Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Giving up face-to-face teaching, by Elizabeth Kay

I’ve been an adult education tutor for forty-five years, for both art and creative writing. It’s not the teaching that’s led to this decision, as I enjoy it, but the journey. It’s 17 minutes by car in the evening, when there’s no traffic, but it can be two hours in the morning, and also in the afternoon, due to school runs. And the later I am, the less chance there is of finding a parking space. There’s no direct route by public transport, either, and I have to carry a lot of equipment. So for a class that starts at 9.45 I leave at 8am to be sure of getting there on time. I live close to the M25, and all it takes is a hold-up there for the knock-on effect to mean gridlock in every direction. I’ve put off retiring because I’ve been begged to stay, but I’ve simply had enough. The trapeziectomy on my wrist in December meant that I couldn’t drive, so kind students picked me up and dropped me off. And now that I’ve fractured a rib I’m in the same position once again. So. Enough is enough. I shall continue tutoring for the Open College of the Arts on their creative writing courses, as it’s all online, but I am going to miss the to-and-fro of the classroom.
Watercolour - my favourite medium
            I’m often asked whether there is any point in teaching creative writing. Art is different – you can demonstrate watercolour techniques, and watch someone as they work and suggest where they’re going wrong. There’s a lot of psychology in it, as well. If you can make people laugh you’re halfway towards getting them to accept criticism. My favourite line for a disastrous painting is: “It has a charm all its own.” You can’t do that online, as the expression on your face and your tone of voice are vital. With creative writing the benefits are rather different – you have a whole class of people who will pick up different things in a piece of work when it’s read out.
            I ran my class the same way for many years, and this is the handout I gave so that people knew what they were signing up for:

This is a general class, which hopes to cover a number of different genres and approaches. The structure of the class is as follows: I talk about a topic, such as a particular poetry form, or action sequences, or viewpoint, and I set a homework based on this. (I don’t think in all the decades I’ve been teaching I’ve set exactly the same piece twice. There’s always a new take on an old theme.) The homework is optional, as I know that frequently life intervenes, and there’s no time to do it. Also, you may have a much better idea than the one I’ve set, so go for it. Some students in the past have been writing books, and they submitted chapters of work-in-progress rather than the homework.
The following week, the work is placed on my desk, with both the author’s name and the wordcount, if the work is prose. For prose, I like a word limit of 1,000, although there may be exceptions for specific reasons such as a competition story. I then hand it out to someone else to read, so that the writer isn’t sitting there thinking, everyone knows it’s mine; I have just lost the will to live.  This method does have considerable advantages. If you’re reading your own work, you’re not really listening to it. If someone else reads it, they may interpret your stresses differently. You may discover that people laugh at bits you didn’t mean them to laugh at, or they don’t smile when you hoped they would. And if you hear someone snoring, you may wish to re-write part of it in the privacy of your own home… You do not have to read someone else’s work if you don’t want to. It’s perfectly acceptable to submit regularly, but choose never to read. If the homework is poetry, I like people to print out enough copies for at least one poem between two. This is because poetry is so dense that we can’t take it in on one or even two readings. If the homework is in play form, please print out enough copies for the number of people in the script. The class situation works particularly well in this instance, as you can hear your work read by several voices, as in a radio play.
We all try to keep our eyes open for competitions, as the short story market is limited and it’s a good outlet. If you see some entry forms, grab a handful and bring them in for everyone else. We also mention good books we’ve read, lectures and poetry readings we may hear of, and personal publication successes.
Recently, an increasing number of students have been self-publishing, both electronically and in paperback – I’ve done it myself, as there is no longer any stigma attached to it. There is consequently plenty of advice available for anyone who wishes to have a go at this. Quite a few professional writers have chosen to go along this path as the royalties are better. This class should be fun, and not a trial – criticism should be positive and encouraging, but always honest.

I usually point students in the direction of Electric Authors for advice on self-publishing. I have been teaching some students for many years, and they have become good friends. We get the occasional success, when someone has a short story published, or wins a competition. However, the best result was for a student I had through the Open College of the Arts. Paul Beaumont's book, A BriefEternity, was eventually published by a conventional route, and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. I’m going to miss class teaching. But I’m not going to miss driving in the rush hour!

PS. I held a party in my garden a week after the final class, inviting staff and students past and present. Great fun!

Sunday, 15 July 2018

The Question... and The Answer... by Tony Daniel

I love to be asked, “How do you write?”

I mean, it’s a perfect set-up question to who-knows-how many great one-liners. It also hits me, though, as a question someone asks when they have been told “how to write” and it doesn’t work for them.

Folks hate it when they ask a question and the answer they get is another question, but, in this case, it almost demands a question back.

