed after all.

It makes writing almost as fascinating as reading.

Where Have All The Baskets Gone?

Would you believe metal thieves have stolen half the shopping baskets from Tesco in Maldon? Don't they know they're made mostly of air?

I can't help wondering how they got past security cameras and staff. I would have thought they'd be locked away in the store after hours (the baskets - not the thieves).

November 24, 2012

My First Story Critique

I submitted a short story to a competition in Writers' Forum recently and got my critique back yesterday. It's the first critique I've ever had and only the second competition I've entered - the first being in about 1985 with A Sunday Visitor. I didn't win anything then and I haven't so far now, but I do have something to go on to improve what I've written.

The feedback told me my dialogue is good and the tale is poignant with an uplifting ending. I was advised to write from the point of view of one character and everything, including the other character, should be seen through the main person's eyes and observations as the head-hopping (writing from inside the head of both characters) can be a bit confusing. This will require an almost total re-write.

I have ideas of writing it twice, once for each character, to see what happens. The challenge will be to show the other character's feelings and reactions from the observations of the main character. As the couple have been together for 45 years they will be familiar with each other to the point of knowing what the other is thinking and feeling - up to a point.

It's quite encouraging that my writing is good and I found the feedback constructive. It's giving me a number of ideas of how to approach it differently without detracting from the feel of it. The sparseness and empty spaces and silences is captured in just the way I imagined it and I think I can keep that in the re-writes.

I might leave it for a week or so before going back to the story so that I can look at it objectively. In the meantime I'd better write something else!

November 14, 2012

Blair Peach and the SPG

In the late 1970s, while the country was run by an evil oligarch, I found myself caught up in a police raid and taken in for questioning.

The Special Patrol Group (SPG) were part of the raiding force and while I was waiting to be released after questioning one of them came up to talk to me. He took great delight in showing me his ID wallet. On one side was his ID card and on the other was a card which said; 'SPG killed Blair Peach. True?'

I found this chilling for two reasons. On the one hand it seemed to be a clear admission that the SPG killed Blair Peach and on the other it was childish in the extreme; the kind of thing a schoolchild writes, as in; 'John loves Mary. True or False?' It also seemed to be such a childish thing for a member of the notorious squad to want to show me.

I never told anyone about this at the time, but I'm sure other people knew about it and this helped the cover up that continued for many years. I'm not even sure that absolute blame ever fell on the SPG, or any one individual. At the time it was fear that stopped me from telling. A tactic I'm sure they were very well versed in.

I've told a few people I know about this over the years but never written about it. I'm not even sure where I'd go from here to log it officially - even if it mattered now.

November 08, 2012

Writing Characters

An idea came to mind recently about a character who would be engaged in dialogue with the author (me) as part of the story.

I felt I needed to know a lot about the character as I would not only be directing him but he would also be complaining to me if I 'wrote' him in the wrong direction. The idea being that I would be writing his story as though it were my story about him but that he would be living his life under my pen with his own opinions and ideas and control over his life entirely separate from me and my pen. Most of the story will run smoothly and in agreement with each other but I would be able to offer bits of advice or steer him into or away from situations. By the same token he would be able to interrupt me and ask what I think I'm doing with him or to suggest situations or chide me about situations that don't suit his personality.

At the moment I have no real idea what his story is but in building up a picture of the character I am starting to see a story develop around him as his mannerisms, hopes and dreams, habits, and history build up. Looking at his relationships with others is allowing other characters to build around him. Perhaps this is something I might find useful in other stories where I am feeling stuck.

Exploring ideas about his personality and relationships is giving me ideas about his life and what he does. I even got Stephen to give me something about him so that he is not totally my own construct. After all, people come into my life and I have no control over who they are, where they have come from and what they are like. I would like some of my characters to be beyond my control -  as far as they can be anyway. The unknown can be as exciting to the author as it is to the reader.

Writing about someone I don't know and keeping them in mind so that their speech and mannerisms gives away something of who they are isn't always easy. Showing a reader who someone is with their internal and external conflicts is done through dialogue and description and it is often the little things that give someone away and make the reader believe in that person.

I have to believe in them as well otherwise it won't work.

Creative Writing Discipline

I don't know why, but I'm often amazed at how quickly I can come up with an idea in my Creative Writing Class when given a prompt to complete in about 10 minutes. Sometimes our tutor gives us a selection of starting lines and this can be useful for jumping in at the deep end. At other times I might choose something that springs to mind. Each time we have done this exercise I have written for 10 minutes and often wanted more time to develop what is on the page.

