Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tickling the taste buds and the woodchopper arrives

After a few quiet days, our second workshop took place in what was a busy weekend, with the main emphasis on eating and talking. I'm nver averse to a bit of talking, but probably the dining out was more than I'm used to in one weekend.

First though, Goldenford presented its second successful Writers’ Workshop for the Guildford Book Festival – Sense and Sensitivity. Like the previous week, the three of us divided up the senses. Having had two slots last week, I dealt with only one, this week – taste. I chose this so that I could use a piece from Tainted Tree in which my heroine, Addie, faced with a box of letters which may reveal something of the past history of her unknown grandmother, remembers tasting an olive for the first time, as a child. She had anticipated that it would be something pleasant, and in fact she found it quite bitter. Was delving into her family history going to produce the same result? I wanted to show how describing taste does not have to be just description, but can be linked to emotions.

I had a plate of goodies (depending on how you look at them) to offer to the group to inspire their writing. I’d started off on an oranges and lemons theme – and produced segments of a clementine, lemon slices, small portions of lemon drizzle cake and a chocolate orange – then, to add a little more choice, I threw in some chewy mints and for obvious reasons, some olives. The group had to concentrate on taste, though the lemon had a nice smell, and although I hadn’t anticipated it, the items had a range of colours, the mints being an attractive eggshell blue. It seemed to work quite well, though I hadn’t anticipated the clementine being bitter instead of sweet, nor the chewy mints being a lot less minty than I’d imagined. Nor had I thought I would take home half the chocolate orange. (Dealt with that now.)

That same day (now nearly a fortnight ago) we had a really nice evening out with M’s cousins and followed it up the next day with lunch with friends. All too often, life is a feast or a famine.

We have been having some lovely mild weather, and I took a few shots of the beautiful autumn colours in the garden. I used only to be interested in showy plants with beautiful, dramatic flowers - which is why I planted a huge bed of rhododendrons. Now I realise there is a lot to be gained in having more modest plants which do different things at different times of the year. The cotoneaster, which I once thought uninspiring, is evergreen, produces flowers in early spring, attracts bees, and has now produced fabulous red berries in profusion which I don't remember seeing before. Similarly, the pieris, as mentioned before, I think, have flowers, berries and flame-coloured leaves at various times throughout the year. Also in this scene, are a couple of berberis, one scarlet

and one orange.

This is a tree which overshadowed our house, and which this week our neighbour arranged to be cut down. The tree featured in the second photo is also shown in the first photo, to give some idea of height.

I also tried to get some shots of this, while the lumberjack was perched on top.

The last shot is from my kitchen window - the others from various points in the garden.

I thought it would go down with a cry of ‘Timber,’ but actually he lopped off lengths and got it to half size, before the remainder – about twenty feet of it, finally came down – more of a whimper than a bang, really. Still, it’s good that it’s gone – it will allow more sunshine in the garden.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A letter from Czechoslovakia 1989

When I was preparing for the Goldenford Sense and Sensitivity Workshop, I went rooting through a box of letters to find an airmail letter. I was trying to prepare a tableau of things that would evoke ideas for a piece of creative writing. Other items included an old bunch of keys, a fan, a bottle of pills - come to think of it, there are some good ideas there, I might try it here at home.

At any rate, the first letter I identified as being an airmail letter was actually twenty years old. (There's no filing system in this box, and letters get thrown in and shunted around at random.) It was from my son, when, in his early twenties, he took a trip to Czechoslovakia, as part of an exchange with people from his university - Sussex University.

The following is an extract from his letter, dated 10th September 1989.

...We changed at Stuttgart for a Czech train. The only eventful thing was crossing the border. Here soldiers boarded the train with dogs and a succession of officials asked for various bits of paper and if wanted to declare anything. He looked very bored and I got the impression he was willing us to say ‘no’ so he didn’t have to bother to do anything. I declared my camera and he wrote it on some bit of paper. I didn’t tell him about the two personal stereos, legitimate though they were, because he didn’t ask me – always best to keep your mouth shut.

