A Life Less Ordinary – and a lot more busy!

Opening the wine I was given a year ago when I left work! A ceremonial opening. It was a bit sweet, but a lovely moment.

Opening the wine I was given a year ago when I left work! A ceremonial opening. It was a bit sweet, but a lovely moment.

On the 26th April, it was one year exactly since I left my old job! a whole year of being a freelance writer and editor, and finding my feet in the teaching world again. I wanted to celebrate, but I’ve been too busy. If I thought April was jam-packed with work and project – and running storytelling courses with kids and their parents – then May has been insane. A year on, my new life no longer feels brand new, but just like the right way of life for me. The uncertainty of having enough money to pay the bills is what drives me on to make damn sure I’ve got that money.

On the actual anniversary of leaving work, I’d been busy running an Oxfam stall and organising the car parking for the Derbyshire Eco Centre Spring Fair, which raised over £700 for Oxfam. Weirdly, last year, it was where my journey to becoming an Adult Education tutor started, when I boldly volunteered to do some storytelling! I did some storytelling at this year’s fair, with puppets, dressing up as a bear and children coming up with their own ideas for stories.

 

I was feeling a teeny bit smug that I’d managed to get my car through its MOT, service, and given it a new tax disc and insurance without too much trauma – only to find that the petrol gauge got stuck! Something I needed to get fixed, pronto! And then I needed a new laptop battery, and the toner cartridge started going…and the latest thing is that the pump in the cellar that stops us from having a soggy basement, seems to have stopped working on its own and we have to prod it from time to time.

I’ve been really busy with teaching work – running another memoir writing course, helping parents in Chesterfield to make Story Sacks, getting apprentices at Sheffield College through Functional Skills English, and working with patients at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell again. In the first week of the new term, Derbyshire Poet Laureate Helen Mort came to read some poetry and chat to the patients. I transformed what we’d been chatting about into poetry, and Helen has put one of my poems on her blog! Brilliant. Here it is! And we’ve had the exciting news that our project has been awarded an Arts Council Grant, so before the end of the summer, the work I’ve been doing with the patients and staff will be published. Watch this space.

The cover of Outside Inside! Buy it now!

The cover of Outside Inside! Buy it now!

And talking about publishing, I’ve been working really hard on a new edition of my first novel, Outside Inside, and now it’s available as a paperback, as well as an e-book from all major retailers! And even though I was rubbish at marketing the old edition, and I’d got it on the Kindle for the cheapest price possible, in the hope that it would generate sales, this week, I received my first ever royalty payment for my own writing, for my previous two years of writing sales. It’s only £60, but it makes me feel proud of my achievement. Now I can confidently guide other people through the same process, and I’ve got another client’s book well on the way to publication. It proves that self-publishing is definitely an option for writers struggling to get noticed by the mainstream, or for authors who just like more control over how their book is produced and marketed. It’s hard work, but worth it!

The happy couple, and their minions!

The happy couple, and their minions!

And I’ve had time for some fun too. On the May Day Bank Holiday week, I enjoyed a unisex “Hag” do, with my Oxfam friends Graham and Gaelle, who are getting married in July. A big group of friends and family accompanied them to the Swingamajig festival in Birmingham, dressed in 1920s themed outfits – we could spot each other in the crowd with our feather head-dresses that had been made for all the “Hags”, and we saw some brilliant live music and danced until (almost) dawn. It was a real taste of all the festival delights in fields that we’re going to enjoy this year, set among the old railway arches in Digbeth.

Today I’ve been to the Insect Circus in Weston Park in Sheffield, another brilliantly surreal thing I’ve seen around the festival circuit. And of course, I enjoyed watching a bearded drag queen win Eurovision last weekend.

And talking of beards, it’s only two sleeps until the biggest and best Bearded Theory yet! I’ll be helping kids and adults to write performance poetry with the wonderful kids’ area Angel Gardens, and also dancing and drinking cider!

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Whitby – in pictures and poetry

We spent the first week of March on holiday in Whitby. This is becoming an annual ritual – staying in a lovely, cosy holiday house that belongs to my aunt and uncle, we have the freedom to quietly enjoy ourselves. Last year, it was a welcome respite from long working hours and a hideously long commute in my old job, and now I’m freelance, it’s just as important – to be able to put away the endless “to-do” list and spend time away from an internet connection. I wanted to do more writing, but I was so tired every evening after long walks and fresh air that I only managed to write a short section of my novel.

But, inspired by a poetry walk I’d attended the day before we set off, I wanted to capture my Whitby holiday in poetic form. I’d been on an inspiring walk in the Rivelin Valley at the edge of Sheffield, let by local poet Fay Musselwhite, organised by Longbarrow Press. It was a magical afternoon of words, natural and industrial history, exploration, cheeky ponies and loveable black labradors.

