Thursday, 25 October 2012

A bit about teaching...

UCS Ipswich

A couple of times a year I travel to Ipswich from my home in Sussex, and back again, to work with undergraduates in the English Department at UCS. It’s a long way to go for just two hours, but the workshops are invariably some of the best from the point of view of making a difference. The students have not chosen to take a Creative Writing Course. They are studying English, and one of the courses, The Short Story focusses on the literature, but it also includes a practical element. “Write a short story...” I take my hat off to them - it’s hard enough to tackle writing,  even if you’ve chosen to do it - it certainly isn’t easy to get your head round creating literature if you haven’t chosen to. 
That’s where, I guess, it is good to have a visit from a practitioner. 

This time,  we were looking at the need to depart from fact, if you are going to write successful fiction. Sounds obvious - but hard to do, especially for those who don’t write fiction routinely. 
        Starting with my usual ice-breaker’ of  word-cricket, and NO need to read anything out (phew!) I then used the current story of the shooting of Malala Yousufzai  We read some articles, made a list of central and peripheral characters in this particular story, then I took the articles away.  Trusting that we had enough grasp of the main events, we then split into groups, to collaborate. What did their chosen characters want to say? How would they say it? The students had to use their imaginations. This is fiction. Start with some facts, then let go - make it up. And they did! We had a group working as The US Military. Another as Malala the child, another Malala the injured teenager. Malala’s father. Angelina Jolie. And challengingly, the Taliban gunman who shot her. 
After a few minutes, the noise level rose - ideas were flying. After fifteen minutes of brainstorming, they had to choose one scenario, and another fifteen minutes to write, as a group,  a first-person narrative, in their character’s voice. We then had half an hour of group feedback - sharing the voices, the new stories - because of course, without the facts to rely on, they’d had to invent. 
We had terrific black comedy from the US Military group. Empathy with the  anguish of father - which was about to veer into a futuristic piece  Astonishing voices from the ‘Malala’ teams - the child who wanted to be treated like her brothers...and a guilt-laden speech from the “injured girl”, causing so much trouble. We had a layered character in the gunman, chosen to do the deed by others, frightened not to. We had an Angelina Jolie behaving in one way, pushed by publicists, and her ‘real thoughts’ running alongside. 

I think the point was made. No one was writing journalism. Or history. Or political commentary. Just fiction. Based on a nugget of fact. Spun, like a spider’s web, away from those facts. 

Senior Lecturer in English, Gill Lowe (who is always such a sport, diving into all the writing exercises with gusto) asked each student to scribble a few lines after the session was over. “What will you take with you from the workshop - something you didnt know before?”

Here are some scribbles: 

“We all have imaginations, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Thank you for an inspirational lecture today."
‘Being ‘forced' to write from  different points of view and on subjects that aren’t self-chosen, brings a different perspective  and instills confidence that  it can be done.” 
“Let go of wanting the story to be as close to fact as possible!”
“How easily an imagination lies dormant - and can be used, with a nudge. Good lesson :).”
“Drawing inspiration from all manner of places - unlikely places such as this news story. And that we can take it anywhere we want. It doesn’t have to stick with the news story. For example, the girl ends up with superpowers...”
“Examples of how to use different voices - very interesting. Thoroughly enjoyed the ice-breaking exercise - what a great feeling of freedom it engendered.”
“WHAT IF??!”
“Writing at speed can often produce the best ideas...”
“It was wonderful to hear from a real writer who has experience. You can use factual stories as influence for fiction - it’s your imagination, so use it!”
“I found it refreshing to bask in the rewards of letting one’s imagination run wild. In turn, I enjoyed sharing the fruits of this imaginative process with colleagues.”
“Fiction IS fiction and can be anything you want it to be. Freedom to write.”
“It was interesting to think about spinning a story from a fact. To hear someone saying that you don’t have to ‘write what you know’ (as in  sticking to facts) was refreshing. Brilliant enjoyable session. Thank you!”
“It’s okay to let your imagination run completely wild, especially when finding a story.”
“More appreciation for the value of spontaneity.”

