Stories-On-Sea: our writing retreat

What’s better than two days of writing by the seaside, with glorious views, good food, drinking gin, plenty of chances to swim, walk or run? Nothing much – except perhaps doing all of the above with friends.

This was the third year that my writing group convened by the sea for our annual writing retreat. We’re seasoned retreaters now, and the programme’s been honed to a fine edge. We arrive, have lunch, then get down to a quick warm-up exercise. This year we used photos and postcards as prompts for a 20-minute writing sprint. The vignettes produced were by turn funny, angry and poignant.

The second exercise is always the long one. We’d each brought along a ‘mystery object’ to pick out of a bag, with the instruction to tell the story of the object. You’re not allowed to pick your own, and ideally you shouldn’t know who donated the object, either. We spent longer on this one, sharing work in progress after an hour then returning to work on it in our own time, before and after our traditional fish-and-chip dinner.

I was pleased with my lucky dip; an old-fashioned black leather purse with clasp that closed with a satisfying click. Purses and the secrets they contain are massively evocative. I smelled the leather, explored the pockets and felt the weight of it in my hand. ‘The purse snapped shut,’ I wrote, imagining the woman who might have held it. I was away.

For me, the absolute joy of a writing retreat is the magic of conjuring stories out of (almost) nothing. No matter how blank your mind is at the start of the session, at the end there’s always something; maybe just the nub of an idea of a story, or an amusing sketch, but something. Sharing these raw beginnings can be daunting, but among this familiar group of friends I always feel supported. Comments are always thoughtful, praise generous and criticism well-founded. My purse story has joined my ‘work in progress’ stories file, and I’m considering working it up for a submission.

On Sunday morning we shared work in progress from our ongoing projects. This session showed the variety of our work, with a tear-jerking short story, a fascinating memoir and a comic novella all up for discussion. Our final exercise of the weekend was to pick a short news item from the local and riff on it. I found us a story about the success of a Deal curry house, and was amazed how differently our resulting fictional stories turned out.

It wasn’t all hard work. We talked hard too, laughed even harder. The joy of sharing stories isn’t confined to the written word. The weekend left me brimful of confidence, excited about the possibilities of my writing, and grateful for my witty, wise and wonderful writing friends. Thank you Julie Bull, Angie Macdonald and Yang May Ooi.

 

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Lawyers, literature and Grays Inn Court

paul croft as egeon in antic disposition-s the comedy of errors

Paul Croft as Egeon in Antic Disposition’s A Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn

London: noisy, crowded, constantly swept along with the tide of history. Except for a few pockets of tranquility that can take you back in time to the childhood of Charles Dickens, or even further back, to the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

The Inns of Court still function today as professional barristers’ associations, and all barristers in England and Wales must belong to one of them. Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple, Inner Temple and Gray’s Inn, however, are more than dry institutions. Step through their gates (if you can find them – you’ll need to know the hidden gateways in their walls) and you find yourself in quiet squares of historical buildings from the 16th to the 19th century, mere feet away from bustling Holburn or Fleet Street.

The 13th century Gray’s Inn has a strong literary pedigree. Slip through a passageway next to the Cittie of Yorke pub, and you’re in Grays’ Inn’s South Square, opposite the Elizabethan Gray’s Inn Hall. The hall was the venue for the first recorded performance of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Comedy of Errors, at Christmas 1594.

Last week I was in the audience for a brilliant new production of the play, by Antic Disposition, in the same elegantly-panelled hall. I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed the frenetic, slapstick pace that the performers gave this tricky play, not to mention the accomplished live jazz band. The portrait of Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, looking down with unamused disapproval from the wall, was a reminder that not all members of the Inn appreciated the ‘base and common fellows’ who made up the itinerant acting companies of the day.

Outside, across South Square, is the window of the office where the 15-year-old Charles Dickens sat, his sharp eyes no doubt picking up everything and noting it down, for later use in the many depictions of lawyers in his novels.

The Inn has a wonderful garden with lawns and roses, which you can glimpse if you take the other entrance, off Jockey Fields. The Inn has been unfortunate in the loss of several buildings to fire and bombing, including the 13th century chapel and the 16th century library. However, it retains an atmosphere of secluded antiquity which makes it well worth a visit.

