the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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

Read the rest of this entry »

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News about my creative writing

In all the time I’ve been busy volunteering in Uganda, there has been activity on the creative writing front at home. I was shortlisted in a poetry competition run by my publisher Victorina Press. My entry has now been translated into Spanish and included in this beautiful bilingual poetry anthology. David sent me a photo and I’m looking forward to reading the book when I get home.

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Other news relates to the The String Games. My debut novel is one of fourteen finalist in The People’s Book Prize and voting is now open to select a winner in the fiction category. Thank you to everyone who has supported me to reach this stage. You are now able to vote again and if you haven’t voted before, this is your chance. Find out all about The String Games here. You don’t need to have read the whole novel as the opening pages are available for you to make a judgement. When you’re ready to vote, scroll down, add your details, tick the box and submit. The String Games is up against some stiff competition but wouldn’t it be great to see a Dorset writer on the stage come presentation day? Congratulations to the other finalists.

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Anticipating Bidibidi and Yumbe

I arrived in Uganda on 7 December and in all the time since I’ve been anticipating what it will be like on placement with VSO at the Bidibidi refugee settlement near Yumbe. Whenever, I told anyone I was heading to Yumbe the response was invariably the same. A little sigh and a rubbing of my shoulder followed. One can interpret this in many ways. What I already knew about the area is that it’s been under-resourced for decades and that it’s fairly remote from any large centre. The people I spoke with also offered two other pieces of information about Yumbe:

  • it’s very hot
  • the road is very bad

Although I’ve undertaken further research about the area and the settlement, it’s difficult to imagine what it will actually be like to live and volunteer there. So, I’d like to share with you my first impressions of Yumbe and will fill you in with details about Bidibidi as I get to know the place. However, this won’t be for another couple of days. My scheduled departure for placement was postponed yesterday. I arrived at the office ready to load the vehicle with furnishings for my rented house and pile in my suitcases. Only the car wasn’t in the office compound. It was at the garage and hadn’t yet been fixed. It’s likely that I’ll now leave on Wednesday instead. So now I’m back at Sjarlot’s house and waiting … anticipating Bidibidi and Yumbe.

In the meantime, I have writing to complete. I’m working on a new comedy sketch show as part of 3-She. We’re hoping to get this staged in Dorset sometime in the autumn. WhatsApp video calling allows me to collaborate with my fellow writers Maria Pruden and Sarah Scally. During a recent video call the dogs in the compound were barking so much that the sound carried and unsettled Maria’s cat. Amazing that dogs in Uganda can make a Dorset cat arch its back!

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Tracking back to find the root of an idea

It’s long been my ambition to volunteer with VSO International. I received the vacancies newsletter for many years and have enjoyed browsing the range of educational opportunities available for one or two years. The problem has always been I can’t commit to that length of time. My husband has no interested in joining me, so I figure that if I want to stay married, the longest I can be away for is a few months. Back in the summer I noticed a position in Ethiopia working at a teaching training institution from April 2020 for six months. At last my time had come. I spent a couple of days working up an application and when I came to submit, the vacancy had vanished. After getting all fired up about this new possibility, I searched the VSO website for any other potential jobs and submitted several applications.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a Skype meeting for screening. Once successfully through this, it was explained that I needed to pass a situational online test and a panel interview to join the VSO bank, where I could wait for up to eighteen months for a short term vacancy to arise. My details would then be submitted to the country office for a further interview. During October, VSO suggested I apply for the post of protection and psychosocial support specialist working with early childhood care and education centres at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda. The position had originally been for one year but as funding was due to end in March 2020, this made a perfect short term position for me. I applied, was interviewed and offered the post to begin 8 December 2019.

This role really appealed to me because I had spent several years in Wandsworth working as an advisor for refugee pupils. During that time my work involved curriculum development to promote a greater understanding of the plight of refugees. The aim of these sessions was to enable pupils in mainstream classrooms to develop greater empathy and understanding for new arrival children from refugee backgrounds. One of the resources I used was a publication called One Day We Had to Run! which collected the stories of unaccompanied boys fleeing war to find safety at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The boys were also encouraged to share their memories, experiences and hopes through painting. The material for the book was collected by Sybella Wilkes, then a young aid worker at the camp who now works as the senior communications officer with UNHCR. I remember thinking at the time that this was a great thing to do and I wondered if there would ever be an opportunity for me to do something similar. And so, I guess the seed or an idea or ambition was sewn.

