Monday, 19 August 2019

Casting a Net - Jan Edwards

For a recent story acceptance I was asked to provide a short insight into the inspiration behind my fiction. And as always that question gave me pause for deep thought. Where do those ideas begin?
Most of us will recall being given a word of phrase as inspiration to write a story for homework. It was good practice for spotting a headline or story in a newspaper, or maybe an incident at work or with friends, which sparked that train of thought.
Writing fantasy and horror it is the folklore and local legends that have always been a passion that figure large in my back catalogue. I readily admit to plundering those sources, but the resources are vast and forgiving. That said, a seed of inspiration is needed to even begin to know where to start in such a sea of riches.
Mermaid's Pool -
between Leek and Buxton
The market for this story had the wide open guideline of Folk Horror, which is a vast area that means different things to different people. Think Algernon Blackwood or Alan Garner, or in the origins of British Folk Horror cinema think The Wicker Man.

My original idea was to re calibrate the legend close to where I lived of Mermaid’s Pool, high up in the Peak District (and many miles inland!). But somehow the idea of isolated pools inhabited by mysterious creatures drew me inexorably to my Sussex roots and my story quickly became a product of a childhood steeped in Sussex (UK) folklore.
Silent Pool - nr Guildford
There are tales of pools inhabited by water spirits all over the country but the one that superseded the Peak District mermaid in my imagination was the Silent Pool – situated just across the Sussex border, between Guildford and Dorking in Surrey. Like many of the tales it is reported to be both bottomless and silent; that no birds will fly over it or sing near it. And when the portents are in line the spirit of a young woman, who threw herself into the water to save her virtue from an evil Lord, will appear. 
The Silent Pool story is surprisingly similar to that of the Mermaid’s Pool where a Mermaid was brought home by a love-sick sailor and died of despair because she missed the sea. I am fairly sure most people will have heard a similar tale close to where they live.  Most derive from pagan roots, as are most of the well springs that now bear saints names.
Knucker (Water Dragon) 
Sussex is my home county and water holes of strange origin will inevitable become the domain of Sussex’s very own breed of water dragon - known as Knuckers - which live in those deep and silent pools. 
The most famous Knucker tale comes from Lyminster (nr Littlehampton). 
Knucker Hole, Lyminster
The Lyminster knucker pool is said to be both ‘bottomless’ and fed by a natural spring. Among the many legends in the villages, and continuing with the dragon theme,  St Leonard’s  Forest (nr Horsham) a dragon  was reported in a news pamphlet of 1614 as, “…a nine foot long dragon that killed men with its poison, but didn't eat them, preferring rabbits and smaller creatures. It was coloured black, with a red belly.”
Dew Pond, Chanctonbury, Sussex
Okay, so now I had a knucker and a mystical pool, but being Sussex the pool may also be an especially deep dew pond – connected to a magically imbued spring (both of which abound  in plenty across Sussex and beyond). 
I felt it also required a stretch of Downland and what better to include than the folklore of pagan tree rings found along the downs (Cissbury, Chanctonbury etc), and also that of Downland myths as a whole; a The Devils Dyke (Brighton) being the best known, and which led me to the stalwart of so many legends worldwide, that of a guardian(s) of gate/well/portal. Add all of those elements together and d the stage was set for my folk horror tale, the ‘Devil’s Piss Pot’ (Publication TBA).
Chanctonbury Tree Circle (hill fort)
Yet including all of those elements was not really a conscious act. They sneaked in, one by one, and settled on the page like rooks in an elm tree, squawking to be let in.  
So when asked where the ideas come from, though I usually just reply ‘they are just there’, I tried hard to analyse the inspiration, and how all of those elements seemed to fit. My insight was shorter than this blog, and my initial answer was shorter still.
I just know that when I cast my net toward tales of myth and legend it will always brings me a good catch.
You can read more about Jan and her Bunch Courtney books on her blog HERE

IN HER DEFENCE is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats.
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WINTER DOWNS:  Amazon (paper and kindle)  US  / UK/  /  AU / Indie Bound /Book Depository /Wordery Digital sources: Apple /  Barnes and Noble Nook  /Kobo / Kindle, Overdrive

