“They’ve got nothing like this in Morden”

 This is Betty. I met her recently at an old folks club in Tooting, run by a charity that tackles isolation among the elderly. She was singing music hall songs. I told her I live in Kent.

“We used to go down to Kent a lot,” she said. “My mother loved it when the apple trees were in blossom. Daddy always took us in the car. We had a Ford 8. A year old it was. He was very proud of it. My sister and I used to sit in the back, giving a queenly wave to all the people we passed.”

When was this? “Well, I’m 87, so it must have been 80 odd years ago.” I show her the photo I’ve taken. “I look like an old granny,” she laughs. “I haven’t had my hair done in a week.”

With Alan the pianist playing the opening bars of the next song, she leans over to whisper: “You know, they’ve got nothing like this in Morden.”

“They called me the Maharaja”

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On a visit to the Imperial War Museum with another tiny charity, South London Cares, I met Oun. He arrived in London from India in 1962 with £5 in his pocket and a selection of his mum’s jewels around his neck. “They called me the Maharaja,” he said.

Walking around the museum and eating a sausage roll in its café, Oun told me about his career in advertising (“I was creative director for Miss World”), the time he met the Pope (“but that was years ago”), his 22-minute audience with Mother Theresa (“she insisted I sit with her”), and how he came to own paintings by the Bloomsbury Set (“I have a Turner sketch, also”).

I asked if I could take his photo. “Why?” he said. “So I can remember you,” I replied. “Then no,” he said. “You’ll just have to remember me.”

When Bob gets up to sing

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They were singing Christmas Carols down at the old folks’ drop-in centre in Tooting on Wednesday afternoon. Quality variable. Then Bob, 81, who’d just been mumbling along until that point, steps up and offers to sing a solo. Oh, gawd. This will be awkward. But he opens his mouth and out comes a beautiful music hall ballad, sung in a powerful tenor. The room was in tears. “You’ve done a bit of singing then?” I say to him afterwards. “Yes,” he says. “1965. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.”

“Every day I hear about extraordinary ways people survive”

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The woman in this photo is Sheila Melzak, a psychotherapist. She runs the Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, a charity that helps child refugees. Specifically, her organisation works with children who have fled violence abroad, dreamed of finding sanctuary here in Britain, and somehow made it into the country on their own.

These children are all officially classified as “unaccompanied”. That means they entered Britain illegally, often hidden in the back of a lorry, with no family or adults to help them or to protect them.

They include people like Mimi from Eritrea, who escaped to England aged 12 when her father disappeared and her sister was killed. And Fakirzai, smuggled out of Afghanistan when the Taliban murdered his father. Many of them have been raped and tortured. Some have been forced to kill, or watch the murder of their parents. Others have been trafficked into the sex industry.

Increasingly, they come from Syria. Since I met Sheila back in May, the Europe-wide refugee crisis has seen the number of unaccompanied children arriving in Britain and seeking asylum soar. Thankfully, sole children account for less than 10% of the refugees seeking asylum here. But the figure for last year was a record anyway, at 1,861. In only the three months to July the number of lone children making it to my home county of Kent had doubled to 605. Admittedly, Kent includes the port of Dover, which is a major point of entry. But even so.

The beuaucratic asylum process these vulnerable children encounter when they finally make it to Britain is a huge shock to them, says Sheila. One of its most damaging aspects is that they find their stories are not believed. “It makes them feel crazy, completely crazy,” she says.

“It would be hard enough if you were an adult. But they are children. They don’t leap off a boat or jump out the back of a van and say yippee, I’m in England. They are exhausted, often ill and unprepared for the suspicion they experience.”

As they navigate the system, their credibility is challenged time and again. And the threat of deportation is always there. Last year, only about half the children under 17 who asked for refugee status received it. The rest were given some form of temporary leave to remain or had their application rejected, leaving them facing a forced return to their country of origin.

“You may feel safe to stay once you get asylum, but these young people are expected to live with a level of uncertainty that at their age they can’t manage. It’s very hard for them,” Sheila says.

Not only do they children feel isolated and helpless; they are often consumed by guilt and shame about why they left home in the first place and what’s happened to them on their journey. The effects include depression and other forms of mental illness. To help, Baobab offers psychotherapy and therapeutic activities like music making, arts-based workshops, social outings and philosophy discussions – “is it ever right to kill someone?” is a question they are especially keen to debate.

Sheila thinks of Baobab and its base just off a busy road in Holloway as a community, not a clinic. “That’s very important for people who have been forced to leave their own communities,” she says. “One of our aims is for them to find ways of living in a community again.”

