Moniack Mhor

So, I’m back in the land of reality today. Back from a little slice of paradise, a beautiful place called Moniack Mhor near Inverness.  The road to Moniack takes you winding up into the highlands past Loch Ness, gleaming silver disc in the glorious sun. As the minibus drew into the farmstead where my course was to take place there was a collected ‘Wow!’ from our motley crew.

Morning view from my room

Morning view from my room

Main accommodation is in a converted barn, with a comfortable communal dining / sitting room and a large kitchen where you can eat yourself silly if you so wish. I ate so much fish I nearly turned into a mackerel. 

First night nerves had really kicked in – utterly dispelled by Friday night.  I’m not going to go into specific regarding the course (‘The Nuts and Bolts of a Novel’); however the tutors Richard Mason and Betsy Tobin were exceptional and worked our brains from the moment we arrived, then from 10am to 10pm (ish) every day.  My technical knowledge and ability to spot issues with my own writing (particularly regarding register) has improved immeasurably. 

The fire pit reading circle

The fire pit reading circle

You can just about spot my teeny head on this picture. This was the perfect spot to end the day with readings, banter, wine and song and I surprised myself by unleashing my unlovely voice over the hills, belting out Bat out of Hell to a mandolin as the Friday Grand Finale. 

My fellow course mates could not have been a nicer, more generous bunch of people. Seriously, it turned into a great big literary love in. I even found my my inner hugger, usually firmly controlled behind my ineffectual patting mechanism. 

Looking demure pre-wine!

Looking demure pre-wine!

This retreat has the potential to be life changing. From Betsy I learned the value of controlling every word and finally made up my mind which audience I want to write for (literary fiction. My register is way to high for Young Adult), and where to place scenes by cutting out unnecessary exposition (and submissive clauses are definitely a no-no!).  From Richard, well our last tutorial has probably just defined the next six months of my sabbatical. I am turning my study into a story bunker and embarking on a period of intense research where I am basically going to be wearing my main character’s skin for the next 3 months. Rather bizarrely I am no longer writing a YA murder ballad but a World War 1 li fiction tragedy. I am going to smell a bit musty after secreting myself in various historical institutions over the next few weeks! 

Tea at Moniack: Helen Lederer at the head, me in the middle on the right

Thank you Moniack Mhor. Thank you Richard & Betsy (and the lovely Helen Lederer whose very funny visit I haven’t even touched upon). And a great big hug to my fellow wonderful creatives who entertained, nurtured and made me laugh harder than I have in months. It was the time of my life. 

Choice!

Too much choice!

I am off on a writing retreat on Monday, to the beautiful highlands of Scotland to hide in a valley where I will have no access to wi-fi, internet, phone reception, a television, or any form of news other than the radio. There is a pay phone – it’ll be like going back to the 1980s and I am rather excited. Weeny Pink Suitcase is stuffed to it’s limits and laptop bag is overflowing, ready for a six hour train journey through some outstanding countryside until I end up here:

Moniack Mhor

Moniack Mhor

The Arvon courses are pretty simply structured: breakfast, morning seminars as a group, a light lunch, tutorials and free time after lunch then a communal tea and readings from the lecturers, a special guest, our own work and then finally, a reading from ‘your favourite book‘.

Book?! Singular?  Oh lord, you have no idea how much grief this is causing me.  How can I choose just one book from a lifetime of reading? I’ve had a book in my hand since I have memory. So you try to think strategically – what is a good literary book that I also enjoyed reading? Well, ok. I could choose the brilliant Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt, a short, beautiful tale of a young girl’s spiritual de-awakening during the second world war, and her love of Norse mythology. It’s the best book I read 2 years ago. Or Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, easily the best book I read last year and both of which I do genuinely love?

The Dig by Cynan Jones, the most beautifully written book I’ve read in 2014. About grief and badger baiting, with glorious sparse prose. I think its a literary masterpiece – but I find it difficult to say I love it. Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother had me revelling in the sheer technical beauty of her prose at the opening of the book (though the conclusion was not so strong).

