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Life with Lavendar in London town

Monday, 3 July 2017

Arvon Foundation's Children's and YA Fiction Tutored Writing Retreat

A few months ago, I attended the Arvon Foundation's Children's and YA Fiction Tutored Writing Retreat. I'd started writing a children's novel in March 2016 and I knew I would need help along the way if I wanted to get to the end.  My aim in writing was not to be published. Not to become an author. Just to finish writing a book.

My prior weekend experience at Arvon had been so positive that I had high hopes for this course. A week in a remote part of Devon dedicated to writing with one-to-one tutoring from published authors in the genre. In the company of other writers all working towards the same goal.

It sounded idyllic.

Arvon Totleigh Barton centre

I arrived at the Arvon Totleigh center near Sheepwash in Devon with 30,000 words of a story that did not work. It had taken me about thirteen months to accumulate and shape those words; time stolen and snatched amidst paid work, childcare and domestic drudgery. I wasn't close to the story however and I knew something was wrong with it. But what?

Turns out, just about everything.

Melvin Burgess and Lucy Christopher were the tutors at Totleigh. Melvin, who has been nominated for the 2018 Hans Andersen Author Award has written a gamut of YA books covering everything from dogs to drugs to Vikings to giants. Lucy, a fellow Antipodean and lecturer in the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa has also covered the YA market with kidnappings, swans and a soon to be published reworking of Shakespeare's, The Tempest. Despite their considerable output, I had never read a book by either of them and didn't remedy this in the lead up to the retreat, Quite frankly, I didn't have the time and I preferred not knowing their work as I wanted to meet them as people, not as authors.**

The story I'd taken to Totleigh was not for the YA market. It was aimed for 6-8 year olds in the vein of a Michael Ende-ish Momo allegory with Robin Klein-Hating-Alison- Ashley humour.

Well it was in my head anyway. The reality was far from it.

All the retreat participants bonded quickly. As a group, we were united in our determination to use the week to write as we lacked time in our real lives to do so. It soon became apparent that the other thing we had in common was drinking. And even if we didn't to start with, a week at the retreat fixed that. We were a diverse group, hailing from around the UK with one participant from New York City. By the end of the week, we knew not only each others plots and characters but also occupations, childrens' names, places of work, relationships and preferred choice of tipple.

This is where we ate and talked about writing. 

This is where we sat and talked about writing. 

During the retreat, each of us had four individual tutored sessions with Melvin and Lucy over four consecutive days. We also had to cook dinner (in a group with three others) for one night and take responsibility for our own washing/clearing up. In the evenings we gathered together for group activities including author readings from Lucy and Melvin and a guest visit from David Almond. The last night was reserved for participants to read out something they had written during the week. The rest of  the time was free for writing.

Most of us had arrived with ideas of what we would work on in the week. Mine was to edit and bash my manuscript into some sort of draft material shape. Prior to attending we'd all submitted 2000 words to both tutors so they had some clue of what everyone was working on.

My first tutorial was with Melvin. Ten minutes into that tutorial was all it took for him to accurately highlight key issues with my story. My stomach twisted as I realised I would have to rewrite the whole thing if I wanted it to be the story I wanted to tell. Goodbye thirteen months work. Goodbye 30,000 words.

Kill your babies they say of the writing process. Get rid of what you love if it doesn't serve the story, no matter how good you may think it is or how attached you are.

In my case, it was more like, Torch the Village and Kill (Nearly) Everyone.

It's a strange paradox that writing can be a emotional, psychical process. To create characters and stories, you have to dig deep. But then you must be completely unsentimental to shape the story into life.

It's a fascinating and grueling learning process.

I stumbled out of the tutorial slightly ashen, in a state of semi-shock. If someone had asked me there and then to climb Everest, it would have seemed an easier prospect.

Over the next day or two, I buckled down and started from the beginning. I took some comfort from the fact that others were in similar states to me. Frantically re-writing, rethinking, re-working. We all worked so hard that week, including Lucy and Melvin who were locked up inside from 9am-5pm giving feedback and advice to writers in various states of mania and descending madness.

No wonder we drank.

So two months on from the retreat and I have plugged steadily away at my story. I am still nowhere near the end but I can see it now.  The story is rough and there are so many problems with it but the process of grappling with words, story and characters is rewarding. I have learned that committing to a writer's process is a daily struggle. It's hard, fantastic and renewing all the one time.

A small group of us from the retreat have committed to meet monthly to give feedback to each other's projects. And in truth, to attempt to recreate a small semblance of the Arvon atmosphere. You cannot write in a vacuum and as Lucy said, You must find your tribe. Writing stories is hard and only other people struggling with it truly understand.

But how lucky we are that we enjoy this particular type of struggle.

