Saturday, 20 September 2014

Working and Playing in the Languedoc with no WiFi.

You may have noticed my two week absence on these pages. So sorry about that.

I went back to the Langudoc with A and D, my two favourite writers, for a work-play September break. The weather was stunningly hot. The woman in the stationary shop mentioned the ‘unseasonally hot weather’; the woman on the oyster stall said the same, adding ‘You should go to the beach!’ 
Cafe Writing

The hot weather ‘broke’ in the last few days and it was ‘only’ very warm in the morning and hot in the afternoon. On our last day, dragging our cases across the bridge over the River Hérault which, instead of its usual gleaming silver-green was now a churning brown, spitting trees and logs as it hurled itself towards the sea.
The River Hérault, still  in a silver state.
The big performance-pontoon had sheered away from the quayside and was bobbing about mid-river. The  Hérault  had burst its banks further upstream - a serious affair:  lives had been lost.

We all had plans for our stay.  A and D had their own reading, writing and planning  projects, My tasks were to mop up some last pieces of research for the final edit of my novel, Writing at the Maison Bleu; to read some more short fiction - Truman Capote, Edith Wharton, Henry James – in preparation for our October 25th Room To WriteWorkshop on The Novella; to write exploratory pieces towards my own new short fiction.

I also had a  plan to send  to you some ‘Postcards from Agde’ - to follow on from the ‘Postcards from Marseillan’ (scroll back) that I wrote for you in June.

This was not to be. We had quite elaborate plans to have WiFi Internet Access in our slice of a medieval house. For various reasons this didn’t materialise. We had to make do with WiFi facilities at the Melrose Café on the Quayside which was only intermittently available. In other years here we depended for the Internet on the WiFi facilities in  the library (The delightfully named Maison de Savoir). But to our chagrin this year it was closed for refurbishment.But to our chagrin this year the library was closed for refurbishment.

So –  our work/play break consisted if two weeks in the sun in dusty, atmospheric old Agde -  virtually without the Internet.

All I can say is that it was great. It was remarkably peaceful and fruitful – living and working in a kind of seclusion: no checking out, no Tweeting, for Facebooking, no emailing. There was a lot of writing, planning, talking and
thinking. And a lot of sitting in cafés, over café crème or Pastis, watching the comings and going in this busy little self-absorbed town.

A little bit of writer’s paradise, 

to  be truthful. 

On the plus side I did find two new fantastic book sources for my new novel -

Writing at the Maison Bleu.

Reading and Writing

On the minus side I really did miss writing my Postcards from Agde  just  for you. I would have written about :.

Autimn Fruits

Cooking and Writing 

A Reading Corner 

Windows in Strange Places

Wish you'd been there. Wx

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Dubious Advice to Writers

My Response to Avril Joy's excellent post How Not to Write the Book That Makes You Millions – 2

  1. Wendy says:
    Brava! Marvellous You have articulated here so powerfully what many of us feel. The truth is that we writers are the sometimes gullible consumers in this new industry of ‘advice to writers’. To follow the advice leads us down the road of writing a 21st Century brand of inferior pulp fiction to be sold like soap, rather than continuing on a quest to become better, deeper and stronger writers producing work to be proud of which might sell in tens or twenties or hundreds to discerning readers who are looking to be entertained, interested and – dare I say – enlightened, This is in the very best traditions of popular fiction since novels were first written for more widespread consumption.

  2. Look at, for instance, Daphne du Maurier, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Alice Hoffman, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield  Alan Sillitoe, Scott Fitzerald, George Orwell, Sylvia Plath, Chinue Achebe, Edna O'Brien, Anne Tyler, Isabelle Allende , Pat Barker, Chung Chang and so on....

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

In Praise of Good Teachers.

Good teachers can be loud, puffing, over the top, self-indulgent, vain, self-centred, didactic. They can be impulsive, rebellious - even at times bullying.