“How do you write?

“Well, how do you want to write?”

I’ll be the first one to tell you, I am not the person to ask when it comes to questions about rules. Long ago, I found that rules are, for the most part, more like suggestions to me. If someone tells me absolutely, positively, do not do something, you can bet your last dollar that I will be the one to try it, just to see what happens.

The same is true for me when it comes to writing. For years, I have been reading books about writing, how to write, why to write, when to write. How to write a novel in thirty days, how to write a novel from the center and work to both ends, how to write a book by starting at the end and working backwards. You name it, I have heard it. Don’t get me wrong, now. If you have a method for creating that works for you, do not change it in any way! I am a firm believer in the old standard, “If it feels good, go with it.”

That old standard was the basic set-up for my first marriage, but I digress…

How do I write? I just sit down at the keyboard and start banging. Yes, it’s that easy. Every day, I sit down, and I just start free-writing. Whatever pops into my head, I don’t let it linger – I ship the thought down to the fingers and let it hit the “paper,” so to speak. It doesn’t matter if it makes any sense, it’s just a flood from the stream of consciousness that pours out of my head. Once all that is clear and empty, it leaves plenty of room for more focused thoughts. Most importantly, though, I never just delete any of that stuff – I save it and read back over it at the end of the day, because you never know what nuggets of gold were buried under all the mud from the mine.

All that being said, let me make this known – I cannot… cannot… work in silence. Silence drives me nuts. All the “how-to” books will make it abundantly clear that your workspace should be ‘clear of any sort of distraction, be it a television, a radio, a stereo, or any other sort of interference with the clear train of thought.”

Yeah, that dog don’t hunt, as my grandfather used to say…

I have music playlists for writing. Depending on where I want to go with the day’s work, I have playlists that are high energy, some that are a slow, easy groove, and some that are a good rollercoaster mix of both. I set my own energy level to the music and let it fly. And I play it loud. Loud enough to shake the windows? Sometimes …. Other times, it is just barely audible, like white noise. But it works. I let the music drive the machine while I navigate the streets and alleyways to get where I want to go.

Here’s the kicker, though. I also have movies playing throughout the day. If you know me at all, this should not be a surprise. My self-styled addiction to all things cinema is well-known. I have a sign in my office that says, “I speak three languages – English, sarcasm, and movie quotes.” A truer statement about me has yet to be written.

My reasoning for having movies playing is not for entertainment’s sake. My worship of all things movie has allowed my almost-eidetic brain to memorize many movies, down to the sound effects and words being spoken on the screen. People refuse to watch Casablanca, Star Wars, The Godfather, or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence with me because I will quote every line about five seconds before they are said onscreen, and make every gunshot, laser blast, or explosion just before they happen. So why keep such an “obvious distraction” going while I am trying to create something else?

They are clocks. It’s that easy. I don’t keep a clock on my desk because it’s too easy to glance over and think, “Jeez, I’m wasting time,” or “Lord, it’s only been an hour?”

But, let me put The Godfather in the Blu-Ray player and start writing. I don’t have to look at a clock. Michael shoots Tattaglia and the cop in the restaurant? I’m about ninety minutes in. Horse head in the bed? Only 45 minutes in. Sonny gets gunned down at the toll booth? Two hours, seventeen minutes in. All I must do is take a moment to listen to whatever movie is on the screen behind me, and I can set my mental clock for a while. Added bonus? It is a lot of fun making all the machine gun sounds while you work, but you do end up having to wipe the screen off at some point.

So, curiosity begs me ask – am I the only one who has these quirks about how they want their environment to be while they write? Surely, I am not the only one who writes to music, but do you prefer the solemnity of classical music, or do you go for AC/DC’s "Highway to Hell" on a loop for three hours? Do you like nightclub jazz? Vegas Rat Pack club music? Let me know! I could use some new playlists…

Saturday, 14 July 2018

When Death Knocks

“Whether it is a time of inner dignity and honor or a pitiful demise is completely reliant on how we live our lives right now, today. In that sense, the ‘moment of death’ truly exists in the present.” Daisaku Ikea

