Saturday, 24 June 2017

Eight unintended consequences of becoming a writer by Tracy Alexander

1 I cannot scribble a note.
I cannot scribble a note anymore. I have to craft it. Whether it’s to the window cleaner, the DHL delivery man or a neighbour. The bliss of rattling off a badly worded but nonetheless effective piece of communication is lost to me. I can still write badly worded pieces of communication with aplomb, but I cannot make myself part with them without an edit. Or two.

2 Writing a heartfelt card has become debilitating.
I feel as though I am expected to be able to express difficult emotions with grace and clarity. I cannot do this. I write all tricky passages for the interiors of cards several times in rough before I do the real thing. Even then, when the card is sealed in its paper envelope, I worry that I have not done well enough. As a sixteen-year old I sent my aunt a card when her mother died. She read it aloud at the funeral. It was unselfconscious and sincere. Where has that gone?

3 The expectation is that I know and love all ‘classics’.
I do not know the plots of Shakespeare’s plays or Jane Austen’s novels. I studied maths, physics and chemistry and then a science degree. Reading has always been a massive part of my life but my formative years were spent with The Women’s Press, not Penguin. I like Jack Reacher, not Mr Darcy. And Tom Ripley, not Shylock. My heroine is Myra from The Women’s Room, not Catherine Earnshaw (although Kate Bush taught me about her). People talk to me as though I am learned in the field of literature. I have been known to play along. Excruciating.

4 a More people talk to me at parties.
I used to work in financial services. People tried to get away. But being a writer is a job people aspire to and that makes me both exactly the same person I was before and much more interesting than I was before.

4 b People I talk to at parties expect to have heard of me.
Success is a loaded term. I don’t feel unsuccessful, but when no one you meet has ever read one of your books it’s hard to keep the faith. Having said that, most partygoers only know the name of a handful of children’s authors so I won’t care. And I'm not writing for them anyway.

5 There is no weekend.
No one in my house has a Monday to Friday job with regular hours. No one goes to school anymore. For many people, ‘looking forward to the weekend’ signifies a change from the weekday routine. We have no routine. Whilst this has many upsides, it means that I have a constant whisper urging me into the study. (I realise I could declare my own ‘weekend’ but discipline isn’t a word I enjoy.)

6 Everything is a story.
I am guilty of imagining everyone’s lives in print. It has developed into a kind of filter where real people become characters for me to manipulate. This doesn’t seem helpful. (Or in fact something to admit.)

7 I am asked to write all sorts.
Friends’ websites, invitations to the street party, performance poetry for celebrations, letters to the council, pithy conclusions from research findings for my clever friend whose English is charming but not conventional (it's her second language.) I am not always equipped for these tasks but they keep coming.

8 I have a (small) network of fellow writers.
I’ve been writing for a dozen years and have crossed paths with many interesting folk. One of the joys of the friendships I’ve made is that they are separate from the rest of my life, not grounded in family, school or my previous work. It’s a bonus to develop a new multi-flavoured faction of great friends in your forties and beyond.  
I am Bristol based. When my first short story was aired on BBC Radio 4 Helen Dunmore sent a note via a mutual friend asking whether I would like to meet up. For ten years we drank coffee at the Boston Tea Party near her office and what started as benevolence became  a lovely friendship. In the many obituaries of Helen her generosity to other writers has been mentioned. I think perhaps more writers should follow her lead.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Banana Splits, Chanting Stones and Flashing Blades by Steve Gladwin

And –following on from my tribute to Jim Henson's 'The Storyteller' in my last blog – here are a few more that were prepared a little earlier than that.
Yes I decided to revisit a few more classics in these next two blogs. In this first part I will outline a week of classic children’s TV of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, (my era!) and after that I will go away and revisit them all, making the most of the ones I possess and the wonder of youtube.

But before we start, here are a few questions for those with sharp memories.

*What sort of animal was Bingo in 'The Banana Splits'?
*What sort of dog was Belle in the series 'Belle and Sebastian'?
*What broadcasting disaster befell the English dubbed version of the classic French series, 'The Flashing Blade'?
*In the series 'Freewheelers' what was the name of the recurring character played by Ronald Leigh Hunt.
*What is still known as ‘the scariest programme ever made for children?

