Saturday, 22 September 2012

Retreats For You

I loved the blue walls in the yard
As everyone knows by now, I can’t write much serious stuff at home, and take myself off to far-flung places to find the muse. Thanks to a rather large birthday, I was able to spend five nights at Retreats for You last week, in deepest darkest Devon. Actually, it wasn’t... the sun shone most days, the village of Sheepwash is beautiful, and the 18th century cob and thatch house is quirky and rather wonderful.
Sheepwash square - Retreats for You is on the right.

Owned and run by Deborah Dooley and her joiner husband Bob Cooper, Retreats for You is a heartwarming experience from welcome to goodbye. Deborah (or Deb, never ever Debbie...) was waiting for me when I pottered at five miles an hour up the lane into the vilage, and she came out to say hello, help with bags, and ask where my clothes were... I’d only got one small bag of clothes, was wearing the rest, the other three bags were books, and novels, and papers, and writery stuff. Not used to taking anything but a very few sloppy comfy clothes when I whizz off to my usual writing retreat in Ireland, I was momentarily thrown - did Retreats for You writers dress for dinner? Oo-er.
       I am rather happy to report that they definitely don’t. I had smashing company - one writer was working on a final polish of a rather terrific fantasy novel, another, about to burst on the world when her first (and deliciously controversial) book comes out in early 2013, and who until then is wearing a large bag over her head, started a hilarious YA novel that had us in stitches, and a third was in the early stages of a very poised series of novels with just a touch of the surreal...

My room, overlooking the square
The house is great - it has been through many different guises in its time, and has settled rather nicely into a comfortable, somewhat rambling although not over-large family house that lends itself well to opening its doors to writer-types and others.  Tip: I'd check that all the guests are writers or other artists of some sort - Deb and Bob occasionally accept B and B guests, although this is rare.

       There are four study-bedrooms, a mix of comfy doubles, twins and singles. There is crisp white linen, an endless supply of white fluffy towels, and white bath robes and slippers are waiting in every room. Deb and Bob have worked hard to make the rooms bright and fresh  - painted floorboards, hand made wooden shutters on every window, white cob walls. The rooms at the front of the house, overlooking the square have slightly larger windows if natural light is your thing. The rooms at the side are atmospheric spaces, in the older part of the house, I’d guess, with thick walls, and windows pushing up into the thatch. The bathroom upstairs is awash with handcreams, bodycreams, body scrubs, shower gels, shampoos - it is hard to get out of there - I had to try everything, naturally.  There is another shower room and loo downstairs. There is also a visiting massage therapist and beauty therapist.
The poet's bench
The village of Sheepwash is on a hill surrounded by rivers and low-lying ground... apparently the name originally meant ‘surrounded by water’. Which is odd because that's also what Ringmer means, (where I live). There is a glorious walk by the river, a Pre-Raphaelite dream of a place, so much so I expected Ophelia to float past.
       Deb is an amazing power-house of organisation and support for her writers, unwilling to let you do anything except relax and write. Breakfast can be any time from 8 to 9.30 - after that it will just be toast -but for those who do make it down in time, bacon eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms appear from the kitchen with great regularity. She will have been up well before you, and will have gone for a run, and be wearing a natty pinny over her jeans. You are not allowed to clear tables. Lunch was outside on a couple of occasions, in the yard, where we feasted on salads, home made bread, cheeses, soups, salads, fruit. Suppers were great too, candles on the tables, a chance to catch up on the day and natter with Deb and Bob before going to the sitting room to lounge in front of the fire on squashy sofas. Readings, or natter, or telly - Downton Abbey ruled one evening, and Great British Bake-Off the next. She works incredibly, but incredibly hard. And if you check out her website, has been a journalist for years - and that is something that still takes up time. Amazing woman.

Bob and iroko wood, salvaged from St Joseph's Convent chemistry lab, in Reigate. 
The other half of the Retreats for You partnership is Bob the joiner, who once worked at Windsor Castle.  He also makes excellent cups of tea. The website said that he offered carpentry workshops in his workshop, so I asked, and lo- spent a glorious morning under his tuition transforming a piece of wood into a useful something. I think it is a cheeseboard, or a breadboard. 
Bob's workshop - with St Joseph keeping watch, top right...

It even has my name on it. 
So, did I write much? No - I spent the first couple of days catching up on Lyn MacDonald’s book ‘Somme’. Then I spent the next two rejigging and revising and generally bothering the first 20 pages of the next novel. The voice is off. And  of course, making a cheesboard. This was a retreat in all senses - relaxing, and rather blissful. And the cherry on the cake was hearing, just before I left,  that I was one of the winners of the 2013 Gladsone's Library residency. I left feeling absolutely wonderful, ready for anything. 

Retreats for You costs £68 per night, slightly less if you go for seven or more days. A workshop with Bob costs £40. I reckon it is excellent value, and would recommend it highly - I have long been in touch with other writers who go here, and love it - now I know why.