That's what I mean about 'making a difference'.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Thoughts on visiting the cemeteries of The Great War

Panorama, Sunken Road Cemetery, Fampoux
Monday 8th October. 
A rainy mid-day, Sunken Road Cemetery, Fampoux, near Arras, listening to a description of the action that took place in the amphitheatre of fields in front, fierce fighting for the heavily defended village of Roeux and its chemical works - battles that raged throughout April and May 1917.  
Three specifics: 
First, the terrific experience of hearing the detail of a battle from such a vantage point. The terrain now looks so benign... and yet anyone with half an imagination will see far more than crops. And, of course, many of the men who fell in the action are here, below your feet. 
Second - the immaculate solemn beauty of this and indeed all the Commonwealth cemeteries. Their uniqueness. Large and small, every one is different. The planting - English country garden - roses, asters, lavender, you name it, it’s there. Tended with huge care and pride often by generations of the same family. 
Third - it was lunchtime. Some of us sat on the wall to eat their sandwiches. I had mine by the grave of a 20 year old, and texted my son, the same age, to tell him. He texted back, ‘Good stuff.’ 

Those three observations just about sum it up, for me. Carnage happened. The evidence is right here. Paying my respects is the least I can do, giving those who fell a little of what they had taken from them. Time.  
       What about the sandwiches? Isn’t that disrespectful? I don’t think so.

Before The Last Post, Menin Gate
 I am reminded of a  service of the Last Post under the Menin Gate at Ypres recently. 
        A wreath was laid by a young airman, and in support, a whole group, uniforms immaculate, marching in perfect order. To see the wreath laid, the last post ringing out, the young man snapping to attention and saluting before wheeling on his heel and returning to his comrades - was wonderful. As was the normality of passing them no more than six or seven minutes later, as, having marched  out of the Gate, they’d now relaxed. ‘Right, take me to the nearest pub,’ one said. ‘I need a drink....’ They all walked away chatting and joking, into the city.    

That’s about right. Job done. Life goes on, for some. To do otherwise is to try to make the men who fell into saints, when actually, weren’t they all ordinary blokes? Not saints at all. Respect is of course due in immeasurable quantities, but I get the sense that it is more than OK, as far as they would be concerned, for you to eat your sarnies alongside, bringing a sliver of the everyday to those who lost their everydays on our behalf. That is not overstating it, even nigh on a hundred years later. Britain would not exist were it not for the outcome of this war. Whatever one thinks of the strategists and their plans, every man who fell, named on a headstone or not, is part of the sometimes faltering juggernaut that ultimately crushed Germany. 
        I have a strong sense too, that it is important for women to visit. Important for the fallen, not us. This woman has many many roles - wife, mother, colleague, friend, writer, teacher, editor - as well as daughter of a much-missed decorated WW11 veteran - but when I’m there the most important role is that of a mother. Of sons. So in a sense, I’m not only there saying a quiet hello to the fallen, I’m also there for all the mothers who couldn’t go across to see where their lad was. For all the mothers who aren’t here any more. Maybe they know. Maybe not. That's OK.
Morval Cemetery
How do I feel after visiting the battlefields and cemeteries, six days on the Somme, Arras, then Ypres? Wrung out, still. But I think that’s natural. We talk about ‘paying’ our respects. This act is not cheap - it’s something that costs. Maybe it is the mix of response that is so exhausting. Sadness, for every single man who fell, for their families and friends. A determination that we who follow on must not forget. The deep peace of these places - every response builds into a mesh of emotion that is impenetrable at first. It lifts after time. 
 “Battlefields are one thing, cemeteries another. I wouldn’t bother with the cemeteries.” A quote, from someone gloriously unaware of the effect of what he was saying.  I was just sad for the speaker.  The effect was to shriek his ignorance. It was to reduce a battlefield visit to a disneyesque experience, sanitised and two-dimensional. You might as well draw up lines of opposing plastic soldiers on a model of the terrain, knock them over with pea-shooters in order of battle-history. 
           What did he think he would find in the cemeteries? I don’t know. But for my money he was ignoring some of the biggest reasons to go to the battlefields. Those reasons are not those things you can pick up in text books. To avoid visiting the cemeteries is not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by many stark realities.  Not to allow yourself to feel. If we seek to protect ourselves from our feelings - and that may be one reason for my colleague ‘not bothering’ with the cemeteries - is that not a little dangerous?  
Asters, Essex Farm Cemetery, at the grave of Pte. E Wynne, Leinster Regiment.
 It is hard not to feel sadness standing by the grave of a lad who went to his death on the battlefield from a farm in Sussex, or a terrace in a Welsh valley town.  One of the realities of war is the vastness of the numbers. Vast numbers of graves of lads like this, headstones with names, dates, inscriptions.  Vast numbers of graves alongside, holding remains that were un-nameable. Name after name after name on the many memorials to the missing. 