I can sit at home and ruminate for hours about what to write and nothing comes. Of course, this isn't always the case otherwise I'd never write anything, but I do sit for ages sometimes thinking about how a conversation should go and what the characters sound like and where the dialogue is taking the story.

I can also write for ages sometimes and end up with fragments of a story that seem to have no beginning, ending, or direction. I think this is one of the most frustrating things as I am feeling creative at the time but without an aim in mind. I collect pieces of writing in the hope I can put them together and come up with the story I always wanted to write.

There are numerous websites giving writing prompts -  a quick search on Google will bring up pages of them - but I don't often use them. Because I have the time to think about it I dismiss some of them as not interesting enough or not quite the subject matter I would have chosen. But I don't have any ideas of my own so it would be more beneficial to go along with the prompts that not.

Without the constraints of class I flounder. If I were stricter with myself I would set a time limit, find a (random) prompt and write. Who knows, I might eventually come up with my masterpiece.

November 07, 2012

A New Fire

Happiness is a new warm fire, dinner of pumpkin, ginger, lemon, cumin and potato gratin cooked by my man, and a glass of 10 year old Hunter Valley Shiraz he brought back from Australia in 2003.

The fire arrived this morning and has been well tested today. It's made a huge difference to the heat in the lounge already - and there is nowhere near the amount of draughts we used to experience. We just need to get used to how it burns and lighting it effectively.

Dinner (cooked by Stephen) was superb and fresh and went very well with the wine. The two complimented each other very well. I feel quite privileged to have been the one to share the wine, which he has been saving all these years, and the new fire and dinner with Stephen. He's just gorgeous and I love sharing everything with him.

November 06, 2012

Premonitions or Dreams?

Last week I had a dream that I met one of my work colleagues carrying a pram with a baby in it. I stopped her and asked where she’d got the baby from and, while were cooing over the baby as if it was the most normal thing in the world, she said, ‘Oh, but he looked so lovely.’ I remember telling her that she couldn’t possibly keep him as he wasn’t hers and she kept saying how lovely he’d looked in the pram as if it was justification for taking him in the first place.

In that way that dreams have of seeming to be so real and ‘normal’ we carried this on for a while and then I found myself walking with the pram, presumably to return the baby. I remember walking across a large open common with lots of people around and some policemen gathered around a house on the other side, who I thought must have had something to do with the missing baby so I aimed for them. I have no idea what happened next because I then found myself dreaming about Stephen dancing around in a kilt and flower-patterned wellies!

I told my colleague about the dream the next morning. She is mid-forties and has a 15yr old daughter and said she hoped the dream wasn’t real because she has nothing to do with babies anymore.

This morning I got to work and she told me about her 15yr old daughter somehow ending up looking after a friend’s 4 month old baby at the weekend. I can’t remember all the details of what happened but the police got involved because the mother has depression and hadn’t returned to collect her baby on time. My colleague was worried about her daughter being left to look after such a young baby and had told her daughter she couldn’t possibly continue to do so.

If I hadn’t told my colleague about the dream she would have thought I was making it up if I’d told her about the dream afterwards. Was it a premonition? I have no idea. Is it coincidence that the content of the dream (baby that wasn’t hers and the police involvement) and the events at the weekend are so similar? Again, I have no idea.

In the early seventies I was in the RAF and, probably about 1972, I remember asking people what had happened to Concorde when it crashed on a test flight. I have no idea where the knowledge came from but there it was in my head as if I’d heard it from the TV or a newspaper and couldn’t remember the source. Nobody knew what I was talking about because Concorde hadn’t crashed on a test flight.

In 1973 I was watching the news and the main item was about the TU144 (the Russian equivalent of Concorde) crashing at the Paris air show. The two planes were almost identical. I knew as I watched the news that this was what I’d been asking about a year or two earlier. But then, in July 2000, Concorde crashed on take-off from Paris.

So which one had I been asking about in 1972?

November 05, 2012

Morning Sunshine

I love the sunshine through the lounge curtains first thing in the morning. It’s a vibrant, warm glow full of energy. We haven’t seen a lot of sunshine recently and this morning it was a more than welcome sight to come down and see this. It makes me want to leave the curtains closed as well as throwing them open to greet the day.

