In Praise of Small Places

Once in a while you might stumble upon a quirky shop or unusual venue hidden away somewhere, the sort of place that makes you go Wow – I had no idea this was here. Advertising blurb would call such a place a ‘hidden gem’ and although not out specifically treasure hunting earlier this year, I did indeed stumble upon a hidden gem in Monmouth. I’m sure Monmouthians know all about their beautiful little theatre, The Savoy but it was news to me, and any theatre that has it’s foundations built on the same foundations as an 18th century pub has to be a winner. The little entrance is at the bottom of Church Street, a narrow winding little street that in no way hints at having a theatre at the end of it. If I’d been asked ‘What do you think is at the end of this street – a charity shop, an launderette, an antiques shop or a theatre?’ I would have gone with antiques shop. And I suppose in a way, that’s what this little theatre is.Welcome.JPG

Savoy Stage.JPGThe Savoy is a real proper theatre but also acts as a cinema and general all-round brilliant venue. Sadly I wasn’t in Monmouth long enough to go to a show there, but I would have if I’d had the chance. The venue is now run by volunteers and thank goodness for such people, for without them astonishing buildings and heritage like The Savoy would be lost. So if you cross the border from Gloucestershire or Herefordshire into Monmouthshire, do find time to visit this wonderful little theatre.

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Another place that was a surprise find was the basement of a cafe in Leamington Spa. Not that I was actually surprised that a) said cafe had a basement, but b) that it was an uber cool venue for music, theatre, stand-up, open mics, art, film – you name it, The Temperance Bar in Bath Street Leamington, supports it. In the digital age of streaming and gaming, finding places such as these is treat – there is something deep in our psyches I think about big buildings and little buildings – big caves and little caves that feed the imagination. Maybe it’s the acoustics. Did you ever make a den as a child? – scrabbling around trying to stop the quilt or sheet falling in on you, stuffing the corners under books and toys that were balanced on the edge of the bed or bedside table, just so you could have your own little space lit by a torch and shared with only your most precious toys – and of course a book.

There is a little copse not too far from where I live and when I’m out on a rare ramble I have a poke about this little copse just out of interest. And always – come rain or sun or snow or frost – there is a little den there that someone has made of logs and twigs and branches. Now, if I wanted to go down the LRR route and let my imagination runaway with me, I could go all Blair Witchy and completely creep myself out, but I wouldn’t want to spook myself alone in the woods. That might cause me to run a little bit faster than is healthy and fall flat on my face as I trip over a twig. And how embarrassing would that be. But the point is, we do love a den. A hovel. A hidey-hole; whatever you want to call it. And maybe as writers, we all have one of those deep inside our minds too. I like to think it’s where the words live. The storylines, plots and ideas live. In a little venue all of their own.

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Anyone Can Write a Book

…right? Right! It’s the other bit that’s so hard. I’ve had three emails already this week – and it’s only Monday – asking me about marketing and promotion, those two holy grails (can you have two holy grails?) of independently published book selling. Before we go any further though, this week’s blog isn’t a long list of Dos and Don’ts and Hints and Tips, it is an interview with writer, on-line radio producer and theatre critic Nick Le Mesurier who offers writers a little light in the bewildering darkness of self-promotion.Hard at Work at Stratford Words.jpeg

Nick has two undertakings running concurrently, the writer’s radio platform Stratford Words via on-line radio Welcomb Radio, and a new podcast, Speak, Muse! To start off then Nick, tell us a little more about each…

‘Well, writing is difficult enough in itself: promoting your work is even harder. Both Stratford Words and Speak Muse aim to provide a platform for writers to present their work and to discuss it. Services such as the BBC tend to feature only established artists, and while that provides good material and interesting copy it ignores a lot of other writers who, for various reasons might not have been so lucky, or who are at earlier stages in their careers’.

And how do you go about this? That is to say, how do you get the best from your guests?

