Saturday, 30 June 2018

Debbie Young Evokes Her Dream Office (with a little help from the National Trust...)

Debbie Young, going places...
"Where do you write?" asked a very pleasant lady at a talk I gave recently to the Cheltenham Writers' Circle.

I gave my standard answer: how lucky I am to have my own study in my Victorian Cotswold cottage, with a big desk facing a window that looks out over the garden.

But next morning, when I sat down to write there, I shrieked as a sharp pain shot from my spine to my ankle, reminding me that lately I had been spending far too long at my desk-with-a-view - and I felt desirous of change.

Prompted by the arrival of my new National Trust card in the post the day before, and licensed by my friend and mentor Orna Ross to fill the creative well with a weekly "create date" with self, I stowed my purse, my shades, and my notebook and pen into my backpack, donned my walking boots, and set off to nearby Dyrham Park.

The long and winding road down through the deer park to the spectacular Dyrham Park

Ok, I confess, I drove there (well, it is about eight miles away) - but on arrival, I eschewed the visitor bus service and set off down the path to this beautiful stately home, nestling at the bottom of the deer park, in search of a different place to write my daily words.

A cosy nook beckoned me from inside a hollow tree
This old hollow tree looked tempting. I've always had a soft spot for hollow trees since reading Enid Blyton's The Hollow Tree House (over and over again) when I was a child. Unfortunately this one was roped off from public access.

I proceeded to the main house, skirting round the building - it was too sunny outside to be indoors - admiring beautiful Delft pots of tulips on the way. (This was a few weeks ago now.)

The original owner had served as Dutch ambassador
I thought the chapel would come in handy if my writing wasn't progressing well and I needed a quick pray, but sadly it was locked.

The chapel now serves as the parish church.

There were plenty of seats to choose from with scenic views of the flowerbeds...

To sit in sunshine or shadow? - depends on which end you choose

...although I might be tempted to take pity on the gardener and lend him a hand with the weeding.

I think he might benefit from a bigger wheelbarrow
Wildflower meadows complemented the formal planting, replete with so many traditional English plants that I found Oberon's seductive lines running through my head...

"I know a bank where the wild thyme grows..."
Great swathes of forget-me-nots - a humble plant invested with a special significance in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries - brought me back to the purpose of my visit: to write

Not forgetting...

I turned my back on the lake to investigate what looked at first glance as a kind of wooden hammock.

Nature's hammock?
...but closer inspection revealed a forbidding sign.

Then - who'd have thought it? - I found myself on the threshold of the National Trust gift shop. I do like a National Trust gift shop. Thoughts of writing were quickly forgotten as I snapped up a lovely new linen sunhat, a book about drawing (a hobby I've wanted to take up for a long time), and some souvenir postcards. 

Running out of time to get home for my daughter's return from school, I got the bus back up the hill to the car park, and returned home feeling like Wordsworth inspired by his visit to Tintern Abbey, rested, revitalised and refreshed by my impromptu outing, back at my normal place of work.

"Home again, home again, jiggety jig"

And where did I write this post? In Dyrham Park's excellent tea room, of course. At last - I'd discovered the perfect office! 

  • To find the nearest National Trust property to you, click here
  • To find out more about my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here
  • To order any of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, click here.

Not forgetting the books...
Find out more about my writing life at my website:

Friday, 29 June 2018

Athens mother of arts and eloquence: N M Browne

I am writing this having just had the delightful experience of teaching creative writing at the British Council/Kingston University Summer School in Athens. 

 It was a great experience because it was in Athens; because it was in the Summer; and because I got to see the Acropolis for the first time. Need I go on? It was also great because I really like teaching as it obliges me to think about writing in a slightly more analytical way, to formulate different ways of expressing familiar ideas and to challenge some of my lazier habits. 

The main reason it was great, however, was because the people I met were all amazing. The majority were native Greek speakers whose grasp of even idiomatic English was phenomenal.This always makes me feel inadequate and humble because all I do is write in my native language and these ‘students’ have jobs which involve specialist knowledge, in engineering, business and God knows what altogether and yet they can also write interestingly and well in a foreign language. I know, it made me feel almost as badly about my monolingual state as I felt guilty about Britain’s continued retention of the Elgin marbles. (Go to the New Archaeology Museum and I guarantee you will feel the same way) 

   The experience has made me feel that I should brush up my appalling French, or try to remember more words in German than 'spiegelei,' 'bratkartofelln' and 'verkehrsampel,' which for some reason figured heavily on the syllabus back in the day, but it also got me thinking about the business of teaching.  

I had a very rigorous language teacher at school who pointed out my many grammatical errors so frequently that I can’t speak a sentence in any language but English and sometimes not even then. I am not going to blame him for my failure to learn a single word of Greek - it is over forty years ago and I think the statute of limitation on blame has run out by now. I can still conjure his face and indeed his (possibly unintentional) sneer and he is a salutory reminder to me as a teacher to be careful that rigour does not slip into discouragement. We carry the imprint of our teachers’ attitudes long after whatever they taught is us throughly lost. I remember my fear of messing up the pluperfect even though I have forgotten all my French verbs both regular and irregular, those that take être and those that take avoir and much good did knowing there was a difference ever do me.