Saturday, 17 August 2019

My Obsession with Big Cats, by Elizabeth Kay

The real thing

My illustration of a lion

It all started with a book I was given as a child, Animal Life of the World. It was published in 1934, and reflects the values and attitudes of the time. The photographs were all in black and white, and the chapter titles were quaintly imaginative. Little Bandits of our Hills and Hedgerows, Leather-sided Giants, Animals Verging on Extinction (the Thylacine was still going at this point), and The Big Cats. I must have been given this book before I could read, because initially I just looked at the pictures. The chapter entitled Big Game of Other Days (note the word game!) fascinated me, with its photographs of model iguanodons and megalosauruses in realistic swampy settings. I couldn’t tell the difference between them and a photograph of a live animal, and I assumed that dinosaurs were alive and well and living in a remote part of Africa, as I’d never seen them at the zoo. The book had a profound effect on me, and I wanted to see all these creatures in their natural habitats. Once I could read, the text was a mine of information, and some pictures caught my imagination more than others.

Cheetah, in Kenya
            There were a lot of lions and tigers and leopards, but the cat that I found the most threatening was the black panther. The legend underneath the photo went as follows: The Black Panther is a powerful creature, very dangerous and liable to become a man-eater. As this animal does not turn even from putrid flesh, the wounds it inflicts on human beings are liable to blood-poisoning.
The Scottish wildcat - the only cat that has
never been tamed by anyone. I saw this one at
the British Wildlife Centre, in Lingfield.
            This now looks like a load of tosh, as the black panther is not a species in its own right, but just a melanistic leopard or jaguar. Jaguars hardly ever attack humans, and are never man-eaters in the sense that the Kumaon man-eaters were. This notorious pair of Indian leopards killed 525 people all told, a decade or so before the book was published, so the events were fresh in people’s memories. Although all cats are opportunistic, putrid flesh isn’t top of the menu, and all wounds inflicted by a bite in a hot climate are liable to infection.
Jaguar, Brazil
These were pre-antibiotic days, as well.
            Nevertheless, as a child I longed for opportunities to see these creatures first-hand, but never thought I’d get the chance when it took six weeks by boat to get to India. It’s a very different matter today, when flights are fast and relatively cheap, but even when I first visited Kenya in 1993 and saw lions for real I never thought I’d get to repeat the experience. Since then, I’ve totted up quite a few big cats. As well as the lions there have been tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, lynxes, servals… But I’ve never managed to see a leopard, after 11 attempts. It’s become a bit of an obsession.
Last year in India...
            Big cats feature a lot in children’s books. The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia, Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. Adults get a rather more unpleasant version in The Life of Pi. Richard Parker, the tiger, is a much darker character than Tigger. The only time I wrote about a big cat myself was for a radio play that was broadcast in the 1980s. It was about an escaped tiger, and in those days Chessington World of Adventures was Chessington Zoo, so I went there to talk to the tiger keeper. I asked him how long he’d being doing the job, and he said, “Too long.” He regarded the profession as being very dangerous indeed, and it was clear that he was terrified of his charges. My escaped radio tiger didn’t kill anyone, and voluntarily returned to her enclosure where she felt safe.
             These days, I tend to paint the animals I photograph both on holiday and in zoos, and I’ve used them in illustrations for Kindle versions of books published traditionally. A lot of the time I didn’t particularly like the original illustrations, so re-doing them stopped me infringing someone else’s copyright. It faithfully illustrated the text rather than having someone else’s version – which was often inaccurate, as the illustrator hadn’t read it properly,  and it saved me forfeiting royalties for illustrations I resented. The best illustrator I ever had was for a Japanese edition, where every tiny detail was spot-on. I wrote to thank her, heard nothing for six months, and then the original of my favourite picture arrived from her from Japan. I was really touched; what a lovely thing to do.  
The leopard I've yet to see - illustration for Hunted
            There is something very quest-like, about setting out to find and observe a particular animal. Some years ago I decided it was time a saw an adder, our only native venomous snake, in the wild. I covered a lot of south-east England, getting nowhere, until someone suggested the heath section of my local common, ten minutes from where I live. I’ve been watching them ever since, more brightly patterned after shedding their skins in the spring, lively in the height of summer, sluggish and dull-coloured in the autumn. Last year I had my third attempt at seeing tigers in the wild. The first time had been in Karnataka, where I saw pug marks and tiger poo (white with calcium like hyena poo, because they often eat the bones). The second time was Bandhavgarh, where the other two jeeps saw them and we didn’t. The last time was Tadoba, where we saw them every day except for the last, when we saw a sloth bear instead. And yes, it was magical. When this post goes live I will be in Botswana, having yet another go at seeing a leopard.

