Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Garden Effect, by Elizabeth Kay

I love my garden, and I find gardening is a very good way of mulling over ideas whilst doing something worthwhile. There are so many parallels – weeding out irrelevant characters. Cutting plotlines. Pruning language. Planting the seed of an idea. I know my garden very well, but even so something unexpected can appear, presumably the result of a nut buried by a squirrel, or a seed stuck to the foot of a bird. But it’s when I visit other gardens that I really get the ideas. I’m lucky, in that I live close enough to the RHS gardens at Wisley to be able to visit them quite frequently. Last year they had exotic butterflies in the huge tropical glasshouse. Just before Christmas they had an event they called ‘Glow’,which consisted of enormous lighted sculptures of flowers. 

As these beautiful creations towered over you, you felt your sense of scale go haywire, and it was easy to imagine yourself as one of The Borrowers. This spring, they’ve had a Lego safari. I didn’t expect anything much, but I was pleasantly surprised, as I always seem to be at the things they choose to display. The sculptures of the different animals were really impressive, particularly set against the cacti in the hothouse. The larger the sculpture, the more effective it was. I started thinking about Lego animals coming to life once the gardens had shut for the night…

The gardens I have seen abroad have been inspirational in different ways. The orchid garden in Borneo was where I saw Nepenthes rajah, the biggest pitcher plant in the world and one capable of devouring rats. Plants that eat animals are a bit disturbing. I have a much smaller pitcher plant at home, which is currently flowering. And those flowers are extremely odd, too. This giant pitcher, which was so big it rested on the ground, was the image that gave me the idea for the malevolent jinx box, a shape-changing entity in Jinx on the Divide.

“Look at that pitcher, over there,” said Betony. “It’s absolutely enormous.”
Felix looked. It was so huge it had to rest on the ground. “What do you think it eats?” he asked.
Betony looked shocked. “Eats? What do you mean?”
“Pitcher plants are carnivorous. At least, they are in my world. Ours are much smaller than these; they catch flies, which drown and then get digested.”
Betony made a face, which quickly turned into an expression of horror as the implications hit home. “What do you think these ones eat, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Felix. “Some pitcher plants have been known to eat frogs. Perhaps this one’s big enough to tackle small birds?”
“And not necessarily that small,” said Betony, backing away. “I think you’re right about Rhino not being here. Let’s go.”
But Felix was overcome with curiosity. Although physics and chemistry were his favourite subjects at school, biology came a very close third. Insectivorous plants fascinated him, they were just so weird. Despite the lid of the pitcher plant being firmly shut, he couldn’t resist going over to peek inside.
“I wouldn’t,” said Betony, but it was too late.
As Felix lifted the oval green lid a voice said, “Well hello.” It was so sudden and so unexpected that he nearly jumped out of his skin.
“It’s not a pitcher plant at all,” said Betony. “Look, it’s not attached to anything. It’s the jinx box – and you’ve gone and opened it.”
Some countries have really bizarre plants, such the frailej√≥n, or Monk’s habit, which grows in the Andes in Venezuela. This could easily have been the inspiration for a triffid. Madagascar not only has a unique fauna – lemurs and chameleons predominate, but there’s also the carnivorous fossa, which, despite being the size of an ocelot, is pretty scary. Madagascar’s Spiny Forest, with its baobab trees, is also decidedly weird. 

And then there’s China.
Their gardens incorporate rocks as part of the overall design, and the whole concept is rather impressive. Their bonsai trees make you feel like a giant – scale seems to be a popular consideration in gardens abroad. And in Sri Lanka, the trees in their communal gardens can be completely covered with fruit bats...

I’ll end with The Chelsea Flower Show, which I attended in 2018. The sheer range of plants, and their perfection, is quite mind-boggling. But in the end, which gardens provide the greatest inspiration? The manicured lawns, trim shrubberies and giant oaks of stately homes, or the wilderness of the national parks like the one in Madagascar?



Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Not quite Route 66: the Great North Road - by Alex Marchant

In a few days’ time, I’ll be setting off southwards for a few days with family.
Having been born in Surrey in the south of England, but lived for more than two decades in Yorkshire in the north, this is a journey I undertake several times a year. My parents still live in the house where I grew up, and my sister and her (rapidly increasing) family live half an hour away, so it’s easy to kill lots of birds with one stone, so to speak. This time I’ll be meeting a new addition to the family so there’s plenty to look forward to.
Not an East Coast train - the Flying Scotsman visits Haworth
Just a couple of years ago there were two options for the journey – either my partner would drive us down, or I would take the train (with or without my own children in tow). With ever-rising train fares in the UK, the latter sometimes seemed an expensive luxury – until I began writing again a dozen years ago, and discovered that the two hours spent in the ‘quiet carriage’ was the perfect opportunity to concentrate on my books. I estimate that around a third of each of my books has been written on trains.
The driving I left to my partner. I was a late learner – only passing my test a couple of months before my first child was born (I got the sympathy vote from the examiner when I struggled to put my seatbelt on over the enormous bump) – and then I did what I vowed I wouldn’t: avoided driving long distances and on motorways. My partner liked that sort of driving, so why did I need to do it? And there was always the train...
Gateway to Middleham Castle
Fast forward to 2013 and the start of research for my books about Richard III. The first is set largely in Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales – a relatively short, straightforward journey. The second moves south, to Northamptonshire, London, Leicestershire, Suffolk. Location research drew on visits in previous years and on targeted family holidays. (‘Oh no, not Richard III again,’ came the chorus from younger family members.)
The real turning point came when The Order of theWhite Boar was published, in 2017 – a year when, not only did I start travelling to book events, but both my parents suffered major illnesses. And I realized that, to be of any help to them, I had to have a car when staying.
So I set off on my first long-distance solo drive. All of five hours in total – not much to anyone used to distances in the USA or Australia, perhaps, but a virtual marathon for me.
A choice of two routes presented itself. Both led ultimately to the M25 orbital motorway around London, which I dreaded, but I don’t think my selection was ever in doubt. Why would I even consider taking the soulless M1 motorway when the alternative A1 was available?
The A1 – also known as the Great North Road. A name that has an undeniable, historical ring to it. A road I had heard of in my extreme youth, before anyone in my family even had a car (my dad was also a late-starting driver), the Great North Road’s place in our national history is iconic. As former Northern Echo journalist Alen McFadzean says in his ‘Because They’re There’ blog, ‘For many hundreds of years it’s been the main arterial link between the capital cities of two countries – England and Scotland. It is woven into history, folklore and legend. Dick Turpin galloped up it to his death. The Gododdin rode down it to theirs. Bonnie Prince Charlie got part way down, bottled out and turned back. The Leather Boys drove all the way up and all the way down in one day from the Ace Cafe on the North Circular.’ (
'Withnail & I'
The only similar event I can conjure for the M1 is the scene in Withnail & I where the main characters, desperate to leave London, go on holiday in the north ‘by accident’ – and get there by hammering up the newly built M1 to the strains of ‘All Along the Watchtower’.
Nowadays the A1/GNR is a mixture of two-lane dual carriageway and occasional stretches of four-lane motorway (A1(M)) and can be a frustrating experience when large lorries clog up both lanes of the former. But I’ve discovered I enjoy the variety of the drive and of switching from one type of driving to the other, rather than the monotony of three/four-lane motorways, slicing monstrously through often sterile-seeming landscapes.
One thing the A1 isn’t is sterile. It must be horrific for those whose homes front on to its thundering torrent of traffic, but as a driver on a long journey, I would far rather mark my progress by way of the towns and villages and buildings passed (and sometime by-passed). For many of those places have their own importance in history – and driving through or very near them, that history is often recalled to mind. As Alen McFadzean goes on to say, the road ‘was imprinted on the landscape by people like us... Pilgrims, soldiers, peasants, vagabonds, rebellious armies, drovers, geese, cattle, coaches, kings and clerics – in a nutshell, humanity and its larder – passed along its length.’  
Kings certainly did. And one in particular with whom I’ve been much concerned of late. (‘Oh no, not Richard III again.’) Richard will have travelled the Great North Road many a time between court and Parliament at Westminster and his homes in Yorkshire and other parts of the north. He will have journeyed along it on his way to war with the Scots in 1482 – when he oversaw the surrender of Edinburgh (at its northern end) and the border town of Berwick (which has remained English to this day).
Now the Angel & Royal Inn, Grantham
And he hurried south along its length from York in the autumn of 1483, when his post-coronation royal progress was rudely interrupted by the stirrings of rebellion further south. After a brief stay in Lincoln, on 19 October he received the royal seal while staying at the Angel Inn at Grantham – now bypassed by the A1 – and there signed the death warrant of the Duke of Buckingham, figurehead of that failed revolt.