So I’ve been thinking about the books that are perhaps not so perfectly executed but which hold huge emotional sway for me. There’s The Belgariad by David Eddings, which I’ve mentioned elsewhere. It’s the comfort blanket of fantasy books. I first read it aged 13. I still read it today. I love it beyond belief. But is it really something to read to a group of people I’ve never met who wish to write the next literary great novel?

There’s Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. I had no idea what to expect when I picked this up in a charity shop. I adored it – despite some reckoning it’s about 100 pages overlong and speckled with purple prose. It’s beautifully written, utterly tragic purple prose with a mess of emotions and conflicts twisting through the narrative. It’s gobsmackingly good – to me. It’s also a very fat book, but may fit in my back pack – just!

There’s American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I won’t list the many reasons why – but it’s the size of a house brick (I have the hardback) and will not fit in the Weeny Pink Suitcase, so relegated to the bookshelf on this occasion sadly. And I really can’t take a Sandman graphic novel as it may be a tad difficult to read out loud!

Then there is the wonderful William Horwood, for me one of England’s greatest living fantasy authors who gets nothing like the recognition he so richly deserves. You have to immerse yourself in his worlds, give yourself over to the pleasure of his glorious words that are interspersed with exquisite sadness. I suspect he’ll be making TPS – once I decide between Skallagrigg or the wonderful introduction to Hyddenworld, Spring. Both made me cry. Each was a rare treat that needs to be approached with extreme caution and a quiet place to lie down afterwards. And I’m not even looking at the Duncton Wood / Wolves of Time series – that just opens a whole new world of complication.

So, I’m going to allow myself 2, and then decide whilst away which to read from to other folk. Right now the two hottest contenders are Hyddenworld: Spring & Skippy Dies – both books provoked a strong emotional response in me, and both are beautifully descriptive books; my particular literary poison.

So that’s me done blogging for ten days or so. Will be lovely to go, but equally lovely to return and catch up with folks. Take care, all.

Private 48169

Private 48169.  My Great Uncle Michael Maughan Renwick. Died aged 17 in Ypres, on the 11th April 1918.

Until two weeks ago I had never heard of this young man. Never knew that my grandfather’s brother had signed up for the war aged just 16, lying about his age to go and be a man for his country. I don’t know how long he fought for, but I do know his body was never found.

I recently signed up for 2 writing sessions at my local library, connected to a competition they run for which they are seeking stories of the Great War. Up until the day I attended the first session I’d assumed I had no relatives who’d fought in the conflict. A comment to my mum about the theme of the session provoked the recollection about Michael, who would have been her uncle.  My grandfather – one of life’s gentle souls – never talked about the loss, although he would have been just 10 at the time. That generation simply didn’t discuss loss.  He and my grandmother – one of life’s feisty souls! – also never talked about the death of their only son aged 8 days old. Instead they were content to adore their two strong willed daughters who are 11 years apart in age. I am glad I’ve had the opportunity to learn about Michael.

Sadly I have no photographs of him, but I have discovered a few mementoes, such as where he is memorialised amongst the missing dead at Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium, a Commonwealth War Grave Memorial for those who fought at Ypres. It is a beautiful memorial – as Wilfred Owen would have perhaps said, Dulce Et Decorum Est. What is staggering to me is that he is just one name amongst 11,367 missing dead from the Great War who died in Belgium memorialised here.

Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing

Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing

I’ve written a story in memorial for him. I found doing so led to a very emotional journey for me, and I was aware that I needed to be respectful to his memory. We know so little about his motivations for signing up at the age of 16, for lying to become a soldier like so many young men did then. He was destined like both my grandparents to be a miner, in fact was already working in the pit and as an essential worker would have been exempted out of military recruitment even had he been of age. It’s been a strange couple of weeks, trying to imagine his journey, and the hopes and fears of this young man as he set out on what would be his last journey.  To imagine the sadness and the grief that my great-grandmother must have felt, especially after losing her husband – Michael’s father – at a very young age. Here’s an excerpt, though it is still in second draft stage and needs a little more development:

The names have gone, receded with the night sky as the clouds clear and leave the light of a thousand silver stars to play on your face as your breath becomes shallower. There’s mud in your mouth, on your face, in what remains of your clothing. There is no rescue. The white knights are all dead or diseased and their noble steeds are frozen in mortis all around you. The artillery is getting closer, the battle field has no name. Ypres, Somme, Maretz, Ploegsteert. They’ve all been fought; all have their unknown soldier whose earthly remains have simply been absorbed by the land they fought for. A thousand, tens of thousands of young souls forever lost to their grieving families.