The Iberian lynx, the rarest big cat in the world. I was lucky enough to see this one in Spain.

So what is it about big cats that makes them so fascinating? Their grace? Their beauty? Their athleticism? I don’t like watching kills on TV, although cats are usually quick and efficient about it and preferable to canines, who aren’t too bothered about whether something is dead before they start eating it. At home, I’m not a cat person. I value the birds in my garden too much. But then, moggy next door isn’t capable of dispatching me with one swipe of her paw. My most memorable big cat moment was when I made eye contact with a tigress. She was only a couple of feet away from me. I was seated in an open-topped jeep, and I could have leaned out and touched her. She considered me briefly although she was, I think, merely curious. But is there any other animal that gets the heart rate going quite so fast?

Friday, 16 August 2019

On Time, Travel and Tartan by Wendy H. Jones

Book Signing - Beans in the Belfry, Brunswick, Maryland

No, not Time Travel. That's a perfect example, right there, of why commas are important. Firstly, apologies for my lack of posts lately. This does not indicate my lack of willingness to post but my ability to lose track of time. I should post on the 16th of every month but the deadline goes whizzing past at a great rate of knots and there's another month gone. Who else feels like trying to keep track of time is like counting grains of sand in the Sahara? I'm sure there are more than a few hands up there. Maybe some of you have 2 hands up. That refers to the first part of my title - Time. 

The second part - Travel - is what I am doing at the moment. I am on a book tour of the United States. I am doing book signings and speaking at conferences in several states. You'd think I would have even less time to write blogs or keep track of deadlines. You would be wrong. It appears when I travel I have a lot more time on my hands for writing and keeping track of dates. There are less pressures on my time and I'm not watching as much television. Although I have to admit to having developed a new love of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Anyway, I digress. With less pressing things on my mind, I've found that time stretches further. This has given me pause for thought. What is it that is sucking time for me during my normal day to day life. What could I give up doing that would free up time. I would previously have said, give up travelling so much but I've found out that is not the solution. It has made me do a lot of soul searching and think more clearly about where my priorities lie. It may. be worth you doing the same.

On to more exciting things. This trip is turning out to be a total blast. I'm having so much fun, meeting nice people, signing lots of books and doing what I love best. In between all of this I am writing up a storm. I am currently staying in Shepherdstown, WV, and I did a book signing at a delightful book store called Four Seasons Books. The day was a sell out success and they have invited me back for another signing later in my trip. 

Book Signing - Four Seasons Books, Shepherdstown, WV
You may note from the pictures that the common denominator is my final part of the title - Tartan. I am wearing my highland dress sash in my clan tartan, 'Ancient MacLaren'. I was asked if I could do this and, of course, being Scottish, I agreed immediately. I'm always up for wearing a bit of tartan and proudly demonstrating I am Scottish. It certainly works as a conversation starter and cheers up any event. My trip will take me to several states and will include all my series - The DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries, Cass Claymore Investigates, The Fergus and Flora Mysteries and, of course, the wee man himself, Bertie the Buffalo. In keeping with the tartan theme he's got himself a kilt - evidence below. 

Bertie at the Airport Ready for his trip

He's also out as a soft toy and he insisted I show you. He is rather cute and the eyes are fabulous. Seriously, how can you resist those eyes. 

Bertie the Buffalo, Book and Toy

My advice to you, when it comes to marketing leave nothing out. Look at arranging a book tour, enjoy every minute and, of course, if you can, wear tartan. 