When we met, Baobab was helping about 120 people, of whom 60 or so were regularly involved in weekly activities. Most of them were teenagers. The youngest was just six years old.

Working with these brave children is completely absorbing, Sheila says. “You learn so much about survival and resilience. Every day I hear about extraordinary ways that people survive.”

Today, these children are on the margins of British society, trying to get by on £36.95 a week, hoping they won’t get kicked out and sent “home”. But Sheila has high hopes for their future. “Our aim is that they will find a place in the wider community and contribute to this country,” she says. “And I believe that given the right support, they will.”

And it’s worth noting, Baobab gets not a penny of government funding.

 

“I became part of his story”

IMG_7485The guy in the photo above is Mohammed Mamdani. He runs a community food bank on the St Raphael’s Estate in Brent, North West London. It’s called Sufra, a Persian word. The literal definition is of a tablecloth or rug – one you spread on the ground when people eat together. But the word also connotes hospitality, generosity and shared humanity.

On the day I visited Sufra, Mohammed had spent the morning helping a man called Steve. Steve has a good work history and decent qualifications. But he also has mental health problems. When he was discharged from a care unit, he had nowhere to go, so ended up living under a nearby road bridge. He turned up at Sufra looking for a meal.

This is why a group of Muslim charities founded Sufra in 2013: to give free food to people like Steve; people in desperate need. Last year its food parcels helped 3,858 hungry Londoners – double the year before. They included 827 children aged under 18 and 200 younger than five.

Most of the people Sufra helps are going hungry because they’re waiting to get statutory benefits (35%) or their benefits have been disrupted (25%), usually because of a sanction. One in every six recipients is a family that is in work but not earning enough to eat.

“The people who come here have literally got nowhere else to go,” says Mohammed. “They have fallen through the cracks in the system.” Sufra gives them enough food and basic supplies for up to seven days. The size of the pack they get depends on the size of their household. For about two-thirds of the people who come for help, that one parcel is enough. They don’t ask again. They don’t become dependent on charity handouts.

If you can’t feed yourself and your family, that’s often just a symptom of a deeper social failure, says Mohammed. “It would be naive of us to think we can just give someone food and close the door on them. Our aim is to deal with the short, medium and long-term causes of deprivation. The food bank is a mechanism to engage with the most vulnerable. But it’s also a way to regenerate the local community.”

So Sufra teaches people to cook, provides free advice on housing, employment and financial issues. It helps people start their own businesses. It finds creative ways for them to buy cheap food, to grow their own produce, to access preventative health care.

I meet a lot of business people who like to talk about “innovation” and “entrepreneurialism”. But it’s often just talk. They’ve got nothing on Mohammed. “Because we are small, we can experiment and try new ideas,” he says. “We can do things really cheaply. We are a lot more agile than some larger charities. I don’t have to jump through 100 hoops to get something done.”

Sufra is sometimes called a Muslim food bank, but it’s not a label Mohammed uses. Generosity, kindness, humanity – this is his religion. “I meet so many different characters. And I meet these people face to face,” he says. “I see their problems. The homeless guy, Steve. I spoke to him, I learned his story, so I became part of his story. His suffering is now my duty. I don’t have any other reason to live, apart from this work.”

I met Mohammed as part of my work with The London Community Foundation, where I’m writer in residence. It was an honour.

Map of the estate

Map of the estate

Doesn't look like much. But incredible things happen in this building

Doesn’t look like much. But incredible things happen in this building

“People can come together and make things happen”

[A story of mine for The London Community Foundation]

The closure of their local library shocked the St James Street community. But out of the ashes they are building something incredible…

In April 1997 Alison Griffin, three-months pregnant and with a toddler in tow, took a two-week holiday in Libya. When she got home, she went straight to the local library, five doors along from her house on St James Street, Walthamstow, to return her borrowed guidebooks. A sign on the door said the library was closed. Permanently.

“I felt disbelief, and anger,” she says now. “How can you just take that public facility away? We hadn’t only lost the library, we’d lost our community space.”

Other local people felt the same way: Alison’s lounge quickly became the headquarters of a campaign to get the library reopened. But Waltham Forest council wouldn’t budge. In 2010 it decided to sell the building to a property developer.

Yet all was not lost. A sympathetic local councillor – Clare Coghill – negotiated an eleventh-hour chance for the campaign group to find a viable community use for the building. A contact suggested they apply to Nesta for funding under its Neighbourhood Challenge scheme.

