Wednesday 30 December 2015

My best reads of 2015

As with previous years, I have chosen the ten books I most enjoyed that I read during the year. They are not all recently published, as you will see. I base my decisions on enjoyment and what I gained from them as much as literary merit. I list them in the order I read them. They include books from well known established authors but also four debut novels.

The Girl with All the Gifts - Mike Carey

I never thought I would enjoy a book featuring zombies but this one is, I suspect, in a class of its own. Mike Carey came to Finchley Literary Festival where he talked about it and read extracts. He even got some of us reading a little of the screenplay. I can truly say I read the part of Miss Justineau. I can't understand why they didn't choose me for the film. (OK, yes, I can, and after all I didn't exactly read for the part of Miss J.)

The Memory of Love - Aminatta Forna

Borrowed from the library, this was a fascinating read and gave me some insight into the aftermath of the appalling civil war in Sierra Leone.

Still Alice - Lisa Genova

A hauntingly sad portrayal of early onset dementia. I recall many years ago when, as a fairly newly qualified speech and language therapist, I had to assess the language of a lady with E.O.D It was one of the saddest assessments I have ever had to carry out, witnessing her despair and desolation at knowing she was no longer able to communicate and be the person she was, a highly intelligent and educated head-teacher.

Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn

This one kept me turning the pages. Psychopaths come in all guises.

The Things we Have in Common - Tasha Kavanagh.

Another Finchley Literary Festival book. Tasha's book was understandably nominated for the Not the Booker Prize. A story of Yasmin, a teenager who is an outsider and has a crush on her class mate. Yasmin sets out to keep her safe from the man she assumes is a stalker and a danger. Is she right? Does she make a catastrophic mistake?

The Ship - Antonia Honeywell.

A third FLF book which was a most thought-provoking read. Lalla might be annoying but she is the only person to question the reason the selected 500 passengers are on the ship, and whether that reason is valid.

Tying Down the Lion - Joanna Campbell.

I loved this story of the Bishop family driving to Berlin in 1967. It's funny but has a very tender and serious aspect. Joanna's writing is so vibrant that I felt as if I was in the car with the Bishops. The era of 1967 is brilliantly evoked.

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood.

I'm not sure how I managed not to read this book before, as it has, rightly, been lauded for the last 30 years. I'd read others of Atwood's but this one had escaped me. I'm glad I put that right.

A God in Ruins - Kate Atkinson

I read  Life After Life last year so was intrigued to read this, the companion book. I was not disappointed.

The Good Son - Paul McVeigh.

Also shortlisted for Not The Booker Prize, I'd read about Paul's debut novel on his blog as well as number of terrific reviews. I was attending the NTB event at Big Green Bookshop, so intended to buy a copy. After hearing Paul read an extract I was well and truly hooked. An original and authentic voice that took me there, to Belfast in the 80s, spending a troubled summer with Mickey - wanting him so very much to achieve what he hoped for.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Rae's blog....

Thank you to Rae Stoltenkamp, who invited me to be a guest blogger, following in the lofty footsteps of Emily Benet.

I met Rae at the first writing group I attended, run by Stewart Permutt, where I found the standard of its members was scarily good. Rae was therefore one of the first people to hear my early writing efforts and along with the rest of the group gave critical feedback in a useful and supportive way. 

Rae has published several books: Rae's fiction as well as poetry.

Take a look at my post and all the others on her blog here: Rae Stoltenkamp.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Sapper Dorothy Lawrence.

Dorothy Lawrence
I wrote and presented this piece at Finchley Literary Festival 2014. The event took part in Friern Barnet Community Library which is situated over the road from the former Colney Hatch Hospital, later renamed Friern Hospital. It was a flagship Victorian asylum, housing up to 3,500 patients. It closed in 1993 after which it was converted into luxurious apartments.

This is the story of a patient who died there in 1964 - but 50 years earlier she had done something quite remarkable. This is her story. I thought today was a fitting day to post it.

My name is Dorothy Lawrence. I think it’s 1964. Living in Colney Hatch Hospital – the loony bin – makes it hard to keep track. I’ve been incarcerated for 39 years. The warders see me as a mad old woman, someone who’s done nothing. I doubt they’d believe my story. Will you?

It’s fifty years now since the war broke out. I wanted to be a war correspondent. I was making my way in journalism – yes that surprised you didn’t it, but I’d had articles published in The Times, so I approached the Fleet Street papers but they sneered "do you suppose we're going to send a woman out there when even our own war-correspondents can't get out for love or money."

Well, I’d be hanged if I wouldn’t prove them wrong: "I'll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish. If war correspondents can’t get out there, I will."

So the summer of ‘15 saw me cycling to the war zone 15 miles from Paris on a ramshackle contraption that cost £2 plus another £3 to get it over to France. I made it to a French base camp just as the mudguard fell off.

From there I headed for Paris where there were plenty of English soldiers. I saw a couple of khakis and just had that instinct they’d be the ones to help me. ‘Hello, boys,’ I said and soon we were chatting like old friends. When they heard my plan, bless them, they gave me all the help I needed.