Name after name recall events to my mind as I drive down that long road, and as I watch the changing styles of buildings that I pass, and the changing colours of stone and brick. But there’s always one that I look out for. Its coming is foreshadowed by the first houses and inns in the local honey-coloured stone. Past Stamford, past the RAF base at Wittering with its lurking Harrier jet, and past the signs for Peterborough and Leicester (‘avoiding low bridges’). It’s the turn-off for Fotheringhay, and all that remains of the castle where King Richard was born in 1452. His parents lie in tombs in the beautiful church there – reburied by their great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth I after their original tombs were destroyed by her father during the Dissolution of the monasteries – and a colourful stained-glass window commemorates Richard himself.
Fotheringhay Church
One further commemoration – of a sort – exists there. Totally unplanned. I discovered it on my first visit to Fotheringhay on my way down from the north. The turn-off from the A1 is at a tiny place called Wansford. Is it just a coincidence that, months before – before I even knew that place existed – I had given my main protagonist the name Matthew Wansford? He was named after the first recorded printer in the city of York – Frederick Wansford in the early 1500s, who makes an appearance in my books as Matthew’s elder brother. Given the millions of feet that must have tramped north and south on that Great Road, I guess it’s entirely possible that the original Master Wansford – or his forebears – lived in this small Northamptonshire village before making his way north to the country’s second city to make his fortune in the exciting new book industry.

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, 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 and submissions are welcomed from published and unpublished authors. Details can be found at Deadline 19 May 2019.

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Gender Imbalance in the Publishing World - Bronwen Griffiths

International Women’s Day has just passed and I want to explore how books by women authors are perceived. Is there a bias in reviews towards men and against women? How do women fare in mainstream literary awards? Are women fairly represented?

The feminist arts organisation, Vida (based in the USA) has been examining the gender imbalance of both critics and authors whose books are reviewed, since 2010. They surveyed fifteen major literary publications and found that eight failed to reach gender parity in 2017. These publications included the London Review of Books at 26.9%, the New Yorker at 39.7%, the Times Literary Supplement at 35.9% and the New York Review of Books at only 23.3% - down from 46.9% the previous year.

Just two of the major publications surveyed published 50% or more female writers – Granta and Poetry – while five published between 40% and 49.9% women, including Harper’s, the New York Times Book Review and the Paris Review.

The dominance of white male literary critics ‘creates a dangerous lens through which the world is viewed’, VIDA states. The situation of gender imbalance in reviews and publications is even worse for Black and Ethnic Minority women, and for women published in translation.

Vida did, however, find that smaller literary magazines such as the New England Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review were ‘far more equitable’ than larger publications, with fifteen out of twenty-four publishing as many or more female writers as men.

The major literature awards also show a disparity – with the exception of the Costa Book of the Year.

Major award winners in the last 10 years
Male winners
Female winners
Booker Prize
Costa Book of the Year
Nobel Prize For Literature
Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (NB no prize given in 2009)

In 2015, Almost 20 years after Francine Prose investigated whether ‘women writers are really inferior’ in her explosive essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, the author Catherine Nichols found that submitting her manuscript under a male pseudonym brought her more than eight times the number of responses she had received under her own name. Of course this is not a scientific survey but it would be interesting to repeat it.

Nichols reveals how after she sent out her novel to fifty agents, she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same covering letter and pages to fifty agents, it was requested seventeen times.

As for male authors recommending other authors, using The New York Times' "By the Book" column, which asks authors about the specific books on their nightstands, UC Berkeley Assistant Professor David Bamman's analysis shows that male authors recommend books by other men four times as often as they recommend books by women.

However, it's not just about the gender of the author, but also the gender of the characters - in 2015, author Nicola Griffith found twelve of the previous fifteen Booker Prize-winning novels had male protagonists.