“I filled in the Nesta forms as best as I could, in the hope that if we got on the shortlist, we could at least delay the sale of the building,” says Alison. “But that was all I could realistically hope for.” Much to her surprise, the application was successful. Nesta promised the group £150,000.

Surreal start

So it was that in April 2011, four years after she returned from holiday to find the library closed, Alison and others from the campaign team were standing on its doorstep, holding a Tupperware box full of keys.

“It was an eyesore,” she says. “A boarded-up, sorry building. The roof was leaking, there was water seeping everywhere, the boiler had long since gone. But it was very nice to get in, very exciting. If a bit surreal.”

Through the spring and into the summer local people worked to refurbish the building and get it open. Along the way, they constituted themselves as a charitable body, The Mill, with Alison as the first chair of trustees.

“None of us had done anything like this in our lives before,” says Mo Gallaccio, arts coordinator at The Mill. “We were constantly making it up on the spot. Problems would crop up, we’d have a bit of debate, and get on with it.”

Opening day in September 2011 was complete chaos, says Alison. “It was amazing, exciting, with a lot of people involved – but I think we were all pretty much exhausted by that point as well.”

Making stuff happen

The Mill’s purpose today is the same as it was when it first opened: to be a place where “people can come together and make things happen.” It has a children’s room full of books and toys; a large open space where people can meet; two smaller rooms for events and workshops; upstairs office space that provides some rental income; and a small honesty library – a touching and well-used nod to the building’s history.

Anyone can drop in for a cup of tea and a chat with friends or with the volunteers who are always on hand. There are events and classes in everything from yoga to baby massage, from gardening to chess. Most of these sessions are organised and led by local people themselves.

“The good thing about the Mill is it is so bottom up,” says Mo. “It’s not about us telling people what to do, it’s the community – everything that happens is because of people coming in with ideas.”

Growing ideas

Indeed, The Mill acts as a kind of incubator for micro-businesses. It makes small grants – often just £50 – so people can try things out on a small scale. One group of elderly residents formed Waltham Forest Community Radio, to celebrate and archive the lives and experiences of older people in the community. Another created the Asian Women’s Support Group.

The radio station secured funding under The Mill’s “Older People’s Pop Ups” scheme, which encouraged people to offer activities for older residents. The women’s group came from the “Grow Your Idea” scheme, which backed ideas that could connect people, help them to share their skills and experience, and build their self-confidence. Another project, “Mill Mentors”, recruited and trained volunteers who would then help local people set up groups and activities of their own.

“These schemes are an important part of our ethos,” says Alison. Dipping a toe into self-employment, trying to start something new, takes money, confidence and resources, she argues, even if you are doing it unpaid to start with. “If you can take away those barriers, people can try things.”

Some of the ideas piloted at The Mill have gone on to become very well established – the women’s group, for example. Others haven’t worked as well as everyone hoped. “But if you can experiment at low risk, people can learn from the experience.”

Bright future

Despite its early success, at the end of The Mill’s first year the outlook was darkening. The initial funding was about to run out. It wasn’t clear how long the centre could stay open, or whether it would have to slash the services on offer. “It looked like it was going to be extremely difficult,” says Alison.

The Mill turned to The London Community Foundation for help. It applied successfully for a small grant that provided enough money to employ an admin officer for a year. “That grant from The Foundation was essential. It gave us the time we needed to find more income,” says Alison.

The part-time admin officer has since become a full-time centre manager, with an assistant working under her. They make sure The Mill’s office tenants are properly looked after, and keep the centre running smoothly.

Looking to the future, there are plans to create more office space for rental income and to build a kitchen. Then people would be able to eat together, teach each other to cook, and experiment with pop-up restaurants. That could create new business ventures, while giving people skills to combat food poverty.

Many of the people who’ve benefited from The Mill are coping with big structural problems, like social isolation, discrimination, and poverty. “But as a small community project, maybe we can take the edge off that?” says Alison. “People have got somewhere to come now, somewhere friendly where they know people – where they are more likely to ask for help, if they need it. As a community, we are a lot more empowered.”

Alison

How a simple ‘what if?’ question is helping Hackney kids do better in school

[A story I wrote for The London Community Foundation…]

Lots of great ideas start with a simple “what if…?” question. For Catriona Maclay, the moment came when she was talking with friends over dinner.

As a secondary school teacher in North London, she’d noticed how easily young people could fall behind in their studies. Catriona asked herself: what if you put those children in a learning space like nothing they’d ever experienced, gave them a fun, real-world project to work on, gave them lots of support from community volunteers – could you turn their lives around?

To try and answer that question, Catriona created Hackney Pirates, a charity that develops the literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney.