They got me kitted in out in uniform complete with cap, badge, puttees the lot. Bit by bit they brought it to me disguised as parcels of washing. I’ll tell you something - men’s trousers weren’t made to fit women and of course there was the top half. I had to flatten that lot  by bandaging myself like an Egyptian Mummy. Then I added padding for muscles! I ended up looking rather stout, but like a stout boy.  They taught me how to walk like a man and to march.

As Pt Denis Smith
Later I got my hair cut in the military style and even got the barber to run the razor over my face to encourage bristles but none grew. I used diluted Condys fluid to make my skin look manly – but actually it just looked like dirt.

I looked like a boy but I had to have proof. Those lads did me proud and soon I had my identity. I was Private Denis Smith. No 175331 1st Leicestershire Regiment.

They even got me the paperwork to get me to Bethune. I travelled as a woman – wearing a hat to hide my short hair but I left my corsets behind!

It was meeting Sapper Tom Dun that made it happen though. After hearing my plan, he got me joined up – drafted into the Royal Engineers, complete with RE badge. We found a deserted cottage for me to hide in. As Tom went off I changed into my uniform – I was soon itching all over – no wonder, the place was alive with fleas.

The first night I discovered why the place was abandoned. It was under constant enemy bombardment. Tom smuggled some rations to me. The next evening remembering Tom’s exact instruction, I went under cover of darkness to the yard where the men gathered and mingled for the night shift. I was one of them. I helped lay mines in the trenches. Ten nights I did that - under fire 400 yards from the enemy front line. Sleeping poorly by day in the damp cottage didn’t do me much good though and the rheumatics soon began to affect me as did my irregular rations.

Fainting fits bring disgrace on the King’s uniform and I knew if I ended up in hospital my cover would be blown. I couldn’t risk it because my kahki accomplices would be at risk too. So I turned myself in.

I told them who I was and just didn’t say much about those khakis.

They arrested me of course – saying I was a spy. They interrogated me but eventually I managed to convince them I was no spy but an English woman. We spoke at cross purposes for a while because I didn’t know what they meant when they asked me if I was a camp follower. I’d said yes.

They were furious that a woman could penetrate that most masculine of worlds and I had to promise to write nothing of my experiences to the papers for the duration of the war at the risk of imprisonment. But the fact is, I was the only woman to serve on the front line in that terrible war.

Years later when I told my doctor about what had happened to me as a child, when I was a ward of a churchman, I wasn’t believed. And because he knew my story of the trenches, he knew I had been a most effective liar. My insistence decided my fate: men of God did not violate young girls. To say otherwise proves I must be mad so here I am, imprisoned in Colney Hatch, and here I will be until my death.

Dorothy was buried in a unmarked paupers' grave in New Southgate Cemetery.

Monday 5 October 2015

Is There Enough Diversity in Literature? Part 2

As I grew into adulthood I continued to seek out books from and about other countries. I was especially drawn to the richness of Indian literature after visiting India in the 70s. Indian literature was accessible to me as much was written and published in English, as was writing from many other Commonwealth countries.

Books on my shelves include British authors of different ethnicities but also include authors from:
  1. Afghanistan,
  2. Australia,
  3. Brazil,
  4. Canada,
  5. China,
  6. Colombia,
  7. Denmark,
  8. Dominica,
  9. France,
  10. Ethiopia,
  11. Egypt,
  12. Germany,
  13. Guyana,
  14. Holland,
  15. Iceland,
  16. India,
  17. Iran,
  18. Ireland,
  19. Italy,
  20. Japan,
  21. Kenya,
  22. Mexico,
  23. New Zealand,
  24. Nigeria,
  25. Norway,
  26. Pakistan,
  27. Poland, 
  28. Russia,
  29. Sierra Leone,
  30. Somalia,
  31. South Africa,
  32. Spain,
  33. Sri Lanka,
  34. Sudan,
  35. Sweden, 
  36. Trinidad,
  37. Turkey
  38. Vietnam.
There's a wealth of diversity there but even allowing for one or two that I've overlooked (it takes a while to scan all the books in my many bookshelves) only 39 countries, including UK, are represented here out of the generally accepted count of 196 countries of the world, in other words just under 20%.

It is notable that many of these authors, particularly those outside the West and the Commonwealth, no longer reside in the countries of their birth and some are unlikely to have been published in their own countries, either because of the lack of a publishing industry or, more significantly, because of political issues. I have learnt a great deal about the world's conflicts and how people have been affected by them, through authors such as Roma Tearne, Abraham Verghese, Leila Aboulela, Aminatta Forna, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sahar Delijani and Adeline Yen Mah to name but a few. Let's not assume these authors have written only about conflict and political issues though. Many have written of peaceful and happier times too giving an insight to different lives, histories and geographies. Roma Tearne, for example, has set her novels in Sri Lanka, England and Italy from the second world war to contemporary times.

Maybe I don't look hard enough for books from other countries, (although I suspect my list is more diverse than that of many readers) but how hard should I have to look? Why are publishers not bringing us more books from abroad? Well, I can guess the answer; economics.