My father’s diagnosis of a grade-4 angioblastoma, a fast-growing brain tumor, facilitated a hard realization: over the last two years I have been a very busy writer but not a very productive one.
I would very much like to blame my phone and those confounded Facebook and Instagram and Twitter apps. After all those billion-dollar corporations spend millions of dollars every year figuring out which colors and flashing icons will induce me to retweet, heart, like, friend and share. They have to. What is Facebook but billions of posts, comments and shares written by us, for free? Zuckerberg, et al thank us for our efforts by flooding our streams with ads and dreck and junk to enhance the value of their business, which is our eyeballs.
I get it. They have money to make and might as well make it off our attention as our bodies or stomachs or minds. 
Had I received something real in return, I might be happy. But I have invested thousands of hours of my life in these apps, all resulting in a diminution in my ability to focus. I lost my attention.
And I did it to myself. No one forced me to engage these applications of social media. Staring at the lemon-sized tumor in the CT scan, I realized I had been living my life like I had all the time in the world, time to spend arguing with people on a screen, judging my photographic and writing work by the number of likes or comments I got, time to spend agonizing and rewriting one stupid sentence in a 1000-word essay that took me weeks to complete, worrying about how my word choice might affect the share-worthiness of my article.
Each like or comment or share seemed like something in the moment. Over days and weeks and years they for me accumulated to few finished writing projects, or a life of no consequence. A grade-4 glioblastoma, the fastest growing brain tumor known to oncologists (it went from smaller than the diameter of a pin head to the size of a lemon in 89 days), burns up a lot of karma, a hell of a lot. So much that I seem to approach each day like a man with his head on fire searching for a lake. 

When death came knocking for my father I had a choice. Run and hide in the closet or open the door and step into reality, as humiliating and bracing as it felt.
The phone went into off mode. I am in the process of buying a dumb phone for voice and simple texting. I don’t go on to the internet before noon or after 7 pm. My attention seems just a little bit wider now, like I’ve been able to stitch together two quilt squares after years of being unable to  find a thread and needle.

I have read about 1000 pages in ten days, written more consistently than I have in months and finished a two year project i had been lollygagging around on. Time has foreshortened yet deepened. 
Before the arrival of the glioblastoma I believed time was unbounded. I knew I was going to die but how my death related to time, the inexorably ticking of seconds on the clock of my life, I hadn’t a clue. The tumor brought a clarity to my thinking about time.
“The trouble is,” Buddha said, “you think you have time.”
With no end to time, I wasted so much of it in busy writing, little essays going nowhere, novels started and stopped, stories left undone.
With an end to time, I have endeavored to finish what I start, no matter how bad the writing is. Nothing, not even death, can erase a productive writing life.
 My father’s diagnosis has given me this wisdom.
I know that my single human life  on our Earth, orbiting around our Sun, one star among the billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, one galaxy among the billions of galaxies in the Universe, is of no consequence. Yet I it is my life and important to me. What else am I going to do?
The busy approach got me a lot half finished writing.
The productive approach has gotten me more words and more finished projects since April 2018 than the previous 18 months.

Either way I know I will die. Death is inevitable. Today I choose productivity and completion.

Friday, 13 July 2018

The best laid plans.... by Alex Marchant

As Rabbie Burns said, ‘The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley’. Not that my schemes were particularly well laid.

Image result for russia 2018

Perhaps I should have stepped back and thought, ‘You’re going to Russia for the World Cup for ten days in June. Is it really wise to publish a book just three weeks before that and arrange events to attend all through the summer – including every remaining weekend in June and July?’ If I had, I might have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t all that wise. And then add into the mix the serious illness of a close family member...

I had been planning this blog post to be all about my trip to Russia and my impressions of the country thirty-odd years after my last one – when it was still part of the Soviet Union, albeit already changing under glasnost and perestroika. And of course this time I was going during the biggest party on the planet – in the country that had inspired my love of football all those years ago....

Having to cancel the trip to Russia in order to be around to support my family, while a great disappointment, at least allowed more breathing space for planning the remaining events – even if I perhaps ended up watching more football than if I’d been travelling back and forth on trains through southern Russia between matches. But it has all still been rather busy.
First of all was the long drive south from my home in Yorkshire for the Barnet Medieval Festival in early June, where as well as taking a stall to sell my books, I’d been asked to give a short talk on King Richard III at the site of what was his first battle. 

It was my first taste of a battle too (or at least its re-enactment). The reading I chose to accompany my talk was from perhaps rather late on in my books (about three-quarters of the way through the second one, The King’s Man), but it seemed appropriate to accompany a day of fluttering pennons, firing cannon and clashing armies with a description of the morning before a battle.

Then there was a local launch of The King’s Man at a café on Main Street in Haworth, mainly intended for friends and family, but also promoted to local schools. One result has been an invitation to visit a local primary school to chat to a Year 5 class about being a writer. Another event to cram in to this busy July!

Next up, two more medieval festivals, one hard upon the other – the Middleham Richard III Festival, in the castle that was his primary home in the north of England, and Tewkesbury festival – site of Richard’s second battle. Middleham was preceded by my first school visits – to present copies of my books at primary schools in Barnard Castle, County Durham. Very generously a local community group, the Northern Dales Richard III Group, had donated a copy of The Order of the White Boar for every Year 6 pupil in the town to celebrate King Richard’s strong links with the town. At Middleham itself, at an education day for local schools, further copies were donated – and this time presented by His Grace the King himself.