After four years of hard work, fundraising, and life-changing success, the project now has a home of its own – a magical shop, café and learning space in Dalston, aptly called the Ship of Adventures.

Local young people aged 9–12 — known as pirates —   are referred to the project by their school or social services.  A typical visit will see each young pirate paired with a volunteer who will spend 45 minutes helping them with homework or reading books from the ship’s library. They then work together on the pirate’s creative project, which changes each term.

One project involved the pirates in making a CD of motivational speeches. They read a range of speeches, got a feel for how they were written and how they were best performed, and then wrote, performed and recorded speeches of their own.

Making a CD or creating a book is “really important because the children work towards real-world consequences,” says Catriona. “We noticed that a tangible objective is really motivating and exciting for young people.”

It’s a year since Hackney Pirates moved into the Ship of Adventures, a step that has been “completely game changing”, says Catriona. “When we were moving all the time, we were never able to completely focus on growing our social impact. Now we have stability, we are able to focus in a positive way, working with more children and allowing us to double the size of our learning programme.

“We now have shop where we can sell the young people’s work, underlining those ‘real-world consequences’. They now get to see their work, published on shelves every time they walk in here. It’s also our face to the world and a step towards putting our mission of learning adventures on the high street and promoting that anyone can come be a part of it.”

Hackney Pirates have benefitted from two rounds of funding provided by Dalston Bridge, a fund managed by The London Community Foundation. This helped to finance workshops for the pirates in their school holidays and paid for iPads they use for their creative projects and homework. It also funded some of the inspiring staff who’ve enabled the project to grow, to work with more children, and to make the most of its new home.

Impact studies show that 96% of the pirates’ teachers say children involved in the project show improved confidence, with 78% seeing better engagement with writing and attitude to learning. As for the pirates, 94% of them say coming to the project helps them at school.

The vision is for Hackney Pirates to become a community hub for learning, recognised as a place on the high street that has resources and volunteers to support young people, teachers and families — a kind of halfway house between schools and communities.

“Schools in Hackney are fantastic and we’ve seen incredible improvement over the years. We are not trying to replace school, but supplement it,” says Catriona. “We do the bit that schools are less able to do, and that’s give personalised attention to those who need it most, whether that’s because they’re statemented or there is some kind of intervention going on at school. We help with the building of confidence, perseverance and positive attitude to learning.”

Constraints liberate

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Bit slow to share my news on this one, but I ran a workshop on writing with constraints as part of the Guildford Literary Festival this summer. All of the 20 tickets for the event sold, which was very pleasing.

It was wonderful to see a room full of writers beavering away with their pens and notebooks, and to hear them sharing their words and thoughts. And their feedback was just lovely:

– Neil Baker is inspiring!
– Wonderful, inspiring facilitator. Would be interested in more workshops please.
– Just to thank Neil for making it so much fun and making us all feel so relaxed and comfortable.
– It was excellent. Well conceived, researched and delivered.
– Very well organised, great value.
– It allowed me to get free from my fear of writing.
– Engaging presentation, well presented.
– The timed writing exercises were a really good way to impose frameworks but allow creativity.
– It would be helpful to have more similar workshops.
– I will now never say again I don’t have time to write – 6 minutes is all you need!
– Thank you for a very thought provoking workshop this morning. May submit myself to the discipline of haiku now
– Went to fab ‘constraints’ workshop run by Neil Baker. Awestruck by how much he crammed in & what emerged.
– Thank you to Neil Baker for a fantastic “Writing with constraints” workshop this morning

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And here’s a tiny video clip of the writers in action.

 

THE STORY INSIDE

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This is Zoe Tynan Campbell, designer at Stumped Studio. I’m writing a piece of short fiction for Fiera magazine inspired by work she is showing at the London Design Festival.

Last week I popped round to her home/workshop to find out more about what she does, and why. It was also a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, as I used to live just round the corner from Zoe’s.

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This cute little piece of wood is what Zoe calls a Hasbeen (Sorry about the awful photo. You really have to hold a Hasbeen in your hand to appreciate its loveliness). She gathers unwanted or discarded lumps of wood and uses her wonderful lathe and impressive range of chisels to reveal the beautiful Hasbeen inside each one.

I like the idea that within every chunk of dull, utilitarian office furniture or rejected off-cut there is a delightful, playful character waiting patiently for its – or his, or her – chance to come out and be enjoyed.

Hasbeens have no particular function or purpose. But they are comforting to hold, to look at or just to have around. And watching Zoe make one reminded me to search for the story that is always waiting below the surface.

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http://vimeo.com/106274671

What is art for?