Thiepval Memorial
We had an interesting difference of opinion on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval. To many, it is the ultimate memorial, the best. Not to me. It is majestic, yes, overwhelming, yes - but it is something else. It sits astride the ridge like some gigantic alien, no lack of hubris, a definite air of triumphalism. It lacks beauty. Contrast it with the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, the Menin Gate at Ypres, Memorials to the Missing at Ploegsteert, at Arras, at Vis en Artois or Tyn Cot. There, beauty melds with sadness to produce an extraordinary, deep peacefulness. Thiepval holds no peace. It just shakes its fist at the world. I wonder whether the triumphalism of Thiepval might have been an additional thorn in Germany’s side during the mid 1930s...provocative? Who knows?
Langemark German Military Cemetery 
Visiting Langemark German cemetery is a very different experience to spending time in Commonwealth cemeteries. In comparison it is dark, stolid, Wagnerian in character.  At its heart is a mass grave holding some 25,000 soldiers, guys who, just like our own, fought for something they believed in, most of the time - you can’t forget that. There are also two British soldiers buried here, as there are often German soldiers buried in Commonwealth Great War cemeteries. My writer’s imagination with can’t help but create irreverent fictions in both settings - unsettled after-hours conversations. Black humour and war go hand in hand. It helps to salve the harshness.
           Apparently, some time into the war, our cinemas screened newsreel footage showing bodies on a battlefield. Beforehand, only ‘managed’ information had been screened - propaganda-led. Sanitised. There was uproar. ‘But people are dying...’. Well, yes. That’s what war does.
"Let me like a soldier fall..."

        Maybe at the tail end of the Victorian era with its predisposition to sentimentality, the lads now in these graves might have written letters home busting with sugary cliches, but meaning every single word. 

Then, they’d turn on the black humour and belt out trench songs they’d never in a million years sing in front of their mothers, giving a V sign to the reality they faced:

When old Jerry shells your trench, never mind
And your face may lose its smile, never mind
When the sandbags bust and fly, you have only once to die
If old jerry shells your trench, never mind
Under the Menin Gate- one of the many walls covered in names
 Here you go lads - a new verse or two:
When you get blown to bits, never mind
and your arse flies through your tits, never mind
If you make the Sargeant linger to pick up your little finger
When you get blown to bits, never mind

When you’re just a word at Wipers, never mind 
Bleedin’ bugles, bleedin’ pipers, never mind 
You’ll be so high up the wall, Mum won’t find your name at all,
when you’re just a name at Wipers, never mind

Tyn Cot, sundown

My 20 year old lunch partner at Sunken Lane was Private A Law, 47117, 10th Bn, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own). He died on 28/08/1917 and was the son of Alfred and Jane Elizabeth Law, of 53, Joicey St., Sherburn Hill, Durham. 

Writing this is akin to why I go - quite apart from finding the cemeteries and memorials to the missing deeply moving places, and feeling a strong sense of 'Be yerself Missis, that's all we want...' - each time I read a name or stand by a headstone saying ‘A Soldier of The Great War’ I am acknowledging that person existed and while he did, even if it was for a short time, he accomplished something far more extraordinary than I ever will.