Middleham acts as something of a magnet for Ricardians (supporters of King Richard who believe he has been maligned over the centuries) – even, one might say, as a place of pilgrimage. It was certainly a place where my books received a very warm welcome – and not just from those children who were receiving free copies. It’s a marvellous feeling as a newbie author to have people – some of them already known from social media, some not –making a beeline for your stall and telling you how much they’ve enjoyed your book(s) and/or that they’ve come specially to buy them.

Tewkesbury is this coming weekend and, as the largest free festival of its kind in the UK, will be a different experience again. I’m told the beheadings behind the Abbey are not to be missed! Whether I’ll be able to spare the time from stall and more readings to witness them I have yet to find out.

In another few weeks, it will be the turn of the re-enactment weekend at Bosworth – King Richard’s final fateful battle – although this year, for the first time, apparently there will be a re-enactment with an ‘alternative ending’ in the morning. I’m all for alternative history –fiction based on ‘what ifs’. I was sorely tempted to head in that direction in my own books as the battle of Bosworth loomed closer – though soon reminded myself that the point of my books was to stick as close as possible to the actual history to bring that to young people who might otherwise only encounter Shakespeare’s twisted version. It will be intriguing to see how the re-enactment pans out.

Philippa Langley, finder of King Richard III's grave, placing a white and a red rose at Bosworth to commemorate all those who fell in the battle.

More school and library visits are lined up over the coming months, but no more such major events, and not so close together. I think I’ll need a breather after the intensity of this summer. And at some point I have to start writing that third book – the one that readers keep asking me about – to my delight and, if truth be told, terror!
Will I do the same round of events next year? Perhaps some of them. People keep suggesting new ones too. Without a major football tournament next summer, I could probably fill every weekend with medieval festivals and similar events. And the following year? Well, my partner has promised me that we will start planning a replacement rail trip round Russia very soon...

До свидания!

Image result for volgograd

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Novella by Bronwen Griffiths

I’m a sucker for novellas. I always seek them out in the bookshops, although they are sometimes hard to locate, their narrow spines often lost between the thicker books on the shelves. Once popular, the novella has languished in the past few decades and it was difficult, as a writer, to sell a novella to a publisher or agent. But, today the novella is having a bit of a revival. Some American magazines will accept novellas, Bath Fiction recently had a competition for the novella-in-flash and there are now small publishing houses, such as Peirene Press in London, who publish novellas in translation and Melville House in the USA. 

What exactly is a novella? It’s a short novel, yes, between twenty and forty thousand words - long enough for a reader to inhabit a world but short enough to be read in one sitting. But it is much more than that. A novella tends to focus on one view or one voice, highlights one feeling and portrays one psychological human trait. It zooms in on one aspect of a story. It provokes us to think and use our imagination.
The novella is – at least it should be - an intense experience, like watching a movie.  There’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty thousand words) and the novella. Both operate within the same constraints of economy—there’s space for a subplot (possibly two but no more), characters are established with quick strokes but are allowed room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull.
There’s no room for digression. No room for passenger writing. Every word is doing a job. So pay attention. A short novel is an event, not a trip.’ Cynan Jones - writing for Peirene, 2016.

Author Ian McEwan believes the novella is the superior literary form to the novel. (2012) ‘If I could write the perfect novella I would die happy.’ McEwan believes that brevity appeals to readers, because ‘you can hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.’

A novella is Italian for a ‘little novelty.’ One Thousand and One Nights, written in the 10th century, is one of the earliest examples of serialised novellas. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386-1400) could also be considered a type of novella but the novella really came into its own in the 19th and early 20th century - think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea – to name but a few.

More recent classics include the Catalan, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal - a miracle of compression. In a mere 120 pages we get the complete life story of an old woman, covering the entire 20th century.

Some of my favourite novellas are The Dig by Cynan Jones, Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea, A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli, Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar,  and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. Wioletta Grieg’s book, Swallowing Mercury might also be described as a novella – or perhaps it’s a memoir? But that’s the fun of these books. They often defy categories.  The novella has ambivalence built into its very DNA.

Bronwen is currently attempting to write a novella and recently completed a novella-in-flash about her childhood which was long-listed for the Bath Novella in Flash award earlier this year.  Her book of flash fiction, Not Here, Not Us – stories of Syria, was published in 2018. She is also the author of two novels, A Bird in the House, and Here Casts No Shadow.