They can be intuitive, creative, empathetic, enabling, life-changing, unforgettable, graceful, intelligent, sometimes even intellectual and totally obsessed with their subjects.  
In the case of great teachers all these things are rolled up in one unique intense quixotic bundle.

Good teachers display some unique elements from this list. I hope during my 23 years of teaching I was one of these

I know that nowadays teachers need to be brave in the face of on-site texting, phoning and bullying, hidden knives and drugs, and sleepy over-wrought or over-hung pupils.

On top of this they have to endure befuddling paperwork and head-teachers wrapped up in some arcane business-model involving obsession with their public profile and their accountants' impossible bottom line, rather than the opportunity they have for changing the chances that society may offer their pupils.

Thankfully there are still good and great teachers around who, despite the drawbacks, are pulling off success after success in educating their pupils to change their own lives and the lives of others

At its worse this situation has led to a layer of rather robotic professionals who are rule- followers, ticking-box teachers, survivalist teachers, rather than teachers who synthesise the diverse teacher qualities described above.

For such despairing teachers the pupils and students are at the end of the queue for professional attention. And sadly the ethos of some schools today can drive these often talented, desperate people out of the profession altogether.

At heart I  don't feel sorry for teachers. After all, unlike the pupils, they are volunteers, not victims. I have to save my sympathy for the pupils who have only one stab at this education thing.

But teachers now have to survive in a culture of perpetual tinkering   I recognise that they have to operate in a profession whose architects are ideologically, not pedagogically driven   in a culture where politicians of every persuasion  see schools as a perpetual social laboratory.

All writers use their experience to inform their writing. So inevitably teachers, young and old have played their parts in my fiction.

Here are just two examples:

My novel  Children of the Storm  begins early, on the day  in 1914 when the Germans bombarded Hartlepool and a young teacher arrives at school to find it blown to smithereens and her headmaster dead in the central hall,

In my novel Cruelty Games  Rachel a very idealistic teacher meets Ian,  a charismatic former pupil who, twenty years before set, in train a series of terrible events which have affected Rachel for all of her life

Thursday, 28 August 2014

In Praise of Fiction and THE RISK OF READING

All of us  – writers, readers, teachers, parents, probation officers, managers, MPs and lawmakers - anyone who cares about our world should read THE RISK OF READINGby Bob Waxler

Avril has written on her blog about how she and I met and worked with Professor Bob Waxler on the absolutely seminal international project Changing Lives ThroughLiterature.  

Meeting Bob in Boston USA was inspirational and we related to his principles of the life-changing properties of reading stories which we were putting into practice in the prison where we worked.

There is something messianic about Bob. Even now, years later, he will say ‘Keep the faith!’ at the end of an email.

In his book Waxler argues that we need "fiction" to give our so-called "real life" meaning and that reading narrative fiction remains crucial to themaking of a humane and democratic society.

Waxler 100w
Robert P Waxler  
 University of Massachuset
Waxler’s book considers the importance of story in terms of "real life", The Risk of Reading focuses on human language, especially language shaped into narrative, and how such language is central to the human quest for identity.  

Waxler argues that we are "linguistic beings," and that reading literary narrative is a significant way to enrich and preserve the traditional sense of human identity and knowledge.

This is especially true in the midst of a culture which too often celebrates visual images, spectacle, electronic devices, and celebrity. Reading narrative, in other words, should be considered a counter-cultural activity crucial on the quest to "know thyself."

Reading literature is one of the best opportunities we have today to maintain a coherent human identity and remain self-reflective individuals in a world that seems particularly chaotic and confusing.

Our own work on this project was with men and women in prison. There we witnessed the transforming affect of whole narrative fiction in our project. (We read whole books, not bite-size pieces…It was not an O or A Level course in Literature...)

THE RISK OF READING made me think don't we too, on the outside, live in different kinds of prison? Narrative fiction has a strong role here too in restoring wholeness to our lives. It certainly did for me as a child and a girl who noadays would have been considered underprivileged

Reading narrative fiction feeds the brain, flowers the imagination, strengthens the empathy muscles in the individual. It could just save the world from self-immolation. 