When I woke up this morning it was to bright sunshine and the feeling I want to leap out of bed and do something. In reality, I came downstairs and made a cup of tea and then sat down to write. I suppose that’s doing something though, isn’t it? I sit and want to write at other times and nothing comes to me so I should be making the most of this.

My latest project seems to be developing in a very different way to the others. I’ve been letting my characters develop and grow before starting to write a story and in doing so I can feel a story growing out of my characters.

I sometimes worry that I’ve got more than one thing on the go at the same time, but that goes back to realising I’ve left a trail of unfinished projects behind me in life, whether art, writing, or some other hobby I’ve picked up along the way. The projects I’ve got going at the moment are all ones I keep re-visiting and want to go back to. I’ve also realised I might not finish one or two of them for years. At least one of them may well grow into something quite big and that will need a lot of research and writing. It will also need a lot of editing. So I’ve started to worry less about unfinished projects and learnt to concentrate on growing the projects I’m working on. They will come about in their own time.

And now for some of that washing up that’s waiting in the sink - before the water goes cold.

October 28, 2012

Getting It Writ

I’m trying to write a short story for the Get it Writ competition as part of the Essex Book Festival 2013. A story in 500 words sounds a bit of a challenge so I thought I’d have a go but I’m not getting very far at the moment. I sit and look at a blank page and then find myself on the internet ‘looking for inspiration’ but in reality reading the BBC news pages, checking my email, or writing this blog. Needless to say I’m not finding the inspiration I need.

I’ve got stories I’ve already written and I’ve thought about adapting one of those to 500 words but the theme for the competition is ‘The Legacy of Summer 2012’ (interpreted in whatever way I like) and none of them seem to fit however much I think they might. What I need is a new story.

The challenge is going to be finding a beginning that grips the reader straight away and telling the story in very few words and then wrapping it all up. 500 words is not a lot to tell a story in.

Hemingway was once challenged that he couldn’t write a story in six words. He wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Brilliant. There’s a wealth of story in those few words and it’s up to the reader to make what they will of it. I’ve got 500 as my challenge.

I downloaded an app recently called Freedom that locks you away from the internet for a chosen amount of time so you can be productive. The only way to unlock it is to restart the computer. I guess the thinking behind it is that restarting takes time so you would carry on being productive in whatever you’re doing. I think the reason I keep shying away from using it at the moment is that I have no idea what to write.

Writer’s block? Wikipedia defines writer’s block as “a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.”

I’m hoping things aren’t that drastic! I’m just having a hiccup with inspiration.

October 22, 2012

The Hell of Heaven on Earth

Oh God! It’s that time of year again. Time for the streets to fill with mindless hordes rushing hither and thither pandering to the commercialism that fleeces their pockets and stuffs their bellies, making penniless, debt-ridden, fat paupers of them all.

I know that’s a bit strong, but when you watch the Christmas-obsessive pushing two mountainous, overflowing trolleys of food and unwanted presents around the supermarket that’s about to cost them over £300, you have to wonder what they’re going to do with it all. Feed their entire family, complete with all near and distant relatives? Feed their street? Solve the homeless and hungry situation? Feed the nation? You can bet it isn’t the only shopping trip they will make either. You just know some of it will end up as landfill when it goes out of date or is so left-over it’s going mouldy in the fridge. And all this on the credit card; paid for in plastic from an account that will only exist once the card has been swiped.

The baubles, bangles and glitter would do Versace proud and only serve to highlight the contrast between the bright lights of obscene opulence and the poverty of the homeless person sleeping in the doorway of the shop selling it all. How many people stop to speak to them and give them a handout on their way to fattening the bellies of their well-off and well-fed bank managers? Do not presume the person in the shop doorway is there through choice or a perverse want. They are not some form of alien scum or a violent scrounger; they are you and me. It is not ‘there but for the grace of God go I ...’ but rather ‘there because of the vagaries of society go they…’. A civilised world would be taking care of them rather than taking care of themselves. But that’s the Western way of life. Christmas will create more stressed and depressed people than are sleeping on the streets each year.

Surely, if Jesus ever existed he would be turning over the market stalls and casting the wealth of the gluttonous to the masses. I’m sure he would have been sickened to see what we do as celebration in his name.

If we’re going to celebrate Christmas as a time of family and love, then we need to think about our fellow humans and the need for love they have rather than the need for love we have. Jesus was not born in a department store, nor did he spend his life in one.