By the end of this blog you should have the answers to all of these, unless you happen to be a 60-s and 70-s TV nerd, in which case you’ll be able to think of a whole lot more. In the meantime belt yourself in and set the controls for a week of classic children’s TV from Monday right through until Saturday. And yes you will notice that there are only five, rather than six programmes and I’ll explain why later on. So without more ado.

Monday – ‘Freewheelers’

I have no idea whether Southern TV’s children’s TV series ‘Freewheelers’ was actually shown on a Monday, but it's always had a Monday feeling in my memory.

Believe it or not, there were eight series of 'Freewheelers' made and a total of 104 episodes. Within this list, it was by far the longest running, and I remember my sister and I being riveted to it week after week. Director of episodes throughout Series1-8, Chris McMaster conceived it as an ‘Avengers’ or ‘Department S’ for teenagers, being astute enough to know how popular these ‘grown-up’ programmes were with that demographic.
Probably the most familiar thing about the programme is the theme tune ‘Teenage Carnival’ which you can hear on youtube and will immediately capture long lost memories of evil machinations, threats of world domination and assorted skullduggery.

Freewheelers Credits

Initially three teens aid British Secret Agent Colonel Buchan, (played by Ronald Leigh-Hunt) to foil the plot of ex-Nazi Karl Von Gelb, (played by Geoffrey Toone) to ‘reverse the verdict of the last war.’ Interestingly enough, when the series was later sold to West Germany, the character of Von Gelb was de-nazified – in the sense that he was made not to have been a Nazi after all. He was the first of the villains in 'Freewheelers', to be followed later by familiar heavy Jerome Willis and Kevin Stoney. And talking of heavies, the most familiar to both 'Freewheelers' and Hammer horror fans, was the great Michael Ripper in the role of Burke. Over the years the children included Tom Owen, (son of Bill), Christopher Chittell who as Eric Pollard in Emmerdale, holds the record for longest running character, and former Doctor Who companion Wendy Padbury.

My most enduring memory of 'Freewheelers' however was how it must have been almost solely responsible for introducing me to the music of Wagner. I can see Von Gelb now as he listens to the overture to Tannhauser on his headphones in his submarine. It's your fault Karl!

'Belle and Sebastian'

On Tuesday we have the heart-warming story set in the French Alps, (actually filmed in the village of Belvedere in Alps Maritime) of a young boy and his beloved Pyrenean Mountain Dog Belle. He of course is Sebastian. Made in black and white, it first appeared between October 1967 and January 1968 on BBC One and was based on the novel of the same name by the actor and writer Cecile Aubry, whose real life French/Moroccan son Mehdi El Giaou, played the name part to such winning and moving effect, and with a truly memorable pout.

The wonderful Mehdi as Sebastian

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, it quickly became staple summer holiday viewing, but it was originally broadcast in the prime-time slot following Blue Peter. Due mainly to its powerful themes of love and its endurance, script and acting, 'Belle and Sebastian' is rightly regarded as a classic of children’s TV.

There were two sequels but only one of them, Belle, Sebastian and the Horses, was shown on British TV in 1968. Most memorably of all perhaps is the haunting final song, ‘Oiseau’, sung by little Mehdi himself.

I can’t imagine 'Belle and Sebastian' ever working in anything other than black and white. There’s something about it that perfectly suits the harshness and grandeur of the alpine scenery and the poverty of many of the characters. 13 episodes of 26 minutes were made and you can get a lovely copy on DVD with the choice of the original French or a dubbed version with a French accent which – as someone says on Amazon – is oddly effective.
In 2014 a feature length film of Belle and Sebastian was made, based on the original characters and again featuring a boy and his Pyrenean Mountain Dog, which was very well received, but if you want to catch moody black and white and Mehdi’s wonderfully natural performance, go for the ‘Oiseau’ original.
Wednesday is ‘Flashing Blade day!