About the Author

Wendy H Jones is the Amazon Number 1 best-selling author of the award winning DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries. Her Young Adult Mystery, The Dagger’s Curse was a finalist in the Woman Alive Readers Choice Award. She is also The President of the Scottish Association of Writers, the Webmaster for the Association of Christian Writers, an international public speaker, and runs conferences and workshops on writing, motivation and marketing. Wendy is the founder of Crime at the Castle, Scotland’s newest Crime Festival. She is the editor of a Lent Book, published by the Association of Christian Writers and also the editor of the forthcoming Christmas Anthology form the same publisher. Her first children's book, Bertie the Buffalo, was released in December 2018. Motivation Matters: Revolutionise Your Writing One Creative Step at a Time, was released in May 2019.


Amazon Author Page




Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Alternative history, or What you Will, by Alex Marchant

In nine days’ time it will be the 534th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, often viewed as a turning point in English history. It’s when the medieval period is deemed to have ended and the early modern age begun – with the fall of the last Plantagenet king, Richard III, and the victory of Henry Tudor, first in the dynasty that bore his name.

King Richard III of England

Of course, history is never quite that simple, but it’s handy to focus on a specific date marked by a climactic battle, such as 22 August 1485, rather than have to chart the decades-long transition between medieval and modern to be found in religious changes or the gradual move from rule based on personal loyalty to a more modern, bureaucratic state.
Either way, this coming weekend, the event will be commemorated in the annual Bosworth Medieval Festival on the fields of Leicestershire, with its re-enactment of the battle itself by hundreds of modern-day ‘knights in shining armour’.

P1030258 (2)
[The alternative] King Richard, 'fighting manfully in the thickest press'

Usually the festival stages two battles – one from earlier in the Wars of the Roses (say, Barnet or Tewkesbury) before the main event to ensure value-for-money for the ticket-holders. Last year, however, they tried something a little different: re-enacting Bosworth as though King Richard had won.
That was always going to be a popular plan for a sizable proportion of the audience. The Yorkist side, and particularly King Richard himself, appears to attract the most support at the event. On each occasion I’ve attended, there’s been audible encouragement urging Richard on, even after he is unhorsed during his fateful, heroic charge to try to reach Tudor and decisively end the battle. Tudor, lurking at the rear of his mostly French, mercenary troops, rarely receives many cheers – and is often subject to jeers. Is it the usual British fondness for the underdog (ignoring the fact that, ostensibly, Richard commanded the greater army on the day), or is it just that, of the two men at the heart of the battle, Richard is the better liked – despite the evil reputation that still hangs about him after the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries?

Image result for olivier as richard iii
The original 'alternative' Richard III, courtesy of Master Shakespeare

Alternative history is not to everyone’s taste perhaps, but there does seem to be a fair amount of it written about Richard III. Is it because of that very specific date – from which different timelines can easily flow? What if … Richard had won, there was no Henry VIII and the Reformation hadn’t happened? What if … Richard had married the Spanish infanta, Columbus’ voyage had been a English–Spanish joint venture, and a united empire later flourished in the New World? Or is it simply that, on a very individual level, Ricardians – who, like myself, believe the man was maligned after his death – just want to imagine a better life for him? After all, in his 32 years, he lost his father and three older brothers (only one through natural causes), his wife and his young son (within a year of each other), then finally his life and his crown as a result of the basest treachery.

Richard and son Edward in a modern window, Middleham

Although I was sorely tempted to change the outcome of the battle as it approached when I was writing The King’s Man, I had to resist, as the whole aim of my retelling of Richard’s story in my Order of the White Boar books was to tell it as accurately as possible – drawing on the contemporary records that showed a very different man from the Shakespearean villain. Since then, I’ve toyed with the idea, wondering at which point in Richard’s life the timelines could have diverged and the tragic later events of his life been avoided. One such exploration led to a short story, ‘If Only’, that will be included in a second Ricardian anthology to be sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK later this year (details of the first anthology can be found here:, and of the second here: Another piece of short fiction in that anthology, ‘Richard Redux’ by Terri Beckett, also offers a piece of alternative history, but one starting at what is a point often favoured by Ricardians – the climax of the Battle of Bosworth itself. What if … Richard had won on 22 August 1485?