Grays’ Inn is taking part in Open House London on September 18, with tours including the Hall and Library.

Photo: Scott Rylander

 

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Desert island books

Bookshelf

Desert Island Shelf

Like many people, I spend way too long contemplating what records I’d pick if I was inexplicably chosen as a guest on Desert Island Discs. But I’ve always thought they had it wrong – eight records and only one book?

There’s no way I could pick just one book to last me from here to eternity. Poetry? A novel? A book of short stories? Or should you just ask for Boat-building for Beginners? And anyway, beach reading is one of the great pleasures in life. How better to while away my time as a castaway?

So I decided to invert the format and choose the books that have built my life in literature. It’s quite a conventional list, but then I’ve had quite a conventional life.

I’d love to hear other people’s choices, too – do make suggestions for your Desert Island Books in the comments section.

Book 1: Five on a Treasure Island, Enid Blyton. The adventures of the five were probably the first books I read for pure pleasure, rather than while learning to read. I’d been given a stack of them by an older cousin. Red linen covers, chunky paper, and a world where adults barely existed, camping was de rigour and girls could call themselves George. I waited anxiously for my ninth birthday, having noted that Ann (the youngest) was nine when they had their first adventure. I firmly expected the same to happen to me.

Book 2: Little Women, Louisa May Alcott. Another tomboy heroine – and one who wrote. Jo March was my first prompt to pick up a pencil and start writing my own stories. My copy was my mother’s, bound in blue leather with gold lettering.  It had such a distinctive smell that I took it away on holiday, instead of a teddy bear, to remind me of home. Little Women is my first memory of weeping over a book – I cried so hard over poor angelic Beth that my father said I should stop reading it. I’ve been over-identifying with literature ever since.

Book 3: The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer. A level English, and what seemed at first to be a completely impenetrable book written in a foreign language. Fortunately, our teacher selected The Wife of Bath’s prologue and The Millers’ Tale for our introduction. Once I’d figured out that speaking the words aloud can unlock the language (especially if you have some schoolgirl German), I was away, revelling in the bawdy, energetic life of the Middle Ages, fart gags and all. Many years later, the Canterbury Tales set me on the path to writing my own first novel.

Book 4: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, William Blake. These little books of little poems had a profound impact on me at university. The simplicity of the language and the complexity of the dualistic world view they convey means I return to them time and again. Each word, each rhyme and repetition, is there for a purpose. They’re packed full of contradictions, evocations. The Songs were an introduction to the wilder woods of Blake’s prophetic books, in which I wandered and wondered for a while, before returning with relief to these gems.

Book 5: The Color Purple, Alice Walker. It took a while, after university, to find my own taste, after the blitzkrieg survey of English literature I’d been through. Then I found Alice Walker’s searing novel of the American south. It was a lot of things I thought I didn’t like (epistolary, dialect, American). The strength of the voice, the restraint in what you are or are not told, showed me that different stories need different storytelling.

Book 6: Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons. Comic novels have been a comfort to me on many a long, dark night, so I’ll need one for my desert island. I could have picked Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, or Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, or any of the Jeeves and Wooster novels, to buck up my spirits while wild beasts circled. But Cold Comfort Farm would reassure me that, no matter what the challenges, a girl with her wits about her can soon make everything neat and comfortable.

Book 7: Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens. Dickens is the quintessential London novelist of the Victorian period, conjuring up the fogs swirling the riverside like no-one else. A few years ago I began re-reading Dickens and filling in the gaps of those I’d missed, and found myself utterly absorbed in this menacing thriller. Dickens’ vivid characters and deep knowledge of the city would have me treading London streets in my mind, while the desert island waters lapped at my bare feet.

Book 8: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Every so often, a new book comes along that changes everything. I found Wolf Hall astonishing. The complete evocation of an unfamiliar world, the up-ending of everything you thought you know about the Tudors, the steely focus on one, utterly-believable point of view. Mantel’s book makes every historical novel before it seem about as authentic as a costumed re-enactment at a National Trust castle.

Record: Iestyn Davies singing Henry Purcell’s Sound The Trumpet.

Luxury: Radio 4. Told you I was conventional.

 

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That difficult second novel

Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway: don’t read the first draft.

