the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

Art under the lockdown lens

In a determined effort to make the most of our freedom before lockdown, David and I visited the Russell-Cotes Gallery in Bournemouth on Saturday. Formerly the home of Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, the building was completed in 1901 and is stuffed with paintings, sculptures and mementos from overseas travels enjoyed by the couple.

Photo: Ethan Doyle White

Unlike the photo above, it was pouring with rain when we visited, as evidenced by this photo of the leaking conservatory.

Fortunately, the rest of the house is dry! Until 18 April 2021, there is a special exhibition titled Hidden Highlights Life in Lockdown which comprises eighty of the galleries ‘lesser works’ taken out of storage to replace planned exhibitions which had to be rescheduled due to Coronavirus. The gallery invites visitors to reinterpreted the paintings on display through a lockdown lens. Some of the works include hilarious captions which had me laughing out loud. What do you think of these examples?

Shall we drive to Corfe Castle to test our eyesight?

The hand washing and hand sanitising inspection was very thorough
Socially-distanced dating Georgian style

The exhibition has inspired me to run a social media campaign to promote Pandemonium along the same lines. Here’s the first example:

Ghost Buster! Corona Buster!

Stay safe and well.

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Celebrating Libraries Week

Libraries Week is an annual event which takes place during the second week of October. This year it runs from 5–10 October 2020 and aims to celebrate all that UK libraries have to offer. And it’s not just public libraries that participate but school libraries, workplace libraries and university libraries.

Titles available for loan through Dorset Libraries

In Dorset, our libraries have become community hubs where so much more is on offer than the loan of books, audiobooks and DVDs. Babies and young children enjoy songs and rhymes, school children join fun learning activities, residents can find out more about managing health and there’s access to wifi and games. Help is available at the library to find out about employment opportunities, and support to start a new hobby or set up a business. With so much going on, libraries are well worth celebrating.

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Good company at Victorina Press

Established in 2017, Victorina Press believes in bibliodiversity. This is where small independent presses create a healthy publishing eco system by ensuring new and undiscovered authors reach an audience. I feel lucky to be published with Victorina Press alongside Rhiannon Lewis author of My Beautiful Imperial a Water Scott recommended historical novel, Chris Fielden author of Alternative Afterlives, fellow Dorset writer Vicki Goldie author of the cosy crime Charters Mysteries series and more recently Amanda Huggins, with her coming-of-age novella All Our Squandered Beauty.

I first met Amanda at a Christmas party celebrating our first flash fiction collections published in 2018 by Chapeltown Books. You can read more about Amanda’s Brightly Coloured Horses here. Amanda went on to have two further collections published by Retreat West Books and a poetry pamphlet which won a Saboteur Awards prize in 2020.

Now Amanda is an author with Victorina Press, I had the pleasure to receive an early copy of her novella for review:

All Our Squandered Beauty is a coming-of-age novella set in the 1970s where the protagonist, Kara, a fisherman’s daughter struggles to come to terms with the loss of her father. She rejects the prospect of early marriage that her best friend settles for and focuses instead on future studies in London. During the summer, she spends time on a Greek island where she learns more about herself and her relationships with others. Kara can’t see that she’s emotionally fragile but gradually she learns some mistakes can be rectified while others she has to live with. The sea provides a backdrop to the narrative, sometimes powerful ‘to see the water change from grey to ink and the sky deepen to fire’ and at other times benign, ‘millpond calm, a deep deep blue.’ This is a wonderful read filled with tenderness, charm and hope.

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You can purchase All Our Squandered Beauty now from the Victorina Press shop and it will be available from early 2021 through Waterstones, Foyles and Amazon.

 

 

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Two in a row

I’m delighted to share the news that my debut novel The String Games has been shortlisted in another literary competition. This one is very close to my heart. As a resident of Dorchester I’m proud to be one of the final three in a competition founded by the Dorchester Literary Festival and sponsored by Hall & Woodhouse.

The aim of the competition is to continue Dorset’s literary tradition by investing in its homegrown talent. A judging panel, including professional writers and a leading literary agent compile the shortlist so this is a real chance to gain wider recognition for my debut novel. The awards ceremony, hosted by a leading writer will be held on 5 October 2020 (Covid-19 permitting).

I attended the previous two ceremonies, the inaugural competition was in 2018 and hosted by Kate Adie when Philip Browne won with his remarkable non-fiction book The Unfortunate Captain Peirce and the Wreck of the Halsewell about a shipwreck off the Dorset coast in 1786.