P1030298 (2)
King Richard escorting the defeated Tudor off the field

The ‘alternative battle’ went down a storm with the audience at the Medieval Festival in 2018 and there were hints from the organizers that they might do it again. Will they this year? I’ll find out next weekend.  Meanwhile, of course, there are always alternatives to be found within any alternative history. Just how did Richard’s victory come about? Was treachery avoided? Did the death-or-glory charge attain its goal of killing Tudor? Did William Stanley come into the battle on the right side at last after 533 years?  What do you think would have been the most likely alteration that would have turned the tide of history?*
And do you have a different favourite moment in history about which you’ve often wondered – what if?

[*To find out what happened in ‘Bosworth 1485 – Mark II’, here are two blog posts written just after the event (yes, this unprecedented event definitely merited two!): and]

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is planned for later this year (which Alex really shouldn't have taken on!)

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Why bother? -- Misha Herwin

I’ve just come to the end of what I hope will be the final edit of my latest novel, Belvedere Crescent. The process has been long and gruelling. Out of all the books I’ve written so far, this one has been the hardest. It began as a third person narrative, which kind of worked but wasn’t quite right. So I re-wrote it in the first person. And that was where the problems really began. My editor kept saying that 
the novel, which was set partly in the present and partly in Edwardian England, had a Regency flavour. I countered her arguments with all the time appropriate details I’d carefully researched and slipped in. The house is lit by gas, there’s a plumbed in washstand in the bedroom, Amelia and Louis talk about going to the Zoological Gardens on the tram, besides the references to the suffragette movement and HG Wells’ Time Machine. No one could possible imagine this was set in Jane Austen country.
Yet there was something wrong. I sensed it but couldn’t fix it. Finally, at the point when I thought I couldn’t do anymore, I saw it. The fault lay in the language. Not only how the characters spoke in 1902 but also the language the narrator, a young twenty-first century woman used. Thea, indeed, did at times sound as if she should be wearing an empire line dress and wondering which of the neighbouring young men in possession of a good income, she should be considering as a suitable husband.
Back to a line, by line, thorough edit. It was hard and dispiriting. At times I felt like giving up. Maybe I’d come to the end of my writing career. Maybe I should concentrate on the grandchildren and the garden rather than spending my time agonising over a worthless ms.
What made it worse was reading a novel by a writer whose work sells in the millions all over the world. The story was boring and predictable, the language flaccid and she constantly repeated herself giving us the same information over and over again. Didn’t she trust her readers to remember what she’d said two paragraphs before, or didn’t she bother to re-read what she’d written? Or maybe, she’s such a best seller that whatever she writes it will sell and no one bothers to edit her anymore?
If that’s right, then why have I been agonising over my ms? Belevedere Crescent isn’t likely to sell in the millions, or to make me very rich, so why bother? I could fling it out there and cross my fingers that my readers would think it’s okay.
But of course I can’t. I may never make it to the top of the best seller list, my books might never be made into films starring Keira Knightly, or Benedick Cumberbatch. I might even lose money, sleep and time over bringing my work out into the world. But I care. I care about the quality of my writing. It matters to me that my sentences flow, that my narrative grabs and keeps the reader’s attention that they are involved with and care about my characters. And so I keep on working and re-working my novel.
I suppose in the end it all comes down to self-esteem and crafting my work to the best of my ability.
Fingers crossed I’ve cracked it this time, otherwise it’s back to the beginning again ….

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Labels and Charlottesville | Karen Kao

This week marks the second anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. You remember: neo-Nazis, torches, one fatality and a US President claiming “You also had some very fine people on both sides.”


But that's not what this post is about. It's about labels, how we use them and, perhaps, how they use us. This is what I wrote on my own blog Shanghai Noir in the days following this horror show.

last week 

I ran into an article by Lan Samantha Chang entitled Writers, Protect Your Inner Life. Sam’s day job is director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. When school’s out, she gives writing workshops in Paris (2014) and Napa (2016).

At Napa, Sam gave a craft lecture on the interior life. She gave us a handout called “Ways to Nurture Your Inner Life”.  3 of the 14 tips involved getting off social media. I thought her article would cover the same territory but I had missed the subtitle .
A Writing Life and a Writing Career Are Two Separate Things.

these past few months


Ever since the publication of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, I’ve been obsessed with social media. My own, of course. I’m looking for a cool photo to post on Instagram. Trying to grab hold of the merry-go-round called Twitter. Even this blog had become part of my social media image.