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When I thought about this further, the actual ambition to volunteer with VSO goes back much further. I lived in Papua New Guinea for two years following marriage to my first husband in 1982.  Tom got a job in Wabag, Enga Province and I accompanied him there. While he trained a National team at the Department of Works and Supply, I volunteered at a pre-school. Amongst the expatriate community in this far flung town was a Caribbean poet called Archie Markham. He was a VSO volunteer attached to the Department of Information as a media coordinator. As a working poet, he also established a series of poetry readings which became a highlight for the community. He went on to write a memoir of his time in Wabag titled Papua New Guinea Sojourn: More Pleasures of Exile. It seems to me, this is the deeper root of my wish to become a VSO volunteer. It’s possibly something to do with reclaiming that young woman I once was and combining it with the experience of my more mature years as a teacher and writer. Who knows? Like Archie I may find inspiration to write from working with refugee families at Bidibidi.

Before I get ahead of myself, it’s important to remember I’ve only been in post for two weeks. The in-country orientation in Kampala has involved briefings on the role, an introduction to administration systems, IT support and health and safety. Accommodation has been found for me at my placement and I’ll be joining my new colleagues at the office in Yumbe on 6 January. In the meantime, I’m staying in Gulu over the holiday period which will give me a chance to obtain furniture and furnishings for my new temporary home as well as celebrate Christmas with other VSO volunteers. Although there’s a lot going on at the moment, it doesn’t stop me from looking forward to starting my role at Bidibidi.

 

 

 

 

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Packing for Uganda

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I will be leaving in December to spend four months in Uganda as an international volunteer with VSO. With advice from VSO Uganda I drew up a packing list and undertook a trial pack at the weekend. Some items had to be abandoned because my bags were overweight. Out went a supply of my favourite shampoo and shower gel, abandoned where a number of books I had hoped to read, and I slimmed down the learning resources I planned to take. I’m nearly there but my list of last-minute necessities is growing! Before I leave, I will attend a skills for working in development course and I’m currently undertaking lots of online learning. Although my fictional writing is on the back burner, I plan to use my experiences in Uganda to develop fresh writing. And blogging, of course! So here goes with a little information about Uganda and my placement.

Background

Since independence on 9 October 1962, Uganda has gone from a period of brutal dictatorship in the 1970s to political stability in the 1990s. While more than half the population (56.4%) lived below the poverty line in 1992/1993, this dropped significantly to 19.7% by 2012/2013. Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, has not experienced fighting since 2006 and now focuses support on districts in the north to improve infrastructure, growth and development in an area that was particularly affected by conflict.

North Uganda

Between 1986 and 2006 thousands of children were kidnapped from villages and forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as child soldiers. Those children are now grown up and living with the legacy of extreme violence experienced in childhood. In addition, north Uganda has become a home to refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan.

South Sudan

South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011 as the outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. However, conflict in South Sudan erupted again in 2013 causing many people to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring countries. There are one million refugees from South Sudan living in Uganda.

Bidibidi Refugee Settlement

The once small village of Bidibidi became a refugee settlement in August 2016. It covers 250 km2 stretching across the eastern half of the district of Yumbe where a quarter of a million refugees live. Uganda has a progressive policy towards refugees and in Bidibidi new arrivals are given land to build a house and a garden to grow vegetables. They can also work and access services. While Ugandans provide a warm welcome to refugees, when resources are in short supply, tensions can arise.

VSO in Bidibidi

In my role as an international volunteer, I will work with host and refugee communities to aid recruitment of children to Early Childhood Care and Education. Where young children are able to develop early learning skills, it puts them in a better position to complete their education. My work will focus on under-represented groups including girls and children with disabilities. Through participatory approaches, my role aims to support the protection and psychosocial needs of children and families.

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Off again …

I’ve been advised that following publication, there are six months to promote a debut novel to maximum effect. So, I’ve been getting out and about with The String Games by offering input at Dorset literary festivals, including the BridLitFest where I shared a platform with Maria Donovan and Rosanna Ley.

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(I’m also at the forthcoming inaugural Blandford Literary Festival at the end of November.)