I thoroughly enjoyed a talk by Ann Morgan publicizing her book, Reading The World. She realised she had read few authors other than from the UK and US so she set herself a challenge: to read a book from every country. What is more she needed to read them in English. She set up her blog A Year of Reading the World and asked people to suggest books. The response she had was incredible, with not only suggestions but even books sent to her from strangers. Offers of translation were also forthcoming. Both her blog and book are fascinating and go a long way towards introducing readers to a wider range of books.  

I'm not so ambitious as Ann but aim to read something from each country I have visited - those countries in blue above are some I have visited leaving another 30 or so from which I need to source literature. Ann's list will be a great help as will The Commonwealth Prize lists. The other, considerably more expensive, option would be to travel to the countries whose books I have read but not yet visited. Would someone like to give me bursary and plane tickets?

Reading books from abroad brings a host of new views, concepts and challenges to the way we think of the world and its people. Informative and entertaining it allows us to travel. My mother is 94 and now quite frail but she travels - via books so even when I get too old to board a train, a ship or a plane, I hope my travels will, like my mother's, continue through the page.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Is There Enough Diversity In Literature?: part I

I grew up in rural Gloucestershire in the late 50s and 60s where the only diversity was class based which nobody was overly bothered about, or whether you went to the Anglican church or the Methodist chapel, and nobody was very bothered about that either.
   In my early years differences were negligible. We kids all played the same games and began to read the same books. We outgrew The Secret Seven and graduated to The Famous Five, and although some of us began to expand our world by reading more widely, those Enid Blyton stories, however formulaic, were favourites because they were about us. Going off all day with friends on bikes with a picnic in the pannier was exactly what we did in the summer holidays in the 60s, although we rarely caught any robbers or foiled dastardly plots by kidnappers. We were a bit slow when it came to spotting criminals.

I grew out of The Famous Five, but still loved books about kids having adventures such as The Fell Farm Campers, (I camped) Swallows and Amazons, (I didn't have a boat but pretended I did,) The Pullein-Thompson sisters' pony books (I rode ponies) and Monica Edwards' Punchbowl and Romney Marsh series, but without realising it, even as a kid, I was seeking more diverse literature because I was fascinated by people living in other lands and leading lives very different to mine.

American, Canadian and Australian stories were accessible and gave a taster of other customs and lifestyles but I wanted something more removed from my experience. Although I had found books set in other countries such as The Treasures of the Snow, and Hans Brinker they were often written by UK or US authors and seemed similar to English stories. The only books in translation that I had read were Barbar the Elephant, Pippi Longstocking, and the Mrs Pepperpot series, which I hated and didn't give me any insight into living in different lands. Heidi was better, and then I discovered The Wheel on the School, Landslide and A Hundred Million Francs which were more satisfactory, but let's forget The Little Prince that I had to read in French, which might explain why I never understood it. Were these the only books from abroad? It seemed as if they were. What about children in India, or Brazil or Nigeria - what did they read? I began to wonder if they had books.

I realised it wasn't only cultures from overseas that weren't represented in the books I was reading (although I didn't think of it in those terms) but different aspects of British life seemed limited.  
   Those adventurous kids in the stories I enjoyed all belonged to some strata of the middle-class. Certainly my early reading had included The Family From One End Street and White Boots where the children came from poorer families for whom finding money for the grammar-school uniform or a set of ice skates was a problem, but they weren't so different. Their viewpoints and values were the same. Maybe that's because we all have more similarities than differences, but actually it seemed that poor children weren't worth writing about.

When I met her, I didn't think of Maria, my new classmate who came from abroad, as being different although she seemed very exotic being able to speak two languages. It wasn't until her birthday party that I realised there was far more to her adjustment to UK than I had previously understood. She was mortified because her mother served food that was hitherto unknown to us, her new British friends. I loved the experience of trying new tastes and was appalled when some of the other girls turned up their noses and refused to eat it causing Maria's embarrassment and humiliation. (I bet those girls still want English food when they go abroad.) Were there stories about children like Maria who had to make friends in a new country with a new language and different customs? Unfortunately it never occurred to me to ask Maria what books she had because she was too busy devouring my copies of Malory Towers and St Clare's in order to become one of us.

Well, that was back then - a long time ago and I'm sure today's children are more worldly - yet 50 years on it seems that children's literature in UK is still not very representative of the huge diversity of British life. And although there are more than when I was a child, I still don't see very many children's books from overseas authors on our bookshop shelves.
This link is interesting: Diversity in Literature.

As I began to read adult fiction, I found more diversity - but I had to look for it - and that still tends to be the case. I'll be writing more on this in part II.


Wednesday 15 July 2015

Surrounded by authors...

During June and July I received notifications or invitations to a number of book launches. Suddenly I'm surrounded by new authors! Authors of exciting books; my to-be-read bookshelf is heaving!