Halfway through writing my first novel, I wondered why I was doing this. I wondered why anyone did this, and I vowed I wouldn’t do it again. In fact, I couldn’t imagine ever being able to write another novel, even if I managed to finish this one. I’d be like Harper Lee (only not as good, obviously). People would say: ‘Whatever happened to Anna Sayburn Lane? Did she never write another book?’ And I’d say: ‘Why on earth would I do that?’

I’m within a gnat’s crotchet of finishing the first draft of my second novel. I’m pleased about this for two reasons:

1: It gives me something to focus on while waiting (again) to hear from publishers/agents about novel one.

2: I actually can write another novel.

I also know, however, that a first draft is not a novel. In Hemingway’s words, all first drafts are shit. I prefer to think of it as a preparatory sketch. It’s how I work out what I want to write, who the characters (probably) are, roughly what happens, the general story arc, the tone. What happens next is like translating a sketch into an oil painting. Some details will be added, some deleted, some changed completely now that I can see the overall effect.

So it’s not even close to finished. But a story exists, and didn’t exist back in November. It’s nothing like novel one, which will annoy publishers/agents no end if I tell them. It’s much shorter, and (I hope) funny. It was inspired by my favourite comic novels, Cold Comfort Farm and the Jeeves and Wooster series, which may be setting the bar a touch high. It needs at least one complete re-write, more jokes, and a title. I don’t know if it’ll ever get published, or if it’ll amuse anyone other than myself. It will be finished, though, one day, and knowing that gives me a quiet satisfaction that nothing else can match.

 

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Caught by the River Thames

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The Thames from Putney Bridge

The first Caught by the River Thames festival at Fulham Palace was conceived as “a cross between a vicar’s tea party and an Anti-Nazi League gig,” according to one of the organisers. So what washed up on the river bank?

There was a strong literary/nature writing theme to the weekend. Some of my favourite authors, including Iain Sinclair and Melissa Harrison, talked waterways, wilderness and seasons.

Sinclair spoke of the choice Londoners face between following the river upstream, to the riparian villages of Cookham and Swan Upping, or downriver to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the estuary. Conrad or Jerome K Jerome – two impossibly different visions of the Thames.

I loved Harrison’s description of how seasons in a temperate country like the UK help us understand and keep track of time – ‘The seasons are to time as a metronome is to music.’ The rhythm of the year, blackberries to bare branches, cherry blossom to courgette flowers, provides some reassurance of our place in the dizzying march of time.

More potential dizzying from Andy Hamilton, who kicked off Sunday with a masterclass in creating booze for free, talking us through his experiments in infusing, brewing and making alcoholic concoctions from the most amazing ingredients. I’m planning to have a go at his 18-botanical gin, made in half an hour during his talk, although I may give the kelp martini a miss.

Chill-out time meant a retreat to snooze under an apple tree in the bosky and beautiful  Walled Garden, complete with impressive vegetable patch, bee hives and spectacular dahlias.

There was music, as befits a festival, from the trippy North African Imarhan, to the final stomping session from headliners Super Furry Animals. I loved both of these, as well as the impressively funky Llareggub Brass Band and Ramones-wannabees Temples. I’m not a Beth Orton fan, though, and Saturday night’s doom rockers Low were not a high point for me either. My main disappointment was being unable to see poet/rapper Kate Tempest perform, as she’d been scheduled for a room far too small for the numbers who wanted to see her.

The unexpected highlight was watching music journalist Lauren Laverne interview the wildlife broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham on the main stage, while we sat and basked in the blazing sunshine. The interview was surprisingly personal, given that several hundred people were watching, with Chris describing how his Asperger’s syndrome affected the way he perceived the natural world. He described his early forays into natural history, his forthright methods of getting a job at the BBC, and encouraged us not to run away if faced by a predator. I’ll remember that, next time I’m set upon by a baboon.

He also had a ‘rant’ about the plight of the hen harrier, asking us all to sign a petition to prompt a parliamentary debate about the detrimental effect of driven grouse moors on the numbers of these birds of prey. I’ll finish with a link to the petition – I signed when I got home. I hope you will consider doing so too: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting.

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Bees enjoying the dahlias

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Melissa Harrison

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Iain Sinclair

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