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I’ve given talks with Dorset Libraries (love a public library) in Dorchester, Poole, Wareham and Creekmoor. An author event in Wellington Library was a good excuse to spend a weekend in Shropshire and meet up with an old friend. There have been talks for ladies’ groups, workshops with writers, public readings and even performances (one in Loughborough and the other at Scratch & Spit in Bridport). The String Games won an award for its cover design and is a finalist in The People’s Book Prize (voting for the winners commences in March 2020). Phew! I hope I’ve used my six months wisely.

As this period comes to an end, I’ve decided to refocus and use my experience of working with children and families to volunteer with VSO  at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in Yumbe, Uganda. I’m heading off at the beginning of December for four months to support enrolment of girls and children with disabilities in Early Childhood Care and Education as these groups are currently under represented. Uganda has a progressive policy in supporting refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan. Families are given a plot of land on which to build a house and grow produce. There is access to health services, adults can work and children are offered places in schools. After several years of working with refugee families in London, I’m excited to have this opportunity. But it doesn’t mean a hiatus in blogging and writing. On the contrary, I hope this experience will generate new and important work.

Indeed, writing plans for later in 2020 are already taking shape. I’ll be at the Stockholm Writers Festival sharing my experiences as a debut novelist in May. This is a wonderful event for new and emerging writers in a great city.  And I’ll be delivering a talk and a workshop at the Mani Lit Fest in October where reading and writing are celebrated at a town near to the home of Patrick Leigh Fermor. My children’s picture book Pan-de-mo-nium is currently with illustrator Fiona Zeichmeister and will be released next year.  The contemporary novel I’ve been working This Much Huxley Knows is nearing completion.

Watch out for post from Uganda in the coming months. David is incredibly supportive and is 100% behind me. I’m very lucky to be married to him!

 

 

 

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Three things …

The clocks have gone back, it’s a misty moisty morning in Dorset, but there’s lots for me to look forward to. Here are my latest bits of news:

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Thanks to your support, The String Games is a finalist in fiction category of The People’s Book Prize 2019. There will be a further vote March–April 2020 to decide the winner and a black tie do in London for all the finalists on 15 April 2020. Great stuff!

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In December 2019, I’m going to Uganda with VSO for four months as a volunteer at the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. The placement draws upon my experience of working with refugee families in London and the skills I developed to support parental involvement in children’s learning. I’ll be assigned to an early childhood care and education centre in order to aid recruitment to early education for girls and children with disabilities. You can read more about Bidibidi in this article from National Geographic. I’m looking forward to living, learning and contributing in Uganda.

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In May 2020, I’ll be in Sweden at the Stockholm Writers Festival. Last year I enjoyed this wonderfully inspiring event as a participant – next year I return as a faculty member. If you’re interested in attending an innovative writing festival in a fascinating city, you can’t do better than this. Booking opens (with a 15% early bird discount) today, 1 November 2019.

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This Much I Know, planning a new novel

I’m having such fun writing my current novel-in-progress. As I was deeply affected by the tragedy at the heart of The String GamesI decided my new novel would be lighter and funny. In order to avoid the very many redrafts that my debut novel involved, I planned This Much I Know to the nth degree. I also recycled characters from a previously written and incomplete novel called Paula’s Secret that told the story of two first-time mums. So with this head start, I thought it would be straight forward to complete the first draft. Instead, it’s taken me longer than ever to get to that stage and I’ve still got three more chapters to write.

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One of my early planning grids

I started writing This Much I Know in December 2017 and would never have guessed it would still be incomplete twenty months later. I completely underestimated the amount of time it would take to get The String Games to print and at that stage I didn’t know I would also be working on the publication of my poetry pamphlet adversaries/comradesAnd following the release of a book, there is a massive amount of work to do to attract readers to the novel. Although I enjoy marketing and promotion, it does gobble away the hours.

Instead of giving myself a hard time about this delay, I’ve embraced it. I love my protagonist, six-year-old Mikey and his life in suburban London. I’ve set the story in New Malden, where I lived with my young family for ten years. It’s been such a joy to return to this location, and all the things I used to do with my children. I’ve drawn upon the Friday afternoons we spent at the park, cycle rides to school and the usual calendar of events such as firework nights and collecting conkers.