Pics of Sunken Road Cemetery and Langemark German Military Cemetery are by Jeremy Banning.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Two BBC News clips of the La Boisselle Project

When we were at La Boisselle, a BBC News team were filming below ground.  Here are the blokes working the winches to take the team to the levels below us. It was very atmospheric to listen at the top of the shaft, these voices echoing, words heard and not heard. 

And later, watching the editing process in the van on site.

 Here are  links to two BBC News clips from October 5th - the filming done that day - 'This area of land known as the Glory Hole saw some of the bloodiest flighting of the First World War...'

and 'A slow descent to a wartime underworld...' - this is particularly amazing, and is the clip we were privileged to listen to from above, and see being edited.


Monday, 15 October 2012

The La Boisselle Project

Overgrown shell hole, La Boisselle, 2011

How many tourist coaches to the battlefields of The Great War have slowed in the village of La Boisselle and turned up the side road to the Lochnagar crater?  How many visitors have been so stunned at the magnitude of Lochnagar that once back on the coach they are lost in thought. But a stunned visitor might have noticed, close to the junction of the side road and the main road, an unkempt piece of land. Uneven, covered with scrub and small trees, you would probably not have given it a second thought as the coach took you to the next must-see site.  Unless your guide pointed it out, that is, and on my visits in the 90’s, no one did...even though one was a fairly eminent historian.
          This unkempt ground at La Boisselle, in the sector known as The Glory Hole, was and is a gem. Few examples remain of virgin Great War battlefield - most of the terrain has been returned to the plough.

Over the years, the scars of conflict have softened. The chalk downlands of the Somme and Ancre valleys, the broad open sweep of their fields, today exude a stillness that belies their history, punctuated only by solitary cemeteries. 

Visit the infamous Somme woods, and you will find another story. Go to Delville Wood for example, and watch the sunlight playing through the trees on the remains of trenches, firing pits and shell holes. 
Delville Wood

Out in the open, most of the land has returned to agriculture. The trenches and the shell holes were backfilled as soon as the farmers could. Nothing remains - apart from the imprints of those trenches and shellholes, which rise up in chalky  ghosts when the crops are harvested. The towns and villages that were flattened have been rebuilt. 

But in La Boisselle, a village whose name resonates through the years for its position on the front line, the fiercest of fighting during July 1916,  the owners of this little piece of land did not level it, or develop it. And now, much has been preserved thanks to an organisation of volunteers called The La Boiselle Study Group

Excavation of L'Ilot, or Granathof - On 28 September 1914 the German advance was halted by French troops at La Boisselle. There was bitter fighting for possession of the civilian cemetery, and for farm buildings on the south-western edge of the village known to the Germans as the Granathof or ‘Shell Farm’ and to the French as the ‘Ilôt’. 

More than preserved - it is being carefully explored, everything recorded, as the site and its treasures are gradually revealed. From the website:
Working alongside landowners, archaeologists, local and regional specialists and authorities, museums, archives and international partners, the project has several objectives: to encourage the long-term preservation of the historic landscape for the benefit of future generations, to introduce fresh generations of archaeologists into the new discipline of First World War battlefield archaeology, to integrate the local population and wider public into the project, and to produce the most complete and multi-faceted examination of a Western Front battleground ever undertaken. 
I was lucky enough to visit in April 2011. Then, the ground was being cleared by a few of the group - all volunteers - a long and painstaking process of removing the bushes, brambles and trees that obscured the main features of the site, especially the mine craters. But the Great War was already returning to the contours in the form of coloured flags planted along the trenchlines - yellow for British, red for German. So close in places you could catch a cold if the enemy sneezed.

From the German lines, 2011 - British trenches lay where the path now leads, where the yellow flags are...
mine craters to left and right.