PS - Do not call Deb Debbie. She does not like it.  No - she hates it. For me, that was a bit like telling Basil Fawlty not to mention the war...

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Online Writing - an Arvon course with Sarah Salway and co

Sarah Salway
So - a week or so back, I read about a really interesting new course being offered by the  wonderful Arvon Foundation - Called Online Writing, there are three great tutors, including writing friend Sarah Salway. I was intrigued, and asked Sarah to answer a few questions about the course, and the rather special venue. So here you go!

Vanessa: Arvon Foundation courses are just the best... for someone who has never heard of Arvon - what is it?  

Sarah: The perfect week really! You get to spend time in a beautiful setting with other writers, at every level, deepening your craft and skills, and expanding your knowledge and imagination. There are two tutors and one guest reader for the week, and mornings are normally spent doing workshops, afternoons writing or having one-to-one tutorials with the tutors, and evenings are spent sharing what you've written or hearing other people read to you. Also there are trips out to the pub! 

V: Of course (no pun intended) you get what you pay for, but it is quite expensive - however, I believe Arvon give financial help where applicable ? How does someone find out about that?

S: If you look at the Arvon Foundation website -  there are details on how to apply for financial aid for courses. I haven't done it myself, but everybody I've met at Arvon is very approachable, so I hope that nobody would be put off applying.

V: Online Writing course - that sounds interesting - but what exactly does it mean? What will you be doing?

S: Between us, we have designed a course we'd love to go on ourselves! While on the one hand it's supremely practical - both Jon and Danuta are industry experts - so it's looking at what is happening for writers on the internet now. On the other, like all Arvon courses, it is all about the writing. Hopefully, writers will leave with a deeper understanding of how to write for different readerships and in different styles, which has to make all aspects of their writing more powerful. It's also personal - we will be looking at the best way to promote your work, your ideas and indeed yourself to who matters to YOU! I know from my own experience that writing for blogs, even in short bursts on twitter, has improved my creative writing and opened up new possibilities for me. We will be looking at communicating our messages - from photographs, to opinion pieces, to different ways to share creative writing, and also guest posts. 

V: Why is there a need for this course?

S: It's clear - and Danuta is one of the best placed people to talk about this - that to be published nowadays (at whatever level) some kind of web presence is helpful. I must admit I embraced blogs etc very early on - starting my own in 2003, but I keep meeting writers who hate the very idea. It feels to them a distraction, or even a personal intrusion. I think the course will be good in exploring how you can talk personally but not about yourself (if that makes sense). But also many people don't know where to begin, or have been writing blogs etc for some time and aren't getting the audience they want. There's no magic wand, but we will be looking at really good ways to target your energies. 

V: Who are your co-tutors?

S: Jon Reed is an author and social media expert, who runs Publishing Talk  . He is in very wide demand for coaching, presentations etc, so all the writers having a one-to-one tutorial with him will be lucky. I'm planning on asking for one myself! Danuta Kean  is one of our top publishing commentators and she's going to give an oversight into what is happening in publishing now, and how each one of us can improve our chances of getting noticed. Most importantly though, both are lovely - it's going to be a fun course!

V: What experience does a would-be participant need to have?

S: There will be help in setting up a blog, so really someone could come along with no experience at all. Equally, we know that there are people interested who have been running a website for some time but want to add some more sparks to it. The whole idea - as with all Arvon courses - is that while you look at your own process and what works for you, everybody will learn from everybody else. Even people who hate the very idea of the internet will find something to take away with them!

V: It's at Lumb Bank - I've never been there - tell me what it's like?
Lumb Bank,  by Abi Morley

S: I haven't been there either, so I'm really excited. But just look at this photograph....beautiful, eh? (V, attached. It's taken by Abi Morley and I'll get her permission!)

V: The Arvon courses I've been on have  been hugely life-affirming, and life changing too. What three things do you most hope this course will give to the participants?

S: Oooh good question...
1. The feeling not only that they CAN do it, but that they are excited about writing online and feel confident that they know what they want to say, and to who.
2. A notebook bulging with creative ideas they might not have thought of before. And a desire to keep exploring after the week is over too.
3. New friends.
I'm hoping for all of these three things myself! 
What I would say is that if anyone is interested and wants to know more, they can email me direct - - and I'll do my best to answer any personal questions.

Brilliant... thank you Sarah - so there you go - a wealth of info on what sounds like a rather interesting course. Speaking as someone with a moribumd website - I wish I could go myself!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

John O'Leary

John at Anam Cara. 

A short while ago, I heard of the death of poet, farmer and scholar John O'Leary, in very tragic circumstances.  I met John first some years back, at my lovely writing retreat in West Cork, when he popped in for a meeting with Sue, the owner.  We met many times over the years. He looked wild as anything,  littered his speech with Latin quotations,  knew the history, social history, the mythology, the geography, geology, the flora and fauna, and a lot more, of this part of Ireland. A man who wrote poetry - didn't bother too much about publishing it - but was proud of his two books, each collections of 77 fractured sonnets - 'Sea' and 'Salt', from a tiny now-defunct press in Seattle.  Who could recite you so many things  - he had an extraordinary memory. Who taught both locally and abroad, who had a First from Trinity Cambridge and another degree from Trinity Dublin. 