But is the problem of published books in certain genres also partly due to women themselves? We perhaps expect our romances to be written (and read) by women. As Julie Crisp, Commissioning Editor for Tor books has written, there is a definite gender gap in science fiction and fantasy:

‘In the last few years I have seen numerous articles deploring the lack of female SFF (Science Fiction and Fantasy) writers, in science fiction in particular. And usually, the blame always comes back to the publisher's doorstep. Every time I've seen one of these articles I get a little hot under the collar because, guess what? I work in publishing. I work in genre. And here's the kicker - I'm a woman. Yes, a female editor commissioning and actively looking for good genre - male AND female. That means that every genre publisher in the UK has female commissioning editors and 90% of the genre imprints here are actually run by women. So you can imagine there's a slight sense of frustration each time I see yet another article claiming that UK publishers are biased towards male writers. And I do wonder if those writing the pieces are aware who is actually commissioning these authors? The sad fact is, we can't publish what we're not submitted. Tor UK has an open submission policy- as a matter of curiosity we went through it recently to see what the ratio of male to female writers was and what areas they were writing in…The facts are, out of 503 submissions - only 32% have been from female writers…(and) when it comes to science fiction only 22% of the submissions we received were from female writers.’

To sum up, things are improving for women authors, though still less so for BAME women authors and for female authors who do not write in English. But it seems like we have a way to go yet – though women can be their own worst enemies  by submitting less, or being more apologetic about their work. I certainly fall into the latter category.

As for men writing romance – well I think that’s like men wanting to work in the childcare and other caring professions –men have some walls to climb too.

 Bronwen Griffiths is the author of two novels, both of which feature strong, female protagonists. Her books have not had many reviews but whether that is due to her gender, or another reason altogether, is difficult to calculate. 

Monday, 11 March 2019

The Great Daffodil Escape: Misha Herwin

I’m not a fan of spring. I find the light too clear and too cold. It picks up all the smears and smudges that should be best kept hidden and pricks the conscience into spending time with mops and dusters instead of in my office writing. 

The one thing that redeems the season is, to quote Wordsworth,
A host, of golden daffodils…Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”
In the part of the country where I live, you get swathes of golden blossom planted along roadsides, or on roundabouts, which never fail to lift the spirit on a grey blustery March morning.

This is the effect I wanted to reproduce in my own front garden, when I planted clusters of mini daffodil around the acer. Last autumn I snuggled the blubs around the tree secure in the knowledge that come spring I would have my own sweep of yellow to cheer me up.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Admittedly the bed in which I planted them sloped towards the drive, but I certainly didn’t expect my daffodils to attempt a breakaway dash downhill. Nor did I think that any brave blossom would find its way out beyond the restraining stone border.

I’m still puzzling exactly how the daffodils managed their escape, but it did occur to me that this attempt at freedom can be compared to writing a book.
Like the original planting of my flower bed, I begin with a plan. I have a chapter by chapter break down of the story and a fairly good idea of where and when it will be set. 

At that point my characters will make a break for freedom and set off on their own path.
“City of Secrets” was always going to begin with Letty Parker sitting on the quayside worrying about the disappearance of her friends. However, her Bristol was going to be a real place. Set in Victorian times the street children, who go missing, would be working as chimneysweeps, seamstresses, glass and nail makers and in the tin mines. 

But somehow that was working. I’d begun the research, but it felt too dry, too polemical. What was missing was that element of magic and fantasy that kept intruding into Letty’s life and which was to develop into Gabriel. Her friend and protector, he is also one the Dark Ones, who view humanity as inferior beings to be used and exploited in their quest for power. 

Like the daffodil the story had slipped under the barrier I had erected and  taken a new and more effective turn.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Violent Femmes | Karen Kao

Poster for my master class for the International Writers' Collective

Last summer, I gave a master class in novel writing for the International Writers’ Collective. Or rather, I squirmed in the hot seat while director Sarah Carriger peppered me with a series of home questions about my novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.

I did my best to answer her as well as the lively crowd that kept lobbing new ones at me. There’s so much more to say in response to all those questions but here I want to zoom in on two aspects of that class: the use of violence and historical fact in fiction.


The inciting incident of my novel is the rape of Song Anyi. The event is horrible in every possible way but, to my mind, the real violation comes later.  The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is set in Shanghai 1937. The city is a no-holds-barred kind of place where everything and everyone is available for sale at the right price. In that market, Anyi would be damaged goods if her rape were to become common knowledge. Denied the right to speak of what has happened to her, Anyi turns inward to self-harm.