Bob Waxler is interested in changing the world. And he might just do that through this important book.

Keep the faith! as Bob would say,

This book is out in November but can be pre-ordered now,. The very thing for some thoughtful person’s Christmas stocking, perhaps.

Links: I have written  elsewhere about this HERE and HERE 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gabriel: A Character Inspired by Underground Miners

The Family

As the grand daughter and niece of lifelong underground miners I 

grew up with the feeling that miners were exceptional, even mythic 

human beings.

      I had one uncle – down the pit from 14 to 62 years -  whose
 knowledge of  the very veins of the earth was down to experience, insight and long study. The seams underground were his obsession, even his poetry. 

       I had another uncle – a leader of his men – who when he was aboveground grew prizewinning flowers and had a hand in creating new strains of certain familiar flowers. He also had a very good singing voice  which he liked to share.
Doodling  -Thinking  of Gabriel
Read a chapter about Gabriel's
Perceptions of Light and Colour
 on the Tab above or HERE 


The Artist

It was a nephew of the flower-growing uncle – the late Norman Cornish - who in his youth turned his mind and his hand to drawing and painting, and ended up with a national reputation as a very respected artist.  
        Then I met the late Tom McGuinness – and entirely different artist from Norman, whose luminous paintings created new ways of seeing the world both above and below ground.


The Writers

Inspired by my background  I have written short stories based on my literary and museum own research, as well as  my  family experience of the role of the underground miner.  And  I am a particular admirer of writer Sid Chaplin – one time miner whose novel The Thin Seam is of perfect  evocation of men working underground.

        The thing is, I am  novelist, not a painter. So it was that into my life - into my imagination - strode the lovely Gabriel Marchant who is not any of these me above but who would not have existed without them. To me now he is as real as any of them.

The novel is called Gabriel Marchant; How I became a Painter

 and for a week is on  Amazon Kindle from 99p

Gabriel’s own story is fiction but it  springs out of my personal experience of a particular place at a particular time and my research into the true experience of people whose lives were changed in such a way.

The  Dedication. 

In the book I say: This novel is dedicated to all those whose lives impelled them to dig in the darkness, who still found the grace there to create beauty. In particular I honour the inspiration of the art of Tom McGuinness, Ted Holloway and Norman Cornish, in addition to the literary inspiration of the writer Sid Chaplin. All of them, in their unique fashion, flourished as young people through the magic of the Spennymoor Settlement. 
See the images of their work in Wales and McManners' wonderful Shafts of Light


Truth and Fiction

I hope  in this novel, through my fiction, I have arrives at some truth about the lives and the heritage of all those grandfathers  and uncles,  going back through generations in my family.

       I was thinking about Gabriel Marchant when I came across this quotation from Eudora Welty. It made sudden sense to me. 
She says  "Art, though, is never the voice of a country; it is an even more precious thing, the voice of the individual, doing its best to speak, not comfort of any sort, but truth. And the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction; in particular, the novel.” 

Most Important: The Reader ***** on Amazon

The first reviewer says: 'Gabriel Marchant' is a rites of passage story sympathetically revealing life in the raw. Gabriel matures not only as an artist but discovers at Archie's Settlement 'the complication of women' through Rosel, art teacher and older woman, Marguerite an artist’s model and Greta the gauche, clever schoolgirl who makes a pact with Gabriel to do 'the thing that men and women do.'
     And always in the background is Archie working to release the butterflies in chrysalis state, a gifted group of young people desperate to escape the web of ignorance that could condemn them to life in the dark as black as any mine'

Gabriel is on Countdown offer up to end of the month.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Unknown Worlds. WIP

Extract from my work in progress, A clutch of writers are working together in the Languedoc

... Again Joe leapt off the bed. He shook his head very hard and - without bothering to decant it into the glass - gulped down water from the water-jug. Wiping his mouth with his hand he satdown at his work table and turned on his laptop.  
Then he closed his eyes and brought up a vision of the first group home - lvy House – where he lived when he was ten. He decided that this new story must start on the boy’s first day because he’s in the front hall and the kids could only use that when they arrived. The rest of the time they had to use the side door. Then, remembering what Kit said, Joe begins to make a list 

Black and white tiles
fine carved staircase
table with fancy  flower arrangement - dusty
long, thin red carpet  
two over-stuffed chairs – dusty
smell of burnt broccoli,lavender, wax, coke dust

Joe began to think that this story would be about the fear the boy felt  on entering this unknown world. The words started to flow onto the screen,...

