A Spot of Urban Birding

My January has been fairly quiet so far. Instead of crazy nights out and lots of live music, it’s mostly been about settling down to work and creativity, and catching up with friends by going on bracing walks in the parks and countryside around Sheffield.

I’ve been swimming a few times at my local pool, dodging dive-bombing kids and people ploughing up and down. There have been a few pleasant nights in the pub, but more often, I’ve been watching episodes of Dr Who while wrapped in a blanket on the sofa while finishing off the Christmas cake. Very rock ‘n’ roll! And finishing off all those Christmas treats has cancelled out all the calories burned by the brisk walks. But it’s been a happy time of making plans and trying to establish good routines.

I’ve set myself a goal of spending thirty minutes of the day at least working on my novel. It doesn’t sound a lot, and there have been days when I haven’t even been able to manage that, but since New Year, I finally feel that the end of the first draft of ‘Distortion’ is very close. Just a couple of chapters to go, and I’m starting to tie up a lot of the loose ends in the novel.

I think the secret is to write a little and often, doing it first where possible, rather than leaving it until everything else is done – including chores like cleaning the bathroom and sorting out laundry! And when it’s just not possible to do any writing, I’ve prioritised it the following day, rather than beating myself up for “failing”. As humans, we seem programmed to be “all or nothing” – just as many people seem to give up on being vegetarian after giving in to the temptation of eating one bacon sandwich, I wonder how many aspiring writers lose faith in themselves after setting themselves a much too ambitious routine?

If you’re trying to write something and you’re feeling uninspired, or worried that you’re going to churn out a load of crap, just set a timer, get on with it, and don’t worry. A first draft is supposed to be rubbish. But a crappy first draft is better than a blank page. It’s something to tinker and fiddle with until you’ve got it right. Those rough words on the page can generate brilliant new ideas. The main thing to concentrate on is whether the words you’ve written have got you from A-B in your story.

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch in Ruskin Park

This morning, I set off on a micro-adventure: a journey of discovery in my local green space: Ruskin Park in Walkley, Sheffield. Amazingly, this park is only about as old as me, having been created following the slum-clearance of Victorian terraced houses. In that time, the park has grown several copses of fir, ash, alder, willow (there isn’t a stream, but the ground must be quite damp in places with those species), hazel and elder. The playground is very popular with local families, and there is even a zip-wire! At the opposite end of the park from my house is the Blake Hotel, refurbished several years ago following years of lying derelict. Now it’s one of Sheffield’s favourite pubs with its wide selection of real ales. Ruskin Park also had a cameo role in blockbuster film, The Full Monty!

It was such a lovely morning – much milder than the snowy, icy conditions we’ve had recently, and there was a real feeling of spring in the air. I wanted to get out into the park, rather than sitting in the house, looking down into my tiny garden. I’ve spotted plenty of wildlife there in the past, but I wanted to get some fresh air and look for some wildlife.

I had a great time in the park, exploring the woods and paths, dodging dog poo, avoiding patches of remaining ice and snow and getting my boots muddy! It was worth it though. The park is full of signs of spring: hazel catkins, daffodils starting to push their way through the grass, and some elders in a clearing were putting out their first leaves. This morning, urban sounds mingled with birdsong and church bells. In the Big Garden Birdwatch (you’re allowed to do your birdwatching in a park too), you have to record the largest number of each species of birds that you see at the same time. It doesn’t say anything about birds that you can hear but not see, so even though I heard a robin singing and house sparrows chirping from a bush, I couldn’t count them!

Here’s the full tally from my hour of bird-watching – the numbers indicating the biggest number of each bird I saw at any one time:

Blackbird: 1
Woodpigeon: 3
Chaffinch: 5
Bluetit: 3
Crow: 1
Long tailed tits: 5
Great tits: 2
Bullfinch: 1
Goldfinch: 6
Blackheaded gull: 1
Starling: 8
Magpie: 1
Wren: 1
Collared doves: 6

And finally, here’s the poem that I wrote about the experience!

Bird Watching in Ruskin Park

In dense hedges, sparrows chirp,
A blackbird skulks by the path.
Children jump in the playground –
Chimes ring under their feet.

Collared doves call, complaining.
In the copse, blue tits call and scold.
Police sirens, a helicopter’s whirr;
My face warm to the winter sun.

A small dog barks, starlings chirr,
Crow surveys the view, perched high –
Comments with a hoarse caw.
Woodpigeon naps in a fir tree.

