Another glorious weekend - a real treat to bask in the sunshine in my garden and make time to read poetry magazines (Mslexia and the newly created Artemispoetry from 2nd Light Publications). I’ve even managed to produce a few lines that might eventually turn into a completed poem, though I doubt I’ll have much time for the next few days when my head will be full of work stuff.
Anyway, getting back to the subject of my poetry ‘career’ -as I’ve said in my post, Cannon Poets, and what this led to , I was invited by Don Barnard from the Cannon Poets writing group to be the fourth member of what soon was named Late Shift. The four of us first met together in a pub in Oxford. The other three were all experienced writers and performers of their work. I’d never heard of a Poetry Slam before, but it soon became clear that you have to have nerves of steel to take part in one of these events – a knock-out competition, in which the poets who’d gained the loudest and longest applause for their opening offerings would move on to the next round, while the others would retire to their seats in disappointment.
Both Rob Evans and Don were experienced Slammers, and accustomed to winning. Susan Utting had already been published, taught creative writing at Reading University and often gave readings of her own. And I was being invited to be a part of this group!
The last time I’d been on a stage I was six years old, playing the Angel Gabriel in the school nativity in a church hall packed with proud parents. Gabriel was the main part in that version of the story. A singing part! But that was before self-consciousness took over control of my voice and my gestures. Throughout my years at the convent boarding school I was never chosen for a speaking part in any performance. To be fair, I never put myself forward for auditions, though somewhere deep down, I wanted to be thrust onto the stage, and miraculously discover (or even re-discover) a talent for acting.
Unsurprisingly, Clarissa did have this talent in full measure. She made a superb Earnest in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of being Earnest, complete with dapper moustache.
Yesterday was the first time since I started this blog that I didn’t add a new post. I don’t even have the excuse of a hard day at work, because I decided to acknowledge the half term break by staying at home, so I’ll have to blame it on the rats.
Yes, rats - the four-legged creatures, not the politicians who’ve been claiming for duck houses or non-existent mortgages.
For several years I’d ignored the very occasional scrabbling sound from the loft of my lovely little study/writing room, a one storey extension that we added to our house about twenty years ago.
Eventually I couldn’t kid myself any longer - that noise wasn’t a flock of giant pigeons doing the can can on the ridge tiles, or the overgrown forsythia tapping on the roof.
The pest control/tree-surgeon duo (who’d come to lop back the encroaching vegetation that was stealing half the daylight from our garden) discovered that the roof space had been infested by rats, and they duly left a dozen or so little red dishes of lurid blue granules.
Yesterday they came back to clear all the clutter that had been stored there for nearly twenty years, and to monitor progress (no sign of rats, dead or alive). I watched as every cardboard box and black bin bag was handed down and taken out to the trailer waiting on the drive.
Good by to Action Man, and his green motorbike and tank. Goodby to Garfield the cat, the Starwars spaceship, the comics and annuals. A long-delayed goodby to my son’s childhood, for which he, at 30, wouldn’t feel the slightest pang.
Getting back now to what I was saying about Clarissa in my last post, A short digression on one of the two Fat Ladies, she and I have always been ‘good at English’ and managed to get top marks for our essays and stories – we boxed and coxed for the English and History prizes, one being first and the other second, then maybe vice versa the following year. So, with her TV career firmly established, the idea of writing a TV sitcom together seemed like something we could both enjoy.
So off we went to Herefordshire for a few days’ break, to see what we might come up with. Sitting in a snug pub in one of that county’s numerous Black and White villages (mainly unsung and tourist-free), devouring some excellent bangers and mash, we mulled over ideas, which I scribbled down in the back of a note book.
‘One Foot in The Grave,’ one of us said. ‘Vicar of Dibley,’ said the other. We both agree that our main protagonists would be anarchic older people, in one way or another. ‘Then we can play ourselves,’ she laughed.
‘We don’t count as ‘old’ yet!’ I said, and we embarked on a deeply philosophical discussion of attitudes and ‘states of mind’, carefully skirting around the boggy territory of ‘The Young These Days’ – wading into that morass being the clearest sign of ‘Being Past It.’
‘So what is this “it” that we might be past?’
‘Anything boring we don’t want to do.’