Two of these authors are from Greenacre Writers, the Finchley based writers' group I co-founded with Rosie Canning in 2009, and of which I was an active member. Greenacre Writers was set up with four members and Helen Barbour was our fifth. She has now just published her first novel, The A-Z of Normal, that she first brought to our critiquing groups. There was really only one problem with Helen's novel: there wasn't much wrong that needed critiquing so the rest of us frequently made comments such as 'Well, that chapter was great, I can't think of anything that consider needed to be changed. I really liked how you have portrayed Claire's dilemma when ...' You get the picture!
   Helen's book is the story of Clare who has OCD, and the issues this causes. Helen, who blogs about her own OCD and how she manages it, wanted to educate people about this condition which is often misunderstood. She has achieved it in an entertaining way with a novel about Clare who accepts her long-distance boyfriend's proposal only to wonder how she will cope with telling him about her problem, which until now she has managed to keep secret. The course of true love is certainly rocky - will Clare and Tom work it out? For more information read Helen's blog The Reluctant Perfectionist.

The other Greenacre Writer is Anna Meryt who has published her memoir A Hippopotamus at the Table. I think I'd be tempted to pick it up from the title alone - although its origin wasn't what I was expecting - and if you'd like to learn more about that, take a look at this interview.
Anna was originally in GW's memoir and autobiography group co-ordinated by Rosie. I wasn't a member of this group so didn't see Anna's work until she switched to one of the Finish That Novel groups when the memoir group closed. I do however remember reading the first couple of chapters and thinking 'I want to read more.' She recalls her travels in South Africa with her husband and Pascale their eighteen month old daughter in the early 70s when apartheid was rampant. For more information take a look at Anna's blog.

The third author was one of our guest readers at Finchley Literary Festival. Although Irenosen Okojie had only a ten minute reading slot, I was immediately impressed with the vitality of the extract from her debut novel Butterfly Fish. I'm not alone as it is, rightly so, attracting a great deal of attention. For a little more, see my blogpost on the festival about this exciting new author: Irenosen Okojie.

Last but not least is a writer who I 'met' online. I first read some of Joanna Campbell's work when she entered the Greenacre Writers short story competition. Her stories struck me as very original, with a well developed wry humour. I followed Joanna's writing blog and with it the progress of her novel, Tying Down the Lion, which was published this month. The Bishop family drive across Europe in 1967 in a battered Morris Traveller to Berlin divided by The Wall. Grandma, who knows what makes the world go round, blames a lot of the world's problems on the fact that Hitler was a vegetablarian. Take a look at Joanna's website.

As I congratulate these new authors, I know how much hard work went into their successes, and that makes me feel more determined to get my head down and get on with my own writing, much neglected lately. To cheer me on I'm pleased to say I received some very good feedback on my re-write of my WIP's first three chapters.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Travels with books

Just a few book things I've spotted on my travels.   

This little library in Luang Prabang, Laos, also provides book for outlying villages, including those serviced by Laos' two library boats. This is not a luxury but a necessity as many small villages are poor and have no books even in the schools. Visitors can support The Language Project in Laos by buying books for the library, but you can still support them from home The Language Project.

Book crossing has been going on for years under the name of swapping books, but that was generally with people you met face to face. On my travels overland to India so many years ago, we had to travel light (rucksacks were the order of the day; wheeled suitcases didn't exist) and so the books we took were exchanged along the way with other travellers. Now Bookcrossing has become established and it is the books which travel. You release books in the wild and they are captured by other readers and then as often as not released again and so on. It has become especially popular in other countries and I saw this Bookcrossing arch in Wroclaw Station in Poland recently.

Wherever I go if I spot a bookshop I have a look around, even if I can't read the titles because of the language difference. I spot many familiar author names but very often have to guess the titles because covers are often different when a title is published for the overseas market. This bookshop cat lives in a shop in Istanbul. He had plenty of books to sit on and there were lots of customers too to make a bit of a fuss of him.

Not all bookshops have much to sell. This bookshop in Santiago in Cuba back in 2008 had only a few tattered second-hand books for sale,
as books were a relatively rare commodity, with only books approved by Fidel Castro's regime deemed fit for reading. How many of this bookshops were contraband, I don't know, but tourists would often leave books they had brought. I only wished I had some I could offer but coming  upon this shop by accident I had none with me. Things have changed for the better since then and I wonder if this little shop still exists.

Sometimes, even second-hand books are hard to come by and this school for Tuareg children in Timbuktu in 2007 had very few. Those that they did have were for the older children while the younger ones learnt from a blackboard. The desks in this class were for the middle grade children who also had blackboard slates whilst the smallest sat in the sand and took it in turns to use the large board. Chalk was as precious as books. Wren Miller saw much the same picture and as a result set up Send a Book to Mali.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Day Five of Finchley Literary Festival

The last day of the festival and I had the chance to have a bit of a break on Sunday morning, and managed to do the weekly shop and get a bit of housework done as this had been somewhat totally neglected in the past few days!

The sun was shining as I set off to the shops and I was pleased that everybody turning out for Rosie Canning's event, The Walking Writer, would stay dry. You can find out much more about it on Rosie's blog.

At about 3.00pm I was checking I had everything ready for our finale when Rosie phoned saying the walk had taken longer than anticipated and would I set up at Café Buzz? As it happened she managed to arrive not long after I had and we set up the mic for the final time.

Jemma Wayne

Our readers all turned up in good time and we were away...

Local author, Jemma Wayne, began the evening reading a powerful extract from her debut novel which was shortlisted for the Waverton Good Read Award, and longlisted for both the Guardian Not the Booker Prize and the prestigious Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. I read the first two paragraphs - and even if I'd not have heard Jemma reading, this was enough to convince that I wanted to read this book.