If you’re trying to make Art – and the capital A is deliberate – is it helpful to have some kind of end purpose in mind, some kind of idea about how your Art might be useful to the world, or even just to one person?

Back in my student days I wrote a 10,000-word dissertation about the value of art for art’s sake. It was handwritten in scrawling blue biro on WH Smith lined paper; no record exists. Perhaps that’s a good thing? I remember finishing the conclusion on the Tube, just before my train pulled in to Highbury and Islington station.

The five uses of art outlined in this video are worth thinking about…

 

 

Economist article: Hanli Prinsloo

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My article for The Economist about ocean campaigner Hanli Prinsloo (above) has just been published. Here’s how it starts…

Hanli Prinsloo was jogging on a Cape Town beach when she found two girls kicking a dead dolphin that had washed ashore. It could have been a creature from a distant galaxy, for all they knew.

Ms Prinsloo, a competitive free-diver and ocean lover, told the girls how Dolphins are mammals that live in family groups. That the females—like the one they had just stopped kicking—suckle their offspring for even longer than humans.

“Now they were sitting down, wiping sand off the dolphin, and pledging to stay with ‘her’ until the body had been taken away,” says Ms Prinsloo. “It was an amazing transformation. Imagine what might happen if you could take those girls into the water and show them what’s down there?”

You can read the rest here

The Sevillanos in his yellow hat

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I spend so much of my time writing. Yet I don’t think I have any photos of myself actually doing it. So the one above is rare indeed. I was on a writing retreat in Spain, in the hills above Aracena. I took this photo as I wanted to work out the self-timer on my new camera. My first effort failed, hence the photo of the empty chair below.

 

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They make an interesting couple. I wonder what I was writing at the time. I looked very focused in that first photo. But perhaps I was just pretending. And look at the second one: an empty chair; an empty pair of shoes. They speak of absence.

The day before, in a cafe in Seville, I took the photo below. An old man dressed head to toe in white linen, wearing a bright yellow hat. He kept a pair of silver pince-nez in a silver box. He read the day’s newspaper intently.

I went to the same cafe the next morning, before meeting friends for lunch and taking a taxi into the hills. He was there again, in the same clothes, reading the newspaper.

I wonder now, was he reading the same newspaper as when I first saw him? It would make an interesting story. The man who reads the same piece of news, every morning of his life. Why would he do that?

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Running pictures

Training for a marathon, I run 20 miles every Saturday. To distract myself from the pain – and sometimes the boredom – I externalise, focusing not on myself but on the world around me. To help with this, I take photos with my iPhone. The harder the run becomes, the more photos I take.

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Talent + effort = success

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What kind of effort does it take to get a first collection of stories published? There’s no one better to ask right now than Dan Powell.

I’ve been a fan of Dan’s writing for a long time and he’s done me the honour of beta reading some of my stories. So I was delighted when he was shortlisted for the 2013 Scott Prize and even more happy when the good people of Salt decided to publish his debut collection – Looking Out Of Broken Windows – which you can buy now.

But before you dash off to order Dan’s book, scroll down and learn a bit about the secrets of his success. I wanted to hear about the nuts and bolts of his writing world – the tricks and tools. So I threw him some questions.

Spoiler alert: success like Dan’s involves a lot of hard work and dedication. But I guess that’s no surprise.

1/ Dan, I’m obsessed with writing routines. Have you got one? What would you like to change about it?

My writing routine has to fit around my part time teaching work and the full time care of my three children, the youngest of whom is only three years old. On days when they are all in school or nursery and I don’t have to teach, I am at my desk as soon as I get back from the school run and I stay there until lunch, breaking only for coffee. This is when I’m at my freshest, so I tend to focus on my work in progress. After lunch, I work through until 3pm when the school run starts again. This slot is usually reserved for editing and the like. In the evenings of those days I blog and read through the day’s work.

If I’m called into work writing time is lost so I claw back as much as I can from the evenings and try to grab a few hours at weekends. My wife and extended family often support me by taking the kids off my hands for a few hours.

As sunrise is getting earlier now, I’m planning to try and get into the routine of rising early to write for an hour or two before the kids get up. I’m not a naturally early riser but as the final deadline for my Creative Writing MA looms, I know I will need to get some extra time from somewhere to whip the novel into shape. Here’s hoping I can haul myself out of bed.

What would I change? Like all writers, I’d like more time to write.

The Dan himself

The Dan himself

2/ I love data. I track my daily words in an Excel spreadsheet. How do you keep on top of your writing productivity?