With each book sold of Not Here, Not Us, Women Now - a charity which helps women in Syria and surrounding countries - receives a £1 donation

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Getting An Award : Misha Herwin

Last month I picked up the award for the Arnold Bennett prize. This is an annual event run jointly by The Arnold Bennett Society and The Sentinel our local newspaper. Established in 2017, the prize is open to any writer living in north Staffordshire, or writing about the area.

It was a lovely evening early in June and in spite of being hampered by a broken wrist, I dressed as elegantly as I could and was driven to the North Staffs Medical Centre for the award ceremony which was to be followed by dinner.

Although I knew only one or two people there, I was made very welcome and was enjoying a glass of prosecco when the time came for the announcement of the winner.

There were five books short listed and as there is no restriction as to genre they ranged from crime and thrillers, to non-fiction and a children’s picture book.

As Dr Catherine Burgass, the vice chair of the society began her speech, my stomach did flutter and I crossed those fingers that still worked properly.

Please, I thought, let the best book win.

And it did.

“Winter Downs” by Jan Edwards was awarded the Arnold Bennet Prize for 2018.

Shaking with excitement, I could hardly hold my phone, let alone make the call the Cyprus, where the author was on holiday. Which was why I was at the award ceremony, drinking bubbly wine, eating a delicious dinner and thoroughly enjoying myself.

As I walked home, carrying a bag of goodies for Jan, I reflected that there are advantages to picking up an award for which you have not entered. The first being there was no tension as apart from that one moment when the envelope was about to be opened, I wasn’t nervous, nor was there any chance of what must be a dreadful feeling of rejection and disappointment for the others on the short list. In fact the whole evening was perfectly delightful.

Perhaps that is the way to do it and if ever I am in the running for an award I’ll skip the nerve wracking bit and get someone to deputise for me, or perhaps not…

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Bonsai by Karen Kao

Image source: https://pixabay.com/en/bonsai-miniature-pine-japan-2543668/
Bonsai seems like such an obvious metaphor for editing a novel manuscript. The tiny tree, tweaked and twisted to look like the real thing, just as a novel strives to mimic life.

When I think of bonsai, I’m whisked back to a Zen temple complex outside of Tokyo. It’s early in the morning and the place is deserted. No, wait, there’s an old man bearing a zinc pail in one hand and a pair of nail clippers in the other. For hours, the man shuffles from one bush to the next, carefully examining the plant from top to bottom before making a single snip.

For some writers, this is what editing means. But it’s not my process. I have to rewrite, over and over, from beginning to end until I hear my manuscript crackle to life. I kill off characters and squash narrative arcs. Like weeds, some of them return to infest my manuscript. Or perhaps these characters are saying to me: “Listen! I’m the hero you need.”

The heroes of my novel-in-progress Peace Court are two old folks. Mrs. Yip is the local busybody who once worked for Blind Bao when he owned a laundry. Neither of these senior citizens possesses superpowers. They don’t even have a particularly upright soul. All they can wield is their own conscience against struggle sessions, police interrogations and the everyday violence that marked the start of Communist China.

So I’ve got my heroes and a fine kettle of fish into which I can dangle them by the feet. I have an evocative time and place: Shanghai 1954. There are colorful characters and plenty of salty language. Done and dusted, you say?

cutting tools


Not quite, though I feel I’m close. I can hear my manuscript breathing in the night. The problem is: it keeps on growing. New story lines. New back stories for minor characters like Shao, the prostitute who plies her trade in a green Chinese Army uniform. Where do I stop? When do I cut and how deep? This is where bonsai comes in.

Bonsai tools. Image source: Bonsai Empire
Bonsai tools. Image source: Bonsai Empire
Bonsai, it turns out, is not such a gentle art. You start with a plant: one you’ve cultivated or sourced from elsewhere. As the plant matures, the trunk thickens, branches spread and leaves come (and sometimes go).

Then the real work starts. The tree must be shaped, both to keep it small and to force it to grow in the desired direction. Bonsai gardeners use a special set of tools that remind me of the dentist. These cutters are supposed to leave hollow wounds that heal quickly.

maker trees


First Nation and Native Americans once bent trees to create guideposts. The marker trees pointed the way toward fresh water, medicinal plants or the safest route out of the wilderness. These early trail markers were made from saplings bent and staked with wild vines or rawhides. Nature would eventually take over, causing the tree to grow past the bend tall into the sky.

Wires are today’s rawhide for shaping bonsai trees. The branch is wired along the full length before it’s staked to the ground or another branch. Unlike marked trees, the bend serves no purpose other than to please your own sense of aesthetics.