I am not a believer in God or Jesus, but I am a believer in the philosophy on life the Bible, and all other religious teachings, preaches. Love and compassion for your fellow man? Bah, humbug.

October 06, 2012

Maldon Art Trail

This last week has been an enlightening and eye-opening one. The culmination of some months of organising has finally seen the Maldon Art Trail come to fruition. It is deeply satisfying to see the artworks on show and to have been part of the process that brought it together.

I've been quite surprised at the diversity of work on show and more than a little proud to be living in an area that can produce such work. I am also proud of the businesses that have given so much valuable window space to display the work of local artists and entered into the community spirit. They have been enthusiastic and eager about the event all along. It is very encouraging that my home town can give so much for nothing. The artists paid a nominal fee to enter the Art Trail (£20) but the venues give it up for free. Some, like Reeves in the High Street, have given their entire window space to the artists on show in their shop.

From a personal perspective, I have gained much pleasure from being involved in the making of the Art Trail and have gained a lot of passion not only for future Art Trails and what it can offer the artists and the town, but also for the artists themselves and for the town. Maldon has a lot to offer already but it could be so much more of an attraction given the right mindset by the local councils.

Next year, I would like to see performing arts, such as circus skills, street theatre and music, in the streets of Maldon. This would necessitate road closures but choosing the right roads would make this easier. To close off the High Street takes more money and insurance and organising than I think MDC could afford - but never say never. One possibility would be to hold such an event around the Silver Street area, just off the High Street and in the centre of town.

I think the Art Trail can also 'trail' its way through the year by having events (talks, demonstrations, workshops, etc) throughout the year, say every couple of months. This would keep awareness alive, help to bring in funds, and to recruit much-needed volunteers for the Art Trail committee.

I'd love to see more artists and more venues and to be able to reach artists who have never exhibited before. Maldon Art Trail can become an event that brings more and more people from out of town than ever before and I'd like to be part of that.

As a new committee our learning curve this year has been steep but it will make things so much easier for following years. Once this week is over properly we will have time to sit back and reflect on what went well and what needs improvement and what more can we do in future years. For the moment I'd like to sit back and enjoy it … and to celebrate what we have achieved.

September 29, 2012

A Weekend Away

We’re sitting in the fabulous lounge of the Blue Boar in Maldon. A quirkier hotel I’ve never visited. It’s stuffed with old furniture, large gilt-framed portraits, Romanesque statues holding lamps and wooden beams. The floors all slope in one direction or another, whatever floor you’re on, and the whole building has a perfect imperfectness about it, right down to the frayed split in the carpet upstairs to the bubbling, torn wallpaper on the wall in our room. In the lounge where we’re sitting, there is a ‘lover’s chair’ (seats facing in opposing directions) and a triskele chair, arms radiating out from the centre in a spiral. Marble-topped tables sit in front of some of the chairs and our tea tray sits on one of them. Over the lounge fireplace hangs a portrait of a naked woman reclining on a bed. This theme seems to be carried on upstairs on one floor in particular, where a row of nubile nakedness flanks either side of a corridor. I can only imagine one of the owners had a partiality for womanly flesh.

The other intriguing pictures hang in our bedroom. The one to the left is separated from the one to the right by about 10 feet and by a world of speculation. The viewer is left to draw their own conclusions about the story behind the paintings and the motives of both artist and purchaser.

The other part worth mentioning is the amazing dining room (left). The candelabra theme is continued right through to the Turkish Prince (well, he looks like one) with the candelabra on his head. Over the top is definitely the name of the game of this hotel. The proprietor calls it 'comfortable', we called it quirky and eccentric. Whatever it is, it's definitely worth seeing and staying in.

The building itself is 14th Century and sits on Silver Street, the location of the town mint long ago. At the front are a pair of tall gates where the coaches would once have turned in off the road. The view in here is almost of a medieval street; Tudor walls running one side of the cobbled alleyway and the hotel the other side. Somewhere at the back is the Maldon Brewery, which brews Puck’s Folly - a pint or two of which will be imbibed tonight.

This afternoon we took a tour of the Moot Hall and I eventually got to go on the roof, something I’d never done before despite living in Maldon for about 25 years. Mind you, it’s taken Stephen moving here from Brighton to get me out seeing more of the local area than I would otherwise have done. But I guess that’s the way of a lot of people. We’re more likely to see the other side of the world these days than we are the other side of our home town.

