Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Listeners - What Does It Mean?

The photo above may be tricky to read properly, but it's worth trying. It's the first few lines of my favourite poem, "The Listeners" by Walter de la Mare, and I spotted it on the side of a building in Guildford whilst sitting in traffic. Rain and vehicles made grabbing a snapshot difficult, and I did what I could, surprised and elated to find that the words I had always found so evocative should show up in that place at that time.

"The Listeners" is a strange poem. It could mean many things, it might mean nothing, and perhaps de la Mare was simply telling a story with no subtext whatsoever. For me, there are layers to "The Listeners". The first is that it's a story - a strange and ghostly one - about a man (The Traveller) who is looking for someone or something, and thinks he has found it behind a "moonlit door" in the forest (see where my blog's name comes from?). But there is no one (or nothing) there. His knock is not answered. He leaves, alone.

The second part of the story is the part that intrigues me, though. Who is the Traveller? Why is he there? Does he even know, or is this a dream? Who (or what) is he looking for, and what will he do now that he has journeyed to the place he was told (or was he?) to go to, only to find he is too late? Too late for what? Is this the end of the world? Has he been forgotten during The Rapture?

Each question opens up more, and none of them have answers.

That's what I love this poem.

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,   
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses   
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,   
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;   
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;   
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,   
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners   
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight   
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,   
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken   
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,   
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,   
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even   
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,   
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,   
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house   
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,   
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,   
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Poem: The Coast

A road runs away from me
Down to the coast,
Down to the sea.
I want to follow, I want to be
Down by the coast,
Down by the sea.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

100 Words - Strangers

Writing exercises are a great way to get back into the flow of creating if you have had to take some time away from fiction for a while. One exercise that is fun but which also gets the creative ideas flowing once again is drabble writing. 

Drabbles are pieces of writing that are exactly 100 words long, and should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes to write. I find that if I am stuck with a plot point, or need to ease myself back into writing, attempting a drabble helps my concentration and creativity. 

An example of a drabble I've written is this one, called Strangers. 

We entered the bank together, almost at the same time, so close, you holding the door open for me, me smiling at you but not really looking, passing you as I nodded my thanks.
I wanted to pay money in, I had places to be, people to see.
You wanted to take money out. You had debts to pay, loan sharks to obey.  
In my handbag was a purse and a cheque.
In your pocket was a gun.
We were complete strangers and yet now I can think of no one but you. I wonder if you’re thinking of me. 

If you are interested in reading more drabbles, why not check out where there are hundreds of examples. 

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Godstow Nunnery

We recently took a trip. A long weekend away. Thanks to my work on insideKENT and insideSUSSEX Magazines, I had been offered the chance to travel to Oxford and enjoy four days and three nights on a narrowboat. We'd never done anything like this before, and although my cautious nature threw up myriad reasons with this would be a bad idea (especially with a 4 year old, especially as we had no boating experience), in the end I said yes.

Why not?

Saying yes to scary things had been an unofficial new year's resolution of mine, but until now I hadn't had much of a chance to do anything about it, yes here was the ultimate test. If I could say yes to a long weekend on a narrowboat, I could be proud of myself. Not only that, but it would be nice to get away from it all for a few days. It would make a change. And we might never get the chance to do it again.

So off we went.

The trip itself was by turns terrifying and hilarious, argument forming and bonding, and you can read all about it in June's issue of the magazines.

But there was one moment that stood out for me.

On the way from Eynsham (where we had picked up the boat from the lovely and accommodating Anglowelsh boat hire company) to Oxford (our ultimate goal), we had passed a ruin of a building that, because we had our mission in mind, we hadn't stopped at to explore. I felt this was a shame, and managed to snap a few blurred pictures as we sailed (if that is the right word when it comes to a narrowboat) past. It was interesting, and I thought I would be able to use it in a short story or novel at some point in the future.