There is a lot of violence in my novel and Anyi is at the receiving end of much of it. Those scenes however are relatively brief and the tone consistently neutral. I tried to avoid waxing poetic or commenting on the tragedy of the situation.

Those were all deliberate choices. But when Sarah asked during the master class, why I chose to voice Anyi in first person, I had no good answer. I had never thought about Anyi’s story in any other form. But as sheer dumb luck would have it, there is an excellent craft reason for opting for letting the victim speak.


Rene Denfield is a crime fiction writer, a licensed investigator and the victim of child abuse. Having witnessed the real thing, Denfield rails against the use of violence and violation as a mere plot device.
Unfortunately, much writing about violence is itself a violation. Violence—especially rape—is often used as a trope. The character is only there, on the page, to be torn apart. It’s not an accident that most literary victims are women of color, prostitutes, and the poor. Such victims are splattered across the page without any regard to their suffering. The character is denied both dignity and the autonomy to interpret their experience outside an expected range of reactions that include: shattered forever, destroyed, defiled. Violations are presented in detail, and yet the point of view often reinforces the offender, so that even while being raped on the page the victim is denied voice.
Denfield isn’t arguing against violence in fiction. She wants more of us to tell the truth about violence against women, the poor, the outsiders who continue to be violated because no one else cares.
To start with, we must imagine our characters as real people. We must honor the victims by telling their truth with an effort at genuine understanding, not just of their experiences but of the world in which they live. We must focus less on the details, more on the feelings. A single humane sentence can tell a far deeper truth than any catalogue of depredation. We must give voice to the victims.

down the rabbit hole

But wait a minute. Denfield says to focus less on the details. Isn’t that contrary to what we discussed in the master class as well as every other class at the International Writers’ Collective? Details are the way an author grounds a story in a time and place. Details can contribute toward the development of mood and character, too.
Dead leaves fill my mouth, strangely sweet.
That’s the last thing Anyi notices before the rape commences. It could just as easily have been the snap of a buckle or the smell of betel nuts on the man’s breath. I think that Denfield is saying the same thing you’ll hear in class: choose your details carefully. Not only do you want a detail that only the victim can observe, but one that is uniquely personal to her.

Easier said than done.

One of the most difficult things for a novelist to do is choose. Take the problem of the overpopulated novel. You’ve designed each character to serve a particular purpose but now there are so many, it’s become the cast of thousands. Who do you kill? Rebecca Makkai has come up with the clever idea of character folding
Folded carefully together like egg whites and cake batter. […] And suddenly I had, instead of three characters each serving one function, one character with complexities and contradictions and nuance. I had a human being more three-dimensional than any of my original characters had been.

chaos theory

When it comes to writing historical fiction, the problem of choice increases exponentially. You do all your research. You learn so many cool historical facts. It’s imperative to use them all! But there’s another, much bigger problem lurking behind historical fiction.

Chance led Nick Dybek to a single detail that launched him into writing a novel about WWI. But before Dybek would commit a single word to the page, he wanted to get his facts right. Off he went, down the rabbit hole, to read every book ever written about WWI.
There was something of an addict’s logic to the process: just one more book and I’ll know enough, just one more and this will be easy.
Dybek proceeded to stuff himself full of historical arcana and then he turned around and did the same to his manuscript. He put in everything he knew, afraid to leave a single fact untold. The result was underwhelming. Dybek’s conclusion was:
there is such a thing as too much research. Too many facts can squeeze the breath out of a text, yielding a fictional world that feels authorial, unnatural. And, if one of the goals of writing a novel is to produce a narrative that feels life-like, and, if life-like means as surprising as an Archduke’s assassination, as random as years of research occasioned by a twist of the radio dial—then perhaps the writing process must embrace that chance, that chaos.

in class

I like chaos. I write without a plan and with little to no research under my belt. My fear is that I’ll spend all my mojo collecting facts or trying to reconstruct history when, for me, it’s the story that matters. No plotting, no planning, just flying by the seat of my pants.