Bed tonight will be a four-poster facing the window that looks out at the tower of St. Peter’s church, the only triangular tower in the country and possibly in Europe.

September 04, 2012

Questions Only The Birds Can Answer

The familiar sight of a line of geese flying in a 'V' formation led me to thinking about why they do this and whether the birds are aware of what they are doing.

The birds behind the leader are flying in the slipstream of the birds in front so making flying easier. On long migrations this saves vital energy. If you watch the formation, you will notice they rotate the leader, taking it in turns to fly at the front, sharing the workload between them. An ornithologist may argue that the birds know what they are doing, but I wondered if they understand why they do it. I would guess that if I were a goose, I would know that flying behind my fellow geese was easier than flying in front, but I'm not sure I would have an understanding of the physics of the slipstream.

I watched three pigeons from my bedroom window once. At first I thought they were lying in the field opposite because they were dead. They were lying on their sides with one wing seeming to flap in the breeze. They caught my eye because three dead pigeons together would have been highly unusual apart from the fact they were all lying on the same side of their bodies and all facing the same way. And then one after another they rolled onto the other side and lifted the other wing. At the time it was raining lightly and I could only assume they were taking the equivalent of a shower, washing their wingpits. Did the pigeons know what they were doing and why they were doing it? It seemed to me they were quite aware of what they were doing but I couldn't say they knew why they were doing it.

It's now known that some animals, such as giraffe and elephants, will surround, and apparently guard their dead. Giraffes are known to stay with dead young, sometimes for a few days, even splaying their legs to bend down to the bodies, something not usually done by them except to drink. Splaying their legs to bend puts them in a vulnerable position. Elephants will stop and investigate other dead elephants, often staying with the bodies for some time. What is it that makes them behave in this fashion? Do they know the animal is dead, and if so, why do they stay with the body if there is no emotional attachment? For the giraffe, is it because she is following a deep-seated instinct to nurture and care for her baby or to mourn its passing, or both? Do elephants investigate their dead and stay with them out of recognition of the passing of the dead animal?

I read recently that insects give off certain chemicals, or an odour, that may warn off other insects in order to preserve others from suffering the same fate. It may be disease, poisoning, or predators that have killed them and the odour or chemical serves as a warning or even to pass on some immunity in small doses. As insects don't seem to have been observed exhibiting similar behaviours to animals, it can be said this is a chemical process rather than an emotional one or an instinctive one - apart from the insect recognising the chemical and behaving accordingly. If animals give off something similar when they die, why do their fellows stay with them?

As humans we often humanise animals, dressing our dogs and even cats in human clothing, giving them names, feeding them human food, but they are a different species and we often fail to treat them as such, wanting them to do what we want them to do. We will see human traits where there are none and reward or punish behaviour that we do not understand and the animal will learn to modify its behaviour according to those rewards and punishments, particularly dogs. Certain species of animal have long ago been domesticated and live alongside humans very well; in the case of dogs, even seeing us as pack leaders. But this is not to say they behave like us, think like us, or see the world in the same way as us. We may be their guardians for a while, and even call them friend, but we are not the same.

There are things we do not understand about other species and probably never will, we can only go some way towards understanding and then guess at the rest, but without being that animal we will never know.

So, do geese understand why they fly in a 'V' formation, do giraffes and elephants understand that another of their species has come to the end of its life? Perhaps these are existential questions that only the birds and animals can answer.


"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else." — Emily Dickinson

September 01, 2012

A Handbag?

Some years ago I remember a friend of mine emptying her rather large handbag to find something hidden in the depths. It was like Mary Poppins's carpet bag pouring onto the table. She had make up, hairbrush, books, a can of WD40, perfume, screws, screwdrivers, a monkey wrench and other personal and handy items. I couldn't believe so much came out of a comparatively small space. She said she carried them 'just in case - you never know when they might come in handy'.

So what do I carry with me? In my bag I have:

  • My MacBook Air Laptop
  • A4 drawing pad
  • Tin of pens and pencils
  • Waterproof jacket (mac in a sack)
  • A list of things I've already discussed with our CEO (still not thrown that one away)
  • Pen
  • Small notebook
  • Anti-inflammatory tablets (getting older and stiffer)
  • The complete works of Shakespeare (manageable size bought for 50p in a book sale in the local church)
  • Calendula cream
  • Tin of mackerel fillets (just in case)

It seems the larger the bag, the more I put in it. I used to try and limit myself to mobile phone, wallet, keys and tobacco, which were usually stuffed into pockets about my person. Then I bought a small bag not much bigger than my wallet that I could get everything in to keep it in one place and free up my bulging pockets. Now I have a rucksack so I don't have to carry anything in my hands - something I hate doing when I'm out and about. I don't smoke any more so the tobacco has gone (you would have thought this would free up some space).