‘In each format I try to give subjects a little space to explore their experience and what drives them. Stratford Words has a nice live feel to it but Speak Muse can allow for a bit more space; I also transcribe the Speak Muse interviews so the audience can get a fuller appreciation of what each guests says. So along with providing a positive environment for discussion and reading I try to find some questions that will interest listeners and readers (who I assume are often interested in the writer as much as the written word) and also shows an awareness of what the writer is trying to do.’

The art of asking a good question is quite a hard one to master I would imagine. What inspires the questions you ask of your guests? Is there a role model you work to?

‘I would say my role models for each are radio 4, with a nudge towards radio 3, and The Paris Review interviews. The latter are really the gold standard. I don’t mind trying to be a bit high-brow: in the rush for publicity brows are too easily lowered! And yes, that means I have to do some homework. But it’s not my job to trip up my subjects but to bring the best out of them.’

Yes, I’ve heard it said that some writers, although they may pour their heart and soul in to a novel are quite shy and retiring in person.

‘Indeed. Yet the principles of interviewing a well-known author apply equally to an unknown author or someone just starting out. I’ve had some good interviews with people like poet Ann Alexander whose work I love, and also Paul Budd, whose novel A Material Harvest is worthy of more attention. Then I have Vanessa Berridge talking about her love of the social history of gardening.  Or Amanda Laidler who is not so well known but has a lot of experience working with young actors. Then there are a couple of young authors just starting out on their careers, Natasha Dubalia and Sacha Wood, for example. They’ve some way to go yet, but to be encouraged and taken seriously at this stage could be very helpful to them later on.’

If you would like to know about Nick and his work with authors on Stratford Words and Speak, Muse, please contact him here: nicklemesurier@icloud.com

As Nick says, ‘The truth is that there is an over-supply of writers and not enough listeners and readers for new work. It’s hard to get a reward for the years spent working on one’s writing. Mine might be only a small platform, but it is that at least, I hope.’

 

 

 

 

It’s All About The Syntax

During my daily writing endeavours I read a lot of websites, newsletters, blog posts, emails and social media comments under the banner of ‘research’. Consequently I come across some absolute howlers. I received this in an email yesterday and was struck by the architectural aspect of it:

‘…should be reported to the office in a timely manor..’

Now, you can’t blame people for finding spelling difficult, (see my previous blog interview with writer Hugo Kerr) any more than you can blame people for struggling with maths, but sometimes do you think – Get Someone To Check It Before You Send It? Or, if you’ve been asked to read/review the work of an autonomous author, think: (Why Didn’t You) Get Someone To Check It Before You Printed It? If you want your work to work well, there really is no excuse.

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Thank you, Ben Hershey + Unsplash.

A while ago had some short stories copy-edited by two people at the same time just to gauge their different points of view and editing techniques. One comment still stands out today. I had used the word ‘silty’, but the copy editor was sure I meant ‘salty’. I assured him I did not. ‘Was I absolutely sure?’ he asked. I confirmed I was. The other copy editor didn’t comment on this word at all, clearly happy with the word and my use of it. But it threw up an interesting point – would my readers think I meant salty even though I’d written silty? Did it matter? I think it did. It still does. From my point of view as a writer, I want my readers to enjoy my work, not stumble head-first over an unfamiliar word or a familiar word in the wrong place. Control freak? Possibly.

In an email I received last week I noticed that some of the punctuation in this sentence had fallen away – if indeed it was ever there in the first place. I suspect it wasn’t:

‘I have sent this email in edith’s best interest would you suggest this is left for edith to dispose of going forward.’

I don’t really know what this person is saying to me. But it seems rude to ask, somehow. Yes, yes, yes, I’m as guilty as the next writer of missing out or adding an extraneous word to what I thought was a perfectly formed sentence, but when it comes to syntax…ah… now you’re talking. This can take hours to get right, and yet still be wrong.

Below is a statement from a website menu I read earlier today and shared here for your delectation:

… our delicious roast dinners from just £12 each, the meat alternates each week and will be uploaded to Facebook.

I really did not make that up!