So far, the sitcom remains, not only un-shown on TV, but as yet, unwritten. However, all was not wasted. A few years later, after I’d achieved my MA and completed my novel, In The Lamb-White Days, I was on the verge of embarking on a new novel, when the idea of an anarchic older protagonist took hold. She emerged as ‘Agnes Borrowdale, 75 years old, a week on Tuesday….’, the heroine of The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.
(You can see Clarissa’s name, and that discussion, mentioned among the Acknowledgements in the front of that book)
On the whole, my mobile is on silent when I’m at work, and I don’t usually hear the ‘ping’ of an arriving text, so it wasn’t till I got in my car to drive the three miles home that I found I’d got a text from my friend, Clarissa. We’ve just had a good laugh about the content of that message - an enquiry from a Hollywood agent about the possibility of buying the film rights to her autobiography, Spilling the Beans. The mind boggles – as it often does when I hear of the latest developments in her life – As a novelist, I’d struggle to come up with a plot as unlikely as her life has turned out to be.
(This post might make more sense if you read this post, first, A Writing prize and a strange meeting )
Some while before I enrolled on the MA course that I’ve mentioned in the last two posts, I was out with my then newly-famous friend on one of our occasional trips around the countryside, and was thrilled when someone in a small market town approached her and asked if she was indeed, ‘the lady from the tele’.
To start with, it was a novelty, and as soon as the next admirer had moved on, we’d giggle like school girls. I mean, you can’t help being struck by the contrast between that taste of fame and the ordinariness of sitting next to each other at the back of the classroom whispering about anything other than what the teacher was scribbling on the blackboard.
The novelty had long worn off by the time the next series was out. I was still thrilled for her, because limelight is as natural and as energising to her as sunlight is to me, but it made me realise that fame might not always be a welcome companion.
Clarissa’s success is well-deserved, and well-enjoyed. She has, in great store, what it takes to be successful: guts, determination and multi-talent. She’s also one of the most generous people I know, not just with material things, but also with her time and support.
I know that lots of film rights get bought and never make it on to the large screen,(or even a small one) but so many extraordinary things have happened to her in the fifty years since we became friends, that a blockbuster Hollywood film of her life story doesn’t seem totally far fetched.
Actually, I’m finding it harder to believe that it’s really that long since we were eleven!
This post is about starting to write what I consider as my first ‘proper’ novel, but I’ve been whisked back into the world of poetry for a moment, after reading an article in Times 2 in which Libby Purves expresses her views on the row about the Oxford poetry professorship. I admire Ruth Padel’s poetry and when I first heard about her resignation I did wonder what the actual (as opposed to the reported) facts were.
I have to admit that it’s taken me years (decades, even) to stop and think before I make judgements based on a media story - there’s almost invariably an opposing way of looking at the same event, so it was nice to read Libby’s measured view of the incident. It’s one thing to hold politicians to account for what they say to journalists, but poets aren’t expected to be constantly on the alert in that way.
And now, back to what I was saying in my last post about feeling vulnerable on my MA course - it wasn’t until the following term that I began to feel more at ease with myself and with the others in the group. The main reason for my surge in confidence was Rosie Jackson, the tutor who took over our small fiction tutorial group of six. ‘Right, it’s time for a larger project now,’ she announced. ‘I want you to bring the start of a novel for next week.’
We all gulped.
‘This doesn’t have to be the actual beginning,’ Rosie went on, breaking a shocked silence, ‘You can start anywhere. The main thing is, to write.’
Then she explained the method we would all follow for giving feedback to each other. To start with, nothing negative would be written. Instead, a highlighter pen would be used on any sections that seemed to the reader to be genuine, to ‘sing’. Any queries or suggestions for improvement would be given verbally later.
This approach unplugged the block that had been building up in my head over the previous term. I wrote freely for the first time in ages, without striving to produce something that would be of a suitable standard for an M.A. course.
I handed it in the following week, and waited nervously for it to be returned to me. There’s something very positive about colours, any colour, but especially the green of the highlighter pen that Rosie had used across great chunks of my printed pages.
This was the start of what I think of as my first ‘real’ novel, In The Lamb-White Days.
When the fiction year of the MA course came to an end, our writing group (five of us, by that time) continued to meet to work on our developing novels. It was Helen H who’d suggested our monthly meetings outside of the official course times. She’d started her MA the previous year, so our first year had been her final one, and she’d realised the value of keeping in touch as a working fiction-writing group.