Do I need all these things? Probably not. I carry them in case I want to read, make notes for my writings, sketch or draw ideas for calligraphy or just to keep up my drawing skills. The anti-inflammatory tablets I'm taking every day at the moment, the calendula cream helps soothe mozzy bites and eczema (something I only developed recently much to my annoyance). My laptop is handy so I can edit the websites I maintain, write stories and make notes for story ideas and write blog posts (I'm writing this at work).

If I had to carry my bag around with me like a handbag I wouldn't have so much in it, but because it slings over my shoulders and leaves my hands free it is more convenient. I might sound like I'm making excuses here but they are my excuses and I'm comfortable with them. Besides, I like the bag.

And the tin of mackerel fillets? Well you never know what predicament I might find myself in.

Peals and Pints

Here in Goldhanger we are blessed with some delightful bell ringing from St. Peter’s church. The church is right next door to The Chequers. This seems to be Very Important. The Chequers is about half the age of the church - the church being Norman in origin - and is also an important place in Goldhanger. A service, ceremony or bell ringing practise is often followed by a visit to the pub next door. This must have been happening here for almost 500 years. The church is about 30 metres from our front door so the bell ringing can be heard quite clearly and the pub can be accessed quite quickly.

Somebody from the group of local campanologists writes in our Parish Magazine each month and, although some of the technical terms are a bit beyond me, makes for a very interesting read. It’s like waiting for the next instalment of The Archers each month. They go all over England, mainly East Anglia, ringing at other churches and seem to be very proficient at what they do. Considering the way the author of the monthly articles in the Parish Magazine writes, I’ve thought of asking if they would set up their own blog. The writing each month is interesting, entertaining and informative.

Recently, Stephen and I were out on a bike ride (the pedal-powered kind) and stopped off at one of our sister Parish churches at Great Totham. There is no pub very close to this church, although The Bull is not far away but it wouldn’t be as easy for the bell ringers there to end up in the pub. The bell ropes are clearly visible at the back of the church, as opposed to Goldhanger where they are behind a curtain beyond where the organ sits. On the wall was a plaque describing the death knell, something you don’t see every day! I found this fascinating partly because I had never thought of the Death Knell as a descriptive thing in the sense that it tells sex, age and time of death of a person. This differs from parish to parish it seems but a series of strokes on the bells were/are rung at intervals. It would be interesting to see how similar todays death knell is to that of the late 18th century. 

Death knells were rung at the time of death up to the late 18th century. Communities would have been far smaller and closer than they are now and this would have been possible back then. By the end of the 19th century the death knell was rung as soon as notice reached the clerk of the church, unless the sun had set, in which case it was rung early the next morning. The death knell differed from one parish to another but ‘tellers’ were almost universal and denoted the sex of the person - the ‘tellers’ differing from parish to parish. At Great Totham three strokes for male or two for female are given on each bell.

So, a simple plaque in a nearby church sparked an interest that I will research further. I intend taking a photograph of this plaque to explain the death knell some more. And I still might ask the local bell ringers - perhaps over a beer or two - if they have considered starting a blog.

August 26, 2012


Sunday morning started by herding cows up the lane to the cow sheds ready for the vet on Monday morning. Leah called them and they came to the gate readily. They all knew where they were going and we just followed waving our blue plastic sticks bravely in case any of them wandered out of line. The bull and a cow with wonky horns looked about the most fearsome. We had nothing to worry about though and walked gently, with a lot of bellowing, up a lane overflowing with ferns and tall spikes of pink flowers (the name of which escapes me for the moment).

Ty Glyn Walled Garden later that morning was a sheer delight. With practically no signposting to its whereabouts, it is almost a secret garden. Off the beaten track and down a narrow lane, it would escape the notice of even the most seasoned traveller unless you knew it was there. Beautifully laid out it was overflowing with abundant beds of colour and scents. A very tranquil place to be.

The Welsh drizzle (English rain) came and went in dribs and drabs and never really affected us all week. When it rained we were indoors and when it didn't, we were outdoors and we were outdoors most of the the time.