Last night it was a great pleasure to attend another Words Of live lit event organised and run by author Jenefer Heap, and held Upstairs at Merchants, in Warwick. There was a varied and thoroughly entertaining line-up of local authors sharing their work to an appreciative audience. The evening was entitled Once Upon A Word and was an eclectic mix of short stories, poems, monologues, renditions of all sorts on the theme of (you’re ahead of me on this one, I can tell) fairy stories and all that implies. We had Cinders (of course) The Pied Piper, nymphs, sprites, knights in armour, a wonderful re-telling of a traditional Indian tale – we even had the Young Poet Laureate for Warwick, Annabelle Peet join us! It was while I was researching fairy tales that I sank deeper in the internet quicksand of ‘ooh that’s interesting!’ and ‘well I never knew that!’ and by the time my coffee had gone cold I had written a piece of creative non-fiction, rather than a short story.

And here it is. It’s called

Aelfwynn

Come closer and I will tell you a tale. A tale of love, of power and secrets.

Long ago, when Warwick was a small town on the banks of the river Avon, in a time when the Vikings looked covetously toward our shores, and a long, long time before you and I, there lived a warrior queen called Aethelflaed and a river sprite called Dite.

Aethelflaed was The eldest daughter of Alfred The Great and born into a turbulent world of power, wealth and war. At sixteen she married Ethelred of Mercia but their union bore only one child, a daughter, in 888. Aethelflaed named the baby Aelfwynn and no sooner was she born, than Aethelflaed returned to war – because Aethelflaed preferred the battlefield to babies.

Now, the river sprite, Dite, lived a very different life deep in the shadowy waters of the river Avon. It was said that she was over 500 years old. Others proclaimed her to be a bewitched spirit, cast into the river by the Romans and left to drown when they retreated south across Europe. But whatever the truth about Dite, all agreed: to see her was portentous; for her to speak, then no good could ever come of it.

In 899, when Aelfwynn was eleven, King Alfred died and Aethelflaed’s brother Edward became king of the Angles and Saxons. The war against the ferocious Vikings continued and Aethelflaed felt that soon they would be in Warwick itself. She moved Aelfwynn to the safety of a fortified castle protected by the wealth and privilege that being niece to the King bestowed. But Aethelflaed still worried: her daughter was approaching marriageable age and it was imperative she find a suitable husband for her as soon as possible.

One morning, Aethelflaed took a solitary walk down to the river Avon, deep in thought.

Hidden at the waters edge, Dite silently watched. She studied Aethelflaed’s young face, her sumptuous clothes and her well-made shoes. This, she considered, was a wealthy woman. Perchance this was Aethelflaed, the warrior woman of whom everyone spoke.

“Good day, mistress,” said the Sprite.
Startled, Aethelflaeda stepped back from the water’s edge.
“Good day,” she replied cautiously.
“You look sad mistress,” said Dite. “What ails you?”
“The time has come for me to consider a husband for my daughter, but I know not where to look.”
“A difficult decision, mistress,” said Dite. “But better early than too late.”
“Too late?” said Aethelflaed nervously
“Worry not, Mistress,” soothed Dite.
When she spoke, Dite’s voice was small and soft, as though the wind was sucking it gently from her lungs and blowing it away in a sigh.
“Who does your daughter love?” the Sprite asked.
“No-one. My daughter loves no-one. She is but a child, but she will marry whom I choose,” Aethelflaed replied.
“You control many things mistress, but not all things,” said Dite. “Remember that and all will be well. But forget it at your peril. You do not choose love, it chooses you,” she said, then dipped back into the water and disappeared.

Dite’s words bothered Aethelflaed greatly; the Sprite had sown a seed of doubt and over time it began to grow. Slowly at first, but as Aelfwynn blossomed into a young woman Aethelflaed’s distrust of her daughter began to sour their friendship, gnawing like a rat at their bond. By the time Aelfwynn was fifteen her mother’s anxiety had fermented into an obsessive suspicion. Aethelflaed forbade Aelfwynn to speak to anyone unless chaperoned, permitted her only to socialise with the ladies of the court. Aethelflaed’s quest to find a husband for her daughter gave her sleepless nights and Aelfwynn became isolated and lonely. And yet… a determined and bright young woman, she soon learned to be resourceful.

