Well, it’s been a strange time starting on the 19th June 2022. When, out of the blue, a haemorrhage stroke landed at my door. The next I knew, my brain has scrambled. Not great.
It’s taken many months, but I am on the mend.
However, now physically I’m brilliant. I am stronger and fitter (and beautifully thinner too). I am still improving my reading, writing and speaking, but still more time is required. It is so strange but it will be all right again.
Thank you very much, my friends from WordPress – so many who giving me support. Most of all, Cliff, my wonderful man, keeping me safe and sound. He is my soulmate.
And now you’ve seen me around and eventually I’ll be back properly.
Lovely, isn’t it? This sampler, inherited from my husband’s side of the family, is by far the oldest piece we have in our house. We don’t know much about the family members mentioned, only that they were part of the Dodding family who were prosperous merchants living in the Lake District, in the north-west of England. The family made a fortune and built a fancy house then a risky investment in a coal mine in Birmingham, which turned out to have no mineable coal, led them to lose most of their money. The fancy house had to be sold, but that’s about all I know of their story. One thing I do know is that ‘our’ Elizabeth wasn’t related to the much more famous Elizabeth Gaskell, English novelist, biographer and short story writer, although that would have been so cool – a famous writer in the family!
But that’s not the reason I’m sharing this particular family heirloom with you. It’s because it is a ‘little inspiration’.
I was pondering on what to post today, wandering about the house (as I do), when I found myself contemplating the sampler. As I stood before the sampler my thoughts drifted to a recent post by Jean Lee on ‘How do you name your characters.’ My response to this question, about which she expands so interestingly, was this: ‘Naming characters is like naming cats… I have to wait for them to whisper them to me.’
Then I remembered that it was while I was gazing at the sampler that William, from Following the Green Rabbit, whispered his name to me. The date is about right for the ‘olden times’ part of the story, and it’s a nice ‘solid’ name for his character. I’d already named his wife, Ellen, for my maternal grandmother. The name just seemed right, and it was she who inspired me to improve my cookery skills. Grandma Atkins gave me her recipe for Lancashire Hotpot which in turn became my first published piece anywhere!
So now, what better time to introduce you to William, as my young heroine Bethany first finds herself back in the ‘olden times’.
Excerpt from Following the Green Rabbit
“There was this man. He was dressed oddly, in sort of sacking stuff, but he had a nice, friendly face and I wasn’t afraid. He reminded me of Papa in a way, you know how his eyes pucker up at the edges when he smiles?” Bethany fell silent.
Bryony looked out across the garden; she blinked quickly then turned back to her sister. “A man, you say, in the woods? What did you do?” She glanced towards the kitchen door and over to Tom’s work shed, but there was no sign of either of their benevolent and hugely protective guardians.
“Well, he held out his hand to me, and I took it. He said something, but I didn’t quite understand him. He had a funny way of talking.”
Bryony’s eyes widened. “You took his hand? Beth…”
“I know I shouldn’t’ve done, but…” Bethany closed her eyes and shook her hands in front of her, like she did when she knew she’d done something wrong.
Bryony stretched out and grabbed her hands. “It’s all right; gently now. Take a deep breath and tell me.”
Bethany breathed in and out a few times.
“That’s better. Pray continue,” said Bryony, imitating the voice of the frightful Miss C.
Bethany looked up. “He told me his name was William and he lived with his wife nearby. We walked a little way and we came to his house. It was built out of stones and had a sort of straw roof, like one of the ones from the olden days in our big history book, except it seemed quite new. There was another little building too, like Tom’s workshop, and there were chickens running about outside.”
“His wife was called Ellen and she was sitting on a little bench outside the house. She had a big mound of white fluffy stuff next to her. She said it was from one of their sheep and she showed me how she was straightening it out with two big brushes.” Bethany frowned, putting her head on one side. “What did she call it?” She looked up at the sky. “Carding, that’s it. It was called carding. She showed me how to do it. Then we went into the house and she gave me some milk and biscuits.”
“Then Ellen said it was getting late. She and William looked at each other, you know, that funny kind of look which adults give each other, when we’re not supposed to understand something.” Bethany rolled her eyes. “Then William said that he’d walk me back to the village, so I explained that we didn’t live in the village. And they gave each other that look again. So I told them where we lived, but they didn’t know our house. They said there was no big house over the other side of the wood; just more trees.”
Bryony frowned. ‘How could they not know Bluebell Wood House?”