The writer Yasunari Kawabata regarded bonsai as an ultimate expression of Japanese aesthetics.
dry bonsai garden
Bonseki, Honen-In, Kyoto. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Nothing is more complicated, varied, attentive to detail, than the Japanese art of landscape gardening. Thus there is the form called dry landscape, composed entirely of rocks, in which the arrangement of stones gives expression to mountains and rivers that are not present, and even suggests the waves of the great ocean breaking in upon cliffs. Compressed to the ultimate, the Japanese garden becomes the bonsai dwarf garden, or the bonseki, its dry version.
But how to choose which limb to amputate and which one to save, if only to mutilate it beyond recognition? My friend Tim tells me of a harrowing moment at bonsai school. He and his teacher Yannick Kiggen examine a tree. A large knot, mostly filled with deadwood, mars one side. Should it be removed?

“No,” Tim says, “look at the beautiful circle it makes.”

“You’re right,” Yannick replies. “Get me the drill.”

Yannick proceeds to remove all the deadwood so that a perfect white circle is all that’s left.

bonsai: the book


Alejandro Zambra is a Chilean poet whose first novella was entitled Bonsai. I missed that one but I did read his second, The Private Lives of Trees. Both books use a circular narrative structure to lead the reader down a rabbit hole (or through a tree knot).

bonsai in kanji characters
 Bonsai in kanji. Image source: Wikipedia
The final stage in cultivating a bonsai tree is to choose the proper vessel to contain the plant. After all, the Japanese word bonsai means tray planting. The vessel must be worthy of its burden and vice versa. Or, in the words of Zambra reviewer Elizabeth Wadell
Miniaturization is not the defining feature of a bonsai; containment is, the strict boundary between the bonsai and the rest of nature.
The novel Peace Court is my chosen vessel. Mrs. Yip, Blind Bao and all my other characters form the tree. I’ve spent my time pruning and wiring, applying the power tools and then waiting for the stories to recover. Now it’s time to take a good hard look at the vessel.

It must be striking and nourishing. Either in contrast to the green life within or in utter harmony therewith. Unlike a bonsai gardener, I have the ability to shape both vessel and tree.

Talk to me in a few more months. Maybe I’ll have something for you to see.

Note: Bonsai was first published by Karen Kao on her blog Shanghai Noir.

Monday, 9 July 2018

You Want One of These: a tale of three bits of paper (the Preferred Place of Care form) by Julia Jones

Piece of Paper 1: a Book of Pledges
Bertie applauds as Nicci
presents the pledge book
to CNO Jane Cummings
It was 0800 on a Monday morning. Not any Monday morning, it was The Monday Morning that I was going to London to NHS England with the Book of Pledges for Nicci Gerrard and myself to present to Chief Nursing Officer. Putting it together had felt epic– but now there were half dozen neat copies, printed out and comb-bound and right-hand-man Bertie was ironing his clean white shirt.
I was still in my dressing gown. I’d been to bed silly late and up silly early but all I had to do now was find something suitable to wear and get into the car for the station.

The phone rang. It was Jo, the nurse on duty at the Moat House where my mother lives. Mum had had a fall. She was on the floor, screaming, and the paramedics who were already there thought she should go to hospital for an X-ray. Jo wanted guidance.

I burst into tears. This was one of God’s bad jokes. At that moment the trip to London seemed to represent something I had wanted and worked for over three years. Every one of the 1400 Carers Welcome pledges now on the Observer list had been worked for and recorded by me.  Nicci had written and spoken many powerful and beautiful words, Bertie had typed thousands (possibly millions?) of lines of computer code but at that moment the pledge list felt like Mine-All-Mine.

I was wrong of course. Ownership of the pledges remains with the people who made them. God must have noticed my hubris and sniggered as he spotted a way to put the record straight.

Piece of Paper 2: a letter
My mother had also contributed words. In the early weeks of John’s Campaign (2014) she’d insisted on writing a letter for Nicci and me to take on our visit to the Alzheimer’s Society.

Mum had visited hospital as an outpatient and had benefited from eye treatments but had never been admitted. When endoscopic investigation was offered for possible bowel cancer, she'd declined it. Her letter and everything I knew about her makes it clear that the only circumstances she would consent to spend time in hospital was if she needed treatment for a broken bone. 

Now, aged 94, here was that suspected broken bone and here was I, a weeping wreck in my dressing gown because I didn’t want to stay with her in hospital, I wanted to go to London.

I rang my own daughter, Georgeanna, who Mum loves and trusts and who works nearby. She said she could hurry to the Moat House immediately and travel with Mum in the ambulance. As I rang Jo to tell her what was happening, I could hear Mum’s screams. I rang Nicci and sobbed down the phone. I gave Bertie my precious pile of print-outs and a string of incoherent instructions. Then, finally, I washed my face, got out of that dressing gown, packed a few things in a bag and set off to the hospital, prepared to stay for as long as it took.