Zoe Gilbert of the North London Writer' group was up next. I had come across her name before because she won the 2014 Costa Short Story Award. Take a look here. I had briefly flirted with the idea of entering myself and am glad I didn't because I wouldn't have stood a chance! Zoe read us a short story and a flash fiction piece.

Next was Tasha Kavanagh, who has had ten children's books published under the name of Tasha Pym, and has now published her first novel for adults, Things We Have in Common. Critics have described this novel as a worthy member of the Gone Girl genre. A member of North London Writers, Tasha first talked a little about her writing process as she knew there would be writers in the audience who might find that interesting.

Needless to say her novel too has been added to my library.

Irenson Okojie
Our fourth reader was Irenson Okojie, who was recommended to us by Alex Wheatle. Irenosen's forthcoming book Butterfly Fish is published on 1st June. Her reading was vibrant and I felt very excited by this book. If like me, you want a bit of it now see this extract. In London the central character, Joy, is alone and lonely after her mother's death. She finds herself intrigued by an object that her mother left her - a warrior’s head cast in brass that once belonged to a king in eighteenth century Benin, Nigeria. The story weaves contemporary London with Benin over 200 years ago. Roll on next week!

After a break for refreshments and a chance to chat to the authors - Evie Miller, another member of North London Writers, was the next reader. She is currently completing an MA at City University on novel writing. She has had two novels published, aimed at the YA market, and has now written a novel for adults, The Puppet Master's Lover, from which she read an extract.

She was followed by Lily Dunn, chair of the North London Writers. Lily works with the Womentoring project which mentors women writers, who are unable to self-finance such mentoring, without charge. Lily has had her first novel published, Shadowing the Sun, a novel of complicated family relationships and their long lasting effects. Another book to be eagerly read before going on my bookshelf! You might like to read this review.

Our final reader brought a change of style as Dennis Evans, a Finchley poet, read several poems from his most recent collection, First The Silence, which was published last year. But our evening wasn't quite over. Here is a link with some of Dennis' poems.

One of the Greenacre Writers, Kate, had brought a friend along and somehow we discovered that he was a virtuoso violinist. Would he play us out? He would, and Kate dashed home to fetch her son's violin in time for Peter Jesudason to give us his impromptu performance. One of the audience filmed on her phone. The picture quality isn't great but you can hear it here.

What a fantastic finale to the fourth Finchley Literary Festival; seven brilliant authors and a superb musician to close five days of wonderful events. FLF just gets better and better!

Monday 25 May 2015

Day Four of Finchley Lit Fest

First off, were two workshops held in parallel. My workshop 'Voice Skills for Writers' was at North Finchley Library while Katie Alford's 'Populating Fantasy' was at Church End Library.

I limited numbers to eight as it is a practical workshop, and was pleased to have full house. Some of the participants already had very good reading styles, but my workshop also included how to look after your voice. Anybody who relies on their voice in their work is a professional voice user (not only singers and actors) and like all tools, the voice needs to be well maintained. Practical exercises were included for keeping a relaxed vocal tract and good breath support.
  Murni, our official photographer, popped in to take a few pictures. I forbade her take ones of me demonstrating tongue exercises! Everybody joined in and judging from the feedback it was a positive experience. The feedback gave me ideas for future workshops - perhaps based on a masterclass model.

Alex Wheatle
I then made my way through the drizzle to Waterstones, which was absolutely packed. Rosie and our YA authors had pulled the crowds, and I was sorry not to have been there from the beginning.

Alex Wheatle had read from Liccle Bit, Savita Kalhan from her latest, The Long Weekend and Ellie Daines read from Shine Izzy Shine.

The youngsters were asking plenty of questions and the whole place had a great buzz. There was a competition about favourite characters with lots of giveaways. It was good to see so many young readers who seemed to be enjoying the chance to meet the authors. I know I would have loved that when I was young. Still do!

Ellie Daines
Savita Kalhan
Alex is a veteran of FLF but Savita and Ellie, both living near Finchley (almost in Finchley) were new to FLF.

After lots of book signing the authors, Rosie and I popped over to Café Buzz for a spot of lunch and were joined by Katie fresh from her workshop. This was the first workshop she had run and she was pleased that it had gone well. It was good to have a bit of time to get to know new faces who I hope will become regular FLF participants. For more details of this event see Rosie's account.

Josie Pearse and Penny Black were already plotting murder in the library. No arrests were made during or after their creative writing workshop as the only weapons allowed were pen, paper and rich imaginations.

It was another event I should have liked to attend but I needed a bit of downtime before heading back to Café Buzz for Anna Meryt's Music and Poetry Palooza. Again we had a packed venue. There was an equipment failure so unfortunately Mike Gee wasn't able to play keyboards, but the other poets and musicians took to the mic (which did work.)

Anna set the tone for the evening and brought poetry alive with her fast paced but excellent delivery.  She was followed by a poet musician Michael Clift and a new local poet Jonathan Young. Another local, Ursula Troche, also read later in the programme.