 Peer between the trees and you could just about see how the land fell away into substantial craters.  If this was No Mans Land, you wouldn’t have had a hope of getting from one side to the other in the dark. But there was another way, and that was to use the ground. To tunnel. There was no small sense of excitement as a corrugated iron sheet was lifted to show me  a small hole in the ground, chalk beneath weeds, one of the just-rediscovered entrances to the tunnel system beneath La Boisselle. 

One of the founder members of The La Boisselle Study Group is military historian Jeremy Banning. In the winter of 2010/11 I had been trying to find a historian who would take me to the battlefields for novel research purposes, and who would help me to follow in the footsteps of The Swansea Pals , the 14th Welsh. The resulting trip with this terrific guide, during which my first visit to the La Boisselle site took place, is written up here
Petrol can - perhaps used to bring water down to the tunnellers. Shell cases used to weigh closed the gas doors.
W adit
       Last week I returned in the company of four other writers, our guide again Jeremy Banning. Our first stop on a tour of the Somme and Arras battlefields was the La Boisselle Project, soon to be closed up at the end of the season. I posted a few photos a day or so back - the excitement of going a short way underground, possibly down the very incline beneath that corrugated iron. The fun of having a BBC News team far below us, recording an impromptu service in remembrance of tunnellers buried in an explosion in November 1915.  Seeing an extraordinary calvaire, found in backfill when the trenches here were excavated - perhaps carved in chalk by Breton tunnellers then embellished by a British sapper’s pencil - looking as if it was both carved and written on yesterday. Fascinating, wonderful and very moving, all of it. 
      One sight that will stay with me, is the brick floor of l'Ilot, or Granathof - the farm so fiercely fought over, which was finally flattened in a mine explosion. The floor is anything but flat. It looks like the sea, as if the ground beneath is still heaving upwards.
Historian Jeremy Banning talks to our group of visiting writers, 2012. Not far from the spot where the photo above, of the  trench lines, was taken. Granathof in the background

But most of that is, if I can use an appropriate metaphor, surface stuff.  Below the surface of  La Boisselle, and the tireless work of this group, is something that seems to chime with the men who fought in the great war. Firstly, a doggedness. The group carried on, even though to begin with there was precious little funding, and they were unsure how long this piece of land would remain available. It’s good to discover that the land is protected now. That financial and practical help is far more in evidence than it was last year - although funds are desperately needed.  Secondly, that team thing, so hard to define: look at the makeup of the group - you will find ex-Royal Marines, an ex-investigator with the Royal Military Police. Academics. Historians. An archaeologist. Researchers. Cinematographer. A pooling of expertise to accomplish an objective. 
       Underpinning everything is a deep respect for the men who went before them.  To ensure that what they did will not disappear into the faceless pages of text books, but be visible. To ensure they will not be forgotten - see for example the story of tunneller Ezekiel Parkes, who still lies entombed, here. One among many.

To keep faith. 


Next post: Why visit the battlefields? Why visit the cemeteries?

Saturday, 13 October 2012

WW1 Battlefield Trip - Somme and Arras - 5th to 8th October 2012

 We all met at Lille. Some of us came on Eurostar, two were already in France. Military Historian Jeremy Banning, who would be leading the trip, drove us to our first stop - The La Boisselle Project, where we were lucky enough to be taken underground a short way.

 The tunnels were dug by French sappers, then British, in 1915/16. Re-discovered recently, they are an extraordinary testament to the dogged ingenuity, bravery and skill of those who created them. In places, the chalk walls still show the friction marks where the passing of men left the rock smooth. In others, soot-trails give away the places where candles were lodged.
While we were there, further down, accessible only by winch, were a BBC News crew, filming a quiet memorial ceremony for two miners lost in October 1915, which would be going out on the 6 o'clock News that day. We could hear the voices - historian Peter Barton among others - rising up the shaft. 
Discovered in a spoil heap many metres below the ground - this seemed to be simply a lump of chalk, until it was turned over.  A calvaire, perhaps carved by a French tunneller, then decorated by a British one later, the pencil markings might have been done yesterday. 'God is Love' is pencilled on the left,  'Christ giveth Life' is written sideways on the trunk of the cross. A most wonderful object - the La Boisselle Project team were visibly moved to have discovered this - quite a treasure.