From At the Maison Bleue

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Evolution of Paulie’s Web ( Now on Special Kindle Offer)

The Meeting

I first met my friend and RoomtoWrite collaborator, novelist Avril Joy, in prison. We were both, in our own way, ‘serving time’. Avril was three quarters of a the way through a twenty-five year teaching commitment. I was  beginning what was to be a four year association with this women’s prison as a Writer in Residence. It was then that she started out on her writing career and it was then that I had the life-changing experience of helping a whole range of women from all walks of life to find their (often silenced) voice in writing.

The Novel

One of several great outcomes of this experience for me, my novel Paulie’s Web, was a long time coming. It took me ten years to digest these powerful impressions sufficiently to write this novel as true fiction - in a way that still paid tribute to the many  women I met while working there;  I thought that if it went some way to cracking the absurd stereotypes of 'women in prison' that would  be an extra delight.  It is true that there are some dark passages here in the novel but the ultimately optimistic tone of this story is a true reflection of the mutual support, humour, stoicism and kindness that I was witness to in my prison experience.


So, what is it about?

Paulie Smith, rebel, ex-teacher and emerging writer, comes out of prison after six years, her conviction overturned. As she moves around in the next few days, struggling to readjust to the scary realities of life
‘on the out’, she reflects on her life in prison. She focuses particularly on her first few weeks inside, alongside the four very different women whom she first met in the white van on their way to their first remand prison.

Paulie’s thoughts move from Queenie*, the old bag- lady who sees giants and angels, to Maritza who has disguised her pain with an ultra-conventional life, to Lilah, the spoiled apple of her mother’s eye, and on to   to the tragedy of Christine - the one with the real scars.

And then there is Paulie herself, who ended up in prison through no fault of her own. The unique stories of these women, past and present, mingle as Paulie - free at last - goes looking for these unique women who have now been ‘on the out’ for some years and are, Paulie hopes,  remaking their lives.

Read the Chapter introducing Queenie HERE
Or click on the tab in the heading.

Most  importantly: The Readers

*****Amazon Reviews - Samples

***** ‘… I loved the characters in Paulie's Web: their strengths, their weaknesses, their back-stories and in spite of everything - their humour.’

*****  In this exceptional and insightful novel, Wendy Robertson introduces us to the hidden world of invisible women that is prison. Her characters and their stories leap off the page at us, there are no stereotypes here, this is not Prisoner Cell Block H or Bad Girls but it is every bit as compelling. She is a consummate story-teller, who weaves a fascinating web around these disparate lives and if you want to know what prison is really like and who the women we lock away every day are then READ THIS.

***** ..’With the sharpness of a journalist and the skill of a novelist, Robertson cleverly brings all of these characters to life, making the reader care about them. She has a deft style, almost a magician's touch, in that the characters quickly take root and you feel yourself urging Paulie forward and hoping she and the others find some resolution and peace. I loved the characters in Paulie's Web: their strengths, their weaknesses, their backstories and in spite of everything - their humour…’

*****  ‘Wendy Robertson has pulled off something quite remarkable in her latest novel, Paulie's Web. I loved everything about it and read it in one sitting - on a long haul flight, something to be grateful for, even on that level.