So when we were wandering around the atmospheric ruins of Whitby Abbey the next day, I perched at the edge of a medieval well, and jotted down everything around me in my notebook. Later, I turned it into a poem, a pantoum, a poetry form with repeated lines:

The wind at the Abbey

The wind sounds like waves in the stonework;
In the empty tracery of the abbey windows.
A small bird chirps, surfing the buffeting gusts,
Ancient walls provide shelter and stillness.

In the empty tracery of the abbey windows,
Seagulls scream and soar against grey clouds.
Ancient walls provide shelter and stillness,
Gusts blow us through the dappled archway.

Seagulls scream and soar against grey clouds,
A pair of small black dogs race on their leads.
Gusts blow us through the dappled archway
Imagining the Abbey whole and golden.

A pair of small black dogs race on their leads
We watch a line of smoke on the moors
Imagining the Abbey whole and golden
Glittering on the cliff-top, resisting the winds.

Whitby Abbey in sunlight

Whitby Abbey in sunlight

Whitby Abbey is the ruin of a 13th century Benedictine Abbey, prominent on the clifftop, at the top of the 199 steps, which we climbed every day. The steps also lead to the church, St Mary’s, an architectural mash-up of a church, originally Norman but added to and changed, with 18th century box pews, wooden pillars painted to look like marble and religious texts written on boards scattered around the church. Visiting it is an interesting experience, but rather claustrophobic after the wind-blown cliff top of the abbey. It was also colder inside the church than outside, even though the weather had deteriorated. The church wardens hadn’t lit the ancient cast-iron stove, one of my favourite features of St Mary’s – but I sat down and jotted a few lines! Playing with poetic form, I turned it into a sonnet.

St Mary’s on Sunday afternoon

The hulking cast-iron tower stove is cold
Buckets full of coke to heat the old church
The light of votive candles flickers gold
The narrow wooden benches where I perch.

Box pews crowd the nave like still railway trains
My breath mists in the chilly, tranquil air
At night the church will sing with glad refrains
Now voices of the vergers who prepare,

Cleaning; important small details to make.
A rain shower slaps the high glass skylight
Followed by a shaft of sunlight that breaks
Makes the gloomy, chilly church shining bright.

Pockets and patchwork and layers of time
The church, the cliff top, the bell-tower’s chime.

St Mary's, Whitby - taken on Monday, which was much sunnier!

St Mary’s, Whitby – taken on Monday, which was much sunnier!

We made it back to the house just as the rain was starting, and had a few cosy hours relaxing, reading and watching TV. We thought we might go out for a drink, but the wind was howling and the rain was lashing down, and we were grateful to be staying in a cosy modern house that stays warm, no matter what the North Sea can throw at it. It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from the West Cliff. Even though the weather was dreadful, we put on our waterproofs to blow off the cobwebs. It was a rather bracing walk, and I must have looked a sight in my cagoule and woolly hat. The weather was wild. It couldn’t have been more different the following morning – tranquil blue skies, a mild breeze and warmth in the sun. I turned the two contrasting images into a haiku cycle. I love writing haiku, and practising writing haiku has inspired me to experiment with more poetic forms, seeing if I can successfully combine meaning with rhythm, rhyme and structure.

Night and Morning in Whitby – a Haiku Cycle

Night: wind howls like wolves
Through the gaps in the Crescent
Rain-black shadows run

Green and red lights flash.
The inland wind blows to sea;
A dark, unseen hand

~

Blue and breezy morn
Starlings whirr and chirp up high
Seagulls complaining

The town is washed clean
Red rooftops absorb the sun
Cormorants stretch wings.

A lighthouse at the end of Whitby pier - this is the one with the green light!

A lighthouse at the end of Whitby pier – this is the one with the green light!

The red and green lights in the poem are the flashes from the wooden lighthouses at the end of each of Whitby’s piers: working piers that shelter the harbour and guide mariners to safety. There’s still a fishing fleet in Whitby, as well as a working boat-building yard.

Visiting Whitby in March, we don’t spend our time sunbathing on the beach, or digging with buckets and spades (not that I can imagine my other half sunbathing!) This time, we were blessed with good weather and we spent lots of time walking and exploring. We walked to Robin Hood’s Bay over the cliff path, taking in breath-taking sea views, scrambling up muddy banks, in anticipation of a well-deserved pint in the Bay Hotel.

Being fanatic readers and dodgy old goths, we love exploring the parts of Whitby which feature in DraculaBram Stoker’s 1897 novel, and the foundation of an infinite number of films, books, TV adaptations, spin-offs and fantasies. Bram Stoker was a busy theatre manager at the Lyceum in London, the personal secretary of Victorian Actor-Manager Sir Henry Irving (who is supposed to be an inspiration for the character of Dracula – wouldn’t we all like to caricature our boss in a best-selling novel!) An Irishman, he was a direct contemporary of Oscar Wilde, and Stoker married Florence Balcombe, who had been courted by Wilde, in 1878.