Monday, 1 October 2012


A couple of months ago, a new anthology was published by Thames River Press, entitled Pangea to reflect the multi-national nature of the contributors. Many of the contributors have never met, and the two editors, Rebecca Lloyd and Indira Chandrasekhar, live on opposite sides of the globe. They do have one thing in common, and that is that they at one time, were members of the short story group on the online writers site WriteWords.
Self reading at the Bristol launch - pic by Deb Rickard
Pangea has attracted some nice reviews, and there have been many many blog interviews and articles since its launch in Bristol back in July, at which I read - because I am glad to have a story in here - a short piece entitled Breakdown, which was first published in the photojournalism magazine Foto 8.  
Tom Williams reading 'You're Dead' at the launch. pic by Deb Rickard

The blog  tour draweth to an end, methinks, and I am  delighted to host Pangea contributor Tom Williams, writing about his story, and about his writing life. 
Over to you, Tom!

'You're Dead' began at an Arvon course I went on several years ago. It started with a workshop prompt to write about a place rich in sensual description, and I found myself writing about a long, dark corridor from my childhood school, which in my mind still smells of varnish. I set up a desk in the garden shed at Totleigh Barton, and throughout the rest of that week the skeleton of the story fell into place, so that by the final evening I had enough of a story to read out to the rest of our group. In reality, this was only a first draft, and on returning to my flat in London I spent many more weeks trying the reshape the story, attempting to iron out the story's two timelines - morning and evening of the same day – and how they related to one another within the narrative of the story, whilst maintaining the voice of the narrator.
I was fortunate enough that BBC Radio 4 recorded the story as part of their Ones to Watch series. This provided an unusual opportunity for me to hear another person – in this case the talented actor Samuel Barnett – read my story. It was strange to hear emphases and silences in places other than those I chose to add them; listening to the recording distinguished the voice of the story's narrator from my voice as writer. It reminded me of the thought that I can only paraphrase here: that a writer can only decide the point at which their story is sufficiently finished to allow it out into the world; once it is let out, it takes on a life of its own, from which point the writer has no further influence on how people choose to read it.
I spent my early 20s working for literary agencies in London, and a great deal of this time was spent reading the so-called 'slush pile' of thousands of 30-page samples submitted by hopeful writers. It was like panning for gold in a mountain of gravel, and I read more bad writing during these years than I care to remember, in the hope of discovering something special. On one or two occasions I did find treasure, and was in a position to witness the transformation that such discovery can bring to the life of a writer. There are few things more inspiring than seeing a manuscript go from a first draft written in lunch-breaks or on busy commuter train journeys, through stages of editing and submission, to the point where a publishing deal is signed, the first edition printed, and the author able to quit the job they loathe and turn to writing fiction full time.
Reading the slush pile left a lasting impression: if I was going to write, which is what I wanted to do more than anything else, I would only allow myself to do so if what I produced was any good. In my mind, there was already far too much bad writing out there for me to need to add to it. As a result, my output became painfully slow – I tweaked and edited obsessively, and rarely felt that anything I produced was even close to finished. You're Dead is one of only a handful of stories I wrote during the years I was reading the slush pile, as I became almost paralysed by over-analysing my output.
This changed last year when for the first time I took part in NaNoWriMo, in which participants are set the goal of writing 50,000 words in a single month. It was truly liberating to switch off my inner editor and simply write, every day for a month, without worrying too much about what came out. For some people November has become synonymous with growing moustaches; for me it is now the month of words. And so next month I shall again be switching off my inner editor and allowing the words to pour out, without concern as to whether they pass some litmus test of literary worth. November is for celebrating words, for producing a first draft, and I urge anyone and everyone to join in with this wordsmithery. 

Tom C.B. Williams

Thank you Tom - and if anyone would like to buy a copy of Pangea - here is a link to its page on the Book Depository.