I write pretty much all my drafts in Scrivener these days and it has a handy target and progress tab that allows me to set a word limit for a piece, which I can then use to set a daily target by inputting a deadline for myself. I find that the deadline is more important to me than a specified word count. I usually set up a project so that the deadline requires me to write about 500 words a day. I usually write more than the limit but 500 words or thereabouts feels like enough of a chunk for me to feel pleased if I complete it. For my novel I kept a journal in Day One (the mobile app) and I jotted my daily word count in that along with my thoughts on the day’s writing. A spreadsheet would have been more useful for tracking trends.

Bluebird. Aaaah

Bluebird. Aaaah

3/ Pen, pencil, yellow paper, 3×5 cards, laptop? What are your writing weapons of choice? How do you decide what to you use when?

My MacBook and the Scrivener app is my main writing tool these days. My iPad has been essential since I bought one back in 2012. It isn’t always practical to lug the laptop about so I make sure I have reading material and a section of whatever I am working on sitting in the Cloud so I can work on the go. I am often hanging about waiting for kids to come out of school clubs or have a lunchtime to myself when working so having something with me to work on is essential. Like many who use Scrivener, I can’t wait for the iPad version with Cloud syncing to finally see release.

I have loads of notebooks. My diary has a week to a page with a facing notebook page and that goes with me everywhere. It has deadlines and notes on whatever I am working on. It is also my main place for jotting down ideas when they come. I have a notebook in the glove compartment of my car, one in the pocket of my raincoat, one on my bedside. That way I never am never to far from a pen and paper.

I also have a typewriter in my study. That gets a run whenever I have the time and a project that I want to write more slowly. It’s a 1950s Bluebird and I picked up on eBay for a fiver. It needed a little TLC but it types perfectly now. I love the sound of it and the way it slows down the process. You have to think harder when working on the typewriter. I also have a portable Corona Zephyr that I can take on the move, if I feel like living the hipster cliché. It’s much lighter than the Bluebird and has a funky, Seventies design feel to it. I have written first drafts of the last few short stories on these.

Once I have a first draft, I record myself reading it using Garageband. I do this firstly to hear the story as I edit. You hear every mistake when you play the recording back. I record each section of a story separately so that, once I have each section in Garageband, the viewer shows each section visually. This is a quick and clear way to see the structure of the story, which sections take up most space, which are dominating the story, and which might need extending. Sometimes I use the floor to do this. I type up the story onto the MacBook then print it and lay the whole thing out on the floor to see the overall shape.

Zephyr

Did you think a Zephyr was a car?!?

 

4/ You are going on a two-week holiday with the family. The suitcase is stuffed to bursting. What one essential bit of writing kit do you sneak in when nobody is looking?

That would have to be the MacBook. Everything I need is on the hard drive of my silver machine. I would be lost without it. For this reason I back up obsessively both on the cloud and off.

5/ You meet a hopelessly blocked writer who can’t think of anything to write about and is desperate to kick start her creativity. You give her one tool and one piece of advice about how to use it. Explain your choices.

Since having the kids I have never had writers block. I simply don’t have the time to be blocked. I either write in the few hours before the kids get home/wake up or I get nothing done. So to answer you question, I’d loan your hypothetical writer my very real and time-consuming children. I guarantee, after a week, she’d be cramming as much writing as possible into every precious minute she has to herself.

6/ Step into my time machine and journey back to your childhood. There is one writing-related tool you want to own again. What is it and why do you want it so badly?

I kept a notebook in my teens full of pages of bad poetry and bits of short fiction. I regret ever chucking them out. I am sure the stuff in there was execrable but it would be great to have them to look back on and laugh at. I now keep all my notebooks and drafts just in case I ever need them.

7/ Get back into the time machine, Dan, because now we’re going to the future – 2024, to be precise. The writing tool you’ve been dreaming of for years has just come onto the market. What is it and how will it help you?

I used the Hemingway app the other day to edit a short story. You basically paste your story into the editor and it tells you how to improve the piece using Hemingway’s prose and rules for writing as the software’s guide. It was a surprisingly fun way of working and I think my story has ended up much improved. Taking this idea to an extreme, I would love to see this app taken to its logical conclusion: a virtual Hemingway (or any other great author) who works through your prose with you on a one to one tutorial style basis. The chance to talk stories with a virtual Raymond Carver or Anton Chekhov and get input on a work in progress would be ace.

LOOK, FREE STUFF…

Dan is giving away a signed copy of Looking Out of Broken Windows to one reader of his blog tour; he will post to anywhere in the world. To enter the draw just leave a comment here on this post or any of the other LOoBW blog tour posts appearing across the internet during March 2014 – or you can Like the Looking Out of Broken Windows Facebook page for a chance to win. The names of all commenters will be put in the hat for the draw which will take place on April 6th.