The Chevalier and his faithful Guillot

Well obviously I can’t remember whether Wednesday ever was 'The Flashing Blade' day, but what I do remember is that FB, a dubbed and re-edited version of a French adventure series called Le Chevalier Tempete ran on children’s TV throughout the 60’s and 70’s and, despite its often suspect dubbing and the fact that five seventy five minute films in French had been adapted into twelve twenty two minute episodes for its BBC transmission, it quite stole my youthful adventurous heart and that of my sister.

Originally released in 1967 it follows the adventures of the dashing Chevalier De Recci, (Robert Echeverry) and his faithful sidekick Guillot, (Jaques Baluton) against the background of the real-life siege of Casale, part of the ‘War of the Mantuan Succession’ between 1628-31. Our two heroes have to break through enemy lines under the very noses of their Spanish enemies to take a message which will rescue the beleaguered French garrison. All this while avoiding capture, enemy spies and pursuing troops.

Such a description of course hardly covers why we loved it and continue to love it. Just watching the first few minutes set against the continuing bombardment of Casale, take you – even with our modern ears which can pick out the inferior dubbing – right back there.

Then there’s the music and I don’t mean ‘You’ve got to fight for what you want, for all that you believe’, (actually titled 'Fight' which – annoyingly catchy as it is – was of course not part of the French original). What I do mean is the section of the first movement of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ which was used as the background to any exciting bit – and there were a lot of those! There was something about that acceleration of strings which just got you so excited you could hardly speak and that was even before our hero the brave Chevalier and his nemesis, (the wonderfully smooth and slimy Mario Pilar as Don Alonso) set their blades flashing.

The series however is infamous for the way it ended – or rather didn’t. On the last two episodes of the original transmission, vision was completely lost Fans were of course heartbroken and wrote to 'Ask Aspel' in their droves. I don’t actually remember this tragedy, and nor do I remember some of the missing footage being shown on 'Ask Aspel' sometime later.

There is however something else decidedly odd about the series in its original form, and I will return to that in the second part. In the meantime -

'As long as we have done our best,
And no-one can do more.
And life and love and happiness,
Are well worth fighting for.



In the meantime it’s time for us to call in very briefly at a series which has been called ‘the scariest programme ever made for children.’ Unlike other friends of mine, I haven’t seen ‘Children of the Stones’ since it was first broadcast by HTV in January/February of 1967. I was seventeen at the time and remember being pretty knocked out by what seemed to me more than just another piece of children’s TV. As part of this investigation I will be watching it on youtube, where some kind soul has kindly placed the entire series. Produced by Peter Graham-Scott it is regarded as a piece of landmark children’s TV. It was written by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray and deals in seven episodes of the arrival in the village of Milbry (Avebury) by the astrophysicist Adam Brake and his son, where they find a decidedly odd community.

Of the two things I remember about it, one was how the villagers who were under the ‘influence’ of the stones would say ‘happy day’ to people with annoying frequency. Secondly it was the eerie music by composer Sidney Sayer, with the chants arranged and performed by the Ambrosian Singers.


And last but by no means least – altogether now.

Tra-la-la, la,la,la,laah.

Yes folks what would Children’s TV be without a Saturday morning classic and in my day they didn’t come much more classic than 'The Banana Splits' show.

OK let’s not pretend that the four blokes in suits – Fleegle, ( the beagle), Bingo the gorilla, Drooper the lion and Snorky the elephant, were the main attractions here. Their antics might have been amusing enough as they pratted around in various theme parks and pretended to be a band that could play in the same manufactured way as Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith of ‘The Monkeys’, (Drooper’s Deep South drawl was apparently based on the latter’s). The split's animal hosts also had certain characteristics such as a deliberate Daffy Duck type lisp for their leader Fleegle and Snorky the elephant talking only in odd honks. The series was broadcast between September 7th 1968- September 5th !970 and produced by Hanna Barbera.

The er -- band!