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Philip Browne receives his prize from Kate Adie.

Last year, my good friend Maria Donovan was on the shortlist and came runner-up with her moving story about loss and grief from a young boy’s perspective in The Chicken Soup Murderwhile Emma Timpany took the prize with Travelling in the Dark.

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Shortlistees from 2019 with Emma on the left, Maria on the right and centre is Minette Walters

I look forward to meeting the other shortlisted writers but the in meantime, I celebrate all those who were on the longlist:

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Although my name is on the cover of The String Games, there are many Dorset people who helped this novel reach its audience. Thank you to all those readers and writers who gave feedback and others who supported with proof reading and editing. Without you, my story may never have found a home with Victorina Press or gained recognition in writing competitions such as this.

 

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Pandemic writing opportunities

Coronavirus has inspired even more people to write fiction. This is a good  thing because stuck at home or venturing out, anyone can take a leap into the world of their imagination. I have long argued that as humans we all need a creative outlet, be it gardening or cooking or painting. Writing is one of the most accessible forms of creativity because the resources required are no more than a piece of paper and a pen. And, with only the hand moving across the page, it’s not physically demanding either (although some of us do complain about writer’s bottom!)

In Dorset, our local history centre started a project in early April requesting people keep diaries of their experiences during the pandemic. The aim is to ensure that future generations can look back on the present day’s experience and understand the impact of Coronavirus across the county.  I look forward to reading the Corona Diaries when they are published.

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Writing prize longlist announced

Imagine my delight when I received an email saying The String Games has been longlisted in the Dorchester Literary Festival Local Writing Prize. This is fabulous news as it means my novel is recognised in my home county of Dorset. An announcement on Facebook gives details of the five other longlistees. It’s such fun to find myself in the great company of three writers I know and respect. They are Helen Baggott, author of Posted in the Past, Cathie Hartigan author of Notes from the Lost (Cathie was also shortlisted in 2018 competition with her debut novel) and Brent Shore author of Blessed are the Meek. The two other authors are A K Biggins author of Losing Jane and Vivienne Endecott  author of Exploring Englishness.

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(unusually) ahead of the technology game

Now everyone is using video technology to keep in touch during lockdown, I’m proud to say I’ve been using this throughout my VSO placement in Uganda to continue writing collaboratively with friends at 3-She. Our comedy writing trio began in March 2017 when Sarah Scally, Maria Pruden and I attended a comedy sketch writing workshop. Our sketch Killer Ladybugs was then selected for a scripted reading scratch night at the Marine Theatre in Lyme Regis.

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Flyer from the event in 2017

We continued our comedy writing journey at Sweet in Brighton, where Killer Ladybugs was staged as part of Cast Iron X, the tenth collection of short plays from Cast Iron Theatre. You can read about the experience here.

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Screenshot from WritersDuet of Killer Ladybugs

As we worked on new material, travelling across Dorset to meet up became very time consuming so we started using WritersDuet. This professional screenwriting software enabled us to draft our comedies collaboratively while discussing content during WhatsApp video calls.

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Impro on WhatsApp!

We’re still collaborating in this way and we are hoping to have a new sketch show ready for rehearsal whenever lockdown restrictions are lifted.

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E-volunteering and working as an author

Now that I’ve returned to the UK from my VSO volunteer placement at Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda, I’m getting back into the swing of my writing life. You can read about how I am collaborating with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on a children’s picture book called Pan-de-mo-nium here. But I’m not yet willing to relinquish my experiences in Uganda, so I’m very pleased to share the news that I’ve been appointed as a Psychosocial Support and Emotional Learning Expert E-volunteer. This appointment followed an online application and interview. I have a job description and an E-volunteer agreement which last six months and is renewable. I am very impressed with the thorough application process and the support offered by VSO in my new role. I’m also finding this work dovetails very well with my current writing project.

As part of my E-volunteer responsibilities, I’ll co-ordinate a task group with a focus on mental health, psychosocial support and emotional learning to help children and families in the poorest countries. Proposed work includes adapting advice material for parents to support the emotional wellbeing of young children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Already there is very relevant material published to support parenting, please see an example poster below:

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There are six posters altogether covering issues such as managing behaviour and providing structure for children during the Covid 19 lockdown. Click here to access these in a worldwide range of languages.