Aberaeron is a delightful little town with pastel coloured houses and a beautiful harbour where the Aeron flows into the Irish Sea. We bought fish and chips here to take home. There is a lookout point built on the edge of the harbour, but it wasn't clear what we were supposed to be looking out for! We looked out anyway. Sue and Leah stayed down below and chatted with no idea that we were looking out above them. We didn't see anything of significance, except the Irish Sea.

Kidwelly Castle (yes, really) is the best preserved castle in Europe. Built overlooking the River Gwendraethit has well-preserved walls and a tower with a stone roof remaining in place - the only tower we could climb to get a view of the surrounding countryside the rest of the castle. A sculpture exhibition here included a small play castle festooned with kids' wellies!

The reservoir at Llyn Briane is beautiful (show me somewhere that wasn't on our travels). Dubbed 'Little Switzerland' it is about 250 feet deep at the deepest point and stretches a good couple of miles through the valley it flooded. Driving back through the Cambrian Mountains it became clear how isolated this area is. We drove for about an hour along narrow single track roads and passed about 3 cars. People who live out here need large freezers and large pantries. At a crossroads in the middle of nowhere we passed a phone box (no phone in it) and postbox.

The RSPB bird reserve at Gwenffrwd-Dinas was lovely but we didn't walk all the way round as it was wet and rugged and Tim wouldn't have made it.

August 17, 2012

Roots - Knowledge or DNA?

Some years back I visited Kenya and Tanzania. I had never been before - although I had spoken at length to someone who lived in Kenya during the 60s and left when he was 16 - and I had no idea what it would be like apart from the descriptions of another person living there. I've never forgotten the feeling when I stepped from the 'plane in Nairobi and felt very strongly that I knew this place. Somewhere deep inside me I felt as though I had come home.

There were things I recognised that could not have been explained to me in such a familiar fashion; the smells of the land and the populated areas, air humidity and the temperature, the sound of the Serengeti and the villages and towns, voices. It was at once strange and unfamiliar and yet known and familiar. I could not explain it.

As distant as it seems, a visit to Sutton Hoo in Suffolk gave me a similar feeling. The link we share with Angles, Saxons and Vikings as peoples of these island countries is evident from their history and their legacy. Our language, eating habits, laws and customs, all share a commonality with our ancestors. I felt the past sweeping up behind me and knew the ground I stood on as my own. This I can explain - I am English, born and bred. What this doesn't explain is why I feel these things and how I could feel them, when I stepped from the 'plane in Nairobi, for a land that isn't mine.

Or is it?

Is my sense of place and the subconscoius memory of where I come from contained in my DNA? Where did the strength of feeling for a country I have never visited before come from? If I felt it in other places I could understand that it may be a vicarious sense of belonging rather than a real one, but I do not feel it in other countries I have contemplated living in - Italy, for instance. I love Italy, but I do not feel as though I have anything other than wonderful memories of the country. I have been to France so many times there are areas that are extremely familiar to me, but I do not feel as though it is home. The sense of coming home I felt in Africa seemed to be ancient and deeper than that, something below the ancient, deep sense of home I experience in England.

So where does that sense of belonging come from in England, in the place I call home? From the land around me; the Estuary and its tides, the stark and beautiful landscape in winter and the richness of it in summer. From a knowledge of my local area and its history, and from the people who surround me; friends, neighbours, family. That sense of belonging extends to the shores of this island, the commonality of language and shared customs, and a history that has made us who we are - generally speaking.

Perhaps it is that one is a learned belonging; something that grows and develops within the sphere of existence and awareness that I inhabit.

But what of the other?

August 07, 2012

Henschke 2001 Chardonnay

The wine was rather beautiful, by the way. Drinking it out of the right glasses added to the experience.

August 05, 2012


 The sound of a Villeroy & Boch wine glass empty.

 The sound of a Villeroy & Boch wine glass containing Henschke 2001 Chardonnay.

August 01, 2012

An Unexpectedly Large Uninvited Garden Visitor

It's not every day we see this strutting about on the bathroom roof as though it owns the place. We think it must have been looking for somewhere to roost and got lost. Apparently there has been a peahen in Goldhanger for about 2 months now - so the one Stephen saw in the street a couple of weeks ago wasn't imagination after all!