I’ve been working on a synopsis of the novel so that I can enter #Pitmad. This is a quarterly Twitter event that enables writers to get their work seen by agents through a concise synopsis that can be shared as a tweet. The next #Pitmad is on September 5, 2019 (8AM – 8PM EDT). I’ve not whittled my synopsis down to 280 characters yet but you can get the gist of what I’m writing about from the short synopsis below:

Six-year-old Mikey Griffiths is an only child who sees in Leonard, a disabled new arrival at his local church, similar challenges around fitting in. Isolated at school, Mikey has few friends and annoys staff with his silly jokes. Although Leonard is unkempt and socially awkward,  he gets Mikey’s sense of humour and this brings the two close. Mikey inadvertently arouses suspicion about Leonard which fuels community tensions and relationships between Mikey’s parents and their neighbours deteriorate. It is Mikey’s Dad who saves Leonard from smoke inhalation when a gang attack his home. The shock of this incident causes everyone to reassess how they treat newcomers to the community and Leonard is helped to integrate so that Mikey can be friends with him once again.

What do you think? Do I stand a chance of attracting literary representation with this synopsis?

 

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Round up​ of the summer so far …

As I am a ridiculously target driven writer, I thought I’d share with you some of the writing milestones from June and July 2019.

Sturminster Newton Literary Festival, 15 June

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In this the inaugural year of the festival, I was delighted to have a place on the author trail which involved running a stall in Joshua’s Coffee Shop so that I could chat to customers about my publications. I felt honoured to be part of the trail as Gillian Cross one of my favourite children’s authors had a stall elsewhere in the town. (The only problem was I didn’t get a chance to say hello to her!)

Later in the afternoon, I offered a workshop titled ‘a sense of place in writing’ at the library. I was delighted to work with many talented writers and receive feedback from the workshop in the form of this tweet:

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London Launch of The String Games, 22 June 

This took place at Housmans Radical Bookshop and I was so pleased to welcome friends, family, fellow Victorina Press authors and readers to this unique venue. I was delighted that every copy of The String Games sold.

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The People’s Book Prize, June 2019

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BIG NEWS for the summer. The String Games has been longlisted in this unique literary competition where the public decides the nation’s next bestsellers and writers of tomorrow. Find out here about The String Games and cast your vote to enable me to reach the next stage. All you have to do is scroll down to add your details, tick a box about receiving the newsletter and submit. Thank you to all those who have already voted.

Scratch & Spit, Lyric Theatre, Bridport, 24 June

Here I am strutting my stuff during a ten-minute performance slot. What am I going on about? The analogy between writing and running!

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Loughborough Poetry Event, 28 June

Alongside Rachel Lewis (who also had a poetry pamphlet published by Wordsmith_HQ), I was billed as a headline act at the launch of the Purple Breakfast Review Issue 8. It was great to spend an evening with so many accomplished poets and to read from adversaries/comrades.

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Shaftesbury Fringe, Saturday 6 July

As part of 3-She, I co-write comedy sketches with Maria Pruden and Sarah Scally. This summer we took a group of gifted West Dorset actors to the Shaftesbury Fringe to perform our comedy sketch show Big Heads & Others. What a lot of fun we had! The next show will be staged at Dorchester Arts Centre at 8pm on 18 September 2019.

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Meet the Author talk, Dorchester Library, Saturday 20 July

I had a fabulous audience for this 90-minute talk about the inspiration behind my poetry, short fiction and The String Games. They asked probing questions and we enjoyed a lively discussion. I’ve now been asked to offer further talks at Dorset libraries, so watch this space!

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Friday Freebie with Patsy Collins, Friday 26 July

This is an online event where I share information about my debut novel and there’s a chance to win a free signed copy of The String Games by leaving a comment on Patsy’s blog – you’ve got until midnight BST on 31 July to do this. Why not pop over for a read? Just click here.

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What’s next?

This week I received an email from my publisher Victorina Press who want me to start working with illustrator Fiona Zechmeister on the children’s picture book I’ve drafted which has the working title Peta the Panda. This is an exciting new project and I can’t wait to get started!

 

 

 

 

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How one event can change a life forever

Joanne Nicholson and I met online in May 2018 and found we had much in common as writers, although I live in the UK and Joanne lives in Australia. We wrote a joint post to share our writing experiences which you can read here. Now we are both busy promoting our new novels, we thought it was time to touch base again. In Joanne’s novel Only the Lonely the catalyst for the story is a fatal car accident, in my novel The String Games the catalyst comes when a young boy goes missing. This got us thinking about how one event can change a life forever which we decided to discuss here. Over to Joanne:

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In life, one day often blends into the next until somewhere out of the blue, something extraordinary can happen that alters our lives irrevocably.  In my novel, Only the Lonely one such event turns Tiffany’s life upside down. On the night of Tiffany’s eighteenth birthday, her parents are tragically killed in a car accident, caused by someone driving under the influence of alcohol. This leaves Tiffany going through the normal machinations of coming of age while struggling to deal with grief and overwhelming loneliness.