At the end of the 19th century, Whitby was a fashionable, genteel seaside destination, perfect for a relaxing family holiday away from the hectic whirl of London Theatreland. Stoker’s first stay in Whitby was in 1890, and he and his family returned several times during the following decade, during which he took in the atmosphere of the town, researched local folklore and took inspiration from Whitby events, such as the wreck of the Russian schooner Dimitri, run aground on the beach in Whitby Harbour. In Dracula, the vampire arrives in Whitby on a ship wrecked in a storm, and runs up the 199 steps to the abbey, transformed into a huge black dog. The main female characters in the novel, Mina and Lucy, are on holiday in the town, staying in a house on the West Cliff, near where Stoker himself stayed, in the Grand Hotel and the Crescent. The reason that my other half enjoys the long walk to Robin Hood’s Bay on the cliff path is because Lucy and Mina walk there and back in the novel, enjoying a hearty “severe tea” in a village inn. As well as vampires, this shows that you have to suspend your disbelief when reading fiction, as I can’t see two dainty Victorian ladies in corsets and heavy skirts walking all that way, especially as one of them has already had most of her blood sucked from her veins by the vampire. They must have cheated and caught the train. The railway has long gone, but the track is now an easier path to Robin Hood’s Bay – but we caught the bus back, limping on sore feet!

If you’ve never read Dracula before, you’re in for a surprise, and a gripping read. It’s an epistolary novel, told in letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, a ship’s log and even recordings onto wax cylinders. For a slim, page-turning novel, it’s complex and well-structured, with vivid characters, including Mina, who is a strong and modern woman for her time, learning shorthand and typing and taking a keen interest in the world. And if you have a Kindle or some kind of e-reading device (including a smartphone – note to self and the rest of the 21st century – reading a book on your phone is more constructive than checking Facebook every five minutes!) you can start reading Dracula right now, for free! Dracula on Kindle.

Oh, and while you’re at it, you might want to download a novel called Outside Inside by Anne Grange as well. I wonder if people will be visiting locations from my novels in a hundred years’ time?

It’s raining…must be the start of festival season!

Sonic Boom 6 at Bearded Theory 2011.

Sonic Boom 6 at Bearded Theory 2011.

The madness starts here!

This will be my last pre festival season post, so expect my posts to be more erratic from now on. It’s going to be interesting!

I’ve just come back from a weekend with many of the Oxfam festivals team, which has made me realise how proud I am to volunteer with Oxfam at festivals and the value of the work we do – this year the fundraising target is well over £1million, paid for by the festival organisers for our highly professional services – but we don’t get paid – all the money goes to Oxfam. This is so important this year, with the Syria Crisis – so far, a million people have become displaced and are in urgent need of shelter, food and water.

The Oxfam festival stewards in our orange tabards play an essential role in making sure that festivals are fun but safe. Hopefully all the ticket holders see are friendly faces in hi-vis tabards, putting on wristbands or pointing them in the right direction. However, we’re also trained to respond to crisis whenever they arise at a festival. I’ve been volunteering for Oxfam at festivals since 2006 and now I’ve got an amazing network of friends from all walks of life. Fancy finding out more? http://www.oxfam.org.uk/stewarding

It all kicks off next week at the wonderful Bearded Theory. Bearded what? It’s one of those classic festivals that started out as someone’s birthday party. The idea was that if everyone at the party was wearing a false beard, it would “break the ice” and get people who didn’t know each other chatting. The event was opened to the public the next year, in 2008 – about 500 people in a campsite next to a pub. I volunteered as a steward for about 6 hours and saw regular festival headliners Dreadzone in a gazebo tacked on to the side of the pub.

In 2009, Bearded Theory expanded into a “proper” festival. Unfortunately, the festival experienced terrible weather – torrential rain, horizontal hail…and then a tornado swept through the site and destroyed several structures, including the main stage! It would have defeated any normal people, but the Bearded Theory crew did a fantastic job and kept everyone safe. To cut a long story short, the festival survived and became festival industry leaders in the field of natural disasters and structures.

Thanks to wonderful support from the crew for my novel, Outside Inside, I’ve now been able to take off the hi-vis and put on a pair of wings and a tutu, working as a creative writing workshop leader. I’m returning for my second year in this role and I’m really excited about encouraging children and their parents to write stories and poems. I’m also creating a pop-up library. People will be able to browse and take away books for free! And I’m also looking forward to having lots of fun in the evenings. Lots of people I know are coming to Bearded Theory now; to work and play, and I feel proud that my constant rabbiting on about the festival has encouraged them to give it a go!

Also on the festival front, last Sunday night, I attended a gig by the amazing Allstar Revolution, fronted by K.O.G. My drunken confidence two weeks ago seems to have paid off. The band members are lovely and incredibly talented and hopefully I’ll help them to get some festival gigs before the end of the summer. Here’s a video of them at the Bowery in Sheffield last year. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMRaKwrHL9E

Things this blog is about…