Shanta Acharya  read a number of poems, but the one that stayed with me was the one about dating agencies as it resonated with the main character in my WIP. The quest for the perfect man is apparently universally impossible. Well I knew that!

Mimi Romilly rocking Café Buzz
Mimi Romilly then entertained us with musical versions of poems written by her grandmother in WW1. Not found until after her death, Mimi has published many of the 800 poems, a number of which were protesting about the war. Mimi's powerful musical adaptions had Café Buzz rocking.

It certainly caused a few passers-by to wonder what was going on in North Finchley.

The penultimate day of FLF drew to a close after its busiest day. Two more events were to come.

Day Three of Finchley Lit Fest

Duncan Barrett
Friday's first event was Duncan Barrett at Waterstones in N12 who came to talk about his latest book The Girls Who Went to War. Unfortunately his co-author Nuala Calvi wasn't able to join him as intended. Duncan gave a great talk with a presentation with lots of pictures. You can see lots of interesting information here.  Although the book focuses on the stories of three women, one in each of the military forces, Duncan and Nuala interviewed over a hundred women and had some incredible stories to tell. I could have listened to him for at least another hour!

I bought a book as intended - I was going to give it to my mother who had her 94th birthday two days before. She is of the generation who went to war although she did not serve, being in a reserved occupation (much to her annoyance!) However I knew I wouldn't want to wait to borrow the book back from her so bought my own copy as well.

In the afternoon, local guide Paul Baker led a Finchley walk with lots of literary connections. I would have loved to go but more organising of other events had to be undertaken so my next event was Mike Gee's literary slideshow.

Finchley is a London suburb, but Mike has charted and photographed every bit of Finchley's greenery - from woods, parks, cemeteries, to woodland paths and waterways. He even found two boats. You name it he's photographed it - and there is a lot of it. His show charted many of Finchley's green spaces along with related readings. He press-ganged drafted readers - Rosie Canning, Mark Kitchenham, Chris Hurwitz-Bremner and myself to read memories of Finchley, poems about nature and poems by Finchley's literati. Mike knew Spike Milligan's son so of course we recited some Milligan - Rosie and I duetted On the Ning Nang Nong!

While we were busy with readings, Andi Michael was leading a Writing for Wellbeing workshop, after which we received a message from a very happy participant saying how much she had enjoyed it.

Rosie's account is here

Day two of Finchley Literary Festival

What a packed few say I'm tired would be an understatement but I'm also exhilarated from a feast of literary stimulation.

I didn't get to Allen Ashley's poetry workshop on day two, but by all accounts it was an interesting and enjoyable workshop.

Antonia Honeywell
Antonia Honeywell's talk on Thursday was full of insight about the writing process as well as telling us about the inspiration for her book, The Ship, along with an extract. If I hadn't already wanted to read it, I would have been persuaded by what I heard.

Antonia is one of those generous writers who was happy to give advice about writing and the perils of trying to get published and she answered more questions as she signed books. If you get the chance to attend any of Antonia's events - do go. You won't regret it.

Jen Campbell
Thursday evening was the turn of Jen Campbell, who gave us a witty and entertaining talk about her books. She explained how her blog about the daft things people said in the bookshops she worked at was the starting point for a book deal. Weird Things People Say in Bookshops was followed by another. Then she began research for her wonderful The Bookshop Book. Stories of eccentricity and inspiration fill its pages and I stayed up far too late dipping in and out of her books. Another author not to be missed!

The panel debate:
Alasdair, Polly, Keith, Laura, Barbara and Adam.
Jen's talk was followed by The Library Debate organised by Keith Martin, in Friern Barnet Community Library that was famously rescued from closure by the community and is now run by the community. It houses thousands of great books, a few of which you can see here behind the panel, all donated by local people.

The panel was formed of people who are enthusiastic and committed to upholding libraries as public resources and necessities. I'm pretty sure the audience was too so the panel members didn't need to justify their views but some positive plans for actions were hatched to keep our libraries where they belong. Taking part were Alasdair Hill, Polly Napper, Keith Martin, Laura Swaffield and Adam Tipple - who used to co-ordinate the reading group I belonged to in North Finchley library. Thank goodness for people who take action.

See also Rosie's account.


Thursday 21 May 2015

And it's blast off...

Finchley Literary Festival 2015 is underway.

Owing to work I was sorry to miss FLF2015's first event; Theresa Musgrove's talk on her research of Mary Ann Cotton, a Victorian serial killer, which by all accounts was fascinating. I will have to wait for her book. Hurry up, Theresa.

During the afternoon I transformed from a respectable speech and language therapist, who had spent the morning bringing succour to the afflicted, into one of the afflicted.

Mike Carey's book The Girl With All the Gifts features zombies in Finchley and unfortunately I was affected by the fungal spores that turn nice speech therapists into this....
although of course this might just be the effect of working for the NHS for so long.

Mike Carey
I wasn't the only zombie as a couple of others were lurking in Friern Barnet Community Library as we welcomed Mike Carey to FLF.

Mike read the first chapter of the novel and then a few of us read a tiny excerpt from his film script of the same, under the name of She Who Brings Gifts, which is currently being shot on location with Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, Gemma Arterton and newcomer Sennia Nanua in the lead role. (I'm not sure we were quite up to their standard but we tried...)