But no, it wasn’t the framework of fun and furry band frolic which made us love the show! It was the fact that it was interspersed with live action and animation including Danger Island, The Three Musketeers and most definitely ‘just get those blokes in suits and go to The Arabian Knights'. This alone is a subject to return to next time and I better stop there as dear reader I have rambled through the classics for long enough. So there only remain two things to complete. First – and if you haven’t yet spotted them – here are the answers to our quiz.
*Bingo was of course a gorilla with a cap and shades.
*Belle was a Pyrenean Mountain Dog
*The last two episodes of ‘The Flashing Blade’ completely lost the picture.
*The character Ronald Leigh-Hunt played in ‘Freewheelers’ was Colonel Buchan.
*Children of the Stones’ is regarded as the scariest children’s TV programme ever made.

Secondly you may have noticed there was no entry for Thursday. Well not being over fond of Thursdays at the moment, I’ve left it blank because – let’s face it – there’s bound to be some classic I’ve missed and I rely on you to tell me which, or even go further and compile your own list. In Part Two of ‘Banana Splits, Stones and Flashing Blades’ I will report further on watching most of them again. Meanwhile thanks for listening and do tune in at the same time next month.

NB You can find the full version of Children of the Stones and full episodes of the Banana Splits as well as the Arabian Knights on youtube, where you will also find the theme music to Freewheelers and sing along. Later series of Freewheelers, and complete versions of Belle and Sebastian and The Flashing Blade including the end, (but in its french version) are available on Amazon. Enjoy!

Steve Gladwin - 'Grove of Seven' and 'The Year in Mind'
Writer, Performer and Teacher
Author of 'The Seven' and 'The Raven's Call'

Thursday, 22 June 2017

New Voices, by Dan Metcalf

I've been thinking a lot about audiobooks nowadays since talking to a friend of mine who is a postman. He listens to a lot, walking 4 hours a day which is the perfect way to consume talking books. But he did something I wasn't really aware of: he gets books via Google Books and sets their speakbot up to tell the story to him. I know Kindle did this waaaay back when they first launched, and my friend tells me that is how he started doing it, but lawyers got involved and argued that it contravines the talking book right in the contracts, when kindle had only paid for ebook rights. Or something. I'm vague on the details. 

So I tried it. is a site with great voices which sound, well, natural. Ish. Just cut and paste text and it will read it to you, in a variety of male, female, British, American, French, German voices and more (all hilariously nicknamed things like 'Bruce', 'Graham' and 'Audrey'). It works. Mostly. I also got the app for my phone (which comes with free auto-installed versions of Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes Stories) and the extension for my web browser which can read my emails to me.

But of course I am behind the times in all this. The Amazon Echo will already speak to you like your best (if slightly robotic) mate, and Google are hot on their heels with what is now called a 'Digital Assistant'. So what next? Well, the sky is the limit. How about an interactive story for the Echo, one that you can choose where the story goes? Or you can place yourself in the story and ask the characters questions? You can be the detective in the murder mystery. With artificial intelligence and natural sounding voices on the up, this should be possible very soon. It just needs the right combination of writers and programmers – thinking about it, it is essentially a text adventure like those of the 1980s but read out loud by the computer.
By Peter Langston [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But just as iPhones surprised everyone with their ubiquitousness, and pushed the tablet revolution onwards, maybe the next big thing is not voice activated? Could it be Virtual Reality, gesture activated or linking directly to your neurons? Will it take place not via a speaker or a screen, or even a book, but centred in your own mind? The future is limitless.


Dan Metcalf is a writer in SW England. His new book, Codebusters, is out in July 2017.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

What can a writer do? by Anne Booth

I'm so sorry I am late posting this this morning - It is 7.55 and I have only just realised the time and day.

Part of the reason is that there is too much going on at the moment. My dad is very ill in hospital and apart from visiting him and worrying about him, I have been involved in various meetings - some frustrating - others good- with different people to make sure he gets the best care. The whole thing has been further complicated by the closure of our local A & E and the downgrading of the hospital Dad is in, and that, in turn,  has made me very motivated to support the wonderful staff who have asked me to get involved with the campaign to save it. That has involved me in finding out more about the world of politics and the economics of austerity etc, which as writers and readers we already knew also impacts libraries and librarians and teaching assistants and school budgets. It seems there is so much hardship and suffering all over our country - and then we look abroad and see all the suffering there and it is easy to despair or have your heart break.