I’m also part of a storytelling task group and from my experience as an author of a children’s picture book, I hope to contribute fully.

During the Covid 19 restrictions, there are challenges in terms of coping with lockdown but also opportunities in extending virtual support to others. It’s a time of working out what’s important as an individual, as a family member and as part of a wider community.

How have you found Covid 19 has affected your outlook?

 

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On a road to somewhere

At a time when we’re restricted in our movements due to Covid19, it occurs to me that travelling by road is now something to savour. And there have been many journeys I’ve taken by road that are worth revisiting. From unsealed routes to highways, roads are symbolic of progress, a life path, even a map to the future and a way back to the past. But it’s the physical experience of travelling by road that I’m interested in exploring here. If you’ve followed my recent posts, you will be aware that the journey from Koboko to Yumbe in Uganda is along a red dust road. Travel behind another vehicle and visibility becomes a huge problem. Other hazards include cows (they always have right of way), motorbike taxis called boda bodas (which slip in the dust) and the inevitable potholes. The drive to Bidibidi refugee settlement is even worse especially when riding pillion on an off road bike. It felt like we were driving over corrugated iron and it was hard to believe the conditions could get any worse… but they did. With the arrival of the wet season in March, rivers of rain gouged deep tracks in the paths and on more than I occasion I got off the bike to walk rather than face negotiating another gully.

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Other occasions when I’ve walked alongside a vehicle include a journey from London to Kathmandu in 1981 with Top Deck. The travel company was started in the 1970s by a group of Australians who converted Bristol Lodekka buses into touring vehicles by fitting a kitchen and seating downstairs and installing bunks on the upper deck for sleeping.

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photo: Philip Wadds

On the mountainous roads across northern India and into Nepal, we were frequently required to walk in order to lighten the load on the vehicle. Doug Foskett’s footage shows instances of us doing just that. Another perilous road, this time covered in snow, was negotiated with the use of only two snow chains for the wheels. As we approached the Turkish border with Iran, the bus slipped and slid so much we passengers were like crew on a dinghy, lurching from one side to the other in order to keep the bus steady.

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photo: Philip Wadds

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Crazy few days

We rushed back from Bidibidi refugee settlement to the main town in Yumbe, Uganda on Wednesday 18 March to listen to President Museveni’s address. It had been a busy day  at the settlement where I delivered activities to parents of village 15 and 13. The sessions were particularly enjoyable. I distributed loops of string so that we could share string figures. The purpose was to allow refugee parents to reconnect with their cultural traditions in order to build psychosocial wellbeing. I also taught the English string figure ‘cup of tea’ so that we could reflect on the challenges of undertaking new learning for adults and for young children.  It isn’t easy teaching a string figure to a group of over one hundred participants so I relied on parents who grasped the process quickly to be able to help others. The session was an amazing success. Discussion focused on how we learn best and we talked about observing demonstrations, listening to instructions, following illustrated guidance contained in handouts, having one-to-one support and how moving our muscles can help us to learn. We then related this to children’s learning and how parents can best support learning in the home. Women in the group ululated when participants showed string figures they knew and I felt everyone went away from the session having learnt something. I had four further sessions to deliver that week, so I was looking forward to more positive experiences, but first we needed to know what President Museveni had planned in response to Covid19.

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There was the usual power shortage in Yumbe, so my colleagues and I went to a cafe with solar power in order to watch the address on television. The restrictions announced weren’t exactly a surprise, but the email I received during the speech was. My flight home had already been brought forward from 2 April to 26 March and now there was new advice from VSO Uganda to take the Emirates flight to Gatwick leaving on 20 March. That meant I had to start packing for departure to Kampala the next morning in order to catch the flight the following day.

So that’s what happened. Yumbe to Kampala is over 600km and the road is unsealed for the first part of the journey. I said goodbye to my colleagues at the office in the morning, then set off.

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I arrived in Kampala at 8pm, just in time to grab some dinner at the hotel then head off to bed. I got up early the following morning to complete a couple of reports and finish my work. One of the achievements of my placement involved collecting information on young children with disabilities living in the seven villages with Early Childhood Care and Education centres in Zone 3. With the database complete, I shared it with other NGOs to allow staff to follow up with medical and/or educational assessments. A replacement for my role at Bidibidi has been appointed and the database will also be useful to offer targeted provision to children and families in need of psychosocial support and parenting help.

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