“I came to your chambers last night,” her mother said one morning, “but could not find you there.”
“I was afeared I was sickening so took a walk down the river – it is so cool there. I feel much better now,” replied Aelfwynn. Aethelflaed looked at her daughter’s pallor. Was it sickness that made her so pale, or was it lies?

As battles with the Vikings continued Aethelflaed and Ethelred spent much time away from their daughter employing spies to watch her in their absence. But Aelfwynn was shrewd: she used her time wisely making friends, becoming an interpreter and diplomat, and successfully side-stepping all attempts to marry her off, finding one excuse after another. Aelfwynn still remained unmarried at 23, when her father died.

Now Aethelflaed heard Dite’s words more than ever: Better too early than too late.
“I will not marry him!” Aelfwynn protested when her mother suggested a man who had sworn a never-ending hatred of the Vikings. The two women had been arguing for hours.
“I will marry for love, Mother, not to prolong this hated war! Will this bloodshed never end? I will marry for love, not hate!” Aelfwynn declared, “and you will not stop me!”

The tension between the two women spread through the court, spilling out onto the streets of Warwick where the townsfolk gossiped and chattered. Was Aethelflaed losing her touch? Suitors were presented one after the other. Time was of the essence and Aethelflaed’s pride was at stake: she would make her daughter bend to her will.

On June the 12th, 918, however, Aethelflaed unexpectedly died. Aelfwynn became ruler of Mercia.

But…you know…things don’t always work out the way we want them to, do they? Within three months of Aethelflaed’s untimely death, King Edward removed Aelfwynn from power and banished her to Wessex. She disappeared from the history books never to be heard of again and Edward seized control of Mercia. Tracing what clues they can find, Historians wonder if Aelfwynn, with her newly acquired freedom, had defied convention and married without permission. Perhaps a love she had kept secret for many years had instantly become a secret marriage – a marriage that enraged the King because her husband was the enemy: a Viking.

Was Aelfwynn put in a nunnery to live out her days as no more than a prisoner? If so, was she with child by then – a child with the mixed bloodline of a Viking warrior and an Anglo-Saxon princess? Whatever became of her we shall never know – her history has been denied the chance to speak. Perhaps Aelfwynn’s ancestors walk amongst us now.

Maybe a young man, on visiting Warwick four hundred years or more after these events found himself resting on the banks of the Avon, and maybe he found himself in conversation with a river Sprite who urged him to right this wrong. May be the river sprite encouraged him to write about star-crossed lovers and their warring nations. That also, we shall never know. But it’s a nice thought.

Have you been to Warwick recently? Walked the streets where Aethelflaed and Aelfwynn once walked? Picnicced perhaps, on the banks of the Avon?

Look deep into the bulrushes, pay close attention to the ripples in the water… you never know what you may see… because Sprites, I hear, love to tell a story or two…

The Texture of Loss

A moving, tender short story from author Katharine d’Souza. Eloquence in every line. Read and you will see why I had to reblog.

The Pygmy Giant

by Katharine D’Souza

No longer able to climb the stairs, he unfolded the blanket and laid it across the sofa. The same blanket they’d spread on lawns, on beaches. On which they’d cast crumbs, spilt drinks, cuddled – a blanket which softened their summer life.

He tucked the frayed edge beneath the sagged cushions, tight as arthritic hands could manage.

In autumns, the rough weave had cosied around knees left chill by the car’s ineffectual heater. Now, worn thin – like himself, he thought – it provided bare comfort. The comfort of memories.

He lay on his side, and angled his head so the photo filled his vision. Gaudy tinted and grainy, the best of days: the 1960s, and her. The blanket, fresh then, as they’d been, shielded her legs from sharp dune grasses. Wide enough to hold her handbag, their picnic, his kicked-off shoes, her, her, her.

All legs…

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