This is not an experience unique to writers. As Sam so aptly notes, there is
considerable pressure in this [US] society to have a strong and well-defined outer life. In New York, that might include real estate and private schools. In Iowa, this might include regular family dinners made from personally gathered, wild edibles. This pressure began way back with our country’s founders, many of whom believed in the existence of the elect – in the idea that some of us are predestined to salvation. This idea can be logically extended to mean that some of us are not. Because we have no way, when we’re alive, of knowing which of us is predestined, it is important to behave as if.
For a writer, this pressure to groom our outer lives is sales-driven. Our publishers, agents and peers tell us that we must talk about our writing. We must expose ourselves. There is no other way to attract and retain readers. Yet most writers struggle to do so. It’s like grasping mercury with your bare hands: painful and ultimately impossible. Again, Sam says it best:
the sincere reaction to making meaningful art is often speechlessness. We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method.

right now


Writing should be my priority, not winning the Miss Congeniality award. All the blood should be going into my novel-in-progress. But just as the creative process is near impossible to dissect, you can’t control its ebb and flow either.

Thinking, fast and slow was once a business school mantra. It’s also a great metaphor for the act of writing. A novel contains a million moving parts, all of which connect in ways known only to the author. But my mind can only hold so much information. So I’m in a tearing rush to get it all on paper before the words leak out my ears.

At the same time, I need to slow down. Let life seep into my novel because it’s life that informs and deepens writing. By life, I don’t mean autobiographical arcana. I want my novel to burst with living, breathing human beings in all their wonder, beauty and horror. I’m referring now to Charlottesville.

last night


Like most people, I’ve read numerous of eyewitness accounts of the nightmare now known as #Charlottesville. Some called it a reversal of the civil rights movement. Others saw the rise of the Third Reich. In both cases, it’s unabashed violence against the helpless, merely because they can be labelled as “other”.

Danica Bornstein has written a powerful and painful exploration of her own reactions to Charlottesville. She’s fully cognizant of the privileges her white skin accords her. Yet, as a Jew, she is also deeply afraid. Nazis surround a synagogue and the congregation hides the Torah for safekeeping. We’re not talking about Nuremburg 1937 but Charlottesville 2017. Bornstein reminds us that we’re not so removed from the Holocaust as we’d like to think.
Every oppression is special and unique and one of anti-Semitism’s key qualities is its rhythm. It is not relentless; it is cyclical. During the good times everyone but us starts to forget anti-Semitism and starts to think of it as a thing of the past. […] But then something goes wrong in that place – the economy crashes, unemployment rises, the wheels begin to fall off – and the active phase of anti-Semitism begins.

long ago

New York City taxi
Image source:

When I was in my 20’s, I went to New York City with some girlfriends. In those days, it was possible to jam a taxi full of giggling girls. I was smooshed up against the cab driver, who proceeded to tell me his life’s story.

While a student at the music conservatory in Vienna, he lost his hearing. He needed surgery and the US was the only place he could get it. And so he went, thus becoming the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. He remarried and raised a family. He was terribly proud of his daughter the lawyer and his son the doctor.

At the end of the ride, this fellow offered me a piece of hard white candy. Of course, my mother had taught me never to take candy from strangers. But I knew that if I refused this gift, I would break this gentle soul’s heart. Besides, I was with friends who could rush me to the hospital. And so I took the candy, popped it into my mouth and lived to tell the tale.



I don’t think I’d do the same today. Life feels so much more dangerous. There are assholes and creeps everywhere it seems. Not to speak of the crazies who come with semi-automatic weapons to Charlottesville. It’s getting hard to know who to trust.

Our prehistoric forefathers had it easier. They could tell, just by looking or smelling, whether safety or danger lay ahead. We’ve inherited that same instinct for survival but have somehow lost our ability to read the signs. We mistake skin color for intent, religion for acceptability, clothing as a political statement. We like to over-generalize, categorize, and label.