Scrivener contents of LOoBW

Scrivener in action. Click if you need to see it bigger

 

 

Hearse rake the coals of my heart

The 26 Words exhibition – “exploring the DNA of language” – opened in London last week. Among the works on display was the piece that I made with Mark Noad, inspired by the death of my mum earlier in the year.

Here’s the project in a nutshell: Take 26 pairs of writers and artists – one for each letter of the alphabet – and challenge them to make something inspired by a random word that starts with that letter. My letter was H and my word was Hearse.

I was a bit nervous about going along to see my finished piece on the opening night. I mingled busily, grazed on wine and crisps, took my time looking at other people’s work, and put off the moment when I’d have to go over and actually look at mine.

But it went very well. Someone whose views I value a lot said it was “brilliantly clever and profoundly moving”. A few other people said they were touched by it. And a very nice man called Jerome liked it so much that he got his wallet out and bought it, there and then.

The show – with fantastic work from 26 other writers – is at the Free Word Centre in London until January and then goes on tour. But in the meantime, here’s my bit. It’s called “Hearse rake the coals of my heart”…

The piece we made

And if you can’t read the words…

Hearse rake the coals of my heart

More wanted
Never agreed
Everything regretted
Nothing said beautifully
Lived inconsequentially
Failed completely.
Listen.
Love.
Remember this need.
You cry: please…

Please cry
You need this
Remember, love
Listen completely.
Failed inconsequentially
Lived beautifully
Said nothing regretted
Everything agreed
Never wanted more.

And here’s the story of how I wrote it (you can read Mark’s side of things here):

My word, Hearse, was chosen for me on the day my Mum died. She had a massive brain haemorrhage at home and never woke up. I appreciated the irony of the coincidence, as my Mum would have done, and decided not to ask for a different word.

Initially I thought I could put my Mum out of my thoughts and write something hearse-related that had nothing to do with her. It didn’t seem fair to dump all my grief onto Mark, my collaborator. And my Mum’s death was the last thing I wanted to write about, or even think about.

So I began on safe ground, researching the etymology of my word. A hearse was originally a framework for candles that hung over a coffin. Its root is in the Old French herce – a long rake or harrow. That gave me a line, “Hearse, rake the coals of my heart”, which eventually became our title.

Next I discovered hearse-owner clubs, watched promotional videos for funeral industry trade shows, thought about roadside memorial shrines, marvelled at the literalness of the German word for hearse – Leichenwagen, corpse wagon.

Bewildered by the possibilities, and with a deadline looming, I decided to give myself a constraint. I would write a palindrome – a string of words that can be read backwards as well as forwards. This was tricky, but fun. I was pleased with the result.

But I decided it wasn’t good enough. It just didn’t say anything. And I had a nagging sense that I was avoiding what I really ought to be writing about. Then I noticed that the word I’d been trying to dodge – mum – was itself a palindrome. That seemed like a sign to carry on, and to dig deeper.

So I started again. I wrote mum in the middle of a big sheet of paper and built a new palindrome around it. I wanted that central word to be a turning point. Everything leading up to it would be in one voice, with one meaning; everything afterwards would mean something very different.

This was hard and painful. I wanted to write something that was about loss and regret and love and forgiveness. It would be inspired by my mum, but I wanted to leave room for other people to relate to it in their own way.

Before Mark and I agreed the final text, we both felt one last change was needed. The word at the centre of the piece, around which everything revolved, had to go. For me it was a painful cut, but also a release. What remains can stand on its own.

A sneaky shot of someone looking at Hearse…
Me with Jerome, who bought Hearse… (hence I’m smiling)

Plant life

My main contribution to the gardening at home is to cut the grass and dig holes where I’m told to. But I enjoyed the ceramic flowers I found on a summer visit to the Botanic Gardens in Ventor.

Frances Doherty‘s pieces were strange, unexpected and beautiful. I particularly liked the simple words that came with them. A glimpse of the story behind each work made for an engaging encounter.

“Scruffy” hydrangeas…

While cycling in Holland…

Scarlet poppies…

From another inspiring cycle with friends…

Frances wasn’t the only person planting pleasing words in the Ventnor garden. I think this is the best “sorry for the mess….” sign I’ve ever read.

How to find story ideas

Where do I get my short story ideas from? Mainly I just make them up. But once in a while I’ll find something like this, an item in my local newspaper.