When Tiffany discovers, as the sole heir to her parents’ estate, that her parents have a frozen embryo in storage from when they received IVF to have her, she decides to give birth to her biological sibling in order to create a sense of family and belonging again. Due to ethical concerns, her request is met with objections from the clinic. It raises the question whether a frozen embryo should be treated as property or a person and whether it is morally right for Tiffany to have IVF to implant this embryo, as she has no known fertility issues. Tiffany is forced to sue the clinic to have the procedure, as she can’t bring herself to destroy or donate the embryo, as it is the last link to her parents.

That one isolated car accident at the start of the story is responsible for the chain reaction causing Tiffany’s carefree lifestyle into one where she takes on the full responsibility of her life and the life of her unborn twin. As an author, I enjoy the process of taking inspiration from real life events and then developing characters to weave a story of challenges and ethical dilemmas to take readers on a journey. The inspiration for this novel came from a real life story, where a twenty-five-year-old woman in the USA gave birth to a baby from a donor frozen embryo that was twenty-four years old. This sparked the kernel of an idea – where a woman could be implanted with, and give birth to, her own twin. I then established why someone would want to do that, and the car accident that killed Tiffany’s parents was pivotal to the storyline.

Thank you to Joanne for sharing details of the inspiration behind your novel Only the Lonely. I have to admit, this is a fascinating subject and one that will engage many readers.

Now to Gail:

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One of the worst experiences of my life was losing my three-year-old son for forty minutes on the beach at St Jean de Luz in France. I was rubbing sunscreen onto my daughter and when I looked up, he was gone. Although this episode ended happily it made me think about different possible outcomes, the vulnerability of little children in countries where they can’t speak the language, and the parental fear of losing a child. I decided this would be a good hook for novel readers but instead of telling the story from a parental perspective, I decided to explore the legacy of loss from the viewpoint of an older sibling.

It is this catalyst of a lost child that drives the narrative in The String Games. This coming-of-age novel explores the dynamics of a fractured family coping with the aftermath of four-year-old Josh’s abduction and murder during a holiday in France. It explores how guilt is unfairly shouldered by his older sister, Nim, who is the protagonist of the novel. In second part, readers get to understand  the repercussions for Nim as she moves into the teenage years and the murky world of peer manipulation. In the final part of The String Games, Nim (who is now an adult) reverts to her given name of Imogen and tries to move forward with her life but echoes from this early tragedy force her to return to France and find answers. The novel raises issues relating to what makes a good mother and whether it is possible to forgive. The metaphor of string runs throughout the story where the characters’ lives are tangled and knotted but ultimately this is a story of fresh starts and new beginnings. 

I recently learnt that The String Games has been longlisted in The People’s Book Prize for fiction 2019. This is a national award that finds and promotes new and undiscovered work. The organisation supports the complete eradication of illiteracy and this is something very important to me as, following years of working with parents and children to build their literacy skills, there is still a need in communities for further work. In this longlisting, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect match: an opportunity to gain a wider readership for The String Games and support a cause close to my heart. Winners of the competition are decided by a public vote and I hope you feel able to give The String Games your vote to enable the novel to reach the next stage. Voting is easy. All you have to do is click on the link below:

https://peoplesbookprize.com/summer-2019/the-string-games/

 – Scroll to the bottom of the page and enter your name and email address

– tick yes or no to receive the newsletter

– Click submit

Could your vote for my novel help to change my life forever?

Joanne and I hope this post has pricked your curiosity about our novels. If you’d like to purchase a copy of Joanne Nicholson’s Only the Lonely, you can do so through AmazonUK and AmazonAustralia. Copies of The String Games by Gail Aldwin can be purchased and sent worldwide through her publisher’s website at Victorina Press.

You can find Joanne at:

Website: joannenicholsonauthor.com
Facebook: joannenicholsonauthor
Instagram: @joannenicholsonauthor
Twitter: @jolnicholson
You can find Gail at:
Twitter: @gailaldwin

 

 

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