But our labels are all wrong. Should I fear every white man with a shaved head and tattoos? Can I safely associate only with those people who look and act and sound like me? When I cross the street at night, am I being foolish, racist or both?

in retrospect


A month ago, I wrote an article for called We Are Not Labels. I fulminated there about the various labels affixed to my forehead: female, Asian, immigrant. But my conclusion was that, for a writer, labels are a necessary evil. They’re how readers find you. I wrote:
Labels are shortcuts. They function as signposts or runes for the initiated to discern the truth. That’s all. No need to get our knickers in a twist.
I was wrong. Labels aren’t shortcuts; they’re pitfalls. They don’t all wash off. Some of them can get you killed. As long as we navigate through life using only labels, we don’t have to think. And in our thoughtlessness, Charlottesville is doomed to recur.

Danica Bornstein reminds us that skin color cannot be the only measure of friend or foe. That beneath whatever shade of dermis you might have, lies a wealth of complexity.

Sam Chang teaches me not to worry about the outer life. Look instead to the place inside that gives birth to your creativity. It’s the same place that makes me, me and you, you.

No more labels, please.

Friday, 9 August 2019

That Festival Feeling by Julia Jones

Festive flags at Boomtowm 
I’ll never feel quite the same about festivals. Over the last few years I’ve written several posts in response to my happy experiences at the Felixstowe Book Festival. But I've usually been looking from a performer's point of view -- never exactly undervaluing the efforts of organiser Meg Reid and her volunteers, but not setting them centre stage.  Earlier this year, observing my daughter Georgie Thorogood turning her vision of Dixie Fields (her debut country music festival) into reality, I began to get a glimpse of the extraordinary level of challenge faced by all festival organisers. (And here's to you too, Ros Green, at the Essex Book Festival.)

In May I wrote a blogpost apologising to my fictional character, Lottie Livesey, for giving her a festival organiser's role to ensure she was sufficiently off-stage in Pebble to allow my child characters an unimpeded adventure. Poor Lottie, when I'd side-lined her previously (in A Ravelled Flag) I'd sent her to live in a partially-converted shipping container with enslaved workers and a ruthless gang-master. This time I thought I was being authorially kind ‘merely’ giving her a folk music festival to organise.  Initially she was willing  (it was probably her idea) but once she began to grasp the reality of the role she may have wished she was back with the illegals, cleaning school toilets late into the night.

Lottie's festival faced a threat of cancellation (public safety risk) but finally went ahead.  She would then have discovered how much her toilet-management mattered.  I ran the information tent for Dixie Fields Festival and passed on a steady stream of toilet-related issues to Georgie and Frank. That's not quite accurate -- a 'steady stream' would have been okay – it was the blockages and overflowings that became ‘issues’ (or didn't). There was a full-time toilet-cleaner on the site – NOT an exploited illegal but a most glamourous and charming individual who never looked flustered but was sometimes overwhelmed (all these words begin to threaten to be taken literally) by the feedback (backfeed?) from the loos. There was the lady who dropped her phone into one of them, very late at night. There were the people who were caught out by the fact we’d re-positioned the accessible toilets so they would be more accessible. We’d put out lots of signs but those vital facilities weren’t where they’d been shown on the map.
Learning point: you can shift your stage, your bars, your entire festival site but your toilets must be polar north, the fixed point of the turning world. That phrase (which I’d got slightly wrong) made me think of TS Eliot .. who stopped me thinking about toilets and got me back to thinking about festivals.

Dixie Fields sunset

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

(Burnt Norton) 

Yesterday my son Bertie and niece Ruth went off laden with rucksacks, tent, sleeping bags, wellies, waterproof trousers, a few bottles of cider and tins of beans and tie-dyed t-shirts and eccentric hats. They were heading for  Boomtown Fair an extraordinary ‘immersive experience’, fusion of music and story and a whole new world built for the occasion. They will have five days in an alternative reality (except when the toilets fail) The Boomtown concept is clearly exceptional, even among festivals, but I think there is something a little bit magic about any successful festival experience:  I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where / And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

Boomtown Bertie
I’m guessing that’s why the festival attendees who have been turned away from this weekend’s Boardmasters Festival in Cornwall are feeling so upset. They’re talking about the money they’ve spent, the packing done and the distances travelled  – but it’s the total experience they’re going to miss, the 'time out of time'. From the other side of the ticket barrier the organisers of the Houghton festival in Norfolk speak of the 'hard work, love and creativity' that they have put into planning their event, also cancelled due to the forecast gale-force winds.

