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Books and cake in Tunbridge Wells

Books and cake in Tunbridge Wells

I’m so enormously proud when I hear stories of how writers who’ve attended my courses have gone on to do good things. It’s not about taking the credit, anyone who has even tried to write will know you really do it all by yourself at the end of the day! But – maybe because of that – it’s a long solitary journey and it’s nice to have been along for a little of the ride! So meet Tanya Van Hasselt, and her two novels:

All Desires Known jpeg front coverOf Human Telling jpeg front cover (2)

Now, for people in Tunbridge Wells, you have the chance to get signed copies of Tanya’s books this weekend (Saturday 1st July) with the money going to West Kent Mind. Here’s what Tanya says:

“In recent years I’ve been involved in raising money for various mental health charities, mostly through King Charles the Martyr church monthly charities scheme.

We’ve got our church fete this coming weekend Saturday July 1st 12 noon until 3pm. The fun and games are all in the church hall in Warwick Park but in the main church building we have got a few charity stalls and homemade cakes – and me at a table selling copies of my two novels All Desires Known and Of Human Telling at cut price and 100% in aid of West Kent Mind, the local mental health charity. West Kent Mind is trying to expand its work in the area to fill in the gaps left by the overstretched NHS  – much needed, especially given today’s news about this area having to send more people out of the area for treatment than any other…”

Things overheard

Things overheard

We all know what street photography is now, but what is the term for someone who overhears things? A street listener, maybe. I prefer that to a snoop anyhow!

Here are a few of the things people said in town today as  I passed with my evil little notebook…

  • Just stop crying and smile so I can take a photograph
  • It’s a name of a small river in Sheffield. I just don’t know why I remember it so well.
  • Look there’s the Easter bunny! Oh, too late.
  • Funny, Mum, how it used to be me who held your hand when we crossed the road. Now, it’s the other way.
  • Never again. Until tonight.
  • I hate her. She thinks I’m her best friend but I’m not.
  • Is it wrong of me to fancy Boris?

Each snippet is a little story in itself, apart from the last one to which the answer is emphatically YES! AND NEVER MENTION THIS AGAIN.

An invitation if you been on one of my courses, or worked with me…

An invitation if you been on one of my courses, or worked with me…

Last night, sitting round the Wednesday Writing Table, we decided to open a Facebook group to share writing information (submission calls, competitions, new magazines, readings etc), our good news, our sulks, writing prompts, and maybe even to ask for and give feedback advice on work in progress. If you have been to one of my courses, I’d like to invite you to join us in the ‘Salon’ too. It’s currently a closed group so if you are on Facebook and would like an invitation, do leave a comment here or message me on Facebook (probably best via Sarah Salway’s Writing).


Wise Words, Happiness and Baggage

Wise Words, Happiness and Baggage

A strange mix of three things there, but let’s unpack…

First the baggage. Or Baggage, which is the name of a wonderful book Victoria Field has written about walking the pilgrimage route of the Camino. The baggage is the ‘stuff’ we take with us everywhere – regrets, hopes, memories, and in this case, a recent if amicable divorce. During the walk, she addresses her ex-husband and her own dreams for the marriage, ending with the realisation that the pilgrimage (and maybe life) has to be an act of faith not hope.
baggage launchThat sounds a bit po-faced and personal maybe, but luckily Victoria has the skill to make it work so as I read on, it became my story just as much as hers. I defy anyone to read the book and not want to take their own pilgrimage. It’s beautifully written too, I underlined so many phrases, that when I interviewed Victoria as part of her launch in Canterbury on Monday, I was in danger of quoting her whole book back at her, which is probably why she looks a bit scared here.


But how about this line which feels central to the book ‘ ‘Memory lanes walked so often they are deep channels in the landscape,’ and therefore now impossible to see over. Or this one, ‘I need to understand what happened between us, to find a story or to create a story out of the journey we made together.’

It’s funny too. Highly recommended AND Clive, her publisher from Francis Boutle Publishers, works out of a two storey treehouse… I know!

Secondly, there is Wise Words. This festival in Canterbury is so close to my heart, and strangely filled with the same sense of wonder as Vicky’s book. I got to run a day’s retreat there yesterday … in a yurt … in the middle of a secret garden … with Fiona from the Poetry Exchange … and a wonderful group of writers.

More beauty  needed? Here you are, some memories from the retreat… sometimes teaching creative writing is the biggest privilege – and the most fun – there is!




Taste portraits and writing buddies…

Taste portraits and writing buddies…

I’ve been working hard recently on my not-so secret project, spending much of the weekend reading, writing and revising, until my collaborator and I sent our proposal in on Tuesday. So rather than waiting patiently (aka constantly clicking through to my inbox) for the email telling me this is the best project in the world and everyone would like to publish it, I went off to London to meet up with two of my finest writing buddies. You need these if you spend most of your time on your own in front of the computer, and I always think there’s a little magic in the air when you find the right ones. For me, liking cake, an ability to write in strange places, and the willingness to explore are the essentials.


