the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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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Limitations and opportunities during the pandemic

Last month I received the news that the Mani Lit Fest 2020 is cancelled. I had been excited about travelling to Greece in October to deliver a couple of workshops and some readings. Although the decision is totally understandable, it did come as a disappointment. But not any more. I understand the festival will be running in 2021 so that’s definitely something to look forward to.

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Church in Chori where Bruce Chatwin’s ashes are buried

The Mani is a beautiful part of Greece and you can read about an earlier visit to writer Carol McGrath‘s house near the delightful seaside town of Stoupa here. Living through a pandemic has many limiting factors and prospects for overseas travel or indeed any sort of travel takes considerable planning. It seems that Coronvirus has the capacity to clip wings but it opens other opportunities. I’ve loved having more regular Zoom calls with friends in Australia, for example.

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Woman on the Golden Hind

I’m reading a fascinating novel just now. It’s On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery. What an absolutely fabulous cover!

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The narrator is Maria, an enslaved woman who shares her experiences of living on the Golden Hind for nine months.  Meticulously researched, Nikki Marmery allows Maria to live and breathe where nothing is noted about her in the records besides the dates she boarded and left the ship. The action takes place in 1579 during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage.  Maria is a lone woman amongst eighty sailors. Determined to become free, Maria uses tenacity and quick thinking to her advantage.

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Many of you will know there is a reconstruction of the English galleon that has been  berthed at St Mary Overie Dock in Southwark since 1996. Whenever I walk past this full-size reconstruction of Golden Hind I am reminded of how compact the ship appears. Goodness knows how Maria coped! Since the launch of the  reconstruction in 1973, the galleon has sailed  more than 140,000 miles to San Francisco, Japan, the Caribbean and other destinations.  Impressive!

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I will be interested to meet Nikki Marmery online when we appear alongside Karen Havelin on the Debutants panel at the Stockholm Writers’ Festival on Friday 22 May 2020. We are all previous attendees of the festival and have had our debut novels published in the last year. Join us at what is now known as the #StuckHomeWritersFestival here.

 

 

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Firm handshakes and a warm welcome to Uganda

One week into my VSO International placement in Uganda and I feel more grounded. I was surprised to find myself tearful on arrival and obsessively checking where all my stuff was in my super large hotel room in Kampala. The hotel staff are warm and friendly and enquire about my wellbeing with genuine interest. I will stay in Kampala another few days then set off for Gulu where I’ll spend the two-week Christmas holiday with Sjarlot, an international volunteer  from the Netherlands.  After that I’ll arrive at the Bidibidi refugee settlement for a three month placement.

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Sjarlot and me in the grounds of the Baha’i Temple, Kampala

In country orientation has involved meeting my project manager to get an overview of the work. My role is Psychosocial Support and Protection Specialist attached to twelve newly established early childhood care and education centres based in Zone 3 of the settlement. (I’ve written a little background information about the area here.) Levels of children’s learning is understandably low following a flight to safety. Parental support for learning is also diminished due to trauma and the everyday need to find food and fuel. Mothers are often head of households with their own children and frequently act as carers to unaccompanied children. I will work with staff in the centres to build the resilience of children and parents in order to normalise lives.

Of course, before planning any work, I need to get a better understanding of VSO in Uganda, the country and context of the placement. This began last week when I joined one hundred staff and volunteers at the annual VSO team building, this year held in Mbale. Participants were divided into four teams where we worked together towards a specified end. One task involved enabling a flow a 40ml of water to travel from one side of the field to the other using 5 pieces of guttering 50cm long.  Activities provided physical and/or intellectual challenges that drew upon the skills and knowledge of everyone. It was great to be in an intergenerational group and interesting that VSO attracts the young and the more mature. (In Bidibidi I will be working alongside two seriously experienced educators who became volunteers after retirement.)

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View from my hotel room in Mbale

The other thing that occurs to me about VSO in Uganda is that although hierarchies exist in terms of the management structure, in practice everyone appears to relate to each other on an equal footing. So refreshing to be team building and socialising with senior leaders, volunteers and paid staff from drivers to office workers. A great celebration was held at the end of team building with a huge barbecue. Good wishes for the holiday season were shared by anyone who had access to the roving microphone. Quite an occasion and I was very pleased to be part of it.

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At the party

I hope I’ve used my first week in Uganda wisely. I’ve certainly become accustomed to the handshaking ritual which sometimes involves crossing thumbs.