There was something a bit weird (as well as wondeful) in being part of the process of the making of four other novels in addition to my own. We all knew that the places, characters and plots that we were discussing were total inventions, but it was sometimes hard to remember that these stories weren’t yet ‘real’, and that their writers were almost as much in the dark about what would happen next as the readers were. At the same time, we were working on our next section of the MA course – in my case, poetry, but we still meet up to discuss our fiction writing.
This post might make more sense if you read the ones below first – or at least An Arvon course and a poetry prize
It’s the half term break, but I was at work anyway – I know that lots of people would be envious of my 10 weeks annual leave, but to be honest, it was partly because of the long holidays that I went into teaching in the first place, and when I started working in Adult Education, I got 14 weeks, so having that reduced to 10 in the last few years, hit me quite hard – but at least I still get a certain amount of satisfaction from it, and I’m pretty sure that this is due to my other ‘career’ – my writing.
I’ve already mentioned that the Arvon course at Lumb Bank changed my life, but there was a lot more to it than winning first prize in the Envoi poetry competition, and being invited to be part of the poetry ensemble, Late Shift.
I’ll be saying more about Late Shift soon, but first, there are other opportunities that can also be traced back to that same course. Maybe the most important for my writing development was the fact that I became a life member of the Friends of Arvon, and this entailed a regular news letter. The first one I received mentioned that there were still a few places left for the M.A. writing course at Nottingham Trent. The part-time option would involve a two year commitment of two evenings per week during term times.
I rang for more details, and liked what I read: This didn’t seem like a strictly academic approach, involving huge amounts of research into Eng Lit. It sounded very practical – everything would be based on our own writing and on critiquing each other’s work, with guidance from a small team of lecturers. There was a compulsory core programme which comprised weekly lectures given by relevant members of the university staff, and by visiting published writers. The other evening of each week would be set aside for the chosen subject area, one for the first year, the other for the second. I chose to start with fiction and then move on to poetry.
Just as I had sensed the need for a poetry writing group that would offer me challenge as well as support, I had already realised that, for my fiction in particular, I needed to be mixing with other writers who had the same needs, and taught by those who had already enjoyed some level of public recognition for their work.
To start with, though, what I felt I needed was support. In bucket-loads.
I had become (gradually) a confident , outgoing, outspoken person in my workplace. I enjoyed my job, which brought me into daily contact with all sorts of people. In fact, one of the unforeseen benefits of enrolling on the MA course, was that it would force me to cut back on the ‘gift time’ I was donating to my job, often working four evenings a week, instead of the expected two, simply because I found it so stimulating working with the students, constantly trying out new ways of helping them to use the wealth of the English language to express their own ideas more effectively.
I knew who I was in that environment – but here, back at university after all those years, conscious of being one of the few, much older ‘mature students’, unsure of the quality of my own expressive skills and creativity, I was suddenly as vulnerable as my teenage self had been.
Bank holidays can be a good time for catching up with friends - that extra day makes all the difference to the weekend. I’ve just been chatting on the phone to Penny, one of my oldest friends – we met in Nottingham through a network of young mothers more than thirty years ago, and are still close, in spite of the fact that we both moved away to different parts of the country after a couple of years.
I’d always known that I wanted children at some stage. No hurry. Certainly no wish to emulate my mother, with 8 surviving children, and a ninth, her first, living for less than a week. Two, would do me nicely. One of each, perhaps.
The only trouble about having my own children was the fact that they’d inevitably start off as babies, and I wasn’t a ‘babies’ person. I couldn’t imagine how some of my friends and relations could spend day in, day out with their non-speaking but demanding bundles that constantly needed to be fed at one end and cleaned up at the other.
Somehow, my memories of my four younger siblings didn’t stretch back to their months of babyhood. There must have been enough other people around, (including my mother) to tend to their needs before they reached the interesting stage when they could be played with like a superior type of walking, talking doll.
Still, if I wanted my own children, rather than adopted versions, (which I definitely did) – then I’d have to put up with the baby-stage, as it was most unlikely that I could hand the new-born over to whomever might want it for its first couple of years, and then be happy to hand it back to me when it could enter into some kind of, albeit fairly primitive, conversations with me.
There’s something disconcertingly different about an actual experience, compared to the imagined one, and motherhood is a prime example of this. Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming feelings of joy, in spite of the utter exhaustion after a thirteen hour labour. What was even more surprising to me was how interesting my baby was. Every single day there was a new development – a different tilt of the head, the way the fingers tightened round my thumb, the movement of the lips that was, yes, it definitely was a smile, and no, it wasn’t ‘just wind’.