I forgot about it after that - we had locks to contend with, and mooring to deal with, and Oxford to be tourists in, so it was the furthest thing from my mind. But of course, when our time in Oxford was up and the weekend was drawing to a close, we had to return to Eynsham. So we passed the place again. This time, we passed it as we were looking for a place to stop for the night - the last night - of our trip. It was only as we were passing the ruins that I spotted a likely looking place for mooring, but by the time I had articulated as such, as had passed it.

It's a good thing that Dean is actually quite proficient at steering a narrowboat. He had liked the look of the flattish piece of bank and the open area beyond it, as well as the pub that could just be seen on the other side of the river, so he turned the boat around. This didn't cause too many problems. Mooring up, on the other hand, did. I jumped off the boat, but took so long hammering the mooring pegs into the soft ground that the back end started drifting out again. Panic ensued, but as luck would have it a couple who had moored up (with much more luck than us) just a little further upriver came to our rescue, directing Dean and helping me to tie some pretty sturdy knots.

That boat was going nowhere without our say-so.

In fiction our rescue and the tale of what the building actually is or was would be looked at as a coincidence too far, suspension of disbelief stretched to the limit, but this was real life, and so anything was possible.

Once settled, we - Dean, Alice, and I - went to check out the building we were moored directly next to.

It was called Godstow Nunnery.

It was supposed to be haunted (so of course we tempted fate by going inside and making a bit of a racket), but we saw and heard nothing that night, nor the next morning. It's still going to be the basis of a short story though - watch this space.

What we did discover, though, was that the Reverend Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll, of course), had come here. And not just him either; he had brought Alice Liddell (THE Alice) and her sisters here for picnics, after rowing down the Thames from Oxford.

What a beautiful coincidence.

Not long before discovering this information my own Alice had been running around the ruins of Godstow Nunnery, inside and out, playing and laughing, much as I imagined Alice Liddell to have done.

No ghosts were seen that night, but my dreams were full of stories. I hope to write them soon. I wonder what stories Lewis Carroll thought of here?

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Book Review: Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel

Ladies' Night at Finbar's Hotel is a short story collection by seven female Irish writers that ties together to create a novel about a once time down at heel hotel that has recently been revamped and reopened and now caters to the rich and famous. 

The stories are by Maeve Binchy, Clare Boylan, Emma Donoghue, Anne Haverty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O'Riordan, and Deirdre Purcell, but in an interesting twist, the reader is not told who wrote which story. Each one has a slightly different style and tone, and for those who are fans of any of the above named writers it may well be an easy bit of detection to work out which story they wrote, but for the reader who has no knowledge of the women involved in editor Dermot Bolger's exciting and moving book, it is a fascinating way to be introduced to a group of new (to the reader) writers. 

Each story is focused on one woman and her night at Finbar's. All seven women in the book are staying at the hotel on the same night, and throughout the stories there are glimpses of the other characters that you will meet later on, or you have already met. For those who are yet to be found (the woman typing in the lobby, for example, whose story comes near the end of the book but who is mentioned in a number of earlier stories), the reader waits in anticipation to discover who she is and what her reasons for being at Finbar's really are. For those whom the reader knows all about, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing more than the protagonist whose story is currently being read. It's wonderful how the stories all tie together, and Finbar's deserves a second reading in order to find all the clues. 

There are tales of failed love and love rekindled, of lives lived and lives lost, of families being torn apart and others being brought back together. Finbar's has a history, and despite the new and improved look, despite the makeover and the shininess, that history can't help but show through. 

An enjoyable, thought provoking book that I will certainly read more than once. 

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Trust Your Instincts - Life Is Too Short To Read Boring Books!

Once upon a time I thought that I should read pretty much everything. Anything I could get my hands on, no matter what the genre, no matter what the subject matter. So I did. But I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, after finishing some of the books, I wondered to myself what I could have done with the time that I had spent (wasted) reading a book I hadn’t enjoyed.

What other books could I have read instead?

What else could I have done?

So I stopped reading pretty much everything. I began to read only those books that intrigued me enough – through their blurb and, yes, their cover – to make me want to read them. It was that wanting that made the impact, rather than the needing. If I needed to read a book (for school, university, because others had suggested it and wanted to hear my opinion) it just wasn’t the same as wanting to because it was a subject or an author that interested me.

I realised that life is very short indeed, and that there are more books out there than I could ever possibly hope to read, which is wonderful in a way, but deeply depressing in another. And reading books that just don’t grab me, or rather continuing to read them even after I have realised that I’m not enjoying the story or the writing or whatever, takes up too much of my precious time.

I was reminded of this recently, when I read Cujo by StephenKing. Now, I’m a big King fan (I like his short stories best, but The Shining has a special place in my horrified heart), but for some reason I had always put off reading this particular book. Something about the subject matter – rabid dog terrorises small town – just didn’t interest me, so I didn’t go near it. But then, I was browsing in my local library and had a craving for King. Yes, I have plenty of his books at home, but I wanted something new. The only King book that the library had that I hadn’t read was Cujo, so I went for it.

I should have returned it the next day. I should have realised immediately that my instincts had been right all along, and that this was not the book for me. I don’t know whether it was a feeling of wanting to be loyal to Stephen King, or because I wanted to like it, but I read the whole thing. And I was disappointed.

I didn’t enjoy the book, just as I’d always suspected would be the case, but I read it anyway. Never again.

Life’s just too short for that. 

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Anthony Nield - The Kentish Artist With Heart and Talent

In my job as feature writer for insideKENT Magazine (and for the soon to be launched insideSUSSEX Magazine, coming in March 2015), I get to experience a lot of interesting things. I've enjoyed wonderful meals in fantastic restaurants in order to write a review, I've been able to go out for family day trips to get a real feel for the place I'm writing about, and I've even scored press tickets to sold out shows in London - a true treat for my daughter Alice as well.

But sometimes I forget how lucky I am to do the job I'm doing. And sometimes it's other people who remind me of that fact. Recently, it was Anthony Nield, a Kent based artist, who showed me exactly how blessed I am. In the December 2014 issue of insideKENT, I did an interview with Mr Nield, whose work I had discovered online (and you can too: I'd fallen in love with his style - he works in both pen and ink and watercolours - and loved the way he had found of expressing himself. The interview went well, and both Anthony and I were pleased with the outcome.

Wonderful - it's always good to help another artist (as a writer, I consider myself to be one) and to showcase beautiful work.

A few weeks later, I was surprised to receive an email from Anthony, thanking me for the article, and offering to draw me something - my choice. I was stunned. I was excited. I was absolutely over the moon about this! With, I'll admit, a shaking hand, I replied to the email attaching a photograph of my favourite place in the entire world which is, ironically, not in Kent (or Sussex) at all, but Hampshire. It is a place called Linford Bottom in the New Forest. This is where many of my childhood holidays were spent, and this is where, at the tender age of about 6 or so, I wrote my first play. My sister and I acted it out, and we still have it on video. It was called The Juniper Tree, and it was an odd mixture of fantasy and adventure and wearing dresses as cloaks.

Linford Bottom is the place my mind goes to when asked to think of a happy place, or a favourite memory. It is the place I return to in my dreams fairly regularly. It is the place I love above all others.

So this was the place I chose to have drawn for me. For me. What a wonderful thing!

Some weeks later, Mr Nield contacted me and told me my drawing was ready. We arranged to meet up at his house, only about 15 minutes from mine in the end, for the unveiling.

So, on a cold January evening my daughter and I visited Anthony Nield on our way home from visiting my parents. We interrupted a belated (due to illness) Christmas family gathering there, but we were welcomed so warmly, and with such genuine generosity, that I could have cried with joy, especially when handed the gorgeous drawing Anthony had done for me, not because he had to, or because I had asked him to, but because he truly wanted to.

Anthony Nield, and his lovely family, have made me so happy. Thank you to them, and especially Anthony for the stunning drawing.

By the way, the bush in the middle of the picture is the fabled Juniper Tree... much magic has come from that over the years.