the writer is a lonely hunter

writing by Gail Aldwin and other Dorset writers

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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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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Collaboration: writing and illustrating

I’ve been busy this week working with illustrator Fiona Zechmiester on a children’s picture book which has the working title ‘pan-de-mo-nim’. The main character is a purple panda called Peta. Because of her colouring, Peta is camouflaged and she causes chaos at her home in a department store. When one of the shop assistants notices she’s up to no good, Peta is made to look like all the other pandas which puts an end to her tricks. How can Peta become a cheeky panda again?

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Early sketches and exploration of colour

Fiona lives in Austria but studied in the UK and was awarded an MA in publishing from the University of Derby.  She works on a freelance basis and has been appointed by Victorina Press to illustrate my book which targets three-to-eight-year-old children. In Fiona’s work, the process of illustrating animals begins with a study of anatomy.

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Fiona’s research sketches

She then looks at details of a panda that are relevant to the story. Fiona has experience of using many different mediums for her illustrations but the story behind the picture is the guiding principle of the work.

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Fiona’s research sketches

As the illustrations have developed, I’ve redrafted the story and together Fiona and I decided on fonts and sizes for the text on different pages in the book. As much of my time as a writer involves working alone, this opportunity to work in collaboration has been a fantastic experience. I’ll be posting further illustrations as the picture book gets closer to publication with Victorina Press.

I previously worked with Fiona to design the cover of my debut novel The String Games. This cover won a finalist badge in the International Book Awards 2019. Voting is currently open at The People’s Book Prize where The String Games is a finalist in the fiction category 2020. Please pop over to the website and give my novel your support so that The String Games has a chance to receive further recognition in this prestigious competition. (If you voted in the earlier round, thank you, please vote again now the novel is a finalist.)

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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

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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