So this is where I’ve been, lost in the trenches of another man’s war. I’ll keep remembering though, keep thinking of the sacrifices made by so many – not just then but of all wars, all conflicts.

And on the 11th April 2018 I know where I’ll be. In a forgotten field in Belgium, to show that nothing’s forgotten.

Bat Fit: Starting Anew

Bat Fit with the Curious Professor Z

Bat Fit with the Curious Professor Z

This year has been pretty toxic. It began with a flourish – Him Underfoot & I signed up for Dry January and stuck to our goals, not drinking at all following a rather excessive Christmas. And it felt good, not to have a hangover at least one weekend day.  To be fair, neither of us can actually tolerate much alcohol without become both very very drunk and then very very hungover, and we certainly can’t drink more than 2 days a week without going into hibernation. I’d started the year feeling happy with my weight and my BMI of 25 (top of the normal scale, but suits my curvy frame).

Then in February my Dad died suddenly. When something like that happens, the world caves in. It becomes surreal. You eat, you don’t eat. You eat badly, without thought, fitting it in around the endless arrangements, phone calls to various inept financial institutions, the emptying of his house. You drink to cope with the loss, with the pain, with the never ending bureaucracy of death. You drink to celebrate his life, to toast the departed. Then you drink to forget. And eat lots of cheesecake and ice cream in the process.

Finally you begin to emerge back to life, dealing with the routine of the return to work, comforting yourself during lunch with coffee and cake. Or pastries. Or bacon sandwiches. You think you’re coping emotionally. You’re not. When someone you love is subsequently diagnosed with cancer you fall to pieces. You spend Easter weekend in a drunken haze, wondering exactly what the hell you are going to do with your life, after being told the person is not a close enough relative to make you eligible for flexible working.

Then you snap. Somethings got to give. You resign from your job after much comfort binging. It’s the best decision you’ll ever make in your life. And you sleep for a month, having spent the previous 4 months in a haze of stress induced insomnia.

Now, there’s a sudden clarity. A reckoning on the scales, and a realisation that this is the tipping point. Get fit, get healthy, get productive – but do it for yourself. Otherwise, the slide into middle age depression and obesity can really take hold. Mentally, you’re coming out of the fug of sorrow, physically you are wrecked.

So this is where I started  Bat Fit this week, which has been devised by the lovely Curious Professor Z. Ten pounds heavier on the scales and suffering from complete exercise inertia (aided by a 4 week stretch of grass pollen induced exhaustion). I now have no excuses. I dragged myself onto the Wii Fit on Monday, and this is what it told me:

The Wii Fit never lies!

The Wii Fit never lies!

I know that BMI is a pretty simplistic measure of weight control, but it works for me. I am aware that at 138 pounds many people would consider me a healthy weight. My BMI says otherwise – I’m short. So I am going to use this as a measure of weight control, seeking to get back down to 130 pounds in the next 3-4 months.  I also have a creaky back, so it’s essential I stretch it well before doing anything – I’ve set up a 20 minute routine of stretches & yoga moves that does just that (and the crunches are crippling my stomach muscles here on day 4!!). I have a minor heart murmur, so don’t like to do anything that makes it zoom in my chest overmuch, so I’ve been thinking about what I enjoy doing exercise-wise. Well, I like to walk, I like to swim and I like to dance with maximum enthusiasm and little coordination.