The cat might have needed long-term therapy had she seen it, but I don't think she had. In any case she stayed indoors well out of harm's way. The peahen would have probably come off better in any altercation between them anyway.

July 25, 2012

Richard III at The Globe

Had a wonderful day out with my man on Sunday just gone – not that every day isn’t wonderful with him. Starting with the Alan Turing exhibition at the Science Museum – very interesting and poignant, the man was way ahead of his time and we seem to be only now understanding some of the theories he posited – we followed on with a trip down the Thames to Greenwich on the river ferry, a catamaran. The weather was more than we could have asked for and the sun shone all the way. The city is interesting from the river and seeing all the converted Wharfs made me think about the shipping there once was on the river (see last post about Thames Barges).

The day ended with a production of Richard III at The Globe. Incredible. The acting, the costumes, the theatre were all wonderful. The bit that sticks out in my memory was the dialogue between Queen Elizabeth and Richard III when Richard is asking for Elizabeth’s daughter to marry him and the Queen is berating him for the venomous person he has become and for killing the Princes, her sons, in the Tower. The dialogue delivery was spellbinding. The audience erupted when Samuel Beckett, who played Queen Elizabeth (it was an all-male cast) had finished and was leaving the stage.

This was the first production I have seen in English – the last being “Merry Wives of Windsor” in Swahili and “Love’s Labours Lost” in British Sign Language – and I shan’t forget it in a hurry. Now I want to read Richard III as I feel I shall understand more of it than previously. When you have actors who deliver the lines as if they are speaking everyday language it becomes more understandable than the poetic sing-song delivery of some of the older actors I’ve seen on TV.

July 15, 2012

Thames Sailing Barge "British Empire"

Looking into the Thames Barge British Empire
About 15 years ago I got involved with a group of people intent on restoring the Thames Sailing Barge "British Empire". For various reasons the endeavour didn't work and the idea folded. At the time I distinctly remember visiting the barge at Battlesbridge and being able to walk on the deck, albeit treading carefully around the rotting wood.

I was greatly saddened today to return to Battlesbridge and to find the British Empire rotting and completely forgotten behind the main car park for the antiques centre. There is now no noticeable deck left and the hull is so rotten it would take a complete re-build to make anything of the craft. It looks as though it is now used as a skip for rubbish, mainly car tyres it seems, from the antiques and craft centre. Looking down into the hull of the boat was heartbreaking; the rotting deck completely broken by the rubbish hurled indiscriminately into her. She is now a rubbish tip rather then the hard-working vessel she once was.

An excerpt from the pages of the Mersea Museum website reads:
"BRITISH EMPIRE was built 1899 by Stone Bros., Brightlingsea Bros at Brightlingsea for Henry Howe of Colchester and in her earlier years was employed in taking hay to London. Official No. 109616. She was Colchester based throughout her working life and an engine was installed in 1951. She continued in trade until about 1955 when she sank loaded off Brightlingsea, her skipper at the time was Ray Green. She was raised and sold to Brown the Chelmsford timber merchant for use as a lighter in Heybridge Basin when the register was closed 3 Feb 1955. She was sold and rerigged 1978, but has finished up as a hulk at Battlesbridge."
With the article there is a photograph of her as a Stackie being towed downstream at Colchester.

Thames Barge British Empire - centre of picture
And now she lies forgotten and rotting beside a busy car park in Battlesbridge. I would guess the majority of visitors to Battlesbridge Antiques Centre have no idea of her existence just out of sight beyond the car park wall.

On the Thames Sailing Barges website, she is the only vessel listed without a photograph. That's not to say she is the only barge that has rotted out of existence, but I had kind of hoped that one day someone would come along and rescue her for her name alone. A pipe dream perhaps; she would take more than extensive work to restore her now, she would almost have to be built again from scratch.

Rotting hull of the British Empire
It was my involvement with the people who wanted to see her restored that got me more and more interested in the Thames Barges. I live near Maldon and they are an intrinsic part of the locale. They can be seen sailing up and down the Blackwater almost every day, apart from the spectacular sight of them moored at the Hythe in Maldon - something the majority of visitors to Maldon will be familiar with.

The British Empire was registered in Colchester and no doubt worked out of there most of the time, but she would have visited Maldon and surrounding farms and villages because that's what they did.

For anyone who will have sailed on one of these marvellous vessels it is an unforgettable experience. With a draft of 6 feet and the ability to be sailed by 'one man, a boy and his dog' they were marvels of their time indeed.