Grenfell Tower is a national tragedy with so many stories - stories of heroism, of unbearable waste of life, of greed, of refugees fleeing from war to find safety, only to suffer the trauma of a fire, of dishonesty and violence, but also of love and amazing bravery - including that of the young Grenfell GCSE students who turned up to their exams the next day in their pyjamas. It was noticeable when residents were interviewed about the criminal neglect of their home and how they felt treated with contempt, that one of the things cited as evidence of that contempt  was the closure of their local library and how it had been sold off to a local private school. 

I remember hearing Elizabeth Laird interviewed about how she felt terrible about the refugee crisis and her friend said - you are a writer - write. So she did.

I am so glad that authors and those in publishing are coming together to raise money for The Red Cross to help those in Grenfell Towers, and I thought that maybe the best thing for me today is simply to share the details of this. Authors can donate lots - I think I am going to offer to name some characters in forthcoming books - and anyone can bid for something amazing.

Lastly - through all of this we have to draw strength from the Good.

Here is an example - the heroism and self restraint and bravery of the Imam of the Finsbury Mosque after the recent horrid and fatal attack.

As writers, the act of writing itself is something we need to do - and as readers, reading beautiful things helps us.  Through all of these events - personal, national, international, children's books comfort me, and top of them all are books by Shirley Hughes, so I leave you with an illustration to cheer you.

It is from 'Alfie and the Birthday Surprise' by Shirley Hughes. If you need cheering, follow her twitter account and you will always find something to make you feel better.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

"Wait for me! Wait for me!" - Joan Lennon

Last month Lucy Coats gave us an excellent post titled Comfort Books and Writing Heroes which introduced me to the also excellent Robin McKinley.  Thank you, Lucy!  I've been gobbling her books up and loving them.

                                              Robin McKinley with the hellhounds, Chaos and Darkness

And then, at the end of Rose Daughter, I came across the Author's Note, and this description of the writing of books:   

"I've long said my books 'happen' to me. They tend to blast in from nowhere, seize me by the throat, and howl, Write me! Write me now! But they rarely stand still long enough for me to see what and who they are, before they hurtle away again, and so I spend a lot of my time running after them, like a thrown rider after an escaped horse, saying, Wait for me! Wait for me! and waving my notebook in the air."

That's how it is for me, so much better put than I've ever managed!  Often, as writers, we recognize aspects of other writers' practice, but often, also, it's not absolutely, totally, down-to-the-last-detail how it is for us.  But this is.

McKinley had other things to say in these notes that I found interesting and thought-provoking, such as:

"If you're a storyteller, your own life streams through you, onto the page, mixed up with the life the story itself brings; you cannot, in any useful or genuine way, separate the two."


"The thing that tells me when one of the pictures in my head or phrases in my ear is a story, and not a mere afternoon's distraction, is its life, its strength, its vitality.  If you were picking up stones in the dark, you would know when you picked up a puppy instead.  It's warm; it wriggles; it's alive."

But the real snap moment for me was that throat-grabbing, demanding wind out of nowhere, and then, that galloping horse.  And I'm adding the painting below as an encouraging metaphor, for myself and anyone else who needs it, of those wonderful moments when the book decides to trot back, even if just to encourage us to keep on chasing.

Xu Beihong Galloping Horse

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.
Out this month, for ages 11+: Walking Mountain.

Monday, 19 June 2017

The Power of a Book Fandom - Lucy Coats

When a book becomes a global success, it can have unexpected and far-reaching results. A couple of years ago I wrote on these pages of my love for Diana Gabaldon's series, Outlander, about a time-travelling nurse from the 1940's who walked through some stones and found herself in Jacobite Scotland. Since then, the TV adaptation (on Amazon UK now, but coming to More4 at the end of the month) has garnered many more fans both here and around the world. And that's why I wanted to talk about the power of a fandom, not just to celebrate the love of a particular book, or film, or genre, but also to do good.

A few weeks ago, I went to my third ever fancon, and my second Outlander Gathering. 280 fans of Gabaldon's books, from 14 different countries, made the long trek to Aviemore in the Highlands. It was a meeting of old friends and new, all lovers of the books, but also lovers of history, interested and engaged with places like Culloden, Wardlaw cemetery (burial place of the Fraser clan, who are an integral part of the story) and the Clava Cairns (where many of us laughingly hoped to disappear through the stones into another time), as well as the locations where the series is filmed. So the most obvious good the books have done is to bring both our small representation of it, and also the much wider and bigger Outlander fandom, to Scotland as tourists, thus bringing much-needed money and jobs into the economy. There are Outlander tours, Outlander souvenirs and also the Outlander TV studio at Cumbernauld all pumping revenue into pockets.

The second good this fandom does is driven by the TV series. When the stars who play Claire Beauchamp (Catriona Balfe) and Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) realised just how big a deal the series was going to be, they each picked a charity to support. Cait picked World Child Cancer, and Sam picked Bloodwise, an organisation researching leukaemia and lymphoma. Outlander fans jumped on board with great enthusiasm, and our fan weekend alone raised thousands of pounds for both. That is only a small tip of the fan fund-raising iceberg, which includes auctions, My Peak Challenge (Sam's fitness challenge involving many hills), and much more. Both charities have benefited immensely, which in turn helps hundreds, if not thousands of those in need.

The kind of book and TV success Outlander has had only happens to a tiny fraction of writers. I knew almost nothing about fandoms before I got involved in the one which organised our Outlander weekend (Outlandish UK). I'm so glad I did, because I've met people and made friends I would never have come across in a million years otherwise. In the scary world we live in, it is nice to feel that these particular books are bringing people together in peace, harmony and laughter -- and doing an immense amount of charitable and economic good at the same time. If you haven't read them yet -- give them a try. You might even become as passionate a fan as me!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Retreating writers - Lu Hersey

Last week, for the first time ever, I thought perhaps being sent to a convent wasn’t such a bad idea. Especially at a time when the alternative was marriage (taking away all your rights), followed by never-ending slave labour (with no decent oven, hoover or washing machine), and probably dying in childbirth.

Not that going on a writing retreat bears any real comparison to a convent, except that you’re staying in a place of peace and tranquillity, where the outside world seems very remote. Oh, and you spend hours by yourself in deep contemplation, even if it’s not necessarily contemplating the divine (though a major character in my current novel is a goddess, so I sort of was).

This was my first ever Arvon writing retreat – and I chose to stay at the Clockhouse. I’d never been able to afford a retreat before, but my kids had clubbed together and treated me to a voucher, which went a long way towards the cost. And I now realise that what sounded like an expensive indulgence is actually a real bargain. I did more concentrated work in five days than I’ve previously managed over two months, because everything was set up to be the writer’s ideal environment.
In case you don't know, this is the set up:
  • The fantastic food is all provided and there’s loads of choice. You can be a coeliac vegan and still eat your fill (not that I am, but you could be)
  • You have the company of other writers (though only if you choose it) at mealtimes and in the evening – and writers can make the best sounding board for your ideas. And they love to talk books

Fellow retreating writer Clare Furniss, exploring the redwoods
  • Talking of boards, your personal study room has a large empty pinboard (with lots of pins) to stick up your ideas, pictures, brain maps etc – as well as a writing desk with a view, and a comfortable sofa for reading and putting your feet up

View from my study window
  • You have an amazingly comfortable bedroom, with neutral décor and a fantastic view. And your own bathroom.

Bedroom wall reflects a shadow view in early morning light

  • It’s quiet. So quiet, it’s extraordinary. Just a chorus of birdsong to lift your heart
  • There’s an amazing and eclectic library with sofas and a wood burner downstairs if you feel like a change of scene
  • There’s a herb garden just outside the kitchen. And a wildflower garden next to it

So are there any downsides? Yes. You’ll find a week isn’t enough. You’ll want to stay for at least another week.

Would I go back? Hell, yes. It was the most relaxing, escape from outside pressures, incredibly productive writing experience of my life. Frankly, in an ideal world, I'd sell the house and move in.

Which brings me back to the idea of the nunnery...

Lu Hersey
Twitter: @LuWrites
Blog: Lu Writes
Deep Water, published by Usborne, out now