J. P O'Malley then interviewed Mike about the book and the forthcoming film with the ensuing conversation giving us a great deal of insight into Mike's work and science fiction in general.

There was time for questions from the audience and lots of interesting conversation sparked as Mike signed books.

'Wow, this is the first book event I've ever been to. It was great,' enthused one member of the audience. We hope we have converted him.

See also Diary of A Festival Organiser Day 1

Friday 8 May 2015

Seventy years ago today...

Tuesday 8th May 1945.

VE Celebrations at Avenue House, Finchley.
 Picture from Barnet At War by Percy Reboul and John Heathfield.
"I wonder whether any two of the millions of people in London will think the same thoughts today about the date when the change in their lives from War to Peace commenced." Herbert Brush, Our Hidden Lives

"The great day - so long awaited - arrived at last and, very soberly and with a great inward pride in the men and women of our nation particularly, we rejoiced at our deliverance." Clara Milburn, Mrs Milburn's Diaries

"It was very sultry then and the sky was dark. I had only just got back when the rain began to fall, and then there was a terrific thunderstorm...the weather report, which we haven't heard on the wireless for over five and a half years, was given out again today. It may be much the same weather tomorrow."  Clara Millburn.

"There was the stillness of a Sunday when we awoke, and this continued all morning. I spent the morning doing some useful work in the garden, and then, as it started to rain, stayed in during the afternoon....After tea we went for a short walk and found quite a few flags displayed by the houses, although there was nothing elaborate....We still cannot realise that the war in Europe is indeed at an end. It is true that I have removed some more of the blackout today, as  I promised myself on Peace Day, but somehow I still have a sneaking feeling that it may be wanted again any time." George Taylor, Our Hidden Lives.

"...when we came to bed fireworks began banging off - as if there hadn't been enough bangs in this War. Useless things like salvoes of guns." Clara Milburn.

"In January 1941 we purchased some tinned chicken, and as we have never been called upon to use it, we promised ourselves a treat on Peace Day, and we did open it today. As with many things, it proved somewhat of a disappointment, for although it is genuine is spoilt by aspic jelly. Another long cherished tin, of sausages purchased in November 1941, proved much more acceptable for lunch." George Taylor.

"I was working on Father's farm - he had managed to get me released from my job in a reserved occupation - so where we were there wasn't much going on at all! But there were church bells ringing everywhere." Kathleen Bamfield - my mother.

"This morning's weather seemed symbolic. It was as if in the thunder one heard Nature's roll of drums for the fallen, then one loud salvo of salute over our heads and the tears of the rain pouring for the sorrow and suffering of the War. And then the sun came out and shed its brightness and warmth on the earth." Clara Milburn.

For more information on my sources see:
Mrs Milburn's Diaries  
Our Hidden Lives
Barnet at War        

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Finchley Literary Festival 2015

There are just three weeks until the fourth Finchley Literary Festival.

Each year the festival has been a bit different. Last year we had extra funding and sponsorship so we really pushed the boat out. This year's festival was intended to be a smaller affair. However, we all know that intentions don't always work out the way we expect, and so we have far more events than originally planned owing to the enthusiasm of members of our local writing community! A few events are popular repeats from last year but most are new.

There are workshops galore on all sorts of aspects of writing - designed for beginners and more experienced writers alike. They are about whetting the writing appetite and maybe encouraging participants to try writing in genres they don't usually tackle.

There are author events with fiction and non-fiction and even zombies, thanks to the star event with Mike Carey, author of The Girl With all the Gifts. Books about zombies aren't usually my thing, but this book is many cuts above what I suspect is the norm. A fascinating read even if, like me, zombies don't generally appeal! The festival also has music and performance poetry and literary walks - something for everyone.

There are lit fests everywhere these days so was another necessary? Rosie Canning and I thought there was and instigated Finchley's festival because there was very little going on in the arts world in our part of north London. Our near neighbours, Highgate and Hampstead, have a rich literary history and regular literary events but we felt our patch was distinctly lacking. When setting up FLF (originally Greenacre Writers Lit Fest) we discovered that Finchley has plenty of literary endeavour, past and present, and that Finchley is name checked in more than a few works of fiction including the aforementioned The Girl With All the Gifts!

Our first festival in 2012 was the first literary festival to be held in the borough of Barnet. We started a trend because Middlesex University's festival, which was originally at the Cat Hill site in Enfield, is now based at the Hendon campus in the borough and this year Barnet libraries had their own festival - a week of events with author readings and similar activities. We maintain, of course, that FLF is the best, focusing at least a couple of our events on literary talent local to Finchley.

For details of all events and workshop bookings see Finchley Literary Festival. Hope to see you at some of them.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

World Book Night 2015

As the fifth WBN approaches, I have just been to a nearby library to pick up 18 copies of After the Fall by Charity Norman.

It was at the same library where a few weeks ago I attended an author event, a talk given by a best-selling author of crime thrillers, who mentioned that she did not like WBN as she felt it devalued books. She pointed out that authors put in many hours of research, writing and editing before a book is published - which of course all those who have written, or tried to write, a book will know - and she felt this effort should not be undermined by giving books away for free. But on the point of devaluing books or their authors - I can’t agree with her that WBN’s aims devalue books.  I think, it enhances them.