One of my best moments from Dixie Fields (there were many) was seeing people arrive on Friday, laden and tired and looking anxiously around as they selected their camping spot and began to struggle with the instructions for the tent. My job then was to walk with one of my grandchildren welcoming them and explaining about the system for recyclable cups and what would be happening later that evening (a film, two performances, a chance for them to take the stage and sing). It was a delight to see the tents up and people settling into their temporary homes, having a drink and forgetting the everyday world for the next 44 hours or so. Boomtown and Boardmasters will (or would) last five days: Dixie Fields was only a 'boutique' event.
Festival star Lauren Alaina
with festival star Georgie
Only 44 hours – but the paperwork it had generated. I knew how many documents Georgie, as organiser,  had needed to collect because it had been my job to carry the hefty file of risk assessments, insurance disclaimers and incident scenarios into Chelmsford City Council some months before, though it was Georgie and her brother Frank who’d had to appear and be cross-questioned at the Licencing Committee meeting. Every trader and probably every artist had to supply their public liability insurance certificates, individual risk assessment forms, be given site induction packages, identity badges, signed permissions. Dixie Fields Festival employed a health and safety officer, ticketing staff, parking marshals, security guards, paramedics on site all weekend. Had to, obviously.

In Pebble I recklessly sent a freak waterspout up against the lighthouse where Lottie was planning to launch her event: I’m certain  now that such an eventuality would have been covered somewhere in the pre-planning paperwork -- and the festival would have been instantly brought to a close. Those unfortunate festival organisers in Cornwall (and Norfolk) who are bearing the collective disappointment of their audience,  won’t have stood a chance of being allowed to carry on once the Met Office issued those yellow warnings.  And it’ll be too late to re-arrange if Saturday turns out fine after all.

Publicity director Jamie &
his wife Simone, finally having fun
What I've learned since Dixie Fields has actually happened, is that organising a festival is a hugely creative enterprise,  it’s not only about toilets and security. The organiser is shaping a space for people to shift their reality, to set aside their ordinary selves, to come together in art: Each act on the programme is like a new chapter in the overall festival narrative – slow moments, listening moments, participative jump-about- and-wave-your-arms-in-the-air moments, moments to laugh, to cry, to sing along. The organiser has to trust their performers to make this happen in the moment, but they've chosen their artists, welcomed them,negotiated the order of their appearance – it’s a little like a writer trusting the characters she's set in motion in a work of fiction.

Grand daughter Hettie & friend
I watched Georgie (and Frank and his friend Jamie, who were co-directors) coping with their own emotional tension, with the hundreds of questions and adjustments, catching occasional fragments of the music blowing across. They continually needed to bear the whole event in their minds, as well as all of the constituent  parts.

It was a shock when I heard that the humongous great tour bus carrying Lauren Alaina, the US headliner and her team, had arrived at 0730 for a performance scheduled for 2140  but excellence mattered to them to: they needed to be sure that that the sound quality was right and everything exactly as per contact. Later that morning the tour manager said to me ‘Your daughter, she’s very good – are you sure this is a first-time festival?’ That was a great moment for me. And there were other personal moments that I watched my grandchildren reacting to the music and the 'stars' with total delight and spontaneity – and then there was the Sunday morning when a couple from the campsite came over to my decimated information tent.
‘We just want to tell you; about those showers, the ones on the campsite, next to the toilet block  …’
‘They’re absolutely the best showers we've seen at any festival.’

So, that was Dixie Fields 2019 and there will be a Dixie Fields 2020 (weather gods permitting). However I probably need to state in some very early chapter that any lingering Russian oligarchs wanting to launder £££ from their dodgy deals should bring their grubby swag to my information tent forthwith. Then we'll just pop across to that shower block and ensure de luxe accessible facilities throughout.*

'That Festival Feeling' Sarabeth from Royal South
Alice, Jamie, Lauren, Georgie, Julia, Frank
* That's me (Julia) forgetting whether I'm in a story or not. In sober fact, Dixie Fields commercial director (Frank) is preparing an investors pack for Dixie Fields 2020 and would welcome non-fictional expressions of interest.