Piece of Paper 3: Preferred Place / Priorities for Care
The form Mum had signed
four years earlier in Suffolk
I wrote down my impressions later that evening. The section in bold is all you need to read.

Georgeanna and paramedics hand Mum over and leave. The usual incomprehensible waiting with no idea what happens next or how long. Mum begins to wonder about wanting a wee. Hard to know how to help as back injury suspected. 
Time passes people in and out  rather rough but cheerful person comes in grabs trolley heaves mum off to the next stage which I suppose is assessment unit?
Another side room, another wait. I hear outside that there is some anxiety as they have two Hazels.  I keep telling them my mother’s preferred name is her second name, June. Usually this just causes them anxiety.

Two people – a staff nurse and another – come into the room “We hear she’s not Compliant” one says and the other starts telling me about Mental Capacity and how they’ll need to take bloods and Mum won’t be able to consent. They really sound threatening. I do my damnedest to say No. To explain Mum’s situation; that she is here for an X ray on her back and pelvis,  she does not want any other treatment, unless her bones are broken and can be mended. I feel frightened that the staff are going to start sticking needles into Mum. She’ll fight. Then they’ll need to restrain or sedate her. This will turn nasty.

I claim my right to speak for her. As her daughter who visits every day. I try the phrase ‘her primary carer’. They ask if I have power of attorney papers. I start the usual explanation that ours is an ‘enduring’ not a ‘lasting’ POA, that my brothers have the document but decisions of daily care are delegated to me.  I mention that the CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) has recently accepted my right to advocate for Mum, as her Continuing Health Care needs have been assessed.

They say that none of this matters. Even if I had POA papers with me they would be following their own judgement what’s in Mum’s best interests. I get cross. They have only just met Mum they know nothing about her, they're struggling even with her name!  How can they make such an assessment?

“You’re going to treat her against her will?”

“Oh no,” and they begin to explain that this won’t be against her will because they’ll have done a Mental Capacity Assessment. I assume this means that they’ll assess that she hasn’t the capacity to consent or withhold consent at this stage in her life -- therefore nothing can be said to be 'Against her Will'. Treatment will therefore be assessed to be in her Best Interests. Whether she wants it or not.

“No!” I say, -- and this is my moment of inspiration. “ You can’t do that because when Mum did have the capacity to consent, she said No. We have a Preferred Place of Care form. It’s lodged in the Moat House with her care plan and her DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) form.” 

I begin to explain what this Preferred Place of Care form is (at least what I think it is) is but they start to look bemused and tell me I’ll need to have that conversation with the doctor. I feel embarrassed that I haven’t noticed the other person who has joined us. A sweet-looking young woman in a headscarf. The two tough-talking nurses leave me alone with her.

I ask for her name (I keep asking for names). It’s D (actually I've just taken this out as don't want to embarras her). She begins to explain that Mum may have fallen because she’s getting an infection. She begins to tell me about all the different routine blood tests Mum should have and probably a precautionary chest X ray. She’ll need blood pressure taken (Mum hates this!), various samples, possibly a scan and then they’ll decide whether to admit her -- for observation. If they find she’s got a UTI (urinary tract infection) they can keep her in and give intravenous antibiotics.

I feel as if we’re on some terrifying conveyor belt going somewhere that we never meant to go. I dig my heels in hard.  I explain that when Mum did have capacity she would not have consented to all of this.  I tell the doctor about the Preferred Place of Care form that Mum and I filled in with her GP when she also completed the DNR instruction. If she is getting an infection then she wants it treated by her own GP in her own place. We have only come here for an X ray because the paramedics were worried that she may have broken her back.

Suddenly Doctor D gets the point that we are refusing all other treatment than what we came for – an X-ray on Mum’s back and hips – (plus whatever might subsequently be necessary in case of a confirmed fracture).   Finally she stops explaining procedures and begins to investigate Mum's back.  Mum is fairly relaxed and so am I now. This is what we came for. Nothing much seems wrong but when the doctor tries to help Mum sit up, she screams.  A lumber X ray is ordered, plus X ray of hips, everything else rejected.  The doctor looks relieved and understanding.  She explains that what I see as the conveyor belt of 'routine' blood tests and waiting for results and further 'precautionary' X rays and possible admission for 'observation' is “ just the way we do things here.” I think she’s quite glad she doesn’t have to do them this time. All because of my form!

More waiting. No water, food, comfort.  I have a bottle with me. Drip it in Mum’s mouth as best I can. Check with doctor that it’s okay to offer Mum a biscuit.  Ask for help to get her sitting up so that mucus can clear away from her throat. There’s talk of pain relief but nothing comes. Mum still wants a wee.