So there I was, having tumbled headlong into a very different state of ‘in love’. When this baby, my daughter was three years old, just before my son was born, I remember looking into the future and thinking sadly, ‘I love her so much, how will I ever bear it when she leaves home?’
I think of that moment whenever I try to imagine what this or that stage of my life will be like – and how it will feel to be old. Because when my daughter started primary school, and when she joined the Brownies and swore her solemn little oath of loyalty, and when she went alone on the bus to her grammar school, and when she went on her fortnight’s exchange to France, and when she had her Gap year in Hong Kong… all those separate occasions of leaving, were experienced, not by me-as-the-mother-of-a three-year-old, but the mother of the child of the relevant age. She wasn’t the only one growing and changing, I was, too.
It was the same while my son was growing up, so, with any luck, I’ll be able to carry on in this way, whatever life throws at me. (Fingers crossed, just in case I’m tempting fate – and tongue in cheek, because I’m really not superstitious!)
(This post might make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
It’s ages now since I’ve managed to get to one of the monthly workshops at Cannon Poets – this Sunday is one when I’d be free to go, but it doesn’t happen to be the first one in the month. I’ll be visiting my mother in Sussex on the weekend of the June meeting – and so another month will slip by. I’m only an associate member now, but I still feel attached to the group, and very grateful for all the opportunities that it gave me.(Yes, I will make it to a meeting at least once this year!)
Not the least of the benefits of this group, is their practice of reading aloud round the huge, angular table in a room at the top of the Midlands Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park. (Now temporarily meeting at a different venue, during the renovation the MAC) There were often more than twenty of us there, and at first I found the readings very daunting – we started the meeting with poems of our choice, by established poets, alive or dead, and finished by reading one that we’d just been working on. To encourage us to develop our delivery of these poems, everyone had the chance of putting their name forward to fill the monthly twenty-minutes member’s slot.
By the time my turn came round, about a year after joining, my voice had grown accustomed to this large audience and was managing to remain not only steady, but also, reasonably expressive.
It was after this reading that I was approached by an experienced poet, Don Barnard, who later became Poet Laureate of Birmingham, and asked if I’d like to be the fourth member of a group that he was putting together with one other woman and another man, both of whom lived further south, and were keen to take part in this venture.
And so my role as a member of the performing poetry group, Late Shift, began.
Hurray! A beautifully sunny day, and it’s Saturday, so I don’t have to go to work and can take advantage of the unaccustomed warmth and relax in the garden, listening to the blackbird belting out its song from the chimney pot behind my head. Bliss!
(The rest of this post might make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
Winning that competition had been an amazing boost to my confidence after all those years of rejections. Did this mean that I could be justified in calling myself a poet? Whether it did or not, it made no difference to the amount of courage I had to summon up when I visited my first ever writing group. It was even more daunting than my trip to Lumb Bank. Everyone there would be a stranger, and unless I chose, I’d never see any of them again after the end of the course. (I’m still in touch with people from that group)
What was particularly scary about the idea of this first writing group was the fact that it was so close to home. Oh my god, I might even bump into someone I knew, and expose my lack of talent and inability to read aloud without my voice quivering and flapping like wind through a line of washing. As it turned out, there was someone I knew, but she, and every one of the other twelve or so present was welcoming and very encouraging about my work.
After a few visits, I began to see that though it had been a good place to start, it fulfilled only one of the two-fold commitment of Adult Basic Education: to offer maximum challenge and maximum support (not always an easy balance to achieve) . Everyone was kind, but I knew that I needed more challenge if I was going to develop my work. Praise needed to be tempered with incisive critique.
Having scoured the local papers and libraries for more information, I located a group called Cannon Poets on the other side of the city. Here, I found what I was looking for: an open-to-all meeting place for poets and would-be-poets. The small workshop groups that formed after the main meeting almost invariably contained at least one or two men or women who were further along the road of experience and skills in creating and critiquing poetry.
Sometimes the feedback came as a rather bitter pill, particularly when I’d brought a poem that I’d felt had been honed to perfection, only to realise that what I was being told was true – there was still more work to be done before I’d got it to the stage where it was actually saying to others as well as myself, what I’d wanted it to say, rather than what, from my exclusive viewpoint I’d thought it was saying superbly.