Yes, thousands of books are given away, but the volunteers are asked to give wisely, not just to hand them out to their friends who fancy a freebie. We are asked to give them to people who need a bit of encouragement to read, to those who don’t regularly read for pleasure or own books. A couple of years ago I gave a WBN copy of The Book Thief  to a colleague who told me he rarely read fiction. He loved it, and continued to ask me to recommend books and I leant him several. He now reads and buys fiction.  

I wrote once before about giving a WBN book to a client who was had serious depression and was not able to work. Living on a meagre income, her only pleasures were her two small dogs and reading. She was thrilled to be given a book that she could keep. ‘It’s the best thing that’s happened to me for ages,’ she said. It may not have changed her life but it changed her day, and hopefully a few more days as she read the book.

There is evidence that The WBN titles actually boost sales so authors gain too. I have certainly bought some titles as I felt that having been selected for WBN, they must be worth reading. I'm sure many other people have done the same.
I love the idea that I can help encourage people to develop a love of reading and am pleased to be part of WBN again this year. I hope the gift of a WBN book will 'make' a few more days for my recipients.

Sunday 12 April 2015

World Voice Day 2015

April 16th is World Voice Day. Nearly 400 WVD events are taking place around the world in 52 different countries in celebration of the human voice which, as the campaign points out, is the original social media.

For information about voice and WVD events see World Voice Day.

I wrote a blog-post three years ago about how people who have voice problems can feel: here.

If you are not always confident about looking after and using your voice, my Voice Skills for Writers Workshop for Finchley Literary Festival on May 23rd might be just the thing for you.

Saturday 7 March 2015

A scary prospect: A rewrite and a change of title.

I recently had a brilliant session with editor Gillian Stern as my prize from Finchley Lit Fest's Dragons' Pen. I had printed and packaged my novel and delivered it some time before and now was the christening. The baptism by fire - we're talking dragons here. People often talk about novels being babies but mine is actually more of a young adult who should be leaving home but won't budge.

And there is the problem. I knew in my heart that this would be an issue and it was the first point Gillian made.

It's a novel about contemporary life but I began writing it nine years ago and life has moved on. 2006 had a different feel to 2015 especially when it comes to technology. My character is divorced, 50 and has a daughter of 20. To make her 50 in 2015 I would have to completely re-invent her backstory. And I'm not sure I can write with the same authenticity the very essence of somebody born in the mid 60s rather than the mid 50s.

The answer is of course to make her 60. I can do that. But her daughter will be 30 - a big difference. And the issues at 60 are not necessarily those at 50 - or are they?

After all, women hitting 60 today aren't retiring with cosy slippers and some knitting - they'll be about 108 before they get their state pension. Some have taken retirement from one job but are embarking on another, or are setting up a business. Some still have teenagers at home. Some even decide, God forbid, to have a baby. They travel, they study for degrees, they enter marathons. Yes, some do. They really do. Yes, some also look after grandchildren, have knee replacements, need several trips to the loo at night, but who says these are incompatible with dipping a toe in the dating game?

So I am embarking on a huge rewrite...

Another helpful piece of advice? Gillian suggested I go to a speed-dating event. Purely in the name of research of course. Why the hell did I have that as a scene in the novel? Why couldn't my character just go somewhere exciting like New York? Oh, wait, she does.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Reading your Writing: A workshop on Voice Skills.

You may be a great writer, but does your work sound as good when you read it aloud?

Most writers know that reading out their work helps them edit it for grammar and general style, but how about reading to an audience?

Does your voice turn into a mousy squeak? Do you find yourself on the point of collapse because your stage fright makes you hyperventilate? Or do you find that while you have taken the time to write a carefully crafted story you read it as fast as you can to get it over and done with?

More and more writers are taking part in literary events necessitating reading to audiences: from open mic events to book launches and book promotions. I've been to a number of literary functions and have heard many authors - including some of our greatest - read aloud. While many read their work beautifully, others simply didn't do their writing justice.

As part of Finchley Literary Festival 2015, I am running a practical workshop for writers who want to get the best out of their vocal skills. Participants will need to be prepared to read a small sample of their work aloud and take part in practical exercises. Numbers are limited to eight participants.

The two-hour workshop will include information on voice care, along with exercises for the speaking voice, relaxation and breath support. It does not involve any singing. The atmosphere will be relaxed to make this interactive experience fun. After all, laughing is good for the voice. I suggest wearing informal loose clothing and comfortable shoes.

Date: Saturday 23rd May 10.30am - 12.30pm.  

Venue: North Finchley Library, Ravensdale Avenue, North Finchley, London N12 9HP.

Cost: £12.00 per person. Payable by PayPal or cheque  (please email for payee and address)

As well as a writer, I am a speech and language therapist specializing in voice. While most of my work is with people who have voice problems, I also see clients who wish to improve their vocal skills and to this end have worked with a variety of professionals who need to give presentations, radio presenters, ministers, lecturers and barristers.
I trained at Central School of Speech and Drama and am a member of The British Voice Association.

email: for more information.