Hallelujah, Amen. 

**However during the retreat I read Junk by Melvin and The Killing Woods by Lucy. Both compelling in very different ways.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Life's Not Fair

I'm supposed to be working right now but I'm finding it hard to concentrate. This morning I woke up to find out that twenty two people had been killed at a music concert in Manchester by a suicide bomber. Amongst those killed were children and teenagers. If I stopped writing this to concentrate on my Excel spreadsheet, maybe it will stop the urge to cry. But from experience, too much time on Excel can kill other signs of life.

I've tried to avoid most of the news today. In spite of this, I've heard the words 'terror' more times than I care to. I am not scared though. It's something else that is bothering me.

I should be used to waking up to catastrophic news by now. When I woke up to Brexit, I was shocked. Such shock that there was no room for tears but instead, profound grief. For I sincerely believe that it's a decision that will change the course of world history for the worse.

After that Trump was a breeze. I cried but more from anguish than pain.

Months later when the guy bulldozed pedestrians off Westminster Bridge right outside my work place, I made a point of walking across the bridge many times to and from work thereafter.

Brussels, France. France again. Germany. Idiots sacrifice others for misguided reasons. This has always happened of course. Right now, political instability, rising nationalism, a 24-hour news cycle and social media are the forces working to create a playing field fueled by suspicion, worry and protectionism. If continued, the Hunger Games may become non -fiction in years to come.

Maybe it's disingenuous of me to lament this latest tragedy because it is closer to home. Manchester is my patch. More so than places like Syria, Sierra Leone or Papua New Guinea where many young people endure unthinkable suffering and die every day.

Last night I checked on my six year old before I went to sleep. She looked so peaceful in repose. Such a contrast to her high energy antics during the day. I stared at her sleeping face and was struck by her vulnerability and also my own. It occurred to me that someday in the future we would be parted. I felt a physical pain in my chest and snuck out of her room.

It was an Ariana Grande concert those kids were at. I can imagine their excitement, going to a concert with their parents or unsupervised with their friends. I remember going on my own to my first concert. It's a rite of passage, something I hope my daughter experiences one day. You don't go to a concert expecting to die. Until recently this wouldn't even have been in the lexicon of 'concert going.' But with Bataclan and now Manchester, it is becoming so.

Walking home from school yesterday, my six year old told me about her day. They had been learning about an African animal that was becoming extinct.

People kill it because they think it brings bad luck.

What does it do that is so bad? I asked

Nothing. They just think it is bad luck.

So the animal does nothing but they kill it anyway? 


That's not very fair.

Life's not fair Mum. Don't you know that? Life's not fair.

It certainly isn't.

Friday, 5 May 2017


Mikhail Baryshnikov is a good-looking man. Nearing 70, he has charisma in spades which was in full display last night when I attended his show, Brodsky/Baryshnikov.

Marketing for the show

When I booked my (very expensive) ticket, I didn’t know what the show was about. All that my bedazzled eyes could see was Baryshnikov Baryshnikov Baryshnikov Baryshnikov

Later when I informed the Husband that he would be on child watch duties, he read the marketing material and raised an eyebrow:

You do know that he’s not dancing, don’t you?

Of course I know that. What do you take me for?

And that he’s reading poetry.

Uh, duh. That’s why it’s Brodsky/Baryshnikov. Joseph Brodsky. Poet Laureate.

In Russian. He’s reading poetry in Russian.


What could I say?

I had not read the small print but quite frankly, I didn’t care. Baryshnikov could be on stage brushing his teeth and I’d still have gone.

Mikhail Baryshnikov is one the greatest ballet dancers of all time. At the height of his prowess as a classical dancer, he defected from Russia to Canada in 1974. Afterwards he went on to wow the world with dance and forayed into acting, painting, photography and writing. He never rested on his laurels. He’s pushed himself artistically and creatively throughout his life and now nearing 70, he’s still taking creative risks.

Brodsky/Baryshnikov is a one-man show. Over the course of 90 minutes, Baryshnikov recites Brodsky’s poetry as if in conversation with the dead poet and performs set movement pieces throughout. The words (thankfully) were subtitled for an English speaking audience. Whilst I do not speak Russian, the timbre and tone of Baryshnikovs’ delivery was compelling. Who knew he sounded so sexy in Russian? The melancholy and hope that permeates much of Russian art and literature resonated in Brodsky’s words. I found myself loving the poetry. 

When Baryshnikov took his shirt off and started moving, the reaction of the audience was palpable.

Is Baryshnikov is going to dance?

But he didn’t. He did some weird performance Butoh which I didn’t like very much. I didn’t think it suited the show but again, it didn’t matter. This is Baryshnikov. However odd the conception, the movements themselves were as crystalline and precise as ever. At 70, his body could rival most men half his age. He is in good shape.