Bethany shrugged. “Perhaps I didn’t explain it very well. You know I get muddled up with directions. Anyway, they asked me to stay where I was and they went outside for a little while. When they came back they looked happy again. William said he’d take me back to the part of the woods where he first saw me and I’d be sure to find my way home. So that’s what we did.”
“I hope you thanked Ellen.”
“Yes,” Bethany rolled her eyes again. “You sound just like Hodge.”
“Who’s taking my name in vain?”
The two girls looked round. Hodge was carrying a basket of washing to hang out on the line.
“Oh, nothing. We were just saying we should thank you for our lunch,” said Bryony quickly.
“Well, you’re very welcome and you can show me your gratitude by clearing the table there.” She balanced the washing basket on her hip and picked the little carved robin up from the table. “That’s a pretty little thing, so it is. Where did you get it?”
‘I found it in the w… orchard,” stammered Bethany.
‘Hmm,” Hodge pursed her lips and put it down. She shifted the heavy basket in front of her. “Just mind you carry those lunch things in carefully,” she said turning away and continuing down the garden.
They started to clear the table. When Hodge was out of earshot Bethany picked up the robin and turned to her sister. “When William took me back to the woods he gave this to me and said it was a present to remember him and Ellen by. I took it from him and looked at it, but then when I looked up he’d gone. I didn’t even get the chance to thank him.” She stroked the little carving. “The funny thing is that when he gave it to me it looked like new. The colours were all bright and shiny. Now it looks as if it’s really old.”
FOLLOWING THE GREEN RABBIT ~ a fantastical adventure
This morning’s #Writing My City workshop (re-arranged from last Friday when most people arrived too late to do anything, but never mind) took us to a whole new level.
Rather than prepare anything for group participation, I’d decided that we should just write, and then write some more. We had finished our previous workshop in writing mode and sure enough, stories had been written, at least partly.
I was so pleased to find that most of the group had written their stories in English (contrary to what they had told me they would do). I read each of them in turn in a quiet area, with their authors. And I had someone to help translate the two pieces which were written in Afrikaans.
The #WritingMyCity project is about the stories, not about how they are written, but reading stories phrased in the local vernacular is very pleasing.
The stories I read this morning are thought-provoking. They are disturbing and they have got under my skin. These stories have been told from the heart, and they are heart-wrenching. Most important of all, they are real. Powerful stories, written by women who lack power. All but one are from what we so tastefully call the ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ as if they’re not still disadvantaged. All of these women have lived through very tough experiences.
For some, this writing journey has opened barely-healed wounds which are hard to deal with. But there will be support. For many of them it may offer a way to that special writing space which means so much to me. At least I hope so.
I’m saddened and humbled by their stories. I feel privileged that they have trusted me to read them. I am gratified that now they have the will and confidence to share them further by submitting them to the project.
When we let our stories out into the world next week we will celebrate… with cake!
Here we are, Friday evening at our Book Launch Party!
Wonderful local wine and people enjoying the atmosphere.
Listening to the speech
Why can’t I speak without waving?
Best selling author Natasha Anders
Husband Cliff explaining the challenges in working on a cover design
Theresa Wilds and Rae Rivers
A few of the pics from the Q and A session after Paul and I had told everyone about our books, with local authors Natasha Anders and Rae Rivers, and cover designers and illustrators Cliff Davies and Theresa Wilds.
I was excited and quite optimistic about how it would go, particularly since after the initial struggle of thefirst session, we had finished up with heads down, writing.
I’d done lots of preparation, including finding what I thought was accessible material for my little group of (principally) Afrikaans-speaking ladies. I had a photo-prompt, some poems to read and a ‘kick-off’ worksheet.
Oh, and I’d brought cake.
Everything was prepared; my laptop was poised ready to play the You Tube clips. Slowly-slowly the group members dragged themselves in. We greeted each other, then they crawled around on the floor finding sockets where they could charge their phones. We assembled around the table with our coffee and biscuits.
We had a little recap. Had anyone continued writing? Just the one willing woman. The one who’s really keen. Okay, that was expected.
So, I explained, I’ve found some Afrikaans poetry, written by a guy from the Cape back in the Days of the Struggle. He’s called Adam Small. It’s good stuff!
‘O oppas, oppas‘ performed by Veronique Jephtas. [Now I’d thought it was engaging, even though I understood about one word in ten].
Blank looks all round. I handed out the copies of the poem and tried to get them to translate. A few words were squeezed out. Maybe it was a bit before their time… maybe it wasn’t my place… I don’t know.
So I picked up another of his poems: ‘The Poet, Who is he?‘ Here’s the rough translation:
The poet Who’s he? You all have so much to say about the poet But who’s he? Is he really what you think? The guy with the pen and the ink who sits in his study and thinks out poems?