The hope is that I’ll surprise myself.  Stumble upon the metaphor or passage or through-line that illuminates the rest of the way. Like obscenity, I can’t define it. I’ll know it when I see it. A world that feels real with characters made of flesh and blood whose actions make sense within the logic of their lives.

But then the chaos gets into my brain. I know there’s something wrong with my manuscript but I don’t know what. That’s when it can be useful to join a master class, a workshop or a writing group. I say can because you also need to be in the headspace to hear that feedback and put it in its proper context. After all, you’re the author. It’s your manuscript. You decide whether to alter it at all and, if so, how.

For me, a master class isn’t about delivering factoids. It’s for sharing stories and fears. To signpost some of the very many roads that can lead to publishing success. At its very best, a master class should inspire. At least, I sure hope so.


  • If you're up for a nice tune and a cool clip, check out this video of the Violent Femmes.
  • "Violent Femmes" was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Out of mind by Julia Jones

Newspaper is at a premium in our household just now – it’s not just that it’s the fitting-out season and I’ve got a bilge-and-ballast-cleaning operation underway on Peter Duck: we also have a resident puppy. He’s called Solo and he belongs to Bertie -- though it’s me who’s become uncharacteristically protective about the carpets. This blog, however, is not about carpets, bilges – nor even puppies (sorry). It’s about family visiting in care homes (though if you've got a picture of a new puppy, it seems daft not to use it). My subject was prompted by one of those nice synchronicities which meant that I was spreading newspaper whilst meditating on a recent trip north to talk about John’s Campaign with care home managers. I spotted an article that was much too good to be peed on. (These are rare.)

Jenni Russell of The Times told the story of an elderly couple, Victor and Edna, who had died at great ages in sheltered accommodation. (Philemon and Baucis you might think --  always my favourite of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.) Their shared funeral would have been a small affair, attended by a few care staff members, until someone alerted the RAF, in which both Victor and Edna had served. The RAF found servicemen and women to carry the coffins and used social media to appeal for mourners. Hundreds responded and the event made the local TV news. One ITV reporter described the mourners as ‘the family Victor and Edna never knew they had.’

Jenni Russell
Russell’s argument takes off from here. I want to copy out everything she wrote but I’d best hold back in case The Times paywall sucks onto my fingers like a vanishing bank card. She completely refutes that idea that these good people were Victor and Edna's ‘family’. They turned up, she says, ‘to take part in the solemn ritual for the passing of life because we don’t want […] to live in a society where deaths don’t matter. It is reassuring to hope that none of us will be carelessly discarded at the end.’ 

Their attendance at the funeral was a gesture, undeniably effective but a gesture that only ‘gives meaning to us, the living. ‘[…] the dead have gone. They have often endured years of loneliness where everyone except professionals have ignored their feelings or memories. They have known, painfully, how indifferent the world can be. Care home managers who appeal for relatives often report that their residents were delightful but they had not had a single visitor for years.[…]

‘A good funeral cannot compensate for years of neglect. It simply makes the rest of us feel better about ourselves. I wish we could swing the focus to the living; that appeals for friends and relatives could happen when someone moves into a home, not after they die; that the appeal for volunteers is for visits to a care home, not graveyard salutes.’ Well said, Jenni Russell. 

The conference in Sunderland was in
the Stadium of Light football ground,
built on the site of a former shipyard.
I wondered whether there was a more
enduring tradition of family support here?
I was in Blackpool last week,, and then in Sunderland,  introducing John’s Campaign to care home managers. Sitting around in small groups with the Blackpool managers, one after another commented regretfully: ‘We just wish we could get more people to visit.’ The Sunderland managers (interestingly) seemed more positive about their families, describing them in general as 'very helpful. I’ve heard the same expression of regret however in my own county (Essex) and have seen people who are never visited. 

We hear a lot about the increasing number of people who have no children and also family diaspora but the managers who felt saddened by this problem were not talking about families who do not visit because they're scattered to the four corners of the world; they were talking about daughters who live round the corner and don’t come in: sons who walk past the end of the road every day but never take the turning to the care home front entrance; friends who pop in once and never return. Until the funeral perhaps?
I’m disregarding the wider questions of loneliness in 21st century society; our ambivalence about the balance of duty and personal autonomy; the political argument about the balance between family-managed and state provision. Just for now I’m thinking solely about the people who are left unvisited in care homes – particularly those who are living with dementia. Why don't their friends and family visit? There's the boringness of spending time with someone who no longer has conversation or social skills: there's the feeling of being unnecessary (the carers are so good) -- and there's emotional pain.  The daughter who was mentioned in our conversations was ‘too distressed’ to visit her mother because she ‘couldn’t bear’ to see her like that. 