John getting ready to read his poems to my short story writers, at Anam Cara in June this year.

Born in Boston, US, he had lived most of his life in West Cork, on a small farm in the tiny village of Allihies, where he bred Irish Draught Horses, farmed sheep. His farm overlooked the North Atlantic. His study, a treasure-house (some might call it a shambles!) of books and papers, had a spidery window looking down over fields to the strand. 
He used to inspire the kids at local schools. The book in the first photo above is a hand made book he helped the older students to make, at the local school. They made the paper from nettles. The ink. The covers from wood. The binding twine also from nettles. They used gannet feathers found on the strand for quills and each student wrote what they wanted to be in life.  He'd also been Visiting Professor of Creative Writing and Irish Studies at Illinois Wesleyan University and Seattle University and has taught at numerous universities in America and Europe. And he ran workshops at the Anam Cara Writers' and Artists' Retreat - with Paddy O'Connor - another friend, a retired headmaster. I was due to go and enjoy a week of their inspirational teaching and insights next year. 
Sadly, John drowned in the sea not far from Allihies, after his fishing boat capsized.

So - as a goodbye to an irreplaceable genius, here's the account of a wonderful journey John took me on last year - into the old copper mine above Allihies. 'I know a way in', he said. 'We used to go when I was a kid.' Paddy O'Connor wanted to come too. 

John at the entrance of the tunnel

So we drove up there, and we parked, John Paddy and I, by the side of the stony road that leads to the Mountain Mine. Barbed wire fences didn't worry John. Off with the jacket,  laying it on the barbs, he swung a long skinny leg over the wire. Me, I don't have those legs, and Paddy said, 'We'll go this way, and we scrambled up the steep slope, slid down rocks, up again, managed to negotiate some easier fences, and eventually dropped back down the slope to where John was standing at the entrance to a closed-off tunnel. 'Oh, its got a lock,' he said. And, 'Oh look, someone's broken it...' Hmm...

Down the tunnel, lichen-covered and dank, up to our ankles in water
I'd borrowed some beach shoes, which was a good thing - 'Be ready for water up to your knees...' John said, pushing the metal gate aside, grinning, and disappearing into a black-as-night tunnel. I took a photo with my phone - it showed for a second the green growths on the walls, the rock-strewn floor, the water. And John's back, rolled up jeans and ubiquitous tweed jacket, disappearing....
Looking up, the sun shone down the spent vein, blueing the walls

Feeling for rocks with our feet, scrambling over a low wall or two built to keep us out, no doubt, we ended up in a wide cavern. The walls ran with damp in places, catching the light. Light which filtered down from above, a slash in the ground, perhaps where a seam has been exhausted many years before the mine was closed. And as my eyes became accustomed, I could see places where the walls were blue, turquoise, green, cobalt - the sunlight catching the colours and throwing them about. There were the wooden supports for walkways long gone. Places where ladders would have taken the miners from one level to the next. There were metal hooks in the rock, gaping, somehow, waiting.

Looking down, the wooden walkway supports from a century ago

Kneeling in a shaft of light to read a poem by a  Cornish tin miner

The floor of the cavern ended suddenly, and the ground fell away into the mineshaft. Not, as I had imagined, a rough circular hole - but a slash the whole width of the cavern, and about six feet across. Thanks to the light from above,  you could see the shaft, disappearing downwards.  Then nothing. You could see the walls, with their blue and green artwork. Then nothing. In the picture above, John is kneeling right on the edge of the shaft - the flash from my phone-camera has lit up the wall going down.   He took a paper from his pocket, and proceeded to read - perhaps the most extraordinary and memorable reading/listening experience I will ever have. John read out loud, his words echoing slightly against the walls. He read a poem written over a hundred years ago, by a Cornish tin miner, describing riding to work on the man engine at Levant - the lift device  that had inspired so much of the structure of The Coward's Tale - but which I had taken out of the novel as one of the last sacrifices during editing.  

The shaft is black and deep, bright blue stains in the rock
There was a man engine at this mine too, and its building is still to be seen, high on the mountain above Allihies. Hearing the words here, in this place, where they seemed to fit so well... I can't describe it. We stayed for a while, drinking in the atmosphere. Talking in hushed tones when we talked at all.  Most of the time I think all three of us were overwhelmed by the place.  I didn't want to leave - the place was magical - a sense of history, and strife, it is no doubt full of ghosts. But the ghosts let us be. 
back through the tunnel towards daylight
And in contrast to our journey into the mine, the tunnel on the way back seemed very different. Instead of the night that lay ahead on our way in, we journeyed out, towards the brightest light.

Thanks, John.