No You’re all mistaken Not him But you’re the poets You, guys who walk in the street And gossip And see things And point them out and let God know
The point being… you are the poets! Refer back to the success of the rapper. You can do it!
For my final flourish, I played one of Veronique Jephtas’ own pieces of performance poetry. Warning: strong language.
Break through! They enjoyed this. We talked about the role of women, their place in society etc. It was really interesting, but their supervisor from Social Development urged against pursuing their vulnerable feelings. Fair enough. I’d thought of that for Part Two.
For the second half I used a photo prompt. A recent one from the lovely Hélène Vaillant’s Willow Poetry: ‘What do you see?‘
The little boy hiding behind a tree. I explained that the poems we were about to read were inspired by the photo. You can use anything to get yourself writing.
I gave them copies of the following and we read them together.
Thanks for your poetry!
The one ‘willing woman’ and Bongi, the Head Librarian, took up the discussion about the poems with me. Some of the others also participated. We had engagement.
For this last part of the morning I wanted to take them back to an earlier, happy memory. I shared one of mine. Of being in my grandma’s kitchen…
Think about an early memory, something happy.
Now perhaps you’d like to write something? You don’t have to read it out. Think about that memory: Where are you? Who’s with you? What can you see? What does it look like? What can you hear? What does it sound like? Smells are very important to memories. What can you smell? Describe it. What can you feel when you put out your hand? What do you feel inside? What can you taste? What happened? What were you thinking? What did you do? (I gave them each a worksheet with the headings).
And then they all put away their phones and started writing. And continued writing.
You may recall from a few weeks back that I’d volunteered to be a facilitator for Cape Town’sWriting My Cityproject.
I should at this point mention that the local library where I was found a place, Suider-Strand Library, had entered into a joint initiative with the Social Development Department, which is broadly involved in upliftment programmes. Hence my little group of 10 ladies were parolees. So, some good stories here! And, I was assured, they had volunteered for the workshops and were keen to write. I was further assured that they were English speakers (to my shame, I have not learned more than the basics of Afrikaans, even after 9 years here).
Well, to cut to the chase, as they say.
The tables are arranged, we have pens and paper, we have coffee and biscuits, and the six ladies and I have introduced ourselves. One of their number is their parole supervisor. Head Librarian, Bongi, is at my side.
I spend a few moments outlining the project. How we want to hear people’s stories. How it is that the story is important, not the actual writing, but I’m here to help with that.
“Are we getting lunch?”
“But we’re here all day.”
“Er, sorry, no. Just 10 til 12.”
I continue to talk about the project. I talk about how powerful their stories will be. How they might be included in a book, which will be launched at an important book festival. Bongi nods encouragement.
They chat amongst themselves (in Afrikaans), then one says: “Are we getting paid for this?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, we’re not going to write anything unless we get paid for it. People are going to make money out of this book and we want a share of it.”
I turn to Bongi for support. A short discussion ensues in which we learn about a whole range of issues which concern these women. Creative writing is not really what they need at this point! Some of these women haven’t even adjusted to being outside prison. They have been incarcerated for between 5 and 10 years in the same facility. One has only been out for a few months. They are having problems settling back into their communities and relating to their children again.
I close my folder. I should be a social worker, or a counsellor, or someone teaching basic literacy skills. But I’m not any of these things.
A different tack is required if I’m going to make anything of this opportunity. We continue the discussion for a little while longer. I explain they don’t have to write anything unless they want to. I say I hope they will though, because it might help them make sense of things. I go on about how it is to lose yourself in writing stories. Even if I can’t make a living from it. Etc. I’m sure you get my drift.
I mention a local author whom I met recently. She does make a living from her novels. A good one. She’d told me that it was just by chance that her first self-published book got noticed, how she’d got a publisher and how she’s sold 100,000 books. I likened her to a singer/wrapper who suddenly gets discovered.
We have another break. When we all sit down again, they are more positive. They ask me if I’d known where they were from. They seem relieved that I did. Another woman from their group has arrived, and two officers from Correctional Services have joined us too. They will be observing.
We do a little exercise introducing ourselves. Apart from the new-comer, they all write in Afrikaans and their supervisor reads their words out. Some are funny, some are poignant. But they’ve all started writing.
We talk more about ourselves.
I give them a silly story to read which I’d brought along as an icebreaker. It’s one of Ellie Scott’s which she recently posted on her website. It’s called ‘The Ultimate Anti-Aging Secret‘. They love it! Ellie helpfully explains at the end of the story how she gets her inspiration to write. We talk about that too. (Thanks Ellie, that helped!).