Moody Russian Dancer

At the end, he came out to take his bow. People stood up and clapped and clapped. Not because it was the best thing they had ever seen but out of respect for this great artist who is still taking creative risks and baring himself onstage. He smiled, bowed and then did a little jump-hop-skip and ran to exit offstage.

People were still clapping so he came on and did it again. Bowed. Jump-hop-skip. Run to exit.  

He did it three times. That little jump-hop-skip-run.

I guess it’s like breathing to him that jump-hop-skip-run. After every show, every performance, that is the way he exits the stage.  He’s been doing it since he was a boy, since he started learning how to dance. His body just does it automatically.  This show was not about dancing but still, he took a dancer’s bow and exit. He couldn't help it. 

It was a weighted moment and it's what I'll remember most about the show. His jump-hop-skip exit embodied so much of Baryshnikov's history and legacy.  To quote the show itself:

Life is the sum of tiny movements. 

-Joseph Brodsky

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Not the Nanny

The perils of working from home with children was highlighted in a most delightful way last week when Robert Kelly's live BBC interview went viral. If you have no clue what I mean, check this out:

The clip did the rounds quickly.  Friends were eager to share the charm and humour in this 40 second clip. When I watched it, the Husband said he could hear me laughing from downstairs. Even writing about it now brings on a chuckle. 

I clocked early on that the children were mixed race so I assumed that the woman who slid so spectacularly into frame was their mum. The little girl in her yellow cardigan became my hero.

The next day there was online debate whether the woman was the nanny or the mum. The clip had gone viral and the woman was being referred to as the nanny. At this point, I was unsure what she was so after some checking, I read that the woman was most definitely the mum. 

I was at a party later and the video came up in conversation. We watched it, laughed and afterwards my friends spoke about the nanny in the clip.

She's not the nanny. She's the mum.

No no. She's the nanny.

No she's not.  She's the mum. 

No, she's the nanny. 

I let it go.  I'm not sure what the reasons were for the insistence that the woman was the nanny. We didn't discuss it but it left me feeling uneasy because in 40 seconds, you probably make that assumption based on body language or race. I hoped it wasn't the latter.

Swiftly, the widespread assumption that Jung-a-Kim, the woman in the video, was the nanny or maid sparked media interest and debate over cultural stereotyping and casual racism. I  jumped on the bandwagon and posted this article on my Facebook. The resulting discussion was wide ranging from affirmations that 'Nannygate' was indeed racist to comments that it was her body language and behaviour that made her seem nanny-like. Which in itself is a whole other topic of subjugation. 

The most relevant question raised within my own circle was:

Why does it even matter?

Why could we all not just enjoy the clip and not query why people assumed that Jung-a-Kim was the nanny? What's wrong with being a nanny anyway? Nothing.

When I asked myself the question, why does it matter, this is what I came up with.

Even if only one person out of all the thousands that viewed the clip made the assumption that Jung-a Kim was the nanny based on racial stereotyping, that is one person too many. Because assumptions like that spread and take root unless you call them out early. Assumptions like that will eventually affect my life. They already have. 

Asian woman. 

Servant. Maid. Nanny. Mail order bride. Subservient. Victim. Vixen. Prostitute. Dragon Lady.

All such cliches but these stereotypes live on as demonstrated by the reaction to this clip. For I'm pretty sure that more than one person based their nanny assumption on race.*  

In my experience, it is not overt racism that is the most damaging or hurtful. When someone tells you to your face that you should go back to where you came from you fucking Chinese cunt,** a least you know what you are dealing with. 

It is the subtle, covert judgement that is the most dangerous. Or what Jen McGuire calls casual, almost benign stereotyping. She writes:

It's this sort of casual, almost benign stereotyping that can ultimately be so dangerous. Just because it's not aggressive or overt doesn't mean it's not changing our world view. In fact, because it can be so much more difficult to pinpoint, it's also harder to call out.

It's the kind of stereotyping, such as the case here with Jung-a-Kim, where because it is subtle or unintentional that you are told to stop making a mountain out of a molehill. That it is harmless. That you are looking for something that isn't there.  Or that you are imagining it.

If you have never experienced any form of racism nor stereotyping in your life that has affected you adversely, then you are lucky. So have some empathy, if you can, when I say:

We are not imagining it.

* I am not exempt. I have been racist. I make assumptions all the time. I can be judgmental. I try and have respect and empathy. But I don't always. In this instance, because I have grown up with this type of institutionalised racism, I am calling it out. But I have been wrong as well in other cases. 

**The Husband disagrees. He says he would prefer low level racism, even if it is more insidious, than someone coming at him with a knife shouting, 'Come here you fucking Paki' (true story)