But, just in case anyone is tempted to rush to judgement, I was talking recently to one of the most sensible and compassionate people I know; someone who dedicates large parts of his life to improving community understanding and support for people living with dementia and their family carers . Even he confessed that he had found himself ‘unable’ to continue visiting his best friend who had Pick’s Disease (fronto-temporal dementia):
‘So, what did you do?’ I asked, in awe of his honesty.
‘I sent him postcards every week. My wife bought them and I wrote them. Simple images, easy for him to see with brief messages of recollection from our shared past.’

This seemed a reasonable compromise. Maybe someone living with dementia can still be helped to feel cared about without visiting in person? Shirley Pearce, an occupational therapist and woman of wide experience who runs an organisation called ‘Understanding Dementia’, talked recently about ways that people could ‘feel visited’ even when actual family contact was infrequent. I have a friend who lives in a care home, largely unvisited and suffers from chronic anxiety. Her son sent her a bunch of daffodils last Easter.  Since then the care staff have made every petal count.  I’ve done it myself:  ‘Your son? Oh I know, he’s the one who sent you those wonderful daffodils – how thoughtful that was! He must love you so much!!’ (With Mothering Sunday heaving into view I can only hope he’s about to lash out on another bunch…)

Dementia is a progressive illness. When I was talking with the Lancashire care home managers we agreed that every bit of dementia education or peer-support group would give a better chance of help for that daughter who ‘couldn’t bear’ to see her mother. She might feel less alone in her pain, more able to accept that it was illness that was causing the problem. That it wasn't personal. Dementia is a profoundly individual condition, affecting everyone differently, but my experience has been that a swapped comment with another friend or family member, as we make a cup of coffee together in the care home kitchen, can draw the sting of a difficult visit that could have left either of us hurt and unwilling to come again. 

Support from a care staff member will do the same.
‘Were you okay the other night, Julia?’
‘Mmm … probably. Why?’
‘Because I saw you parked up in the layby and after I’d gone past I just wondered whether I should have stopped... ?’
I’d been okay on that particular evening but the fact that this young girl had noticed and wondered and had wanted to help, gave me the strength to get through another time when maybe I might have parked in that layby to have a little weep before I drove home.

My mother (left) died with dementia. 
So did Granny (centre right)
The odds are high that this will happen
 to me as well (centre left)
A former nurse accompanied me to the station as I left the Sunderland session. ‘You know what,’ he said, ‘Most of these people who moan about our care homes now, just don’t remember what the old long-stay geriatric wards were like.’

Let us who are old enough never forget that we have made progress.  When I was writing Beloved Old Age (my take on Margery Allingham’s The Relay, written sixty years ago) I read Sans Everything by Barbara Robb (1967) and The Last Refuge by Peter Townsend (1962) – and I remembered the horror of my visits as a child to my Granny in her geriatric ward in a building that had been the Union Infirmary (workhouse). 

Margery Allingham's description of early 1960s private care home visiting also stuck in my mind: These unwieldy country houses, open to those who do not require nursing, are often submerged in greenery at the end of long drives; lost oases of silence and well-kept gloom. All of them, however faithfully managed, have the same curious atmosphere, which at best is boarding school and at worst is the Dustbin play. One sees room after room of swaddled men and women presenting an unmistakable picture of a long wait for nothing at all. The visiting relatives, seated wretchedly on the edge of their chairs as the tedious minutes loiter by, seem to be wondering if it is their own consciences they have called to placate. They try to make it up to the older person by car rides, by presents, by constant nagging thought and worry. 

Moving on in time I looked again at Ronald Blythe's A View in Winter (1979)   He quotes W.H Auden's poem The Old People's Home:
 As of now,
we all know what to expect, but their generation 
is the first to fade like this, not at home but assigned 
to a numbered frequent ward, stowed out of conscience 
as unpopular luggage.
As I ride the subway
to spend half an hour with one, I revisage 
who she was in the pomp and sumpture of her heyday
when weekend visits were a presumptive joy,
not a good work. Am I cold to wish for a speedy
painless dormition, pray, as I know she prays,
that God or Nature will abrupt her earthly function?