What makes this the germ of a good story? For me, it’s not the fact that this arch criminal was trying to escape the police in a kayak, or that his desire to start a new life in France was so spontaneously random. No, it’s the fact that he was wearing a child’s life jacket.

The strange power of the pen

Every year, when I take a summer holiday, the first items to go into my suitcase are always the same. I pack my notebook, a spare notebook, my pens, spare ink, a few pencils – my writing tools and accoutrements.

And that’s where they stay – in the suitcase.

I always think that when I’m away from the daily routine, when I have spare time in abundance, I’ll get lots of writing done.

Actually, I don’t get lots of writing done. I don’t get any done.

But that wasn’t quite true this summer. I did sit down for ten whole minutes in August to make a few notes about a woman called Dora.

Dora owned the house we were renting on the island of Brac, Croatia. She came by one day to drop off some clean sheets and we got chatting.

She told me how she’d bought the place as a ruin ten years ago. Originally it was a mill. Her husband renovated it as a hobby. His day job is teaching maths.

She’d lived in this village – Bol – all her life. Her husband came from Murvica, a hamlet along the coast that only recently became accessible by road.

I decided to ask Dora about something that had been puzzling me.

The five-minute walk from our holiday house to the sea goes past a derelict modernist hotel. It looked to me like a prime piece of property, ideal for investment. (And Bol is a classy beach town that’s had plenty of money spent on it since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.)

How had the hotel got into such a mess, and why had nobody fixed it up?

Dora’s English faltered at this point.

The problem had something to do with a dispute between the Catholic Church and the state, she explained in a vague way.

One of them owned the land – I couldn’t quite understand which – and the other was blocking its redevelopment.

“Before they were ok, now they are like this,” she said, punching one fist with the other.

I asked why, but she changed the subject.

I had the feeling that our conversation about pool maintenance and how many towels I might need had strayed into territory she found uncomfortable. It’s easy to forget; 20 years ago the people hereabouts were shooting their neighbours.

It interests me that I scribbled down some notes about our chat. I’d say that I pressed Dora to talk about something she was reluctant to discuss because I’m naturally curious. (Although my wife says I’m just nosey)

But I wonder, was I subconsciously driven by all those unfilled notebook pages? Even when the pen stays in the suitcase, does it still exert a strange power?

Not the best place in town

Even worse inside

How I became a highly successful novelist

Yesterday, I discovered that I am a highly successful novelist. It was quite a surprise. I’ve not managed to write a novel, never mind publish one.

But I have started two – maybe more, my hard drive is so cluttered. With the first, I got to about 27,000 words before I stopped. The second is about 60,000 words. I stopped that one too.

Until the day before yesterday, that made me sound like a failed novelist. Even a gutless one. I hadn’t just not made it, I’d given up. Twice.

But that’s not the case.

The aim with the first book was to write every day for three weeks – a continuous narrative, with the words accruing day by day. Job done.

For the second book, I wanted to reach 60,000 words. Again, job done.

I set my novel-writing goals and I achieved them. Hence I am a successful novelist.

The day before yesterday, when I was a failed novelist, I used to look back on my failures and wonder what went wrong. How could I avoid failure next time?

I’d need a rigid writing routine. I’d need a clear, detailed plot outline. I’d need to know what sort of WRITER I wanted to be. And I’d need time. Lots and lots of extra time.

Now that I’ve realised I’m a successful novelist, my thinking has changed.

I’m looking back on my two triumphs. Thinking about what worked, what success has taught me.

I know I can write a lot of words. That’s good. I can write every day, regardless of how busy I am with other stuff. When I’ve got no idea what happens next, I can make things up.

I’ve learnt that I’m flexible about process. I can write at home, on the train; out shopping, out running; on my own, with friends.

I can use Word. Pages. Scrivener. Ommwriter. I can use my laptop or a typewriter. I can use pens or pencils. Expensive notebooks, cheap notebooks. Scraps of paper. Sticky notes. Glue. String.

The main thing I’ve learned is this: I like doing it.

I like doing it so much that even if a pernicious virus deleted every draft as soon as I typed The End, I’d still keep doing it.

Now it’s true that I might have written an enormous amount of dross. But I think the same could apply to a lot of other novelists, many of those whose “success” is measured by more traditional yardsticks – such as sales, fame, critical acclaim.

What I do know is that whenever I’ve been writing my novels, I’ve had fun. Well, it wasn’t always fun. But it was satisfying. Hugely.

So I’m a success. Is that a reasonable conclusion, or an absurd act of self-delusion? Or both? And does the answer matter? I don’t think so.