The Wii is perfect for that. OK, so Just Dance 2014 does not have any major goth dance floor classics on it. But I have a sneaky liking for the odd pop classic here and there. Nicki Minaj and Rihanna really do get my butt shaking. YMCA & Dancing Queen are great fun. I can set up a timed routine on there and just let loose. No one can see me trip up or fart about, the curtains are resolutely shut!

I’ll be honest. I begrudge it every time I get my shorts and sports bra on and have to look at my own translucent cellulite. I begrudge the chirpy humour of the Wii when I first turn it on, and it comes up with handy hints for weight loss. Then I start…and by the end of the dance routine (right now I can only manage 15 consecutive minutes) I am dripping in sweat and grinning like a loon. Them endorphins are really kicking in. It’s only been 4 days and I already feel much better (although very sore).

I’m off on a writing retreat in 10 days, so I’m reserving the walking for that, and then starting to swim again when I return. I honestly don’t know why I stopped swimming. It leaves me in a zen like state of relaxation. Water is very definitely my element, even if I’m not particularly strong.  There’s also a 30 minute walk home from the pool along the seafront which I’m looking forward to. I’m avoiding beer and cheesecake (with the caveat that 1 day per week can be a blow out day with Him Underfoot). I’ve actually gained 2 pounds, but I feel much better…hmmmm!

So, here’s to the next few months of Bat Fit :)

The Perils of Being Perky!

So it’s been a nice week, having Him Underfoot about. We have fun and we have punished our livers. On Monday he indulged me by coming with me to meet author Joe Abercrombie at Waterstones.  I adore his books – fantasy with black humour, wickedness, bawdiness and cracking battle scenes. And the greatest torturer ever written, Glokta. He is a supremely nice chap, very affable and he kindly let HU take this pic of us:

Something tickled our fancy!

Something tickled our fancy!

His latest book is Half a King, a fantasy coming of age, which he told me is the most like Harry Potter he’s ever going to be – which having read his early work is quite an interesting prospect – imagine Potter with whips and chains! So looking forward to reading this.

We’ve pottered and puttered and had a couple of powercuts (the pavement blew up in a neighbouring village which was interesting) that blew our fridge freezer up and generally just spent very pleasant time together despite my hayfever.

So we decided to go out last night. Now this is not a goth blog. I identify as goth, but I’m not hugely scene. We are both curious about our local goth scene and have recently started attending more local gigs. Last night we thought we’d try a local goth night.  I had a clothing crisis, as you do when you’re going somewhere new and are a little unsure of yourself and how you’ll fit in.  And I realised last night that I am so perky goth. I can’t help it. I like girly clothes, I like to look pretty. I do like big boots, but with swishy skirts. I like my hair to be natural and equally swishy. I’m equally happy with dramatic dark lips (last nights option) or cherry red – but black or dark reds really corpse out my skin – in a bad way.  And I like to smile at people and generally be happy.

So this night starts nice and early which suits us as we are decrepit. It also has an older age palette – again this suits us, both being the wrong side of 40. And the music was superb, a great blend of older classics (Sisters, Mission, Cure & Joy Division) and new music such as Ayria, VNV Nation, Abney Park etc. It was a quiet night, I was very happy and wanted to dance. And yet…

And yet, it was obvious that I (we?) was an anomaly. I was as welcome on the dance floor as a wet fart. At one stage (before a raffle for concert tickets), we were actually asked by a disgruntled gent ‘are you local?‘.  Now we are huge fans of The League of Gentlemen, but never expected to be asked if we were local people in our own home town!  HU didn’t want to dance, so I bounced up and perked away merrily, despite the glares. The 2 women on the table next to us began to glare at HU as I swished my little skirt and teetered on my boots about the dance floor (there were 3 of us up in total). The other 2 dancers deliberately blocked me out, so I just perked even more and had a great time. I quite obviously wasn’t there to score – I was there with my lovely boy, so wasn’t threatening anyone’s love interest or indeed invading their (mostly empty) space. I should say that there were some nice people (particularly one couple by the dance floor), and I didn’t expect a standing ovation and flowers when we attended, but I really do not like leaving the toilets to be greeted by a wall full of women whose faces were set to permafrost.