 

 

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Birthday visit to Northern Ireland

My mum and my son share a birthday in April. Mum is now 85 and expressed a desire to visit Giant’s Causeway. This provided a great excuse for a family trip to Northern Ireland.

We arrived on a beautiful Saturday morning. Our airbnb was situated near to Queen’s University, the Botanical Gardens and the Ulster Museum. So our first outing involved a wander in the sunshine …

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and lunch where my son ordered a dessert intended for two and managed to scoff the lot.

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On Sunday we were collected at 10am for a black cab tour of the murals of West Belfast. I was a little unsure about supporting this type of dark tourism which focuses on The Troubles, but I did learn an awful lot. Here is a photo of us standing in front of a section of the peace wall which separates the Loyalist and Protestant neighbourhood from the Nationalist and Republican. Some peace walls are up to 8m high and roads linking communities are secured by gates which are closed at nights.

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In the afternoon we visited Titanic Belfast which is a marvellous exhibition that really gives a sense of the scale and extent of industrial Belfast and the ramifications of the sinking.

The next day we headed for Giant’s Causeway. The coastline is beautiful and we stopped at Cushendun on the Antrim coast for photos.

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Further along we came to Carrick-o-Rede and crossed the hanging bridge first erected by Salmon fishermen in 1755.

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Giant’s Causeway is a remarkable sight and on a sunny day was packed with visitors but we still managed to find quiet places to sit and contemplate the stories and history of the place.

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In the evening we celebrated two birthdays with a special meal.

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Tip: if you’re a member of the National Trust remember to take your card to Northern Island and you’ll get free entry to the hanging bridge and Giant’s Causeway plus other places.

 

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Women writers! How do you relate to your female protagonist?

As part of the research for my PhD which accompanied the writing of my novel The String GamesI came across the work of Judith Kegan Gardiner who discusses female identity and writing by women. She suggests that where women write about female protagonists there is a special link and proposes the analogy ‘the hero is her author’s daughter’. When I first read this, the idea that I could regard Nim (my protagonist) as my daughter caused concern. While I recognised that other women writers may regard their female protagonists in this way, I resisted the idea of applying the analogy to my own situation. I was afraid that if I thought of Nim as my daughter, a natural progression would be to conclude that Jenny (Nim’s mother) represented me. This I did not want to think about. The character of Jenny is by no means an idealised mother: she is short-tempered, snappy, stressed, clumsy, resentful and all manner of other negatives. Her redeeming quality, however, is that she genuinely wants to try to be a good mother.

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The more I thought about the possible link between my protagonist and me, the more I came to realise that I was not her fictional mother – Jenny takes that role in the story – but I was her author-mother. This realisation enabled me to approach later drafts of the novel with deeper understanding of my characters and my role as an author in “mothering” my young female protagonist. It also brought into play the idea of separation–individuation, the process that girls and mothers go through in order that children can go onto to become unique, independent adults. I came to understand that by the end of my work on the novel, I needed to separate from the character of Nim I had created, so that she, as my protagonist-daughter could continue her life in a fictional context through the minds of my readers and I, as the author-mother, am free to go on and create other characters in new fictional writing.

As this is a special post to mark Mother’s Day in the UK, 31 March 2019, I wonder, how do other women writers feel about their female protagonists? Do the theories of Judith Kegan Gardiner chime with you? I’d love to know what you think – please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you.

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How to learn Spanish in Guatemala

I’m now at the end of my third week in Antigua, Guatemala, I have one more week here so I want to make the most of this fabulous opportunity to learn Spanish. It was after a fortnight that I noticed I was able to contribute more to the Spanish conversation around the dinner table and I certainly feel much less self conscious when trying to make myself understood. I’ve made a determined effort to learn the conjugations of a few important verbs and can now pose and answer simple questions using the past, imperfect, present and future tenses. The next step is to apply the rules to a greater range of verbs.

Much as my vocabulary in Spanish is growing, I seem to be losing the ability to recall words in English. I frequently have afternoon tea at a garden centre close to the school and when I walk around the grounds, I simply can’t remember the names of plants I recognise. Fortunately for me, the plants have tags which read the same in English as in Spanish (Begonia and Fuschia). Indeed, it strikes me that there are very many words in English that are similar in Spanish which must help to make Spanish one of the easier languages for English speakers to acquire. However, it is also easy to get caught out. For example, the Spanish word embarazada bears a striking resemblance to the English word ’embarrassed’ but actually means pregnant. You can image the humour and confusion in making such a mistake!