It's a while before we are collected for X ray. There’s a moment when I hear someone say, “There’s a daughter with her. She seems to know her mother quite well.” A security person takes the trolley. She is quick and rough. A nurse comes with us. She doesn’t speak either to me or to Mum.

Mum is getting agitated by the time we reach the X ray dept. She’s wanting to get off the trolley. Radiographer comes “I’m going to put a bit of a tilt on.” She heaves up the bottom end of the bed so Mum is unable to get out.  I go along with this restraint remembering that Mum is here because the paramedics think she may have back damage. We need these X rays. There is no question of me not being welcome to help with this process. I have a protective garment on and hold Mum as still as I can, reassuring her, while they get the shots they need. It's a cleverly designed trolley;  the radiographer slides her plates in underneath where Mum is trapped. The radiographer is as efficient and as kindly as she can be.  

All the same Mum isn’t liking it. Her agitation levels are increasingly hard to keep in check as we return to assessment unit. She’s uncomfortable and I am conscious that she still wants that wee.  I tried earlier to ask for a bed pan but all seemed too difficult when there was still a question of possible back or hip damage.

Radiographer says there’s no damage visible on X ray. Back in the unit the doctor confirms this. Mum is getting really stressed and trying to climb out over the side bars of the trolley, which is still tilted up like a soup plate. She's ordering me to go away and leave her. I think this is getting dangerous. I can’t leave her so I call out of the door for a nurse to get the trolley back to normal and help her stand up. Then I ask where the toilet is and if Mum can finally have some pain relief.

Finally we make it to the toilet and as I help Mum out of the overnight pad she’s been wearing for so many hours. I discover a bright pink plastic butterfly inside. Rigid two inch wingspan, can't have been very comfortable. Mum releases the vast quantity of wee she’s been retaining and I help her back to the side room.  I ask if she can have a cup of tea. The nurse offers to make some for me as well. She’s called Zoe.  This is a highpoint of our visit.

The chairs in our side room are hard. I sit Mum down for her tea which for a while is good. But then the discomfort increases and she is exhausted and anxious and there’s still no pain relief and we seem to have been forgotten. She gets up and begins to shuffle round, asleep on her feet, bumping into things. She’s obviously desperate to rest but she can’t get back on the bed. It’s too high and I can’t help her.  Someone from the hospital dementia team comes wanting to do an assessment. I say we don’t need an assessment, all we need is help to make Mum comfortable and get her back to the Moat House, to Willow, the dementia unit where she lives. He tries and fails to help me lower the bed and goes away clutching his uncompleted form.  

No one seems to have any plan for getting us out of there. I can’t settle Mum. She continues tottering around blindly, pawing at the walls, pulling at tubes and power cables. I ask again for pain relief. Nothing comes. I ask about transport. No one knows so I ask if I can organise this myself. The doctor says yes but she’ll need to complete the paperwork. She can do it straight away. 

So I ring Georgeanna to take more time away from her work and collect us.  Mum hasn’t been in a car for months but she is so heart-wrenchingly bewildered and exhausted and agitated that I am determined we are going to get her back to her own bed.  Knowing that she has not broken anything is a real strength.  All of this was probably worth it for that. Probably.

I make more fuss and finally we get pain medicine. But no paperwork. Georgeanna has arrived and I decide we’re leaving anyway.  Mum is pitiably dead on her feet. We bundle her into the car and we’re gone. Home to the Moat House and Willow Suite.

That form!
I wrote these impressions of our hospital visit when it was still fresh in my mind. Since then the Moat House care staff and I have been dealing with the repercussions of what was, for Mum, a traumatic experience. It wasn’t until today, writing this, that I looked up the piece of paper I’d so successfully cited to fend off all those precautionary measures that would have added yet more time and stress to our stay. In most places it’s not called Preferred Place of Care, it’s called Preferred Priorities of Care and it’s intended for people who are nearing the end of life. (As are we all.) I bless Mum’s GP for putting it in front of us at such a relatively early stage -- when Mum could enter into a reasonable discussion. Mum was 90 then, vulnerable and living in 'Very Sheltered' accommodation. I was sixty miles away. The doctor believed that if Mum was ill -- not necessarily  dying -- she should have the option to be treated in her own place. That's what Mum wanted too.

This seems to  have been some sort of East Suffolk initiative -- but what a good idea, and how effective, even when I was in a mid-Essex hospital, citing it with such innocent confidence. Maybe we should all have one of these?

And PS  if you live in England and want to know what your own hospital trust has pledged to carers -- our book is available to you  https://johnscampaign.org.uk/#/voices/4