***** ‘..Wonderful novel based on much truth of prison life impacting on women.’

***** ‘…also an argument for the way that literature and education can transform the lives of prisoners. It has as much of a good feel exit as is compatible with the plot … Wendy is a brilliant story-teller who has written more than twenty novels. This one draws on her experience of being a writer-in-residence working with prisoners. It's a fascinating glimpse behind the tabloid headlines at the unimaginably hard lives of some of those who end up in the prison system because of mental health problems, abusive childhoods, drink and drug dependency.’

Link here  Avril Joy   

Hope you enjoy it as well. wx

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Norton Conyers & My Charlotte Bronte Short Story

Some years ago, my writing group Wear Valley Writers  used to go on ‘field trips’,  visiting interesting places – a farm, a beach, a stretch of moorland – to have a picnic and tackle a piece of observation and writing on the spot. The quality of the writing outcomes emerging from these adventures was always high, giving us something to build on.

On one outstanding occasion by special arrangement we visited Norton Conyers - a grade 2 listed late medieval manor house with some Stuart and Georgian elements - owned by the Graham family since 1624.  We were privileged to visit it before it was more generally open to the public and to be shown around the house by the owner and the garden by the owner’s wife. It had all the atmosphere of a family home stretching back hundreds of years and, as we made our way around it, it was easy to feel the company of people from other times.

Our very informed guide  eventually led us up a newly unblocked staircase connecting the first floor to the attics and led us through several attic rooms to a dark attic at the end with a single round window. He told us of the family legend that a mad woman had been confined to this attic for years. He also told us that Norton Conyers had been visited by the writer Charlotte Bronte in 1839  and this house was said to be the model for Thornfield Hall in her novel Jane Eyre.

Then we had a look around the fascinating historic garden (which they were developing then and is now open to the public).  So, both inside and outside,the house we found  masses of atmosphere and inspiration for our writing.
Eileen, who was there, has just turned up this photo of some
of us picnicking outsied the Orangery before embarking
 on the writing. I am in the straw hat...

Later we settled down before the Orangery,  ate our picnics and wrote like fury for forty minutes before we read our drafts to each other. There was some good writing there.

In the next week I developed my own 'orangery draft' into a full blown story called Letter to Emily inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s visit to Norton Conyers when she was 23 years old. You can read it here  if you want to see how my story  turned out, or you can click on the 'Short Story' tab above.

All this was brought to my mind by an article this week in The Independent which talks about Norton Conyers and has a splendid image of the very attic. I see that Norton Conyers is much more developed now, with its history well documented and it’s Orangery for hire for weddings and other events.

I am so glad to have been there when the house was its true self and as I read my  fictional story again I can remember it when the pretty Orangery was dusty and somewhat overgrown, the house was still in its historical slumber and  I  was visited by  Charlotte’s shadow as she made a call on the Lady of The House at Norton Conyers.

Monday, 11 August 2014

A Bargain Book. A Bit of an Experiment,


My novel Journey To Moscow (The Adventures of Olivia Ozanne)has been selling nicely on Kindle and has so far achieved a welcome
100% Five Star Reviews. 

Hoping that more of you will read and enjoy Olivia, this week (from 13th to 19th August) I am offering the Kindle version  of Journey to Moscow at the reduced price of 99p/99cents. This is a bit of an experiment as I don't know how it works but look forward to discovering the outcome!

To share Olivia's adventure. here - as a Russian taster -  is the adventurous Olivia, caught with her lover  by her bossy daughter and driven to defend her new protegée - an old Englishwoman who has survived in Moscow since the 1917 Revolution.  - 