There are very many advantages to learning Spanish in Guatemala. For a start, the weather in Guatemala in January is lovely. I enjoy the way Antigua has all four seasons in one day: fresh and spring-like in the morning, a lovely summer’s day by noon, an autumnal chill in the afternoon and cold as winter at night. The city has lots of language schools where one-to-one classes are offered at very reasonable rates. Many Americans come here to brush up their language skills and I’ve enjoyed meeting other students from all over north America as well as others from Europe, Australia and New Zealand. My lessons take place on the roof terrace of the school with fabulous views.

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With my teacher, Jasmin. (See the smoke coming from the volcano in the distance.)

Jasmin is a very patient teacher who is tuned into my utterances and laughs at my frequent malapropisms. Most Guatemaltecos speak at a measured pace and this makes engaging in conversation a whole lot easier.

Some of the other benefits of learning Spanish in Guatemala include:

  • fabulous sights and sounds of the city such as the rhythmic clapping when tortillas are patted into shape on streets stalls and in markets
  • humming birds in the gardens
  • fantastic ruins around every corner
  • Mayan crafts, cultural traditions and archaeology
  • chicken buses for transport around the towns (former US school buses spruced up for service)

I’m sure if I had more time, I would be able to think up many other advantages but as I have homework to do, I’ll leave you with some photos.

 

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Walking the Camino Inglés

David and I set out to walk the Camino Inglés. The route starts in Ferrol and continues southwards to Santiago de Compostela in the centre of Galicia. Distances covered on foot over 100km are considered proper pilgrimages so I was entitled to claim my Compostela at the end.
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We completed the journey in five days and stayed in a variety of places including bunk beds at an albergue (overnight accommodation to assist pilgrims on their way) and a number of hostels. There were probably about thirty others completing the same journey each day and we got to meet some fascinating people. Each day had its challenges:
Day One: Ferrol to Pontedueme
I wasn’t expecting to complete the whole 29km of this leg as many split the journey into two parts by stopping at Neda. But, as we were making such good progress we pressed on. Here I am with my ample backpack.
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Day Two: Pontedueme to Betanzos
Only 19.5km seemed a doddle after the first day but the image below identifies the challenges of steep inclines and descents. I felt absolutely dreadful on arriving n Betanzos and made sure I packed dried fruit and nuts for the next day to keep me going.
Day Three: Betanzos to Bruma
Faced with 29km, I off loaded some of the heavier items in my backpack onto David. I then suffered a backpack malfunction because I hadn’t packed it properly and the frame was digging into my back. Once that was sorted I was ready for cake!
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I seemed to build stamina on this leg of the journey but acquired blisters!
Day Four: Bruma to Sigüeiro
24km, mainly downhill. Easy walking in the drizzle. More blisters.
Day Five: Sigüeiro to Santiago
Only 16m and an easy walk to our destination.
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What did I discover from this camino?
  • I can walk several days in a row with a pack on my back
  • walking long distances is a great way to test the body and free the mind
  • it’s possible to meet the most surprising people in out of the way places

Would I do it again?

Absolutely!

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Flaghead Chine Poetry Commission

During my writing residency at Short & Sweet in Wimborne (you can read about it here), I was contacted by landscape designer Barbara Uphoff to write a poem for  a plaque. Barbara developed the new seaside garden at Flaghead Chine in Poole and wanted to incorporate poetry into the design.

The garden is approached through the wooded and shady chine and it acts as a connection between the land and the sea. Constructed with Purbeck Stone planters, boulders and seating, the garden is positioned beside the sandy beach and gives views to Harry’s Rock across the water.

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Old Harry’s Rock from Pixabay

The garden is intended as a meeting point for family and friends where children can enjoy quiet play thanks to the three seashell structures. The sculptors Phil Bews and Diane Gorvins created small scale models of a whelk, an ammonite and a sea urgin which the stonemasons, Albion Stone, were able to use in making the large shells.

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My poem appears on a brushed metal plaque attached to one of the boulders. Barbara and I agreed the the poem should be a haiku to celebrate the natural environment. You can read it here:

It was an honour to write the poem and I am delight to see it positioned in the seaside garden as public art.

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Visiting Kim Martins, NZ

I am getting about this week! Today I’m being interviewed by Kim Martins who lives in New Zealand. Do pop over to her blog Up North for a read.

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While you’re there, take a look around Kim’s blog. There are some fascinating posts about Kim’s taste in books and you can learn about  El Hubs and the house building project. Great photos, too.

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