Some of the highlights from our ‘writing date’ included listening to a brand new song outside at Somerset House (together with a little bit of whale dancing, but to truly appreciate that that you had to be there), and finding a HUGE rather grand table to write in at Two Temple Place that we made totally our own.

two temple

As usual, I had brought enough work for five days, and ended up writing something completely different and new. It never fails to amaze me how writing outside my normal writing space brings fresh thoughts to the page. And the joy of taking notes of all the small things I see, a notebook full of thoughts, and ideas, and sights.

 Extract of a letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo: 

Daubigny’s garden, foreground of grass in green and pink. To the left a green and lilac bush and the stem of a plant with whitish leaves. In the middle of a border of roses, to the right a wicket, a wall, and above the wall a hazel tree with violet foliage. Then a lilac hedge, a row of rounded yellow lime trees, the house itself in the background, pink with a roof of bluish tiles. A bench and three chairs, a figure in black with a yellow hat and in the foreground a black cat. Sky pale green.

I offered my students this paragraph above from a letter from Van Gogh to his brother recently, and asked them to do journal portraits of places using solely one of the other senses – taste, smell, touch, hearing. So here’s my taste portrait from Wednesday….

The lemon and ginger tea tastes full of colour. It’s like a grandmother’s cold medicine, the ginger warms up my mouth at the same time as the lemon sparks it. And I catch the unmelted bits of stilton from the broccoli and stilton soup quickly so I can  collapse them on my tongue. They taste  like Christmas, like Samuel Pepys, who might once have dined in the exact same spot when it was a grand house, or round the corner in the Devereux Arms when it was a coffee house. The soup tastes like gout and ruddy faces under too tight wigs, but nicer. The salad like a mouthful of green bird feathers tickling my mouth. Later black coffee in a white cup and saucer wakes me up. I feel it pummel with a hundred fists as it slips down my throat. The cold tap water is a spring day, and I drink it like a dog who knows what food is best for him. Outside at Two Temple Place there’s a stall selling Egyptian Street Food: rice and pasta base, beans, a tomato sauce and then dried fried onions. We take paper bowls inside, eat at the window seat, and spoon mouthfuls of death masks and the small bottles of kohl buried with a teenage girl and wooden coffins and jewels and adventurous women who refused to conform into our mouths. We say ‘it hits the spot’, and we feel a little cuddled by this food. The other Sarah says that ‘sometimes you don’t know what you wanted to eat until you get exactly the right thing,’ and we know exactly what she means. Before the play, I sip a glass of Merlot that’s so rich it’s like the glass is lined with fifty pound notes, and which takes me to a log fire, a knowing that I’m in the right place, and dreams of moving to Paris to write and talk and to always being just a little full of potential. 

A little (more) love for libraries

A little (more) love for libraries

Yesterday was National Libraries Day in the UK. I followed the hashcode (well, there were several hashcodes actually, and many of us seem to have got the wrong year but, I’m guessing librarians are used to that…) #nld16, and got a bit overcome. SO MUCH LOVE!


And why not? Here’s a picture of a man reading a book about libraries in my local library, Tunbridge Wells. That’s my husband actually, and he was supposed to be making sure I didn’t get too embarrassed when I gave a box of chocolates as a thank you to the Tunbridge Wellsian librarians. Of course, he got immediately engrossed in the book and forgot all about me. But hurrah! That’s what happens in libraries.

Because while there have been amazing, wonderful, heartfelt messages about what libraries have meant for us, and should still do, as children, every time I go, it’s the adults I notice. Sometimes the elderly, sometimes the vulnerable, sometimes those who just want to complain, or surprise themselves with a book they’d never buy, or get warm, or use the computer, or read the newspaper. Sometimes I’m all of those things, and I do all of those things, and I know I’ll always feel safe in a library.

And at a time when we are acknowledging the destructive miserable horror that is loneliness, – it’s not new, of course, but maybe we’re just talking about it more now –  it seems so daft that we’re also busy closing libraries.

One of my highlights last year was a visit to the Carnegie Library in London – you can see my post here  – to sit in on a session for adult literacy learning for the Ruskin Readers.  A quick look at their website today showed just how many events are organised through libraries in the area – from chess club, to homework club, to art therapy, to book groups, to walks.


Of course, it’s fine for a library not just to be about books. It’s a place for information, for pleasure, and, perhaps for the only time during the course of a day, for not feeling alone.

Well, a bit like reading a book actually!

Here’s a poem I wrote for the Ruskin Readers after my trip there last year. These are all snippets and stories I heard as I sat with people learning to read…

 In some circumstances, a y
sounds like an i,
put two consonants together
to feel your tongue moving forwards.
After a life on shifting sea, his son
asks him, why bother, but he’s pinning
himself down to this new country,
word by word by word.
She asks why should others miss out
on the pleasure she’s got from books,
and I see Dorothea, Elizabeth Bennett,
even Heathcliffe draw chairs up,
sounding the letters silently with her
as she listens, explains, listens, corrects.
Listen to these scribbles on the page,
read the pictures with me,
we’re moving through the days here:
Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday.
I agree it doesn’t always make sense,
the words are moving too quickly,
out of reach, just like our days,
and yes, days
is a different kind of Y.
Let’s try again.