The first week in Czechoslovakia (or to be more precise Bohemia) was spent looking around Prague (or Praha) as it should be called.) Some things are very modern. Their underground puts ours to shame. It is really very good. It is very quiet for a capital city. There is no huge crush of people like in London. There are no massive traffic jams. There is no-one trying to sell you anything. That is sometimes very nice and sometimes very inconvenient. I am sure it is possible to get anything you want here – judging from Sarka’s flat. It’s just not as easy as nipping down to the shop and buying it. Often the shelves are empty and something, whatever it is, is difficult or impossible to get. You have to wait for a few days. However, the only real big differences in terms of what you can buy are food and electrical things. Sarka showed me Prague’s biggest supermarket and it really wasn’t very good at all. Sainsbury’s is about 100 times better. As for electrical things, watches stereos, televisions, they are there, but they are very, very expensive. I worked out they are about five times the equivalent in England would cost, and that doesn’t take into account the lower Czech standard of living. And they are the technology of fifteen years ago. None of those things really matter though – there is nothing very interesting on the television. Actually I have seen loads and loads of satellite dishes while I’ve been here – much more than in England. Food is always prepared from the basics. This makes it a time consuming process for Sarka and her mother, but they enjoy it and the results are always wonderful. Dumplings (or keneglik) are a speciality and my favourite are the (very filling) plum covered dumplings with sweet cottage cheese. We eat meat a lot – not so much fruit, in fact they haven’t really discovered health food yet –they take what they can get I suppose. I thought food would be sparse but I am eating a huge amount. I have a room to myself in the flat. The block of flats stands with several other blocks of flats in an area of Prague called Motol (in West Prague). They are I suppose like sixties flats in England, and although the inside of Sarka’s flat is very nicely decorated I really don’t like the design at all of the estate and buildings.

Everybody drives in Skodas. There are thousands of the things. You can get foreign cars but parts etc make it very expensive and not practical to do so. Very occasionally you see a Merc. Worth ten times the price of the Skoda. Nothing in between though. The inequality is very pronounced.

Getting anywhere when you are not in Prague but in the country is a problem. For the last five days I have been in South Bohemia. Not in the same mountains as we originally planned but with friends of Sarka’s called Marik and Kate (Anglicised). Marik was a scientist who was very gifted at music and so I got on well with him and said if he was ever passing through Woodingdean he should drop in. (He is planning on going to England.) We picked wild mushrooms and we had fresh eggs (from a hen!!!) and honey (from bees) from a hive next door. We did a lot of walking and climbing.

My son's visit was before the dramatic changes, which occurred only a couple of months later in the same year, to quote from Wikipedia:

The Velvet Revolution (Czech: sametová revoluce) or Gentle Revolution (Slovak: nežná revolúcia) (November 16 – December 29, 1989) was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government.[1] It is seen as one of the most important of the Revolutions of 1989.

The Czech girls who had earlier stayed at Sussex Uni, and had also visited us here, with my son, were quite adamant at the time, that Czechoslovakia would not take the route of other East European countries, where the collapse of Communism had already started on its irrevocable journey.

About a year later, my son visited Russia, where his then girlfriend, a student of Eastern European languages was working ... and look what happened there.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing from the senses

It’s been a busy few days – after the presentation to the Staines group, I started preparing for the workshop for the Mole Valley Arts Festival in Leatherhead, interrupted only by a visit from bro-in-law for dinner on Friday night.

Our workshop at Leatherhead went extremely well – we divided the senses between us, Jay Margrave, our historical novelist took on Touch – as well as introducing us; Irene Black had us listening to the music for The Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome, and had the audience giving their impressions. She also brought along some Campari and we each downed a thimbleful – this sent me off writing about a crime scene- where the heroine was forced at gun-point to drink some drugged liquid. My efforts were centred on Sight and Smell – and I had taken with me a bag full of perfumes and sun lotions – including for some lucky person, Chanel No Five – and also Tweed, which I rather like. I never wear perfume these days, so I suppose some of the things may have been a bit stale, but they still stimulated story ideas, as did my tableau of items for stimulating ideas.

Amongst the items in my tableau was an airmail letter, which I had hunted for amongst my old letters. More of that another time.

Our feedback was that it had worked very well. Our workshop lasted three hours, and we put a great deal into it. At our next one, I am doing taste, and I shall buy some things at Sainsbury’s, later today. I also have a passage to read that I will think will be appropriate, from Tainted Tree.

On Monday, I went to an ophthalmologist to discuss my double vision problem, and I’m going to see another op-something or other, and she will try out prisms on a plain lens, to see if this helps. Mainly I’m worried about night driving. Apparently, I also have the beginnings of a cataract, but too early to do anything about that yet. I was asked to bring along all my glasses and I ended up taking glasses, bifocals, lensed sunglasses, sunglasses for reading, ordinary sunglasses, contacts, other contacts for when I want to read and not wear glasses, driving glasses for when I wear short vision contact lenses … Most of them stayed in my carrier bag.