I’d already discovered that the passage of a few weeks was usually a sound critic - (what a disappointment it was to take a cherished creation from a drawer where it had been left to ‘prove’ itself, and to find, instead of a nicely risen, nourishing object, a few dull stanzas lying flat on their face). No, to be fair to myself – there were sometimes a few real nuggets in there, but they’d been smothered by over-explaining, rather than being trusted to speak for themselves.
(This post might make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
I’ve already had my main holiday abroad this year (the inspiring poetry course in Spain at Almaserra Vella, run by Penelope Shuttle, but the weather then was cold and wet, so I’m hoping to get some proper sunshine in August during my summer break from my job with the Birmingham Adult Education Service.
This August, it’ll be thirteen years since that poetry course at Arvon’s Lumb Bank Centre in Yorkshire. Joining that course was far more daunting than floating around in the sky, firmly linked to a boat in the coastal waters of Gran Canaria. It was also a more significant stepping stone into the future I wanted: being a writer. It’s amazing to think how far I’ve got with my writing since that particular turning point in my life.
I’d been dabbling in poetry during the previous years, when my job took up more and more of my free time. Not that poetry can easily be squeezed in to a brief half hour, here and there, but it was something that helped to satisfy that creative itch, and is still a significant part of my writing life.
Various friends and family members had said, ‘That’s really good.’ But then they would, wouldn’t they? I knew I needed to brace myself for something more objective from someone with more experience and knowledge of the craft of poetry.
The workshops, run by Joan Poulson and John Lyons were an inspiration, but I always dreaded the time when we were expected to subject our half-finished creations to the comments from the tutors and the group. It was fascinating to hear the contributions from all the others and I’d marvel at the standard of these offerings. I found it very enlightening to see how the tutors focussed in on the best parts, and explained what they felt had worked well, and why, with suggestions on how the piece might be further developed.
My life-changing moment came with my one-to-one appointment with Joan. She looked through the poems I’d brought with me and seemed to consider some of them worthy of publication. I’d known nothing about the various small poetry presses and she suggested a few that I might try.
Anyone who’s ever written poetry or fiction can imagine the size of the smile on my face for hours after receiving this news.
The next hurdle was to find somewhere to lodge this cheque. I’d decided years earlier to use my maiden name of Coleman for my writing endeavours, rather than my husband’s name that I’d (willingly) taken on at our wedding. I was shocked to find how hard it was to open a building society account in my own, original name. For the first time in my marriage, I felt like ‘goods and chattels’ as I was sent home to fetch my birth and marriage certificates, my passports, and a bill for the water rates that just happened to be in my married name, rather than his.
(This post might make more sense if you read the ones below, first)
New Year’s resolutions seem even less relevant with today’s warm, sunny weather -and about time too, after the recent heavy downpours - but back to that year when I actually managed to keep my resolutions.
The two significant months were April and August. I knew that those two resolutions would be kept, because I’d booked for both activities that January.
My daughter, then still a student, came with me during that Easter break for a week in Gran Canaria. It was everything I’d hoped for, (constant sunshine) . The items I hadn’t expected, (all-day full English breakfasts and wall to wall TV football,) we managed to ignore.
We were lazing on the not-too-crowded beach, watching a parachute being dragged along the patch of blue sky at least 100 feet or more above a speeding boat.
‘You should try that, Mum,’ she said, and my stomach gave a sudden flip.
‘It’s too expensive,’ I said, hesitantly.
‘Go on. You only live once,’ she said. ‘I’ll look after our stuff.’
So there I was, waiting my turn to be strapped into a harness attached to a parachute and hoisted into the air by the speed of the boat. I found myself laughing, not with hysteria but pleasure as I dangled high above the sea, feeling the warmth on my skin – feeling like a bird. No. Not a bird. They’re not attached to a restraining length of rope.
To my surprise, I realised that, far from being scared, I wanted to be able to float free, and I told myself that I’d take up paragliding in the not too distant future, though I had no idea of where and how I’d manage to do this.
There’s no way I could’ve imagined that my first experience of paragliding would start on a mountain slope in the French island of La Reunion in the middle of the Indian Ocean - still less that this experience of dangling 3,000 feet above a white sandy beach beside a shimmering lagoon, would spark the initial idea for my novel, The Dangerous Sports Euthanasia Society.