So I had a great time. And I didn’t feel threatened at all. I just wanted to dance – and I did (and this morning I have exceptionally sore toes). Would I go back? Probably not – it’s cheap enough, early enough and the music is brilliant – but I did not feel as if I was somebody that was welcome there, more like it was a private party which you could pay to join, but not be fully integrated.  Which is a huge shame :(

Farewell

Mid summer. The perfect evening to take my Dad home to Rowlands Gill, where he is now under the watchful eye of the Red Kites in the Derwent Valley, in a beautiful grass meadow filled with pink clover and buttercups, bordered by holly and oak trees. Sweet and fitting that he lies within the holly’s protection.

Requiescat in pace et in amore.

 

Fragments

I found myself wandering about with insomnia again last night; however knowing that I don’t have to get up at stupid-o’clock for work and can have a lie in helps take the edge off it. Last night was different from the usual thought train of worry, stress and more worry that tends to trundle through my brain at inappropriate hours. There were fragments of conversation that I needed to get out and into print format that had been building up over the past few days of non-writing activity. Rather frustratingly they aren’t remotely connected to what I am supposed to be writing about at the moment – but a throwback to an abandoned project from 2006 that I lost when the dog ate my laptop cable and I blew it up when I foolishly turned on the power…there’s an incident never to be repeated (and I now have the joys of Dropbox to back everything up to – lesson very much learned when you lose 20,000 words of a sci-fi novel).

Darling leave a light on for me (pic: Dave McKean)

Darling leave a light on for me (pic: Dave McKean)

Last night I managed to retrieve 7,000 words from the ethernet and was sat reading in bemusement wondering where the hell this stuff had come from. It was like I’d switched off my rational brain somewhere along the way and entered a parallel universe. Now I guess this is what writers are supposed to do, but I was in a dark place back in 2006 and it really shows. I’m a little wary of kickstarting this project off again, but I was surprised at the quality of the writing. I think at the time I was working in Lottery Towers, an insignificant battery in that particular farm and I literally resigned from that job a couple of months after writing this to move into the job I’ve just left, as well as signing on for my Creative Writing Masters (using this piece as part of my application portfolio along with some utterly appalling poetry).

It’s been a month now since I left work, and this is the first real piece of writing I have contributed to, other than polishing up a short story for the Room to Write short story comp (Sister Vampire, one of my faves but the jury is out amongst my family – the humour is a little bleak in this one!). I’m glad I’m writing again but I am a little concerned about the direction it’s going in – Shattered Orb is not a commercial piece in the slightest, the fragments I do have are disjointed and strangely abstract (much more like my short story style than my novel voice). I’m at a loss as to which way I should travel with the project.

Is this how all fledgling writers feel? It’s like taking baby steps in the dark. I’m not sure whether to go with my gut and spend time on something that mentally is not that great a place to be (but conversely may need to be gotten out of my system) or to concentrate on one of the 2 far more commercial novels I’ve been writing? It’s further complicated as Poison Prince is at a point where the main character’s father is about to die in a miserable protracted way from alcoholic liver disease (which I’ve always planned as a key plot point) – and given my own father’s recent passing, that’s another place that mentally I’m stepping away from.

So I am wittering and procrastinating here on my blog and thus avoiding doing anything constructive. I have booked myself into a session with a local creative writing tutor at the library next week (free! Bless you North Tyneside Library Service), which is being run to promote Story Tyne 2014. I won this comp in 2011, which led to my first ever publication. I’m hoping it helps focus my butterfly brain. I’m also off to do some voluntary work on Tuesday with a super charity who have asked me to engage my ‘work brain’ to help them out with a large funding bid. Given the paucity of my common sense right now I’m hoping I can actually help in a constructive manner.

Right, lets see where these errant fingers take me…

BTA is reading Den of Geek updates and Fortean Times, anticipating seeing Bad Pollyanna and Ayria tonight, listening to second hand Muse (Him Underfoot is working from home in the room next door and BLASTING THE MUSE!!!)