... And I am saying, ‘don’t worry Ninochka, I will . . .’ I hear a banging on a far door and the thunder of footsteps on wood. I reach towards the girl, thrusting dark and dingy clothes in her hands, shouting ‘Put them on, darling! Put them on!’ Through the window I can see young men, boys in shabby army fatigues pouring into the house. The knocking gets louder.
    ‘Mother! Mother! Can I come in?’
     I sit bolt upright in bed, blinking down at Volodya who is curled in a foetal position on the floor. ‘No, Caitlin. No! Wait.’
    I grab my wrap, squeeze through the door and shut it behind me. Caitlin is standing there, vivid and elegant in a green trouser suit and  sturdy, well-polished, boots.
     ‘You look elegant, darling.’ Fending-off words. An old habit
      ‘Is he in there?’ She says fiercely. ‘The Russian?’
      I push my hair out of my eyes. ‘I’m afraid so. It was a bit late for him to get back across Moscow when we––’
     ‘I don’t want to know!’ She pulls me into the narrow hall and faces me, holding both my arms, hard, above the elbow. ‘Now, Mother, just two things! Charles will call for you here at ten. Why he wants to take you careering across the countryside I don’t know. But it seems you’ve caught his fancy. Or your story about that old woman has. But I want you to promise me something.’
     ‘Yes, dear?’ I am trying to struggle out of her grip.
    ‘You do not let Charles Conrad have the old woman, do you hear me? If she’s anyone’s she’s mine.’
      I pull away from her. ‘Mary Martha! Her name is Mary Martha Johnson. You can’t have her. And she’s not mine to give to anyone, you silly girl. I certainly wouldn’t ‘give’ her to Charles Conrad. But I won’t give her to you either.’... 

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Mountains,RLS, and Blogging

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a note about this book to a friend. This so very much applies to my feeling about posting blogs here that I could not resist quoting him.
Every book – for me blog post.w. -  is, in the intimate sense, a circular letter to the friends of him (she) who writes it. They alone take his meaning; they find private messages, assurances of love and expressions of gratitude, dropped for them at every corner…Yet though the letter is addressed to all, yet we have an old and friendly custom of addressing it on the outside to one. Of what shall a man be proud of not proud of his friends?
I count all who drop by Life Twice Tasted with any regularity as a friend and RLS’s words really apply to me.

And now to Travels with a Donkey

Trying to cling onto the magical effect of my time in Marseillan I have been reading again Robert  Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. To remind you - the Cevennes is (are?) the range covering the precipitous southern section of the mountainous massif central where cold air from the Atlantic coast does battle with the warm air blowing in from the Mediterranean, causing heavy rainfall in Autumn – the season in 1878 when the 29 year old Robert chose to make his famous twelve-day hike through the Cevennes, assisted and sometimes obstructed by the stubborn, vengeful and characterful donkey Modestine.
I had forgotten what a great storyteller RLS was - how transparent how emotional, how direct, how well observed is his writing:
The road smoked in the twilight with children driving home cattle from the fields; and a pair of stride-legged women, hat and cap and all dashed past me at a hammering trot from the canton where they had been to church and market. I asked one of the children where I was. ‘At Bouchet St Nicolas,’ he told me.
I loved reading it again but I’d forgotten the religious focus our perceptive Scottish Protestant brought to this long travel essay. He was travelling through the country of the Camisards. Unlike other protestant Huguenots, the Camisards of this regions did not flee the pursecution if Lousi X1V. They survived and stayed protected by the hard terrain of the Cevennes and their own self reliant culture. But their survival was not without cost:
… when Julien had finished his famous work, the devastation of the High Cevennes which lasted all through October and November 1703, and during which four hundred and sixty villages and hamlet were, with fire and pickaxe, utterly subverted … a man standing on this eminence would have looked forth upon a silent, smokeless and dispeopled land.
And then, in the same paragraph RLS brings us back on this same eminence in his own day, on his own journey, to
…perhaps the wildest view of all my journey. Peak upon peak, chan upon chainof hills ran surging southward, channelled and sculptured by the winter streams, feathered fro head to foot with chestnuts, and here and there breaking into a coronel of cliffs. The sun, which was still far from setting, sent a drift of misty gold across the hill-tops , but the valleys were already plunged in a profound and quiet shadow…
I read an edition of Travels With a Donkey which incorporates a highly informative and helpful section by travel writer Laurence Phillips. This is his detailed guide as to how the modern traveller - on foot, bike, by car or even donkey - may follow Stevenson’s precipitous route through the Cevennes.
I am tempted.
I would, dear friends, highly recommend it. wx


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