Sunday 29 June 2014

Letters to the Unknown Soldier

There is a fantastic public memorial in the making, brainchild of Kate Pullinger and Neil Bartlett, a chance for anyone and everyone to write and send a letter or poem to the Unknown Soldier - Jagger's wonderful statue at Paddington Station - memorial to the GWR employees killed in the Great War. 
    All the pieces, from the well known and famous to the unknown, from school children to the elderly, are being published on the website and it will be there for everyone to access until 14th August. After that it will be archived by the British Library. Here's the link:
Some of the pieces are featured as they come in, and I was moved and delighted to have mine featured today, alongside a pice from Andy McNab, among others. 

Letter to an unknown soldier
Things you do not know:
When you leave, you will leave a child, growing. When night falls on the day you die, your officer will write two letters to two families, yours and his own. He will say to his mother that he has never had to write a letter like that. He has never knowingly lied before. He helped three of his men to bury what was left. He will ask does his mother think, under the circumstances, he did the right thing when he said ‘it was quick?’
Your wife and your mother will weep together in the kitchen, over a pot of tea. Your wife will smile through her tears and say, “At least, it was quick.” Your mother will shake her head and reach for your wife’s hand.
Your child, a girl, will be born early, on a hot June night, to the sound of the first bombs to fall on London from a fixed wing aircraft. Those bombs will hit the school in Upper North Street, and kill eighteen children, mostly between the ages of four and six years old.
You will be moved with infinite care and laid between men you never knew. Your wife and mother choose the words ‘Only son and beloved husband’ for your headstone. They mean to come and visit your grave when they can save the money. They never do.
Your daughter’s husband will be called up to fight in another war. He will leave her, pregnant with her second child, at home with your wife and mother. He will have reinforced the kitchen table with metal sheeting from the works, and they are used to sleeping underneath on a single mattress from the spare bed. Your eldest grandson, a boy of three, lies awake, listening to bombs falling on the streets. He loses his best friend.
Before their own house is hit, killing your wife and mother, your daughter and son are sent away to a farm in Wales. They never go back.
Your son in law will be killed at Cassino. Your daughter will not marry again. She helps out at your grandson’s school, then trains to become a teacher.
Your grandson becomes a teacher too, lecturing in sociology at Cardiff University, and he marries one of his students. They are pacifists. They do not approve of the wearing of red poppies on Remembrance Sunday but when their son, your great grandson, comes home from his school, aged five, with a poppy, they let him pin it to the wall chart – but only after an argument.
Your great grandson will find your photograph in a drawer, and will ask who you are. He is the first person to visit your grave, over eighty years after your death. He will become a military historian, and battlefield guide, keeping your memory alive and the memory of all those who fell with you. You don’t know this, but you’d be proud of him.

And here is the detail, from the website - get writing!


In a year jammed-full of WW1 commemoration our project invites everyone to step back from the public ceremonies and take a few private moments to think.  For us, it is important to move on from cenotaphs, poppies, and the familiar imagery we associate with the war memorials.
If you could say what you want to say about that war, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your own experience of life and death to hand, what would you say?
If you were able to send a personal message to one of the men who served and was killed during World War One, what would you write?


Thousands of people have already written to the unknown soldier, including schoolchildren, pensioners, students, nurses and members of the serving forces.  Letters have arrived from all over the United Kingdom and beyond. Many well-known writers have contributed as well, authors as diverse and distinguished as Stephen Fry, Malorie BlackmanAndrew MotionLee ChildLouise Welsh, and Kamila Shamsie.


The website will remain open until 11 p.m. on the night of 4 August 2014, the centenary of the moment when Prime Minister Asquith announced to the House of Commons that Britain had joined the First World War.  Between now and then every letter that the soldier receives will be published here and made available for everyone to read.
Eventually all of the letters will be archived in the British Library where they will remain permanently accessible online.
Please add your voice. What you write will help provide a snapshot of what people in this country are thinking and feeling in this centenary year. Your letter will help us create a new kind of war memorial – one made entirely of words, and by everyone.
Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger

Sunday 22 June 2014

A workshop with a difference! Short stories with Retreat West at Emley Farmhouse

Last week, I scooted off to Thursley, a journey of some hour and a half, to find the venue for the short story workshop I was running for Retreat West. It isn't easy to find. No signposts, a hidden village, yet more 'no signposts', two helpful ladies in a 4WD,  a phonecall, and bingo, I found it!  Even more hidden, in a beautful valley, surrounded by slopes, fields, ancient pathways - and even a barn on stone mushrooms to keep out the rats! What a place. 
        This is Emley Farmhouse, a National Trust property cleverly chosen by Amanda Saint as the venue for a writers' retreat weekend. Amanda runs Retreat West - and she and her clients will take over interesting properties, matching them to the workshop content, where possible. This place was teeming with possibilities for short fiction - and when I looked at images available of the upstairs accommodation, and found this - well - what story would you place in this setting? Isn't it gorgeous!