I hope that I have not inadvertently criticised where I should have encouraged, but I am certain that I have. All teachers, particularly those of us working in the creative arts, walk this tightrope between over-criticism  and over-praise. We all need to feel that we are not wasting our energy, we all want to improve, but to do so by changing as little as possible. Or is that just me?

 I don’t know how much my students’ English fluency and general confident creativity was down to good teaching or to their personal application, but I feel I must salute every teacher who must have had a part in it. 

So much of learning is personal that the most we can do is to help our students learn how to learn more, but that is not an easy thing to teach. So, well done Greek teachers, and for all my students, wherever we met, I hope you are still learning, still discovering, because learning to write is a lifelong study. 

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Magic bowls, Greed, and a very Sharp-Horned Dilemma by Enid Richemont

And so he's finally out there - my miserable and reclusive Stan who is actually extremely lonely and longing for human contact, along with his decidedly acerbic fairy godmother who's seemingly stuck with the job of giving him his "ONE HUNDRED WISHES." It's always lovely to see new books, and Franklin Watts production standards are very high, so however small the story, it's always satisfying to see the results.

Next to come, in July, will be "MORE", an Indian variation on the story of the magic bowl which keeps re-filling for as long as its owner stays polite and grateful, which, of course, the guy who steals it won't, as he NEVER says thank you, and regards the bowl's never-ending bounty as his privileged right. Here he is on the left, fat and pompous, and all ready to grab your very last crumb. His small daughter's quite different, though, and may one day change everything, because hey! Girls are powerful, especially little ones.

I am at present on the horns of a dilemma, but before writing that, I needed to check its origin. No idea whether this is correct since I found it by Googling, but it seems that a 'lemma' is a difficult choice, such as 'shall I buy a strawberry or a chocolate ice cream?' so two lemmas together represent two difficult choices coming together, like ' should I be buying ice cream at all since I'm on a diet', making it a double lemma, or a 'dilemma'. And what could be more painful than bouncing on a beast with two sharp horns (and most horned animals have a pair, with the exception of the unicorn which you're only likely to encounter if you're are in a state of virginity.) My first 'lemma' is that I need some serious but not life-threatening ankle surgery, with a lengthy recovery period. Ouch! I've been putting off that one for ages, but suddenly it can't be ignored. The second 'lemma' is how do I get care for the first few weeks? Ouch! Anyone feel like sharing my quiet London house and garden in exchange for light shopping, cooking and making sure I don't break my neck while walking on crutches is more than welcome to apply.

Bookwise, I've recently gone back to J S Byatt, and re-reading "THE MATISSE STORIES". One, "Medusa's Ankles', was made into a short film shown on BBC TV not long ago, and I was fascinated to see how the film-makers had adapted the story, especially as I'm currently in the process of having one of my books made into a movie (my lips have to be sealed with super-glue on that one!) I was also interested to learn that A S Byatt has an art school background, as I do, too. A useful writing exercise might be turning your work in progress into a storyboard and 'seeing' the action frame by frame.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Lord Byron and the Morality Clause - Andrew Crofts

Image result for lord byron images

“Byron, is that you?” John Murray shook the receiver in the hope of clearing the line. “These international lines are bloody terrible …”

Murray,” Byron shouted back down the line, “what do you want? Things are pretty hectic here.”

“How’s the holiday going?”

“Oh, you know what the foreigners are like. Lots of good swimming though. Just planning a trip to attack some Turks who are holed up in this castle. What can I do for you? Books selling alright?”

“Yes, sales are good."

"Public still think I'm a genius?"

"Up to a point ... but we have a bit of a problem, old man.”


“We’re going to have to let you go, I’m afraid, pulp what we’ve got left of your scribblings.”

“What are you talking about, man?”

“It’s the media you see. They’re kicking up a bit of a fuss about your private life, the way you treat people … it’s all very silly, I know.”

“What do you mean, the way I treat people? You’re not making sense, man.”

“Well it’s the way you keep buggering every foreigner you come across …”

“What are you blathering about?”

"And there is this silly business with your sister …”

“Oh for goodness sake, Murray, just grow a pair! Tell the media to take a running jump.”

“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid, old chap. I’ve had the legal people onto me as well ...”

“Lawyers? You don’t want to listen to those dreadful little people.”

“It seems that there was a morality clause in that contract you signed with us ...”

“Morality? Contracts? Don’t be ridiculous, man; I’m a member of the House of Lords.”

“I know, I know. But apparently that still doesn’t mean you can go round buggering foreigners and impregnating members of the family.”