Then I ask them what story they might like to tell. It can be about anything. I mention the project again and our late-comer is totally engaged. She’s always written and she’s up for this. Her enthusiasm is infectious. The group is coming around.
We have about 30 minutes left. I ask them to spend about ten minutes writing about something, anything. It doesn’t have to be for the project. They don’t have to share it with anyone. They can write it in their home language. ‘Make it for you,’ I say.
A minute later they are all busy. Ten minutes later they are all still writing. I stop them with ten minutes to go and ask them if they’d like to tell the group what they’ve been writing about. Most say they’ve started writing about what went wrong with their lives, but one says she’s been writing about meeting her boyfriend. ‘Mills and Boon’. We all laugh.
Time will tell how we progress, but I know we already have one very powerful story which will be told beautifully and painfully. I have another four sessions to find out if there will be more.
Cape Town Libraries, in conjunction with the Book Lounge and the Fugard Theatre, are involved in an event calledWriting My Citywhich is to encourage Capetonians to write stories and poetry about the city they live in.
Cape Town is home to a multiplicity of voices, however some voices are missing. This initiative is aimed at finding those voices and giving them the opportunity to tell their stories to a wider world. In this way, more local community stories can be told and shared.
The aims of the project are wider than just the stories though. This is an opportunity to celebrate and deepen the understanding of who and what makes Cape Town the city it is. By improving understanding, we hope to build better social cohesion. It is also an opportunity to highlight the importance of libraries in the community and widen access to writing and publishing for people who would not otherwise see their work in print.
The winning submissions are to be compiled into a book for publication during the Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September.
Having responded to a call for facilitators, I shall be leading a series of writing workshops at one of our local libraries over the coming weeks. My aim is to bring the stories of ten local women (who I’ve not met yet) to life. The first session’s next week. I’ll keep you posted!
Connor turns from the window where he has been gazing out onto the empty street. “You’re the author, Ms Hall; we’re entirely in your hands.” He fiddles with the change in his trouser pockets. “But well, we were wondering, when exactly is our book coming out?”
I stare back at him, not comprehending the situation. My gaze travels around the room. Next to me, dressed in a blue silk caftan, legs curled up underneath her on the couch, is Cynthia. She is busy examining her beautifully manicured nails. Opposite sits Lucy, long blonde hair glowing.
“It’s just that it’s been so long,” Lucy says, a little breathlessly. “I mean…” her voice trails off and Pierre, her boyfriend, who is perched on the arm of her chair, squeezes her shoulder gently.
Lucy turns to Gina who is sitting in the matching armchair next to her. I notice she is fiddling with a shiny new ring on her third finger. The light catches the bright solitaire diamond sending patterns flashing across the worn Persian rug where Asmar, Cynthia’s cat, is lounging. He dabs at the flickering light with a casual golden paw. The blaring of a televised football match filters down from the flat upstairs where Gary, Gina’s boyfriend fiancé now? must be watching.
Gina sits forward and leans towards me. “It’s not that we’re ungrateful. We’ve loved our story. It was so exciting!” She pauses for a moment. “Well, mostly.” She frowns momentarily. “It all turned out all right in the end though,” she adds, grinning. “It’s just that, I’m sorry to have to say this, but we feel like we’re in limbo.”
I look around the room at these people whom I know so well; these people with whom I’ve spent so many hours.
Connor clears his throat. “Time waits for no man… or woman.” He takes his hands out of his pockets and puffs out his chest. “I have had a second slim volume of my poetry accepted for publication since you finished our manuscript.”
I gave you an agent, I think to myself. I fiddle with the pen I’m holding and glance down to see my notebook open on my lap.
Connor darts forward and grabs it. “Oh no, Ms Hall. No more changes. It’s done. Finished. You told everyone so.”
I hold my hands up. “I know. And it is. Finished I mean.” I sigh, my hands dropping into my lap. “I’m just waiting for the artwork for the cover.”
Connor nods gravely.
At that moment there is a knock at the door.
“It’s open,” calls Cynthia.
Tony Wong, whose flat is across the hall and who is landlord to Cynthia, Gina and Lucy, smiles and enters. He pads over the rug and holds out a bowl stacked high with pale brown crackers. “Would you like a fortune cookie, Ms Hall?”
I take one and pull out the little paper message, but it’s like one of those plot-halting moments. I can’t read a single word.
A true-life story of an author and her characters 😉