1960s care home campaigner
Barbara Robb
I'd like to think that in 2019 we may be reconsidering our attitudes.  So many care homes are trying hard to feel like actual homes. I don't think they can ever succeed -- the scale of their undertaking and the demands of best practice and accountability will always stop them feeling authentically domestic -- but we can help as outsiders, as regular visitors who break down that invisible institutional wall every time we come sidling though with our dogs and our emotions. And if, as a society, we can achieve thoughtful, non-judgemental, discussion of the particular problems and pleasures of visiting our friends and relatives when they live in institutions we may move on to develop more a positive culture. 

‘We can never know the truth of other people's relationships,’ the professionals conclude sadly, and there were certainly moments during my mother's penultimate years when I wished I could slam the door, throw down the phone and walk out of her life for ever. I know also that there were moments when she experienced bitter resentment at her dependence on me. She felt guilt and anger that she was ‘a burden’ and I felt guilt and anger that I wasn’t ‘doing enough’ -- or perhaps resentment that other people weren’t doing more. 

C21st care home visiting
I think now that it was the care home which saved us. From that dreadful day when my brother and I loaded Mum and her bags into my car and drove her away from Suffolk and the river and Peter Duck, deliberately consigning her to a place which she would never again be allowed to exit unaided (and which she was convinced was full of mad scientists who wished only to chop her up) our relationships survived to the end of her life. I visited every day: my brothers visited as often as they could. It wasn't always great but the benefits became clear. We understood that we were visiting as much for our own sakes as for Mum (or the care home staff). We made friends.  And though I miss her quite unexpectedly and shockingly sometimes, essentially it’s okay. 

And we didn't have to call in any extra mourners for the funeral. 

Friday, 8 March 2019

Seeking Inspirational Ideas • Lynne Garner

The diary I'd received as a gift
For the last three years I’ve been working as a tutor for my local council. Part of my departments remit is to reach those who’ve had a negative experience of education or haven’t had access to education as an adult. We cover a vast range of subjects and I’m lucky enough to teach the creative courses including writing. I teach two writing courses, one of which is designed to encourage students to discover their muse and write what they want to, for whatever reason they may have. Be it for therapeutic reasons or to make some form of income. 

My courses are just ten hours long, two hours per week, for five consecutive weeks. In January I started a new creative course. At the beginning of the first session I asked, “what’s stopping you from writing?” I received the normal replies, including: 

“I don’t have an imagination.”

“I have no idea where to start.”

“I’d quickly run out of ideas.”  

To convince my students they’d never run out of inspiration and that it’s everywhere (a prime example is Sandra Horn’s great post on how random thoughts and dreams can be used) I set the group a task. I asked them to shout out where they think they could ‘find’ inspiration. As they gave their suggestions, I wrote them on a board. Once they’d dried up, I added a couple of my own to their list. Just before I wrapped up the session I asked if any of them had received a diary for Christmas. A couple said they had. I shared with them I’d received one and was going to use it as my “I noticed today” diary. My aim was to write something I’d noticed in it every day. This could be anything including that I’d noticed a large bird of prey had chosen a very old, dying tree as it’s early morning perch. I admitted that although we were now in the second week of 2019, I’d still not started this process, but it was still my intention to do so. 

A day or so later I still hadn’t written anything my diary. I’d noticed loads of things and told myself I was going to write them down but hadn’t got around to it. I was beginning to feel a little guilty. It was then another idea struck me. Perhaps I needed a jolt and needed to do something else with this diary. I came up with the idea of filling it with suggestions of where to find inspiration. It also struck me that if I completed this then I could use as a teaching tool. So although over two weeks had passed I started from the 1stJanuary by using ideas I’d shared with my students. As I wrote down my usual suggestions, I found new ideas forming and I was soon in front of myself. Sadly, now we’re into March and I’m slowing down and struggling to fill my diary. So, I’ve decided to enlist your help and ask the same question I asked my students.

Where can you find inspiration? Any and all suggestions are welcome.