“But I need the money old boy, staging revolutions is bloody expensive.”

“Quite, quite. Have you considered self publishing?”

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Sanskriti: A Different Kind of Literary Meet in Boston, by Dipika Mukherjee

Just got back from Boston, from Sanskriti 2018. On June 23rd, the Calcutta Club Book Fair and Litfest held their fourth annual event.

This year, the Guest of Honor was Shobhaa De. She has been a familiar figure for decades to those in India and the diaspora, from glitzy magazines like Stardust and Celebrity or TV serials like Swabhimaan. 

Labelled the "Jackie Collins" of India, she is best known for her bold depiction of sexy socialites and bollywood starlets in works of fiction, but she easily shrugs off the "Jackie Collins" label by saying that younger readers may not know Collins, but they do know De.

And indeed, with her millions of twitter followers she vacillates between rather banal tweets fat-shaming policemen to fearless statements challenging the beef-ban in India and causing Hindutva fanatics to rampage at her door.

The Sanskriti 2018 organizers, Chitro and Ruma Neogy, are exceptionally gracious hosts; I got to know them last year when the Calcutta Club had invited me to talk about Shambala Junction and Ode To Broken Things during a cosy evening gathering. For Sanskriti 2018, it was clear that they had spent much thought and effort in compiling an author list reflecting the diversity of voices in Indian-American writing. 

No two literary festival is quite the same (and nor should they be), and Asian literary festivals range from the clockwork precision of the Singapore Writers Festival (where each author has a personal Artist Liaison Officer who escorts panelists to venues and after events and generally makes sure we are well looked after), to a rather chaotic conference in Bali, where venues were changed at the last minute and sessions ran late by almost an hour. 

What I like best about Asian literary festivals is that I don't --even for a moment-- worry about being the "Diversity and Inclusion" author. And as I write on the socio-politics of modern Asia, I usually have an audience asking excellent questions, and am with collegial writers committed to social justice issues. 

(Plus I wrap myself in a bolt of silk and get to feel fabulous!).

The Sanskriti festival had the instant easy collegiality of an Asian festival. If anything, both at the author's dinner and the actual festival, I felt lulled into a feeling of being invited into a casual community gathering, a summer picnic.

This feeling was heightened as the event was held in a huge school hall with acoustics that were not conducive to any conversation, whether on stage  or at the end of the hall, where Madras Grill ran an open buffet, flanked by a vendor selling saris and jewellery as well as tables offering financial and spiritual answers. 

There was a painter offering art for sale. Individual local authors had also leased tables to sell their books.

In essence, this long hall was a place of commerce, crowned by the literary discourse on stage. 

The juxtaposition of books and family fun is not at all unusual; Printers Row Literary Festival in Chicago operates with multiple vendors occupying city blocks under sunny skies in June. But the literary panels are always held in venues where the doors can be shut and words can be heard.

At Sanskriti the mood was fabulously festive, but also very loud. It was difficult to follow the skyped interviews and the lack of audience interaction led to a restless audience. The author panels, with three authors and a moderator speaking for thirty minutes, didn't leave much time for questions either. 

De is is a controversial writer, and at this festival there was room for so much more in terms of a discussion. In the words of the organizer's facebook post:

Shobha De (claimed) Bollywood aspirants ... often have to go beyond their professional roles to survive in the industry and/or to progress up the ladder. De posits that these individuals have a choice and if they decide to submit to the demands of the exploiters - they should NOT consider themselves a victim of the system.
Some members of the audience were outraged. Others were contemplative. Several supported the argument. What do you feel? Consider a parallel situation, where a student family wanting to get into a good college pays a hefty bribe to buy a seat - should that student believe that he/she is also a victim of the system? Where do we draw the line?

This would have been such a topical (heated) discussion, but with time restrictions and questioners limited to one question, the Q&A did not really take off. Bringing De was a "popular" rather than "literary" choice --(this is not about gender as an Arundhati Roy or Anita Desai would attract a very different audience)-- but De turned out to be fabulous speaker, both feisty and articulate. 

I would have liked to hear more from Kushanava Choudhury's work as well as the work of the emerging writers. The moderators all did a wonderful job. 

The Panorama Story Writing contest winners were fabulous, with the top two stories showing a facility for bilingual wordplay and linguistic complexity, while keeping the focus on the socioeconomic issues of transnationalism. Hearing them read extracts of their work would have been a treat.

This festival has SO MUCH promise.

What Sanskriti needs is a venue with demarcated spaces. Room(s) for words and a room for socialization. It already has some excellent organizers backed by a hardworking team and generous sponsors. 

Dipika Mukherjee is the author of three works of fiction: Shambala Junction (Aurora Metro, 2016) Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016) and Rules of Desire (Fixi, 2015); two poetry collections, The Third Glass of Wine (Writer’s Workshop, 2015), and The Palimpsest of Exile (Rubicon Press, 2009) and has edited four anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction.