Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Snapshots from... Gran Canaria

In our regular series, we go exploring, finding out about the writing life around the world. Today María Henríquez-Betancor introduces us to Gran Canaria, the 3rd largest of the Canary Islands.
By JJ Marsh

What’s so great about Gran Canaria?

Well, It's a big island with many possibilities. You can bathe at the most beautiful golden beach and also go to the best classical music concert on the same day. It is an island in the Atlantic but it is very much open to the world, close to Africa and also close to Europe. It’s very multicultural, you can have a great time if you are searching for a cultural life and also go for a hike in the mountains to volcanic spaces. As I said, it offers many surprising possibilities...

Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.

Las Palmas offers varied and numerous cultural possibilities. It hosts an international classical music festival that is held once a year and brings musicians from all over the world. It also has a very popular film festival in March, an international storytelling festival which gathers a multicultural range of storytellers….Its cultural life has improved during the past few years. You can have access to national and local theatre plays… It's very attractive for South American singers, we have a very close connecton with Cuba and Venezuela, two places where Canarian people emigrated in the first half of the 20th century.

What's hot? What are the people reading?

Anything related to the sea is hot here: surfing, paddle surf, sailing, snorkeling…. Now we are close to San Juan, the night of June 23rd when the summer starts… We have the tradition of having big fires where people burn old stuff and also write those habits and feelings they want to get rid of…. People gather and celebrate the arrival of the summer, leaving what they don’t want behind…They say it’s a magic night!

People are reading authors such as Javier Sierra, Almudena Grandes, Gioconda Belli, Antonio Lozano, Juan Luis Cáceres….

Can you recommend any books set in Gran Canaria?

Local Canarian author Jose Luis Correa has set several of his books here, for example, Un rastro de sirenas, Muerte de un violinista. Alexis Ravelo also has Tres funerales para Eladio Monroy set in the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. They are both very popular, especially if you like detective stories.

Ragrding poetry my favourite authors are Pino Betancor’s Las oscuras violetas and Jose María Millares Sall’s Esa luz que nos quema .

Who are the best known local writers?

Pino Betancor (poetry), Alexis Ravelo, Jose Luis Correa (prose and poetry), Alicia Llarena, Milagros Álvarez, Antonio Lozano, among others.

Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?

Well, in a way it can be both. For example, I have my weekly writing group in hhestudio, an art studio by the sea. We can see the ocean from the table where we write. It’s magic…We also wander around doing walking meditation before writing sometimes…I suppose I take advantage of the beautiful places, so that the can certainly be an inspiration.

What are you writing?

I am working on a non-fiction project dealing with family memories…I belong to a very big family. I’m the eighth out of nine siblings. My father had a banana plantation and it was a rather chaotic multi-generational family….My parents had their first child in the mid fifities when Franco wanted to build up the country’s population through big Catholic families…. My childhood is full of memories from my older siblings’ generational perspectives in a country which was certainly very distant from the Spain we live in now. I was able to live through musical trends, ground-breaking ideas, the transition from a very dark Spain into the land of revolution it turned into in the late seventies and eighties.

I am also working on a creative writing project. I love producing materials to help other people write like My Ten-Minute Journal which came out a year ago or La cajita de posibilidades (My Little box of possibilities).

Sum up life in Gran Canaria in three words.

Open sea, luminosity, multiculturalism.

María Henríquez-Betancor

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

60 Seconds with C.L Taylor

By Gillian Hamer

Tell us a little about you and your writing.

Hello! Thanks so much for having me on your blog. My name is Cally Taylor and I write psychological thrillers under the name C.L. Taylor. I live in Bristol with my partner and young son and I’ve been a published author since 2009, although I’ve been making up stories a lot longer than that!

Like a lot of authors I wanted to write for a living from a very young age. When I was eight I sent a book I’d written and illustrated (and bound with wool) to Ladybird publishers. Three years later I received my first rejection. That book sat on the slush pile for a very long time!
I wrote a lot of terrible poetry in my teens and started and abandoned lots of novels in my early twenties. But it wasn’t until my early thirties that I got serious about writing. I saw a programme on BBC2, asking aspiring authors to finish short stories that had been started by published writers. I chose to finish a short story by Joanne Harris. I didn’t win but I was bitten by the short story bug. I went on to write hundreds of short stories and, over the next couple of years, I was published in dozens of literary and women’s magazines and even won a few competitions. In the summer of 2006 one of my best friends from school died suddenly. Her death made me realise that life is too short to procrastinate where your dreams are involved. I started writing a novel and finished the first draft three months and three weeks later.

It’s a popular genre at the moment, but why did you choose to write psychological thrillers?

I’ve always had a bit of split personality when it comes to writing. Back when I wrote a lot of short stories I alternated between light, funny stories (for the women’s magazines) and darker, grittier stories (for the literary magazines and ezines). In the summer of 2010 the Romantic Novelists’ Association ran a competition. It was for the first 1,000 words of a novel on the theme of ‘keeping a secret’. I was heavily pregnant at the time and, as I was doing my food shopping, the voice of a character popped into my head. She told me that her daughter was in a coma and she’d found an entry in her diary saying ‘keeping this secret is killing me’. I waddled home with my groceries and wrote it down. My thousand words went on to win the competition! I didn’t do anything else with the novel until several months later when I was on maternity leave with my son. He woke me up every couple of hours in the night to nurse and, while I fed him, I thought about the girl in the coma and her mother and a plot appeared in my head. I wrote it over five months, while my son napped during the day.

I write about things that I fear. In The Accident (the book that started life as ‘Girl in a Coma’) I wrote about my fear that an abusive ex might turn up and destroy my happiness. In The Lie I wrote about friends turning against each other. And in The Missing, I wrote about a child going missing.

As well as dark thrillers you also write romantic comedy! Quite a combination, how did that come about? 

I mentioned earlier that I have a bit of a split personality when it comes to writing. The novel that I wrote in three months and three weeks after my friend died was a supernatural romantic comedy called Heaven Can Wait. It was published by Orion along with another romcom called Home for Christmas. I felt compelled to write Heaven Can Wait, it was an idea I’d had in my head for a while and I was desperate to tell it. The book sold to 14 countries and was won several chick lit review website awards. It was enormous fun to write, as was my second romcom (which was turned into a film in 2014 by an independent film company) but I find it much harder to be funny than I do to write tense, page-turning psychological thrillers.

Any other genres you fancy trying one day?

I’d quite like to write a sci-fi novel. And if I did my partner might actually read it!

What would you be doing if you weren’t a full-time writer now?

I had to write four books before I was able to give up the day job. I used to be the manager of a development team in a university distance learning department.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Choosing my own hours, the buzz of coming up with a new idea, holding a finished book in my hands. And the very best thing about being a writer is receiving emails from people who tell me that one of my books gave them a new love of reading, kept them entertained when they were ill or helped snap them out of a reading slump.

And the worst? 

Forcing myself to write day after day when I’m tired or fed up or I’d rather sit on the sofa and watch DVD boxed sets or have a nap! Also, horrible reviewers that take great pleasure in being as mean and spiteful as possible (rather than critiquing the book).

Where do you write?

I’m very lucky that, after years writing at a desk in my bedroom, I finally have my own study at home. Well, I say it’s my study but it also doubles up as the guest bedroom. I also share the space with a treadmill (it’s the only cure for writer’s bum!)

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

I’d take the Harry Potter boxed set (is that cheating?), After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

What are your future writing plans?

I am currently writing my fourth psychological thriller (which will be published in April 2017) and the occasional short story. And there’s a top secret project that’s currently with my agent, but I can’t say more about it than that!

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Making a Martyr of Yourself: the story of a community play

by Catriona Troth
The Townsfolk of Hamersham (photo by Phillip Troth)

For six months of the past year, I have been part of a group of over a hundred men, women and children making martyrs of ourselves in the service of drama.

We have been taking part in the fourth production of a community play telling the story of the Amersham Martyrs– a group of Lollards (early Christian Protestants) who were burnt at the stake for heresy in the first part of the 16th Century.

Performed in the parish church of St Mary’s, the play is an extraordinary operation, involving two alternate casts for the scripted scenes, an adult company, a student company (11-18 year olds), a children’s company (under 11s), a choir, musicians – not to mention costumes, props, lightning, and four stages that must be struck each week through rehearsals and performances and put away in time for Sunday service.

Like the Passion Plays at York Minster and Coventry Cathedral, it is a promenade performance, with the action moving between the four stages and the audience following on foot. But it is what happens around the four scripted scenes that plunges the audience into the 16th Century from the moment they enter the church and makes the experience unforgettable.

In the Beginning

Stan Pretty (photograph by Margot Hutcheson)
It was in the year 2000 that the Amersham Museum first approached local actor Stan Pretty with the idea of marking the Millennium by putting on a play about the Amersham Martyrs.
Pretty immediately understood that the real drama lay in how these events would have affected the people living in a small market town, and that therefore what was needed in order to tell the story was not a small theatre piece, but a community play.

Thus it was that the first company of volunteers set out to research the story of the martyrs, using Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Lollards of the Chilterns by W H Summers as their starting point. It soon became clear that information was thin on the ground and much would have to be filled in from imagination and deduction.

A small group of writers – Mike Consden, Peter Harland, Garry Marshall, Lin Spoor and Henry Wizgier – started work with Pretty on the scripted scenes, with ecclesiastical historian Brett Usher later providing input. Then over Christmas and New Year 2000/2001, Pretty polished the final draft, giving it dramatic shape and ensuring it worked to time.

In that original production, music was provided by a children’s choir from nearby St Mary’s School. But since the play’s first revival, in 2004, Music Director Rachel Hewitt has worked with adult amateur musicians and choristers to bring in music from the period – initially pieces by Byrd and Tallis, and latterly William Cornysh and John Sheppard.

The Martyrs of Amersham has since been staged in 2001, 2004 and 2011 (the quincentenary of the burning of the first martyr, William Tylesworth). Pretty’s achievement was recognised in 2004, when he was awarded an MBE for an outstanding achievement in drama. Then in 2015, the Amersham Society, keen to ensure that knowledge and experience was retained for the second quincentenary in 2021, suggested the play be revived for 2016.

Delving into History

Market Day in full flow (photo by Phillip Troth)

Pretty’s final script remains largely unchanged. What happens around those scenes, as I discovered, is developed from scratch by the company for each new set of performances.

The company, many of whom had never acted before, gathered in the church in early September 2015. Our first task was to deepen the research into the history of Hamersham (as it was then known) and of life in the early 16th Century, building on what had been done each previous time.

I was assigned to the ‘Trades’ group and my first assignment was to find out what a currier did. (Currying, I discovered was part of the process of turning hides into leather. Tanners, like Shakespeare’s father, took care of the chemical part of the process – curing the hides with various unpleasant substances, including urine. Curriers took the cured hides and stretched and scraped them with tools to soften them and produce leather of the required thickness.)

My most fascinating discovery was that if you have a surname ending in ‘ster’ or ‘xter’, then it is a fair bet that you are descended from a tradeswoman who ran her own business. We all know that a spinster was a female spinner – but a webster was a female weaver, a baxter a female baker and a huxter a female hawker – someone who went from place selling goods produced by someone else.
Tug-of-War at the Charter Fair (photo by Phillip Troth)

From the knowledge gained, the next stage was to develop our own characters. We had to decide our names, our trades, where we lived, how we spent our days – and most importantly what we thought of these Lollards who were causing all this trouble in the town. Did we support them, openly or secretly? Or did we see them as dangerous heretics who must be stopped?

Pretty and his co-director, Sally Alford, then used hot seating and speed dating exercises – where our fellow actors could ask all manner questions about us, our families, the town, church life, the recent harvest and so on – to get us used to thinking and acting in character.

All this was so that, when the audience enters the church, they find themselves, not in a makeshift theatre, but in the midst of a functioning 16th Century town on market day, with everyone going about their business and paying these interlopers absolutely no heed.

As the play commences and the scripted scenes are played out, the townspeople continue to mingle with the audience and to offer reaction and commentary on what is happening. A procession of people carry faggots to the site of the burning (an act for which they are awarded forty days off purgatory). A red carpet is rolled out for the Bishop and Archdeacon, and so on.

Enter the Audience

By the first performance, we had been researching, developing characters and story lines, and rehearsing for almost sixth months. But as soon as we had an audience, everything changed. Instead of the wide open spaces of the church to work in, we must work our way through a crowd – some of whom were paying attention to us, others not. From night to night, we never knew who we would meet as we made our way up the nave with our baskets of goods for market. We had to ignore 21st Century friends trying to say hello, but respond to whichever 16th Century neighbours and their storylines we encountered along the way. It was exhilarating but not a little unnerving.

The Bishop loses his temper (photo by Margot Hutcehson)
Joan Norman is dragged away (photo by Margot Hutcheson)
The characters I find most fascinating are the three key women in the story – Emmy Tylesworth, wife of the first martyr to burn, described affectionately by her husband as ‘a true known man’ (i.e. a recognised dissenter) and who supports him even when her heart is breaking. Sarah Scrivenor, wife of one of Tylesworth’s protégés and mother of his four young children, who, knowing that the growing Protestant movement in Europe must soon bring religious freedom, begs her husband to recant and when he refuses, flings the words at him: ‘Have your martyrdom, John Scrivenor – it will be the only selfish thing you have ever done!’ And finally Joan Norman, who mocks the Bishop’s ecclesiastical court, plays word games with the Bishop himself, and is dragged away still vowing to say her prayers in English to her dying breath.

Taking part was tremendous fun, but highly emotional. David Cuffley, one of the two actors who played John Scrivenor, told me how, between two performances, he took a walk through some nearby fields and came across the site of a bonfire. A big circle of ground was completely blackened, and there was ash beneath his feet. “It was a very strange feeling. I went and stood in the middle of the circle. It struck me then with such force what these people had been willing to endure.”

The hardest part, for me, was being part of a crowd reacting to one of the darker moments of the play – the branding of Tylesworth’s daughter, Joan Clark, a scene that often left me close to tears – but then having only a couple of minutes while the choir sang to find a burst of energy and high spirits for the start of the Charter Fair. That Fair scene is so necessary, for audience and actors – an interlude of joy and fun in what would otherwise be an unremittingly grim story. But making that switch was tough. I’d find myself standing in the dark, shaking the tension out of myself through my hands.

It’s likely to be 2021 before the play is staged again. But being part of something like this creates a sense of community that people want to hang onto. They also want to continue telling the story. Since that original production in 2001, small groups of volunteers, in costume, have led what are known as ‘Martyrs Walks’ – guided tours of Amersham take place once a month through the summer and share some of the history we have learnt. This time, I’m planning to be part of that.

Do you have a piece of local history that is just aching to be told? A community play might be one way of bringing that story to a wider audience, and drawing the community together in the process.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Triangles by Sandra Crook

“I’ve found her, Rosie!”
For as long as I can recall, Alice seems to have been wearing a mask.  Now it’s dropped away, and I see the Alice I remember from way back.  This Alice is dancing around, grinning widely, and waving her mobile phone just out of my reach.  It’s as though she can’t bear to share this gem, this renewed contact with our mother.
“Let me see,” I protest, punching her in the ribs until she gives in, and we both peer at the phone screen.   “Café in Queens Park – 3.00pm tomorrow x Mum.”
“Yay, Alice!  Mega brill!” I shout, high-fiving her.
Alice has spent months, if not years searching for our mother.  She’s trawled the internet at the local library, studied newspapers and telephone directories.  At first I was involved in her research, but as my interest drifted away, she eventually ploughed on alone.  Now she’s really proud of herself.
“I found her on the electoral register, so I sent a letter with our mobile number, asking if we could meet up. It’s been weeks now – I’d almost given up.”
For several months after Mum first left us, she remained part of our lives.  She’d ring home at 11.30 every Saturday morning, and Dad would make sure we were home then.  He said it was important we kept in contact with her, though later I wondered whether he was using us as bait, to attract her home again.  Still, we yearned for that weekly contact, made lists of all the things that had happened at school, and told her how we were missing her, asking her when she was coming back.  And it always ended the same way… with her sobbing down the phone, telling us she loved us and missed us.  I just didn’t get it; if she missed us, why didn’t she just come home?  We wanted her back, and if the time Dad spent sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands was anything to go by, so did he.
And then the calls began to dry up.  First it was the occasional week when we’d all be hanging around for hours, waiting for the phone to ring, and then it would be a couple of weeks at a time.  And eventually the calls stopped altogether.
After a few months I didn’t bother staying home Saturdays – I didn’t see the point of it.  All that sobbing, all those declarations of love – it meant nothing when she could make things right if she wanted to.
But Alice never gave up.
“You’re being too hard on her, Rosie, it’s different for grown-ups – more complicated.  You’ll be sorry if you miss her call, won’t you?”   
Even now, five years after Mum left, you’ll still find Alice hanging around the house every Saturday morning.  Maybe it’s because she’s older, and she has more memories of our Mum than I do, that she misses her so badly.  I was seven when she left, but Alice was ten, and maybe those extra years with Mum made her loss so much greater than mine.
Don’t get me wrong, I miss Mum too, but it wasn’t all sunshine and roses before she left –something Alice seems to have forgotten.  We spent many nights listening to the angry voices downstairs, the occasional smashing of pots, the sobbing and slamming of doors as Mum flounced out of the house into the yard.  Some nights I’d stand shivering at the window, watching the orange dot of her cigarette turn bright crimson as she inhaled, marvelling at the smoke that streamed through her nostrils into the frosty night air.  She rarely stopped to put her coat on before storming outside, and with her over-washed cardie pulled tightly round her tiny frame, she looked for all the world like a baby dragon, huddled in the barn doorway.
We’re still studying the phone when Karen walks into our bedroom, and Alice quickly hides the phone.  I’m not sure we’d get into trouble for making contact with Mum, because Karen’s quite easy-going really, but I know Alice prefers to keep her at a distance.  She doesn’t want us to get too involved with her.  Maybe she thinks Karen will disappear just like Mum did.  Or maybe she hopes she will, if Mum comes back.
I like Karen though; she makes Dad happy.  They don’t have rows, she helps around the farm and she doesn’t seem to mind living miles from anywhere, like Mum did.  The only drawback is that Karen comes with her own ‘baggage’ as Alice calls it, in the shape of a noisy three year old called Robbie.  There was a lot of talk about ‘our new family’ when Robbie was born, but really the only new family here is Dad, Karen and Robbie.  They form a little triangle, and me and Alice, well, we’re not exactly outcasts, but we definitely seem to be on the outside of this cosy little trio. 
If Karen susses we’re up to something right now, she pretends not to notice.
“Would you two mind just keeping an eye on Robbie for half an hour while I take your Dad’s sandwiches out to him?  He’s forgotten them.”   Dad’s ploughing the top field today, and it’s too far for him to come home at lunchtime, so at times like these Karen makes him up a packed lunch, crusty slices of home-made bread, cheese and pickle, and an apple or two from our own orchard.  I’m not being awful, but when Mum was here, Dad had to make his own sandwiches.  A lot of the time there was nothing in the fridge and he’d end up making Marmite butties.  The recollection still makes me cringe.
Alice sighs, and pushes herself off the bed. I don’t know why she’s always so ‘ungiving’ with Karen.  I enjoy looking after Robbie, and it’s not like Karen expects much else from us.  We have to keep our own room tidy, but that’s about it, really. When Mum was around we each had a whole list of chores to complete every day, and there was big trouble if we didn’t do them properly.
“What do you think we should wear tomorrow?” Alice asks later, dangling a furry rabbit above Robbie’s head.
“For meeting Mum?  Does it matter?”  All I’d need would be a clean tee shirt and a pair of jeans.
“’Course it matters,” says Alice.  “We want to impress her, don’t we?”
“Do we?”  It never occurred to me.  I’d just be pleased to see her.  At least I thought I would.
“I might wear that green fluffy top, and my orange leggings.”
Privately, I think Alice looks like a carrot in that outfit, but I won’t mention that. These days Alice can be a bit touchy.  When I mentioned this to Karen she said it was probably just hormones or something.  I haven’t got any of those yet.
“How long will we be?” I ask. “I’ve got my swimming lesson at 5 o’clock.”
Alice explodes like a fire-cracker.
“We’re seeing our mother for the first time in five years, and you’re whinging about swimming lessons?”
“Well it’s not our fault we haven’t seen her for five years,” I snap, surprising us both.  “It’s not like we’ve gone missing or anything.  She knew where to find us, you know.”
Karen is puzzled when she returns to discover that Alice and I aren’t talking to each other.  Alice is mad at me and is lying on the sofa wearing her headphones, whilst I amuse Robbie.  She’d have gone upstairs if she could, but she knows she’s ‘the responsible sibling’ here, even if she has mentally checked out.   
Later on, I offer to lend her the Scooby-doo bracelet which matches her carrot outfit, and we’re friends again, though both of us are shaken at our unexpected spat.  Normally we get on like a house on fire, but then normally I don’t answer back.  Maybe I am getting some hormones.
The next day we catch the bus into town, and make our way to the park just before three o’clock.  There’s a handful of people at the tables outside the cafe, and I bag an empty one while Alice goes to check inside. 
“She’s not here yet,” she says, in a disappointed voice.
“Should we go for a walk and come back later?”  I’m worried that if we sit here, someone will expect us to buy a drink, and we don’t have much money after paying our bus-fare. 
“No, she might think we’ve come and gone,” says Alice. 
So we sit there, and watch the kids on the slides and swings, occasionally scanning the park entrance, but there’s no sign of Mum.
“What can I get you young ladies?” says a cheery voice behind us.
We both jump.  It’s the waiter.
“We’re waiting for someone,” says Alice, sounding quite grown up.
“Well, how about a drink while you wait?” he says, pointedly.
I blush.
“We’ll share an orange juice,” Alice says, flustered as she rummages for her purse. 
The waiter sighs and returns with one orangeade and two straws, holding out his hand for payment.  I’d hoped that Mum might arrive before we had to pay, but Alice reluctantly counts out her coins and he disappears.
“I’ll ask Mum for the money when she gets here,” she says, seeing my expression.
At that moment Alice’s phone beeps, and she grabs it, her face falling.
“She can’t make it,” she says, her face tight with disappointment.  “She’ll try tomorrow.”
Try?” I screech indignantly.  “You’ve just spent our bus-fare home, I’m going to be late for my swimming lesson and she’ll try to come tomorrow?”
Alice says nothing, and I feel a rush of pity for her, at the same time wondering why I don’t feel similarly disappointed at this news. 
We dunk my swimming cozzie in the lake on the other side of the park, and wrap it up in the towel so it looks as though we’ve been swimming.  For additional effect, Alice combs some muddy water through my hair, and then we use the money for my swimming-lesson to pay our bus fare home.  There’ll be enough lesson money left over to pay for our return journey the next day, but Mum had better turn up this time, because we can’t afford another orange juice.
The next day we’re relieved to see Mum sitting outside the café as we approach.  Alice runs headlong towards her, almost sending tables flying in her haste.  People stare, and I hang back, feeling uncomfortable.   She throws her arms round Mum, who watches me warily over Alice’s head, as I dawdle up to the table.
“It’s lovely to see you both,” she says, “how you’ve grown.  You look like a regular carrot in that outfit, Alice.”
“I think she looks lovely,” I say defiantly, as Alice flushes.
“Of course she does,” says Mum, ordering a beer and two orange juices, “you both look like proper little ladies.” 
She lights a cigarette and I remember all those nights I used to watch her in the yard.  It doesn’t really seem all that long ago, now, and I notice she still tilts her head back as she inhales, before blowing two streams of smoke down her nose.  I wonder whether you avoid lung cancer if you do that.  Or whether you get nose cancer instead.  It seems like a daft thing to do, whatever.
Alice keeps up a running commentary about school, exams and our Girl Guide stuff, whilst I absorb every detail of Mum’s appearance.  She looks older than I remember, and her hair is blonder, spiked up with gunge of some kind.  She’s wearing leggings, suede ankle boots and a short denim jacket over a long green tee shirt.  It sounds weird, but it’s a good look on her.
I think about Karen, with her swinging pony tail, chunky jumpers, stone-washed denims and sandals, and then I wonder which of them is older.  Mum’s face looks older but I think it’s because she’s skinnier; Karen has a rounder face with cheeks that morph into rosy apples when she laughs.  Which is a lot of the time.  I conjure up a picture the three of them - Dad, Karen and Mum – and in my mind they form a triangle too, just like Dad, Karen and Robbie.  But this time it’s a right-angled triangle with Karen and Dad on the vertical side, and Mum out over to the right.  Way over to the right… so far over I can scarcely see her.
“What are you thinking, my little cherub?” says Mum, smiling at me.  “There’s always something going on in that little head of yours, isn’t there?”
Alice tugs impatiently at her sleeve, anxious for her total attention.
“Will you come back home, do you think, Mum?” she asks, and I’m uncomfortable at the naked need in her face.
Mum laughs and pushes Alice’s fringe out of her eyes.  “Good Lord no, sweetheart” she says, pulling a face. 
And then I think she realises what’s she’s said, when she sees Alice’s expression.
“It wouldn’t work out,” she says more gently.  “Your Dad and I don’t get on.”
“But you did once,” says Alice, and I feel ashamed that she appears to be desperately pleading.  It’s not cool.  And if Alice is anything - it’s cool.  Normally.
“People change… I’ve changed,” Mum says.  “You have to accept the situation for what it is, and go for what makes you happy.”
“Didn’t we make you happy then?” I say, in a cold voice.
It’s Mum’s turn to blush now.  “Of course you did, Rosie, and I miss you both dreadfully.  But what I did was best for all of us.  You’ll appreciate that when you’re a bit older.”
Nobody speaks for a few minutes, and I trace circles of orange juice in the table top, hoping Alice isn’t going to make a scene.  I want to get out of here now.  This is a big mistake.
“Anyway,” says Mum, brightening, “I have some wonderful news for you both.” 
I’m glad she didn’t say this earlier, before she’d made it clear that she wouldn’t be coming home.  Alice’s joy would have known no bounds.  As it is, Alice is hiding behind the mask that she’s worn for the last five years – the pinched, stony glare that replaced the cheeky grin she used to have.  She says nothing – her message is clear – if Mum isn’t coming home again, then there isn’t any such thing as ‘wonderful news’.
“You’re going to have a little half-brother,” Mum says, pulling her tee shirt tight across her round belly and smirking. 
I daren’t look at Alice.  But somebody needs to say something, the silence is really awkward.
“We’ve already got one of those,” I hear myself say, in a bored voice.
Mum’s face crumples.  “Really….?  I didn’t know.” 
“Oh yes,” I say cheerfully, “Robbie, he’s almost three now.  Right little monkey too.”
“I didn’t realise your Dad had … moved on…” she says faltering, and I want to kick Alice when she looks up hopefully, scanning Mum’s face.  “Still, I’m very happy for him… that’s brilliant.” 
Alice’s mask returns.
Mum lights another cigarette.
“Should you be smoking, being pregnant and all?” I ask pointedly.
Mum pulls a face and stubs it out.  “Just habit, I suppose, I’m trying to give it up.”
She leans back in her chair, silent for a moment.   “You know, that news about your Dad makes me feel a whole lot better.   I’m really glad I turned up now.”
Alice appears to have given up on conversation altogether now, so I plough on.
“Karen’s lovely,” I say, and I feel Alice staring at me.
“That’s nice.”
“We like her a lot.  She’s not a bit like you.”
If it sounds bad, it’s because I intend it to. 
“She likes living on the farm; she helps Dad a lot.”
Suddenly it’s as though a light switch has been flicked off inside Alice’s head.  She stands up and smooths down her carrot-coloured leggings. 
“Well, we’d better be off.  Lovely to see you again,” she says, holding out her hand.
I see the surprise in Mum’s eyes before she looks down at Alice’s trembling fingers.  I feel nothing for Mum, just a huge wave of sadness for my sister.
Mum looks desperate, and I know she doesn’t want it to end like this.  I don’t know how she expected it would end though. 
“When the baby’s born, you must come and visit, meet your half-brother… and his Dad. It’ll be like having another family, won’t it?” 
Alice flinches.
Mum eyes are glittering with tears as she leans forward and plants a kiss on Alice’s averted cheek.  I move quickly before she can reach out for me. 
Alice and I set off down the path towards the bus stop.  I’m not sure whether Alice is crying or not, and I feel I can’t look.
“You can always visit her, if you miss her so much,” I say, focusing on the ducks dozing on the lake bank.  “It doesn’t have to mean you can’t see her again.  It sounds like she doesn’t mind us being part of her new family.”
“Yeah,” drawls Alice, “another happy little triangle we can be on the outside of.  Cool beans, hey?”
I look over my shoulder, wondering if this will be the last time we’ll ever see our Mum.  She’s lit another cigarette, and is slouched over her smartphone, thumbing the keys as though she’s already forgotten we’ve been there. 
Then she glances up, sees me looking and waves, blowing me an air-kiss. 
At the same time she exhales two plumes of smoke through her nostrils, and with her glittering eyes, green tee shirt and spiky hair she looks for all the world like a baby dragon.
In fact, she doesn’t look like a Mum at all.  And certainly not ours.

Flash 500 winner:

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Living with Etty

by Catriona Troth
Photo courtesy of Ricardo Barros

Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman from the Netherlands murdered in Auschwitz. Like Anne Frank, she kept a diary which was found and published after her death. But perhaps because Etty is a more morally complex and ambiguous character, it took 38 years before her diary was published, and even now it is hardly known.

A chance discovery at a yard sale brought Etty into the life of actress and writer Susan Stein. And now, through the one-woman play she wrote based on the diaries, Etty has become her life’s work. Between performances during her latest British tour, Stein explained how the play came about, and how it develops as she travels the world, bringing Etty to an astonishing range of audiences.

I began by asking Stein how she first encountered Etty Hillesum, and why she decided to turn her diaries into a play.

“I first heard of the book from a college roommate’s mother who did not recommend books lightly.
She said it had changed her life. Then a few months later, I found a copy at a yard sale in a little town in Maine for 50 cents. It was the abridged version, “An Interrupted life”. It would fit in your pocket.

“At first didn’t like her at all. Etty seemed self involved. She is sleeping with two different men, trying to figure out who she wants to be with. She has this very odd relationship with her therapist.

“But at some point in my reading something shifted. I am not sure when it happened. I have tried to go back and pinpoint it, but I’ve never been able to find it again. But somehow Etty got under my skin.

“It’s as if she were sitting next to me, whispering her life to me. It’s uncomfortable, awkward. And sometimes friendly. Not precious. Sometimes incredibly poetic. Self conscious. All those things. Sometimes I have the feeling I’m not supposed to be reading this. It’s way too intimate. Too naked.

“I had never experienced a book like this. Never felt someone so raw and vulnerable. Yet at this point, I was still reading the abridged version, which was somewhat sanitised. Not quite her at all. She was a little bit turned into ‘Saint Etty.’

“Even so, her sensibility is remarkable. When she gets to the place where she says, “You cannot help us, God. I shall have to help you,” I stopped breathing. Who is this woman? What does she find deep in herself that she comes to that understanding?

“I had read the book jacket, so I knew she didn’t survive. I didn’t want to let go. An intimacy I’d barely experienced with my closest friends. I am the slowest reader I know, but I could feel myself slowing down even more as I neared the end.

“I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t better known. I remember thinking, ‘I know, I’ll make a play, bring it to people and they will want to read the diaries for themselves.’ (Which is still my goal, by the way.) But I didn’t do it straight away. A few years later, I was in a car accident. That night, in the emergency room, the thought came to into my head, ‘I didn’t do that play.’ Where did that come from?

“I’ve worked on it now for eight years. Now it is a full time job, and it is still evolving.”

Photo courtesy of  Ricardo Barros

As a writer, I was fascinated to know how she went about taking someone’s words and turning them into a play.

“I spent over a year, just distilling it. To begin with I thought I could just take the bits I liked. But then I started working with the director, Austin Pendleton. He made me see that it had no dramatic spine. He started giving me assignments to help me shape it.

“He asked me first to outline, not Etty’s life, but the story of the diary itself. Three weeks later I was still struggling with that. Then someone said to me, ‘Are you reading academic work about the Holocaust? You know more than Etty knows, about what’s happening and what will happen. It’s getting in the way.’

“I was very focused on dates. Austin pushed me to abandon chronology. At first I couldn’t do it. I had dates fixed in my head. ‘On July such and such, 1942, she said this!’

“I remember having coffee with a woman writing her Ph.D. on Etty. She encouraged me to ‘let Etty guide me to the script.’ Then I spent some time with Etty's actual diaries in the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. I saw how her handwriting evolved over time. It helped me move closer to her words, and the words began to take me to a deeper place.

“Another thing Austin asked me was “Where is her shame?”I had to get underneath her words, figure out what she is NOT saying. I didn’t like where that took me.

“I could deal with certain parts of her shame. I knew she was ashamed of how large her breasts were. I imagine her stripped naked at Auschwitz. I worry about how she felt then, in front of all those people.

“But I had to take Etty off a pedestal. I was protecting her. I was struggling with my relationship with her, and I was also struggling as a Jew, especially about her menial work for the Jewish Council. That’s a thorny piece of the play. A thorny piece of history. It’s been one of the most difficult and time consuming parts of the play to get right.

“At one point, I performed Etty at a Quaker Meeting House in Aberystwyth. After that performance, some people were seeing Etty as a collaborator, which shows how easy it is for people to view victims as collaborators. It made me realise I still had a lot of work to do. By choosing to include the Jewish Councils, I had set myself a difficult task of introducing a complicated piece of history into the play, history most audiences were not familiar with. To clarify the Councils, I had put too much focus on them and the play seemed more about the Councils than about Etty and her remarkable sensibility.

“The Nazis were very smart in the way they created the Jewish councils. They put Jews in an untenable situation. Etty is caught in the middle. She refuses to go into hiding and save herself. Yet she accepts a menial role with the Jewish Council, which delays her deportation for several months.

“Where the bind comes, for her, is when her parents and brother get to Westerbork camp. She feels obligated to do everything she can to keep them off the weekly transport to Auschwitz. Yet she knows, if she succeeds in keeping them off the transport, then three other people go in their place. She becomes part of that cat and mouse game.

“Etty is agonized by the privilege her position affords her. But Etty is not corrupt. She is a human being caught in an inhuman situation. When I talk about this to students, I tell them – we are all privileged or we wouldn’t be here today, speaking about this. It’s not wrong to have privilege. Sometimes we earn it; sometimes we just get lucky. So what do we do with that privilege?

“What I have come to realise is that, within 10 days of keeping the diary, something is released in Etty. This is my interpretation, but I believe that force is what she is calling God. I believe that when she gets to Westerbork, she understands that this is the role she has been cast in. She has to be open to it and be present. She wants to ‘pass the test’. I hope she thought she did.

“So the play keeps evolving. It’s like scaffolding – when you move one thing, other things have the change as well. Each stage is different, and I don’t even realise I am in a different stage till I get there.

“The second ‘act’ of the play is now the discussion with the audience. That was something we discouraged at first – we wanted the play to be enough. But people weren’t leaving! Etty starts a conversation. Others want to continue it.”

Stein has performed Etty at an extraordinary range of venues – schools, places of worship, Native American reservations. It’s an intense emotional experience, for Stein as well as for the audience. As a film maker recently described it, ‘It’s as if this woman from 1942 walks into the room, sits down and starts talking to you.’

“I remember, before the first performance, Austin asking me, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I decided it was someone going to sleep. But Austin said, ‘No, going to sleep is a GOOD option. Let’s make it worse. Let’s have them walk out. One at a time, till you are looking at empty chairs where there had been people. What would you do?’ I said, ‘I’d keep talking.’ And he said, ‘Good. If that happens you will get to the place where Etty was when she started writing.’

“The nearest I came to that happening was in a prison in Scotland. They brought men and women brought together when they don’t normally see each other, so it had failed before it had even started. By the time I got to the prayer, they were all but throwing things. The only reason they didn’t walk out was that they weren’t allowed to. And I kept going. I had the experience of staying with her words when no one else cared.

“Despite that, prison performances are some of the most powerful. And I’ve met the most amazing people. A teacher at Shotts prison near Glasgow. Some severely disabled children at Braidburn school in Edinburgh. Etty has brought us together.

“I had no idea the project would have the life that it’s had. I didn’t know I would travel to all these places. Sometimes I have to ask myself, am I doing this right? It’s never had a theatre run. Never reached the point where it has a momentum of its own. Every day, it’s waking up and calling people, trying to let them know about Etty, finding the next venue to do it.

“But maybe travelling round the world with a suitcase and Etty’s words is the venue for this piece. Taking her to those who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre.

“Etty’s feels like a voice we need for our times. She refused to choose the divisive. She refused to 'tilt towards the savage.’ She found another way. She paid a price for it and was willing to do that. But her words and her spirit still live and inspire.”

To find out more visit about Susan Stein and Etty Hillesum, visit

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Stepping into Early Medieval Worlds

By Tracey Warr

When I first set out to write early medieval fiction one of my motivations was to dispel some of the myths about those times, myths which I had believed myself until I started doing some serious research, such as: all medieval people did not wash and were illiterate and women had no power or rights. My historical novels are set across Europe in the 10th-12th centuries and their protagonists are always women: countesses, servants, slaves and female troubadours. Yes, there were real female troubadours in the early Middle Ages. They were called trobairitz and wrote racy, sensual and profoundly moving poetry (see Peter Dronke’s Women Writers of the Middle Ages and Meg Bogin’s The Women Troubadours). There were also female poets, known as skalds, amongst the Vikings. As well as appearing as characters in my novels, the words written by these women are invaluable sources for creating credible, sensory worlds for my readers to step into.

Many of my characters are based on real historical people, including the male characters, some of whom, such as Audebert Count of La Marche, emerge even from dusty, centuries-old chronicles, as rather hot! Just as we know more from the historical evidence about the experiences of noblemen and women than we do about the lives of the peasants and lesser people, we also know much more about the men than about the women. So I am faced with the challenge of how to create a fully sensory world from a range of female perspectives.

For the servants and slaves, the labour involved in day to day life in a pre-industrial society is always a significant factor to consider. Whenever I visit one of the glorious medieval bastide towns in France such as Cordes-sur-Ciel or Najac, built atop very steep mounds to give strong defensive positions and views of approaching enemies, I always think about the servants plodding up and down those steep inclines with mules loaded down with wine skins, parchment, spices, whatever the lords and ladies of the castle required. All medieval people were living much more closely with the rhythms of day and night and of the seasons, since they had no electric light and many of the other things we take for granted in modern life. They did not travel or go to war in the winter when seas and rivers were turbulent and roads were muddy morasses. Their day began with sunrise and they ate earlier, went to bed earlier. They grew, hunted and cooked their own food and made their own clothes. We imagine medieval people living narrow existences in one place but some of them were great travellers: pilgrims, traders, vikings of course, and some noble brides went far from the places of their birth for their marriages. Travel was possible, it just took a lot longer.

I use original sources such as The Trotula, a compendium of women’s medicines written in Italy in the 12th century, or Dhoda’s marvellous 9th century handbook written to advise her son, along with medieval handbooks on cooking, hunting, hawking, bee-keeping, and the writings of medieval chroniclers including Ademar de Chabannes, William of Malmesbury and Orderic Vitalis, to help give the world I am creating veracity and bring it to life. A museum in Toulouse gave me a reproduction of an 11th century map of the city to help me recreate that, since modern Toulouse bears little resemblance to the city my 11th century countess rode through.

The protagonist of my first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver, was the real Countess of Toulouse and Barcelona, my second novel incorporates real historical characters such as the Norse Viking Olafr Tryggvason and the Viscountess of Limoges who was kidnapped by Vikings and held hostage for three years. My new novel published later this year, focusses on the experiences of the real Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys, who was held hostage by Norman invaders from a young age. I undertake historical research finding out what happened, when, where, to whom. What did the people wear and eat, what were the places they lived in like, how did they travel, how long did it take to get from one place to another on horseback or on a river boat. I use lots of sources to inspire me aside from literature and historical documentation, including objects in museums that my characters might have handled and owned, my visits to intact medieval sites and Romanesque churches, looking at paintings and manuscript illustrations. The appearance of my character Almodis is based on a beautiful statue of the Virgin in Albi Cathedral in France, but my character Nest ferch Rhys is modelled on a striking black-haired, blue-eyed Welsh girl I saw on a train between Swansea and Carmarthen. Several objects from the British Museum feature in my first novel including the Dunstable Swan Jewel and a delicate pink glass palm cup. A Viking serpent brooch and an exquisite decorated Viking swordhilt found in the sea between Pembrokeshire and Ireland were inspirations for my second novel, as were the Welsh islands of Caldey and Skomer which were occupied and named by Vikings. For my new novel I spent time walking along the cliffs and estuaries of Carmarthen Bay in Wales where a significant part of the story is set. 

The French historian Georges Duby wrote ‘I must never forget the differences, the hundreds of years that separate me from my subject, the great stretch of time that hides almost all I am endeavouring to see behind a veil I cannot pierce.’ Similarly the historian Thomas Asbridge says that ‘The emotional landscape of this era will never be fully recovered’. Some things have not changed much despite the years: landscapes, weather, love, whilst other things do feel significantly alien to us, such as slavery, youthful betrothals and brides and constant childbearing. People lived much shorter lives and had to get on fast with the business of living. From our 21st century perspective it is a stretch to imagine how medieval women really perceived their relationships with men, God, power, and their children. I feel I have a certain freedom to imagine and fictionalise my characters’ experiences as long as I can sustain credibility for my readers – well that is the difference between writing history and writing historical fiction.

About Tracy:
Tracey Warr’s novels Almodis the Peaceweaver and The Viking Hostage are published by Impress Books. Her new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, will be published in the autumn. You can find out more about her writing at

In June and July Tracey Warr is one of the award-winning authors who are tutoring week-long residential writing courses in south-west France organised by A Chapter Away

Image Captions & Credits

1 The Dunstable Swan Jewel from the British Museum, used in Tracey’s first novel, Almodis the Peaceweaver. Wikimedia photo by Ealdgyth.

2 Print from a Viking serpent brooch in the British Museum. The brooch features in Tracey’s second novel, The Viking Hostage. Print and photo by Tracey Warr.

3 View of the sea and estuary through Llansteffan Castle window, Wales. The castle features in Tracey’s new novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King. Wikimedia photo by dwtheprof.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

In Conversation with Kate Hamer

By Gillian Hamer

Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She did a Creative Writing MA at Aberystwyth University and the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. She won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011 and her winning story was read out on BBC Radio 4. She lives in Cardiff with her husband. The Girl in the Red Coat (March 2015) is her first novel, recently nominated for the Costa first novel award.

Hello and welcome, Kate. Can you tell us a little about you and your writing?
Thanks! I live and work in Cardiff though I was brought up in the countryside in rural Pembrokeshire. I’ve written, essentially, since I was a child. I used to write stories, illustrate them and staple them together in books. I’m a voracious reader too. I guess I write in a similar vein to the books I love to read which are nearly always dark twisty stories which hopefully take you somewhere unexpected.

Novelist is quite a new career for you. Was taking an MA at Aberystwyth Uni the catalyst to that career change or something you’d been planning for a long time?
Writing was always there in my life, always incredibly important but for a long time something I did mainly for myself. Attending the MA was an big step, apart from anything else it was me making a commitment to writing whatever happened. Another huge moment for me was winning the Rhys Davies short story prize. Winning that was a huge boost and told me possibly I might be going along the right lines.

TGiTRC has been called a 21st Century version of Little Red Riding Hood. Did that ever occur to you whilst writing and how do you feel about the comparison?
It comparison didn’t occur to me whilst writing but it hit me between the eyes with a whack after I’d finished the first draft. I read fairy tales avidly as a child and after I realized Carmel is very much the figure of Riding Hood who has strayed off the path and who is threatened by wolves. It was only after coming to the end of that first draft that I raised my eyes to the old Victorian print of Red Riding Hood (yes, it was hanging in my hallway all along!) and thought – ‘of course! She was there all the time.’

And then the book was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel prize! How did that feel?
Absolutely one of the most incredible, stand out moments of my life. I think I stood speechless for about ten minutes after I put the phone down. It’s something I couldn’t have begun to imagine when I was writing the book. I didn’t even know if it would get published then!

There’s a lot of attention on the complexities of mother/daughter relationships in the book, is this something that’s important to you?
I think it’s a rich and interesting relationship that’s surprisingly rare in novels. When the book was published I wrote an article for The Independent newspaper about mothers and daughters in literature and I had to really hunt to find examples. It’s a great thing to write about because it’s close yet complex. Eight year old Carmel in the book is already beginning to test the boundaries with her mother. It’s a loving relationship but scratchy at the same time, sort of ‘push me, pull you.’ The bond between Beth and Carmel is absolutely the beating heart of the book.

You’re based in Wales, where I also set all of my novels, is location and setting something you consider important in your writing?
Location is a lovely thing to write about. It’s a really strange one though – I’ve tried to write about Cardiff where I live and I’ve found it really difficult. I read Maggie O’Farrell once saying something like – I don’t write about places I’ve lived because I can’t imagine them - and I totally understand what that means. It’s almost like I need to be a little bit outside of a place to write about it. I feel particularly drawn to placing narratives in the countryside too – perhaps because that’s where I was brought up. 

Do you have your own special writing place?
I work at home in one of the bedrooms. Sometimes I think it’s good to refresh things though. Part of ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ was written in Cardiff library because I felt the need for a change of gear and sometimes changing the place I write seems to do the trick. I recently heard of someone who changes where he works with each new project – I can relate to that.

What attracts you to psychological thrillers?
I’m really interested in people and the workings of the human mind and that’s where the psych thriller squarely sits. Their own peculiarities and motivations drive the narrative. It’s what I love to read – and such a hugely broad category, Hamlet to my mind is a psych thriller – so it seems a natural place to go when I come to write. 

Would you ever like to write in a completely different genre? If so what would it be and why?
I have a plot idea for a sci-fi novel though whether I’ll ever write it I don’t know. It appeals to me because you can really push the boundaries with sci-fi. Having said that it’s the relationships that would still propel the story forward. I don’t think it matters what time you’re in, for me that’s always going to be the case. Maybe one day…!

Are you a regimented plotter or do you go where the story takes you?
A bit of both. With ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’ I wrote the beginning and then very soon after the last few paragraphs so I always knew where I was heading although there were twists and turns along the way. I did the same with my second novel that I’ve just finished the first draft of and I’ve just started a third with the same method, so it seems to be a bit of a pattern!

If you could give three top tips to newbie writers – what would they be?Trust your instincts with the story. If you feel that excitement in your gut then go with that.

Read everything you can lay your hands on. Read your fellow contemporary authors. It lets you know what’s current but it also supports real living writers too.

If you feel a bit stuck don’t sit there staring at the screen. Take your characters for a walk. Chances are with them strolling alongside you they’ll start speaking to you again and you’ll soon be racing back to the computer to get it all down.

Finally, how is the ‘difficult second book’ coming along – and has it been more difficult than the first to write or not?
I’ve finished the first draft. It’s a dark coming of age tale about family secrets. It’s been a very different experience writing it. With your debut nobody has a clue (or cares) what you are doing. With the second one that’s obviously not the case but I just decided to forget everything and concentrate on the page every day. I think that’s all you can do as a writer. Each new page is a new journey.

The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer is out now (Faber & Faber, £6.99)