Go on - half an hour - just write anything - you never know... I'd love to know if it inspires anyone!

I arrived in time for a rather delicious lunch - Amanda cooks for her writers so they can focus all their time on their writing - which we had in one of the two dining rooms. We cleared the table and the food morphed into paper, pens, and words flowed. Four hours later - several cups of tea,  a plate of biccies - and many new pieces of writing had been filed away - new characters, storylines, settings, voices. 

Amanda kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her brilliant organisation:

Amanda Saint

Me: It was such a delight to spend a few hours working with your writers in Emley Farmhouse. It is old, rambling, has an indoor well and underfloor running water - such an inspirational place. How did you dream up this fabulous idea, a partnership with the National Trust?

Amanda: The partnership kind of happened by accident. My initial idea for running residential retreats was to tie in the venue with the author that I wanted to do the workshop. I'd just read The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, and loved it, and wanted her to be the first author I had running a workshop at the new retreats. I was told about a lighthouse that National Trust Holiday Cottages rented out close to where I lived so went and had a look at it - it was incredible and in a truly spectacular setting. So I booked it for October 2013 and from that developed a relationship with a lovely man who manages the National Trust holiday cottages for the South West, Chris Curtis, and we then worked together on a series of retreats for 2014 - one of which will be in the lighthouse again.

Me: How do you select a property to work in/stay in for your retreats with Retreat West? 

Amanda: Where possible I have tried to tie the venue in with what we'll be doing for the workshops. For example, later this year there is an Historical Fiction retreat in a former Victorian carding mill, with a workshop from historical novelist, Emma Darwin. Then there's a Women's Fiction retreat in a house built by a suffragette, with best-selling author in the genre, Rowan Coleman, delivering the workshop. It's not always possible to do this though, so my other criteria are that the property has a wow factor and is in a beautiful setting - like the farmhouse we've just been at for the Short Story retreat.

Me: Tell me a bit about how your retreats work.

Amanda: They last for three nights, usually over a weekend, and there is one half day workshop during that time, apart from at the Just Write retreat, where I'm sure you can guess what happens! The rest of the time is for writing, reading, relaxing, whatever people want to do really. We all get together for meals and I do all the cooking and clearing up so that the guests can focus on their writing. It's proved to make them very productive and lots of new work has been created at the ones I've run so far. There's lots of readings and discussions that go on too, which help people to solve problems they're having with a piece. 

Me: Should a writer have a project in mind when they come to you, or can they come with nothing - just needing space and time to reflect?

Amanda: Either or, really. I've noticed that what usually happens is they bring something with them that they're currently working on, novels, shorts, memoirs, and then new stuff gets created too - both in the workshops and outside of them. I bring along writing magazines and books, and my set of the wonderful Writing Maps created by Shaun Levin, which are filled with prompts and exercises to get the words flowing. All of the venues are in great walking country too and getting out walking usually means people come back with new ideas or existing story problems solved.

Me: Who else do you have coming to work with your writers, and where will they be working?

Amanda: As well as the ones detailed above, I'll be back at the lighthouse with a workshop from the Faber Academy's Head of Fiction, Richard Skinner. This will be focused on landscape and setting in fiction. There's also a Literary Fiction retreat at an old manor house that looks like a mini castle, where Alison Moore will be running the workshop. The Just Write retreat is at an old Exmoor farmhouse and although there is no workshop at this one, novelist and creative writing teacher, Sophie Duffy, is coming along and I know she'll be happy to share thoughts and ideas with other guests. 

Me: If they are interested (and how could they fail to be...) how do writers find out more?

Amanda: All of the retreats that are planned for this year can be found here: To keep up to date with new plans, writers can sign up for the newsletter on the site. There's also blog interviews with the authors where they talk about what will be happening in their workshops.

Me: Fantastic. Well, from what I saw, and having spoken to the writers who attended the Emley Farmhouse retreat and my workshop - this formula is very special, and very clever, and it works! Thanks for the invitation, Amanda, and thanks for giving us a little insight into Retreat West. May it go from strength to strength. 


Thursday 19 June 2014

In Pursuit of Narrative - 'That Dark Remembered Day', by Tom Vowler.

I may be a day late here - but I am delighted to welcome Tom Vowler to the blog again, this time to celebrate publication of his second novel, 'That Dark Remembered Day', which is a terrific and thought-provoking read, and published today by Headline. 

One family, one town, devastated by one tragic event.
Can you ever know what those closest to you are really capable of?
When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn't well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day's tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched.
Stephen's own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?