Dirty snow litters the ground.
Treetop nests from last year, stark
Against blue sky and white clouds.
Cold nips my fingers but doesn’t bite.

Like a burbling fax machine modem,
A cacophony of goldfinches in gangs
Perch on twig-tops of hawthorn and willow.
Long-tailed tits dart, poised; scruffily puffed.

The church bells chime; a robin sings –
Elders in the clearing burst into leaf
Hazel catkins tremble in the breeze.
Mud underfoot: footballers shout.

Chaffinches, launched like bobbing missiles:
Wings folded, cross the snow-flecked pitch.
A small plane chugs over the city; high above
The daring stunt-fliers in the winter park.

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Blimey, I’ve got some catching up to do! What have I been up to?

Hello! I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog for several months. I’ve been really busy – teaching courses for Derbyshire County Council, and also editing and publishing several books for clients.

I have been blogging though – I’ve been updating my Newholme Dales Tales blog every week with poems and pieces of writing created in my sessions with older patients in hospitals in Bakewell, Buxton, and now Chesterfield too. I love doing creative writing work with the patients and helping them to tell their stories and be creative – and it seems to be paying off. In the summer, the Dales Tales poetry anthology was published, and in the New Year, I’m due to do more workshops and sessions in hospitals and Age UK Centres.

Crafting Christmas cards at Newholme Hospital

Crafting Christmas cards at Newholme Hospital

I’ve also been teaching a story sacks course with parents in Staveley, which resulted in course participants writing their own books for Halloween and Christmas, and I’m teaching Functional Skills English in Chesterfield, which I’m really enjoying.

Amazing Minion puppets and storysack created by a learner in Staveley!

Amazing Minion puppets and storysack created by a learner in Staveley!

I ran a Story Walk as part of the Off the Shelf festival of words in Sheffield. I led two family walks through the beautiful Rivelin Valley, and we discovered goblin castles, fairy caves and mysterious beasts. The children came back to the Rivelin Park cafe to write their stories and enjoy huge chocolate buns, while the parents had a cup of coffee and a nice sit down! It was a beautiful day in October, when the autumn colours were at their best.

The Rivelin Story Walk in October

The Rivelin Story Walk in October

As an editor, and a “self-publishing enabler”, it’s great to announce that some of the books I have worked on have now been unleashed on the world, and I’m very proud of them.

Joe Blow by Joe Ashton

Joe Blow by Joe Ashton

Former veteran Labour MP, Joe Ashton, has now published his memoir Joe Blow, which is available in the Sheffield Star shop: York Street, Sheffield, S1 1PU, which you can also order by calling 0114 2521299. Extracts from the book has also been serialised in the Sheffield Star and there are due to be more of them over Christmas. You can read the first one here.

The Woodhead Diaries

The Woodhead Diaries

Barnsley folk music legend Dave Cherry has been enjoying a big success with his novel The Woodhead Diaries, a historical murder mystery featuring the real life story of the construction of the Woodhead railway tunnel through the Pennines in Victorian times, and the 1950s detective who pieces together the mystery of the bodies which turn up during the construction of the third railway tunnel.

Legends and Rebels of the Football World

Legends and Rebels of the Football World

Football coach and former international football player, Norm Parkin, has also published his book, Legends and Rebels of the Football World. The book is Norm’s journey to meet and interview some of the biggest and most notorious football heroes of the twentieth century, and all the profits will go to the Philippines Typhoon Relief Fund.

Joan Lee is 91 years old, almost 92, and she’s as sharp and bright as she ever was while she was working as one of Sheffield’s most long-serving pub landladies! She’s now a publishing powerhouse, as not only has she published her memoirs, with fascinating stories from the Sheffield blitz and pubs from the East End of Sheffield to posh Dronfield. Behind Bars has proved to be very popular. Now Joan has published Gammon and Pineapple, a novella with a new twist on romance!

Cover design version 2

And as well as the Dales Tales poetry anthology, I’ve also published the first collection of poetry by Darren Howes. Poems from A Room Beyond Awareness is spiritual, thought-provoking and also humorous – an exploration of a path into Buddhism.

I’ve also had some time to have fun – which I’ll update you on in my next few blog posts. Then I’ll continue as I mean to go on, with shorter, but more regular posts! I’ve been working so hard to publish my clients’ writing that I’ve neglected my own writing a little bit, and hopefully I’ll do something about that too.

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?

Things this blog is about…