Tuesday, was Guildford Writers, but I didn’t take anything, because I’m still catching up on office work. I got off some important letters today – as there is a postal strike due next week (possibly), I don’t want to leave anything to the last minute.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Account books, reading books and Goldenford books

A trip to the Goldenford office this morning, where I off-loaded all the accounts stuff for the accountant, was followed this evening by something completely different – a reading circle meeting.

We discussed Miss Pettigrew lives for the day, a novel written in the thirties and very much of its time. It was great fun – a confection of a story, not to be taken too seriously. Miss Pettigrew, a middle aged respectable lady, down on her luck, looking for another governess’s job, meets up with an amoral, flighty mixture of upper class toffs and theatrical women and proceeds to cast off all her original conventional ideas. It was a very fast read, and contrasted with last time’s book, which needed to be read slowly and carefully.

House of the Seven Gables was endearing, yet irritating. It could have done with some drastic editing, for at times, the writer rambled somewhat, and also probably included too much description. He overused certain words - rusty and dusty seemed to come up an awful lot, and he also told us the same things several times, e.g. that Hepzibah, one of the main characters was not at all good looking. It was also a book of its time, but Victorian times, as opposed to a 20th century book. The characters were very likeable though, so from that point of view, it was a book I was prepared to work at.

Because Miss Pettigrew was a short, fast book, with a great deal of dialogue, I also managed to read this month, Dear Fatty, the autobiography of Dawn French, a great deal of which I enjoyed. At times I got rather confused and thought her BF – best friend – was Jennifer Saunders, but she wasn’t. In general, I liked her telling her life story straight, so although I realise she is a comedienne, I was irritated by her odd ‘letters’ to Madonna and one or two other similar jokey chapters. However, I was moved by her telling of the death of her father, and of other traumas in her life.

The next book is a really thick one, and as I have a number of things to do this month, I’ll have difficulty in getting through it, though it comes with a recommendation.

Our talk at Staines went well and apart from sharing our publishing experiences with an interested audience, we were entertained to scones and jam with tea, followed by cake, too. (So much for the diet.) I am starting to prepare items for the Senses Workshop which we, the Goldenford Girls are giving on Saturday to ten people. I am guiding the group through two senses – sight and smell. It should be interesting.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Cows and moles and new plants in the garden

The completion of the Goldenford accounts, (though not yet passed to the accountant, so I can’t quite tick it off the list) allowed me to give thought to competitions. A glance at an email regarding the HE Bates short story competition, in which one of my efforts was short listed a couple of years ago, revealed that the closing date was 5th October. Could I get my entries there in time?

I’ve never cut it so fine before, but at around 3.30 pm, I hunted on the Net for the entry form. They’d changed it to a PDF file, which came out all wrong on the page. I then struggled for ten minutes to get the right format. Why had they made life so difficult for me? Eventually I achieved four entry forms and printed out four stories – one them twice by accident. It really is not a good idea leaving things till the last minute. I sealed up the envelope and raced off to the post box. It was 4.10 pm. As I neared the box I realised I hadn’t put a cheque in the envelope. Back home, panting, I scribbled a cheque, unsealed the envelope, inserted it, and was on my way again. I got back to the box at 4.30 pm. Two minutes later the post van arrived. I was suitably chuffed at having made it, but will it get to Northants by Monday?

I took a more leisurely stroll then to see the cow and its calves – who have not after all, gone from the field. This time, I spotted three calves – I think there have always been three, but they lie under the trees when it’s sunny, and you can’t always spot them. Their life together with their mother may be short, but at the moment at least, it’s a good life, not restricted at all, with a large field to graze in.

In my own garden, we’ve just added three pieris; these have cream white pendulous flowers in spring followed by flame coloured leaves, but are evergreen for the winter. So a very satisfactory plant. In the mean time, though, here’s an autumn photo, and there is a well established pieri in this.

Irene and I were in Dorking at the weekend, handing out information about our forthcoming creative writing workshop, as part of the Mole Valley Arts Festival. We popped into Dorking Waterstone's and as a result, a book signing is being arranged in November. So with three workshops/presentations this month, we have quite a full diary. Writers' News Magazine are running a feature on me, in the next couple of months, and an article I submitted to Family Tree Magazine will be in the December edition.

And talking of moles, we've been overrun again. That's the downside of country living.