Tom Vowler

 I was lucky enough to receive a pre-pub copy - and once started, it really is one of those bools that grabs you gently - and won't let you go until you finish it. A page-turner, beautifully written, with extraordinary descriptive passages acting as counterpoint to a compelling story. Don't take my word for it though - here's a review... 
certainly the most engrossing and intriguing book I have read recently."

I am an avid birdwatcher (who knew...? and peregrine falcons are among my favourite birds. I've just spent hours enjoying a webcam high on Norwich cathedral, watching young peregrines mustering the courage to leave the nest for the first time - a magical experience. And as a recurring motif throughout the novel happens to be peregrine falcons, lo! an extra layer of delight. Tom generously agreed to write a guest post talking about the influence of one particular book, and the genesis of his marvellous novel. 

Congrats Tom. Here's to 'That Dark Remembered Day'. May it fly high. And welcome to the blog. Over to you...

Nothing sustains us when we fall.
      J A Baker, The Peregrine

My ambition for That Dark Remembered Day, beyond goals concerning narrative, resonance of voice and compelling characterisation, was to achieve a greater sense of lyricism in the work, in particular to produce a part-meditation on aspects of fatherhood, war and landscape, specifically the natural world. In other words the book was to have a far less urgent plot to that of my first novel. This time tension was to be sustained, not from unfolding action alone, but via an initial declaration of a tragic event, the details of which are promised but held back until the book’s dénouement. Whilst not abandoning a conventional narrative arc entirely, my focus was increasingly drawn by language, by the book’s sense of enquiry, and how this more literary approach could affect the reader as the layers were peeled back. In short, I wanted to challenge the reader more. 
During the early part of composition I became increasingly influenced by J.A. Baker’s iconic non-fiction work, The Peregrine, with its remarkable use of language and paean to the natural world, in particular the eponymous bird of prey. What seduced me, aside from the extraordinary linguistic richness, was Baker’s often elegiac tone and how this alluded to the narrator’s own (often mournful) state of mind, despite his feelings being almost entirely absent in the text, other than a rich cataloguing of the observed day.  As Robert MacFarland says in the foreword, ‘The Peregrine is a book where nothing happens, again and again’, yet somehow Baker is able to maintain a sense of drama and intensity – pace, even – all the same. Indeed, the book achieves, if not a narrative arc, then a sort of melancholic fabled quality, as the reader follows Baker’s pursuit of two wintering peregrines one year (in fact the book is now known to be a condensed account of ten winters’ worth of entries posing as one). Here Baker reveals the emergence of his obsession:

She drifted idly; remote, inimical. She balanced in the wind, two thousand feet above, while the white cloud passed beyond her and went across the estuary to the south. Slowly her wings curved back. She slipped smoothly through the wind, as though she were moving forward on a wire. This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it further; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. Once can never have enough. 
By now I had my architecture for the novel: its structure, the characters, a sense of how it would all play out. But there was something missing, and it was reading Baker’s immersive, chimeric book that shone a light on my central character’s lack of emotional intensity. A returning war veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, his horrific experiences have a terrible impact on the whole family, as each one tells their tale. But I was also keen to explore how this was experienced by the soldier himself. In giving him Baker’s obsession with the peregrine and affection for the natural world, I was able to employ a much closer narration, one that allows the reader an intimate insight into my character’s unhinging, which is mirrored in his pursuit of the falcon. 
And so a trio of fixations began to coalesce: Baker’s quest to observe the bird, my character’s mimicking of this, and my own fascination with The Peregrine, which I would tuck into with relish each evening by the fire. I wouldn’t go so far as to term my novel’s relationship with Baker’s book as intertextual, but it certainly owes it a huge debt. I had found my soldier’s voice.

Tom Vowler is a novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and lectures in creative writing. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel.

Saturday 14 June 2014

An honest interview

I'm delighted to have an interview up on Sharon Zinc's blog - what was interesting about this one, as with the last, is the complete freedom not to have to 'sell' anything, or myself!  The blessings of having taken time out. Author interviews are so often tempered by the need not to be absolutely truthful, aren't they?

Here are some quotes:

 Q: Is there a particular theme or message you’d like readers to take away from this book?
 A: No. Whatever they see.  Authorial Messages are like trying to float concrete in a feather boat.
Q: What would you say are the toughest things and the best things about being a writer?
A: Toughest: The writing world...
A: Best:    The writing world...
Why? The whole interview is here:

Monday 2 June 2014

Now for something completely different...White Christmas - The Brat Pack Cover


I heard these guys singing at a recent event - and thought they were terrific. Suspect they won't be around long, as they are doing A Levels and will be off to the four winds, to university - so enjoy while you can.
        Many congrats, Bratpack, and good fortune whatever you end up doing!